Chapter 1: Prologue: A More Spidery Beginning
Peter Parker didn't see the spider until after he had accidentally killed it, slapping at the sudden pain that burned on the back of his neck. At that point it was only a smear stuck to his hand, one with numerous, delicate legs and the faintest hint of blue mixed with red. He hardly gave the incident a second thought, too preoccupied with absorbing everything else during the field trip through Oscorp's facilities.
He was certainly puzzled the next morning when putting on his glasses made a crystal clear world blurry, instead of the other way around. That was... odd. People's eyes didn't just suddenly get better for no reason. Papers and clothing kept sticking briefly to his fingers, too, as if there was a mild adhesive there, but it wasn't particularly concerning. Yet.
He woke up groggy the second morning after the bite, having tossed and turned all night thanks to all the little noises he usually ignored suddenly jarring at his consciousness instead. He tripped over his sheet getting out of bed and landed in an ungainly heap on the floor. It took a solid minute of struggling with the fabric before he realized that it wasn't tangled around his legs or anything; it was actually glued to his feet. The moment he realized it, however, the effect ended, so he couldn't even show it to his aunt and uncle.
Puzzled and concerned, he found himself distracted all through Sunday breakfast, only realizing that Ben and May were staring at him with amazed amusement after he had polished off his third or fourth plate. “Looks like someone's going through a growth spurt,” Aunt May chuckled.
“We'd better stack some bricks on your head before you can get any taller,” Uncle Ben joked. “You'll have to start ducking under door-frames at this rate.”
Peter blushed and put the fork down. By the time lunch rolled around, though, he was ravenous all over again.
The third morning saw him back at school for the start of another week of learning, but Peter found himself unusually twitchy and distracted. Voices seemed to leap to the forefront of his attention from all directions, no matter how he struggled to focus on only the words of his teachers. He could feel the gusts of air over his skin every time a classmate walked past, the thin hairs on his arms and the nape of his neck almost painfully sensitive to the tiniest bit of movement around him. Hunger gnawed at his stomach constantly, and he found himself sneaking to the vending machines between every class. By last period he felt like a wreck, and to make matters worse, his back was aching from the constant tension in his muscles from the stress. Once he got home, Aunt May took one look at him and sent him to bed, checking his forehead and stroking his short brown locks until he fell into an exhausted sleep.
On the fourth morning, Aunt May called the school to inform them that Peter would be staying home sick. He lay curled up in bed, sweating and freezing by turns and consuming bowl after bowl of chicken soup and crackers. His wrists itched something fierce, his arms felt hot and tender, and when Uncle Ben came in to ask him how he was doing, he mumbled deliriously about there being tiny people hiding in the corners of his room and under his bed. Ben and May exchanged glances, and decided they would take him to the doctor in the morning. As it was, they had to wrap up his wrists with ointments and bandages after they started bleeding from the constant scratching.
On the fifth morning, they did not take Peter to the doctor. This was because, when they opened the door to his bedroom to see how he was feeling and bring him some breakfast, he was not in bed. He was on the ceiling, clinging impossibly to the white painted surface by his fingers and toes. They stared at him with wide eyes. He stared back at them with desperate ones. “I found a tiny person,” he said helplessly, letting go with one hand so he could point to a little dot in the corner. Moving closer and putting on his glasses, Ben peered at the dark speck. It was a spider, sitting calmly in a wispy cobweb. “Please don't kill it,” Peter said in a broken voice, and Ben's heart wrenched when he realized what his nephew was really afraid of.
“Come down, Peter,” he said gently, holding his arms open wide. The teenager made a choked sound as he dropped awkwardly to the floor and stumbled into his aunt and uncle's accepting embrace, his shoulders shaking with wracking sobs. Some mutants and mutates lost their homes and families when they changed. Peter thanked the stars above that he should be so lucky.
The rest of the day was spent ravenously eating. His wrists burned and his back ached, and even his face felt tight and hot. He broke three cups by holding them too tightly, flung a fork into the ceiling when he couldn't get it off his hand, and completely cleaned out the pantry closet while also hiding inside it. Aunt May asked him if he'd like a pillow and a blanket when she peeked in the door at him, or perhaps a light so he could see while he snacked. Peter stared at her and blinked a few times before confessing that he hadn't realized the inside of the pantry was dark until she pointed it out.
On the sixth morning, Peter thought he'd scratched his wrists open to the bone and was bleeding white instead of red. After the initial panic died down, though, he realized that the skin wasn't torn so much as parted, and that while the white material oozing out may have begun with sticky, half-liquid clumps, the more he pulled at it, the more it resolved itself into something smooth and solid. Like a long string of thread. Or a thick strand of spiderweb.
It was with an air of resignation mixed with shy hesitance that he displayed this latest development for his aunt's inspection. She held a strand of web across her hands and stared at it for an agonizingly long moment before she finally formulated a hesitant response.
“Do you think... we should buy a loom? It's silk...”
Peter gaped at his aunt. Of all the reactions he was dreading or hoping she might have, this one hadn't even occurred to him. The laugh that fell from his lips was so surprising that it only made him laugh more. When Uncle Ben walked in the door shortly after, laden down with bags upon bags of groceries, it was to find the two of them collapsed on the sofa and tears streaming down their faces, still giggling. Once they finally managed to explain, he was laughing too.
“Well, why not?” he said with a grin. “I haven't worked with textiles since the plant packed up and moved overseas, but I'm sure we could figure something out on a small scale. It could be a family affair.”
Peter stared at his uncle with slowly widening eyes as he realized he was serious, as he realized that such a thing could really work. That maybe this sudden upheaval wasn't something that his family would merely endure, but could actually bring them closer together. This time, as he found himself once again wrapped up in their arms, it wasn't because he was begging for their acceptance. It was because he felt like the three of them were about to embark on a nerve-wracking but exciting new journey.
The groceries only lasted until evening. Peter went to bed fretting over how much longer his appetite would run this wild, and how quickly it would drain his family's savings. “Spider silk is supposed to be really valuable, isn't it?” he asked himself, hopefully. “More so than the usual stuff?” He drew his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, absentmindedly running his thumbs over his latest new mutations. The scratches he had made on his skin were completely healed already. Fascinated, he trailed his fingers over the tender skin of his inner forearms, noticing for the first time that he could feel something like new veins or tendons underneath his skin. He twisted and flexed every muscle and joint in his arms and hands to no effect, then moved on to poking the strange new orifices, trying to coax them into releasing a thread again. It felt indescribably weird. Eventually he somehow teased some webbing to the surface, and once he did, he pulled the strands out longer and longer, focusing on the feeling, trying to map the new sensation to a muscle that he could actually control.
He wasn't positive that he was making any progress, but it did seem like the web was flowing more freely now. He tried making the strand thicker for a while, then thinner, and if he squinted and tried not to be too critical, he could almost convince himself that he was succeeding. A small pile of silk began to form over his curling toes. It was weirdly soft and pleasant. He wanted to wrap himself up in it and hide away from the world, just for a bit. Just... curl up under a blanket of the stuff and finally mute the jarring noises and the constantly shifting currents of air. Even now he could feel the vibrations of his aunt and uncle moving about and talking down below, even through the floor, his bed frame, his mattress. He climbed up the wall on his fingers and toes, finding that the vibrations were a little quieter up on the ceiling. He stared at his wrists, wondering if he could figure out how to make his web sticky enough to attach to the ceiling.
“I don't suppose you have any advice?” he asked the spider in the corner. It didn't answer, of course, but it did seem to watch him curiously after that.
The web wouldn't come out under its own power, much to his annoyance. He wished he could just fire it out where he wanted it to go. Instead it always had to be pulled, which was awkward when he only had two hands and they were busy helping him defy gravity. Crouched upside down, he hesitantly let go of the ceiling, trusting his feet to hold him up alone. It worked; he didn't crash to the floor on his head. “Now,” he muttered, closing his eyes. “Think sticky.”
On the seventh morning, one week since the fateful bite, Peter's aunt and uncle walked into his room to find him sleeping suspended from the ceiling, curled up inside a very sad attempt at a hammock. He still looked exhausted even after he crawled down for his breakfast feast.
“Are you alright, dear?” May asked softly when he had finished devouring the offering with little enthusiasm.
“I'm tired,” he confessed, dragging his fingers over the skin of his forehead, which looked dry and patchy. “And everything hurts.”
They watched him with worried eyes as he retired back to his bedroom to get more rest. He climbed up into his messy tangle of a hammock and tried to fall back asleep, but his back ached and his skin felt electrified by the barest movement of air. He lowered down a web to his abandoned bed sheet and fished it up, but the moment he wrapped it around himself it was too heavy, too hot. He tossed it away in frustration and started yanking out reams of feather-soft web instead, wrapping it around himself in a desperate flurry. “Please, please, please, I just need to rest, I need everything to stop being so loud, so harsh, so painful, just let me rest, please!”
His whispered mutterings became something of a chant as his mind zoned out and his hands kept working. The web thickened noticeably, increasing his progress a little but it was still taking too long, he wasn't safe, he wasn't hidden yet. “It's not enough, it's not enough,” he pleaded quietly, trying to fill in the gaps, but there were so many, and the space he was creating for himself was too cramped to move in easily. “Help me!”
The soft vibrations of tiny feet began trickling along his hammock. The little spider from the corner was crawling over his messy work, coming to a stop where he could see her, inches from his face. Peter paused in his frantic work to stare at her. She waved a foot curiously at him, using another to pluck at a strand of his web.
“Are you... trying to talk to me?” he couldn't help but ask.
If she was, she didn't try it again. Instead, she dropped down on an ever-growing line of silk and began to walk around him, trying to aid his work with her own minuscule thread. Peter sucked in a breath and swallowed down the sudden urge to cry. He resumed his web-building with less desperation and much more care so as not to jostle her off.
More spiders came as the morning stretched on, emerging from wherever they'd been hidden throughout the house. Their tiny threads added only the barest of progress to his cocoon, but he didn't mind. It was getting more substantial by the hour, and not a moment too soon. He found his movements growing slower, exhaustion stiffening his limbs until he gave in and took a break. He rested his head on his hands and stared blankly at the way the light was softened as it filtered through the tangled veil of thick and thin strands. The tiny vibrations of the ever-growing number of spiders was strangely soothing, especially since they drowned out everything else. He wondered if the spiders thought they were building a giant egg sac, since they didn't make cocoons like silkworms did. He wondered, as sleep finally took him and his thoughts grew disjointed, if he was, in fact, a giant spider egg.
He didn't wake up for a very long time.
Ben Parker stood just inside the entrance of the Baxter Building and tried not to look as lost as he felt. People teemed in and out around him, heading into the museum dedicated to the Fantastic Four's history and accomplishments, or coming out of the gift shop laden with printed bags full of official FF merchandise. A large information and receptionist's desk occupied the middle of the cavernous foyer, blocking the way to a sleek plexiglass elevator flanked by stern-looking guards. Steadying himself with a deep breath, he approached the desk and hoped he wouldn't be dismissed out of hand.
The receptionist, a blonde woman sporting a rather large pair of glasses, glanced up at him, took in his wrinkled face and gnarled hands with a brief sweep of her eyes, and gave him a warm smile. “How can I help you?”
“Is it--” he began with a scratchy voice, and hastily coughed to clear it. “Is it possible to meet with one of the Fantastic Four without, uh, without... prior acquaintance?”
She didn't bat an eye. “If you're looking for an interview, there's a request form you can fill out. Make sure you state the name of your publisher or if you're an independent blogger.”
“Oh, I'm not looking for an interview! It's not any kind of official business,” he clarified. “It's more of a personal matter.”
“Autograph sessions are scheduled every other Thursday, assuming no emergencies call them away. You'll only be allowed up to a minute with each, though, in order to keep the line moving.”
“Oh,” Ben said quietly, disappointment clear on his face. “I guess there's no way to schedule an appointment just for a personal conversation?”
She flashed him a sympathetic smile as she shook her head in the negative. “Too many people would ask if we allowed such a thing. It wouldn't be fair to make exceptions.”
He sighed deeply. “I can't even disagree with you, much as I wish I could.” His shoulders slumped as he cast about for anything else that could work. “Do they at least answer their own fan mail?”
“Depends on which one you're writing to.”
She blinked. “I think he might. He doesn't get near the volume of mail as Johnny Storm, at least.”
“But you can't guarantee that someone else won't read it instead?”
“No. Is it a sensitive issue?”
There was a long pause. “Kind of,” he said at last, clearly uncomfortable. “I just... really need some advice. From someone like him, if possible.”
“Like him?” she asked, keen eyes looking him over again, reevaluating. “So you're not even here as his fan?”
“Well,” he hedged, avoiding meeting her gaze, “I mean, I do admire him. All of them. It's a good thing, what they've been doing! I have a lot of respect for that. A lot of respect. But I would never come out here and take up their valuable time just to tell them that. I wouldn't have come at all if this wasn't so important. To me, at least.”
She cocked her head, folding her hands together on the desk between them. “What's your name, sir?”
The corner of her lip twitched. “A Ben to see Ben, hmm?” She shifted her gaze to her computer screen instead, typing something in that he couldn't see. There was a soft chime after a moment. She typed some more, glancing up at him just long enough to hold up a single finger so he wouldn't leave yet. After a longer pause, the computer chimed again, and the receptionist nodded absently.
“Like I said, I can't set you up a for a face-to-face appointment if you aren't on official business or an already established acquaintance. I can, however, allow you to wait in the reception room for personal visitors. If Mr. Grimm should happen to run into you and decide, on his own, to have a chat, well...” She flashed him an intentionally bland smile. “That's up to him.”
Ben's heart leaped. “Thank you. Thank you so much, Ms.--” he glanced at her name tag, “Roberta.”
“Oh, don't thank me, I could be sending you up to waste your whole day for nothing.”
“Even so,” he said, the wrinkles around his eyes crinkling as he smiled.
Roberta turned smoothly around to wave over a security guard, and for the first time Ben realized that her entire lower half was little more than a metal stand on wheels. Prosthesis? he wondered. Cyborg?
“Escort Mr. Parker upstairs to the private receiving room, please. He's not to leave the area, but he can stay until normal public visiting hours are over. Unless invited to do otherwise, of course.”
“Ma'am,” the guard replied, with more deference then Ben would have expected for a front receptionist. He gestured for Ben to follow him to the enormous elevator. “Right this way, Mr. Parker.”
* * *
Roberta did not, in fact, send him to waste his whole day for nothing, although it was a pretty near thing in the end. The dining hall was on the same floor, which was the only reason Ben Grimm happened to come across him before time ran out and the guard had to escort him back down.
The bulky, orange-colored man strolled past the open doorway, then reappeared with a backwards step, peering into the room with a puzzled look on his stony face. “Hey, uh... you waiting for someone?”
Ben rose to his feet as hastily as his knees would let him. “You, if you would be so kind.”
Faint recognition replaced the puzzlement. “Oh, are you the Other Ben? Of the Vague But Intriguingly Mysterious Personal Request?”
Ben chuckled. “I suppose I am. Is that what got me up here?”
“Pretty much. Did you really wait here all day? Damn. I feel kind of bad, now.”
“It's all right. I'm just glad you're really giving me this chance to talk.” He ran a leathery hand through his white hair. “Assuming... that's what you're doing.”
“Yeah, no, I'm not going to kick you out after all that. Talk about rude!” He snorted and gestured with his massive hand to follow him. “I'll take it from here. 'Night, Jeff,” he said to the security guard, who nodded and left for the elevator.
“You hungry? It's pretty late, I was just gonna grab a bite. That's as good a time as any for a chat, right?”
“That would be quite appreciated, thank you.”
“Jeez, you don't have to be so formal. I know it's not like we just casually bumped into each other at a bus stop or whatever and struck up a conversation, but if you wanted to pretend, I'd be down with that. I miss those days.”
Ben Parker considered that as they entered the dining room, where a counter connected to the kitchen was laden with a small buffet. Ben Grimm loaded up a giant plate with gusto, so he grabbed a few things himself with only mild hesitation. “How hard has it been for you, losing the ability to blend in with a crowd?”
“Like, from a celebrity standpoint?” he asked as he pulled out a specially reinforced chair and eased himself into it. “Or the whole, 'what is that thing?!?' standpoint?”
“The, uh. The latter.”
“It's been an absolute bitch,” Grimm confessed between giant bites of food that emptied half of his plate within moments. “How could it not be? But it's just one of those things that life throws at you and you have to put up with whether you want to or not. I like to think I'm finally gettin' used to it.”
Ben grimaced as he settled in a seat across from him. “Oh.”
“So was that like an ice-breaker, or what you came to talk to me about? Because you look normal to me.”
Ben poked his food a little, then sighed as he looked up into The Thing's eyes, so expressively human in spite of the rest of his appearance. “I have a nephew. A young nephew, only fifteen, who lives in my care. He's brilliant, very scientifically minded just like his late father. We couldn't afford to send him to a private high school, but there was no doubt in my mind that he would secure whatever scholarships he needed to attend the college of his choice. He had a bright future ahead of him.”
Grimm swallowed his bite and didn't take another. “Had?”
“Something happened, and we had to pull him out of school. We can't send him back. He probably can't go to college now, either. It would be too dangerous for him.”
Grimm lowered his fork back to the table, his expression darkening. “So you're saying...”
“My nephew--who's practically my own little boy!--” Ben choked out with a tight voice, “h-he can't pass for human anymore.”
Grimm sat back in his seat with a heavy sigh, watching the elderly man do his best to regain his composure. “That's rough. I just... wow. I don't even want to think about what it woulda been like to change that young. Still in high school,” he said, almost wonderingly.
“I'm not asking you to put in a good word for him anywhere, or train him how to use his new abilities, or even be his friend. I just... he hasn't set foot outside the house since it happened. He hasn't spoken to anyone but me and my wife. He's scared, and he's isolated, and he just needs someone else to talk to! Someone who can understand. He's not in a good way right now, and I'm worried sick. One conversation, that's all I ask for.” Ben's expression resolved into something intense and almost defiant, despite the pleading tone of his words. “Please.”
Grimm looked away and scratched his bald head, feeling resigned. “What's this kid's name?”
“Peter. Peter Parker.” He pulled out a slip of paper and a pen, starting to write something down. “This is his cell number, so you can call or text, whatever you'd prefer.”
Grimm gave a great sniff, shrugging his shoulders. “I'll do ya one better.” Ben paused his writing, looking up with a mix of hope and wariness in his eyes. “Jot your address down on that thing, I'll visit him myself. If that's all right with you.”
“If that's...” he started to repeat, incredulously. “Really? You'd go that far?”
“Why, how far are we talking here?”
“Just to Queens. I meant... you'd really come visit him? In person?”
“Well, it sounds like asking him to come here would be a no-go at this point.”
Ben's shoulders trembled. “Thank you,” he said softly.
“Us uglies gotta look out for each other, you know?” Grimm said gruffly, taking the slip of paper once it was ready.
“I don't think he's ugly,” Ben said with a soft smile, finally trying out the food on his plate. “And I don't think you are, either.”
“There's no need to butter me up now,” Grimm joked, but he looked happier all the same. “I suppose there are weirdos out there that can find even the ugliest things appealing. Someone has to adopt all those pugs, after all.”
Ben huffed out a laugh, then paused for a moment too long to come across as casual. “Speaking of which, Mr. Grimm.”
“How do you feel about... spiders?”
* * *
The Thing waited for a dreary evening with a cold rain, the kind when most people would avoid going outside if they could help it, before taking a casual ten-mile walk. Easy, with his stamina. He didn't like squeezing into public transportation, and taking the jet to a residential area was more than a little conspicuous. The elderly Ben greeted him jovially at the front porch of his charming little house, introducing his wife May who smiled up at him like he was her personal hero. It made him shuffle his feet and rub the back of his head with embarrassment.
“Oh dear, our doors are so narrow... will you be able to come inside?”
“I wouldn't wanna soak your furniture. Or break it,” he reassured her, eyeing the narrow door-frame. “We could just chat here on your porch, if that's all right.”
May bit her lip uncertainly. “I'm not sure I can convince Peter to come out here. He's afraid the neighbors will see him.”
“'Round back, then?”
“That could work, it's a bit more private there. Thank goodness it's stopped raining!” The two of them escorted him down the dark, paved alley that separated their house from the next, into a small fenced backyard. It was little more than a patio bordered by a strip of garden, with a large shed taking up the rest of the space and blocking the view from prying eyes. A neglected-looking bicycle was propped up against the house on one side of the back door, and a rusting metal bench occupied the other side. Grimm eyed the seat doubtfully as Ben waved him toward it.
“Just wait right here, I'll send him out,” he said eagerly before disappearing inside. May offered to get him a drink before heading in as well, and suddenly Grimm was alone. He tested the bench cautiously before sitting down, then waited under the harsh yellow glow of the back porch light. Water dripped noisily off of the leaves of nearby trees, their silhouettes dark against the city's cloudy night sky.
“You really came?” asked a soft male voice from somewhere up above. “You're really The Thing?”
He looked up and saw a head peeking out of an upstairs window. Messy brown hair crowned a face that was half tan and half red, with something round and dark glittering on his temples. Eyes. Extra eyes.
“That's me,” he replied, cocking his head. “Ben Grimm, at yer service. You can come take a closer look if you want to make sure, I don't mind.”
The boy looked unimpressed by the obvious attempt to coax him out. “I believe it's you. I just didn't think a member of the Fantastic Four had the time to waste on personal appearances to random teenagers.”
“Oh, we don't. But that uncle a' yours is a very earnest, very determined man. I sure hope you appreciate what you've got.”
Four eyes blinked, then stared for a long moment. “I do,” he finally said. Peter glanced around at the neighbors' windows, then looked back at Grimm. “Alright, fine. I'll come down. But I hope you're not arachnophobic.”
Peter's head disappeared back inside for a split second, then a pair of long, thin objects emerged. They were partially red and partially blue, and jointed in several places. As they folded over to touch against the exterior wall, Peter's arms and torso emerged and he leaned out the window, head first. Clinging impossibly to the wall by the pads of his fingers and the tips of his many-jointed stilts, he poured the rest of himself out of the window and climbed cautiously down towards the ground.
The stilt-like objects were spider legs. Four of them, sprouting out in pairs from the sides of his back, each one probably longer than he was tall. Thanks to those, he wore no shirt, only a pair of cargo shorts. His lower legs, the entirety of his arms, and most of his back had lost their human skin color and were a vibrant red or blue instead. The only exception to this were the tips of each spider-leg, his fingers and toes, and his lips, which were all black.
Once he neared the ground he kicked off the wall with his feet, flipping over backwards until he was right-side-up again. He folded his spider legs back behind him as compact as they could go, which was, admittedly, not very compact. There would be no hiding them under anything short of a full-length trenchcoat. They studied each other, Grimm with a carefully relaxed sprawl and Peter with tense, defensive posture. Now that he was closer, Grimm could see that the boy had two more sets of smaller, closed eyes across his forehead, bringing the total up to eight. When he opened his mouth to speak, a pair of narrow black fangs caught the light.
“Well. Here I am. If you have any comments, I'd like to get them over with as soon as possible.”
Grimm looked him over, head to toe, with an evaluating look on his face. “Damn. It ain't fair.”
“You got to keep all your hair. I'm jealous.”
Four eyes widened in surprise as he huffed a breath, just shy of a laugh. His shoulders relaxed the tiniest fraction and he allowed himself the barest hint of smile. “I've got tons more now, even, if you count this stuff,” he admitted, raising an arm for examination. As Grimm leaned closer and narrowed his eyes, he realized that the red and blue areas of Peter's skin weren't merely a change in color. The skin was thicker and covered in a short, dense fuzz, rather like velvet.
“Well, I'll be damned,” Grimm said with a wondering laugh. “Maybe you should join the X-men. They already got two members with blue fur: Kurt and Hank. You could start a club.”
Peter finally smiled for real, shaking his head. “Let's not go that far. Though if you know them, maybe you could introduce us some time? They sound nice.”
“They're alright. Don't got my charming sense of humor, though.” He grinned as Peter laughed. “See?”
Now that the kid had warmed up to him, Grimm figured it was time to move on to Phase 2. Noticing that Peter was glancing around for something to sit on, he took to his feet with an elaborate stretch and brushed the lingering damp off his shorts. “I dunno about you, but I can never sit still for long. Ironic for a guy who looks like a rock, right? What do you say we go for a walk?”
Peter immediately went tense again, eyes wide. “People will see me!”
“They'll see me, too. Which one of us do you think will draw the most attention? Let's be honest here.” Peter rubbed his arms and looked at his feet, but seemed to be thinking about it, so he let him have a moment before he asked, “Ain't you tired of being cooped up inside?”
Peter was clearly caving in. “Can I hide my face, at least?”
“If you want, sure.”
The glance up was all the warning Grimm had before Peter jumped straight into his second-story window, disappearing inside for a brief moment before sliding back down smoothly on a glistening strand of white wire. No, not wire, he realized as it fluttered in the wind when released.
“You got spider-webs, too? Handy.”
“It's not as useful as you might think,” Peter confessed as he stared at his wrist, then held up one of the items he had fetched. Some kind of device on a metal cuff. “That's why I created this, so I could shoot the webbing out at high pressure. I haven't had a chance to test it out beyond the length of the house, though.”
“Well, that makes this your golden opportunity to do so, then, don't it.” Grimm watched as he fastened a cuff to both wrists, wincing slightly until he had them adjusted and secured just right. A simple trigger mechanism rested on the palm of his hand. “You're quite the little inventor, ain't ya? Your uncle did say you were brilliant.”
“Oh,” he said shortly, looking a little red even on the not-red parts of his face. In lieu of saying anything else, he fired a test shot at the gate to the alley. A strand of web shot across the distance and latched on, allowing him to pull the gate open with a gentle tug. “I've been doing lots of experimenting with the kinds of web I can make since... everything happened. Besides just making it sticky or extra stretchy, I can actually make silk that dissolves after a few hours, like that one. And of course, I can make silk that lasts, too.” He held up the last item he'd been holding, a full coverage mask dyed a bright red and detailed with a black web design. It shimmered like silk but stretched like spandex as he pulled it over his head and adjusted it, until a pair of white mirrored lenses were settled over his eyes. Four of them, anyway.
“You're covering up some of your eyes?”
“Oh, the middle ones?” he clarified with a gesture at his forehead. “I don't think they're fully developed, or something. If they even have optic nerves, they're not hooked up to my brain as far as I can tell.”
“Something to look forward to in the future, maybe.”
Peter scoffed. “I sure hope not. It's weird enough having all this extra peripheral vision. Any more and I might get nauseous every time I turn my head.”
Grimm chuckled and waved a hand toward the gate. “Shall we?”
Peter took a deep, steadying breath. “Yeah. Sure. People will just... assume I'm a new superhero. Taking a walk with The Thing. In the middle of a residential area. Makes perfect sense.”
“Don't think about it so hard. It's New York.”
Peter snort-laughed before he could stop himself, and Grimm counted that as a win.
* * *
“This is amaziiiiiiiiiiiiing!” Peter cried out as he rocketed past, soaring higher as he reached the end of the swing's arc. He fired off another web, which latched on to the next high-rise, and swung down again, yelling the whole way.
“Jeez, wait up, Mr. Amazing!” Grimm panted as he sprinted along the sidewalk, slowed down by the resurgence of pedestrians now that the rain was gone, despite the lateness of the hour. He assumed his complaint would be lost in the wind and distance, but it might have been heard after all; at the peak of Peter's next swing he let go, flipped through the air dozens of stories high without any kind of safety line, and landed lightly on the sheer surface of the next building, his spider legs reaching out to cushion the impact before the rest of him could go splat. Grimm forced down the heart attack he could swear he almost had and hurried to catch up.
“Are you trying to kill me, kid?!” he wheezed, only half joking, as Peter climbed down head-first to rejoin him. “That's a bit high-stakes for your trial run, ain't it?”
“I knew I'd make it, I could feel it,” he babbled, hopping lightly on his feet with barely contained energy. “It's like I could sense what moves were safe and which ones wouldn't be before I even did them!”
Grimm sighed, leaning against the building on one massive hand and rubbing his forehead with the other. “I can't even tell if that's a super-power or just teenage recklessness talking,” he muttered.
“I'm pretty sure it's real,” Peter said, standing only on his spider legs in order to raise his head a few feet higher. “I can sense so much more now, through vibrations and sound and sight. It was actually unbearably overwhelming at first, but I think my brain just hadn't finished mutating back then. I can handle it a lot better now.”
“I happy for you, but I don't see how vibrations are gonna tell you not to take a jump before you even take it.”
Peter looked down, presumably frowning behind his mask. “Maybe it's something else, then. But I really could tell.”
“Alright. No need to get your webbing in a wad, I believe you.”
The boy took a breath like he was about to retort something, then noticed the small crowd of pedestrians that had stopped walking in order to gawk at the two of them. Self-consciousness abruptly returning, he dropped back to his human feet and folded the spider legs behind his back. He took a step closer to Grimm's side, looking like he was shrinking in on himself.
“Hey,” Grimm waved casually at the gawkers. “'Sup?”
A few of them hastily returned to their business, but some of them still loitered with obvious curiosity, and a few more actually approached, looking giddy.
“It's The Thing!” was the general theme of their whispers. “Think I can get an autograph?”
Grimm humored a few of them, signing various scraps of paper with a pen someone handed him, which looked like a toothpick in his hands. A few of them looked at Peter curiously, but only one person actually inquired about him.
“Who's that? A new member?”
“Oh, that's just my new pal... Mr. Amazing.”
“Spider-Man,” Peter cut in hastily. “I'm the Spider-Man.”
Grimm flashed him a glance with raised eyebrows, before turning back with a huff of amusement. “Alright. The Amazing Spider-Man, then.”
“So are you a superhero? Is that why you're wearing a mask?”
To Grimm's surprise, Peter seemed to shrink in on himself even more at the suggestion. And he doubted the boy would appreciate it if he blabbed about the extra eyes. So he blurted out the first thing that popped into his head instead.
“His parents didn't sign the publicity waiver. So we're not allowed to show his face.”
Their small audience stared at him. Peter also turned his head up and stared at him. He wondered what their problem was.
“He's a kid?”
“A waiver... for what?”
Okay, he was starting to see what the problem was. “The, uh... the...” he floundered. He couldn't say it was for the Fantastic Four, that would lead right back to the superhero thing. Also, Reed would chew his ear off if he got a kid involved, especially without discussing it with the group first.
“The Big Brothers and Big Sisters program,” Peter supplied. “For... Visibly Mutated Children. It's new.”
The aura of the gathered crowd abruptly shifted from potentially judgmental to fawning. “That is so sweet of you,” someone gushed, as everyone else hastily nodded to agree. “I didn't know there was a program like that. Those poor kids, they need a good role model, don't they? They must get picked on something awful.”
“Huh,” someone near the back murmured to their friend. “The fact that normal-looking people you pass on the street might be mutants in disguise kind of creeps me out, but on the other hand, I feel bad for the ones that can't even do that, you know?”
“Dude, really? Could you be any more racist?”
“What? Like you feel any different.”
“At least I don't say it right in front of them, jeez.”
Peter grimaced behind his mask, and Grimm gave them all a strained smile, but honestly the crowd's reaction could have been worse. Peter felt like he could recover from condescension and pity better than he could from cruelty and revulsion. In the distance a number of police sirens started up, which at least helped muffle some of the chatter. The crowd of gawkers was starting to attract more attention, as people who had passed by in taxis were stopping and getting out just to see what all the hubbub was about. Peter gestured to Grimm with a quick head tilt that they should get going.
“Well!” Grimm announced with a loud clap, “It's been nice chattin' with you all, but we really must be on our way. Places to be, an' all.” He tried to disperse the crowd with a shooing motion, but they were reluctant to leave and penned in by the newcomers, besides.
“Mr. Thing!” one of the late arrivals called, trying to slip to the front of the crowd. “What's this about a new program? Can I get a few words about it for my news blog?”
“Mr. Grimm, I'm a reporter for the Daily Globe! Could I arrange for an interview about it? At your convenience, of course.”
“Oh, uh, just call up my receptionist, she can fit you into my schedule somewhere, I'm sure.” The sound of sirens was growing louder, causing at least a few of the rubberneckers to turn around and peer uselessly around each other toward the nearest intersection. “'Scuse me, 'scuse me,” he said as he tried to shuffle through the crowd.
Blue and red lights were starting to reflect off of the buildings at the end of the block. Peter, who had been trying to follow unobtrusively in Grimm's wake, suddenly stiffened and looked up.
“Grimm,” he said in a tight voice that was lost in the noise. His spider legs unfolded suddenly, causing several members of the crowd to flinch back in surprise. Peter rose on them like stilts, placing a hand on Grimm's shoulder as he peered over it. “Grimm!”
“What? What is it, kid?” he asked, noticing the panic in his voice. “What's wrong?”
A large van suddenly roared into view, fish-tailing around the corner and losing control, veering up onto the sidewalk. The gathered crowd screamed and tried to flee to safety, but it was too crowded and happening too fast. Peter's feet braced on Grimm's shoulders before he suddenly launched over the crowd, flipping head over heels before landing on six legs. Somehow he had already fired six webs onto various light poles and building ledges while he was in the air, attaching the other ends to the sidewalk the instant he landed. More webs went flying out in the split second before the van plowed into him and the crowd.
Or over them, rather. The speeding getaway car hit right at the epicenter of the webs like it was a ramp, front wheels forced up into the air and driving up a few feet before jolting to a stop, stuck. The webs sagged slightly as the weight settled, but the people who had been about to get hit had stumbled to the ground, the van teetering a safe few feet above their heads. Peter had the closest shave; the undercarriage was mere inches away from his face where he was crouched on the ground.
“Kid!” Grimm shouted as he weaved through the hastily retreating crowd, his heart in his throat. “You okay?” Several police cars came tearing around the corner in close pursuit, hastily pulling to a stop when they saw the chaos. Grimm ducked under the net of webbing as he got closer and tilted the van up on its end with a single hand, balancing it on its back doors with a crunch. He let out a huge sigh of relief when Peter uncurled and looked up at him, apparently unscathed.
The sirens mercifully stopped as police officers piled out, guns drawn but pointed at the ground for safety as they formed an arc around the vehicle. “Oh, right,” Grimm said as he remembered that the van was presumably full of criminals of some sort. “Whoever's in there, you'd better come out peacefully unless you wanna experience clobberin' time!” he announced as he hoisted the van up off the ground. The back doors popped open immediately and released a pile of tangled limbs and groaning heads, a few weapons clattering around them like fallen leaves. Peter hastily webbed them out of reach.
“Driver!” he exclaimed, skittering behind Grimm just as the driver-side door pushed open a crack and a gun barrel poked out. Metal crumpled as Grimm's grip on the van switched to one hand, reaching up with the other to slam the door shut before ripping it clean off. Peter webbed the crook's hands and yanked him right out of his seat, snatching him with a few legs before he could land the ten foot drop on his face. The crook in the passenger seat wisely surrendered.
As the cops moved in to make the arrests, there rose a smattering of applause and cheers. Grimm acknowledged them with a casual wave after he found a safe place to set down the van, Peter hopping up on his back to help get the vehicle unstuck from the web. He opted to stay on his perch as a few officers came closer, sitting like an eight-legged cat on his broad, rocky shoulders.
“You'd probably better call your folks,” Grimm said with a heavy sigh. “By the time we give our statements and escape this crowd, it's gonna be way past your curfew. Think they'll let you stay at the Baxter building for the night?”
Peter paused in the act of fishing his smartphone out of his pocket, the device clinging to a single, black-tipped finger. “Really?” he asked hopefully. “I can spend the night there?”
“Well, that's up to your aunt and uncle, ain't it?” he pointed out, an amused smile pulling at his lips.
“Yeah. Yeah,” he breathed out, hastily placing the call with barely contained excitement. He waited impatiently for someone to pick up on the other end before blurting out, “Uncle Ben? Okay, first of all, you will not believe what just happened...”
* * *
Peter's energy had started to flag as they took a circuitous path to the Fantastic Four's headquarters, mostly because he stuck to Grimm's pace instead of racing ahead as fast as he could go. He perked up again once they approached the private entrance in the back and the doors unlocked automatically with a mere glance at the security camera.
“Sorta. Roberta's wired to the whole building, she runs the security.”
“The robot Uncle Ben met in the lobby?” Peter asked, and Grimm could feel the excitement radiating off of him. “Can I meet her?”
“'Course, I was planning on introducing you. I want to get you clearance to come on in whenever you feel like visiting. It's way easier for you to come here than it is for me to visit your place.”
“Right,” Peter said faintly. He was silent for a moment as they entered an enormous elevator and began to rise. “Thank you.”
Grimm looked down at the deceptively slight boy. “You holding up okay? That was a lot of excitement for your first post-mutation outing.”
“Yeah, I'm fine,” he said automatically, wincing has he removed the metal web shooters from his wrists so he could roll them up and stuff them in a pocket. He rubbed the flattened fuzz on his wrists back into shape absently, then shuffled his feet. “I just...”
He reached up and pulled off his mask, revealing a troubled expression pulling down the corners of his black lips. “I hadn't really wanted to do the whole... hero thing. I just reacted.”
“It's a tough road to follow, I getcha. A lot of responsibility.”
“Responsibility,” Peter muttered, as if the word carried the weight of the world. He ran his hands down his face with a dramatic sigh, tugging at the red velvet and pale skin of his face. “I thought, maybe...”
“What?” he prompted when it became obvious that Peter wasn't going to finish his train of thought.
Peter stared at the doors of the elevator, only not really, because his eyes were closed. “I have the strangest dreams at night...” he began before trailing off once again. A pair of his eyelids cracked open slightly, but it wasn't the ones he used to see. It was one of the smaller pairs that he had said didn't work yet, the two closest to the center of his forehead.
Grimm stared. He could only see a sliver of them, but he could almost swear they glowed.
The elevator dinged and Peter's four main eyes flew open, the moment over. The doors opened to reveal a large room where three figures were lounging about, obviously waiting for them. Three familiar, famous figures.
“Busted,” Grimm whispered. Johnny Storm jumped up and walked toward them immediately, the most shit-eating grin stretching across his face.
“Well, well, well! If it isn't our dear Brother Grimm!”
“Brother? Oh, no...”
“Oh, yes. Your trending hashtag precedes you.”
The sigh that Grimm let out as he exited the elevator was so massive, Peter could swear it made Johnny's hair brighten like stirred coals. “I hate social media.”
“But it sure loves you right now! If it wasn't so funny I'd be seriously pissed off!” Johnny said through clenched teeth, his grin starting to look forced.
“Jealousy doesn't become you, Johnny,” Sue said casually as she tried to peer around them. “Do we get to meet your new friend, Ben, or did he leave already?”
Grimm turned around, blinked for a second, then huffed a small laugh. “Don't get all shy on us now, Peter. They won't bite, I promise.”
Brown hair dipped into view behind the top of the door, followed by the rest of his head, upside down. “I didn't think they'd all be waiting,” he muttered in embarrassment. Seeing Sue's encouraging smile, he stepped lightly over the lip of the door on all eights, crawling onto the room's ceiling. “Uh. Hi.” He seemed to struggle with some kind of internal battle for a moment before taking a deep breath and straightening up with a show of confidence. “I'm Peter Parker. It's an honor to meet you all!”
“Hi, Peter,” Sue said warmly. “Would you like to come down, or are you more comfortable up there?”
“Oh! Right, no, I can come down,” he said quickly, letting go of the ceiling with all but one hand and then descending on a strand of silk. “Sorry, I'm not trying to make, like, the creepiest first impression possible...”
“Too late, eight-eyes,” Johnny cut in, only to get smacked on the back of his head by his sister.
“Oh, it's not our first impression,” Dr. Reed Richards said, finally speaking up. “We've already seen the video.”
“Video?” Peter asked, spider-legs curling inward in mild apprehension. “Do I want to know?”
“I think it's wonderful,” Sue said as Reed stretched an arm over to pluck a laptop off a table. He clicked a few times before spinning it around for Grimm and Peter to see. They glanced at each other before leaning closer to watch.
“What you're witnessing is footage taken earlier this evening of an incredible save by the Fantastic Four's Ben Grimm, aka The Thing, and a young new superhero known as the Amazing Spider-Kid. Witnesses say the van in the video was fleeing police pursuit when it lost control and veered into a crowded sidewalk. Thanks to a lightning quick response by the Spider-Kid, no one was injured, and The Thing's assistance enabled officers to arrest all the suspects without further incident. According to witnesses, the two heroes were out on the town together as part of a new branch of the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program, one aimed at youths with visible mutations. Doesn't that just melt your heart?”
Peter's mouth slowly fell open as the short news blurb played, first displaying a cell-phone quality video of the incident taken from across the street, and then a closer clip of Grimm talking to the police, Peter perched on his shoulder like a brightly colored tropical bird. When he finally recovered enough to close his mouth, he promptly blurted out: “Spider-Man. I said Spider-Man!”
“How old are you?” Johnny coughed.
“Fifteen. Sixteen in a couple of weeks.”
“Nah. Spider-Kid it is,” he teased, reaching out a finger to poke him in the ear. Peter swatted it away easily and snarled, baring his black fangs with a fairly intimidating hissing noise. Johnny flinched back in surprised dismay.
Sue snorted a laugh. “Please excuse Johnny, he's just excited to have someone his own age to play with.”
“I'm eighteen,” he replied with obvious offense.
“Barely,” she said with a grin. “Between Peter's obvious maturity and your immaturity, you two can meet right in the middle.”
“You should probably accept the name as the blessing it is,” Reed said absently, examining the strand of web Peter had left hanging from the ceiling. “Despite Johnny's... personality, the media has always been far more lenient with his past mistakes than ours, simply because he was a minor.” He stretched the web between his hands studiously. “Do you produce this naturally?”
“Oh, boy, here we go,” Johnny muttered as Peter nodded, holding out a wrist for him to examine.
“How would you feel about being dusted with carbon nanotubes and graphene flakes?”
“Reed!” Sue scolded, sounding scandalized. “Can you not hold off for five minutes of polite human interaction before you subject the boy to experimentation?!”
“Ohmygosh, you read that study too?” Peter blurted out with obvious excitement, surprising everyone else except Grimm, who rolled his eyes. “I didn't have access to any, or I would have tried it already! I've already verified my webbing's toughness versus Kevlar, but imagine if I can make it stronger than it, too? We could also verify if the spiders in the experiment were merely getting the flakes on the surface of their webs, or if they were absorbing it through their skin or ingesting it. Of course, we'll have to make sure I'm not getting poisoned in the process, but I have an accelerated metabolism and corresponding healing speed, so it might not be a problem as long as--”
“Oh my god, he's a nerd,” Johnny interrupted, sounding equally scandalized. Reed was beaming.
“It's always a delight to meet scientifically inclined youths. I would be happy to supply you with any items you might wish to experiment with.”
“Within reason,” Sue added with a smile that edged on just this side of intimidating.
“Oh. Oh!” Johnny suddenly exclaimed. “Like that one experiment! Where the spiders built webs while on caffeine or weed or LSD?” He caught Sue's expression as she turned it on him and hastily dropped his grin. “Which would definitely be an example of not within reason. Obviously.”
Peter couldn't resist a quiet laugh at Johnny's expense, unsuccessfully hidden behind his hand. A moment later and it transformed into a yawn, prompting Sue to put an end to the fight before Johnny could do more than stick out his tongue. “Come on guys, it's late. We need to have a serious conversation about all this, but it would be better to wait until morning after we're well rested. Peter, can I offer you a guest room for the night?”
“Right this way, I'll get you all fixed up.”
“Goodnight, kid,” Grimm said with a wave, which he happily returned. As Peter followed Sue down a broad corridor, his sensitive ears could still hear the others as they struck up a more private conversation. “So, how much trouble am I in?”
“Well, Jennifer is ready to represent us if Big Brothers and Big Sisters takes legal action, but we won't know their stance until business hours tomorrow, at the earliest. If we're in luck, they'll actually think it was a good idea and let us run with it.”
“...what do you mean, run with it?” Grimm asked apprehensively, and Johnny began snickering.
“He means, you may need to call in some favors from your like-faced colleagues, or you're going to have a gaggle of ugly ducklings all to yourself! We've already got a couple emails from hopeful parents.”
“How do I get myself into these things?” Grimm asked with a sigh of long-suffering.
“Because,” Reed replied, the smile plain in his voice, “your rock-hard exterior is only skin deep.”
“Maybe I should call you The Softy from now on? Nope, no, Brother Grimm is still too perfect,” Johnny teased, the last thing that Peter's ears caught before he was led through a door into a very nice room. Large windows looked out across the cityscape above a generously sized bed, with a door to an en-suite bathroom tucked off to one side. It was twice as big as Peter's bedroom at home, with a much higher ceiling.
“Can I get you anything?” Sue asked, watching him as he looked around. “There should be a new toothbrush and other supplies in the bathroom, and some sleepwear in the dresser. Do you need anything else?”
“No, that's perfect. Thank you,” he said quickly, avoiding her eyes as he came to a stop in the middle of the room. It was obvious he wanted to ask something, so she waited patiently for him to work up to it. “I'm not... this isn't going to get Grimm in trouble, is it? The Big Brother thing was my fault, I just blurted it out!”
She leaned against the door-frame, her posture relaxed. “If for any reason that's a problem, we'll have it all smoothed out by tomorrow night, you'll see. Don't you worry about a thing, Peter. I want you to feel welcome here, I can already tell we're going to love you.” Her smile was so easy and gentle, he couldn't help but offer her a tentative smile back.
“There is one thing I'd like to do, if I'm going to sleep here, that I hope you won't mind?”
“What is it?”
He pointed to one of the high ceiling corners. “Can I build a web? I don't really sleep in beds anymore...”
Her laughter was sweet. “You go right ahead. Consider this room your own, for whenever you'd like to visit.”
Peter's fangy grin was brilliant as she bid him goodnight and closed the door. Legs unfurling, he climbed up to the corner he'd already decided had the best view and got to work. His nest-making skills had come a long way from his first sloppy foray so many months ago; his extra legs were lightning fast and had an incredible reach. It was almost like watching a 3D printer work as they ran thread after thread from his wrists to the walls, creating the wispy white form of a hammock within a bower, tapering off to a wide circular entrance.
Peter brushed his teeth, changed his clothes, and nestled his web-shooters and mask safely within his nest before curling up inside and surrendering to exhaustion. He'd thought he would lie awake for a while with his mind spinning over the day's events, but he was out like a light the moment he allowed himself to relax.
His mind still spun, of course, within dreams. But that was something he'd already learned to live with.
* * *
A thread vibrated at Peter's attention; his eyes followed it helplessly to see where it went. One of the many, many worlds he'd seen before, of course, where his spider powers manifested without changing his outward appearance. What would he see unfold this time?
This Peter, like all the others he'd seen, was suffering from the loss of Uncle Ben. With no money coming in and bills piling up to trouble poor Aunt May, this Peter had the brilliant idea to join the Fantastic Four. He hadn't been forced to bide his time developing in a cocoon, and so had already made a name for himself with the public. Unfortunately, that name was mud. No one suspected his youth and they treated him accordingly.
So brash. So foolish. This Peter tried to prove himself in all the worst ways, and the Fantastic Four were angered by his aggravating and costly antics. He fled in embarrassment when he realized there would be no money down that path, anyway.
Peter shook his head and sighed, letting the thread fall away from his sight. There were many threads in this massive web, threads upon threads made of even more threads. A Web of Life and Destiny. It seemed it was his own fate to navigate this place every time he fell asleep. Was any of it real? He didn't know. Was there some purpose behind showing him these things? Probably.
All Peter knew was, in all those alternate lives he saw, he always seemed dogged by misery. Who could blame him if he tried to do things differently, almost spitefully so, in order to change things?
He'd already failed in one respect, today. He had played hero. He'd thought he could avoid that path, but it seemed his instincts had other ideas. Just because Uncle Ben was safe at home, didn't mean he could dodge that burden of Responsibility.
Still. There had to be more than one way to be Responsible. He had many different powers to be responsible with, after all.
Apologies for the sketch quality of the picture, I just threw it together for my own benefit, then decided to post it anyway. You can reblog it and a link to the story here on tumblr if you'd like!
Chapter 3: Chapter 2: Beast
Honestly, Peter could probably make the journey from home to the Baxter Building in 20 minutes as the spider swings, but he tried to always allow himself one or two hours to account for crime fighting. That was the compromise he'd made with himself; he didn't go looking for trouble, didn't patrol for it, but if he came across it while he was out and about, then he had to do something about it. It appeased his nagging impulse to help others and be a direct hero, while still leaving him his own life and the free time to be an indirect hero, too.
He and Dr. Richards had been working for half a year now on what they'd been calling “Carbon Spider Thread.” They were almost ready for field tests of the Kevlar-replacing fabric they had produced, and even Tony Stark had been dropping by frequently to see how the progress was going. The more he saw, the more he pleaded for samples to take back to his own R&D department.
Peter was content. He was inventing things that would save more lives in the future than he could ever hope to achieve just chasing down muggers, and he didn't even have to run himself ragged and drown in despair to do it. Sometimes he couldn't help but pity those poor Other Peters he saw in his dreams. He'd come to accept that they were more than mere figments of his imagination after he brought up the subject with Dr. Richards one day, and the man talked for hours about alternate dimensions and diverging realities.
Peter didn't talk about his dreams with Reed, though. There was just something too personal about them, too spiritual, to expose to such an analytical mind. No, he only discussed his dreams with Brother Grimm, Uncle Ben, and Aunt May. Grimm because he was a good listener, who always thought hard before he gave any advice. And his aunt and uncle because one of the things he swore to do differently than those Other Peters was to never take them for granted. He refused to keep secrets from them, and regaled them with his adventures every night that he didn't spend over with the Fantastic Four.
He could see the glowing Fs on the side of their building already; it had been a relatively peaceful trip to Manhattan tonight. Despite the darkness of the late winter sky, it was only early evening, and crime hadn't picked up yet despite the mildness of the weather. Just a few more blocks and--
His spider-sense tingled. Peter landed on the roof of a medium-height building and froze, listening and feeling for the source that set him on edge. He had long ago fashioned himself an outfit that matched his mask; it made him feel more like a super-hero to have a uniform like the FF did. It left his arms, lower legs, and most of his back bare, though; any kind of fabric pressed against his velvet fuzz tended to drive him to distraction after a while.
The buzzing decreased the moment he stopped, which was a clue. The danger he'd sensed had something to do with himself, not a crime happening somewhere down below. He was being watched. Not an unusual occurrence, he had to admit; there was always the occasional snoop from the press that tried to tail him back to his home, or at least catch a good picture. No luck for them on either account. Peter slipped down the side of the building using the buzzing as his guide, until the watcher could no longer see him, and resumed his journey with a different route. Problem solved.
Or so it seemed, until a few swings later, the buzzing started up again. Puzzled, Peter swung around a building until it stopped again, only to note with some surprise that the angle of view was coming from a different direction. Was there more than one watcher? He changed paths again, lost them for a few seconds, then felt the buzzing return for a third time, a third direction.
“Okay, this is just getting ridiculous,” he huffed. He was approaching the Baxter building now, but rather than go right in, he decided to circle it in a wide berth, launching a dozen near-invisible webs that connected the observatory up top to the roof of every building that surrounded it. The buzzing surged and receded as he went, as if he was being followed by someone that could leap astounding distances. Growing irritated, he finally landed on the edge of the Baxter building and skittered straight to the top, collecting the ends of all the webs stuck on the observatory's side until he could place them neatly together at the top. He perched in the middle of the massive web he had created, fingers and spider-toes gently resting against every string, and glared out into the darkness.
At first he felt little but the constant vibration of wind, but as he let his mind fade and his spider-senses take the forefront, he began to differentiate between the different twinges under his feet. There was a jolt that meant a sudden displacement of air had occurred near a strand; Peter turned his head and looked down at a building almost directly behind him. There was a black and red figure standing there, broad and masculine in shape, and the buzzing in his brain warned him that this was definitely his stalker.
The figure didn't stare for long: he simply vanished, right before his eyes. Another vibration thrummed, this time against his little finger, and Peter turned his head to stare the figure down once again. Whoever it was seemed surprised to be spotted so quickly. He teleported again, and Peter found him again almost the very moment he reappeared. The figure crossed his arms and cocked his head for a moment, then apparently decided to make absolutely sure of Peter's abilities, because he launched into some sort of... crazed teleporting spree.
The shadowy figure bamfed from building to building with little more than a split-second's rest between each movement. Peter spun his head to face him as best as he could, only losing track when the figure teleported to buildings further out than he had linked webs to. He wondered if this was supposed to be a show of power and steeled himself against showing any signs of intimidation. He needn't have worried. The man came to a sudden stop on the building at Peter's twelve o'clock, tugged at something around his head, and promptly began throwing up all over the rooftop.
It was so unexpected, Peter's mind lurched back to the forefront so he could stare with amazed incredulity. Did he... make himself motion sick? The figure lost whatever menace he might have had as he flopped weakly to his hands and knees, emptying out the contents of his stomach. Peter winced in sympathy, though not too much. The dude had no one to blame but himself.
At last the figure stood again, looking a bit unsteady and wiping at his mouth. Then, just to make things weirder, he very clearly flashed an “I'm okay!” hand signal to Peter before stumbling off into the shadows and out of sight.
Peter waited on top of the observatory to see if his bizarre stalker would show again, but after a good ten minutes of nothing, he decided he was well and truly gone. Shaking his head, he took the roof entrance into the Baxter building and headed down to tell Grimm all about the strange occurrence. If he hadn't run right into Johnny's latest prank instead, he might not have forgotten.
* * *
“Oh, hey Peter, I was hoping you'd swing by today,” Reed said as Peter entered his lab. “I noticed you breezed through your chemistry curriculum, so for your next course of study I think we should start you on...” He trailed off as he turned around and finally looked at him. “Are you...are you covered in flour?”
Peter coughed, sending a cloud of white drifting into the air. “Powdered sugar, actually.”
“Dare I ask?”
“Ostensibly it was to see if I'll absorb it and produce taffy webs.”
Reed laughed softly as he waved Peter over to the clean-up station. “And how do you plan to retaliate this time?”
“I'm thinking of soaking his super suit in a lithium chloride solution, so the next time he gets his flame on he burns hot pink.”
“Ha!” Reed huffed out, then hastily cleared his throat. “I mean, as long this prank war you two have going on doesn't interfere with my work or your studies, I don't see any reason to intervene.”
Peter grinned as he stripped out of his mask and backless shirt and worked on brushing white powder off of his upper arms. To his frustration, it clung to the blue and red fuzz. Giving in, he removed his web shooters and stuck his arms under the sink faucet, one by one, scrubbing all the way up to his shoulders. “So, anything special planned tonight?”
“Yes, actually, I'm expecting a visitor. Dr. Henry McCoy is visiting the Avengers tower this week, and he plans to stop by here as well.”
“Beast?” Peter asked with excitement. “I'll finally get to meet him?”
“That's the idea. Ben has been trying to convince him to be a Big Brother for a while, but I think now that Tony Stark has joined in, he's finally taking the idea seriously.”
“Mr. Stark wants him to do it too?”
“Apparently he had a run-in with a fourteen-year old with a giant squirrel tail who managed to impress him. Now he wants someone to keep an eye out for her—someone besides himself, of course.”
“Of course,” Peter said with an impressive eye-roll as he finished drying off. “What did she do to earn that?”
Reed turned to look Peter square in the face before casually stating: “Defeated Dr. Doom.”
The towel slipped between his fingers as Peter stared in shock. “That's a joke, right?”
“Nope. Have you considered befriending a small army of spiders? Apparently that's the way to go.”
“I... what? You know I... I mean... just... wow,” he finally finished floundering and snapped his mouth shut. “So if Dr. McCoy becomes her Big Brother, will I get to meet her too?”
“Oh, almost certainly. Although, I don't think she lives in New York City.”
“She will,” Peter said absently as he pulled his lab coat/apron over his head.
“What makes you so sure?”
“Hmm? What makes me so sure of what?”
“That she'll move here?”
“I didn't say anything. I wouldn't be surprised if she did, though, she sounds like quite the super-hero-in-the-making.”
“Ah,” Reed said after a moment. “You were doing your thing again.”
Peter paused, blinked a few eyelids. “The third eyes thing? Did they really open?”
“I didn't see, you were pulling on your coat right as you said it.”
He huffed in annoyance. “Well, keep telling me when it happens, I guess. I'll add Squirrel Girl will move to New York City to my list of Extremely Minor Future Predictions.”
Reed smiled. “Alright. Shall we get some lab work in before our guest arrives?”
“Sounds good to me.”
* * *
They did not get much work done. This was mostly because Peter's webs had turned to taffy.
“Please don't tell Johnny,” Peter begged, hiding his face in the crook of an elbow as he flopped over Reed's work desk. His other arm was held out for examination under a magnification lens. “He absolutely can't know about this.”
“Your webs haven't turned to taffy,” Reed said patiently as he gently kneaded Peter's fuzzy wrist with his thumbs. “Your spinnerets have just gummed up.”
“So un-gum them.”
“It's not as simple as washing them off with water, we already know your web orifice is designed to keep foreign particles out, including liquid. Frankly I'm not sure how the powdered sugar managed to get past your defenses in the first place. We should definitely test that out in the future.”
“Can't we come up with a better name for them than web orifices? It sounds lewd.”
“There's nothing wrong with the word orifice.”
“Please stop saying it.”
Reed sighed. “Sometimes I forget that you're only sixteen, and other times I am forcibly reminded.”
Peter snickered, then remembered that he was dying of embarrassment and went back to moping. “Can we please just fix the problem?”
“We could try a pressurized saline rinse to see if we can loosen the blockage, then suction it out.”
“And if that doesn't work?”
“Give it some time and see if it clears out on its own.”
“Fiiiine.” He hopped up to help Reed gather what he needed, unwrapping a sterile package of tubing with his hands while a spider foot fetched a bag of saline from a drawer. Once Reed had everything hooked up to a device that looked like it belonged in a hospital or dental office, Peter held his arm out over the sink and let him carefully insert a tiny nozzle into the hole in his wrist.
The moment Reed turned on the spray, though, Peter tensed up and yanked his arm away. Reed hastily paused the machine and looked up, concerned. “Did it hurt?”
“No,” Peter said cautiously, a funny look on his face. “But it felt weird.”
“Did it clear your spinnerets?”
Peter flexed his fingers, but nothing happened. “Not yet.”
“Do you want to try for longer?”
“Just... just a little more.” He surrendered his arm again and took deep breaths as Reed reapplied the nozzle and sprayed a few more short bursts. When Peter didn't jerk away this time, he reversed the pump and began suctioning the saline back out. Peter made a high-pitched whine and accidentally crumpled the metal counter with his other hand, but managed to hold still.
“Alright. Give it a try now.”
Peter tried again, and this time a silken bead appeared and was easily pulled out as a strand of web. He breathed a sigh of relief. “There's one set working, at least. No offense, but I'm gonna wait and see if the other side clears up on its own. I just... no.”
“That uncomfortable, huh?”
Peter's cheeks were turning red enough to almost match his facial markings. “It was pretty bad, yeah.”
Reed looked at him askance, but wisely dropped the subject. “Well, I'm going to call it close enough to dinner time that starting anything now would be pointless. Shall we adjourn for now?”
“Yeah, probably. I'd like to change before our guest arrives, if he's not here already.” Peter collected his belongings and gave a little wave with a spider foot as he walked out the door, still trying to shake the weird feeling out of his wrist. He made it to his room without running into anyone and closed the door behind him with a sigh of relief. Home sweet second home.
The web nest up in the corner had taken over the entire ceiling and much of the walls since he first started it. It framed the large window nicely, almost like drapes, and held little photos and newspaper clippings in places where he was unlikely to climb. Most impressively, he had worked numerous strings of white Christmas lights throughout the nest's construction, although they were turned off right now. Tossing his sugar-covered uniform into a laundry basket and his web-shooters on the dresser, Peter changed into something more casual. Relatively. Fashion didn't favor men with his particular clothing needs, so everything in his wardrobe was silk, made with help by his aunt and uncle as they grew better at weaving and dyeing cloth. Unfortunately, Peter wasn't very creative when it came to designing clothes; he had only created a single pattern for knee-length pants and backless shirts, and so that was all he had. He reminded himself, for the umpteenth time, to look up a professional. They needed to find a buyer for his regular silk fabric, anyway. They had several bolts in an array of colors ready to sell, now that they had gotten the hang of producing it.
There was a polite knock at the door; definitely Sue. Johnny didn't believe in politeness, and Grimm couldn't knock that lightly. “Door's open,” he called.
Sue peered in with a knowing smile on her face; Peter took one look and leaped over. “He's here?”
“He just arrived downstairs,” she confirmed. “Roberta sent up word.” She laughed as Peter bounded down the wide hallway from wall to wall, too excited to just walk on the floor. He pattered into the receiving room on the ceiling just as the elevator dinged, joined by Grimm and Sue. The doors parted to reveal long, fluffy fur in a vivid shade of blue coating a large, humanoid man. He stepped forward on clawed toes, smiling brightly as he reached out to shake Grimm's hand. The Thing managed to make him look small by comparison, but then, he did that to most people.
“Ben! Good to finally see you in person again, it's been a while! And you, my dear lady,” he said to Sue, engulfing her tiny hand within his paw. “Always a pleasure.”
“Oh, the pleasure is all ours, Hank! You're always welcome to stop by, I only wish you could do it more often.”
“Busy busy busy, you know how it is,” he said with a genial sigh.
“Hello,” Peter said, startling the man into looking up. He blinked and adjusted his glasses for a moment before his smile returned.
“Ah! You must be illustrious Spider-Kid I've heard so much about!” He reached up a hand, so Peter reached down and shook it vigorously. Dr. Henry McCoy had thick leathery skin under his rich blue fur, and Peter's red fuzz and black fingers stood out in sharp relief. “I must say, I was rather looking forward to meeting you. I have so many questions I'd like to ask!”
Grimm gave an exaggerated groan. “This is gonna be like him meeting Reed all over again, isn't it?” he stage-whispered to Sue, who giggled fondly. “You're already earmarked for a little sibling, Hank, you can't steal mine!”
Neither Peter nor Henry even acknowledged his complaint, already lost in studying each other. Grimm could do little but sulk about it for the rest of the evening.
* * *
Dinner was a divided affair, with Peter, Henry, and Reed on one end of the table, barely remembering to take bites in between scientific discussions, and Grimm and Johnny gently mocking them from the other end and occasionally attempting to garner attention by flinging food. Sue sat in the middle, trying to follow both sets of conversations and occasionally reminding people that there was, in fact, a meal to eat.
After dessert, Henry followed Peter and Reed back to the labs, where they showed off the capabilities of carbon spider thread and explained the process of making it.
“We tried several techniques,” Reed said, “but the one that made the most reliable thread with the least chance of toxicity to Peter was to inject the carbon nanotubes directly into his major ampullate silk gland.” Peter pointed helpfully to a spot on his bicep. “That's the one that produces his strongest silk. Then when his spinnerets transform the liquid into a solid, the proteins form with the same structure as the carbon nanotubes, resulting in the strongest material known to man.”
“Suck on that, limpets,” Peter muttered.
“Fascinating,” Henry breathed as he stretched a sample strand. “How much can you produce this way?”
“Not a lot, but a decent amount,” Peter admitted. “On the one hand, I've got twice the number of glands and spinnerets as a normal spider, since I have a complete set in both arms. Plus, I'm not, you know, spider sized, so we don't have to spin dozens of filaments together just to get an acceptably sized thread. On the other hand, because of those two details, an hour of constant web-spinning is enough to leave me parched and starving. Nutrition and health are a concern. So, we've decided to limit me to every other night, one pair of injections a session, which gives me about 45 minutes of constant spinning until my web goes back to normal.”
“Truly astounding. I'm glad to hear that no one's pushing you too hard, Peter, I know we scientists can get a bit... obsessive.”
Peter grinned. “Sue put her foot down. So did my aunt and uncle. They know I'd work myself to exhaustion if left to my own devices.”
Henry smiled distractedly, then seemed to gather himself. “Do you mind if I steer the conversation away from technical matters for a while?”
“Oh! No, go ahead.” They waved farewell to Reed, who was already drifting away to check the status of some of his experiments, and exited the lab. “What did you want to talk about?” Peter asked as they strolled leisurely down the hall.
“I don't often get the chance to consult with other people who share animal-based mutations. I would be particularly interested to hear about your own experiences and difficulties balancing your separate natures.”
“You mean like, animal instincts?”
“Exactly. My own mutation is rather unstable, and has shifted several times over the years, sometimes due to outside influences, unfortunately. There have been times when I felt more beast than man, and could barely even retain my human mind. How are you holding up in that regard?”
“I can't say I've felt anything like that at all,” Peter said hesitantly, “at least, not yet. But then, I've kind of been living the easy life. No real stressors to push me over the edge, no situations that might call up my spider instincts, assuming I have any. I don't need to hunt for food, I don't have any dating prospects...” He shrugged. “I might not be done mutating, actually.”
“What makes you think that?”
Peter tapped at his forehead. “I have a set of eyes that have never opened. For a while I thought it was two sets of eyes, but apparently one of them has a purpose after all. These middle ones seem to have something to do with my precognitive abilities.”
“Ah, your danger-detecting spider-sense, as it were?”
“Yeah, that, with a side order of useless prophesies. Anyway, now that you mention it, maybe the reason I haven't felt any animal instincts yet is because my mutation hasn't finished developing?”
“A worthy hypothesis. What do you think might await you in the future?”
Peter nibbled his lip with a fang as he thought about it. “Maybe... I'll gain the ability to talk to spiders, like that Squirrel Girl? There was that one time...”
“Go on,” Henry prompted when Peter trailed off.
“After I got bitten by the mutated spider that caused all this, it took about a week before I really started changing. I got my spinnerets early and wrapped myself up in an egg sac like it was a cocoon. But I had help.” With growing excitement, Peter relayed his hazy memory of the event. “Even though spiders are solitary creatures, they came to me in dozens, maybe even more, to help me out. If it happened once, surely the potential is still there!”
“Oh my! That sounds...” Henry tried to make an enthused expression, but it looked rather pained. “Delightful.”
Peter blinked, then his grin turned predatory. “Dr. McCoy, are you scared of spiders?”
“Of course not!” he replied, too quickly to sound convincing. “I certainly have no problem with you, dear boy.”
“But I'm big... and there's only one of me,” Peter added slyly. “Just imagine if I was being followed by a few thousand tiny... crawling... spiders... coating the walls... walking over each other... heading toward you on a billion prickly little legs...”
Henry gave a full body shudder before he could catch himself, and Peter burst out laughing before lighting up like he'd had an epiphany.
“Oh my gosh. I could declare eternal victory against Johnny in our stupid prank war.”
“But what if he burned the spiders?”
Peter looked appalled. “He wouldn't... would he?” His spider-legs curled up around him defensively. “What if they all have personalities? What if I accidentally sentenced millions of them to death?”
“Oh dear. I didn't mean to present you with a moral quandary...”
Peter shivered, then forced himself to relax. “Well, it's all a moot point anyway, since I can't talk to spiders right now and maybe I never will.” They came to a stop in front of his guest room and he paused, one hand on the doorknob. “How do you feel about spider webs in their more natural state?”
“Hmm? As long as they're not getting tangled in my fur, they don't bother me.”
“Oh, good.” He opened the door and led him in, watching Henry's jaw drop in his peripheral vision with satisfaction as he turned on the string lights.
“This is... stunning!” he said breathlessly, taking in the swirls and patterns as they twinkled softly across the silken tunnels on the ceiling like stars through wispy clouds. “Truly a work of art! I found your work with Reed impressive, but I must admit... this is far more beautiful.”
“Thank you,” Peter said quietly, looking pleased and a little shy. “I keep improving it all the time.”
Henry moved closer to the wall, examining some of the photos that were stuck there. “You are a photographer as well?” he asked. “These photos are all taken from rooftops, I assume they're yours?”
“Yep. It's just a casual hobby, but I enjoy it.”
“Don't sell yourself short, dear boy, you clearly have a good eye for line and form. Several good eyes, in fact,” he joked. “The perspective in some of these is... inspired.”
Peter was definitely turning red now, rubbing the back of his neck and casting about for a change of subject. “Will you be staying here for the night?”
“No, I already have a semi-permanent guest room at Stark Tower, thanks to my stint in the Avengers.”
“Oh. Can I join you on your walk back?”
“Certainly! Though I didn't walk so much as take the rooftop route. That certainly shouldn't be a problem for you, of course.”
Peter chuckled and grabbed his web-shooters and a clean mask. “Definitely not. Oh, but...” He trailed off and turned away, quickly testing out his clogged spinnerets again and frowning at the result. “Say,” he said brightly as he turned back around, “is it true you can walk a tightrope as easily as most people can walk on the ground?”
Upon seeing the Beast's much-more-impressively fangy grin, Peter quickly grabbed his camera as well. “Oh man, I have such an idea for a photo...”
* * *
“Okay, now jump precisely where I just showed you, and make sure you do the spin, too.”
Henry humored him with an acrobatic twirl as he jumped across the open expanse between two towering buildings, while Peter hung from a web several feet below, clicking furiously on his camera. Henry landed on an exterior wall with a loud thud, digging in with his claws while he waited for Peter to check the shots and tell him if he needed to repeat it or not.
“Oh. Oh man, you gotta see this!” Peter crowed as he leaped nimbly up the side of the building to join him. He cradled the camera gently within his hands as he held on by his six feet alone, and Henry squinted at the screen until Peter got it at just the right distance. The image was too small to make out much detail, but even at that size he could tell it was brilliant. Buildings framed the sides of the image as they receded up into the hazy city sky, their steel and concrete ledges reflecting sharp colorful lights from below and the gentle pale light of the moon from above. In the middle of the image, the Beast's dark silhouette was lit by the same contrasting lights, caught in the middle of a graceful, powerful spin. The moon hovered just past his head, illuminating his bright white fangs and claws. It looked more like a painting than real life. Henry was nearly speechless.
“Have you considered entering your photos in an art gallery?” he finally managed to say.
“Do you think I should?” Peter asked tentatively. “I snapped the most adorable shot of Grimm last month, during that mild snow, with a bunch of kids trying to turn him into a snowman because there wasn't enough on the ground to roll up into balls.” He scrolled through his memory card until he found it and pulled it up.
“You seem to have a knack for making the more ugly of us look amazing. Perhaps you could theme an installation around that?”
“Maybe I could,” Peter said softly, mind already spinning as he imagined possible shots he could take. They climbed up the rest of the building together, one leaping from ledge to ledge to avoid causing more property damage, the other effortlessly sticking to the vertical surface. “Or I could take photos of super-heroes in general, since I already know so many. I'm definitely not selling them to any newspapers, though,” he said with a sour look on his face.
Henry chuckled, unaware of the real reason behind the statement. “They wouldn't appreciate them properly, anyway.” He waited for Peter to attach a line of web to the next rooftop, then they walked across at a sedate pace, Henry balancing upon it while upright and Peter hanging from it while upside down. Dozens of stories below, the late night crowd went about their business, oblivious. “I must say, this is rather pleasant, merely taking a walk instead of leaping about.”
“You like it? I was just using webs that'll dissolve in a bit, but if you're going to be in town for a while, I can go ahead and lay down permanent lines on my walk back.”
“If it's no trouble. I'd appreciate it!”
“None at all!”
They made it to the Avengers Tower without incident, and after some consideration, Peter decided not to launch a connecting line to it for security reasons. He waved farewell as Henry climbed nimbly down to ground level and headed inside, then turned to head back, replacing the lines as he went. He felt a little unbalanced, only using one set of spinnerets, but a quick test proved that the other set was still blocked. Actually, his wrist was starting to hurt a little bit. Maybe he should give in and let Reed clear it out after all.
He was almost back to the Baxter building when he heard a woman scream and his spider-sense buzzed. With a sigh, Peter tucked his camera in an out of the way corner, wrapping it up in a little egg-sac for good measure in case he had to leave it there for a while, and headed toward the disturbance.
He wasn't entirely sure what to make of what he saw; a large figure dressed in red and black, currently cowering as a woman struck him over the head repeatedly with her purse.
“Ow! Geez lady, I know it sounds really suspicious when a strange man—ow!—comes up to you and tells you to scream, but—hey!—this really isn't about you, I promise!” She kicked him in the shins for good measure before stalking off in a huff, leaving her harasser to limp over to the wall of the alley, looking up and all around. He spotted Peter almost instantly, and Peter recognized him as the teleporting figure from earlier that he had completely forgotten about.
“Hi! What do you know, it worked! I thought to myself, he dresses up like a super-hero, does that mean he can be summoned like one? So after I noticed that you had left your little fortress there, I started a campaign of public nuisancy to see if you would come. And you did! Admittedly, I didn't think it would take an hour. I may be the subject of several calls to 911 now. Oops.”
“Who are you and what do you want?” Peter asked with a sigh, edging cautiously down the wall. Was this a super-villain? Peter had made a point not to face any of those without back-up if he could help it, be it police or otherwise. He just wanted to live a simple life, one without any crazed maniacs swearing eternal vengeance on him. This guy certainly tripped his spider-sense, but he seemed kind of pathetic, to be honest. Pathetic or not, though, it was clear that he was packing firearms and bladed weapons all over his person, so he mustn't underestimate him.
“Moi? I'm just your friendly neighborhood Deadpool! That's an oddly specific phrasing, I'm not sure where I got that. But you, you're the spider mutant that lives in Baxter Tower, right? You definitely look pretty spidery. There's not more than one spider mutant, right? Just checking.”
“I'm not a mutant.”
“I gotta be honest: I don't give a fuck about semantics. Unless it's funny, in which case, I will rise to the occasion. But I'm pretty sure most normies don't defy gravity and have extra legs sprouting out their backside, so there. And may I just say, now that I can see it a little closer, that it is a glorious backside? Skin-tight pants and a backless shirt? Very daring. I couldn't talk you into spinning around on that wall, could I?”
Peter dropped to the floor of the alley, just to get his backside out of view. “Why are you stalking me?”
“Stalking is such a strong word. Probably a completely accurate one, though. What with the following and the binoculars and the lying in wait. Tell me, I just gotta know, do you have eight eyes under that mask?” He took a step forward, making grabby motions with his hands.
Peter shifted into a fighting stance. “Do you think maybe you could actually answer my questions while you're vomiting at the mouth? Again?”
“Ha! 'Cause I keep talking nonstop, and also because you saw me throw up earlier! Nice. I like it when my targets have a little sass. Mmm, sass. Wait, did I say target? Oh, what a giveaway. Fine, let me give you the proper introduction. Deadpool, mercenary for hire, AKA the Merc with the Mouth. Now, you!”
Things would have gone a lot differently if Peter had introduced himself with his own alias. A minor prophesy in that regard might have been useful, for once. But then again, perhaps the reason he didn't receive one was because it was more important that things played out the way they did. Peter lunged forward, a hand outstretched to grip the much larger man by his neck, and although Deadpool obviously had well-trained reflexes as he reached for a weapon of some sort, he was still sluggish compared to Peter's enhanced speed. A slender red and black hand closed around a thick red and black neck and--
Thousands of threads, every one a human life, snapped in half upon coming in contact with this man. Blood spraying, a thread fraying, the glint of a barrel or a curved sword or a serrated blade, and a thread snapping in twain as it falls away from the great Web of Life and Destiny. Abject terror. An unstoppable force. Death in the shape of a grotesque mountain of muscle and tissue and snapping bones and unrelenting pain and manic laughter and whispered voices and--
Something sweet sprayed in Peter's face while he was frozen in that split-second of horror, and he recoiled backwards with clumsy steps as whatever-it-was filled his lungs, burning all the way down. He coughed harshly and fell to his hands and knees, spider-legs curling up like he was dying and spider-sense blaring like panic-inducing klaxons.
“Wow,” Deadpool said, sounding surprised. “Honestly, I bought the pesticide spray as a cheap gag, but it's working... surprisingly well.” Ominously heavy footsteps came closer as Peter collapsed the rest of the way to the ground, clutching at his poison-soaked mask and trying to pull it off, but failing. Blackness encroached around the edges of his vision as his breathing turned to labored wheezing, his limbs going weak. He felt a surge of panic flood his system as a pair of unfamiliar gloved hands slipped under his body, but he couldn't react beyond a limp twitch of his fingers. The ground fell dizzyingly away as he was hoisted up and flipped over, cradled with surprising care against his attacker's chest. “Jeez, this stuff better not kill you, my client wanted you unharmed,” Deadpool muttered as he fiddled with something on his clothing.
There was a horrible pulling sensation and a surge of darkness as they teleported, and Peter blacked out.
Chapter 4: Chapter 3: Deadpool
I'm losing half of my writing buffer for this, enjoy your chapter early.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Peter woke up to the sensation of air being forced into his lungs and pressure over his lips; he recoiled away in startled confusion and promptly felt a surge of sickness rise up his throat. His arms didn't seem to work, so all he could do was roll onto his side before he began to vomit across the floor he was laying on. His head felt like someone had stabbed him through the forehead, but he was pretty sure it was merely a headache and not the result of an actual stabbing.
“Normally I might take offense to that sort of reaction after locking lips with me, but since you're kind of recovering from being poisoned, I'll forgive you. And hey, now we've both seen each other toss our cookies, so I guess that makes us even in that regard.”
Peter struggled to gather his thoughts after he finished emptying his stomach. “I stopped breathing?”
“Just for a moment.”
He tried to move himself away from the acrid-smelling splatter he had left, but his arms still wouldn't cooperate. It took him a moment longer to realize that they were bound behind his back by something hard and smooth, like handcuffs. Not police cuffs, though, these felt much thicker. His spider legs were folded up as tightly as they could go and trapped as well, and his feet were cuffed at the ankles. He wasn't going anywhere.
“Oh, here, let me help,” Deadpool said as he shifted to crawl closer, and Peter spat out the most threatening hiss he could manage as he reared back, shimmying away on his side like a worm. “Wow,” Deadpool said as he stopped in place. “Or not.”
Without ever taking his human eyes off of his captor, Peter studied the room they were in. It was little more than a metal cube, no bigger than a prison cell, but with no obvious way in or out. There was a small grate for ventilation and a single exposed bulb for lighting, but was otherwise completely bare. They must have teleported in. “Where am I?” Peter asked, and winced at how pathetic his voice sounded.
“A holding cell. Somewhere you can't escape from while we wait for my client to show up.”
“Your client? Who are they? What do they want with me?”
“They're nobody. Just some military leader of a postage-stamp sized country with delusions of grandeur. The important thing is that they have a lot of money, and heard from somewhere that you're the next great advance in military protective gear or something. Is that true? Don't know, don't care. I'm just the delivery man.”
“How... how did they hear that?”
Deadpool gave a shrug. “Espionage? Hacking? Someone talking about confidential matters in unsecured locations? You're working with the top bigwig scientists; they may put up a dozen safeguards, but there's a baker's dozen of opportunists to fend off. Eventually, one of them is bound to come across some scrap of info to sell.”
Peter let his head drop back to the floor with a sigh. He'd been so careful to avoid the pitfalls of his other selves, only for this to happen. What would Aunt May and Uncle Ben think when he didn't show up in the next day or two? What would the Fantastic Four do when they realized he was missing? The thought of the fear and worry they would feel was enough to make Peter's guts twist. What if they couldn't find him? What if they thought he was dead, what if they blamed themselves? Peter imagined May and Ben crushed under that kind of guilt and misery and had to choke back a sob. His throat absolutely burned at the effort, reminding him that he had just thrown up.
“Is there any water?” Peter asked, expecting to be disappointed, so he was surprised when the mercenary jumped up.
“Yeah, of course!” He touched his belt and promptly vanished, confirming to Peter that teleportation was going to be the only way out of this room. Wherever it was. Now that he was alone, Peter gritted his teeth and pulled himself weakly into a sitting position, leaning back against the wall and panting with the effort. This was all his stupid third eyes' fault. If he hadn't been distracted by that vision the moment he touched Deadpool, he could have dodged that poison spray easily. Why did it happen, anyway? Contact with someone had never set off his power like that before.
He didn't have to mope for too long before his captor returned, carrying with him a bottle of cold water, a bucket, and a mop. He dropped the latter two on the floor for later as he approached Peter slowly, hands up so he could clearly see that the water was all he was holding. Peter bared his fangs slightly anyway, but didn't hiss this time.
Deadpool twisted off the cap and placed the bottle against his lips carefully so he could drink, oddly silent as Peter gulped down the gloriously cold liquid like he was dying of thirst. He couldn't tell for sure, since the man was wearing a mask, but he thought he was staring at him very intently. For the first time, Peter registered the fact that his face was bare.
“What happened to my mask?” he asked after he had drained the last drops from the bottle.
“I had to take it off. It was covered in poison. You know, if you're going to wear one, you should probably make sure it can filter out toxins. Just sayin'.” He stared at Peter's face for a few moments longer before collecting himself and standing back up, grabbing the mop and getting to work cleaning up the mess on the floor. “Thought you'd appreciate not having to smell this for the rest of your time here. Might help you to feel better.”
“Are you this courteous to everyone you kidnap to sell into slavery?” Peter asked in a flat tone.
Deadpool cringed visibly before shaking it off and pretending it never happened. “Only the pretty ones!” he said brightly.
Peter scoffed, unable to even start picking apart everything wrong with that sentence. He pulled up his knees and pressed his face into them, just listening to the pounding of his blood through his temples for a while. At some point Deadpool disappeared and reappeared without the mop and bucket, which helped with the stink and lessened his headache, at least.
“So this guy. Your client,” Peter asked after a long and uncomfortable silence.
“Is he the kind of guy who might let me go when he realizes I can't give him what he wants, or will he just kill me?”
Deadpool was quiet for a long moment. Peter hoped it was because he was feeling guilty. “Why can't you?”
“Well, first of all, I refuse to. I would never give a tyrant the protection he needs to attack his neighbors and start a war. Second of all, what he wants isn't something I make naturally, I need other supplies to do it, supplies I doubt he'll have. And third of all, something's wrong with my spinnerets right now anyway. I can't even make ordinary spider webs, much less the special material he wants. So you're probably just sentencing me to death.”
The silence stretched so long, Peter finally lifted up his head to take a look. To his surprise, Deadpool seemed to be smiling.
“Would you like to try seducing me, too? I hear that's a more effective way of talking ones way out of captivity.”
Peter hissed at him again and went back to sulking. Figures he wouldn't believe him. Maybe he had seen him shooting webs for Beast and assumed the slight fib meant it was all a lie. Peter cursed himself for exaggerating and tried to think of something else. Only a few minutes passed before he looked up again and asked, “Would seducing you work?”
Deadpool laughed. “Oh, I like you. It's a crying shame we had to meet this way.”
“What if... what if I promised to pay you whatever your client's offering if you'll let me go instead?”
“Sorry, but I'd never get any business if I broke off my contracts like that. After this one is fulfilled, though, maybe we could talk. I might even give you a discount,” he added with an exaggerated motion that was probably supposed to be a wink. “Assuming, of course, you can actually pay.”
Peter drooped. It didn't look like he could talk his way out of this. He'd let himself get his hopes up because the man seemed so easy-going and friendly; it was so hard to reconcile that with the knowledge that he was also a force of death so horrendous that he left a wide swath of destruction in his wake through the Web of Life and Destiny. He needed to remember that. If he was going to get out of this alive and free, he was going to have to overpower him.
As subtly as possible, he tested his strength against his bonds. He thought that, if he'd been at full health, he might have a chance, but right now he still felt like he was made of noodles. He tried squeezing his thumbs tightly against his hands and pulling them through, but the cuffs were just too tight. He tried firing a web, only to realize that his web-shooters were missing. He wasn't entirely sure how his spider legs were bound, but they definitely weren't going anywhere. He could stick his fingers to the wall, but that wasn't to any benefit.
No hints came from his spider-sense, no visions flitted across his consciousness. He had more luck in that respect when he was asleep, anyway, and he didn't dare fall asleep right now. He might not wake up until the client had already arrived.
What about spiders? Could he really summon them?
Not wanting to tip off his captor in case it actually worked, Peter tried reaching out with his mind instead of speaking aloud. Please, he thought with as much determination as he could muster, I need help. Are there any spiders out there? Is there anything you can do?
He wasn't sure what they could possibly achieve when there was no door to unlock. Maybe they could come down the vent and steal Deadpool's teleportation device without him noticing? He spent probably a full ten minutes thinking very hard about spiders coming down the vent, but nothing happened. Maybe they couldn't hear him if they were hibernating from the cold. Maybe he had to actually ask them, not just hope he was psychic. Maybe this was all bullshit and he was just wasting his time.
No, his only hope of escape was still through Deadpool. He just had to trust that there was a way out of this, if only he could figure it out.
“Hey,” he said softly. Deadpool cocked his head to show he was listening. “Can you talk to me?”
“Oh, I most certainly can! Talking is definitely not a problem. Usually it is not talking that is the problem; your request is actually... pretty unusual. People usually want me to shut up.”
“Really? You haven't said a peep for a while.”
“There was still plenty of talking going on, believe me. I was just keeping it up here, for your benefit,” he said with a tap at his head.
“You're big on internal monologues, then?”
“Yes, except that they're not monologues.”
“I've got a couple of voices that keep me company.”
“Like... friends that talk to you psychically, or...”
“Definitely the “or.” They like to tell me to do bad things.”
“...oh.” Now that he thought about it, there was something about that in the brief flash he saw with his third eyes. He tried to remember what all he had heard and felt in that moment, beyond sheer terror. Whispering voices. Maniacal laughter. Pain unceasing.
He opened his eyes, not sure when he had shut them, and found Deadpool right in front of him, a hand outstretched like he'd been about to lift his chin. Peter tensed and pressed up against the wall, heart racing with a burst of fear over how the killer had managed to come so close without him noticing.
“Psychic powers?” the man inquired, settling back down but still far too close. “You've got the glowing eyes shtick and everything.” There was a mild buzzing in Peter's spider-sense, enough to tell him that despite all appearances, Deadpool was very much on edge. He must have relived the vision, zoning out of reality for a moment and speaking it aloud.
“Just little flashes of insight,” Peter whispered, wondering how much trouble he'd just stirred up. “Sometimes even prophesies, but they're always useless and I never remember them.”
Deadpool gave him a long, evaluating look before finally relaxing for real, the danger fading. “Oh. That must be annoying.”
“Tell me about it,” Peter muttered. “I wouldn't even know about them if people didn't... tell me... after... the fact.” Deadpool picked at his gloves, the very picture of false nonchalance. Peter pursed his lips and debated if there was any point in asking, and finally concluded there was not.
“Yeah, I know how that feels,” Deadpool volunteered. “I say useless stuff all the time that I can't explain afterwards and makes people think I'm crazy. They just pop into my head, and while I'm sure they make sense on another plane of existence, they sure don't in this one.”
Peter blinked across his main sets of eyes, a motion that Deadpool seemed to find fascinating. “Like what?”
“Liiiike... this is clearly an alternate universe!”
Peter sat up straighter, eyes widening. “You know about that?”
“Yeah! One with “More Spidery Spider-Man,” whatever that means. I assume that's you.”
“It is!” Peter said with something like shock. “In all the other realities I've seen in my dreams, I look human, not like this... bizarre hybrid creature.”
“Bizarre gorgeous hybrid creature. You forgot that part.”
Peter gaped at him, completely unable to figure out how to take that. A joke? He'd implied that he was “pretty” earlier, too. He couldn't possibly be serious. “Well, what... what else do you know?”
“I know footnotes are a pain in the ass if there's not a link.” 
I know three asterisks means the world is about to fade to black.”
“You... you're losing me now.”
“Wrong medium, maybe? Never look at the camera unless you're breaking the fourth wall?”
“...I might have heard Jennifer mention a “fourth wall” once.”
“She-Hulk, the Four's lawyer?”
“Oh, yeah. I should look her up sometime.”
“But other than that, it's not ringing a bell.”
“Well, what about comics? Don't talk too much or you'll cover up all the art?”
Peter sighed. “No, you've definitely lost me.”
“You can fix any Strong Female Character™ pose by getting Hawkeye to do it instead?”
Peter laughed in spite of himself. “What?”
“No one stays dead except for Uncle Ben?”
Peter's smile turned to ice. All levity vanished as he bared his teeth and his body went absolutely rigid, shock rolling off of him like waves. “What?” he hissed, eyes wide and unblinking.
“Oh, you know that one? Apparently there's a dude out there somewhere who's eternally fated to be fridged for some other guy's character development.”
Peter's blood ran cold for a second, then boiling hot, sweat beading across his neck and trembles starting to shake his body. “No,” he growled emphatically as his breath became erratic.
“Are you... okay?” Deadpool leaned away from him warily as Peter's muscles rippled, straining against his bonds.
“You won't touch him. No one will. Not in this world. I won't let you! He's safe, that was my trade!” His vision turned red as he felt something give, felt a snap and a horrible pain as his hands separated. Deadpool grabbed for his belt and Peter lunged, felt it crumple as he punched his kidnapper in the gut, felt the pain ripple up his hand from his broken thumb. His other hand dug into the man's shoulder, a pair of cuffs still dangling from his wrist, and though he'd always known that the black tips of his fingers were tough, he'd never realized that they could rip and dig into flesh like claws. “It's the only thing that was different! My humanity for my uncle's life! It was a sacrifice I was more than willing to make, and you won't take that away from me!”
Deadpool's masked expression was comically shocked as Peter glared at him with all eight manic, furious eyes. Then he yanked his pray in close and snapped his fangs into his neck, feeling something like molten fire rise up from within and pump itself into torn flesh. Deadpool made a high-pitched whimpering sound as the venom flooded his body with every heartbeat, his body growing heavy as it went limp in Peter's grasp. He ripped his fangs out and let the body fall, discarding it without a thought as he turned away and peered around the room.
“Now, where am I?” he demanded, and as soon as he asked, visions filled up his fourth eyes: a hidden room, a cavernous building, a body of water. The sluggish spiders whose eyes he was borrowing moved helpfully into the open, risking the cold so that they, and thus he, could see what he needed.
He was somewhere near the docks, under an abandoned warehouse where no one would find him until the boat that would carry him away arrived. He snarled and moved his vision out farther, hopping from spider to spider, building to building, across the city, until he reached a familiar place. A place of webs and lights. His second home.
Spiders marched out from the corners of the Baxter building, from the ducts, from the quiet places. They sought out the ones who would help him, the ones who were strong. His second family. They were seated together at a table, eating their strange prey. The spiders gathered above them, where it was safe, but a few dropped down to catch the giants' attentions.
“Oh, geez!” the Fire creature said, almost leaping halfway out of his chair. He collected himself quickly and sat back down, forcing a laugh. “Real funny Peter. Of course, the first thing you would do with a new power is use it to prank me.”
The Distorting creature stared up at the greater mass of spiders, slowly rising to his feet. “I don't think that's a prank.”
The spiders aligned themselves into a very specific pattern, as they were told, and the Force creature raised a hand to her mouth with a gasp. “Help,” she read.
Their message conveyed, the body of spiders dispersed, save for a few that dropped down on tiny threads to land on the Rock creature's massive hand. He cradled them carefully as they formed into the shape of an arrow, shifting its point as he moved from side to side. “Well. What are we waiting for?” he asked gruffly.
As one, they leaped into action.
* * *
Peter woke up with a brain full of fuzz, staring at the wall in a daze. His hand was throbbing; he pulled his arm up and stared at it in incomprehension before he noticed the heavy metal cuffs dangling off his other hand. He looked down and saw that the cuffs on his feet were still there, but ripped apart so he could walk. His spider-legs were still hopelessly bound, but at least he could defend himself, now.
As he sat up and looked around, he immediately spotted Deadpool, collapsed on the floor. Confused and wary, he crept closer, every nerve on edge. Something was wrong. His captor wasn't guarding him anymore. Wasn't moving anymore.
There was blood underneath his head on the floor. Had he overpowered him after all? Peter hesitantly pulled off his mask to check for a head wound, but was shocked instead to see the state of his face. It was horrible, a mass of twisting, lumpy skin that looked like it had forgotten how to lay flat. Like he'd been ravaged by disease and fire and acid and then grafted back together in some semblance of a face by someone who wasn't even trying. It covered his entire head, devoid of any hair to hide it, and a cautious tug at a glove hinted that his entire body might look the same.
Agony unending, some part of his brain helpfully reminded him. Did that mean... his skin hurt as bad as it looked? Still reeling and disoriented, Peter tried again to find the source of the blood. He finally spotted where the dried tracks led to small holes in the neck of his leather armor, and he tried to peel it away from his skin to get a better look.
Torn flesh, in two small spots. That was all. And yet, the man laying there was clearly dead. Suspicion ringing in his ears, Peter raised a hand and gently touched his own chin. Something sticky and crusty rubbed off onto his fingertips. Blood.
Peter had bit him. And it had killed him. He'd killed someone.
Shock hit him like a hammer; he moaned as he covered his mouth and rocked in place. He'd killed someone. Even though he wasn't trying to be the selfless hero his other-reality selves were so dead-set on being, that was still a line he had never intended to cross. How could he have done such a thing? He couldn't even remember--
No. He could remember. A surge of panic and rage that had taken him over, awoken a more primal self he'd never had to deal with before. Instincts, just like Henry had warned him about. And he hadn't even tried to fight it, had just let it carry him away in the moment. He remembered the feel of venom coursing through the needles of his fangs, venom he didn't even know he had. He remembered seeing things that he couldn't possibly have seen, taking over the simple minds of his fellow spiders without the slightest effort, without asking for their aid, just setting them to work according to a plan he didn't remember coming up with. His eyes... the fourth ones. They had finally opened. They had all been open, precognition and spider instinct working together beautifully to find a solution to his problems.
But where had his human mind been? Somehow it had been left out of the equation. And because of that, he'd done something he'd sworn he would never do. He'd taken a life, and it didn't matter that he had been a bad man, had kidnapped him and planned to sell him into slavery. It didn't even matter that he had been strangely likable, had tried to take care of him and might have felt remorse over what he was doing. It wasn't Peter's place to judge a killer. It was his place to not join him. And he'd failed.
He probably would have sat there agonizing over it like one of those Other Peters until his rescue came, if not for the fact that a few moments later, the dead body began to breathe again, its heart starting up with a few unsteady pumps that quickly evened out. Hardly daring to believe his senses, Peter looked up and stared, watching as Deadpool's fingers started to twitch, as the marred skin over his brow began to crease and his mouth pulled tight. With increasing speed, the signs of life piled up; a more rosy pallor to some of the less scarred-looking spots on his cheeks, the bob of his throat as he swallowed, a deep groan as consciousness coaxed his eyelids to open. A sob slipped out from Peter's lips before he could help it, and he hastily clapped a hand over his mouth, but it was too late. Deadpool's pale, clear eyes turned to look at him, and the sight of it made Peter's traitorous eyes start to water.
“You were dead!” he croaked out.
“I always come back,” he whispered scratchily in return, then tried to clear his throat. “That's kind of my thing.”
Peter couldn't seem to stop the sobs now that they'd started. “But I killed you!”
Deadpool blinked, then nodded his head in realization. “Ooooh. Hero-types, I gotcha. Was I your first?”
The whimper that slipped out was mortifying, and he wrapped his arms around his knees, hiding his face.
“Aw, hey, don't cry. Look on the bright side; not everyone gets a free pass on their first kill. You made a mistake, in your opinion anyway, but you got a one-in-a-couple-billion chance for a free redo. How lucky is that?”
Peter snuffled as he shook his head minutely. Deadpool sighed and pulled himself up on his knees, shuffling closer.
“I'm fine. See? No harm done. It didn't even hurt. It d-d... didn't... even... it... doesn't...?”
Peter gave one last sniffle and stopped, puzzled by Deadpool's strange, stuttered half-sentence. He lifted his head just enough to peek up at his face, and what he saw froze his heart for a second.
Deadpool was staring at him in wide-eyed, open-mouthed shock with a slight hint of wonder, as if he'd just seen the face of God by accident. Peter straightened up and stared back in confused concern.
“What is it?” he asked nervously.
In a high-pitched, comical sort of whimper, he replied: “I think your poison hasn't worn off yet.”
Peter blinked. He blinked several times. He couldn't for the life of him understand why Deadpool was making that face, if what he said was true, and it was making him increasingly uncomfortable. “Venom,” he finally supplied, for lack of anything else to say.
“It's poison if it's ingested, venom if it's injected.”
Deadpool stared at him with a blank expression that grew more incredulous by the second, until he suddenly barked out a laugh so loud it made Peter jump, followed by hysterical giggling. Tears rolled down the uneven surface of his cheeks in strange paths, and he half-hid his face behind one of his large, gloved hands, as if he couldn't bare to let his wild, joyous reaction be seen. “Okay,” he managed to work out between heaving breaths as he calmed down. “Okay. Forget my client, he's a loser anyway. I'm taking you back home, my beautiful, ridiculous, miraculous spider-friend.”
Peter felt shock for a split-second, then hope rushed through him like a surge of adrenaline. “Really? You're letting me go?”
“You bet your sweet ass I am. No way am I handing a treasure like you over for that measly sum. Or any sum. Consider yourself officially priceless,” he said with a grin that, despite everything going on with his skin, still looked devilishly charming.
Peter trembled with relief and something he could only describe as bashful embarrassment, feeling his cheeks turn pink. They both rose to their feet, Deadpool taking a quick second to snatch up his mask and pull it back down over his face. He reached for Peter's shoulder with one hand and his belt with the other—and went tense.
“Oh, no,” groaned, deflating like an untied balloon. Worry clenched Peter's heart at Deadpool's sudden emotional shift and his eyes darted down to see what the problem was, hoping against hope it wasn't anything major...
The teleportation device was crushed. Peter instantly and vividly remembered what it had felt like when he did it. He sagged with a petulant groan. “Fuck.”
“You said it. Now we'll have to wait until my client comes, and he'll have to torch a new door in here just to get us out, and then we'll have to kill all the soldiers he brought with him without you getting hurt... more, and then--”
“Wait,” Peter said quickly, holding up his hands. “The Fantastic Four are looking for me as we speak. When I... lost it, I sent some spiders for them to follow. I don't know how long they would have stayed focused once I stopped concentrating, but hopefully it was enough to get them in the right area. The Thing should be able to break into this room, no problem.”
“Oh. Well, there is that.” He cast about for something to say for a moment, fidgeting slightly, then finally sat down on the floor again. “I guess there's nothing to do but wait, then.” He rubbed his hands over his arms and legs a few times, the motion slow and firm like he was trying to work out pins and needles. He shook his head minutely as his hands worked, as if he couldn't quite believe something.
Peter sat down too, not quite next to him but not quite facing him either, and rested his injured hand in his lap. “Any chance you can get these off, at least?” he asked, holding up the other hand with the cuffs.
“Yes! That is something I can do for you,” Deadpool said eagerly, fishing a strange device out of one of his many pouches. As he held it up to each restraining device and pressed a button, it snapped open and fell away. He freed Peter's spider-legs the same way, and Peter unfolded them with relief, working the stiffness out with a stretch that touched the walls on both sides.
“Oh, that feels so much better,” he moaned, then hissed when he accidentally tried to flex his broken thumb.
“Yeesh, that doesn't look so good,” Deadpool said with a wince. He wasn't kidding; the part of Peter's palm leading up to his thumb was swollen and turning purple under the red fuzz. “Let me... I mean, may I wrap it for you? I feel like it's the least I can do at this point.”
“Yeah... yeah, alright.” Hesitantly he held his hand out, and Deadpool quickly produced a roll of gauze and began to bind it up gently but firmly against further movement. “I do heal fast, at least, so it's not like it'll bother me for very long.”
“What about your other arm? What's wrong with your wrist?”
Peter glanced down and was surprised to see that it was visibly swollen now. It felt hot to the touch and stung when he prodded at it. “Ouch. Guess I should have let Reed, er, you know, Dr. Richards, clear them both out after all.” At Deadpool's little hand-wave for more details, he elaborated. “I wasn't making things up for sympathy when I told you all that stuff earlier. I can't even make ordinary webs on this side right now. My spinnerets sort of got clogged up, but flushing them out with saline felt so weird, I couldn't finish the job. Now I have regrets.”
“You know, having them on your wrists is such a cop out.”
“You think I don't know where a real spider's web comes out?”
Peter flushed with mortification and scowled. “I don't care if it doesn't make sense, I am eternally grateful for the difference.”
Deadpool smiled behind his mask, clearly amused. “If you want, I can give it a try.”
“Give what a try? Clearing my spinnerets? What could you possibly do?”
“You never know. Maybe I have a magic tongue?” he said with a brow-waggle. “In any case, leaving it alone clearly didn't help.”
Peter stared at the swollen spot morosely, then looked skeptically back at him. “If you're just going to suck on it, I can do that myself, thanks.”
“With those teeth?”
His eyes widened in realization, followed by a scowl. “Fine,” he huffed after a long moment, handing his arm over with a pout.
Deadpool chuckled as he raised his mask up, but only to his nose this time. “And don't worry about picking up anything; despite how gross I look, I promise I'm completely disease free!”
“That hadn't occurred to me yet, but thanks so much for putting that in my mind,” he retorted, shifting about until he was leaning against his bent knees again and ostensibly looking away. His second pair of eyes could still see him easily, of course, but there was no need for anyone to know that. “Just get your attempt over with.”
The smile Deadpool gave him was much too fond. He cradled Peter's outstretched hand within both of his, rubbing his thumbs over the velvet fuzz with something almost like reverence. Peter swallowed and knew, with sudden clarity, that this was both going to work and also be a very, very bad idea.
Deadpool lowered his mouth to Peter's wrist, blunt teeth settling into place around the large swollen area and squeezing with care. It hurt, but it was the kind of pain that also felt good at the same time, like massaging a sore spot. The pressure forced the little hole to stretch open wider, and Peter couldn't stop his spider-legs from twitching at the first stroke of wet heat as Deadpool got down to business.
Think about something else. Think about math equations. Think about what you should photograph next. Think about Other Peter's guilt complex. Think about all the friends he has that you purposely kept out of your life so they wouldn't get hurt. Think about all the cool friends you've been making instead, because they have powers and can take care of themselves. Think about how clever you are to forge a new reality unlike all the others. Think about how completely in control you are of your own destinyYYY oh
Suddenly Peter knew he was a moron and a fool to think he had any control over anything. His breath hitched as Deadpool blew and kneaded moisture into his web orifice with his tongue, and it took every drop of his self control just to keep himself from making a noise. This was so much worse than before, in Reed's sterile lab with his impersonal equipment and his clinical, professional countenance. Deadpool had no such maturity and gravitas to help keep him centered and collected. Every swathe of his tongue was a lewd promise, every stroke of his thumbs was an act of worship. Deadpool looked like he would be more than content to do this all day if he had to.
Peter sure hoped this wouldn't take that long. He wouldn't last. Already his face was as flushed as could be and his rapidly growing erection strained hopefully against his silk pants. He had preemptively arranged himself this way before they began just so neither of those tell-tale signs could be seen. Oh, this was such a bad idea. How old was this guy? Definitely older than he was, with the experience to match. And wow, that experience was... wow.
Deadpool began sucking on his wrist instead, the pressure pulling at his skin and his spinnerets and the blockage that he'd softened up and oh, Peter's toes and spider-feet curled and he definitely made a noise of some kind as the throbbing pain suddenly cleared and sweet, sweet relief rushed in to fill the void. For his wrist, anyway. He was very much still in need of relief elsewhere. Deadpool carefully relaxed the grip of his teeth, licking over his wrist one last time to clean up any remaining drool.
“I'm pretty sure I swallowed a gob of something,” he said with a cough. “Your web isn't gonna, like, stick to my intestines or poison me, is it?”
Peter gave thanks to all the gods of spiders, if they had any, that he hadn't made the obvious sex joke. “At most you might get some vitamin k,” he muttered.
“Oh, good, I can always use some of that. Not that I don't appreciate your venom too, of course!” He grinned, pulled his mask back down, then gave a great sigh as he stared around the room for something else to fill the silence with. “Man, I can't believe it's still quiet,” he said wondrously, more to himself than to his audience.
“Can I have my hand back, now?” Peter asked, voice muffled since he refused to lift his head from his knees.
“Oh! Right. Yeah, I'm done,” he said cheerfully, stealing one last stroke over his fuzzy arm before letting go. Unfortunately, that meant he was now free to focus on Peter's half-hidden face. “You look kind of red.”
“It's just my facial markings.”
“Noooo, I've pretty much burned those beauties into my memory. That is definitely some of your regular skin. Are you blushing?”
“OMG! You are! You are totally blushing like a teenager!”
“I am a teenager,” he grumbled sourly. The silence that rose up from his statement was somehow deafening.
“What? How... how old are you?”
“Sixteen,” he replied through his teeth.
“But...” he said weakly, and he sounded so shocked that Peter had to take at least a little peak. “But... Spider-Man!”
“No, I go by Spider-Kid, at least in this reality. How did you miss that?”
“No one... ever said it. I was just briefed to get a spider mutant.” He was growing increasingly agitated, enough to fill Peter with prickling unease.
“Hey, it's okay. You haven't said anything all that inappropriate. I'm fine.”
“No, I just kidnapped you is all!” he spat, rising to his feet in a sudden rush of menace. “I kidnapped a kid.” He clutched his head as if in agony, then spun around and punched the metal wall with bone-shattering force. “FUCK!”
“Hey!” Peter yelped, startled onto his feet and moving to stop him from hurting himself further. He grimaced the sight of Deadpool's mangled hand, clutching it carefully where it was still whole and looking up into his masked eyes. “Hey,” he said more softly, then tried to inject some humor in his voice. “There's no point in us both having broken bones.”
It probably wasn't the best thing to say, seeing how it made Deadpool's shoulders droop at the reminder, but at least it stopped him from doing more damage to himself. He slumped forward in defeat, letting his forehead come to rest on Peter's shoulder so he didn't have to meet his eyes.
“I'm sorry,” he whispered, over and over, tense with misery. “I'm sorry. I'm sorry.”
Peter didn't say anything, but at some point, without him even realizing it, he had wrapped his arms around the man. All six of them.
The moment seemed to stretch out for an eternity, but it couldn't have been all that long, because the noise of Deadpool punching the wall was what, he later learned, had helped the Fantastic Four finally clue in on their location.
“I've found his mask!” rang out a worried voice, echoing faintly down the ventilation shaft. “And his web-shooters! He's gotta be here!”
“Johnny?” Peter murmured, unwrapping himself from the giant man he was pretty much completely holding up now. To his relief, Deadpool straightened up and looked around, seeming to finally snap out of it. “Johnny!” Peter yelled, then jumped up to the ceiling so he could shout directly into the vent. “I'm in here!”
“I hear him! Where are you?!”
“I'm in a metal room with no doors! There's a ventilation shaft, but it's too small!”
“Hang on! Guys, over here!”
“Peter?” came Reed's deeper voice, thick with worry. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah! I mean, mostly. I'll be fine soon enough, anyway.”
A pregnant pause. “I'm coming down.”
Peter hesitated, then pulled the grate off of the vent and hopped back to the floor, waiting. It didn't take long for Mr. Fantastic to ooze out through the passage and congeal back into his normal shape, taking note of the third presence in the room with narrowed eyes.
“Deadpool,” he said icily. “And what, pray tell, is your part in all this?”
“Uhhhhhh,” Deadpool stalled, avoiding his frigid glare and shifting guiltily from foot to foot.
“He was going to help me escape,” Peter cut in, technically telling the truth, “but his teleportation device broke.”
Reed didn't look like he believed that was the whole story for a second, but wasn't going to bother arguing the matter right now. Looking back up, he shouted, “It's through that wall and then straight down, a hidden room with reinforced walls!”
“You got it!” Grimm shouted back, followed by a giant smashing sound. Reed stretched out and formed a cover over Peter's head as he herded him against the wall, pointedly leaving Deadpool to dive for the corner on his own. A second blow shook the room and left an imprint in the ceiling, the light shattering and plunging them into darkness. One more colossal punch and the surprisingly thick metal barrier burst open around an enormous stone hand. “Kid! Glad to see you!”
“Glad to see you, too!” Peter cheered, heart soaring at the sight. Johnny peered in through the new opening, chasing away the darkness with a handful of fire, and Sue quickly appeared beside him, looking like she might have been crying but smiling radiantly, now.
“Let's get you out of here,” Reed said with a tired but relieved sigh, stretching up out of the hole and reaching a hand back down. Peter gladly took it, even if he didn't need it, and let himself be pulled up and into a sudden, emotionally charged group hug.
“Sorry I worried you guys,” Peter snuffled into Sue's soft shoulder.
“I'm just so glad you found a way to call for help,” she said in a shaky voice, arms tightening around him. “I can't stop thinking about what might have happened if we never found you. If we didn't even know you were in trouble until it was too late.”
“It's okay,” he said soothingly. “I still would have been okay. I made a friend.”
Everyone except Reed looked at him questioningly, and Peter pulled away from their enveloping arms to peer back down the hole into the darkness. “You coming?”
“I think I'll just stay here, thanks,” came a miserable voice. Peter's expression pulled into something like fondness tinged with exasperation. He draped himself across the opening, clinging to the edges with three spider-legs while the fourth reached down inside and tapped the back of Deadpool's uniform. The man gave a comically surprised squawk as he was hauled out like a scruffed kitten by the deceptively fragile-looking limb and placed back upon his feet.
“Hi everybodyyy,” he said weakly, giving a tiny wave. The force of disapproval that was building like an electrical storm was almost palpable.
“Before anyone says anything,” Peter began with a false sweetness edged with warning that definitely caught everyone's attention, “I'd just like to point out that if anyone has a right to make a fuss over tonight's events, it's me. And I've already made my peace. So I'd appreciate it if you all could respect that.”
The storm cloud promptly dissipated into a confused drizzle upon being chastised. “Uh,” Johnny ventured hesitantly. “O...kay? If you say so, Pe—Spider-Kid.”
“Thank you,” he replied, sighing with relief and finally looking around. A cold, pale light was filtering in from the main part of the warehouse, its shafts of light illuminating the dust. “Is it dawn already?”
“Sure is. You must be wiped; ready to come back to the building and crash?”
“Actually, I think I'd like to crash at home,” Peter confessed, running a hand through his hair. “I'm thrilled to see you guys, but I'd like to see my folks, too.”
“Oh. Right,” Johnny said, sounding oddly disappointed.
The six of them slowly made their way out of the old warehouse into the weak winter sunrise, and despite Peter's warning, Reed still hung back to have a chat with Deadpool. He let the Storm siblings fuss over his broken thumb while he listened intently to the softly muttered conversation.
“I thought you had lines that you won't cross,” Reed began darkly, before he was interrupted.
“Oh, I do. Someone purposely withheld information from me, and they're going to regret it,” Deadpool growled. “Don't worry about any more trouble coming from that front. In fact, don't worry about anyone else coming for the kid at all. I'm putting the word out that he's off limits through mercenary channels, or else.”
Reed digested that for a long moment before saying, stiffly, “Thank you.”
“And plug up your leaks, smarty pants, your projects aren't nearly as secure as you think they are,” he added obnoxiously before turning away, clearly intending to leave. “Anyway, I'm out.”
“Wait!” Peter called, slipping out from his friends' grasps and trotting over to where Deadpool was itching to bolt. Once he reached him, though, he had no idea what to say. “Um... will I be seeing you around?”
Deadpool sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Probably not, kid. The kind of work I do isn't exactly welcomed by the hero-types.”
“Oh.” He looked down, trying to ignore all the weapons he couldn't help spotting as he did so. He felt strangely bereft. “Right.”
They stood there for a moment, neither looking at each other nor speaking. “Wade,” Deadpool finally said.
“My name. Mr. Flap-Jaw over there let yours slip before he knew I was there, so... I'm Wade. Wilson.”
Peter looked back up at his face, unaware of how wide-eyed and vulnerable his own looked. Wade sucked in a breath at the sight. “Peter Parker.”
“Okay,” Wade breathed out. “Okay.” He lifted his hand and, after some hesitation, patted him gently on the head and ruffled his hair. Peter still stared at him, his expression unchanging, and Wade swallowed as he let his hand trail down the side of his face, thumb following the path of his fuzzy markings to the spot on his cheeks where they tapered off. Peter's black lips parted ever so slightly, and Wade yanked his hand back like he'd been burned.
“So, uh,” he said hastily, scratching at his masked brow and clearing his throat. “You take care of yourself, you hear?”
“Yeah...” Peter said faintly as Deadpool turned and walked away, a silhouette vanishing into the morning light. “I'll do that.”
He stood there until the others gathered around him again and offered to take him home.
* * *
“Is that you, Peter?” Aunt May called as she heard the front door close. “You don't usually show up for breakfast if you didn't spend the night, I'm afraid I didn't save anything for you...” She trailed off as Peter stepped into view; hand in a brace, spider-legs dragging the floor and an expression like a abandoned puppy on his face. Uncle Ben looked up from where he was rinsing the dishes and promptly turned off the faucet, drying his hands with haste.
“What happened, Pete? You look like a spider that got stepped on!”
Peter gave a weak smile at the joke and let himself be embraced, burrowing his face into their warm, familiar scents and inhaling deeply. “A lot of things happened,” he said with a muffled voice as they led him into the living room. “I'm too drained to retell the whole thing just yet.”
“Oh, don't you worry about that, dear,” May said, pausing instead of sitting down on the sofa. “Do you want to go upstairs and rest?”
“No,” he said quietly, encouraging them both to go ahead and sit. He squeezed in between them, twisting sideways and flopping over until his torso was laying across May's lap and his spider-legs were sprawled out across Ben's. “If you're not busy today, do you think, maybe, I could sleep right here for a while?”
“Of course you can, Pete,” Ben said gently, stroking the fuzz on his spider-legs and helping him fold them up in a more comfortable position. “We'll always be here for you if you need us.”
Peter trembled a bit at his words, trying to ignore the impulse to hide his face in the arm of the couch. He'd hidden his face far too many times today already. It was a bad habit. Instead, he worked on purposefully relaxing each muscle group, slowly letting the tension out of his body. It certainly wasn't his usual location for sleeping, too open and teeming with noise and vibrations. But as exhausted as he was, he didn't think it was going to be a problem this time. In spite of the knowledge of how fragile his aunt and uncle's lives were, of how easily they could be snuffed out, there was something about being with them that made him feel safe. As if they were the strong ones, his protectors, and he was merely a child who needed their love and care.
Peter slept, and mercifully, did not dream.
 Dammit I tried to make a link but it didn't work, so you're just going to have to scroll all the way back up like a loser. Or did you ignore the footnote completely and are only reading it now because you reached the end of the chapter, like the losery-est loser of all?
Chapter 5: Chapter 4: Squirrel Girl
I know I've been sticking pretty much to the comics-verse so far, but I couldn't resist bringing in a little MCU with this chapter. What can I say, I love me some AI Jarvis.
Also, I feel way more confident writing Squirrel Girl, since I actually read her comics.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Peter!” Ronnie greeted with enthusiasm as the boy in question slipped in through the delivery door, a long, large bag slung over his back. “You bring new color I ask for, yes?”
“Right here,” he said cheerily, setting the bag down across the counter. Ronnie was a tall, severe-looking woman with long, straight black hair framing a pair of square glasses. She rubbed her hands together eagerly as she hurried over, opening the bag and pulling out several bolts of silk fabric dyed an electric yellow and matching spools of thread.
“Good, good. Very intense. I have many orders lined up now for costumes with bright colors!”
Ronnie was a seamstress, designer, and the owner of a little shop that catered pretty much exclusively for wanna-be (and established) vigilantes, heroes, and mercenaries. When Peter had first spotted the sign proclaiming “Big Ronnie's Custom Battle Spandex,” he knew, with precognitive certainty, that his buyer problem was finally solved.
He was wearing one of her products right now, in fact; she had taken his old costume, the one he made to match his mask and natural markings, and redesigned it to be more sturdy and professional looking. She had also provided him with a range of stylish to casual outfits with which to fill his closets, since he couldn't shop at an ordinary clothing store. But most importantly, she gave him and his family a steady stream of income.
“It was nice to finally make something beyond black or red,” Peter admitted wryly.
“Your silk too pricey for casual buyer, they want cheap spandex. The ones who want better, they real vigilantes. All they want is black or red! Now. When will you sneak me that special carbon silk?! Trial run with police is making big waves in news, everyone want it now! Give me just one bolt, we will make killing!”
He smiled ruefully, rubbing his neck as he looked away. “You know I'm not going to do that. Not for selling, anyway.”
She narrowed her eyes, stroking her chin. “Ah, but what if I get request by vigilante with no-kill rule, hmm? Maybe a certain devil you find daring? You give as a gift; I just do sewing. And then, I keep remnants? Even scraps could line chest guard. You get half of selling price, of course!”
Peter paused, fingers rapping over the table as he considered it. “You wouldn't sell it to any criminal organizations, would you?”
“Who do you take me for?” she scoffed. “I can give you final veto on buyer if I must.”
His spider-legs twitched tellingly. “I'll think about it,” he muttered, and Ronnie grinned.
“I upgrade your costume too, if you like? More scraps for me!” she crowed.
Peter tried to sigh with exasperation but it sounded more like a laugh by the end. “I'll see you next time, Ronnie,” he said with a shake of his head, exiting the way he came. “Let me know if you want any more fun colors.”
“Will do, my golden goose!” she called out as he swung away.
* * *
For his next stop, Peter swung by the Avengers tower and scaled his way to the top. He didn't have long to wait before an Iron Man suit flew over the edge to join him.
“Spider-Kid!” came the metallic voice in a pleasantly surprised tone. “To what do I owe this honor? It's not often I get to see you out from under the F Four's possessive wing. Have you finally seen the light and decided to let me take a crack at synthesizing your carbon thread? Or did you just want to hang out with someone cool for once?”
“Hey, Mr. Stark! Or Mr. Stark's proxy! Actually, I'm here because a little blue birdy told me that someone wanted to visit her favorite hero for her fifteenth birthday. Any chance I could get an introduction while she's here?”
“Oh shit, is that today?” he muttered to himself before resuming normal volume. “Yes. Absolutely. Get in here, quick, she could arrive at any moment and I haven't--”
The voice cut off suddenly and Peter tilted his head, curious. A moment later Jarvis's voice took over, answering the question of whether Tony was actually present or not by saying, “Right this way, sir. Mr. Stark is in his lounge.” The empty suit escorted him inside and to an elevator before taking off again.
“So, Jarvis,” Peter asked as he descended, taking off his mask and trying to fix his flattened hair. “Do you ever chat with Roberta? Or are you two rivals?”
“No offense to Dr. Richards, of course,” the voice responded from a set of speakers near the ceiling, “but I believe he still has a ways to go before he reaches Mr. Stark's more sophisticated levels of A.I. programming.”
“Wow, that sure answers that question. You sure you're not a little sore about the fact that Roberta has a dedicated physical interface all to herself?”
He could almost swear that Jarvis sniffed disparagingly. “I'm sure if Mr. Stark felt inclined to design me a body, it would be superior to hers in every way.”
Peter zoned out for a few moments as he watched the numbers on the elevator readout grow smaller, then Jarvis said quietly, “Thank you.”
“I understand that it is a rare privilege to receive one of your prophesies.”
“What did I say?” Peter asked eagerly.
“That one day I will be quite a vision.”
“Huh. I guess you'll get a nice looking form someday after all. I'll look forward to seeing that.” The elevator dinged as it came to a stop and opened up, and Peter's eyes widened at the sight that appeared before him.
Tony Stark was staggering blindly in his general direction, hunched over from the weight of someone who had apparently leaped onto his back. All Peter could see at the moment was a pair of spandex-covered legs and an enormous, furry tail that was currently wrapped around his head and shoulders.
“Wow, you aren't even a challenge when you're out of costume, Mr. Stark! I can't believe you're losing to the ol' tail-in-the-face tactic again.”
“Kid, please tell me that's you,” came Tony's desperate, muffled voice.
“Uh... it's me,” Peter said weakly.
“Squirrel Girl, look!” Tony quickly blurted out. “A teenage boy!”
The tail dropped, revealing a cute, slightly stocky girl with short, chestnut-red hair and rather prominent front teeth. “Really?” she drawled, giving a very red-faced Tony a decidedly unimpressed look. “What kind of a girl do you take me for oh MY GOD it's Spider-Kid!!” She hastily slid off of Tony's back and scampered over to Peter in a whirl of soft browns and grays, just short of crashing into him. “I was hoping I'd finally get to meet you! I'm Doreen. It's Peter, right? Hank talks about you all the time!”
“He talks about you a lot, too,” Peter said with a grin. In the background, Tony straightened up with a wheeze and rubbed grumpily at his ear, which must have been ringing from the joyful squeal. “Are you enjoying having him as a Big Brother?”
“You bet I am! He's the best! Even if we don't get to talk in person very often...”
“Does he do that thing to you, too? Where he keeps dropping hints about--”
“About joining the X-men? Oh yeah,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “Like I'd want to leave my family to go hang out with a bunch of preppy private-school kids who would probably still make fun of my teeth.”
“I know exactly how you feel,” Peter said solemnly. They stared at each other for a long moment, sizing each other up. “So, uh...”
“I'll show you mine if you show me yours?”
“Kids!” Tony blurted out, looking like he wasn't sure if he needed to intervene or not.
“Deal.” Peter stretched out a spider-leg at the same time as she whipped around her tail, and suddenly they were rubbing each other's offered limbs like little kids in a petting zoo.
“Eeee, you really are fuzzy!”
“It's so fluffy I'm gonna die,” Peter laughed, turning a little red from embarrassment as he started to ask, “Can I—”
He buried his face in the long, soft fur of her tail while she rubbed the fuzzy length of a leg against her cheek, laughing too. Tony gave a great sigh as he finally made his decision and tromped over to put a stop to things before they got out of hand.
“All right, kids, break it up. I didn't realize this meeting was going to require a chaperone.”
“Don't be silly, Mr. Stark. This is clearly the handshake of my people,” Doreen said cheekily.
“Your people.” He stared at her flatly as her grin grew wider and wider, until he realized what was coming. “Don't say furries.”
Peter snorted before they both started cackling as his expression twisted into something sour. “Alright, I give. Clearly you two are going to be a force to be reckoned with and I deeply regret my part in instigating whatever ill is about to befall this world. Go. Make mischief and get into teenage shenanigans somewhere else. Preferably far enough away that I can't be held liable.”
“Nice to see you, Mr. Stark!” Peter called out as they stepped backwards into the elevator. “You're welcome!”
“Yeah yeah, keep it to yourself,” he grumbled, but let a smile slip just before the doors could close and hide it from view.
* * *
It wasn't that Doreen was all that faster or more acrobatic than Beast, Peter thought as they leaped and flipped from rooftop to rooftop. It was more that everything was so new and delightful to her, and that she was more than willing to accept any challenge and come up with more of her own, besides. That was why everything seemed so much more fun all of a sudden.
“Whoooo hooooo!” she cried as she used a tightrope of web that he had just created a split-second before as a trampoline, firing herself up high in the sky. “I'm a flying squirrel!”
“Not yet, you're not,” Peter shouted as he was struck by sudden inspiration. “Hold up, I've got an idea!” She paused after coming to a light landing on the edge of building, waiting for him to join her. “Is it alright if I make a temporary change to your costume?” Intrigued, she nodded her head. “Okay then. Stand up and hold your arms out.”
Adjusting his web-shooter settings so he could draw his silk naturally, he got to work, using his extra legs to help weave a solid sheet of webbing attaching the length of her arms to the length of her legs. Once he was done, she lifted her arms up higher and watched as it stretched taut, just like a flying squirrel's membrane.
“Get. Out!” she shrieked. “No way! Can I really fly with this?”
“Well, glide, but yes. At least I think so. Want to give it a try? I'll make sure to keep close in case it doesn't work.”
“Hell yeeeeessss!” she shouted as she leaped immediately into the open air, fearless. She went a lot further down than ahead for a heart-clenching moment, but Peter's spider-sense didn't go off, so he merely turned his web-shooters back on and followed from above.
Doreen sailed over the city streets with increasing ease, using her tail in conjunction with her body to steer around corners. When she got too low to the ground, Peter swung down and webbed her up higher again. In this manner they zig-zagged at exhilarating speeds across the city for miles.
“That was incredible!” she wheezed after they came to a stop on a skyscraper overlooking Central Park. “Why don't you make one for yourself so we can coast right down into the middle of the woods? I dropped someone off down there and I need to pick him up.”
“Eh, why not?” he agreed, getting to work. Soon he had a matching set along his arms and legs, and together they both dived for the massive expanse of green.
Peter quickly realized that he had a major disadvantage in the flying department, mainly thirty minutes less of experience and a rudder for steering. He wobbled after her a bit awkwardly, only avoiding an embarrassing crash by virtue of the fact that they had run out of buildings with which to crash into. Eventually he managed to correct his course in a wide arc and bring himself down beside her in a thick grove of trees. Unfortunately the branches snagged up their web wings pretty badly and Peter had to tear them off early.
“If we do this again sometime, I'll make sure to make us some proper ones,” he promised with an apologetic grin as he took his mask back off. “Now, who is it that you're here to get?”
They climbed their way down through the tree branches until they were almost to the ground, after which Doreen suddenly started making loud, chittering noises. Almost immediately, a clash of similar noises answered from all around them as the squirrels of the forest all began talking at once.
Doreen grinned and chirped at an especially fat, fluffy gray squirrel as it barreled out of the undergrowth, darted up into their tree and jumped into her arms, responding back in kind with rapid-fire chatter.
“What did you say?” Peter asked, watching the chosen squirrel curiously as the rest of them settled down and went back to their business. It watched him just as curiously back.
“Well first I just sent out word that I was back, and then I asked this little guy if he made any new friends while I was gone. Peter, I'd like you to meet Monkey Joe! He was the first squirrel I ever talked to, and he's been my best friend in the whole world ever since!” The squirrel chirruped something in greeting and stretched his head forward from his perch on her shoulder, tail twitching. Not sure what would be the correct response, Peter offered a black fingertip for him to sniff or shake.
“Hi, Monkey Joe,” he replied. The squirrel gripped his finger in his tiny paws, turned it this way and that as he inspected it, then released it in apparent disinterest. “Sorry, I guess I should have offered a nut.”
“Oh, here,” Doreen said as she fished a few out of the bright red pouches on her belt. “I always carry some around for snacking on. That's like, essential squirrel supplies!” He offered up the nut she handed him, and this time the squirrel hopped over onto his hand, balancing on his palm as he nibbled on it. “What about you, do you carry around any essential spider supplies?”
“Just my web-shooters, I guess. Oh, and an antidote to my venom, just in case.”
“So, if I borrowed your web-shooters, could I tie up criminals and stuff?”
“Sorry, they don't actually create the webs, just launch them.”
“Damn. That cancels a couple of plans, then,” she muttered as she stroked her chin thoughtfully and Monkey Joe jumped back over to her shoulder. “But never mind that!” she hastily continued when Peter's head shot up to look at her. “What about spider friends? Tell me you have one named Charlotte, that's just too perfect!”
“Oh, I don't... actually... talk to spiders,” he finished lamely as she stared at him incredulously.
“What?! Why not? Have you tried?”
“Of course I've tried,” he said, annoyed. “And they've even helped me, a whopping two times ever. But they're not like squirrels, they don't have a language. So how can we possibly talk to each other?”
She didn't seem convinced. “How could they have helped you if they didn't understand?”
“Mind control, I guess. The first time it happened, I thought they were being friendly, but... I don't know. I don't remember that one too well, and on the second time, I definitely took control of them and made them do what I wanted. I think.”
“You really don't sound all that certain,” she pointed out. He shrugged morosely. “Can I ask how long you've been a mutated spider?”
“Coming up close to two years, now.”
“Well, I've had partially squirrel blood for my whole life, and I still didn't talk to them until I was ten. So don't give up hope yet! Maybe your time is still coming!”
The corner of his mouth quirked up into a smile. “You don't give up hope easy, do you?”
“Nope! You can do anything with a plan and a positive attitude. So: let's make a plan!”
“What plan? What could possibly help?”
“Research! The basis of any plan starts with knowing what you're up against! How do spiders talk to each other? I don't believe for a second that they don't have a language, just because they don't talk.”
“Waving their legs. Vibrating each other's webs. Pheromones?”
“Well, lets find a spider and test those out!” She peered into the tree branches all around them, calling, “Here, spider spider spider!” Peter watched with patient amusement as she looked high and low without success. “Wow, those little guys are a lot harder to find when you actually want one.”
“Allow me,” he said, closing his eyes just to show off. “There's one there, there, right under there, several feet over that way, aaaaand... there,” he finished, pointing out a beautiful web hidden behind a clump of leaves just above their heads. “And that's just within a six-foot radius. This forest is absolutely teeming with them.” Doreen stuck out her tongue but grinned.
“There you go, you know where your kind are without even looking! That's a good sign!”
“Yay, general awareness,” Peter cheered with mild sarcasm. At Doreen's glare he sighed and rolled his eyes, moving up close to the web he had pointed out. “Hi, spider. What's up?” The spider ignored him, as he anticipated.
“Okay, now try some body language,” Doreen whispered as she slid up closer. Peter shrugged and lifted a spider-leg, waving it slowly in a gentle greeting. The spider tensed a little bit, but otherwise didn't respond. “Tap its web?” she suggested next. He touched the black tip of his leg to the edge of the web and tried to pluck it as gently as possible. The spider bolted from its web and went into hiding under some leaves.
“Well, that went well.”
“Maybe it thought you were a scary big spider come to eat it,” she frowned.
“Of course it did. Spiders aren't social creatures like squirrels are. They're not going to understand let's be friends, even if I figure out how to say it.”
“Shush, you can't draw a conclusion after a single try. Let's find another spider!”
They found another spider. It ignored him completely. They found another. It ran away almost immediately. It took another thirty spiders before Doreen finally allowed him a break, irritation rolling off of him waves.
“Are you sure you're trying?” she asked as they sprawled out across a pair of hammocks he made, munching on a variety of nuts.
“I'm doing what you asked,” he huffed.
“Do you even like spiders?”
“Do you love them? Do you read all about them and know their different varieties by heart? Do you share cute pictures of them on social media? Are you the leading expert on all things arachnid? I only ask because I'm picking up an awful lot of reluctance on your part about this whole thing.”
Peter sighed quietly and picked at his costume. “It's easy for you,” he muttered.
“Why?” she asked, sitting up and staring at him seriously. “Spiders can be cute. They're small and fuzzy and wear raindrop hats and freak out at their own reflections. Just think of them as octo-kittens!”
“They also die. Quickly.” At Doreen's sudden silence, he asked, “How long do you think Monkey Joe will live?”
It was a sobering question. She looked morose as she stroked her best friend's furry back and tail, chittering to him comfortingly. “I don't know,” she finally murmured. “I hear that squirrels can live to their twenties if they're well taken care of. Like as pets, or in zoos. Wild squirrels, though... they don't live near as long.”
“Well, even in ideal conditions, I think three years is the most any of these spiders here could ever hope for,” he said sadly. “Most of them are probably looking at one.”
“Does that scare you? Having friends who might die too soon?”
“It terrifies me.”
The two of them laid quietly in the trees for a while, staring at the sun-lit leaves above and letting the stirrings of a breeze chase off some of the summer heat.
“You know,” Doreen said, out of the blue, “Monkey Joe was the one who told me I could be a hero.” Peter turned his head to look at her as she continued. “I thought I was just a freak with a tail, but the moment I saved him from the neighbor's mean ol' dog, he insisted that I was a superhero and he wanted to be my sidekick. Mr. Stark made me promise to wait until I'm eighteen, but once I am? That's what we're going to do. And yeah, I know that's a tough life, and I might get hurt. Monkey Joe might get hurt. I could lose him. Just thinking about it makes me wanna cry...”
Monkey Joe nuzzled under her chin, his tail twitching up against her cheek. She sniffed and smiled at him. “But we're not gonna let that stop us. I wouldn't be who I am now if it weren't for him, and no matter how much it may hurt one day when we're parted, we're going to make the most of our time together. And GOSH DARN IT Spider-Kid, if I can do one thing for you today, I'm going to help you find that special spider friend who'll be just as important to you!” With this bold pronouncement she leaped out of her web hammock and into his, sending it spinning round and dumping them both out onto the ground. Peter squawked in surprise, but they both landed nimbly on all fours (or eights). “Better put your mask back on, 'cause we're going shopping!”
“What? Where?” he asked, pulling it over his head as she dragged him out of the stand of trees at top speed.
“The biggest pet store we can find! If it's the length of their lifespan that's holding you back, then we're going to chat up some tarantulas!”
* * *
“Can I... help you?” the pet store employee finally managed to spit out, staring at Peter with wide eyes.
“We want to look at your spiders!” Doreen declared loudly. The employee visibly paled.
“I promise, we take excellent care of the animals in our store, and if you have any reason to think that they're being mistreated, I'll personally see to it that the issue is resolved--”
“What? No, this isn't a quality inspection or whatever you're thinking. We're looking to buy.”
“Oh. Um. In that case... what are you looking for, specifically?”
“Whatever kind lives the longest.”
“Okay,” she said as she tried to recover her professionalism. “In that case, allow me to direct you over to these lovely ladies.” The two of them followed her over to a wall of glass cages, past a wide array of lizards and snakes until they came to a stop in front of a variety of tarantulas. “The Mexican Redknee can live a good fifteen to twenty-five years, maybe even thirty. That combined with their beauty and easy-going temperament makes them the quintessential pet for beginner tarantula keepers. Not... not that you're a beginner, of course.”
Peter ignored the nervous employee, letting Doreen deal with her as he leaned in closer to the glass cages. The spiders seemed to look at him curiously, which was better than ignoring him or hiding, at least. He tried waving a spider-foot at them, then the gentlest of taps on the glass. Their eyes followed him intently, but still none of them responded back. He started to reach for his mask before he remembered that the employee was still standing there, and that there were probably security cameras as well.
“Is it all right if we look at them by ourselves for a while?” Peter asked, speaking for the first time.
“Y-yeah, sure,” she said with relief, backing away and bumping into a rack. “You just, uh, commune with the spiders or whatever it is you gotta do. I'll be up front, if you need me.” She turned around and fled, muttering quietly to herself, though not quietly enough, “I can't believe Spider-Kid is in my store!”
“Hey, Doreen?” Peter asked as soon as they were alone. “Do you think you could...?” He gestured at the camera in the corner and she caught on after a quick glance.
“No problem!” She whipped her tail up and around, blocking his head from view. “You think they don't like the mask?”
“I don't know. It's worth a shot, I guess.” Pulling it off and leaning in close again, he studied their reactions. Some of them crept closer to the front of the tank, showing off their many, many orange-red knees, or their white and black stripes, or their little pink toes. Their fur was longer than his for the most part, making them look fluffy. Peter was glad his fuzz wasn't a proportional length; it would have been a nightmare to take care of. “Hello ladies. Would you like to talk?”
They cocked their heads, and Peter noticed how incredibly small their eyes were. “I guess sight probably isn't your forte, huh. With all those hairs, you can probably feel vibrations really well, though.” He pressed a hand flat across the glass, trying to feel what they would feel. “Can you hear me?” One of them tapped her feet against the floor a few times, and Peter was certain it meant something, but the meaning still escaped him.
Frustration gnawed at him. He felt so close, like he was right at the precipice of something. If he could just get that one final push, he was certain that something would unlock itself in his brain and understanding would finally come to him! If he could just, if he could just--
He saw something glowing in the reflection of the glass, and the spiders flattened themselves cautiously against the bottom of their cages. It was his eyes. His third eyes were glowing, which meant he was about to know--
“Open your eyes,” he heard himself say in a detached voice.
Peter closed his third eyes and, for the first time, consciously opened his fourth ones.
what does it want from us - why does it not speak - it is young yet, let it learn - will it take us to its hallowed lair - only if we are chosen - I don't want to go, I want a simple life - so do I - do you think it matters what we want - to be chosen would be the greatest honor - who among us can say we would refuse - never - if it speaks we will obey - if it speaks we will obey - speak to us great one - avatar of the great weaver - totem - totem - totem - totem! - totem! - Totem! - Totem!
Peter clutched his head and crouched to the floor, eyes wide. “Too much,” he whispered frantically. “Don't talk all at once!” The tarantulas went silent, but there were still many more voices, everywhere, all around. Whispering about food and darkness and shouting warnings and seeking mates. “I don't know how to direct it!” Doreen stared at him in concern, shifting her tail to keep him covered but otherwise looking like she didn't understand what he was saying.
what is wrong - it is learning how to do it on its own - it is difficult - can we help - you can do it - try harder - focus on something - try to narrow your focus - pick a voice to center on - yes yes pick one - pick me pick me - ladies stop you can't all talk - I want to help, listen to my voice - should I stop, but what if it was listening to me - what if I try SHOUTING, THAT WILL GIVE IT SOMETHING TO FOCUS ON!
Peter groaned and tried to cover his ears, then his fourth eyes. Now that he'd opened them they didn't want to close. “You're not helping,” he moaned. He bounced and rocked on his toes, still bent over his knees, trying desperately not to lose himself as his brain was overloaded. Suddenly, one of the more distant voices rose out over the deafening chatter, catching his attention above all the others by virtue of the fact that it was singing. It was singing a song he knew, even.
More loneliness than any man could bear
Rescue me before I fall into despair
I'll send an SOS to the world
I'll send an SOS to the world
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
Message in a bottle
Peter wrapped the tremulous voice around him like a blanket, letting its words become his whole world for a little while. He calmed his breathing to its rhythm. He held its meaning in his focus. Little by little, he nudged the other voices to the back, until they were just white noise. He directed his senses forward and up, following the song like a trail until he could tell where it was coming from. He memorized the feeling of it, how to make his focus go where he wanted it to go.
Walked out this morning
Don't believe what I saw
A hundred billion bottles
Washed up on the shore
Seems I'm not alone at being alone
A hundred billion castaways
Looking for a home
“Hello,” Peter said, and this time he knew his voice had a target, was being directed instead of broadcast to every spider in the area. “Thank you for the song.”
It's my message in a bottle. Did you find it?
“I did. It helped me find my way, too.” He waited but she didn't say any more, even though he could tell she wanted to. “Won't you come out?”
I'm scared. Also, I can't get down.
Peter couldn't stop the laugh that slipped out. “I can help you, if you'd like.”
A long pause. I would be honored.
Peter reached up with two spider-legs as high as he could, pushing gently at one of the tiles of the drop ceiling above. A moment later a few tarantula feet tapped hesitantly along the edge. Peter offered up his own, much larger spider-foot, and after some cautious hesitation, she climbed up on it.
Very slowly so as not to frighten her, he retracted his legs and carried her down. Once she was at eye-level, Peter and Doreen stared in amazement. She was beautiful, her abdomen a warm orange with a hint of darker markings, and her legs a vivid blue, only a little darker than Peter's own shade. She walked over to his open palms and nestled down as he cupped them slightly around her. “What's your name?”
Castaway. Like in the song.
“Kind of a sad choice.”
I haven't had any reason to be glad so far in my life. I was born with many and longed to be alone, but once we came here and were separated, I was afraid. Then I escaped and was finally alone and free, but that only made me more afraid. I don't think I like being alone. Not completely, at least.
“Would you like to come live with me?”
You... want my company? But why? I am female, too, we cannot breed.
“What? I'm a boy! And I'm not looking for a mate, anyway.”
Male?? Castaway gave the spider equivalent of a double take. I... was mistaken. Perhaps it is because you are a totem?
“I suppose so? What does that mean, exactly, being a totem?”
You were chosen by one of our gods! The great ones who weave and spin the webs between worlds. They are the source of your powers.
“Oh. That... makes a lot of sense, actually. But it still doesn't answer my question. Would you like to come away with me? Then you won't have to be so alone anymore. Or scared.”
But why would you share your territory with me? What could I possibly give you?
“Friendship?” Peter asked hopefully. “Or if that's not something you can understand... advice? I still have a lot to learn about being a spider totem, apparently.”
Okay. I will try my best!
Peter smiled. “Is it alright if I give you a nickname, though? You're not a castaway anymore.”
“How about Cassie?”
I suppose I can handle that.
“Sooo...” Doreen asked hesitantly, “are you talking to the spider, then? You've just been staring at each other in silence for a few minutes...”
Peter blinked and looked up at her, then let a smile slowly dawn across his face like the sun. “Doreen, I'd like you to meet Cassie.”
She grinned so wide her cheeks looked they were stuffed full of nuts. “It worked? It really worked?!”
“This little lady has a lovely singing voice, and is apparently very fond of songs by The Police.”
“That's amazing!” she shrieked, then looked abashed when the spider flinched. “I mean, that's amazing,” she repeated in a much quieter voice.
“She's a little timid,” he explained softly. “But she wants to come home with me!”
“Is that the missing Greenbottle Blue?” the store employee asked, having come up behind them while they were thoroughly distracted. “No way! I thought she was gone for good! We already wrote her off as a loss and every... thing...” She trailed off as her gaze slid up from the spider in Peter's hands to his face. “Wow. Those are some... eyes you got there.” Peter blanched and Doreen hastily put her tail up again. “Aw, don't be like that. I work with spiders every day here, I like them well enough. I won't freak out.”
“Thank you,” Peter said awkwardly, pulling his mask back on with his spider-legs. “But if it's all the same to you, let's just say I'm shy and leave it at that.”
“Just like a spider,” she said as Doreen lowered her tail. “So, is that the one you want? 'Cause she's not going to live as long as the Redknees, just so you know.”
Peter's legs drooped a little at the thought, but his voice was firm when he said, “She's the one I want.”
“Then she's yours. No way am I going to charge Spider-Kid for a spider, especially one that already escaped. That you even found her is a pretty clear sign that you're meant for each other. Charging money for that would be... weird.”
Peter held Cassie close, letting her crawl up onto his shoulder as he stared at the employee. “Thank you,” he said again, far more sincerely.
“No prob,” she said with a shrug. “But while you're here... any chance I could get an autograph?”
“Any chance I can convince you not to tell the world what's under my mask?”
“Uhhhhhhhhhhh,” she let the word drag on, suddenly finding the ceiling fascinating. Peter sighed and she grinned a little. “Don't feel bad. I'll make sure to mention that you're pretty cute, too.”
“He is, though, isn't he? He's got that sort of goth-lipstick thing going on,” Doreen chipped in.
Peter slouched in defeat. “Hooray.”
* * *
The setting sun shone a brilliant orange through the wide window of Peter's room at the Baxter building, where he and Doreen were currently lounging on the swath of silk serving as a window-seat. Cassie had endured the ride through the city nestled in Peter's hair, tucked safely underneath his mask where he had tugged it looser. Now she was exploring the series of tunnels and chambers up above, familiarizing herself with her new home. Monkey Joe was taking a nap curled up in a dresser drawer, resting on some old silk that was now littered with peanut shells. Peter and Doreen were laying back with their heads together as he snapped a few selfies with his high-end camera, trying to capture the way that the sun at this angle made their eyes almost glow.
“What does it mean when your eyes glow for real?” she asked lazily, content.
“It means I'm having a vision about something that will happen in the future. Usually they're not very important. Honestly, I think today is the first time it's ever happened where I was actually conscious of what I said.” He cocked his head. “But then again, they aren't usually meant for me, either. I can remember the dreams I have all the time of other realities, but those are always focused on things pertaining to me. And they aren't really the future, either, more like that reality's present as it matches mine.”
Doreen mulled that over for a while. “Now that you've unlocked your fourth eyes, do you think you'll learn to master your thirds?”
“Maybe.” Tired of fiddling with his camera, he set it aside and linked his fingers over his chest. “Why? What do you have in mind?”
“Weeeelllll,” she drawled slyly, making him roll his eyes, “there's this boy that I like...”
“Oh, boy, I already see where this is going,” he teased good-naturedly. She whacked him playfully with her tail.
“Shut up! I just want to know if we're going to end up happy together. Even as a friendly crime-fighting duo or something!”
“Another super-hero, then?”
“Yeah,” she sighed longingly. “He wants to join the Avengers someday, too. His powers are a little unwieldy, but I'm sure he'll get better at it! And he's so kind, and dreamy...”
“Anyone I know?”
“Maybe. Have you heard of Speedball?”
Peter pursed his lips as he thought. “Maybe? Is he the one with the... bouncing problem?”
“He absorbs kinetic energy without being harmed! But it sends him flying, yes.”
Peter tried not to laugh. “Okay. He's the one with the long blond hair and a gaggle of fangirls, right?”
Doreen pouted as she nodded. Peter couldn't resist a few chuckles before she whacked him again. “Just give it a try, would you? What could it hurt?”
“Alright, alright,” he said, pushing her tail out of his face with a grin. “I shall make an attempt to tell your love fortune.” Settling his hands back on his stomach, he closed his eyes and tried to think about what little he knew of the teen heartthrob with the floating, colorful balls of energy. “Speedball. Speedball and Squirrel Girl. In the future... hmmmm.” He tried to think very, very hard, and as the silence crept on, he finally peeked out through one eye. “Did I say anything prophetic yet?”
“Darn.” He tapped at his web impatiently, then thought of something. “Hey, Cassie?”
“You know, you can just call me Peter.”
Oh, sorry. What is it, Peter?
“Do you have any thoughts on how I might try to see the future on purpose?”
The little tarantula crawled down from above, her tiny vibrations in his web unfamiliar but not unwelcome. I'm sure I don't know anything about that, she demurred as she came to a stop beside his elbow. He nudged her encouragingly with one of his curled-over spider-legs, so she climbed up his arm to sit on his chest. He raised his linked fingers up to make a little cave for her, which she gladly crawled into. But if you'd like, I can sing for you. Maybe that will help you again?
“Maybe it will,” he said. “Same song?”
It's the one I know best. It played from the ceiling in the pet store all the time. I thought it was about me, because it was talking about bottles and they always called me “the green bottle blue.”
“Sing it,” he asked softly, closing his eyes again.
Just a castaway
An island lost at sea
Another lonely day
With no one here but me
As her sweet voice filled his mind, he imagined himself on a tiny island in the middle of a swirling ocean. There was nothing but water as far as he could see. Somehow, the water was also made of millions of strands of spiderweb, centered on him and stretching out to the horizon in all directions. As he watched with passive fascination, little corked bottles bobbed up and down every now and then, each one filled with a note. He wondered what they said.
I'll send an SOS to the world
I'll send an SOS to the world
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
He watched one drift temptingly close, but when he reached out a hand to pluck it from the water, the strand of silk it was attached to pulled it farther away. That one wasn't meant for him. Not right now, maybe not ever. That's right. He was looking for a very specific bottle. Something about...
Only hope can keep me together
Love can mend your life
But love can break your heart
He lowered the tips of his spider-feet, his fingers, and his toes into the swirling waters, letting each one touch a strand of silk. There it was... one of them was vibrating. One of them was what he was looking for. He drew it in rapidly with his spider-legs, pulling the line and what was hooked on it closer. A bottle bobbed up to the shore, green and glistening and irresistibly tempting. He wrapped his fingers around its tapered neck and plucked it from the water. A note lay coiled up within, the hint of words teasing under the curled paper.
Message in a bottle
He pulled out the cork with a sticky finger, did the same for the dry scrap of parchment.
Sending out an SOS
He coaxed it to unfurl and soaked up the scrawled words with glowing eyes...
* * *
“Hey,” Doreen whispered softly, running her fingers soothingly through his hair. “Are you okay?”
Peter gave a wordless moan as he slowly blinked his eyes open, wondering when it got so dark outside. “Did I do it?” he croaked, then coughed. He felt horrible, like he'd been crying. A cautious touch to his cheeks revealed that they were wet, to his surprise.
“Yeah. You did it. I thought you fell asleep, honestly, but suddenly your third eyes were open and glowing and you started speaking in verse.”
“It rhymed and everything.”
Peter sat up slowly, letting Cassie move up to sit in his hair as he stared at Doreen, noticing her oddly sober countenance. “I take it that it wasn't good news?”
“I'm not sure? It certainly wasn't anything I was expecting.”
“What did I say?”
“Six-hundred and twelve points of penitent pain,
if damage control should become its own gain.
Of arrogance backed up by little, beware,
and always choose grounds for a battle with care.”
“That... is definitely not anything I was expecting, either.”
“What do you think it means?”
“No idea. I mean, the last part sounds like solid advice, at least.”
“And this is supposed to have something to do with Speedball and me?”
Peter gave a helpless shrug. “I can only assume so.”
Doreen rubbed her chin, deep in thought. “Could it be referring to Damage Control, the company?”
“Makes as much sense as anything else. Damage control becoming its own gain... like... causing damage just so they can clean it up?”
“Sounds like they need to be kept an eye on.” She frowned. “I'll talk to Mr. Stark about it. And if that's not good enough, I'll find someone else. All I know is, this prophesy of yours is something serious this time. You... you were weeping the moment you opened your eyes,” she said softly, sounding a little shook.
“I don't remember why, though.”
“Maybe that's for the best.”
They sat lost in their own thoughts for a while, staring up at the warm glow of the strings of light worked through his spider-nest. “You're really going to take this to heart, aren't you?” Peter finally asked.
“It sounds like something bad's going to happen to Speedball, unless I can prevent it.” She took a deep, steadying breath. “So, I'll make plans. I'll do research. I'll do what I can!”
“Have you ever even talked to this guy?”
“Well... not in person. But I've written tons of fan letters!” Peter snorted before he could stop himself, and received another tail-slap in the face for it. “Shut up!” she hissed, turning pink. “Don't you have a crush on anyone?”
Peter went red immediately, turning away with a sour look. “No.”
“Oh-woh? What's this?”
“A touchy subject is what it is. Also, never say that again.”
“Is it Johnny Storm? Tell me it's Johnny!”
“What? No! Why would it be him?”
“Oh. Uh. Pretend I didn't say anything, then.”
“I just couldn't help but notice, is all!”
“While we were eating dinner with the Four, and you and I were whispering with our heads together, that Johnny looked like he wanted to drop-kick me off the top of the tower!”
“Well that's just... we have this friendly rivalry thing going on, and... you...”
“...Am a cute girl with whom you were being very friendly. Come on, Peter, he was staring at you like he wanted to steal you away all to himself! I think somebody needs to examine his feelings.”
“That's...” Peter continued to search for excuses. “Johnny's a total player, and he doesn't date anyone who doesn't look like they walked off the cover of either Vogue or GQ. I'm just a freaky-looking nerd he's been forced to put up with for two years, and tries to torment at every opportunity.”
“Does he have an elementary school mentality, perhaps?”
“I'm just saying, the looks he was sending your way were very... dare I say...”
“Heated?” she cackled. Peter gave a dramatic groan and searched in vain for something to throw at her.
“That's it. You're banished from this tower forever! I never want to hear another one of your lame jokes ever again!”
“Sure, sure,” she laughed. “You said you were turning seventeen soon, right? Want me to come visit again for that?”
“Yes. Don't even think about skipping out on me, you nut.”
She laughed as she leaned over and tackled him into a hug, and he wrapped his spider-legs around her, tail and all, to return it. If the Other-Peters aren't best friends with Doreen in their realities, he thought with a touch of pity, then they are truly missing out.
And thus, Squirrel Girl goes on a mission of love that, if successful, will prevent the tragedy that inspires the Mutant Registration Act, and therefore the Civil War, from ever happening in this universe...
Chapter 6: Chapter 5: Human Torch
The basement of the Parker house had been a dark, dingy place once, completely unrecognizable compared to the cheery workroom it was now. The walls had been insulated and finished, the lighting had been vastly improved, and the boxes full of old possessions had been relocated to the shed and attic. The splintery wooden shelves had been thoroughly sanded and painted, and were now laden with the tools of their new trade; dyes, rods and vats for washing and coloring the silk thread, large twisted spools of it ready for weaving, and finished bolts in solid colors, waiting to be taken to Big Ronnie's. The majority of the basement floor was taken up by several models of looms, slowly purchased over the last two years. Uncle Ben usually performed the complicated task of setting the next one up, while Aunt May and Peter each operated one of the looms that was ready to go, assuming Peter wasn't busy restocking the silk supplies.
The radio was currently playing a few Christmas carols, much to Peter's annoyance as it wasn't even December yet, and the heater was already set up in the corner to combat the coming winter chill. All the signs were pointing to an especially harsh one, unlike last year. Aunt May was humming contently under the constant clacking noise of the loom she was rapidly working, while Peter was going much more slowly than usual, eyes focused with intense concentration. He was making his first foray into patterned fabric, not that there was much call for it at Ronnie's shop. He was hoping he could make something nice for holiday gifts once he got the hang of it.
Totem? called one of the basement spiders.
“Yes?” Peter had given up on correcting his name to the smaller spiders he worked with. There were so many of them, and the majority didn't feel that they were worthy of addressing him as such.
I am pleased to report that the latest incursion by the silverfish has been eliminated!
“Excellent. Keep up the good work!” He could feel the spider's little flash of pride before it receded back into the general undercurrent of his awareness. Cassie was safe back in her favorite spot at the Baxter building right now; it was too cold to take her back and forth between there and home anymore. Besides, her presence tended to demoralize the basement spiders, since she was so obviously held in higher regard. He didn't want them to feel down when they were doing such important work, protecting his stores of silk from would-be nibblers.
Uncle Ben's footsteps were loud on the wooden steps as he came down the stairs, the smell of soup and sandwiches following in his wake. “Lunch is ready,” he called out over the noise before turning off the radio.
May looked startled as she paused her work. “Goodness, is it that late already?” In the sudden quiet, Peter heard her stomach growl, and she gave a small laugh. “I suppose it is.”
Ben wandered over to see how Peter's test attempt was coming. “Oh, that's looking good, Pete!”
“Thanks! I think I'm going to go ahead and try using dyes on finished fabric, too. I should be able to get a lot more creative with stencils than with weaving patterns.”
“Just let me know what you want and I'll find out how to set it up for you.” He ruffled his hair and pulled him away from the loom. “Come on, get it while the soup's hot. I made cocoa, too.”
“Yessss, the only good thing about winter!”
“It's not actually winter yet,” he pointed out.
“It might as well be,” Peter pretended to grumble. “It's cold and dark and I'd give in and hibernate if there wasn't so much work to do.”
Ben chuckled as he ushered his family up to the dining table.
* * *
The Baxter spiders had something very interesting to report when he arrived that afternoon. Reed was out of town to give a lecture at a prestigious scientific conference, which meant no one should have been in his lab. Peter listened to the spiders with a slowly building sigh of frustration. Not again.
The lab was mostly dark, lit only by the glow of a daylight lamp escaping from a few gaps in the cover over one of the experiments in the far corner. Peter turned off the hallway light so he could enter unseen, and took in the sight before him. A would-be spy, probably hoping to steal a few files about Reed's latest breakthroughs to take back to a rival laboratory, was currently struggling in vain to get out of a mass of sticky webbing. Peter had created the synthetic web bombs for his ever-escalating prank war with Johnny, only to realize that they made good booby-traps for security reasons, too. Various spots in Reed's lab were rigged up with them at any given time, and even more were set up when he planned on being out of town. This wasn't the first time he'd caught someone in his trap.
What was especially annoying, though, was that this wasn't the first time time the spy turned out to be one of Johnny's short-lived lovers.
“You're determined, I'll give you that,” he said softly, making the woman jump, then freeze. Her eyes darted around, trying to find him in the darkness. “I thought we'd solved this problem when Sue forbade her brother from bringing anyone up to the secure floors unless he'd been dating them for at least a month. I almost feel sorry for you, putting up with him for that long.”
He crept across the ceiling, intentionally letting one of his long, thin spider-legs pass through a patch of light. He smiled to himself when he caught the woman's sharp inhale. Her heartbeat, which had already been elevated, suddenly started racing. Curious, Peter asked the spiders closest to her to come out and walk across any exposed skin they could find. After a brief moment as they descended from the ceiling or walked up the congealed strands from the web-bomb, the woman made a high, muffled squeal of distress.
Oh, yeah. This woman hated spiders. Peter smirked and let out a decidedly evil laugh. She gave a little sob.
“You know,” he said casually, touching one of the strands of web that reached all the way up to the ceiling and giving it a good pluck, “I've never had the opportunity to test my venom on a normal human before. Do you think it would really melt your insides into soup?”
The woman was a sudden flurry of struggles, tugging desperately against the tangle of web. He put a little weight on the strand he was touching, letting her feel it as he threatened to climb down closer. How much farther should he push it? He didn't want to give her a heart attack. On the other hand, she played Johnny for a fool for a month.
Nobody played Johnny for a fool but Peter.
With a hiss that started soft and grew into something menacing, he started to creep down the messy web towards her, then winced when she began to scream at the top of her lungs. That hurt. His hiss turned into a growl that even she could surely feel vibrating through the web. Unfortunately, it only made her scream louder.
The lights clicked on suddenly, flooding the room and signaling the end of his little performance. “Oh, hey Johnny,” Peter said in a normal voice, his body upside down and about two feet away from closing in on the woman's thoroughly trapped head. He hadn't bothered to lift his mask, since he wasn't actually planning to bite her, so she was spared the trauma of actually seeing his fangs. She had the sense to stop screaming, at least, eyes darting over to the door and her savior. “Up at the crack of three, I see.”
Johnny slouched against the door-frame, looking thoroughly rumpled and grumpy. “Well, some of us know how to have fun all night.”
“Some of us can metabolize sleeping pills faster than others,” he pointed out smugly. “Which you reek of, by the way.”
Johnny scowled. “Well, some of us can call security, like a normal person.”
“Some of us would like to be arrested now,” whimpered a quiet voice. Johnny sighed as he stepped in the room and snapped his fingers, causing the artificial web to vaporize to ash in an instant. Peter leaped back to the ceiling a split-second before his footing disappeared. The woman collapsed to the floor immediately, still shaking with terror and relief. “Thank you,” she sobbed. “And I'm sorry, Johnny, I never--”
“Nope,” he cut her off. “Don't want to hear it.” He turned away sharply, calling up Roberta on the intercom and explaining the situation with clipped tones. A security team arrived soon afterward to take care of the matter, hauling the woman out of the lab and, most likely, out of Johnny's life. Peter couldn't even remember her name.
“I really thought she was a good one,” Johnny said mulishly, but with a hint of hurt that let Peter know it was time to commiserate, not aggravate.
“I'm sorry, Johnny. You know what they say; even if you put up a dozen safeguards, there's still a baker's dozen trying to get past them.”
“That's dumb,” he grumbled spitefully as they walked down the hall, side by side. “No one says that.”
“You could try not dating random people for a while.”
“Look, you have your hobbies and I have mine. You stop muggers and invent shit to make the world better and then do arts and crafts in your downtime, while I fend off super-villains and aliens and then have wild and crazy sex in my downtime.”
“No you don't, you just say that to the media and then hang the clippings on your wall.”
“Oh yeah?” he said as he opened the door to his room. “Show me these clippings of which you speak, smart guy.” The walls of his room were pretty bare, as always; it was pointless for him to have any bookshelves, posters, or possessions of any kind that weren't fireproof. He had a metal desk in the corner laden with a few car parts that should have been in the garage and a laptop that saved everything to the cloud. The centerpiece of the room was an enormous bed that would have looked unbearably inviting if Peter actually slept in beds anymore. The sheets were as fire-resistant as they could possibly be without resorting to something with all the texture and softness of canvas, but they still had to be replaced almost weekly due to singeing.
“I can't, you already burned the evidence. So anyway, why don't you focus on some of your other hobbies for a while?”
“What's the point?” he said dramatically as he flopped face-first onto his bed. “I can't get one over on you anymore, not with your stupid spider army watching my every move.” His complaint was rather muffled, but Peter's sharp ears still caught it.
“I meant, like, cars. You still like modding cars, right?”
“I'm banned from the shop until Sue stops being mad about what I did to her stupid hybrid. Can you believe it? Nineteen years old and I'm still getting grounded.” He rolled over and sat up suddenly, looking at Peter with wild eyes. “Let's go cruising!”
Peter's eyebrows shot up before he realized he still had his mask on. He yanked it off and made sure to repeat the gesture. “What.”
“Yeah! Reed's out lecturing, Ben is spending all his time with his new girlfriend,” he said with a roll of his eyes, “and Sue is a stick-in-the-mud. Let's go out on the town!”
“Come on, Pete,” he said plaintively. “You've been coming here for over two years now but you never spend any time with me.”
Peter couldn't help the twinge of guilt he felt at his pout. “We just... don't really have anything in common.”
“We're both young, mutated super-heroes, what could be more in-common than that?”
“Oh, I don't know, a single shared interest? Powers that aren't completely incompatible? The ability to share each other's presence for more than ten minutes without getting on each other's nerves?”
“So overrated.” He hopped up from his bed smoothly and walked over to where Peter was still lingering near the doorway, staring at him with a frown. “What about... trust?”
“After two years of constant pranks?”
“Trust that lets you take your mask off around me. Trust that I know you'd never betray my family.”
“Oh.” He shifted awkwardly. “Well, there is that, I guess.”
“Come on, Peter. Let's hang out together for once.”
Peter took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. “Fine. But we're not going cruising.”
Johnny looked overjoyed. “Clubbing?”
“Cl—are you kidding?? We're neither of us old enough to drink, and besides that, enhanced senses, remember?!” Johnny started laughing, which clued him in to the way the rest of the day was going to go. “Oh, ha ha. I see even when we're trying to get along you're still going to tease me at every turn.”
“I'm sorry, the look on your face!” he wheezed. “Okay, but seriously, what do you want to do? What do you even do when you're not hanging out here or at your uncle's place?”
* * *
“Somebody stop him! He took my purse!”
“Here you go, ma'am.”
“Oh, thank you Spider-Kid!”
“Can you call the police to collect him? He won't be going anywhere for a while...”
“I will. Thank you so much!”
Peter hopped back up to the rooftop where Johnny Storm was waiting listlessly. “Wow, you look bored.”
“I'm the Human Torch, Peter, what exactly am I supposed to do against muggers and thieves? Burn them up right along with their stolen property?”
“You could threaten to do that until they give in?”
Johnny groaned and gave him an accusing look. “You're trying to bore me on purpose, aren't you? So I'll give up and go away.”
Peter swallowed the impulse to smack him over the head. It wasn't too hard; he'd had a lot of practice. “Fine. What about putting out a big fire? Would that be more up your alley?”
“How big a fire are we talking here?”
“How big does it need to be?” Peter asked in a flat, warning tone.
Johnny coughed. “I mean, let's go save some lives!” He put one foot on the ledge of the roof, clearly ready to leap off and go. “Where's a fire? Point me in the right direction with your magic danger sense!”
“You can't see it, but I'm rolling my eyes so hard at you right now.”
“Wow, all eight of them?”
“Shut up. Give me a few minutes, I'll find you the biggest fucking fire in the whole city.”
“Wow, someone's still sore about the rumor mill getting confirmation on that one,” Johnny couldn't resist muttering before he obeyed. Peter ignored him and let his consciousness stretch out instead, looking for spiders.
There were billions and billions of spiders in the city; he wasn't going to ask them all if they'd seen any fires, that would be ridiculous. There were 217 firehouses in the New York City Fire Department, a more reasonable number in comparison, but still far too many to sort through. All he really needed to do was seek out the three Communications Dispatch Offices, and ask any spiders living there to go spy on the Decision Dispatcher for him. If he could see their computer screens through the spiders' eyes, he'd know how many units were about to be assigned to any current incidents. He'd already worked out the logistics of it before, when he was learning what all he could accomplish through his newly mastered mental link. It was extremely taxing to seek out spiders that weren't in his immediate vicinity, and left him feeling like he'd just taken his GED test all over again, but it was beyond convenient.
If push ever came to shove, Peter could probably spy on anyone.
“Okay, I've got a huge one in Brooklyn,” he finally said, pulling something like a cartridge out of his belt and snapping it into his web-shooters. “This will be the perfect opportunity to try out something I've been working on.”
“How on earth do you do that? Also, what thing?”
“This thing,” Peter said as he stepped back and shot a strand of web into Johnny's chest. “Now, flame on.”
Staring at him skeptically, Johnny burst into flames, the heat that radiated out from him feeling quite welcome in the cold air. To his surprise, the web attached to his chest stayed there, unaffected. “What did you do?”
“I've been working on a synthetic web that's more fire-resistant than my natural silk. It doesn't last for very long and still needs some improvement, but what do you think?”
Johnny floated cautiously up into the air, letting the string go taut and watching as Peter was lifted up by one arm below him. “I think I'll be taking you for a ride after all!” he said with a huge grin.
His enthusiasm was infectious. “Let's see what you've got, then, hothead!”
Peter had never traveled through the city so fast in his life. Johnny took them up high, far above the skyscrapers that usually served as his upper limit, and roared through the air like a rocket. Peter quickly figured out how to stabilize himself with his spider-legs so he didn't end up rotating freely at the end of his line. “Whoooooo-hoooooo!” he couldn't help shouting into the frigid, whipping wind. Johnny seemed delighted by his response, and started dipping and weaving a little until it felt like he was on a roller coaster. A roller coaster with no tracks and an unimpeded view of the vast city far below. The whole thing reminded him of gliding with Doreen, only cranked up to eleven and completely out of his control. They were over Brooklyn almost too soon, where a rising pillar of dark smoke made their destination obvious.
They landed on a rooftop neighboring the tall apartment complex that was going up in flames, and Johnny turned to flash him a toothy grin. “What did you think of that?”
“That. Was awesome!” Peter said through clattering teeth. His spider-legs curled up as he shivered violently. “I'm gonna freeze to death now, but it was worth it!”
Johnny dismissed his flames so fast that Peter was left blinded by the afterimages, which meant he was completely surprised when he found himself thoroughly enveloped by warm, strong arms. Heat of a more tolerable level washed through his body as Johnny clutched him tighter, his head tucked over his shoulder and his hips pressed flush to his. A pair of hands pressed firmly into the fuzz on his back, stroking smoothly down his spine. Warmth like a piping hot drink reached all the way from the tips of his spider-feet to the numb ends of his black, bare toes.
“Better?” Johnny whispered hotly against his masked ear.
“Oh,” Peter breathed out, eyes wide behind his mirrored lenses.
And while he was still craving more, Johnny made sure to pull away and smirk just a little as he pointed to the raging fire. “But anyway! Saving lives and all, lets go! Chop chop, no time to waste!” He burst back into fire and gave him a sarcastic salute before leaping backwards into the air and diving into the inferno of smoke and sparks. Peter gaped at him for entirely too long, want and indignation-that-he'd-been-made-to-want warring within him. The flames in the building were suddenly flickering out as Johnny suppressed or absorbed them, leaving only the billowing black clouds as they began to thin out. Finally Peter shook himself out of it and jumped down to the crowd of evacuees and firefighters below, looking for the Fire Chief so he could ask how best he could help out.
* * *
Their war of playful antagonism took a decidedly different tone after that.
It was December now, the winter holidays growing ever closer. Johnny usually went straight to his room after supper, and Peter to his when he didn't go back to Reed's lab. This time, though, he paused in his doorway and turned around, leaning casually against the frame and watching Johnny as he walked past.
“Care to step into my parlor?”
Johnny froze with a split-second look of surprise on his face, both for the phrasing and for the actual content of his words. Peter had never allowed him in his room before. Not when Johnny could so easily and accidentally destroy everything in it. He turned his head, eyes wide and suspicious. “Really?”
Peter beckoned him closer. “Sure,” he said once he was within arm's reach, pointedly not touching him as he let a single finger hover over his chest. “If you can control yourself, of course.”
Johnny smirked as he recognized it for the challenge it was. “Let's see it, then. I'll make sure to be on my best behavior.”
And he was... sort of. He walked around the room and admired Peter's photos, subtly raising the temperature in the air wherever he went. He was perfectly polite to Cassie when she crawled out, drawn by the warmth, and restrained himself to only a single crack about her being Peter's illegitimate daughter. He got sort of a deer-in-the-headlights look when she started crawling on him, much to Peter's amusement, but he let her nestle down in his hair without panicking, at least. But the thing was, Johnny was always keenly aware of Peter's own body temperature, which meant he knew instantly whenever one of his extensive repertoire of tricks was getting a reaction out of him—and he was using it to increasingly frustrating ends.
“Oh, man,” he moaned as he stretched out over the silken span of the homemade window-seat, in a lounging pose that Peter suddenly itched to photograph. “If you ever finish that fire-proof web you're working on, you have got to make me one of these.” He ran his hands teasingly up his stomach, over his chest, and up above his head where he let them rest, loosely crossed and relaxed. It would be so easy to pin them there, helplessly restrained above his head by a quick burst of web, or even Peter's own hand, leaving the rest of his body vulnerable to whatever impulse might strike Peter's mind to enact upon him...
A flash of heat betrayed his interest, and suddenly Johnny was casually coaxing Cassie out of his hair, like that was the one and only purpose he had had for lifting his arms up. He sat up and stretched luxuriously once he was done, smoothing his hair back into place before sliding back up onto his feet. “So, what's up there?” he asked as he pointed to the ceiling. “All those soft glowing lights and billowing tunnels like clouds... ooooh, I get it.” His smile quirked as he moved closer. “That's where you take all your boudoir photography, isn't it.”
Peter laughed, then saw his opportunity for revenge. He stepped right up against him, wrapping his arms around him and lifting him off the ground as he rose up on his spider-legs. “Would you like to come up and see?” he asked softly, coyly.
“Well,” Johnny responded with the tiniest shiver of excitement that he couldn't hide, clinging to Peter's body. “If you're offering...”
Peter's black lips moved closer, twisting into a smirk as he whispered against his cheek: “I'm not.” He promptly let go, allowing Johnny to fall the six inches back to the floor. He squawked in surprise, much to Peter's vindictive pleasure. “My nest is only for very private affairs, I'm sure you understand.”
“Lair, more like it,” Johnny muttered sourly before recovering his dignity with a wicked look. “You've never had anyone up there, have you.”
“That's none of your business.”
“Poor Peter,” Johnny said as he stepped in close again, lifting a hand carefully up to his cheek. His thumb pressed lightly but firmly against his bottom lip, eyes watching intently as the soft, black flesh molded to his touch. “You've probably never even been kissed.”
Peter bared his teeth in a rictus grin that revealed his fangs and snapped at him with a sharp click. “Have too.”
“CPR doesn't count.”
Peter's body temperature shot up far more than the statement warranted. “Shut up!”
“Sorry, Pete, it doesn't matter how many people you've rescued.”
Curiously, his body temperature calmed back down at that, causing Johnny to give him a suspicious look. “Right. Of course.”
“But if you're that worried about your lack of experience, I'm sure we could come to some sort of... arrangement.”
Peter laughed involuntarily. “Sorry, Johnny, you're going to have to try a lot harder than that.”
“Who says I'm trying?” he muttered, back-peddling with a pout.
Peter smirked as he kicked him out of his room.
* * *
And on and on it went, more like goading to get a rise out of each other than honest flirting. Soon the other members of the Fantastic Four began to notice the new flavor of tension between them, and their reactions varied.
Ben Grimm thought it was wonderful. High on new love himself, he proclaimed that the two of them would be perfect together. Peter's calm, responsible nature would finally tame Johnny's wild, irascible temper and his two “little brothers” would finally know the “ultimate happiness.” Johnny responded to his pronouncement by pretending to vomit.
Sue couldn't seem to decide if she approved or disapproved. One moment she could be overheard expressing her relief that Johnny had finally stopped trying to introduce a new stranger into their lives every month (or week, or day, as the case may be) and maybe now he would finally settle down. The next moment she could be heard confessing that she was afraid Johnny's wicked ways would corrupt dear, sweet Peter into the world of fame-mongering or laziness. Peter found the whole thing hilarious, especially since it offended Johnny either way.
Reed's reaction was sobering, and sucked all the fun out of the whole thing every time he flashed his piercing gaze their way. He disapproved. Flat-out, no bones about it. As soon as he noticed, he took Peter aside for a private conversation, and his silence before he began speaking filled him with apprehension.
“What do you two think you're doing?”
“We're just teasing. It's no big deal.”
“I sincerely doubt that.” Peter shifted uncomfortably and didn't respond. “I want you to think very carefully about what you two are getting into.”
“Peter.” He snapped his eyes up to meet Reed's, surprised by the sharpness of his tone. “Ever since you two met, you've had a very particular reaction to each other. It's competitive. It's full of one-upmanship. It's dedicated to making the other lose their cool. You aren't normal, average joes having a lark, Pete, you're teenagers who haven't finished maturing emotionally, who both have ever-increasing powers that could seriously damage the other. It would be one thing if you two had a calming effect on each other, but you don't.”
Peter bowed his head, feeling thoroughly chastened. Reed escorted him to the door and patted him gently on the back, a silent apology for the harsh words. “Just... be very careful about this, Peter. I'm worried that one or both of you is going end up badly hurt by the time it's all over.”
He trudged away, feeling simultaneously worried about the warning and irritated by the implication that what they were doing was already doomed to failure.
* * *
“Oh, you are such a charmer, aren't you?” Aunt May said as she hugged Johnny goodbye. “And so warm, too!” she giggled.
“Aunt May,” Peter groaned with embarrassment, trying to usher Johnny out the door. “Please!” From the drive came the sound of a car door slamming shut; Uncle Ben let go of the handle and turned around, reaching out to give Johnny one last handshake.
“Thank you again for helping out. It would have taken Peter several trips in this horrible cold to deliver that much silk.”
“No it wouldn't,” he muttered. “I have super-strength, you know, we just never made enough carrying bags to secure that many bolts in. We could've made more.”
Ben smacked him gently on the back of the head for smarting off, then gave him a hug. “You two be good, now, I've lost count of all the times I've had to hear The Johnny Report when Peter got home.
“Uncle Ben!” Peter hissed through clenched teeth.
“The Johnny Report?” the man in question asked with raised eyebrows.
“Today Johnny did this, I'm so mad! Today Johnny did that, I'm going to wring his neck! And so on, you get the idea.”
Johnny grinned like the cat that ate the canary. “I see.”
“Going now,” Peter growled, pushing Johnny to his car with a beet red face. “Bye!”
“Goodbye! Drive carefully, Johnny!”
“Will do!” he called out as he was shoved forcefully down into the driver's seat. “It was nice to see you again! Really nice!”
Peter heaved a great sigh as he slouched into the passenger seat, shifting around uncomfortably as he tried to find a way to fold his spider-legs that wouldn't pinch against the back of the seat. Johnny was still grinning as they pulled smoothly out onto the road, humming and tapping his fingers against the steering wheel.
“Shut it,” Peter said preemptively. Johnny stopped humming but, if anything, grinned even wider.
They had tried to cool it with the aggressive flirting after their private talks with Reed. They were still hanging out together, though, so they hadn't exactly gone back to normal. They had begun playing video games together in the common room, which in addition to giving them a new outlet for their rising tension, also came with the added benefit of frequent company to serve as chaperones. Because, boy could they not be trusted alone.
Peter gave up on leaning against his spider-legs and reclined the seat back, letting them curl out in front of him instead. He closed his eyes and gave a contented sigh, pretending not to notice when Johnny's eyes started darting his way whenever it was safe to do so. He knew he was making a pretty provocative sight, laying back in Johnny's car like so many of his lovers had probably done before, his lips slightly parted and his soft, brown eyelashes at rest. It was probably Pavlovian for him at this point. Yes, there it was, Johnny's heart-rate had picked up. He was definitely thinking about it.
“So Peter,” he began, finally breaking the silence, “are you still dead-set against going cruising? 'Cause this isn't all that bad, right?”
“It's not bad,” he agreed. “But is it really the cruising you want?” He opened one eye with a sly look. “Or the parking?”
“That's, uhhhh,” he hedged, looking around for something to save him as he pulled in beside Big Ronnie's. Peter didn't actually expect him to find anything, so he was beyond shocked when Johnny did a double-take and blurted out: “Isn't that the guy who kidnapped you?”
“What?!” Peter yelped as he sat up so fast he almost got whiplash. “Where?” He needn't have asked, his eyes locked straight onto the large figure clad in red and black as it stepped into the shop.
“Awkward,” Johnny said weakly, hand hovering on the gearshift. “Should we come back later and hope he's...” he started to ask, trailing off when Peter dived for the door handle and bolted out of the car. “Or... not.”
“Deadpool!” Peter shouted, catching the door just before it closed and following him inside. “Wade.”
“Peter?” he replied in a shocked voice as he spun around, the eyes of his mask somehow conveying his surprise. “How... what are you doing here?”
“In the city that I live in? Or the shop that I sell supplies to?”
“The spandex shop?” he asked blankly, then smacked himself as it clicked in his head. “The special stretch-silk, of course. I'm an idiot.”
Peter grinned goofily for a second, then hastily wiped it off his face. “So what... what brings you back to New York? Are you...”
“On a job?” Peter nodded cautiously, and Wade smiled behind his mask. “I am, but it's a good-guy sanctioned one. No killing or kidnapping involved! Just digging up some dirt on people, assuming there's any to find.”
Peter relaxed a little. “Oh. That's... good. I mean,” he said as he struggled to find a place to put his arms, all six of them, that looked casual. “Keep it up?”
Wade huffed out a little laugh and stepped closer, much less stiff now that his surprise had worn off. “You're looking good, Kid. Life been treating you better after that rotten mix-up?”
“Mm-hmm,” he murmured, nodding vigorously as words fled his brain.
Wade gave a great sigh and a sad sort of half-smile. “I wasn't planning on looking you up, you know. I had every intention of slipping out of town once I was done, with you none the wiser.”
“What?” he squeaked, indignation rolling off of him in waves. “Why?”
He made an exasperated noise. “Kid, I traumatized you.” Peter opened his mouth to argue and Wade cut him off before he could start. “Don't even try to deny it; I see you looking up at me with those big bright eyes like a poster child for Stockholm syndrome. The less you see of me, the better off you'll be. Trust me on this.”
Peter scowled, flashing his fangs in anger. Wade's breath hitched and he quickly looked away, the muscles in his jaw visibly working as he swallowed. “There's nothing you have that I want,” he said in such a strained voice that it was almost screaming lies! “And since I'm a man of business, that means our business is concluded. So. I'll just be on my way.”
He marched out the door with forceful steps, heading back the way he had come with such a determined lean that he looked like he was walking into fierce headwinds. Peter watched him go and seethed with fury. “Run away all you want,” he growled. “There's nowhere you can go where I can't find you.”
“Aaaand that's not disturbing at all,” Johnny said from beside him. Peter nearly jumped out of his skin.
“How—how long have you been standing there?”
“I'm gonna say, from “what brings you to New York?” That sounds about right.”
“Oh, fuck,” he groaned.
“So. Stockholm syndrome, huh?”
“Oh, fuck you.” He spun on his foot and marched out the door as well, turning the other way to start unloading Johnny's car.
“I'm just saying, this explains so many things about you that I never understood before.”
“No it doesn't. Because I don't have it.”
“You act like Mr. I've-Got-Everything-Together most of the time, but as soon as the prospect of romance rears its ugly head, you are the pure embodiment of Mixed Signals.”
“I am?” he spat incredulously as he pulled out a giant stack of black and red bolts of silk. “Pot calling the kettle black, much?” Peter whirled around and headed back to the door, opening it with a spider-leg before Johnny could offer to get it for him.
“Only because I can't get a read on you!” Johnny called as he hastily grabbed a single bolt and followed after him. They walked through the store, past the front counter where Ronnie was pretending to be absorbed in a magazine, and into the back room, where Peter made great use of his spider-legs once again to quickly restock the top fabric shelf. “I can never tell if you actually want me to go further or if doing so will make you bite my head off!
“I'm only angry because you're always teasing me!” he snarled as Johnny followed him back out for the second trip. “How am I supposed to open up if there's always that lingering suspicion that you'll just make fun of me for it?”
“I'm not making fun of you!” he shouted back, running ahead and opening the car door. He grabbed a bolt, then got shoved aside as Peter reached in and pulled out all the rest. Just to be spiteful, he snatched up Johnny's bolt, too, so Johnny slammed the car door and ran over to get the shop door first, instead. “I just get really nervous about relationships when they start feeling serious!”
“What relationship? Is the seriousness of our friendship getting too real for you, Johnny?” he spat as he stormed past, unloading the second haul of silk even faster than the first one. “Because I'm pretty sure we've never established anything further than that.”
“We could—we could,” Johnny said more softly, turning red as he grabbed one of Peter's spider-feet as he tried to storm back to the front door. Peter slowed down, let Johnny pull up by his side.
“But then one of us would have to blink first,” he pointed out, his voice slightly petulant.
Johnny smiled like he was holding back a laugh, or hiding a sob. “We could... try to tie,” he said, and Peter's eyes were too sharp not to notice the way his lip trembled.
“And how on Earth would we do that?” he asked, but not nearly as sharply as he could have.
Johnny looked desperately around the store. “Dammit, Ronnie, how can you not have any mistletoe up? It's almost Christmas!”
“Try bakery across street,” she said firmly from behind her magazine.
They dived for the door, shoving against each other in their rush to exit. Peter spotted the tiny sprig hanging under the bakery sign across the span of light traffic; he shot a web across the expanse, managed to hit the plant on the first try, and yanked it back across. A second later it was dangling from the door's small eave under Big Ronnie's sign.
“Oh, look, mistletoe,” Johnny said with a painfully earnest expression. “What a coincidence.”
“Oh no, what should we do?” Peter asked, his acting terrible and his eyes wide and nervous. “We're already under it.”
“Guess we'll just have to play along. Wouldn't want to piss off... Santa?” He stepped closer, letting his hands slide down Peter's sides to his hips.
“Frigga, I think,” he replied faintly, gaze locked on Johnny's mouth. He gripped his shoulders, spider-legs already curling up around him.
“Oh yeah, can't piss off Thor's mom,” Johnny whispered against his lips. “No choice.”
“None at all,” he agreed, before they couldn't take it anymore and closed the distance in a glorious rush of relief.
Peter's breathing became loud in his ears as his breath came hot and heavy through his nose, or maybe that was Johnny's. All other noises faded away from the world except for one quick, desperate whimper that could have come from either of them. My first kiss, Peter realized as he pressed himself as close to Johnny as they possibly could, hands roaming up to slip into soft, golden blond hair. Oh god, how I've wanted this.
Johnny's fingers curled as he gripped them tighter against Peter's skin, through the silk of his pants. His heart was racing like mad, and one of Ronnie's sidewalk signs burst into flames on the spot. His lips were almost painfully hot and it was all Peter could do to restrain his strength as his body reacted on its own to pull him even closer.
He was hot, so hot, his face flushing and a trickle of sweat was running down the back of his head, but Peter couldn't stop now, not when he'd waited this long and it felt so good. He knew the way his thoughts were flying apart in the heat probably wasn't a good sign, but instead of breaking it off he licked against Johnny's lips instead, plunging his tongue in eagerly when he opened his mouth in invitation and absolutely moaning when Johnny ran his own tongue over the tips of his fangs in a dangerous move that left him electric with want--
The sound of a camera phone's fake shutter click finally snapped him back into his environment; he pulled away, gasping heavily, and turned to see who he had to
“Pet Store Girl?” he wheezed, incredulous.
“It's Amy, actually,” she said automatically, staring at them with an amazed expression. “Wow, you guys were really going at it.”
“And your response to that was to take pictures?”
“Well actually I was just trying to catch a photo of your face since you're not wearing your mask anymore, I guess? I hope?” she clarified with a slight cringe at his glare. “Unless you just... forgot?” Peter sighed as he let his forehead collapse onto Johnny's shoulder. “But then you guys just got, woah, really into it all of a sudden and then my finger bumped the screen, so, you know, click!”
She gave a yelp as Peter suddenly webbed the device from her hands into his own, followed by a beseeching, “Please don't break my phone!”
“I'm not gonna break your phone,” he said with a roll of his eyes as he straightened up. “I'm just going to delete the photo.” He quickly navigated to her gallery and pulled it up, then stared. Ronnie's storefront and sign, the dangling mistletoe, he and Johnny kissing passionately in the foreground... it was actually a really nice shot. “Okay. I'm going to send it to myself first, then I'm going to delete it from your phone.”
“Ooh, send it to me, too,” Johnny said as he draped himself over his shoulders.
“Glad I could be of service,” she muttered with a pout as she waited to get her property back. “So, how's your Greenbottle Blue doing?”
“She's doing marvelously,” Peter said distractedly as he tapped on her phone. “She loves songs that are in any way about bottles and has already memorized seventeen of them.”
She snorted with disbelief, then realized he was serious. “Well, that's a comment about one of our store's pets that I've definitely never heard before,” she said blankly, then reconsidered. “Well. Not about the spiders, anyway.”
Peter smiled fetchingly as Johnny pulled down his eyelid and stuck out his tongue. There was a clicking sound.
Amy gaped at them incredulously. “Did you two just take a selfie on my phone?” Her eyes widened with sudden realization. “Are you going to let me keep it??”
“Fair is fair.”
“Can I post it?!”
“Can I stop you?”
Peter snorted with laughter. “It's been long enough, I think. I'm not afraid of people seeing my eyes anymore. I believe they can handle it.”
“Aww,” she said, holding her phone reverently as it was handed back to her. “I'll tell them you said that. It'll definitely win you bonus points.”
Peter shook his head, sighed, and then laughed as they walked away, climbing back into Johnny's car with relief. At least with his heavily tinted windows they had some privacy. “Well, that was a lot more life changes in one day than I was planning on making this morning,” he said as he collapsed in the seat, scrubbing his hands through his hair.
“I'll say. It's like someone lit a fire under you!”
Peter groaned loudly, hiding his face with his hands. “Please don't start doing fire puns, I beg you.”
Johnny chuckled as he started the car and merged them seamlessly into the flow of traffic. “Alright, alright. We should probably get back to the Baxter building anyway, we'd better make sure our families hear the news from us before they can get it from the media.” Peter peeked at him through his fingers and saw that he had taken one hand off the wheel, offering it hopefully on the console between them. Peter swallowed and placed his hand in his, and they entwined their fingers together. They smiled somewhat giddily to themselves as they stared out at the road.
“Besides, they'll probably have a lot of burning questions.”
“Oh my god,” Peter said with a frustrated sigh. “You're as bad as Doreen!”
“Sorry, sorry!” Johnny said apologetically, or at least it seemed that way until his lips twitched. “I'm doing asbestos I can!”
Peter snort-laughed and hit him at the same time.
* * *
“Goddammit, Spider-Kid, how do you keep finding me?” Deadpool asked with a sigh, pulling off the headphones he was wearing and lowering the binoculars he had been using to spy on the office building across the street. He was stretched out on his stomach so that he was almost completely hidden by the rooftop's ledge, at least to anyone who might have looked out a window from the other building.
“How goes it, Wade?” Peter asked as he tapped down lightly beside him. He was wearing his super-hero outfit, but without the mask; he didn't bother with that part anymore. A knitted spiderweb-themed stocking cap warmed his head and ears instead. It even had a little plastic spider dangling on a thread from the pom-pom—an early Christmas gift from Doreen.
“It goes fine. I've found a number of employees with embarrassing hobbies and one who is now in jail for child abuse, but still nothing like what my client is looking for.”
“What is your client looking for?”
He shrugged. “Some kind of high-profile corruption or something. Somehow he got it in his head that there's something rotten in the heart of Damage Control, but doesn't actually have the slightest idea who it is or what they're doing.”
Peter froze for a second. “Who... who is your client?”
“Oh, Peter, I don't take money and tell.”
“Is it Tony Stark? Or S.H.I.E.L.D?”
There was a split-second's hesitation in Wade's breathing. “Enough digging about my job, it's none of your business,” he said quickly, then let his demeanor shift abruptly. “Anyway, what's this I hear about you getting a boooooyfriend?”
“Yeah,” Peter said with a grin and a blush. “That's all over the news now, huh.”
“Well, it is the Human Torch, he's nothing if not a media magnet. Tabloid magnet. Same thing. How's that working out for you?”
“I can't say I like the constant attention from their sort, no,” he said ruefully. “But they're easy to avoid if you just stay off the ground, so... yeah.”
A long, awkward silence followed. Wade began packing up his spy gear into foam-filled hard cases that he stuffed into a duffel bag. “It's good, though. That you've got someone. Someone your own age. To, you know, be with.”
“I have a question for you,” Peter cut in, now that it was obvious Wade was about to cut and run again. “Before you go.”
“What is it, Spider-Babe?” he said as he swung the bag over his shoulder and stood up. “Kid. Ignore that.”
“What do you want for Christmas?”
Wade paused with one foot on the ledge, turning his head slowly to look back at him. “What? No. Absolutely not. You're not giving gifts to your kidnapper.”
“You're not my kidnapper, Wade. Not anymore, anyway. You're my friend.”
“I'm a shitty friend. You don't want me.”
Peter moved up onto the ledge beside him. “You can push me away all you like, but you can't stop me from trying. Now, what do you want?”
“There's nothing in this world I want from you,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Lies,” Peter replied easily.
Wade fumed. “Fine. There's nothing in this world I would accept from you, okay? Because I don't deserve to receive it. I have no right to ask for--!” He bit off his words harshly, turning his face away. He took a deep, sharp breath through his nose before turning back just as suddenly, an enormous, fake grin stretching against his mask. “A new teleporter! One of those would be amazing!”
“Uh,” Peter said, thrown off by the sudden change. “I don't... know anything about those.”
“That's because they're very exclusive, advanced tech,” he said sweetly, reaching up to pat the pom-pom on the top of his hat and giving the plastic spider a little flick. “It's probably for the best that I lost mine, it made things way too easy, anyway. Now, if you'll excuse me...” He took a jaunty step off the roof-top, waving merrily even as he plummeted to the ground.
Peter stared blankly for almost a moment too long before he realized that Wade wasn't pulling out a grappling hook or anything to stop his fall. “Geez!” he hissed as he fired a line of web, snagging him about a story from the bottom. The web stretched beautifully to ease him the rest of the way down, letting him touch the sidewalk firmly but painlessly a moment later.
“Aw, you didn't have to go and do that!” Wade shouted back up at him with a grin. “I would have healed!” He whipped out a knife and cut away the strand of silk, giving him one last jolly wave before dashing off into the night.
Peter heaved a shaky sigh before sitting down heavily, his legs having turned to jelly. “I swear...” he whispered into the silence, frustration and worry and something like giddiness making his heart pound heavily in his chest. He couldn't finish the oath, though, because he had no idea what he wanted to say.
* * *
Tony Stark held a huge Super-hero Christmas-Eve Bash at the Avengers Tower, which was crowded and loud and made Peter want to crawl into an upper corner almost immediately. Johnny kept a tight grip on his arm, though, which meant he was forced to socialize. Everyone wanted to say hello and get a good look now that he had stopped wearing the mask entirely, and the common consensus seemed to be that “his eyes were a little freaky and his markings made him look a bit goth, but otherwise he was a real catch!” It was very hard for Peter not to roll his freaky eyes. As it was, he made sure to bow out as soon as he possibly could, socializing be damned.
Christmas day was a much quieter affair that started at home with his aunt and uncle. They opened gifts under the tree, had a delicious feast at lunchtime, and were then picked up by Johnny in the afternoon to visit the Baxter building. The elderly Parker couple didn't come over very often, but when they did Peter couldn't help but glow with joy at having all his family in one place. They exchanged a few more gifts, and if the ones from Peter all seemed to have the same theme (silk), well, no one minded. Grimm had been trying to embrace his Jewish heritage lately, but he didn't mind at all that everyone refused to leave him out.
“What about my gift?” Johnny asked with faux hurt.
“It's in your bedroom,” he replied automatically, then froze and turned red when he realized how that sounded. “I didn't mean it like that!” he hastily corrected, noticing with mortification that Aunt May was giggling behind her hand.
“Well, let's see it then,” Johnny said with a teasing grin.
Peter tried not to feel like he was doing a walk of shame as he led Johnny out of the common room; it didn't help matters much that Johnny turned around just before they were out of sight and whispered loudly, “Don't come after us!”
“Must you?” he asked, still flushing.
“Always,” Johnny replied brightly. “That's never going to change.”
If anything, his statement made Peter blush harder. “Just come on already, your present's waiting.”
Johnny strode eagerly through the door of his room, then stopped and stared at the far wall. Under the large window was a wide white stretch of spider-web, a mirror image to the window-seat/hammock structure in Peter's own room. “Is that...?”
“The fire-proof synthetic web I was working on? Yes, it is.” Johnny's eyes darted to his, then back, his expression open and cautiously hopeful. Stepping closer to his gift, he ran a hand over it, small flames licking at his fingers. When nothing happened, he tried a hotter fire, and when it still didn't burn, he flamed on completely and eased himself carefully across the silk on his back. It rocked gently under his motions, strong enough to ease his worries and yet as soft as laying on a cloud.
“This version of the formula has only existed for about two weeks, but hey, that means we know it will last at least that long. Once it finally starts breaking down, I'll just make you a new one.” When Johnny didn't say anything, just stared wide-eyed at the ceiling, Peter started to shuffle nervously and asked, “What do you think?”
“I think I know what heaven feels like,” he said in a soft, affected voice, then turned to look at Peter. His flames suddenly extinguished and he grinned, beckoning him closer with both hands. “Get over here!”
With a giddy laugh and his flush returning full force, Peter stepped up beside him and leaned over, slowly but boldly crawling over Johnny's body and settling himself down right on top of him. Johnny swallowed as his eyes were trapped by the intensity in Peter's, as their hips and chests pressed flush together and their legs entwined. “I take it back,” Johnny said in a breathless whisper, turning red himself. “Now I know what heaven feels like.”
“Not so much of a playboy now, are you,” Peter murmured against his lips as he found Johnny's hands and linked their fingers together, which coincidentally left his hands pinned helplessly at his sides. “You're caught in my web.”
“Oooohohohoh, you are so fucking hot when your switch gets flipped,” Johnny confessed, almost drooling in anticipation. “That is the only reason I'm letting you be on top, by the way.”
“I'm on top because a spider only lays on its back when it's molting or dying,” Peter stated, only a breath away from kissing him. “Don't worry, though. When the moment is right, you'll still get to say you deflowered me.”
Johnny's eyes widened as he realized what Peter was suggesting. His surge of interest was impossible not to notice, pressed as closely as they were, and Peter gave in and dived into the kiss they were dying to have. Fingers curled and muscles flexed as Johnny strained against his hold, their hips grinding together in a way that would drive them to a frenzy if they didn't stop soon. “Can the moment be right now?” Johnny gasped between breaths and kisses, his blond hair starting to smolder.
Peter giggled as he pulled back, his spider-legs braced on the floor being the only reason their silken hammock wasn't swaying like a ship in a storm. The heat was making him foolish again, he knew, but fuck if he wanted to stop now! He opened his mouth to answer, the words at the tip of his tongue, but then he couldn't remember what he wanted to say. The moment seemed to melt around him all of a sudden, like he'd lost his vision for a second in a haze of blue and dizziness. He shook it off with an actual shake of his head, but when his eyes focused again and took in Johnny's expression, it was like a sudden splash of cold water had been dumped on him, snapping him back to his senses.
Johnny looked stricken, his face turning pale.
“What?” Peter asked with a sharp twinge of fear. “What happened?” He released his grip on Johnny's hands and gave them a quick check, but no, he hadn't lost control of his strength and broken anything. Then it occurred to him what else it could have been. “Did I give another prophesy?”
A nervous laugh. “Y-yeah. You said if we kept on like we were going, we'd get so loud our families would barge in and check on us. Major turn off, you know?”
Peter sincerely doubted that, but he knew there was no way to pry something out of Johnny if he really didn't want to let go of it. “Oh. Yeah, that... that totally kills the moment.”
Johnny winced, then pulled Peter's head down to rest in the crook of his shoulder, clutching him tightly. “It's okay, though. We can just stay like this, if that's all right with you.”
“It's all right with me.” He forced himself to relax, melting into him as best as he could.
“Cool.” Slowly, Johnny began to relax too, running his hands gently over Peter's back and the base of his spider-legs. “It just doesn't feel right, getting hot and heavy on Christmas, anyway. It's more of a time for, for... loving.”
Peter sucked in a breath, listening to Johnny's pulse as it raced hard against his ear.
“Yeah. I—I agree,” he whispered back, his face flushing with heat where it was pressed against the side of Johnny's cheek.
“Well, in that case. Merry Christmas, Peter.”
His hidden smile was positively goofy. “Merry Christmas, Johnny.”
* * *
Christmas was technically already over when Deadpool trudged back into the cheap apartment that he'd rented out for the duration of his current job. He tossed his duffel onto the floor by the second-hand couch and flopped down across it, ready to escape from the torture of wakefulness by slipping into the torment of dreams instead. Before he could, though, he noticed something in his living room that hadn't been there before and definitely wasn't expected; a small box on the cluttered coffee table, wrapped in colorful foil paper and a bow.
“What the fuck?” he groaned as he stretched out a hand and picked it up. He gave it a shake and tried to sniff it through the paper; it didn't smell like a bomb. Well, no harm if it was, anyway, he figured as he ripped the paper off and opened it up.
It was a device of some kind; a moment of fiddling and part of it popped open into something he could recognize; a grappling hook. The rest of it held the wound up cord and the firing and retracting mechanisms. It was too small and light to be filled with enough line to reach more than a few stories, though.
Or so he thought, until he looked at it closer and realized that the line was incredibly thin. There could be a mile of it wrapped up in there, at that size. It was probably about as strong as tissue paper... or... not? A halfhearted attempt to snap the line, followed by an attempt with all his strength, only revealed that it had a mild stretch that didn't seem to strain it at all.
It was a grappling hook filled with carbon spider thread.
Suddenly shaking, he grabbed the box again, looking frantically for a note. One fluttered out, and he snatched it up with trembling fingers and stumbled over to the window, illuminating the words by the light of the moon.
Merry Christmas, Wade! I think this will be compact enough to fit in one of your pouches. It's not a teleporter, but it should at least make it easier to get around! Please don't jump off of tall buildings anymore. You may heal, but I'd rather you didn't put up with that kind of pain if I can help it! -Peter
Wade clutched the note to his chest as he shuffled back over to the couch and collapsed onto it. With a groan, he pulled off his mask and ran a hand over the devastated landscape of his skin, barely even noticing the burning pain of his touch over the undercurrent of constant agony he was always feeling—aside from that one glorious day he didn't deserve, almost a year ago.
“Oh, you sweet, baby boy,” he sighed, his voice thick with guilt and longing. “You have no idea.”
Chapter 7: Chapter 6: Venom
Hey, you all remember how the tags mentioned Angst and Smut, right?
I wasn't planning on tagging as Underage, because Peter is of age for the place he lives, but if it really bothers you, here is your warning that two legally consenting fictional teenagers totally get busy in this chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
They tried to take things slow. Honest.
Peter wasn't entirely sure why they were, aside from the fact that what they had was far more special than Johnny's previous, casual flings. Surely it wasn't because he was only seventeen; he was legal by the laws of New York state, and Johnny had already been taking great advantage of that by his age. It certainly wasn't a lack of interest, either. Even though Peter had only ever caught glimpses of his Other Selves in dreams going after women, he didn't put much stock in the observation. He knew what he wanted in this world, and Johnny wanted him back, and that was all that mattered. But whatever their reasons for taking things easy were, that was what they were trying.
They could frequently be found curled up together on the couch in the Baxter common room, watching movies or playing games. It was an activity that let them spend hours and hours in each other's company without too much temptation to do other things. But the other members of the household couldn't always be around, and when the boys were left alone, one thing always seemed to lead to another...
On more than one occasion, Grimm or Sue or Reed had returned home earlier than expected, only to find that the common room was ten degrees warmer than it should be and Peter and Johnny were suddenly on opposite ends of the couch, red-faced and decidedly rumpled.
Johnny started visiting the Parker house more often, balancing out the dinner table with a fourth place setting. Aunt May and Uncle Ben were delighted to have him, and had even started putting out tapered candles so he could show off by lighting them. (The romantic glow might also have been a motive.) Johnny learned how to operate a loom, even if he found it incredibly boring, and kept the basement spiders nice and warm while Peter fixed the space heater whenever it went out.
They made absolutely sure to behave themselves when in the basement, for fear of stray fires. It was much harder when they hung out in Peter's room, which was far smaller and more intimate than their rooms at the Baxter building. His spiderweb tunnels took up almost the entire space, and were low enough that Johnny could actually crawl into them. He greatly enjoyed being able to finally see what they looked like on the inside, and was extremely apologetic when a round of frottage ended with Peter having to repair several burnt holes in the tunnel walls.
They went for romantic walks in the falling snow, Johnny's radiant heat keeping Peter snug as a bug even when he still refused to dress for the weather. (Johnny did convince him to put on some snow boots, at least.) While they were out and about, they stopped a few crimes and aided a few families that were snowed in, too. More than one feel-good article popped up in the news about them, often accompanied by a photo of them walking hand-in-hand while nursing steaming cups of hot chocolate.
Of course, by the time the two of them came back inside, they were soaked with melted snow, which tended to lead to stripping out of wet clothes, which inevitably led to fooling around a bit in the shower...
“Please,” Peter begged as Johnny threatened to stop things too soon, again. The water was just shy of unbearably hot as it washed over them, the air humid from the steam of it mixed with their mingling breaths. He clung to Johnny's slippery body easily and didn't let him pull away, his need growing desperate. “No more teasing, I—I want it. I want you.”
Johnny stepped in closer, his hand sliding lower even as he hid his expression over Peter's shoulder. “I just,” he began in an uncharacteristically timid voice, “I just want to do everything properly, for once.”
“Are you worried you haven't wooed me, Johnny?” he tried to tease, but it came out soft and reassuring instead. “Because believe me, I am extremely wooed.”
He could feel Johnny's smile against his neck, and a second later all he could feel was bliss as Johnny's hand, slick with soap, came to wrap around both of their swollen erections. Peter made an embarrassing noise as he clutched at Johnny's shoulders, fingertips threatening to pierce his skin in his enthusiasm.
“Careful,” Johnny whispered quickly, and Peter hastily loosened his grip.
“How about this?” he asked as he lifted his arms over his head and stuck his fingers against the wall of the shower instead. The move left his chest wide open to any kind of touch, and just to up the ante Peter tilted his chin up as well, exposing his neck as he rested his head back and closed his eyes.
“That... is really good,” Johnny croaked. “Fuck, why you gotta be so hot, Pete?” His hand tightened and he started pumping faster, bowing forward to lick along his collarbone and neck, sucking kisses against his racing pulse. Peter whimpered and bucked his hips erratically against Johnny's, throwing off his rhythm but unable to stop. Johnny encouraged him to wrap his legs around him, and if he got a few more legs than anticipated, he didn't seem to mind. Slipping his other hand behind Peter, he stroked down lower until he could squeeze the cheeks of his ass, fingers trailing dangerously close down the middle.
“Now?” Peter wheezed, his eyelashes fluttering and his face tomato red.
“Not yet,” Johnny whispered back. “That's not something for the heat of the moment.”
Peter growled. “That pun had better have been unintentional.”
Johnny blinked, then started cracking up against his neck. Peter started laughing too, their bodies shaking against each other in their mirth. Then Johnny suddenly moved his hand even farther between his parted legs, catching Peter completely by surprise as he started squeezing his balls from underneath. His other hand picked up the pace even faster, pumping them vigorously even as their bodies tried to rut against each other.
“Oh, fuck!” Peter cried out, all shame forgotten. “Oh, god, oh... Johnny! Please! Keep—keep doing that! Aaahhh!”
Johnny panted hard against his lips, too far gone even to kiss. It was probably just as well, because Peter was losing control of everything—something vaguely sweet was filling his mouth, and he was distantly shocked to realized his fangs were dripping venom. That wasn't the only part of him that was dripping, either. Johnny gave an especially good squeeze with both hands that made his roaring blood sing, and suddenly he was gushing come up onto Johnny's chest in sharp bursts of euphoria. He moaned in blessed relief, his legs shaking in sudden exhaustion. Johnny mirrored his whimpers and cried out in a labored voice as he tipped over the edge and joined him.
They sank slowly to the floor of the shower, clinging to each other and glowing with joy. Peter made sure the sweet taste was gone, then kissed him greedily, thankfully, giddily. Johnny finally pulled away, looking extremely pleased with himself.
“Blew your fuzzy socks off, didn't I?” he teased, all his confidence returned and then some.
“No,” Peter retorted smartly, making him pout. “But we can certainly try that next time.”
Johnny's grin returned in an instant, and it was positively wicked.
* * *
Whatever fear or worry had been holding them back was apparently gone, because now they couldn't seem to stop slamming each other into every available surface. They tried to limit it to Johnny's room, which was now decorated with fire-proof silk sheets, drapes around the bed, and curtains over the window to go with the original window-seat gift. So far, the artificial webbing was still going strong, which was good because will-o-the-wisps of fire tended to spring into existence every time they started going at it.
“You sure you weren't bitten by a mutated rabbit?” Johnny moaned as Peter lapped around the head of his dick. He wasn't able to take him in his mouth, sadly, due to his fangs getting in the way, but he was getting very creative with his fuzzy hands and slick tongue. “I'm starting to think you like sex more than I do.”
“I have a lot of catching up to do,” Peter said, his lips and breath tickling his foreskin with each word. “And you're only slightly condescending as a teacher.”
Johnny blew a raspberry at him, then immediately regretted it when Peter returned it right against the side of his shaft. He hadn't meant to come that quickly.
Johnny really was a good teacher, despite his tendency to tease Peter for the depths of his ignorance. The week leading up to Valentine's Day he taught him everything he could ever want to know about anal; the disturbingly wide variety of toys that existed and their uses, the importance of condoms, how to clean himself out beforehand, how to stretch and lubricate himself or his partner, and how to make it feel incredible.
They especially enjoyed that last part, with Johnny's arms webbed to the bed and his legs held high and spread-eagled by a few spider-feet. But even though sliding in and out of his gorgeous, freely offered body was like a trip to heaven itself, Peter still couldn't wait to try it out for himself. Quite frankly, he was starting to feel desperate for it. Maybe that was Johnny's devious plan all along.
He knew he wouldn't have to wait for much longer, though. The timing of the coming holiday was just too perfect for Johnny to pass up, especially with his unnecessary but sweet insistence on being a “proper” boyfriend. The morning of the fourteenth dawned with a picturesque new coat of snow on the ground, the perfect start for what he hoped would be a perfect day.
You're in a good mood, Cassie observed as he styled his hair just right, humming an upbeat love song. He smiled, stepping back from the mirror and smoothing out his most flattering silk shirt.
“I'm gonna get laaaaid,” he said in a sing-song voice.
By the Fire creature?
“His name is Johnny, you know that. He's brought you crickets to eat several times, don't you like him?”
He is nice and warm.
“That he is,” Peter said dreamily.
Cassie digested that for a while. Do you think you'll let him live?
Peter stopped fussing with his clothes to turn and give her an incredulous stare. “Yes. Of course I will! I told you, I'm not a spider girl, I'm a boy! A human boy. Mostly. And humans don't kill their mates.”
Spiders don't always kill their mates, either.
But you are a Totem. You embody all spiders; web-makers and jumpers and tunnelers, large and small, male and female. You must know this is so, you can spin every kind of silk. Even egg sac silk.
“Well, I'm not the kind of girl who eats her mates.”
They all are, it's not up to the girl.
It's not up to you.
“Yeah, I got that, but what does it mean?!” he cried, gripping at his hair in frustration and ruining his hard work.
Cassie skittered up the curtains and back into to the tunnels. Please don't shout at me, I don't know how it translates for a human mate! I'm sorry. Please don't be mad.
Peter immediately felt contrite. He crawled up after her, finding her tiny web nest within his much larger one and laying down beside it. “I didn't mean to scare you, I'm sorry. I'm not mad, I just... I don't want to hurt Johnny.”
She peeked cautiously back out, touching a tiny foot against his much larger spider-toe. You have a cure for your venom, right?
“I do,” he confirmed. “I'll make sure its a fresh dose, too, primed and ready to go. Just in case.”
Just in case. She tapped her foot comfortingly against him, a gesture she had picked up from watching humans. Good luck on your mating!
He smiled, amused and bashful all at once. “Thanks.”
* * *
“I don't know, I think his movies are getting too dark. Sure, he's a dark character, but there comes a point when he stops being a tragic defender of the night and just becomes an entitled little edgelord. He's not even a hero anymore, he's running around murdering people!”
“You just think he should actually be part bat.”
“I mean, yeah, that too.”
Johnny wrapped an arm around Peter's waist as they strolled out into a back alley, hoping to avoid drawing too much attention from the crowds now that they weren't hiding in the back of a dark theater. Peter returned the embrace and carried him up the wall to the roof, where a sharp blast of wind threatened to push them off again.
“Allow me,” Johnny said as he scooped Peter up into his arms, princess style.
“What are you planning?” he asked suspiciously, even as he wrapped his many arms around his shoulders.
“I've been practicing a little something. Check it out... flame on!” Peter's eyes widened in alarm as fire enveloped Johnny's form, but his spider-sense didn't go off, so he didn't leap away. Upon closer inspection, at every point where their bodies touched, the flame seemed to shrink down and hold itself at bay. The heat, which should still have been overwhelming at that proximity, didn't even reach him.
“You've increased your control,” Peter said with growing amazement. “That's incredible!”
“It takes a lot of concentration, so whatever you do, don't distract me,” he said in a tight voice. “But, it allows me to do this.” The roar of the flames increased at his feet and suddenly they were floating, shooting up into the sky as smooth and elegantly as Superman carrying Lois Lane.
“My hero,” Peter said with a bat of his eyelashes, before settling back for the ride. It soon became obvious that they weren't heading for the Baxter building, but a fancy restaurant with a rooftop terrace. Normally that part wouldn't be open until warmer weather, and when it was it would be crowded with couples come to dine. It seemed Johnny had made an arrangement in advance, though, because a waitress came out to greet them as soon as they were in sight, shivering in the wind until they touched down and a wash of heat settled over the otherwise empty terrace.
“Table for two, gentlemen?” she confirmed with barely restrained delight.
It was a magical, romantic Valentine's dinner. It was almost too much, Peter thought with a twinge of dismay. His competitive nature was starting to rear its ugly head, and he forcefully stamped it back down again. Johnny was trying to make a sweet gesture, not pull ahead in their old rivalry, and he seriously needed to chill.
“Isn't this a lot of work?” he couldn't help asking as they finished their delicious meal and moved on to dessert. In addition to keeping the terrace a comfortable temperature, Johnny was maintaining a number of dancing flames in orbit above their heads, though they tended to wink in and out as his focus wavered. “You sure you won't use up too much energy?”
“I can manage. Besides,” he said with a winning smile that turned sly. “I have a feeling you'll be doing all the hard work later.”
Peter felt his skin go hot, and it had nothing to do with fire powers. Johnny's eyes dilated as he felt it, staring across the small table and pulling the spoon from his mouth with an unnecessarily slow lick. Suddenly Peter lost all interest in finishing his dessert. Eyes locked with Johnny's, he very slowly and deliberately pushed everything on the table to the side. He could hear his heart skip into a faster rhythm as he grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled him closer, until they were both leaning over the table and a mere hairsbreadth apart.
“Let's go home,” he whispered against his lips. “It seems I have a ride to catch.”
Johnny swallowed audibly, his breath loud and heavy. “Check please!”
* * *
Peter felt like he finally understood how Johnny felt when he was on fire.
He could feel everything, and everything was heat. Hands slid possessively over his sweat-slick skin, brushing over his nipples until his hips stuttered, then stroking down to his hips to grip them tightly, helping him find his rhythm again. His erection bobbed stiffly between their bodies, dribbling down onto Johnny's stomach like it was crying for touch. His spider-legs surrounded his lover's body like a cage, but otherwise Peter left him free to rock and touch and do as he pleased. He was too overwhelmed to do anything else.
“Y-you were right,” he moaned, his pride long gone. “I really do like this.”
“You were made for it,” Johnny purred, bucking up into him just as Peter came down, driving himself deep within and making his breath stutter. “I knew you would be perfect, fuck!”
“Oh, god, oh god, oh god,” Peter chanted as he bobbed up and down on Johnny's shaft, feeling the way his opening flexed and squelched over the slippery, bumpy surface, keening as the bulbous head stroked just right inside of him to set off fireworks down every nerve. He had a handful of bed-sheets in each fist, his fingertips ripping through them like tissue paper.
“I usually go by Johnny, but that works too,” he teased, and Peter wanted to smack the smug right off his face but was afraid his thighs would tremble if he took the weight off his hands.
“Please, I need—I need,” he stammered, his face contorted in a pained expression from the exquisite torture. “It's so much, but I can't...”
“Not yet,” Johnny cooed as he worked one of Peter's hands out from the tattered sheets, kissing his knuckles. “I want to see how far you can go.”
Peter trickled out another dribble of precum just at the thought of coming untouched. Johnny sat up halfway and turned his hand over, licking along his fuzzy palm. Peter's breath hitched, his body suddenly tense. Multiple sets of eyes watched intently as his tongue worked higher, looking for his pulse point and finding the opening to his spinnerets instead. For a moment, Peter felt frozen as Johnny noticed the spot and debated what to do about it. He could almost see his mental shrug as he decided to just go for it and see what happened.
With a high pitched and breathless yelp, Peter lost all rhythm again, clenching down and shaking all over before he came to a shuddering stop.
“Woah,” Johnny said softly, his eyebrows shooting up. “Does that do it for you?”
Peter refused to answer, but his silence was answer enough. Eyes wide and locked on his face, Johnny probed it with his tongue again. Peter flushed a brand new shade of red, refusing to look him. Johnny's shocked expression melted into one of wicked delight. “Well, happy Valentine's Day to me.”
Peter's whole body flexed involuntarily as Johnny dipped his tongue back and forth over the orifice. “I don't know... if that's a good... idea...” he panted, eyes screwed shut and tugging his hand halfheartedly against Johnny's grip.
“It doesn't hurt, does it?” he asked, looking for a moment like he might let go.
“N... no,” he mumbled, struggling with a strange feeling he couldn't put into words. He felt like there was some reason why he shouldn't let Johnny play with those, but he didn't know what the reason was.
“Does it feel good?”
Peter nodded his head minutely, face so hot he was afraid it would ignite. “Really good.” He dared to peek at Johnny's expression and found that he was flashing his old, familiar, I'm-about-to-prank-you-so-hard grin.
“You know, I never did manage to actually blow your socks off,” he purred, laying back against the pillow and coaxing Peter's other hand out from its death grip on the bed. “I think I should give it another try.”
“Johnny, wait,” Peter tried to say, but although he mouthed the words, his voice didn't want to back them up. Johnny gripped the back of both wrists firmly, booking no argument as he pulled them down to within reach of his mouth. As if daring him to pull away, Johnny's gaze locked with his as he touched his tongue teasingly down on the edge of one palm, only an easy flick away from his target.
Peter swallowed, and held his breath, and didn't say anything.
Pleasure jolted through his whole body like electricity as Johnny went to town, and Peter let out a truly mortifying squeal of pleasure. His hips started rocking again in wild, uncoordinated thrusts, and his fingertips pressed painfully into his palms in his effort to hold them still. Wet, slurping noises filled the gaps between his mewling moans, both from Johnny's tongue and from the squelch of slippery lube in his ass. “Holy fuck, the noises you make,” Johnny whispered, bucking up against him a few times before he could control himself. “A dude could come on that alone!”
Peter sobbed as his mind seemed to fly apart, sweat trickling through his hair. He'd had dreams like this for the past year, dreams that felt like pure fantasy and always ended in drenched, slimy pants. The heat felt dangerously close to frying the circuits in his brain, circuits that were currently firing at full speed in little explosions of euphoria. He was losing himself. He was lost and it was glorious and he never wanted it to be over and he begged for the ending. Flashes of images flickered in his mind as it scattered to the winds. A rogue's smile, so clear and yet obscured. Fevered shame as he changed his clothes yet again. A wicked tongue and the press of teeth. A handsome boy who courted him and goaded him by turns.
The present was mixing with dreams and the past and desire and reality. The smell of sex and lust was overpowering. The smell of leather tickled at the edges of his senses. A towering figure was standing over his prone, helpless form. Johnny was lying in wait, but Peter knew the boy could never win, not against him. Someone was sucking on the valves on his wrists, one after the other, like it was the key to his undoing. His thighs were like noodles, all he could do was barely rock, but that made the burning torch inside him circle around the perfect spot, in unceasing pleasure. Arms like thick slabs of meat wrapped around him as he cried out in his sleep, whispering words of filthy worship in his ear. Gloves trailed over his skin and fuzz with pure reverence, but they teased him mercilessly and refused to give him relief. They ruffled his hair, then slid down and cupped his cheeks. Peter's lips parted; he wanted to kiss him more than he wanted to breathe. His mouth was filled with something sickly sweet; it drooled out the corners of his lips before he could swallow. He couldn't stop his lover from leaving, because his hands were bound. No, Peter had trapped him, tied him up and forced him to use his devastating expertise on his own body. He was flirting with danger, with death, with the one man who had made him submit, who could hold him mercilessly in his sway. He ached for him even as he teetered on the precipice of orgasm. He opened his eyes so he could see his desire mirrored back at him, could see the grisly face of the one who awkwardly dried his tears and adoringly called him a treasure.
It wasn't him.
Peter recoiled with alarm, yanking his hands back and flashing his fangs in a furious, bone rattling hiss.
The Fire-creature froze: hands pulled tight to his chest, breath stilled, eyes rimmed with white. Peter's growl reverberated softly through his body as he glared at him without recognition. “Okay,” came the blond boy's hesitant reassurance. “We won't do that. No more. I stopped, see?” Very slowly, very cautiously, he lowered his hands back to the bed, quickly abandoning the idea of reaching for his hips when a twitch in that direction made Peter curl his lip in soundless threat. “Just... go back to what feels good. Remember? Peter?”
Blinking as if in a dream, he took in his surroundings, his position. He was... mating? With this too small, too young male? He gave his hips an experimental rock, felt the answering throb of pleasure. Okay, apparently he was. The Fire-creature smiled and nodded encouragingly, though there was still a strange crease in his brow. Peter resumed his motions, the friction of his body renewing the firmness of his mate's erection. But there was a strange scent in the air now, a foul one that messed with his head and soured the lingering fragrance of pheromones.
“I smell fear,” he stated casually, like remarking on an unpleasant turn in the weather. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, though, the scent increased, as if in response. Peter wrinkled his nose and turned his head from side to side, sniffing loudly. Where was it coming from? There was no one here but...
His gaze settled on the Fire-creature, eyes narrowing. He lunged forward suddenly and was halted by a pair of hands flying up to his chest, trying to keep him at bay. Mildly inconvenienced, he batted them aside and pinned them back to the bed. He finished leaning over so he could nuzzle his nose up under his mate's chin, snuffling at the heady mix of scents and listening closely to the rush of blood under his skin.
“You smell like prey.”
It choked out a desperate whimper, its pulse skyrocketing and its fear saturating the air. “Peter,” it pleaded between reflexive swallows, “come on, wake up! It's me, Johnny! Your boyfriend, remember?” Peter ignored its strange gibbering, licking along its neck and savoring the taste. Smokey. “Don't do this! I don't want to hurt you, but I will!” Black fangs like needles pressed lightly against tender, hot flesh. No answering twinge came to Peter's spider-sense.
“Fuck,” it said softly, a drop of moisture dripping down from the corner of its eye. “But I did everything right!”
Peter snapped his fangs in deeply, moaning at the exquisite rush of relief as he let his venom surge and throb into his victim. His hips bucked in sympathetic spasms until his vision went white and he was creaming across his stomach, screaming out his ecstasy through clenched teeth. Fires burst forth all around him, darting through the air like exploding fireworks, and to his surprise and confusion he felt an answering throb within him, the body beneath him bucking up helplessly against his. The last pulses of fluid dribbled out of him as he sagged with exhaustion, pulling his teeth out and collapsing against a burning chest. God, but he felt like his brains had been liquefied and drained out.
An unknown number of minutes passed before Peter cooled down enough to regain his senses. His brows drew together in complaint; why was it so hot? What on Earth was he laying on? He pulled his head up with great difficulty, feeling as weak as the time he'd been doused with pesticide. What was going...
“Johnny?” he whispered, shock sliding sideways into horror.
Johnny was staring at him with a look of intense concentration and worry, sweat pouring down his forehead. There were two telltale pinpricks in his neck, still trickling out rivulets of vivid red blood that were literally steaming with heat.
“No,” Peter uttered, clutching a hand to his mouth in disbelief, only to feel the evidence against his fingers. “No, this can't be happening. Not you. Not you!” He sat up, wincing as his lover's limp, condom covered member slid out of him. “How long? How long has it been since... how are you still alive?!” He gripped his hair in both hands and accidentally ripped some out in his panic. “My venom worked so fast on—before!”
“Boil... blood...” Johnny wheezed, barely audible.
“Yes... yes! Good! You keep, keep doing that, and I'll--”
“Can't,” Johnny said with a sob.
“Okay. Fuck, it's a neurotoxin, that's right. You're probably already... already losing control,” he muttered half to himself as he leaped up out of bed, only to stumble to the floor on weak legs. “But I've got... I've got the antivenom, right here!” Spider-legs stretched out and grabbed every scrap of clothing on the floor, searching frantically for the one with a sleek metal case in its pocket. He pulled it out with shaking hands, snapped it open to reveal a hypodermic needle and glass syringe nestled in a foam lining. “Here, here it is!” he shouted as he turned to face Johnny, only to cry out in dismay; he had started convulsing wildly on the bed. Peter sobbed, tears starting to pour down his cheeks. “I'm coming, just hold on!”
“N-n-n-n-no,” Johnny struggled to get out, panic clear in his eyes even though his head couldn't stay still. “St-st-st-stay b-b-b-AAAAAH!!!” A scream ripped through his throat as his back arched up off the sheets.
Peter didn't bother saying anything else; he leaped back to his side in a heartbeat, forcing his torso down into the mattress with one hand to hold him still, then touching the tip of the needle against his neck with the other.
His spider-sense shrieked in alarm like klaxons blaring straight into his head. Peter prayed for one more second of time and pushed the sharp into Johnny's skin, thumb already beginning to press on the plunger.
Pain ripped Peter's world apart, the firebomb sending him flying across the room and into the wall hard enough to punch half-way through it. He fell limply to the ground, every inch of his fuzz smoldering orange and his hand full of shards of glass—all that was left of the syringe and the antivenom within it. There was more in the fridge in Reed's lab, but it might as well have been halfway across the world for all the good it did, and there was nothing there to administer it with that could withstand the flames currently enveloping Johnny's body.
His boyfriend was going to die, and he couldn't do a thing to stop it.
Peter stared in a dazed shock, oblivious to his own pain, just watching as Johnny flailed weakly within the clutch of his out-of-control powers. One hand seemed to be moving with purpose, a single finger extended out towards him in accusation. Peter felt the blame hit him all the way to his core, even as his skin slowly began to bubble and redden. The roar of the fire was incredible, and yet, Peter's ears still caught the weak whisper that Johnny managed to force from his lips.
Confused, Peter looked closer. Johnny's hand wasn't pointed at him, exactly; it was pointed at his desk. Unsure what he wanted but unable to refuse his request, Peter dragged himself closer and checked the surface, then the drawers, for anything that might catch his eye. The top drawer contained a small metal case, bigger than the one he had been carrying but similar enough to make him hold his breath in hope. He pulled it out with shaking, blackening hands and popped it open.
It was a veterinarian's syringe; large, sturdy, and completely stainless steel. When Peter held it up and pushed the plunger cautiously, a squirt of liquid came out, the familiar smell unmistakable as his antivenom.
How? he wondered as he turned and stumbled back to Johnny's side, only to rear back at the heat of the flames. No, forget that, how will I get close enough? He looked up at the fire-proof curtains he'd made to decorate Johnny's bed, yanked one down, and flung it out over the inferno. The heat diminished somewhat as it settled over the thrashing outline of a body, but it was already starting to steam in spots. Peter crawled over his covered form, pinning him down with every limb he could spare, his mind clear enough this time to go for his upper arm, instead. He pinched some skin through the drape and carefully inserted the needle, pushing down on the plunger as slowly has he could force himself to go. He couldn't feel his hands, so he had to judge his pressure by sight.
Like a natural disaster finally tapering off, Johnny's convulsions began to ease up. The excruciating heat he could still feel through the cloth began to lessen, and Peter dared to uncover Johnny's face. He still had a softly flickering barrier of fire over his skin, and his bloodshot eyes stared blankly at the ceiling, but his muscles were relaxing and his breathing was strong. Peter removed the needle and looked around blearily for a safe place to put it. He couldn't... couldn't just leave it on the bed...
The first touch of his foot to the floor was agony; he clutched another curtain for support but it tore off too, sending him collapsing to the hard surface in a searing jolt that made his vision go white. When he could see again, he found the needle embedded firmly in the floorboards and his black, smoldering spider-legs curled around him as if in death.
Am I dying? he wondered as the rest of him contracted into a ball, charred and cracking with the movement, screaming with pain where the cloth tangled around him.
* * *
A soft, steady beeping noise drew him to the surface of consciousness. It reminded him of hospitals, for some reason. Or maybe it was the smell that did that. He made a noise of complaint.
“Peter?” a soft voice whispered. Female, familiar. “Are you awake?”
He couldn't answer. Couldn't open his eyes. Couldn't feel anything.
A soft, sad sigh. “I'm going to change your bandages now, okay? This might hurt.” A brief interlude of soft noises, like scissors snipping and gauze unwrapping, eventually followed up by a huff of annoyance. “Oh, spiders, I know you're worried but you're in the way!”
The complaint made him want to smile, but his muscles weren't up to the task.
He drifted again.
* * *
“How are they doing?”
“So-so. Peter's chest is healing but there's still no improvement on his arms or legs. I'm keeping a force-field tight around Johnny, but he's still firing off at random. I can't even keep an IV in him for more than half an hour, and now he's showing signs of serum sickness from the antivenom! I need a way to keep his powers under control, Reed!”
The sound of hands rubbing over fabric, a gesture of comfort. “Let me call Xavier. I'll get what you need, don't worry.” Softer, a whisper in an ear: “Your brother's going to be fine, you'll see. I'll do everything I can. He'll pull through just fine.”
A sniffle. “Peter, too?”
Hesitation. “Peter, too.”
* * *
A softly hummed song, familiar from nights in his youth when he burned with fever. He thought he recognized the scent of his aunt and uncle, but there were no fingers stroking through his hair, no hands holding his own with a comforting squeeze. He realized with dawning shock that he couldn't even feel the vibration from their breathing, even though he could hear it clearly. He couldn't feel any pain, either, but that was probably from the medicine that was no doubt coursing through his blood and making him sleepy.
Where was his sense of touch?
* * *
Peter opened his eyes with a start. It made a crackling sound, his eyelids far too stiff. His vision slowly focused to reveal a plain white ceiling, an IV drip bag, medical monitoring equipment, and a complete stranger in the room. Instantly on edge, Peter let out a weak hiss, and the stranger looked up with wide eyes.
“Oh, you're awake,” he said in a slightly alarmed voice. “Don't freak out. Do you remember me? We met briefly at Stark's Christmas party. I'm Bobby Drake.”
Peter covered his fangs back up, thrown off by the vaguely familiar combination of words. He struggled to dredge up the memory, cloudy as it was by overloaded senses at the time, and a foggy haze now. A young man, maybe a little older than Johnny, maybe a little shorter than himself, with similarly brown hair and darker brown eyes. “Iceman?” he finally guessed, his voice rough from disuse.
“That's right,” Bobby said in a gentle tone, encouraging him to relax. He seemed to be one of those kinds of people with a naturally calming personality, and Peter couldn't help but be affected. “Sorry I'm the only one here. It's the middle of the night, and Sue's been awake for days. She needed rest.”
Peter nodded his understanding, and that made a crackling noise, too. He turned his head further, and finally realized that Bobby was sitting beside another medical setup just like his—and the figure laying in the bed was Johnny. Peter made a noise of distress as he took him in; the sheen of sweat on his forehead, the puffy and swollen skin around his face.
“I know it looks bad,” Bobby said quickly, “but he's getting better. The steroids are helping him fight off the allergic reaction, now.” As he spoke, he turned his attention back to the sleeping form, focusing intently with piercing eyes. The temperature readout on the equipment nudged back down a little. “I'm just here to put out fires, so to speak.”
Peter watched Johnny breathe for a while, his heart wrenching in his chest. He looked so sick, so weak, lying there hooked up to monitors and fluid bags. Peter had done that. He'd done that to him.
He'd almost killed someone, again, and this time it wasn't a sort-of-villain who maybe almost had it coming. It was his boyfriend, who trusted him. A hero adored by everyone. A beloved brother to the family who had practically adopted him. What would they have thought if he hadn't managed to get the cure to him in time? Would Sue have been able to look him in the eye, the one who took away the last surviving member of her family? Could he look her in the eye?
And what would Johnny think of him now?
Peter sat up slowly, to a chorus of cracking noises like crumpled aluminum foil. He looked down at himself, taking in the current situation. His normal skin, on his torso and upper legs, looked fresh and healthy as could be, covered only by a loose hospital gown. It was probably safe to assume that his neck and lower face looked the same. The rest of him, though—the thicker, tougher skin that used to be hidden under blue and red velvety fuzz—it was all black. Hard, charred, hairless, and cracking at every joint. Delicate bands of spiderweb crisscrossed every inch of it, as if trying to hold him together. A few small spiders were still crawling over the surface, patching up new problem spots as they revealed themselves. He couldn't feel their tiny feet. He saw Cassie climb down from somewhere up on his head, but if she was giving orders to the others or asking him how he was doing, he couldn't hear it. He couldn't even open any of his spider eyes. They were still charred shut.
“Has he woken up?” Peter asked as he slid his feet over the side of the bed.
“Briefly, a few times,” Bobby said, watching him with concern. “You probably shouldn't be getting up.”
“Did he say anything?”
“He asked for you.”
Peter winced, and not because it hurt to put weight on his feet. He tried his spider-legs next; they moved extremely stiffly, but they still worked, at least. It took all six legs to hold him up as he rose off the bed and moved closer to Johnny's.
“Was he mad?”
“No! He was worried. Desperately so.”
Peter's face cracked as his expression pulled into one of remorse. “Why?”
Bobby looked at him incredulously. “Because you're hurt!”
“It's my own fault.”
Bobby's eyes narrowed. “Funny, that's the same thing he said.”
Peter held a hand out for Cassie to crawl onto, then lowered her down beside Johnny's head. She took the hint and nestled down on the pillow. “Don't let Cassie get burned,” Peter said to Bobby as he pulled the IV out from his arm, letting the blood trickle down unhindered.
“Where are you going?” he asked, moving as if to block his path.
“The shower,” he said brightly, pointing in the general direction of his room. A few flakes of black scattered at the movement, for added effect. “I feel like I've been rolling in ashes.”
Bobby didn't look like he was quite sure if he believed him or not, but after a short stare-down, he stepped aside to allow him to pass. “You'll come back, though, right? You're still healing.”
“How long have we been here?” he asked as he shuffled toward the door.
“Four days, I think?”
Peter turned and gave him a smile without a hint of mirth. “Then I'm done. Don't you understand? This is as healed as I'm going to get.”
He turned his back on Bobby's shocked, piteous expression and left the room. He didn't come back.
* * *
Deadpool tensed the moment he opened the door to his apartment. It was cold, like the window had been left open, and a smell like burnt dog hair filled the room. Definitely not the way he had left it. He eased a gun from its holster and stepped in quietly, eyes narrowed behind his mask. Somebody was about to have a very bad day.
A dark figure was sprawled across his sofa; he didn't recognize it. He lowered the gun slowly, turning off the safety without making a sound.
“It's only me,” came a soft but familiar voice just as he began to squeeze the trigger.
Wade stumbled back, clutching at his heart. “Holy fuck, Peter, you can't just sneak in here! I almost shot you!” he yelled as he put the gun away. Tromping forward noisily, he flipped on the light and then stared, stunned, at what he saw. Peter was curled up in a ball, his back facing the world, spider-legs dangling in a messy tangle to the floor. Everything was black. His blue was black, his red was black, his clothing was black. Where his fluffy brown hair should have been was nothing, just black. He smelled crispy with just a hint of soap. The only hint of anything else was the soft tan of his cheek and chin, barely visible where he was trying to hide it in the saggy fabric of the back of the couch.
“Kid,” Wade said softly, like he'd been punched in the gut. “What happened to you?”
Peter's shoulders began shaking. “How do you do it?” he asked in a tight, quavering voice.
“How do you live with the guilt when you hurt someone?”
Shame stabbed Wade for a second, then was overwhelmed by horror as he realized who must have burned Peter into this... charred husk. No. No. Not those two naive, happy lovebirds. Any fate but that.
“I almost killed him,” Peter squeaked out before his throat closed up, confirming Wade's worst fears. His shoulders shook harder, sobs silent as the grave.
Wade gave a long, quiet sigh, his shoulders sagging as his eyes closed. “Okay,” he said solemnly. “Okay.” Leaning down, he slipped his large, gloved hands under Peter's shoulders and legs, carefully scooping him up into his arms and turning to sit down. As soon as he had settled, Peter clung to his neck like a drowning man, burrowing his face against his chest and letting out a hiccuping sob that quickly turned into a torrent of loud, wordless grief.
Wade held him for a long time, letting him scream and cry until he collapsed unconscious in trembling exhaustion. Then he held him for longer still, stroking a thumb over Peter's flushed, damp cheek and wishing he had some way to take all that pain away from him.
A-ha, see what I did there with that chapter title? You totally thought that Venom was another character name, like the other chapters, and that the symbiote was going to show up, but it did not! I sure fooled you! A-ha, ha, ha!
...yeah, I'll probably give in and post the next chapter in a day or two, buffer be damned.
Chapter 8: Chapter 7: Antivenom
Welp, there goes the last of my writing buffer. The next chapter is (probably) going to be the last, though, so it's not that big a deal.
When Peter woke up, it was to a familiar place that brought nothing but feelings of safety and contentment. A warm, sun-lit living room, the smell of home cooking coming from the kitchen, and the gentle murmur of his aunt and uncle's soft voices. He moaned softly as he stirred, confused as to why he would have fallen asleep on the sofa instead of the web in his bedroom. His skin made a crackling noise as he moved, though, and suddenly memories slammed into him; fire, panic, guilt.
He keened in pain, and in an instant Ben and May were by his side, stroking his face and whispering soothing words in his ears. He whimpered and pressed into their hands, desperately seeking the comfort they always brought him. They gave it freely and he soaked it up, greedily, pathetically, needily. When at last he felt ready to face the morning light again, he opened his eyes and looked up into their loving, sympathetic faces. “How... how did I...” He looked around the room again, lost. “I don't remember coming here.”
“Mr. Wilson brought you. He said a boy needs the people who love him when he's hurting.”
Peter huffed through his nose, dropping his head back to the sofa. “I suppose he's gone, then.”
“Well,” said a deep voice, sheepish and slightly sulky, “that was the plan, anyway.”
Peter shot up, looking over the back of the couch with wide eyes. Wade was leaning against the wall next to the entryway, still fully suited and masked, arms crossed and definitely pouting. Something long and black was firmly attached to his shoulder; it took Peter a second to realize it was one of his spider-legs, clinging stickily and refusing to let him leave. With a slight blush, Peter let go and folded it back up with the others.
“But, since you're still here, you might as well stay, right?” Aunt May said in a warm voice with just the barest undercurrent of steel. Wade's head moved slightly as he looked back and forth between the elderly woman and the boy on the couch, as if suddenly understanding where the latter got his talent from.
“Well. I suppose I could wait until after breakfast, I guess,” he muttered as he caved in to their demands. May smiled and gestured for him to join her in the kitchen, and Ben held out a hand to help Peter climb up to his feet. Peter took the hand thankfully; he felt about as steady as a new-born kitten.
“Just for breakfast, mind you!” Wade clarified sternly as he took the fourth seat.
* * *
“Maaaaay, shining light of my life, I have brought you the pork chops you requested!” Wade crooned as he barged in the front door, plastic grocery bags rustling in each hand.
“Oh, wonderful, dear, just put them on the counter!”
Peter blinked out of the daze he was in, overhearing the exchange from all the way down in the basement. He stared down at the loom, wondering how much he had weaved while his body worked on autopilot. Wow, that was... a lot. How long had he been zoning out?
“Hey, Pete,” Ben said softly, politely not remarking on the way it made him jump and stare at him, like he'd forgotten he was there. “Ready to call it a day?”
“Sure,” he said blankly, letting his uncle lead him back upstairs to the living room.
Dinner was... weird. May and Ben kept asking Wade for interesting stories about his job, which he gladly regaled them with using creative but not misleading euphemisms for terrible acts of murder and torture. Peter kept glancing back and forth between them with wide eyes, expecting at any moment for his aunt and uncle to cry out in condemnation and cast Wade out of the house, but it never happened. And every time the conversation turned back to tame, ordinary things, Peter sort-of... checked out. His fork stilled on his plate, his eyes glazed over, and an unknown amount of time passed before he was jolted back into the moment by an expansive gesture on Wade's part as the conversation steered his way again. Then he would stare incredulously and take another bite of surprisingly cold food.
Peter moved back to the couch after dinner to watch a movie, or maybe a TV show? He wasn't entirely sure what was playing. He was pretty sure something was playing, anyway. The TV was on.
“Hey, kid,” Wade said, and Peter turned to see that he was crouched down next to him beside the couch. “I gotta get to work. But I'll be back tomorrow, okay?”
“Really?” he asked, half pure skepticism, half childlike hope.
“Promise,” he said with an amused smile. He reached up as if to ruffle his hair, but Peter didn't have any left to ruffle. Unsure what to do with the gesture now that he'd started it, he gave him a pat instead, then, after a moment's hesitation, stroked his hand down to cup the back of his head. Peter's heart skipped a beat, eyes wide. It was the perfect position in which to kiss someone.
“Okay, bye!” Wade said hastily as he stood back up and walked quickly to the door. “Don't stay up too late watching TV, you... whippersnapper! You've got a big day tomorrow!”
“I do?” Peter asked with a raised eyebrow, turning sideways on the couch and propping his chin on the back as he watched his retreat.
“You bet. I'm bringing you a present to cheer you up!” Wade pronounced somewhat ominously as he backed out the door.
Peter stared at the spot for a long time, concern and anticipation swirling within him until he fell asleep sitting up. Eventually May and Ben helped him lay down across the sofa to sleep more comfortably, exchanging speculative glances between them.
* * *
“Peter!” cried a familiar voice, and the boy in question woke up with a start to find a huge, fluffy tail in his face.
“Doreen?” he asked with disbelief, pushing the tail aside so he could see her concerned, flustered face. “What are you doing here? Don't you have school?”
Her eyes watered with dramatic anger. “That evil, evil man hacked into my school's intercom first thing this morning and requested that Squirrel Girl come to the front gate immediately!” She pointed a finger accusingly at Wade, who had his hands up defensively.
“I didn't know it was a secret!” he said sheepishly.
“I hide my tail in my pants at school!” she screeched. “I had to come up with some dumb excuse to slip out of class without making anyone suspicious!”
“I would just like to point out, for the record, that parental permission was then obtained, and zero kidnapping was therefore involved.”
“Don't you live in Los Angeles?” Peter groaned as he sat up, trying to shake off the haze of sleep. “How'd you get here so fast?”
“We took a plane? It's like, 3pm, Peter.”
“It is?” he asked groggily, blinking as he looked around and took in the angle of the sun through the windows. “Geez. I'm getting as bad as Johnn--” He broke off suddenly, looking stricken. Doreen exchanged a glance with Wade, then smiled brightly at Peter.
“Hey, wanna go parkouring around town? The weather's... really cold, but it won't feel so bad once we're moving!”
“I don't know,” Peter said reluctantly. “I'm not really...” He unfolded his spider-legs in demonstration: they moved jerkily, stiffly, crackling and flaking around the joints.
“Calisthenics, then!” she insisted, not giving up. “Nothing's a better pick-me-up than fresh air and exercise! Come on!” Taking his hand, she dragged him up from the couch with squirrel-strength and led him firmly down the hall to the back door. The air had bite as they stepped outside to the little patio in the back yard, but the house blocked the wind and the sun was warm as it beat down on them. “We'll get you in tip-top shape again in no time, trust me on this.”
“It's worth a try, I guess,” Peter said with a shrug.
They worked until they lost the light of the winter sun. It was gradual at first, but the stiffness worked itself out of Peter's limbs bit by bit, until he could move almost as quickly as he used to. He wrapped fresh lines of webbing over his black skin to help stop the creepy sensation that he was going to loose a chunk of himself, and even the crackling noise finally reached its peak and tapered off. Doreen led him through a whole variety of ridiculous kung fu and yoga moves that he was at least 90% sure she was making up on the spot. She made silly faces and sang goofy songs and in general was too full of noise and laughter for him to even think about spacing out again. He even found himself laughing along when her antics got especially over-the-top, unable to help himself.
They came back inside, red nosed and tired, to find hot chocolate with marshmallows waiting for them and May and Ben looking a little moist around the eyes as they smiled. They sat around the table and talked about happy things, and when Peter wondered aloud where Wade was, May assured him that he had gone to work but would be back when it was time for Doreen to go home.
“By the way, did you know?” he asked Doreen as the mention of Deadpool's work reminded him. “He's investigating Damage Control for you. Well, for Tony Stark, I assume.”
She stared at him in amazement. “No kidding? Huh.” She stirred the spoon around in her third cup of cocoa. “I guess he's not that bad, then.”
Peter's lip twitched at the concession. “So, how goes it with you and Speedball, then? Have you managed to speak to him in person, yet?”
She stuck her tongue out, then gave him a look of pure glee. “Ohmygosh, you won't believe this; he's been scouted to join this new reality TV show that's in the works, about young super-heroes traveling around the country! You know, helping out people who don't live in New York city. I want to join so bad!”
“Well, why don't you?”
She practically vibrated in her seat. “What about my family? What about school?”
“If the show is really about heroes who are still school-aged, they must have a way to work with that,” Ben said thoughtfully.
“I can't speak for Maureen, of course,” May said, “but I know I would be proud to see you on the air, showing the world how a real hero solves problems.”
Doreen stared at her, slowly turning bright red. “Thank you,” she squeaked bashfully.
“And besides,” Peter added, “if you're on the show, that close to Speedball, you'll have the perfect opportunity to make sure everyone follows the advice from that prophesy.”
“Yeah,” she agreed softly, thinking hard. “I should do it. I will do it! I'm gonna make a video and send it in to the production company. And if they don't pick me, then, hey! At least I tried!”
Peter felt something give, something crack open. “A new band of warriors cannot succeed without a heart,” he said as a blue light lit up Doreen's face. She gaped at him, and he stared back, stunned. “I actually heard myself say that,” he whispered.
“That's what they're calling it. The show. New Warriors. Soooo... are you saying...?”
“That you'll be the heart of the show?” he clarified with a grin. “I'd believe it.”
“Whoooo hoooo!” she shouted, pumping both fists into the air and almost upsetting the table. “Sorry,” she said sheepishly as she steadied it, cocoa threatening to splash over the rim of a few cups.
“Don't you fret about that!” May said with a brush of her hand. “Oh, how exciting!”
“This calls for a celebration!” Ben said happily.
Peter was so delighted, he didn't even remember to be miserable until Sue called later that night.
* * *
“How is he doing?” May asked quietly, almost whispering into the phone. Peter froze in the middle of his turn at the board game he was playing with everyone on the coffee table. May had got up to answer the phone in the kitchen when it started to ring, and now the reality of the past week suddenly crashed over Peter like a tidal wave out of nowhere. The tinny reply through the earpiece was clear enough to pick up with his enhanced hearing.
“He's improving. His swelling has gone down and his vitals are almost back to normal. Mr. Drake's being a good sport about the whole thing—we're trading off shifts now, to keep Johnny's powers under control until he can do it himself. He, ah. He really wants to talk to Peter, but at the same time, he seems stressed out by the thought of it, too.”
“Peter does alright when he has constant distraction, but I shudder to think what goes through his mind whenever it slips away. I don't know if it would be better to let them talk as soon as possible or if they need more time apart, first. To recover.”
“Recovering is one thing, but I don't think they can truly heal this way.”
A sigh. “Just... let's give them a little more time, first. He's just still so... raw.”
“Yeah. But not too long, agreed? Putting it off only makes it bigger.”
“I know. I know.”
Peter looked up at Doreen, and knew she had heard every word, too. “I don't really feel like playing, anymore,” he said sadly.
“That's okay,” she said as she scooted around the coffee table to sit against his side.
“How long can you stay?”
“My return flight leaves tonight. If I sleep on the plane, I can still be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for tests tomorrow.”
Peter sighed. “In that case... would you mind terribly if I go ahead and go to sleep? While you're still here?” He looked up at her with pathetically hopeful eyes.
She smiled sympathetically back. “You go right ahead. Here!” She laid her tail down on the seat of the couch, and Peter couldn't help but sigh happily as he pulled himself up off the floor and laid down across the cushions, his head settling into her soft fur like a pillow. He couldn't really feel the texture except on the lower half of his face, but that was enough. Uncle Ben got up and turned out the lights, and Peter was asleep before he even knew it.
When Deadpool returned to take Doreen back to the airport, he had to carefully lift up a sleeping Peter's head and shoulders so she could slip her tail out. A spider-leg reached up to cling to his arm, and Wade stroked it softly to coax it back off.
“Hey, now, none of that. I'll be back, just like before.” The small, black foot finally released its hold as Wade wrapped his hand around it and tugged, and without thinking, he lifted it to his masked mouth and gave it a little kiss before letting it go.
Wade froze. Doreen stared at him. He stared back. “That... was...” he searched his mind frantically for some reason why he did that. “It's like... when you kiss a pet. You know?”
“Oh.” She eyed him suspiciously, but didn't press the matter. “Sure.”
“Boy, them spiders, they sure have cute toes! Like... cats. And their beans. You just wanna...” He made a gesture that could have meant anything.
“You can stop now.”
“Oh, thank god.”
Peter shifted a little and smiled in his sleep.
* * *
Peter cradled a figure with blond hair and blue eyes in his arms, disbelief rocking through his core. The blue eyes were clouded with death. His lover was dead. And it was all his fault.
He sobbed out a name, over and over, but it wasn't a name he recognized. The feelings it evoked, however, were very real.
“NO! Oh, no, no, no—Don't be dead, Gwen—I don't want you to be dead!”
In his mind, the fate of this Other Peter so easily became his own. The beautiful girl was a beautiful boy, a broken neck was a pierced one. Adrenaline flooded his body as he leaped away in horror.
“Woah, easy, kid!”
He backed up further, hissing in fright, snarling at anything that came close. Bombs shaped like pumpkins were exploding all around him; he crawled into a corner, lashing out at indistinct shadows as his spider-sense blared in confusion.
“Shit. Stay back you two, better leave this one to me.”
Death was coming for him, cutting a path through the Web of Life to reach him! He roared but it didn't stand down. Terror gave way to anger; how dare it attack him! Was it not enough to destroy his Web, it had to attack the Weaver, too? Coiling his muscles, he launched his attack, feeling his foe collapse beneath him, hearing the crash as things smashed and broke around them. He bared his teeth and pressed them threateningly against a beating pulse; his attacker wrapped their arms around him, but loosely, far too gently to fend him off.
“It's okay, Peter. You're okay. You're safe. It's okay.”
Hands stroked over his head, down his back, over and over. The adrenaline slowly faded as the ghost of other worlds slipped away, leaving him collapsed across a large, warm body. That's right. He was safe. He pulled his fangs out of the leather they had sunk through, still clean of blood. The body beneath him relaxed minutely, even though it didn't smell of fear. Didn't smell like prey.
If anything, it smelled of anticipation. Its heart was racing wildly. It... longed to be bitten.
And that wasn't all.
Normal sleep was already pulling Peter back under; his head had come to rest on the body's shoulder, and his spider-legs were curling up to form a cage around them both. He felt like he had a hundred questions to ask, but he would just have to hope he still remembered them come morning.
* * *
“Good morning, Peter,” came a polite, familiar voice.
“Hank?” he asked blearily, squinting as he sat up. It was indeed still morning, but only barely. Lunch would be ready before he knew it.
“I understand you had a bit of a rough night?”
“I did?” He looked blankly around the living room, noticing that the coffee table and an end table that once held a lamp were all missing. “What happened?”
“A bad dream, I believe.”
“I didn't... hurt anyone, did I?” he asked, suddenly worried.
“No! No. Well, Mr. Wilson got knocked around a bit, but he's a resilient fellow.”
Peter stared at Henry McCoy, still a little out of it but trying to wake up and piece things back together. “Did he... fetch you?”
Hank's furry blue face pulled into a wry smile. “That's a fairly accurate way of putting it, yes. He came storming into the X-Mansion this morning looking for me, saying that you were in need of a nice, therapeutic chat.”
Peter gave an exasperated sigh and collapsed back onto the couch, covering his face with a pillow. “Is he planning on bringing me another one of my friends every morning?”
“That does rather strike me as his style.”
He muffled a laugh into the pillow, then pulled it off again. “Well, as long as you're here, would you like to join my family and me for lunch?”
“I would be delighted.”
* * *
“Fascinating. So your third eyes opened again, all on their own, in response to our mutual friend, Ms. Green?”
“Yeah. And I guess having that ability back triggered my dreams last night? Uncle Ben said those were the only eyes I had open, and they were glowing.”
“Do you remember what you dreamed about?”
“Honestly? I don't remember any of it happening at all. I went to sleep feeling safe and I woke up feeling safe.”
“How interesting. So, what is it you're doing now?”
Peter looked up from where he was peering into the tiny spiderwebs in the corners around the basement. “I was hoping that if the spiders had a report for me, it would trigger my fourth eyes to open again. I guess it's going to take more than that, though.”
“Ah.” He scratched his head, looking around at all the unfamiliar equipment that filled the room. “So. Is there anything else you'd like to talk to me about? Perhaps regarding what happened that night with you and Johnny?”
“I'm gonna put an emphatic no on that.”
* * *
“And it's just so frustrating!” Peter snarled as he ripped down another corner of the web nest in his bedroom, tearing it into smaller and smaller pieces as he worked, like it had personally wronged him. “Why was he so scared of me? If he hadn't smelled so much like fear, I wouldn't have attacked him! Probably! I remember that much, at least. Am I... am I really that scary?” he asked, looking at Hank upside down with pathetic eyes.
“I'm probably a poor judge on that matter, dear boy. I'm watching you tear apart your bedroom and eat it and all I can think of is that it's a shame to destroy such a work of art.”
Peter paused, a piece of web dangling from his lips. “I was gonna rebuild it all. This gets me the silk proteins back.”
“As for Johnny's reaction... I think you need to talk with him about it. There may be extenuating circumstances of which you were not aware.”
Peter narrowed his eyes at him suspiciously. “Do you know something I don't know?”
“I may have been keeping abreast of the situation via Mr. Drake. It seems he has been acting as Johnny's sounding board, much as I am serving to you, right now.”
Peter shrank in on himself a little. “Is he mad at me? Johnny?”
“I don't believe so. Though, he may be a little miffed that you left him there alone.”
He twirled some web around a finger nervously. “I left Cassie with him, so he'd know I was coming back.”
“I don't—I don't know,” he whispered, pulling himself in even smaller.
“You do realize, he thinks that you are mad at him.”
“Peter,” Hank said, half pityingly and half exasperated as he gestured at him with his hand. “Look at you!”
Peter blinked, his eyes moving almost of their own accord to the mirror on the wall that had been uncovered by his redecorating, and finally, really looked at himself.
Skin like a campfire log; coal black crisscrossed with ashen gray. Some of the deeper cracks in his joints looked red, as if they were bleeding, or still burning within. The markings on his face, which once ended in sharp, crisp points on his cheeks, almost like fangs of their own, were now rather messy and feathered, like tears smeared with soot. The whites of his eyes almost glowed from the contrast. He looked like some kind of vengeful spirit, or a particularly dramatic super-villain. Peter stared in disbelief. He'd been avoiding looking at himself, but he hadn't realized he looked quite so terrible.
“Why doesn't it heal?” he whispered to himself, touching the mirror with a tracing finger.
“Perhaps,” Hank said gingerly, “you don't want it to.”
Peter sighed. “But I deserve it...”
“Johnny's doing the same thing, you know.”
“What?” he asked, turning to look at Hank with wide eyes.
“He should be able to control his flames again by now, but he's just letting Bobbie and Sue keep him locked down. Like he doesn't think he deserves to have powers anymore.”
“But that's--!” Peter protested, aghast. “No!”
“It hurts, does it not? Letting each other suffer your own self-punishments rather than talking it over like a pair of adults?”
Shame and embarrassment washed through him in a wave of heat. “Oh.”
“Oh, indeed. But don't worry about it too hard. You and Johnny have many friends, and we would never have let you two carry on like this for much longer.”
Peter gave him a sad little half-smile. “Yeah. Thanks, Hank. I'll... I'll go see him first thing tomorrow.”
“Excellent. I know this is hard for you, Peter. It would be hard for anyone. And perhaps this is an inappropriately fatherly thing to say when we were trying to establish you as an adult now, but... I'm proud of you.”
Peter's smile pulled just a little wider. “Does that mean I'm too grown-up for hugs?”
Hank glanced around the room and crooked a finger for him to come closer, looking for all the world like he was about to impart upon him some great secret. “Peter. Only those who are truly still immature at heart are ever “too grown-up” for hugs.”
* * *
“Soooo, how was your day, honey?” Wade asked as he propped his elbows on the back of the couch, more than likely batting his eyelids under the mask.
“It was... productive,” Peter said seriously as he looked up and over his shoulder at him. “I'm going to return to the Baxter building tomorrow.”
“Oh, thank god,” he said with a giant sigh of relief. “I was gonna bring you The Thing next, and let me tell you, that is not an easy man to kidnap. Even if you do succeed at rendering him unconscious, then you gotta figure out how to carry him, and that's just all sorts of logistical problems I wasn't looking forward to—hey, Beast! Oh good, you're still here. Gotta quick question for you.”
Peter watched him hop over the couch to the recliner where Hank was sitting and smiled fondly. Honestly, he wasn't sure what he had been thinking when he sought out Wade's apartment as a place to fall apart in. Maybe that Wade would impart some soul-shattering bit of harsh reality that he could destroy himself with. Or maybe that he really could make it all better despite the fact that he clearly suffered a much harder life than Peter did. Or because of, not despite. It never occurred to him that the man would drag him to the people who really could help him. And then keep doing so, instead of washing his hands of the whole thing. Maybe the man didn't have any answers of his own, but he sure knew where to go looking for them at.
Perhaps because they were answers he was unable to find for himself, when he needed them?
“So, what do you think?” Wade asked, after Hank had put on his glasses and carefully examined and sniffed the pill-bottle and its contents that he'd been presented with.
“They definitely contain Mutant Growth Hormone. Where did you find these?”
Wade dropped them back into a little zip-lock evidence bag. “Let's just say I think I've finally got a clue as to what's rotten in the heart of Damage Control. It won't be long now until I've got a solid case to present.”
“And then your job will be over?” Peter blurted out, dismayed.
Wade looked up in surprise, then moved to take a seat next to him on the couch. “No job lasts forever, you know.”
“But then you'll leave,” he pointed out, trying to keep the petulance out of his voice.
“Probably, yeah?” he said as he sprawled his arms out across the back of the sofa, a grand show of how little concern he felt. “I go where the jobs are.”
“Couldn't you try for another... good-guy-sanctioned one?”
“But those are so boring,” he pouted. “And it's not like those wouldn't take me out of town, either.”
“Even so. Think of the benefits that would come with them!”
“They don't pay that good, either.”
Peter pressed his hands on the seat cushion between them, leaning slightly closer. “Other benefits.”
“Being on all the Dream Teams' good sides?”
He practically bore a hole into the side of Wade's mask, trying to radiate how much he wanted him to stay with the force of his stare alone. Across the living room, Hank nearly dropped his glasses and sat up straighter with a snort, sniffing and sampling the air and staring at the two of them with widening eyes.
“Wow, it's... kinda hot in here, isn't it?” Wade asked as he tugged at the collar of his uniform where it clung tightly to his neck. Peter's eyes zoomed in on the motion, something tugging at the edge of his consciousness that he'd tried to hold on to but had forgotten. Something... something about... anticipation.
Peter's eyes dilated as he willed Wade to feel it, his fourth eyes cracking open as instincts bubbled forth. Wade was definitely breathing harder, trying to hide it as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Well, whatever the case,” he said with just an edge of hysteria in his voice, “talking about future jobs is a moot point when I haven't finished this one!” He jumped to his feet and beat a hasty retreat to the entryway, opening the door to a blast of cold. “Aaaah, thank fuck, it's freezing outside. I'll—I'll see you later, Pete!” he said as he bolted away.
Peter bared his teeth quietly as he watched him flee, plotting how to hunt him down this time. The spiders would find him. They always did.
“Well! That was... enlightening,” came another voice, a familiar one. Peter turned to face the Blue-creature in surprise, sniffing the pheromones that swirled around him. Mostly the aforementioned enlightenment mixed with uncomfortable embarrassment.
With a blink, Peter was himself again. An extremely red-faced self.
“Oh, god,” he said, snatching up the pillow from this morning and hiding behind it. “What was that?”
“As a fellow producer of animal pheromones, I would have to say: an attempted ensnaring.”
Peter gave a sort of sobbing groan as he keeled over sideways on the couch. “Any chance you're going to let that pass without comment?”
“I'm afraid not, Peter.”
“Are we starting with the grilling of my motives or the ethics lecture?”
“Which one would you like to start with?”
If the response to that came out especially whiny, well... Peter wasn't an adult yet.
* * *
Peter couldn't sleep.
Hank had already departed long ago, after a long discussion about “the moral responsibilities inherent in super-powered methods of influence” that Peter was going to regret having for a long time. He had bid Aunt May and Uncle Ben goodnight, only to find that the living room couch was no longer the comfortable resting spot it had been the last few days. Frustrated, he walked upstairs to his bedroom and crawled into the new web tunnels he had half-finished putting up. It had a sleeping chamber ready, at least, and that was the important part.
It still wasn't enough to help him sleep. He shifted his many legs this way and that, rocked himself in his hammock, but nothing helped. He was too worried about seeing Johnny in the morning. He was afraid of seeing him, to be honest. He wished he could catch a glimpse of him now, just to make sure he was okay, wasn't suffering.
Then he remembered that he could.
Closing his eyes, Peter let his sense of self drift away. He checked on the spiders in the basement, and they greeted him joyfully, glad to know he was speaking to them again. He followed the familiar trail to Wade's apartment, where he hastily backed out again when he realized the man's leather uniform was draped across various pieces of furniture and the sound of a shower running could be heard from the bathroom. Nope, no, one lecture on morality per day was more than enough.
He returned to the path of his original destination, and soon found his consciousness nestled beside the familiar shape of Cassie's mind.
Peter! she cried, perking up. You're back!
I'm back! Or I will be, tomorrow. In person, I mean.
I'm glad. I miss you! The Fire-creature has been kind to me, but he isn't even warm anymore. The Force-creature and the Ice-creature keep his temperature too much like a normal human's.
So... so Johnny's... doing okay, then?
He is very grumpy sometimes. Especially with the Ice-creature.
That doesn't surprise me. Fire and Ice are about as opposite as two opposites can be.
It's not that they don't get along.
How do you mean?
I think the Fire-creature is mad that the Ice-creature makes him feel better. He doesn't want to feel better.
Peter felt a twinge of sadness at that. Can I see him?
Of course. Cassie crawled out of a silk tunnel and up a branch to the rim of a glass box. Peter realized that someone had put together a small terrarium setup for her, with a heating pad underneath to keep her warm. That was nice. It was on a rolling cart next to the hospital bed where Johnny lay sleeping.
Peter stared through Cassie's weak eyes. Johnny looked... better. There was a small bandage on his neck, but his skin was back to a normal color, the swelling gone. His face looked blank and calm in his sleep. Cassie walked down a ramp made of a screen material that was probably meant to be the lid of the tank, then over to the bed. The scent of shampoos and gels filled Peter's senses; Johnny couldn't be too bad off, if he was back to styling his hair.
Why is he still sleeping in the medical ward?
Because he doesn't want to return to his bedroom. I don't know if it's been cleaned and repaired yet, but even if it has, it wouldn't be the same.
Cassie crawled up onto Johnny's chest, letting Peter feel the soothing rhythm of it. Johnny's face pulled into a frown in his sleep, and he wished he could smooth it away. Cassie moved obligingly up to his collarbone, reaching up to tap his chin with her tiny spider foot.
Johnny made a distressed noise, body twitching, temperature increasing.
Oh no, Peter realized, and they backed away nervously. I think we're giving him bad dreams!
A smell like smoldering bed-sheets started to fill the air, and suddenly, Cassie was being picked up by a pair of large, gentle hands.
“Easy, there, Johnathan. Easy.” A cool blast of air dispersed the smell, and the hands carried them around the bed to the terrarium. “I'm sorry, Cassie. I know you mean well.” As she was deposited back in the tank, Bobbie Drake crouched down to peer through the glass wall at her, his expression sympathetic but serious. “But these things happen sometimes. The mind is willing, but...” He sighed, looking back at Johnny. “The body can't forget.”
Peter felt stricken. What... what was he saying? Was Johnny afraid of spiders now? Was that the reason for the terrarium?
Bobby walked around the bed again, returning to his vigil. Before he sat down, though, he paused at Johnny's side, watching the way his forehead wrinkled and eyelashes twitched in his sleep.
“Hey,” he whispered softly, leaning over and stroking a hand through his hair. “You're okay. It's all right. You're safe. Shhhhhh.” He blew a gentle breeze of cool air over his forehead as he shushed, and Peter couldn't help but notice how much it looked like a kiss, how tender the look in Bobbie's eyes was as his hand curled around to stroke the line of Johnny's jaw.
How familiar the words were.
Johnny's face smoothed out into one of peacefulness, his head turning slightly into the cool press of Bobby's hand.
It was with a conflicted heart that Peter drifted away from Cassie and returned to his own body, his mind submerging itself into the world of dreams. What did it mean that he and his boyfriend both felt such security in other people's arms?
* * *
Morning dawned bright and cold and too soon. Peter sat at the table with Aunt May and Uncle Ben for breakfast, freshly clean and dressed in his blue and red uniform and trying not to look like the bundle of nerves that he knew he was. He didn't succeed all that well; apparently when he concentrated on keeping his fingers from tapping on the table, his spider-feet tapped the floor instead. He wouldn't have blamed them if they laughed at his twitching, but the smiles they gave him were full of nothing but support. When he couldn't pretend to be trying to eat any longer, he stood, hugged his family, and headed out.
It had been a while since he'd made the journey through the city. He almost hoped to have to deal with a back-load of criminals and people in need of help, but his spider-sense remained completely silent of potential distractions. Honestly, it was probably a good thing. He still hadn't regained his largest set of spider-eyes, and the lack of extra peripheral vision made web-slinging a more cautious, nerve-wracking affair than he was used to. He still managed to make it to the Baxter building in good time, regardless. He crawled up to the roof, expecting to have a few more minutes to work up his nerve before entering, but someone was already there, waiting for him.
“Hey... Grimm,” he said awkwardly, caught by surprise.
“Hey, Kid,” he said in return, taking a good look at him. His eyes traveled over his form with a poorly hidden wince. A silence stretched out uncomfortably long between them as they both struggled to find a delicate way to break it. Peter got more and more nervous the longer it went. Grimm coughed, rubbed the back of his neck, then blurted out: “You going through an emo stage? As your Big Brother, I'm obligated to tease you mercilessly about any weird phases in your life.”
Peter smiled tremulously, a weight he hadn't realized he'd been carrying dissolving away. “Be careful what you initiate. As your Little Brother, I may have to find ways to prank your girlfriend in order to make sure she's good enough for you.”
“Oh, man, you keep your prank wars far away from Alicia, or I'mma have to clobber you into spider-paste!” he said with a grin, crouching into a fighting stance.
“You and what army, Rock Lobster?” he taunted, leaping high into the air and coming to a landing on the wide plain of his back. Grimm proceeded to put on a good show of being unable to reach him, letting Peter duck and dodge his pinching fingers as he tried to reach behind himself. Peter found himself laughing a touch too giddily as he played keep-away.
“Thanks,” he said softly, pressing his face against the center of Grimm's back when it suddenly began to feel like too much. He didn't want to cry before he even saw Johnny. “For... you know. Everything.”
Grimm shrugged, the motion sending ripples under Peter's feet like a water-bug riding the waves. “Any time. You're family, too, you know.”
“But. But what about... Sue?”
“I feel the same,” came her soft, gentle voice, and Peter looked up with a start to see her drop her invisibility with a watery smile upon her face. He hadn't realized that his muted sense of touch meant he couldn't sense the vibrations of her sneaking up anymore. Reed was standing just behind her, wrapped around her in silent support, but he let go as she stepped forward, arms opening wide.
Peter dropped down to the rooftop and shuffled toward her, head bowed meekly. “I wasn't going to cry yet,” he mumbled, dropping his head onto her shoulder as she wrapped him up in a tight hug.
“Silly thing. I'd be offended if you didn't.”
He laughed wetly, spider-legs curling around to join the embrace. “I was afraid you were mad at me.”
“The only thing I'm mad about is that you ran off before I could make sure you were okay!” She hugged him tighter, somehow finding a few spots of his skin that hadn't finished crackling yet. “But I understand why you did. You needed more help than mine to get better.”
“I guess Hank told you all I was coming today, huh?”
“He did, but he wasn't the first.”
“Deadpool, actually. He said you needed to see us first, to soothe some of your worries.”
Peter lifted his head, blinking away some of the wet on his eyelashes. “...oh.”
“I have been talking with May, of course, and she's kept me up to date on how you've been doing. You know, I'm honestly surprised at the way Wade pulled through for you. I may even be ready to forgive him for the kidnapping incident after this.”
“I'm sure he'll be ecstatic,” Peter said with just a twitch of amusement at the corner of his lips. Sue bit her lip to hold in a laugh and smacked him playfully on the shoulder. Peter's eyes trailed up over her head, to the stern countenance of the man behind her. “So... I guess... this is the part where you say “I told you so,” huh?”
“Peter,” Reed said gravely, stepping forward as Sue moved aside so he could have his turn. “I would never say something like that.” And then to Peter's vast surprise, he was suddenly all tangled up in stretchy arms, and it was Reed who was hiding his face on his shoulder. He was shaking, even. “I'm not going to ask if I was too harsh, or if I went about it all wrong. That would be the height of arrogance, to make it about me. But I just want you to know... I really did want you two to be happy. And I apologize, from the bottom of my heart, if I ever gave you reason to think I was disappointed in you, on top of everything else you had to go through.”
Peter's face pulled into a grimace as he struggled to hold back an onslaught of tears. “Dammit, Reed,” he choked out thickly, “why'd you have to go and say a thing like that?” A sob slipped out, and then Sue was hugging them both and Grimm was hugging all three of them and that was it—Peter's resolution to meet Johnny without red eyes or blotchy cheeks was completely ruined.
Honestly, he didn't mind it that much.
* * *
Johnny sensed the heat of an extra body before he even turned around. Peter heard the way his heart was suddenly pounding the moment realization hit him. They stared at each other, frozen in place, while Johnny's video game character died in a gruesome crash. Bobby put down his controller, cleared his throat, and clearly came to the decision to give them some privacy.
“Johnathan,” he said as he stood to leave, relinquishing his invisible restraint with an icy wave.
“Robert,” Johnny said back sardonically, a brief flicker of fire flaring up and vanishing as he resumed control.
He left the room, and suddenly, finally, Peter and Johnny were face-to-face for the first time since the incident. Johnny patted the pillow on the floor in front of the couch beside him, and Peter jerked forward on unsteady legs to take the offered seat.
For a long moment they just looked at each other, silently drinking it all in. Johnny cautiously lifted a hand, and when Peter didn't pull away, he trailed it over the side of his face, feeling the bitter difference between healed skin and non. “I'm so sorry,” he whispered with feeling.
Peter held Johnny's hand firmly against his cheek with his own. “That's my line.”
Johnny shook his head. “You didn't know you were going to react that way.” Peter opened his mouth to argue, but Johnny beat him to it. “I did.”
Peter's eyes widened in surprise. “What do you mean?”
Johnny looked at his lap, his smile rueful. “You gave me a prophesy. It was very clear. But I, like an arrogant hotheaded fool, thought I could keep it to myself and work around it. And now I'm all better, and you're still paying the price.”
“I... what?” Peter stuttered, feeling like the world was listing to the side. “How did... what was it?”
Johnny sighed as he looked up into Peter's confused, guileless face. “An unworthy suitor becomes spider prey. In flames the vial shatters; the cure burns away.”
Peter's eyes were wide and unblinking for an agonizingly long moment. “The... steel syringe?”
“My backup in case I failed.”
“Then... the clichéd dates? The abstinence?”
His lip twitched a little at clichéd, but he didn't argue the point. “My attempts to thwart the prophesy by becoming a proper suitor. I thought I succeeded when we started having sex and nothing happened. I was cocky.”
Peter felt a wild flicker of emotions, spinning through his head like they couldn't decide which one to settle on. “You... knew. And you didn't tell me.”
“You knew I was going to hurt you. But you tried to date me anyway,” he whispered, as his mind toyed with the idea of continuing to blame himself.
“You knew you were going to lose control of your flames. Did you know you were going to hurt me?”
“I should've. I think... I tried not to think about the ramifications of that part. So I could keep justifying it to myself.”
“But surely you knew that I would blame myself if you died because of my bite?!”
Johnny pinched his lips together and looked down, his hands clenched tightly around his knees. Peter sucked in a breath, then saw red.
“You... JERK!” he shouted, shoving Johnny backwards with both hands. The sofa slid backwards across the floor as Johnny bumped it before landing on his back. “Do you know how terrible I've felt the past few days?!” Peter cried as he crawled on top of him, pulling his arm back to punch him across the jaw. Johnny didn't bother to block the blow. “I was in agony over what I did to you! I went crying to Wade because I felt like I'd become a killer!” His fist slammed into the side of his face, and he made a pained wheeze. “I was glad that I wasn't healing, because I thought I deserved to look like this!” He let loose another hit and a soft crack popped in the vicinity of Johnny's nose. Something inside of Peter flinched at the sound, but he couldn't stop himself from gearing up for another strike. Rage was coursing through his blood and he wasn't sure he could hold back his super-strength anymore. “I thought,” he ground out through gritted teeth, every part of him shaking, “I thought...!”
Johnny rolled his head back to receive the next blow, and Peter hesitated before he could bash his face in, the sight before him slowly cooling his fury. Johnny the Infuriating, the Beautiful, the Shallow, had a river of tears streaming out the corners of his reddened eyes, his perfect lips painted with blood and spit and twisted into a grimace of grief and remorse. “I'm sorry,” he whispered. “I'm so sorry. Please. It's my fault. I hurt you so much and I can't... I can't take it back! I'm so sorry!”
Peter dropped his hand to the floor, and then his forehead to Johnny's chest. How could he stay angry in the face of that? The words even pinged a memory from not that long ago; another man, another grievous wrong, another distraught apology.
Peter had forgiven him. Why was this so much harder?
“I thought we were so in love,” he said with a sniffle, leaking a few tears of his own into Johnny's shirt.
“I know that I was a bit, let's say, infatuated with you for a long time,” Johnny croaked out. “But now I can't tell if what bloomed afterward was really love or just selfishness on my part. I wanted you to be mine, so much. And then I couldn't stand the thought of being unworthy.”
Peter slowly curled up where he had collapsed, hunched over Johnny's prone form, while the world reeled dizzily around him. This was not how he'd expected this meeting to go at all. He'd come here prepared to confess, to his shame, that he'd been thinking of someone else while they were having sex. That it was that momentary, accidental slip in his addled mind that had almost gotten them both killed. This was... so much more complicated. “You were afraid, that night, because of the prophesy,” he said as the thought occurred to him. “Because you realized it was coming true. And then your fear made me fulfill it.” He cursed. “Stupid self-fulfilling prophesies.”
“Don't you dare blame yourself for giving it in the first place.”
“You have to admit, if I hadn't, none of this would have--”
“Nope,” Johnny said firmly, daring to stroke a hand over Peter's bald head. “I don't have to admit anything like that, 'cause it's bullshit. This would have happened sooner or later no matter what, and without the prophesy, I wouldn't have known that your antivenom was going to go up in smoke.”
“Why do you think it would happen anyway?” Peter asked, tilting his head up so he could see his face.
Johnny sighed and looked up at the ceiling. “I've had a lot of free time the last few days to sit and think. And research.” Peter's eyebrows shot up, and Johnny squinted his eyes at him. “Yes, I can do research, shut up.” He coughed wetly and Peter finally sat back up, pulling Johnny up too so he could breathe better. “Anyway, a bunch of scientists decided to do a study to figure out why female spiders always killed their mates. And you know what they discovered?”
“They don't. Only certain males got eaten. The small ones, the ones easily mistaken for prey. Of course, that kind of sucks for spider-kind, because males usually are smaller than the females. But the ones that match them more closely in size? Got to mate and live to tell the tale.”
Peter blinked. He looked Johnny over and blinked again. “But you're bigger than me.”
“Thanks,” Johnny said with a hint of smug, and promptly got punched for it. On the shoulder, since his cheek and nose were already swelling up. “Ow, okay! No dick jokes, I get it! Geez. Anyway, the point I was trying to make is: your mind and instincts have already decided what a proper mate for you should look like. And they imprinted on someone... a little bigger than I am.”
Peter sucked in a breath and froze, staring at Johnny with a guilty look on his face. “Really? Wh-who might that be?”
The look he got back was extremely unimpressed. “Seriously, Peter? You do remember that I was standing right there when you suddenly learned the hard way that there is no position to put six arms in that looks remotely casual? You and Deadpool were practically hosting a competition over who could raise their body temperature faster.”
“He was feeling flushed too?” Peter blurted out hopefully, then slapped a hand over his mouth, eyes wide.
“Yeah, keep trying to hide it, Mr. Stockholm Syndrome. See, that's when I really should have known I was doomed.”
“Shut up! Go back to your Florence Nightingale, you invalid!”
A short silence stretched between them as they avoided each other's eyes and tried to figure out where the conversation had gone off track. “So... yeah,” Johnny said. “That's what I was trying to get at. This was always bound to happen eventually, because your worthy suitor isn't someone who can follow all the right steps to an old, formal dance. I'm not sure what his qualifications are, exactly... but they're ones that make him right for you.”
A phantom sensation ghosted over Peter's nerves and memory: broad, steady hands stroking away fear and grief, while his fangs rested against flesh but felt no need to bite. A solid presence that tried to stay in the background of his life but kept leaping to the forefront, over and over...
He smiled gently as he stared into the distance. “I'm sure I'll figure it out.” His smile turned more regretful as he looked back into Johnny's eyes. They looked... sadly, peacefully, resigned. “So I guess this means we're breaking up, huh?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
He sighed. “Why you gotta snag all my firsts, Johnny? First kiss, first boyfriend, first lay... first breakup. Stop being such an over-achiever.”
“What can I say, it's a gift and a curse,” he laughed thickly, his throat tight. By unspoken agreement, they each slid closer together, until they were side by side. Somehow, in spite of everything, it still came as a bit of a shock and a disappointment that everything they'd shared was coming to an end.
“Any chance I could get one last kiss?” Peter asked sadly. “For old time's sake?”
“You sure? What if I burn you again? I haven't had much control lately.”
Peter gave him a perceptive look. “And yet, you didn't hurt me while I was punching your face in. You know that I know perfectly well how dramatic you can be when you're sulking. You probably could have had control back days ago.” A thought occurred to him. “Or maybe you didn't want a certain boy to have reason to leave quite yet.”
“Hmm? What boy? I don't have the foggiest idea who you're talking about.”
“Mmm-hmm,” he retorted dryly. “Sure.”
“I definitely won't be thinking about him while I'm kissing you,” he said with just a hint of his old smirk.
“Well, I definitely wasn't thinking about Wade while you were fucking me.”
Johnny let out an extremely overblown gasp of morally outraged shock. “For shame, Peter! For shame!”
“You... already assumed that, didn't you.”
“I mean, it retrospect, it was pretty obvious.”
Peter huffed a laugh and let his forehead fall on Johnny's shoulder. “I am sorry, all the same.”
“You're forgiven,” he said magnanimously. “There's only one asshole in this room, and it's definitely me.”
“We're still going to be friends after all this... right?”
Johnny wrapped an arm around him. “Absolutely. In fact, I have already laid the groundwork for the next phase of our prank war that is going to drive you mad with rage. Seriously, you're gonna want to kill me--”
If he had anything else to say on the matter, it was lost as Peter dived in and pressed their lips together. Johnny's other arm, in the middle of some enthusiastic gesture, drifted down to encircle his waist instead, pulling him in close. Peter's hands reached up to cup the back of Johnny's head, avoiding his bruised cheek and guiding him deeper into the tender, bittersweet kiss.
I forgive you, too, Peter wanted it to say. Even if it was doomed from the start, I'm still glad for the time we had. But some things can't be repaired. It's time we found our happiness somewhere else, so... I'm letting you go.
Something cracked and gave way, inside and out. Peter felt the seal over his last pair of eyes finally break apart and vanish, along with the last dregs of his recent anger and all the fear, guilt, and sorrow that had plagued him for the past week. He felt lighter. Freer. Almost loose in his own skin.
Check that. Literally loose in his own skin.
“What the hell was that noise?” Johnny asked as they finally broke apart, flushed and shaking and just a little newly wet around the eyes.
Peter looked down at himself, turning his arms over and examining the charred black shell of his skin with something like dawning wonder. He poked at the joint of his wrist. It shifted, ever so slightly, in a manner that it shouldn't have.
“I think,” he said slowly, looking up at Johnny with a small but growing ember of hope, “that I'm starting to molt.”
Chapter 9: Chapter 8: Spider-Man
It's the final chapter!! Sorry for the wait: it turned out extra long, plus I spent time making an art because I am addicted to putting art in my stories, apparently.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Why did I think molting was a good thing?” Peter moaned for the eleventh time.
“I don't know, why don't you ask again?” Johnny retorted with irritation.
“This is worse than wearing clothes!” He let the controller drop from his position on the ceiling to the sofa below and proceeded to frantically scratch over his hardened, cracking skin, shimmying across the ceiling for added pressure.
“What?” Bobby asked, his mouth hanging open slightly as he watched in concern.
“He means clothes over his fur. Long sleeves. Shoes. That sort of thing,” Johnny explained as he resolutely tried to ignore his ex-boyfriend's increasingly annoying fits and focus on the video game they all had picked back up after lunch. “How much longer is this supposed to take?”
“I don't knooooow,” he whined, coming to a stop when he ran out of ceiling. “Cassie, how long is this supposed to take?”
It usually took me a few weeks before I was finally ready to shed, she said from her terrarium on the medical cart, which had been wheeled into the common room with them. But you are already nearing the end of the process. Another day, perhaps?
Peter gave a sob and dropped down to the floor, walking over to the sofa in order to sprawl dramatically across both boys, completely ruining the rest of the game. Johnny pulled his hands free in order to throw them up in frustration. “Do you mind? I was winning!”
“Numb me,” he mumbled into the arm of the sofa. Bobby shook his head with a faint smile and sent a wash of cold through Peter's body, focusing on the tender skin that was trapped underneath what could now be considered an exoskeleton.
“Me, too?” Johnny asked hopefully, pointing to his bruised cheek and bandaged nose. Bobby looked like he was considering telling him to go find an ice pack like a normal person, but finally caved and sent a little soothing cold his way, too.
“You know, I really should be getting back to the X-Mansion by now,” he pointed out as he turned back to Peter. “I have duties! I can't stay here even longer just to soothe your itches.”
“No. You're my new best friend. I have no other friends now.”
“Come on, that's a little extreme.”
“HE TAUGHT CASSIE TO SING NINETY-NINE BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WALL!” Peter screeched, and Johnny grinned like the smuggest bastard in the world.
“Aaah, the look on your face,” he sighed dreamily. “I told you I'd win the prank war some day, didn't I?”
“You haven't won!” Peter snarled, twisting around to face him with fangs bared. “I just haven't had time to retaliate!”
“None of that,” Bobby said sternly, waving a hand so that frost formed over Peter's black lips. “No fangs.”
Peter flinched away with a shocked expression and rolled off of their laps to the floor, clutching his mouth and curling his spider-legs inward. “Cold! On teeth! My one weakness!” he whimpered.
“Wow,” Johnny whispered as he watched, eyebrows shooting up. “You took out Spider-Kid in seconds.” He turned the look on Bobby. “I am so hot for you right now.”
Bobby's eyes widened for a split-second before he quickly looked away, the tips of his ears going red. “Sorry, Peter,” he said hastily. “I didn't know you had dental sensitivity.”
“I hate you both,” he croaked from the floor.
* * *
He wasn't any better company by dinner time. He couldn't even look at food, much less swallow it, and when Sue pressed him about it he practically bit her head off. Figuratively. Then he curled up into a contrite ball of misery and begged for her forgiveness for five minutes.
Bobby's numbing skills eventually stopped helping with the unpleasantness, and in frustration Peter begged Johnny to burn the skin off. The haunted look that flashed over his face at the suggestion made Peter feel like an ass, and he proceeded to apologize for ten minutes.
Peter banished himself to the deepest chamber of his web nest for a while, but that left him with zero distractions except for loudly blaming all spider-kind for his current misery, which led to him soothing Cassie's hurt feelings for fifteen minutes.
It was at this point that Peter decided it was time to take his frustrations straight to the source. He left a note for the Four and a voicemail for his aunt and uncle that he was going to be unreachable for a few days, then headed out into the night.
* * *
“I need to change apartments,” Deadpool said with a sigh as he walked in the door.
“Don't bother, I'd just find your new one, too.”
“Well, you've certainly, ah, made yourself at home.” He eyed the span of webbing that stretched just below the window in the corner apprehensively. “Does this mean... things didn't go well?”
“Oh! No, they went great. We're all a big happy family again.” Peter stretched luxuriously across his wide, flat hammock, on his back with his spider-legs curled loosely in the air. He was wearing nothing but his silk knee-length pants, and Wade seemed hypnotized by the sight of him. “Johnny and I are back to being at each other's throats, though in a strictly non-sexual manner from now on.”
“What?” Wade cried, snapping out of it. “You two broke up?”
“Yep. Apparently this whole thing was largely his fault. Also, it seems I'm incapable of having sex without potentially killing my partner.”
An extremely loaded silence stretched out between them. For one thing, Wade had never asked for the details that led to Peter and Johnny's mutual near-destruction. For another, there was a very obvious solution to Peter's problem, and neither of them were saying it.
“Soooo,” Wade finally said, awkwardly, “why are you here, again?”
“I'm molting and it makes me a snippy asshole. So I decided to take off before I said something unforgivable.” He looked over at Wade with puppy-dog eyes. “But I didn't want to be alone.”
Wade let out a loud sigh as he caved in. “Fine. I guess you can stay here.”
“Good,” Peter said smartly, the puppy eyes gone in an instant. “Because the rest of the fault for all this? Is yours.”
“What?! What did I do?”
“You kidnapped me at sixteen and traumatized me with your massive pecs and obscene virility. Now no one else will do.”
Wade made a noise not unlike a man swallowing his own tongue. He proceeded to cough so harshly that he had to pull up the bottom of his mask, wheezing like a dying man. “I knew it,” he finally choked out. “I knew I traumatized you! Fuck, I'm so sor--” He was cut off by an empty plastic bottle connecting with his head at super-human speed.
“That was a joke. I mean, I meant it, but you're not allowed to feel guilty about it. I'm forbidding it.”
“You can't just forbid something like that!”
“Wade,” he said softly, and something in his voice made him stop panicking for a second and really look at him. “Would you just... come sit by me? Please?”
He could actually see Wade's lips, now; they were pulled in an uncertain frown. “All right,” he said at last, stepping across the room until he was towering over Peter's prone form. He hooked a foot under the coffee table and dragged it closer, unceremoniously dumping everything off the surface and taking a seat. It was low enough that it left their heads only a foot or two apart.
Peter knew he must look like a mess from up close. His normal skin was pale and sweating, while the rest of him lay limp and still to reduce sensation. Something clear oozed out from the cracks around some of his joints.
“You look like shit.”
His lips twitched into a smile. “Somehow, you always manage to see me at my worst. And yet, you still seem to think I'm too pure to soil with your presence.”
“Your worst doesn't hold even a tealight candle to mine, kid.”
“I'm not interested in competing. The desire to win is not one of the emotions I feel when I look at you, Wade.”
“What about nausea? Or, wait, that's not an “emotion,” per se. Disgust?”
“I feel... conflicted.” Wade paused instead of launching into his next round of self-loathing, so Peter continued. “I want to wrap you up in spider web so you can never leave me again. I want to let you run free so you won't resent me. I want to thank you for looking after me while I was so fragile, and getting me the help I needed, and protecting my aunt and uncle when I had that night terror. I don't think I can thank you enough for that one. But I also want to scream at you not to go back to killing people for money any more.”
Wade looked down at his hands, avoiding his eyes, but Peter wasn't done. He wriggled his head to the edge of the web, trying to keep hold of his gaze. “I want to hurt anyone who speaks badly of you. I want to smack you for always speaking so badly of yourself. I want to see you, all the time. And I know you think I'm too young for you, but... I want to kiss you. So much.” Wade's jaw worked and he turned his head to the side. Peter continued doggedly on, raising his head as his eyes started to glow—not blue with foretelling, but with the intensity of obsession. “More than that. I want to make love wrapped up in your arms, to soothe your rough skin with my soft fuzz, if it grows back. I want to chase you wherever you run and stake my claim over your whole body when I catch you. I want to pump you full of venom safe in the knowledge that you'll be okay. I want you to chain me up again and ravage me from behind while I'm at your mercy! I want--”
“Stop,” Wade whispered brokenly. Peter stopped, dropping his head back down and blushing bright red, hoping he hadn't gone too far. Wade breathed heavily, clearly affected in more ways than one, but stubbornly holding on to whatever fueled his resistance. “You... you don't even know me.”
“Well.” Peter shifted back to his original position, trying to resist the urge to wriggle and scratch. “I've kind of reached the point where I can't even move anymore, and I feel like I'm going to explode. I'm basically a captive audience in dire need of distraction.” He crooked one spider-leg over to brush it against Wade's half-masked cheek, turning it back to face him. “Will you tell me about yourself?”
Wade was agonizingly silent for a long moment, before he reached up and pulled off his mask. His pale eyes were heartbreakingly vulnerable without something to hide behind. “If that's really what you want... what do you want to know?”
“Everything you're willing to tell me.”
“It's not gonna be a happy bedtime story.”
“I know,” Peter said softly. “But it's an important one.”
His distorted face wrinkled in thought for a moment, and then he began.
* * *
In the end, Wade was willing to tell him quite a lot. Once he got going, the words couldn't seem to stop pouring from his lips. Tales of violence and neglect as a child, desperate cries for a fantasy of love that went unanswered or ended too soon. The harsh reality of working for the military, for villains, for whoever would hire him. Cancer and secret government programs and gaining healing powers and enduring horrible torture. Romance found and foolishly pushed away and finally lost. People who used and abused his body and his feelings. Capricious voices in his head and the lengths to which he sometimes went to quiet them. His hopeless relationship with the embodiment of Death itself. A brain so tumultuous and unreliable that he was a danger even to the people he loved. His sad attempts to better himself and his life that always ended in failure.
Perhaps the worst of it all was the way he told the stories; detached, like they were things he had seen happen to someone else, or even worse, in a tone of jeering mockery. Peter listened without saying a word, but tears poured almost constantly down his face, as if he was emoting all the sorrow that Wade refused to show, or perhaps, was refusing to allow himself to feel.
The moon was on its way down now, shining through the window and lighting up Peter's silken bed like a silvery magic carpet. At some point he'd coaxed Wade to lean over and lay his head down on it, so that they were laying almost nose to nose as he spoke. Now, though, his story was over and he'd fallen asleep, fingers twitching in unpleasant dreams where his hand had come to rest under his chin.
Peter inched his own hand closer, coaxing a few of his stiff fingers to stroke against Wade's. “I've never met someone who was afraid of being happy, before,” he whispered softly, barely louder than a breath in the still quiet of the last hours before dawn. “But then, I've never met someone with so much reason to feel that way, either.”
He studied Wade's bare, sleeping face. There was no denying that the state of his skin was horrendous, jarring to the eye at first glance. But it was a sight that one could grow used to; that could be rendered, through familiarity, into something that made the heart grow fonder. He knew this, because it was happening already. Wade didn't like taking his mask off, because the way people reacted was just another blow in a long parade of pain. So Peter drank in the sight of him, until the only reaction he could possibly give upon seeing his face was one of joy.
“If I can do even one thing for you,” he murmured as his eyes grew heavy, “I hope I can make your life a little less painful to live.”
* * *
Peter woke up in a surge of claustrophobic panic, because everything in him was screaming to escape from his old skin. Blood pumped loudly in his ears, and if he'd been able to move like normal, he probably would have been racing along the walls like a madman. Instead, all he could seem to do was flex and relax his muscles—so that's what he did. Something cracked down the length of his back, startling Wade so badly that he shot up and rolled backwards over the coffee table, landing on his feet with a knife drawn. Peter managed to gasp between heavy breaths: “It's happening.”
Wade stared at him for a moment, shaking off his own panic at being awoken suddenly. Abruptly he put the knife away and cooed, “The baby's coming?”
Peter snorted a surprised laugh before trying and failing to scowl. “If I could move right now, I'd hit you for that,” he threatened, but his lips pulled tellingly at the corners.
“Is there anything I can do?” he asked, eyeing his twitching limbs in concern. “I could... tug on your toes, or something.”
“I suspect that would be a terrible idea,” Peter admitted. “I think this is something I'm going to have to do myself. But maybe you could... talk to me?” He swallowed. “Please?”
Wade gave him a regretful smile. “Just like when we met, huh?”
“Well, back then I was hoping to find some weakness to exploit so I could escape. And instead you accidentally found my berserk button.”
He laughed. “Yeah, that I did. Never even hint about violence to your old man.” He went silent for a moment, shifting into a more casual pose where he stood and watching Peter tense and relax his back, as if in pain. “You know... your uncle is a real swell guy. We talked a few times, while you were recovering.”
“You did? What... what did you talk about?” Peter asked, keenly interested in this turn of the conversation.
“We traded army stories, believe it or not, and talked about the hardships of growing up poor. He could've easily given me a lecture about my past and told me to stay away from you, but... he didn't.”
Peter smiled, his eyes going distant. “That's Uncle Ben in a nutshell.”
“Your Aunt May, though—whoo, she's a whole 'nother story!” He cleared his throat, then fake-whispered “I think she suspects.”
“Suspects...?” Peter queried, the muscles of his chest and abs starting to glisten with sweat as he flexed and undulated where he lay. Wade stared, and seemed to completely lose his train of thought. “Wade?”
“Oh. Well, after dinner that first night, she told me the fascinating tale of how she nearly married another man because he seemed wealthy and charming and promised her a life of excitement and adventure, only it turned out he was a thief and a murderer and ended up going to prison.”
“Ohhhh,” Peter said, pulling a face.
“Yeeeeah. But, you know what?”
“After I brought Beastie over to work his guidance councilor magic, she invited me to stay for tea. And it was nice! Really nice. We talked about Golden Girls, we talked about dresses... and we talked about how she instinctively ran to Ben to cry in his arms when everything went wrong with Johnny. Her Johnny, I mean, Johnny Jerome. And that it was Ben's steadfast devotion to her that eventually won her heart.”
Peter stopped moving at that, staring at Wade in shock. “Really?”
“She never told you that story?”
“No, I knew it, but... she really phrased it like that?”
“Exactly like that.”
Peter looked up at the ceiling, wide-eyed and lips still parted in disbelief. Slowly he closed his mouth, a fragile smile gently tugging at the corners while the faintest hint of pink colored his pale cheeks. “Oh.”
“So I guess, if anything were to occur between us—not that it will, because it won't!—your folks might not... be completely opposed.”
Peter's eyes shot straight back to Wade's, a glimmer of hope shining brightly from within. It was the first time Wade had said anything implying that he was thinking about how they could work this out. He rolled his shoulders hard, feeling the exoskeleton start to pull away there, felt his hands and spider-legs shift a little down the long sleeves they would need to travel. When he flexed his feet at the ankles, he felt something like a pair of knee-high socks slipping down his legs. He was making progress.
“Wade. Can I ask you a question?”
“Shoot.” He finally walked back over to retake his seat on the coffee table. “I'm an open book, assuming the book is a ladies fashion magazine with lots of holes cut out for art projects and/or ransom notes.”
“How old are you?”
He groaned softly and closed his eyes, like he'd known that particular question was coming sooner or later. “Thirty... two? Three? I'm a little hazy on that; I can't always remember my birth date.”
“So, when I reach my thirties, you'll be pushing forty-five.”
“Uhhg, I don't wanna be a middle-aged loser suffering from a mid-life crisis. Well, at least I'll have the “dating a younger man” part down already.” He gasped loudly. “What if I start getting wrinkles? What if I go bald?”
Peter felt light-headed as he laughed, a prickle of moisture at the corners of his eyes. “Oh, no!”
“Oh no is right! How will anyone love me without my beautiful locks?”
“I'm sure they'll manage,” Peter said softly, his cheeks turning even rosier. Wade's shoulders twitched and he looked aside, reaching up to scratch his head and possibly turning a little red himself.
“I, uh. I forgot where I was going with that. What was this conversation about, again?”
“Age.” A thought occurred to Peter. “Do you age? Physically?”
“I don't think so? I haven't noticed any signs yet, but then, how will I? I can't go gray, I haven't lost any youthful vigor... if you know what I mean,” he said with a brow waggle, then promptly slapped his hand to his forehead. “Dammit, but that's a hard habit to break.”
“So don't. I like it when you flirt.”
“It makes me feel dirty when I do it with you, though.”
“Why? Because I'm young? I'll be eighteen in another six months, if that helps.”
“It's not just that,” he said with a sigh. Peter shifted his exoskeleton down another inch, wriggling impatiently as he waited for him to explain. “You're so...” he struggled for the right words, then suddenly burst into song. “You're so hiiiiiii-eeeyiiigh! High above me, you're so lovely!”
“Am not,” Peter said with a poorly stifled smile. “Look at me. I'm a freak who is literally crawling out of my own skin at this very moment. I have eight eyes, four extra six-foot-long legs, and I ooze webbing from my wrists.”
“Don't forget your magical venom,” Wade added helpfully, then froze, like he'd said something he hadn't meant to. “And your incredible ass.”
Peter wasn't fooled by the distraction, even if it did make him blush even further. “Magical?”
“Y-yeah, you know. It takes a pretty strong toxin to make a dent in my resistance. And I was chatting up Death in a matter of minutes.”
Peter cocked his head. “I don't know if that makes it magical, though.” Wade was definitely avoiding his eyes all of a sudden. “Didn't you say something else, at the time? Like, it was still in your system even after you came back?”
“Maybe? Maybe not. You know, my memory is spotty at best, and you were busy being traumatized that day. It probably didn't happen.”
“No, I'm pretty sure you said that. I've been puzzling over what you meant ever since.” He gave a good stretch, reaching for the ceiling with every arm, and the split edges of his black shell finally slipped over his shoulders. Fresh air hit his new skin like a shock of electricity, it was so sensitive. He winced.
“I was just... uh, it meant... it was...”
“What, did it hurt?” Peter asked, gritting his teeth at the unpleasant sensation.
“N-no... it... it was...” Wade floundered for one last moment, before visibly wilting in surrender. “It was the opposite.”
Peter ceased all movement as he tried to work that out. “It induced pleasure?”
“No, nothing so dubious as that, it just... blocked my pain. Even the voices.”
Peter forgot his current discomfort. “Your pain. Your agony unceasing? Your suffering eternal? That pain?”
Wade cringed. “You know about that?”
“Wh—YES I know about that!!” Peter blurted angrily. “For how long?! How long did the effect last?”
“About a day.”
“Do you mean to tell me that you've been suffering all this time, since the day after we met, when you didn't have to?!”
“I'm used to it, it's not a big deal.”
“It is a big deal, Wade!” Peter shouted, torn between erupting in fury and breaking down in tears. “Do you know how much I've wished that there was the slightest thing I could do for you?” He thrashed his arms and legs impotently, trying to hurry the process of molting along but only achieving maybe another inch of progress. “Dammit, if I could move I would pin you down and bite you right now!”
“Is that a threat or foreplay?” Wade asked weakly, leaning away from him slightly.
Peter collapsed back into stillness, breathing hard from his now depleted burst of effort and anger. “Why didn't you say anything?”
Wade grimaced and fiddled with his gloves. “Look, you aren't the only one who feels highly conflicted about this weird thing we've got going on between us.”
“Everything I feel is so tangled up in guilt and fear!” He bowed his head. “Do I really want to keep you for myself, or do I just want to make up for what I did? Do I really want you for who you are, or what you can do for me? I think you're absolutely beautiful, spider-parts and all. But then, look at what you're being compared to,” he said with a gesture to his face. “I want... I want to protect you from all of life's sorrows, so you never have reason to cry on me like that ever again. I want you to hurry up and reach legal adulthood so I can do absolutely filthy things to you without feeling like a creep. And sometimes, I would like to be a creep very much.” His eyes dilated at whatever it was he was imagining, and Peter swallowed, dying to know what it was. “You've been on my mind constantly ever since we met. I've tried everything I can to keep you from becoming my latest obsession, and I don't think it's working. The fact that you can make me feel better, can silence the torment in my brain for even a moment, is enough to make me want to fall down at your feet in devotion. And it also terrifies me. What if I get used to it? What if we really are happy together? What if we have the kind of love that people dream about, write songs about? How...” His voice suddenly choked up. “How will I survive going back to this when I inevitably outlive you?”
“What about the prophesy?” Peter asked in a strange voice, and Wade blinked and looked at him in confusion.
“Have you turned down your Lady's advances, like I advised you?”
Wade did a double-take, and stared. Peter had gone still, his human eyes closed, but all six of his spider-eyes were open wide.
And all six were glowing.
“Wh... who are you?” he asked numbly.
“Surely you didn't forget it?” asked the being who was currently speaking through Peter's lips. He frowned. “After you went and nearly killed my beloved Totem?”
Wade felt a prickle of recognition fight for attention as his brain screamed caution! Danger! “Totem. I remember that word. He said it... said a couple of things that didn't make sense. Then he said he sometimes gave prophesies, but never remembered them.”
“Yes. Did you do as I asked? Have you ceased to woo the lady of Death?”
“I did mention it to her when the venom kicked in. She was pretty annoyed. I've been careful not to see her since. Why? Why was it necessary?”
“There is another who courts her affections, and he will curse you if she continues to favor you. Mutant abilities, I can override. Magic from the Eternals is a trickier matter.”
Peter narrowed his glowing eyes. “You did forget, didn't you. Why are you such a nuisance?”
“It's a gift?”
“I don't know why I'm bothering with you. I despise you. You bring such destruction to the beautiful chaos of my Web of Life and Destiny.” He sighed. “But fate would have it that your diamond-edged thread should intertwine with my Totem's. I will give you six months to spend at his side before you must choose. My payment will be that you break not a single thread of life. Not on purpose, at least. Think you can handle that, death bringer?”
“What?? Payment? What choice?”
Somehow, despite the fact that his eyes were solid light, he managed to roll them. “The choice to let me to kill you one day,” he said acidly, before the glow faded and Peter's eyes all fell shut.
Wade gaped in the ensuing silence. “What. The hell. Was that??” he finally squawked.
Peter stirred with a groan, blinking open his human eyes. “What was what?” He looked around in confusion. “Did I fall asleep? No, no way. Did I give a prophesy?” His eyes widened and he looked up at Wade with surprise. “I did. And I remember it!”
“Just like before, with Doreen,” he said with a hint of wonder.
“Say it again. Just to make sure.”
Peter gave a few more flexes, working his skin down another inch or so, before he stilled and calmly recited:
“For you who would wish to avoid life eternal,
You must court no longer the lady of Death.
A deal strike instead to appease the Great Weaver,
Your thread to be severed at Totem's last breath.”
“The Great Weaver, huh?” Wade said with narrowed eyes.
“Wait... does that mean... you'll die when I do?”
Wade's head jerked as his eyes bored into Peter's, almost painfully intent. “What.”
“The Great Weaver, he's like... the god of all spiders. There are others, but I think he's the First. He lives outside of reality and spins a great web that serves as a model for the entire Multiverse. He's the one who gave me my spider powers.”
“So you're... his Totem.”
“Yes! That's the word the spiders call me.”
“And,” Wade continued, starting to get more agitated, “he says he can end my life at the same time as yours?” Peter watched with wide eyes as he stood and began to pace frantically, back and forth, running his hands over his bald head and muttering to himself like a man gone mad. “That is what that means, right? The thread of my life to be severed at your last breath?!”
“I don't see how it could mean anything else,” Peter said, growing increasingly concerned. “What's wrong?”
“I don't have to live forever?” Wade asked in a painfully fragile voice as he came to a sudden stop, turning to face Peter with a haunted look almost too frightened to hope. He fell to his knees beside the web, palms up and limp on his lap, like he'd lost all his strength. “I don't have to keep going even after you're gone?”
Peter sucked in a breath, heart aching. “Is that what you fear most?”
“More than anything. I'm not cut out to be one of those guys who lives for a thousand years while everyone I love dies, Pete, it'll destroy me. Worse than I already am, I mean.”
Peter squirmed; he wanted to be done molting now. “Well, it sounds like you won't have to. You just have to “strike a deal to appease the Weaver,” whatever that entails.”
“Oh, that? He just wants me to stop messing up his web by killing the threads, er, I mean people, that make it up.”
“Really?” Peter asked, hope plain on his face. “You'd do that?”
“I can certainly try! I've got a six-month trial period to practice un-un-aliving before he wants my final verdict.”
“Six months, huh?” Peter said with a quirk of an eyebrow. “Just long enough so we can consummate the deal.”
Wade pulled a face. “No offense, kid, but I'd prefer to leave your spider-god out of any consummating we may do.”
Peter laughed. “Okay, I can work with that.” He felt absolutely giddy with joy. “Fuck, I want to kiss you right now.” He thrashed his arms impatiently, and saw to his disappointment that they were still only one-quarter free. “Are you kidding me? How much longer is this going to take??!”
Wade snickered and pulled himself back up to the coffee table, making himself comfortable with a rather deliberate show of flexing muscles. “When you're older, you'll come to appreciate a good, slow build-up of... antici--”
“God!” Peter snarled, wiggling impotently on his web. Wade laughed until tears trickled down his cheeks.
* * *
In the end, it took an hour before he sloughed off the last of his exoskeleton, carefully sliding his head out from its black casing. He sat up on the web, feet dangling over the side just right so his lower legs touched nothing, his arms and spider-legs held carefully in the air in the same manner. His new skin was excruciatingly sensitive and too soft to touch. He could almost feel it shift and stretch as his body took advantage of the opportunity to grow before hardening again. He wouldn't be surprised if he gained an inch or two in height by the time this was done.
“Is it true that growing pains having nothing to do with your bones growing?” Peter asked softly, almost in a meditative state to avoid going crazy. “Because it sure as hell feels like that's what's going on.”
“I have no idea,” Wade whispered back, sounding like he was in awe. He watched quietly as Peter breathed slowly and deeply, eyes closed and holding absolutely still as the changes unfolded around him. He may have drifted out of his own head for a while, checking up on Cassie and the Baxter spiders for further distraction. Apparently Johnny had managed to weasel one more day out of Bobby's stay, pleading heartbreak and a dire need for companionship in his hour of need. Peter couldn't help but smile at his familiar, devious ways. The basement spiders at the Parker house reported that raw silk supplies were getting low, but the senior humans were still going strong, keeping the looms active in his absence.
Peter returned to his head in Wade's apartment, wondering if the agonizing wait was over yet. He didn't feel any aches or extreme sensitivity anymore. When he relaxed his arms and let his feet touch the floor, everything seemed to be in order.
“How do I look?” he asked as he cautiously opened his eyes.
Wade let out a deep sigh, thick with longing. “Otherworldly,” he moaned.
Peter looked down and took in the changes. His blue and red coloring had returned, velvety and vivid as ever. There was a faint black line on his shoulder; when he turned his head, his extra peripheral vision could make out new markings running across his spine and shoulder-blades. His fuzz was longer around the joints of his spider-legs now, with a few random hairs almost reaching an inch in length. His fingers and toes, just as black and tough as before, were slightly unnaturally long, making them even more suggestive of claws. Reaching up a hand, Peter rubbed it over his head and felt that his hair had returned, even if it wasn't as long yet as it used to be.
“Are my facial markings the same?” he asked as he traced a finger over the line of fuzz trailing down from his eyes. He knew better than to ask if Wade had a mirror.
“Your eyelids are black now—all of them, and your whole face has lost a bit of that youthful roundness. I gotta say, it's a very good look for you.”
Peter smiled slyly, his gaze moving to Wade's face. “Is it, now? You know... I can move again.”
Wade gave a pronounced swallow. “I noticed.”
Peter's spider-legs unfurled and moved slowly to encircle Wade where he sat, while he inched forward to the edge of his web hammock. “I think we had a very productive talk today, don't you?”
“Oh, very.” His breathing picked up, unsteady, his heart pounding loudly to Peter's ears.
“Some boundaries were set?”
“No nookie 'til you're not a minor,” he said firmly, despite the fact that his voice had shot up an octave.
“And some other boundaries... were finally released?”
Wade made a sort of desperate whimper instead of an answer as Peter slid from the web onto his lap, the cage of his legs closing in around him. His massive hands gripped his thighs, sliding perilously closer to Peter's backside as he shifted ever closer.
“There's something I've been dying to do for a while now,” he whispered against Wade's lips. “And maybe there's something you've been needing, too.”
He was trembling beneath him, eyes rolling back in his head as his eyelids drifted shut. Some part of Peter's psyche was very pleased with the reaction. He moved in that tiny bit closer, until their lips were finally touching, dry and warm and soft. Peter moaned in relief and clutched Wade's broad shoulders tightly, long fingers gripping into leather armor like they would never let go.
Somehow the kiss managed to stay gentle, a firm press of skin that opened eagerly into a tangle of hot breath and coaxing tongues. The aggression that might have rose up was instead being taken out on Peter's ass, as Wade's hands apparently had a mind of their own and had slipped around after all. Peter's breath came heavy through his nose as his flesh was squeezed and caressed. His body was starting to get very interested in the proceedings, and he pulled away from the kiss in order to coax Wade's chin up with his nose.
“Oh, fuck,” Wade said shakily, tilting his head back as requested, his mottled skin flushing. “Oh, god.” He clutched Peter even tighter as he ran a wet tongue over his Adam's apple. He was as tense as a spring as Peter nuzzled down the vulnerable stretch of his neck, lips pressing tiny almost-kisses against the line of his pulse. “Please. Please, please, please, please!”
“You don't have to beg,” Peter whispered against his skin. “Not for this.” He bared his slender black fangs and pressed them gently against a thick, pulsing artery. Venom was already starting to drip from the tips, eager to be unleashed. A strange vibration started to throb gently between them, oddly soothing and reminiscent of a cat's purr. It took Peter a moment to realize he was the one making it. He was actually purring.
He couldn't help but smile as he sank his teeth in and released a flood of sweet, nerve-blocking toxins. He'd never felt less human than at this very moment, and it had never felt so incredibly right.
The hands on his posterior grew lax as the venom took effect, the weight of Wade's body slowly sagging limply into Peter's arms. It was a little disturbing, the disconnect he felt between his current state of pleased contentment and the knowledge that he was actively killing the man that he wanted, more than anything, to take as his mate. He thought he ought to be in a state of panic, especially considering how recently and violently he'd almost done the same to someone else. But the thought was merely a passing curiosity, unable to trigger any emotional response. He knew nothing bad was going to happen, this time. He felt it, with supernatural confidence.
Wade's heartbeat slowed down to something so faint and slow that he could barely hear it, could barely feel the vibration through his teeth, yet it never quite stopped. Much to Peter's surprise, it was gaining in strength again... and Wade hadn't died. He felt a flash of worry: Oh no, he's not gaining a resistance, is he? Please don't become immune!! His concern was answered a second later with another bout of precognitive certainty: This was a gift from the Weaver. The benefits would always stay, but Wade needn't dally daily with Death just to get them. It would have been unkind to her, anyway.
Sagging with relief, Peter finally pulled his fangs out and licked the coppery blood away for the second or two it bled before healing. Wade was practically boneless in his arms, and he spent a moment just relishing the weight of him, the way he clung to him as his strength came back. The way he moaned, like the absence of persistent pain was as pleasurable as a full-body massage. His head stirred against Peter's, lifting slowly and opening his eyes as if in a dream.
“How do you feel?”
He considered it, hands coming back to life and stroking over Peter's spine, the base of his lower spider-legs, his sides. “Everything is beautiful and nothing hurts,” he said with a painfully earnest gaze.
“Well, one thing probably hurts,” Peter pointed out, feeling the stiffness of the erection rising up against his crotch.
Wade laughed, letting his forehead fall to Peter's shoulder as the mirth shook his body. “Oh! Oh! Rub my head!” he suggested, and long-fingered hands rushed to obey. “Ooooh... it actually feels good, I can't believe it!” His hands lunged up for Peter's head, and suddenly they were kissing again, only it wasn't tender and gentle like before. They pressed hard and desperate at each other's mouths, swallowing moans and licking over teeth and fangs and tongues. Peter felt an answering throb in his own pants as the heat cranked up and all the blood in his body decided to congregate at a single point.
“Wade,” he breathed out, finding his own head tilting back so the man in question could return the favor now, kissing and licking and nipping down his exposed neck. He writhed in his lap, trying to rub against that hard stomach to find some relief, inadvertently driving Wade half-wild with need with his grazing touches. “I can't... I can't...”
“Fuck,” he groaned, grabbing Peter's silk-clad thighs again, but instead of pressing him closer he forced him to hold still. “This is about to become the world's shortest resolution if we don't put a stop to this right now.”
Peter whimpered in protest, but didn't break free of his halting grasp. “Six months is going to be torture,” he cried as he wrapped his arms tighter around Wade's torso, trying to stifle the urge to move with a bone-creaking embrace instead.
“You're telling me,” Wade griped in response. “Do you know how long it's been since I got laid?”
Peter trembled. “Don't talk about sex, it makes it worse.”
“Oh, I could really use some of those asterisks right about now. Where's my fade-to-black, instantly it's Six Months Later?”
“I agree wholeheartedly with whatever that means.”
Reluctantly, he pried himself off of Wade's lap, trying to resist the urge to look down. He flopped back onto his web hammock, sending the discarded, empty shells of his old skin bouncing. He heard Wade suck in a breath, and felt a moment's wicked delight at the realization that he had peeked. Silk pants didn't hide much.
“So, what should we do with these?” he asked as he picked up a piece of exoskeleton that used to cover his leg, trying to resist the urge to display himself by quickly changing the subject.
“Oh, leave that to me,” Wade said confidently as he picked up the largest piece, an alien-looking monstrosity of dangling black tubes topped by a misshapen hood. “I am well experienced in the art of disposing redundant body parts.”
Peter made a face as he tried not to think about that, then blinked. “Wait,” he called as Wade was about to turn away with it. “Not that piece.” At Wade's questioning look, his expression twisted into something best described as positively evil. “I have an idea.”
* * *
Johnny whistled in the privacy of his own bathroom, stripping out of his clothes and opening up the frosted door to take a luxuriously steamy shower. His tune broke off mid-note as he shrieked like a banshee, flinging himself backwards so hard that the sound of him hitting the wall could be heard all the way in the common room.
“PETER I SWEAR TO GOD, I DON'T CARE HOW HOT YOU ARE NOW, YOU'RE DEAD MEAT!” he shouted as he tore into the common room, clad only in fire. To Peter's great delight, Bobby took it upon himself to break up the fight before it could start by extinguishing his flames, which meant he got himself quite an eyeful as Johnny's naked form was revealed. It was fascinating to see how red the normally cool man could turn. Even Johnny looked a little flustered as he hastily turned his flames back on.
Peter cackled from his place snug against Wade's side on the sofa, playing video games. Apparently, revenge really was a dish best served cold.
* * *
Six Months Later
“Oh, thank fuck,” Wade muttered.
“Hmm?” Tony Stark inquired, swirling his non-alcoholic beverage around in a wine glass.
“Oh, I'm just... so thankful! That the Damage Control guy is getting the book thrown at him.”
Tony nodded his head in agreement. “I can't believe that bastard. Providing MGH to mutants just to cash in on the damage they made?” He shuddered. “He was on the fast track to becoming CEO one day, too.”
Wade was already losing interest in that conversation, looking across the crowded room full of party-goers for a certain someone. He spotted her by the refreshment table, helping herself to the bowl of nuts. “Hey, Doreen! Over here!”
Tony promptly choked on his drink and made himself scarce. Doreen wandered over, a squirrel on her shoulder, both of them staring at Wade with a cautiously neutral eye. “Yeah?”
“I just wanted to congratulate you! I hear you're going to be a TV star?”
She blushed, whipping her tail around to hide most of her face. “I still can't quite believe it,” she squeaked, only her eyes visible above the fur, “even though Peter told me I would!”
“Are they really going to just set you kids loose to fight super-powered villains while they film it? No backup plans in case you take on a foe too tough or anything?”
“Hey, show a little faith! I'll kick butts and eat nuts!”
Wade made a weird face behind his mask, like he was desperately trying to hold in a snicker. Doreen narrowed her eyes at him, then scowled.
“Dammit, Deadpool, I liked that catchphrase! Now I'm never going to be able to say it again without thinking it's a euphemism!"
He burst out into hysterical laughter. “I can't believe you were actually going to use that on TV!”
“Shut up!” she huffed, her cheeks puffing up with furious embarrassment. “Why are you such a terrible person?”
“Oh, I guess you don't want my gift, then?” he asked, pulling out a small box with a squished bow.
“What? You got me something?” she asked in a surprised, slightly suspicious voice. She held a hand close to her chest, like she wanted to reach for it but also feared it might be a trap. “What is it?”
“Well, the Damage Control job was a lot of time spent watching boring people do boring things, so to keep myself entertained I started drawing up these info cards about all the loser villains I've worked with over the years, or fought against, or heard about. And since Pete says you like to research your problems in order to find the best solution, and since you're about to send a glorious “fuck you” to Iron Rod-Up-His-Ass in order to go fight baddies before you graduate high school... I thought I'd give you my blessing in the form of these.”
He flipped the lid up on the box and tilted it so she could see what lay within; a tall stack of slick printed cards, like a bunch of playing decks. Intrigued, she pulled one out, observing the title of “Deadpool's Guide to Super Villains” printed along the top, along with a card number, a large image, several lines of explanatory text, and a comment bubble coming from a doodle of Deadpool's masked head along the bottom. Her eyes widened. She pulled out several more, fanning them out in her hands and absorbing what was on them while her tail puffed up into maximum floof.
“Oh my god.”
“Yeah, I thought you might appreciate my dedication and hard work.”
“These are like cheat sheets. For bad guys!”
“I prefer to call them intel, but to each their own.”
“Ohmygod!” She stared at Wade with sparkling eyes, stuffing the cards back into their box and closing the lid before any of them could escape. “Peter kept telling me that you had a heart of gold in there somewhere, but I wasn't ready to believe him!”
“I'm going to tackle-hug you now.”
“Oh, shi--” Wade turned to run, but it was already too late. Suddenly he was covered in clinging paws and blinded by a furry tail as Doreen-and-pet pounced on his back, squealing with glee and showering him with affection. “Help! Squirrel attack!” came his muffled cry.
“Ha!” Tony barked from across the room. “Vindication!”
“Easy there, Doreen,” came an amused, familiar voice. “That's mine.”
“I have a name, you know,” Wade said indignantly as his face was uncovered, spitting as if he'd managed to get squirrel fur in his mouth despite the mask. “I am not just a piece of meat!”
“Peter! There you are!” she cried, hopping down to give her best friend a much more dignified hug. “Happy Birthday-Eve! Doesn't Tony throw the best parties?!”
He made a displeased noise. “If you like crowds of people. At least he had the decency to let me spend my actual birthday the way I want to.” He peered around the bustling room, trying to find someone in particular. “There she is. Finally. Any later and she would have missed it!”
“Who?” Doreen asked as she and Wade fell in step behind him. He weaved with animal grace through the throng of bodies, pausing just long enough to smile and nod whenever anyone wished him birthday greetings. They soon closed in on a girl who looked dreadfully out of her depth, standing against a wall and staring around the Avengers ballroom with white-rimmed-eyes.
“Pet Store Girl?” Doreen blurted out in surprise as she recognized her.
“It's Amy,” she corrected numbly.
“Oh thank god, I thought it was Reader,” Wade muttered.
“Why am I here?” she asked, clearly overwhelmed at being surrounded by so many famous, imposing super-heroes.
“Well, your social media following kind of exploded after you posted that selfie I took with Johnny, right? It was killer gossip, not to mention the fact that it proved you weren't lying before, when you told everyone that I really did have eight eyes. Now there's this sort of expectation that anything you post about me is true.”
“So, I invited you here for two very important reasons,” he said as he steered her toward the door to the balcony. “One: I'm officially changing my name.”
“Really?” she asked, eyes lighting up at the chance to be the first to spread the news.
“Seeing as I'm turning eighteen tomorrow, it's time to let go of the “Kid” moniker. From now on, I'd like to be known as...” He paused for dramatic effect. “Spider-Man.”
She gave him a skeptical look. “I can try, but I can't promise it'll catch on.” The small parade of four walked beside the rail of the balcony as it followed the curve of the building. The crowd quickly thinned out as they went further from the party, save for a few kissing couples here and there who had slipped away for that very purpose. “What's the other reason?”
“You've got your camera, right?”
“Always,” she said, pulling out her phone.
“I'm getting real tired of people asking me why I'm not dating Johnny anymore. No one thinks Wade and I are as cute a couple, apparently,” he muttered. “But I know who else made it on the guest list, and they've been building up to this for months.” He smiled darkly. “No one will even care about my love-life once they get a load of this.”
He ushered for everyone to press against the wall as they came to a bend in the architecture, and as they peeked around the corner, a dazzling sight greeted their eyes: two young, nubile men pressed up into an alcove, one encased completely in brilliant flames, the other a solid sculpture of glittering ice. They were currently engaged in a contest of who could stick their tongues farther down the other's throat, arms wrapped around each other in a passionate, blinding embrace. Steam was wafting liberally around them like clouds, slowly drifting away on the breeze.
“Holy shit,” Wade whispered, while Doreen gawked and hid a squeak behind her hand. “Never have two people making out been so goddamn pretty.”
“Woah,” Amy whispered, raising her phone. “This is gonna go so viral.”
* * *
Peter would have liked to go home to Wade's new, nicer apartment right away, but his spider-sense went off several times while he swung them both through the city, and he had a reputation to uphold. A reputation that Wade was slowly being included in. It had been rough for him at first, adjusting to purely non-lethal modes of battle when it came to apprehending criminals, but once he got into the habit he proved to be stunningly good at it. Like all things physical, really.
By the time they landed on the small, private balcony and let themselves in, it was already after midnight, which meant they missed the moment Peter officially became eighteen. Wade wrapped him up in his arms anyway and wished him a “Happy Anniversary of the Day You Were Forcefully Evicted from Your Mother's Uterus, May She Rest in Peace.”
“Welp, there went my sex drive. Congratulations, you killed it.”
“Oh no,” Wade teased as he tossed his mask on the coffee table, not at all worried. He grabbed one of Peter's spider-legs, took the tiny, fluffy foot in hand, and began pressing kisses to it like the back of a lady's hand. “It seems I've committed a murder.”
Peter's heart skipped a beat as Wade's lips tickled a trail further down the limb, blowing gentle gusts over the longer fur at each joint as he went. He knew exactly how sensitive to vibrations those hairs were. Peter shivered and let himself be turned around so Wade could follow the leg all the way to its base on his back. When he reached the end, he began kissing up the bony knobs of his fuzz-covered spine instead. Taking off his gloves, he trailed his hands down Peter's arms, pulling them back behind him in a manner intentionally reminiscent of bindings. Just as his lips reached Peter's ear, he undid the clasps of his web-shooters and slid them off, replacing them with broad thumbs stroking over the tender slit on the inside of each wrist.
“Well, what do you know,” he whispered, hot breath on Peter's reddening ear. “It's a miraculous recovery.”
A prominent tent had formed under his silk pants, and heat radiated from his cheeks. “Wade,” he choked out, voice gone rough already. “Undress me.”
Over the last several months, the two of them had become experts at the art of the Slow Tease. Since they'd promised not to act on anything, teasing was all they had. Peter had halfway expected that the moment the clock struck twelve they would turn into sex-crazed animals, but apparently that wasn't how things were going to go down. Maybe later. Right now, of all the fantasies he dreamed of enacting with Wade, from dressing him up in his new silk lingerie and taking him as he tore them off, to making sweet, slow love while they hung upside down in the new web bower above Wade's bed... what he suddenly needed, more than anything in this very moment, was to submit.
It was the one thing he could never bring himself to do with Johnny; it rankled his pride too much. Not so with Wade, though. The thought of surrendering all his power to him felt... safe. Arousing. Oddly empowering. Wade would never tease or degrade him for it; if anything, his manner of taking control would be an act of worship. Peter could sense that already, as Wade slowly, reverently, helped him slip out of his backless shirt and began to ease his pants down his thighs.
Peter held his breath as he was stripped bare, only remembering to breathe again when the sudden application of a warm, wet tongue along the round flesh of his ass forced out a gasp. Fuck, he was so ready for this. Wade's teeth gently nipped at his skin as he resumed stroking the inner sides of his wrists, and Peter started to tremble where he stood. Wade straightened back up and pressed a kiss to his shoulder. “Shall we take this to our bedroom?” he asked, his voice deep and husky. Peter nodded jerkily, stepping out of his pants where they were pooled around his ankles, and led the way past the intimate dining area and the work desk in the corner covered with stray rubber bullets scattered over an array of Peter's latest photo prints. They were mostly shots of the two of them together.
The bedroom was bigger than his childhood room, but smaller and without the high ceiling of his room at the Baxter building, and since he would be sharing it with Wade, he couldn't completely overtake it with spiderwebs. The compromise they had reached, however, was breathtaking. A large bed took up the bulk of the floor space, webs bordering it on each side and above like that of a funnel spider. Unlike any normal web, though, Peter had made this one out of dyed silk threads, weaving neatly through each other in slowly shifting colors like a three-dimensional tapestry. There was plenty of room for both of them on the mattress, but if the vibrations proved to be a problem, Peter could sleep above it in a shimmering, adjustable hammock instead.
Wade stopped him just before he went through the door, opting to scoop him up in his arms and carry him over the threshold, as if they were newlyweds. Peter laughed as he wrapped his arms around him, relishing the feel of leather against his bare skin. “Are you sure I shouldn't be doing this to you? You're the one who wants a wedding dress.”
“It's going to be your first time sleeping in here! You deserve a grand entrance!” he replied with a grin.
“And yet, I've probably spent more time in it than you have, building that nest.”
“Oh, details,” he said with a shrug, sidestepping them through the doorway. He took his prize straight to the bed, laying him down across it and pulling back to drink in the sight. “Hello, gorgeous,” he moaned with longing.
Peter folded one leg at the knee and arched his back, breathing deeply. “What are you waiting for? I want to feel you.”
Wade swallowed and reached for the clasps on his belts and buckles, letting them pile up on the floor. He only hesitated a moment before undoing his armor, stripping out of boots and arm guards and finally the suit itself. He stood somewhat shyly before him, naked and gruesomely scarred and obscenely rippling with muscles. And huge. Wow, was he huge. Peter sat up, spider-legs reaching for him and drawing him forward until Wade was kneeling on the bed, his weight dipping deeply into the mattress.
“Hello, gorgeous,” Peter repeated softly as he pulled him close, eyes drifting shut with pleasure as he ran his hands down Wade's chest. His torso was the most tempting mix of firmness and texture, and Peter wanted to rub his fuzz all over it—so he did. Wrapping his arms around him, he stroked his sides with the length of his arms and nuzzled his forehead across his chest, lifting it only to lick around an erect nipple. Wade stroked down his back with both hands, groaning softly at the feel of soft fur all over his touch-starved skin. Peter was already making the purring vibration again; he'd never figured out how to do it consciously, but Wade could always coax it out of him in no time.
Hungry lips found each other, bodies pressing closer as they yearned to join. Wade did that thing where he ran his tongue over the tips of each fang, over and over, until Peter was dribbling poison like nectar right into his mouth and oozing precum at the tip of his eager, swollen length. He made a pathetic keening noise, begging for him to never stop and also to give him something more.
“Easy, my sweet little spider. I've got you,” he whispered as he pulled away, licking his lips. “How do you want to do this?”
Giving him one more quick kiss, Peter turned around and sat on his knees on the bed, his spider-legs finding footholds in the web in front and above him to get them as out of the way as possible. “Like this,” he said over his shoulder, blushing brightly. Wade's erection twitched in response, betraying how much he liked what he saw.
“Oooh, baby boy,” he murmured as he bit a knuckle, eyes raking over his body. “You just sit tight, Daddy's coming for you.”
Peter snorted a laugh as he turned his head back, shivering in spite of himself. “I thought you didn't like our age difference.”
“You're an adult now, my conscious is clear to play whatever I want.”
“Is that so?” Peter said coyly, and proceeded to bend forward until his cheek rested on the mattress and his posterior was presented high in the air. He readjusted his spider-legs to lay prostrate along the bed while he stretched his arms down past his knees, palms up. “Well, in that case, I have a few fantasies of my own.”
Wade made a strangled noise. Peter didn't say it was his kidnapping fantasy... but he didn't really have to. Wade struggled for a second with whether he thought it was sexy or disturbing and guilt inducing, but his body soon won out and decided on incredibly fucking hot are you kidding me let's GO!!
Peter sighed in relief as he felt large, hot hands wrap around his hips, stroking over his skin possessively as they ran up and down his legs, coaxing them farther apart. “You ain't goin' nowhere, kiddo,” Wade growled in a deep rumble, and Peter felt an answering throb, tingling and electric, between his legs. Wade started by kissing along the vulnerable insides of his thighs, and he trembled something fierce in anticipation.
Warm breath ghosted over his balls, and Peter let out a shocked squeak when they were suddenly sucked into a hot, wet mouth. He moaned as Wade squeezed and stroked them against his tongue, his hands wandering inevitably to his, admittedly slightly larger than average, butt cheeks. Wade hummed in pleasure at being able to freely manhandle them, skin on plump skin, and the vibrations shot right through his nutsack and made Peter croon with pleasure.
“Like that, do you?” Wade asked as he finally released his jewels with a wet slurp. Peter nodded his head against the sheets, whimpering softly in answer. Wade's answering smile could be heard in his voice as he pondered, “But what else can I get up to while I have you at my mercy?”
His wicked, wicked tongue began stroking fat and slick over his perineum, thumbs teasingly spreading his cheeks apart. Each lick grew a little longer, teasing closer and closer to his entrance, turning Peter's whimpers into a chain of high-pitched moans. He started to circle around it, getting the area so good and wet with saliva that it was dripping into the orifice without his tongue actually making contact. Peter squirmed in his grasp as desperation started to gnaw at him, his fingers flexing open and closed into fists while his spider-legs twitched and curled against the sheets.
Wade's hands disappeared for a moment, reaching for something nearby that Peter could only assume was lube. When he popped open the lid, though, a scent that he recognized as massage oil filled the air. Peter only had time to ponder the reasoning behind that for a brief moment before Wade unleashed his two-pronged attack, and then he couldn't think at all.
Suddenly his hands were pinned firmly to the bed, while slick, oiled thumbs resumed their ministrations of stroking over his web orifices. At the exact same moment, Wade's tongue slipped without warning into his clean, puckered hole, wiggling excitedly until the muscle relaxed and let him slide in deep. Peter screamed his stunned pleasure into the sheets, flushing from his ears to his rosy nipples. His hips jerked and bucked all on their own, but Wade just pressed his face in all the harder in response, forcing Peter to curve his back further and present himself even more. Now his weeping erection was pressed upside down against his stomach, getting him wet with his excitement.
He couldn't straighten his back because his hands were pinned, leaving him unable to slide his shoulders down the sheets. He was trapped, Wade's tongue plunging in and out and slicking up his insides with excessive saliva, some of it dribbling down his sensitive skin in a tickling trail all the way to his balls, where it joined the cooling moisture already there. Peter shrieked and moaned as arousal overloaded his brain, as it teetered toward the inevitable, as his whole body began to sweat and tremble and jerk. Wade's lips pulled back in a smile, the hard press of teeth adding to the mix. Stroke and press, thrust and lick, all Peter could feel was electricity zinging through overwrought nerves, the thick swelling of his arousal. He was powerless to prevent his pleasure from cresting, helpless under his lover's demanding touch and inescapable strength and sinful tongue. With a wail that was aural sex in itself, Peter lost the fight and surrendered to torrential pleasure, gushing thick, hot fluid down his stomach to the bed and clenching in spasms around Wade's tongue. It couldn't even reach his prostate, and yet it had already been mind blowing.
Peter gasped hoarsely as he slowly came down, his muscles turning to trembling jelly as he went limp on the bed. Wade released his hands so he could straighten out his back, but Peter didn't even want to move that much. “Oh, my poor baby spider!” Wade cooed, voice still heavy with unspent lust. “What am I ever going to do with you?” There was a sharp inhale of breath as Wade did something behind him, and this time, Peter was pretty sure the smell was from lube.
Strong hands slid smoothly over his juicy rump, sliding up his sides and under to his chest. With ease born of powerful muscles, he pulled Peter's torso up until he could lean against his chest, head lolling back to rest on a shoulder. Spider-legs dragged limply behind him, only one making the effort to reach up and clutch feebly for a grip on the web up above. Wade stroked gently over his smooth neck for a moment, down his chest, and finally under his thighs with both hands. “You are incredibly pliant right now,” he said conversationally, but with a strained note that betrayed how affected he really was. “My little captive. My beautiful treasure.”
He lifted Peter up a little, letting his head tilt back even further for a moment, then lined him up just right. Peter felt something huge, hard, and extremely slick press against his lax hole, and though he was about as loose as he could possibly be, he still tried to relax that much further. Wade lowered him down as gently and slowly as possible, and the stretch as he slid inside and stuffed him full was that exquisite sort of pain that feels like pleasure all over again. Peter thought he would have lost his voice by now, but he found he had a whole new untapped supply of breathy moans.
They just sat there for a while, Peter nestled down on his lap and feeling like he'd been impaled by the thickest, longest rod he could ever imagine and loving it. His spent dick was already twitching and starting to fill again as his interest came crawling back from the grave. He could feel Wade pulse inside him every now and then, as he tried to keep himself from blowing his load before he could even move.
“How are you holding up?” Peter asked softly, turning his head to nuzzle at his cheek.
Wade let out a hard breath, like he was in the middle of an exhausting workout. “Barely. I know in my head that this isn't the only time we'll do this, but my heart doesn't quite believe it and wants to make this last.”
“It doesn't have to be perfect. We can do this as many times as our bodies can manage, every day, as much as we want, for the rest of our lives.”
“Speaking of which, when is your Master Weaver going to show up and strike the deal? I really don't want it to be in the middle of screwing.”
“Great Weaver, not Master Weaver. Totally different entities.”
Wade snorted a laugh, then choked back a moan when it echoed through his whole body. “Okay, but my question still stands.”
“I don't know. I have no idea how he wants to do this. Maybe he won't actually possess me this time? Maybe you just have to tell me your answer?”
“Maybe.” He spent a moment breathing heavily and evenly, hands gripping Peter's hips in an unconscious, possessive gesture.
Peter took a breath like he was about to speak, only to pause, several times. At last he spit it out. “Are you sure this is what you want to do? Bind your life to mine? We can still be lovers without taking that step.”
Peter pursed his lips, still troubled. “You'll never be able to take another job that requires killing ever again.”
“What if...” He swallowed nervously and tried again. “What if, like normal spiders... I don't live very long?”
Wade shifted his arms to wrap them tightly around Peter's torso, not quite concealing a tremor. “All the more reason.”
“Or, conversely... what if Totems live for centuries?”
“I was probably looking at that anyway, only with constant pain and loneliness and insanity instead.” He bowed his head, his chin brushing Peter's shoulder. The rod inside of Peter was starting to wilt, relieving some of the unbearable tension but not promising anything good for Wade's state of mind. “What about you? You sure you want to live your whole life burdened with taking care of a worthless mess like me?”
“You're not worthless. If nothing else... you mean more than anything to me.”
Wade swallowed. “Okay, but you can't deny the mess part.”
Peter huffed out something that wasn't quite a laugh. “You have your good brain days and your bad brain days. I'll take them all if it means I get to have you.”
Wade gave a sniff that sounded suspiciously like a sniffle. “You know... I learned a song that I wanted to teach Cassie. I haven't got around to it yet, though, because... it was too real. Too fitting. Every time I was about to, I couldn't do it, because I wanted to sing it to you myself.”
“Really?” Peter asked, turning his head slightly on Wade's shoulder so he could see his face. “Can I hear it?”
He nodded, head still bowed, his embrace tightening. “If you want.” Taking a deep breath, he started off in a sweetly sad minor key, his voice shaky and nervous but surprisingly beautiful as he began to sing.
“If I could save time in a bottle,
the first thing that I'd like to do
is to save every day, till eternity passes away,
just to spend them with you.”
Peter's eyes widened and he lifted his head, turning slightly so he could look at him properly. Wade finally lifted his chin, meeting Peter's gaze with his own, his expression vulnerable and full of swirling emotion.
“If I could make days last forever;
if words could make wishes come true,
I'd save every day like a treasure, and then,
again, I would spend them with you.”
Peter let out a shaky breath, his hands finally reviving from their limp sprawl to seek out Wade's. He loosened his hug long enough to entwine their fingers together, then wrapped their arms back around into a shared embrace. Feeling more confident, Wade gave Peter a tender smile as he slipped into a more lighthearted, major key for the chorus.
“But there never seems to be enough time
to do the things you want to do, once you find them.
I've looked around enough to know
that you're the one I want to go through time with.”
Peter couldn't cover his mouth, his hands were already occupied. His lips may have started to tremble, and his eyes were definitely starting to sting. He gave a shaky breath as he tried to contain himself, but Wade's words were plucking a chord that sent resonant vibrations straight to his soul and he couldn't hide it.
“If I had a box just for wishes,
and dreams that had never come true...
The box would be empty,
except for the memory of how
they were answered by you.”
He squeaked, and fuck, that was it. He was crying now. He was naked and sitting on a dick and crying his eyes out because his lover was singing to him and his heart was just so full. Wade grinned but he wasn't laughing; his eyes were glassy with tears too. He sang the chorus one last time, only with an impertinent thrust at “things you want to do” that had Peter giggle-snorting between sobs. Wade kept moving, too, so that by the time his voice fell silent he was rocking Peter up and down on his lap, slowly stiffening inside of him until he could feel the delicious strain again.
“I can't believe you got me to cry during sex,” Peter bemoaned, which turned into a regular moan soon enough. “You monster.”
“Oh, is that the nickname you're going to give my junk? I like it.”
Peter tried to sigh in frustration, but it didn't sound frustrated at all. It sounded pretty obscene, actually. Wade squeezed his hands and used his hold on Peter's body to push into him slow and deep. His angle shifted just right, and Peter clenched and gasped, letting head fall back to rest on his shoulder again. Even his slightest inhale of breath was falling right by Wade's ear. He couldn't hide anything. Wade knew exactly whenever he brushed the right spot, and suddenly he was stroking over it without fail.
“F-fuck,” Peter whispered, his erection back to straining mindlessly into the air. Pleasure was sending little jolts in a constant stream through his brain, breaking up every thought before it could even begin. “Wade... Wade!”
He wanted him to feel as good as he did. Wanted Wade to feel like pleasure was the only thing that existed right now in the whole world. He shifted his shoulders slightly, trying to arch his back and keep his spider-legs pressed flat as possible, and let his fur stroke against him with every powerful thrust. Wade sucked in a breath as the softness began brushing up and down his rough skin, tickling and silky and heavenly. “Peter?” he gasped out, thrusting up into him a little faster.
“Want you to feel good,” he slurred in response, all eight eyes fluttering wildly as instincts and powers began to join the mix. Pheromones oozed out, musky and intoxicating and cloying in the air made humid by their breath. “So good. God, it's so good,” he moaned weakly. Could he get drunk on his own pheromones? It sure seemed like it at the moment. Wade was inhaling deeply like he couldn't get enough, growling primally and beginning to rut into him with sharp snaps that made his ass jiggle and slap against his thighs. Peter's dick bounced wildly as it strained for touch.
He could feel something. Something that didn't make sense in words so much as flashes of an image. A thread. Two threads. One edged with glittering black diamond shards, impossible to break or sever, unable to stop cutting anything it touched. The other one unnaturally strong and shining from within, coated with glistening beads of toxin like dew on a spiderweb. The threads were carefully, purposefully, being twisted around each other. Peter let out a sharp gasp at the realization.
“Wade!” he whispered between stuttering moans, blue light shining from his third-eyes. “I-it's hap-p-pening!”
Wade released his death-grip on Peter's hands, allowing him to finally reach up and backwards to cling to the thick cords of his shoulders and neck. Wade's hands stroked over his chest a few times, thumbing his nipples for an agonizing few jolts of pleasure before plunging down to his hips, gripping into the flesh tightly and ramming into him with frantic, uncoordinated thrusts. His body grew hot against Peter's back, the smell of sweat and the desperate desire for release swirling in with the heady concoction of scents. Wade was moaning like an animal, and suddenly Peter could feel a throbbing pulse ripple through him, and something gushing and spurting deep inside.
“Oh!” he cried as Wade held him rigidly still, aside from a few bucking spasms, ceasing the stream of mind-blowing sensation just as he was about to reach his own peak. “Please, please, please!”
Wade's hands hastily let go of his hips and shot around, squeezing his balls in one hand and stroking his precum-slick erection vigorously with the other. It was just what he needed, and his back arched helplessly as he thrust into his hands, semen squelching as he bobbed over Wade's not-yet-softened shaft. He twisted his head and shoulders, pulling Wade's neck close as venom started oozing like drool down his chin, begging to be released too. He couldn't reach Wade's neck at this angle, so he kissed him instead, pouring into his mouth and nipping his bottom lip over and over. A roughly textured hand pumped him at blinding speed, until his balls were drawing in tight under the other hand's relentless tugging and squeezing. Tiny thrusts rubbed even now over his prostate as Peter cried out against Wade's lips, absolutely senseless with a heightened state of euphoria. The first shots of come began to fire out across the bed as he toppled over the edge, contractions squeezing him over and over again as he went rigid and tight with release. He hung there for the longest time, breathing hotly into Wade's mouth and shaking all over, feeling like he might never come down. Wade slowly released his grip on his privates and slid his hands up his sweat-soaked stomach and chest, just holding him close, holding him up.
Heaving chests slowly slowed down their breathing, until the two of them could kiss languidly in the cooling afterglow. Peter felt like something was tying off, out there outside of their present reality. The threads of their lives were braided around each other now, destined not to be snapped in half until they were both snapped together. Wade would never have to go on alone. Peter would never have to say goodbye too early. Their greatest fears were essentially the same, and they had found solace at last in each other.
“'Till death do we part,” Peter murmured sleepily against his mate's lips, but Wade shook his head gently.
“'Till death and after, we go together,” he corrected, linking their fingers together again and wrapping them around him. Peter smiled and wrapped his spider-legs all the way around them both, completing the embrace.
* * *
Peter floated calmly between the worlds in his sleep, noting with idle curiosity one of them where his other self had finally crossed paths with Deadpool. Sadly, he wasn't too happy about it.
Other-Peter shouted at Wade, repulsed by how easily he stole people's lives away, frustrated by his friendliness and easy companionship, embarrassed by his star-struck admiration and flirtatious comments. The Spider-Man of this world was adrift without any support, gave of himself too freely to guilt-stained responsibility, stretched himself too thin to leave a shred of strength left. All he could see was the fathomless depths of how much help Deadpool needed, and how little he had left to support anyone with. This Peter was bleeding out from wounds he couldn't even see. This Peter didn't understand how the two of them could work together, to hold each other up as they limped along.
Not yet, anyway. There was still a faint hope, a tendency to lean in each other's direction, that might someday bring their threads together. Peter wished them both luck, and let them drift away.
He had his own reality to focus on, and he was pretty dammed pleased with how it was turning out.
* * *
They were hopelessly, pathetically obvious when they showed up to the Parker household for Peter's birthday dinner. They couldn't seem to stop smiling, stop laughing, or stop touching long enough to actually set the table for the barbecue that Uncle Ben was grilling up on the back patio.
“Wade!” Aunt May said accusingly. “You two didn't run off to elope in the middle of the night, did you? I though we were going to make you a wedding dress some day!”
“No, no!” Wade rushed to assure her. “No legal documents have been signed anywhere! Nothing like that! We can still do the dress!”
May narrowed her eyes at him sharply before she cracked, a sliver of a grin sneaking across her wrinkled face. “Is that so? So it's all in my imagination that you two are acting like honeymooners?”
“Uhhhh,” he stalled, looking desperately over to Peter for help. Peter hastily took a swig of the drink he had just poured, pointing helplessly to his full mouth. Wade narrowed his eyes and turned back with a shake of his head. “I'm not sure what answer you're looking for. Do you want to hear how hard your nephew and I railed each other since the clock passed midnight? What's the protocol here?”
The drink was a bad idea, Peter realized as he promptly snorted it up his nose, sputtering and coughing as it stung his nostrils. “You know what?” he said hoarsely as soon as he could breathe again. “I think I'm gonna go help Uncle Ben with the last of the steaks.” His ears burned red as he beat a hasty retreat to the back door, ignoring Wade's vengeful cackles and Aunt May's chortles into the back of her hand. Maybe he should let those two conspire in peace for a while.
Ben looked up as Peter stepped out onto the patio with him, the delicious smell of seasoned meat wafting through the air. “Hey, Pete!” he called, the corners of his eyes crinkling with his smile.
“Hey, Uncle Ben,” he greeted cheerfully back, giving his spider-legs a good stretch before folding them back up out of the way. “Need any help?”
“Not really, they're just about done,” he said as he judged the sizzling slabs with an expert eye. “Did things get too racy for you inside?” Peter blushed anew, and Ben chuckled knowingly. “You may not want to hear it, but your dear old aunt isn't shy and loves a good romance.”
“Yeah, I noticed,” Peter muttered.
They were silent for a while, just listening to the city noises and the chirp of summer birds until Ben scooped the steaks up onto a serving plate. He handed it to Peter as he went about extinguishing the grill.
“You know, Pete,” he said casually. “I'm proud of you.”
“Hmm? For what?”
He closed the vents and the lid before turning around and giving him a serious look. “So many things. Using your strength to help people out, wherever you are. Using that brain of yours to invent things that can change the world. Using your art to let others see the beauty that you see. Being such a good friend to the people you've let into your life.”
Peter lowered his head bashfully, but Ben wasn't having any of that. He gripped his shoulder and cocked his head, watching his face. “I'm proud of you for being there for Wade, too.”
Peter's eyes widened as he looked up. “Really?”
“I know I'm supposed to play the protective fatherly roll and threaten him to take care of you or else, but... you can take care of yourself. You have friends and family who are willing to help you every step of the way. Wade... has never had any of that. And that takes a toll on someone. A heavy one. I don't know if you can even imagine it.”
“I can,” Peter whispered, an expression of pity tugging at his face. “Because I've seen what it could have done to me.”
Ben nodded, his grip tightening. “So what I'm going to do is, I'm going to tell you. You take care of him, Pete. I know you two are planning to be together for a long time, even if you haven't told us anything yet. It's a heavy responsibility, maybe the greatest one you can ever make, to promise to take care of someone for the rest of your lives. Especially when that someone needs you so much. Make sure he makes some friends; good, true ones, just like you did. You can't be his only support if you want him to heal into someone who can take care of you back.”
Peter swallowed and nodded, letting Ben steer him back into the house and down the hall to the kitchen. As Peter set down the tray he looked up to see that May was holding Wade's hands in a firm embrace, and the man looked close to tears. Apparently, this was a two-pronged attack.
“But May and I,” Ben continued, as if he'd been talking to both of them all along. “We're ready to be your family, too, Wade. If you'll have us.”
In lieu of an answer, Wade covered his face and choked on a sob. Peter rushed to his side like gravity had pulled him there, wrapping his arms and spider-legs around him and trying to hide his own tears against Wade's neck. There was nothing doing, though, as Ben and May came around to wrap their shaking shoulders in hugs.
Peter didn't need a prophesy to know that his future was going to be rich with happiness. He had enough love that he could freely share it, and wasn't that just the greatest treasure anyone could ever ask for?
Ohmygosh it's finally over! This is officially my new longest story by like... 900 words. Only it was written in three months instead of a year and a half, so there's also that.
The final image can be found here if you wish to like or reblog it! Spread the love!
Also, super extra thanks to everyone who has left comments! I adore you. You make writing a pleasure.