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cover art by Thurifut

"Ms. Masters? Peter Parker. We spoke on the phone."

Alicia nodded at him, perfectly polite. She had a smudge of clay across one cheek. "So we did, Mr. Parker."

"Peter, please," he said, shaking her hand. Her grip was strong. He guessed he shouldn’t be so surprised, considering her profession. He hadn’t seen her one-on-one since the time Sue had convinced him to let Alicia sculpt him, but that had been years ago and as Spider-Man. Alicia had no reason to know Peter Parker, CEO of Parker Industries. "Mr. Parker was - any of my older male relatives, really."

"Then you'll have to call me Alicia," she said. There was something a little cool in her tone, like she was only saying it to be polite. Peter bit down on a wince; Ms. Masters it was. Last time they’d sat together he’d made her laugh so hard on a bad joke that she’d had to take a five minute break. In a different world, he told himself. "Come in, please. May I show you around?"

"I'd like that," he said. "I'm a great admirer of your work. Have been for years."

"Yes," she said, leading him into her studio. Ben's face stared out at him from half a dozen different pedestals, each accusing in its own way. Peter resisted the urge to grimace back. "You said as much on the phone. You wanted to discuss a piece? I have to say, I'm less in the habit of taking commissions these days."

"I think you'll take this one," he said. There was an abstract piece in the corner, a clear glass bubble wrapped in a winding embrace. Sue and Reed. "It isn't official yet, but I'm in the process of closing negotiations for the Baxter Building."

Her shoulders stiffened. There was a long moment where she said nothing, and then, when she at last spoke, all she said was, "Oh."

"I wanted to commission a piece for the lobby," he soldiered on, feeling like he'd made a wrong step somewhere. Her blank face gave him no clues.

Alicia crossed her arms over her chest, leaning back against her work table. "Well, Mr. Parker -"

"Peter," he said. "If I could just explain -"

"I don't think that's necessary," she said. "I can't do it, Mr. Parker. I won’t. I'm sorry you came out all this way for nothing, but my answer is no."

"You don't understand - yes, I bought the building, but not because I'm one those Fantastic Four fanatics, or because it's a piece of history - I mean, it is, it absolutely is, but it's a piece of my history, too," he broke off. "I'm not explaining this well, am I?"

"You're explaining it spectacularly badly," she said, but she sighed and turned her face towards the warm, bright sunlight streaming in through the windows. "So you're not an obsessed fan, or someone looking to own a piece of a life that's not theirs. What are you?"

"A friend of Johnny's," he said. "I should have led with that. I'm a friend of - the whole family, really. But especially Johnny."

"A friend of Johnny's?" she asked. "Or a friend of Johnny's?"

It would be a lie to tell her he'd never seen Johnny naked, but he figured that was true for half of New York.

"The first one. Please, if you ask him – he’ll tell you. I don't think I would be where I am today without him." It was the truth; if Johnny hadn't given that speech at Midtown High, Spider-Man would have been done. Sometimes he still heard his words during tough scrapes, an annoying echo telling him to get back on his feet. "He means a lot to me. They all do."

"To me, as well," Alicia said, waving her hand around her workspace. "Obviously. Alright, if I was going to take you on - what did you have in mind?"

Peter told her: the Four, standing proud and tall, united as a team and a family with their children standing before them. A vision of the future.

"Oh," Alicia said, touching her face. Her voice had gone a little watery. "The kids - yes, they would want that. I'm sorry, I didn't realize you knew the children. They were very protective of them."

"I know," he said. "They were - they are great kids. Val always made me feel so dumb. I loved that, though."

Alicia nodded, looking distracted. There was a small bust of Ben, unfinished, sitting on the table, and she'd placed her hand on its clay shoulder like she was feeling for an anchor.

"Listen, please," said Peter. "Yes, I'll be using the Baxter Building for my company's New York headquarters, but that's not why I'm buying it. Everyone wants it - Roxxon and a dozen others. I practically had to mud wrestle Liz Allan of Alchemax. She actually pulled my hair. I outbid all of them, my business partners trying to strangle me the whole time, for one purpose: to keep it safe until the Fantastic Four come back.” He had to pause for a second to try and keep himself composed. “Because they will come back. And until then, I need Johnny to know that it's waiting for them." He could feel his chest getting tight. "Please. If this statue is going to happen, it has to be one of yours."

"On that we agree," Alicia said, nodding.

"I can pay you whatever you ask," Peter said. "Hey, you want a boat? I can get you two boats."

"What would I do with a boat?" Alicia asked. "No. No charge."

"Some charge," Peter insisted.

"Not for them. Not ever,” Alicia said. Her hand fell from the little bust of Ben. “Alright.”

“You’ll do it?” Peter asked.

Alicia sighed, tipping her head to the side. Her fingers dragged patterns against her workbench. “You’ve made some jumbled but compelling points, and I … I miss them. I’d like to sculpt them again.”

“Thank you,” he said. “I couldn’t – I look at your work and I see them again. And I can’t imagine walking into that building every day and not seeing them. So thank you, Alicia. Honestly.”

“Stop,” she said. “I miss them too, you know. All of them.”

She had it worse than him, he knew. At least Johnny was still on Earth. He wanted to hug her, this woman who knew how he felt, who missed all of them too, but he kept his arms at his sides.

“I know,” he said instead. “Me too. How could anyone not?”

Her voice was watery at the edges. “I’m not sure Doctor Doom is shedding too many tears.”

“Probably not,” he agreed, surprising himself when the laugh wasn’t forced. He’d had a hard time laughing lately.

“How is Johnny?” she asked. “I’ve reached out, but he won’t – he’s not answering my calls.”

“If I said ‘as well as can be under the circumstances’, would that be a copout answer?” Peter said. “I don’t know, actually. We haven’t really been talking, either. I’m actually –” he broke off with a nervous laugh. “I’m kind of hoping to lure him out with this statue.”

The last time they’d talked, Johnny had asked Peter to be the foundation for the new Fantastic Four with him. To carry on Sue and Reed’s legacy. And Peter couldn’t, for the life of him, explain to Johnny why he’d said no in a way that Johnny would understand.

Alicia’s lips quirked upwards, not quite a smile, but better than he’d gotten so far. “Well. I hope it works.” She pushed herself away from her work bench. “Listen, I’ve got a busy week ahead, but – I will call you about the sculpture.”

He grinned.

“You know, Alicia, I bet a lot of people take you for granite,” he said. “But I think you’re-”

“Marblelous,” she finished for him, looking surprised.

“Heard that one before, huh?” he said, rueful. Then he realized where she must have: he’d said it to her before, standing in her studio in his full spandex regalia. Silence had always made him nervous, and Alicia hadn’t spoken a word while she’d run her hands across his shoulders, down his arms, feeling the raised webs on his costume. So he’d said the first thing that popped into his head: the only sculpture joke he knew.

She’d paused, her fingers touching the spider insignia on his back, and then she’d burst out laughing. But I work in clay! she’d said.

Well, lady, he’d replied. That’s a-o-clay with me.

"Yes," she said, and then she smiled for the first time that day. "That's where I know you from. I thought your voice sounded familiar."

The hair prickled at the back of his neck. He pasted on a smile – a reflex, since she couldn’t see it. "Well, I have been to several of your gallery openings."

“That joke,” she said, laughing. “It was so bad! Worse than any of Ben’s. I always remembered it, Spider-Man.”

“That’s not -- He’s my bodyguard,” Peter told her. “I guess his sense of humor must have rubbed off on me.”

He could see it was pointless, though, with the way she was grinning. He guessed he didn’t mind if the number of people who knew his secret identity went from twenty-seven to twenty-eight, if it was her.

"Mm," Alicia said. "I'll start on the statue. Tell Johnny to swing by sometime, won't you?"

 


 

"This is a gigantic waste of money," Harry said when they moved the statue in, standing shoulder to shoulder with Peter in the lobby and generally ruining the mood.

"I thought that was one of the perks of having money," Peter said, shoving an elbow in Harry's ribs. "That, sometimes, you get to waste it."

"Yeah, but most people choose boats, or cars, or Swedish supermodels. Not huge statues of the Fantastic Four,” Harry said. “I never got the appeal of these guys - who wants to spend that much time with their family?”

"They were important," Peter said, staring at Alicia's statue. It was beautiful, larger than life, and better than he’d ever imagined. Awe broke out over him just looking at Sue's proud posture, the smile lines at the corners of Reed's eyes, the breadth of Ben's dependable shoulders and the illusion of motion from Johnny's flames. The kids were front and center; Peter could practically hear Val correcting him. It felt impossible, that he could love them all this much and that they weren't here so he could tell them. "They mattered, Harry, and this was their home."

"Sure," Harry said. "Still a waste of money."

"Actually, Alicia Masters refused to take any payment for this," Peter said.

"Oh," Harry said, surprised. He waved a hand towards the sculpture. "Well, then by all means - get one of the Fantasti-dog, too."

 


 

Johnny stopped in his tracks when he saw the statue.

“See?” Peter said, but he took a step back and let Johnny have some space. “If you’d walked in through the lobby, like a normal person, it would’ve saved us a lot of hassle.” Softer, he added, “What do you think?”

“I like it,” Johnny said with an audible swallow. “A lot.”

“Commissioned it from Alicia Masters myself,” Peter said. He wanted Johnny to know that it wasn’t just a token gesture, that he’d put it there for the rest of the world, too, but for him especially. For both of them. “It’s the first thing anyone sees when they set foot in here. A way to let people know the Baxter Building will always be home to the Fantastic Four.”

“Alicia did great,” Johnny said quietly. His shoulders sagged, his posture relaxed. The smile on his face was small and sad. Peter hadn’t counted on the fire show, but he hadn’t expected this, either.

No matter how many times he saw it, the softer side of Johnny never failed to knock him off his feet.

“Everyone was trying to buy this place,” he said, trying to make sure Johnny understood why Peter had fought so hard for it. “Alchemax, Roxxon, Hammer… and I outbid ‘em all.” The less noble side of that was the vindictive joy he’d felt, trumping every new offer on the table. He swallowed that ugly emotion; that wasn’t what this was about. “So I could hold onto it until the day the FF are finally back.”

Johnny sighed and Peter stepped forward, shoulder to shoulder with him. “That day will come, Johnny.”

Johnny nodded, a little distantly. “Until it does, I’m glad it’s staying with family.”

“Always,” Peter promised him, clapping a hand to Johnny’s shoulder. He tugged Johnny in closer when he didn’t pull away, sliding his arm over his shoulders and squeezing. Johnny laughed, ducking his head. He pressed his knuckles to his eyes briefly.

“Come get a drink with me,” he said. “An ‘I’m sorry I tried to set you on fire’ thing. You can bring your other best friend, too.”

Peter snorted, but Harry would like it, probably. “You gonna behave?”

“Nah, I’m going to wait until your back is turned then light his pants on fire,” Johnny said. “Yes, Pete, I promise I’ll be nice. Any other best friends I should know about?”

“Well, Flash Thompson’s in space,” Peter said, grinning.

“Hilarious.”

“There’s just you,” Peter said, squeezing him around the shoulders one more time before he let go. “My secret shame.”

“Aw,” said Johnny, smirking. He pushed his hands into the pockets of his jeans, glancing up at the statue one more time. “Thank you for this.”

“Thank you for not flambéing me in front of all of my employees,” Peter said, jostling Johnny’s elbow with his. “Come see it whenever you want. I mean it. Off business hours, whatever – security will let you in.” He shifted so he could look Johnny in the eyes. “This is still your home. You know that, right?”

Johnny shrugged a little, shaking his head.

“Come on,” he told Peter. “I know a place with a great view of the city. You’ll like it.”

 


 

A month later, Peter dreamed of lurking just outside his own body and woke up drenched in cold sweat. He rolled over onto his back and stared at the dark ceiling for a long moment, just getting his breathing under control, before he slipped out of bed.

He always avoided mirrors after dreaming about Otto. He didn’t trust what he saw.

The new apartment, loathe as he was to admit it, helped. It was too big, more space than Peter could ever need, but it was his. Otto had never touched anything in it. He told himself that shouldn’t matter, but it did.

He grabbed a glass of water from the kitchen and gulped it down in one go, wiping his mouth off on the inside of his shaky wrist. He closed his eyes and saw it again: the deserted city streets of his own mind, the wreck Otto had made of him.

“Stop it,” he told himself, fingers tightening around the glass. He had to ease up before he broke it.

He took a deep breath before he opened his eyes, and then he paused and squinted. There was an odd, flickering sort of light shining across his living room floor. He set the glass down on the counter with a thunk and edged his way towards it.

There was a flaming man hovering above his terrace.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, sliding the door back. Johnny landed lightly, flames flickering out of existence. The time and the look on his face told Peter it wasn't a strictly social call. Too bad; he could've used Johnny's unfailing talent for getting him out of his head.

"Cap sent me," Johnny said, stepping in when Peter moved away from the door. "There's something big happening off the coast and he wants more of the heavy hitters in."

"And he couldn't call?" Peter asked, scrubbing a hand over his face.

"We tried, but you didn't pick up," Johnny said. "Be thankful I volunteered to come get you, because he wanted to send Quicksilver. You look like hell."

"Flatterer," Peter said. "Right back at you, by the way."

“Well, you know,” Johnny said, clearly tired. “I try to impress.”

Everything was quiet between them for a moment, but it was an easy sort of quiet, the kind Peter wasn’t sure he’d ever have again with anyone else. Johnny was so warm, even just out of reach; it was like standing in front of a fireplace in winter. Peter felt some of the tension melt away.

“You ever think we’re getting too old for this kind of thing?” he asked Johnny, stretching his arms high above his head.

Johnny’s grin was flickering and bright. Just looking at him made Peter feel more like his old self again. “Is that a trick question?”

Peter snorted. “Okay. Okay, just let me get my suit.”

 


 

"Is that what you're wearing?"

Peter snorted, shrugging out of the top half of his spider-suit. The superhero business had long since cured him of modesty; Johnny, stretched out long and lean on his bed, didn't bother him any. "No, I don't think I'm going to show up to this gala as Spider-Man. Might raise some questions."

"You could really steal the show," Johnny said, idly playing around on a tablet. "Run up there to accept your award, rip off your mask - ladies and gentlemen! I'm Peter Parker and I've been Spider-Man since I was fifteen years old!"

"Can you imagine?" Peter said, looking over his shoulder to trade a quick grin with Johnny.

"Oh, I can, and in vivid detail," Johnny said, winking. "Anyway. I wasn't talking about that - I meant that thing you have draped over the chair."

Peter cast one quick glance its way - no stains, rips or tears. It even smelled okay. "What's wrong with it? It's what I was wearing earlier."

"That's exactly what's wrong with it," Johnny pointed out, rolling his eyes like Peter was the dumbest person he'd ever met. It was a look Peter was long accustomed to, but usually he knew from the outset why he was getting it.

“If you’ve got another suggestion…” he said.

Johnny got up with a heavy sigh, opening Peter's closet. He stood there for a long moment, and then he looked at Peter over his shoulder. "Am I being Punk'd? You have like eight copies of the same boring suit."

"It fits," Peter said, shrugging. "Some of them are in different colors."

"I'm going to ask you a question now, Mr. CEO, and I promise I won't mock you if the answer is yes," Johnny said, waving a hand towards the closet. "Did you buy these off the rack?"

“Yeah?” Peter said, pulling on his shirt. Johnny made a derisive noise. “What happened to not mocking?”

“You know me better than that,” Johnny said. “Pete, you need a tailor.”

“I’ll look into it,” Peter said, intending to do no such thing. Johnny knew it, too, because he muttered something under his breath, stepping in front of Peter. He knocked his hands away from the buttons, scowling at the shirt.

Peter sighed. “Leave it alone, would you, Torch? It fits, that’s what matters.”

Johnny rolled his eyes, working at the last few buttons.

“It does not fit, you’re just too blind to see that. Trust me, everybody else? They won’t be. The sleeves are too short, and,” he slid his palm over Peter’s shoulder, down to the swell of his bicep, where it admittedly strained at the shirt, “you’re broader than you look. All muscle. A suit’s armor, Pete – and you put yourself on the frontlines. Tie?”

“On the chair,” Peter said. “Criticisms?”

“It’s not worse than the rest of what you’re wearing, so I don’t see the point,” Johnny said, looping it around Peter’s neck. “Head up.”

Peter tilted his chin, surrendering himself to Johnny’s ministrations. Johnny had been a clotheshorse for as long as Peter had known him, everything he wore soft and expensive even when he was dressed down. The only exception he’d ever seemed to make was while he was in the garage, working on one of his cars. It had never struck him before that Johnny didn’t just like clothes - he was good with them, too. When he stepped back, Peter’s tie was knotted elegantly.

Johnny grabbed his jacket and held it out. Peter shrugged it on, looking at himself in the mirror before Johnny stepped in front of him again.

“A tailor, Pete,” Johnny said, smoothing the jacket over his shoulders and tugging at the sleeves. “I’ll send you to the one I used to see. Or even better, you can go to Ben’s.”

“Alright, alright,” Peter said. “I’ll add it to the list.”

"You’re going to make it a priority. There, perfect," Johnny said, adjusting Peter's lapels. There was one long red hair wound around his wrist like a thread; the sight of it made something in Peter’s chest twinge. He ignored it. "Or as close as we're going to get, anyway. Who's your hero?"

"You're my savior, Human Torch," Peter said dutifully, grinning. Johnny snorted.

"Don't I know it. Wait, you forgot cufflinks."

Peter’s fingers flew automatically to his cuffs. He smiled guiltily at Johnny. “I, uh. Don’t think I have any?”

“You’re a disaster,” Johnny said. “I don’t know you.”

“There’s an emergency twenty in my sock drawer,” Peter said. Old habits died hard. “Order yourself something nice, with extra cheese and pepperoni.”

Johnny snorted, collapsing back onto the bed. He picked up the tablet again, frowning down at it. “I’ll save you a slice.”

“Please,” Peter said, reaching up to adjust his tie. He stopped short when Johnny gave him a nasty look. “I hate the food at these things.”

“You’re a philistine, Peter Parker,” Johnny said.

“And you love me anyway,” Peter said. “What are you looking at?”

“Oh, you know,” Johnny said, huffing. “Bills.”

Peter stopped admiring himself in the mirror – he was sure he’d never managed to make a tie look this good before – to do a double take Johnny’s way. “Wow.”

Johnny arched an eyebrow. “What?”

“I just don’t think I’ve ever actually heard you say that word before,” Peter said.

“Well, those were the days,” Johnny said, annoyed. “Now I’ve got all our stuff in storage down at Pier 4 – not cheap, by the way. Not to mention the rent on my own place. Was New York always this expensive?”

“I’m not walking into that one,” Peter said. “But you’ve got still got the Four’s funds, don’t you? What’s the problem?”

“How can you say that to me when you know I lost the building?” Johnny said, eyes sparking. “I have my accounts – you know, the quarter of the Fantastic Four who actually liked extravagant spending? Reed and Sue’s are,” his voice hitched a little, “tied up. They’re not dead. They’re not, but they’re not here either, and you know how that gets. And Rocky neglected to leave me his bank passwords for his half of the bills before he jettisoned himself into space. I’m wiping myself out just paying rent on my place and Pier 4’s storage.” He scrubbed one hand over his face, palm over his eyes. “Reed had emergency money stashed away in case anything ever happened – after that time with the investor, I know he did, but I didn’t listen. Story of my life, right?”

“Johnny,” Peter said quietly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Yeah, well. Mount Rushmore couldn’t even settle his debts before he fucked off to play Captain Kirk,” Johnny growled. Peter leaned over his shoulder and finally caught sight of some numbers. He whistled low.

“You sure that debt’s not why he’s Rocket Man?” he asked.

Johnny’s face fell. When he sighed his breath curled up like steam. “Yeah. I’m sure.”

Peter’s hand fell to his shoulder, squeezing. He’d asked Johnny, once, about the fight before Ben left, but Johnny had refused to talk about it. Considering the number of other secrets Johnny had willingly divulged over the years, Skrull marriage included, Peter figured this one had to be bad.

“Tell me what happened,” Peter said.

Johnny sighed.

“What do you think, with Ben involved? The Yancy Street Gang.” He flicked his sharp gaze up to Peter. He flicked at his collar. “Now you tell me something – who let you think purple was your color?”

 


 

The Yancy Street Gang seemed to change every time Peter blinked: the classic thugs with Lower East Side accents gave way to a bunch of Wall Street white collar criminals gave way to kids with smart phones wearing Thing masks, then rinse and repeat. It was enough to make Peter want to never go below 14th ever again.

Still, it was better than playing Candy Crush on his phone under the table while Anna Maria jammed her elbow into his ribs every fifteen minutes for the rest of the night. He rubbed at the sore spot as he staked out a good spot on the roof, then settled down to wait.

It didn’t take very long. The group of kids wandering the streets wearing matching hoodies with YSG sloppily painted on the back was hard to miss.

Peter webbed one of them. It was usually the easiest way to get some attention.

“It’s 10 PM,” he said, swinging down. “Do you know where your children are?”

The Yancy Streeters didn’t scream, or scatter, or do any of the fun things people usually did when Peter menacingly dropped out of the sky. The one he’d webbed to door of a closed deli had the nerve to flip Peter off.

“Wow,” Peter said, hanging upside down. “Tough crowd.”

"What’re you doing down here, Spider-Man? We got no issue with you," the head Yancy Streeter said, idly texting while he talked. Rude. "Even if you are a corporate sellout."

Peter cringed. Double rude. He thwipped the phone right out of the kid's hand.

"Hey!" the kid said. "I was texting my mom!"

“Tough,” Peter said. “You can have it back after class.”

He’d kind of missed saying that. Life had been easier back when he’d been herding teenagers for a living. Now he was stuck corralling scientists, which was a little fun, and managing suits, which was not.

“What do you want anyway, Webs?” one of the other Yancy Streeters asked. Peter had to hand it to these kids; they were truly fearless. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. “Yancy Street’s not your territory.”

Peter opened his mouth to argue – the entire city was his territory, thank you very much – but it was hard to disagree with half a dozen of these kids staring up at him with pure defiance on their faces, just daring him to claim a piece of their New York.

“I’m here to talk about the Human Torch,” he said.

A couple of the kids burst into laughter.

“Oh yeah,” a voice came from the back of the group. The kid puckered up dramatically. “We know all about you and the Torch, Spidey!”

The Yancy Street Gang was making kissy noises at him. Peter got no respect.

“Mature,” he said. “What’s all this I’m hearing about you hounding him?”

“Ben Grimm’s skipped the planet,” a girl with teal and bleach blonde curls said, popping her gum. “He owes us big. The Torch is our only option.”

“I’ve never known Ben Grimm to leave a debt unpaid,” Peter said. “Didn’t know him to bet money against Yancy Streeters, either.”

“Didn’t used to know you to be some CEO’s bodyguard!” one of the kids in the back called.

“That’s,” Peter started, only to get cut off.

“Times change, right?” said the head kid. “Grimm was in bad shape, Spidey, I can say that for sure. I’ve never seen the man so down. I think he lost on purpose.”

“And why would the Thing do that?” Peter asked.

“We were betting on the new community center,” the kid said, hands shoved defensively in his pocket.

“Oh,” said Peter, quietly.

“Ben Grimm’s a lot of things, but he loves this community,” the kid said, his head ducked low. “That money’s ours.”

Peter swallowed hard. Of course. Of course Ben would have thrown that bet.

“Does the Torch know?” he asked. The kids all shook their heads. “Why not?”

“S’not his business, is why,” the head kid said, shrugging. Every inch of him was defensive. “He’s not from here. He’s not the kind who’d understand.”

“I think he’d understand,” Peter said, “if you bothered to explain it to him instead of hounding the guy.”

The gum-popping girl shrugged. “We don’t want to talk -- we just want what the Thing owes us, fair and square. And he’s gone, and so’re the other two – we gotta get what we’re owed out of the Torch before he up and quits the game, too.”

Dread crept up Peter’s back at her words: Johnny was the last one standing, it was true. But he wasn’t going anywhere, he told himself. He was just a little down right now. Who wouldn’t be, in his place? He’d bounce back. He’d bounced back from so much before.

Johnny just needed a little help right now. That was all.

Peter unslung the bag he’d packed in the apartment from over his shoulder and tossed it at the kids.

“Fine,” he said, watching as the kid who caught it eyed him suspiciously. “There’s your money.”

The kid unzipped the bag, and the whole Yancy Street Gang made a hushed noise of astonishment.

“This is – is this cash?” bubblegum girl said, digging out a wad of bills.

“Well I didn’t know you took Mastercard,” Peter said. “You can count it, if you want, but it’s all there.”

That got a couple of breathless whistles. The head kid looked up, his eyes narrowed.

“Why?” he asked.

Peter shrugged.

“Because you want it for a good cause. And because I’m the Torch’s friend.” He caught one of the girls in the back making a face and snapped his fingers her way. “No heckling the Spider-Man, or I’ll take it back.”

“It’s everything,” the kid holding the bag cut in, wide-eyed. “It’s Grimm’s whole debt.”

The Yancy Street Gang kids looked up at Peter and for one surreal moment Peter thought they might actually get thankful on him.

Then bubblegum girl swallowed hard, eyes all misty, and said, “Guess you’re good for something after all.”

Peter snorted.

"Listen," he said, injecting every ounce of menace he was capable of into his voice. "That debt’s paid, so from here on out you leave Johnny Storm alone. That is not a request, it is an order. Are we clear?"

There was a murmur of assent. The leader of the group held up his hands. "Debt's paid. We got no problem with the Torch, Spider-Man."

"Good," Peter said. He tossed the kid’s cell phone back. "Make sure it stays that way, or you're going to have a problem with me." He pointed his fingers at his own blank mask eyes, then at the kids. “And I’d better see the start of a new rec center next time I’m down here.”

 


 

The tailor Johnny sent him to wasn’t exactly what Peter expected. The shop was on the ragged side, and the tailor himself was a little old graying man who took one look at Peter and filled the whole room up with so much disappointment he could have choked on it.

“I’ve missed Jonathan,” sniffed the tailor, a Mr. Taylor (“Save the jokes. Jonathan has already made them all.” At least now Peter knew why Johnny had sent him to this particular tailor.). “A dream to dress.”

Unlike you went unsaid. Peter fought not to roll his eyes.

He’d done the tailoring thing before, not that Johnny would believe him. He could have done it on his own. But it seemed like such a waste of time to him, standing still while someone measured him, the vaguest prickle of spider-sense whenever he fidgeted as a pin was coming too close.

He bore it as stoically as he could, though, if only so Johnny would stop annoying him about it. Why it mattered to him at all, Peter couldn’t guess, and Johnny wouldn’t say.

Otto had had a dozen suits, easily, silk and wool, all expensive, and a whole closet full of other clothes – soft polos and fitted slacks, disgustingly expensive jeans for off days. They would have all fit Peter like a glove; they had, after all, been made to his measurements. He'd dropped them all off at a charity first chance he'd gotten - the idea of wearing them made his skin crawl.

He couldn't wear Otto's suits, not when Otto had worn him like one.

The tie around his neck felt heavy, choking, like a cold metal arm. Sweat beaded at Peter's temple.

“I’ll take it,” he said, suddenly unable to remember what exactly he just said he’d take, unlooping the tie from around his neck. His chest felt too tight. “All of them. Whatever you think I need. I don’t care.”

“Well,” said Mr. Taylor. “I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t love more clients like you.”

“I’m,” Peter said. He couldn’t breathe. He needed to get out of here – he needed to get out, get up, swing it away until his arms burned and his palms stung and he felt like himself again. “I’m not, this isn’t –”

“Shh, take it slow,” said the little old man. Peter let out a long breath.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know why I’m like this.”

“It’s the stress,” said Mr. Taylor. “You see it with a lot of you young guys. Got too successful, too fast, and now you don’t know what to do with yourself?”

“Something like that,” Peter said, hand to his throat.

Otto was gone, he told himself like a mantra. Otto was gone. Otto was gone.

He exhaled, long and slow, and let his hand drop back to his side.

Peter slipped his own jacket back on. The tailor made a little tsking noises at the sight of it.

“Well, take it from me,” the old man said. “It doesn’t get easier in that world, kid.”

Peter laughed a little bit. “Believe me, I know. Man, do I know.”

Before he left he stilled with his hand on the door, glancing over his shoulder.

“You said Johnny hasn’t been in for a while?” Peter said. Of course he hadn’t; if Johnny couldn’t afford to pay off Ben’s old debts, if he was struggling to keep all the Fantastic Four’s stuff in storage, then obviously he wouldn’t be buying himself a new wardrobe any time soon. Peter was an idiot. “Hey, tell me – what did he normally buy this time of year?”

 


 

"Did you pay off what Ben owed the Yancy Street Gang?"

Peter didn’t have to turn around to know that Johnny was angry -- he could feel the heat coming off of him and hear the roar of flames. He touched a hand to his temple; his head was pounding. He’d stepped out on the balcony, hoping the night air would help, but it had only made him an easy target for Johnny’s wrath.

“That didn’t take long,” Peter said, turning around. Johnny burned bright against the night sky, hovering a good few feet off the ground. He crackled like a bonfire.

“What the hell did you do to that for, Peter?” Johnny demanded, incandescent with fury the way he only ever got when Peter had really managed to push his buttons. “I didn’t ask you to do that!”

"You would've done it for me," Peter said. Johnny made a frustrated noise, throwing up his flaming hands.

"Of course I would have, but you never would have asked me to!" he said.

"So be better than me," Peter said sharply. “You’ve never had a problem with that before.”

Johnny flames flickered and died. His eyes were wide as his feet touched the ground.

“That’s not fair,” he said, sounding honestly wounded. “It’s not true, either.”

Peter rubbed at his forehead, biting the inside of his cheek. “I know. I’m sorry. I’ve had the day from hell, but that’s not – I shouldn’t take it out on you.”

Johnny didn’t say anything, just stared sullenly at Peter – not angry anymore, not really. Just hurt. Johnny had always burned hot and fast that way. Peter’s heart ached, a desperate, fierce thing that put his headache to shame. He wanted to go back a minute and not say it at all. He wanted to go back five years and make things simple again.

“Come inside,” he said, gesturing to the open door. When Johnny hesitated, Peter said, “Please, Johnny. I didn’t mean it.”

He held his hand out, palm up. Johnny didn’t take it, but he did follow Peter indoors, sparks trailing at his heels.

“I could have taken care of it by myself,” he said, eyes still flashing a little.

“I know,” Peter said. “You could have, but you didn’t have to.”

“So this is how it’s going to be?” Johnny asked, head tilted to the side. The ends of his hair danced, tiny flames like birthday candles. “You’re, what, you’re just going to step in and fix all my problems now?”

“Is that so bad?” Peter asked. “Listen, just – I have the money. For once in my life, I had the money, and you didn’t. And I don’t know, maybe I didn’t want them tagging Pier 4 and the Baxter Building. It’s settled now.”

“You shouldn’t have done it,” Johnny said, eyebrows drawn together. “It wasn’t your thing.”

“You’re my best friend,” Peter said. “All your things are my things.”

“Next time, go bother your other best friend,” Johnny said, but Peter had finally managed to get a tiny smile out of him.

“I wasn’t sure I was going to do it when I went out there,” Peter admitted. He explained: the Yancy Street Gang kids, Ben’s thrown bet, the center they wanted the money for. “They wanted it for something good, Torch.”

“That’s a first,” Johnny snorted. “Why not do it officially, then? Get Parker Industries some good press?”

“That’s not how Ben would have played it, right?” Peter said. “Everything’s local. Let them do it all themselves.”

Johnny huffed a long sigh, obviously loathe to admit Peter was right. “You’re going to regret this when they use that cash to come after you in mechanized theme suits, because that’s how everything in your life works out.”

“Probably,” Peter said. “Still mad at me?”

“I’m thinking about it,” Johnny said. He sighed, reaching out to yank Peter in close, arms tight around him. “Come here. You’re a moron.”

Peter turned his head to the side, pressing his nose against Johnny’s soft hair. He took a moment to just breathe in the clean scent of him. Johnny didn’t seem to mind, so Peter let himself linger a second before he pulled away. He slid his hands up to Johnny’s shoulders. “Don’t be mad – I bought you new suits, too.”

Johnny’s mouth twisted like he couldn’t decide whether to smile or scowl. “Did you pick them out?”

“Nope,” Peter said. “I told your tailor to go wild according to your very exacting tastes.”

“Then I won’t be mad,” Johnny said, finally breaking into a smile. “Where the hell am I going to wear them, though? In case you haven’t noticed, my lifestyle just ain’t what it used to be.”

“I was thinking about that,” Peter said. “I’m going to say something, and I need you to not set my hair on fire.”

“Oh, that ship has long since sailed,” Johnny said, but he sighed and tilted his head back. “Go on, lay it on me. You want me to fight Kang in them?”

“What you choose to do on your own time is none of my business,” Peter said. “No, listen – you should be my plus one.”

“Come again?” Johnny asked, raising his eyebrows. “You want me to be – what, your date?”

“Not like that,” Peter said. “Look, you’re good at this stuff. The mingling, the schmoozing, the not snorting champagne up your nose – that hurts, by the way.”

“Why do you tell me these things?” Johnny asked him. “Is it to hurt me?”

“And you clean up nice,” Peter said. “Come on. Cover for me. There’s a lot of tiny crackers with fish eggs on them in it for you.”

“You want me to be your arm candy,” Johnny teased, grinning.

“It’s your lovely face, Torch,” Peter said, remembering words from what felt like a lifetime ago. “It keeps me up at night.”

“Flatterer,” Johnny said. “I hate you. Come here.”

He threw his arms around Peter, bringing him in close again, and Peter was too tired to pull away. He put his chin down on Johnny’s shoulder, humming a little, enjoying the comfort of just being close to someone who didn’t want anything Peter wouldn’t readily give.

“Love you too,” he said.

“You have to do one more thing for me,” Johnny said.

“Name it, and it’s yours,” Peter promised, pulling back from Johnny’s hold.

“The executive washroom,” Johnny said. Peter groaned. “Move it.”

“Okay, okay,” Peter said. “Where am I supposed to move it, then?”

Johnny grinned. “What else you got going on in Ben’s old room?”

 


 

Peter’s tux fit like a glove and made him feel like a monkey in a suit, stifling in a way spandex never had been. Johnny slapped his hand away every time he tried to fiddle with a cuff, never so much as even looking at him.

“I hate you,” Peter told him sincerely. Johnny grinned, waving at an acquaintance.

“Shut up and smile,” he replied.

Johnny, of course, looked like a million bucks. His hair was artfully tousled and the lines of his suit highlighted his shoulders and the slim cut of his hips. His cologne made Peter feel heady; he’d never noticed things like that before. This new lifestyle was going to be the death of him.

“How do you do it?” he asked Johnny.

“Small talk and champagne,” Johnny said. “Oh, and Ben and I used to play a game: guess the third husband.”

“That’s incredibly immature,” Peter said. He pointed through the crowd at a man with hair like an oil slick who looked like something out of a sleazy magazine ad. “But that guy, definitely. Oh, and the guy in the green suit. Who wears a green suit?”

Johnny squinted in the direction Peter pointed. “That’s no third husband. That’s Doctor Doom.”

Peter nearly choked on his drink. “What? No. I distinctly remember more metal mask.”

The man in the green suit was very tall, with a thick shock of brown hair slicked back from his elegant face. He was not surrounded by robots, or shouting about how his word was law, or any of the other things Peter had come to associate with Victor von Doom over the years.

Doom glanced up, his sharp gaze flitting over Peter to land on Johnny. Johnny raised a hand, the briefest wave of fingers, and before Peter could really register it Doom had crossed the floor towards them.

"Victor," Johnny greeted with a tilt of his head.

"Jonathan," Doom returned, hazel eyes passing over Peter as if he wasn't even there. I have webbed you right in the mask, Peter thought vindictively. "I trust you are well?"

"As well as can be," Johnny said, a little like a challenge.

"I'm glad for it," Doom said, almost gently, and he even smiled a little. Peter had no idea what to make of Victor von Doom, the new hot and helpful model. "If you'll excuse me, I see an acquaintance..."

Johnny whistled as they watched Doom disappear through the crowd. "That is a beautiful man. No wonder Reed put his face back the way it was."

"You think Reed did that?" Peter said, doing a double take.

"I know he did," said Johnny.

"How?" Peter asked, catching him by the elbow. "Johnny, you don't know something about what happened before they disappeared, do you?"

"No. It's all a blank for me," Johnny said, shaking his head. His gaze was faraway, watching Victor as he prowled the room like some oversized aristocratic cat, heading straight towards Tony Stark.

Oy, Peter thought.

“Then how…?”

"I know my brother-in-law,” Johnny said, nothing but certainty in his voice, “and only he would make sure to put Victor von Doom's face back."

Peter couldn’t argue with that. He swallowed hard, reaching to squeeze Johnny’s wrist briefly.

“Yeah,” he said. “That sounds like Reed.”

Johnny laughed a little bitterly. “You two always reminded me of each other, you know? Too smart to be that nice, and yet, there you were anyway. Hey, let’s move, I could use a really strong drink.”

Peter had made a good call – Johnny was good at this, much better than he was. He was charming, knew how to keep conversation light, and as a bonus, he looked pretty incredible in that suit. He’d kept them moving through the crowd like he knew Peter wasn’t really in the mood for long conversation.

“Now where do I know her from?” he asked, nudging Peter and pointing across the room.

Liz Allan was standing by the wall, looking gorgeous in red. Peter caught her eye and waved. She laughed, coming towards them.

“Hey Liz,” he said, hand at her elbow. “You look beautiful.”

“Peter.” Liz kissed him on the cheek. “And where is my ex-husband this evening?”

“On a plane to Tokyo,” Peter said, grinning. Harry had phoned him from the airport with one last reminder to “just smile and nod, Parker, and for the sake of the company don’t do anything from Annie Hall.”

A promise he could keep, as long as nobody handed him a lobster.

“Just where I like him,” Liz said. “You look good. What happened there?”

“My influence, I assure you,” Johnny said, coming up beside Peter. He extended a hand. “Johnny Storm. It’s polite to actually introduce people, Peter.”

“You do just fine on your own,” Peter told him.

Liz looked a little starstruck.

“Liz Allan,” she returned, placing her hand in his. “My son is a huge fan, Mr. Storm.”

“Call me Johnny, please,” he said. Peter wondered how he always managed to be so effortlessly charming – if it was a natural talent, or something he’d had to learn these past fifteen years constantly in the spotlight. Peter wondered if he’d ever be able to pick up that habit. “I’d be happy to sign something for him, if you’d like?”

“That’d be wonderful. You know, you spoke at my high school once,” Liz said to Johnny. Peter didn’t know what was going on with her lately, but here, at least, in her element, she seemed like her old self again. “You probably don’t remember, but afterwards we all had such a crush on you.”
She and Johnny both laughed politely, and then Liz smirked at Peter. “I seem to remember you making quite the impression on Peter, too.”

“Oh really?” Johnny said, turning a blinding grin on Peter. “He’s never told me.”

Liz,” Peter groaned.

“No, come on, I want to hear it,” Johnny said, actually laughing at him now. Peter scoffed, but he had to hide his own smile. It was a good memory – he could still conjure it up in surround sound and perfect crystal clarity, standing in the crowd at Midtown High and feeling all his doubts vanish as Johnny spoke. The confidence he’d given him had kept him going over a dozen dark moments.

Then, like falling forty stories with nothing to anchor him, Peter remembered it had been Otto he’d fought that day – Otto who had beaten him.

Peter felt frozen on the spot. Everything went a little dim at the edges as he remembered – his own hubris, the cold shock when Otto had snapped his webs. The inhuman strength in those arms. The sting of Otto’s backhand against his cheek. The crushing humiliation he’d felt, lying on the ground.

Oh, kid, he thought back at himself. You’ve got no idea.

A soft touch on his wrist brought him out of it.

“Peter?” Liz said. He blinked down at her, familiar Liz. The only person in the room he’d known longer than Johnny. He forced himself to focus on her face. “You were a million miles away. What were you thinking about?”

“Oh, you know,” he said, easing his grip on his empty glass. It was a minor miracle he hadn’t broken it. “Spreadsheets.”

“Mmhmm,” Liz said archly. “Try not to lose that sense of humor, Pete. It was nice to meet you, Johnny.”

“You too, Liz,” Johnny said as she took her leave of them, working her way back through the crowd. “How come everyone you know is such a knockout?”

“What can I say? I’ve got that certain something,” Peter said, mind still reeling. Be here, he told himself. Be here, and not lying out on the grass, beaten, fifteen years in the past. Not trapped in his own mind, trying desperately to move so much as a finger while Otto slid his hand – Peter’s stolen hands -- to rest at the small of Mary Jane’s unwitting back or when he bent to kiss May at the temple, oozing oily platitudes from Peter’s stolen lips. “I thought you wanted that drink.”

“I do,” Johnny said, slinging his arm over Peter’s shoulders. “And on our way there you can tell me some more about how I inspired you.”

Peter bit back a shiver.

 


 

“So,” Harry said the next week. They were eating a late dinner at his desk, and the informality of it all had been doing wonders for Peter’s nerves – right up until he heard the tone in Harry’s voice. “The Human Torch, huh?”

“What,” Peter said, pushing the dregs of his lo mein around in the carton. “You want an autograph?”

“You never told me how you two met,” Harry said with a dismissive shrug that didn’t fool Peter in the slightest. Harry’s eyes were sharp, his jaw tight. “I’m just curious, that’s all.”

“He’s been friends with Spider-Man their entire careers,” Peter said. “Spider-Man’s my bodyguard. He introduced us, and we hit it off.”

“Mmhmm,” Harry said, nodding.

“What?” Peter asked.

“You just don’t seem like Johnny Storm’s type,” Harry said.

“We’re friends,” Peter said. “That’s all. What would you know about his type?”

“I know about his type because I’ve been him,” Harry said, rolling his eyes. “Except, lord help me, I managed to grow out of it. He seems permanently stuck in the tabloid fodder zone.”

“What are you trying to say, Har?” Peter asked, bristling. “I better lock up the silverware?”

“No, I just,” Harry breathed out, rubbing at his forehead. “Why do you always have to make me sound like a jackass.”

“If the Italian leather shoe fits,” Peter said, stabbing his chopsticks at a last noodle.

“The guy lost everything, Pete,” Harry said, scowling. “I’ve been there. I know that free fall.”

Peter swallowed his own grief. It was still a stab, every time he remembered Sue and Reed’s mysterious disappearance. He’d been nonchalant about it at first – how many times had the Fantastic Four dropped off the face of the planet, only to return with something new and brilliant? But then the weeks had ticked by. No Sue. No Reed. No Val or Franklin or Future Foundation kids.

After a couple of months, there was no Ben, either.

“Johnny’s strong,” he said. “It’s hard right now, but he’ll be okay.”

Harry sighed. “It’s easy to say that, but how well do you know the guy, really?”

Peter couldn’t say better than I know almost anyone else, not without giving away too much. He stabbed at his empty carton, a muscle in his jaw jumping as he clenched his teeth. He couldn’t think about Johnny in another downward spiral. Snatching him out of a skeevy Meatpacking District party and throwing him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes may have worked once, but it wouldn’t fix anything this time.

"Just be careful, Pete," Harry said. "You know you've always been a sucker for a pretty face."

It wasn't untrue, exactly, and it wasn't like Peter could deny that Johnny was beautiful. Still, he didn’t like the insinuation.

"It's not like that," Peter said. "Really it's not."

Harry nodded, frowning. His hand landed heavy on Peter’s shoulder, fingers digging in, and Peter let out a long breath. "I'm just trying to look out for you, buddy. For once you've got a lot more than pocket change to lose."

“You’re a good friend, Harry,” Peter said, reaching up to squeeze his wrist.

“I’m trying to be,” Harry said. His smile was crooked. Peter returned it, shaking his head. “Though listen, if I knew that was your type, I could’ve been setting you up for ages.”

Peter shot him a look. “What – male superheroes?”

“Blond celebutante airheads with more money than sense,” Harry said, rolling his eyes. “Obviously.”

Peter snorted. He aimed his carton at the trash can in the corner and hit it just narrowly enough to be believable. “Good talk, Harry.”

 


 

Nights were the worst.

During the day he jumped through hoops at Parker Industries, trying desperately not to let anyone realize he had no idea what he was doing. Anna Maria helped as much as she could, and Peter trusted Harry’s business sense, but that didn’t make up for the fact that he’d never planned for this life. Freelance photographer, science teacher – even at Horizon, all he’d had to do was what he’d been doing for years: tinker around. Waking up as CEO of Parker Industries had been like being thrown, blindfolded and covered in chum, into the shark tank. Everyone around seemed to know exactly what they were doing; he fought for every minute.

So after work, he put on the costume. It didn’t matter if he was in Singapore or New York or London; he put on the costume, and he went out and did what he always did. None of Otto’s cut corners, no blind reliance on technology to do his job for him – just him and his webs, dropping out of the sky and onto unwitting criminals.

Then, when there was nothing left to hit, he went home and he dreamed.

He dreamed moments both real and imagined in painful color and surround sound: Otto’s fingers curling possessively around the back of Flash’s wheelchair, the cruel impact of his fist against Felicia’s face. One night, just weeks after he got his body back, he dreamed a version of events where Otto lost patience in his twisted game with Mary Jane, grabbed her around the waist and used Peter’s own strength to hold her down. He’d woken up sick and stayed that way for hours, his hands shaking.

He’d called MJ’s number just to hear her voice – alive, okay -- then hung up, hating himself for it. He couldn’t close his eyes for the rest of the day without remembering the way Otto had pawed through his every intimate memory of her.

Swinging helped, most of the time. Peter went at it fast and reckless, split-second webline changes and twists so hard he nearly yanked his arm out of the socket once or twice. There was always a moment, though, in the middle of it, when everything fell away and he felt truly settled back in his own skin.

At the very top of a swing he was just Peter Parker, friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Just him, and no one else.

Then he fell into bed at night and the nightmares started all over again.

In the latest dream Johnny smiled at him, bright and happy in the old Fantastic Four blues, but Peter wasn’t Peter. He hovered just outside himself, insubstantial, a shadow, and watched helplessly as the man in his body wrapped one inhumanly strong hand around the back of trusting Johnny’s neck.

Peter woke up gasping, one hand flying out for the bedside lamp. He missed and shattered it instead, breaking the bedside table in the process. His hands were shaking. He was covered in sweat, disgusted with himself and angry beyond measure with Ock.

“So what else is new,” he said to himself, pushing his damp hair back from his forehead.

The shower he took was ice cold, shocking him back to himself, and by the time he climbed out he almost felt like he could breathe again, even though it took him a split second to recognize himself in the mirror. It was like Otto had left a trace, like his presence had subtly changed Peter somehow.

It wasn’t true, he told himself. His face was still his face. His body was still his body. It was only him, once and again. Just plain old Peter Parker, back from the dead again.

The new dent in the bathroom wall matched the splintered wood of his bedside table. Peter flexed his hand, savoring the sting.

“Give me something, New York,” he said to the empty room, heading for his costume. He needed to snap back into himself – and he was never more himself than in the middle of a swing, the split second connection of a fist. “Something good.”

Like a prayer answered, the police scanner picked up something big happening on the Upper East Side, by Museum Mile. Some of the tension slipped from Peter’s shoulders. He pulled the mask on, turning to smile out the window.

“You never let me down, do you?” he said to New York.

It was still his city. He felt it in his bones. Otto couldn’t take that from him, no matter how hard he’d tried.

Peter threw open the window, spread his arms out and dove. It was a bright, beautiful day, the sunlight warm against his back. He closed his eyes and let himself have the moment, the rush of wind, the sound of the city, before he flipped his wrist over and shot a webline towards the top of the tallest building on the block.

The Avengers were fighting a group of super-powered robbers dressed up like famous Renaissance painters on the steps of the Met.

Sometimes Peter really loved this city.

“Look, it’s the Avengers and their chaperone!” he said, dropping into the fight. “How’s today’s field trip treating you, Captain America? Remember to pack enough juice boxes for the whole class?”

“Man, why do you always have to be like this?” Sam asked, hefting the shield high to block a blow.

“Sorry, sorry,” Peter said, slipping behind him to cover his back. “Capri Sun is a juice pouch, not a box, and that makes all the difference. Hey, Spider-Man! How’s it swingin’?”

Miles dropped out of the sky and onto a bearded thief’s back. Peter was so proud.

“Hey, Spider-Man!” Miles returned, webbing the man’s feet to the steps. “Just stopping Michelangelo here.”

“MichelSCAMgelo, more like,” Peter said.

“Seriously, why?” Sam said, shield to another thief’s face. “Why do you always do this?”

“To torture you specifically,” Peter said, flipping over to help Nova with a guy dressed like Leonardo da Vinci.

“I actually ran a successful pyramid scheme for years,” said Michelscamgelo, eyes downcast. “And look at me now.”

“Yikes,” said Ms. Marvel, grimacing.

“This is why you always web their mouths,” Peter told Miles.

“Noted,” Miles said, sounding chagrined.

It was an easy fight; the Avengers didn’t really need Peter’s help, but it was fun the way fights with no real stakes always were, and it loosened something in Peter’s shoulders, set something free in his chest. There was nothing to do but stop a half-dozen art thieves launching a terrible scheme at the break of dawn, and have fun doing it. When the teenagers made jokes, Peter found himself laughing for real.

“Well, now that that’s done with,” Sam said, shouldering the shield. He looked down at his teammates and sighed. “How many of you are late for school?”

“I’m gonna go get my clothes off the fire escape I webbed them too,” Miles said, shaking his head.

“Mind if I swing with you for a second?” Peter asked. “I’ve got something to ask you.”

“Sure,” Miles said, shooting a webline across the street.

“I’ll get him there on time, Captain America,” Peter said to Sam, flipping him a thumbs up.

“Bye, Spider-Man!” Ms. Marvel said, waving one unnaturally long arm. “Bye, old Spider-Man!”

“Ouch,” Peter said, laughing and waving back. Miles tripped his way over his own goodbye, fumbling his swing a little.

Peter had done his time as an easily embarrassed teenager in a mask; he knew how to spot a blush underneath the fabric. He waited until they were a block away to say, “So, Ms. Marvel’s pretty cute.”

“Don’t. Don’t do that,” Miles said, swinging ahead. “You sound like my mom.”

“But she’s a nice girl, a good catch!” Peter sang, chasing after him. “True? True.”

“What?” said Miles, cocking his head to the side.

“I’m taking you to see Fiddler,” Peter said. He planted his palm on Miles’ head. “Look where you’re swinging, please.”

“I know, I know,” Miles said. “I’m not watching a musical.”

“It’s a classic! Would I lie to you? I mean, I’m no Andrew Lloyd Webber,” Peter said, cracking up. Miles groaned. “What? That was funny.”

“If you say so,” said Miles.

“I do,” Peter said. “Respect your elders.”

“Now you really sound like my mom,” Miles said, scampering onto a fire escape.

“How long do you have before school?” Peter asked. “I wanted to show you something.”

“About an hour,” Miles said. He added, hopefully, “Can we get breakfast?”

Peter remembered this part of being the amazing Spider-Teen, too – constantly being hungry. He snorted. “Sure, why not.”

They met back up in civilian clothes and walked to a nearby diner Peter liked. Miles talked the whole way there, gesturing frantically, about Spider-Man problems – keeping his mom out of the loop, constantly having to cancel on friends, falling asleep in class because he’d been out all night.

Peter listened to all of it, nodding where appropriate, and tried not to smile too hard.

“So what did you want to show me?” Miles asked after they’d ordered. Peter downed his coffee liked a shot, digging in his briefcase with his free hand.

“Close your eyes and open your hands,” he said.

Miles shot him a look, but he did as Peter asked, holding his hands palm up over the slightly sticky formica table. Peter pulled out the latest Webware watch and dumped it into Miles’ waiting hands.

“Ta-da.”

Miles blinked. “No way.”

“Way,” Peter said, settling back against the squeaky red vinyl booth. He gestured to the waitress for more coffee. “Am I the coolest superhero mentor or am I the coolest superhero mentor? Don’t answer that, just tell it to Iron Man next time you see him.”

“Is this for me?” Miles said.

“Do you see anyone else named Miles sitting at this table?” Peter asked. “Do you like it?”

“Are you crazy?” Miles said, turning it over in his hands. “I begged for one of these, but my dad said I already had a cell phone, so getting a watch that’s also a phone would be ridiculous.”

“Savvy man, your dad,” Peter grinned. “Well, now this one is yours. There’s just two things I need you to do for me.”

“Name ‘em,” Miles said, starry-eyed like any other kid his age with a new piece of tech. Peter huffed a laugh as their food was set in front of them.

“Okay, well,” he said, watching with amusement as Miles dug into his food like a miniature hurricane, “first off, while these things are selling crazy, stupid well – we’re slipping in one area. Your age group still likes some of the competition better. So I want you to use that to do whatever it is you do on your phone, and you tell me what works for you and what doesn’t, so I can make it better. And don’t worry about the bill,” he added, when Miles opened his mouth to ask. “I’m handling it. Text your friends from the moon, what do I care.”

“Wow,” Miles said. “Okay. And the other thing…?”

“Do you ever feel over your head?” Peter asked, picking at his own breakfast.

“Uh,” Miles said, eyebrows raised. “I kind of swing around New York City in spandex, kicking thirty-foot-monsters in the face, so, yeah. Sometimes, I guess.”

“Yeah, I did too,” Peter said. “When I was your age, I always felt like I was treading water, just trying to keep my head above it. I was always leaping headfirst into situations that I should never, ever have gone at alone.”

At the time it had seemed like his only choice, and maybe it had been, but Peter didn’t want Miles to feel that way. Not ever.

“So in that Webware watch is my phone number,” Peter said, “along with the numbers of every person in this community I trust to drop everything and rush over if someone needs them. And it’s not that I don’t trust you, Miles. You’re the most competent kid I know. You kicked my ass that one time.”

Miles’ smile curved, slowly, at the corners of his mouth. “Yeah I did.”

“Yeah,” Peter laughed. “You definitely did. So this is not about not trusting you, or treating you like a kid. This is about making sure you have options. You ever feel like you need to, you call any of those numbers and you’ll have backup.”

“Okay,” Miles said softly, strapping the Webware watch onto his wrist. “I promise. Thanks, Peter.”

“No problem,” Peter said. “The watch part is useful, too – I think you’ve got just enough time to swing over to your school.”

Miles glanced at the watch and made a face, then started digging around in his pockets. Peter held up a hand.

“Go,” he said, grinning. “The constantly being late to class thing is one piece of my history I definitely don’t want you repeating.”

“You sure?” Miles said. The kid went to breakfast with a CEO and he still tried to fork over ten bucks for his lumberjack platter. Peter bit the inside of his cheek to keep from grinning.

“You can get me coffee sometime,” he said. “Seriously, go. I did enough crawling in through the gym windows to last us both a lifetime.”

“Okay, okay,” Miles said, scraping the last of his food off his plate. He grabbed his backpack and was halfway out the diner before he turned and grinned at Peter. “Thanks a lot, man. See you around later?”

“Don’t mention it,” Peter said. “And no, probably not. I’m catching a flight this afternoon.”

“Where to?” Miles asked.

“France,” Peter said.

“Eugh,” said Miles. “Snails.”

 


 

“Paris,” Johnny said, spreading his arms and tilting his face up towards the warm spring sun. “I love Paris – how did you know?”

“Where did you think I was going to take you when I said I had a surprise, Milwaukee? You love everything expensive,” Peter said, rolling his eyes. He was in a bad mood; he’d slept fitfully on the plane over and woken up disoriented. For one terrifying second, he felt like he couldn’t remember his own name. It felt like an echo, a crumbling building, blood on his face. Something real but not.

He still wondered: how much had Otto taken from him? Had he stolen things from Peter so thoroughly that Peter didn’t even know they were gone?

Johnny, in the next seat with his headphones on and definitely still not talking to Peter until he found out where they were going, hadn’t noticed. Peter thanked the universe daily for the little favors.

“I booked that hotel, too – you know, the one you told me Ben liked,” Peter said, trying to shake off the dream.

He bit his tongue as soon as he said it; Ben was always a volatile topic, these days.

Johnny just snorted, though. “He just liked it because the doorways were high enough he didn’t have to duck.”

Be here, Peter told himself. Be here, with Johnny. It was easier to remain grounded, with Johnny.

The hotel doorways truly were tall, the ceilings soaring, every single thing beautiful. Peter could see why Ben liked it. He’d booked himself and Johnny two rooms on the top floor; he wasn’t surprised at all when Johnny ignored his own and barged into Peter’s instead.

He was halfway through rummaging through Peter’s bag when he looked up and said, “I really do like this place.”

“Yeah,” Peter said, a little thrown. He’d been checking his e-mail, idly throwing insults back whenever Johnny said something cutting. “I know you do. It’s why I picked it.”

Johnny smiled, and it was a different look than Peter was used to. Softer, a little fonder, completely open. “Thanks.”

Peter opened his mouth to say “any time” and found he couldn’t get the words out.

There was a knock at the door, so Peter, half-dressed but mostly decent, went to answer it. Anna Maria stood out in the hall, already dressed for the night out in navy blue with her Webware watch strapped prominently to her wrist.

“Hey, Pete,” she said, smiling at him. “I hope that’s not all you’re wearing.”

“I was planning on a beret,” he said.

“Don’t you dare,” she said. “But a jacket would probably help.”

“We’re having that debate right now,” Johnny called from where he was going through Peter’s luggage, making the occasional disgusted noise.

“Oh,” she said, blinking at Johnny. “You have company. I didn’t –” her eyes went wide with recognition. Peter had been waiting for that. “You’re the Human Torch.”

Instantly, Johnny’s smile was the winning one he wore for his adoring pubic.

“Hey,” he said, leaning forward with his hand outstretched. “Call me Johnny. Any friend of Peter’s, right?”

“Right,” Anna Maria said, sounding thrown for a loop as she put her own small hand in Johnny’s. “I’m just – I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m like this – you’re, oh my gosh, you’re even better looking in person.” She turned red. “I can’t believe I said that.”

“I get it a lot, actually,” Johnny said. He seemed amused, but the look he shot Peter was questioning.

“Anna Maria Marconi,” Peter said, gesturing to her. “Johnny Storm. Johnny, Anna Maria. Anna’s been a part of Parker Industries from the beginning.”

“So she is a friend,” Johnny said. To Anna Maria, he added, “It’s hard to tell with Pete, sometimes.”

“Mmm,” Anna Maria agreed, sliding her own look Peter’s way.

“Oh, ha ha, pick on Peter Parker,” Peter said. “And before either of you gets squirrely, bouncing around the issue – Anna Maria knows about Spider-Man.”

“That kind of a friend, then. I feel less and less special all the time,” Johnny said. He leaned back against the edge of the desk, head tilted to the side, and held out a jacket. “And here I was afraid you’d picked yourself another date. Here, wear this one.”

“Are you sure?” Peter asked. He took the jacket, shrugging it on, then held his arms out for the final word.

“Yeah,” Johnny said, nodding. He reached forward, adjusting the lapels. “I’m sure.”

“Sorry, Anna Maria,” Peter said, looking himself over the mirror. It was a good pick, highlighting the breadth of his shoulders in a way that made it look like he just spent a lot of time at the gym. He could see Anna in the reflection, staring at him with her eyebrows creased in a frown. “Almost ready.”

“No, that’s fine, I just… Peter?” Anna Maria said. “Can we have a word?”

“Ouch, there’s a tone,” said Johnny. He sat back on the edge of the bed, digging out his phone. “Don’t mind me. Gossip amongst yourselves.”

Anna Maria grimaced and manhandled Peter none too gently into the hall. She pulled the door shut and rounded on him. Peter automatically held his hands up in front of him, a pacifying gesture.

“Do you remember what we talked about months ago, when we decided to go ahead with Parker Industries after all?” Anna Maria asked, eyebrows drawn together. “That if there was anything that might pose a problem for the company, you needed to tell me upfront?”

“I remember your examples being mortifying,” Peter said. “Still haven’t hired any hookers, Anna.”

“No, but the Human Torch is out there in your hotel room,” Anna Maria hissed.

“I’m not having some torrid affair,” Peter said, rubbing at his forehead. “He’s here as a friend, to keep me from gnawing my own arm off to escape. That’s it, I promise.”

“This is the second event you’ve brought him to. If there’s something the company needs to know…” Anna Maria said.

“He’s a friend,” Peter repeated. “A good – a great friend, probably my best one. I’ve known him since I was fifteen. That’s all.”

“You know you’re probably the only CEO with a tumblr following, right?” Anna Maria said, checking her watch. She still sounded doubtful. “But if you say there’s nothing the company needs to know…”

“We’re just friends,” Peter said. “What’s a tumblr?”

Anna Maria sighed. “That’s not the important part. You get that, right?”

“Is it an internet thing?” Peter asked. He winked. “Because I’m pretty great on the web.”

“Were you – you were building to that,” Anna Maria said. “Whoever let you think you were funny is the real supervillain.”

“Thank you, thank you, I’m here all week,” Peter said with a flourish. Anna Maria rolled her eyes. “Seriously, he’s just – he’s my best friend.”

“Well, whatever you say, Slick,” Anna Maria said, and then froze. Her hand flew to her mouth. It took Peter a moment to catch on, and revulsion crept up on him when he did, oily in the back of his throat.

“Was that –” he started, but couldn’t finish. Guilt followed fast on revulsion’s heels: it wasn’t Anna Maria’s fault. He had no right to blame her when she was in exactly the same boat as him.

“Something I called my - called Otto Octavius?” Anna Maria said, looking a little horrified at the slip. Her Peter, she’d been about to say, because it wasn’t enough for Otto to take his body, he had to take his name, his life, his family. He had to give parts of Peter away to strangers. “Yep.”

“Oh,” Peter said. “I – Anna Maria –”

“Can we just forget I said that?” Anna Maria said, grim-faced.

They had never talked about it, really. He’d explained everything, and she’d baked, and they’d returned the ring and he’d given her the cash and then they’d just continued on with Otto as the elephant in the room.

Peter knew they should talk about it, that they should have talked about it ages ago, but he desperately didn’t want to.

“Of course,” he said. Anna Maria’s smile was small and relieved. “It never happened.”

None of it had ever happened. That was the name of the game.

“Thank you,” she said, her smile relieved.

She unlocked the door and slipped through it. Peter took a moment to just breathe before he followed her.

Johnny didn’t look up from his phone when Anna Maria and Peter came back into the room. “Hey, kids. Done talking about me?”

“We were discussing company business,” Anna Maria lied smoothly. Peter might have even believed her, if she hadn’t chewed him out of over his celebrity friend-date a minute before.

“Uh-huh,” said Johnny. “Look, Anna Maria, I’ve been the Human Torch since I was sixteen. This is so far from the first time a date’s been given the publicity talk it isn’t even funny. But I promise, whatever you’ve heard about me, I would never do anything to embarrass Peter or cause him any problems.”

Peter stifled a cough with a fist, eyebrows sky high.

“In public, anyway,” Johnny added, shooting him an amused look.

“I,” Anna Maria said, looking surprised. “Of course. I’m sorry.”

“He mostly only plays an airhead on TV,” Peter told her. Anna Maria gave him a sharp look.

“At least strap a Webware watch on him,” she said. “Let him do some advertising for us.”

“We had this fight already,” Peter said. “Trust me, we’re not going to win it.”

“It clashes,” Johnny said, smirking.

“Oh, this is going to be trouble,” Anna Maria said to herself. “This is going to be a lot of trouble.”

“Always,” Peter teased, sharing a grin with Johnny.

“Right,” she said, heading for the door. “I’ll be in the lobby. You guys have ten minutes to finish getting ready or I’m coming back up here.”

“I like her,” Johnny said once the door had closed.

“Well, good, because she’s the only reason my company’s still standing,” Peter said. He still felt off-kilter from Anna Maria’s slip: Whatever you say, Slick.

Slick like an oil spill, Peter thought, hand at his own throat, and just as damaging.

He wondered if Johnny would’ve realized if he had been around for Otto’s switch, if Reed or Sue or Ben would’ve seen it. To him it had seemed so obvious, lurking outside himself while Otto pulled the string: This isn’t how I sound. This isn’t what I do.

He wondered if they could have fixed it, put him back, or if they’d have been fooled just like everyone else. But that wasn’t a fair thing to wonder about.

Johnny touched his shoulder. “Pete? You okay?”

Peter turned to look at him, taking it all in: Johnny’s familiar face, the features he’d recognize anywhere. The idea that Johnny could have looked at Otto and not instantly known that it wasn’t Peter in there was like ice in his veins.

“I’m fine,” Peter said, forcing a smile. The naked concern on Johnny’s face didn’t budge. “Honestly, Johnny. I’m okay.”

“Okay,” Johnny echoed. He didn’t look like he believed him. There were downsides, sometimes, to how well Johnny knew him. “Come on, finish getting dressed. As much as I kind of want to see what she’d do to you if you’re late, I don’t want to get caught in the crossfire.”

“Okay,” Peter echoed, breathing out slow. One foot in front of the other, Peter Parker, he told himself. Just one foot in front of the other. “Give me five.”

 


 

“Mr. Parker?”

Peter turned and came face to face with a tall man with sandy brown hair and very white teeth. He looked familiar, but to be honest Peter had met a lot of tall men with brown hair and very white teeth over the past few months. They all started to blend after a while.

He hesitated a split second too long and the man laughed, a polished, moneyed sound, the kind that inevitably threw Peter.

“It’s Belrose,” he said, extending his hand. His handshake was firm, but the benefits of the proportional strength of a spider: Peter’s was always firmer. “Archie Belrose. We met at that conference in San Diego, do you remember?”

“Right, right,” Peter said, shaking his hand. “That was, what, two months ago? You’re the clean energy guy.”

Belrose laughed again. Peter didn’t particularly like him, but he’d liked his ideas, and in the past year he’d learned that was what counted. Personalities you could set your teeth and ignore; intention was everything.

“I’m trying to be, anyway,” he said. “Lord knows nobody makes it easy for me. Is this your date?”

Johnny had come up behind Peter, holding two glasses: one champagne and one ginger ale. He handed Peter his drink and extended his hand.

“John Storm,” he said. Peter glanced at him – not many people got ‘John’ – as Belrose took Johnny’s hand. “Nice to meet you, Mister…?”

“Belrose,” he said, and then, with a hot stab of emotion Peter didn’t recognize at first, he raised Johnny’s hand to his lips. Johnny watched with a quirked eyebrow. “Call me Archie. And you’re the famous Human Torch, of course. I didn’t recognize you.”

“Well I’m not on fire right now,” Johnny said. “That tends to speed things up.”

Belrose dropped Johnny’s hand. Peter’s urge to hit him stayed exactly where it was.

“What do you do, Mr. Belrose?” Johnny asked. He tucked his hand, conspicuously, at Peter’s elbow. Peter shot him a curious look, but didn’t shrug out of Johnny’s hold.

“Oh, this and that. I have many hobbies,” Belrose said. “At the moment I’m interested in clean energy, which is why I’ve taken such an interest in your career over the years.”

“Oh?” Johnny said.

“If you don’t mind my asking, Mr. Storm,” Belrose said, smiling his million dollar smile, “just how hot do you burn?”

Johnny laughed, shrugging. “The science isn’t my area, sorry. I just do the burning.”

“Forgive me. It’s a point of curiosity,” he said. “I did a little guesstimating, myself, and I figure at your peak you burn about –”

“Too hot for you,” Johnny cut him off, smirking.

Belrose laughed, and it was perfectly polished. “I doubt that, Mr. Storm. Mr. Parker. Enjoy your evening.”

“Well,” Johnny said, watching as Belrose walked away. “Always nice to meet an admirer.”

Peter snorted, loosening his tie. He felt about ready to come out of his skin. “I’m sure. Hey, listen – want to get out of here?”

“Desperately,” Johnny said, tossing the rest of his drink back. “Highway or sky way?”

 


 

One suit change later and they were off.

This was it. This was real – no tech, no planes, trains or automobiles. Just his body – just him, soaring, with Johnny streaking along beside him, lighting up the sky. Every cell in Peter’s body sang with pure joy.

“We should race!” he called out. “You want to race?”

“I could race,” Johnny said, floating alongside him on his back. Peter took a moment to admire the flickering lines of him, his arched back and long legs, the sparks in his eyes. “Where to?”

“The Eiffel Tower?” Peter suggested.

Johnny threw his head back laughing. “Are we that predictable?”

“Our usual place is the Statue of Liberty, Sparky,” Peter said.

“Point taken,” Johnny said, and then he was off like a shot. Peter shouted in mock outrage, swinging after him, pushing himself further, faster. There was no way he could catch up to Johnny if Johnny didn’t want him to, but the exertion of trying - faster, higher - was the best thing he’d felt in ages.

Thank you, he thought up at the sky. Thank you for letting me have this again.

“Last one there owes me a crepe!” Johnny shouted at him. He put on a burst of speed, truly taking off. Peter yelled out an insult, but it was hard to get out through his laughter. He hadn’t known how much he’d missed this.

“You cheated,” he accused when he caught up to Johnny. Johnny was sitting on one of the Eiffel Tower’s girders, and he patted the space next to him. Peter settled down, thankful not for the first time that Johnny shared his love of heights. “That was filthy. No crepe for you.”

“You take off to Paris with an eccentric billionaire and he won’t even buy you a crepe,” Johnny mocked, faking a pout.

“Ridiculous,” Peter told him, knocking their shoulders together. “Ridiculous. I should have taken someone who appreciates me, like Kraven or the Shocker.”

“Oh, definitely the Shocker,” Johnny said. “I hear he puts out.”

“And you don’t?” Peter said, laughing.

“I could,” Johnny said, his head tilted to the side. He wasn’t laughing, and suddenly neither was Peter. “For the right person.”

Peter almost swallowed his tongue. For once, he had no words. It didn’t matter, though, because Johnny was already on the next subject.

“Do you know one time I was up here because Paris had been turned into a boneyard city?” Johnny said, tilting his head back and closing his eyes.

“Sounds like fun,” Peter said. Johnny cracked a grin.

“You know, at the time it didn’t,” he said. “But now I’d kill to have a day like that again – plummeting from one dangerous situation to another, tuning out Reed’s explanation of what was going on, waiting to melt something. I didn’t know how good I had it.”

Peter breathed in deep, flexing his fingers. “I know what you mean.”

“Vive le Fantastique!” Johnny shouted into the night. Quieter, he added, “So much for that.” He kicked his legs out, trailing sparks as he rocked forward, breathing in the warm night air. “Did you ever think this was where we’d end up?”

“In Paris?” Peter said. “Nope, I was pretty sure I’d be on a No Fly list by now.”

“Cute,” Johnny said, snorting. “You know what I mean.”

“Do I?” Peter asked. He felt restless. He stood, balancing on his toes, and then flipped, swinging himself in a perfect circle and catching himself in a handstand. Johnny pushed at his side, ineffectually trying to tip him over. Peter didn’t let himself so much as sway.

“Here,” Johnny said, gesturing out at Paris beneath them. “This. Our lives. Did you ever think we’d end up here?”

“No,” Peter answered honestly, suppressing a shudder. He swung himself around again, letting go of the girder so he could flip. He landed, crouched on the tips of his toes, next to Johnny. “Can’t say I did.”

“Well,” Johnny breathed. He gave Peter a sideways smile. “Guess it hasn’t worked out so bad for you, Mr. Rich Guy.”

“Mm,” Peter said, noncommittal. He set his jaw. “It won’t be like this forever.”

Johnny breathed out, running hot again – steam curled up into the air. “You know how many times I told myself that? Now… I don’t know. I’m here with you. That’s not nothing, right?”

“No,” Peter agreed. It definitely felt like something, all the way up here with Johnny so close they were almost touching.

Peter looked at him, at the full lips set in a slight frown, the sharp curve of his jaw, the way his hair fell across his forehead. He fit all the dazzling lights around them, warm like sunshine even in the middle of the night.

“Beautiful,” Peter said before he could stop himself.

“Yeah, I love it here,” Johnny said, lips easing into a tiny smile as he stared down at the city beneath them.

“You could stay,” Peter said. He saw it in his mind’s eye: Johnny in some apartment, set up with a garage somewhere, working on cars or just doing whatever he wanted to do. He could have all the time he wanted, long mornings spent sleeping in the way Johnny had always liked to, hair a soft halo against the pillowcase.

In Peter’s traitorous mind, it was like some perfect movie: Crisp white sheets, the smell of fresh coffee, bright sunlight spilling across the floors. He’d take the red eye flight in and wake Johnny up himself, braced over him on his hands.

No supervillains, no world-ending disasters. Just the soft scrape of his stubble against Johnny’s.

It blindsided him, the sharp stab of want. Oh, Peter thought to himself. Oh, that explained it all: the constant need to fix Johnny’s problems, to keep him by his side. He could have laughed, except it really wasn’t funny.

“With what money?” Johnny asked him, quirking an eyebrow.

With mine, Peter almost said, but he nearly swallowed his own tongue at the idea. Johnny didn’t seem to notice; he leaned forward, flames dancing at the tips his hair and a heat shimmer in the air.

“Ready to get out of here?” Peter asked him.

“Maybe. Hey, Pete,” Johnny said, turning to him with a soft smile brighter than all the lights in Paris combined. “It’s not late. Want to get dinner?”

Johnny’s French was awful, but Peter’s wasn’t much better. They ended up stumbling through the menu of a restaurant Johnny swore by together, laughing.

“No snails!” Peter said.

“They’re good!” Johnny protested. “Okay, okay. But you’re a philistine. I just want you to know that.”

“I know and accept it,” Peter said. “No snails.”

“I just wanted to see your face,” Johnny admitted, laughing.

Johnny got wine; Peter got water, but he felt drunk anyway when Johnny’s foot knocked against his ankle under the table and lingered.

They traded bad jokes and good stories. Johnny sounded happy, really and truly – when he talked about his family there was nothing in his tone but affection. Peter hadn’t heard him mention Ben without a thread of anger in months. Johnny hadn’t been able to speak about Sue or Reed or the kids since the disappearance without breaking Peter’s heart.

“Do you know what I’ve been thinking about all night?” Johnny asked after the food was finished.

“That there aren’t nearly enough mirrored surfaces around for you to check your reflection in?” Peter guessed. Johnny snorted.

“I’m thinking about the time I took Darla Deering to the Negative Zone for dinner,” Johnny said, head tilted to the side. He smiled at Peter over the top of his glass, embers in his eyes. “I was trying so hard to impress her.”

“Ouch, overkill,” Peter laughed, shaking his head. “That poor girl.”

“Hey, you’re the one who flew me to Paris in your private plane,” Johnny said. “I mean, it’s no parallel plane of existence, but. You know you don’t have to work that hard to impress me, right?”

“I don’t?” Peter said.

This was an old game, too – flirting with each other. It was always playful, no real intent behind it. At least, there hadn’t been before.

Johnny’s smile was the open, honest one he’d worn earlier that evening in the hotel. Something had changed, like Peter’s silent realization had been the spark to light the fire.

“Pete,” he said. “You already got me. Hey. Let’s go back to my room, alright?”

 


 

Johnny kissed him in the elevator. It was gentle – Peter hadn’t expected that. He’d assumed Johnny would be all fireworks right out of the gate, but the press of his lips against Peter’s was soft and unhurried, hand cupped feather light against Peter’s cheek.

“You had no idea, huh?” Johnny breathed. “How long I’ve been waiting to do that?”

“None,” Peter answered honestly, chasing Johnny’s mouth, the taste of the wine he’d had with dinner, the softness of his lips. “Enlighten me?”

“A long time,” Johnny said, knocking their noses together, always playful. Peter caught him in a kiss again and Johnny smiled against his mouth. “I’m kind of tired of waiting for things, Pete.”

“Okay,” Peter agreed as they stumbled out of the elevator together, reluctant to break away even for a second. Johnny fumbled for his room key; Peter fumbled for Johnny. “No more waiting.”

Johnny shoved him back against the door as soon as it was closed, his mouth over Peter’s, pushing Peter’s jacket from his shoulders. It fell with a soft noise to the floor as Johnny ran his hands up Peter’s chest and sucked at his lower lip.

“What about Medusa?” Peter asked, breathless.

“We, uh, we broke up,” Johnny said. He laughed a little, but not like it was funny. “Probably for the best, right? Black Bolt threatened to snuff me out. Pretty literally. Can we not talk about my ex right now?”

Peter felt giddy. Everything about Johnny, how close he was, how hot he was – it went straight to his head.

“Not talk?” he said, kicking off his shoes. Johnny’s arms were already around Peter’s neck; it was easy to swing him up in his arms, one hand under his knees, the other braced to catch them as he somersaulted up and over, literally bouncing off the walls.

How long had it been since he’d done this? Far too long. Johnny’s laughter rang off the walls as Peter’s feet hit the ceiling hard enough to rattle the chandelier. He held them there, caught upside down like a pair of bats as Johnny whooped, laughing.

“How’s that for not talking?” Peter asked.

“Surprisingly chatty,” Johnny said. “But I like it anyway.”

Peter let them drop, twisting in midair so he took the brunt of the impact – his back hit the soft mattress and they bounced, rolling in the soft sheets. They tumbled almost over the edge, stopping last second with Peter braced above Johnny.

Johnny’s bright eyes sparkled, his grin breathtaking. Peter had always known Johnny was beautiful, but knowing it and having it hit him like this were two different things. Very carefully, like he was afraid he’d break the moment, he raised up a hand to brush a lock of Johnny’s hair back from his forehead.

“I’ve got some rules, too, Mr. Let’s Not Talk About All My Shocking and Famous Love Affairs,” he said.

“Rules, huh? Lay ‘em on me, boss man.” He twined his arms around Peter’s neck and kissed him long and deep, mouth sweet and hot. His long, lean body pressed hard up against Peter’s, and for one moment Peter forgot how words worked.

“Clowns,” he said.

“What?” Johnny said, laughing. Peter could feel his chest shake with it, which threw him all over again.

“I can’t talk about clowns in bed,” Peter said, trying to keep his face serious. “If I picture ten men getting out of a tiny car – that’s it, cold shower, I’m out.”

“Oh,” said Johnny. “Too bad. I can’t get off without wearing a rainbow wig.”

It was the last straw: Peter pictured it and burst out laughing, too, slumping over Johnny.

“Oh my god, Torch,” he said against Johnny’s collarbones. “Oh my god. Do you know what I’d pay for those pictures?”

“Where do we start the bidding?” Johnny asked. His arms came up and around Peter, just holding him while Peter snickered. Peter smothered a smile against Johnny’s shirt, closing his eyes briefly as he thought, oh, this is what it feels like.

He’d forgotten just how good the truly great moments could be: he and Johnny, in a beautiful city Johnny loved, wrapped around each other and laughing.

What had he told Gwen, once? That he felt like himself when he was with Johnny – the best version of himself.

He raised himself up on his elbows, staring down at Johnny. He was golden in the bedside lamp light; when he caught Peter staring he started snickering, which set Peter off again too.

“We have got to stop laughing,” Peter said, even as his shoulders shook with it and Johnny twisted under him, onto his side, burying his face in the pillows and laughing helplessly. “Johnny, stop laughing, come on.”

“I can’t,” Johnny said, smothering his smile against the pillowcase. Peter took him by the shoulder and rolled him back over. Johnny’s hair, so perfect at the start of the evening, was everywhere, that crisp shirt rumpled, and Peter couldn’t stop looking at him and thinking, I did that. “I can never stop laughing with you, Pete.”

Peter loved him. He loved him so much he didn’t know what to do with it, so he kissed him again. Johnny made a quiet noise, mouth open and obliging. He curled his fingers into the crisp fabric of Peter’s shirt and tugged until Peter broke away.

“Medusa and I fought about you,” he said, a quiet confession. There were embers deep in his eyes. “She thought it was unseemly – that was her word, she’s always regal like that – the way I followed you around, trying to get your attention.”

“You were trying to get my attention?” Peter asked, frowning. Johnny laughed, cuffing him over the back of his head.

“You didn’t even notice!” he said, pulling Peter down to kiss him again. “Idiot. Of course I was. I would’ve jumped naked out of a cake if I thought you would look up.”

“What flavor cake are we talking?” Peter asked, working at the buttons on Johnny’s shirt, pushing it open to reveal warm skin and hard muscle. “Vanilla, no dice.”

He pushed the shirt from Johnny’s shoulders, running an appreciative hand down his chest. He circled a nipple with his thumb, just to see if it was something Johnny liked. Johnny made a quiet noise, so Peter did it again.

“She said it wasn’t right, the way I trailed after you. That I was a queen’s consort, but I was acting like your slave.”

There was nothing in Peter’s veins but heat. He bent his head to kiss the dip between Johnny’s collarbones. “That’s the other way around.”

“She just wanted what was best for me,” Johnny said, in a tone of voice that said he didn’t believe Peter could be anything but the best. It was too much for Peter; he had to take a second to steady himself against the unshakable belief in Johnny’s voice.

“Thought we weren’t talking about exes in bed,” he said. He slid his hands to Johnny’s waist, squeezing lightly. “How do you want to do this?”

“My suitcase,” Johnny said, gesturing. He sat up a little, shrugging out of his shirt and starting on his belt as Peter tried to work out how he could lean halfway off the bed to reach it without ever letting go of Johnny. “There’s lube in the top zipper pocket.”

There was. Peter laughed, a little shaky, a little electric. On the bed Johnny’s eyes were bright and his lips were kiss swollen. Peter had seen his naked chest half a dozen times before but he’d never really taken the time to appreciate it, all hard muscle.

“How much did you plan this?” he asked, leaning back over Johnny. Johnny met him with a kiss, open-mouthed. His hands fumbled between them, working at Peter’s belt. Peter’s whole body thrummed. “You’re really hot.”

“Now you notice,” Johnny said. “I wouldn’t say it was planning, more like – wishful thinking.”

Peter laughed again, like there was anything funny. There was too much emotion in his chest; he couldn’t contain it. He pushed Johnny down on the mattress, kissing the dip between his collarbones, his sternum, down to his stomach. “Just call me your very own personal genie, then.”

“What do I have to rub before I get my three wishes?” Johnny shot back, a breathless little hitch in his voice when Peter sucked a kiss to his stomach, urging Johnny’s hips up so he could work Johnny’s pants off his lean hips. Underneath his underwear was tight and black, soft to the touch.

“Up,” Johnny said, pushing at his shoulders. “Let me get these off.”

Peter took one giddy second to wish he’d worn something sexier as he shrugged out of his own shirt and lost his pants with all the skill and speed he’d learned through over a dozen years of quick changes. Johnny didn’t seem to mind, his gaze sweeping down over Peter’s hard chest to where Peter was working his worn blue boxers off.

Then Johnny started laughing again, shoulders shaking with it, one hand actually cupped over his mouth to stifle the sound. He fell backwards against the bed, knees drawn up, laughing into his palm.

“I’m trying very hard not to be insulted here,” Peter said. He curled one hand around Johnny’s ankle and squeezed before he slid it up his calf, fingers resting featherlight at the hollow of Johnny’s knee.

“No, it’s not,” Johnny broke off, shaking his head, still laughing. At least he’d moved his hand up to his forehead. “You’re not funny.”

“And the hits keep coming!” He dragged Johnny towards him, rucking up the sheets in his wake until Peter could lean over him. Johnny was still laughing, snickers barely stifled by Peter’s mouth. “Not funny, huh?”

“The least funny person I know,” Johnny said. His eyes glimmered. “I used to dream about you not being funny.”

That was too much for Peter to hear. He put his forehead down against Johnny’s; every feeling in his chest was a supernova. “No pressure, huh? It’s been a while, with a guy.”

“Just with a guy?” Johnny asked, smirking. “You need instructions?”

Peter flipped him over onto his stomach, easy as turning over a pillow, and pinned him there. His cock pressed against Johnny as Peter whispered in his ear, “I think I’m okay. You okay?”

“Yeah,” Johnny said breathlessly. “I used to date an Atlantean. I like being thrown around.”

Peter filed that one away for future reference.

“But I want to see your face,” Johnny said, shifting under him, hips jerking against the sheets. Peter shifted so Johnny could roll over, spread out long and lean on white sheets. Peter took him in, all the familiar sights – Johnny’s hands, callused from working in the garage, and the familiar glimmer in his eyes that promised trouble for Peter – and the new ones, too. The hard cock straining towards his stomach, the curve of his ass, the way he looked lying under Peter.

He’d known Johnny half his life, and it still seemed incredible to him that Johnny never stopped finding new ways to drive him crazy. He opened his mouth to tell him that, but Johnny cut him off, leaning up to kiss him.

“Talking’s bad, Pete,” Johnny said, biting at his lip, sucking at it. He let go with a wet pop, setting back against the pillows. His hips shifted, his legs fell open. “You should fuck me already.”

“Your wish, my command,” Peter said, laughing shakily.

Everything felt like a dream. He hiked Johnny’s leg up high, one hand stroking soft skin and the other teasing slick little circles. Johnny was all heat when he pressed in, an inferno. Peter shivered, and for the first time Johnny tensed.

“What?” he asked.

“You know what,” Peter grinned. “You’re so hot.”

Johnny didn’t laugh, though. “I can turn my temperature down if it’s too much –”

“Shh, I like it. You’re perfect,” Peter said, remembering all over again this side to Johnny, always worrying about everyone else. He focused on the slick slide of his fingers inside Johnny as Johnny relaxed again, biting his lip.

“It’s maybe been a while for me, too,” Johnny admitted after a moment, in between the quiet little noises that had Peter doubling his efforts, desperate to hear more. “With a guy. Well.” He huffed a laugh. “With a human guy.”

“Save the story, pretty boy,” Peter said, squeezing his thigh. Johnny made a noise, cock twitching against his stomach; Peter filed that information away for later.

“Like you better,” Johnny said. He tightened around Peter’s fingers and it went straight to Peter’s cock; he groaned. “I’m good, c’mon –”

“Okay,” Peter said, slicking himself up. He lined them up, hiking Johnny’s leg higher. The head of his cock pressed blunt against Johnny; he felt a little like he did standing at the top of the Empire State Building, preparing to dive. “Okay, okay, okay…”

“Fuck,” Johnny muttered when Peter slid in slowly with quiet little gasp. His hand was at his own cock; Peter covered Johnny’s fingers with his own, squeezing gently as he started to thrust.

Johnny made a broken noise, biting his lip.

“You’re good?” Peter asked. Johnny nodded fervently.

“Yeah, I’m good, I’m – you’re great,” he said, laughing. “Geez, Spidey.”

Johnny was gorgeous, eyes closed, heat in his cheeks that Peter had put there. He apparently didn’t sweat, but their skin stuck together with Peter’s. They could have been doing this for years, Peter realized. Years looking at Johnny like this, feeling him like this. Making Johnny moan.

“Like what you see?” Johnny asked, laughing shakily as he pushed one hand up into his hair, leveling Peter with a look that was nothing short of smoldering.

“Don’t fish for compliments,” he said, finding a rhythm. “You know what you look like.”

Johnny nodded. “I know what you look like, too.”

Peter barked a laugh. “Oh yeah? It’s a little too late to ask me to put the mask on.”

“I used to,” Johnny broke off with a harsh intake of breath. “I used to wonder what you looked like under the mask. Before I knew.”

Peter swallowed hard, steadying himself. “Picturing a young Robert Redford, huh? Disappointed much?”

“It wasn’t like that,” Johnny said. “I knew the basics, more or less – that costume of yours got ripped up enough. Brown hair, brown eyes… but I don’t know, I guess I just thought about. Your nose?”

“My nose?” Peter said, startled into a laugh.

“I could never really make it out under the mask,” Johnny said, voice breaking on a moan. “Do that again.”

“My nose, seriously, you couldn’t think of any sexier part of my face –”

“Well I could guess about your smart mouth,” Johnny. “Peter, come on—”

My smart mouth?” he said, thrusting deeper. Johnny made a desperate, filthy noise, eyelashes fluttering. He twisted his free hand in the sheets.

“Peter,” he gasped out. “Pete, harder.”

Far be it from Peter to deny Johnny Storm anything. When Peter thrust back into him Johnny threw his head back and moaned.

It was too much; the hot greedy clutch of Johnny’s body, the sounds he made, the way he urged Peter deeper, faster. He only managed to hold out until Johnny came, spilling hot over his fingers, and then Peter was coming too, the whole world narrowing down to just the feel of Johnny, the faded scent of his cologne, the way he kept repeating Peter’s name over and over.

The room rang with silence for a long moment as Peter came back to himself; tingling fingers and toes, the soft warm press of Johnny’s skin against his. The only sound was their mismatched breathing and Johnny’s soft, mournful noise as Peter slipped out of him.

Then Johnny curled his fingers in the sweaty hair at the back of Peter’s neck and tugged. He cracked a grin.

“Okay, I have to admit it,” he said, eyes falling shut, “all these years I really thought you were overcompensating.”

Peter burst out laughing again, kissing Johnny’s eyelids, the space by his nose, all over his face.

“Yeah, well, back at you,” he said. “Wow.”

“Wow,” Johnny echoed, laughing, catching Peter’s face between his hands to kiss him slow and deep. Peter rolled them over carefully, hands at Johnny’s waist, just enjoying this – the feel of Johnny against him, the deeply satisfied hum in his chest. “Okay, I’m starving.”

Peter burst out laughing, slumping back against the criminally soft bed. Johnny’s hot mouth slid down to his neck, nipping and sucking.

“Hey, billionaire,” he hummed. “Work your magic, find me some fries, would you? I’ll make it worth your while.”

That was how they ended the night: lying naked in Johnny’s huge hotel bed together, stealing fries and taking turns badly narrating the French movie Johnny had found on TV, laughing at each other. Johnny’s eyes shone in the dark.

Peter wanted to tell him – what, that he loved him? That he was perfect? Johnny knew. Johnny had to know. He opened his mouth and no words came out.

They fucked a second time instead, slower this time, dragging it out, making it last.

“You doing anything tomorrow?” Johnny asked after, yawning around the words. He grabbed Peter’s hand and pulled his arm over his waist, shifting back against him, impossibly close. His hair tickled Peter’s nose. He wouldn’t have moved for the world.

“There’s a meeting before we fly back,” Peter said. He kissed the back of Johnny’s neck, just because he could.

“Skip it,” Johnny said, squeezing Peter’s hand. “Come enjoy Paris with me.”

Peter couldn’t. He had the meeting. The important meeting, the meeting they’d flown in for, and he’d missed a half a dozen other important meetings. He really, really shouldn’t.

Anna Maria was going to murder him.

“Want to see where I fell from space last time I was here?” Peter whispered in Johnny’s ear.

“Sure,” Johnny said. Peter knew he was grinning, even in the dark. “You want to see where we stopped Paris from being invaded by creatures from another world?”

“You always have to one-up me, don’t you,” Peter said, closing his eyes. The sheer warmth of Johnny was dragging him under, lulling him to sleep. It was ridiculous, how he couldn’t stop smiling.

“It’s not your fault I am so extremely interesting,” Johnny told him, squeezing his wrist again. He shifted once more, sighing, and said, “Good night, Pete.”

“Good night, Johnny,” Peter said, smiling against his skin.

 


 

Peter slept better than he had in months, for the first few hours. Then one dream melted into another, and once again he found himself just outside his body, watching the scene: his own features twisted, the unfamiliar smirk on his face. Johnny’s hair shone in the sun, bright like the edge of his smile.

In the dream, Johnny turned toward him. In the dream, Johnny leaned in close to kiss him. In the dream, Johnny never saw Otto and his cruel arms coming.

Peter woke with a hoarse cry. There was a pained hiss from next to him that he couldn’t place, not until there were warm hands prying his own away. He clutched at the sheets, desperate to hang onto something, anything.

“What?” Johnny said, twisting towards him, eyes huge in the dark. He grabbed him by the shoulders. “Pete, what the hell?” Then, softer, and somehow worse, “Hey, hey. You’re okay, I got you. Whatever it was, it was just a dream.”

He reached out, like he was going to brush Peter’s hair back from his forehead. Peter saw double: Johnny, reaching out to him. Otto, using Johnny’s love against him.

Otto, hurting Johnny the way he’d hurt Flash, Felicia, Mary Jane, Kaine.

Peter wrenched himself away from Johnny’s hands, scrambling off the bed. The only thing that kept him from tripping over his own feet was his heightened balance; he felt unsteady, sick. His hands shook. His hands, not Otto’s.

It was just a dream, he told himself. It didn’t matter how real it had felt.

“Pete?” Johnny said, sitting up. The sheets slipped from him, revealing toned chest and long legs. Peter looked at him and, like an overlay, saw a metal arm around his throat, metal arms pinning his wrists and ankles. Worse yet, he saw his own hands, his strength freed from his own control.

He looked away, breathing hard. He couldn’t seem to get enough air.

The bed creaked. Johnny’s feet met the floor with a soft noise. Peter steeled himself for the warm hands on his shoulders, but he still jumped. Johnny made shushing noises, rubbing at his arms.

“Peter?” he said, so warm against Peter’s back. He kissed Peter’s shoulder softly. “Tell me what’s wrong?”

Peter made himself step away, made himself turn and look at Johnny, alive and whole and here. Johnny, who had never been touched by Peter’s hands while Otto Octavius wielded them. Then he hit the light and saw it: the ugly new bruise at Johnny’s hip, where Peter’s hand had rested while they slept.

He’d done that. It took him a split second to realize it, and when it hit him it came with a sickening lurch. He’d never accidentally hurt anyone in bed before, not Felicia or Carlie or Mary Jane. Not Harry, fumbling once in college. He’d done it in his sleep, he realized. He’d done it while dreaming. He hadn’t meant to do it, but he had.

Otto was gone (he told himself Otto was gone) and still he found ways to use Peter’s body to hurt everyone he loved.

He remembered Johnny hissing in pain as he bolted awake. A thousand times worse, he remembered trying desperately to control his own hands while Otto’s mind lay sleeping.

He felt sick.

“I made a mistake.”

He heard the words before he registered that he’d said them. Johnny went very, very still.

“What?” he said. His voice broke on the word. Peter shut his eyes, turning away again. “Peter—“

“I should go,” Peter said, putting his forehead down against the cold window. He could see Johnny’s reflection in the glass, the confused way his eyebrows drew together. He took a step forward, hands held out, like he was going to touch Peter.

Peter stepped away from him before he could, shoulders up.

“What?” Johnny said again, with a look on his face Peter couldn’t decipher. Angry, maybe confused.

Peter’s head pounded. There was a hole in his chest.

His clothes were on the floor. He stepped into his boxers, grabbing his shirt from the ground.

“I’m sorry,” he said, honestly. “I’m sorry, I – this is me, Johnny, this isn’t you.”

He needed to get out. He needed air. He needed to be up high. He needed to be the Peter Parker from before.

“I don’t understand,” Johnny said, starting to look angry now.

Good, Peter thought. Better angry than sad.

He reached forward, grabbing Johnny’s hand. Johnny grabbed back, trying to pull Peter towards him, eyebrows creased in concern. But, like always, Peter was stronger – that was the problem. He squeezed Johnny’s fingers, and then he let go.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and then he slipped out the door.

 


 

Johnny was gone the next morning. Peter wasn’t surprised.

The woman at the hotel desk told him that Johnny had left in the early morning hours; Peter, who had been feeling sorry for himself on a rooftop, tried hard not to think about it, told her thank you, and went up to his room to grab a shower and a change of clothes.

He was late to the meeting in the end, of course. He’d always figured he would be – but twelve hours before he thought it would be because he had Johnny Storm laid out in his luxurious hotel bed with his cock in Peter’s mouth.

Instead Johnny had left, doubtlessly furious, and now Peter was alone, running on next to no sleep, still feeling sick and shaky. When he looked in the mirror he thought, for one heart-stopping second, he saw Otto’s face looking back.

“Get it together,” he told himself, pressing a hand to his eyes. “People depend on you, Parker.”

Anna Maria knew as soon as she saw him. He knew she would – but where he was expecting a long, uncomfortable meeting of her staring daggers in him, she caught him by the wrist and tugged him down the hall before anyone else took notice.

“Ms. Marconi! So forward –” Peter protested as Anna Maria shoved him through a bathroom door.

“Oh, stop!” she hissed. “Stop with the jokes, and the stupid – I asked you! I asked you if there anything going on between you and the Human Torch.”

“What?” Peter said.

Anna Maria threw her hands in the air, shaking them like she wanted to strangle Peter. “I said, is there anything going on between you, and you told me no, don’t be stupid, Anna! And then you waltz in late this morning looking like you haven’t slept all night, and that mark on your neck! What is he, fifteen and part vacuum cleaner?”

“Oh,” Peter said, turning to the mirror. He touched his fingers to his throat, where his askew collar failed to hide the evidence of last night.

There were dark circles under his eyes. He’d obviously forgotten to comb his hair. He really did look terrible. He sighed, turning on the sink and splashing water on his face while Anna continued to mime his elaborate murder.

“Oh?” she said. “That’s all you have to say?”

“It’s been a very long night, Anna. I’m not in the mood for this,” he said, shaking his head. After he’d left Johnny’s room wearing half his suit he’d hit the streets and just – walked. For hours. He hadn’t been able to go back to the hotel, not with Johnny so close and Peter, a possible walking time bomb, unable to touch him the way they both wanted.

“Too bad,” she said, eyes blazing. “We knew from the start that if this was going to work we needed to be completely honest with each other! You don’t know anything about what Peter – what he,” she forcibly corrected herself. Peter hands clenched around the edge of the metal countertop; he had to ease up before he broke it, “worked on, what he built. You don’t know anything about business, and we still agreed that we were going to go ahead, because everyone had poured so much money into it already, and now I’m here looking like an idiot because you’re too busy screwing the Human Torch –”

“Don’t,” Peter said, turning around. “Don’t talk about him, Anna, I’m serious.”

“I don’t want to hear it!” Anna Maria said. “Don’t lie to me! People keep lying to me! I asked you if there was anything going on between you and you lied to me --”

“I didn’t!” Peter snapped back. “It wasn’t a lie. Last night was the first time. Anyway, it won’t happen again. He left.”

He closed his eyes and let his back hit the wall with a rattling thump, hard enough to really feel the impact in his shoulders. His rubbed at his forehead.

“Oh,” Anna Maria said after a beat, quietly.

“So it’s,” Peter said, waving a hand in vague circles. “It’s nothing for the company to worry about. Their CEO isn’t seeing any famous superheroes.”

There was a long pause, and then Anna Maria’s hand touched his wrist gently. “Okay.”

“Okay?” he echoed, laughing. Nothing was okay.

“Okay,” Anna Maria repeated. “Wash your face again and then let’s get you some coffee. Pour enough in you and I’m sure you’ll stay awake for the next meeting. You can do that, can’t you, Peter?”

Peter didn’t think could, actually. But he’d been doing things he thought would break him for years, so what else was new.

“Yeah,” he said, exhaling. “Of course I can do that.”

 


 

Peter ran the numbers in his head on the flight back. He’d known Johnny long enough that he could do that, a sort of relationship math. Johnny would be incandescently, volcanically furious at first – but his temper had always burned fast.

Peter figured he was already past the “might actually set him on fire a little bit” phase and safely into the “don’t touch any metal surfaces; they will be hot” phase.

He knew Johnny’s new address, but he’d never been there. It wasn’t exactly what he’d pictured – not a dump by any stretch, but not exactly up to Johnny’s former standards of living. It looked painfully normal, something Peter had never, not once over more than a dozen years, associated with Johnny.

He also remembered, as the elevator doors creaked open a little slowly, what normal actually cost in New York City.

He set his jaw, steeled himself, and knocked on the door of apartment 5H.

There was a long pause before Johnny opened the door, scowling, shirtless and wearing only a pair of sweatpants slung dangerously low on his hips. Peter’s traitorous mouth went dry.

“Oh,” Johnny said, the closest to frosty Peter had ever heard him. “It’s you.”

“Listen,” Peter said, wedging a foot in the door just in case. “I need to talk to you.”

“Now you want to talk to me?” Johnny said, actual sparks in his eyes.

“How am I supposed to explain without talking to you?” Peter said. He saw the exact moment Johnny went to slam the door shut and threw himself into the doorway, fingers halting the door. “We both know I’ll break the door before it breaks me.”

“Fuck you,” Johnny said. “I don’t need this.”

“Johnny,” Peter repeated. “Just let me talk to you.”

A door down the hallway cracked open. An old woman peaked out from behind the security chain. Johnny saw her over Peter’s shoulder and bristled.

“Fine, but this better be good. I’m not exactly used to getting kicked out of bed,” Johnny hissed, voice barely more than a whisper. Peter cringed. Johnny sighed and rolled his eyes, stepping back. He finally let go of the door, arms crossed over his chest. His gaze fell to the floor, gesturing for Peter to step inside. “Come in already. My new neighbors talk enough as it is.”

There was that fast-burning anger, fading already. Peter pushed the door closed behind him.

The inside was a spacious but bare studio apartment. There was little furniture, just a bed shoved against the far wall with all the blankets piled at the foot of it. Peter had expected pictures of the family; there were none.

This wasn’t a home. This was a hideout.

Johnny leaned against the door. His fingers dug into his own arms. “What do you want from me, Peter?”

“To see you,” Peter said honestly. “How did you get home?”

“Not all of us need private jets,” Johnny snorted. “I flew. Needed the time to think.”

“Right…” Peter said. He’d planned out what he was going to say, every word perfect, before he ever got to Johnny’s door. Looking him in the eyes made all his careful words disappear. Parker Luck in action.

Johnny made a frustrated noise, thumping the wall with one fist. “What the hell was that, Peter? I thought it was,” his voice broke, his eyes were unsure. “I thought it was good.”

“Don’t,” Peter said, forcing the honest truth out of himself. “Don’t do that. It was amazing. You know it was amazing. You know everything about you is incredible.”

“I’m so incredible you told me I was a mistake in the middle of the night and left me alone in my hotel room,” Johnny said. “Sure.”

“It’s not you, Johnny,” Peter said, “it’s me.”

Johnny stared at him, open mouthed. He looked as close to giving in and setting Peter on fire as Peter had ever seen him. “Did – did you just ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ me? Me?”

“I could have worded that better,” Peter admitted. “But – it’s true. It’s me. I’m the problem.”

“What else is new?” Johnny asked, sighing, pushing his hands up into his hair. “Are you trying to drive me crazy? Was that your plan from the beginning? Lure the Human Torch into your hotel room, finally drive him to supervillainy?”

“I wasn’t thinking,” Peter said. The truth again: everything that night had been pure instinct – the race, the way he’d put his hand on Johnny’s back navigating half-remembered streets towards a restaurant Johnny had spent twenty minutes swearing was just around the corner. Kissing back in the elevator. The hot hard press of their bodies together. “You have to believe me when I was say I wasn’t thinking.”

“Oh, I completely believe you weren’t thinking,” Johnny said. “And then, what, midnight hits, and I’m not your Cinderella after all? I don’t need this, Peter. You let me think that was something it wasn’t.”

His shoulders were a line of fire; his fingers blazed when he pressed one hand over his eyes. There was a heat shimmer hanging in the air around him. Everything in Peter ached for him, but Johnny had lit himself up specifically so Peter couldn’t get close.

“I really, really didn’t need this,” Johnny repeated. “I feel like an idiot. Are you going to tell me what the hell you came here to say or are you going to get the hell out of my place and leave me alone already?”

“I just – I came to tell you I’m sorry,” Peter said. There had been other things, but he couldn’t remember them now.

Johnny’s face was disbelieving. “You’re sorry? I told you things, things I never would have…”

He broke off, steam curling up from his lips.

Peter took a chance; he moved, grabbing Johnny by the upper arms. This, they’d always been good with – touch had always worked when words had failed. An arm around his shoulders, a companionable hand on the back. Peter’s arms wrapped so tight around Johnny at the threshold between their world and the Negative Zone.

Johnny flamed off seconds before Peter’s skin made contact with his, his eyes wide.

“Idiot!” he said. “Don’t do that!”

Peter just shook him a little, hard enough that Johnny shut his mouth with a click of teeth.

“Johnny, I’m talking now – you told me things?” he said. “Okay, my turn. You were so unfairly good-looking when we met as kids it sent me into a weird crisis spiral for actual years. You couldn’t have the good grace to be weird and awkward like every other sixteen-year-old, no, you had to be there with that smile. I wanted to put a bag over your head just so my heart would stop doing a conga line every time you flamed off.”

“I,” Johnny blinked at him. “Were there words in there?”

“And you were funny, too! Salt in the wound, Johnny! There I was running my mouth, trying so hard to be the cleverest stupid kid in town, and you’d shoot back something like it was effortless,” Peter said. “You drove me so crazy. Remember that fight with Speed Demon?”

“I try very hard not to,” Johnny said.

“Your flames got snuffed,” Peter said. Years later, and he could still recall the moment in crystal clarity, the way time had seemed to slow down and speed up all at once. “And you fell. And I caught you, but for a minute I didn’t think I was fast enough.”

“You ripped the subway grate right out of the street,” Johnny recalled. “You threw him through a building.”

“Because I was scared you were hurt,” Peter said. He brought one hand up to the back of Johnny’s neck, tugging his forehead against his. Johnny went willingly, eyes slipping shut. “Don’t make this about me not caring about you, because that’s never, ever going to be true. You still drive me crazy. Tell me you understand.”

Johnny nodded jerkily; Peter’s squeezed the back of his neck.

“This is just me, being a disaster,” he said. “And I’m sorry because I wasn’t thinking, and I wanted you, and I hurt you. I’m a jackass. You’ve known that for years.”

“Yeah, well,” Johnny said, hands coming up to rest, tentatively, against Peter’s chest. “It’s not just you. Mostly you, but not just.”

Peter laughed. “I’m so sorry. It’s just – you know Doc Ock got in my head and kicked me out. And then I came back and everything was different. I have this company I don’t know how to run, and half my friends hate me, and there are all these new people I have to keep pretending I actually know…”

“Okay,” Johnny said, softly. He pushed at Peter’s chest, taking one step back. “Okay. I get it.”

“And I can’t,” Peter said, the words like broken glass in his mouth, “I can’t do the relationship thing right now. I’m sorry. I really am.”

He wanted to be in a world where he didn’t need to say it. He wanted to be in a world where Otto had never taken this from him.

“Okay,” Johnny said, slowly. “So. Why didn’t you just say that from the beginning?”

“What?” Peter said.

Johnny huffed, throwing his hands up. “Look, we’re still friends, right? You still like me?”

Peter frowned in confusion.

“Always,” he said.

“And it was good,” Johnny continued, his gaze unwavering. “Being with me. It was good.”

Being with you was the best thing I’ve had in years, Peter could have said, the honest truth. Instead, he said, “It was amazing.”

“So…” Johnny put his hands, tentatively, at Peter’s shoulders. “You want me. And I want you. And we’re friends. Why can’t we just do that?”

“What?” Peter said, thrown for a loop. His hands settled, of their own accord, at Johnny’s hips. His skin was warm like sunshine.

“It doesn’t have to be anything more than what it is, you know,” Johnny said, head cocked to the side. He shrugged one shoulder, a casual gesture. “I know everything’s always all or nothing with you but – we could just have fun. Doesn’t have to be more than that.”

Everything ached. “You’re sure?”

“Don’t make it complicated,” Johnny said, like Peter was capable of doing anything but making things complicated. “You’re a wreck. Did you sleep at all after you left?”

“No,” Peter admitted. “How could I?”

“You need to unwind,” Johnny said, finally cracking a smile. He palmed Peter’s cheek. “No wonder you’re such a fucking mess.”

Peter kissed him. What else could he do? Johnny’s mouth was searing hot and his arms looped easily around Peter’s shoulders. He pressed in close, so Peter could feel him through his thin sweatpants.

“Is this okay?” Peter asked very quietly, the words barely more than a breath between them.

“That’s the Johnny Storm motto,” he said, grinning at Peter. “Everything’s okay by me.”

Then he got on his knees and Peter forgot how to argue.

 


 

“There he is! The man of the hour.”

Peter laughed, reaching out to shake Jay’s hand. “I’m so glad you guys could make it.”

“Are you kidding?” Jay said, beaming ear to ear. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world – oh, there’s Jonah.”

“Yeah, well, security had to let him through at the end,” Peter said, grinning. “Go, talk to your son. I’ll still be here later – several people have threatened to turn my carriage back into a pumpkin if I leave before midnight, whatever that means. Hey, who’s your hot date?”

“Peter,” Aunt May said wryly, slipping her hand into the crook of his elbow.

“Champagne, my lady?” he asked her. “We can walk and talk, which is apparently all I’m good for anymore.”

“This is incredible. All these people… I worried, you know,” May said. He hummed, tilting his head towards hers.

“What else is new?” he said. “We’re Parkers. We worry.”

She pinched the inside of his arm. “I worried when Jay invested so much money in your business. I know that sounds awful, but it was so unlike you, and I… I’m ashamed to admit this, but I thought it might go wrong.”

Peter swallowed hard. “Oh.”

Instantly, she looked guilty, which only made him feel a thousand times worse. “I feel horrible about it, Peter. I really do.”

“No,” he said, his whole being numb. He couldn’t stop thinking about it, Otto in his skin, using his face, his hands, his voice, and going to May and Jay, oozing assurances. He could have bankrupted them. He almost had. He balled his hand into a fist until his short nails bit into his palm. “That’s fair, Aunt May. I know my track record. You were right to be cautious.”

“Peter, stop,” she said, shaking her head. “Don’t talk like that about yourself.”

Otto had always had money stashed away. Peter knew that. There was no real reason for him to go to May and Jay – a man like Otto could have found some way to obscure the connection back to himself. But the actual money itself hadn’t been the point for him. No, he’d wanted this – to play Peter Parker, professional screw-up, finally coming out on top. The neglectful nephew, the underachiever, the loser, turned triumphant through Otto’s brutality -- see, look how much better I am at your life than you.

Peter almost wished Otto was alive again so he could break him into pieces.

“I’m just being realistic,” Peter said, shaking his head. May’s hand curled a little tighter at the crook of his elbow.

He’s cute,” May said, nodding at Johnny, who was effortlessly holding off J Jonah Jameson halfway across the room like it wasn’t even a thing. Peter adored him endlessly. “I always liked that Human Torch fellow. Something you want to tell me?”

“He’s a friend,” Peter said, grinning, as JJJ got redder and redder in the face and Johnny stayed just as cool. “It’s not a big deal.”

Across the room, Johnny caught his eye and smiled, looking like a million bucks. It tugged at something low in his stomach, every time Johnny looked at him like that

“Mm,” May hummed archly. “If he looked at me the way he looks at you, and if I was twenty years younger…”

“I’m shocked and appalled,” Peter said, laughing. “Young lady, he is much too old for you.”

“Fine, fine, don’t tell your old aunt, who raised, clothed, and fed you, anything,” she said. “But lord help you if I hear about it from a magazine at the supermarket checkout first, Peter Parker.”

“I know, I know,” Peter said. “I’ll get the guillotine.”

“I’ll drag it out of the attic myself,” May said. “You did bring him to my wedding.”

“Here it comes, the Spanish Inquisition,” Peter muttered, rolling his eyes.

“Are we French or Spanish? Make up your mind. My wedding, Peter.”

“I know my personal life is endlessly fascinating and full of intrigue now that I’m so rich and famous but honestly, he’s just a friend,” Peter said, ducking his head and laughing. “Hey, let’s go back to talking about how I almost bankrupted the family, that was less painful.”

“Peter. I didn’t mean it like that. I just – I worried,” she said.

“I know,” he said, failing to swallow his guilt. “I was just joking. I – you know I never would have done anything to make things difficult for you and Jay.”

It was true. He would never have asked for that money.

“Shh. All I wanted you to know is how wonderfully you’ve done,” she said, reaching up to touch his face. “I’m so proud of you, Peter.”

He closed his eyes, trying to hold onto it: the feeling of her palm against his cheek, the sound of her voice. His aunt. His mother. He pretended for one moment that she was talking about something he had done – him, and not Otto using him like a badly fitted suit.

“Thank you,” he said, swallowing against the tightness in his throat. “I love you, you know that?”

“Of course I do,” she said, eyes misty. “And I love you. More than the whole world.”

“I know,” Peter said, eyes stinging at the corners. He shut them tight. “I know. Me too. I’m going to make you proud, May.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” she said. Once again, he had to pretend it was him she was talking about. “You already do.”

 


 

Peter came from Singapore exhausted, only to stop at his threshold. There were voices in his apartment, but no buzz from his spider-sense. He shed his jacket and his shoes, rolling up his sleeves, before he followed them.

There was laughter coming from the kitchen: Anna Maria’s dry, high laugh, the one that always sounded like she wasn’t totally used to it, and Johnny’s infectious one. Peter was smiling long before he ever stepped into the room.

“Hey, 911,” he said, standing in the kitchen doorway. There was a baking sheet in Johnny’s hands and flour all down his shirt. Anna Maria was similarly covered, like they’d thrown handfuls at each other. Knowing Johnny, it wasn’t an impossibility. “I’d like to report a breaking and entering.”

“I have a key,” Anna Maria said blithely. “It’s not breaking and entering if you have a key.”

“And your excuse?” Peter asked Johnny.

“You left a window open,” Johnny said, sounding bored. The smirk he threw Peter’s way said very much the opposite. “I assumed it was for me.”

“Right, because no one who lives here regularly swings around the city or anything,” Peter said.

Johnny grinned at him, utterly unapologetic, and Peter snorted. He gestured at the tray in Johnny’s hands. “What’s going on here? Did you break my oven? I’ve never turned it on, but if it’s broken, I’m taking it out of someone’s pay.”

“You don’t pay me,” Johnny said, sticking his tongue out.

“I’ll take it out of something,” Peter said, mimicking him.

“You’re children!” Anna Maria said, laughing. “The oven is fine, but Johnny was here when I let myself in to use your kitchen,” here, she leveled Peter with a definite look, “and when I told him about how I cook, he told me how exact his control over temperature is. I thought it might be fun to experiment.”

“She just wanted me trapped in the kitchen at her mercies,” Johnny teased, always the shameless flirt. He looked good – he always looked good, but there was something special about Johnny when he let his guard down. His hair fell across his forehead. His jeans were tight and his shirt was plain. Unless Peter was very much mistaken, the pair of socks patterned with tiny beakers had been stolen from his own dresser.

He flashed Peter a smile, uncomplicated. Peter wanted to keep the three of them in this moment a little while longer. His shoulder hit the doorway with a dull thud.

“He can absorb heat, too, as well as put it out,” Peter said. “It’s pretty interesting stuff.”

“Nerd,” Johnny said.

Anna Maria’s eyes went comically wide.

“Leave him,” she said to Johnny. “I’m having crazy baked Alaska fantasies and he doesn’t deserve you. Come open a bakery with me instead. We’ll be billionaires.”

Johnny laughed. “I’d love to, but do you know what would happen if you opened a bakery with me? Supervillain crashes through the window. First day.”

“First hour,” Peter said. “My money’s on the Red Ghost and his super apes.”

“You shut up,” Johnny said. “It’d be the Kingpin, obviously, and then Ms. Marconi here would win him around with her authentic Italian baking and that sweet mob money would keep us afloat those first few difficult months.”

Anna Maria laughed as she checked the timer on her phone.

“How do you do that?” she asked. “Just joke about supervillains attacking you like it’s the same as someone messing up your order at Starbucks.”

“Probably because I’ve been attacked by supervillains while on line at Starbucks,” Peter said, shrugging. “Pro tip if you want to take up heroing: do not wear your tights out for errands.”

“We’ve been doing this since we were sixteen,” Johnny said to Anna Maria, smiling down softly at the tray in his hands. Peter knew why; the teenage sting had long worn off, and now all the memories were good ones. “You get used to it, just like anything else.”

The timer dinged and Anna Maria whisked the tray out of Johnny’s hands.

“I don’t think I could do it,” she confessed, sliding the tray onto the countertop. “Didn’t you ever want to anything, I don’t know… less dangerous?”

Peter looked over at Johnny, curious, but Johnny was staring out the window.

“I’ve tried to, sometimes,” Johnny said, and the brutal honesty in his tone shocked Peter a little. “I’d get out, get my own place, try acting again… It never seems to stick.” He sighed, stretching, arms high above his head. “And then some talking gorilla would attack my family and I’d rush back because I thought they needed me. Rinse and repeat.”

Anna Maria laughed, probably thinking the talking gorilla bit was a joke, but Peter knew Johnny too well not to hear the sting in because I thought they needed me, and that was why he couldn’t keep his mouth shut any longer.

“My uncle told me something once,” he said. Johnny’s annoyed groan was loud but fond; Peter shot him a look anyway. Anna Maria turned to look at him, busy wiping her hands off on a dish towel. Peter soldiered on. “He believed that if a person has power, then they have a responsibility to do the right thing with it. The greater the power, the greater the responsibility. And I have a lot of power, so this – this is all my responsibility.”

All traces of mockery had faded from Johnny’s face, but Peter couldn’t read the expression he wore.

“Wow,” Anna Maria said quietly, tucking a lock of dark hair behind her ear. She dropped her gaze to the tray still resting on the counter. “That wouldn’t have been the answer I expected from…”

She trailed off before she said the name, but Peter still had to breathe in sharply, his hands flexing at his own arms, hard enough to bruise.

The things Otto had done, he’d done with Peter’s power. Otto was gone, but his decisions still stood. Peter had to fix the bad, keep the good, and stop any more damage from being done. It was his responsibility.

“Guess that’s why you’re never in the office, huh?” Anna Maria recovered, her own smile shaky. She was up on the stepstool that had mysteriously materialized in Peter’s kitchen one day, poking around in the cupboards. She shook a bag of chocolate chips in his direction. “Too busy saving the world. Does this say ‘organic’ to you?”

He knew Anna Maria well enough by now to know that she used baking like he used a good fight: a distraction, plain and simple.

“They look like chocolate chips,” Peter told her.

She flipped the bag over, wrinkling her nose. “I need dark, not semi-sweet. I’m bringing over good chocolate chips next time.”

She grabbed her purse from the counter, pointing one finger at Johnny. “Well, I’ve got an appointment, so I’m off. Those don’t get touched, not for at least twenty minutes. Do you understand me?”

“Loud and clear, ma’am,” Johnny said with a fake salute.

Anna Maria shot him a warning look as she left, high heels clicking on Peter’s hard wood floors. He locked the door behind her.

“We’re not going to wait the twenty minutes, right?” he said, grinning at Johnny. The look on Johnny’s face was solemn.

“I spoke to your aunt, you know,” Johnny said, faux casual as he leaned back against the counter. “At the last thing you dragged me to. She says she thinks I’m a very nice young man.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Which probably means she thinks we’re getting married.”

“Oh no,” Peter said, steeling himself for a series of Very Supportive E-Mails from May and Jay both. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because she thought it was nice that you’d found someone,” Johnny said, looking Peter straight in the eyes. “Because you and Anna Maria broke up.”

Peter swallowed. His hands curled into fists and he made himself relax them, keeping them limp at his sides.

“Yeah,” he said. “About that…”

“You never dated her. I know,” Johnny said, beating him to the punch. “I can do that math. Otto Octavius dated her. In your body. Does she know?”

“Yes,” Peter said. “I explained it to her, and luckily she believed me. He was going to propose to her, did you know that? She found the ring.”

Johnny whistled, long and low.

“Well,” he said. “Take it from someone who did the whole the-person-I-married-is-not-the-person-I-thought-I-married song and dance divorce… it’s better this way.”

Peter’s laugh was hollow. “I remember.”

It was different, though, he thought, to be the one with the wool over your eyes. Johnny might know how Anna Maria felt, but Peter – he’d been the one with his life stolen, not the one fooled.

“And you’re okay?” Johnny asked, frowning. “With all of this, with – being around her?”

What could Peter tell him? No, he wasn’t, but he was desperately trying to be? No, but Anna was managing just fine, so he could too? No, and he felt sick with guilt over it because this was something that had happened to her, too.

“I have to be,” he said, shrugging, hands held helplessly in front of him. It was the closest version of the truth he knew how to voice. “She – I don’t think she hates him. And I don’t understand that. All he did was lie to her.”

Johnny was quiet for a long moment, his eyes fixed on a spot just over Peter’s shoulder. His hands flexed whiteknuckled at the kitchen counter.

“It’s not – it’s not as simple as loving or hating,” he said at last. “You think you know this person, you think you love this person and then they’re – they’re not them, they’re someone else, and you’re sitting there, played for an idiot. But it all still happened. All the good memories, they still happened, just not with who you thought. And you think, it can’t all have been fake, right? Some part of that must have been the real them.”

He broke off with a little laugh, shaking his head, and Peter remembered with sudden crystal clarity that day he’d taunted Johnny into chasing him across half of New York, trying to distract him. The truth is, she was an alien from outer space, Johnny had admitted. Peter, ever the smartass, had replied, most guys I know feel the same about their exes.

This was the most he’d ever heard Johnny talk about it since that day.

“Those first few months I used to look at Ben and get angry at him, like – why did his Alicia get to be the real one? Why was mine the lie?” Johnny shrugged, eyes downcast. “It was dumb.”

“No,” Peter said. “That’s not dumb. I’m so sorry.”

Johnny glanced up at him. “What? No, don’t be crazy – I’m trying to say I get it now, because when I look at Anna Maria, all I can think is, thank God, mine is the real one.”

He smiled at Peter, dazzling and heartbreaking, and Peter stared back, struck speechless.

“Peter,” Johnny said, reaching for him. Like a man possessed, Peter went to him.

They bumped into each other, hips and shoulders, elbows jostling, hands snatching at each other. Peter tried to trip Johnny, Johnny tried to grab Peter in a very ineffectual headlock, and somehow they ended up stumbling against the counter. Johnny crowded into Peter’s space, laughing, still the golden boy.

It was too easy to kiss him. Peter wanted it too much.

Johnny went with it, hooking his thumbs into Peter’s belt loops and leaning into him like there was no place he’d rather be. He sighed a little when they broke apart, mouth curved into a happy smile. Peter wanted to touch the upturned corners of his lips, to learn him by feel.

That didn’t happen, though. What happened was that Johnny kissed him again and Peter groped at him through the soft denim of his expensive jeans and somehow they made it to the bedroom, shoving each other down on the mattress – still with that new mattress smell - as Peter ripped – actually ripped – Johnny’s shirt from him.

“Do you have any idea how much I paid for that?” Johnny said, though he didn’t seem terribly bothered by the loss.

“Don’t care,” Peter said. Johnny mock scowled at him, thin ripped shirt hanging off of him. Peter ran an appreciative hand down washboard abs. “I’ll buy you another one.”

Johnny hummed approvingly, pulling Peter back in for a kiss as he rocked up against him. Peter settled his hands at Johnny’s hips, pulling him in closer, tighter, anything to get more of Johnny touching him. “Buy me two and we’ll call it even.”

“Johnny,” Peter confessed, breathless. “Right now you could ask me for a planet and I’d say yes.”

“Well then, I look forward to Planet Storm,” Johnny said, shedding the remains of his shirt. He spread his hands over Peter’s chest. “It’s not fair that I’m the only one getting naked here.”

Peter shucked his shirt so fast that buttons scattered across the floor. Johnny grabbed him by the undone ends of his tie, laughing into Peter’s mouth. He flicked open the top button of his jeans, but Peter beat him to the zipper, rolling them over so Johnny could get his jeans off and Peter could watch the show.

“I could ride you,” Johnny said, a perfect picture in the golden afternoon light.

“Great,” said Peter, swallowing a groan as heat pulsed in his belly. He settled back against the pillows. “Less work for me.”

“Jerk. Offer’s off the table,” Johnny said, laughing, as he leaned down to kiss Peter. Peter curled a hand in his hair and kept him there as he licked into his mouth. Johnny bit at his lip, mumbling, “Okay, c’mon.”

“Okay,” Peter agreed, letting go after one last kiss. “It’s your show.”

Johnny ended up braced over him, lip caught between his teeth as he opened himself up with his fingers. He flicked tiny, ineffectual sparks that faded long before they hit at Peter’s hands every time he reached for him.

“You said you didn’t want to do any of the work,” he teased.

“This is the time you pick to take me seriously?” Peter said. Johnny snickered, lining himself up, and sank down inch by torturous inch onto Peter’s cock. Peter grabbed at him as Johnny worked his hips, head thrown back, mouth open. He was pure tight heat around Peter, too much and not enough.

“Torch,” he groaned, taking him in: the tousled hair, the kiss-swollen lips. He was still wearing Peter’s stolen socks. Every feeling in Peter’s chest was a supernova. “Look at you, you’re unbelievable --”

“Yeah?” Johnny said, word cut off with a bitten off moan. Peter wanted a life where he never had to do anything but make Johnny Storm make that sound. “Because you look like an idiot with your mouth hanging open like that.”

Peter burst out laughing and, before Johnny could blink he’d grabbed him by the hips and flipped them over, laying him out on the bed. He thrust in deep, setting the pace hard and fast, trying to make Johnny moan louder, more. It was crazy, how every sound made Peter love him more.

“Now who’s the idiot?” he asked, well aware that it was still him for not realizing how good this could have been when they were younger and everything was simple, for not thinking about how good Johnny would look on top of him and under him, how he would feel around him. Peter came so hard he saw fireworks, thinking about it, all the missed opportunities, lazy afternoons and stolen moments, desperate reunions and sleepy mornings.

At least I know we have great makeup sex, he thought, getting a hand around Johnny. They’d almost broken the bed in Johnny’s matchbox apartment the night Peter had gotten back from Paris, Johnny’s big hot hands around Peter’s hips.

“Peter,” Johnny said, gasping as he came.

“I know,” Peter told him, softly. “I know.”

Afterwards Johnny shoved him off and made him go get a damp cloth. He then proceeded to drape himself over Peter’s chest like a sleepy jungle cat. Peter locked his arms around him and let himself memorize every second: the warm spill of sunlight across them, the curve of Johnny’s smile, the strong lines of his back under Peter’s fingers.

“No, you know what?” Johnny said, lazily kissing Peter. He tasted like cookie dough and cinnamon; Peter couldn’t get enough of it. He wondered when the last time he’d been this happy was and wished he could trust himself enough to keep it. “You know who it’d be?”

“What are you talking about?” Peter said, already smiling, more than willing to be led along.

“If I opened a bakery,” Johnny said, grinning. “It’d be Stiltman.”

Peter laughed so hard he had to bury his face in Johnny’s shoulder.

 


 

“You’re in an eerily good mood.”

“It’s a beautiful day!” Peter said, first taking the tablet from Anna’s outstretched hand then actually taking her hand, spinning her around. “The sun is shining, the birds are singing –”

“It’s pouring rain!” Anna Maria said, laughing. “All the sensible birds are under an awning somewhere. What’s gotten into you?”

“I had a good night,” Peter said. Afterwards, he and Johnny had thumb wrestled over whose favorite Chinese place to order in from and kissed a ludicrous amount and then Johnny had left for Avengers business and Peter had gone swinging, an easy night out with only a handful of muggings.

He felt like he was on top of the world.

“Oh,” Anna Maria said, rolling her eyes, but she obligingly let Peter twirl her. She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively. “That’s what’s gotten into you.”

“I’m sure I don’t take your meaning, young lady,” Peter said, grinning, as they headed for the elevators. “The labs today?”

“Yeah, there’s something I want you to see,” Anna Maria said, their usual code for there’s something everyone thinks you already know but you don’t, because it wasn’t you who did it, so we’ll get you up to speed and pretend like nothing’s wrong.

He was painfully aware, every minute of every working day, that he never would have gotten this far without her – but today it stung a little less than usual.

“Well, lead on, Ms. Marconi,” he said with a flourish.

It was just them in the lab – them and the Living Brain, anyway, not that Peter particularly felt the Brain counted.

“Beverage, Doctor Parker?” it ground out.

“No, thanks,” he said, just like he always did. Why Otto had turned that thing into his own personal butler, Peter would never know. He paid it no mind when the Brain clunked after them. “What are we looking at today, Anna?”

“Anna?” the Brain repeated clumsily.

“Thanks, Brain, I’m good,” Anna Maria said, leading Peter over to a table near the back. “So I dug this up the other week from, well, you-know-who’s files. It’s a variant on your webbing – don’t say anything -- and I think there’s some really interesting things we could do with it that aren’t, you know, Spider-Man-related.”

“Well, pretty lady, I’m all ears,” he said.

“I wouldn’t say they’re that big,” she joked, and he was so startled that it took him a second to start laughing.

Something clattered to the floor. Spider-sense buzzing, Peter turned and saw that it was the Living Brain’s customary tray of drinks.

“Silly old robot,” Anna Maria muttered, starting forward. Peter stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t move,” he said.

“What?” she asked. “What is it?”

But the buzzing was fading, though not gone. Peter shook his head. “I don’t know. The Brain can sweep up. You just stay alert.”

“Around you? Always,” Anna Maria snorted, turning back to the table. “Something’s always blowing up or falling down…”

“I’m trying to prevent things from blowing up or falling down, thank you,” Peter said, his hand on her back as he leaned in to get a better look at the files she was pulling open.

His spider-sense buzzed again, the only warning he got – and he reacted too slowly. The Living Brain slammed into him, pinning him against the table. Anna Maria screamed, ducking for cover.

“Killer robot,” Peter grunted, pushing back. He twisted around. “That’s just what my day was missing –”

He thought he could almost see something flicker behind the Brain’s wires, a ghost. Peter froze.

“Otto,” he said.

Anna Maria’s head snapped up. “What?”

Peter’s mind whirled, struck by how obvious it was now that he’d been confronted by the truth. Otto had poured himself into technology, a thousand creeping little octobots – did he think the Brain was different just because it was an outdated clunky mess, overly polite and offering drinks? Otto had never needed a butler; Otto had always needed more eyes.

“Why?” he asked.

“For Anna,” the Brain creaked out. “Doctor Parker – programmed to protect Anna… and the vessel.”

Two words: the vessel. It was worse than being punched. Peter couldn’t breathe. Everything in him, boiled down to just his shell, a suit for Otto to wear.

“Failsafe,” said the Brain, and Peter didn’t think he was imagining the odd overlay of Otto’s voice, but it was hard to tell with every sense he owned he screaming bloody murder at him. Otto had always had a flair for the dramatic. “Programmed – to protect the vessel.”

“To put him back,” Peter said, trying to think around the fog that settled around him. “Not to protect me.”

The Living Brain’s claw-like hand raised itself to Peter’s face, its cold touch almost a caress. Intimate. Knowing. Revulsion seized at Peter, freezing him in place. All of a sudden it wasn’t the Living Brain in front of him, it was Otto. Otto with his cold, metal arms, pinning Peter in place.

“So perfect,” the Living Brain said in its creaky automaton voice. “The perfect vessel.”

His vision went hazy at the edges. His spider-sense screamed. Everything doubled, agony in stereo, as the Living Brain pressed in closer -- cold, unfeeling metal with Otto’s cold, unfeeling mind behind it. Peter couldn’t breathe. Peter couldn’t think.

For one terrifying second, Peter couldn’t do anything.

“Brain!” Anna Maria shouted, tugging helplessly at its arm. “Stop! What are you doing?”

Its head swiveled towards her. The automaton voice croaked out, “Anna…?”

“Brain, stop it!” Anna Maria said, fingers scrabbling to get a better hold on metal as she tried to pull it away from Peter. “This is wrong!”

The Living Brain hesitated. For one split-second, its grip loosened. Peter didn’t think; he just swung.

The Brain staggered backwards, away from Anna. Peter matched it step for step, and he didn’t stop hitting it. He tore through metal bare-handed, ripping at it to get at the wires underneath. One of them shocked him but he kept going, grabbing handfuls and yanking, twisting at metal limbs and metal neck.

They fell to the floor together, him and Otto’s Trojan horse, a crash of metal and bone. Peter couldn’t stop hitting it.

“Peter!” Anna Maria said, grabbing handfuls of his shirt and trying to yank him back. “It’s over! It’s over, Peter, please. It’s gone.”

She pressed her face against his back, holding onto him. His chest heaved; his head spun. He wondered if she was sad to see the Living Brain go, if she had ever held onto Otto like this, if she was thinking of those moments. He wanted to throw her off. He wanted to never think like that again.

“Please stop,” Anna Maria said.

His hands were bruised and bloody. He pulled them away from the robot.

“Okay,” he croaked. He climbed to his feet, pulling out of Anna Maria’s grip. “Okay.”

“It’s over,” Anna Maria said, reaching for him. “Oh, your hands…”

“They’ll heal,” he said. He stared down at the heap of metal and fizzing wires at his feet, a shell that a tiny bit of Otto had crawled inside and taken over, just like him.

He pulled his leg back and kicked its head so hard it hit the wall on the far side of the lab. A wordless shout of rage tore itself from him, ragged and raw, echoing off the walls.

Anna Maria gasped, hands flying to her mouth.

Peter sank to his heels, breathing hard. His hands stung. His throat stung. Good, he thought. Proof that you’re still you. You’re in control.

He got up again and staggered backwards until he hit the table. He slammed one hand down against it, denting it; the pain was grounding. He had to keep himself in his head.

“Damn it!” he said, breathing hard. “Damn it, Otto.”

“I don’t understand,” Anna Maria said. She bent down by the Living Brain’s remains and touched its hand, almost gently. Peter looked away, shutting his eyes against the flood of images; the loving way the Brain had turned towards Anna Maria, the way Otto must have turned to her. The wide victorious smirk Otto had always worn when he had the upperhand, superimposed on Peter’s own face, twisting his features, as he puts his hands – Peter’s stolen hands – on her.

Anna, sitting on his – their – couch, asking him plaintively, Why haven’t you ever told me you were Spider-Man?, and Peter’s panicked defense, Hey, that could be anybody! He’s still got his mask on! What makes you think that’s me?

Three freckles. Under your belly button, she’d said. The dawning realization as he’d started to ask how she knew what Spider-Man would look like without his clothes on.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” he said, in a dazed sort of way.

“There’s probably a bucket in the supply closet,” Anna Maria said, still kneeling before the Living Brain. “You didn’t have to break it. He—it. The Brain would have listened to me.”

Peter forced himself to look at the Living Brain again. It was a ruin. He barely remembered doing half of the damage he’d obviously done. He hadn’t needed to be so vicious. She was right about that. But only about that.

“And let it wander around, trying to put Otto back in my body?” Peter said. Anna Maria’s shoulders stiffened as she got to her feet.

“No, of course not,” she said. “We could’ve wiped him clean, reprogrammed him…”

“Like Otto did to me?” Peter said, well aware his voice was rising dangerously but unable to remember how to stop. “You think he never thought that could happen? That, what, the Brain was his plan B, and he never thought beyond that? You think we don’t have to sweep every stupid piece of technology in this building now –”

“Peter, stop, breathe!” Anna Maria said, grabbing him by the wrists, above the worst of his injuries. Peter gulped for air, head spinning. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t see anything except Otto’s expressions distorting his own face. “Take a deep breath, okay? Hold it. Now release. Okay. You’re okay. You’re not thinking straight.”

She rubbed at his arms, head tipped all the way back to look him in the eyes. Her bottom lip was caught between her teeth, worrying away her lipstick. Her eyes were watery.

“We don’t need to do that,” she said. “He wasn’t – you make him sound so Machiavellian. He wasn’t like that.”

Peter breathed in deep, trying to keep himself steady. “No offense, Anna, but you don’t really know what he was like.”

She was quiet for a very long time, but he felt it right before she spoke, a prickle almost like his spider-sense. He knew what she was going to say before she said it.

“I know you don’t believe it, but in his own way, he did love me,” Anna Maria said softly. Peter closed his eyes. He couldn’t look at her; he couldn’t trust himself.

“I was in his head,” he said. “Trust me when I say Otto’s never loved anyone but himself.”

“You’re wrong,” she said. “What he did was awful. Don’t think I don’t know that it was unforgivable. Don’t think I don’t have moments where –” her breath hitched. She set her jaw. “But he did love me. He was capable of it.”

Peter was going to be sick. He turned away from her, putting his hands over his face. He could feel the little changes – there was a tiny nick of a scar across his jaw that hadn’t been there before Otto. He pushed his hands up into his hair.

Breathe, he told himself. Breathe.

“Peter,” Anna Maria said, reaching for him. “I know how you feel. But he’s gone. I know he’s gone.”

“You don’t know!” Peter exploded, whirling on her. The way she shrank back shouldn’t have satisfied him, but it did; again it struck him that this wasn’t him. “I’ve been dealing with him my whole life, since I was fifteen years old! And you know the one thing I know about Otto Octavius? He always comes back.”

“Peter, calm down,” Anna Maria said, hands held up in front of her. “You’re not thinking rationally.”

“You didn’t know him!” he said. He turned away from her again, looking at the heap of wrecked metal, just another thing Otto had crawled inside and corrupted. “I know him! You knew his stupid little game, him pretending, his idea of who I should be – you don’t know either of us.”

Anna was quiet for a long moment. Peter made the mistake of looking at her and realized she was crying silently.

“I think this was a mistake,” she said, swiping at her eyes. “I thought I could salvage things, fix what a disaster my life’s become, but … I think maybe I need to look for a different job.”

He knew what he should say, both as a person and as CEO. Anna Maria was a good employee, an important part of Parker Industries. She’d kept them from sinking under more than once. She’d kept him afloat, those difficult first few months when he hadn’t known anything about the company that bore his name. She was still keeping him afloat, the only other person at Parker Industries who knew the truth.

Worse yet, he was supposed to be her friend.

Instead he looked down at his battered hands and torn fingernails and said, “Are you giving me your two weeks notice?”

She sniffed again. “I’m saying I need some time to think about some things.”

“Okay,” he said. “It’s yours.”

There was a long moment of silence. Anna Maria said, “That’s it?”

“That’s it,” he said, closing his eyes. “Do whatever you have to do.”

He didn’t look at her, but he thought he knew her expression anyway. He heard the door slam shut, leaving him alone again. Just him and the aftershocks of all of Otto’s decisions.

“Okay,” he said to himself, breathing out. He half-heartedly kicked the Brain’s remains again. “Sorry, you old junk heap. Time to clean up after him again.”

 


 

He disposed of the Brain’s body, and then he told Harry he was taking the rest of the day off.

“Lab accident,” he said, showing Harry his hands.

“Jesus,” Harry said quietly, hovering his own palms just under Peter’s. “Yeah, obviously. Go get those taken care of.” He frowned. “Take care of yourself, Pete. We need you around here.”

Peter went home, and for one long moment he sagged against the closed door, eyes closed, trying to quiet all the noise in his head.

Then he overturned the hallway table, shattering it against the wall.

“Why won’t you leave me alone!” he shouted, but of course there was no answer. Otto had never been able to hear him, either, when Peter had floated outside himself, taunting and shouting and praying.

It chilled him from the inside out, the what ifs. What if Otto wasn’t really gone? What if he was still lurking Peter’s head somewhere, just like Peter had been, only now it was his turn to plot and scheme, to try and force his way back into control?

He made a choked noise, sinking down into a crouch. He pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes.

“I know I’ve taken everything else you’ve ever thrown at me,” he said, to God and the universe and his own floor. “I know I have. But not this. Do you hear me? Not this.”

Again, no answer. After a long minute he dragged himself up and went to take care of the clumsy job of bandaging his own hands.

His phone buzzed on the counter while he was finishing up, playing Elvis’ Burning Love. He rubbed at his forehead.

“I think I’m so clever, huh? Always gotta be the funny guy…” he muttered, groping for his phone. He pressed it between his shoulder and ear, surveying the damage he’d done to the place. “Hey, Johnny.”

“Hey!” Johnny shouted back, joyful. “You’re never going to guess where am I or what I’m doing.”

“Mmm,” Peter hummed, cracking his neck, his knuckles, letting some of the tension bleed out. It felt good to hear Johnny happy. “I don’t hear loud music or anything breaking, so that rules out all your usual haunts. Wild guess – a prohibitively expensive country house and someone blonde.”

“What? No, don’t be stupid, would I do you like that?” Johnny laughed, like it was funny. Peter knew he should have reminded him of the friends part of friends with benefits, but the truth was he didn’t want to. “I’m at the Petco in Union Square, and Rogue and I are standing here with a very good friend yours. Hydro-Man, hey, want to say hi to your buddy Spidey?”

There was a bubbling noise across the line, like a cry of rage from under water.

“Morris? Is that you?” Peter said. “Hey old buddy, old pal, how’s tricks?”

“Morris can’t answer right now because he’s a little caught up in the containment unit we brought,” Johnny said. “But he looks just the most delighted to hear from you. I think he’s blushing. This is so sweet.”

“Tell him I’m blowing a kiss,” Peter said. “What, exactly, was Hydro-Man doing in the Petco in Union Square?”

“Swimming with the fishes, pretty literally. Hey, what’s the matter?” Johnny said, tone changing. “You sound weird. Are you fighting some creep dressed like half a zoo?”

“No,” Peter said, hand pressed to his forehead. He screwed his eyes shut tight. “I just – it was a weird day.”

“Okay,” Johnny said slowly, in the tone of voice he used when he was trying to puzzle out a mystery. Peter could see him in his mind’s eye, his head tilted to the side, the slight frown on that mouth he knew so well now. “Want me to come over, take your mind off of it?”

Peter closed his eyes and tipped his head back. Johnny’s eyes would’ve sparked on that last line, a suggestive curve to his mouth.

“Please tell me you didn’t say that in front of Hydro-Man,” he begged.

“No, of course not, I walked away for a sec,” Johnny said. “We’re at the boring paperwork part of the evening. Seriously, you sound terrible. I could bring takeout, maybe a movie?”

“No, I – I’m not home,” Peter lied, biting down on the stab of want. “There was a crisis at the London office. I’m at a hotel.”

“Oh,” Johnny said, after a beat. Peter wondered if he could hear the dishonesty in his voice.

“You should talk to me, though,” he said. He rubbed at his forehead, then leaned forward, setting his elbows on his knees. He could work, with Johnny talking to him. Johnny, for better or worse, had always had a way of narrowing his focus. “C’mon. Tell me about your day.”

He grabbed for his tablet, then decided against it. It had been in contact with things, things Otto had designed, touched. Technology had always been Otto’s game – the arms, the stupid little octobots that got everywhere, the Living Brain. Peter, though – Peter might have been a man of science, but his life had been too weird for him not to be prepared to get a little caveman.

He set his phone down on the coffee table, set it to speaker, and then got up in search of paper and a pencil.

“Seriously?” Johnny said.

“You’ve got Hydro-Man locked up in Petco, come on,” Peter said, a little cajoling. “I want to hear about your weird day.”

So Johnny talked, and Peter worked, sitting on his living room floor and drawing up plans for something he could use to check his own head over. Not something to get rid of Otto, if Otto was still lurking unseen in some corner of Peter’s mind – the way he’d forced Peter to do, hanging outside of himself, desperate to move so much as a finger and terrified that Otto would catch on. Otto had always been smarter than him in those regards; Peter knew his limitations.

But where Otto was smarter, Peter had more at stake. This was his body and his life. These were the people he loved – May, Harry, Mary Jane. Johnny. He’d gotten them back and he wasn’t letting them go again without a fight. Something like his spider-tracers, he thought, but turned inwards instead. Something that could let him trace changes without his target knowing.

So not an attack, not a defense, not a move Otto would expect. Just something to tell him the truth. So he could finally know, once and for all.

“And okay, I do not want to know what he was doing with those clown fish,” Johnny said, bringing Peter back into the present. The tone in Johnny’s voice made him laugh. It surprised him, how free it felt.

“Oh, Morris, Morris, Morris,” he said. “When will you change?”

“Never, I hope. Where else would we get our kicks?” Johnny said, humming. “Hey, you sound better. More yourself.”

Peter bit at a knuckle, staring down at his work. More yourself.

It was a good design. If only he could trust his own results.

“All thanks to you,” he said, and he could hear Johnny smile across the line. He shut his eyes again. “So. What was he doing with those clown fish?”

 


 

He rendezvous’d with Cindy on a party boat full of snake people, which felt about right. They played catch up while they chased hissing supervillain wannabes around the dance floor. He blamed the shared spider’s bite for why he could never keep anything secret from her. The Living Brain, he didn’t want to talk about (his fingers still stung, a phantom thing – the damage had healed days before), so what came out of his mouth instead was all about Johnny.

“Oh my god, you’re his sugar daddy!” Cindy said. Her words nearly made him balk; she planted her hands on his shoulders so she could vault herself over into the fight. More to herself, she continued, “Do people still say that?”

“Tragically, yes, people still say that,” Peter said, swinging after her. “And no, I am not. How am I his sugar daddy?”

“He bats his pretty eyelashes and you buy him a building, for starters,” Cindy said, punctuating her words with a roundhouse kick. She flipped backwards, springing over the buffet table.

“You think his eyelashes are pretty?” Peter asked.

“Oh, please, I’ve sat across a table from him, they’re out to here,” Cindy said. ‘Out to here’ was probably meant to refer to the long sweep of her arm as she backhanded a man trying to sneak up on her. “I’ve seen romcoms, I know how this goes.”

“If my life is a comedy, this is a pretty sad punch line,” Peter said, breaking a snake man’s nose. “Get it? Because –”

“You just punched that guy in the face, yeah, yeah,” Cindy said. “I get a real kick out of this whole fight banter thing, too.”

Her heel connected sharply with another snake man’s chin.

“Okay,” Peter conceded. “Yours was better.”

The fight ended pretty quickly after that; the villains webbed, the captain freed, and all there was left to do was wait until the boat got back into swinging range of the city. Peter settled down with his elbows on the railing and watched the distant, twinkling lights.

High above the skyline, a man on fire flew in loop-de-loops. Peter felt himself start to smile automatically, even though there was nothing to smile about. He’d been combing through Parker Industries for days, looking for familiar traces of Otto.

Johnny, up so high he looked like a firefly, still sparked something joyful in his chest.

He was in so much trouble.

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world,” Peter quoted, sighing. “He had to walk into mine.”

“It’s club soda, actually,” Cindy said, coming up beside him and sliding a cup his way.

“Do you ever think about the bunker?” he asked, and immediately regretted it when Cindy rounded on him. But he’d said it, and now he had to keep going, “Do you ever think that – maybe you’re still back there?”

“What kind of question is that?” she said.

“Before I found you,” Peter said, hands clasped, head bowed. “There was this supervillain –”

“Doctor Octopus,” Cindy said. “I know. What does that have to do with the bunker?”

“I feel like,” Peter said, gesturing helplessly in front of him. He was well aware he was babbling, but he couldn’t stop. “I feel like I was trapped in a bunker, but in my own head, you know? And I – maybe I’m still in there. Or maybe I just traded places with him, and he’s just waiting, like I was just waiting. Lurking in some corner of my memory, biding his time until I mess up.”

Cindy hunched her shoulders. She stared grimly ahead. “That’s a pretty awful thing to tell the girl who was actually in a bunker, Peter.”

“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry. I don’t – I don’t know who to talk to.”

“Well there’s nothing to swing from yet, and I don’t feel like swimming,” Cindy said. “So I guess I’m stuck here until the boat hits the harbor.” She tugged her mask down to take a sip of her drink, then gave him a pointed look. “That was an invitation to keep telling me about your disaster life.”

Peter laughed, even though nothing was really funny.

“Otto had a plan B,” he said, outlining the situation with the Living Brain in as few words as possible. The look on Cindy’s face made something painful burn in his chest. “And if he had a plan B, then there’s got to be a plan C, and if there’s a plan C…”

“Plans D through Z,” Cindy summed up.

“Then we get into the Roman numerals,” Peter said, shoulders heavier by the second. “He beat me before, Cin. He climbed into my head and he nearly kicked me out for good. How do I know it won’t happen again?”

“You don’t,” Cindy said, elbows up on the railing. “But, for what it’s worth, I don’t think it will.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know who I am, this side of that. I thought I knew but now…” Peter gestured uselessly – at the skyline, at the plastic bag floating in the water down below, at the state of his disaster life. He opened his mouth to say it, I’m worried I’m not really me anymore, but he couldn’t get the words out.

“Who are you really, and what were you before?” Cindy quipped back. Peter shot her a look and she shrugged. “It’s Casablanca, weirdo. Do you think you have a monopoly on the banter?” She sighed, head tipped back. “Ezekiel left me a lot of movies in the bunker. Don’t ask me how many times I’ve seen Clueless.”

“Well,” Peter said. Their elbows brushed together, companionable, as they leaned on the railing together, watching the shore approach. “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Cindy snorted into her drink. “As if.”

 


 

Johnny showed up early on a weekend afternoon, so early Peter had only just gotten out of bed, looking ready to come out of his skin. He was all over Peter as soon as the door was closed, kissing him, clinging to him, hands on Peter’s bare chest.

“Hey, hey,” Peter said, catching him by the arms. He licked his lips, tasting apple liquor. “Where’s the fire, hot stuff?”

“Right here,” Johnny said, pushing Peter down on the couch. “You haven’t called me.”

“I’ve been – whoa, hey.” Johnny sank down on his knees in front of him, dragging Peter’s boxers from his hips. “I’ve been busy, okay, wow.”

“I need you,” Johnny said, sucking a kiss to Peter’s thigh. “I needed you.”

“Whoa,” Peter said as Johnny closed his fist around him, jacking him steadily. “Okay, hey. You got me. Wow, have you got me.”

“You didn’t want to talk before. Can we not talk now?” Johnny asked, flicking a look Peter couldn’t decipher up at him. He was so hard in Johnny’s clever hand, and that was before Johnny closed his mouth over him, all liquid heat. Peter had to fight not to fuck up into his mouth.

“Okay,” he said, curling his hand in Johnny’s hair. Johnny hummed. “Not talking, sure, sounds like a – that sounds like a plan.”

But the fact was they’d never done ‘not talking’ before, not even in the heat of the moment. There was always some snide comment, some laughing remark. Had he ever fucked Johnny when they weren’t laughing?

Still Johnny made no noise as he took Peter apart with his mouth.

“You are way too good at this,” Peter said at one point, but where that usually would have provoked a snide remark Johnny only redoubled his efforts, eyes closed, swallowing Peter down to the root.

The strange silence was contagious; Peter found himself stifling his moan as he came.

Johnny made a choked noise as he swallowed. Peter’s hand came up to swipe come from the corner of his mouth with his thumb, but Johnny only pulled away, wiping his mouth off on the back of his hand. His fingers, Peter noticed through hazy-headed bliss, were shaking. Johnny got to his feet and stumbled towards the bathroom.

Peter took a moment to stare at the ceiling before he yanked his boxers back on and got up to follow him.

Johnny was standing by the sink, spitting mouthwash out into the basin. His hands were still shaking.

“Hey, what’s the matter?” Peter said. Johnny shook his head, head bowed, shoulders tight like a bowstring. Peter reached for him, turning Johnny to face him. “Johnny.”

“It’s nothing, it’s,” Johnny said, his breath hitching.

Peter looked at him, really looked at him. The bright bathroom lights showed everything the dim living room had hidden.

“Are you high?” he demanded.

Johnny shrugged one shoulder defensively, ashen and trembling in Peter’s bathroom.

“Little bit. So?” he said. His tone was vicious. “What do you care? You don’t even know what day it is, do you?”

“It’s Sunday,” Peter snapped back, though that was more of a guess. Then he thought about the month, counted back the days, checked them again, and – it was the anniversary, he realized, like a bucket of ice down his back. “Oh. I didn’t realize...”

“Fuck you,” Johnny said. There were tears in his eyes. Peter’s heart broke a little more. “They were supposed to be your family too – I gave you that. They loved you and you can’t even remember?”

It was the one year anniversary of the day Sue and Reed had disappeared. Peter swallowed hard. “I didn’t think – I wasn’t keeping track of days. I don’t – I was working.”

The words sounded hollow to his own ears. Johnny’s eyes blazed, actual sparks dancing in his irises.

“Don’t!” he said. “You didn’t care, Peter! Nobody cares! They’re just gone and I’m, what, I’m supposed to accept that? They’re gone and nobody cares-”

Peter grabbed him before he could keep talking, wrapping his arms around Johnny, pulling him in tight against his own body. He trusted that no matter how angry Johnny was, no matter how out of it, he wouldn’t burn him. He pressed his nose to the side of Johnny’s head, breathing in the smell of his hair, and let Johnny clutch at him, shoulders shaking.

“Nobody cares,” Johnny repeated, voice thick and wet and awful.

“Stop,” Peter said, inhaling deep. Johnny pressed his face into Peter’s neck, sobs wracking his body. Peter slid one hand up to cradle the back of his head. “You know that’s not true. I care. You know I care.”

Johnny nodded wordlessly; Peter hadn’t thought his heart could break anymore, but here they were. He pulled back a little, holding Johnny’s face between his hands.

“Let’s go out on the balcony,” he said, brushing Johnny’s hair back from his forehead. “You can flame on and sober up for me. Okay, hot stuff? We can go flying, blow off some steam, just like we always used to.”

“I don’t want to,” Johnny said, shaking his head. “I’m so sick of feeling this way, Peter.”

“I know,” Peter said, closing his eyes and tugging Johnny in close again. “Believe me. I know.”

“Distract me,” Johnny said, curling against him, trying to make himself smaller than he was. His eyelashes fluttered damp against Peter’s skin. “Tell me about all your boring board meetings or who you webbed in the face last week, or fuck me until I can’t think straight anymore. I don’t care, just get me out of my head.”

“Okay,” Peter said, hand curled in the back of Johnny’s hair. “Okay, hey, I got you. You’re okay.”

“I can’t remember the last thing I said to my family,” Johnny said. “So I’m really not.”

They ended up in a pile of limbs on the bathroom floor, Peter’s bare back to the cold bathtub and Johnny leaning against his chest, Peter’s arms locked around Johnny’s waist. Peter’s mouth was on autopilot, but his mind was a year in the past. On the long, long list of the worst things Peter had seen in his life, watching Ben and Johnny search desperately for any sign of Reed or Sue or the kids and coming up empty was high up there.

He just talked, rambling words filling up the room, just letting himself feel the steady rise and fall of Johnny’s chest, the warmth of his skin.

“Alex Power’s parents called me this morning,” Johnny said when Peter finished a long, boring story about May and Jay’s plans for redecorating their apartment. He shifted in the circle of Peter’s arms, eyes damp, every line of him of miserable.

“Oh,” Peter said quietly. The Four were so big, sometimes he forgot – the Future Foundation kids had disappeared with Reed and Sue, too. Eleven tiny, impossibly bright minds, just gone.

“Yeah,” Johnny sighed, lifting his head. He scrubbed a hand over his face. “The last time I saw them, Mrs. Power spit in my face and Mr. Power broke his hand on Ben. Not that I blame them.”

Peter made a soft noise. “What did they say?”

“Not a lot,” Johnny said. “They want answers, and I don’t have any. I don’t know what to say them. They, uh, they cried.”

There were still teardrops stuck to his eyelashes. Peter swiped a thumb across one high cheekbone.

“They were supposed to take me with them,” Johnny said. Peter tightened his grip on him, a reflex. “They can take all the kids, and Reed can put Doom’s face back, and they couldn’t take me and Ben? I don’t believe that. They left us. We got left.”

What could Peter say? I’m glad they did, because I want you here with me, was so selfish the words curdled in his mouth. He was a terrible friend and a worse sort-of-lover.

“Why would they leave me and not the kids?” Johnny asked quietly. “I want my niece and nephew back.”

Peter swallowed hard. “Reed and Sue – you know they always did what they thought was best. You know – wherever they are, you know that if they had a choice, then they must have had a reason.”

“Yeah. Doesn’t mean a whole lot right now. Can we go somewhere?” Johnny asked, voice plaintive. Peter could have cried. Peter could have leveled the whole building. “I know a million places, you can pick – we don’t have to stay in the same room if that’s the issue.”

“It’s not,” Peter lied, shifting, noses bumping. He kissed Johnny gently, hoping the message came across better through actions than words: It’s not you.

“I don’t care,” Johnny told him. “I just want to get out of here for a little while.”

“Where? If you could pick anywhere – where would we go?” This was a dangerous game he was playing; he should have said ‘you.’

“You pick,” Johnny told him.

“Okay,” Peter said, closing his eyes. “It’s a ski lodge. I’m very rich and very dashing and wearing a maroon velour jacket. Maybe I’m smoking a pipe, who knows. You’ve broken your ankle doing something stupid before you even hit the slopes, you sad excuse for a ski bunny.”

Johnny snorted miserably. “I’m being serious here, Hugh Hefner. Be serious for me.”

“Okay,” Peter said. He tried to picture the perfect place for them, if they were anybody but themselves. “Okay, I’ll – I’m going to try. What about a beach?”

“Is it private?” Johnny asked. “Better yet, is it nude?”

“No and no,” Peter said. “It’s kind of on the noisy side, but you don’t care, and I’m kind of enjoying all the complaining I’m doing, so I don’t care either.”

“Sounds like you,” Johnny said, soft.

“And everything’s just,” Peter said, breathing out slow. “It’s just blue sky and sea and warm sand. And you. And there aren’t any stupid world-ending crises and nobody’s in an impractical costume. It’s just boring all day, in and out, nothing happening. And we’re happy.”

It was too easy to get lost in the fantasy: a long white beach, an endless horizon. Peter would be ache-free, no still-healing bruises or abrasions, and he’d feel relaxed, the way he hadn’t felt since – he didn’t know, anymore. Maybe he’d never felt it. Johnny would be happy, the way he used to be. The way he was supposed to have stayed. He’d splash ocean water at Peter and laugh uncontrollably when Peter wrestled him further into the deeps. He’d taste like salt spray when Peter kissed him, arms looped easily around Peter’s shoulders. Peter would sleep beside him at night with no worries about someone else lurking at the back of his head.

Maybe they had that in some other, better life.

Johnny swallowed hard. “That’s a nice thought, Pete.”

“Yeah, I thought so,” Peter said. He sat very still while Johnny took him by the back of the neck, pulling his head forward so they could rest their foreheads together again. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, Peter thought, tasting bitterness. “Okay. Better?”

“No,” Johnny admitted.

“I know,” Peter said. “Hey, listen. I’ll fly you out west, alright? You can go spend a few days with Wyatt – whatever you need. Just to get away. Just take the plane and go. You can be there in a few hours.”

“Come with me,” Johnny said. He tilted his head to kiss Peter, just the brush of his warm lips against Peter’s mouth, halfway between a plea and a promise.

“I can’t,” Peter said, hating himself. Hating Otto, more and more every day, for taking away the possibility of a life where Johnny Storm said, come with me, and Peter said, okay.

Johnny sighed. “Okay then. Lay it on me.”

“Lay what on you?” Peter asked, picking up Johnny’s hand, playing with his fingers. He raised their joined hands to his mouth, pressing his lips to Johnny’s knuckles. Johnny sighed, fond and a little annoyed.

“The excuse,” Johnny said. “And make it good this time.”

“There’s no excuse,” Peter said, half-lying and half-honest. There was no excuse. Just a nightmare he couldn’t bring himself to voice for fear of making it real.

“Because, see, Reed was the king of excuses,” Johnny said. “So if you’re performing surgery on a distant solar system, or working out how to terraform planets and feed millions -- you should tell me now, so I can understand what’s going on with you.”

“I’m not smart enough for that stuff,” Peter said, heart aching with how much he missed impossibly brilliant, improbably kind Reed.

“Bullshit,” said Johnny, who had always believed Peter was so much more than he actually was. Peter smothered that thought, pressing his lips to the back of Johnny’s hand, the knob of his wrist, the inside where his pulse beat. Anywhere he could reach. He’d always liked Johnny’s hands – his long fingers, the work calluses from the garage, how they were always warm. Almost always. He remembered the shockingly cool brush to their fingers when Johnny had pressed the flash drive into his hand: Happy new birthday, Pete.

“Torch,” he said, closing his eyes.

“You’re smart enough to do whatever you want,” Johnny said, voice blazing.

“Not really,” Peter said. He wasn’t smart enough to fix his own problems. He wasn’t smart enough to get Johnny’s family back for him. He wasn’t smart enough to make this work.

“You’re really not going to give me a reason, are you?” Johnny said, a note of resignation in his voice. “You’re not even going to lie to me?”

“I don’t lie to you,” Peter said, shaking his head. This was such an old game, too easy to fall back into: he didn’t lie to anybody. He just didn’t tell them the truth.

Johnny made a quiet, disbelieving noise, and made to pull away. Automatically Peter held on tighter, fingers splayed across Johnny’s stomach. Johnny elbowed at him, not playfully.

“Pete, let me go,” he said, yanking himself away in earnest.

There was a split-second where something in Peter told him to hold on tighter, that he was stronger than Johnny, that Johnny wouldn’t burn him so Peter could wrap his arms around Johnny’s waist and hold him trapped against him. So Johnny couldn’t escape.

Revulsion swept through Peter. He let go of Johnny like he really had been burned.

Johnny climbed to his feet; Peter stayed where he was, on the ground, watching as Johnny paced the room, clenching and unclenching his hands.

“I thought I could do this,” he said at last. “Or, okay, no, actually, I thought you’d – I don’t know, that you’d come around. You’ve always been the relationship guy.”

He swallowed, throat working, and Peter wanted to get up and go to him. He wanted to hold him. He stayed on the ground.

“So I guess it’s just me you don’t want,” Johnny said. He looked like a wreck, eyes red-rimmed and hair in disarray, shirt rucked up where Peter’s fingers had snaked underneath to touch skin. He was still the best thing Peter had ever seen.

Peter needed to tell him. Peter’s tongue was made of lead.

“Okay,” Johnny said after a beat. “I guess I’m going, then.”

“Johnny, no,” Peter finally managed to say. “Stay. You shouldn’t have to be alone today.”

He knew it was the wrong thing to say as soon as he said it.

“Well, that’s the great thing about being me, actually,” Johnny said, shrugging, settling too easy into a role Peter had seen him play a hundred times: Human Torch, superstar playboy. “I never have to be alone – I’ve got a date with another eccentric billionaire, one who actually bothered to remember what today is.” Eyes flashing with actual sparks, he added, “I bet you all your new cold, hard cash he won’t leave me alone in bed, either.”

Peter’s blood ran cold, then too hot. He staggered to his feet, but Johnny was already in the hallway. The door slammed shut, rattling, leaving Peter alone in his huge, empty apartment.

He sagged back against the sink, the heels of his palms pressed to his forehead.

“Damnit, Otto,” he said. The marble cracked under his fist when he slammed it down. “Damnit.”

 


 

Peter didn’t see Johnny for almost five days. He tried not to think too much about it. He threw himself into distractions. Either of his jobs could easily fill up a day, so together they didn’t leave him a lot of time to think about Johnny, to remember the way his fingers trembled, the damp sweep of his eyelashes.

I needed you, he’d said. The anniversary of the worst day of his life and Peter had only made things worse.

“Well, Spider-Man,” he said to himself, launching himself into the air. “You’ve done it again, haven’t you. You love ‘em, you hurt ‘em. That’s just how it goes.”

Peter swung himself up, high as he could, and dove sharply. He spun and twisted, throwing himself into the acrobatics of things until he stopped thinking about it – Johnny, with someone else. Someone else’s mouth on his mouth, someone else’s hands on his body, someone else’s sympathetic ear, when in any good world Peter would have remembered the date. When in any good world there wouldn’t need to be a date to remember.

No disappearances, no sneering ghost potentially lurking in the back of Peter’s head. No secret doubt that even if Otto was truly gone, Peter had been too changed by everything to ever really be himself again.

“Is that so much to ask?” he said aloud, landing nimbly on the ledge of a building. A pigeon hooted disdainfully. “Yeah. Guess it is just my luck.”

This was better, he told himself. Johnny had never been good at being on his own and on his own was, somehow, where Peter always ended up.

That was what he told himself until the morning Rogue practically dive-bombed him out of the sky.

“Alright, bug,” she said, stopping so short in front of him he had to change his swing last second to avoid a collision. “Where is he?”

“First off, Little House on the Prairie, spiders aren’t insects,” he said, the same old usual line. He landed, sticking to a nearby window so she could hover a few feet away. There was a line between her brows; her tone had been angry, but she looked worried. “Second? I have no idea what you’re talking about. Where’s who?”

“If you think you’re being cute, you can forget it,” Rogue snapped. The breeze whipped her hair around her face; she had to spit out a lock of her white streak. “Everyone knows it’s your boss the Torch’s been spending so much alone time with. You’re Parker’s bodyguard, so you’ve gotta know where Parker is, which means you know where Johnny is!”

“I,” Peter gaped. He’d never wondered what Johnny had told the Unity Squad, if he’d told them anything at all. He wondered how much Steve had been laughing at him. He fumbled to cover. “Mr. Parker’s been in meetings all week. He hasn’t had time to call his aunt, let alone entertain the Human Torch.”

Rogue snorted on “entertain”, which gave Peter a good enough idea what the rest of the Unity Squad thought about their relationship.

“Right,” she said. “Well. If you see him, you tell him to get his butt back over, STAT. I don’t know how the Fantastic Four used to do it, but turning off your phone and avoiding meetings doesn’t go over real well on this team.” She hesitated mid-turn. “And if you don’t really don’t see him, well… tell your boss we’re startin’ to get pretty worried.”

She swept off without another word, disappearing around a corner, leaving Peter hanging on the side of the building. All of his blood had turned to ice.

He thought back, trying to remember a glimpse of Johnny’s bright hair, an article online, anything since the day Johnny had stormed out of his apartment, but he couldn’t.

“He’s sulking,” he told himself even as he pulled up Johnny’s number, stilling hanging thirty stories up by his fingertips. It wasn’t like a moody fit was unprecedented where Johnny was concerned.

Except Johnny had a team, and Johnny would never blow them off.

“Come on, come on,” Peter mumbled to himself as the line kept ringing. There was a click, and for one split second his heart soared. Then Johnny’s answering machine played its usual message, the warmth of his voice spilling out even through leave a message after the beep. “Johnny, it’s – you know who it is. And I know you’re mad at me, but I just had a run-in with Rogue, and – I’m worried about you. Call me back as soon as you get this.”

He’s fine, he told himself, futilely, hanging up. He’s fine. He’s mad at you. He’s fine.

Johnny didn’t call him back the first time, or the second, or the panicked, begging third. He didn’t answer any of Peter’s texts. His social media accounts were a deadzone. When Peter went to his apartment and broke the lock on the door he found it empty, the bed unmade and unslept in, an old dish abandoned at the breakfast bar.

It didn’t look like anyone had been there in days.

Peter’s head reeled. Not him.

It was all he could think as he headed back to the office, a desperate, pleading prayer, silently recited a hundred times over: Please, not him. Not him too.

But Johnny was golden and bright like sunshine, and Peter knew terrifyingly well what the world did to people like that.

“Please,” he said out loud, alone in the elevator. “Please, please. I don’t know what I have to promise, but I’ll promise it. Just not him.”

The doors slid open and Harry was on him in an instant. “Where the hell have you been?”

“Not today,” Peter snapped at him, storming past. Employees scattered in his wake. Harry followed hot on his heels, undeterred by either the tone in Peter’s voice or the look on his face. Any other day, Peter might have been grateful for that. “I don’t need this, Harry, not today –”

“Yeah?” Harry said, getting in his face. “Well, I need you to actually answer your calls when you’re out doing whatever it is you don’t want me knowing you do, especially now that Anna Maria’s -- left.”

The accusation was clear as day. Peter put his hand on Harry’s shoulder and shoved past him, a little rougher than he’d usually be with Harry, stalking into his office. Harry followed him, watching with silent anger as Peter collapsed into his chair and pushed the heels of his palms against his eyes.

“Is it May?” Harry asked after a second. “Because if it’s May –”

“It’s not May,” Peter said.

There was a long pause before he heard Harry sigh and lean his hip against the desk. “Unbelievable.”

“I just need to think,” Peter said, because the truth was he couldn’t. His mind was stuck on the last time he’d seen Johnny, walking away from him. “I just need a second to think, Harry, please.”

Harry’s exhale was loud and irritated, but he didn’t say anything else. Peter sat there, fingers twisted in his hair, and one by one his senses came back to him through the panicked haze of please please please and the way Johnny’s phone had seemed to ring forever. His vision focused on the carpet, on the scuff on his left shoe. He smelled Harry’s obnoxious cologne and tasted blood where he’d worried his lip raw.

Slowly, at last, a conversation from just outside the door reached his ears, and with it the slightest tingle at the base of his skull.

He dropped his hands to the arms of his chair and looked up at Harry. “Why’s everybody whispering about Archie Belrose?”

“Now he asks,” Harry said. “I’ve been calling you about that for two days. Remember when Belrose cancelled that meeting?” The only things in Peter’s head for the past week had been the memory of Johnny’s smiling mouth pressed to his own and a regret as heavy as a mountain. Harry sighed at Peter’s blank look. “No, of course you don’t. Well, there was a meeting, and he cancelled it, and since then everything’s been weirdly silent.”

“Until the other day,” Peter hazarded a guess.

“There’s that brain you’re supposed to have,” Harry said, rubbing at his forehead. “Here I was, worried the Human Torch had sucked it out. Yes, until today. It’s going around like wildfire now – Belrose’s company is planning on making some big announcement tomorrow.”

“About what?” Peter asked, massaging his temples. He couldn’t care about some other business now, not when he didn’t know where Johnny was. “What do they even do?”

“Something with energy, I don’t know. I’m here because your weird science might walk, but it’s still money that talks,” Harry said. “But they’ve managed to get everyone talking all of a sudden. I don’t like it, if you were wondering. It’s cryptic. I’m expecting some kind of death laser, so you can be sure to tip your bodyguard off. Those energy guys are all off their rockers.”

Peter made a defeated noise, slumping down with his elbows against the desk and one palm flat to his forehead. He let his eyes fall shut.

Two seconds later, they snapped open. He pushed back from the desk, his chair clattering to the ground.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going now?” Harry shouted at his back.

“I know what he’s doing!” Peter called back over his shoulder, heading for the stairwell.

 


 

Peter stormed the Fact Channel offices in search of Cindy, hoping beyond hope that she was a better employee than he ever had been and that she hadn’t disappeared on a two hour swinging break.

He should have known JJJ would never make it that easy on him.

“Out of my way, Jonah,” he said when the elevator doors dinged open and the man himself was standing there, barring Peter’s path.

“Hold those horses,” Jonah said, one palm at the center of Peter’s chest. Peter didn’t have time for this. “You march in here like it’s the end of the world and –”

Jonah,” Peter said, wrapping his hand around Jonah’s wrist and removing his hand from his person with the kind of strength he’d rarely, if ever, let Jonah glimpse. “I’m not kidding. I need to speak to Cindy Moon and you are in my way.”

Jonah made a frustrated noise, red in the face. Peter steeled himself for a fight, but then Jonah seemed to almost deflate. He wrenched his hand out of Peter’s grip only to grab him, roughly, by the shoulder.

“Parker,” he said, gruff but not unkind. “I think you forget sometimes – I’ve known you since you were a kid. I’ve only seen that look on your face, what, a handful of times? You tell me what you need, and you’ve got it. Whatever it is, it’s yours.”

Jonah’s rare flashes of a good side had always been worse than a sucker punch. Peter breathed out, caught off guard, and reached up to squeeze Jonah’s wrist – gently this time.

“I know,” he said. “You can’t help me with this one, Jonah.”

“You’re a stubborn, ungrateful brat and you always have been,” Jonah said, mustache bristling. “Go. If you get that girl into any trouble, it’ll be your hide.”

Peter pushed past him, saying, “Love you too, bro,” just to get one final dig in.

Cindy was at her cubicle, playing with something on her phone. She looked up when he approached, and then did a doubletake. “What happened to you? You look terrible -- what are you doing?”

Peter had dropped to his knees in front of her chair and taken her hands in his. “Cindy. I need your help.”

“You need psychiatric help,” she said, blinking down at him.

“I need a whole new life,” he admitted, laughing brokenly. “Cindy – it’s Johnny. He’s gone. Kidnapped, I think, by someone who – who wants to use him as an energy source.”

Cindy sucked in a quiet breath.

“I’m scared,” he admitted.

“Peter,” Cindy said. “I don’t – what are you asking?”

“I can’t think, Cin,” he said, desperate. “I can’t – I can’t trust my own thoughts. And he needs Spider-Man. Right now, the person with those skills? That’s you. Cindy, please. I need to trust myself, and I can’t do that right now – but I trust you. Come with me. Help him.”

She stared at him for a long moment, eyes wide. “Okay. Okay, yeah, obviously. He’s my friend too. Where do we start?”

 


 

“How do these guys always get islands?” Cindy asked, half-leaning out of the plane as Peter held them steady. “How do you even get an island?”

“With money,” Peter said.

“Why don’t you have one then?” Cindy asked. The wind whipped her short hair around her face.

“Because I’ve never wanted to kidnap anyone,” Peter said. “You remember the plan?”

“The plan we’ve been over every five minutes since we got on the plane?” Cindy said. “I think I forgot it.”

“Cindy –” he said, only for her to cut him off, her grip like iron on his shoulder.

“Peter,” she said. “I’m fast, I’m strong. My spider-sense is sharper than yours, and right now my head is definitely clearer. Don’t worry about me.”

“I can’t help it,” he said. “I’m on overdrive. I’m worrying about my pilot’s acid reflux.”

“You flew us here,” Cindy said.

“I stand by what I said.”

“He’s going to be okay,” Cindy promised. She leaned over and squeezed his shoulder, giving him one confident smile before she pulled her mask up.

“Web parachute,” he reminded her.

“I’m not an idiot,” she said, perched on her tiptoes, her arms spread out. “Worry about your boyfriend, not about me.”

She dove. Peter sucked in a breath through his teeth and focused on landing the plane.

He’ll be okay, he said to himself, his constant mantra since he and Cindy had taken off. It didn’t do anything to calm the desperate hammering of his heart. He’ll be okay.

There were guards waiting when Peter landed the plane. He wasn’t surprised, but he also didn’t have time for this.

The island sun was hot against his face when he exited the plane. Everything around him white stone and palm trees. It looked like the kind of place Johnny might have liked, if there was any chance Johnny had come here of his own volition.

There wasn’t, though. Peter, Johnny might blow off. A team who depended on him? Never.

“Dr. Parker,” one of the men said. “We weren’t expecting you.”

“That’s because it’s a surprise visit,” he said. Someone started to pat him down; he let them, his hands held cooperatively up. “I’m here to see Mr. Belrose.”

“I’m afraid that’s not going to possible,” the guard who had addressed him said, and then suddenly there were guns in his face.

This part Peter really didn’t have time for.

Peter didn’t think, he just moved. He grabbed the security officer’s gun hand, twisting until he dropped the weapon; at the same time he kneed the second man in the stomach.

“I think you’re going to find I’m not easily intimidated,” he said, disposing of a third and a fourth quickly. “Seriously, I’ve seen mall cops with better coordination. If this is the best money can buy, I’m glad I saved the receipt.”

He grabbed the last man standing by the collar, pulling him in close. “Take me to your leader.”

 


 

Webbing from above took out the guard as soon as he’d shown Peter the way. Cindy, crawling on the ceiling, waved, then motioned at herself and the hallway. Peter flashed her a thumbs up and waited until she was out of sight before he cracked the door open.

Belrose’s office was a slick white room, the kind where the boundaries never seemed to be exactly where you expected them. He was dressed in a slate grey suit, his head bent over his desk. For one crystal clear moment, Peter imagined striking, his hands on Belrose, Belrose’s smug face slammed against his own desk.

But he didn’t know what he’d done with Johnny yet.

“Yes?” Belrose said without looking up.

“What did you do with the Human Torch?” Peter asked.

Belrose’s head snapped up. He wore the too broad grin that Peter remembered disliking the first time he’d seen it, but his spider-sense had been silent so he’d chalked it up to a grudge against the silver spoon he could practically see dangling out of the man’s mouth.

But of course his spider-sense had been silent; there’d been no danger to him.

“Dr. Parker,” he said, getting up. He held out his hand; Peter didn’t take it. Belrose’s smile faded a little. He suddenly seemed to realize that they were alone in the room. “Ah. Your bodyguard handled my guards.”

“No,” Peter said. “Just me and my own resources. I’m going to ask again: I’m hearing a lot of chatter, and I can’t reach Johnny. What did you do with the Human Torch?”

Belrose’s eyes lit up again; Peter imagined throwing him through the floor-to-ceiling windows, straight down the sheer cliffs they overlooked.

“Of course you guessed, you’re a brilliant man,” Belrose said, like Peter could be flattered, or like Peter didn’t know that it wasn’t true – he wasn’t brilliant, he was the biggest idiot on the planet. “You know perfectly well what he’s can do.”

I love him, Peter thought, desperately. Out loud, he said, “I know what he’s capable of, yes. I don’t know what you did with him.”

Belrose grabbed a remote from the desk. A screen fell, and Peter’s heart sank.

The screen displayed a man, trapped in a machine, burning. There was no sound, but Peter imagined he could hear Johnny screaming anyway. His features were obscured by the white hot light he was putting out.

Peter arms ached with the memory of holding him one late afternoon, just five more minutes, Johnny laughing and mocking him the whole time.

“Isn’t he glorious?” said Belrose.

“Why are you doing this?” Peter asked, voice steadier than he’d ever imagined it could be.

“I always knew you were an intelligent man, Mr. Parker,” said Belrose, like hadn’t heard Peter. Peter had met plenty of the type over the years – too absorbed in how smart they thought they were to listen to what anyone else was saying. “The Human Torch can burn upwards of – well, you’re an intelligent man, you know the numbers – and that’s clean energy. The power of a star in one empty-headed superhero.”

Empty-headed. Peter hands curled into fists.

“All those years and Reed Richards had him running around punching monsters and bringing back samples from other dimensions. And they called him the smartest man on the planet for it!” Belrose said. “What a waste. He can do great things. We can do great things.”

He gestured Peter’s way, chin tipped up. “I could use someone with your brain on my team when we really get started here, Dr. Parker. All this power – anything’s possible for you.”

He smiled at Peter, like he expected him to be flattered by his extended hand.

Peter pulled his punch and only broke Belrose’s nose. Belrose reeled backwards, hands cupped over his face, but Peter didn’t give him any quarter. He grabbed him by his bloody shirtfront, pulling him forward.

“You’re hurting him,” he said. “Shut it down or I shut you down.”

“Progress requires sacrifice –” Belrose stammered out, eyes wide as dinner plates. Whatever he had expected from Peter, it hadn’t been physical violence. Peter could use that; he shook him hard.

“I don’t care about your ideas,” he said, baring his teeth. “I care about him. Shut it down or I shut you down. I’ll leave you to burn, just like you left him.”

“I—I –” Belrose stammered. He flinched when Peter shook him again.

“Shut. It. Down,” Peter said, slamming him viciously backwards. The wall rattled. “Right now. You think I’m kidding? You think I won’t do it? Do I look like I won’t do it?”

“I don’t know how,” Belrose admitted, pitifully. The pieces snapped into place for Peter. His fingers tightened in Belrose’s shirt as he burst into slightly hysterical laughter.

“You don’t even know how it works!” he said, laughing at the absurdity of it, the horrible truth. “You’re just some rich boy with a messiah complex and a big idea – you know enough to know that it could work, but you’re not smart enough to understand it. So you just bought other people to do it for you. You’re just some stupid rich narcissist. I bet dear ol’ daddy bought your way onto the water polo team, too.”

Belrose flushed an angry color. “This could change the world!”

“What happens when you kill him, though?” Peter asked, laughter dying. “Because there’s two ways your plan works out, and in the better one he burns out. It’s too much. You kill him in that stupid machine, and that’s it. Your perfect energy source, gone, because you’re too stupid to understand him.”

“The better one?” Belrose gasped out.

“Yeah, better for you,” Peter said. “Because in the second option? He burns out the machine. That’s all it is -- a machine, made by humans. You said it yourself: he’s a star. If you think you can control a star, then you’re stupider than that hair makes you look.”

“I – I –” Belrose stammered. Peter snorted.

“You don’t even understand,” he said, angry beyond measure. “That’s the worst part of this. You think you’re so smart – he’s beyond you. On every single level, he is beyond you. I’m done with you.”

“It was Spider-Man he begged for when they strapped him down,” Belrose sneered, one last petty jab, blood all down his mouth. “Your bodyguard. Not you.”

Emotion stabbed through Peter, a white hot pain, but not the kind Belrose had intended to inflict. Johnny had called for him, and he hadn’t been there.

“I don’t care if he asked for the Queen of England,” Peter said. Belrose weighed about as much as a feather pillow to him; it was an almost careless motion, to toss him through his own coffee table. “I’m what he’s got.”

He dropped into a crouch in front of him, cracking his knuckles. “And what I’ve got are some borrowed webshooters from my dear ol’ bodyguard. So you’re going to give me directions down to where I can find him, and maybe I’ll let you breathe through your nose.”

Belrose talked; Peter resisted the overwhelming temptation and only webbed his mouth, along with his wrists and ankles.

 


 

Cindy was standing in front of the glass when Peter got down to the underground lab. Security was unconscious on the floor. She had one hand on the back of a chair and in the chair was a lab technician, securely webbed. Her head was tipped back, her hand raised to her face.

The light was almost blinding.

Hanging in the center of the next room, held suspended by machinery and kept separate by thick tinted glass, was Johnny. Burning.

Peter sucked in a breath. He couldn’t make out much more than a human form through the blinding light of him, so maybe it was his imagination – but he thought he heard screaming.

“Johnny,” he said, helplessly.

“Normally this is the part where I just start breaking things,” Cindy said. She glanced up again, shielding her eyes against the blinding light, to where Johnny burned bright as the sun. “But I don’t know if that would help.”

She was scared of hurting him. Peter was, too.

He spun the chair around and loomed over Cindy’s captive, hands planted on the chair’s arms. Belrose’s blood had dripped on his white shirt. He knew what he looked like.

“Tell me you know how to turn it off safely, or you’re going to end up like your boss,” he said. “I guarantee you, it won’t be pretty.”

“I didn’t want to do it,” the technician said, white-faced and sweaty. “I was always a Fantastic Four fan.”

Peter’s hands curled into fists.

“You should probably stop talking,” Cindy told the technician. “If only for your own safety.”

“Can you shut it off?” Peter demanded. “Can you bring him down?”

“Yes,” the technician said. “Yes, I can do it.”

“Safely?” Peter said. And then, heart beating hard against his ribs, “Alive?”

“Yes,” the technician stuttered. “Yes, I – I think so.”

“You think so?” Peter repeated, getting in his face. “Okay. Do it. And if anything happens to him – I’ll do the same thing to you. Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” the technician said, pale.

Peter spun his chair around. “Good. Bring him down.”

It was a slow process. First, Johnny’s flames were extinguished, leaving him hanging amidst machinery. Peter’s hands met the glass that separated them, desperate to reach him. He remembered the last time he’d touched him; he remembered how he hadn’t gone after him when he knew it was what Johnny wanted.

Cindy grabbed him by the shoulder, anchoring him.

Next, Johnny was lowered to the ground. He’d been stripped down to his underwear; steam curled up from his skin. Cindy made a quiet noise; the back of the technician’s chair crumpled under Peter’s grip.

“Okay,” the technician said. “Okay, that’s it. Please don’t hurt me, Dr. Parker. I love your Webware.”

“Stop talking,” Peter said, forcing the glass doors open.

He knelt down in front of Johnny, taking inventory: ten fingers, ten toes, no marks on him that Peter could see, but his skin was ashen. His eyes were closed; there were bruises under them. Johnny’s chest heaved with ragged breath.

“Hey, Torch,” Peter said softly, touching his shoulder. “Can you hear me?”

“Pete?” Johnny mumbled, voice dry and cracked. His eyes blinked open, cloudy. Peter touched his face next, palm to his cheek.

“Yeah, Johnny. It’s me.”

Johnny smiled, shaky. There shouldn’t have been anything left in Peter’s chest to shatter, but it happened all over again.

“Easy, easy,” he said, lifting Johnny from the contraption. Johnny stumbled as soon as his feet hit the ground, knees buckling. Peter hissed, sweeping him easily back up. Johnny laughed a little bit, but his gaze was unsteady and his fingers weak where they clutched at Peter’s shoulders. His skin was unnaturally cool to the touch. “Relax, Hot Stuff, I got you. Hey, Johnny, answer me.”

His voice broke a little on Johnny’s name.

“Don’t touch me,” Johnny said, pushing at Peter’s chest. “Am I still hot? I feel too hot.”

“Smoking, like always,” Peter joked, vision swimming. Johnny laughed a little as Peter knelt down just enough to get his own jacket off and around Johnny’s shoulders. “No, you’re cold, actually. I don’t like it. We’re leaving now, okay?”

“You came for me,” Johnny said. Even his smile was wobbly. His voice was hoarse, like he’d been screaming. Peter’s throat clenched. “I didn’t think anyone would.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Peter told him. “I realize now that I’ve said that you not being stupid is impossible but – someone always comes for you, Torch.”

“Yeah,” Johnny said, eyes slipping shut. “My family did. Now who’s stupid?”

That stung. Peter hoisted Johnny a little higher, hating how limp he was in his arms. “What does that make me, huh?”

Johnny finally cracked a smile, head lolling against Peter’s shoulder. “Okay. You got me there.”

“Yeah,” Peter said. “I thought I might.”

“Is he…?” Cindy trailed off, raising a hand. Peter shook his head.

“He’ll be alright,” he said. “I’ve seen him go nova a few times in a row before - this is how he gets.”

“You try exploding,” Johnny mumbled. “See how you feel. Is that Silk?”

“Hey, Johnny,” she said. “Stop giving Peter all the credit. I was the cavalry.”

Johnny held a hand out. Cindy grabbed it, squeezing once before she let go.

“You came for me,” he said again, sounding dazed. “Did you hit the guy?”

“I hit the guy,” Peter confirmed. “Right in his smug face.”

“Hope it hurt,” Johnny said. His grip tightened on Peter’s shirt. “Get me out of here?”

“Anything,” Peter promised. “Anything you want.”

“I got it already,” Johnny said, tugging a little at Peter’s collar.

Peter swallowed hard, remembering Belrose’s words: It was Spider-Man he begged for when they strapped him down. He remembered Belrose taking Johnny’s hand in Paris, Peter introducing them. He felt sick.

Johnny slapped at his shoulder once they were outside. “You can put me down.”

Peter didn’t want to, but he did, gingerly letting Johnny’s feet touch the ground. He stumbled, but not as badly as before; Cindy grabbed his other elbow for support.

“My senses are messed up,” Johnny said, blinking. “Seeing everything as heat, or I’m feeling heat and seeing it…”

“You’re exhausted,” Peter said, swallowing his own concern. “You need rest, fluids…” A doctor, he didn’t say, because he wasn’t sure who was even qualified to look over Johnny. They needed Reed, but that was impossible. Johnny would know that, too, so Peter kept his mouth shut.

“To not be on murder island, basically,” Cindy said, trying to draw Johnny another careful step forward towards the plane.

“No,” Johnny said, catching at Peter’s sleeve. “I’m trying to say – there’s something big coming.”

There was something on the horizon. A quinjet.

Peter backed them up a careful couple of steps as it came closer, keeping Johnny between himself and Cindy. There was no buzz from his spider-sense, though, and besides, he recognized the quinjet.

“Looks like I’m not the only one who came for you, Torch,” he said.

A handful of Steve’s team piled out of the quinjet moments after it landed, with Steve front and center. His gaze was appraising when it swept over them, concern in his blue eyes.

Peter was aware what they looked like: him, obviously furious, still whiteknuckled, and Johnny standing beside him in his tight black boxer briefs with Peter’s jacket draped over his shoulders. Johnny was holding his hand with weak fingers. He was alert now, looking at Peter like he’d done something special. Like he didn’t know Peter would have torn the entire island apart looking for him.

“Son?” said Steve. He was looking at them, sharp-eyed. Trust Steve to never miss a step, Peter thought. “We’ll take it from here.”

Peter didn’t want to let them, though. He didn’t want to let go of Johnny. “I can take care of him. There’s a lot of people in the building who could probably use the medical attention part, though.”

There was a flash of white hair as Quicksilver zipped past them. Johnny turned a questioning look on Peter, and then his gaze fell to Peter’s bloodied shirt.

“Pete?”

“Mr. Parker. He needs medical attention,” Steve said. “He’s on my team. He’s my responsibility.”

That was wrong, though – Johnny had been Peter’s responsibility ever since Peter had first looked at him and thought, oh, I love him, years ago. Back before he’d even ever known how much.

“How did you find us?” Peter asked.

“A little combination of a tracking spell when Rogue got worried,” Steve said, nodding towards Jericho Drumm standing besides him, “and seeing Spider-Man’s plane take off at top speed.”

That was a little too close to Steve blowing the truth in front of people who didn’t know for Peter to be comfortable with. “It took you this long? Really?”

“Peter,” Johnny said, squeezing his hand. “Don’t.”

“Are you alright, Torch?” Steve spoke directly to Johnny. Johnny drew himself up a little straighter, nodding, one hand still clutching at Peter’s, their fingers wound together. Peter didn’t want to be here, doing things like this. He wanted to take Johnny home. He wanted Steve to stop looking at him like that.

He wanted a big rewind button, and he wanted to go back years.

“As well as can be expected,” Johnny said, tripping on the words only a little. “Peter saved me. I'm okay.”

“You need medical attention. Specialized medical attention,” Steve said, not unkindly. Of course not; Johnny was a member of his team. Peter remembered what that kind of attention from Steve Rogers felt like.

“I’m okay,” Johnny said, even though he was clutching at Peter to stay upright, even though he’d said his senses were all mixed up, even though he was cool to the touch for only the second time in Peter’s life and even though he’d been tortured for some lunatic’s harebrained scheme. “Peter’s got me.”

But Peter didn’t, not really. He didn’t have anything. He couldn’t keep anyone safe. This wasn’t him, standing here, in a verbal standoff with Captain America, sacrificing Johnny’s well-being for his own pride. This urge to hit someone – this wasn’t him.

Johnny needed things. And Peter couldn’t give them to him.

“I need a moment,” he told Steve.

Steve opened his mouth to protest, but Johnny turned hazy eyes on him. “Give him what he wants, Cap. Peter?”

Peter laughed, shaky and horrible. What would Peter Parker do? He didn’t know anymore. He wrapped a hand around the back of Johnny’s neck, tugging his head down so Peter could press his lips to Johnny’s forehead. He lingered for a moment, then stepped back.

“Pete?” Johnny asked, looking confused.

“I love you,” Peter told him. It was the only thing he felt certain about in the moment. “So much. You know that, right?”

“Yeah, of course,” Johnny said, frowning. Peter’s heart ached with what he was about to do.

“Okay,” Peter said. He leaned their foreheads together again, just for one second. “I just want you to know.”

He rubbed at Johnny’s shoulder, trying to force some warmth back into him, then nodded to Steve.

Steve came forward, big hands gentle at Johnny’s shoulders. Johnny startled, turning to look at him. Peter skimmed his hands down his arms all the way to his fingertips, squeezing, before he let go.

“Peter?” Johnny said, confused, as Steve gently took him by the elbow. “Peter, you’re coming with me, right?”

“I’m sorry,” Peter told him, heart breaking all over again. “You don’t know how different I wish things had been.”

“Peter?” Johnny repeated, reaching for him. Steve drew him another careful step back; Johnny stumbled, still unsteady on his feet. He clutched at Peter’s jacket with one hand.

“You know I love you,” he told Johnny, one last time, before he turned on his heel and walked back to the plane. He didn’t look back. He didn’t listen to Johnny shouting at him.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” Cindy demanded as he climbed into the plane, catching him by the elbow.

“Tokyo,” Peter said, shedding his bloody shirt. “I’ve got a meeting. Want to stick around, get sushi?”

Cindy pulled down her mask. “Peter, I know I’m not exactly the relationship queen, but I’ve seen enough movies to know that if you don’t get off this plane and go with him, you’re going to regret it.”

“I already regret it, Cin, don’t you get that?” Peter said, breathing in sharp. “I regret everything – I took him to that party where he met Belrose, and I let him walk out on me, and I didn’t show up when he needed me. And…”

The ultimate fear, unspeakable even on the tip of his tongue.

“Bunker in your head,” Cindy said.

He nodded, hanging his head.

“You’re a tool. I hope you know that.” Cindy threw herself down in the seat next to him. “This better be really good sushi.”

 


 

There was another flaming message in the sky: WE NEED TO TALK.

It matched the texts on his phone and the angry voicemails, too, so there was no way for Peter to pretend it was meant for someone else.

Peter didn’t call, or text, or skywrite back. Instead he lay on the surprisingly comfortable floor of his office and glared up at the flickering remains of the message until it faded away.

He hadn’t seen Johnny since the rescue. Correction: he had been avoiding Johnny since the rescue, with the kind of speed and agility only a man bitten by a radioactive guilt complex could manage.

“What the hell is wrong with me?” he asked the ceiling.

“I have been asking that for a decade,” Harry said, standing in the doorway. He flicked the lights on. “I’m guessing the sky-writing was meant for you? What’d you do, miss an anniversary? Get him the wrong color Bugatti?”

Peter grunted. “Not the time, Harry.”

“Peter, you are literally lying on the floor, talking to yourself. This is pretty much the only time,” Harry said, standing over him.

“What do you want me to say, Har?” Peter asked, rubbing at his face. “I messed up. It’s my fault.”

“You might want to take me back a little,” Harry said, “because I have no idea what you’re talking about. You like him, he likes your huge piles of money…”

“It’s not like that,” Peter said. “It’s worse.”

Johnny could have the money, if that was what he wanted. Johnny could have everything Peter owned; that was the problem.

“Worse, how?” Harry asked.

How Peter got the words out, he didn’t know, but he said them all the same: “I love him, Har. And I’m not good for him.”

Harry was quiet for a moment before he whistled. He sat down on his haunches next to Peter. He had that look on his face, the one that said Peter was an idiot, but he was Harry’s idiot, and Harry loved him anyway.

“What did you tell me, back in college?” Harry asked.

“You want to narrow it down a little?” Peter said, raising his eyebrows. “Because I don’t think ‘yeah, Harry, I’m sure you’ll look great with a mustache’ is a thing we should revisit.”

“After that frat party I dragged you to,” Harry said, pointedly ignoring the mustache jab. “The one I lost it at. And you jumped to my defense, just like always…”

“Oh,” Peter said, remembering the night easily. Some of those kids had hit harder than C-List villains, and Harry – Peter hadn’t known what to do with that new side of Harry, that night. He’d been too young, he’d liked the rush of a good fight too. He hadn’t realized yet that it was different for Harry.

“You told me we were brothers,” Harry said, snapping him out of it.

“We are,” Peter said.

Harry nodded, more to himself than to Peter. “So don’t lie to me, brother.”

The anymore than you already do went unspoken between them, the same way it always did.

“I can’t imagine you not being good for anyone,” Harry said.

“I just,” Peter said. “I just can’t do it, Har.”

“Yeah, okay,” Harry said, eyebrows raised. “You want to tell me why?”

Because I’m Spider-Man, Peter thought. Because Doctor Octopus stole my body and my life. Because I’m scared it could happen again. Because I love Johnny, and I’m scared Otto will hurt him. Because I’m scared Johnny could look at Otto and he might not know it’s not me.

He shook his head.

“What would you tell me, if I was the sad bastard lying on the floor?” Harry asked.

“Give up now,” Peter said. “Surrender, lay down your arms. Accept mediocrity! Settle for Lola in accounting with the blue hair and the three grandkids.”

“Uh-huh,” Harry said, smirking. “Sure. That’s what you’d say. Well, if you can tear yourself away from Lola, Liz is letting me take her and the kids out for dinner. You should come with us.”

Peter opened his mouth to ‘no’ automatically, then shut it. There was no reason not to go, and Harry wanted him to. That was reason enough. “Where are we going?”

“Fű. It just opened,” Harry said.

“Do I need a jacket?” Peter asked. “Am I going to hate it?”

“Liz picked it,” Harry said. “So yes and yes.”

Peter groaned. Harry held out a hand. Peter took it, letting Harry pull him to his feet.

“Gotta lay off the filet mignon, buddy,” Harry grunted.

“It’s all muscle,” Peter said. “Eventually one of those tech magazines is going to ask me to take my shirt off, right?”

“Whatever you need to tell yourself,” Harry said as they walked together towards the elevator. “Come on. I’m already late to pick up Stanley, so you get to explain to the nanny why she’s going to miss her matinee.”

Dinner was good. Not the food part – the food part was vegan Hungarian, and if the Rhino ever knocked the place over Peter would personally be turning a blind eye – but the company. He and Liz ganged up on Harry, and then Harry and Normie both ganged up on Peter.

Normie had been too grown up for a hug from his godfather at the beginning of the night, but not by the end of it.

“Got your head on straight yet?” Harry asked when they were in the car heading uptown. Stanley slept soundly, his head against Harry’s thigh and Harry’s hand on his son’s back. Harry said it quietly, casually, and he didn’t look at Peter when he said it, just stared at the tablet in his lap.

Peter was absurdly grateful to still have him in his life.

“Getting there,” he said. He thought it was maybe even true.

 


 

Peter got home, he shrugged out of his jacket. He poured himself a glass of water and he checked his messages, idly flipping through channels.

There was only one new message that was important. It was from Johnny.

“Hey, Pete,” he said. He didn’t sound angry this time. Just tired. Peter sank down on the sofa, suddenly heartsick. “I – okay, I’m not an idiot, no matter what you think, and obviously you don’t want to talk to me, so. I’m just going to talk anyway, okay? Even if you never listen to this, I want to say it. I love you. I’m in love with you. Obviously, I’m in love with you, you complete idiot. I’ve been in love with you for… I don’t even know, anymore. It’s crazy, how much I love you. It’s a lot, in case you were wondering.”

Peter swallowed. He’d known already, of course he’d known already, but knowing and hearing were two different things.

Me too, he thought, helplessly.

“Anyway,” Johnny continued. “That’s not what I called to say. My old agent got in touch – apparently being kidnapped by a lunatic billionaire has done wonders for my reputation – and he thinks he can get me a role on some reality thing. And I… I can’t keep doing this, here in New York, on my own. You know I was never good on my own. So I…” Here, a shaky intake of breath. “I guess I’m going out there. Hollywood. What the hell, right? And I don’t… Pete. If there’s any chance you want to talk, I’m still in town this week.”

Peter hung his head, breathing out slow. His hands, twisted together, were whiteknuckled.

“Pete,” Johnny said on the machine. “Call me. If there’s nothing for me here just – tell me that. Okay. That’s all, I guess. Bye, Peter.”

The machine beeped, the message ended. Peter played it four more times: It’s crazy, how much I love you. It’s a lot, in case you were wondering.

Peter exhaled, shaky. Before he knew it he had the costume on and he was out the window, crawling up to the top of the building. He needed air. He needed the kind of clarity only swinging brought him.

“What I wouldn’t give for a rampaging man in a rhinoceros suit about now,” he said, catching himself on the side of the building. He didn’t get that, though – what he did get, an hour later, was a glimpse of two familiar spiders.

Cindy and Miles were both huddled together on a stone gargoyle. Cindy was staring at her phone; Miles had his Webware held aloft.

“What are you doing?” he asked, dropping to hang upside down in front of them.

“Two spider-people can’t hang out unless we’re kicking people in the face?” Miles asked. “That’s not cool, Peter.”

“Shhh!” Cindy said, glaring at her phone. “Oh, come on!”

“Oh no,” Peter said. “Is this a Pokemon thing?”

“Agghhhh!” Cindy said by way of answering.

“Yes,” Miles admitted, somewhat guiltily. He wiggled his Webware around. “I have some of those suggestions you wanted –”

“Yeaaaah,” Peter said. “You can e-mail me the Pokemon ones.”

“Stop sniping my gym!” Cindy said to Miles, throwing her free hand up.

“Stop making it easy,” Miles said.

Cindy made strangling motions.

“You’d like it,” Miles said to Peter, and Peter felt himself start to smile under the mask.

“I’ve got no time on top of all my no time, what would I do with even less time?” Peter said. “Besides, think of the headlines: Spider-Menace Causes Twenty Cab Pile-Up Playing Pokemon In Traffic…”

“Accidentally lets the space monster go loose because there was a Jigglypuff on its butt,” Cindy said.

“I got it back!” Miles protested.

Peter laughed; it felt good, hanging upside down and listening to Miles and Cindy talk. Listening to them he could make himself forget about everything else for a few minutes – including the fact that his blood ran cold every single time he thought about Johnny, leaving.

Cindy was looking at Peter, though, her eyebrows drawn together. “Miles? Why don’t you swing ahead? We’ll catch up in a minute.”

Miles muttered something unkind about Cindy being a sore loser, but he swung away as Cindy and Peter dropped down to a narrow fire escape. She pulled her mask down, frowning. “Peter? What is it?”

“I hate this,” he said, pressing a hand to his forehead. “I hate this stupid connection –”

“Shut up, this isn’t a ‘same spider bit us’ thing, this is a ‘I know what’s happened to you these past couple of months’ thing,” she snapped.

He sighed, sagging back against the brickwork.

“I know,” he said. “In that case, it’d be shorter to tell you what’s right. I’m sorry.”

“Is it Johnny?” Cindy asked, sitting down on the railing.

“He’s leaving,” Peter said. “He – I knew, this whole time, that he couldn’t do this. Be alone, here, in New York. But I guess I – he’s been in my life since I was fifteen, Cindy. I can’t imagine this city without him.”

“The city without him, or you without him?” Cindy asked after a long moment.

Peter spread his hands helplessly. “Where does one end and one begin, you know?”

“No,” Cindy said, shaking her head. “Where’s he going?”

“California. He said something about a reality show,” Peter said. Cindy’s face did something interesting. “What?”

“I maybe watched that cowboy movie he was in,” she said. She shook her head when he opened his mouth. “No, stop, just – that’s far. And he told you he was going?”

“He left me a message,” Peter said, shaking his head. “I can’t see him. I hurt him.”

“You saved him,” Cindy said.

“I took him to that party and that guy saw him and the wheels started turning,” Peter said. “I might as well have strapped him into that machine myself. And I haven’t seen him since. I thought if I even looked at him – I don’t know what I thought. I’m so scared of everything.”

It hurt like hell, pouring all of that out to her, but he didn’t have anyone else to tell.

“I have to talk to him, don’t I?” he said.

“Yeah, I kind of think so,” Cindy said.

“What do I even say?” Peter asked. “I’m sorry, but you knew I was a headcase, please come have dinner with me and maybe if we pretend the last couple of years of our lives never happened, it’ll work out okay?”

“Well, I don’t know, do I?” Cindy said. “When’s the last time somebody asked me out? Getting freaky pheromone stuck on you doesn’t count, before you ask.”

“I wasn’t going to,” Peter lied through his teeth. “Johnny asked you out.”

“And now you’re taking him to Paris for the weekend and saving him from egomaniacal billionaires,” Cindy said. “I’m cursed. You want something to cheer you up?”

“Do I look like I want cheering up?” Peter asked, hand pressed to his chest.

“It’ll either cheer you up or make you feel worse,” Cindy said, digging out her phone. She pulled something up on it and held it out towards him. “Look. The Team Yellow leader is your boyfriend, but zappy.”

Peter looked down at it, then up at her. “You are an odd woman, Cindy Moon.”

There was a feather-light thump as nimble feet landed above them, and then Miles’ mask swung upside-down into view. “What is taking so long?!”

“Adult talk, gym stealer,” Cindy said, tugging her mask back up. “Come on, Pete.”

“Right,” he said, shooting a webline across the street. “Thank you, Cindy. I mean that.”

“No, really, what were you talking about?” Miles asked, swinging alongside him.

“Adult stuff,” Peter said. “Taxes, the futility of life, what to do the first time you’re wrestling a guy dressed like a giant animal and he asks you if you’re as turned on as he is…”

“Um,” said Miles.

“Don’t wrestle giant animal guys,” Peter said, snapping at him. “That’s an order from your Spider-Mentor.”

“Should I be hearing this?” Miles asked.

“No,” Cindy and Peter chorused in unison.

“Then why are you talking about it so much?” Miles complained. “What am I supposed to do, cover my ears and swing with my teeth?”

“You could web yourself some earmuffs,” Cindy suggested.

“Nah, he can’t,” Peter said. “He’s got girls to impress.”

“I changed my mind,” Miles called over his shoulder. “Let’s go back to your problems.”

Flowers, Cindy texted late that night. It took Peter a long couple minutes to figure out that it was Cindy texting – she’d never done it before, and he didn’t have her number in his phone.

??? he sent back, then saved her name in his phone with the spider emoji next to it.

It took her almost five minutes to reply.

If it were me, I’d want the guy to send flowers. Side note, do you know how long it’s been since I got flowers?!

Flowers. It seemed too easy. Do you want flowers, Cin? I can get you flowers.

You get me flowers and I’ll web them to your face, she replied. Don’t screw up this time, Peter.

 


 

Anna Maria had hired his secretary months ago. She was great at her job, except for the part where she jumped about a foot in the air every time Peter spoke to her. He braved her deer in the headlights look and leaned out of his office.

“Hey, Fran?” he said, knocking on the doorframe. She jumped, making a noise like a frightened squirrel. Peter dreaded the day the New York headquarters got, inevitably, attacked. “Hey. Hi, please don’t scream again.”

She pressed a hand to her chest and said, “I’m trying. What can I do for your, Mr. Parker?”

Maybe Peter should send her somewhere lower stress, with fewer supervillains crashing around. “So I need some advice. About flowers.”

“Flowers,” she repeated, like there might be a trick.

He sat down on the edge of the desk, waving his hands around. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve bought flowers before. But those were always – you know, you go into a store, you buy a bouquet, it drips on you, the guy behind the counter yells at you because you don’t have exact change, and then they’re wilted long before you ever get them to your date’s door. I don’t need that kind of flowers.”

“Mr. Parker, are you… okay?” Fran asked, eyebrows drawn together. “Should I get Mr. Osborn?”

“Oh, please, no, Harry would never let this go,” Peter said, rubbing at his forehead. “Fran. I need to buy stupidly expensive flowers.”

“Stupidly expensive flowers,” she said.

“Ridiculously, stupidly expensive flowers,” Peter said. He held out a slip of paper. “Please Take Me Back ridiculously, stupidly expensive flowers, sent to this address.”

“Okay,” Fran said, slowly, reaching for the address. “I can do that, Mr. Parker. What kind of Please Take Me Back flowers?”

Peter thought about it for a second. Fran, to her credit, waited in wide-eyed silence.

“Sunflowers,” he decided. “With a note attached: 6 o’clock. Meet me at the usual place.”

“That’s it?” she said.

“That’s it,” he said. “He’ll know what I mean.”

He turned to go back into his office, only to pause on the threshold.

“Wait,” he said. “And wildflowers. Two huge bouquets of wildflowers.”

“To the same person?”

“No,” he said. “One to a girl I know – Cindy Moon. Works at Fact Channel. Send them there.” He took a deep breath. “And one to Anna Maria Marconi.”

 


 

Johnny was at the Statue of Liberty when Peter arrived. He’d spent the whole ride over on the ferry worrying that he wouldn’t be, but as he climbed to the top of the statue he caught sight of a familiar head of hair, and a bright shock of yellow flowers.

He hadn’t seen Peter yet. He was balanced precariously on the torch’s railing, his legs dangling, nose pressed to the flowers. It was a chilly evening, but Johnny was dressed in a pair of dark jeans and a sleeveless shirt.

“Nice day for it,” he called when Peter had scaled half of Lady Liberty’s arm. He gave up the pretense and shot a line of webbing out, swinging up to meet Johnny.

“I didn’t think you’d seen me,” he admitted sheepishly.

“I watched the ferry come in,” Johnny said, frowning. “I always wondered – why didn’t you ever ask to meet somewhere more convenient for you? I mean, how much have you spent on ferries out here all these years…”

“I didn’t keep a tab,” Peter said, settling down next to him. “I don’t know. I liked the tradition, I guess. It was ours.”

Johnny nodded, staring out across the Hudson. “Me too.”

“How are you feeling?” Peter asked him, remembering how out of it he’d been last time. Johnny shrugged.

“Better,” he said.

“You, uh,” Peter said, and promptly forgot everything he’d planned on saying. “You got the flowers. Obviously, you’re here and you’re holding them, you got the flowers. Okay.”

“You’re the weirdest guy I know,” Johnny said. He was staring at Peter, confusion and hurt written all over his face. “Didn’t I used to understand you?”

“I don’t even know if I used to understand myself,” Peter admitted.

“You sent me these,” Johnny said. “You asked me to meet you here.”

“Yep and yep,” Peter said, cringing.

“Okay,” Johnny said. “I’m just making sure we haven’t been set up and no guy in a stupid mask is going to try to kill us in a minute, because honestly, when I got these, that was my first thought.”

“No, it’s just me,” Peter said, kicking his legs out. He had to keep his grip on the railing light because he was so nervous he felt like he might snap it. New York City had forgiven him a lot of damage over the years, but breaking any part of Lady Liberty because Johnny Storm’s unhappiness made Peter want to break things was probably pushing it. “For better or worse.”

Johnny nodded. “Well. I can’t honestly tell you which I’d prefer right now, but I guess it’s you I’m stuck with. Stuck on. Whatever.”

He closed his eyes. Peter, fairly sure that Johnny wouldn’t push him off the railing and that, even if he did, he could catch himself, brushed a hand against his elbow.

“But you showed up,” he said.

Johnny turned his head to glare at him. “Of course I showed up, moron. All I ever want to do is be with you! And half of the time it seems like you want that too, and then the other half you’re avoiding me like the plague. And then you send me flowers.”

“You were hurt,” Peter said, staring down at the ground so far beneath them. He set his jaw tight. “You were abducted and hurt because of me.”

Johnny snorted. “Stop with the ego trip. I got hurt because when I was sixteen Reed said, let’s go to space! I’m sure nothing weird will happen and we won’t be horribly changed at all! And I couldn’t afford Six Flags tickets anyway so I said, sure, why not. It doesn’t have anything to do with you.”

“I knew Belrose, though,” Peter said, muscle in his jaw jumping.

Johnny thumped a fist against his shoulder, almost hard enough to hurt. “He knew about me. How hot I burn, for how long I can burn. He put time into that. You met him like twice. He’d been thinking about using me for his stupid scheme a lot longer than that.”

Peter nodded. He knew it in his heart, but his head still reeled: Don’t ask Johnny to come with you. Don’t take him to Paris. Don’t let him leave on the anniversary. Listen to him. Tell him the truth, or just stay away. Do something tiny different a dozen years ago, avoid the whole thing. Like Peter deciding not to go out on patrol because he had a cold had deliberately led to the incursions.

He knew it wasn’t true, but he kept thinking it anyway.

“Stop driving yourself crazy,” Johnny said. “Not everything is about you, you know.”

“When you left that day,” Peter said, taking a steadying breath. “You said – you said you were going to meet a billionaire who wouldn’t leave you alone in bed.”

“What?” Johnny frowned. “Oh. No, no, it wasn’t like – I was just trying to get you to say something, crash my date, I don’t know. Jesus. They knocked me out as soon as I got there. Then I was in some kind of power dampener until they got me into the machine. No, pretty sure he wasn’t actually interested in me beyond my powers. Pete, were you --?”

“I’m always worried about you,” Peter confessed, wishing he had done any of those things Johnny had listed.

“You’re always worried,” Johnny corrected, shaking his head. “Not about me.”

“I’m always worried, and I’m always worried about you,” Peter said. “The two kind of go hand in hand.”

“Well, don’t,” Johnny said.

“I don’t know how to stop,” Peter told him.

“You told me I get anything I want,” Johnny said, eyes blazing. “I want you to stop worrying.”

“You remember that?” Peter said. “I thought you were out of it.”

“I remember,” Johnny said. “You came for me and you promised me whatever I wanted. You held my stupid hand, Peter, and then you just left me --”

“With your team,” Peter said. “I left you with your team.”

“Who cares about the stupid team!” Johnny said. “That’s all they are – my team. You’re my family, and you left me. You ignored me. So you know what I want? I want you to stop worrying and just put the cards on the table. Just tell me what you want.”

The flowers got crushed between them as Peter leaned over and kissed him. It wasn’t a great kiss – the angle was awkward, both of them balanced precariously on the railing, and Johnny couldn’t seem to decide whether he wanted to kiss him back or continue yelling at him.

He curled one hand at Johnny’s neck and traced the line of his jaw with his thumb.

“Please don’t go be a reality star,” he said.

“Peter,” Johnny breathed, eyes closed. “What the actual hell is wrong with you?”

“I just,” Peter said, stuttering over the words. “I want you to be okay. And you won’t be, if you go. We both know that, right? I just want you to be okay. Happy. Whatever.”

“Whatever,” Johnny repeated, snorting. He held up the card that had come with the flowers. “So you got me flowers? ’Stupidly expensive Please Take Me Back flowers’ to be exact. Not sure that part was supposed to make it on here.”

“I have got to get a new secretary,” Peter said. Johnny sighed, tipping his head back to stare up at the sunset.

“You know, back when we were living at Pier 4, Reed once filled the entire foyer with roses for Sue,” Johnny said. “He and Ben had been away, and when he came back just – roses, everywhere.” He looked down at the flowers. “Probably the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Ugh, outdone again, Mr. Fantastic,” Peter said. He’d meant it like a joke, but the words fell flat.

“I like these,” Johnny said, finally smiling. There was a spark in his eyes. “If you filled a whole room full of roses for me, I’d wonder when the vat of shaving cream was going to fall. Pete. What are these for?”

“They’re for you,” Peter said. Johnny sighed.

“Well, obviously,” he said, sounding both exasperated and fond and a little like he was laughing at Peter, which wasn’t exactly new. “Let me try this again: Peter, why the hell did you bring me flowers?”

Because a girl who was locked in a bunker her entire adult life told me it would be a great idea, Peter thought.

“Because I wanted to,” he said.

“Okay,” Johnny said, in that voice that let Peter know Johnny thought he was a spectacular idiot. “And why did you want to?”

“You know why I wanted to,” Peter said, his hand over Johnny’s. Johnny’s gaze dropped to their overlapping fingers. He hooked his little finger around Peter’s.

“I know that I want you to finally say it,” he said.

“I love you,” Peter said, the words surprisingly free. “I – Johnny, you have to know how I feel about you.”

Johnny nodded, jerkily, crushing the flowers to his chest. “I do. I know you, how could I not? It hasn’t made anything easier.”

“I know,” Peter said, leaning forward. “And I’m sorry. And I’ll say it as many times as I have to, just – I love you so much it scares me. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Well,” Johnny said after a second, grinning down at the bouquet. “Say it with flowers, huh?”

“It’s no room full of roses,” Peter started, only for Johnny to cut him off with his warm lips pressed firmly to Peter’s.

“I don’t want you to be Reed, Peter,” Johnny said, fingertips gentle against his jaw. “I want you to be you.”

“That’s the problem,” Peter said, but he kissed Johnny again rather than say anything else on the subject.

“Not for me,” Johnny said. “Not ever.”

Peter took a deep breath, hands flexing at Johnny’s waist. “Listen. I’ve been really mixed up – I still am really mixed up. But I’ve been avoiding my problems instead of facing them, and I don’t want to do that anymore.”

“You were avoiding me,” Johnny said. His eyes were intense, a spark behind their bright blue. “Am I your problem?”

“Torch,” Peter said, cracking up, half out of nerves and half because he loved Johnny so much he couldn’t stand it. “You’ve been my problem since I was fifteen years old. No, it’s not you. It’s me. I’m the problem.”

“I have told so many people that line,” Johnny said, but now he was laughing too. “You can’t break up with me if we’re not dating. You know that, right?” He was quiet for a long moment, his forehead resting against Peter’s. The flowers were getting squashed between them, but Peter didn’t care. Neither did Johnny, apparently. “It’s not a secret what I want.”

“I know,” Peter said. “I want it too.”

“I haven’t really been getting that,” Johnny said, but there was a smile in his voice. “Not before the stupidly expensive Please Take Me Back flowers, anyway. Nice to be the one getting these for once.”

“Every day, if you want them,” Peter said. Behind them New York was starting to light up against the gloomy sky, a hundred thousand lights. “I’ll make it rain flowers. Or Armani. Whatever you want. I’ve been an idiot.”

“What else is new?” Johnny asked. He tilted his chin up, kissing Peter’s nose where it was just slightly bent, an old injury from before he’d known to get things set immediately. “I just want you.”

 


 

They took the ferry back together for the first time in their lives. Like normal people. And they used the elevator like normal people and fell onto the couch and kissed for hours with the television on, like normal people.

“I missed you,” Johnny said when it was truly dark outside and Peter had lost track of what it was they were supposed to be watching.

“I missed you too. What about the acting thing?” Peter asked.

Johnny snorted. “Please, and be the dumb blond on some reality show? The Has Been? Been there, done that. I just… I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing.” He swallowed hard. “I couldn’t keep waiting for my family, for Ben, for you. So if you change your mind again…”

“I won’t,” Peter promised. Somewhere along the line his hand had slipped up the back of Johnny’s shirt with no real purpose besides simple touching. He dug his thumb in small, comforting circles.

“If you change your mind again, I’m on the next plane out,” Johnny said. “I’m serious.”

“If I freak out again, I’ll buy your ticket myself,” Peter promised.

“Well I was planning on sticking it on your credit card no matter what,” Johnny said, rolling his eyes.

“I would’ve gone there for you,” Peter said, struck by the truth of it.

“What, to California?” Johnny said, disbelieving. “You?”

“Hey, I could. Silicon Valley, right? Just go be another obnoxious tech genius. I’d wear Bermuda shorts all day, every day,” Peter said.

“No,” Johnny said, yawning.

“Oh yeah, just embarrassing you in front of all your beautiful celebrity friends,” Peter said, grinning.

“You’d last five hours, tops,” Johnny muttered, putting his head down on Peter’s shoulder. His eyes slipped closed. “Then you’d be on the next plane out. I’m gonna fall asleep on you now.”

“Nice to know the shelf life on our romance was half a day,” Peter said, combing his fingers through Johnny’s hair.

“I’m tired,” Johnny confessed. “I haven’t been sleeping great since, you know, you happened to me.”

“Sorry,” Peter said again, holding him closer. “Sorry, sorry, sorry.”

“Nah, it’s not actually you,” Johnny said. “It’s been going on way longer than you. But I slept so great in Paris. Can I…?”

“Yeah, of course,” Peter said, tugging lightly on Johnny’s hair. “Go to sleep, Johnny. It’s okay. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

He held up his little finger when Johnny opened one bleary eye to glare at him suspiciously, biting back a smile. Johnny hooked his own little finger through Peter’s, shutting his eyes again. His hand fell to rest on Peter’s chest, fingers curled in his shirt.

This was fine, Peter told himself, even as Johnny’s breathing evened out and his grip on Peter’s shirt relaxed. It was fine, even when cagey tension crept into his shoulders, electric anxiousness spreading down his back.

He might not know if he was truly safe for Johnny to be around or if Otto still lurked somewhere below his consciousness, just waiting for an opportunity, but Peter could get around that. He just wouldn’t sleep tonight. It wouldn’t be the first time. He could always nap at the office for a few blissful hours. That wouldn’t be the first time, either.

Johnny looked peaceful, sleeping with his head against Peter’s shoulder. Peter’s stupid nerves were worth a whole lot less than that. He brushed Johnny’s hair back from his face again, just to watch him sigh, then fumbled for the remote and lowered the volume, switching the channel over to a late night cheesy horror flick. He settled back against the cushions a little more, wrapping his arms around Johnny.

There was a knock at the window two hours later, three short raps. Peter’s spider-sense didn’t so much as buzz, but that faint prickle of awareness swept over him – another spider on the web. He disentangled himself from Johnny, careful not to wake him, and left him lying peacefully on the couch as he stepped out on the balcony.

Something hit the side of Peter’s face. He pulled it off with difficulty: a single flower, attached to a single strand of webbing.

“I told you I’d web them to your face,” Cindy said from where she was balanced on her tiptoes on the balcony rail.

“I guess I just wanted to check if you were serious,” Peter said, holding the flower out. “Did you like them?”

“They’re beautiful,” Cindy said, pulling down her mask so he could see her grin. “Never send me flowers again.”

“Okay,” Peter said, smiling helplessly. “I promise. No flowers, ever. I owe you them, though.”

“Yeah?” Cindy said, craning her neck.

“You’re worse than my aunt,” Peter told her.

“Did your aunt have to suffer through a very awkward sushi dinner where you had your head down on the bar the whole time?” Cindy asked. “Seriously, he’s here?”

Peter heard the door slide open. Warm arms wrapped around him from behind as Johnny yawned right in his ear. “He is. Hey, Cindy.”

“Hey, Johnny,” Cindy said, waving. “You’re looking better. You want the rest of the flowers he sent me? I kind of don’t own a vase.”

“So he got everyone flowers, huh?” Johnny asked, fingers digging playfully into Peter’s ribs before letting go. “And here I thought I was special.”

“You’re so special,” Peter teased, turning towards him. “In every single sense of the word.”

Johnny flipped him one flaming finger. Peter waggled his eyebrows suggestively. Cindy pretended to gag.

“Yeah, okay, I’ll just get a big glass, I don’t want to see this,” Cindy said, straightening up so that she was balanced on the rail. “Johnny? I’m really glad you’re okay.”

“Thanks for helping with that,” Johnny told her, grinning.

“Anytime,” she said. “I’ll handle the swinging tonight, Peter. Have a good night.”

Then she was gone. Peter caught the faintest twinkle of a webline against the city lights as she swung away, just a shape in the dark.

“She’s my favorite spider-person,” Johnny said, wrapping his arms around Peter’s shoulders, plastered against him from top to bottom. “Come to bed, babe. I miss you.”

Johnny was still yawning, though, so when they fell into bed together he didn’t do much else beside roll on his side and tug Peter’s arm over him, tangling their fingers together. Peter kissed the back of his neck, shutting his eyes for just one brief second before he opened them again.

“Go back to sleep,” he said.

“Mm,” Johnny mumbled, shifting back against him. Peter savored every inch of contact even as he steeled himself for a long night.

He was just trying to figure out if he could play tic-tac-toe against himself in his own head when Johnny sighed, agitated.

“Okay,” Johnny said, rolling over and sitting up. “You’re like a rock, and I’ve bunked with Ben before, so I know from rocks. Peter, what is it?”

“It,” Peter stuttered, “I can’t –”

“Pete,” Johnny said, softly. “Do you think I don’t know you’re keeping secrets from me? How long have I known you?”

“Half my crazy, impossible, screwed up life,” Peter said, sitting up and scrubbing at his eyes, pushing his hair back from his face. “I know. I know you know.”

“Make it easy on both of us,” Johnny said. His fingers dug into Peter’s arms, grounding. “You’ve been driving us both crazy avoiding this. Just tell me already. Whatever it is, it can’t be --”

“I’m scared he’s still in my head,” Peter blurted out.

The ensuing silence rang loud in his ears.

“What?” said Johnny. “Who?”

“Otto Octavius,” Peter said. Even the name was acrid in his mouth.

“How? Why?” Johnny asked, brow creased. Peter had the urge to tilt his head up and kiss the frown away. He gave into it, but Johnny only grabbed his wrist, squeezing tight and leaning away from him. “Peter, stop. Talk to me.”

Peter broke out of his hold, sitting up and swinging his legs over the side of the bed. He shook his head. Johnny was still for a moment, and then he climbed from the bed, settling in front of Peter on his knees.

“Please, Pete,” he said, one hand on Peter’s knee. His touch was so warm and familiar – Peter tried to focus on that. “I don’t understand – you think Doctor Octopus is still in your head? Why?”

“I dove into Otto’s memories when he was in my head,” Peter confessed, hands pressed to his face. He couldn’t look at Johnny, not if he wanted to get the words out. “He did it to me – ransacked my head, tore through everything about me for his charade. I figured I could do it back. But there was so much of him and not enough left of me.” He took a deep breath. His hands were shaking. “He erased me. I’m not sure how much of me came back.”

“Don’t say that,” Johnny said, dragging his hands away. “Don’t. It’s not true.”

“Isn’t it?” Peter said. “I do things I wouldn’t do. I make decisions I wouldn’t make. The company – Parker Industries, Johnny, that’s not me.”

Johnny was quiet for a long moment, his hands still locked around Peter’s wrists. “Alright. So why’d you do it, then?”

Peter started to laugh, but only because if he didn’t he’d either cry or scream. “I don’t know.”

Johnny squeezed his wrists, then fit their hands together. “I don’t believe that. Talk. It’s the one thing you’re good at.”

“Oh, the one thing?” Peter said, startling himself when his laugh was genuine.

“Talk,” Johnny repeated, squeezing his hands. “Explain it to me. Make me understand the weird hamster wheels your mind runs in. You don’t like the company --”

“I like the money,” Peter protested.

“Shh, everyone likes money, you’re not special,” Johnny said. “You said the company’s not you. So why’d you keep it? Why didn’t you just bail before it went global?”

“Because,” Peter stammered, “there were so many people involved. The employees, and Anna Maria. Sajani had poured so much of her own money into it. My aunt, her husband, the money they’d put in – and people were excited. It wasn’t like I could say, sorry, wrong guy, actually, there was someone else in my head, and get everyone refunds and their old jobs back.”

“So… you’re saying you drove yourself nuts trying to be responsible for everyone else’s crap?” Johnny said. “Because that actually sounds exactly like you.”

“But it’s – I do things, I say things…” Peter stammered out. “I lost my temper with Anna Maria…”

“Yeah, remember what I told you months ago about burning both ends?” Johnny said. “You’re exhausted, Pete. People say things when they’re tired. They yell at people and they make stupid decisions. You know, like not talking to me.”

But now Peter had started talking, and he couldn’t stop.

“You were bruised,” Peter said, the words sharp like glass in his mouth. “That first night, in Paris. I dreamed of Otto and I hurt you in my sleep.”

Johnny’s brow furrowed. “I don’t even remember that.”

Peter did, though; the sickening second he’d glanced the marks in the shape of his fingers and known he’d put them there without even realizing it.

“I’ve never – you know how strong I am. I’ve always been careful,” Peter said. He breathed in, shaky. “And he took that away from me.”

A muscle jumped in Johnny’s jaw. “I know a little something about being afraid to hurt a partner, Pete. I’ve had nightmares about burning someone I love since I was sixteen. I know that if I lose control for just one second – that’s it.”

Peter nodded, though his spider-sense had never so much as twinged around Johnny in bed. “That’s how I know you get it.”

“No, idiot,” Johnny said, grabbing him by the shoulders. “That’s how I know I’m safe with you, because you get it too. You didn’t hurt me. You’re not going to hurt me.”

“I’m just so scared he’s still in my head,” Peter admitted, his voice breaking. Johnny shushed him, pushing his hair back from his forehead, his fingers warm against Peter’s scalp.

“You’re okay, hey,” Johnny said, leaning up to press his forehead against Peter’s. “Shh. I’ve got you. He’s not here. It’s just you, Pete.”

“But if it’s not?” he said, hating how small his voice was. Johnny made a broken sound, pushing even closer, his nose bumping into Peter’s. He cradled the back of his head with one warm palm.

“Then we’ll fix it,” Johnny said. “But I know you, Peter. It’s just you in there. Stupid, impossible you.” He squeezed the back of his neck. “Hey, I love this mind. Would I let anything happen to it?”

“Yeah?” Peter said, laughing a little in spite of himself. That was Johnny, through and through – able to make him laugh even at the worst moments.

“Yeah,” Johnny said. “Trust me.”

“I do,” Peter told him, but it was hard to convince himself. The Avengers had suspected, Carlie had caught on – but his aunt, his Mary Jane, his friends and family and coworkers, Otto had fooled them all. Felicia might never forgive him. Kaine, his clone -- his brother had died, thinking Peter hated him.

How could he trust Johnny to know differently, if it happened again?

“How?” Peter asked, swallowing hard. “I built something, a machine, to tell. But I can’t even trust how I process the results, not while I don’t know whether he’s still lurking around in there, so how can you –”

Johnny cut him off, sealing their mouths together for one brief moment. “You want to know how I know? How I know it’s really you?”

“Yes,” Peter said desperately, almost choking on it.

“I know because once upon a time, in a land far, far away, I looked at you and realized that I used to know your face and your name,” Johnny said, cracking a smile. “I saw through some kind of crazy magic for you, Pete. I know you.”

Peter breathed deep, just managing to stifle a sob. “I remember that with a lot more fire and yelling.”

“I am who I am,” Johnny said. “I’m going to kiss you again now, even though you’re kind of gross.”

“Perils of loving me,” Peter said, adding, “Wait a sec,” as he dragged the back of his wrist against his nose.

“Ugh,” Johnny said, infinitely fond, as he leaned in to kiss Peter, even though Peter’s face was still wet. It was soft, gentle, just the easy press of Johnny’s lips against his own. Johnny’s thumb stroked over his cheek, warm palms cradling Peter’s face. He rested his forehead against Peter’s when the kiss ended, his eyes still closed. “Listen to me. For two minutes, just listen to me with no smart remarks.”

“Ninety seconds,” Peter said.

“Stop,” Johnny told him. “Listen to me – you’re my family. You get that, right? You’re mine and I’m yours and there is nothing in this world or any other I wouldn’t do to keep you safe. So here’s our game plan: you’ve got that machine, the one you built to figure out if there’s anyone in your head, but you don’t trust yourself to run it alone. And Reed is gone, and this isn’t Stark’s specialty, and you’re doing all this to yourself because you don’t know where to go. Am I following?”

“You’re following,” Peter said, nodding.

“Yeah, but you’re not, genius,” Johnny said, flicking him on the forehead. “Hank McCoy is on New Attilan.”

It took a second to register, and when it did it was like a punch to the gut. “Oh.”

“Yeah, oh,” Johnny said. “You’re not the only genius around. Hank’s good. I trust him. Whatever the result – he won’t lie to you.”

“You trust him?” Peter said, though it wasn’t really necessary. He’d had enough firsthand experience over his career to know just how brilliant Hank McCoy was.

“I trust him with you,” Johnny said. “And that’s a hell of a lot more than you even know. So yes. Absolutely, my life on the line – that’s you, by the way, in case you didn’t realize – I trust him.”

Peter’s heart beat hard against his ribs. “Okay. If you trust him.”

“I do,” Johnny said. “Idiot. I love you.”

“You too,” Peter returned. “So much.”

“You’re not going to sleep, are you?” Johnny said. “Not until you’ve got this figured out.”

“No,” Peter said, shaking his head. “Even if I go to another room, I can’t sleep now.”

Johnny nodded. “Okay.”

He got up, and for one second Peter was absolutely, terrifyingly sure he was going to leave. But Johnny only gave the soft order for lights, grabbing Peter’s laptop up off the bedside counter. He climbed back into bed, setting the laptop up on his knees.

“Here’s what we’re gonna do,” he said, shoulder pressed warm to Peter’s. “I’m going to order food from whoever’s still open, and when it gets here we’re going to watch all the really dumb horror movies you’ve missed while you’ve been conquering the business world, and then when it gets light out we’re going out to New Attilan and Hank is going to check your head over.”

“You could sleep,” Peter told him. “It’s fine. I’m used to sitting up long nights.”

“Not a chance,” Johnny told him, pulling up Seamless. “I’m with you here, Pete. You don’t get to do the whole alone thing.” He looked up at him. “You know we’ve always been better together, right?”

Peter had to take a deep breath to steady himself as he put his head down against Johnny’s shoulder, eyes fixed blearily on the screen. “Not that place – I fought Electro in their kitchen once and I swear I saw a rat wearing a tiny chef’s hat.”

“You know,” Johnny repeated, kissing the top of his head. “What about this one?”

“That one’s fine,” Peter said, shutting his eyes just for second. Johnny’s arm snaked around his shoulders, holding him tight. “Get extra egg rolls.”

“Bossy.”

Johnny fell asleep, of course, halfway through their second gore fest, sprawled out in Peter’s sheets. Peter kept the movie playing, but he watched Johnny instead, the gentle rise and fall of his chest, his hair a halo against the pillows.

“Always better together, he says,” he muttered, turning so his back was pressed to Johnny’s chest and their knees fit together. Johnny shifted in his sleep, draping his arm over Peter’s side. Peter picked another movie; it was still hours until dawn. “Yeah, I know.”

 


 

“This is an elegant design,” Hank McCoy said, sounding impressed.

The arrival at New Attilan had been tense. Medusa had greeted them, straightbacked and regal with a minimum amount of awkwardness, but there was a tenseness that hung in the air between her and Johnny, and her gaze had flickered several times to Peter. He might have imagined the lip curl, but then he imagined that from a queen’s perspective, Peter Parker in an unwashed dress shirt and the first pair of pants he’d found on the floor that moment was a step down for Johnny.

Crystal, at least, had been nice. She’d let him pet Lockjaw.

“I only do this for a living,” Peter said, fidgeting on the table. Johnny smacked at his hands without even looking at him.

“Sorry, Hank,” he said. “He’s mean when he’s nervous.”

“I am not mean!” Peter said. “I am not mean!”

“You asked me how many blonds it took to screw in a light bulb every time you saw me on fire for a whole year once.”

Hank chuckled, his huge back turned to them. “And how many blonds does it take?”

“It was a lead up to calling me a dim bulb,” Johnny said, smirking at Peter. “You’re mean and you’re not funny.”

“I’m not mean,” Peter insisted. He felt so nervous, lying on Hank McCoy’s examination table. “Hey, how many blonds –”

Johnny covered his mouth with one hand. “Hank? If we don’t get started I’m pretty sure he’ll climb out the bathroom window and swim back to shore.”

“We wouldn’t want that,” Hank said. “Just one moment…”

“Hey,” Johnny whispered when Hank’s back was turned. “Everything’s going to be fine, but –”

“This is not the most comforting moment for a backup plan,” Peter said, inhaling sharply. He felt like he was hurtling towards a precipice – a truth, either way. It was terrifying.

If it’s not,” Johnny said, “the important thing is to never give up. Remember that? Never give up.”

It was a mantra Peter had told himself a million times over, Johnny’s voice ringing in his ears, the sheer confidence on Johnny’s face as he’d stood up on that stage at Midtown High clear as day in Peter’s mind. Back then he’d been everything Peter wanted to be – rich, famous, beloved, confident – and he’d gotten up on that stage and somehow, like they were already connected, he’d said the exact words Peter had needed to hear.

His shoulders relaxed, automatic. He felt like he could breathe again.

“You remembered?” he asked, turning to frown at Johnny.

“To be honest? No,” Johnny said, shrugging, his grin a little guilty. “But I went looking after Liz Allan said it made an impression on you at that party, and somebody taped it. Do not read the youtube comments.”

“Oh, I’m going to,” Peter said, laughing in spite of himself. “I get through this, I’m reading every single one.”

“Pete, we get through this, you can read them all out loud to me in mocking voices,” Johnny promised, smiling down at him, and that was when Peter realized that he was terrified, too.

“It’s a promise,” Peter said. “Twice?”

“Twice. Dork,” Johnny said. His smile was huge and heartbreaking.

“Are we ready?” Hank McCoy asked, coming back over.

“No,” said Peter.

“Yes,” said Johnny, gripping his shoulder.

“Yeah,” Peter said, swallowing hard, letting the hard press of Johnny’s fingers against his shoulder ground him. Never give up. When he closed his eyes, he thought about Johnny’s smile. “Let’s do it.”

The machine started up with a soft hum. Peter thought about the schematics, about building it, sitting on the floor of his apartment and making Johnny, Harry, his aunt, whoever would pick up the phone, talk to him on speaker. Jay Jameson had narrated an entire golf game to him, once, while he’d painstakingly put it together. This was for his family, to keep them safe.

But maybe it was okay that it was for him, too.

“No fidgeting, please, Dr. Parker,” Hank said. Peter, who had been cringing every time Hank moved or murmured to himself, promptly started fidgeting again.

“I built it,” he said. “Fidgeting doesn’t make any difference.”

“It distracts me,” Hank said. “No talking, either, if you please.”

“Do you want me to hold your hand?” Johnny whispered, only a little teasing. Peter glared at him.

When he turned his hand palm up a minute later, Johnny took it without comment. He squeezed his fingers every time Hank hummed, or shifted, or so much as blinked; Peter was immeasurably grateful for him.

Finally, Hank shut it down.

“Well?” Peter said.

“Well, Mr. Parker,” Hank said, smiling. “Psychically, I do believe you’re clean. No passengers.”

Peter breathed out, head hitting the back of the table with a thump. Johnny put his forehead down against their joined hands, laughing softly.

“See?” he said. “Told you I was right.”

Peter laughed, exhausted.

Alone, in his own head. His vision swam. His heart sang. There was still a lot to do – so much of Parker Industries to comb for, looking for traps Otto might have set. But for right now, his mind was his own, really and truly. That was worth a lot.

Johnny kissed his knuckles, eyes closed.

“I told you,” he repeated. “I told you.”

“Yeah,” Peter said, unable to find it in himself to say something funny. “You did.”

 


 

A week later, Anna Maria knocked on his office door in the early hours of the afternoon.

“Do you have a minute?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said, pushing his chair back and getting up. “Of course.”

“I thought we could grab some lunch or something,” Anna Maria said. She worried at the strap of her purse. “I think maybe we have some stuff to talk about.”

“As long as it’s not a vegan Hungarian joint,” Peter said, remembering pushing soy goulash around while Harry’s kids laughed at him.

“I was just thinking burgers,” Anna Maria said, raising her eyebrows.

“Well then, Ms. Marconi,” he said, gesturing with a flourish. “Lead on.”

They walked in silence to Anna Maria’s burger joint of choice, and when they were seated and their orders taken she looked at Peter over the top of her drink and said, “You look better. More settled.”

“You look good, too,” he said, and he meant it. There nothing harried or nervous about her, not like there had been the couple of weeks leading up to her leave of absence.

“Thank you,” she said, smiling. “I, um. I went home for a little bit. I’ve been thinking about a lot of things.”

“Okay,” he said, slowly. “Like…?”

“Like what happened to you. And to me, obviously,” she said, fidgeting with her straw wrapper. “I don’t think it was fair to either of us, the way we never talked about it.”

“No,” Peter said, after a beat, picking at his straw wrapper. “It probably wasn’t. Can I ask you something?”

“Of course,” Anna Maria said.

“It probably isn’t fair, either,” Peter said. “Would you have married him?”

“I’m going to need a stronger drink,” Anna said, staring down into her cup. “Is ‘I don’t know’ a copout answer?”

“It’s fine,” Peter said, maybe too quickly. He peeled the straw wrapper apart, tearing it into little pieces. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

“No,” Anna Maria said, shaking her head. “It’s just, I really don’t know. I sort of thought we’d end up there, but then I found the ring and I thought – it was too much, too soon. And then I saw him – no, I saw you? On television?”

“Trust me,” Peter said, “when it’s that embarrassing? It’s always me.”

“I saw,” she gestured, vaguely, at Peter’s body, “and I thought, how can he ask me to marry him when he can’t even tell me who he is? And I didn’t even know how right I was. But… part of me still wanted it. I don’t know what I would have said, Peter. I’m sorry.”

“No,” he said. “I’m sorry, I really am. You’re a good person, Anna Maria, and I wish – I don’t know what I wish. I wish we could have been friends without all this.”

“You’re a good person, too. And it helps,” she admitted, shrugging, “that the real you? Is so not my type.”

Peter threw his head back laughing. He pressed a hand to his chest. “Oh! I’m wounded. You’ve cut me deep.”

“It’s the jokes,” she said, grinning. “I can’t take the jokes.”

He stuck his hand out. “Friends?”

“Of course,” Anna Maria said, placing her hand in his. They shook on it, quick and perfunctory, before Anna Maria started snickering and Peter bowed his head, shoulders shaking with laughter.

“I really do like you, Anna Maria Marconi,” he said, grinning. And he did. It was the truth.

“You’d better,” she replied as their waiter slid their meals in front of them. “I’m paying. I figure I can afford it, with the raise you’re going to give me when I come back.”

“Oh!” Peter said, still laughing. He felt like part of him had been set free. She was getting that raise, absolutely. “I see how it is, I see the game you’re playing.” Then, softer, “It’s yours, obviously. You’re coming back?”

“I want to,” she said with a real, honest smile. “If you’ll have me.”

“Are you kidding?” Peter said. “We’ve all missed you. I think Harry might actually cry when I tell him the news.”

After lunch he and Anna Maria parted ways for the moment, with the promise she’d be back into work on Monday. They shook on it, and she left. Peter watched her go, smiling to himself, just taking the moment to enjoy the busy street corner, the sunshine across his shoulders.

It was time.

He fished his phone out of his pocket and dialed a familiar number, getting a familiar answering machine: Leave a message after the beep, Tiger.

“Hey, Mary Jane. It’s me,” he said, ducking his head as he spoke. “I know it’s been a while, and I’m sorry about that. I think I have a lot to tell you, though. I’d like to tell you everything, when you’ve got the time. I think it works out okay in the end this time, MJ. It really does.”

 


 

Johnny showed up at the office in a pair of tight pants and a slate grey shirt and flirted shamelessly with his secretary while Peter finished a phone call.

“This desk is really big,” he said, first thing, looking at it with a critical eye.

“Uh,” Peter said.

“Like, really big. And it looks solid,” Johnny said, running a hand over the wood. He turned back to Peter, leaning back against the desk and wearing the grin of a man who knew he had already won before the argument had even started.

“Are you serious?” Peter said, laughing, as Johnny reached forward, wrapped one hand around Peter’s tie and pulled.

“I missed you this weekend,” he said, meeting him with a kiss. Peter had flown out late Thursday night; they’d planned for Johnny to come with him, but Avengers business had hit last minute, and then Anna Maria had spent the whole weekend telling Peter to stop looking at his phone and pay attention.

They’d spent hours on the phone, and Peter hadn’t realized he was on speaker until he’d heard Pietro Maximoff's distinctly disgusted voice say, “Storm, you will remove yourself and your lovesick conversation from the common area, or I will throw your phone across the ocean.”

So there had been that new humiliation. Peter couldn’t bring himself to really mind.

“Crazy,” he laughed, hands sliding down Johnny’s sides.

“Oh, yeah, completely wild, I want to have sex with my boyfriend in what I’m pretty sure used to be my house’s laundry room,” Johnny said, rolling his eyes. Hot, clever fingers worked at the knot of Peter’s tie. Peter swallowed hard.

“And what is now the headquarters of one of the world’s leading companies,” Peter said. “With lots of people behind those doors.”

“Please, it’s after five and I told your secretary to go home. It’s mostly just you here,” Johnny said. He tapped at the side of Peter’s head. “And you’ve got that fun danger sense.”

“Knew I had that for a reason,” Peter said. “All these years I thought it was so I didn’t get killed mid-air, but finally we know the real truth.”

“If you don’t want to,” Johnny said, but Peter cut him off before he could finish that sentence, sealing their mouths together. Johnny hummed, pleased, flicking open the top button of Peter’s shirt.

“Don’t be stupid,” Peter said. “I’ve been walking around with the dumbest smile on my face. Harry’s been laughing at me all day. Is this why you’re dressed like my sexy secretary?”

Johnny grinned, preening as he leaned back against the edge of the desk. He looked up through his eyelashes at Peter, tilting his head to the side so his long neck was on display.

"Will that be all, Mr. Parker?" he asked.

“It will not, Mr. Storm,” Peter said. Johnny looked gleeful, reaching up to catch him by his shirt front. He pulled Peter in against him, kissing him hot and hard.

"Mr. Parker, we shouldn't," he said, all batting eyelashes and coquettishness. Peter snorted, grabbing Johnny by the hips and hoisting him up onto the desk proper. Johnny faked a gasp, locking his legs around Peter. "On company time?"

“You’re awful,” Peter said, laughing.

“Your actual secretary was wearing a Star Trek sweatshirt, by the way,” Johnny said, grabbing Peter by his undone tie. “If I had known about the dress code around here I would’ve just worn whatever. Hey, does Harry hate me?”

“Please tell me you have a good reason for asking if my best friend hates you when I’m two seconds from having my hand down your pants,” Peter begged.

“I’m your best friend, shut up,” Johnny said, kissing him. He locked his legs around Peter’s. “He saw me coming out of the elevator and rolled his eyes so hard I thought they were going to get stuck like that.”

“He, uh,” Peter said, trying and failing to come up with the kindest way to sum up Harry’s impressions on Johnny. “He may have gotten the impression…”

“Tell me or you’re not getting laid in your obscenely expensive office-slash-my former laundry room,” Johnny said, words belayed by the fact that he was still unbuttoning Peter’s shirt, every touch a tease.

“Like you could hold out,” Peter muttered. “Harry thinks you’re a gold digger, alright?”

Johnny blinked at him, then burst into laughter so hard he tipped his head back with it, eyes closed. “Oh, okay, wow.”

“What!” Peter said. “I have money! You could be after it!”

Johnny, still laughing, wound his arms around Peter’s neck, pulling in close and kissing him deep. “Trust me? If I was after your money, my life would be so much less embarrassing. But no.”

“No?” Peter hummed, working at Johnny’s belt.

“No,” Johnny confirmed softly. “I just like you, jackass.”

Afterwards Peter collapsed, boneless, into his chair, leaving Johnny to lounge on the desk.

“Is this why they make these things so big?” he asked. “Are all the other CEOs having crazy superhero sex on them?”

Johnny hummed appreciatively. “Stark probably is, at least.”

“Never say that again. We should get dinner,” Peter said, staring up at the ceiling. Johnny, looking entirely too pleased with himself, mumbled an agreement.

“Sure,” he said. “I can pick something up. Thai?”

“No, I meant, we should go out,” Peter said. “Somewhere nice.”

“You want to take me to dinner somewhere nice,” Johnny said, voice flat.

“Friday?” Peter suggested.

“I’m waiting for the punch line,” Johnny said.

“There isn’t one,” Peter said. “Seriously. Friday?”

Johnny looked like he was considering it. He picked himself up a little, staring down at Peter. His hair fell disheveled over his forehead. His shirt still hung open. Peter loved him an impossible amount.

“Can we still get Thai food tonight?” he asked.

Peter grinned.

 


 

Anna Maria enthusiastically recommended a popular new restaurant as living up to the hype (Peter hadn’t heard any) and Harry seconded it, telling Peter that Stanley loved the spaghetti squash – a glowing endorsement if Peter had ever heard one.

His secretary pulled some strings and next thing Peter knew he had a reservation for two at eight that Friday night.

Peter arrived half an hour late, disheveled and sweaty. He had a date with a real stunner and he still stopped to web up a mugger. Some things didn’t change. Johnny was already there waiting, looking flawless.

“Hey, handsome,” he said, sneaking up on Johnny at the bar. Johnny finished his drink and turned a wry smile on him. “What’s a guy like you doing in a place like this?”

“Hey, yourself,” Johnny said. “You got a little something…”

He gestured. Peter swiped at his face and Johnny laughed, shaking his head. He ran his thumb over the highest point of Peter’s cheek.

“There,” he said. “Come on. They’ve been trying to give away our table for the past ten minutes. I maybe set a potted plant on fire as a distraction.”

“A classy use of your talents,” Peter said. “Hey, you look great. I mean, you always look great – you know what I mean.”

“Well you look like you got in a fight with a dude dressed like a wombat,” Johnny said. “I know what you mean, but hey. You said you wanted to do nice…”

The restaurant was beautiful, all dark wood and lowered lights. Peter ordered wine and Johnny’s eyebrows shot up.

“Not for me,” he said. “But I figured you’d want it.”

“What are we doing, Peter?” Johnny asked, head tilted to the side.

“I think I’m going back to school,” Peter blurted out.

“Okay?” Johnny said, blinking at him.

“Otto finished my doctorate, while he was in my body,” Peter said. “And now I’m Doctor Parker, except I’m not Doctor Parker. And every time someone calls me that it throws me. So I think I’ll get a second one. Make it my own.”

Johnny smiled. “Okay, Brainiac. And that’s what we’re doing here tonight? Celebrating you being the smartest guy in the room once again?”

“No, not entirely,” Peter said. That was only one of the changes he wanted to talk about. “Why, you don’t like it?”

“No, that’s not it,” Johnny said, looking around. “It’s just – it’s been a long time. I feel weird, being somewhere nice without Ben asking the waiter if they have an all you can eat special.”

“He didn’t,” Peter said.

“Oh yeah,” Johnny said. “Every time. He thought it was hilarious. Sometimes I think I should – I tried to get in contact with Ben, a couple of times after he left. But he’s still angry. Maybe I just have to let him be angry.”

“Ben loves you,” Peter said.

Johnny shrugged. “I know.”

“This is weird, right,” Peter said after a long moment of silence. When Johnny looked up his grin was a little embarrassed, like he’d been caught. Peter echoed it. “It’s weird.”

It felt so strange, being out the two of them like this – a thousand times more intimate than attending any number of events with Johnny on his arm. This felt like it meant something Peter didn’t want to name yet. The only thing he knew was that they shouldn’t start it wearing false suits.

“Yeah,” he said. “This isn’t right.”

Johnny pushed his chair back, leaning across the table to kiss Peter quick. “Papaya Dog’s a few blocks away. I’ll grab the food. You meet me somewhere high.”

“Papaya King,” Peter corrected, mouth on autopilot.

Johnny scoffed. “It literally doesn’t matter.”

“King Combo with a pina colada,” Peter reminded him.

“Pete,” Johnny said, grinning. “I knew your fast food order at pretty much every place in the city long before I started sleeping with you.”

Peter ducked his head, laughing, and thought about how he knew all of Johnny’s, too. He pushed his chair back, apologizing to the waiter.

“I’ve got a work emergency,” he said. “My date’s got a fashion emergency.”

Johnny heard him, if the way he crowed with laughter while flipping Peter off was any indication. An elderly couple glowered at them. Peter’s whole being was filled with so much warmth he almost couldn’t stand it.

He changed quickly, grabbing a few supplies, and then he swung on over somewhere high, just like Johnny had ordered. It would take too long to catch a ride over to their usual place, and besides, he wanted somewhere fresh for them. Somewhere new.

The last elevator up to the observation deck at the Empire State Building was at 1:15 AM. Peter called his assistant mid-swing and had her make some arrangements. Their privacy secured, he got to work.

The webbing would be hard for Johnny to miss; he’d written UP HERE, FLAMEBRAIN in his best comic sans imitation.

He only had to wait a few minutes before he saw a familiar streak through the sky. Johnny touched down, whistling.

“What do you think?” Peter asked, gesturing to the old beach towel, the dollar store candles. “Do I know romance, or do I know romance?”

“You know something, alright,” Johnny said. He settled down on the edge of the beach towel, smiling as he unpacked the food. “It’s great.”

He tossed Peter’s drink at him. Peter caught it and the straw easily.

“This,” he said after a second, staring at Johnny over the lid, “is not what I asked for.”

“Nope,” Johnny said cheerfully, unpacking the rest of their food. “It’s better.”

“I hate you,” Peter told him, unwilling to admit he was right.

Johnny grinned at him, and Peter ripped the mask all the way off so he could close the distance between them and press his lips against Johnny’s smiling mouth. Johnny rested one hand against his neck and just like that, they fit.

“The rest of the food better be what I ordered,” Peter said when they broke apart.

“What are you going to do?” Johnny asked, eyes shining. “Fire me?”

“I’m sure I’ll think of something,” Peter said. Johnny hummed, looking like the cat who got the canary. Peter couldn’t help but kiss him once more, soft and sweet.

“So why the fancy dinner?” Johnny asked after a few minutes. “It’s not exactly our speed, the whole tablecloths and waiters thing. Self-serve on top of the Statue of Liberty, that’s us.”

“Maybe I wanted to do something different,” Peter said, shrugging. “It didn’t work. Case closed.”

Johnny’s eyes were narrowed, though; he wasn’t buying it. “You bought me wine. Like, expensive wine.”

“All tastes the same to me,” Peter said, too innocently. Then, relenting, “I had something I wanted to talk to you about, but I’m not sure if it’s the right time.”

Johnny was quiet for a long moment, idly dragging a fry through ketchup. “If you pull out a ring, I don’t care about spider-strength, I’m finding a way to toss you off this building.”

Peter almost choked. “What? I – what?”

“Joking,” Johnny said. “Mostly. I never really know what you’re going to do.”

“No,” Peter promised, stumbling over his own words at the idea of it. Johnny, a ring. Something permanent. “No, not – if I was going to -- I wouldn’t do it like that.”

“Okay,” Johnny said. He looked up, saw the panic on Peter’s face, and finally cracked a real smile. “Pete, I really was mostly kidding. What’s the big thing?”

If I did, I’d want to do it right, Peter thought, struck by the idea. Tongue still tied, he said, “It’s worse, maybe.”

“I’m not burying a body in this outfit,” Johnny replied, picking at his food. He looked up at Peter again, something wary on his face. “Will you just tell me already? You’re making me nervous.”

“You said you wanted to serve in their memory. Sue and Reed’s. Months ago, you said that,” Peter blurted out all in one go, feeling like the words had been punched out of him. He’d played it over again, a dozen moments after Johnny had said it, cursing himself for not seeing how important it was, for not listening in that moment.

“Yeah,” Johnny said after a beat. “And you told me you had too much going on.”

Peter cringed. “Listen, I know, but you know how mixed up I’ve been, stuck in my own head –”

Johnny leaned in and cut him off with a kiss, tasting like salt from his fries and cool guava. He laid his hand over Peter’s. “Peter. I know. I get it. It just – it still stings, everything with my family. What do you want to ask me?”

“Do you still want to?” Peter asked. The question hung in the inches between them; for a second all the other sounds disappeared, the cars beneath them, the distant trains, the thousands of people in all of the buildings around them, snatches of conversation and music and the thrum of New York. There was only the intake of Johnny’s breath.

“Yes,” he said.

Peter breathed out, relieved laughter spilling from his lips. He gestured with one hand between them. “Because – I think I want to. And you, you said it, the Unity Squad’s just your team, but that’s not you --”

“They’re not my family,” Johnny agreed, pulling Peter in close, resting his forehead against Peter’s. “And you – I think we both need family right now. Let’s do it.”

“Right here, right now?” Peter joked, waggling his eyebrows.

“Shut up, we’re trying to have a nice moment,” Johnny said, face uncharacteristically serious. Peter reached up to palm his cheek. “You know you’re my family, right? Whatever else happens between us, that doesn’t change.”

Peter’s chest felt too tight for words, so he kissed Johnny instead. Johnny smiled into it before the kiss deepened, unhurried, just the slide of Johnny’s mouth against Peter’s, here up on top of the world.

It would have been a perfect moment – if it weren’t for that buzzing in Peter’s head.

“Mm, what?” Johnny mumbled against his lips, knocking his knuckles against the side of Peter’s head. “I’ve kissed statues with more feeling.”

Something streaked through the sky, burning like a meteor. Johnny broke away to watch as it fell; Peter, even as his spider-sense continued to buzz at him like an angry mosquito, watched the way it up Johnny’s face.

“Oh,” Johnny said, grinning. He snapped his fingers and the candles went out. “That’d be what.”

“One night out,” Peter said, fumbling for the mask. “One night out, is that too much to ask?”

“With you?” Johnny snorted, incinerating the trash. He tossed the candlesticks and the beach towel to Peter – he webbed them up and out of the way, sighing.

“Alright, alright,” he said. “It’s me, I’m the problem.”

“My problem,” Johnny said, catching Peter and kissing him quick before he could pull the mask down over his mouth. He dragged his thumb across the line of Peter’s mask where it lay against his cheek before he tugged it into place. “Ready to go to work?”

“New York, New York,” Peter said, shooting a webline towards the end of the block. Johnny, all it up, grinned at him as he dove; his laugh echoed wild and free through the street. Peter’s heart soared. “I’ll make a brand new start of it in old New York.”