First things first, Johnny wanted to make it clear: he did not intend to sleep with that photographer.
But sometimes these things just happen, you know?
Johnny drifted awake to the sound of someone knocking on the door.
“G’way, Sue,” he said, twisting to the side and pulling the pillow over his head.
The bed shifted besides him, and then there were warm arms around him, a chin tucked against his shoulder. Someone’s hair tickled his face.
“My name’s not Sue,” a man’s voice said. “And I think that’s room service.”
The knocking started up again, louder.
Johnny decided to get eggs first and worry about the guy in his bed second.
The guy in his bed was Peter Parker, of Daily Bugle infamy. Johnny probably should have worried about him first.
“So I’m a little vague on last night’s details,” he said, closing the door behind the waiter. He picked up the first plate to reveal a towering stack of pancakes, covered in whipcream. “Were we still drunk when we ordered this?”
“Uh, judging from the chocolate chip smiley face, I’d say very drunk,” Peter said. Johnny had met him half a dozen times before, but he’d never really thought of him as good-looking – or thought of him at all. But the man in Johnny’s hotel bed was, well. A solid eight, with really great abs. “How vague is vague? On a scale from one to ten.”
“From one to ten? I’m a “last thing I remember was the bride dipping me”,” Johnny confessed.
“Ouch,” Peter said, running a hand through his hair. It stood up on end, unruly. “That’s like, an eleven, twelve, easy. Uh, okay. I’m… less vague.”
There was coffee on the room service cart, at least. Johnny downed half a cup in one go; it took some of the edge off his headache. “So on a scale of one to ten…”
“I’m a “I remember getting into the room with my hands in your pants,”” Peter said. He raised one hand and rocked it from side to side. “After that it gets a little fuzzy.”
Johnny tried to remember what it must have been like – stumbling over each other’s feet, hands under each other’s clothes. Peter’s mouth on his own. But it was all imagination – the last thing he remembered clearly from the night before was dancing with a drink in one hand and the other on the bride’s waist.
Jen was going to make fun of him forever.
“Hey,” he said, at the time as Peter said, “So,” and they both kind of laughed. The sheets were wrapped around Peter’s legs; his skin looked tanner against the crisp sharp white. There was a blush on Peter’s face, spreading down his neck. Johnny had never really thought about Peter Parker, pest with a camera, as attractive before but now – yeah. He could see it.
“So,” he said, standing by the side of the bed in nothing but his boxer briefs. Peter looked up and Johnny put a hand against his neck and bent down to meet him. Peter kissed back, both his hands – long-fingered and deceptively strong – came up to frame Johnny’s hips. His left little finger slipped beneath the waistband of Johnny’s underwear.
Peter’s hands tightened around his hips and he dragged Johnny down, flipping them over so Johnny was flat on his back on the bed. He slid one hand around the back of Peter’s neck, twisting his fingers in Peter’s short hair so he could keep Peter’s mouth right where he wanted it, on his.
“You’re stronger than you look,” he said when they broke apart, breath misting between them, his hand still in Peter’s hair and Peter on top of him, all over him. He slid his free hand down Peter’s arm, palming the swell of a bicep. Peter huffed a nervous laugh.
“Yeah, I – I work out,” he started, but Johnny was already tired of talking. He kissed him again. Peter said something against his mouth, muffled, that turned into a groan halfway. He put that surprising strength to good use, wrapping an arm around Johnny and hauling him upright, switching their positions.
“Come on, come on,” Johnny urged him, rolling his hips against Peter’s. Peter stuttered out a groan, closing his eyes. His fingers slipped beneath Johnny’s waistband, points of heat against Johnny’s skin.
So, okay. The first time Johnny slept with Peter Parker wasn’t on purpose.
But the second time definitely was.
“Breakfast is cold.”
Johnny laughed, stretched out on his side on the bed. “What do you want me to do about it?” When Peter leveled him with a look he simply rolled his eyes and crooked a finger and said, “Okay, okay, fine, bring it over here.”
Peter watched from beneath half-lowered lashes as Johnny balanced the first plate on his hands and warmed it back up, an even slow heat up through his palms across the plate. Nothing too fancy, so he allowed himself a quick spark when he winked and said, “Like a microwave, huh?”
“Not exactly,” Peter said, taking the warm plate and passing him a cold one. “More like a stovetop. Microwaves don’t – you don’t care, do you?”
“Not even a little bit,” Johnny said. “So. Am I your first superhero?”
“You know,” Johnny said, raising his eyebrows. “Your first superhero. En fuego.”
"I don't think that's the phrase you were looking for," he said, even as his ears turned pink. He was adorable; Johnny leaned against him, shoulder to shoulder.
“I don’t kiss and tell,” Peter told him, taking the plate away.
“We did a little more than kiss,” Johnny said, wrapping his arms around Peter’s waist and attempting to drag him back. Peter laughed, shoving at him.
“No, come on, I have work,” he said. “I’ve gotta go to work. I have a job.”
“Tell them you had an emergency,” Johnny said, smacking a kiss against Peter’s shoulder. “I’ll cover for you.”
“Yeah, somehow, I don’t think that’s going to work,” Peter said, rolling his eyes. He twisted away from Johnny, dragging them both forward when Johnny refused to let go. “I need my pants and my camera, not necessarily in that order.”
“No pants,” Johnny said. Peter’s camera was in a bag across the room, but his phone was on the bedside table. He snagged it quickly, pulling Peter back down on the bed with him. Peter ‘oof’ed but let Johnny pull him with no complaints besides an elbow to the ribs.
The phone was an older model, but not obsolete, and Johnny found the camera easily enough. “Cameras, okay, that’s debatable.” He held it away from them, smiling up at it. Peter made a noise halfway between amusement and disgust, rolling away just as the camera flash went off. When Johnny checked the photo he saw only himself and a flash of Peter’s chest, one shoulder and a blurry nipple, Peter’s hand curled loosely around Johnny’s.
“Stop,” Peter said, still laughing. “I gotta go and you don’t need another scandal. I – this isn’t my thing. I’m not like you.”
The warm feeling in Johnny’s chest turned, for the briefest second, to ice. “What?”
“I don’t do this,” Peter said, shaking his head. His hair flopped in his eyes and he carded it back. “The whole one night stand thing. It’s crazy.”
“Does it still count as a one night stand if it’s eleven in the morning?” Johnny asked, not bothering to keep the sting out of his voice. Peter shot him a look over his shoulder and Johnny felt himself bristle.
“Guess it’s true what they say,” Peter said, grabbing his pants from the floor and pulling them on. Even the way he shrugged his shirt on was starting to annoy Johnny. “The Human Torch does run hot and cold.”
“Maybe you should go,” Johnny said, fuming. “This is starting to get boring.”
He left Johnny there, flopped backwards on the bed with his legs hanging off. He lay there for a while after the door had slammed shut, then dragged himself up and grabbed his phone. He called Jen.
She picked up on the third ring and said, in between a huge yawn, “What do you want?”
“I hooked up with a guy at your wedding,” he said, without preamble.
A pause. “Was he hot?” Jen asked. Before Johnny could reply, she continued, “Don’t answer that, I already know. You guys left with your hand in his back pocket. Luckily John’s dad was already asleep on the table or he’d have had a coronary.”
“I am never drinking Hulk-strength booze again,” Johnny swore. A rustle of sheets and the creak of a mattress came from across the line.
“Nothing you did last night would exactly be front page news, hot stuff,” Jen said. “What’s the issue?”
Johnny flopped backwards on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. He scowled, a bad mood creeping over him. “I don’t know. He just – got under my skin. You know?”
“I’m a hulk, hot stuff,” Jen said with another yawn. “And I’m on my honeymoon, so I’ve got a suggestion for you –”
“Yeah, yeah,” Johnny said. “Go back to breaking mattresses.”
He hung up and lay there a while longer, wondering what it was about Peter Parker that bothered him so much.
Spider-Man was fighting thugs at two in the morning. Johnny didn’t have anything better to do.
“Need some help?” he asked, swooping down. Spider-Man spared him a brief glance, busy lassoing a punk with his webbing. Johnny whistled.
“One guy made a run for it,” Spider-Man said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “Saw him head down that alley. Go round ‘im up for me?”
“Anytime,” Johnny said, taking off. He found the guy trying to scale a fence – and failing, which was pretty funny. He sent a spark flying, striking the fence just above the guy’s grasping hands, and the thug fell backwards with a muffled shriek.
“Man, I’ve fought the Mole Man, okay,” Johnny said, hovering above him, “so I know sad – but this is just tragic.”
“This is why everybody hates you,” the guy grunted, lying on his back on the ground.
“Hey, that’s not nice,” Johnny said, and made a little makeshift cell made out of flames just for kicks.
Spider-Man swung onto the scene a moment later, took in the sights and intoned, “Starting your own justice system, Torchy?”
“He fell into a burning ring of fire,” Johnny said with a shrug.
“He went down, down, down but the flames went higher?” Spider-Man asked, head tilted to the side.
“Correction,” the thug shouted at them. “This is why everybody hates both of you!”
“See, when I do it, I can web their mouths shut,” Spider-Man said. Sirens sounded in the distance. “And that’s my cue – see ya, Torch.”
“Hey, wait up!” Johnny took off after him. “The night is young! Let’s go find some real trouble.”
“Sorry, no can do,” Spider-Man replied, swinging easily between buildings. Sometimes, very occasionally, Johnny envied him that – swinging wasn’t flying, and Johnny never would have traded his flames for anything, but there was something in Spider-Man’s freefalls, the moment when one web ran out before the other hit its mark. Just watching it made Johnny’s heart soar. “Had enough real trouble for tonight, next week and the coming decade.”
“What about pizza?” Johnny asked. “We can take it back to the Baxter Building. I’ll let you eat it in Reed’s lab. Pizza’s not trouble.”
“Torch, with you? Everything’s trouble.”
“Right,” Johnny said, watching him swing away. “Guess that’s a ‘no’, then. Great.”
The pictures hit the internet a few days later, when Johnny had tried and failed and tried and failed and finally, finally succeeded to put the night with Peter Parker out of his mind. He knew it was bad when Ben just said, in his deep gravelly voice, “There’s something you oughta see, Matchstick,” no jokes or jibes.
They were his pictures, Johnny realized with a pang. The ones he’d taken on Peter’s stupid ancient cell phone. Peter was out of frame in most of them, so it was just Johnny lying in bed with the sheets around his waist and a stupid smug grin on his stupid smug face and some guy’s stupid hands flat on his chest, trailing down his stomach. One shot of the lower half of Peter’s face, leaning in close to his own, all stubble and stupid self-conscious grin.
Johnny groaned and dropped his head into his hands. “It’s too much to hope this is just a one website kind of deal, right?”
“You made ONTD,” Franklin piped up from across the room.
“And the news,” Valeria added. “But it was only E!, so.”
“Kids, don’t google your uncle,” Sue said in her best chastising tone. She placed a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and squeezed, comforting. Johnny groaned, resting his head against her arm.
“Screw you, Mr. I Don’t Kiss and Tell,” he groaned.
“Johnny,” Sue said in the same voice she’d used on the kids. She made clucking noises when he scrolled through the pictures again. “That wasn’t smart.”
“Well, that’s me, right?” he said.
Sue ruffled his hair and said, kindly, “Be careful next time, okay? You don’t need to give anyone more ammo.”
Johnny called Jen.
“This really isn’t a good time,” she said when she picked up. He grinned.
“Busy getting busy?” he asked. “Hey, what’s a good astronaut sex joke?”
“I really don’t know,” Jen growled. There was a thump and something that sounded suspiciously like a howl.
“Are you okay?” Johnny asked, concerned.
“Fine,” Jen bit out. “I’m just – peachy keen. Hey, do you know if hotel knives are made out of real silver?”
“What?” Johnny said.
Jen swore and hung up on him.
Peter Parker tracked Johnny down the next day. No easy feat, seeing as Johnny had been keeping his head down (in as much as he ever did). But then, in the middle of the street in the afternoon, someone snagged him by the elbow. Johnny turned to find Peter, face pale beneath his messy hair. He had a fresh black eye. Johnny opened his mouth to ask how that would happen before he decided he didn’t care.
“Can I talk to you?” Peter asked.
“No can do,” Johnny said, shrugging him off. He lowered his sunglasses and let his eyes spark just enough to be menacing – Peter didn’t so much as flinch. “Call my people, make an appointment.”
Peter caught him again, and still Johnny was surprised by his strength. “I didn’t mean for those pictures to get out,” Peter said. “You have to believe me. I’m not that kind of guy.”
Johnny wanted to tell him to fuck off, but there was something in Peter’s face that gave him pause. “Two minutes,” he allowed, and Peter gave him a crooked smile. He dragged him into a coffee shop – Johnny readjusting his sunglasses and his hat, feeling oddly self-conscious. This was far from his first publicity scandal; he didn’t know why this one was the one, finally, to upset him.
Because he’d liked Peter, he guessed. That morning in the hotel room after Jen’s wedding he’d felt happy. Really, truly happy. The same feeling flared up now, staring at Peter beneath the ambient lighting, handsome in a quirky way in spite of the black eye. Peter turned to look at him and Johnny felt something disturbingly like butterflies.
He squashed them down.
Don’t get ahead of yourself, Sparky, he thought to himself in his best Ben Voice.
“Can I buy you coffee?” Peter asked after a moment, awkward, and Johnny snorted.
“Little late for that,” he said, and a strange expression crossed Peter’s face. “No, look – I’ll buy the coffee. You tell me about the photos.”
“Look, I know you think I leaked those pictures as – revenge, or whatever,” Peter said once they were sequestered at a tiny table in the back, Johnny with his back to the wall and Peter in front of him. He kept his sunglasses firmly in place.
“I actually thought you sold them for the money,” Johnny said. “But continue.”
Peter wrinkled his nose. It was weirdly adorable. “They’re cell phone pictures. They’re awful.”
“Yeah, but I’m naked in them,” Johnny said. “I think that’s worth more than you even know – or, apparently, appreciate.”
Peter muttered something under his breath – Johnny thought it was I appreciated it just fine, jackass, which gave him some small measure of satisfaction – before continuing, “And I didn’t take them anyway. There was no premeditation here – finally, the naked celebrity pics that will keep me set for life! You grabbed my phone and took them yourself.”
“I already know that,” Johnny said, crossing his arms and leaning back. Annoyance crept over him, a slow steady itch like a prickle of heat just beneath his skin. He needed to blow off some steam. “Get to the point.”
“My phone was stolen,” Peter said. “Well, more like – hacked. You know I take pictures of Spider-Man, right?”
“Yeah,” Johnny allowed, for Spidey’s sake. He knew he liked the guy. “You’re the only one who gets the good ones. He appreciates that.”
A hint of something like surprise flashed across Peter’s face, but it was gone as quickly as it had come. Peter turned pink to the tips of his ears.
“Right, well uh – tell him I said no problem, I guess,” he said, covering it up with a cough. Something like suspicion flickered in Johnny’s chest, a spark of a familiarity.
Oh, he thought. That’d explain it.
“Anyway, look, I was taking pictures of Spider-Man while he was fighting Electro and he sort of – he arced through my phone, I guess,” Peter said. “And I guess he somehow took the pictures with him.”
Johnny stared at him over the tops of his sunglasses.
“Wait,” he said. “You’re telling me fucking Electro leaked my nudes to the internet?”
Peter colored, red down to the collar of his shirt now. “I know it’s hard to believe –” he started, but Johnny held up a hand, laughter bubbling up.
“Please, no, it’s completely believable,” he said. “It’s so – he’s such a C-lister, I wouldn’t even fight the dude and now he’s posting naked pictures of me online. That’s just – ugh, it’s so me it hurts. This kind of thing would never happen to Ben.” He paused, then said, “Probably because nobody would want Ben’s nudes.”
Peter snorted into his coffee, then wiped his mouth off on the back of his hand. “So – anyway, that’s it. I’m sorry it happened, but I wanted to explain.”
“Okay,” Johnny said. “And?”
Peter raised his bushy eyebrows sharply. “And?” he repeated. “And what?”
“That’s all you wanted to say to me?” Johnny pressed, hoping for – something. A confession of eternal passion? Not likely, and the thought made him want to roll his eyes anyway. But he wanted something, something more. “You chased me down just to explain?”
“Well, yeah,” Peter said, still looking at Johnny like he was trying to put together the puzzle pieces. “Why? What did you have in mind?”
Johnny knew what he had in mind, and he knew that it was a bad idea.
But who would Johnny Storm be, minus the bad ideas?
“There’s a good hotel a few blocks from here,” Johnny said. “Let’s get a room.”
“You’re really hot,” Peter said an hour later. Johnny laid his head against Peter’s shoulder, nuzzling against his neck. He pressed his lips to his pulse point, not quite a kiss. Peter turned until his face was pressed into Johnny’s hair. His hand was splayed against Johnny’s back, and it was good. It made Johnny feel like he belonged, a little.
He didn’t know what to do with that.
“Uh, yeah I am. People Magazine’s Hottest Superhero here,” he said, and Peter laughed, whether at the bad joke or at the feeling of Johnny’s lips against his neck, Johnny couldn’t tell. It didn’t matter. Peter had a good laugh.
“No, I mean, it’s like snuggling a furnace,” he said. “Come on, get off of me.”
“Can’t,” Johnny replied, smug. “You’re the one holding onto me.”
“I know,” Peter said. “I can’t stop. It’s horrible.”
“Guess you’re just going to have to suffer through it,” Johnny said. Peter heaved a mighty sigh; his breath ruffled Johnny’s hair.
“Guess you’re right,” he said. Johnny sat up a little, just enough to get a good look at him, and was surprised when Peter reached up to touch his face, tracing the line of his jaw. Johnny caught his hand in his own, keeping it trapped there, against his skin.
“Hey,” Peter said. His brown eyes were unreadable. Johnny wanted to know what he was thinking.
“Hey, yourself,” he replied. “What?”
“Nothing,” Peter said, eyebrows furrowing. “It’s just – you’re different, up close and personal. When you’re not doing your Human Torch, Professional Attention Whore and Firefly bit.”
That stung a little. Johnny tried to let it go. “I’m not doing anything different,” he said. Peter smiled and kissed him.
“Whatever you say, Flamebrain,” he said, and something in Johnny thrilled at Spider-Man’s familiar nickname on this new set of lips. He made an appreciative noise and Peter paused, so Johnny kissed back, hard. He bit Peter’s bottom lip. Peter’s arms came up around him again, holding him close and Johnny had to break the kiss so he could laugh, suddenly delighted.
He looked at Peter’s face and thought, I like him. I like him so much. Which was stupid, but there it was. Stupid decisions, the Johnny Storm way: they’d always gotten him far. He kissed Peter, cupping a hand to the back of his neck. Peter hummed, content, and Johnny echoed the sentiment.
Then Peter’s cell phone went off. One alert, then two more in rapid succession.
Peter froze, and then disentangled himself from Johnny, reaching for it. Johnny grabbed his arm.
“Ignore it,” he said. “Come on, you can check it later.”
Peter shot him a look that was halfway between annoyed and apologetic. “Might be important,” he said.
“You’d know if it was important,” Johnny said.
“I don’t have a Fantastic Signal,” he said, shaking his head. “I have to check. Somebody could need me.”
“What, you think somebody’s have a photo emergency?” Johnny scoffed. “Bridesmaids not smiling at the camera? Somebody not telling Wolverine he’s got broccoli in his teeth?”
“And there’s the Johnny Storm everyone knows and hates,” Peter said under his breath, not quietly enough for Johnny to miss. Johnny lets go, leaning back against the pillows with his arms crossed over his chest; he wished that hadn’t stung, but it had. It seemed Peter could take him from sixty back down to zero just as quick as he could the other way around.
Peter grabbed his jeans and pulled them on with one hand, scrolling through his messages with the other. He frowned. “I have to go. The Rhino was spotted downtown. I need to get some photos.”
“Let someone else do it,” Johnny said.
“I can’t,” Peter said, with a laugh that grated on Johnny’s ears. “Trust me, I’d love to, but I really can’t. It’s not about you, okay? I really just have to go.”
“Yeah, fine,” Johnny said, flapping a hand. “Whatever.”
Peter glanced at him over his shoulder, his shirt half-pulled on. “Are you pouting?” he said, raising his eyebrows. Johnny glared at him and Peter rolled his eyes in return. So much for the romance of fifteen minutes ago.
Johnny shrugged, leaning forward when Peter bent down for a goodbye kiss. He cupped a hand to the back of Peter’s neck, but Peter was tense; their teeth knocked together, and Peter pulled away after a second. Johnny was left with disappointment coiling in the pit of his stomach.
He switched on the TV when Peter was gone and sure enough, there was the Rhino on the news, smashing up a food truck of all things. Johnny huffed a sigh and wondered why the knowledge that Peter had been telling the truth didn’t make him feel any better.
Five minutes later Spider-Man swung onto the scene – the camera jostled and shook as it tried to keep up with his movements – and Johnny felt his eyes narrow. Suspicion flared again.
He dialed Jen’s number.
“You know anything about wolfsbane, by any chance?” she asked, picking up after three rings. Johnny quirked an eyebrow.
“No?” he said. “Listen, I have a problem.”
“Make it quick,” she said. There was a scraping noise across the line, like a heavy piece of furniture being pushed across the floor. There was a yelp, followed by a howling noise.
“Where are you?” Johnny asked. “Need help?”
“My honeymoon, still,” Jen muttered. “Frickin’ moon. No, it’s fine, I’ve got it. What do you need?”
“I think I’m screwing around with a superhero groupie,” Johnny said. There was a long pause on the other end, interrupted by the occasional thumps and grunts. Johnny didn’t ask; whatever Jen wanted to do on her honeymoon was her own business, even if it sounded like there was a pack of wolves up in her suite with her.
“So?” Jen finally said. “This wouldn’t be the first time. Or the fifth.”
“I think he’s into Spider-Man,” Johnny said, scowling. He ran a hand through his hair, making it stand up on end. He glanced at himself in the mirror and had to tear his eyes away – his hair standing on end, the scowl on his face, the darkening bruise Peter had sucked onto his neck before. “That’s my feeling, anyway.”
“Right, okay,” Jen said, in a tone said that there was something else she wasn’t bringing up.
“What?” Johnny said.
“So this is about your Spider-Man issues, huh?” Jen said. “Hate to break it to you, Torch, but you’ve got a mile long list of hangups where ol’ Webhead’s concerned.”
“That’s not even true,” Johnny said, which was a complete lie.
“Look, I’ve got to go,” Jen said. “That wardrobe isn’t going to barricade the room forever.”
“What the hell are you and John doing?” he asked, but Jen hung up before he could get the whole sentence out.
The fight was still going on; when Johnny looked at the television he saw Spider-Man being thrown from atop the Rhino’s massive shoulders, straight into a Starbucks.
“I do not have Spidey issues,” he said to himself. “And I don’t have Peter Parker issues, either.”
Spider-Man was making it very difficult to stop having issues about him.
“Are you avoiding me?” Johnny asked, flying up to meet him Wednesday of the next week. He hadn’t seen him in days. Surprise, surprise – Peter hadn’t called either. To top it off, someone had snapped a few pictures of him leaving the hotel and now there was more than a little speculation about whether he’d been there with the man in his oh-so-scandalous cellphone shots.
Spider-Man glanced at him briefly with those big blank eyes.
“Why would I be avoiding you?” he asked. “I don’t avoid. Have you been talking to my therapist?”
He swung away right after that statement, quicker than usual. Johnny narrowed his eyes and shot after him.
“I don’t know,” he said, “maybe it’s because you’re trying to escape me right now?”
Johnny couldn’t tell through the mask, not really, but he thought Spider-Man had the good graces to look a little guilty about it. “Don’t be dramatic, Torchy. I’ve just got somewhere to be. Our love is still true.”
Johnny snorted. “Yeah, sure. You’ve been weird for weeks. What’s going on?”
“Don’t you have a Galactus to go bother?” Spider-Man asked.
“No,” Johnny said. Something occurred to him, like a flash of ice in his veins – he hated that feeling. His flames actually flickered for the briefest second. He urged them higher, hotter, putting on an extra burst of speed until he was flying just a little bit ahead of Spider-Man, twisted around so he could look him in the face. “You’ve been weird since those pictures got out. The ones from the morning after Shulkie’s wedding.”
“You calling me weird is some really pot-kettle stuff, Torch,” Spider-Man said, which wasn’t an answer at all. Johnny scowled.
“Is that what this is about?” he asked. “Because – that’s not cool.”
“It’s not about that,” Spider-Man said, landing neatly on top of a building. He perched there at the edge, staring at Johnny with those big blank eyes. “It’s not about anything. I promise you, I’ve just been really really busy.”
“You could just tell me,” Johnny said. “If you had a problem. We’re friends, right?”
“Right,” Spider-Man said. It didn’t sound very convincing. Johnny clenched his hands into fists. “Look, I’ve really got to go. I’ll see you around, okay?”
He swung off, leaving Johnny floating there. He exhaled and sent off a shower of tiny little angry sparks that fizzled and faded against the evening sky.
“Why does everything suck so much lately?” he asked. A nearby pigeon gave him the eye, but no answer. Frustrated, Johnny turned around and flew back towards the Baxter Building.
“What’s the matter?”
Johnny glanced over at Sue. The smooth glass of her helmet did nothing to hide her concern. He released one hand from his whiteknuckled grip on his seat and waved it loosely, I’m alright, even as the ship lurched dangerously to the left.
“Aside from the fact that we’re a two minute lead and Ben’s dubious driving skills away from being eaten?” he said. “Nothing.”
“Drivin’ is your thing, Matchstick,” Ben grumbled from the front of ship. “I’m piloting this baby – and I’d like to see you do a better job.”
Johnny made a face at the back of Ben’s chair.
“That’s not what I meant,” Sue said. “You’ve been quiet for a couple of days now.”
“Mm,” Reed agreed from the passenger’s seat. “It is a little unnerving – Ben, watch out for that –”
“I see it, Stretch!” Ben cut him off, and the ship lurched to the side again. Johnny’s shoulder met the wall with a thud.
“I’m fine,” he said to Sue. “Really. Only thing bothering me is Ben’s terrible piloting.”
Two minutes later Ben spun the ship in an actual barrel roll. Johnny suspected that was probably revenge.
The next time Johnny saw Peter was at a race. It was uncanny – he’d stepped out of his car, feeling good, like victorious, the adrenaline still pumping, and then he’d taken off his helmet and he’d just – been there. In the crowd.
It was stupid, how Johnny felt he would have known him anywhere.
Then he lost him in the crowd, which just figured. So much for the sentiment. He exhaled, breath hotter than it should have been, and told himself that it didn’t matter. What was important was the race. He let himself be pulled aside, knowing there were interviews ahead. Time to paste his most charming smile and save some face, or face Sue’s disapproval.
So he was unprepared, when he caught sight of Peter again that same day, the charity benefit he’d rushed straight to after the race, and he accidentally cut off the interview he was in the middle of, which was fine because there was any so many times he could talk about what he slept in or what he was wearing under any given uniform.
“Hey, wait up!” he called out. Peter turned to look at him, a guilty expression on his face. Well, good, Johnny thought. He should feel guilty. Instead, he said, “What are you doing here?”
Peter shrugged and held up his camera. He had his free hand in his pocket; his foot beat out an uneven beat against the floor. “Jameson fired the guy who was supposed to be here. Again. So I’m subbing in.”
“So? You like the race?” Johnny asked. “You were there. I saw you.”
Peter shrugged again.
“Yeah, Jameson fired that guy too. Not really my thing,” he said. “Gets hard to tell the cars apart. Then I start worrying someone will crash into the audience and kill us all. And by someone I mostly mean you.”
“I’m a great driver!” Johnny said.
“You drive around a giant circle really fast,” Peter said. “I’m pretty sure they can train monkeys to do that.”
“Shut up,” Johnny said. “Show me those pictures already.”
Peter obliged. Johnny leaned over his shoulder, probably too close, while he flipped through them. They were good shots and Johnny found himself smiling, reliving the feeling of that one last lap, closest thing to flying there was flamed off.
“I want copies,” he said. Peter snorted. He flipped to the next shot, but that must have been the end of the race pictures because Johnny was confronted with a shot of Spider-Man, impossibly graceful where he was framed against the skyline. It was a beautiful picture. Johnny’s chest felt too tight looking at it. “You really like taking pictures of Spider-Man, huh?”
“Somebody has to do it,” Peter said. “Otherwise the only shots we’d see of him would be plastered with slander and grainy. That’d be terrible.”
“Yeah,” Johnny said, but before he could continue he caught sight of a familiar face coming towards him. “Fuck. C’mon, we need to hide, c’mon.”
He took off, pulling Peter with him, weaving through the crowd.
“Where are we going?” Peter shouted at him.
“Anywhere I can barricade a door!” Johnny replied. They ended up locked in a bathroom together. It was a nice bathroom, as far as things went, but most importantly it had a door that locked. Johnny leaned against it and exhaled.
“Going to explain?” Peter asked.
“Ex-girlfriend,” Johnny said. “Don’t date reporters. It ends badly.”
“I think it mostly just ends badly for you,” Peter said, giving him a weird look. “So it’s not just me you drive crazy. Good to know.”
Johnny was pretty sure that shouldn’t have made him as happy as it did. “I think it’s a thing with people who work at newspapers, mostly.”
“Must be,” Peter said. He looked at Johnny. Johnny looked back and then, when Peter didn’t so much as blink, grinned and raised an eyebrow.
“No way,” Peter said, shaking his head. “Not happening. Not again.”
“We’re locked in here for the foreseeable future anyway,” Johnny said. “Trust me, she does not give up.”
“Except on you, apparently,” Peter said, which stung only because it was true. It sucked, how Johnny still wanted to just lean right in and kiss him, but he did it anyway. Peter made a noise that might have been annoyed, but he kissed back. “This is stupid. You’re going to get passive-aggressive and I’m going to leave this bathroom with my shirt on backward and then there’s really going to be some interesting rumors on the internet.”
“Are they still rumors if they’re true?” Johnny asked.
“I really hate that I’m more interested in getting your shirt off than I am in arguing about this,” Peter said. Johnny’s grin was so wide it kind of hurt.
“I hate you,” Peter said. “Why do we keep doing this?”
“I’m hot,” Johnny said, shrugging his shirt back on. “And you’re weirdly magnetic.”
“Thanks,” Peter said, rolling his eyes. He didn’t say anything else. The silence grated on Johnny’s nerves.
“So this is the part where you break up with me again, right?” he said. Peter turned and gave him an odd look.
“We weren’t going out,” he said. Johnny bristled.
“Well, no, but we could have been,” he said. “Except you won’t give me a chance for some stupid reason – ”
“How is being in this bathroom with you right now not giving you a chance?” Peter demanded.
“—and you’re in love with Spider-Man, which is ridiculous,” Johnny finished, scowling. Peter froze.
“I’m what?” he said. Then, quietly, “I’m not in love with Spider-Man.”
“Look, it doesn’t have to be some big secret or anything,” Johnny said, holding his hands up. “It’s obvious – the pictures you take of him? I’m just saying, down that road is heartbreak. Trust me on this one.”
Peter stared at him, eyes narrowed. He worked his jaw for a moment but no sound came out. “Did you seriously just imply,” he said at last, “that you’re in love with Spider-Man?”
“No, I said you were in love with Spider-Man,” Johnny said, rolling his eyes. “I just – dropped hints. Once or twice. Dude didn’t pick any of them up, so. That’s all I’m saying.”
Maybe it was just the lighting, but for a second it looked like all the color had fled from Peter’s face. He struggled to his feet.
“I gotta go,” he said.
“Right, yeah,” Johnny said, trying and failing to ignore the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He stood up too, then regretted it, standing there feeling awkward.
“It should be safe out there by now, right? I really need to start bringing some shades and a hat,” Peter muttered. He stopped, the fingers of one hand nervously adjusting the strap of his bag, but then he leaned forward and kissed Johnny. It was different than before, soft and warm. Peter’s lips were chapped.
“Fuck it,” Johnny said when he pulled back. “Fine, I’ll go out first and set a potted plant or something on fire. You can slip out unscandalized.”
Peter smiled at him. “You’re an okay man sometimes, Johnny Storm.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Johnny said. “I’d like to see Spider-Man do that for you.”
“It’d be weirder than you know,” Peter replied.
“What do you when you develop feelings for a guy except you’re pretty sure he’s in love with a guy you previously had a thing for, and by previously I mean maybe still kind of do?” Johnny asked when Jen picked up her phone.
“Whatever you do, don’t marry him,” she said. “You’ll probably end up shooting him up with wolfsbane and chaining him up in your hotel closet.”
“Nothing,” Jen said before she hung up.
“Screw it,” Johnny said. “I’m going to ask Sue.”
Freeze rays were pretty much Johnny’s least favorite thing. Nine times out of ten they didn’t even do anything, which just made the tenth time that much worse. It felt like he was frozen from the inside out, like he’d never get warm again, and no amount of flame on! was going to make a difference.
To top it off, Peter was there. Which was just great. Not only was Johnny reduced to shivering on the ground, he was doing in front of the guy he had completely incomprehensible feelings for. Fantastic.
“Sorry,” he said to Peter, crouched down beside him in the dark. His teeth clacked together. Peter’s hands were like firebrands; Freezeray Guy (he didn’t deserve a real name) had ordered him to stay with Johnny, sneering about he’d “iced the Torch.”
Johnny was going to destroy him, as soon as he managed to get feeling back.
“Don’t be,” Peter said. There was a sniffle from somewhere – the rest of the civilians, huddled together across the lobby – and a grinding sound. That was the bank vault, Johnny was almost certain. Didn’t sound like Freezeray Guy was having too much luck there. “Parker Luck. This kind of thing always happens to me.”
“Sent up the signal before I got hit,” Johnny said. “Rest of the FF should show up as backup any minute.”
Peter was quiet for a minute. “You really don’t look good.”
Johnny laughed. “And I feel even worse.” Peter let go of him. Johnny tried to grab his hands, but his own fingers felt clumsy and he couldn’t stop shivering. “What’re you doing?”
“Don’t freak out, okay?” Peter said, which was about the least comforting thing he could have said in that moment. Then he was gone, and Johnny was shivering alone in the dark, trying to get it together enough to at least stumble after him.
There was a crash, followed by a shout. Johnny recognized the sound of the freeze ray and cringed.
“Don’t be stupid,” he said under his breath. “C’mon, Pete, don’t be stupid.”
Another shout, and a muffled noise that struck Johnny as familiar. He couldn’t figure out what it was.
The lights came back on with a flash. The civilians were all safe, blinking up at the ceiling. Johnny followed their line of sight and saw Freezeray Guy and his weirdo minions, webbed to the ceiling.
Peter was gone.
Johnny’s jaw dropped.
“No way,” he said. “There is no way.”
Johnny did what was only reasonable, given the situation, and freaked out. He freaked out for two whole days. By the second, Ben stomped up and stood over him where he was lying on the living room floor, and said, “If I’d known all it took was a freeze ray to shut ya up, I’d’ve had Stretcho get on that years ago.”
“Haha,” Johnny said, and flipped him off with a giant flaming hand. Ben grumbled and knelt down next to him. Johnny aimed a nasty look at his rocky knees. “Leave me alone. I’m broken.”
“Get yerself together, Bichead,” Ben said. “Watchin’ you sulk’s less fun than I imagined.”
Johnny wouldn’t have been sulking, if Peter had bothered to contact him. Spider-Man. Whoever. But no, Peter had taken off and it had been radio silence ever since. Not even a sorry I’m your crimefighting bff text.
But Ben was right. Sulking sucked, so on day three at nightfall Johnny took off, lighting up the sky with big burning letters: WE NEED TO TALK. MEET ME AT THE USUAL PLACE. He signed it with a spider, just so Peter wouldn’t be able to wriggle out of it by claiming he thought Johnny meant anyone else.
Then he went to the Statue of Liberty and waited. And waited. And waited some more.
Peter swung by twenty whole minutes before Johnny’s designated he’s not coming, go home and blow stuff up in video games time.
“A guy with your level of media coverage really needs to learn how to word things better,” he said as soon as he landed. “Because I googled you before I headed over here, and now half the internet thinks you’re knocked up with my alien baby.”
“I will pay you a thousand dollars to confirm that rumor,” Johnny said. “I’m not even kidding.”
Spider-Man laughed, but he didn’t move any closer. Johnny decided to wait him out.
“What’s a nice girl like Lady Liberty doing with a guy like you?” Spider-Man finally said, sighing.
“That was bad,” Johnny said, climbing to his feet. “Even for you, that was bad. It’s you, right? Pete? Because if not I have been living the world’s weirdest misunderstanding for three days.”
“You’re not going to pull out a camera?” When Johnny shook his head, he yanked off his mask: and lo and behold, there was Peter Parker. His hair stuck up on end. His face was sweaty. He made Johnny’s heart jump into his throat. “So this is basically why I thought it was ridiculous when you told me how obvious it was that I was in love with myself. My own self-loathing nearly jumped out my throat to laugh at you.”
“And there was no good time to tell me that? Not even once?” Johnny asked him. Peter had the good graces to look guilty.
“People get hurt around me, Johnny,” he said, stubborn down to the set of his jaw. “I was just going to – I don’t know. Maybe I meant to tell you. But then -- I mean, Electro hacked my phone! C’mon, who else does that happen to? We’re just lucky he didn’t put two and two together and realize it was mine in what I can only imagine was a giddy rush to post celebrity nudes online. It wasn’t safe.”
“Pete, you might not have noticed this, but I can light on fire. That generally means I can take care of myself,” he said. Then, in an attempt to win a smile, he added, “Also they were pretty great nudes.”
“They were alright,” Peter allowed. He didn’t resist when Johnny made a grab for his hands.
“I am incredibly mad at you,” he said. “Like, through the roof, did not I know I could be this mad at people who don’t live in the Baxter Building levels of mad.”
Peter squinted at him. “Is this the bit where you set me on fire?”
“No,” Johnny said. “This is the bit where I ask you if you want to date me, you idiot.”
“Pot-kettle, Torch,” Peter said under his breath. Then, louder, “Well, since I can’t seem to actually stay away from you…”
Johnny closed the gap between them. Peter wrapped his arms around Johnny and kissed him back. A giddy thrill shot through Johnny – there he was, on top of the Statue of Liberty, kissing Spider-Man, who was also Peter Parker, the dorky photographer with the great smile and the amazing abs and the laugh that made Johnny want to laugh too.
“I’m really happy you’re cute under the mask,” he said. “And that you weren’t running out on me all those times to go moon over Spider-Man,” he added.
“No, I was running out on you to go change in a back alley and beat up guys wearing fishnet and regret my life choices,” Peter said.
“That’s so much better,” Johnny said, and kissed him again.
Jen was wearing sunglasses and her favorite powersuit when Johnny met her for coffee.
“You’re looking greener than usual,” he said. “Get a good tan?”
“Ugh,” Jen said. She pushed her sunglasses up on top of her hair. “Don’t talk to me about it.”
“You look like you got hit by a bus,” Johnny said. “Back to your Hulkly duties already?”
“I said don’t,” Jen said, shooting him a look over the top of her latte. “I googled you when I got back, y’know. I go away for two weeks and you end up naked on the internet in the arms of a mystery man, then get caught sneaking out of a hotel at 11 AM, and now you’re in love with Spider-Man?”
“It’s mutual,” Johnny said. “He’s hot for me. Everyone is.”
“Do you ever slow down?” Jen asked. She slumped over the table, resting her chin one palm. “What happened to the guy you hooked up with at my wedding? John’s dad’s pet photographer.”
“It’s complicated,” Johnny said. Jen rolled her eyes.
“Complicated?” she said. “I’ll show you complicated – turns out I married a werewolf.”
Johnny paused, coffee held halfway to his lips.
“Well,” he said. “Okay. That actually makes a lot more sense than what I thought was going on. But I’m pretty sure we were talking about me.”
Jen put her head down on the table and sighed.