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The Failing Grade

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When the formation of the Avengers was announced by SHIELD live on television and Captain America was standing front and center in all of his patriotic glory, Johnny Storm and his sister exchanged an uneasy glance.

It was only a matter of time from that point.

...

Johnny’s first memories are that of a laboratory room. He remembers white lab coats and indistinct features and bright lights and having blood taken from him. He remembers constant beeping and tests that asked him to “Attempt to lift this bar. Good. Now attempt to lift this one. Try again. Again.” and “Read out these letters for me. Now these. And these. You can’t see these?” and tests where they threw objects at him and expected him to catch them, but would only hit him and make him cry. He knows they didn’t like it when he cried.

He also, of course, remembers his sister. If she hadn’t been there, Johnny doesn’t know what would have happened to him. He would probably be dead, or worse, still in the lab.

...

The Fantastic Four are established before the Avengers. Johnny thinks but doesn’t say that it was probably the success and popularity of the Four that contributed to the decision to form the Avengers. After all, if there is one superhero group that is well liked by the masses, why couldn’t there be another that answered directly to the government and wasn’t running off to other dimensions and outer space at any moment?

“It’s really not fair,” Johnny says one night to Spider-Man, who has been superheroing longer than any of them, but is hated nonetheless. “You and the X-Men do as much, if not more good than us or the Avengers.”

Spider-Man shrugs before he speaks. “You and the Avengers deal with problems generally much bigger than my usual. I just handle the petty crime in New York City. The X-Men tackle a lot of other mutants, and since they are mutants, most people think that everything would be much simpler and better if mutants just didn’t exist.”

“But you don’t just handle petty crime,” Johnny argues. Spider-Man is sitting crouched on the buildings ledges and Johnny is relaxing with his legs over the edge. Underneath them, the city of New York bustles and moves and shines. “You handle plenty of supervillains too. And more often than not, you’re fighting alongside the Avengers or me or the X-Men. And yet, this shit is still printed,” adding a smack against the tabloid he refers to in emphasis. Because the Daily Bugle deserved it.

On the front page of the Daily Bugle, it reads, “SPIDER-MAN ATTACKS CHILD” with a picture of Spider-Man holding a child whose right arm was twisted at an unnatural angle. It had been a child who had been kidnapped; his arm had been broken when he had been thrown. The police had captured the men involved and made arrests, with upcoming trials that would certainly result in conviction. Despite this, some photographer had gotten a picture of Spider-Man holding an injured child, and the Daily Bugle made it out to be Spider-Man’s fault.

“They love to hate me,” Spidey says dryly with a shrug.

“You know, that’s what Tony Stark says too about his publicity. The difference is, they don’t want to arrest him. Well, not most of the time.”

“They love talking about you too,” Spidey points out.

“Well, yeah, but that’s because they love to love me.” Johnny flashes Spider-Man a flirtatious, winning smile, and has no idea what kind of impact it has on him with the mask. Johnny wants to pull the mask off to see Spider-Man’s face and his reaction, but this urge is really no different than usual, so Johnny ignores it.

Spider-Man shakes his head. “I’m frustrated with my press too, you know – I mean, obviously, I would prefer to get good press and to be liked – but I don’t know what you expect me to do. I can’t just go up to the Daily Bugle and say, ‘Hey, you know, it really kinda hurts me deep inside when you say mean things about me. Couldn’t we just be friends?’”

Despite the subject, Johnny chuckles a little bit. They sit in companionable silence, watching the small streets from their vantage point. After a while, Johnny asks, “Do you wanna come over and play video games?”

“Sure.”

...

Spider-Man had been the first one of them all to really make an appearance. Johnny was nineteen when headlines about Spider-Man started appearing, and Johnny will admit to no one other than silent to himself (especially now, since Spider-Man is practically his best friend) that Spider-Man seemed terrifying. A man with incredible spider-related powers, who sneaked around in the night committing crimes? It was unbelievable.

There were others, at the same time, obviously. Mutants had already been exposed (people thought Spider-Man was a mutant, for a while, until Charles Xavier was accused of letting his mutants have free reign of New York, and he claimed that Spider-Man was not a mutant which brought on the question what Spider-Man actually was), but people panicked for a fair amount of time after the first super-powered people started appearing.

The idea of a man who was not a mutant but something else stopped being so outlandish after others began showing up. News of the Hulk showed up during these years occasionally for a while, and Iron Man a couple years after that. By the time the Fantastic Four showed their faces on the bridge, people got used to the idea of super-powered humans running around (though this was not connected to accepting mutants; it doesn’t make sense to Johnny, personally.)

And everyone knows about Captain America, but most people didn’t know about the super soldier serum until he was unfrosted and made his reappearance. The government had tried to hide that information at first, so the masses just thought he was an incredible man.

Johnny always believed in the super soldier serum. That is part of the reason why Spider-Man was so terrifying at first.

Johnny hadn’t thought or worried about Spider-Man until he was walking home one night and saw a woman being mugged. Johnny grabbed the lid of a nearby trashcan and was going to help, but then a blur of red and blue dropped from the sky, and the muggers were on the ground, tied to each other with a white cord. The woman stood, stunned, and Johnny rushed over and asked, “Are you all right?”

She took a step back from him, but said, “Yeah, I’m fine. Did you... did you see what just happened?”

Johnny shook his head. “No, just a blur. Here, I’ll call the police.” As he took at his phone to do just that, the woman wondered aloud, “Maybe it was that Spider-Man the papers have been talking about.”

When he had finally gotten home after the police had arrived and taken his statement, Johnny called his sister, asking to meet up.

“Now? It’s 2 in the morning! Couldn’t this wait?”

“No, Sue, it really couldn’t,” Johnny said. “I saw Spider-Man tonight. He’s really real. And he does have spider powers.” At the crime scene, one of the police officers had said the muggers were stuck together with ‘web fluid’. Fortunately, they were only stuck together and not to the ground, so the police put them into the car and drove them away. After asking, Johnny found out that Spider-Man usually left the criminals tied up and unable to move, but in a way that the police could just pick them up and take them to the station.

Sue paused then and said, “Meet me for breakfast tomorrow. Okay? Will that do?”

“Yeah, Sue. I’ll see you then.”

The next morning, they went to their favorite place for having private conversation. It was a big, popular restaurant that always had too many people and loud music so no one heard anyone else’s conversations.

“So he really does have spider powers?” Sue asked.

“Yeah. He tied up the muggers with ‘web fluid’, which is strong enough that the police can’t break it.”

“‘Web fluid’?” Sue repeated, making a face. “Ew. That sounds pretty gross.”

“Well, yeah, but Sue... how do you think a man got spider powers?” Xavier’s statement had been broadcasted earlier than that, and people couldn’t decide if Spider-Man not being a mutant was a good or bad thing. Looking back, the speculations were pretty fucking funny. There had been fairly believable hypotheses like self-experimentation to Xavier just flat-out lying, to the more ludicrous, like Spider-Man actually being a spider that had mutated. Like human mutants, but for a spider. Johnny wonders if Spidey got a kick out of that. (Actually, Johnny doesn’t know what exactly Spidey is. So, for all Johnny knows, Spidey could have been an ordinary spider until he got gifted with human powers.)

“Johnny, I don’t know, but I know what you’re thinking. It’s none of our business, and there’s nothing we can do even if it’s what we think. Don’t worry about it.”

“But if they’re still doing – what they did to us, then –”

“What do you think you can do if that’s the case Johnny?”

Johnny doesn’t have a response, but all he can think about is the lab and the fear and he can’t bear to think that it’s still happening to other people. Some of this must have shown on his face, because Sue’s expression softens, and she leans forwards and clasps his hand.

“Johnny, I don’t like the idea either, but what could we do?”

She was right, of course; the both of them had spent years not drawing attention to themselves, hoping to avoid anyone’s interest in Johnny. Trying to interfere in whatever created Spider-Man would sacrifice all of that while likely not accomplishing anything, because really, what could he do?

Johnny slouched, but pushes the thoughts of Spider-Man and labs from his mind. Then he asks Sue with a teasing smile, “So how’s Reed?”

He regretted the question as soon as it came out of his mouth, as Sue’s expression crumbles instantly. “What? What happened? What did he do?”

“I broke up with him,” she said firmly and without hesitation, and Johnny relaxes. She wasn’t happy, but she had made her decision and was sticking to it. “I just couldn’t take it anymore. I need someone who remembers our dates rather than forgetting them all the time for an experiment.”

“You can definitely do way better than him,” Johnny nodded sagely. “If he can’t make time for you, he definitely doesn’t deserve you, which is what I’ve been saying all along.” Sue’s break up with Reed was wonderful news; Johnny thought that any man who made his beautiful, intelligent, kind sister think she’s not good enough is a man that Johnny wanted to punch in the face multiple times, and Johnny really wanted to punch Reed Richards in the face.

Breakfast passed with chatter and laughs, and if anyone knew how closely he holds memories like that with his sister to his heart, he would never live it down.

...

For six years after that, Johnny thrived, despite the emergence of more and more super-powered humans (and Iron Man, since technically he wasn’t super-powered, just super smart). He went to NASA and became a pilot for a space ship, and if that wasn’t the coolest thing ever, he didn’t know what was. Until, of course, Reed fucking Richards and Ben Grimm showed up, with a crazy project idea that ended up with Johnny being able to burst into flames and fly.

After all of their powers were revealed, Reed and Ben thought Johnny’s antics with showing off his abilities and giving into the publicity was due to Johnny’s immaturity and need for attention. Even his sister bought into it.

She got it eventually, though. She’s always been smart.

If everyone was watching them, then no one could do anything without the press seeing it. If the public adored him, then if something happened, there would be a mass outcry against it.

And if Johnny burst into flames with the cameras watching and he looked into the camera with a cocky smile on his face, and thought, I have power too, now. I may be your failure but I’m stronger than you now and you can’t touch me. He wondered if any of them were watching.

If Reed and Ben thought little of Johnny, then it didn’t matter. (Okay, yeah, Johnny had to admit that calling Ben ‘The Thing’ was just from a bout of immaturity, but it was still funny, especially that he kept the name, Johnny thought it wouldn’t stick. If he knew that Ben would actually let his name stick, Johnny would have gone with The Rock Head or something.) But when Reed started dating Sue again, Johnny cornered him in his lab.

“Hey Reed, buddy, how’s it going?” Johnny called as he swung an arm around Reed, who immediately tried shrugging him off.

“Johnny, I’m very busy at the moment –”

“Not too busy to get threatened, I’d imagine,” Johnny mused, and Reed stopped.

“What?”

Johnny shoved Reed against the table and got in his face. “Listen to me, Richards. The last time you and my sister dated, you made her feel like shit when you kept ignoring her in favor for your experiments. I am telling you now that that better not happen again, because seeing my sister, my beautiful, intelligent sister who could have any man she wanted think that she’s anything less than deserving is unacceptable. If you forget a single date this time, I will finish what Victor started and see exactly what happens when you smash frozen organic rubber with a hammer. Got it?”

Reed, wide eyed, nodded. Johnny stepped back, smiling.

“Great, man! So, what’s this?”

...

Reed does forget dates, but this time, he reschedules with Sue and keeps most of those. Johnny checks in with Sue from time to time, and she never feels that she’s not good enough, so Johnny lets it slides.

As long as his sister is happy.

...

When SHIELD announced the formation of the Avengers, which was going to be led by Captain America himself (who survived being frozen for seventy years, god, no wonder they wanted more of this guy), Johnny knew everything was going to come crumbling down.

As soon as they show a picture of Captain America’s face, Reed and Ben, who were talking about the benefits of another superhero team and possibilities of cooperation, go silent. Sue looked withdrawn and nervous where she was standing, but neither Ben nor Reed could see her.

Ben broke the silence. “Hey, Johnny, you look a lot like Captain America.”

Johnny laughed carelessly. “Yeah, he does! Maybe I’m related to him. Hey, Sue, how cool would it be to be related to Captain America?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Johnny,” Sue said, “It has to be a coincidence. We’re definitely not related to Captain America.”

“Maybe he had siblings or something,” Johnny mused, “You think either Mom or Dad cheated?”

“Johnny!” Sue cried.

Johnny saw Reed opening his mouth, knew what’s going to come out, and knew how to react. “Maybe we could run some DNA tests.”

“You think?” Johnny said and Sue cut in.

“That man’s body holds secrets that would be deadly in the hands of our enemies. Even if Captain America would be willing, it would probably not be allowed,” Sue said sadly, and Johnny hoped that she wasn’t wrong.

(Even after all these years of safety and the new comfort of living in the Baxter Building with Reed and Ben, he and Sue can still lie flawlessly with every cell in their body. Johnny doesn’t think they’ll ever be able to lose that skill.)

...

When the Avengers have settled in their own teamwork after a few months, they arrange some kind of “Meeting of Working Cooperatively between Superhero Teams”, which must have been a name SHIELD created since Johnny would hope that the Avengers would have more taste than that, with the Fantastic Four.

The Avengers come to the Baxter Building. Reed thought nothing of this, but Johnny was pretty sure that Tony Stark didn’t want any of them near his technology. Aside from the superheroes, a few SHIELD agents were there. There was a nice round table for them all to sit out and “cooperate” in one of the conference rooms, too. Johnny waited there, and almost immediately after the Avengers enter, he caught Captain America frowning at him from the other side of the room.

Shit, Johnny thought, this kind of resemblance is fucking weird. In his typical fashion, Johnny swaggered over to the Captain with a smirk and a plan in mind.

“Hey, Cap! Looking good! Well, like me, anyway, but I’ve been voted in the top ten sexiest men of the year, and since we look a lot a like, the sexiness must extend to you too.” The Captain blinked at this, and Tony Stark made an odd noise to the side while Hawkeye coughed.

Bruce Banner walked up, looking to Johnny and then to the Captain. “This is... interesting. Perhaps –” 

“How can this be?” The Captain interrupted, still frowning at Johnny. He’s a couple inches taller than Johnny, and has a little more muscle, but aside from that, they looked like they could be twins. Probably not an inappropriate term to use here, thinks Johnny. “I’ve been frozen for seventy years, my parents died before I enlisted and I didn’t have any siblings or close relatives. This is impossible –” he gestures at Johnny’s face.

Johnny leaned forward to peer at the Captain’s face. Jesus, it was like a mirror; he could probably brush his teeth by asking this guy to smile. “Doppelganger, maybe? Could be a coincidence.”

Tony Stark audibly snorted at this, “Not likely, the likelihood of that happening with this much resemblance is almost null, it’s 2.37%, it’d be more likely that Johnny is the Cap’s son or grandkid from the future here to mess with our minds or that aliens came from the from space and made a human skin that borrowed from the Cap’s image that they found from comic books.”

“Well,” Banner said, “It could be a coincidence. We do see some cases of extremely similar phenotypes between two unrelated people sometimes.”

“But it’s not just an extremely similar phenotype,” Stark continued and Johnny needed him to shut up, Stark was smarter than Johnny usually had to deal with and he was way to on this for Johnny to be comfortable, “they have the same features. Look,” Stark then invades the space between the Captain and Johnny, pointing at their faces. “Their eyebrows, eyes, nose and mouth and facial bones all have the precise angles of the other. It’s like they’re secretly twins.”

Yeah, the word ‘twin’ did not sit well with Johnny. “But that’s not possible,” Johnny interjected. “He’s from the forties.” He didn’t like where Stark and Banner are going with this; at any moment, they’d ask if they can run a DNA test and that was the last thing Johnny wanted. “Maybe he knocked up some chick who didn’t tell anyone about it once he disappeared?”

It didn’t have the intended effect, as the Captain just frowns in confusion before seemingly realizing something and then, of all things, blushing.

“Um,” the Captain got out before Sue decided to stop this conversation, thank god.

“Excuse me,” Sue said, “But I believe we’re all on busy schedules, and that the intention of this meeting is to work out means of cooperation. If we may?”

The subject was dropped and it’s all business from there on, but almost all of the Avengers (except Thor, who seems to think that the fact that Johnny and the Captain look the same is only a barely noteworthy occurrence; makes sense if you grew up with Loki as a brother, thinks Johnny) gave Johnny too many considering glances.

Tick tock, goes the clock, thinks Johnny. Tick tock.

...

After the Fantastic Four had been formed, Johnny saw more of Spider-Man than he would have thought, as Spider-Man would come and help out whenever he noticed fighting occurring. He never stuck around to chat though, which honestly, disappointed Johnny. He wanted to talk to Spider-Man, ask how he got his powers. And he seemed to be of a similar age as Johnny, and having a fellow superhero as a friend sounded wonderful. Johnny’s friends from NASA were no longer in touch much; they didn’t seem to know how to handle being friends with the Human Torch.

There were always girls, so Johnny was never lonely, per se, but those weren’t friendships, and he just wanted a real friend who was not his sister. Reed was entertaining, but of all of the words Johnny would use for him, friend is not among them. Johnny and Ben had a fantastically antagonistic friendship that was fun, but it was a certain type of friendship.

So whenever Spider-Man showed up, Johnny tried to talk to him, to get him to stick around for a bit. It was so much harder than he’d thought it would be because it turns out, Spider-Man’s fast and not very social. The first few times Johnny tried talking to Spider-Man, he began a sentence, turning to face him, only to find that Spidey had already vanished.

The first time Johnny got to speak to Spider-Man was only after the other hero had gotten shot.

It had been Johnny who saw Spider-Man and came over to help, this time. He had spotted Spider-Man fighting off what looked like to be an entire gang, and Johnny flew over to help out.

Unfortunately, appearing in the middle of Spidey’s fight by swooping down in flames distracted and surprised not only the gang members, but also Spider-Man. Therefore, when a gang member accidently pulled the trigger his gun, Spider didn’t dodge in time.

Even a bullet to the leg didn’t slow Spidey down very much, and they were able to stop the gang members, but Johnny couldn’t stop apologizing because he came to help and he made things worse. “Shit, man, I’m sorry –”

“Seriously, stop apologizing,” Spidey told him. “It’s not like getting shot is unusual for me. I’ll be fine by morning.” He attempted to walk over to the building, but putting weight on his wounded leg failed, and Johnny darted over to support him.

“You need medical attention for it. I think the bullet might still be in your leg.” Johnny frowned, considering their options. “Let me take you to the Baxter Building.”

“What? No. Wait, why?”

“We can get you medical attention there, without drawing attention to you,” Johnny explained. “And that way, you won’t have to take off your mask. Unless you want to, of course.”

Spider-Man looked down at his injured leg and tried to move it. It twitched, and he winced. “I suppose getting patched up would be nice... and I don’t fancy trying to crawl up a wall with this leg anyway... you sure I don’t have to take off my mask?”

“Of course not.” Sensing victory, Johnny bent over to pick Spider-Man up, who naturally protested.

“Chill, man, it’d be easier if I flew us both there,” Johnny succeeded in getting an arm under Spider-Man’s knees and hoisted him up. Spider-Man squirmed.

“I’m not fire-proof. Neither is my suit. In fact, it’s spandex, which melts, and I do not want it melting on my skin.” In response, Johnny lit his bottom half on fire and took off. Johnny might have been smirking at Spider-Man’s screaming, so perhaps he deserved the smack to the back of the head Spidey gave him once he stopped screaming.

Johnny landed on the roof of the Baxter building, and Spider-Man started squirming again.

“Seriously, you are not carrying me into the Baxter Building bridal style, my manly ego couldn’t take it, it’s too small as it is anyway, it can’t be reduced anymore,” and since Johnny couldn’t see the harm, he put Spidey down but continued to support him with Spidey’s arm around his shoulder.

“Don’t put any weight on that leg, okay? Put your weight on me,” and together, they went inside.

It was quiet inside the Baxter Building, as none of the other three of the Fantastic Four were there. Reed and Sue had a conference, Johnny recalled, and Ben was probably passing the down time with his girlfriend.

So Johnny took Spider-Man to their medical rooms, and grabbed some medical equipment. He could call a doctor, but that might be more than Spidey wanted. Besides, Johnny knew how to deal with a bullet wound, through his experience as a superhero.

Spidey was quiet while Johnny revealed the wound, dabbed it with disinfectant (which was impressive, since Johnny knew that shit stung like a bitch). “I don’t have any anesthetic,” said Johnny. “But I need to remove the bullet.”

“That’s fine,” was the unconcerned response, and when thinking of Spidey’s earlier comment of it not being the first time this happened, Johnny got the unsettling feeling that Spidey had removed bullets from his body on his own. Though perhaps it was less disturbing than what Johnny did himself; he usually just incinerated the bullets that were in his body. Bullets couldn’t harm Ben anyway, but both Reed and Sue were vulnerable to them, so there had been many times that Johnny had had to remove bullets from his sister or his brother-in-law because Ben couldn’t, not with his hands. (If removing bullets from his sister’s body was disturbing due to the fact that is was his sister, removing bullets from Reed was just plain creepy. Reed’s body really is organic rubber, so it doesn’t feel or act like normal flesh any more. The first time Johnny had to remove a bullet from Reed, it was... quite a learning experience. Johnny just tries to not think about how weird it must be to have sex with Reed. He also has not had the balls to ask his sister if Reed could really extend everything and if that’s why their relationship was doing so much better now. One day, though.)

Spidey didn’t make any noise while Johnny worked, and silence always made Johnny uncomfortable, so he asked,  “What’s with the mask?”

Spider-Man’s eyepieces were facing Johnny’s direction, so he assumed that Spidey was looking at him with an incredulous expression, though really, Spidey could have been making faces at him under that mask and Johnny wouldn’t have known. “Secret identity. Don’t want my enemies to know who I am and target my loved ones. You know, just that.”

“Secret identity even from fellow heroes, though?”

“Don’t know if I’d trust my secret identity with people who didn’t even hide theirs for two days,” sniped Spider-Man.

“Hey,” said Johnny as he stared at his hands working at the bloody flesh of Spidey’s thigh. He also felt disconnected while he was playing doctor. “We didn’t try to hide. Also, Ben can’t hide.” Spidey had the air of being contrite, so Johnny continued with,  “Though I gotta say, he’s actually gotten less attention than he used to. Being a rock must have improved his attractiveness to the point where his ugliness wasn’t making international news.”

Spidey gave a surprised snort of laughter, and Johnny felt a warm, pleased feeling. Since Johnny loves going off of impulsive feelings, as he wrapped the wound he told Spidey, “Done! C’mon, let’s go watch a movie or play video games.”

“I can’t,” Spidey said quickly, “I have to get up early tomorrow. I have, uh, a life to get back to.”

“Listen, Spidey,” Johnny said, feeling like he’d been playing it mature and responsible for way too long tonight already, “Think about it. If you leave now, that’s damage you’re doing to the wound, and it’s that amount of time that it’s not going to be healing, plus any extra damage you do to it. If you stayed here, you wouldn’t have to heal from that extra damage, so you would be able to leave early enough to go back to where ever you call home and get ready for your day. You see?”

Spider-Man obviously did, in fact, see, but for some reason was still hesitating. “I can’t show you my face.”

That, Johnny could deal with, even if his curiosity burned. “Not a problem! You don’t need to take off your mask to watch a movie, right? We could totally watch a movie. Or you can sleep, we have extra rooms. Or video games.”

“I – What movie?” Spidey asked.

Johnny knew he had him, and grinned.

Chapter Text

They watched the original trilogy of Star Wars, in Johnny’s room where there was a large screen TV. Spidey seemed uncomfortable still while Johnny was setting up, though he relaxed once Episode IV started. He watched about half of it before falling asleep.

Which Johnny had been hoping he’d do, since he thought getting food in him was out since that would involve his mask coming off and they’d determined that wasn’t going to happen, so getting him to sleep was the best way to get him to heal.

Johnny covered him with blankets, turned off the TV, and went to the guest room to get some sleep himself.

...

By the time Johnny woke up, all there was in his room was a little note that read:

Sorry I fell asleep during the movie!

Thanks for everything.

 

Sincerely,

Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man

 

Pleased, Johnny made his way downstairs to have breakfast with the rest of the Four. Down there, Johnny plopped at his usual spot, and grabbed his favorite chocolate-y cereal and milk.

Sue, Reed, and Ben were all there already, but Sue and Reed were engrossed in a very technical conversation that Johnny couldn’t help but ignore. Johnny didn’t realize that he had a triumphant smirk on his face until Ben said, “What’cha so happy about, matchstick?”

Smirking wider, Johnny replied, “You’ll never believe who I had in my bed last night.”

“Johnny!” Sue cried. “Not only is that inappropriate but it’s also dangerous! You can’t just invite strangers to spend the night here! Do you know how much sensitive information they could have had access to?” She looked around, as if trying to spot the person Johnny had mentioned.

Johnny chewed his cereal thoughtfully, then spooned some of the chocolate milk into his mouth before he answered, because really, Johnny had his priorities straight. “I’m pretty certain that is this person wanted to get our sensitive info, they could have snuck in and got it without sleeping in my bed.” As his teammates processed that, he added, “He snuck out without you guys noticing, so getting in wouldn’t be that much of a stretch, right?”

At the dumfounded looks on his team’s faces (ha, he got Reed Richards to look dumbfounded, how many times did someone get to use the word “dumb” to describe Reed Richards, if only he had a camera), Johnny added, “On a slightly related note, it turns out Spider-Man has an impressive healing factor.”

Spider-Man?! You slept with Spider-Man!” Sue yelled. “You’ve never told me you liked men!”

Johnny tried for his best innocent look, but really, he knew a lost cause when he saw one; innocent and Johnny Storm just didn’t mix, he couldn’t suppress his wicked smirks and they ruined the intended effect. “Why, Sue,” Johnny drawled, “I merely let Spider-Man spend the night after he got injured by a bullet, and he just happened to fall asleep on my bed while we were watching a movie. I slept in the guest bedroom. Whatever did you think I meant?”

Sue spluttered, Reed looked surprised, and Ben shook his head. “Jesus, kid. Spider-Man? How the hell did you manage to get him to stick around?”

“Uh,” Johnny scratched the back of his head. “Well, the him getting shot thing was kinda my fault. I might have, uh, surprised both him and the gangster who was holding a gun and didn’t know much about gun safety.”

“And you brought him back here so he could get medical attention and rest,” Reed said. “But he snuck out this morning? A bullet wound wouldn’t have healed that fast, unless... that is an impressive healing factor.”

“It sounded like he was used to taking care of bullet wounds by himself,” said Johnny and he watched the growing horror spread on his sister’s face.

“That’s awful,” said Sue. Johnny waited, looking between his sister and Reed.

After a pause, Reed cracked first, “Did you learn anything else about his abilities? Like what was the cause? Or if he was born with them?”

“Xavier said he wasn’t,” Ben said.

Johnny said, “Just because Xavier said it doesn’t mean it’s the unquestioned truth. He could have been lying. Maybe trying to make one of his own less hated? Maybe Spider-Man doesn’t like identifying as a mutant, or something.”

“I would love to look at his DNA sometime...” Sue said. “Do you think you could get him to do that, Johnny?”

“No,” Johnny scoffed. “He didn’t even want to take off his mask with another hero, you really think he’s going to be okay giving his DNA to us?”

“True. How disappointing.” Because to Reed, that was the most important thing. Johnny still couldn’t believe he was living with such a (dick, though many would say the same about Johnny) nerd sometimes, but then again, Sue also looked deeply disappointed by this information. Johnny had been doomed from the start.

...

Johnny didn’t really learn much more about Spider-Man for a while as though Spider-Man continued to help out, he never really stuck around. The only difference was that he would say that he had to go before just jumping off the side of the building or swinging away.

That was, until, one night in November when Johnny wasn’t doing anything but playing video games in his room when suddenly there were three sharp knocks from his window.

When he looked towards the window, he saw Spider-Man’s masked face looking back at him.

Surprised, but not enough to show it, Johnny went over and opened the window. “Hey, Spidey! To what do I owe this honor?”

“Can I come in?” Spidey said, and he sounded strange. Johnny couldn’t for the life of him figure out exactly what kind of strange, but Johnny backed off from the window to give Spidey space to crawl inside.

“You know, you could have just knocked on the door, we would’ve let you in that way too,” drawled Johnny, as he dug for another controller and passed it to Spider-Man.

“What fun is that?” Spider-Man replied, sitting down.

They beat up on the computer-controlled characters for a while, before becoming bored with that and beat up on each other. Johnny so badly wanted to ask what Spidey was doing there, because he had never before sought him out (or anyone, as far as they know, not the X-Men, or any of the independent superheroes that existed at that point, like Iron Man), but even Johnny could figure out that pushing Spider-Man when he reached out for the first time was a bad move. However, Johnny was Johnny, and just because he knew something was a bad idea didn’t stop him. “So, what’s up?”

Maybe it was a good thing he asked, he reflects later, because Spider-Man might not have opened up without, well, an opening. He finds that despite everything, Spider-Man is rather shy. The words he spoke came out in a tumble, like if he didn’t get them out fast enough, they would never be said. “My girlfriend left me, my best friend wants to kill me, and my aunt hates Spider-Man.”

“Oh,” said Johnny. “Shit, man.”

“Yeah,” Spidey muttered. “I didn’t... there wasn’t anyone else I could think to go to.”

Well, that’s really fucking sad, thought Johnny. After all, they had had a total of one extended meeting, with no real information exchanged between the two of them. “Can you tell me about it without revealing your secret identity?”

“Uh... I think?”

“Cool. Hang on a minute.” Johnny got up and left for his secret booze stash. This seemed like as good a time as any to break out the booze. “You like vodka?”

“Uh... I, uh, don’t know?”

“Don’t know?” Johnny parroted. “You mean you’ve never had vodka? How old are you?” Wait, you idiot, that’s a bad idea, look at how uncomfortable he is. “Wait, no, never mind. Wanna try some vodka? This is the perfect time for vodka. This is how it works, we both get drunk, you tell me your woes, I give you some manly advice, we laugh like idiots at nothing, then we pass out, and we wake up in the morning remembering only pieces of what happened, but we feel like we’ve really bonded and you feel better having talked to someone and having bonded. Sound good?” Johnny grabbed a couple of shot glasses, and passed a glass and the bottle to Spidey, who gave off the impression that he had no idea what to do in this situation. That was okay, as long as he didn’t bolt.

“Uh, okay,” Spidey said, as he poured himself a drink, almost brought it up to his lips before pausing. “Uh...”

“Seriously? Okay,” Johnny said in disbelief, once he recognized the problem. He got up and shut the curtains and turned off the lights, which made it difficult for Johnny to see more than the shapes of objects. Which made it difficult to get back to his spot, and then it was even more difficult to find the vodka bottle and pour himself a shot, but fortunately for the vodka and Johnny’s carpet, Spidey pulled it from his hands and did it himself. “Got good night vision, then?”

A pause, in which Johnny could see Spidey’s head nodding, before he said aloud, “Yeah, a bit. Not a lot though.”

“That’s cool,” Johnny said, holding his hand out and was rewarded with his filled shot glass. “So, because my sister and her boyfriend will be annoyed if I don’t ask, I’ll ask: How did you get your powers and what are they exactly? Feel free to refuse to respond, I just have to say I tried.” Johnny took the pause to down his shot and held it out in the hopes Spidey would take it and refill it for him, which he did.

“I think I’ll do that.”

“’Kay.” They both downed their second shots, and Johnny waited for Spidey to either start speaking or for the alcohol to kick in. However, anyone who speaks with Johnny for five seconds knows patience has never been Johnny’s strong point, and asking worked the last time. “So why’d your girlfriend leave you?”

“Can’t I be drunker before we talk about that?” Spidey asked.

“Sure. Wanna start with why your best friend wants to kill you or why your aunt hates Spider-Man?” Narrowing his eyes, not that Spider-Man could see (Could he? He had been vague on how good his eyesight was in the dark), Johnny asked, “Does she know you’re Spider-Man?”

Spidey heard rustling and heard Spidey pour himself another drink. “No, she doesn’t. She thinks... she thinks that Spider-Man doesn’t care about innocent bystanders. Well, no. She thinks Spider-Man’s presence brings harm to people around him.” The subtle hurt in Spidey’s voice made him sound so young, Johnny wished he knew how old he really was, because it didn’t seem likely that he was older than Johnny, but if he wasn’t older than Johnny, then he could have still been a minor when he started the Spider-Man thing, and wasn’t that a terrifying thought?

I don’t know if I can do this, thought Johnny, suddenly. Johnny was the first person it seemed that Spider-Man was reaching out to with the problems both of his identities had caused. By the sound of it, Spider-Man hadn’t revealed his identity to anyone, so he hadn’t talked to anyone about his real problems in the six years he’d been wearing the spandex. Johnny could not screw this up because who else could Spider-Man turn to? He might not try talking to anyone for another six years. He might stop helping the Four and the X-Men with villains. He might go off the deep end and go evil and become a villain, and Johnny wasn’t sure they would be able to deal with that, since Spider-Man was pretty damn good remaining off their radar even if he’s swinging around and fighting crime right under their noses.

That was a lot of pressure.

“Why does she think that?” Johnny asked, trying to keep his voice measured and calm and not at all accusatory.

“Because people get hurt whenever a villain or some thug attacks and I just can’t save them all no matter how hard I try –” God, Johnny thought, please don’t tell me Spider-Man’s going to cry. Let me have a few more drinks first. Then we can handle the manly crying.

“Hang on,” Johnny said, holding up a hand. He groped around the floor for the vodka, and once finding it, he took a swing. Once he felt he would soon be sufficiently prepared, Johnny waved Spidey on. “Okay, good. Continue.”

Spidey reached the bottle and did the same thing as Johnny did. “Careful,” Johnny warned. He could feel the alcohol in his stomach, the warmth spreading from there to the rest of his body.

“I don’t feel anything, yet, it’s as if this is just nasty water,” Spidey explained. “I’m not even sure I can get drunk, I’ve never tried.”

“What? What? You have to get drunk. This doesn’t work if I’m the only one drunk. I mean, you could be drunk and I could be not-drunk, but I can’t be drunk and you not-drunk. Drink, drink,” Johnny said. “Get drunk, quick.” So Spidey took another liberal swing.

After that point, they had both drunk quite a bit of vodka, and Johnny became quite drunk. He remembers this:

“So, aunt, dead people, what happened?” Maybe handling this delicate situation shouldn’t have been entrusted to him, but Spidey didn’t bolt, so maybe it was okay.

“My uncle died,” Spidey said. “It was my fault. And I let his murderer die, too. I could have saved him.”

“Murderer? I thought you said it was your fault?” Johnny asked.

“It was, I was right there, the guy was just a robber, I could have stopped him but I was pissed off at the manager, so I let him go, and then he stole my uncle’s car and shot him to get it, so it was my fault, I should have done the right thing and stopped the robber.”

“Oh,” Johnny said, and he can’t remember what he said in response to that. Maybe he didn’t have a response to that, because seriously, how does someone respond to that?

“And – and somehow at the time I had this beautiful girlfriend, and while I was fighting as Spider-Man, her father dies. We still dated, but she blamed Spider-Man for the death of her father, and... she didn’t know that I’m Spider-Man and I was terrified to tell her, so I didn’t, but then later, she dies, and it wouldn’t have happened if I had remembered that a sudden stop, even if it’s a web, would still kill someone. And it’s worse because I know that, I know physics, but I didn’t think and now my girlfriend’s dead –

“Whoa, wait, wait a minute,” Johnny said, certain that his increasing drunkeness was not to blame for his confusion. “I thought you said your girlfriend broke up with you. You didn’t say she was dead.”

“No, she –” Spidey sighed. “This was a previous girlfriend. About six years ago. My current one broke up with me yesterday.”

“Six years... So when you first started superheroing then?”

“Yeah.”

“So, at the beginning of your superheroing, your uncle dies, your girlfriend’s father dies, and your girlfriend dies.”

“... Yes.”

“Shit. How’d you keep going after that? I mean, say, if Sue, Reed and Ben all died, even if it wasn’t my fault, I think I’d quit.” And isn’t that a slap in the face, really. Without the rest of the Fantastic Four, Johnny could count the people he’d have left on a fingerless glove. I’m just as sad as he is, Johnny thinks, staring into the darkness.

“What?” Spidey sounded so confused.

“Well, it’s like – if I had no one, I’d have no one and you’re here, and so, so, we’re both really depressing,” Johnny explained. He can’t remember if Spidey had a said anything to this or not.

Somehow, they end up talking about the best friend, so Johnny figures he asked about that at some point. “He thinks I killed his father.”

“Who?” Johnny asked, as some time had past by now and the alcohol had truly hit him hard, he was on the floor lying down. Spidey’s voice came from some where on the wall.

“My best friend. Who wants to kill me.”

“Oh yeah,” Johnny couldn’t remember how many issues they’d discussed already. “Why does he think you killed his dad?”

“He saw me put his dad’s mortally wounded body back in his house.”

“Oh.” Johnny couldn’t get his thoughts together to formulate a question. Fortunately, Spidey kept talking.

“He killed himself! He was going to kill me, I just dodged! But now my best friend thinks Spider-Man killed his dad and –”

“I don’t think he’s a good friend,” Johnny said, staring into the darkness that was his ceiling. “If his dad killed himself and he wants to kill you for dodging, that’s like he wants you to be dead instead.”

“What? No, no,” Spidey moved from the wall to somewhere, but Johnny couldn’t see, only hear. “He doesn’t know what happened.”

Johnny paused, and processed this. How drunk was he? Very. He couldn’t trust his logic. But okay, if... if there was someone who wanted to kill someone else, and that someone else got out of the way to the someone got killed by their own thing, then you couldn’t really blame the someone else for not getting killed, right?

“I mean, yeah,” said Spidey. Had he been talking out loud? Spidey was a fun nickname, Johnny thought. “Thanks. But I can’t just tell him, his dad asked me not to.”

“The person who tried to kill you asked you to do something and you’re doing, even though it’s causing you problems,” Johnny figured, proud of himself. He made his conclusion, “That’s stupid. You’re being stupid!” And Johnny laughed, because he tended to laugh like an idiot when he was drunk. Usually, the other people with him were drunk enough to think he was funny, so it wasn’t a problem. Spidey didn’t seem that drunk. Hm. That was a problem.

“Hey –” Spidey started in indignation, but Johnny cut him off by muttering words that he couldn’t recall later and trying to crawl over to where Spidey was but just managing to flail around instead, arms waving, until Spidey came to him. Johnny threw an arm over Spidey’s shoulder, the first time punching him in the arm, the second time succeeding.

“No, really, don’t listen to bad guys. They just want to fuck you up, or in Doom’s case, fuck my sister,” Johnny slurred. “It’s probably a plot. ‘I’ll kill myself so my son will hate the spectacularbe – wait, no, spectacube – specu – fuck it, Spidey, the Spidey Spidey and Spidey will have to talk to a drunk one night about his problems that he could fix by talking to my son! Pure evil! Evil,” Johnny muttered, while resting his head on Spidey’s shoulder. “I’m so drunk right now, you have no idea.”

Spidey’s shoulder was shaking, and Johnny panicked. “Oh, God, no, don’t cry, I thought being drunk would make this easier, but seriously, I can’t take tears, not even manly tears, please don’t cry.”

Johnny can remember quite clearly the loud laugh Spidey let out at that. Johnny felt cheated. “I’m trying to help, you asshole, and you laugh at me.”

“Sorry, Johnny,” Spidey said, and Johnny could hear the grin in his voice. “You’re a funny drunk.”

“But you’re not drunk,” Johnny accused. He started looking for the bottle again, although it was pretty close to empty last time he saw it.

“It’s – oh...” Spidey lifted up a bottle-shaped bottle, and said, “Uh, it spilled, but there wasn’t that much left in it, but there’s a wet spot here, uh, I think we’ll need a towel.”

“Don’t worry about it, it’s probably my fault.” Johnny couldn’t remember hitting the bottle while he moved around, but he probably did hit it during that time.

“Here, let me.” Spidey hauled Johnny up way too easily – Johnny knew he wasn’t that light, but you’d think he was a doll by the way Spidey picked him up – and carried him to the bed and set him down on it. Johnny flopped down like a sack, but not before snagging Spidey and pulling him down with him.

Spidey yelped, and landed on the bed, partly on top of Johnny. He shifted around until he was lying on just the bed and not Johnny, then relaxed a little bit. Well, he didn’t leave, so he must have relaxed a little bit.

“What was the other thing? There were three things, right? Three shitty things,” Johnny said. Either his head or the room was spinning, he couldn’t tell which.

“Girlfriend left me,” Spidey helpfully said.

“Right,” Johnny said. “Can’t say I can help with that so much, girls don’t break up with me, I break up with them. Unless you want rebound? I can give you numbers.”

A slight choke and some shifting. “No, no thanks, that’s not necessary.”

“You sure? There’s a lot of hot women who want a piece of Spider-Man. You never take advantage of that? Why’d your girlfriend leave you? Does she know you’re Spider-Man?”

“Uh... In order: Yes, I’m sure, no, I haven’t, she ditched me because I’m flaky because I’m Spider-Man and have to save people all of the time, and yes, she does know. She’s the only one.”

“Okay. So... what happened?”

“Yeah, we were on a date earlier tonight when sirens passed by. I was just about to leave to follow them, when she told me that she couldn’t take this anymore and that she was breaking up with me,” Spidey shifted, tensing as he talked, so Johnny reached out and patted his arm. He didn’t know if it helped, but Spidey didn’t comment. “I mean, I didn’t know what to say, I just left and followed the sirens. I just – I can’t stop being a hero for her. I thought she understood that when we got together.”

“Forget her,” said Johnny, “you can do better, trust me.”

“But she’s perfect,” said Spidey and Johnny scoffed.

“No such thing, obviously, if she was perfect she wouldn’t be making you feel like you need to pass the night with me drinking,” concluded Johnny with the confidence of someone who was still rather drunk. He got up on wobbly legs and went to the bathroom. There he filled two cups of water and returned to the bed, handing Spidey one. “Here.”

“Thanks,” said Spidey, taking a sip while Johnny removed his shirt and got into bed.

“Okay, so, girlfriend. Tell me more about her. How’d you get together?”

“We went to high school together...”

“Ha, high school sweetheart? Really? That’s so funny.”

“Hey, are you actually going to listen to my problems or are you just going to make stupid comments?” Spidey snapped.

“I think I still count as drunk, legally,” Johnny said, “So make stupid comments mostly.”

“Great,” Some shifting, and Johnny didn’t realize what Spidey was doing until he was up and off the bed, and Johnny quickly said, “Wait, no, don’t go, I can listen seriously and still be drunk. Come on, tell me about your girlfriend.”

A pause, then there was another person’s weight back on the bed, and they sorted themselves out so Johnny’s lying down on the bed and Spidey’s propped up, sitting against the headboard.

“We met in high school, and we weren’t really friends then. I was just... that nerdy guy that she took pity on, I guess. Her boyfriend during high school was always a jerk to me, and she usually stopped him.”

“Usually?”

“Well, she tried,” came Spidey’s voice from the darkness. “After high school, we ran into each other and would chat, and she started dating my best friend for a while, and then she dated this other guy for a while, and then she told me she wanted to date me, so we have been, but now she’s telling me she can’t stand being the girlfriend of a superhero, but she knew before –” A noise of frustration comes from Spidey’s general area. “She knew before that it would be like this, and she just – I don’t even – What the hell do I do now, is it even right to expect that there is any woman who can deal with all this?”

“Sure, it is,” Johnny said immediately. “If people can find love when they like the weird shit you find on the internet, you could probably find a few hundred women who can deal with superhero shit.” Johnny wasn’t sure if that was helpful, or encouraging really, but Spidey became silent for a little while. Johnny decided it was a good time to rest his eyes for a bit.

That ‘a bit’ became ‘fall asleep for the night’ and out like a light he went.

Chapter Text

Johnny woke up when it was still dark because he was cold.

Spidey was in bed with him and he was curled up right on the very edge, cocooned in the sheets and comforter. For about a minute, Johnny stared. Spidey’s masked head, barely visible in the middle of the white sheets, made for an odd sight.

After debating the options in his head, Johnny got up and grabbed more blankets from a nearby closet and went back to bed.

...

Despite that, Johnny woke up for the second time earlier than Spider-Man.

This time, after he changed into something fresher, he went to the kitchen and grabbed two bowls, two spoons, a carton of milk and a box of his favorite cereal. Ignoring everyone else’s bemused stares, he returned to his room where Spider-Man still slept.

He opened the curtains, turned around and almost spoke, before he realized that Spidey’s mask was up to his nose.

Johnny looked away quickly, but he couldn’t un-see it, and it was burned in his memory. Sighing, he approached the bed and said, “Hey, Spidey, breakfast, wake up. Got a real delicacy here, cereal and milk. Come on, get up.” As soon as he touched Spidey’s shoulder to shake him, the man in question shot up from the bed and onto the ceiling, where he stayed, crouched and ready despite being fast asleep a second ago.

“Whoa,” Johnny said. “If you don’t like cereal that much, I can make some toast. But, seriously, try it. It’s got chocolate in it.”

“Cereal,” Spidey repeated. “What?”

“Breakfast. Food. For eating. Eating is good for you,” Johnny added helpfully, as Spidey crawled down the wall. “And milk.”

They continued without talking after that, since they poured the cereal and milk and ate in silence. Spidey either didn’t notice or didn’t care that his mask was half up; Johnny wasn’t sure which.

When they finished, Johnny could feel the awkwardness settling in, so Johnny said, “I’ll take these down to the kitchen,” and did just that. When he returned to his room, Spidey was gone.

...

Johnny teamed up with the Avengers by himself for the first time when he is flying around New York in order to forget the Fantastic Four’s recent trip to an alternate universe (his alterna-self had married Reed, that was never going to be okay, this was beyond the call for brain bleach, he needed a full lobotomy). The Avengers were fighting a wizard, it appeared, from the fire, ice and random shit he was throwing around, so Johnny flew on down, made the wizard’s own fire turn back onto his ice, and that gave the Avengers enough of an opening to pummel the wizard in question.

“Brother!” Thor shouted, so it wasn’t a wizard, just a god. “This fighting is fruitless! What have you accomplished here? Nothing but destruction!”

“HULK SMASH!” shouted the Hulk suddenly, which pretty much killed any reply Thor’s brother might have made. Hulk did not end up smashing the god but rather the ground around him, as he vanished into thin air.

He reappeared next to Johnny and blasted him from the air to crash rather painfully into a building.

“Who dares interrupt this battle?” The god – had to be Loki – raised his staff and looked to be readying another spell at Johnny when Captain America’s shield hits him from behind and dislodges him from his perch on the building. As he falls, Hawkeye’s arrows find him and Iron Man swoops down, repulsors firing, and Loki vanishes in mid-air.

The mounting tension hits needs its climax as they wait to finish the battle, but discover after some time passes, that moment passed, and the minutes ticked by with no reappearance by the god, so they had to conclude that he retreated for good.

As Johnny removed himself from the building, he heard Iron Man say, “Well, that was disappointing. And a waste of time too.”

“I fear my brother might have sense the odds were against him, and chose to retreat,” Thor boomed sadly. Johnny had to figure out how he did that.

“Yeah, figured,” said Hawkeye, “Now we gotta deal with the clean-up with nothing to show for it. Again. That’s how many times Thor’s psychotic brother has tried to kill us?”

“Twenty-three,” answered Iron Man.

Johnny decidedly did not want to help with the clean-up and was prepared to flame on and get out of there, when Captain America popped up in front of him. “Thank you for your help,” he said politely. Despite the fact that Captain America’s presence was anything but nerve-wrecking – seriously, the guy just screamed friendly and do-gooder from every pore – Johnny began to feel nervous all the same.

“No problem,” he answered with a winning grin. “Anything to help the newbies.”

“‘Newbies’?” incredulously repeated Hawkeye. “I have been training and fighting way longer than you have, Storm –”

“The Fantastic Four have been public superheroes longer than any of us,” interrupted Captain America, in a tone that Johnny recognized from Sue, the leave-it-the-hell-alone tone. Of course, Johnny rarely gave it any attention. Would Hawkeye?

Hawkeye grumbled and then went off to help with clean-up, so evidently he did. Then again, Sue was no Captain America. And right now, Captain America was giving Johnny a disappointed look, which Johnny did not enjoy at all.

“Well, it’s was nice teaming up, but I gotta get going,” Johnny drawled.

“Wait!” Iron Man flew over next to him and the faceplate went down, revealing Tony Stark’s face. “I need to talk to you.”

“Sure,” said Johnny, but apparently Tony meant in private because he took off flying suddenly and Johnny had to really push himself to follow. Johnny could hear the Captain calling after them, but if Tony wasn’t paying him any heed, Johnny couldn’t see any reason to do so himself.

Turns out Tony was leading him to the Avengers’ Mansion, which is the first time Johnny had been there (partly because the Avengers didn’t invite a lot of people there in the first place, and partly because the Avengers living in Tony’s mansion was still a kind of a new thing). Once they landed, Tony marched forward without even checking to see if Johnny was following, which grated on Johnny’s nerves. Would it kill Tony to not act like everyone would bend over for him? Even if they would. And they definitely would.

Tony down a platform and robotic appendages reached out and pulled the armor off, piece by piece. The mechanic part of Johnny began drooling while the petty side thought, Show off.

“Not that this isn’t awesome,” said Johnny, and maybe he shouldn’t have opened his mouth, he would love to get a look at the stuff Tony had here, but he doubted Tony would let him, so straight and to the point it was. “But what did you want to talk about?”

“You know Richards took DNA samples of you after you all got your powers right?” said Tony. “And of course, SHIELD has the Captain’s DNA on file. Comparing the two doesn’t even require getting permission, all you have to do is hack.”

In hindsight, Johnny should have thought of something like that. Really, Reed took a lot of DNA samples from Johnny, the data had to be stored somewhere, and Captain America’s data also had to be stored somewhere, so when you throw in someone like Tony Stark who can hack into the two most secure databases on the planet –

“Oh, God, seriously, stop freaking out,” Tony said and Johnny couldn’t remember when Tony had gone from the platform to in front of him. “All you would have to do is hack, that is if I hadn’t gone and improved the security and added a lot more trips.”

Johnny found his voice, but it came out more strangled than he wanted. “Who else knows?”

“Me, Bruce, and I expect that Fury knows, even if he’s not doing anything,” said Tony. “So, mind telling me exactly what happened?”

“What, you couldn’t find that with all of your hacking prowess?” Johnny could deal with this. Johnny had to deal with this, keep Tony’s mouth shut, then go back to Sue and figure out what the hell they’re supposed to do now.

“No, actually. It’s either buried too deep or deleted entirely, and I suspect the latter, as I’d be able to find it if it was the former eventually.” Tony eyed him contemplatively. “Look, you don’t have to tell me, but I already know the important part, and it concerns Steve –”

“You’re not going to tell him, are you?” demanded Johnny. “Have you told him already?”

“No, not yet,” said Tony. “Considering that you haven’t told anyone about this and I wouldn’t have thought to look if it wasn’t for the fact you two look like twins, and you don’t have the record for keeping your mouth shut –”

“Neither do you,” Johnny replied, surprise and fear turning into anger. “How do I know you won’t blab it to the world?”

“Because I help run an international corporation while superheroing,” Tony said. “I do know how to keep secrets. The important ones.” A pause, then, “And this is more than you, you know. One of my teammates would be affected by this, too. He could call you family, if he wanted. You could, too. If you don’t trust I’d keep it a secret for you, then know I’d keep it a secret for my own team.”

I don’t want you to tell anybody! How could he get Tony to keep his mouth shut? Okay, people were going to figure this out, eventually, he knew this, and maybe, probably, SHIELD already knew.

“I don’t fucking care,” snarled Johnny, as he caught on fire. “I don’t want anything to do with him, I don’t want anything to do with you. I left all of that shit behind a long time ago, and I am my own fucking person, and I will not let you ruin –”

The sprinkler went off, dousing Johnny and the fire that had spread in the room around him. Johnny looked around at the black remains of the carpet and the furniture and saw Tony Stark near the door, wide-eyed. His hands were scrambling for two metal bracelets and a stream of swear words flew from his mouth.

Johnny, ashamed and humiliated, spat, “Leave us alone. That’s all we want,” left through the door, and flew away.

...

He didn’t want to tell Sue. He lasted the entire day, but when he was finally in bed, he couldn’t sleep. Johnny never wanted to bother Sue again with any of this, he wanted to be able to deal with this on his own, but now he couldn’t sleep because every time he closed his eyes, he saw Sue, younger and too young but still too old, standing over him while he’s in bed, johnny you need to get up now, get up, we’re leaving, no, mom and dad aren’t coming with us, hold this and she puts a gun in his hand and he knows how to use it and he knows what it means and she keeps talking, voice reassuring and soft but he can hear what she’s not saying it’s not safe, we need to go or you’re going to die but what she actually says only use this if you have to, just leave it to me, just follow me and we’ll get out just fine.

They got out just fine. They got out just fine. Johnny was in his bed, in the Baxter Building, Ben down the hall, with Sue and Reed just two rooms down. He was in New York City. He could burst into flames and fly. He was not in the lab.

Sue was in bed with Reed. He couldn’t knock on their door like a kid. He could wait until tomorrow.

He dressed, flame on’ed, and left through his window.

...

The problem with befriending masked vigilantes was that you never knew where to go to find them. Johnny solved this problem by drawing a giant spider in the sky with flaming lines.

He picked a skyscraper and waited and ten minutes later, his patience was rewarded by a figure web-slinging quickly toward him.

“What’s happened?” Spidey asked, breathless.

Johnny gave a forced grin. “You didn’t even give me a number to contact you by, so I had to improvise.”

Even though Johnny couldn’t see his facial expressions, it was pretty clear when Spidey realized that even though he hadn’t arrived to what he was expecting, something was still very, very wrong.

“You all right?” Spidey asked, a little offhandedly.

“No.”

“Wanna talk about it?”

“No.” A pause. “Yes. I’ve done something stupid.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Spider-Man muttered. Johnny tried to draw the energy to feel indignant, but his should-be-completely-outraged, “HEY!” was more of a weak, unaware, “Hey.” Johnny flew to the ledge, de-flamed, and sat down. A moment, later, Spidey joined him in looking over at the city.

The cars beneath their feet and maybe fifty stories below went by and Spidey cleared his throat and asked, “So... what’s happened?”

“I almost burnt down the Avengers’ Mansion.” Well, that wasn’t the worst bit, but still wasn’t very smart.

Spidey surprised Johnny quite a bit when he broke out laughing. When Johnny only stared at him wide-eyed, the laughter stopped. “That was a joke, right?”

“No.”

“You burned down the Avengers’ Mansion?”

“Hey,” Johnny said, affronted, “Almost burned down. I only really scorched one room and probably scared the shit out of Stark.”

“I don’t even – what the hell, man? Why would you do that?”

“Nothing. Stark is an ass,” Johnny complained, giving Spidey a smirk, but Spider-man abruptly got up. “Hey, where are you going?”

“Somewhere else, until you get the balls to tell me what really happened.” Johnny stood up, too, since he never liked being yelled when he’s down and they’re up. “Seriously, I come running here in the middle of the night, thinking there’s another world-ending event, when you just want to sit there and bullshit me? Tell me what really happened, or I’m going home back to bed.”

And he turns around and he’s about to jump and Johnny thinks of Spidey’s dead girlfriend who died on his own webbing and the best friend who wants to kill him and the aunt that hates him and Johnny feels like shit for not trusting Spidey –

“I’m Captain America’s clone,” said Johnny before running to the building’s edge because Spidey tripped.

“Dude, I am now doubting if spiders are naturally graceful, because you sure as hell aren’t,” he said as he looked down on Spidey who clung to the side of the building, sprawled on his butt.

“YOU’RE CAPTAIN AMERICA’S CLONE?”

“Not so loud,” Johnny grumbled. “But yes.”

“You’re Captain America’s clone!”

“Repetition makes you sound stupid, you know.” Spidey did some cool and difficult-looking flip thing and he was back on the edge of the rooftop.

Johnny settled back down on the edge while Spidey asked, “How’d this happen?”

“Secret government project. My parents were involved in it and volunteered. Grew up in a lab, escaped with Sue later on. That’s pretty much it.”

“‘That’s pretty much it’, he says. Yeah, ok,” said Spidey. “I’m guessing this isn’t a good subject for you.”

“I’d like to never think about it again,” said Johnny. “But then they found Captain America and since then, I can’t stop thinking about it, because the evidence is written on our faces!” Releasing a huff of breath, he continued, “Now Stark knows, and Banner and fuck, I’m sure all of SHIELD figured it out since those paranoid fucks wouldn’t believe in coincidences ever, so soon other people are going to find out.”

Spidey tilted his head, “There’s something I’m not getting. Why would it be so bad if people know?”

Why the fuck couldn’t he get this?! “I don’t want to remember it! Fuck those scientists! Fuck my parents!”

“Whoa, Matchhead, cool down,” said Spidey, who was stepping back now from Johnny and his flames. “If people know you’re Captain’s clone, what do you think they’re going to do? They’ll talk, sure, but I can’t imagine your press’ll be that different than it is now, hell, they’ll probably love the connection.”

“I don’t think so. This is why I didn’t want to talk about this. You couldn’t possibly understand what it was like.”

They’re standing about ten feet away from each other now. “Johnny,” Spidey said tentatively, “What what was like?”

“The labs,” Johnny hissed. “I lived in those fucking labs for my entire fucking childhood. I got away from them and I never want to go back, even in my thoughts.” Spider-Man was silent and Johnny hadn’t even wanted to say that much, so he flame on’ed and left.

Spidey didn’t call for him to stop.

...

Johnny didn’t sleep. After leaving Spidey, he flies cross-country and back, and by the time he returned, he was exhausted and sweaty and it was well into the day in New York City. Sue stood in his office, running various tests Johnny doesn’t care to know about, with safety goggles on (Why? Sue can protect herself from anything with her force fields. But she insists on using safety goggles). Johnny cleared his throat to grab her attention.

“Hey, Sue,” Johnny said. “Stark, Banner and Fury know. Stark said if I didn’t tell Captain America, he’d tell him for me.”

Sue paused, looked at him, noting his exhaustion and whatever other signs of... something she seemed to be looking for. Nodding decisively, she turned away from him. “It was going to happen. The question is, what do we do about it?”

A bit perturbed by her easy acceptance of this news when she ought to be freaking the fuck out since shit, what the hell are they going to do, and simultaneously relieved that his sister was able to be calm when he wasn’t, Johnny said, “I was hoping you would know, especially since when Stark tried to talk to me about it, I kinda destroyed the room. We might get a bill for that.”

“Johnny,” Sue admonished, like she would if he was making fun of Ben. This would concern him, that she wasn’t taking this as seriously as he was, and as soon as Johnny Storm thought something was more serious than his sister did, that was a sure sign of the end of the world, but she wasn’t really focusing on him any more. She had her problem-solving face on, and Johnny would only interfere.

“So... what should I do?” Johnny asked.

“Nothing, right now. Let me think,” said Sue, and she sipped her coffee and continued to work.

So Johnny left.

...

Waiting patiently doesn’t work so well for Johnny, so he tries to bide some time by apologizing to Spidey for his actions that previous night.

His decision on what to do is based on a few facts. Obviously, Spider-Man appears in the news a lot. More than the Avengers or the Fantastic Four, once both of the groups get going. But Spider-Man’s press is almost always negative, led by the respectable (or so Johnny thought before) citywide and quickly becoming national paper, The Daily Bugle. The paper had the reputation of having well-researched articles, based on the standards of the renowned journalist and editor, J. Jonah Jameson. Because of Jameson’s sterling reputation, no one blinked at eye at the ludicrous claims they made about Spider-Man.

Johnny never stopped being mad about the SPIDER-MAN ATTACKS CHILD article, as well as other that accuse Spidey of working with villains and organizing heists. If Johnny can say sorry and stop that stupid paper from printing lies, well, it’s a win-win.

Johnny, in civvies that have the intention of hiding his identity (rather than the ones that flaunt it and his physique – hey, if you got it, flaunt it), goes to the headquarters of the Daily Bugle. He looks at the plaques of the offices but doesn’t find what he’s looking for, so he approaches a secretary. “Excuse me, but can you tell me where I can find Peter Parker?”

The secretary smiles blandly and doesn’t recognize him. Johnny was the type of famous where one would think they could recognize him anywhere, but no one really thinks that he would happen to be right where they are, so even if she thinks he has a resemblance to Johnny Storm, that’s all she’ll think it is: a resemblance. “He works freelance, so he’s only here when he has photos. I can give you a number, if you want.”

“That’d be fine,” Johnny says. “But do you happen to know when he might be in, by any chance? I would prefer to talk to him in person.”

The secretary purses her lips, thinking. “Let’s see... he usually comes in on the afternoons on... Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, I think? I could be wrong though.”

“Okay,” Johnny smiles brilliantly at the secretary and she blushes. “Seeing that today is Monday, and it’s only 1 o’clock, perhaps I can pass an hour waiting by getting coffee with you?”

The slight blush the secretary had before becomes a deep scarlet, and she stammers. “I – I, uh, thank you, but, um, I have a boyfriend. I’m flattered though!”

“As friends then,” Johnny continues smoothly. “Surely you deserve a lunch break with a friend, right?”

“Okay,” she says, “okay, yes, as friends. Let me get my things and use the bathroom quickly, and then we can go.” She leaves, and Johnny makes sure the coast is clear before jumping behind the secretary’s desk and turning to the computer.

A newspaper like the Bugle, as respectable as some people deemed it, didn’t have need of a lot of security. The Bugle was well-liked, but remained focused on New York City, and as great as New York City was, it limited the amount the newspaper could grow. So all Johnny had to do was type in a search of employees and he found Peter Parker’s information. Shit, he really doesn’t have a set time schedule, thinks Johnny when he sees that all possible time slots aside from a few in the middle of the day during the week (Classes? Another job? Appointments?) are filled in with ON CALL but no actually time in the office. However, also listed is Peter Parker’s address. Going to the guy’s place wasn’t exactly what he wanted to do, but he couldn’t wait around Bugle forever until he caught the guy. Jotting the info down on a piece of paper, he returned the screen back to the way it was and walked around the desk to wait.

A minute later, the secretary joins him in the hall, and she shuts off the computer. They have a nice lunch at a place she recommends and she gives him her phone number at the end, despite her claims of having a boyfriend. Johnny pockets the number and walks her back to the Bugles’ offices.

...

Johnny flirts with the secretary for an hour after lunch in the hopes that Parker would show up, but he doesn’t, so Johnny leaves and heads over to the address he wrote down.

Popping up at a stranger’s house doesn’t really sit well with Johnny, and he feels worse and worse as he sees the run-down state of the building Parker lives in. Maybe I shouldn’t even bother this guy, thinks Johnny, but he remembers all of the bad press Spider-Man gets, how badly he fucked up the night before, and Spider-Man is his friend, so Johnny finds the apartment and knocks.

He doesn’t hear anything for a while, and Johnny thinks that perhaps no one is home, but the door suddenly opens to reveal a bedraggled and sleep-mussed young man.

Upon seeing him, the man’s eyes widen in recognition and surprise. Disguise, you have failed me.

“Peter Parker, right? Can I speak with you for a minute?”

The poor guy still hasn’t gotten over his shock. He stammers for a bit before giving a noise that sounded vaguely affirmative. Johnny waits, but nothing happens, so he adds, “In private, please? I don’t really want everyone in the hall to hear this conversation.”

“No, of course not, come in,” Parker scampers out of the doorway to let him in and Johnny goes inside, and the inside of the apartment is just as depressing as the building itself. It’s small and cramp and minimalistic, but Johnny can see some pretty objects that look a little out of place with the rest of the bland decorations. Maybe they had been presents? Even with their bright color, the apartment is dingy and cheap. Johnny thinks of Spider-Man and shuts the door behind him.

“So you’re the photographer who takes the photos of Spider-Man for the Bugle,” Johnny says as an introduction.

Parker hesitates, his brows furrowed in confusion. “Yeah,” he says, “And you’re Johnny Storm.”

“That I am. I am also a friend of Spider-Man.” At this, Parker looks up with him with a bewildered expression. Johnny can’t for the life of him figure out what he’s thinking; he doesn’t seem scared of Johnny or guilty, just confused, like this was nothing that he expected to happen. Why wouldn’t he expect it? Johnny thinks angrily. His pictures have been making Spider-Man look like a villain! Does he really think he can do that without Spidey’s friends trying to stand up for him?

“I don’t know if you know this,” says Johnny, and now Parker looks worried, as if he just realized what deep shit he’s in. Good. “But I get upset when someone takes pictures of my friends and then uses those pictures to ruin his name.” Johnny wants to continue, but Parker raises his hand (like they were in class, seriously, this guy is such a nerd) and interrupts.

“Wait a minute.” Parker pauses, bites lip for a second, and says, “You mean to tell me you’re here because you’re upset that my photos are giving Spider-Man – your friend – a bad reputation?” Parker still looks bewildered and dazed, and really, he should have gotten the picture here already.

“Yes,” Johnny snaps, wanting Parker to finally look guilty or realize what an asshole he is.

“You do realize that I don’t control what articles they write, right?” Parker says slowly after a moment of silence. “I just take the photos.”

“Then stop taking the photos!” exclaims Johnny. “Don’t you realize how much harm you’re doing by giving those photos to the Bugle?

Parker’s jaw works soundlessly, before his expression snaps to anger. “‘How much harm I’m doing’? Where the hell do you come off? I have to make a living! Which you wouldn’t know about, you spoiled –”

“Spider-Man does so much good!” Johnny yells, and this shuts Parker up. “Spider-Man is a hero and he works so hard just to help people, and he can’t even do that openly because everyone thinks he’s a villain because of your newspaper! He would be able to do more good if the entire city didn’t hate him because of your pictures!”

Parker sits down heavily on the bed and moans, more to himself than Johnny, “I can’t believe this is my life.” To Johnny, he says, “Okay, listen, I know you’re trying to help Spider-Man, but – ask him yourself, he lets me take pictures of him. We’re friends. The fact that they’re used against him doesn’t concern him.”

“You two are friends,” Johnny says, not really believing Parker.

“Well, yeah, kinda,” says Parker, “It’s complicated.”

If you’re such great friends, why did he go to a stranger for comfort rather than you? Deciding that’s a valid question, Johnny asks it.

“What?” Parker says.

“He came to me when he needed advice,” says Johnny, not just a little smugly, if he’s being honest with himself, and Johnny’s comfortable enough with his faults to be so usually. “Not you, and we had only had one conversation before at the time. You were already taking pictures of him, so I guess you two aren’t as good of friends as you thought.” Narrowing his eyes, Johnny realizes something didn’t add up. “So why does he let you take pictures of him, if he doesn’t count you as a friend?” Unless this is the best friend that wants to kill him, and Johnny wonders how badly he just screwed up.

Parker doesn’t look like he would ever want to kill anybody, stuttering like that. “I – that is – I have a complicated relationship with Spider-Man,” he gets out. “You should ask him, seriously, sometimes we’re friends, other times we fight, but he lets me take pictures since again, I need to make a living, and he understands that.”

Neither says anything, as Parker sighs and rubs his eyes and Johnny tries to figure out if this is that best friend and not knowing what to say because it might be, and Johnny doesn’t know how badly he’s fucked up. “Look,” Parker says finally, “Just go – go ask Spider-Man, please, he’ll explain it, I swear.”

“I’ll do that,” Johnny says. “Good-bye.”

He turns around and tries to open the door. To his embarrassment, he finds he can’t yank the door open. “Wait, hang on, the door gets stuck,” and Parker is there and wrenches the door open.

“Thanks,” mutters Johnny.

The door shuts behind him without a word, and Johnny is certain that the thud he hears is Parker’s head against the door.

Chapter Text

Johnny returns to the Baxter Building, but he didn’t expect to run into Captain America. However, since Captain America is in the lounge, with Reed and Stark hovering by his chair looking like they’d want to do nothing more than run tests.

It turns out, the Human Torch can out fly Iron Man.

...

It’s moments like this that Johnny wishes he knew Spidey’s identity because if he needed a place to lay low, it’s now, when he’s trying to avoid at least four superheroes.

(Johnny doesn’t know if they’re looking for him. Sue would probably assure them that he’d return eventually.

He wishes he didn’t have to.)

As it stands, Johnny can’t go home yet and has no idea where to find his best friend. The idea to go to Parker’s occurs to him but disappears just as quick. Parker wouldn’t know.

However, he does go to Parker’s neighborhood and hangs out in-between some buildings. Not impossible to find, but hopefully not where Iron Man would look straight off. And even more hopefully, Spidey would be in this neighborhood (to check on Parker perhaps).

He thinks, Ha, called it, when he hears “Dude, what the hell?” and Spider-Man swings onto a flagpole nearby where Johnny is hovering. “You visited Peter Parker, today?”

“Okay, look,” says Johnny, “I know I might have fucked things up, but I swear I didn’t know he was that friend. I thought he was just some asshole paparazzo.”

Spider-Man stares at him, shakes his head, and demands, “Okay, explain to me what is going on in your head, because I am so lost right now.”

“I was getting sick of all of the bad press you get,” says Johnny slowly, since Spidey seems very frustrated, “So I decided that if they didn’t have their pictures, they’d have less ammo against you, and the only person who gives them decent pictures of you is Peter Parker. So I paid him a visit.”

“How did you get his address?” interrupts Spider-Man.

“Uh,” Johnny isn’t certain he wants to admit this, but Spider-Man is the most serious he’s ever seen him, so the truth spills out. “I got it from the Bugle.”

“They gave it to you?!” is the scandalized response.

“No, I might have distracted the secretary and looked it up.”

There is another pause. Johnny’s getting sick of them. “Johnny. That’s illegal,” Spider-Man says calmly enough that Johnny realizes he’s probably blowing a gasket inside.

Admittedly, Johnny’s a little nervous, at this point. He doesn’t know how far he can go before he pisses Spider-Man off, and he doesn’t want to lose his friend. He feels unbelievably stupid. “Sorry,” he mutters. “I thought it would help.”

“No real harm done,” sighs Spider-Man. “You scared the shit out of Peter. And me, actually. ‘Cause seriously, dude? That was creepy and weird.”

“Sorry,” Johnny mutters, “but I didn’t know what to do.” Johnny doesn’t want to ask this question, doesn’t want his failure slapped in his face on top of the shame he’s already feeling, but he has to ask. “So... is he... okay?”

“Who?” Spidey asks. “Peter? Yeah, you just surprised him. He’s fine.” Seeing Johnny’s face, Spidey adds, “Why wouldn’t he be?”

“Then... is he a friend of yours?” None of this was making sense. If Parker was a friend of Spidey’s, why didn’t Spidey go talk to him instead of Johnny? Unless if he was the best friend who wanted to kill him, but if he was, then why was Spidey so calm about this? And Parker just seemed so harmless, not at all like someone who wants someone else dead.

“Well, yeah, kinda,” Spidey answers. “It’s complicated.”

That’s exactly what Parker said. In the exact same way... and... Johnny thinks, and a suspicion forms in his head and once it’s there, he can’t get rid of it. That would sure explain a lot.

He flies closer to Spider-Man and peers at him. Spidey leans back and says, “Hey, remember that whole spandex thing? With the whole, it melts, don’t want it melting on my skin –”

“Peter?” tests Johnny and Spidey stops.

There is a pause that tells Johnny all that he needs to know. “What about him?” Spidey asks, but Johnny is already certain.

“You’re Peter Parker!” he cries, and suddenly he has a mouth full of webbing. He whines and pulls at it and flames on hotter and hotter until it melts. Spidey is twitching and hushing, “Not so loud! What the hell, man?”

When the webbing is off (and Jesus Christ on a fucking stick, he had to flame on to an insane temperature to melt it off. What the hell was that shit made of?) Johnny says, angrily still, but at a more reasonable voice, “You’re him! You’re really him! You’re giving yourself bad press? What are you, a masochist?”

Spidey stares (or at least Johnny gets that impression. With the reflective eyepieces, Spidey could have been rolling his eyes at him or going cross-eyed) and then smacks his forehead with his palm. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Of everyone who could have figured it out, Johnny Storm is the one to learn my secret identity?”

“I can’t believe you!” Johnny says, still thoroughly pissed. “I went through all that trouble to help you out, and you’re the one hurting yourself!”

“I told you already!” Spidey yells. “I only take the pictures! I have to make money somehow, so I can live, because not all of us can live in a giant tower with government funding!”

A tense moment draws on, until Johnny just deflates. “Couldn’t you find some other job?”

“I have another job. I need them both to pay the bills. And I need something I can work around college courses and that job,” says Spidey. “And superheroing.”

“You could join the Fantastic Four,” offers Johnny before he can think about it, which Sue keeps telling him to do, but in this case, even after thinking about it (for five seconds) he still thought it was the right thing.

“I’m pretty sure that you can’t have five members in the Fantastic Four.

“Yeah, you could. Fantastic Five. Still works.”

Spidey stares at him and Johnny snaps, “Could you take off the mask?”

“No. Never know who’s watching.”

“Can we go to your place then? Captain America and Tony Fucking Stark were at the Baxter Building, so I need to lay low for a while.”

Spidey keeps staring at him so long that Johnny, who’s used to being stared at by crowds of people, fidgets. Finally, Spidey acquiesces, “Sure, but you have to go somewhere else and walk, I can’t have Johnny Storm flaming on to Parker’s apartment.”

“Meet you there in ten?”

“Sure.”

...

 “I was born and raised in a lab,” says Johnny. “My mother – my parents were scientists, and my mother volunteered for a trial. At first, they thought that it had worked since I wasn’t stillborn like all the trials, but I don’t have the serum, so they called me a failure. My sister and I got out, and we were hiding until the whole cosmic ray thing. Now we don’t need to hide.”

“Hiding in NASA?” asks Peter Parker, who was eating some pizza while on his admitted threadbare sofa, incredulously. “How’d they not find you?”

“There wasn’t really anywhere or anything we could have done to really hide,” Johnny replies. “But as long as I wasn’t useful to them, it didn’t matter what I did, so I could just live my life. Now, even if they wanted to continue experiments, they couldn’t take me.”

An action film is playing, but neither of them is watching it. Rather, Johnny is telling someone what happened to him for – for the first time, actually.

(It’s freeing. Huh. Talking about emotions and shit helps.)

“I found my dad’s old notes,” says Spidey – Peter – but Johnny still prefers to call him Spidey. It feels truer. “About an experiment with animals to increase the physical abilities of humans. I found one of his old friends, and we conducted the experiments on some spiders and, well. One of them bit me, and here I am.

“I squished the spider,” continues Spidey. “I got really sick. Feverish, tired. It was like a really bad flu. Dr. Conners thought it was going to kill me, so he massacred the project to find something to reverse the effect. But there wasn’t any poison that we could detect, so... it ran its course, except afterwards I was... Spider-Man.” Spidey smiles with a bittersweet flavor. “We were so excited. He... we ran tests and we figured that my DNA had altered. We made a new experiment, with lizards, who can regenerate their limbs. Dr. Conners had lost an arm in an accident, and we thought... Wouldn’t it have been an amazing leap in medical technology? People who have been in accidents, who have been too close to mine explosions, we could have helped them.”

Silence. “So what went wrong?” asks Johnny because there is no other reason to explain why Spidey is here in front of him, sitting in a shitty apartment rather than famous and celebrated for helping hundreds upon hundreds of people around the world.

“We worked on the lizards. We tested them and tested them until the mice showed positive signs and then we tested them again. It seemed like it would work. Dr. Conners decided it needed a human tester, and he wanted to do it. I didn’t... I didn’t stop him.”

Johnny remembers the villain of one of Spidey’s earliest appearances. He remembers the fights against a giant lizard man. He remembers making jokes about the entire city turning into animals, about how spiders never win against lizards, about if either Spider-Man or the Lizard eats insects.

“Sue’s a lot older than me. She was almost ten when our parents signed up for the project. So when the project got going and my parents treated me like the project and not their son, Sue was the one who took care of me. When I was eight, she... she showed up at my room with two guns and we left.” Johnny still had that gun. Johnny still doesn’t know why Sue chose that night or why the hallways were clear of laboratory personnel or where their parents were. Sue would tell him, but he’s never wanted to ask.

Johnny tells Spidey this, before he can think it through and stop himself. He feels a little better since Sue and he talk but they don’t really talk about it.

An explosion happens on the television. He and Spidey drink their soda and eat their pizza in the lull in the conversation.

Spidey lifts his soda can in a toast. “Here’s to surviving.” Johnny meets his can with a metallic clink and they drink.

Chapter Text

One could logically assume that, if Spider-Man and the Human Torch could regularly and frequently patrol on their own with no more than the usual issues, they should be able to cross New York City to the Baxter Building together with even fewer issues.

That is not the case.

He opens his eyes and that is immediately and obviously a mistake. The light glares into his eyes and makes his head hurt even more.

“Chrissake, Spidey,” Johnny says, or slurs, or thinks he says. “Turn off the fuckn’ lights.”

“Terribly sorry,” comes a voice that is definitely not Spidey’s and registering high on the evil scale. “But I regret to inform you that your little arachnid friend isn’t present.”

It’s difficult, but Johnny ignores the pain long enough to open his eyes.

Red Skull looms over him.

A jolt of adrenaline kicks Johnny into moving, but he only manages to bruise himself when he strains against the restraints on his ankles and wrists.

“The fuck! The hell did I get here!” Johnny yells and thrashes, only to hit himself more. He flames on but his restraints do not burn. He flames on hotter and hotter until he almost goes to supernova state, but decides that he’s not desperate enough to cause reality issues yet.

“You know,” muses Red Skull as he walks (at a decent distance, Johnny is pleased to note), “I almost didn’t even bother to check for your existence. Who would believe the Trickster God when he tells such an unbelievable tale?” He moves farther from Johnny and does something –

Johnny screams and screams and screamscreamscream –

It stops. Johnny can’t hear anything over the sound of his heartbeat and his breathing, so Red Skull standing over him again is a surprise.

“Yes, that did hurt, didn’t it? Not actually necessary, but I do hope you understand the position that you’re in. You are the only surviving clone of Captain America. I’m going to deconstruct you until I know what they did wrong and how to create a successful clone.”

He smiles, and turns to the side. There are medical tools there, syringes and gloves and more things than Johnny wants to know –

...

Peter Parker’s flat is gone. Peter doesn’t know how many of the residents got out alive. He can’t think about that right now.

Johnny is missing. They split up after the explosion so Peter could do crowd control while Johnny took care of the flames. But Johnny never reached the flames. Somewhere along the way, Johnny was stopped because nothing else could explain why he didn’t stop the flames and save the residents.

In the chaos, Peter didn’t see anything. That is why, in the desolate aftermath, Spider-Man is questioning survivors on anything they might have seen.

They haven’t seen anything, according to most of them. They were doing something ordinary when the explosion happened, and focused getting to safety. They weren’t paying attention to the superheroes.

Leave me alone, say the rest.

Spidey doesn’t give up. He asks and asks, until the police arrive and he has to leave and come back as Peter Parker to keep asking. The answers are useless, no one saw Johnny – until someone did.

A couple of elderly women were a few streets away from the explosion and had neither been injured nor feared injury. They saw the Human Torch streaking above in the sky, until, suddenly, he fell.

“Strangest thing I ever seen,” says one of the women. “He just dropped, like his strings had been cut.”

“Can you guess where he fell?” asks Peter, hoping that Johnny would still be there.

“Hmm... probably two streets over that way. Which streets are those?” The women confer and tell Peter their estimations, and Peter sprints to the site.

He finds nothing.

He searches all around to cover all possible landing spots.

Nothing.

...

It’s dark when Peter finally realizes that he must go tell the Fantastic Four what’s happened. It’s later than that when Peter realizes that he could have asked them for help.

Hours after Johnny disappeared, Spidey goes to the Baxter Building to tell Johnny’s family.

When Spidey arrives, he finds an open window to enter. When he sees who’s inside, he stops.

Captain America and Tony Stark are talking to Reed Richards.

“Shouldn’t we wait until Johnny returns?” Captain America asks. Returns for what? thinks Peter.

“We don’t know when that’ll be, and the processes involved are too fascinating to ignore,” replies Reed, who proceeds with what he was doing on the computer. Captain America steps forward and shuts his laptop with a soft click.

“No, we should wait,” says Captain America, with an edge that led men into war. “I’m not comfortable with this until we have his permission.” Reed and the Captain stared each other down. Neither looked willing to back off before Tony spoke.

“What did Sue have to say about this?” wondered Tony who was messing with some tools a little off from where the Captain and Reed were standing. From his viewpoint, Peter couldn’t see what Tony is doing. But that was a very good point; where was Johnny’s sister in this mess?

Reed murmurs something that Peter can’t make out, but Captain America’s face and lines harden when he demands, “What?

“She’s not here,” replies Reed. “She disagreed with deconstructing the cloning process based on Johnny’s DNA sample and left.” Tony looks up at this.

“Where did she go?” he asks.

Reed purses his lips. When he answers with “I don’t know,” Peter gets a prickle of suspicion.

He drops down.

Reed jumps up, still holding the laptop. Captain America goes into a fight ready pose and Tony lifts up the machinery in his hands and chucks it across the room.

“Hey!” cries Peter as he dodges the projectile. “What was that for?”

“Surprising us! How long were you there for?”

“Long enough to suspect that Susan might be in trouble,” answer Peter. “Johnny’s missing. Whoever took him might have taken Sue, too.”

...

After a quick and dirty explanation, Peter protests spending more time than they had to standing around.

“Whoever grabbed Johnny – and maybe Sue, too – can’t have gotten too far. It’s only been a few hours.”

Stark, who at this point dressed in his full Iron Man armor, replies, “Depends who grabbed them – Sue isn’t answering her calls from any of us, so it’s not just Reed, oh, by the way, Reed, you should contact anyone she may have called or contacted if she had left willingly – and what resources they have. Someone limited to New York City wouldn’t get far, but someone on a grander scale would have less problems putting distance between us and them.”

Reed rushes off to make the calls; he was much more subdued after Peter shared his theory that Johnny had been kidnapped and someone might have gotten Sue, too.

“Do we have any ideas who might have taken Johnny?” asks the Captain.

“Now we do.” Stark grinned, and on the screen, a grainy video plays. Sounds of screams and fire can be heard in the background, but there are few people on the screen, and all but one are fleeing from the chaos that occurred at Peter’s apartment earlier. A man in dark clothing aims a gun up high and fires. Johnny Storm lands hard on the ground, no flames on him at all. He is quickly taken into a gray van and the van drives off.

The entire clip is only about 20 seconds.

When it ends, Stark continues, “That was taken from a restaurant from across the street, thankfully we had some idea about where he must have fallen. Otherwise it might have taken an additional ten minutes to find the right film.”

The Captain confirms, “So now we have irrefutable proof that someone took Johnny.”

Reed returns with Ben following. “No one has heard from Susan or seen her in the past few hours.”

“Iron Man, contact the rest of the Avengers and SHIELD. Reed, Ben, which of your enemies do you think might be suspects?” asks Captain America.

“We have plenty of enemies. Doctor Doom is the most likely. If Susan was taken too, that would be my first guess.”

“So where’s Doctor Doom?” Spidey asks, but at that instant, Reed’s phone begins to ring.

He answers it. His expression becomes more and more perplexed and he holds up a hand to quiet everyone else.

Suddenly, as he jerks and stretches to the other side of the lab with his phone. He hooks it into the machine. He explains nothing, but there is a tension to his body and to his face that leaves the rest of the room quiet.

Then there is noise coming from the speakers.

It is garbled.

Is that German? Spidey wonders while Captain America and Tony Stark both get closer to the speakers to listen.

“It’s muted from our direction,” Reed states. “What are they saying?”

Captain America, grim but determined and just a touch of pleased, replies, “It’s HYDRA. They have the Storms.”

And Reed smirks, and Peter never knew he could look so vindictive. “And we know where they are,” and a red, blinking dot moves slowly on a map on the screen.

...

Johnny and Susan are not related by blood, despite sharing the same mother. While Johnny is the clone of America’s greatest soldier, Susan is the daughter of two scientists, the female partner in which donated her uterus and nine months of her life to give birth to a scientific experiment. During the entire time Johnny was in that laboratory, Susan never once saw her mother act as a mother to Johnny. He was an experiment and nothing more.

This explains the difference between them, Susan thinks as she’s attacked by – who? they’re wearing uniforms, they’re speaking German, so, – HYDRA. But why? HYDRA was created by Johann Schmidt a.k.a. Red Skull, enemy of Captain America, she thinks as she forces her attackers away, so this is because of Johnny.

But where’s Johnny?

Susan becomes invisible and escapes her attackers’ notice. She uses her communicator to call Johnny. Nothing. She uses it to check the news, and, aha. Explosion in Queens. The Human Torch vanishes during the fight, but Spider-Man saves the day, but not everybody’s lives.

So they have Johnny.

She calls Reed, but doesn’t wait for it to go through. She clips it to her person and focuses her power on it to make only it invisible. She rejoins the fight, but goes down at a hit that does little but stun her. She plays unconscious while they pick her up and load her into a van and drive her away.

They’ll never see her coming.