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a prologue

 

Peter hates assignments like this, when J. Jonah Jameson apparently runs out of photographers and has to send him out to cover the celebrity superhero beat. He’s certain it’s because he’s an action photographer who takes pictures of heroes and villains that he’s the first to come to Jonah’s mind for these things. And sure, the extra paycheck that he doesn’t even need to get punched in the face for is nice, but he tries too hard to keep his life in the mask and out of it separate just for them to be brought together so casually. It feels too much like tempting fate.

As it is, he’s already run into Logan while photographing the X-Men, who gave him a funny look once he realized who he was. He’s also been vigilantly dancing out of Stephen Strange’s line of sight, since the sorcerer knows his face, if not his name.

Fortunately—or perhaps not, he thinks with a sinking feeling as he spots the Fantastic Four through the crowd—most of the guests are big-name superheroes meant to be as much an attraction themselves as the pieces of art they are all ostensibly here to view. Most of them have had only fleeting interactions with Spider-Man that are too few and far between so he's fairly hopeful no one will be able tell who he is. So Peter just takes pictures, keeps his mouth shut, and jots down a few observations in a notebook for the lifestyle editor to make an accompanying write-up out of. He steers clear of known telepaths, avoids all the former spies, and dodges Reed and Sue’s family.

After an hour, he’s ready to call it quits, but there’s a buffet that keeps getting replenished and an open bar (not that he drinks), so he mentally shrugs. Why not? All the other press are clumped together at one end of the bar and have been attempting to get plastered since the night started. It would be more peculiar if he alone never took advantage of the free food and drinks.

Peter loads up a tiny plate with even tinier canapés and takes it to the opposite end of the bar, away from his tipsy rival reporters, and asks a bartender for a lemonade.

He’s just popped his third smoked salmon on a biscuit into his mouth while checking his pictures when it happens: the faintest tingle of spider-sense along the back of his skull. Almost nothing, really, just the tiniest whisper of alarm.

And then a voice behind him, low and familiar, speaks, “Wow, those are great pictures. I don’t think you managed to get any of me, though. But I can be persuaded to do a private shoot, if you want.”

Peter almost drops his camera, whipping his head around only to find the Human Torch’s face entirely too close, looking over his shoulder at the screen.

Johnny Storm turns his own head at the movement and gives him a slow wink.

Peter takes a breath at precisely the worst moment, sucking in air, sure, but also a half-chewed biscuit and chunk of fish. It lodges in his throat and stays there.

Of course—Peter thinks dimly, having the presence of mind to set his camera down on the counter before flailing wildly, eyes growing wide as he points at his own throat—only Johnny Storm can set off his spider sense with a pick up line so terrible, it’s about to make him choke to death.

  


 

Johnny’s used to people’s exaggerated reactions when they meet him. There have been fainting, screaming, standing stock still out of shock, and the occasional few who tried way too hard to pretend they don’t care, it’s only Johnny Storm, big deal, oh my God, can we take a picture?

But this has never happened before.

At first, it looks like the usual panicked flailing, the cute guy’s eyes bugging out in surprise. But then he’s slapping his palm on the bar top, hard enough to crack what must be vinyl tiles designed to look like granite, and his face is growing redder and redder. When he grabs Johnny by the front of his shirt, brows now furrowed in accusatory rage despite the wheezing issuing from between his parted lips, Johnny realizes what’s actually happening.

Cute Guy is choking.

Johnny spins him around immediately, his hand going to smack him, right between the shoulder blades.

It hurts. It fucking hurts because the guy’s muscles are like solid steel.

Damn. Cute and buff.

Wow, Johnny, this is so not the time.

His mind attempts to recall as much as it can about the Heimlich maneuver—he knows it, he’s done it, but for some reason his brain is catching on something. He wraps his arms around the distressed man’s torso (rock hard abs, what) and struggles to squeeze, even though he just won’t stop squirming—

“Stand aside,” someone huge and blond orders imperiously, shoving Johnny aside with ease and taking his place. He blinks in surprise when he realizes it’s actually Thor himself, doing the Heimlich in a way that shows obvious experience with the move.

The cute guy Johnny has nearly killed with a cheesy pick-up line makes an odd noise, and there’s definitely the sound of creaking bone there, but in the next moment something goes flying out of his mouth and falls wetly on the other side of the bar.

Cute-and-Buff pants heavily, looking up at Thor as if he’s their hero. Which, well, he is. “Thanks, Mr. Thor, your Godliness.”

There’s a hint of irreverence in there, cheeky mockery that’s too good-natured to be offended over, but there’s genuine gratitude as well. Thor gives him an odd look. “Are you all right? I wasn’t, perhaps, too forceful?”

“No. Nope. I’m okay.” He gives him two thumbs up. “Thanks again.”

“You are fortunate I was passing by and have learned this special skill from two exceptional mortals.” Thor nods and gives him one more piercing look from head to toe before drifting away.

Johnny clears his throat. “Um…Look…I’m sor—”

The guy steps back, away from Johnny and his halting apology. “Hey, I’m still alive, but, uh…maybe we shouldn’t press our luck, yeah? So…bye, I guess?”

Johnny opens his mouth, intent on at least finishing his apology, but he’s already bounding away, slipping through the crowd with ease, much faster than Johnny would have believed possible. There’s something about the way he’s fleeing that nags at Johnny’s mind, however. Something almost familiar

He feels like he’s pulling at a very important thread, his mind working overtime, when Johnny suddenly hears a snicker, loud whirring noises, and several distinct clicks that he recognizes as the sound of shutters snapping.

An entire gaggle of journalists are at the bar smirking at him, cameras clicking away.

“Shot down,” one of them says almost gleefully.

Johnny impresses himself with his own self-restraint when he refrains from setting him on fire.

 

 

“What’s it like to nearly kill someone by flirting, matchstick?”

Johnny groans dramatically from where he’s lying supine on the couch and throws an arm across his eyes. It’s all over the morning news and all the gossip sites are having a field day. “Stop it, Ben. I’m not in the mood.”

“All the papers are talking about it,” Valeria says from the living room floor, surrounded by the said papers. Johnny doesn’t know where she even got them all. “Except the Daily Bugle. Their juicy tidbit of the night is Logan accidentally spilling champagne all over the front of Ms. Frost’s gown.”

Johnny frowns and peeks out from under his arm. “What? Why?”

“Probably because their photographer was too busy trying not to die and couldn’t take pictures of himself.”

“What?” Johnny exclaims, snatching up the Bugle and the Globe for comparison.

It’s true. His victim’s — God, he’s thinking of him as his victim — name is Peter Parker, according to the Globe, while all the photos in the Bugle’s article are credited to a P. Parker.

“Oh. Oh, crap.”

Ben raises his eyebrows at Johnny’s tone. “What?”

He drops the papers back down and stares at the ceiling in despair, “It’s—It’s Peter Parker. I…I had no idea that’s what he looks like. This is awful.”

“Is that name supposed to mean anything?”

Johnny gapes at him before reaching over and pulling out a book from under the coffee table. “It’s him! The Spider-Man guy!” he hisses, brandishing Franklin’s copy of Webs.The superhero photographer. The only guy who can take pictures of people in unitards without making them look completely ridiculous! God, where the hell have you been?”

“Apparently living in a different reality from yours,” Ben says.

“Uncle Johnny lives in a different reality from ours, Uncle Ben,” Valeria says sweetly, climbing into the latter’s lap to read Ben’s choice of newspaper with him.

“You don’t get it! If he‘s mad at me, what’s going to stop him from selling the worst possible pictures of me? Like, what if starts taking them all from the wrong angle? This is it, I guess,” Johnny goes on glumly. “My reputation’s about to sink straight to the bottom.”

“It wasn’t there already?” Ben asks.

Johnny hauls himself upright. “I’m going out. I need to talk to an expert.”

 

- - -

 

Johnny has been waiting for nearly an hour and is starting to think that Spider-Man hasn’t seen his flaming sky message when the guy finally swings himself up on top of the Statue of Liberty’s head. There’s a familiar ache in Johnny’s chest that he tries to ignore, watching the figure describe a perfect arc, landing soundless and graceful on his feet a few yards away.

For a while, Spider-Man says nothing and just stares at him from a distance. “Hey, Torch,” he says after a few moments of unusually uncomfortable silence. His voice sounds oddly pinched and he’s still standing very far away. “What’s up?”

“Spidey. What took you so long?” Johnny frowns.

Spider-Man waves a hand. “Oh. You know. Stuff. Punching bad guys, saving puppies, catching runaway buses. The…The usual.”

“Well, at least one of us is having a good day,” Johnny huffs, crossing his arms, his feet dangling over the edge of a spike.

“Well, good is a relative term,” Spider-Man says carefully, finally shuffling forward to join Johnny. There’s several feet between them, but it’s a slight improvement.

Johnny nevertheless eyes the space distastefully. “You know I won’t, like, nearly kill you, right?”

Spidey makes a small, unintelligible noise before asking, “Is that what this is about?”

“You’ve seen the news?”

“I admit I’m late to a lot of things, but I don’t really live under a rock.”

The fact that it’s breached Spider-Man’s sphere of obliviousness is a fairly good barometer of just how hopeless Johnny’s case is.

He takes a deep breath. “I need your advice, Webhead.”

“I’m sorry, you need my what?”

Johnny shoots him a look of irritation. “Your advice, jerkface. Don’t make me say it again.”

“Sorry, I just never thought this day would come. How can I help you?”

“You— How do you move on from making a fool of yourself?”

Spider-Man stares at him with his unblinking white plastic lenses. “Huh?”

“How do you get people to stop laughing at you? You know how it’s like, right? It’s your life.”

“Wow. Wow, Torch. You can’t see my face but it’s very offended right now. I’m very offended right now.”

“Sorry,” Johnny says. “I forgot people haven’t stopped laughing at you yet.”

“You know, I have an actual job I’m putting off for this conversation,” Spider-Man says, which raises a question that Johnny’s not that interested in asking at the moment, which is namely what a person with Spider-Man’s apparent skill set does for a living. “Two jobs, actually. So, if you don’t mind—”

Johnny grabs the arm he’s stretched out to shoot a web at the statue’s upheld torch. “Okay, okay. Don’t go. You’re the only person who isn’t actively making fun of me. My entire family is enjoying everything too much.”

Spider-Man lowers his arm and stares at him again. “You know, maybe all of this is just karma.”

“Karma?”

“Maybe that’ll teach you to make fun of some poor guy minding his own business.”

“Make fun?” Johnny asks, indignant. “What do you mean make fun? I was putting everything I had into it!” He counts off on his fingers. “I showed interest in his work, I smiled at him, I all but told him flat out I was interested in him.”

Spidey leans back. “Wait. What do you— You were sincere?”

“I would never play around like that!” Johnny says, affronted by the assumption.

“What? You fake flirt with me all the time!”

“You’re different!”

“How?”

“Because you started it, jackass!” Johnny shouts.

“What? No, I didn’t!”

“Yeah, okay. Sure. If you say so.”

Spider-Man stills. “Did I?”

Johnny dismissively slashes a hand through the air. “Look, who cares? It’s you. It doesn’t mean anything to you, I learned that years ago. But with anyone else, I would never— I could never.”

“Fine. Okay,” Spider-Man says, sounding oddly shaken. “Let’s…let’s assume you’re telling the truth—”

“I am.”

“—and I believe you… What do you want to do, exactly?”

“I want a chance to make it up to him. Or to apologize, at the very least.” Johnny puts on his best pleading face. It works on everyone, even Sue. “You know him, don’t you? He put out that book on you and you didn’t get mad or anything, even though his pictures are the primary ammunition the Bugle uses against you.”

Spidey sighs. “Look, I won’t deny I know him, but it’s not like we’re friends or anything. He’s up to his eyeballs in student loans, though. Needs financial help, so I let him take pictures. That’s all.”

“Oh, come on, Spidey. I just need you to put in a good word for me. Tell him I didn’t mean to almost kill him. Let me buy him coffee.”

“Why?” Spider-Man asks bluntly. “Why does it matter so much what he thinks of you?”

Johnny thinks of Parker’s warm brown eyes, the dark hair that’s charmingly messy. The abs of steel. “He’s cute.”

“Sure,” Spider-Man says slowly, and Johnny can picture the eyeroll that goes with it.

“And I’m a fan of his work.”

“His work? You sure you’re not a fan of the one he takes pictures of?” Spidey is teasing him, and Johnny’s optimistic that he’s about to win the argument.

“He takes pictures of people besides you. Just imagine what he can do with a superior subject. Like me, for instance.”

Spidey is quiet for a beat or two. “Oh, I can imagine.”

Johnny frowns. There’s an odd note in Spider-Man’s voice that he can’t quite identify. But then Spidey’s shot a web at Lady Liberty’s torch and is preparing to jump off.  Johnny scrambles to his feet. “Spidey!”

“Look, you know where you can find him,” Spidey calls over his shoulder. “Tell him yourself!”

“Maybe I will!” Johnny yells back.

Spider-Man gives him a mocking salute and launches himself at the ferry.

Johnny’s stomach flips as he watches Spidey somersault away. “Maybe I will.”

 

 

Sue looks at Johnny suspiciously. “Where do you want to take Franklin again?”

“The…the park,” Johnny says, keeping his own gaze steady, his eyes just the right amount of wide. Sue’s not buying it. There’s no way she’s actually buying it, but Johnny knows she has stuff she wants to do and having one child tagging along on all her errands is difficult enough, let alone two.

Sue looks casually out the window. “Is there any reason why Valeria can’t go to the park with you two?”

Valeria would probably embarrass the shit out of Johnny, but it’s a risk he’s willing to take if it means he can bring Franklin. “No. If you want, I could take her, too.”

“Okay. Just make sure they wear sunscreen. It’s really hot outside.”

Johnny nods solemnly and waits until Sue is out of sight before pumping his fists triumphantly.

Valeria tugs on the hem of his shirt. “We’re not going to the park, are we?”

“N-no?”

“Are you going to buy me ice cream? Three scoops?”

“No, Val. I—”

Mom—”

Johnny gets down on his knees, frantically shushing her. “Okay, okay! One scoop.”

“Three.”

“Two.”

“Three.”

“You don’t know how these negotiation things are supposed to go, do you?”

Valeria crosses her arms. “I do. It’s all the bad movies you watch that don’t.”

“Fine! Three scoops with marshmallows on top!”

Val gives him a hug. “You’re my favorite uncle.”

Johnny hugs her back fondly. Yeah, so he’s getting played. He doesn’t really care.

 

 

Johnny wishes he could share Franklin’s excitement. The kid is practically buzzing with it, clutching his well-worn copy of Webs as he walks into the Bugle office with Johnny and Val. Johnny, on the other hand, feels like he’s got butterflies in his stomach. Butterflies that feel like a horde of stampeding horses.

“We should have brought Bentley,” Valeria muses. “He says he’s interested in the weaponization of media outlets and how information is the most powerful tool you can have if you plan on taking over the world.”

“Yeah, no,” Johnny says, scanning the room.  He’s never been in a newsroom before and has always expected it to be a hotbed of activity, like in all the movies. And it is, though unlike his mental image of people rushing about, everyone is tied to their desks, talking on their phones or typing on laptops.

A woman with short hair crosses the room in front of him and does a double take, backing up so she could look at him again.

“Uh…hi,” Johnny begins. “Do you know—”

“Peter!” she yells. “Someone’s here to see you!”

Johnny blinks. “How did you—”

She rolls her eyes. “I’m a journalist, Mr. Storm. It’s literally my job to know.  Besides, he’s the only person here the Human Torch ever tried to murder.”

“It wasn’t—”

Peter pops up behind the woman, looking like he needs about a liter of coffee but somehow still good and Johnny knows it’s too late. He’s just gone now. “Betty? Who—” He sees Johnny and freezes like a deer in headlights. “Oh,” he manages as Betty silently withdraws.

It’s Franklin who saves Johnny from saying something stupid. “Did you really take all these pictures of Spider-Man?” he asks breathlessly, holding out his copy of Peter’s book.

Peter looks down at him, immediately unfrozen. “Yeah…See, that’s my name. I’m Peter. What about you?”

“Franklin. And this is Val and our Uncle Johnny.”

Peter glances at him. “Yeah…We’ve met. So, you’re a Spider-Man fan, huh?”

“Yeah! Uncle Johnny’s friends with him but he’s never brought him home.”

Johnny has, just never outside his bedroom because all Spidey ever does when he comes over is leech off of Johnny’s Netflix or sleep on the floor.

“That’s terrible,” Peter says, deadpan.

“Uncle Ben says Uncle Johnny is in lo—”

Johnny quickly covers Franklin’s mouth with his hand and laughs when Peter looks at him oddly. “Kids. They’ll go on and on if you let them. Anyway, I came to apologize. About the other night. And I figured Franklin might want to meet Spidey’s other biggest fan and maybe get his book signed?”

Peter smiles at Franklin kindly. “I’ll go look for a pen and you can tell me what you want me to say, okay?”

Franklin nods and follows him to a nearby desk.

“So that’s your plan?” Val murmurs to Johnny once the pair are out of earshot. “Use my brother to get a date?”

“What? Nooooo, of course, not,” Johnny scoffs.

“I’m proud of you, Uncle Johnny.”

“…Thanks, Val. That, uh, means a lot.”

Peter and Franklin rejoin them and Franklin is practically glowing, his book back in his small hands.

“It’s time for ice cream now, right?” Franklin asks, beaming up at Johnny.

Johnny stares at him.

“Three scoops.”

“One?” Johnny tries.

His eyes dart discreetly in Peter’s direction. “Three.”

Johnny has been expertly played by both of his sister’s children. “Yeah, okay. You win.” He turns to Peter. “So, we’re going for ice cream.”

“I heard,” he says with a straight face.

“You want to come with? My treat. It’s the least I could do after, uh—”

“You nearly killed me?” Peter supplies.

“I’m not ever going to live that down, am I?”

“That depends on how long I’m going to be around, wouldn’t it?”

Johnny swallows, trying not to read too much into the question or Peter's expectant face. “How long you got?” he asks instead.

“Actually, I have an exam at ESU in an hour and a half.”

Johnny’s stomach sinks in disappointment. “Oh. Well, that’s—”

“But I can walk with you if you’re going my way.”

 

 

“So, ESU?” Johnny asks tentatively once they’re back on the sidewalk, the two kids between them. “Still in college? I thought you were close to my age.”

“I am. Close to your age, I mean. Grad school,” he explains with a shrug.

Johnny raises his eyebrows. “Is there grad school for photographers?”

Peter rolls his eyes. “I freelance for the Bugle, but that’s not my long-term career plan.”

“Oh. What is, then?”

“Well, I do have a biochemistry degree, and I’m studying materials science and engineering now, so something in the middle of all of that.”

“Oh, no. You’re Reed level geeky.”

“I wish.”

“You are. I can tell. Trust me, I’ve lived with Reed level geeky for years.”

Peter’s lips curve slightly upward, flattered. “I have a long way to go to get to Reed level. Val’s probably way ahead of me there.”

“Val’s way ahead of everybody,” Johnny agrees, then frowns. “How do you know that?”

“Eh. I just figured. Maybe geniuses have genius kids.”

“Right…”

Peter clears his throat. “Anyway, ice cream! There’s a great place just down the block this way. Unless you’re heading in some other direction?”

“No, no. We’re heading that way, too,” Johnny says, even though he hasn’t actually given it any thought before. He puts on his best smile. “Lead on.”

 

 

Johnny’s life has been a matter of public record since he was sixteen years old, but Peter’s is not. So, of course, Johnny spends the entire time they’re eating ice cream and wandering around the nearest park trying to learn everything he possibly can, with occasional interruptions from Franklin and Val, who have questions of their own. If Peter finds this weird, he doesn’t say, and he doesn’t seem to mind one bit, answering everything with a serious face. His gravity is endearing, but every now and then Johnny catches sight of a flicker of mischief in his eyes and thinks that maybe he’s not as serious as he seems.

Before Johnny realizes it, half an hour has gone by and Peter has to go, thanking Johnny for the ice cream before he hurries off, smoothly navigating joggers just like on the night of the gala, when he met and ran away from Johnny for the first time.  There’s something in the way he moves, light-footed and sure, that keeps drawing Johnny’s eye, but he can’t quite understand why.

Johnny thinks he’s in love. He shouldn’t be. He barely knows the guy. But he is. He sits down on a bench heavily and looks at his feet.

“You realize you didn’t get his number, right?” Valeria asks.

Johnny buries his face in his hands and groans.

 

 

It’s been three days since Johnny and Peter’s ice cream date (it was totally a date, even if Peter doesn’t know it) and Johnny hasn’t seen him since. He’s tried the Bugle twice, but apparently “freelancer” means he only shows up when he has pictures to sell, which seems to happen whenever he feels like. Johnny even tried getting Peter’s phone number off of Betty Brant, but the woman seemed weirdly protective and refused to give out private information without consent because of “occupational hazards” and how was she to know for sure that Johnny was Johnny and not some sort of shapeshifter or skrull?

Johnny is slowly going out of his mind.

“You should go out, Johnny,” Sue suggests, sick of tripping over him mooning in the living room.

“He’s pining,” Bentley says from the corner where he and Valeria are building something Johnny does not want to know the purpose of.

“Johnny, you’re not fourteen anymore. Get out of my living room before I shove you out the window.”

“You don’t understand, Sue.”

“I understand you’re an idiot who hung out with a boy he’s obsessed with and still managed to forget something as basic as getting his phone number.”

Johnny looks at Val reproachfully. “I can’t believe you didn’t remind me.”

“You’re blaming a four-year-old, Johnny. Out. Now.”

“It’s been so long, you’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel this way,” Johnny says from the doorway, not actually stupid enough to say it while within easy reach.

Sue throws something after him, but he doesn’t stick around to find out what it is.

Valeria sticks her head out the doorway as he is busy fleeing. “Uncle Johnny!”

Johnny skids to a stop.

“Bentley says why can’t you just do what anyone else would and Facebook-stalk him?”

Sometimes, living in a tower full of geniuses is a good thing.

 

 

Peter Parker doesn’t have a Facebook account, nor does he have a Twitter or Snapchat.  But he does have an Instagram which Johnny probably should have tried first before getting frustrated with all the others, knowing the guy’s a photographer and all.

Johnny follows him at once, starts scrolling down the account, and is immediately intrigued. A lot of the photos are scenes of every day urban life: a basketball game, a family enjoying ice cream, a crowd on a busy street bedazzled with signs and flashing lights. Scenes vibrant yet commonplace.

And then there are the cityscapes, interspersed among the beautifully mundane like exclamation points, dizzying and wild. Johnny has never seen cityscapes like these—as if they’re taken from the sky. Vertiginous shots of the streets from what seems to be assorted skyscrapers, sunsets over a sea of rooftops, and distorted reflections of buildings on buildings, all with a sense of scale that makes everything feel immense. Johnny doesn’t realize he’s holding his breath until he starts to need one.

Curiously, there isn’t a single shot of Spider-Man nor any of the armor and spandex gang.

Johnny frowns and continues scrolling until something familiar catches his eye. It’s a shot of Manhattan edge on, with the water in the foreground. It’s early evening, the light dim with a hint of pink, and many of the city’s lights have yet to turn on. There’s something very familiar about it and Johnny cocks his head thoughtfully.

It hits him like a bucket of ice down his back, his stomach suddenly churning. No. No way.

He’s almost at the window when he stops. No, this is way too important for taking a chance on skywriting. He fetches his phone from the night stand and starts composing a text.

Meet me at the usual place.

Right now.

NOW.

This is urgent, Webhead!

Johnny tosses the phone onto the middle of his bed and marches to the window. The churning in his stomach is suddenly so much worse.

 

 

For once, Spider-Man doesn’t make him wait long. He’s slightly out of breath when he arrives, heading straight for where Johnny is standing and grabbing him by the upper arms.

Johnny holds still, startled.

“Are you okay?” Spidey asks him, scrutinizing his face and then the rest of him. “Are you hurt? Who do you want me to punch?”

Johnny blinks at him, shocked by the worry in his voice. Spider-Man’s fingers on his arms are digging in just hard enough to sting. “I’m okay, Spidey,” he says in the same tone he uses when Franklin has a nightmare. “I’m okay.”

Spider-Man’s head wobbles in confusion, looking him up and down and scanning the horizon, until the top of his mask creases in the way that Johnny always associates with him frowning. “Then what was with the urgent text message?”

“I just need to talk to you.”

Johnny feels vaguely disappointed when Spidey steps back and releases him, even though he’s probably left imprints of his fingers on Johnny’s skin. “You made it sound like you were dying.”

“Where in the texts did I even say I was?”

“Don’t do that,” Spider-Man says sharply, his right hand clenched into a fist. His chest is heaving. “I felt like I was going to have a heart attack coming here.”

“You look like you’re having a heart attack right now. Geez. Calm down, Spidey. I didn’t think you’d be that worried about me,” Johnny says, even though the thought makes him feel warm.

“You didn’t—” Spider-Man swallows, obviously trying his best to do as Johnny said and calm down. “What do you want to talk to me about?” he asks after a moment.

The warmth instantly disappears when Johnny remembers why they’re there, his head whirling with second thoughts. Maybe he should just leave things alone. Maybe it’s better to just mope then try to move on than to be doubly rejected, right to his face.

“Hey. Hot stuff, you in there?”

Johnny shakes himself at the nickname. He used to think of the nicknames as mildly flirtatious, or even affectionate. But it’s just Spider-Man being Spider-Man. “You said you weren’t friends with Peter Parker.”

There’s a pause then Spidey’s throwing his hands up and saying, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

Johnny frowns. “I need to know if you were telling the truth!”

“That implies you think I lied!” Spider-Man shoots back. He’s tense, his shoulders rigid, and Johnny’s stomach sinks in dismay.

“You are,” Johnny breathes. “Oh, my God. I’m right, aren’t I?”

“Johnny—”

“You’re—you’re dating him!”

Spider-Man stalls like a car driving into the Hudson. “What.”

“You brought him here,” Johnny yells, more upset now that he’s had to say it out loud. “This is our spot and you brought him here!” There’s a small part of him that’s asking if he’s upset because Peter is with Spidey of all people or because their special meeting place is apparently much less special to Spidey than it is to Johnny.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I found his Instagram,” Johnny hisses, not even too ashamed to admit it, now that he’s so worked up. “I saw a picture of Manhattan.”

“So? It’s Instagram. He’s a New Yorker. What else would you expect?”

Johnny ignores him and barrels on. “It was taken from here.”

“Torch, there are hundreds of tourists who do the same thing every day.”

Johnny glares at him. “You think I can’t tell the difference between a photo taken from the viewing deck to one taken from right where I’m standing?”

There’s a moment of silence.

“Johnny—”

“Oh, stop,” Johnny interrupts him wearily. “You can do whatever you want. I just—I just thought this place would mean more to you than a Friday night date spot. I know we’re just friends, but at least think about my feelings.”

Spider-Man stares at him. “Friday night date—Please, Johnny. Look me in the eye and tell me you never brought anyone else up here.”

“That was different! That was before—” he stops, biting his lip.

“Before what?”

Johnny looks away.

“Before what, Johnny?”

Johnny answers by flaming on.

“Johnny, damn it. Wait—”

Too late, Johnny’s already airborne and aiming for home.

He hears Spidey swear in frustration, unable to swing after him. Johnny’s just grateful he can’t really cry while flamed on.

 

 

“Okay, why are you worse now?” Sue sighs, pinching the space between her eyebrows. She’s just walked in on Johnny lying face-down and radiating misery on the living room couch, completely ignoring how Franklin and Valeria have turned his back into a staging ground for the mock battle Franklin’s action figures and toy soldiers are having.

“He had a fight with Spider-Man,” Valeria reports, with that tone of voice that always suggests an accompanying nudge and knowing wink.

“I don’t know why I tell you things,” Johnny mumbles into the cushions.

Sue sighs. “Alright, it’s time to stop torturing Uncle Johnny. Go play in your room.”

Franklin heaves a dramatic sigh he learned from Johnny and starts gathering his toys.

Sue settles into a wing chair and waits until they’ve cleared out. “Did the Facebook-stalking backfire on you?”

Johnny hates how his sister always knows everything. “It was Instagram and yeah. Kinda,” he admits, rolling over onto his back.

“What does Spider-Man have to do with it?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he says, throwing an arm across his eyes.

Sue sighs again. “I hate that I’m saying this but maybe you should go out. Have fun. Get drunk. Take your mind off this guy you just met and have been pining over non-stop since then.”

Johnny peeks out from under his arm. “Are you mocking me, sis?”

“Only a little bit.  Why do you like this boy, anyway?”

Johnny lowers his arm and stares up at the ceiling. Why does he? He only knows that there’s something about Peter Parker that draws him in like the moon does the tide. Everything about him feels so achingly familiar for no reason at all — the way he moves, the set of his shoulders, the shape of his body. If Johnny believes in past lives and reincarnation, it would make more sense. But he doesn’t, so it’s just another mystery to add to his whole, crazy life.

“I haven’t seen you like this since you decided you had a crush on Spider-Man and spent a whole month fretting over whether you wanted to confess to him or not.”

Johnny laughs weakly. “Please. I don’t think I can handle talking about him right now.”

Sue gets to her feet and walks over, her hand lightly tousling his hair, like she used to when they were younger and he wasn’t feeling well. “If you don’t want to talk to me, then you should at least talk to them. Sort this whole mess out. One of them’s your best friend — I’m sure he wouldn’t want you miserable, either.”

“Thanks. But I think I’ll just go to bed and sleep this off for now.”

“Okay, Johnny. But if you decide you want to talk — or maybe show them they shouldn’t mess with a Storm — come to me, okay?”

Johnny reaches for her hand and gives it a squeeze. “Thanks, Sue. I will.”

 

 

In the end, Johnny does go out, though not to a bar or a club or anywhere like that. It’s a nice night for flying, and the cool evening wind could help him clear his head. He zooms across the New York skyline, heading straight for the Empire State Building, and rests there for a while, surveying the city below him. He briefly considers that maybe this is a bad idea — he could very well run into Spider-Man — but there’s no sign of the Webhead at the moment.

He stays there for perhaps a half an hour, just watching the city lights and the stars, but eventually gets bored of nothing happening and makes his way home.

There’s someone on the roof of the Baxter Building when he comes back, a figure on the edge waving to him, making him pull up from the dive towards his open window.

His first thought is Spider-Man, and Johnny doesn’t want to talk to him again, not yet, but he reluctantly makes his way up, anyway — if only to tell him to leave and bother him some other time.

But it’s not Spider-Man there at all. It’s Peter Parker, the wind tugging on his tousled hair, his cheeks ruddy in the evening chill.

Johnny frowns and asks a question, knowing what the answer is going to be the moment it leaves his lips. “How did you get up here?”

“Spider-Man.”

Johnny’s heart crumbles even further. “Guess I shouldn’t have asked, huh?”

Peter sighs. “Look, he told me you had a fight and he couldn’t leave it at that, but he also thinks you’d just avoid him if he tries to talk to you, so I’m here.”

“Wow, I didn’t think he could be that cruel.”

“Ugh, will you shut up and listen to me?” Peter asks, sounding annoyed and Johnny raises his eyebrows.

“All right. You have two minutes.”

“Spider-Man and I aren’t dating.”

Johnny snorts.

Peter wrinkles his nose, looking appalled by the very idea. “Seriously, no. It‘s just not…It’s impossible.”

Johnny studies him. His face seems sincere enough. “Impossible?”

“It’s…it’s a long story. Just know that Spider-Man and I have never — and will never — be that.”

“But…what about the photo? He brought you to our place—”

Peter rolls his eyes, the exasperation in the gesture once again so familiar, Johnny feels a curious tug inside his chest. “I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but there’s this thing called ‘drone photography’ and—”

“Okay, okay! I get it,” Johnny says, cheeks flushed with shame as he realizes what he’s done. “God, I’m an idiot.”

Peter stares at him.  “Johnny…I’ll explain…Or he’ll explain…what’s going on someday, okay? But I need to figure some stuff out first. I just wanted you to know.”

“Why?” Johnny asks curiously. His crumbled heart is reassembling itself slowly, but he’s still too wary to hope.

“Because, Storm, even though you nearly killed me and all you’ve done so far is complicate my life, I think I like you.”

Johnny’s mouth opens and closes soundlessly several times.

“Anyway, I should go.”

“I’ll take you down to the lobby,” Johnny manages to say. “Since Spidey doesn’t seem to have stuck around to swing you down.”

Peter nods and they ride the elevator down to the lobby in complete silence, Johnny doing his best to keep from grabbing him by the front of his shirt and kissing him senseless because holy hell, Peter just said he likes Johnny, too.

They step out at the ground floor and Peter hesitates.

“Well. Thanks for seeing me out. I’ll catch you later.”

“Wait!” Johnny exclaims, remembering. “Your number. Can I have your number? So I can call you if I—if you—if we—”

“I already have yours,” Peter says.

“Huh?”

“Spider-Man,” he says almost apologetically. “I’ll call you, okay?”

Spider-Man gave Peter Parker Johnny’s number and Johnny had accused him of not thinking about Johnny’s feelings. Oh, hell.

“Okay. Okay, call me.”

Peter gives him a wave and walks out onto the street.

Johnny’s not sure how he makes it back upstairs — for all he knows he floated his way through all the floors like a ghost.

Sue takes one look at his face as she sets the table for dinner. “Oh, dear. That face is trouble.”

“What?”

“Never mind. I take it everything’s okay?”

Johnny gives her a megawatt smile. “More than okay.”

“Definitely trouble,” Valeria chimes in by the silverware drawer.

Johnny’s too happy to tell them all to shut up.

 

 

It’s well past midnight Johnny’s too giddy to go to sleep. He’s contemplating going for another flight out to clear his head again when his cellphone suddenly rings. He recognizes Spider-Man’s ring tone and reaches over to his nightstand. “Spidey?”

“Hey, Torch,” comes the reply. Spidey sounds strangely breathless and Johnny furrows his brow. “Are you home?”

“You know, you take an awful lot for granted. What if I have a date?”

“You been holding out on me, hot stuff?”

“And you can’t call me things like that, anymore.”

“Since when do you hate my pet names for you?”

Since you never mean anything by them and I just met someone who might have other nicknames for me that may actually count. “Just tell me what you want.”

“Open your window.”

“Spidey, I’m not—”

“Torch,” Spidey says, sounding strained. “Please.”

Johnny relents. He never could say no to Spider-Man, and he still owes him after yelling at him on the Statue of Liberty. “It’s open.”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” Spidey breathes and hangs up.

True to his word, Spider-Man comes sailing in within a minute. Except instead of his usual smooth glide, he stumbles over the sill, and instead of landing gracefully on his feet, he falls in a crumpled heap to the floor.

“Spidey!” Johnny runs to the fallen figure and rolls him onto his back.

Spider-Man groans and Johnny can see deep gashes in his left side, his left thigh, and on his left bicep.  His suit is shredded with dozens of smaller cuts, possibly ruined.

“What the hell happened to you?”

“Some weird plant thing in Central Park,” he says through gritted teeth. “Had tentacle-y vines like whips.”

“I’ll tell the others—”

Spider-Man rolls up his mask to past his nose, breathing in shallow, irregular gasps. “It’s fine. I beat it. Set it on fire.”

“You started a fire without me?” Johnny jokes half-heartedly, his gaze roaming over Spidey’s wounds, his mouth wincing with every hiss of pain from his friend.

“It burns,” Spider-Man says. “Not just the plant, I mean…” He gestures at his body. “I think there was something in the vines.”

Johnny worries his lower lip. “I should get Reed.”

“No! No, there’s no need to rouse the whole household,” Spider-Man groans, grabbing Johnny by the arm. “My healing should kick in. I just need—”

“Okay, okay. I know. We’ll clean and dress your wounds. Can you make it to the bathroom?”

“If—If you’ll help me?”

“Of course I will,” Johnny says indignantly, carefully pulling him up to a sitting position and slowly rising with him.

Spider-Man groans, his arm heavy across Johnny’s shoulders, and leans against him. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Johnny asks absently, concentrating on not getting their legs tangled together and definitely not on the way Spidey’s breath is tickling his cheek or the feel of Spidey’s skin against his.

“For bothering you with this. Normally, I’d go home and take care of it myself, but—” his body is racked by a shiver of pain, “—it hurts too much.”

Johnny kind of wants to cry not only because his best friend is a lonely, massive moron but also because he shouldn’t be feeling these feelings now because it’s just not the time and there’s Peter in the current picture.  But Spider-Man’s proximity, his low voice, and unguarded vulnerability are making Johnny feel light-headed in a way that Spider-Man hasn’t in a long time. “I’m surprised you even made it this far,” Johnny says, shouldering the bathroom door open.

“Adrenaline, mostly,” Spider-Man grunts as Johnny pushes him up against the bathroom sink.

“Up,” Johnny orders, and Spider-Man pulls himself up to sit on the counter, slumping bonelessly back against the mirror.

In the harsh white bathroom light, he looks even worse. His suit is beyond all hope of salvation, caked with dried blood and so tattered, it’s a miracle it hasn’t fall off him.

“We need to take your shirt off.”

“Okay,” he says, but doesn’t do anything.

Johnny stares at him.

“I can’t move my arms that much right now.”

Johnny sighs. “Just lift them straight out as high as you can.”

Spider-Man obeys, holding out his arms at shoulder height as Johnny undresses him, removing the gloves first, because it just looks too weird.  He ignores the way Spidey hisses as the fabric sticks and catches on his injuries and moves on to tug the upper half of the suit over his head.

Spider-Man groans and Johnny whimpers softly at the sight of his torso, peppered with purple and darkening bruises, broken up only by so many cuts that Johnny doesn’t even want to count them.

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Spider-Man says quickly, seeing the look on his face. “I’ve been worse—”

“You’ve been worse?” Johnny asks, trying not to shout at him. “Is that supposed to make this seem better?”

He looks away and Johnny makes a noise of disgust, grabbing a towel off the rack and dampening it in the sink.  He reaches out and Spider-Man tries to take it away from him, but he growls and glares until the other man gives up.

Which, Johnny thinks as soon as he touches Spidey, was probably a mistake because now he’s touching Spider-Man’s bare skin in the worst possible way.

“I didn’t even think you could get hurt this badly,” Johnny frowns. “You’re usually fast enough to dodge things.”

“Yeah, well. Couldn’t dodge one of the dozen or so five-foot thick tentacles that swept me into a bus. It was pretty much downhill from there.”

Johnny picks out a small, bloody piece of glass. “Oh,” he says faintly, dropping it into the wastebasket.

“You got an entire bottle of Tylenol I could have for a midnight snack?”

Johnny looks at him, a mixture of exasperated and concerned. “I’ll check the first aid cabinet in the kitchen,” he says, handing him the towel so he can continue cleaning himself up.

He finds one, fills a glass at the sink, and carries them back to his room.

He returns to Spider-Man slouched even further in the sink, the soiled towel draped over his loose fingers. His chin is tucked into his chest, his whole body lax in the way someone passed out would be.

Johnny rushes over, losing half the water in the glass, and sets the items in his hands down on the counter. He puts one hand on Spider-Man’s thigh, the other on his shoulder, and gives him a gentle shake. “Spidey?  Spidey.”

Spider-Man comes awake. “Sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Stop apologizing for being hurt,” Johnny tells him, irritated, and shoves the medicine into his hand.  “Here.”

Spider-Man shakes out six pills onto his palm. “Thanks, hot st—Torchie,” he says, swallowing them down with water.

Johnny makes a soft noise and looks at him. His upper body is clean, and Johnny can see that most of the finer cuts have already closed up, his advanced healing working overtime. The gash in his side and arm remain worrisome, but are no longer actively bleeding.  His gaze drifts down and he’s strongly aware of Spider-Man following the look to his injured thigh. It’s by far the worst, both long and deep and still bleeding slightly, running red onto the counter top and into the sink.

“I can take care of it myself,” he says. “You’ve done enough. I should go—”

Johnny’s head snaps up so he can glower at Spider-Man right in his plastic eyes. “Have you completely lost your mind?” he explodes. “You can barely stand straight!”

“Johnny.”

“Shut up, you stupid, stubborn fool, and take your pants off.”

“Do you use that line on everyone else or just me?” Spider-Man asks, but he lifts up his hips and starts to take off the rest of his suit, his breath hitching in pain with every wrong move.

Johnny almost fights him to take over but bites his tongue at the last second. “I hope you’re not naked under those tights.”

Spider-Man is wearing tiny black boxers that leave nothing to the imagination under the said tights when he peels them off, and Johnny’s mouth goes dry.

His best friend is practically naked right in front of him. That’s fine. It’s just his best friend with the perfect body. That he’s maybe harbored not-so-friendly feelings for in the last five years.

“I’ll get you some bandages,” Johnny says quickly, turning away and heading back to where he’d found the painkillers.  This time, he just drags out the entire first aid kit and comes back with it.

Spider-Man is clean but shivering on the cold tiles when he returns and Johnny feels like kicking himself.

“Let’s go back out to my room,” Johnny says gruffly, helping him down.

It’s even worse than when he first dragged Spidey to the bathroom, because now it’s not just Spider-Man’s cheek and jaw brushing against Johnny. It’s his entire right side, his bare skin smoother and warmer than Johnny has ever imagined. He feels like he could burst into flames at any moment but holds it in, slowly lowering him onto his bed.

“I shouldn’t—”

“Shut up,” Johnny says automatically, going back for the first aid kit he abandoned in the bathroom.

They work on Spider-Man’s arm first. It’s the closest to healing and Johnny figures it’s the most harmless part of him.  Spider-Man rubs antiseptic ointment along the gash and Johnny gently bandages it, considering it a miracle that his hands don’t tremble as he does.

The torso is a bigger challenge. Spider-Man is so warm and Johnny loves it, feels like curling up against it, and his washboard abs are fucking glorious. He makes it through without spontaneously combusting, despite one touch-and-go moment when his knuckles brushed against bare skin and Spidey’s muscles flexed in response.

“I can use both my hands for this,” Spider-Man says quickly, when Johnny looks down at his thigh, thank goodness.

“I’ll get you some clothes,” Johnny says evenly, wandering over to his dresser. He takes his time hunting around for a spare hoodie and sweats, finally settling on a set when he thinks (hopes) Spidey has finished.

“Thanks, Johnny,” he says sincerely when Johnny hands him the clothes.  “Listen, not to push my luck or anything, but do you think you can spot me cab fare home? I’ll pay you back — it’s just I didn’t bring my wallet with me and—”

“God, you just keep on going, don’t you?”

“What?”

“Being an idiot. You never stop. I’m not letting you go anywhere.”

Spider-Man frowns.

“I know you and your dumb luck. The Rhino will probably attack your cab and you’ll feel compelled to fight him and I’m going to wake up tomorrow with a best friend who’s either dead or a pancake or a dead pancake, and I’m not having that on my conscience. So. Shut. Up.

“Um. Okay. Got any guest rooms ready?”

“Nuh-uh. You’re staying right here, where I can make sure you won’t sneak off and swing home like the goddamn moron you are.”

“Are you sure?” he asks, incredulous, and Johnny realizes just what it is he’s proposing but he sure as hell isn’t taking it back, either.  Spider-Man could stay in one of the guest rooms and Johnny could just set security to keep him in it, though that would mean getting the room ready and making the bed, and Johnny just wants to pass out already. Besides, his bed is king-sized. There’s plenty of room. He and Spidey would never have to touch each other.

“Stay,” Johnny says finally. “Just keep to your side and I’ll keep to mine.”

“I can do that,” Spider-Man murmurs, slowly swinging his legs up onto the bed and leaning back against the pillows.

Johnny crawls in on the opposite side and looks at the vast expanse of space between them. “Goodnight, Webhead.” He snaps off the master switch by the headboard and plunges the room into darkness.

“Night, hot sh— Torch.”

Johnny turns his back to Spidey, feeling a familiar heat in his eyelids at the nickname cut short. Just his luck his stupid friend listened to something he said for once and it was his idiotic, impulsive, pointless request.

The bed creaks and shakes for a while as Spider-Man puts on the sweatpants and hoodie and adjusts to a comfortable position on the other side before abruptly falling still. In less than five minutes, Johnny, exhausted and emotionally wrung out, follows suit.

 

 

Johnny wakes up to bright sunlight and someone shaking him violently.  “Nngh, five more minutes, Sue,” he mutters darkly, groping for a pillow to pull over his head.

No,” Sue’s voice says in a loud whisper. “Not until you explain what the hell is going on!”

“Wha—” Johnny opens his eyes and squints to find his sister’s disapproving face looming over him. “Sue? What time is it?”

“Late.”

He frowns.

“It’s seven in the morning and Spider-Man is in your—”

Johnny shoots out of bed and clamps a hand over Sue’s mouth, looking over his shoulder at where he expects his friend to be.

He’s still there, lying flat on his back.  His mouth is half-open and visible beneath his partially rolled-up mask and he’s apparently still fast asleep, judging by the slow and steady rise and fall of his chest.

Sue pulls his hand away. “Why is Spider-Man in your bed? What about that Peter guy? Johnny, what are you even doing?”

Johnny ushers her out of his room and shuts the door behind them. “It’s not what you’re thinking.”

“So you didn’t sleep with the best friend for whom you’ve been suppressing romantic feelings for years even though you’ve recently been actively chasing after some other poor guy?”

No. Wait, what?”

Sue crosses her arms and gives him a steady look. “Everyone can tell your crush on Spider-Man never went away, little brother.”

“Fine. I’m a pathetic open book, and I didn’t sleep with him. He’s just sleeping in my bed.”

Why is he sleeping in your bed?”

Johnny swipes a hand down his face, trying to wake himself up the rest of the way. It’s too early for this discussion, but he doesn’t seem to have much choice. “He came in last night and he was hurt. He just needed my help. I couldn’t make him leave, Sue. You should have seen him. He was like one big solid bruise and bleeding all over himself.”

Sue’s eyes soften. “Oh. Oh, Johnny.”

“W-Why are you looking at me like that?”

She reaches up and gently pats him on the cheek. “You are so screwed,” she says almost kindly.

“What?”

Sue smiles but otherwise ignores his outraged expression. “There’s an emergency in one of the labs that Reed needs my help with and I need you to make breakfast. Do you think you can manage that?”

Johnny rolls his eyes. “Of course, I can!”

“Make enough for Spidey, too. I’m sure he’ll be starving when he wakes up.”

“Do you know how much he can eat?” Johnny asks, making a face. “It’s kind of disgusting, actually.”

“Then you better get started if you want to be done before he wakes up.”

Johnny glares at her back as she saunters off, somehow conveying an air of smugness as she does.  There’s a tug on his pajamas and he looks down.

Franklin stares up at him, wide-eyed. Johnny wonders how long he’s been there. “Spidey’s joining us for breakfast?”

“Uh…yeah,” Johnny says slowly. If he doesn’t wake up and run away before then.

 

 

A mountain of pancakes and a pile of bacon and sausages later, Johnny is hurrying back to his bedroom, hoping that he doesn’t come back to it empty.

It’s not, but what he finds when he throws the door open doesn’t help his poor heart any, either, because Spider-Man is face-down on the floor, halfway between the bed and the open window.

Johnny runs to him, but then Spidey makes a sound, stopping him short.

“I’m okay,” he mumbles into the carpet. “I didn’t fall down. Just, you know. Trying out wall-crawling. On the floor…Which I guess is just regular crawling, after all…”

Johnny rolls his eyes, picks him up and props him up by the window. “What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking I could swing home,” he confesses.

“You’re still hurt.”

“I’m better, really!”

Johnny ignores his protests and prods his stomach.

Spider-Man flinches.

“You’re better, huh?”

“I am! I just…wasn’t expecting that. Look—” He takes Johnny’s hand and presses it against his abdomen again and Johnny wants to set his shirt on fire, because can’t he tell what that does to Johnny? “Look. No pain.”

“I’m going to require actual proof.”

Spider-Man sighs and lifts up his hoodie and boy, Johnny didn’t really think that through, did he?

He looks down.  There are less bruises on Spidey’s body now, and the remainder look like they’re close to disappearing.  He wonders if the gash would be closed if he peels off the bandage.

“See?”

Johnny tears his eyes away and forces himself to look Spider-Man in the face. “Why were you on the floor, then?”

Spider-Man looks down and mutters, reluctantly, “Leg still not too good. Feels like jelly and it hurts to walk.”

Johnny narrows his eyes and put his hands on the waistband of Spidey’s borrowed sweats, fully prepared to push them down and look for himself.

“Uh…”

Johnny freezes. Spider-Man freezes.  For a moment, Johnny hopes the whole universe freezes so it can end along with his embarrassment at nearly taking off his best friend’s pants.

Spider-Man takes both of Johnny’s hands in his and pulls them away. Johnny wants to die at the warmth and unexpected gentleness.  “I’ll check the dressing in the bathroom,” Spidey says, releasing Johnny’s fingers and moving away.

He doesn’t get far until he pitches unsteadily forward, falling against Johnny’s desk.

Johnny runs over, pushing him until he’s leaning back against it, a sheepish grin on his face. Without the bruises on his jaw from the night before it’s even charming, a solid blow to the remainder of Johnny’s sanity.

“You big oaf,” Johnny says softly, making him grin wider.

“You’re enjoying this.”

“Yeah, sure. This is so fun, worrying over my stupid friend. Like I need all this stress in my life.”

“Not that part.”

What part?”

“The part where you get to be smug and call me stupid a hundred times,” he says, still smiling brilliantly, like he doesn’t care at all about being practically incapacitated because he’s having the time of his life annoying Johnny to death.

Johnny’s breath catches audibly in his throat.  Sue’s right, Johnny thinks. I’m so screwed.

“Johnny?” Spider-Man prompts when he doesn’t move or say anything for several seconds, his mouth curving downward into a frown.

Something Johnny has been hanging onto that’s been stretched and frayed for what feels like forever snaps.  He feels it give way, the relentless pull of gravity — of Spider-Man — dropping him headlong into a terrifying abyss.  It’s too late for him now, he realizes.  Even if whatever he’s been hoping to start with Peter Parker actually happens, he’s lost.  He fixes his gaze on every inch of Spider-Man’s face he can see, knowing that this could very well be the last time he can do it.  I love you. Can you tell?

“Johnny?”

Johnny grabs Spider-Man’s head between his hands kisses him.

And oh—Oh, that’s what his lips feels like, Johnny thinks.  Soft and yielding beneath the press of his own, warm and sweet.

Johnny steps back after a few seconds and smiles wistfully at him.  Well, it was nice knowing you, Spidey.

“I was going to wait a bit longer,” Spider-Man says, his voice rougher and lower than usual.  Johnny blinks at him, the words barely registering because what the hell?  Johnny just kissed Spider-Man and he isn’t running away?

“What?”

“I was going to wait a bit longer,” Spider-Man says more slowly. “I wanted you to get to know me a bit better, but I guess you just threw that out the window.”

Johnny gives him a look. “What? Get to know you better?  Spidey—I’ve known you for nearly a decade!”

Spider-Man says nothing, he just limps forward, pushing Johnny along until the backs of his knees hit the side of his bed and he’s falling.

Johnny looks up at him, breathless and hopeful.  Spider-Man is just staring down at him, frozen. “Spidey?”

That seems to push him into motion, taking the sound of his name as an invitation and following Johnny down onto the mattress, hovering over him with his hands on either side of Johnny’s head.

“Johnny.”

He shivers involuntarily at the sound of his name.  He doesn’t stop to wonder if this is real or not. If Spidey is going to play this off later or not. If either one of them is going to regret this or not.  In that moment, all Johnny can think about is how much he wants. He wants Spider-Man to kiss him. To touch him all over. To lose himself inside Johnny.

“Look at you,” Spidey whispers, and the sound of his voice makes Johnny shudder again. “Fuck.”

“Spi—”

Spider-Man cuts him off with a kiss of his own, a touch that sends Johnny reeling, lips parted to welcome his tongue. Johnny raises his hands and curls them into fists around the front of Spidey’s hoodie, holding on to keep himself from being blown away.  Spidey shifts his head, tilting it to the side just right, fitting his mouth perfectly against Johnny’s and making him moan helplessly, wanting more than the soft slide of Spider-Man’s tongue against his.

Spider-Man pulls away, panting, what’s visible of his cheeks and jaw tinged with pink.

“Don’t stop,” Johnny whines, chasing after his lips.

“I have to,” he says hoarsely, sounding so wrecked after just two kisses, Johnny’s sure he’s imagining it.  “Have to show you—It’s only right.”

Johnny frowns and props himself up by the elbows as Spider-Man kneels between Johnny’s legs, wantonly spread on the bed, and sits back on his heels.  “Show me what?”

Spider-Man pulls him up to a sitting position.  “What do you think?” he asks softly, fingers sliding down Johnny’s arms until he’s holding his hands.

Johnny’s chest suddenly feels tight.

Spidey keeps pulling Johnny’s hands up until they’re on his face, fingertips resting underneath the edge of his mask.

Johnny looks from one unreadable lens to the other. “Are you sure about this?”

His lips quirk. “You were getting there, anyway.”

Johnny furrows his brow, wondering what that means, but pushes it aside. “On three?”

“Okay.”

Johnny mouths the words, his eyes fixed on where he expects Spider-Man’s own to be.  They both breathe in deep just before Johnny gets to three and in the next moment, he tugs the mask free.

Tousled brown hair. Thick eyebrows. A serious face. And brown eyes, warm like honey, with a glimmer of mischief behind them.  Peter Parker stares back at Johnny with a small smile. “Hi.”

“You,” Johnny whispers, dropping the mask on the bed and moving his hands right back onto Peter’s face. “You felt so familiar.  Everything about you was just…”

“I’m sorry,” Peter says. “It’s just…not a lot of people know. Actually…I’ve never told anyone before. And I wasn’t sure how to tell you. I always thought you’d be disappointed by what you’d find.”

Johnny feels his heart clench at the thought. He pulls one hand away to grope behind him, the other staying on Peter’s cheek, thumb lightly tracing circles on his skin.  “How could I? You’re perfect,” he says softly.

A deep red flush takes over Peter’s face, going all the way from his forehead down to his neck.

Johnny’s hand closes around what he’s been searching for. “And you’re also an asshole,” he breathes, whacking him in the face with a pillow.

“Ow!”

Johnny whacks him in the face again, knowing the blows won’t really hurt him, the jerk is even grinning as he tries to evade them, leaning backwards further and further until he’s lying on his back, Johnny straddling him and getting more and more hits in with his weapon of choice.

“Okay, stop. Stop,” he says finally, grabbing the pillow effortlessly and tossing it aside. He frowns sternly.  “First of all, I still am in pain, you know. And second, I would have told you eventually. I was going to tell you, even if you hadn’t literally thrown yourself at me.”

“Oh, screw you, I didn’t throw myself at you!”

“Yeah, you kinda did.”

“I have never wanted to set you on fire as much as I do right now,” Johnny declares, clenching his fist until it’s glowing.

“You wouldn’t.”

“I might. I hate you.”

“You like me.”

“No, I don’t.”

“You like me so much, you fell in love with me twice.”

Johnny closes his eyes. “Clearly, I have terrible taste.”

“Yeah, I’m not actually going to argue that point.”

Johnny opens his eyes again and feels dizzy with joy. “Shut up, Peter.”

He shuts up.

“Oh, that works now?”

“Say it again.”

“Shut up.”

“Not that.

Johnny blinks. “Peter,” he says slowly, tasting the name on his tongue, savouring the sound of it in his ears. “Pete—”

Peter kisses him again, rolling them over so that Johnny’s on his back. And it’s so much better without the mask between them because now Johnny can feel Peter’s eyelashes brushing against his cheek. Johnny can stroke the line of his jaw with his fingertips.  And Johnny can finally thread his fingers in Peter’s thick hair and tug.

Peter retaliates by biting down on Johnny’s lower lip, only serving to make him more frantic and restless until Peter has to hold him down by the wrists and—fuck, that’s hot.

“Peter.”

“Calm down, Johnny,” Peter frowns, “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Aren’t you?” he asks, anxious.

“I’m not, I promise.”

Johnny looks up at him, not bothering to bank the embers in his gaze. “I didn’t… I didn’t think you wanted me—”

Peter laughs, sharp and short. “How could anyone not want you, Johnny Storm?”

He frowns. “Not in the way that counts. Not in the way that actually matters.”

”But I do,” Peter says quietly, the look in his eyes burning through Johnny in a way no flame ever could.  “I want you in every way,” he breathes into his ear, lips grazing the spot just under it.

Johnny trembles. “Pete.”

“I wanted you for years,” Peter confesses, and leans down further, blazing a trail of feather-light kisses down Johnny’s neck. “I’ve loved you for years.”

Johnny nearly sobs at both the teasing and Peter’s admission. “No. No way. That’s my line and you never gave any indication—”

Peter stops to stare down at him, incredulous. “Oh? I guess I was being too discreet, hot stuff. I only called you pretty every other day. I only flirted with you for real all the time.”

Johnny gapes up at him. “I thought—I thought you weren’t serious, you big goof. You’re Spider-Man. It’s your thing. I’ve seen you flirt with villains!”

“Jesus, Johnny. If you can’t tell the difference between me running my mouth as a distraction and me being sincere when it’s just you and me, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s not my fault.”

Johnny growls, bucking under him. “Fine. Fine. I’m the idiot. I don’t care anymore. Just stop wasting time and kiss me.”

Peter grunts when Johnny jostles his leg. “Wait—”

Johnny makes a small sound in the back of his throat. “I’m not above begging. Do you want me to beg? Pete, please. Stop being an insufferable tease and please kiss me again.”

“In a minute,” he says, wincing. “I think we do need to check the bandage on my leg.”

“Oh, I’ll check your bandage,” Johnny says, waggling his eyebrows.

“That wasn’t a euphism, Johnny.”

He studies Peter’s face and sighs, experimentally trying to tug his wrists free. “Let me up and let’s take a look, you boner-killer.”

“Pretty sure it’s still alive,” Peter smirks, following Johnny to the bathroom.

Johnny glances at him acidly over his shoulder. “Keep that up and I’ll kill it myself.”

Peter laughs until Johnny shoves him up against the sink and kisses him again.

And maybe it was a euphemism because when Johnny checks, there’s just the tiniest spot of blood showing through the old bandages and the wound has begun to close.

“It still hurts like a bitch,” Peter says defensively in response to Johnny’s accusing glare after he’s done dressing the wound again.

“Uh-huh. Sure, it does,” Johnny says, staying on his knees.

Peter swallows. “You can get up now, if you want.”

Johnny smiles lazily up at him. “Yeah? And what if I don’t?”

  


  

an epilogue

 

Peter wakes up with a mouthful of blond hair and an armful of Johnny, the sun warm on his face.  “Johnny.”

Johnny groans and buries his face in Peter’s chest.  “What? Do we need to change the bandages again?”

“No. I think it’s healed through by now.”

Johnny lifts his head and blinks up at him blearily. He’s a complete mess with his curls all tangled and sticking to his face, still damp with sweat. His eyes are puffy from sleep and his lips are still slightly swollen. He looks absolutely, beautifully, debauched. “What is it, then?”

“I’m hungry,” he says apologetically. “Do you think we could—”

Johnny shoots straight out of bed. “Oh, crap. Crap. Oh, I’m never hearing the end of it.”

Peter frowns, watching as Johnny jumps around, picking up their clothes haphazardly strewn all over the room. “What’s the matter?”

“Sue knows you’re here! We were supposed to have breakfast…ages ago! She knows exactly what we’ve been doing in here and I probably look like I either just got run over by a bus or my superpowered best friend just fucked me.”

Peter rolls his eyes. “I highly doubt she thinks you were a virgin before this.”

Johnny throws the hoodie he’d been wearing in his face. “You don’t get it because you don’t have to live with the teasing.” He looks up at the ceiling. “God, everyone’s going to be so unbearably smug.”

Peter snorts.

Johnny eyes him critically. “Ugh. I hate that you mostly look like you always do. Just fix your hair,” Johnny says, and rushes to the bathroom.

Peter doesn’t. Instead, Johnny comes out a few minutes later, fully dressed and looking as flawless as usual (except for the hickey Peter is proud to have placed on his throat right along the edge of one collarbone), and finds Peter standing in front of one of the many mirrors in the room, fingering his mask.

Peter looks at him uncertainly.

“You can wear it, if you want,” Johnny says carefully, as if speaking to a skittish colt. “Sue knows it’s you — I mean, Spider-Man you — in here with me.”

Peter nods and slowly pulls it over his face. “I’m sorry.”

Johnny comes over and smooths the edges of the mask. “Hey. You told me when you wanted to. That’s how it should be. Okay?”

Peter nods again.

“Come on. I just realized I’m starving, too. Must be all the exercise.”

Peter chooses not to comment on that and follows him down the halls of the Baxter Building to the common living space. Sue is lounging on the sofa and she glances up from whatever she’s reading on her tablet when they walk in, an amused and knowing look in her eyes, while the kids play on the floor at her feet.

“Breakfast was over four hours ago, boys.”

Franklin looks up and in an instant is wrapped around Peter’s leg like an octopus.

“Uh…”

“Sorry, Spidey,” Johnny says with a shrug. “He’s a fan.”

“Yeah, I heard,” Peter says, smiling beneath his mask. “Hey, Franklin. Nice to finally meet you.”

Franklin looks up at him, starry-eyed. “Uncle Johnny says you’re his best friend. Is that true?”

“Hmm. Well, he did almost kill me once—”

“Oh, for the love of—I said I was sorry!”

Peter ignores him and goes on, “—but I guess that’s what best friends are for.”

“Almost killing you?” Franklin frowns.

“Oh, my God, you’re just as bad as Johnny,” Sue groans. “Come away from them, Franklin. We can find you better heroes to look up to. Maybe someone more stable and responsible. Like Moon Knight.”

“I’m insulted,” Peter says. “Johnny, your sister is insulting me.”

“You’re on your own, buddy.”

Valeria comes over and looks him up and down. Peter fights the instinctive urge to curl into a ball to protect himself. “Do you really need to wear that?” she asks, pointing at his mask.

“Val,” Johnny begins warningly.

Peter takes a breath. “No. She—She actually has a point, Johnny.”

Sue suddenly sits up straight. “Spider-Man, please don’t think you have to take your mask off. Only if you’re comfortable. You can’t take it back once it’s done, after all.”

“It’s okay,” Peter assures her. “I’m going to be around for a long time, so. It’s just easier all around.”

He hears the sharp intake of Johnny’s breath next to him. “A long time?”

“Until you get sick of me.” Peter steadies his shoulders. “Anyway, here it goes…”

Valeria and Franklin are unimpressed and apparently unsurprised to see him, but Sue is looking at him appraisingly, curiosity written plainly across her face. Peter starts wishing he’d fixed his hair, after all.

He addresses the children because it’s easier. “Sorry I lied to you, Franklin. We have met before.”

Franklin shrugs. “Yeah, but I never met Spider-Man. Like how Uncle Johnny is just Uncle Johnny unless he’s on fire. Then he’s the Human Torch.”

“You’ve met before?” Sue echoes, increasingly puzzled by the second.

“Yeah,” Val says dismissively, turning back to their toys. “It’s just Uncle Johnny’s friend, Peter.”

Sue chokes and Johnny sighs. “Peter…? You mean…Peter Parker? That Peter?”

Peter nods and turns to Johnny. “How come she’s heard of me?”

Sue snorts and bursts into gales of laughter. “Oh. Oh, this is perfect. Oh, God. Johnny—”

“I hate all of you,” Johnny announces to the room at large. “I hope you at least saved me some pancakes.”

Peter follows him to the kitchen. “Torch? What’s going on? Why is your sister laughing at me? Torchie? Johnny.”

Behind them, the sound echoing cheerful and bell-like around the room, Sue just laughs and laughs and laughs.