“Johnny, baby,” Jack said, air kissing both cheeks. He was a short man with a full head of hair and a demeanor Sue had once described as “so oily I feel like I have to take a shower just listening to him.” Johnny agreed, but Jack had been good to him, understanding. He never pushed too hard or complained if Johnny disappeared into another reality for a few weeks. And if Johnny wanted a role, Jack usually found a way to make it happen. “Have I got a part for you.”
Too bad Johnny was feeling pretty burnt out on the whole acting thing after the Rawhide Kid fiasco.
While it isn’t exactly a chore to watch Johnny Storm get hot and heavy with Henry Cavill out underneath the prairie moon, Cavill’s sensitive and nuanced take on his character only serves to underscore Storm’s clumsy performance, one review had said.
With all the money the Fantastic Four have, you’d think someone could buy the Human Torch some acting lessons, had been another.
“That’s what you always say,” Johnny told him, collapsing into a chair. “If it’s another toothpaste commercial, I’m leaving.”
“What can I say? You’ve got great teeth. People love a superhero with a smile,” his agent said, signaling for a waiter. “No, you’ll love this one: how would you like to star in Broadway’s next big musical extravaganza?”
“A musical?” Johnny said, frowning.
“See, I’ve been thinking about it,” Jack said. “Trying to figure it out – what makes the Human Torch such a star?”
“The ability to light myself on fire, mostly?” Johnny said.
Jack laughed, a little too freely. “It’s your presence, baby! You light up a room! Face it, Johnny, the screen just can’t capture you. The stage, John, that’s where you belong.”
“The stage,” Johnny repeated.
“The stage! You up there under the lights, in person. Trust me, you’re gonna light it up,” Jack said.
Johnny couldn’t say he was entirely opposed to the idea. Still… “What’s the show? Because I’m not doing anything with giant animals. I get enough of that just following Spider-Man’s twitter.”
“That it, exactly,” Jack said, beaming, his arms spread wide.
Johnny squinted at him. “It’s… about giant animals? I’m not doing Cats.”
“Spider-Man, Johnny,” Jack said, teeth and eyes both twinkling. “Picture it: Spider-Man, on Broadway! And you’re perfect for it – after all, you’ve already got all the up close and personal experience.”
“So you, what,” Johnny said, frowning, “want me to play myself?”
“You’ve got it all wrong, baby,” Jack said, his grin a blindingly white flash of teeth. “They want you to play Spider-Man.”
Spider-Man laughed so hard he fell off the Statue of Liberty. Johnny craned his neck to look for him, only to nearly get webbed in the face.
“Watch it!” he said, scrambling back.
“Sorry,” Spider-Man gasped out, swinging back up. “Kind of hard to aim through tears of mirth. Seriously? Seriously, seriously?”
“Seriously, what?” Johnny said, rolling his eyes.
“They want to make a musical about me,” Spider-Man said, drawing the words out very slowly like he was talking to a small child. Johnny flicked a spark at his gesturing hands. “They want this musical to star you. They want you to play me.”
“Yes, yes, and yes,” Johnny said, and Spider-Man descended into howls of laughter again. “Would you stop it?”
“Can’t,” Spider-Man cackled, slapping at his thigh. “This is the best thing I’ve ever heard. I’m worried I’m going to wake up from this beautiful, beautiful dream.”
“I’m being serious here,” Johnny said.
“Oh, so am I,” Spider-Man said, hand raised to the mask’s big blank eyes like he was wiping away a tear. “A Spider-Man musical, starring the Human Torch. This is the best of day of my life.”
“Spidey, c’mon!” Johnny said.
“Ohh, I can’t breathe,” Spider-Man said. “Alright, Torchy, tell me – what did you say?”
“I told them I needed to think about it,” Johnny said. “See, I want to do it –”
Spider-Man snorted. “Of course you do.”
“Like you’d turn down a leading role,” Johnny said, rolling his eyes. “Listen, I want to do it. But you’re my friend first, right?”
“Uh,” Spider-Man said, sounding confused. “Right.”
“So,” Johnny said, schooling his features into a serious look. “I called you out here today to ask for your blessing.”
There was a long pause, and then Spider-Man burst into laughter again, slapping at his knee.
“Ask for my blessing!” he repeated, throwing his head back. “Are you playing me in a musical or asking for my only daughter’s hand in marriage? Ohhh, Torchy. You make me laugh.”
“I noticed,” Johnny said sourly.
“Oh, c’mon, stop with the face,” Spider-Man said, snorting.
“I don’t know why I bother,” Johnny said, making to stand and trailing a few angry sparks in the process. Spider-Man flicked them harmlessly aside, reaching out to grab Johnny’s wrist. He tugged lightly, gesturing for Johnny to sit back down.
“So dramatic,” Spider-Man sighed. “C’mon, stay. I had a long fight last night, I’m still a little punchy, that’s all.” He hadn’t let go of Johnny’s wrist, that gloved thumb resting just over Johnny’s pulse. He rubbed it up and down – Spider-Man never could sit still. The drag of fabric against the sensitive skin of his wrist soothed the sting a little. “You actually want to do this, Johnny? Really?”
Johnny nodded. Rawhide Kid had been a total fiasco, but maybe this was a chance to turn some of that tide. His agent was right; he’d always been better in front of people than a camera, and besides, if there was anyone he knew in the world he knew like the back of his hand, it was Spider-Man. Playing him would be a piece of cake.
“Yeah,” he said. “I really do.”
“Well,” Spider-Man said, exhaling. He squeezed once, then let go of Johnny’s arm. “Whaddaya know.”
“So, do I have it?” Johnny said. “Your blessing?”
“Eh,” Spider-Man said, shrugging. “Sure. Why not.”
“Seriously?” Johnny said, leaning forward.
“Seriously, yes. You have my blessing,” Spider-Man said. He flapped his hands at him, little shooing motions. “My reputation has had worse things attached to it than your pretty face. Go with god.”
“Yes!” Johnny said. Impulsively, he threw his arms around Spider-Man’s neck, hauling him in close for a hug. Spider-Man really must have been surprised, because he went without a struggle, bracing one hand on Johnny’s back.
He was very warm through his costume, solid muscle all over. Johnny tried not to let it distract him from the good news too much.
“Ohhh,” Spider-Man said, right in his Johnny’s ear. Johnny shivered a little, the same pleasant little thrill he always got when Spider-Man was sweet to him. “This is going to be such a trainwreck.”
Scratch the sweet. Johnny punched him the shoulder.
Everything after that went smoothly, right up until the romantic lead was cast.
Mary Jane Watson was beautiful. She was talented. She apparently had the ability to make Spider-Man lose whatever tiny grain of sense he possessed.
Johnny was out on his balcony, enjoying the morning sun when he saw the flash of red and blue out of his peripheral vision. A split-second later Spider-Man hit him, manhandling an arm around his waist and swinging them both up, up, and away.
Johnny was secure enough in his masculinity to admit that he screamed.
“Things are about to get very hot for you if there aren’t doombots on your tail,” Johnny said, once his heart had stopped feeling like it was about to hammer out of his ribs. “Spidey! What the hell is going on?”
“I need you to drop out of the musical,” Spider-Man said.
“What?” Johnny said.
“I changed my mind,” Spider-Man said. “This is travesty against god and man and I need you to remove yourself from it at once. Chop chop, Torchy.”
“Are you out of your bug-sized mind?” Johnny shouted at him. “Put me down or you’re about to be one extra-crispy hero!”
Spider-Man did, to his credit, do as Johnny asked. He dropped his swing – Johnny only yelped this time, his grip on Spider-Man practically a stranglehold – and somersaulted them onto a nearby rooftop.
“I hate you,” Johnny said, face buried in Spider-Man’s shoulder. The world was spinning a little bit. He liked flying so much better than swinging.
“Feeling’s mutual, buddy,” Spider-Man said. “So, about you dropping out of the musical –”
Johnny punched him in the arm, disentangling himself. “No! C’mon, you gave me your blessing!”
“Which I am now revoking!” Spider-Man said. “Blessing revoked!”
“You can’t revoke a blessing!” Johnny said.
“I can and I am,” Spider-Man said. “Blessing revoked! Done! Over! Drop out!”
“No!” Johnny said, face growing hot with both fury and flame. “This isn’t fair, Spidey! You were all on board before! What gives?”
Spider-Man mumbled something under his breath.
“Excuse me?” Johnny said, hand cupped to his ear.
Spider-Man turned his face towards him, looking incredibly strangle-y despite the blank mask between them. “I don’t agree with certain recent casting choices. There, happy?”
“Certain recent --? Oh my god!” Johnny said, jabbing a finger in Spider-Man’s chest. “You’re hot for that model!”
“I am NOT!” Spider-Man said way too quickly. Johnny rolled his eyes; the guy never could play it cool. “And she has a name! And I just – maybe I’m worried about you, ever think of that? You’re not exactly Mr. Don’t Kiss The Hot Model –”
“So you do think she’s hot!”
“Of course she’s hot!” Spider-Man said, throwing his hands up. “I have eyes under this mask!”
“Eight of them?”
Spider-Man took a deep, sharp breath, and then he put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. Johnny hated how even that single touch was enough to make him want to melt.
“Listen, Torch,” Spider-Man said. “We’ve been friends a long time, haven’t we?” Almost ten years, Johnny didn’t say. “And in all that time, have I ever asked you to do anything?”
“I built you a car!” Johnny said.
“Aside from that!” Spider-Man said. “And the twelve other things I just thought of right now! Aside from all of those, Johnny, have I ever asked you for anything? No! Do this one thing for me, Johnny. Come on, you don’t need this.”
That wasn’t true, though. Johnny did need this. A chance to prove -- to prove something. He didn’t know what. Maybe that, even if he didn’t have superpowers, even if Reed hadn’t made that one fateful mistake, Johnny Storm could be someone. Could be adored, respected on his own merits. On his own skills that had nothing to do with lighting on fire.
“Sorry, Spidey,” he said. “I’m doing the play. End of conversation."
He stepped back and lit himself up.
“I’ll sue!” Spider-Man shouted as Johnny floated off the ground, into the air.
“First? Oh, please,” Johnny said, “and second? Bite me.”
Then he took off properly.
“You can’t do this to me!” Spider-Man shouted from down below, windmilling his arms furiously. “Macbeth, do you hear me! MACBETH!”
“Screw you!” Johnny shouted.
Mary Jane Watson was a different kind of stunning off the page. Johnny couldn’t blame Spider-Man for getting all tongue-twisted about her.
“We should do drinks,” he said to Mary Jane when they were wrapping up the first day. “Do you do drinks?”
“Absolutely, please and thank you,” she said, linking her arm up with his. “It’ll be fun – my ex never wanted to get drinks.”
They ended up at a favorite bar of Mary Jane’s, nestled at a table far at the back.
“I just want you to know,” Mary Jane said as the first round of drinks arrived, “this isn’t a date.”
“Oh, ouch,” Johnny said, laughing. “You’re quick to the chase.”
“Nothing against all of this,” she said, gesturing at him with a grin. “But lil ol’ Mary Jane likes to be the drama queen in the relationship, and from what I read you might just about rank even.”
“I can respect that,” he said. “You’re sure this has nothing to do with Spider-Man, though?”
She coughed and spluttered for a moment, waving off his attempt to help. “Why on Earth --”
“Because he literally kidnapped me off my balcony and told me to drop out of the musical when you were cast?” Johnny said. “I figured, big superhero, famous model, maybe you had something going on…”
He wasn’t envious, he told himself, or if he was, it was only a little bit. He’d mostly gotten over his huge crush on Spider-Man years ago, put it aside when he’d gotten married, but it had never entirely gone away. It had just become an ember, trapped deep within Johnny’s chest, quietly smoldering. He would never not be just a little in love with Spider-Man. He told himself he was okay with that now.
“Oh no,” Mary Jane said, making a face. “Oh god no, no.” She put a hand to her forehead, massaging. “Oh, that just figures. No, I’m not involved with Spider-Man, but my ex-boyfriend is.”
“Your ex-boyfriend is dating Spider-Man?” Johnny said, frowning.
“No! No, not that kind of involved,” Mary Jane said. She bit the side of her cheek. “Well. Maybe a little. But no. Sorry, when it comes to Spider-Man my head gets all…”
She put her hands to her head and mimed an explosion.
“I understand the feeling way too well,” Johnny said, signaling the waiter for another round of drinks. “So your ex, what… worked with him?” Struck by a horrible curiosity, he asked, “In or out of costume?”
“Oh, in,” Mary Jane said, rolling her eyes. Johnny tried not to feel too disappointed – he respected Spider-Man’s privacy. He’d told him that before, and he’d meant it. But it didn’t mean he didn’t sometimes get curious about the man beneath the mask. “One hundred percent in-costume. No, Peter – that’s my ex – he takes photos of Spider-Man occasionally. You know, for the Bugle.”
“Don’t read the Bugle much, sorry to say,” Johnny said. “Never really liked what they had to say about Spider-Man.”
“I keep forgetting you’re friends,” Mary Jane said, tucking a lock of her hair behind her ear. She wasn’t really looking at him, more at the spot on the wall just over his shoulder. “That’s strange.”
“Tell me about it,” Johnny said, rolling his eyes. "I still don't really get it, though. Spidey's not the type to do something like that just because someone asks. He's one of my best friends and I still have to shout at him for almost an hour before he agrees, most days."
"Wow, only an hour?" Mary Jane said, snorting. She shook herself out a second later, eyes closing. "I'm sorry. That was -- something, of me."
"It's fine," Johnny said. "I'm just trying to work out how your ex has so much sway over Spider-Man."
“He has his ways. That’s Peter for you,” Mary Jane said, taking a long sip of her drink. “Always the real problem.”
“Does he bother you?” Johnny asked.
Mary Jane rolled her eyes. “All the time. But not like that. He’s trying to be helpful in his own weird way. No, the problem with him is that he’s my friend.”
“I don’t understand how that’s a problem,” Johnny said, who’d never been great at the friend deal in general, let alone being friends with exes. To him it seemed kind of nice, that someone would still like you afterwards.
“Trust me,” Mary Jane said. “You will when you meet him. Now level with me: Henry Cavill, good kisser? A simple yes or no will not suffice.”
It was weeks before he met the infamous Peter. Mary Jane talked about him all the time, though, to the point where Johnny had asked a couple of times if she was sure they were actually broken up. By the time Peter finally showed up with Mary Jane one snowy morning, Johnny felt a little like he knew him already.
Then with a lurch, Johnny realized he did know him already. That was Peter Parker standing over there, dark-haired and scowly as ever. Peter Parker, the epitome of average Joe, had somehow managed to torment him through their teen years, always turning up where he wasn’t expected, hitting on Johnny’s first real girlfriend and generally being obnoxious. Then later, he’d interned for Reed, because of course on top of everything else the guy had to be a certified genius too.
Johnny hadn’t seen him in years. He was distressingly better looking than Johnny remembered. Downright attractive, even, strong shoulders and narrow waist, a lock of messy brown hair falling over his forehead.
He was beginning to see what Dorrie Evans had been talking about all those years ago. ‘Brooding’ had always been something Johnny liked in men.
Then Peter looked up, straight at Johnny, and the expression ‘if looks could kill’ had never been more appropriate.
Mary Jane caught the look and slapped Peter around the back of his head. They argued for a moment, Mary Jane shaking one finger in Johnny’s direction, and after a tense minute Peter surrendered, shoulders slumping.
He ambled over to Johnny, his hands stuck in his pockets.
“Human Torch,” he said. “It’s been a while.”
“Couple of years,” Johnny returned. “Last time you were interning with Reed, right?”
“Something like that,” Peter said.
“What are you doing here?”
“Her Highness back there tells me I have some apologizing to do,” Peter said, scratching at the back of his neck. “And, well, the thing is, she’s not wrong. If it helps, Spider-Man also went after Black Cat, tried to get her to pull her permission.”
“How that’d one go for him?” Johnny asked, arms crossed over his chest.
“Oh, the fur really flew,” Peter said. “Some interesting pics of that fight to sell if I ever find myself at rock bottom. Listen, I realize I sort of went off the rails…”
Johnny snorted. “You got Spider-Man to abduct me because you’re jealous over your ex.”
“Abduct you?” Peter repeated incredulously. “Please, you’re the Human Torch, like you can’t take care of yourself! Besides, I’m not –”
He broke off, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“I’m trying to apologize here,” he said. “And before you say anything, I’m aware I suck at it. I had a really long week. Month. Life. And I know I can get – protective. But MJ already chewed me out over it, so you can skip the repeat performance. I promise, it won’t happen again.”
Peter Parker did look tired, dark circles under his eyes and a stubborn set to his jaw, like all that was keeping him on his feet was willpower. Johnny imagined it couldn’t be easy, being an average guy and chasing after Spider-Man for the kind of dizzying, dazzling photos Peter shot.
He took pity and stuck his hand out.
“Truce,” he said. “It’s not like Spider-Man would ever really hurt me, anyway.”
“No, of course not,” Peter said, taking Johnny’s hand in his own and shaking it. “Never.”
“Probably time we bury the hatchet,” Johnny admitted. “How do you always seem to end up in my orbit anyway, Parker?”
“Well, Torch, it’s like they say,” Peter joked. “You’re a star.”
Johnny liked the rest of the cast, for the most part. He’d adored Mary Jane on sight, of course. The villain of the piece was a fictional creation named Swiss Miss, and the actress playing her had a close friend who’d been in Rawhide Kid, so they hit it off as well. A good performance Johnny might not have given on that set, but people tended to like him. At least, up until they dated him.
And then there was Peter. Peter, who had spent the first few times staring at Johnny suspiciously whenever he so much as waved Mary Jane, had recently been acting … nice. Friendly, even. He brought Johnny coffee once or twice, and somehow guessed his favorite brand and flavor of energy bar.
“I’ve got the eye,” was all he’d said, shrugging and smiling.
Johnny liked him. A lot.
It was kind of a problem.
The accidents were a much bigger problem. Sure, the show’s stunts were gravity-defying – in a show about Spider-Man, how could they be anything else? But still, Johnny thought there were too many incidents. It nagged at the part of him that had been getting ambushed by costumed creeps since he was sixteen, but he never actually saw anyone creeping around, and the only gaudy outfits belonged to the cast.
A cable snapped, and Johnny fell. He lit up on instinct, distantly thankful as always that Reed treated all his clothes with unstable molecules, and tried not to think too hard about whether the shrieks were due to his accident or the sudden burst of flame.
Johnny flamed off as he hit the ground, landing in an awkward sprawl, just barely catching himself by one hand. He grunted as his wrist bent back a little.
Mary Jane reached him first, kneeling next to him. She touched his shoulder, which was unusual – most people worried that Johnny would still be scalding to the touch, immediately flamed off, but Mary Jane showed no such hesitation.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’ve had worse,” he answered honestly, staggering up on his knees. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” she said, glancing up. “I guess we’re just lucky it happened to the guy who can fly…”
“Guess so,” Johnny said.
Things were called to a halt after that and Johnny sank into the background, sitting down and cradling his throbbing wrist to his chest. He was thinking – about the pain in his wrist, about his lines, about the moment the cable snapped – and he didn’t hear Peter come up on his side.
“You’re hurt,” Peter said, touching his arm.
Johnny turned towards him. Peter’s gaze was fixed on his injured wrist, dark eyebrows furrowed.
“It’s not bad,” Johnny said. “Just landed funny.”
“Here, let me see,” Peter said, kneeling next to him and gingerly taking Johnny’s hand in his own. He rotated his wrist gently. “I think you’re okay. Just twisted it. But maybe go home, get that genius brother-in-law of yours to look it over.”
“Thanks,” Johnny said. “You’re good at that.”
“Eh, practice. I’m always knocking into things,” Peter said. He was still holding Johnny’s hand in his own; his thumb stroked restless over the knob of Johnny’s wrist. One thing about Peter was that he always seemed to be moving. “Besides, can’t let the star of the show be hurt.”
He was massaging Johnny’s palm now, thumb working in little circles. Johnny curled his fingers over Peter’s and Peter startled, like he hadn’t realized he was doing it.
He didn’t pull his hand away.
“What do you think happened?” Johnny asked, staring down into Peter’s dark brown eyes.
“I don’t know yet,” Peter said. “But I don’t like it.”
“I’m not sure I like how nice you’re being,” Johnny joked. “Feels weird.”
Peter frowned. He cupped his other hand over Johnny’s. “Of course I’m being nice, I –”
Whatever he was about to say was cut off by the loud trill of his phone, playing the Jaws theme.
“That’s the Bugle,” Peter said, sighing. He squeezed Johnny’s knee as he got back to his feet. “I gotta go – tell MJ I said bye. And get that looked at, okay?”
“It doesn’t hurt anymore,” Johnny said. It wasn’t quite the truth – his wrist still ached a little from where he’d landed awkwardly, but the pain was faded. The memory of Peter’s touch was fresh.
“Do it for me. I -- Johnny,” Peter said, looking back over his shoulder. “I think maybe you need to consider that it’s not Mary Jane I’m jealous over.”
Then he was gone through the door, leaving Johnny to gape.
“You’re humming,” Sue said.
She was unpacking a huge amount of food from the invisible bag she’d smuggled past him, organizing his fridge meticulously. She always assumed he couldn’t feed himself, even though between the two of them he was the better cook. Though he had been ordering in a lot lately; it was hard to muster up the effort to cook for himself without Franklin hanging off his arm, begging for homemade macaroni and cheese, or Ben “just suggesting” Johnny make “that chicken thing” again.
He’d moved out of the Baxter Building two months before, into a luxurious apartment in SoHo. It had a beautiful kitchen he’d barely touched, an entertainment center he’d completely overhauled, and a halfway decent view. It was what he needed, for the moment.
He knew himself well enough by now to know that it really was just a phase again – that he’d be back living in the Baxter Building in a few months, if not sooner. It just chafed at him, sometimes, that he was twenty-six and still lived with his big sister. It wasn’t like he didn’t have the money to afford any place he wanted. He just got restless, sometimes, and then inevitably after that at some point he’d get lonely, longing for his family’s familiar chaos. For now, though, he was happy here.
The fact that Valeria was currently teething and being absolutely vicious about it didn’t hurt the temporary move.
“I’m in a musical,” Johnny said. “I’m supposed to sing.”
“Humming’s not singing,” Sue said. “And should you really be living off takeout when you’ve got a show coming up?”
“I have a nutritionist,” Johnny said, leaning his hip against the island.
“Right, because whatever skinny brunette they threw at you knows exactly how much energy you expend every time you flame on,” Sue grumbled. “Reed wrote you up a meal plan.”
“Aww, sweet of him,” Johnny cooed, only a little mockingly. It really was sweet of Reed to think of him.
“So?” Sue said.
“So what?” Johnny said, opening one of the salads and grabbing a fork.
“You only hum when you’ve got a crush,” Sue teased. “So who is it? Your co-star? She’s very pretty.”
“MJ’s gorgeous,” Johnny said, giving in and grabbing a bottle of wine and two glasses from the cabinets, “but it’s not her.” He uncorked the bottle, sighing. “It’s her ex-boyfriend.”
Sue’s eyes went a little wide. Johnny held out a glass of wine.
They’d never done it, discussed the guy thing. Sue knew – he was pretty sure she knew, she’d almost walked in on him making out with Wyatt once and besides the whole family’s favorite activity was teasing him about his thing for Spider-Man. It wasn’t like his summer blockbuster makeout session with another man had been all acting, either. But he’d never actually said anything to his sister before, not with words. When he was younger he’d been scared, maybe, that she would disapprove, that she would leave him too.
He knew, logically, that that would never happen, but he’d never been very good at listening to his head. The anxiety had faded a little as he got older, but by then there’d never been a guy he’d been serious enough about to mention.
Well, there was Spider-Man. But that was a hopeless crush on someone whose face Johnny would probably never see, let alone a man who would ever want to be with him.
Peter, though – Peter was different. There was something between them and when Johnny thought about it too long it made his breath catch in his chest. He hadn’t felt like this in a long time. He didn’t want to mess it up.
“Her ex-boyfriend?” Sue repeated. “How did that one happen?”
Johnny sighed, tipping his head back. “Do you remember Peter Parker?”
“The name rings a bell,” Sue said.
“Science whiz kid; he interned for Reed once,” Johnny said.
Sue made a face. “The grad student you used to torture? Oh, Johnny.”
“What!” he said. “How was I supposed to know he’d grow out of that haircut and end up hot!” He felt himself start to blush under his sister’s gaze. “And funny, and nice, and – he’s a really good guy.”
Sue was quiet for a long moment; Johnny used it to drain his wine glass and pour himself another. Sue’s hand landed on his wrist as he set the bottle down.
“Does he like you?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Johnny said. “I really think he does.”
“How long will it take? Before these feelings go away,” Johnny sang to the empty studio. “How much longer will it take? And are there any real answers, anyway… Your silence in a crowded room, louder than the loudest tune, I hang on every – dammit. Dammit!”
He breathed out, slow, and was unsurprised when it curled from his lips like steam. He thought about Spider-Man, about his fast mouth, about his intensity, about how annoying he was sometimes and the sheer strength of him, physical and otherwise. About how much and how deeply he loved.
Johnny took one more deep breath and tried again.
“And you said rise above… open your eyes up. And you said rise above – but I can’t. I can’t.” His fist thumped the wall. “Dammit, I really can’t.”
“Stop selling yourself so short.”
Johnny startled, turning towards the door. Peter was leaning against the frame, pink-cheeked from the cold. There were still snowflakes melting in his hair.
“What are you doing here?” Johnny asked.
“Eh, Mary Jane thinks she left that ugly lucky scarf of hers here the other day,” Peter said, shrugging. “But of course Ms. Famous had a very important photoshoot she couldn’t miss, so it’s Peter Parker to the rescue again. Me, I think she left it in the Chinese restaurant we had dinner in last night, but nooo, MJ’s adamant she left it in the studio…”
“You’re rambling,” Johnny told him.
Peter broke off with a cough, spinning one hand restlessly in the air. “You seen a really ugly old scarf?”
“Can you just say I suck already?” Johnny said, arms crossed over his chest.
“I wasn’t going to say that,” Peter said. Johnny scoffed. “I wasn’t!”
“Listen, I’m admitting I’m terrible, so don’t lie to my face because you think it’s what I want to hear,” Johnny said. “You’re not doing me any favors.”
“It’s not that you’re bad,” Peter said. “It’s that you’re, well. You get nervous and you trip over your words and then you get flustered and turn the whole stage into an oven, might want to work on that part, but, you, y’know.” He paused. “You look nice?”
Any other day, Johnny might’ve preened at Peter Parker bothering to compliment his appearance, even as vaguely as “you look nice.” Today, though, he was already burned, and all Peter was doing was heaping kindling onto the fire.
“You’re not helping,” he bit out.
“Sorry, sorry,” Peter said, hands held up in front of him. “What do I know, anyway? I’m a photographer, not a drama coach. Although… No, sorry, not my place, shutting up and finding that scarf.”
“What?” Johnny said, throwing his hands up.
“You don’t stand like Spider-Man,” Peter said, sighing.
Johnny bristled. Of all the stupid things to get offended over, you don’t stand like Spider-Man was up there, but here he was anyway. “What do you know about how Spider-Man stands?”
“I’ve been taking photos of him since I was a kid,” Peter said. “I published a whole book of them. I think I know a little something about how he moves.”
Johnny didn’t have anything to say to that – he couldn’t figure out how to voice the strange envy he felt at Peter’s words, I know a little something about how he moves.
Peter sighed, tipping his head back. “I’m not trying to be a jerk.”
“Oh, nice,” Johnny said, snorting. Peter made a frustrated sound.
“I’m just,” he broke off, glancing away. “I’m really not trying to be jerk.”
"Well, great job on that one," Johnny said, trying not to let it sting too much. It was hard, though. He'd forgotten how hard this all was -- stepping out of himself, and into someone else. A poor facsimile of someone else. He'd thought he knew Spider-Man well enough, that this would be easy. He'd been wrong; nothing about this was easy.
All of a sudden he was on the set of Rawhide Kid again, failing miserably and dragging everyone else down with him.
Shame burned in his chest, bright as a star.
Peter had fallen quiet, standing a little ways off and rubbing at the back of his neck.
"Listen," he said. "I know I come off that way, I know I'm kind of a --" he sighed, long and low, shoulders sagging. "I realize I'm a difficult person, sometimes. But I wasn't picking on you. Can I give you tips?"
"What?" Johnny said, surprised.
"I've been taking photographs of Spider-Man for a very long time," Peter said. "I've got a good eye for movement, flow... I think I can show you. If you want me to."
Johnny opened his mouth to say no. He opened his mouth to tell Peter to go away, to leave him with his own failure, to stop staring at him like that, like he saw right through Johnny.
Everyone could see right through Johnny; that was the whole problem.
But Peter's dark brown eyes were sincere, and Johnny didn't really want to be left alone in the cavernous studio.
"Alright," he said after a beat. "Show me what you got, shutterbug."
Peter looked like he hadn't expected that answer, but before Johnny knew it he was stepping forward, slipping around him. His hands hovered on either side of Johnny's hips; Johnny could feel the heat of them, the way he felt the heat of anyone seconds before they touched him.
It felt like more, when it was Peter.
"May I?" he asked.
"Knock yourself out," Johnny answered.
Peter’s hands settled at Johnny’s hips, palms broad and hot through thin fabric of Johnny’s pants. Johnny had always figured he was more aware of body heat than most, but Peter practically blazed at his back, bright and strangely familiar. Comfortable.
“You’re all stiff,” Peter said, breath ghosting at Johnny’s ear.
Not yet, but maybe if you reach around a little more, Johnny just barely didn’t say.
“You need to loosen up,” Peter said, swaying from side to side, coaxing Johnny into echoing the motion. His thumbs rubbed little circles just above Johnny’s hips; Johnny didn’t even think he knew he was doing it. “I mean, picture it: you’re Spider-Man. You’ve got all that strength, yeah, and you’ve got speed, but you’ve also got agility. The way he moves, he’s fluid. Flexible. You have to relax. There, like that. That’s better. Geez, you’d think you didn’t do yoga.”
“How do you know I do yoga?” Johnny asked, distracted by the way Peter rocked with him – distracted thinking about all the other ways Peter could rock him, so to speak.
Johnny felt an almost physical pang when Peter let go of his hips. Peter only reached for his wrist, though, gently lifting Johnny’s hand. He positioned it wrist up, the way Spider-Man held his hands before he webbed someone. Johnny had been on the receiving end of that enough times to know.
“You look like someone who does yoga,” Peter said. “Pay attention, please and thank you.”
This was completely the wrong moment to be thinking about that, Spider-Man webbing him up in a different context. It was an old fantasy, one he hadn’t thought about in a while, but suddenly it crashed back down on Johnny, the imagined sensation of webbing around his wrists, pinning them up and back, tight and unrelenting. Spider-Man with that incredible gymnast body settling between his legs, pulling his thighs apart, guiding Johnny’s legs around his waist. It was wrong to be thinking about that when he had Peter resting at his back, funny and weird and touchable. A guy without a mask who brought Johnny coffee sometimes and said don’t worry about it when Johnny reached for his wallet. A guy Johnny wanted so badly to kiss.
“That’s good. That’s really good.” Peter’s thumb rested at the inside of his wrist; Johnny’s pulse was racing. “You got it, that’s beautiful.”
He twisted around and saw Peter, staring back at him with his big brown eyes blown wide and a pink blush high up across his face, and the next thing he knew he was leaning in, his hand cupped to Peter’s cheek. The first brush of Peter’s lips nearly burned.
Then Peter was kissing back, hot and wet, opening his mouth under Johnny’s. The grasp of his hands was searing and possessive, pulling Johnny in closer.
“I wasn’t sure,” he managed to mumble, and it was so funny that Johnny wanted to laugh, the idea that he might not want this strange, comforting man.
“Be sure,” Johnny said, eyes sliding shut. He never wanted to feel anything but this, Peter’s lips chapped and warm against his, Peter’s hands everywhere like he had eight of them, like he wanted to touch all of Johnny. “Be so sure. You are a much better kisser than Superman.”
“What about Spider-Man?” Peter asked, jerking back.
“Nothing?” Johnny said. “I said Superman. Why would I say Spider-Man?”
“Why would you say Superman?” Peter countered.
“Because, I kissed Henry Cavill in that movie? And he’s Superman?” Johnny said. “Wait, did you see my movie?” Lips still tingly from all the kissing, he added, “I’m naked in it.”
Peter made a small, strangled noise. “Trust me, I’m familiar.”
Johnny grinned -- the movie had been a flop over all, sure, but some things had made it to Youtube with a lot of hits and some very appreciative comments -- and moved in for a kiss. Peter stopped him, though, hands tight around his biceps.
"Why're we stopping?" Johnny asked, tugging at Peter's jacket. "C'mon, back with the kissing."
"This isn't right," Peter said. His eyebrows were pulled together tight in a frown. "This is a mistake."
Johnny's heart fell.
"What are you talking about?" he said. "You felt that too, right? How can you call fireworks like that a mistake?"
"Oh, hot stuff," Peter said, exhaling. "Trust me. I felt the fireworks. No, that's not it. It's me. I'm always the problem. You can ask anyone I’ve ever met about that one."
"I don't get it," Johnny said.
“It’s not right,” Peter said, thumb stroking gentle over Johnny’s cheekbone, an achingly tender motion. “There’re things about me that you don’t know.”
“What things?” Johnny protested. “Mary Jane would have told me if you were married.”
“I’m keeping a secret from you,” Peter said, “and I can’t figure out how to tell you because you’ll be mad and I would really rather keep kissing you.”
“You’re not a Skrull, right?” Johnny said.
“What?” Peter said. “Oh. No, promise. This is my real face, for better or worse.”
“It’s a good face,” Johnny said, tilting his head, trying for just one more kiss. “What if I promised not to be mad?”
Peter surrendered, letting Johnny seal their lips together, opening his mouth slick and hot under Johnny’s, letting Johnny lick into it, sucking on his tongue. He moaned, clutching at him, and he must have been a secret gym freak because Johnny couldn’t have escaped his grip if he’d wanted. Johnny thought, no secret could beat this.
But then Peter pulled back. He reached up to brush Johnny’s hair back from his forehead, achingly tender.
There was a deep sadness in his brown eyes, like a vise around Johnny’s own heart.
“I’m going to explain,” Peter said. “But I’m not going to ruin your show. And I’m not going to keep kissing you while I’m lying. That’s not the guy I want to be for you.” He palmed Johnny’s cheek. “This doesn’t mean I don’t want to kiss you, by the way. I do. I really, really do.”
“What if we kept kissing and I just promised to get mad at you about whatever you’re hiding later?” Johnny asked, grabbing Peter’s wrist to hold his hand there.
“It’s not fair,” Peter said, shaking his head. “I’m already a jerk, don’t make me a bigger one.”
“You’re killing me here,” Johnny said. “So that’s it – you kiss me, and then you bail? Not really seeing how that’s you being less of a jerk.” He swallowed his doubts and added, “I really like you.”
Peter groaned, dropping his forehead to Johnny’s shoulder. “Go on, make this harder on me. Just listen to me, just for one second.”
“One,” Johnny said, smirking when Peter lifted his head up enough to glare at him.
“I said I wasn’t going to ruin your show,” Peter said. “But… after. After I’m going to tell you. Promise.”
He held up his little finger with a guilty smile.
“Why after?” Johnny said.
“You’re just going to have to trust me here,” Peter said. “But I promise. After, I’ll tell you. Anything you want to know, I’ll tell you.”
“You’re the second most infuriating person I know,” Johnny said, but he linked his finger with Peter’s anyway, the corner of his mouth twitching as he bit down on a bittersweet smile.
“Oh, only second?” Peter laughed. Johnny wanted to be madder at him, but there was something so sad in his eyes and in his smile. He was starting to pull away but he lingered a little, like he didn’t really want to let go of Johnny.
Johnny didn’t want him to let go, either.
“Well, I know Spider-Man,” Johnny said, faking nonchalance.
Peter sighed, long and low. “Always coming in second to that guy.”
“One for the road?” Johnny asked, even though he had a feeling he knew what the answer was going to be.
Peter threw him a smile over his shoulder. “I know how that game goes, hot stuff. Stay gorgeous.”
He even had to steal Johnny’s lines. He was unbelievable, and Johnny ached for him.
Peter paused by the door and bent down to scoop something up. He held it up, smiling that too-wide, slightly crooked smile.
“What do you know?” he said, holding up an old knotted teal scarf. “Mary Jane was right again. Go figure.”
Some small, hopeful part of Johnny thought Peter might cave. That he’d look at Johnny one morning and be unable to go on with all this awful distance between, that he’d fall on him and confess whatever sin he thought he had -- I shot a man in Reno, whispered between fevered kisses, or I’m a fugitive from the planet Xarnax, as he none too gently pinned Johnny back against a wall.
It was possible Johnny didn’t have a very good grasp on normal people;s secrets.
The hope wasn't totally unreasonable – Johnny caught Peter staring at him all the time, which might have egged Johnny on a little, made him try to sway things his way.
In his defense, he really wanted to sleep with Peter Parker.
“You can fellate that banana all you want,” Mary Jane said one day on their lunch break, “but he’s the stubbornest man in the world.”
Johnny nearly choked.
“MJ,” he said. “Peter – I –”
Mary Jane rolled her eyes. “You made out like it was high school prom and there was no tomorrow.”
“He told you?” Johnny asked.
“He came by with my scarf and it was all over his face,” she said. “Relax, I’m not upset. I kind of saw this one coming. He’s liked you for a while.”
Across the room Peter had been recruited to help with some heavy-lifting. It was really unfair, that he was smart enough for even Reed to acknowledge and strong on top of that, but Johnny was enjoying watching him help carry things anyway.
“For what it’s worth, you’re his type,” Mary Jane said, raising her eyebrows. “Perfect tens.”
“Flattery won’t distract me from the fact that you probably know why he won’t kiss me again,” Johnny said. “Spill, Watson, or I’ll flub the fire escape scene on purpose this time.”
“Peter’s secrets aren’t mine to tell,” Mary Jane said. “But his word is usually good. He’ll tell you. Just be patient.” She made a face. “I know that’s pretty impossible where Peter’s involved.”
Johnny tried, but it was so hard when Peter kept hanging around, being friendly but keeping careful distance.
“It’s not going to be forever,” Peter said one day. “I’m going to come clean soon, and then I’ll stand very still and let you punch me in the face.”
“Let me.” Johnny snorted. “I’m a really famous celebrity superhero and have you seen me in spandex?” he challenged, eyes flashing. “I don’t have to wait around forever for you.”
“Soon,” Peter soothed, thumb running over Johnny’s knuckles. “Soon, I promise.”
Johnny wanted to argue with him, but by then opening night was rapidly approaching, and he had bigger problems than Peter Parker’s inexplicable honor code.
“What’s got you so down in the dumps, good lookin’?”
Johnny jumped, startled, before he whirled around. Spider-Man was perched on his balcony railing like a colorful gargoyle, masked head tipped to the side.
“One of these days someone’s gonna have to put a bell on you,” Johnny said, leaning his hip against the doorway and crossing his arms.
“Not until after dinner and dancing, they don’t,” Spider-Man said. “Seriously, why with the face? Big night tomorrow.”
“Don’t remind me,” Johnny said, shoulders hunched.
“Hey, c’mon,” Spider-Man said, swinging himself over the railing proper. His feet made no noise as they hit the ground. “Don’t tell me the Johnny Storm has stage fright.”
“Can we not do this for once?” Johnny asked. “I’m not in the mood.”
Spider-Man held his hands up in front of him. “Hey, okay. Dropping the act. No teasing, no mocking – what’s wrong?”
Johnny almost didn’t tell him, but the truth was there was no one else he wanted to tell.
“I’m failing,” he said. “I just – you’re not going to believe, nobody believes and I don’t blame them, but I do try, you know? I try, and I just keep messing up, and everyone else – the whole cast is so good. Mary Jane’s so good. And I’m just dragging the rest of them down because I forget my lines and I miss my queues and I feel so clumsy all the time.” He breathed out and steam curled up from his lips. “I fly, Spidey. I’ve been flying since I was sixteen. I’m not supposed to do clumsy.”
He bit his lip and waited for Spider-Man’s comeback.
“Can I hug you?” Spider-Man said.
“What?” Johnny said.
“Can I just –” Spider-Man cut himself off with a frustrated noise, stepping forward and wrapping his arms around Johnny.
“What’s happening?” Johnny asked. It was far from their first hug, but usually Johnny initiated them, or they were high on post-fight adrenaline, or just throwing a simple arm around each other’s shoulders. This was different – Spider-Man pressed up against him, holding him tight. His masked nose brushed against Johnny’s ear.
“I’m being nice to you, that’s what’s happening,” Spider-Man said. “Listen – and I’m never going to say this one again – you’re thinking way too hard about this. Johnny, you know me.”
“Do I?” Johnny asked, raising his hands carefully and resting them on Spider-Man’s back, right over the big red spider.
“I think there are maybe two people in the whole world who know me better than you,” Spider-Man said. “And that’s the honest truth. You know what makes me laugh, and what makes me angry – you’ve seen me get in a fight with a pigeon over a French fry. Who else has had that honor, huh?”
It was the warmth in his voice more than the memory that made Johnny laugh and hold on a little harder.
“So I have this dubious honor,” he hummed. “So what?”
“So you’ve got the home team advantage, Sparky,” Spider-Man said. “Everyone can say what they want to you – but you know the real me. The people who wrote this thing, the director, nobody else has your insider info.” He paused. “Well, almost nobody else.”
“Way to make me feel special and then snatch it away.”
“I had a thing with a sound guy, you don’t know,” Spider-Man said. Johnny laughed, burying his nose in the junction between Spider-Man’s neck and shoulder. After a second and with one last squeeze, Spider-Man pulled back. “You better?”
“I’m better,” Johnny said. “Thanks for not being a jerk for once.”
“Ehh, I have my moments,” Spider-Man said. “Light it up tomorrow, Torch.”
“Are you going to be there?” Johnny asked, just as Spider-Man was about to hop the balcony railing.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world!” Spider-Man called out, already swinging off into the night. Johnny huffed, propping his elbows up on the railing.
“Not that I’ll know it’s you, anyway,” he said, watching that red and blue form disappear between the buildings.
They were well into the first act when the theater was attacked. Given Johnny’s life, he shouldn’t have been surprised, but it still took him a moment to get over the cold flash of panic that he’d somehow forgotten the part of this scene where a man wearing a cape and a fishbowl burst dramatically from the balcony in a cloud of fog. The very air around him seemed to distort.
In his defense, it took the audience a moment, too. Then the screaming started, people scrambling over each other to try and get away.
“A musical about my greatest foe?” Mysterio said, sweeping one dramatic hand out. “And you fail to include the greatest showman of them all?”
The theater’s front exit was blocked by the Rhino and the Grizzly. Hydro-Man had one of the fire exits, and Electro had the other. Johnny sucked in a breath between his teeth – if Spider-Man’s villains and their wounded pride were on problem, the oncoming audience stampede was another.
“Johnny!” Mary Jane called up to him, her hands cupped to her mouth. “I’ll handle everyone else, you take care of the bad guys!”
“Got it!” Johnny said, flaming on.
Instantly, the stage was alight, too. Johnny tried to pull it into himself, away from the audience and the cast, and found he couldn’t. It stubbornly resisted his pull, no matter how he tugged at it. He couldn’t feel it and it was roaring, a loud crackle in his ears.
Head spinning, dread in his veins, Johnny extinguished his flames – only to be snatched out of the air so fast his head spun.
It took him a second to realize who’d caught him.
“Hi,” Peter Parker said, balanced precariously on a beam. He kept Johnny caught up against him with just one arm. “Fancy meeting a nice guy like you in a place like this.”
“What?” Johnny said, still reeling – with the fire, with how Peter could have possibly gotten up so high. “The fire –”
“There’s no fire,” Peter soothed. “Hey, hey, focus.”
“How did you get up here?” Johnny asked him, heart beating wildly in his chest. It was hard to tell in the chaos down below, but it didn’t look like anyone had been burned.
“I need your mask,” Peter said, pulling in Johnny close against him. He was strong; Johnny barely muffled his gasp, hands flying to Peter’s shoulders.
“Why would you –”
There was a very familiar thwipping sound; Johnny looked down and saw one shimmering webline stretching from underneath the cuff of Peter’s shirt into the dark of the theater.
Johnny stared at it. “This isn’t happening.”
“I told you I was a man of mystery,” Peter said, laughing a little hysterically. “Flamebrain, you gotta believe me on this one – I am so sorry. You deserve better than this. Assuming I get out of here alive and you ever talk to me again, I am going to do so much better. But for now, I really need a mask.”
Johnny, shocked into silence, fumbled with it, trying to pull it down over Peter’s face. Peter reached up to help and, fingers brushing maybe more than strictly necessary, they got it on. Suddenly Johnny could see it, even with the rest of the costume missing – the familiar shoulders, the wiry frame, the hands that had always caught him when he needed them.
“It really is you,” he said, palming Spider-Man’s face.
“This would be a really bad time for me to lie about that,” Peter said. The voice was even more familiar muffled by the mask, another nagging little puzzle piece falling into place. “Johnny, I’m going to drop you now.”
“No, you can’t,” Johnny said, grabbing onto him. Peter’s arm tightened around his waist. “The fire –”
“I’m going to,” Peter said. “Johnny, listen, this is how this works. It’s just tricks, just illusions. Don’t trust what you see,” he tapped at the spot just under Johnny’s right eye, and then his finger drifted to Johnny’s ear. Johnny shivered. “Or what you hear, or what you think. You’re only going to trust your instincts.”
“I don’t understand,” Johnny said, fear tight in his throat.
“Close your eyes for a second and breathe with me,” Peter said, pressing his masked forehead to Johnny’s. “Remember how everything looked before this started. Remember that Mysterio’s just a big con man, and that, and I’m quoting you here, all my villains suck compared to yours. Remember that? We were out on Coney Island…”
With his eyes closed, with Peter so close, Johnny could focus. He breathed out, slow. “I remember.”
“Great,” Peter said. “Then think fast, hot stuff.”
He let go of Johnny, letting him fall, and like a switch had been flipped, Johnny suddenly had no doubts.
“Flame on!” he shouted, shooting back up. “Also? I hate you!”
Spider-Man’s laughter was raucous. “Sorry! I love you!” Johnny almost flew into a wall. He turned sharply, narrowly avoiding the collision. Peter didn’t give him a chance to say anything, though, still talking. “I knew this was going to happen. I knew it, I knew it, everyone I’ve ever fought is a vindictive loser – yeah, Morris, I’m talking about you!”
Johnny flew to the side to avoid an angry lash of water.
“Been a while since we had a good ol’ fashioned team up!” Spider-Man said, lassoing the Rhino.
“You call this a good old fashioned team up?” Johnny replied.
“I’m a nervous talker,” Spider-Man said, yanking the Rhino back with all his might. “And you’re beautiful when you’re angry.”
The fight took them in opposite directions – Spider-Man pitting his strength against the Rhino’s and Johnny taking turns trying to dry out Hydro-Man and swooping in to help Swiss Miss handle that one guy who was in love with a meteor, Johnny could never remember his name.
Spider-Man sure could pick ‘em.
“Johnny!” Sue said when they finally met back up, once the fight was mostly over and Johnny was watching the authorities lead Mysterio away. She threw her arms around him. “You’re okay! I was worried.”
“I’m fine, sis,” he said, returning the hug. “Just a little shaken up. The kids --?”
“They’re fine,” Sue said. “We’re all fine. Ben got to fight a man in a huge grizzly bear costume, so he’s over the moon.”
“Glad I could bring the entertainment after all,” Johnny sighed. Sue rubbed at him arm comfortingly.
“Do you want to go home?” she asked. “Work everything out later?”
“No,” Johnny said. “No, I – I need to see a man about a spider.”
“What?” Sue said.
“I promise, I’ll explain everything. Or I will after it’s explained to me,” Johnny said, squeezing her shoulder. “Trust me? I’ll call you later, I promise.”
“Okay,” Sue said, frowning. “You do whatever you have to, little brother. I’ll take care of things here.”
Johnny hugged her one last time and then she zipped away on a force field, leaving him alone in the dwindling chaos.
“Johnny!” a familiar voice called. Johnny turned to see Mary Jane, still in her long white wig and all black ensemble. She had someone else’s coat thrown over her shoulders. “I was looking for you! What happened?”
“I uh,” he said, taking her in, visibly shaken but in one piece. “Spider-Man. Guy with the fish bowl on his head, whatsisname.”
“Oh, Mysterio,” she said with a brief roll of her eyes. Johnny stared at her and suddenly it clicked – Peter’s ex, Spider-Man’s ex, playing his other ex on Broadway – no wonder Spider-Man had taken a temporary leave of his senses.
“You know most people just take the dog,” Johnny pointed out.
“What? Johnny, are you okay?” she said, touching his elbow. There was a flash of red and blue in the sky just behind her, always on the move. Johnny felt his heartbeat kick up.
“I’m leaving,” Johnny told Mary Jane. “When the real Spider-Man is done, tell him to head over to my apartment.” He watched realization creep into her expression and reached out to squeeze her shoulder. “He knows the address.”
It took Peter almost an hour to show up. For a while there, Johnny wasn’t sure he would. He was out on the balcony watching the skyline for that familiar silhouette when the doorman called up to let him know there was a Peter Parker in the lobby.
“Send him up,” Johnny said. His apartment door faced the elevator; Johnny spent the next two unbearably long minutes posing himself casually in the doorway so it wouldn’t look like he’d spent an hour on tenterhooks.
Peter would know, though. Peter knew him too well. Johnny was angry and wounded and so heartsick he could’ve drowned in it.
The doors dinged open and whatever Johnny had been about to say died on his lips.
Peter was similarly speechless, just standing there in the elevator with his mouth halfway open. The doors started to close and he stuck his arm out to halt it, never taking his gaze from Johnny’s.
“Well, Lucy,” Johnny said at last. “You got some ‘splaining to do.”
Just like that, the spell was broken, and Peter started to laugh. He stepped out of the elevator with a poor mimic of Lucille Ball’s wail, shaking his head.
“Oh, flamebrain,” he said, eyes fixed on the carpet, hand on the back of his neck. “Have we had a night or what?”
“It’s not over yet,” Johnny told him, stepping back to let him inside. The door clicked as it closed and it freed something in Johnny. “Were you ever going to tell me?”
“Before or after I kissed you?” Peter asked, finally looking up.
“I don’t know,” Johnny said. “Either. Both.”
Peter sighed, like that was the answer he’d feared. “Before… I don’t know. My face – my identity – wasn’t ever really part of our relationship. And I liked what we had. I’m a hard guy to be friends with, Johnny. But you – it was always easy, with you.”
“Not on my side,” Johnny said, snorting.
“I know,” Peter said, sticking his hands in his pockets. “I’m sorry. I’d be lying not to say I didn’t think you’d like me as, well, me. Not mysterious Spider-Man.”
“Well, that’s stupid. You know me better than that. And after?” Johnny asked.
“After… I was going to. Just not yet. I didn’t want to ruin this for you,” Peter said. “And we both know I would’ve, if I’d told you. You wouldn’t have gone on. You would’ve been too mad at me.”
“I’m still mad at you,” Johnny said. “But keep talking. I haven’t decided yet whether or not I’m lighting you on fire.”
“And you were good, as me,” Peter said, cracking a grin. “Is that weird to say? But you were. You were funny. Way more charming than I actually am. Guess you know me too well.”
“I was a disaster,” Johnny said, shaking his head.
“You’re way too hard on yourself,” Peter said, taking him by the arms. “And, you know, I’m kind of a disaster. Don’t know if you’ve noticed.”
“So it works, the disasterness,” Peter said. “Gave your performance authenticity. You gonna let me kiss you again?”
“I’m undecided,” Johnny said, even as his lips met Peter’s. It was just as electric as the first time – better, now, that Johnny knew, that he was doubly head over heels where Peter was concerned, that his Spider-Man fantasy was suddenly so much more than just that.
“Doesn’t feel so undecided,” Peter hummed, hands sliding up Johnny’s waist, rucking up his shirt. “Worth the wait?”
“Nah,” Johnny said, tilting his head and leaning back. It was a little thrill down the spine, the way Peter’s gaze chased his mouth. “You came after me in your suit. You told me to drop out.”
“The idea of my ex being snatched up by my gorgeous, incorrigible, hotheaded crush was too much for my spider-sized brain to take,” Peter said. “Can you blame me? I thought she was your type.”
“She is. You’re more so,” Johnny admitted. He touched Peter’s face, thumb brushing the corner of his mouth. “This doesn’t mean I’m not mad.”
“I know,” Peter said, pressing his forehead to Johnny’s. “I know, I’m a jerk. It’s – you go so long, not telling people. It just becomes how you live.”
“Mary Jane knew,” Johnny accused softly.
“Mary Jane is the only person in my old neighborhood who ever looked out her window,” Peter said. “I didn’t tell her, she figured it out.” He lowered his voice. “As soon as I realized I wanted to kiss you, I knew I had to tell you. But if I told you, you’d never have let me kiss you. See how that one works?”
“I think you underestimated just what you do for me in that suit,” Johnny said. “Peter Parker, yeah, him I’ve got feelings for. Spider-Man, I’ve been nursing a hopeless crush on for years.”
“Not so hopeless,” Peter said, shaking his head. “Not hopeless at all.”
“Yeah?” Johnny said.
“For I have done not one single thing,” Peter sang off-key, “without the thought of you.” He laughed, a little nervously. Johnny was still caught up in staring at his face. He’d known it well, he thought, but now that Peter was Spider-Man – now that he knew how well he really knew him, how long they’d orbited each other – it seemed somehow brand new. “They got that one right. I really haven’t, not since we were kids.”
It was too much; Johnny couldn’t go on not kissing him. He threw himself into it, the way he had with that first kiss, and Peter met him equal intensity. He pushed Peter until the backs of his knees hit Johnny’s couch, and then he shoved. Peter went down laughing, eagerly reaching for Johnny as he climbed up on top of him.
“I gotta know,” Johnny said, hands spread against Peter’s chest. He licked his lips, focusing on the beat of Peter’s heart underneath his palm. “I gotta – is this going to be real, between us? I can’t do this one time.”
Peter’s smile faded. He gripped Johnny by the back of his neck, holding him in place as he leaned up to meet him, but it was his gaze that held Johnny captive.
“Picture us,” he said in a sing-song tone.
“Oh no,” Johnny said, unable to stop himself from smiling.
“Realize this is a dizzy high,” Peter continued, so close their noses brushed. “And we could fall and fall and fall…”
Johnny remembered the lyrics that came right before this: But it’s so hard to see myself through your eyes. He tugged at Peter’s shirt.
“Spidey,” he said, swallowing hard. “Peter. Lose this, then the act.”
“And fall,” Peter finished, pressing his smiling mouth against Johnny’s.
“Don’t you ever feel bad about not staying for the clean up?” Johnny asked, hours later when they were lounging around Johnny’s kitchen.
“It’s about the only thing I don’t feel guilty about,” Peter replied, digging through the fridge. Johnny was struck by the memory of him doing the same thing years ago, but in the costume. Peter was in considerably less now and Johnny had to say he appreciated the view a lot more. “I do enough for this city, now I gotta pick up their knocked down theaters too? How many salads you got in here?”
He abandoned his search and joined Johnny by the island instead. Johnny slid his hand down Peter’s bare stomach and hooked his fingers in his underwear.
“It’s polite,” Johnny teased, snapping the band.
“Oh, well, if it’s polite,” Peter said, making to pull away. Johnny wrapped his arms around him and held on.
“You can be polite next time,” he said, reeling him back into a kiss. Peter met him eagerly, locking his hands behind Johnny’s back.
“Hey, I got one question,” Peter said, forehead to forehead with Johnny. “Tell me you kept the costume.”