It happens at his local coffee shop.
It’s not a big deal. Really. It’s a Tuesday morning and Ned usually stops for coffee around this time at this particular shop (because it’s kind of small and tucked away and he feels like he’s discovered it even though the line out the door suggests otherwise) and he’s decided that today, of all days, he’s going to pick something up for Peter. Peter, his boyfriend, Peter. He’s still getting used to that.
It’s not a big deal that he scraped together the couple of dollars he saved from letting Mr. Manzano’s dog out last week and decided that today, when Peter showed up to chemistry, he was going to have the frothy, sugary, caramelly drink of his dreams. Small romantic things, right? Baby steps.
He’s at the counter, waiting for his drinks to be made, when a murmur runs through the crowded shop. “Yo, is that Spider-Man?” “I didn’t know he did regular people things like get coffee.” “Do you think he’d sign my backpack?”
Spider-Man, with the endearing air of not knowing what all the fuss is about, just waves abashedly, “Hey, guys, just stopping through.” (Ned happens to know that Spider-Man does, in fact, know what all the fuss is about, and, though he won’t admit it, he loves it).
And they love him right back. There’s a rush towards where Spider-Man stands, hands reaching out to touch him. Some guy stumbles back a step in surprise, and his coffee sloshes over the cup and onto Ned’s shoulder. “Sorry,” he mumbles, “I just…can you believe it’s Spider-Man?”
Ned grits his teeth through the burning liquid, head pounding stupidly as he grabs his drinks from the counter. “Yeah, crazy, right?” It’s just Peter, he doesn’t know why he’s so shaken up. He’s seen this boy build LEGO sets from nothing and make mac and cheese with chocolate milk and dress up as Luke Skywalker at the age of fourteen. Logically, he knows Spider-Man is nothing more than a sixteen-year-old in a suit who is, by most definitions of the word, perfectly normal. If not a little bit geeky.
But there’s something different about seeing him here, like this. It’s not that Ned hasn’t seen him with the suit on, but he can’t remember a time he saw Peter in the suit where he wasn’t Peter. Because, right now, as he shakes hands and poses for a picture with a baby, he is most definitely Spider-Man. Ned hadn’t known there was a difference.
He steps forward, not completely sure of his motives. Is he trying to make it towards the door? Is he trying to interact? He wants Peter to say something to him, though he’s not sure what.
Spidey’s head whips up as Ned pushes through the relatively small crowd. Ned blushes as they make eye contact. Well. Ned’s looking at Spider-Man through a mask. So, it’s more like he makes eye contact with some black plastic.
“Hey,” he says, which is stupid and it sounds husky but not husky in a sexy way, more like husky in a ‘I might have undiagnosed vocal nodes’ sort of manner.
Spider-Man nods at him. Then he turns back to inching his way through the throngs of people, with a regretful sounding, “I love you guys, I really do, I just need some caffeine.”
A pit drops in Ned’s stomach. What had he been thinking? That Spider-Man would have taken the time to stop and talk to him? What would he have said, anyway? What had Ned wanted him to say? You wanted him to acknowledge you, a nasty voice whispered inside. You wanted him to make you feel special. You wanted to be the different one, for once.
His face flushes further, and before he can think about it anymore, he is shimmying out of the crowd, moving the opposite direction as the webbed hero. He makes it to the door and steps out into a golden morning; one in which the sky feels alive and everything is singing, which isn’t usual for New York. And he feels like crap because Spider-Man reminded him he was a loser.
Maybe he should be bigger than this. He was usually more mature, certainly. But something deep within was hurt. He didn’t know what he wanted out of that situation, but the nod hadn’t been it.
He tosses the drinks into a garbage can and keeps walking to class.
He gives Peter the silent treatment through chemistry, which is a sucky and childish thing to do. Peter had rolled into class late (unsurprising) looking rumpled and tired; bags under his eyes and the dull lack of sleep evident in his glassy stare. He sat down next to Ned, slinging his backpack down like it weighed a thousand pounds, and then propped his cheek up on his hand to lazily watch the lecture.
Ned’s silent treatment goes, therefore, mostly unnoticed. Foolish.
It isn’t until Peter sits down beside him at lunch, dutifully passing some of May’s cookies over to Ned, that Ned begins to feel a little bad for throwing away the coffees.
Peter bumps Ned with his shoulder. “What’s up? You seem off.”
Ned chuffs a laugh. “I should be asking you that. You’re the one who looks like you’re at death’s door.”
“I’m fine,” Peter says in that easy, dismissive way he has. “But you’re obviously not. What’s bugging you?”
Ned takes a breath, mouth open to say something, anything. But he pauses. He is being stupid. His boyfriend is Spider-Man, for Pete’s sake. He fights crime and risks his life and is basically an Avenger. Ned is…well, Ned is someone incredibly less important to New York’s day to day wellbeing. Without Ned, crime rates won’t rise. Spider-Man twitter accounts will still flourish. Who is he to chastise Spider-Man on whether he waved to him in a coffee shop or not? He is nobody. A loser.
Peter reaches out, rubbing his fingers along Ned’s wrist. “Is this about this morning?”
Ned doesn’t answer, but he feels his blush deepen, and Peter looks down.
“I’m sorry about that.”
“No,” Ned cuts him off. “You don’t have to be sorry. I’m being stupid. I don’t…” And it’s true- he doesn’t know why he is acting like this. He can’t put it into words. He just wants someone, anyone, to care about his existence too.
“You’re not being stupid.” Peter rubs at his eyes, looking twenty years older than he is. “I was…this morning, I didn’t know what to do. I was tired, and I saw you, and I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t know if you would want me to talk to you or if you would want me to leave you alone. Being Spi-” he cuts off suddenly, head whipping around. MJ’s eyes flicker from the end of the table, but no one else seems to notice the slip. Peter takes a breath before continuing, “Doing…what I do, it’s not always worth the hype-”
“I know that,” Ned says quickly. “And that’s why I feel stupid. You don’t owe me anything, Peter. I don’t…I’m acting like a kid who didn’t get to wave to their favorite musician on the street or something.”
“No, no, that’s not what I…” Peter shakes his head. “It’s not always worth the hype, but it isworth it to me to make you feel important. You should never feel like you’re just another face in the crowd.” He winds his hand around Ned’s, interlacing their fingers. “You’re a very special person.”
Ned laughs, but Peter’s words touch something deep and strong and golden and happy within him. It isn’t…surprising Peter feels this way. But it is one thing to think something and another to hear someone say it aloud. And that, he realizes, is what he has been craving all along.
Ned squeezes Peter’s hand back. “You’re a very special person to me, too.”
It happens as he’s walking out of school a week later.
Peter ended up skipping class (again) to check in on an old lady who kept telling him she was seeing men skulking around her apartment, and Ned tried not to be distracted all throughout his last class, tried to take notes for the both of them instead of worrying about crime-fighting boyfriends and if he could get Peter’s grades back up, but it was tricky.
He’s in the wave of students pouring out of the building, earbuds in, podcast ready and queued up, when a murmur runs through the crowd. “Woah, look!” “Hell yeah, you don’t see that every day!” And Ned looks up just in time for some girl next to him to screech, “OH MY GOD, IT’S SPIDER-MAN!”
And, indeed, Peter is swinging through the bus loop of Midtown, looking as breathtaking as ever in his red and blue suit. It’s always a sight to see Peter in his element, and something thrills in Ned’s heart as he looks at the awe-struck faces of his classmates. It’s pride, he realizes, and the thought makes his smile widen.
When Spider-Man swings down in front of him, however, he still gets that nervous, trembly feeling. A twitter goes over the student body, and he can feel hundreds of eyes boring into him.
Spider-Man’s swagger, however, is unaffected by the crowd. He saunters up to Ned, and he can practically see Peter’s grin through the mask. “A peace offering,” he says, before holding out a cup of coffee. “I believe I owe you this.” The liquid has obviously splashed over the sides cup in flight, but Ned takes it anyway.
“I thought Spider-Man wasn’t a party trick?” he teases, grin still spread wide over his face.
Peter shrugs. “He’s been known to bend the rules every now and then. Anyway, I gotta jet.” And with a thwip! he’s flying again, soaring above the crowd of shocked students. “Stay in school, kids!”
Ned rolls his eyes and turns to adjust his headphones, forgetting, for a moment, that there is a crowd of teenagers gaping at him.
“You know Spider-Man?” Flash asks, his voice rising to a squeak. “And he gets you coffee?”
Ned shrugs, opting for an air of nonchalance. “Ya know, he’s okay. Not really worth all the hype, in my opinion.”