“Dude, I’m just saying, it’s a distinct possibility.”
“No it’s not, Ned!” Peter gestured at his sides. “Do you see any extra arms? If I haven’t gotten them by now, I seriously doubt they’re gonna grow just like that.”
“You doubt it,” Ned said, holding a finger aloft. “But you can’t say for certain it won’t happen.”
“It’s not-- I won’t--” Peter huffed. “Shut up, man.” Ned pumped a fist in victory.
“Score one for the guy in the chair!”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever, dude.” Peter rolled his eyes, smiling. As they neared his apartment, he jerked his thumb at the bodega across the street. “I’m gonna grab a sandwich. You want anything?”
Ned shook his head. “Nah, I’m good. Oh, oh, wait! Y’know those M&M cookies that bakery near school sells? I would kill for a couple of those.” Peter frowned as they ducked into the small deli.
“Sorry, dude, but I don’t think they have anything like that here.”
Ned opened his mouth to answer, but Mr. Delmar waved Peter down from behind the counter.
“Peter!” he greeted. “Still in school?”
“For now, Mr. Delmar, for now.” He and Ned moved to say hello to Murph, taking turns scratching the cat behind the ears. He purred happily and rubbed up against their hands. Peter turned back to the counter. “Uh, can I get the usual, please?”
“You want it flat?” Mr. Delmar asked.
“Smoosh it as much as you can,” Peter said, grinning. While waiting on his sandwich, he turned to surveying the other items in the store. Besides a large selection of candy, the bodega’s shelves were stocked with boxes of cereal, cans of soup, rolls of paper towels, and countless other household staples. Peter noticed something on one of the bottom rows that prompted a smile.
“Hey, Ned.” He smacked his friend on the arm and when he turned around, he held up the bag of chocolate chip cookie dough mix. Ned’s entire face widened into a smile.
“Dude, yes. Hold on, we need some M&Ms to mix in.” Ned grabbed a couple of packets from the front of the store and Peter dropped their haul on the counter. Mr. Delmar wandered over with Peter’s wrapped sandwich and raised an eyebrow at their purchases.
“You boys feelin’ adventurous today, eh?” They both beamed in response.
“We’ll make sure to bring a couple over for you when they’re done,” Peter promised as he pulled a few bills out of his pocket.
“ ¿ Que es esto? I thought we were friends, Pete, and now you’re tryin’ to poison me?” He finished bagging their items and offered a smile. “Say hi to your aunt for me, kid.”
Peter and Ned headed for the door and Peter twisted around to call over his shoulder: “Say hi to your daughter!” He caught sight of the shop owner waving a fist in mock anger over his head and laughed.
May wasn’t yet home when they entered the apartment. Peter tossed his keys onto the table by the door and pulled out the cookie dough mix. He flipped it over to read the instructions.
“We need a stick of butter,” he said, glancing up at Ned, “And one egg. You get that stuff, I’ll turn on the oven.”
Peter started preheating the oven and then grabbed a chipped blue bowl from the dish-drying rack next to the sink. Ned came up to him with the butter and carton of eggs. He took the bag from Peter’s hand.
“It says we have to soften the butter. How should I do that?”
Peter bit down on his lip and turned away to hide a grin before answering. “You gotta smooth-talk it,” he said. Ned looked bewildered.
“You know, you gotta soften it up, flatter it a little.” He winked suggestively. Multiple times. “Just be careful things don’t get too hot, or it’ll just melt in your hands.” Peter leaned back on the counter and fluttered his eyelashes.
Ned groaned. “You’re hilarious, dude. Not. I’m just gonna put this in the microwave.”
“And deprive us all of the Leeds Charm? Blasphemy!”
“Shut up, Peter.”
“And deprive you of the Parker Charm? Double blasphemy!”
Ned rolled his eyes and shoved an egg into Peter’s hands, gesturing for him to get something done. Peter poured the powder cookie dough mix into the bowl and waited until Ned had softened the butter and tossed it in too. He then held the egg in the air.
“Dude, watch this. I’ve been practicing.” He hit the egg against the rim of the bowl and it shattered, yolk and bits of shell running down the side and onto the counter. Ned burst out laughing.
“Was that--” He broke off, struggling to compose himself. “Was that what was supposed to happen?” he asked between gasps for air.
“No!” Peter said, dismayed. “I was trying to crack it with one hand! I’ve done it before, I swear!”
“Yeah, sure, okay dude.”
Ned handed him another egg from the carton before reaching for paper towel to clean up the mess. “Try again, dude, but go easy this time. Shells add the wrong kinda crunch to cookies.”
“‘Shells add the wrong kinda crunch to cookies’ mleh-mleh-mleh,” Peter mimicked, but he abandoned the fancy one-handed crack for the traditional method and managed to get it right. Ned patted him on the back for his success and Peter swatted his hand away.
“Should we add the M&Ms in now?” Ned asked as he tore open one of the packets. Peter held up his hand.
“No, not yet. We need to mix this stuff first.”
Peter looked at him, then at the bowl, then back at Ned. “I… dunno,” he admitted. “That’s just how I always do it with May.” Ned shrugged.
“Good enough for me.” He popped some candies into his mouth.
“Save some for the cookies!” Peter protested. Ned raised his eyebrows and held out the bag and after a moment Peter gave in and allowed some to be tipped into one hand. With the other hand, he combined the ingredients in the bowl. He gestured with his foot at one of the lower cabinets. “Grab a couple baking trays out of there.”
Ned put the trays on the counter and Peter motioned for him to dump the M&Ms into the dough. He tore open the second packet and did the same, then mixed it again.
The smell of the raw dough was mouth-watering. As if acting on instinct, both Ned and Peter reached into the bowl and pulled out tiny pieces, eating them with satisfied smiles. They went in for seconds.
“Aren’t we, like, going to get salmonella?” Ned asked.
“You will. I’ve got a boosted immune system, I’m gonna be fine.”
Ned narrowed his eyes at the cookie dough. He took more. “Worth it.”
They dolloped the cookie dough that survived the initial assault onto the baking trays and slid them into the oven. During the ten minutes wait for the oven timer to go off, they debated possible modifications to be made to the Lego Death Star, which was currently stationed in Peter’s bedroom, because he got custody rights every other weekend after helping build it.
Peter almost burned his hand taking the trays out of the oven, saved only when Ned reminded him at the last second he should be using oven mitts. They ignored the recipe’s instructions to allow the cookies to cool before eating. The gooey chocolate chips and M&Ms more than made up for scorching the roofs of their mouths.
“We should save some of these,” Peter said around a mouthful of cookie. “For May and Mr. Delmar. And we should probably bring some into school for MJ.”
They both looked down at the severely-depleted trays of cookies.
“Maybe just… maybe just one more.”
It was almost 2:00AM and Peter’s hands wouldn’t stop shaking.
The anxiety had been building in his chest all night. It had started off small, just a little tension in his shoulders, but now it was coating his ribs and muddying his thoughts and he couldn’t shake the nauseating feeling that something was wrong and he was just sitting there.
He tried focusing on the project in front of him; Mr. Stark had throw some out-dated arc reactor technology at him and told him to have fun and it had been fun. The hours had melted away like wax from a cheap candle until Peter had nearly forgotten he was in the upstate Avengers compound, rather than his apartment. Happy had picked him up right after school to spend the weekend and Peter had been thrilled, but something about the break in his routine had him spiraling.
Unspent energy coiled in his limbs, drawing his muscles taut. He ached to go web-slinging. He just needed to move, to do something, to patrol, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t, he couldn’t, he couldn’t he couldn’t hecouldn’thecouldn’theco--
The soldering iron slipped from his trembling fingers and clattered against the work desk.
“Shit,” he gasped and suddenly the rock music Mr. Stark had been playing roared to his attention, smacking him in the face and sending him reeling for breath. Peter tried to blink away the surge of panic. His fingers gripped the table until the metal creaked. Mr. Stark looked up from the other side of the room.
“You good, kid?” he called over the music. Peter forced a smile, even though the cacophonous noise was making it hard to see.
“Yep!” he bit. “Just -- bathroom!”
He scurried away from the desk and out of the lab, stumbling through the empty corridor. The door to the nearest restroom opened as he approached and he fell inside.
“FRI--” he tried, unable to choke out the word. “F-FRIDAY, lights off.”
The bathroom was plunged into darkness. Peter eased himself down onto the tile floor, hating himself for the way his legs trembled. He pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, hugging himself tightly. He was okay. He was fine. He just had to stop being such a baby and ride it out. He could do it.
But it felt like a ghostly hand was reaching down his throat and stealing the air right from his lungs. Like his spidey sense was sending out a constant warning about an unknown threat. He shuddered, hiding his face in the crook of his elbow as he attempted to regain some control over his breathing. This was so stupid. He was so stupid. Panic attacks after nightmares? Sure. After a rough patrol? Of course! But while working on tech with Tony Stark? How pathetic could he get?
His fingers pressed into the flesh of his arms, the steady pressure somehow grounding him when he felt like he was floating away and falling all at once. He squeezed his eyes shut despite the pitch-black room. He inflated his chest mechanically, forced the air out through his nose.
It wasn’t helping.
Unbidden tears threatened to escape his shut eyelids. He dashed them away with the sleeve of his sweater, sniffing, gasping as that threw him off the rhythm of his breathing and forced him to struggle for control all over again.
His head thumped against the wall behind him. The brief flash of dull pain centered him for a split second, and he wanted to do it again, but resisted the urge.
The sounds of his own harsh breathing echoed around the large bathroom and even that was too loud to bear. He pressed his hands over his mouth to try to quiet himself and could feel how badly he was shaking.
Then footsteps. From down the hall. Coming closer, approaching slowly, the heavy sound of workboots on expensive floors and Peter’s stomach dropped with dread. Someone knocked lightly on the door.
“Peter?” Mr. Stark called. Peter couldn’t figure out how to get a response past his lips. “Pete, kiddo, you alright?” Another few silent seconds. “FRIDAY, uh. FRIDAY told me you might need… help, or something.”
“I’m good,” he eventually croaked, wincing at the sound of his own ragged voice. Mr. Stark didn’t say anything for a minute. Peter heard him clear his throat.
“I’m gonna open this door unless you tell me not to.” For a second, nothing happened. Then a thin beam of light spilled onto the wall opposite where Peter was sitting, growing fractionally. He considered telling Stark to close it again, but didn’t.
The light grew until the door was open enough for Mr. Stark to ease through. He glanced at Peter and then hesitated before taking a spot on the floor across from him. The glow from the hallway washed over his face, throwing parts of it into deep shadow. Peter felt more than saw his eyes on him and buried his face in his arms.
Neither of them spoke. Peter wasn’t sure if he was glad Stark was there, or if he wanted him to go away and let him unravel in privacy. Stark, for his part, didn’t seem to know either.
“I’m not great at the whole comforting-thing,” Mr. Stark blurted. “Panic attacks happen. I’ve had them. Most of the heros I know have had them.” It was a weirdly casual admission for something so striking. Peter’s head lifted just a hair. “If you tell me what happened to cause it, I can try to keep it from happening again.”
“Nothing caused it,” Peter mumbled. Mr. Stark wrinkled his nose, glancing away.
“Kid, I get that you want to play the tough guy, I’ve been there, but it doesn’t do you any good--”
“I’m being serious, Mr. Stark.” Peter looked up, meeting his gaze. He looked unprepared, and uncomfortable, and Peter felt like an ass. “It just-- It was just building up, all night, until the dam just broke, I guess. It’s fine. I’ll get over it.”
Mr. Stark pursed his lips. “What, uh, what do you usually do? When you get all--” He wiggled his fingers in the air in a decent imitation of the static in Peter’s brain. Peter shrugged.
“This, mostly.” He waved a hand around the dark room. “Hunker down and wait for it to be over. Then try to go back to sleep.” He paused for a moment, thoughtful. “If I can’t sleep, sometimes I’ll bake.” Mr. Stark’s eyebrows furrowed.
“Yeah, y’know. Bake.” Peter shifted, rewrapping his arms around himself. “It gives me something to do. And in the morning there’ll be muffins or cookies or something to make the next morning a little better.”
“That’s… productive.” Mr. Stark must have noticed Peter’s embarrassed flush because he hurried to elaborate. “No, I’m serious! It’s a good strategy, it sounds helpful.”
They lapsed into silence again. Peter thought his hands would have stopped shaking by now -- he was much better at looking okay in front of others than he was at being okay -- but when he went to brush his hair away from his face, his shaky fingers bobbed in and out of his view. He shoved his hands under his arms and hunched forward, huffing out a breath.
“Y’know, we have a fully stocked kitchen.” Mr. Stark raised his eyebrows. “If you wanna…” He let the sentence trail off, letting Peter fill in the rest. Peter swallowed.
“Or we could just sit here,” he continued. He looked around the dark bathroom. “That’s fine. Whatever… whatever you need.”
Peter could feel the discomfort radiating off Mr. Stark in waves. Neither of them knew what to do in this situation. Peter could at least give them a goal.
“Okay,” he said, struggling to his feet. Mr. Stark stood and reached out to help him, then pulled back, which Peter appreciated. He didn’t feel up to being touched right now. “Cookies. Cookies are easy.”
“You got it, kiddo.” Mr. Stark opened the door and let Peter out first. Peter knew the compound well enough at this point that he could find his way to the kitchen while Mr. Stark trailed along behind him. When he rounded the corner into the communal eating area, he made a beeline for the fridge and pulled out the butter, setting it on the counter.
“To let it soften,” he mumbled in explanation.
“What else do we need?” Mr. Stark asked. Peter ran through the well-used sugar cookie recipe in his mind.
“Um. Eggs. Vanilla. Sugar, baking powder, flour.” He closed his eyes as he tried to remember what he was missing. “Salt.”
“Okay.” Mr. Stark flitted around the kitchen, pulling out the ingredients and placing them on the counter next to the butter. He took the initiative to pull out a couple of large bowls and a whisk. “You use these things when baking, right? I’ve always been more of a store-bought guy myself.”
Peter didn’t answer, instead focused on measuring his breathing and the flour. It seemed like he blinked and then all of a sudden there was a ball of dough in the bowl in front of him. He stuck his hand into the bowl and then his fingers were sticking together, something tacky and warm oozing through his fingers and coating his hands and the feeling was familiar in a horrible way and he could just see it staining his skin red--
No. No, it was cookie dough. It was cookie dough and he needed to add more flour before he could roll it out.
He scraped as much of the dough off his fingers as he could before reaching into the flour bag and throwing a handful of flour onto the little ball on the counter. He started kneading. The dough slowly became less like an amorphous blob and began to better hold its shape. When Peter was satisfied that it was the right consistency, he rummaged around for a rolling pin.
“You probably don’t have cookie cutters, right?” Focused intently on flattening the dough, he neglected to turn around and direct the question to Mr. Stark, so it took a moment for him to respond.
“Uh, no, actually. We could probably 3D print a couple real quick if you want…?”
Peter shook his head. “It’s fine. I’ll use a glass.” He put down the rolling pin to get a water glass from one of the cabinets, but Mr. Stark beat him to it, surging forward from where he had been leaning on the kitchen island.
“Here ya go, kiddo.” He smiled one of his patented Tony-Stark-media-smiles and Peter was thrown for a loop for a second. He took the glass.
He pressed the lip of the glass into the sheet of dough and twisted. When he pulled away, a clean circle of dough sat on the counter and Peter moved it to the baking sheet.
In the corner of his vision, Mr. Stark stepped away for a moment and quietly addressed the ceiling. “FRIDAY, go ahead and order a bunch of cookie cutters. Whatever has good reviews on Amazon. Lots of animal shapes.”
FRIDAY answered in the same low tone from one of the speakers in the wall. “Avengers ones too, Boss?” Mr. Stark smiled.
Peter’s lips twitched as he filled the baking sheet.
Nothing did a better job of convincing Peter that high school was a waste of his time than mandatory Home Ec classes. Georgia Tech wouldn’t make him learn to sew a button. ESU would trust him to do his own laundry. MIT wouldn’t pair him with his mortal enemy to bake a cake.
“You’re making me work with PARKER?” Flash exclaimed. He looked over at Peter in horror. Peter knew his own expression wasn’t much different.
“Learning to work with someone you might not… particularly get along with is a valuable skill in and of itself,” Ms. Maybury explained. Flash groaned.
Maybe Peter was exaggerating when he called Flash his mortal enemy. He had actual, literal mortal enemies who tried to kill him every other week. Flash was just a guy. He was a jerk, but he was just a guy. If Peter could survive the Vulture, he could survive a normal high school asshole.
“I hate this class,” Flash muttered to himself as he took a seat at the table with Peter.
“Listen,” Peter said, “If we just put up with each other to get this done, we get cake at the end. Forty minutes.”
Flash crossed his arms, thinking it over.
“Fine,” he bit. He jabbed a finger in Peter’s face. “But I get to pick the frosting.” Peter raised his hands in surrender.
Ms. Maybury handed out laminated pages of instructions for a simple vanilla cake. Bags of flour and sugar along with room-temperature eggs and butter sat at each table. Peter glanced at the instructions before hopping out of his seat and walking to the back of the room toward the ovens.
“Yo, Parker! Are you abandoning me? The hell are you doing?”
“You gotta preheat the oven,” Peter called over his shoulder. Several kids at other tables startled, hastily putting down their measuring cups and speed-walking to the ovens. Flash was reading over the instructions when he returned.
“It says we gotta beat the butter with the hand mixer,” he said. “I’ll do that and then you start adding the sugar.”
Peter just nodded.
Flash added the butter to a glass bowl and plugged the electric mixer into the outlet. After a few seconds of figuring out how to turn it on, he began creaming the butter. Peter measured out the sugar and put it in a separate, smaller bowl to make it easier to pour. He began shaking it into the bowl slowly.
“Would you hurry it up, Parker? It’s like you’re trying to set the record for the world’s slowest pour,” Flash griped. He lunged for the sugar bowl and Peter jerked away. The sugar spilled across the table.
“Cut it out, Flash!” He glared and began sweeping the sugar back into the bowl. Flash rolled his eyes.
“The butter doesn’t care how gentle you are with it, idiot. But I don’t wanna waste any more time on this than I have to.”
“You have to go slow to get air into the mixture,” Peter explained. “Otherwise your cake is super flat and gross.”
“Oh , of course you know everything about fucking baking too,” Flash muttered.
“Language, Mr. Thompson!” Ms. Maybury scolded, having chosen that moment to walk by their table.
“Sorry.” Flash offered a sheepish smile until she walked away. As soon as her back was turned, he scowled. “Where the hell do you even learn this stuff, Parker?”
“I bake with my aunt.”
Peter met his eyes, defiant, daring Flash to say something. But instead he just looked away.
“Oh.” Flash pulled out another clean bowl and dragged the bag of flour closer to him. He gestured to one of the measuring cups on the other side of the table, keeping his gaze down, and Peter handed it over before reaching for the salt himself. He scooped out the baking powder and dumped that into the bowl too. Flash pulled out a whisk and started combining the dry ingredients.
“I, uh,” Flash started. His eyes were focused on the bowl in front of him. He cleared his throat. “I used to bake with my mom. Not anything fancy, just like, cupcakes from box mixes and stuff.”
Peter stood awkwardly for a moment.
“Do you… do you guys not bake together anymore?” Flash shook his head.
“Nah. I make brownies with my sister Jesse sometimes, but my dad... He, uh, he doesn’t like when we make a mess of the kitchen, so.”
Peter shuffled to the side so he could reach the vanilla extract. He poured in two teaspoons. “I didn’t know you had a sister.”
“Yeah, I do. She doesn’t go here.”
“How old is she?”
“Nine. How many eggs do we need?”
Peter checked the recipe again. “Four. I take two, you take two?” Flash took two eggs from the carton. He cracked them each into the bowl, then fished out a piece of shell that had fallen in. Peter took his and cracked them one-handed, throwing the empty shells into the trash can under the table. Flash looked at him, incredulous.
“Are you serious, Parker?” he laughed. He shook his head. “Showoff.”
Peter scoffed. “Look who’s talking.”
Flash laughed again. “Fair enough.”
Peter picked up the electric mixer and beat the eggs into the batter. He jerked his head at the bowl of flour mixture. “We have to add a third of that, then half the milk, then another third of flour, then the rest of the milk and the rest of the flour.”
Flash’s brows furrowed.
“Baking is too damn complicated,” he said even as he tipped some of the mixture into the bowl. Peter swirled the electric beater around the sides until everything was incorporated. Flash added half the milk. Peter mixed. Flash went to add half of the remaining flour, but the bowl slipped and most of it fell in.
“Ah, shi--” He glanced at Ms. Maybury. She narrowed her eyes. “Crap?”
Peter chuckled. He put the electric beater back into the bowl, but it kicked up the flour, throwing it across Flash’s jeans. Peter’s jaw dropped.
Flash stared down at his jeans, then back up at him, eyes wide. The whole class had come to a stand-still. Watching. Waiting for Flash’s reaction.
“Peter’s so dead,” someone in the back whispered. Peter coughed.
“You, uh. You’ve got something on your pants.” He gingerly held out a cloth.
They stared at each other for a tense moment. Then Flash smirked.
“I always knew you were a goddamn klutz, Parker.” He took the rag from Peter’s outstretched hand. Peter’s head tilted in confusion.
“You’re-- you’re not mad?”
Flash shook his head, wiping down his jeans. “It was an accident. I’m not the kinda asshole who’s gonna kick the crap outta you for an accident. Besides, fighting’s not gonna get us that cake.”
They managed to finish the batter without incident. Peter poured the mixture into two round pans and slid them into the oven. Flash set the timer. Most of the other students were doing the same and Ms. Maybury told the class to break for lunch. They’d have another Home Ec period right after to frost their cakes.
Flash and Peter walked the same way to the cafeteria. Neither of them said anything. They split up upon entering the lunchroom, Peter in a beeline for Ned and MJ and Flash to sit with a group of his friends. If MJ or Ned noticed how Peter kept glancing across the cafeteria, neither of them said anything.
When they got back to the classroom, Ms. Maybury had taken their cakes out of the pans for them and left them on wire racks to cool.
Making the frosting wasn’t much different from making the cake. Flash insisted on picking the color and added an absurd amount of purple food dye to their frosting. After checking the sponges had cooled completely, they assembled the cake and spread a generous layer of frosting all over it. They stepped back to admire their handiwork.
“It looks… plain,” Flash said after a moment. Peter turned to him in surprise.
“It's bright purple!”
“Yeah, but like--! There’s no decoration!”
Peter threw his hands in the air. “Well what do you want to do, add sprinkles?” Flash offered a flat look.
“This isn’t ametur hour, Pete.” He started digging in the drawers of the table for something to decorate the cake with. He emerged triumphant with a piping bag. “Now we’re talking.”
“Except we’re all out of frosting.”
“Well make some more!”
They had enough ingredients left for a small batch of frosting that Flash dyed red. Peter scooped it into the piping bag and handed it over. Flash blinked.
“Wait, hold on, I’m not doing it.”
“It was your idea, Flash.”
“You’re the baker! Not me!”
“It was your idea!”
“Fine!” Flash scowled and turned to the cake. He huffed and set to work.
Peter had never seen him concentrate so hard on anything. His tongue poked out from the corner of his mouth as he focused on piping a neat border of dots around the top of the cake. He readjusted his grip on the bag as he moved to the cake’s base. He changed it up this time, doing artsy little swirls. Peter was impressed.
“You’re really good at this,” he admitted. Flash stepped back, beaming at the cake.
“I am, aren’t I?”
“Yeah, yeah, don’t go getting a big head about it.” Flash smacked him on the arm and Peter smacked back. He realized with a jolt that they were being friendly.
“You… bake, right?”
Peter glanced up from his phone to find that MJ had actually put down her book to talk to him. He blinked.
“Uh, yeah. I do. Sometimes.” He narrowed his eyes. “I’m pretty sure I’ve never told you that.”
She waved her hand in the air dismissively. “I’m observant. We’ve been over this.” She cleared her throat and glanced down at the book in her hands. Her fingers thumbed the edge of the hard cover as if itching to open it. To hide behind it. She pulled her hands back, tucked them underneath the cafeteria table, and met Peter’s eye.
“A friend of mine, from my old school, is going to be in town on Saturday and I… wanted to do something nice for her. So I was going to bake her cupcakes.”
Peter waited for her to continue, but she just kept staring at him, an odd look on her face. “O-kay?”
“I’m not a very good baker,” she said. Peter straightened.
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,” he said. “I’m sure she’d appreciate the effort either way.”
“But I want to give her good cupcakes,” MJ insisted. Peter tried not to let his confusion show on his face, but apparently failed because she groaned, folding her arms across the table and burying her head in them. A light went off.
“Do you want me to help you?”
“Yes,” she mumbled into the table. “Please.”
Peter watched her for a moment, but she didn’t move. He wracked his brain for any other time she’d asked him for his help and turned up short. “If you’re free after school we could use my kitchen.”
MJ finally sat up. “I… already have all the stuff back at my apartment. My friend’s vegan, so I did a little research and found a recipe with good reviews. And my parents aren’t going to be home until late, so.”
“Yeah, okay, that works.” Peter smiled. “Today, then?”
“Yeah.” MJ sniffed, nodded, and went back to her book. Peter shot off a quick text to May telling her where he’d be and turned back to his lunch with a little more enthusiasm than before.
It turned out MJ’s apartment was only two blocks from Peter’s. When they hopped off the subway, Peter turned left out of habit, only for MJ to grab him by the hood of his sweater and drag him in the opposite direction.
“This way, loser,” she said. Peter oh-so-gracefully stumbled around to face the right direction and catch up to her. She nodded at a three-story building that was just coming into view. “That’s it right there.”
“Seriously?” Peter asked, incredulous. “You live like a five minute walk from me and you’ve never mentioned that in all the times you’ve come over to my place?”
MJ shrugged. “I don’t just go around telling random creeps where I live.” Peter squacked in protest.
“Ned and I aren’t random creeps!”
“Not random ones, no.” She looked at him and raised her eyebrows before erupting into laughter. Peter rolled his eyes, but couldn’t suppress a smile.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever.”
They stopped in front of a glass-fronted bookstore and MJ dug her keys out of her backpack. She unlocked a door just to the right of the store entrance and swung it open to reveal a steep staircase, but Peter was staring through the window at the rows of books. They rose in jumbled towers as far as the eye could see, cast in the store’s warm light.
“This explains so much,” he said. She yanked him through the doorway and he made sure to close the door behind him before following her up the stairs. She unlocked another door at the landing at the top and stepped out of the way to let Peter through.
Her apartment was oddly empty. There was all the regular large pieces of furniture one would expect; a couch and coffee table sat in front of a TV hanging on the wall and a round dining table surrounded by four chairs was off to one side of the kitchen. But there were no trinkets. No small items of decoration. No pictures on the walls. The only hint of personality was an overflowing bookcase next to the television.
“You can throw your backpack anywhere,” she said, interrupting Peter’s thoughts. He slung his bag off his shoulders and left it next to the door. MJ kicked off her shoes and he followed suit.
“So, uh, what recipe did you find?”
“Gimme a sec.” She pulled out her phone and spent a minute searching through her tabs. “Here it is.”
She handed over the phone and Peter scanned the ingredients and instructions twice before looking up. “Full disclosure, May is usually the one who tries vegan recipes. If this turns out really, really bad, don’t get mad at me.”
MJ narrowed her eyes. “If you mess this up, Parker, that’s it. Friendship’s over.”
“I know you’re joking, and yet for some reason I’m still stressed out.”
MJ walked around the kitchen, pulling out everything they needed and placing it on the kitchen counter. Peter propped her phone up against the backsplash so they could look at it while they worked.
“‘Measure out non-dairy milk and add vinegar or lemon juice. Let set to curdle,’” Peter read. He pulled a face. “I hate that word. Curdle. Ugh, just saying it makes me uncomfortable.” MJ leaned in close.
“Curdle,” she whispered and Peter shook like a wet dog.
“Stop that!” He swatted at her, but she just laughed.
“Curdle,” she said again and Peter clamped his hands over his ears.
“LA LA LA LA LA, CAN’T HEAR YOU!”
She shoved him and he fell away, laughing. He stuck out his tongue at her. She stuck out hers back. He stuck his out again and they spent far too long going back and forth until they both dissolved into helpless giggles.
“God, you’re such a loser.” MJ gasped for breath, hiding her grin behind her hands.
“Well you’d know one when you see one, wouldn’t you?”
“Are you just going to make fun of me all afternoon or are we actually going to get something done?”
She rolled her eyes and grabbed the carton of almond milk, sliding it across the counter to Peter, who poured it out into a measuring cup. She poured in a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar and stared at the concoction.
“We just let it… sit there?” she asked. Peter glanced at the recipe again. He shrugged.
“That’s what it says.”
Peter creamed the vegan butter, sugar, and vanilla into a bowl and then handed the mixture off to MJ while he scooped out the dry ingredients.
“I’ve never seen a recipe be so picky,” he said. “Uh, we’re gonna need a sifter-thing. To sift the flour and stuff.” MJ put down the electric mixer to hunt through the cabinets and returned looking proud with a small sieve. She held it over the bowl as Peter added each ingredient in the order the instructions demanded. She shook it gently to encourage it all to go through. Peter poured in the almond milk mixture while making a face and MJ poked at the furrow between his eyebrows until he laughed and turned away.
MJ picked up her phone and scrolled down to the next step. “Now for the fun part,” she said. “Sprinkles!”
“Why would anyone ever have regular cupcakes when they can have funfetti cupcakes?” Peter picked up the closed sprinkles container and shook it, watching as the rainbow colors swirled around each other, bumping against the walls of the plastic tub. He pried it open and shook some in. He went to put it down, but MJ shook her head.
He tipped in another handful then looked for her approval.
He poured in half of the remaining tub. MJ groaned.
“You gotta learn to live a little, Parker.” She grabbed his wrist and dumped the entire container into the bowl. Peter’s face lit up in suprised glee.
MJ folded the sprinkles into the mixture with a rubber spatula. Peter started filling the cupcake tray with polka-dotted paper liners.
“Okay, this is all mixed,” she said. “How do we get it into those things?”
“Spoons, I guess.”
MJ fished out two spoons from a drawer and handed one over. They began filling each liner. More batter landed on the counter or the floor than the actual tray at first, but they soon fell into a rhythm. They managed to fill twelve cupcakes before the bowl was empty.
MJ slid the tray into the oven and leaned against the counter with a sigh. After setting the timer, Peter eyed the dirty baking utensils.
“We should probably wash this stuff,” he said. MJ quirked an eyebrow.
“Or… ” she returned, “We could leave everything in there to ‘soak’ and deal with it later.”
Peter grinned. “I like that plan better.”
They ended up in MJ’s room, with her lying across her bed, chin propped on her hands, and Peter sprawled out on her floor, splayed fingers running through the plush purple rug. Her room was strikingly different from the rest of the apartment; for one there was color , in heavy splashes of purples in the furniture and decorations. The controlled chaos of dog-eared books and chewed pens scattered around the room reminded Peter of his own bedroom.
“This rug is the best thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life,” he said. He closed his eyes and turned his head so he could rub his cheek against it. Above him, MJ laughed.
“You’ve got pretty low standards.” She grabbed a pillow and lobbed it at him. His spidey sense tingled, but he let it hit him in the face, where it stayed.
“I’m a simple boy of simple needs,” he said, voice muffled from underneath the fabric. He shook the pillow free so he could look up at her. “I can feel you judging me.”
“Good. That just means my telepathic superpowers are working as expected.”
Peter huffed a laugh. “Telepathy. Now that would be a cool power to have.”
“You already have enough superpowers, Parker, leave some for the rest of us.”
Peter’s heart skipped a beat. His eyes shot over to MJ and he scrambled to sit up.
“W-what?” he stammered. He forced a smile, meeting her slightly startled expression. “Su-superpowers? What are you talking about, I just, I’m just, y’know, a guy , I don’t--”
“Peter,” MJ said. He bit off his rambling and swallowed his racing heart. “I know you’re Spider-Man.”
He looked at her, then looked away, and then back again. He coughed and shifted so he was pushed up against the end of the bed, facing away from her pressing gaze.
“That’s… ridiculous,” he managed eventually. He felt her shift on the bed and then she was settling down on the floor next to him. He couldn’t look at her.
“Is it though?” She thumped her head against the mattress. “You have an ‘internship’ with Tony Stark. You’re always late to stuff and constantly busy. You show up to school with lots of weird injuries you can barely explain. And all of this started at the exact same time that spider guy started swinging around.” She nudged his knee with hers. “I told you, dude. I’m observant.”
Peter covered his face with his hands and sighed, for a long, long time. When he ran out of air in his lungs, he took a deep breath -- and sighed some more.
“Was it really that obvious?” he asked, finally emerging from behind his fingers. MJ grimaced.
“You’re not exactly subtle. And Ned really isn’t subtle.” Peter managed to chuckle at that, then sighed again. MJ shot him a pitying look. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think I would have figured it out if we weren’t friends. So, like. Don’t worry about that.”
Peter shook his head. “Too late. Worrying’s my specialty.”
“I thought it was beating up guys dressed like birds?”
Their eyes met in the following beat of silence, and just like that, the tension was gone. They burst into laughter, leaning into each other as their shoulders shook. Peter felt a hidden knot in his chest unwinding and his smile came a little easier.
Peter was not sulking.
He was prepared to admit that he was pouting -- just a little bit, just the tiniest bit -- but his ears were still ringing and his shoulders were still aching after a rough patrol and he had earned a pout, goddammit. The comforter wrapped around him was doing nothing to alleviate either issue, and in fact made him look like he was sulking (even if he wasn’t), but if he couldn’t have small comforts, what the hell could he have?
The lock to the apartment jiggled and the door swung open. May walked in carrying two bags of groceries in one hand and she motioned for Peter to sit back down when he began to struggle out of his blanket burrito to go help her.
“I’ve got it, I’ve got it,” she said, depositing the bags on the kitchen countertop. Peter wriggled until he was in a good enough position to watch her as she flitted around the kitchen, putting her haul away.
“How was your day?” he asked, voice muffled by the quilt.
“Eh, so-so.” She glanced back at him in all his comfy glory and raised an eyebrow at the X-Files episode playing on the TV. “Yours?"
Peter purposefully hunched further into his quilt so his answer was unintelligible. May frowned.
“What was that?”
“I got thrown through a wall,” he admitted. May finished stacking cans of soup in the cabinet next to the fridge and walked over to him, running her fingers through his hair.
“Sweetheart, I know for a fact this was not the first time it’s happened.” Her lips twisted up into a smile. “Hell, I’m pretty sure the first time you were actually excited about it.”
“I was like a one man wrecking crew, what’s not to get excited about?” he said, returning the grin. He leaned into her as she sat down on the couch next to him.
“What’s really going on, honey? X-Files and your comforter means something’s up.”
“I dunno. It’s just one of those days, I guess. A whole bunch of little, suck-y things combined to make one big, suck-y day.”
“What kind of suck-y things?”
He shrugged. “Stupid stuff. Like, my locker wouldn’t open this morning and Ms. Beaker gave me detention for not having my notes. And the cafeteria was serving sloppy joes, which I can’t eat because the texture is all--” He scrunched up his nose. May covered a laugh with her hand. “And both Ned and MJ were out today, and Ned usually has granola bars that he gives me when I can’t eat anything else, and I just like to complain to MJ because she gets it, and so I was hungry and-and annoyed going out on patrol after school and it’s a lot harder to be a good sport about getting beat up when you’re in a bad mood.”
He pouted. May chuckled and brushed a hand over his cheek.
“Everybody have off days, honey.” She pressed a kiss to the top of his head. “Even superheros.”
They sat in silence together for a few minutes. The X-Files episode ended and the next one started automatically, the cheesy 90s opening coaxing a smile out of Peter. May nudged him.
“When you were little, you told me you were going to marry Mulder and Scully,” she said. Peter choked on a laugh.
“Both of them?”
May nodded. “You were ahead of the times.”
Their eyes met and they burst into giggles. Peter buried his face into her shoulder as he laughed and she threw her head back, her hand held over her heart as if her own joke was too funny for her to bear. Their snickering subsided into goofy, content smiles. When the settled down, May turned to him.
“Y’know what would make watching this even better?”
Peter raised an eyebrow as if to say, Nothing can improve upon perfection. May stood.
“Oatmeal cinnamon cookies.”
Peter beamed and scrambled off the couch. “I’ll get out the eggs!”
May began measuring out the flour and white sugar while Peter softened the butter in the microwave. He dug a large ceramic bowl out of their designated baking cupboard and dumped the butter in, then moved on to add in the brown sugar. May added the white sugar and handed Peter a whisk.
“Creaming butter has gotten a lot easier since you got superpowers.” Peter laughed.
“To be fair, my powers are the reason our electric beater is broken.”
“Hence why you’re on mixing duty. Whisk away, Spider-Man!”
They each cracked an egg and -- after Peter fished out the broken shells from his attempt -- May added a teaspoon of vanilla. While he was beating in the egg, May combined the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and the all-important cinnamon) in a separate bowl. Peter traded his whisk for a wooden spoon and picked up the small bowl of dry ingredients.
“Peter, don’t dump it in all at once--” May tried to warn, but Peter tipped the bowl into the creamed mixture and a cloud of powder erupted into his face. He lept back, sputtering.
“Shit,” he said, blinking quickly, and May was laughing too hard to chide him for his language. She straightened and brushed away some of the flour dusting the entire front of his shirt, lips pressed tight together to contain her smile.
“Every--” She bit down on her lip against another surge of giggles. “Every time, I try to tell you to go slower but you never learn.”
“Maybe I just like being covered in flour,” he said, wiping some of it off his face. “Ever think of that?”
May shook her head and wet a cloth in the sink, wringing it out before handing it to Peter so he could clean himself up.
“Yeah, yeah, wise guy.” She turned back to the bowl and started folding in the dry ingredients. “I hope you know you’re not eating these before dinner.”
Peter’s face fell. “Are you telling me I have to wait?”
“You just told me you didn’t eat anything at school today. No cookies if you haven’t had any real food first.”
“I got a sandwich from the bodega on my way home!” May leveled the spoon at him.
“With the way you’ve been eating lately, that’s barely a snack. You’re waiting until dinner.”
“But what about the X-Files!” he argued. “I thought the cookies were for TV watching!”
“We’re not eating the TV, Peter, it’ll still be there after you’ve had a serving of vegetables.”
Peter threw himself down on the kitchen counter, groaning. “May….”
“Peter…” she groaned back. She smacked him playfully on the shoulder. “Stand up, you big baby. Do you wanna add in the oats?”
Peter took the spoon, pouting. “...yes.”
May measured out the oats and tipped them into the bowl and Peter mixed them into the thick dough. She preheated the oven and pulled out two shallow baking sheets, placing them on the counter.
“We’re gonna need a couple of regular spoons.”
“Got it.” Peter shuffled to the side to open the cutlery drawer and pulled out two mismatched spoons. He handed one to May. “Let’s get scooping.”
They took turns reaching into the bowl to scoop out a dollop of batter and roll the dough between their hands to create a ball. May lined hers up in neat rows along the baking sheet while Peter’s method was more haphazard.
“Sweetheart, all your cookies are going to fuse together if you don’t give them more space,” May said. Peter nodded emphatically.
“Exactly. Superheroes need super cookies.” He plopped another dough ball onto the sheet. “C’mon, May, you’re too cool to be eating regular-people cookies. Join me on the dark side.”
May hip-checked him and he stumbled across the kitchen, laughing. She knew he could have stayed rooted in place had he wanted to -- the knowledge that her tiny little nephew was strong enough to lift trucks still sometimes astounded her -- but appreciated him playing along. She rolled out the last of the dough between her hands and put in on the baking tray. After rinsing her hands in the sink, she slid the trays into the oven and set the timer. When she turned around, Peter was staring at his hands, opening and closing them with an odd look on his face.
“They’re so sticky,” he said. He looked at her and tilted his head. “Feel how sticky they are, May.”
He reached out his dough-covered hands to grab her and May yelped, dancing out of the way.
“Peter Benjamin Parker, don’t you dare!” she shrieked and Peter grinned.
“Give me a hug, May!” he insisted, laughing. “C’mon, are you really not gonna let me hug you?”
She batted his hands away when he got too close and hurried to put the couch between them. Peter leapt over it easily and wrapped her in a bear hug from behind, sticky hands on her bare forearms.
“Oh, you are so dead, mister,” she said, words stolen through breathy giggles.
“You can’t kill me if I don’t let go,” he shot back, tightening his arms. May knew how careful he was being, even now, with their familiar roughhousing. She missed for a moment the days when he barely came up to her hip and would cling to her legs with a growl and all the might of a determined six-year-old.
He pressed his forehead against the back of her shoulder and giggled once before letting go. She turned around with a faux-angry glare and waggled her finger in his smiling face.
“I’m getting you back for this,” she warned. “Mark my words.”
“Consider them marked.” Peter bounced over to the sink and washed his hands before handing May a cloth to wipe off her arms. She threw it at the back of his head when she was done with it, but he ducked out of the way without even looking and it landed in the sink. Superpowers made exacting revenge so much harder.
She dumped the used bowls and measuring cups into the sink and Peter started washing while she put away the ingredients. The gentle scent of cinnamon had just begun permeating the kitchen by the time they finished.
Peter dropped down, cross-legged, in front of the oven. After a moment, May eased herself down next to him.
“They don’t bake faster this way,” she whispered.
“You gotta keep an eye on them so they don’t get up to any funny business,” he whispered back, and May had a sudden memory of Peter sitting with Ben in this exact same position, years ago, Ben saying those exact same words to her when she asked what they were doing. She had walked in on them attempting a third batch of “surprise” Mother’s Day cookies. The first two had gotten horribly burnt.
“Well you’re the expert on stopping funny business.” Her lips quirked up. “When you’re not in the middle of it yourself.” Peter smiled and bumped his shoulder against hers and the timer dinged.
This was the worst day in the history of days and Peter was going to scream. His head thumped against the quartz countertops as he collapsed down on it.
“How you doin’ there, Bug-boy?”
Peter looked up to find Tony raising an amused eyebrow at him from the kitchen entryway. He put his head back down and groaned.
“I’m dying, Tony.”
“Does it have anything to do with the tray still smoldering in the kitchen sink?”
Peter groaned again. “Please don’t remind me about that. I screwed up brownies. Regular old brownies. I hate myself and I’m dying.”
Tony knocked him on the shoulder as he made his way across the room to glance into the smoking sink. “Uh-huh. And I’m sure this has nothing to do with our special visitors today.”
Peter’s only response was to fold his arms over his head and whine. Tony pressed his lips together to hold back a smile. Eventually, Peter sprang up.
“I have to make a new batch,” he said.
“That’s it! Never say die!”
“Need to be fast,” Peter muttered, bounding across the room to get a clean bowl. “Need to make a good impression.” He shot out a web and jerked the bag of flour across the room. White powder flew through the air and crashed across the front of Peter’s spider-suit, but the bag landed in his hand and he dug into it with a measuring cup. He dumped it into the bowl with intense concentration. Tony raised his hands and backed away slowly.
“I’ll leave you to it.”
Peter raced to throw everything together. He furiously whisked in the egg and melted butter, viciously sifted the cocoa powder. Milk erupted over the counter as he accidently slammed the jug down. Batter splattered against the backsplash when he turned the mixer on. He managed to hurl the filled brownie tray into the oven in record time.
He blinked, breaking into a smile as he realized he might just make it.
Peter whirled around at the unfamiliar voice and found Tony unsuccessfully hiding a smile while standing next to the entirety of the returning Avengers. Captain America and the Winter Soldier were staring in mild shock. Scarlet Witch covered her mouth with her hand. Black Widow looked amused. Falcon, Hawkeye, and Ant-Man seemed to be barely holding back laughter.
Peter looked around at the destroyed kitchen. He looked down at his filthy suit and ran a sheepish hand through his hair, only for chunks of chocolate to clatter to the floor. He glanced back up at his heroes.