Johnny zoomed down the stairs. His flames sputtered out right as his feet hit the floor.
“And he sticks the landing!” He bowed to invisible judges holding up invisible (but stupendous) scorecards.
Sue eyed him from her spot on the couch. “What did I tell you about using your powers outside of the appropriate, fire retardant spaces?”
“I have a date,” Johnny said, completely ignoring her well-meaning, but misplaced criticism.
She closed her copy of Cosmopolitan with a snap. “Dorrie’s a nice girl, Johnny, but I don’t think she’s right for –,”
“Cool your jets, Mom. Dorrie and I are over.”
Sue slowly opened Cosmo again, even as her eyes stayed on Johnny. “The pretty Inhuman then? I’d be careful with her.”
“What’s that? I think I hear the phone ringing.” Johnny walked over to the phone on the coffee table, held the receiver to his ear, and listened for a moment. “Oh, it’s the year 1950. It misses you as much as you seem to miss it.”
Sue frowned. “This isn’t about race, Johnny. She’s not any regular Inhuman –,”
“I’m not seeing Crystal!” Johnny said, throwing his hands up. “So relax, okay? You don’t know the kid.”
Not necessarily true. But he couldn’t very well tell Sue who he was meeting. For a number of reasons.
The building shook as Ben lumbered into the room.
“Suzie? You making dinner soon?” he asked. Both Sue and Johnny rolled their eyes, suddenly a united front.
“Why don’t you make dinner tonight, Ben?” asked Sue.
Ben held up his thick, rocky hands. “With whose mitts? If you don’t wanna, fine, but let Johnny.”
“I would, but I have a date!” said Johnny.
Ben peered at him. “You goin’ out in yer uniform?”
Johnny looked down at his sleek, blue costume. “I think it’s classy.”
“Yer a regular Ken doll.”
“Aw, you big softie.” Johnny stood on his tiptoes to give Ben a sloppy kiss on the cheek, which he made a big fuss of wiping off.
“Since Johnny’s going out, maybe we should all have a night on the town,” said Sue. “Reed can pay!”
Reed’s head appeared in the doorway. They couldn’t see the rest of him, but he didn’t get yelled at. Apparently Johnny was the only who wasn’t allowed to use his powers indoors.
“Susan, I thought we talked about this,” Reed said. “You can’t volunteer my check book every time you don’t feel like cooking.”
Sue flipped a page of her magazine. “Johnny’s going out, so he won’t be cooking either. It’s you or Ben.”
“Well then! Who wants Chinese?”
“As fun as this is, I’m heading out,” said Johnny, while the other three broke into an argument over what to eat. “Remember that tacos make Ben gassy.”
“Have fun!” he heard Sue call as the door swung shut behind him.
Johnny took the stairs to the roof two at a time. When he burst into the sun, he was already lighting up. He ran until he reached the roof’s edge – and then he flew.
Gosh, he loved this. His family’s powers didn’t work like his. They weren’t fun. They couldn’t fly. But he could, and that was why it sometimes felt completely pointless to walk anywhere.
He heard shouts of, “It’s the Human Torch!” and waved to a group of kids as they ran down the street along with him. He did a couple of blazing flips, and they cheered. The flames turned the horizon a flickering gold. He let out a whoop of joy as he raced towards it.
When Johnny reached the Statue of Liberty, he could see a small red-and-blue figure already sitting on the torch. He tried to school his expression into something cooler than a manic grin, and touched down next to Spider-Man.
Spidey scrambled to his feet. “Torch! I got your message, and came as fast as I could. Where’s the fire?”
“Oh, uh, no fire. Except for me, that is.” Johnny tried to angle himself so the sun would catch his hair in just the right way. “What gave you that impression?”
“I dunno, maybe the huge flaming words in the sky that said, ‘MEET ME AT THE USUAL PLACE. IT’S URGENT.’ In my ever so humble opinion, ‘urgent’ usually means fire, or ‘all my super powered teammates have been kidnapped,’ or ‘the stock market’s about to crash so you better buy bread now.’” He laughed, but it didn’t sound like a happy laugh. “Not ‘I ran outta hairspray.’”
Johnny touched a hand to his hair – which, admittedly, felt a bit stiff. “You think I used too much?”
“I’m a real fan of Elvis, honest.” Spidey ruffled Johnny’s hair. Johnny could feel his flame curling in his stomach, his toes, and every inch that Spidey’s gloved hand touched. “But you might not wanna take styling tips from him.”
“Yeah. Well. I bet you’re a real square under that mask.”
Spidey looked down, and dropped his hand. Johnny wished he could take back the words, if only so Spidey might touch him again.
“At least I can’t use my hair as a helmet,” Spidey said.
“Hey! In our line of work, you can never be too careful.”
Spidey’s mask twitched. Johnny hoped he was smiling.
“So?” Spidey asked.
“So why did you call me out here?”
“Oh! Right. Well, I just –,” Staring into Spidey’s mask, it suddenly felt very dumb. But he had come all this way. “I thought maybe we could hang, or something.”
“Yeah, y’know. Do something together. I don’t have a lot of friends my age – and I figured you might be in need of some, too? You’re always on the run from the law so I thought, I dunno. Maybe.”
None of this was going as smooth as he had imagined. He hoped Spidey understood what he was getting at.
“What would you wanna do?” Spidey asked sarcastically, because that seemed to be the only way he asked anything. “Get a milkshake?”
“No! Obviously not! That would be super lame.” He coughed. “Unless you want to?”
Spidey stared at him. Johnny tried not to fidget with his hair.
“Sure, why not?” Spidey said.
Johnny’s heart tried to pump through his chest. He couldn’t really sweat anymore, and his palms still felt sticky.
“I mean, sure. Milkshakes are always a good time.”
“That’s what I thought!” If Johnny was alone, he would have done a happy dance. But since he definitely was not alone, he vowed to dance another day. “I know the best place. I’ll give you a ride.”
Johnny concentrated on flaming on his entire body, except for his arms. He had practiced this. He could do it. When he felt confident he wasn’t going to set Spidey on fire, he grabbed the kid by the underarms and swooped into the air.
“Torch! Let me down! Johnny!”
“Okay,” Johnny said, and he let Spidey drop toward the water. He cackled at Spidey’s screech before speeding down to grab him again.
“You maniac!” Spidey shouted. “Why would you do that?”
“You told me to!”
“I clearly wasn’t being serious!”
“Come on, pal, you spend all day flying through the air.”
“I spend all day swinging from self-constructed web fluid that I stick to tall buildings, pal. I can’t fly, especially over water, where there are no tall buildings. Or any buildings.”
“Does the Statue of Liberty count as a building?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Just don’t drop me again, okay?”
“If you keep complaining, I might.”
“Johnny,” Spidey whined. Johnny privately rejoiced at how cute he sounded.
“Try to enjoy it! It’s not every day you get to fly over the water, without an airplane. It’s like being a kite! Or a bird!”
“You’re off your rocker, Storm.”
Johnny did a loop de loop for good measure.
“Johnny!” Spidey shouted. His hands reached up to grip Johnny’s wrists, and Johnny almost dropped him again from surprise.
When they reached land, Spidey tugged on Johnny’s wrists. “Okay, let me down, let me down.”
“Fine, you drag.”
Johnny dropped Spidey, and this time Spidey snapped out a web that stuck to the nearest high rise. Spidey gave a whoop and Johnny grinned, speeding up to lead Spidey to the diner.
It was a little hole-in-the-wall place that he used to go to with Sue before Reed, and space, and the Four. Johnny wondered if Sue even remembered it. He never asked, always too scared she might say no.
“Nice place,” Spidey said, taking in the red vinyl seats and photographs of famous rock bands hanging on the walls. Johnny’s insides warmed.
“Thanks. It was my favorite when I was a kid, but I still come here to escape sometimes. It never gets too crowded. And they have the best shakes and burgers. I don’t even like burgers!”
Spidey peered at the menu. “Is that how much a milkshake costs these days?”
“You can’t afford it?” Johnny had never thought much about Spidey’s financial situation. He supposed that, since no one knew who he was, he couldn’t make much money as a superhero.
Spidey’s mask twitched, and Johnny had a feeling that this time he was scowling. “I only brought a couple bucks is all. It’s hard to fit a whole wallet in the suit.”
“Of course. I didn’t mean – I mean, if you want, I could get you a shake. You could pay me back whenever.”
“No thanks,” Spidey grumbled.
“Or . . .” Johnny cleared his throat, which suddenly felt too dry. “We could split the cost of one.”
Spidey lifted his head. “You wanna share?”
“We don’t have to but –,”
“I like chocolate,” said Spidey.
Johnny rolled his eyes, even as his whole body longed to alight. “I knew you were a square.”
He ordered a chocolate milkshake with two straws. The girl behind the counter was too busy blushing and flirting to question it. Johnny threw in a wink.
“It’ll be out in a couple of minutes,” he said when he found the booth Spidey had chosen. He spotted the neon-colored jukebox in the corner. “Hey, you wanna listen to something?”
“How ‘bout some Elvis, Elvis?” Spidey asked.
Johnny knew he was being made fun of, but his stomach flipped. Spidey had a nickname for him, one not even related to his powers. They had insides jokes. Plus, Elvis was swell, and he had those hips, and Johnny didn’t mind the comparison.
He dropped a dime in the jukebox and shuffled through the songs. He almost played “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” but figured that might be a bit on the nose. He chose another song instead, romantic but about a breakup, so no one would get too suspicious. Spidey snorted when Johnny slid onto the seat across from him.
“You look like an angel
Walk like an angel
Talk like an angel
But I got wise . . .”
“I met Elvis once,” Johnny said. “Pretty sure he wrote this about me.”
Johnny didn’t know how he knew, but he knew Spidey was rolling his eyes.
“Yeah, and I bet you were offering the exact kind of help the Beatles were looking for.”
“I am a superhero.” Johnny smirked. “Do you know any artists other than Elvis and the Beatles?”
Spidey scoffed. “Of course I do.”
“James . . . Dean . . .”
“James Dean’s an actor, and he’s dead.”
“Huh. Really?” Spidey bowed his head, as if in prayer. “God rest his soul.”
Johnny rolled his eyes, even as a smile tugged at his mouth. He couldn’t help it. Spidey could be so cute.
“Maybe you’re not a square,” Johnny said. “Maybe you’re not even a real person.” Spidey kicked his shin under the table. “You’re a bunch of spiders stacked on top of each other.”
Spidey covered his face, and Johnny counted it as a victory.
“One chocolate milkshake,” the waitress said, breaking Johnny’s reverie. “Two straws.”
“Thanks a bunch,” Johnny said, as Spidey gave a nod.
The waitress hovered, a pretty pinkness flooding her cheeks. Johnny’s eyes flicked to Spidey, wondering if he noticed. He immediately scolded himself. Of course he noticed. Johnny noticed, hadn’t he?
“Can I have your autographs?” the waitress finally burst. “Please? I’m a huge fan. Of both of you. I think what you do is real neat, Spider-Man, and I know everything the papers say is a lie.”
“Um. Well,” said Spidey. “I don’t suppose an autograph would hurt.”
Johnny and Spidey signed the inside of the waitress’ apron (“Don’t tell my boss,” she said with a grin), and when she left, Johnny beamed at Spidey.
“How does it feel to be me, Webhead?” he asked. “The fame. The girls. People not running and cowering when they see your face.”
“No one cowers when they see my face.”
“Mmhmm.” Johnny leaned forward to take a slurp of the milkshake, looking up at Spidey through his eyelashes. “You planning on taking a drink anytime soon, or are you gonna sit there and stare all day?”
Spidey hesitated, looking around the diner. It was empty, except for the waitress, whose back was to them as she scrubbed down the counter. He reached up and rolled his mask to his nose. Johnny tried to remember to breathe. Spidey’s chin was smooth and his lips fuller than Johnny would have expected, and his nose was so cute. Spidey darted forward to take a drink of the milkshake.
Johnny longed to lean in and drink from his own straw. He wanted to stare into Spidey’s blank white eyes – or maybe his real ones – were they blue, brown, green? He wanted to feel Spidey’s heat and smell the chocolate on his breath. He wanted to kiss the whipped cream from his lips.
Johnny blushed at his own thoughts.
“Who’s staring now?” Spidey asked. “You gonna take a drink or what?”
Johnny’s blush deepened. But he steeled his shoulders. It was now or never. He supposed Spidey could always beat him him up, but he trusted him. He didn’t think he was the kind of guy to do something like that.
“I’m not staring,” Johnny said. “At least not at the milkshake.”
Spidey’s lips parted. Johnny held his breath.
“You know what I think?” Spidey asked, voice oddly hushed.
Johnny hummed around his straw, sucking down milkshake even though he felt like he might throw up at any moment.
“I think you’re the square.”
When Johnny got home, Sue was still in the lounge, watching The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Carson. He tried to sneak past her, just for fun, but soon stumbled into a force field.
“Nice try,” she said, turning around on the couch. “You’re not allowed through until you tell me how your date went.”
“I’m in love,” Johnny said. “We’re getting married in the morning.”
Sue laughed and let down the force field. As Johnny ran to the stairs, he heard Ben’s voice yelling through the wall, “You sure he’s joking, Suzy?”
Sue called back, “We’ll know tomorrow morning.”
Johnny felt like he could power the sun.
Johnny did not marry Spider-Man the next morning, but he did help him take down Chameleon, who was apparently much better at breaking out of prison than he was at fighting superheroes. When the Chameleon was safely webbed up, Johnny turned to grin at Spidey, but found empty air.
“Spidey?” Johnny spun around – and there he was, silhouetted against the setting sun as he swung over New York.
Johnny raced to reach him.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
Spidey didn’t slow. “Can’t wait around for the boys in blue. They don’t like me very much.”
“They don’t even know you!”
“I don't make the rules, I just play by them.”
“Well, do you wanna do something with me?”
Johnny’s heart raced. He bit his lip to keep from saying anything embarrassing like, “Please please please go out with me, I’m begging you.”
“I dunno, Matchstick. That diner was real neat, but I don’t got buckets of money lying around.”
“Let’s go to a movie!” Johnny said. “A drive-in! It’d be perfect – you could stay in costume, and no one would even notice!” Johnny’s mind whirled. “I’ll find the perfect movie for us. I wanted to see The Sound of Music, but it’s not playing anywhere right now, which is stupid. But that’s okay! We could see –,”
“There are no drive-ins in the city,” Spidey interrupted.
Johnny floundered. “So let’s go out of the city!”
“You really wanna spend all night in a car with me?”
“It’s either that or spend all night with Reed and Ben. Talk about squares.”
“Reed Richards is a genius –,”
“Oh, sorry, forgot I was talking to his number one fan.”
“Look, Johnny, I can’t go out tonight.”
Johnny could see his heart splatter on the pavement.
“Okay,” he said, but Spidey was already speeding away.
Johnny stared at the ceiling, shooting up sparks that fizzled out before they made contact. He thought about going to look for Crystal. She always had a way about her that could cheer him up, but the last time they were together, they almost kissed. She had wanted to kiss him. A part of him wanted to kiss her, too. She was beautiful with her tangerine hair and elfish grin, and she laughed like she had nothing to lose. He thought that maybe, in some other world where stupid Spider-Man couldn’t make his heart grow ten sizes, he would have kissed her.
He should kiss her, if he knew what was good for him. He had stopped enough back alleyway beatings to know what happened to boys who were soft on other boys.
But . . . he was the Human Torch. What could they do to him?
He rolled over on the bed and buried his head in his arms. It was thinking like that always getting him into trouble. Maybe he wouldn’t even be in this mess if he kept his guard up, if he stayed with Dorrie and put up with her constant criticism, if he kissed Crystal, if he didn’t let himself swoon over a kid he didn’t even know.
But he did know him. He knew the lilt of his sarcasm, and the arch of his body when he fought bad guys. Sometimes it felt like he knew Spider-Man better than he knew anyone.
Johnny moaned. What a mess.
He grunted. Sue rudely allowed herself into his room and sat on his bed. He thought about turning over to glare at her, but decided that would take too much effort.
“I don’t feel like cooking, so the boys and I are going for hot dogs. Want to come?”
“Are you on strike now?” Johnny asked his arms. “Woman empowerment and all that?”
Sue flicked his ear. “Maybe I am. Sue Storm – feminist. How does that sound?”
Johnny wanted to be a jerk some more, but he didn’t have it in him tonight. Love was doing horrible things to his personality.
“Suits you,” he mumbled.
“I think so. Hey.” He felt the bed dip, as Sue crawled into position parallel to him. He turned to face her and their noses nearly touched. It was like they were little again, crowded in the bed at Aunt Marygay’s house, not knowing if anyone was ever coming back for them. “What’s the matter?”
Johnny wanted to tell her. He thought he might die if he told her.
“Girl troubles? Did your marriage not work out?”
“You could say that.” Johnny lightly touched her arm. He needed to feel her, to know she was here. “Sue . . . how do you know if someone likes you back?”
She raised an eyebrow, but thankfully didn’t comment.
“Hmm. I’m not sure if you ever really know.”
Johnny narrowed his eyes. “So you’ve been guessing about Reed this whole time?”
“No, I just mean – telling someone how you feel, it’s always a risk. There are no guarantees, especially when you do what we do. Love is one of the scariest things in the world, and loving someone is the bravest.”
Johnny’s eyes stung. He wanted to wipe away the tears before she saw them, but he didn’t want her to know he was crying.
“I may have gotten a bit ahead of myself,” he said.
“You? Never.” Smiling, she raked a hand through his hair.
He rolled away from her, off the other end of the bed. “What have I told you about touching my hair!”
“That I should do it more often because you use too much product?” She lunged across the bed to get to him.
He darted away. “Stop, I mean it!”
“Never!” She caught him in a chokehold. “Come get hot dogs with us!”
“Okay, okay!” He shrugged out from under her arm, and immediately ran to the mirror. “It doesn’t look too bad. No thanks to you.”
Johnny touched up his hair, glowering in the glow of Sue’s bright grin. But when she tucked her hand into his arm, and they struggled to get through the doorway side by side, he almost felt normal again.
Johnny sat in the booth where he’d been with Spidey. A week had passed since their sort-of-not-really date, but it felt like longer. He missed him.
His head thumped down in front of his chicken tenders. Love was the worst.
Johnny lifted his head only to see Peter Parker standing in front of him. His dorky, circular glasses hid his angular jaw and distressingly deep brown eyes. He wore a checkered shirt under a mustard yellow sweater. Johnny could wear mustard yellow because Johnny looked good in everything, but mustard yellow was really not Peter Parker’s color.
“You’d look better in red,” Johnny said.
Peter’s eyes widened. “What?”
“Nothing.” Johnny thunked his head back down on the table. “I don’t have a girlfriend for you to steal okay? Try again next month.”
“Oh.” Peter sounded nervous, but he probably always sounded nervous. Johnny bet the football team shoved him in lockers all the time. “You and, uh, that Dorrie girl, you’re not going steady anymore?”
“We’re not going anywhere.” Johnny rolled his head onto its side to glare at Peter. “But don’t get any ideas. She has a new boyfriend now, and he’s a foot taller than you.”
And me, went unsaid.
“Johnny, I never wanted to steal Dorrie. I just thought it’d be funny to rile you up. And it was.” He smirked until Johnny glared at him so hard that he rushed to add, “But I don’t like her! I don’t even know her.”
Peter looked so painfully earnest that Johnny took pity on the guy and dropped the subject.
“You ever been in love, Parker?” he asked.
“No. Maybe.” Peter flushed suddenly. “There’s this girl, Betty, she works at the Bugle with me. She’s a real fox. But, uh, no, I’m not in love with her. We’ve only gone on one date and I don’t think – I don’t think she liked me very much. So, uh, no. Not in love. How about – how about you?”
“I have. I am. Let me tell you, Parker, it’s the pits.”
“I believe you,” Peter said. He studied his shoes, a real sad sack.
Ugh. Curse Johnny’s good nature.
“Wanna chicken tender?” Johnny asked, nudging the tray towards him.
Of course Peter didn’t even have the good grace to pretend to not want a chicken tender, and instead started tearing into one without even sitting down. Man, did that kid ever eat?
“You wanna hear a song?” Peter asked through his mouthful of chicken. “I think I’ve got a dime on me.”
Before Johnny could protest that he didn’t want to listen to whatever nerd music Peter liked, the kid bounded across the checkerboard floor to the jukebox. He inserted a coin, and it wasn’t long after that an upbeat song coursed through the speakers.
“Help! I need somebody!
Help! Not just anybody!”
Johnny perked up, a smile tugging at his lips.
“What’s got you so chipper?” asked Peter, sliding into the seat across from Johnny. He had this weird, intense expression on his face that Johnny had never seen before. He could sort of see what it might have done for Dorrie.
“Did you know the Beatles wrote this song about me?” Johnny asked.
“What, were they looking for a furnace?”
Johnny looked up to catch a flash of Peter’s grin.
“Help is help, buddy,” he said. “And if Paul McCartney wants a furnace, he’ll get his damn furnace.”
Peter covered his face as he snorted. Johnny stared at the exposed line of his jaw. In his mind’s eye, he imagined kissing the skin there.
His stomach bottomed out. He couldn’t just think things like that. Peter could probably read it all over his face and, sure, he was a total square, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t get in a lucky punch. Johnny hoped he wouldn’t hit his face. Peter might be the kind of guy who was rude enough to take chicken tenders and talk with his mouth full, but he hoped he was kind enough to not hit Johnny’s astonishingly symmetric face.
Johnny wondered if imagining kissing Peter Parker’s jawline counted as going behind Spider-Man’s back, but then he remembered he wasn’t even dating Spider-Man. He felt suddenly spiteful.
“So?” He sat a little straighter and cocked his head to one side. “Did you come out here to serenade me or what?”
“Or what,” said Peter. “I got paid and I helped my aunt with the water bill, but I still have some cash left over, and, well – I heard this place has the best shakes in the city.”
“Whoever told you that is one smart kid!” Johnny beamed. “Get anything besides chocolate, ‘cause chocolate is for squares.”
Peter huffed a laugh and got up from his booth. “You’re saying I’m not a square?”
Johnny followed him to the counter, chicken tenders forgotten. “Of course you are, but with my help, you don’t have to be!”
“No offense, pal, but not even you can fix that.”
Johnny stepped into his path. His fingers brushed Peter’s temples as he removed the atrocious glasses.
“There,” Johnny said, heart thumping in his chest. “And you could maybe smile a bit. The world gets down on those that frown.”
“Cute. You’re a regular Mother Goose.”
Even as he said it, Peter was glancing around, as if checking for eavesdroppers. But they hadn’t been doing anything wrong. Just kidding around.
Peter held out his hand for the glasses. Johnny hid them behind his back. Peter lunged. Johnny tried to dart out of the way, but Peter was quicker, hand closing around Johnny’s. Their faces were side by side.
“If you wanted to dance, Parker, ya could have just asked,” Johnny said, voice breathy and uneven.
Peter jerked away. “I gotta go.”
Peter practically ran through the diner, flinging open the door and slipping onto the busy New York street.
“Hey, you forgot your glasses!” Johnny yelled, chasing after him. He danced around a kid blocking the door, and stumbled from the diner. New York was busy as ever. No one in an atrocious mustard yellow sweater could be found. “And your milkshake.”
“Girl troubles again?”
“How’d ya guess?”
Sue’s force field shoved Johnny onto his back so he was no longer on his stomach with his head buried in a pillow. He nearly tumbled from the bed, but grabbed the headboard for dear life.
“Holy – careful with that thing! You’re the one who said no powers in the house!”
“That rule applies to everyone except me, since I’m the smartest and the most talented.” Sue had that quirk to her smile like she was looking for a fight. Johnny wouldn’t bite. Not today. “And the prettiest.”
He bolted upright. “You take that back!”
“It used to be Ben!” Sue sang.
“Mmm, those blue eyes.”
“I have blue eyes, too!”
“That wavy brown hair.”
“He uses Scatter Perm. It can work wonders.”
“Not having a girlfriend gives you a lot of time to hit the gym.”
“But, no matter what, he’ll always be the prettiest . . . on the inside.”
Johnny was laughing so hard, he thought he might be crying. “I’m telling him you said that.”
“Shhh, no. I was joking, you know I love Ben, I think he’s very handsome.” Sue sat on the bed beside Johnny, and tweaked his nose. “I was trying to make you to smile.”
Johnny tried to keep his smile in place, even as he felt it fade. Gosh, it was so rare to see Sue loosen up a little and not be such a Serious Sally. Even before they wound up alone together, she was studious and mature and everything he wasn’t. He wanted to stay here in this moment with her. He never wanted her to be sad again, especially not because of him.
Sue nudged his shoulder. “I haven’t seen you this depressed since that Gimbels salesman said they didn’t carry a single can of your favorite French hairspray.”
“A lot of French film actors use it, I just assumed someone in Manhattan would know this.”
“New York is full of heathens.”
“Godless, all of ‘em.”
“Johnny . . .” Dark circles shaded Sue’s eyes. Johnny ran a finger along a deep crescent, wishing he could rub it away. She caught his hand and cradled it to her cheek. “All those things I said about Crystal – they were garbage. If you love her, it doesn’t matter who her family is. All that ever matters is she makes you happy.”
Johnny smiled, more genuine, even as his eyes stung. “That means a lot, Sue. And I’m glad because – because Crys is my friend, and I really care about her. But I promise she’s not the one who’s had me so messed up. I wish she was, but . . .” He shrugged, more helpless than nonchalant. “She’s just not.”
Sue searched his face, almost wildly. Johnny felt afraid of what she was looking for, afraid she would find it and afraid she wouldn’t. His throat started to close up, but he fought to keep his face from crumpling. He was such a sissy these days – was it because of Spider-Man, or had he always been this way?
Sue’s eyes hardened. Those who knew her best (AKA Johnny) knew she had different levels of hardness to her gaze. The hardness she got when she was disappointed in her family. The hardness she got when she was hurting, and didn’t want the boys to see her cry. And then there was the hardness that seemed to spread from inside her, a special kind of tough reserved for when she was taking down the bad guys. This was similar, but different. It was kinder, and more desperate, and that made it more frightening.
“Jonathan Lowell Spencer,” Sue said, her voice strong like it always was because she couldn’t afford to be the one who was afraid. “I want you to know that – it doesn’t matter to me, if you fall in love with an Inhuman.”
“I know –,”
“Or anyone else – no matter who they are are.”
Johnny thought he might throw up. “I don’t –,”
She finally released his hand so she could cup his cheeks. She stared so deep into his eyes that Johnny wondered if she was like Professor Xavier, or that Jean girl she sometimes mentored – maybe she could read minds.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” she said. “I want you to know that, okay? It doesn’t matter to me.”
The tears spilled onto Johnny’s cheeks, and Sue cradled his head to her shoulder, and then he was crying so hard, he thought he might be laughing. His shoulders couldn’t stop shaking – he worried he would vibrate into nothingness, and it would all be over. Kapoof. The Ballad of Johnny Storm.
But he had never known anyone with arms as strong as his sister’s. She held him together.
Johnny rolled over in bed, eyes fluttering open. He peered at the window across from him where a blurry shape loomed. He rolled back over to try and sleep some more.
“Alright, alright,” Johnny moaned, swinging his legs over the edge of his bed. “Don’t have a cow.”
As he drew closer, his bleary vision picked up on the red and blue uniform the outsider wore. He froze for a moment. Spider-Man was here? At the crack of dawn? Why?
As much as he hated to admit it, his stomach flipped. He rushed to the window and unlocked it.
“Hiya, Torch,” Spidey said, slipping into Johnny’s room. Johnny rubbed his eyes, just to make sure.
“What are you doing here?” he asked when he was certain he wasn’t dreaming.
“Don’t sound so pleased to see me,” said Spidey. “I was actually gonna cash in on that movie you were talking about.”
Johnny stared at him, disbelieving. “You’ve got some nerve coming here, you know that?”
Spidey froze. “What?”
“It’s always hot and cold with you! One minute we’re sharing a milkshake, and the next, you can’t even look at me! Geez, you’re worse than that Peter Parker kid.”
“You don’t say.”
“But I’m not gonna let you drag me out of the city, just so you can jerk me around again! I have some self respect!”
Spidey stared at him with those cold, unblinking lenses. Johnny refused to back down. He had thought about this a lot over the last few weeks. He wasn’t wrong here, and he wasn’t about to apologize. He didn’t care how cute and smart and funny Spidey was.
“And another thing –,” Johnny sputtered to a stop. “Huh?”
“I’m sorry,” said Spidey. “You’re right. I’ve been a real jerk. I . . . am a real jerk.”
Johnny wanted to say, no, you’re perfect. But then he remembered he was the one who started this argument, so that would be kind of pointless.
“Yeah, well,” he said instead. “Don’t do it again.”
Spidey’s mask twitched. It was his smile twitch. “Deal.”
Maybe he was lying, or at least not being realistic, but Johnny didn’t care. He wanted to throw his arms around Spidey’s neck, hug him, and kiss whatever was behind his mask. His room was still dark, even as the sun slowly lit New York. He felt invincible.
“If we leave now,” Spidey said, “we could catch a matinee –,”
Johnny hurriedly ran into his bathroom, ready to beautify himself at top speed. “I’m driving!” he yelled through the door.
“Of course you are! You know I can’t drive, Torchy!”
Spidey wrestled him for the keys anyway.
They didn’t end up seeing the matinee. They got breakfast at Johnny’s diner, and then they got caught in traffic trying to leave Manhattan.
“Now I remember why I don’t drive,” Spidey said. “Swinging is so much easier.”
“You’re tellin’ me,” said Johnny. “I can’t wait for the year 2000 when Reed has invented instant teleporters, and Tony Stark starts mass producing them so everyone can have one and no one has to drive anywhere.”
“Given this a lot of thought, have you?”
Johnny rested his chin on the tan steering wheel of his baby blue Ford Mustang. “How much trouble would I get in if I abandoned the car right here and flew the rest of the way?”
“You love your cars too much,” said Spidey.
“I’m rich. I could buy a new one.”
“You love your cars too much.”
“Ugh.” Johnny slumped in his seat. “I’m sorry, baby girl. You know I wouldn’t let anything happen to you.”
“Stop talking to your car, flame brain.”
“Shhh, baby. He’s never felt a love like ours.”
When they made it out of the city, Johnny asked, “So, where are we going?”
Johnny side-eyed him. “Do you at least know what movie we’re seeing?”
“You see. Well.”
They drove around aimlessly, trying to find a drive-in theatre. When they did find one, right off the road, Spidey proclaimed it wasn’t showing any good movies.
“Are you serious?” Johnny said.
“Yup! Next one!”
“The next closest drive-in is miles away, webhead. We’ll run out of gas at this rate!”
“Book it, pretty boy.”
The sun was setting by the time Spider-Man finally declared a drive-in to be suitable, and Johnny was on a new tank of gas. Spidey bounded back to the car with a bucket of popcorn and a couple of cokes.
“Did anyone have a thing to say about Spider-Man at their drive-in?” Johnny asked. He saw a couple of people craning their necks out their windows to get a good look.
“The old geezer at concessions said he hoped I was out with a real fox,” Spidey said, settling into the passenger’s seat.
“Oh yeah?” Johnny’s face felt hot. “And what’d you tell him?”
“I told him I was.”
Johnny stared at the big, white screen. If he looked at Spidey, there was a good chance he’d melt.
“This movie better be worth the trouble,” he said when he couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Spidey was silent for once.
At the turn of the hour, the screen powered up to show a green field and blue sky and in the middle of it all, a beautiful woman, who opened her mouth to sing.
“The hills are alive . . . with the sound of music . . .”
Johnny whipped his head around to gape at Spidey. Spidey had rolled up his mask to sip his Coke and he couldn’t hide his grin.
“You found the one place still showing The Sound of Music? Are you even a real person?”
“Nope. You said it yourself, I’m a bunch of spiders stacked on top of each other.”
Johnny shook his head, as he turned back to the movie.
He tried to keep quiet, he really did, but he couldn’t keep his excited comments to himself. Spidey groaned every time he spoke, but he wasn’t exactly reigning in the jokes either. So they both had a problem with keeping their mouths shut. There were worse things.
The mood settled when Liesl and Rolf found themselves alone together.
“You are sixteen going on seventeen, fellows will fall in line . . . Eager young lads and rogues and cads will offer you food and wine . . .”
As the onscreen pair began to dance, Johnny snuck a glance at Spidey. In the glow of the movie, his lips shone with the remnants of butter from the popcorn. A sliver of tongue licked them clean. Johnny’s breath left him.
Before he knew what he was doing, he leaned forward until his nose grazed Spidey’s cheek.
“What are you doing?” Spidey yelped, pushing himself back into his door. Johnny yanked back like a slingshot.
His breathing picked up. Smoke rose from his fingertips, and he fought to keep his body under control.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean – I was reaching for the popcorn – and I thought you –,”
I thought you felt the same as me.
Spidey ran a hand over his head, but dropped it just as soon, as if he had forgotten he was wearing a mask.
“We’re out in the open,” Spidey said. “Anyone could see us.”
Johnny blinked. Spidey – was worried about people seeing them. Which meant he didn’t care that Johnny had tried to kiss him. Which meant he must feel the same as Johnny. Johnny hadn’t made it all up.
“It’s okay,” Johnny said, so relieved he thought he might faint. “It’s dark. No one will see us. Everyone does it –,”
“We’re not everyone, Johnny.”
Johnny turned back to the movie, fighting a new batch of tears. Spidey was right. He was being stupid, like always. They weren’t like everyone and no amount of pretending changed that. He tried to focus.
“Totally unprepared am I to face a world of men . . . Timid and shy and scared am I of things beyond my ken . . .”
Liesl and Rolf began their dance anew.
Great, Johnny thought. I missed the singing.
Johnny felt Spidey shift closer to him, but he refused to look. Didn’t want to seem desperate. And then –
Soft lips pressed against his cheek. Johnny kept his eyes on the film. Rolf grabbed Liesl, kissed her, and ran out into the rain, and Spidey sat back in his seat. He laced his fingers through Johnny’s, and when Liesl gave a high-pitched squeal, Johnny barely stopped himself from joining her.
“Gosh, and it was just so sad when Rolf betrayed them! He loved Liesl!”
Spidey hummed as he played with Johnny’s free hand.
“But that Julie Andrews, wow. Talk about a fox. Is that disrespectful, since she played a nun? Oh, well –,”
Johnny glanced at Spidey. “Hm?”
Startled by the urgency in his voice, Johnny pulled to the shoulder. They were on some back country road that they had taken in their quest to find this specific drive-in. Headlights passed them, and then there were no cars in sight.
“Is everything okay?” Johnny asked. “I told Sue I would be back hours ago, she’s probably going ape right now –,”
Johnny turned and there was Spidey, and then he was kissing him, right on the lips. It was gentle, but full of heat, and Johnny thought his whole body might light up at any moment.
Spidey pulled back. They stared at each other.
“Wow,” Johnny said. “Not always a square, huh?”
Spidey reached over to undo Johnny’s seatbelt. And then he climbed over the center console to perch in Johnny’s lap. Johnny could barely believe this was happening. It all felt like one of his better dreams. Spider-Man grabbed the back of his neck and pulled him in for another kiss.
His mouth was hard and eager, and a bit too wet, but Johnny kind of liked it. He could feel Spidey’s hands around his neck, secure without squeezing. Johnny knew that Spidey would barely have to flex to crush his windpipe. It thrilled him.
Johnny drew back, smiling when Spidey chased his lips. A thin string of saliva connected them, disgusting and exhilarating all at once.
“Hey,” Johnny said. “Hey now.”
Spidey froze. “Did I do it wrong? I’ve never kissed a boy before, but I’ve kissed a couple girls, and I didn’t think it would be that different –,”
“You’re fine. You’re great. A real natural.”
Spidey grinned. He was so cute. It really wasn’t fair.
“I was just wondering . . .” Johnny looked up at Spidey through his lashes. “How am I supposed to start necking with someone when I don’t even know their name?”
Spidey stared. And stared. And stared some more. Johnny found it difficult to keep a straight face, and he was nearly about to give it up, when Spidey yanked off his mask.
Peter Parker sat in front of him, cheeks flushed and sweaty hair sticking up at every angle. His brown eyes shown with a little insecurity and a whole lot of desire.
The first thing Johnny could think to say was, “That worked?”
Peter kissed him, hot and hard and maybe a little to shut him up. Johnny kissed back for a moment before pulling away again.
“I was just joking! Honest! You’re not gonna resent me for this for the rest of your life, are you?”
Peter went to kiss him, but Johnny turned his head and the kiss landed on his chin.
“Is your secret identity your way into heavy petting? Do you use this trick on all the girls? And I thought I was bad.”
Peter’s lips moved below Johnny’s chin and down his neck. He bit the soft skin, a light nip, and Johnny’s eyes rolled back.
“You don’t even need glasses,” he said in one final huff.
“Shut up, Johnny,” said Peter, and when their lips met again, Johnny was happy to.
Peter and Johnny sat on the hood of the car. He wished they had a better view – something romantic, like the New York skyline – but all they had was the inside of the Baxter Building’s parking garage.
“I can’t believe you’re Spider-Man,” Johnny said, snuggling into Peter’s arm. “Talk about unfair.”
“What’s unfair about it? How half the city hates me? How maybe I’d be more popular if I told people, but I can’t, so I’m not? How –,”
“How you’re cute and funny and talented,” said Johnny. He kissed Peter’s cheek, just to watch all the shades of pink it could turn. “Choose one next time, mister.”
“Do we get to choose?”
“I sure wish I’d known that when I was born. No one tells me anything.”
“There’s always the next life.”
“I think I’ll choose to be rich. Then I can buy your love. Takes a lot of the pressure off of being funny and cute and talented.”
“Smart plan,” Johnny mumbled into Peter’s shoulder.
“Alright, sleepyhead,” Peter said. “I think it’s time to call it a night.”
“No, no, no, I’m awake!” Johnny straightened, rubbing his eyes to force the drowsiness from them.
“You’re dead on your feet, Torch. Your sister’s probably worried, and so is my aunt. Tonight’s been a blast, but – time to get back to real life.”
Johnny pouted. “Real life’s got nothing on right now.”
“I know.” Peter tangled a hand in the back of Johnny’s hair. He bumped their shoulders together. “But no matter what happens tomorrow – you’ve still got me. Got it? That doesn’t change.”
“You did give up your secret identity for me,” Johnny said with a flutter of his eyelashes.
“You’re a brat,” Peter said. He leaned forward to kiss Johnny. And then, like Johnny weighed nothing at all, he lifted him into his lap.
“Whoa,” Johnny breathed. Peter’s hands drifted down Johnny’s back, resting just above his ass. Johnny tried to will them downward. “You sure you have to go?”
“Mmm.” Peter kissed him again, but broke off too soon. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay? I’ll break the Chameleon out of jail again.”
“Don’t make me promises you don’t intend to keep,” Johnny said.
“I would never joke about Chameleon.”
“There you go again.”
Peter put Johnny back on the hood of the car a bit too roughly, which Johnny liked a bit too much. He kissed him once more.
“Tomorrow, Elvis,” Peter whispered against Johnny’s lips.
“Tomorrow,” Johnny said.
He watched Peter drag his mask back on, and then he was running through the parking garage.
“The skyscrapers are alive with the sound of muuuuuusic!” Peter sang. His voice echoed even after he was gone, off to swing back to Queens, taking a piece of Johnny’s heart with him.
When he reached the lounge, it was to see Sue fast asleep on the couch. Johnny brought out a blanket from the cupboard and laid it over her.
Her eyes fluttered. “Johnny?”
“Hiya, Sue,” he said. “I’m home.”
She closed her eyes again. “You can’t leave like that. Reed told me you were being young and foolish, but I was so worried. Especially after – I was so worried.”
Johnny’s heart panged. Sue was much too good for him. “I know. I’m sorry. But I’m home now. I’m gonna go get some shut-eye.”
“Sleep tight, little brother,” she said.
“You too, big sis.”
He looked down at his sister’s dozing face. He wished she could always be this peaceful.
“Hey, Sue?” he whispered.
“The wedding’s back on.”
Eyes still closed, a bright smile spread across her face. He was glad Reed wasn’t here to see it because he would have turned into a bumbling mess. Ben too, probably. Johnny was the only one who could see Sue Storm at her loveliest and form complete sentences.
“Can’t wait,” she said.
Johnny grabbed a blanket and pillow of his own. He felt too antsy to be confined to a bed, so he thought he might nap on the roof and wake with the sun. Maybe things would look different in the light. Maybe they would be scarier. Maybe he would realize what a mess he had gotten himself into. That the world would not be kind to him, even if the night had been.
But maybe he would see Peter again. And maybe Peter would kiss him.
His heart sang for it.
Tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow.