Johnny’s in Sue’s office when her private line rings; she holds a warning finger to her lips and puts it on speaker. “Hello?”
“Hi, Ms. Storm, big fan, can I borrow your brother for something? It’s kind of an emergency.”
“I’m sorry, who is this and how did you get this number?” Sue says sweetly, and hangs up, despite knowing perfectly well who it is.
Johnny laughs, impervious to her glare. “You just--Tony Stark? Really?”
“He’s not supposed to have my private number. Now, this essay you wrote about Toni Morrison--”
“Well, if I was still in school like a normal person, I wouldn’t have to write essays in July.”
“And if you were, you’d be in here complaining that you’re too cool and rich for high school.”
They’re still arguing about it when Iron Man lands on the roof of the Baxter Building, three whole minutes later. He must really have meant it about the emergency.
“We’ve told you,” Reed says as soon as they get up there. “We’re not interested in joining up with any--” but Stark is shaking his head.
“I just need the Torch,” he says. “Can’t explain why, it’s kind of not my secret to tell, but I could really use a hand here. What about it, kid?”
Sue’s looking doubtful, so Johnny says “Yeah, I’ll do it, let’s go,” before she can inject any common sense. It can’t be worse than arguing about The Bluest Eye. “Come on--come on, Sue, Tony Stark’s garage.” He wants to put off sparks just from the thought of it.
“Sure, whatever, you can see the garage,” says Stark, looking at Johnny with fully deserved alarm.
Johnny’s caught up at first by the thought of seeing the world’s best car collection, not to mention the brief flight with honest-to-God Iron Man. The thrill pales quickly when they take an elevator down into a creepy mad science sub-basement. Weird, considering Stark’s new building is supposedly a hundred percent corporate headquarters; all the fun Avengers stuff was moved upstate last year.
Also, Pepper Potts is in a containment cell in the middle of the room. CEO Pepper Potts, the woman whose name is on the building, in a glass jar. “Um.” Johnny looks sidelong at Stark and edges a few inches away from him. “Is this--are you, like, okay?”
“Tony! You found him!” Potts springs to her feet. There’s a red glow like coal fire rippling under her skin, burning and subsiding seemingly at random. She clenches her jaw and looks normal for a second, but then a fresh glow flows up her arm into her neck.
“Hey, honey, looking hot there,” says Stark, with the embarrassment of someone who’s made the joke too many times already. “Pepper, this is the Human Torch. Mr. Torch, Pepper Potts.”
“Holy shit,” says Johnny, staring. “What happened to you?”
“It’s classified,” says Potts quickly. “Extremely classified. And I thought you said you had fixed this, Tony--”
“Neutralized! And I had, until today. Mr. Torch, how do you feel about needles?”
“Needles?” says Johnny, lost.
Potts shakes her head at Stark. Even her hair is glowing; it leaves a faint contrail when she moves. “Jonathan--”
“Nice to meet you, Johnny.” She moves right up to the glass and meets his eyes. “Right now, my body is cooking itself alive. I’m generating more heat than it can tolerate. If we don’t boost my heat resistance somehow, then--boom.”
Stark winces. “And, since you’re the new neighbors--sorry about that, by the way, we meant to bring a casserole--I thought I’d run over and borrow a cup of pyrokinetic blood.”
Johnny thinks, for a horrifying second, about what it would be like to burn himself up. “Okay. I want Reed here supervising, because he’s basically my doctor at this point, but okay. I’ll do it.”
“Thank you.” Potts sags in relief, forehead pressed against the glass. “And then you might need to tell me how to switch this off.”
“Yeah, no problem. It’s really not hard.”
“Hey, good morning,” he says, coming into her office three months later, and hands Pepper a cup of coffee.
Pepper takes a gulp and grimaces in horror. “Johnny, this is cold.”
“Yup. Heat it yourself, it’s a learning experience.” Johnny winks at her. “Hey, did you know someone tipped all the papers that I’m dating the entire cast of a Disney Channel show? The Post, News, and Bulletin all guessed different shows. It’s great.”
Pepper’s fingers glow for a moment; she looks pleasantly surprised when she takes another sip, so it must have worked. “You read those things?”
“If by ‘read’ you mean Ben bought thirty papers and wallpapered our kitchen with them, then yeah, sure.” It was very satisfying reducing them to a cloud of ash. It was less satisfying eating his Froot Loops afterwards, with flecks of ash floating in the milk. “I’m not dating any Disney Channel stars, for the record. Except that one time with that guy from Mighty Geese, what was his name--anyway, how come fictional tabloid me has better game than real life me? It’s not fair.”
“Yeah, you should definitely sue them,” says Pepper, straight-faced. “Every newspaper. Why not?”
Johnny squints at her, trying to decide whether he’s being made fun of. “I was going to just go spend the weekend in LA. Light up the town. Let ‘em chase their tails over it.”
“Subtlety isn’t even in your vocabulary, is it?”
“Hello, Human Torch here?” Johnny doodles a flaming smiley face in midair between them. “I don’t do subtle. It’d hurt my brand.”
Pepper sighs, like she somehow expected better of him. “You said the Post, News, Bulletin--who does the Bugle think you’re dating?”
“Oh, the Bugle doesn’t care about petty things like celebrity gossip. They’re running a countdown of Spider-Man’s greatest screwups. Sucks to be that guy, huh?” Johnny gives his smiley face giant bug eyes, turns it into a frowny face, and then wipes the whole thing out. “So do you want to put in some time in the bug jar, or what?”
She looks over at her screen. “Sure, let me finish this first.”
Johnny waits it out for three whole minutes before he slumps back in his chair and starts humming to himself. Then he remembers something. “Pepper, hey, Mr. Stark doesn’t have any kids, right?”
Pepper doesn’t even glance up at him. “Kids? God forbid. Why?”
“Saw him with someone when I came through the lobby.” Which is in itself unusual, since Stark isn’t in New York City much these days. He’s been hiding out upstate micromanaging the Avengers. The remaining New York office is Pepper’s territory--the name on the outside makes that abundantly clear--and Stark only seems to come down here to see her.
Whatever, it doesn’t matter what Stark is doing here. He’s not the one Johnny’s curious about.
Pepper waves a dismissive hand. “That’s Peter Parker. He’s Tony’s intern.”
“Intern in the normal way, or, like--” Johnny points between himself and Pepper, by way of indicating whatever his own job title is around here.
“Just the normal kind of intern. Coffee, paperwork, errands, you know.”
“Is it really that terrifying, Stark having kids? I mean, you’re the one who’s marrying him.”
“Ugh,” says Pepper with feeling, but she’s blushing a little.
Johnny doesn’t actually want to think about Pepper’s love life to that extent, in the same way he doesn’t want to think about his sister’s. Instead he stares out the massive window and chews on that glimpse he got of Stark’s intern: jogging backwards to face Stark as he talked, gesturing widely, face alight with excitement.
For a lowly coffee-fetching intern, Johnny thinks, Parker sure seemed to be doing all the talking.
Peter likes the new Potts Building a lot better than he expected to. It doesn’t have any of the drama of the old tower; it’s a low glass-sided structure on East 26th, practically modest by Stark standards. Now that everything Avengers-related has been moved out of town, this place is strictly business.
He never set foot in Avengers Tower, even to maintain the fiction of his internship; he’s not sure he was even allowed in there. The new building is a few blocks further from Midtown Tech but still a nice quick walk, even quicker by web, and Peter drops by after school a couple of times a week. He wanders around saying hi to people and making a show of looking busy for half an hour, max, and then he slips downstairs.
Okay, so it’s Stark Industries. Even here it’s only mostly business.
The building has several sublevels of labs and storage. A garage, storing the dregs of Stark’s car collection--his “dregs” would probably make another collector weep in envy, but Peter wouldn’t know either way. There’s a token medical bay, and Ms. Potts kindly pretends not to know that Peter sometimes creeps in at 2AM to bandage a cut or tape up his ribs. And once he started doing that, it was easy to get in the habit of using an empty lab to make repairs to the suit.
If there aren’t any repairs, he plugs it into the computer and runs through the programming, or physically takes it apart. He put too much blind faith in this suit when he got it; now he wants to know exactly what he’s wearing, every thread and line of code. He’s a busy guy already--he’s got school, Decathlon, college visits, not to mention all the actual Spider-ing. Peter’s pretty sure he can’t actually spare the time to be doing this. He just can’t afford not to.
And for all of that--there are just so many interesting parts of this building that he’s not supposed to be in. Some days he can’t resist exploring.
Days like today, for example. Talking to Tony Stark always stresses him out even when it’s not about anything important, and Peter’s odds of getting actual work done aren’t looking great, so it seems like as good a time as any to go looking for Ms. Potts. Peter never actually sees her much, but he’s vaguely aware that she’s been sick or something, and as a Friendly Neighborhood Stark Intern he feels like he should find out if she’s okay.
He’s gotta admit he would not have put money on where he finds her: locked in what looks like a Hulk-proof glass cage in a sub-basement, with the Human Torch. There’s a Clue joke in this somewhere.
Peter tries and fails not to stare at the Torch, who really has illegally nice hair, dense black curls bleached golden at the top. Maybe he can just--sneak back out--
“Peter!” says Ms. Potts, aghast. “Are you even allowed down here?”
He’s pretty sure he’s not, but that didn’t stop Karen from locating Ms. Potts or helping him find a way in. Which seems like a programming issue he should tell Mr. Stark about. Eventually. Oh God, the Human Torch went to space. “Oh my God, you’re that guy who went to space.”
“Yup, that’s me.” Torch gives him a lazy salute, hand glowing. “Went to space, crashed out of it again, superpowers, yadda yadda. I’d sign an autograph, but there’s this everything-proof bug jar in the way.”
“Okay, but you went, which--a, amazing, and b, really took the shine off some space camp memories for the rest of us.” Peter is going to have to go home and tell Ned he met the Human Torch, and Ned is going to actually keel over and die, and it’s going to be so awkward to explain to the paramedics. “What are you doing here?”
Ms. Potts and the Torch look at each other. “It’s complicated,” she says.
Torch looks Peter up and down. “For what it’s worth, I have a really, really bad idea, and we should have an extra pair of eyes if it backfires. Ha, backfires.”
“I signed like fifty NDAs,” says Peter helpfully. “You were the one who made me sign them, remember, Ms. Potts?”
“Fine,” she says. “Let’s hear it, Johnny.”
Torch grins. “Yes! Okay. You--Peter, right? You stand over by the wall and pull that fire suppression lever if this goes bad.”
“Define bad,” says Peter, mustering a shred of concern through his starstruck daze.
“No idea, but I bet you’ll know if you see it. And you, boss, I’m gonna flame on and I want you to try and put me out.” Torch lights up, and Peter squints at them as his over-sensitive eyes adjust.
Ms. Potts doesn’t bat an eyelash. In fact, she also lights up--not flaming on like the Torch, more of a deep and alarming red glow, like lava. Which answers Peter’s first fifty questions and raises a hundred more. “I can do that?”
Torch’s glee is visible even through the flames. “I can. I have no idea if you can. That’s what makes it fun.”
Ms. Potts just stares at him for a minute while nothing visibly happens. “Wait,” she says, “no, I know what--” and grabs Torch’s arm. His flame starts to flow out and away from him, spreading into a glowing haze that fills the glass cage. Someone yells--Peter’s pretty sure it’s not him--and then Torch’s silhouette crumples to the floor. He grabs at the lever, but Ms. Potts switches off on her own.
Torch rolls over onto his back, gasping for breath; there’s a cloud of smoke around them, slowly dissolving up into the air recyclers.
Peter scrambles over to see. “Is he okay?”
Ms. Potts is goggling in alarm, but it’s at him. “Get down!” she hisses, and Peter realizes he’s leapt into action so hard he’s actually clinging to the glass, two feet off the ground.
He drops back onto his feet just as Torch opens his eyes and--oh, he’s not in pain, he’s wheezing with laughter. Their eyes meet through the glass for a second; Peter has the dizzying feeling of being in on a joke without even knowing what the joke is. Then Torch bounces back to his feet and dusts himself off. “Oh my God, that was great, you were great. If I ever turn evil I’m telling Reed to call you first.”
Ms. Potts stares down at her own hands, which are still smoking, and laughs dazedly. “Yeah, I guess you could say that worked.”
“I love it. You should try to kill me every day. Do I get bonus points for scaring the intern?”
Peter remembers belatedly that “the intern” is him, and he’s not actually in on whatever this joke is. “I’ve actually gotta--homework,” he says, and waves towards the door. There’s got to be a jaywalker he can go hassle for the greater good. “See you later, Ms. Potts. Nice meeting you, Torch.”
He’s halfway home before he realizes that he’s actually really annoyed. At who, he doesn’t have the faintest idea. It might be himself.
“So that was weird,” says Johnny, watching Peter Parker skitter out the door. “Is he like this all the time, or is it something I said?”
Pepper looks up from her still-glowing fingertips. “Peter’s a good kid, just kind of quiet. Mostly he helps out in the labs, or does homework up there. ”
Johnny snorts. “That’s the face you wear when you’re trying to be diplomatic. Usually about, like, Justin Hammer.”
Pepper sighs. “You know what Tony’s like. He woke up one morning, decided he wanted to do something for kids, and recruited an intern he didn’t really need. He didn’t know what to do with Peter once he was here, and I don’t either, but the kid refuses to stop showing up for work.”
“Huh. So he just kind of found a job for himself and and moved in? I can respect that. Hey FRIDAY, let us out of here, would you?”
The glass enclosure slides into the floor; Pepper steps away, looking for her water bottle. “You know I wouldn’t keep Peter around if I didn’t trust him.”
“Yeah, I know.” Johnny flames back on, floats up and sits back on thin air, stretching his legs out in front of him. “How’re you feeling?”
“Well, I hurt you, so I’m not really a fan of that.”
Johnny huffs dismissively, and then laughs at the little puff of flame that comes out of his mouth. “What, do you think it hurts every time I flame off? I asked you to put me out. You did great.”
Pepper tosses her water bottle restlessly in her hands. “You’re supposed to teach me how not to hurt people. That’s the deal.”
“I don’t get you,” says Johnny. “Live a little, Pepper, God.”
“I accidentally melted two phones this month. How is this fun for you?”
It’s a familiar argument by now. Johnny knows how important it is, keeping that ironclad control of their powers; he just can’t imagine not enjoying it when he gets to let go. Then again, he’s still here because Pepper doesn’t have his control to begin with. He works at his, sure, but the basics just clicked for him somehow, a few days after the crash. Something in Pepper isn’t clicking.
The good news is that he donated blood to keep her from turning into a walking bomb, so she’s kind of another big sister. A much older, white sister. The point is, Johnny is great at big sisters, so he’s totally got a handle on this. Or he’s getting a handle. It’s a process for everybody.
“You went through seven phones last month,” he says. “You’re getting better. And you getting better is fun for me, because it proves that I’m an awesome teacher.”
Pepper laughs. Bullseye.
Johnny tosses a fireball out to hover in the middle of the room. “Go ahead, put that out instead if it makes you feel better.”
She ignores it. “You know why this happened, right? Someone assumed it would kill me.”
Johnny stares at her. “No. Someone should maybe have mentioned that.”
“This was a long time ago. Tony thought he’d switched it off, and that was supposed to be the end of it.”
Johnny splits the hovering fireball in two and sends them into orbit around Pepper’s head. “Are you supposed to be telling me any of this?”
Pepper’s fingers flex against the floor. It looks like it’s softening and molding to her hands, but maybe now’s not the time to mention that. “Probably not, but I need you to understand. I spent five years getting used to the idea that I was walking around with this, this dead tech in my blood that had tried to kill me. And then it woke back up and almost killed me again. So no, this isn’t fun for me.”
“Don’t be sorry. You’ve helped a lot. I’m just still getting used to the idea that I can use this without melting down.” Pepper finally notices the floor warping in her grip and snatches her hands away. “Do you ever let it go? I mean, completely.”
Johnny shakes his head. “I don’t know what my max is, but I think I’d have to go pretty far out of town to find out.”
He’d like to know, though. He can’t imagine not even wondering.
Sue is less delighted by the day’s work than Johnny is. “You didn’t know what she would do to you! Johnny, your heart could have stopped.”
“Okay, but it didn’t. I wanted to see what would happen, and now I know. That’s the point, right?”
“I thought the point was to teach her how to control it, not pick fights.”
“See, what I’m hearing here is, you bugged me for years to get a real job and make myself useful, and now you don’t trust me to do it right.”
“Do I trust you not to jump headfirst into things that could get you killed? No, not really.”
“Wow,” says Johnny. “Thanks a whole lot. I’ll remember that next time you want to team up and fight bad guys together.”
It’s 2AM, but this is Manhattan where that doesn’t really matter, so he sulks out to an all-night diner. He eats his gyro and fries sitting on the diner roof, Fantastic Four uniform and all, because what’s anyone going to do about it? Mug the Human Torch?
“Hi,” says Spider-Man, dropping down next to him out of thin air and stealing a handful of fries. “It’s you.”
“Great, I was wondering who I was,” says Johnny, moving the bag out of Spider-Man’s reach. “What are you doing here? Thought you couldn’t cross the East River without crumbling into dust or something.”
“Shut up, everyone knows you grew up in Wantagh.” Spider-Man pulls his mask up above his mouth and shoves the whole handful of fries in at once.
“What,” says Johnny messily, and swallows his mouthful of food. “Are you doing. Here?” He’s never met Spider-Man before, but it’s common knowledge that the webs mostly get slung in Queens, especially since the ferry mess last year. And the most exciting thing happening in Midtown tonight is the stray piece of jalapeno on Johnny’s gyro.
“Oh, you know, scoping out the competition.” Spider-Man pulls his mask back into place.
“Yeah, you’re really cutting into my YouTube views.”
“What, all, like ten of them?”
Spider-Man shrugs. “It’s a hassle.”
Johnny wipes his mouth to hide his grin. Half his brain is still back at the Baxter Building with Sue right now, but he can’t believe it’s taken him this long to catch on that he’s being messed with. “The trick is, you put YouTube on automatic loop, and you just leave the tab open and go about your day.”
“Aha!” says Spider-Man, like this is genuinely the most brilliant idea he’s ever heard. “So that’s how you got so popular! I knew there had to be a reason.”
“Well, that, good looks, charm, the usual.” The actual answer is that Reed bootstrapped them all into celebrity so nobody could kidnap Johnny’s whole family and dissect them for evil science, but for some reason that’s kind of a downer for people. “Seriously, is there an emergency or something I should know about?”
Spider-Man shrugs. “Nope, just saying hi to the neighbors. Later, neighbor.” He drops abruptly off the edge of the roof, shoots a web back to snag the rest of Johnny’s fries, and swings away with a crow of triumph.
“Nice to meet you too!” Johnny shouts after him. “You unbelievable asshole!”
The week after Peter walks in on her in a jar, Ms. Potts appears unexpectedly in the lab he’s claimed for the afternoon. She watches him work on his suit for a minute and then says, “God, you’re just a kid. How do I know you’re making good use of all this stuff?”
Peter resists the urge to say because Mr. Stark trusts me, because he still isn’t sure that’s true, even with a full suit of cutting-edge Stark tech heaped in his lap. “I--I don’t think I could be that devious if I tried, Ms. Potts.”
“I think you’re too polite to be up to anything,” says Ms. Potts. “Tony should try it sometime. Don’t throw any parties in here, okay?”
Peter manages, somehow, to postpone a screaming meltdown over Tony should try it sometime. “Aw, how could you. There goes my Friday night.”
She smiles and perches on a stool next to him. “Peter, about last week--”
Peter holds his hands up. “I saw nothing. I know nothing. I get it about secrets.”
“Thanks, but I actually came down here to talk to you about the Human Torch.”
“I don’t know anything about him either?” Apart from, like, everything about him, seeing as the Fantastic Four hit media saturation months ago and refuse to go away.
And okay, sure, he tracked down the Torch to introduce himself in costume right after they met here, but sue him, he hadn't liked being dismissed as “the intern.”
Ms. Potts tilts her head, considering him. “I want to say, to begin with, I know I’m not actually your boss. I’m not really even Johnny’s boss, even though you’re both technically on the payroll. And--much as I hate not knowing what’s happening in my own building--I’ve been trying to let you both go about your business. But I need to ask you a favor.”
“What favor?” says Peter, cautiously, and puts down his tools.
“Johnny’s building something in Tony’s garage, and I’m not totally sure what it is. I could use someone to be a second pair of eyes, if you’re willing? Just to make sure he doesn’t destroy the building.”
Peter glances around the room in case he’s being messed with. “You know who you’re asking, right? I’m Mr. Property Damage 2018. The Bugle made it official and everything.”
Ms. Potts laughs. “Just go see if he needs a hand with whatever he’s doing down there.”
“Hey,” says Darla, propping her chin on Johnny’s shoulder. “What are you watching?”
Johnny tips his phone towards her. He’s watching some shitty portrait-oriented video of Spider-Man backflipping after a mugger. “Just scoping out the competition.”
“Oh God, him. Sometimes Brett watches videos of him, too. Then he gets mad and does agility workouts for like two hours and gets shin splints.” Darla’s boyfriend is an Olympic figure skater; she has a lot of opinions about things like “core stability” and “posterior chains” and “proprioception.” Most of them could never be repeated to her fanbase of eight-to-twelve-year-olds.
Johnny mostly does bodyweight stuff like a normal person, although being able to fly unaided has done miracles for his abs. “He doesn’t seriously think that’s trainable, does he? Everyone knows Spidey’s some kind of enhanced.”
“God, I hope not, I think he’s just a competitive weirdo. Brett, I mean. Not that you can sympathize or anything, clearly.” Darla leans in closer to squint at the phone.
“Personal space much?” Johnny blows pink hair out of his face. Onscreen, Spider-Man vaults one-handed over a fifteen-foot wall like it’s a speed bump. He rewinds and watches it again, purely out of professional curiosity.
Darla snatches his phone away, opens Instagram, and smacks a kiss on Johnny’s cheek. At least five flashbulbs audibly go off at the same moment she snaps the photo. It’s possible that every other customer in this Starbucks is a gossip reporter. “How many of these do you think, today?” In LA for singing lessons from the best, she types. Too bad I’m beyond help. #hopeless #tinear #deerestdarla
“Four.” Johnny steals his phone back, adds a suggestive string of emojis, and posts the resulting mess. “Five? That should keep people busy for a while.”
Not that he doesn’t love hanging out with Darla for her own sake; she was nice to him, when he was new to this whole celebrity deal. She’s a total sweetheart. But people won’t stop spreading rumors about him being a homewrecker, so they figure they might as well lean into it. It keeps people busy thinking about him as a personality, not a superpower.
Johnny’s job--one of his several jobs, along with routine world-saving and being Pepper’s life coach--is to look nonthreatening and ridiculous. The public’s trust in the Fantastic Four is a tightrope act as long as the Sokovia Accords are in place. He needs to be more of the guy who parties all over Snapchat and steals pop stars from their athlete boyfriends--less of the guy who could burn the Earth to a crisp if he thought about it too hard.
Luckily, that’s not much of a burden.
“I need to crash some Disney cast parties,” he says. “For important superhero reasons. Think you can hook me up?”
Darla sniffs. “I was in a very special musical episode of Power Teens. How dare you question my Disney connections.”
“You are the best fake girlfriend,” says Johnny fervently, and hugs her. “Let’s give some People writers some ulcers.”
“You were half right,” he admits to Sue a couple days later, when he gets back to New York.
She barely looks up at him over the top of her book. “Only half?”
Johnny collapses onto the sofa next to her. “I really do think it made Pepper feel better, knowing she can put fires out. I think it was a good thing to try, you know, in hindsight. But it was just a spur of the moment thing. You were right, I wasn’t thinking.” And maybe he wanted to do something cool-looking for the cute intern--for all the good it did him, seeing as the guy freaked out and ran away.
That doesn’t seem right, though; he vividly remembers Peter pressed against the glass, bright-eyed and fascinated. Concerned, maybe.
Then he freaked out and ran away.
Johnny closes his fist and opens it to reveal a flicker of flame. Close, open, two flames. Close, open, four. It’s a nervous tic at this point, feeling those points of heat move in familiar patterns over his hand. “Whatever, what if, like, the original Human Torch comes back as a zombie--wow, I only just thought of that and I wish I hadn’t. Forget I said that.”
Sue’s mouth twitches. “Zombie robots, huh?”
“I said forget it. We didn’t know another pyrokinetic or a, what is Pepper called, a thermokinetic could put me out the way I can put out a house fire. Now we know. That’s good, right?”
She reaches over and pats his shoulder. “Aw, for a second that almost sounded like science. Reed’s going to be so proud.”
“Wow. That’s just rude and uncalled-for.” Johnny makes a show of moving further away on the couch.
She sets her book aside. “Hey, Johnny. You know--Ms. Potts needed your help and you just jumped in, no questions asked. And I’m really proud of you for that. I don’t know if I’ve said so.”
“It’s not you I don’t trust, okay?”
Johnny twists to stare at her. “Pepper wouldn’t--whatever you’re thinking. We’re friends.”
Sue gives him a long look, face hard again. “Right away, as soon as this happened, Tony Stark knew the answer was in your blood. How did he know, Johnny?”
“I don’t follow.”
“There are exactly two pyrokinetics running around that anyone knows of, and I don’t think the Ghost Rider’s big on donating his blood to science. So how did they know what your blood would do?”
Johnny sits back. “I--I don’t know. I never asked.”
“Well, maybe you should.”
Peter’s not expecting someone to knock on the lab door. He sweeps the suit hastily off the table, cramming it into his backpack as the door cracks open. “Hello?”
“You were right, he’s in here! Thanks.” Johnny Storm waves to someone down the hall and then sticks his head through the door. “Peter! Pete! Lucky meeting you here. And by luck I mean Dr. Dillon down the hall told me you were here.”
Peter waves cautiously, jamming the suit deeper into his bag with one foot. Paper crumples in there; he hopes it’s nothing that’s getting graded. “Hey, uh, Torch. What’s up?”
“I’m a person, you know, you can call me Johnny. Just wanted to say hi properly, since last time was a little weird.” Torch--fine, Johnny--comes in and shuts the lab door behind him.
Peter props his elbows on the open book he left on the table as a cover story. “Yeah, what was that about?”
Johnny plops down on the nearest empty stool. He’s in civilian clothes--grubby jeans and t-shirt, wildly out of place around here--and his hair continues to look infuriatingly good. “I can’t tell you.” He grins, sheepish. “Literally, I can’t, no one will tell me exactly what happened to her. It’s some kind of big scary state secret.”
“Is Ms. Potts, like, okay?”
“She just worries too much, if you ask me. It’s mostly trial and error, you know? Figuring out what she can do. Her powers don’t really work anything like mine.”
“Like sharks and dolphins,” says Peter. Sharks and dolphins. The lines that come out of his mouth. Why is this so much easier when he has a mask on? “That’s really cool, though, that you’re helping with that.”
Johnny shrugs a shoulder, a quick flex of muscle under his shirt. “What are you working on there? The, uh--” He cranes his neck to read upside down. “Journal of Dynamic Behavior of Materials. Thrilling stuff.”
“Um.” Peter glances down at the volume in front of him. “It’s an independent study thing for school--seeing you on TV kind of gave me the idea, actually.”
Johnny rests his chin in his hands. “Okay, now I’m definitely interested.”
Peter chooses to take this at face value. “So I was thinking about your uniform, how it can catch fire without burning? And there’s a ton of other cool research lately into weird uses for fibers and textiles. I mean, yurts have been around for millennia and are ridiculously durable. And now we have things like glass fiber reinforced concrete, carbon nanotubes, electroactive polymers, all with potential architectural uses. Not to mention the way Spider-Man handled the ferry disaster, last year--”
“Which didn’t work,” Johnny points out.
“Not for lack of trying! That was a failure of adhesive strength, not tensile strength. Or that’s how it looked on YouTube, anyway. I’ve watched it a bunch of times.” Peter coughs. “My point is, New York keeps getting hit by aliens and earthquakes and guys with laser guns, all this crap we can’t even predict. If the city could retrofit buildings with fiber-reinforced materials, incorporate them into new construction--FR construction materials have better durability, elasticity, tensile strength, shear resistance. They’d hold up so much better in a disaster. All kinds of disasters.”
“Do you breathe?” says Johnny after a pause.
“Yes?” says Peter. “Only on special occasions, though.” Crap, that got wildly out of hand.
Johnny does look kind of glazed over. “So basically, you want to wrap up the whole city in a high-tech safety net.”
Peter marks his place in the journal and closes it. “It’s a high school science report. I just thought it’d be fun to think about.”
“For what it’s worth, I think it sounds cool. Although, I mean, being around Reed all the time, you learn to pretty much guess what he’s talking about from the three words you actually understand. You could be talking nonsense for all I know.”
“Sometimes it feels that way,” Peter admits.
Johnny laughs, which feels pretty much like Peter hitting his heroism quota for the day. “I was gonna order a pizza and eat it in the garage, you want some?”
“I would, but I promised I’d be home for dinner.” Peter hops off his stool, not even remotely panicking at the thought of dinner with Johnny Storm, and bends down to grab his bag.
Johnny knocks Peter in the shoulder as he passes. “No worries, some other time.”
“You’re not listening,” Johnny says. “This is important, Sue.”
“Hey, matchstick, head in the game, would ya?” Ben swats a flying robot towards him.
Johnny incinerates it with a flick of his fingers. “I can multitask!”
“Robots first,” says Sue in his ear. “Teenage angst later, okay?”
“Teenage angst, she says.” Johnny flits up higher, trying to spot her; Sue herself may not be visible, but the trail of damage often is. “Johnny!” he says in falsetto. “Johnny, guess what! Remember that Richards kid, he totally grew up hot, I’m going to get him to tutor me in a class I’m already acing--”
“I can hear you, you know,” says Reed, sounding strangled.
“Oh, I know.” Another flying robot hurtles directly into Johnny’s gut; he grunts and tumbles backwards before righting himself.
“Whoops,” says Sue. “Sorry. Someone was distracting me.”
Ben curbstomps a drone. “How ya doing in there, Reed? Gettin’ old swatting flies out here.”
“I found the remote transmitter that’s controlling them. If you’ll all hang on a minute longer, I can find a way to cut it off without sacrificing our ability to trace the signal back to the source.”
“Hey, Fantastics!” Spider-Man swings into view and perches atop a lamppost. “How’s it stretching?”
“You!” says Johnny. “You owe me dinner.”
Spider-Man looks down at his own costume. “Sorry, Charizard, not exactly black tie ready--hey, hey, whoa, don’t toast that one. Spiders are friends and helpers, remember?” The tiny drone hovering in front of Johnny zips over to land on his chest, folding up neatly to fit into the logo there.
Ben peers up at them both. “Since when do you know the bug boy?”
“Aw, he’s a pain in the ass but he tries,” says Johnny. “Let me hear him out before you swat him.”
“Do all the work while you schmooze, sounds like.” But Ben stomps off anyway, towards a robot firing lasers at a tree.
“Next time I need a recommendation letter, remind me to ask you first.” Spider-Man folds his arms, balancing on his toes with zero apparent effort. “So what’s the situation?”
“Swarm of drones trying to break into the Met. Kind of boring, actually, they’re not even fighting back. Reed and Sue are in there trying to shut down the box controlling them.” Johnny drifts over to hover next to the lamppost; he can pick off drones just as easily from here.
Spider-Man cranes his neck to look east through the park. “Hate to break it to you, but the Met’s like a quarter mile of trees that way.”
Johnny dives after a larger robot marching past them towards the museum. “Fire? Art museum? Bad mix. Why do you think Ben and I are stuck out here playing human flyswatters?”
“You do know Central Park is mostly made of wood, right? Torch, Torch, Torch of the Jungle, watch out for that tree--no, seriously, that tree’s on fire now.”
“Shit.” Johnny sucks the flame back into himself, but the tree looks significantly worse for wear. “Did you need something, webs?”
“Yeah, a transformer blew in Jackson Heights a couple hours ago, so I went to check if everyone was okay. Turned out what blew it was someone with a big sketchy robotics lab in her basement. When the power came back up, my bff Droney here tracked a signal--”
“Hold on, hold on. Droney?”
Spider-Man ignores him. “The lab was transmitting to something around here. Must be that receiver in the museum.”
Johnny toasts a few more stray drones. “So what’d you do with the evil genius?”
“Webbed her up outside the nearest precinct, left a Hallmark card, the usual.” Spider-Man webs up a robot flying by him and turns it over in his hands. “The kids look pretty lively considering Mom’s not broadcasting any more.”
“Hang on, let me pass this along.” Johnny flips his earpiece back on and sums it up for Reed.
“That’d make sense,” says Reed. “These are highly differentiated machines built to carry out a specific, coordinated plan. The power outage disrupted the instructions being transmitted, so they’re behaving erratically. You’ll have to keep taking them out one by one.”
Johnny groans. “Aw, there’s hundreds of them!”
Spider-Man spreads his hands and wiggles his fingers. “Need an extra pair of hands? I could send Droney up to scan for moving metal, it’ll go way easier.”
“I don’t know, I wouldn’t want to cut into your busy heckling schedule.”
“Cool. Just what I always wanted,” says Spider-Man, standing up and cracking his knuckles. “The Bugle accusing me of art theft. Oh, well.”
By two AM they’re home. Ben’s asleep, Reed’s vanished into his lab with one of the less-damaged art thief bots, and Johnny’s in the kitchen flipping grilled ham and cheese onto plates--two for Sue, three for himself. He used to do this for her after she had big tests in college; now he does it after weird science disasters. The more things change, blah, blah.
Sue’s plate rises from the counter on its own and floats over to her. “It’s unfair how tired I am. All we did was stomp mechanical cockroaches all night.”
“Either way, you get the world’s best grilled cheese and you’re gonna like it, so too bad.” Johnny sits down with his own plate and crams half a sandwich in his mouth.
“So this intern you met,” says Sue, in between bites.
“Not a big deal.” He’s already sorry he brought it up. “Susan Victoria Storm, don’t you roll your eyes at me when I’m talking to you.”
Sue is laughing into her sandwich. It’s objectively disgusting. How she gets on the cover of fashion magazines, Johnny will never understand. “You get respect when you earn respect, Mr. Storm.”
Johnny swats away an invisible hand trying to steal another sandwich off his plate. “I don’t even understand two out of three words that come out of his mouth, but he lights up all over the place when he gets excited about stuff and it’s--ugh. This is silly, right? I’ve met him, like, twice.”
“You’ve always been a quick judge of people.” Sue pats his arm. “Anyway, I know the feeling.”
“Ew,” says Johnny. “Do not start.”
“You’ve met Reed, right?”
“That’s different! Reed is ten times worse. And made of silly putty. And,” Johnny adds quickly, recognizing a dangerous glint in her eye, “you’re my favorite sister, and I love and accept you unconditionally? Even your weird taste in men?”
“Better,” says Sue generously. “You may live.”
At first, the first sublevel of the Potts Building looks more like a showroom than a working garage; there are a dozen gleaming sports cars lined up on display for nobody to see. “Hello?” Peter calls, wandering in deeper. “Anyone home?”
A door opens across from him, and Johnny Storm looks out. “Aw, look who came down to visit.”
Peter stares at him, opens his mouth, closes it. “That...does not look safe. OSHA would not approve.”
Johnny glances down at his own bare chest. “Hey, I was just so--”
“If even one heat pun comes out of your mouth, I keep all of this for myself,” Peter says, and holds up a Shake Shack bag.
“Now that’s just cruel. Get back here.”
“Back here” is as grubby and gasoline-smelling as any normal body shop, except for being the size of a small airplane hangar. Peter tosses Johnny one of the bags; he does, after all, owe him dinner. “Ms. Potts said you disappear down here a lot and I should try and feed you once in a while. You must burn a lot of calories, right? Literally.”
“You’d be surprised. Apparently when I flame on I mainly burn oxygen. Score one for sustainable energy. Still a growing boy, though, so thanks for this.” Johnny opens the bag and nods approvingly at his burger and fries.”So what brings you down here?”
Peter shrugs. “Just curious, I guess. Can’t be worse than doing data entry upstairs.”
“Great! Let me give you the tour, you can see what the actual fun work looks like.”
“Your idea of fun looks really unhygienic.” It’s disorienting, after always seeing the guy in uniform, to walk in on him like this.
“Oh, you have no idea,” says Johnny, waggling his eyebrows, but he picks up a battered t-shirt and pulls it over his head. Suddenly Peter can breathe easier, for some reason. “Hey, I asked Reed, but he says you can’t borrow any unstable molecule fabric for your project. Also that it’s not actually a textile, it’s some kind of highly viscous liquid or something, but I gotta say, that’s where he lost me.”
“You didn’t have to do--” Peter takes a step past him, sees what’s actually in the garage, and freezes. “That.”
Next to him, Johnny takes a big bite of his burger. “Isn’t she beautiful?” he says, through a mouthful of beef.
The garage is the size of a small hangar because it is one. It’s occupied by the gleaming skeleton of something that’s--not an airplane, but unmistakably an aircraft of some kind, a gracefully curved stingray shape with four small separate cockpits. Peter drops his backpack and walks around it, staring. “This is amazing. What is it?”
Johnny reaches up and touches one of the wings. “You know what’s really a pain about growing up around Reed Richards? You say something like, hey, wouldn’t it be cool if I could play video games with my brain and have both hands free for snacks, and he goes on a three-day bender and revolutionizes like five scientific fields because he wants to impress your sister. And then you own a mind-controlled video game console, but also maybe Solid Snake starts physically appearing in your bedroom at night and watching you sleep.”
“That’s disturbingly specific. And doesn’t answer my question at all.”
“Reed keeps saying he wants the team to have our own specialized transport, but there’s always ten other things he wants to be building. So I figured it was my turn to grant some wishes.”
Peter sits down on the nearest table and takes a slurp of his milkshake. “Does Mr. Stark know you’re building this in here?”
“We made a deal--I work with Pepper and I get to use this space down here. It’s not like anyone else is using it for anything, and I needed somewhere to work away from the peanut gallery in the Baxter Building. Ben wants jumbo cup holders, Reed wants more scientific instrumentation, Sue keeps asking about the seat belts. I want a flaming Charger like that guy in LA, but do you see me complaining?”
“You do realize the Ghost Rider is, like, the West Coast Frank Castle, right? I’m just checking here.”
“Exactly. That car deserves better.”
“I wouldn’t mind getting a look at it,” Peter admits. “I’d love to know how that trick works. You’d need specialized accelerants, a tightly calibrated delivery system, a custom-formulated finish to protect the car, never mind the tires--”
Johnny stares at him. “Yeah, but I want to drive the thing, you weirdo. What’s the fun otherwise?”
“I don’t drive. Not my thing.” He could explain the fiasco that resulted last time he tried, but he’d really rather not.
“What do you mean, you don’t drive?”
“Look, if God wanted New Yorkers to drive, he wouldn’t have made the E train.”
“Having ridden the E train? Something is deeply wrong with you.”
Peter points desperately at the skeletal aircraft. “So. Tell me about this thing?”
Johnny spreads his hands, sending off sparks for emphasis; Peter laughs, and he beams back. “The Fantasticar! Don’t make that face, I’m working on a better name. It’s really four separate craft, see?” He traces a seam of fine machinery. “They break apart, like the Enterprise--or they can merge together and fly as one. It was a hell of a job designing them to look good either way, believe me.”
“I like your priorities.”
“Well, that and distributing the engines for maximum maneuverability either way. But mostly the looks.” Johnny gives the framework one last pat. “Actually, materials engineering is kind of your thing, right? Would you maybe wanna take a look at this? I’m having trouble with the reinforcement around these separation points. I’m worried it’s too rigid.”
Peter nods with embarrassing haste. “Yeah, if you think I can do anything, I’d love to take a look.”
“Great, that’d really help. Plus it’s just--nice, you know, seeing you around. Reed’s been homeschooling me since the crash, I don’t get to see a lot of people my age.”
“Except the cast of High School Musical: The Next Generation: The Series, right? I’ve been wondering, do you go on giant group dates, or do they each get a day of the week?”
“Shut up,” says Johnny, and points at the door. “I take it all back. Get out.”
“Sure thing.” Peter hops up, milkshake in hand, to take a closer look at the Fantasticar. “Now tell me more about this separation mechanism.”
“I see what you’re doing,” says Johnny, shoving into Pepper’s office.
“Paperwork?” She looks blankly up at him.
“You’re trying to set me up with your intern. You told him I was, like, lonely and underfed or something.”
Pepper flicks away a dozen holographic screens. “I’m the CEO of Stark Industries, Johnny.”
Johnny makes a show of looking around the office like he’s never seen it before. “Yeah, I heard a rumor.”
She spreads her hands, reminiscent--purposely or not--of Stark’s old signature move. The view behind her goes all the way down to Lady Liberty. ”Do I look like I have time to play matchmaker for kids?”
Johnny smiles his most insincere photo op smile, shoving his hands in his pockets. “I’m gonna be honest, you look like a woman who doesn’t go outside much these days, for reasons we both know, and you’re trying to feel better about it by handling my personal life for me.”
Pepper goes all cold in the face, because that was a low blow and they both know it.
He backs off a step and puts his hand up. “Sorry.”
She softens, if only with a twitch of a smile. “You wouldn’t shut up about him. For days, Johnny. What does that Peter kid do around here, what is he like, do you think I scared him off? Oh, Pepper, I talked to Peter again, he’s so smart and funny--”
Johnny so does not sound like that. “That’s not the point. I just hate feeling managed, okay? You know I already get enough of that, like, everywhere else.” Everything in his life--his powers, school, the press--is a situation that has to be handled. This is the one place lately where he feels like he’s his own person, working with Pepper.
Or, lately, with Peter.
It’s not like Johnny doesn’t know he likes Peter; he’s not completely dense. He likes having someone around to needle him, push back. He likes the prospect of having help with the car--it would’ve felt like admitting failure, picking Reed’s brain, but asking for Peter’s input doesn’t. And if he really just likes looking at the guy--well, Johnny knows what all of this means. He doesn’t need to be handheld through it.
Pepper sighs. “Maybe I tried to give you an excuse to hang out with him. I just thought it’d be a nice thing to do, okay? You can do whatever you want with it.”
Honestly, she’s making sense, but he’s still too annoyed to admit it. “Wait, do I really sound like that when I talk about him?”
She nods toward the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow when you’re actually supposed to be here.”
“Pepper, come on! I don’t, do I?”
“Get out of my office, Jonathan.”
“You went to space.”
Johnny takes a screwdriver out from between his teeth. “And what would I do without your magnet school brain to remind me every five minutes?”
The problem is that Peter can’t stop thinking about what it must be like, to build something with your own two hands and then leave the planet in it. He keeps bringing it up in the hopes that he finds something more intelligent to say about it than that’s incredibly hot.
He can’t exactly say that outright, so he just wants a good question to ask. Something unexpected, that Johnny hasn’t heard ten times over in AMAs and talk shows. A question that would make Johnny look at him like--he doesn’t know exactly what like.
“Why?” says Peter, and immediately wants to knock his head against the edge of the workbench. It’d put them both out of their misery.
Johnny slides out from under the fuselage and gives Peter a look, all right. It’s not a promising one. “Why, he asks. I don’t know, space camp boy, why does anyone go to space?”
Peter stares down at the machinery he’s taking apart. “Well, no one ever asks you that, right? It’s always, hey, Dr. Richards, why did you bring a sixteen-year-old kid on an experimental orbital craft.”
“Hey, I put in more than my share of the heavy lifting, building that thing. Enough to get naming rights.”
Johnny sticks his tongue out. “Reed has this bug in his ear about the space program, okay? NASA’s pretty much dead in the water. With all of this, Chitauri, Inhumans, Asgardian refugees--nobody wants to explore space any more, just protect ourselves from it. He was trying to make a point and instead we got this whole three-ring circus. Which sucks.”
Peter stops poking at his spring-loaded latch mechanism and drops his chin onto his folded arms. “Yeah, I’m with him on that, but why did you go?”
“Pete, I helped build a spaceship. I wanted to see it fly.” Johnny glances over at him. “Hey, can I tell you something, though?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“I think he was right. I think we gotta go back sometime, if we ever figure out how to do it under the radar. I think we should build the Awesome II and go seek out new life and new civilizations or whatever it is Reed actually wanted to do once we got into orbit.”
Peter forces himself to stop watching Johnny’s hands as he wipes them off. ”Yeah, well, let me know when you go, I’ll stow away in an overhead bin.”
Johnny snorts. “I see what you’re up to, but you’re too late to get powers.”
“Yup,” says Peter. “Too bad. No powers for me.”
It’s late on a weeknight and Johnny is home alone, watching a Chopped marathon, when the alarms go off.
As soon as he checks the cameras, he turns the alarm off and texts everyone else: false alarm, monster pigeon on the roof. Ben is somewhere carrying on his nonsense beef with Yancy Street, but Reed and Sue have miraculously managed to go on an actual date. Johnny’s not letting anything get in the middle of that. (Unless it’s himself, personally heckling them, but tonight is not that night.)
He flies up to the roof himself, just to make sure he’s not hallucinating, and--yup, Spider-Man’s here, sprawled on his back in the middle of a puddle. “Wow,” he says dreamily, when Johnny lands next to him and flames off. “And they say you can’t see the stars from New York.”
Johnny frowns down at him. “Is that a line, or are you concussed?”
“Both? It might be both.” One of the lenses of Spider-Man’s mask is shattered. Johnny glimpses pale skin, freckles, the gleam of an eye; then a metal iris spins shut over it, hiding his face again. Spider-Man groans. “Karen, stop helping. No, I--stop helping! Just let me suffer in peace here, okay?”
“My name’s not Karen,” Johnny reminds him, and crouches down just outside the range of the puddle. It smells foul, whatever it is.
“No, Karen’s--” Spider-Man taps his temple.
“Wow. You are really concussed. What happened to you?”
Spider-Man sits up with another groan and gives himself a shake. “A nice lady in a mechanical exoskeleton threw me off the Astoria ferry. Next one I grabbed was coming back towards 34th, and I wanted a safe-ish spot to wait out this headache, so hi, here I am. It’s--I heal really fast, I’ll be gone by morning, don’t worry about it.”
Johnny shakes his head. “Ferries are just not your friends, are they.”
“Did you know I’m the only person who’s ever been totally banned from NYC Ferry? It’s a big honor. I still ride around stuck to the side of the boat, but sometimes I feel guilty about it.” He seems--not quite all here, but surprisingly lucid for someone who’s hearing voices named Karen.
Johnny looks him over. “Okay, if you want to sit here and marinate in river water all night I can’t stop you, but I’m gonna get you aspirin and a towel. Sit tight.” He jumps off the roof before Spider-Man can object, and re-enters the building through the living room window.
This is a severe tactical error.
Spider-Man laughs at how fast he rockets back to the roof. “Where’s the fire, Torch? Ha ha, see, fire--”
“Shut up.” Johnny hurls a beach towel at him; it’s smoking faintly around the edges. “Reed and Sue were on a date, okay, I went back inside right as they got home. You cannot pay me enough to go downstairs right now. Or ever again. I’m disowning this team and leaving the country.”
Spider-Man’ is wheezing with laughter, head down between his knees. “Can you suffer less hilariously? My head is killing me.”
Johnny hands over the aspirin bottle and sits down--close enough for his flames to help dry the guy off, not close enough to burn. “You sure you don’t want me to call anyone?”
“Nah, thanks.” Spider-Man toasts him with the bottle and lifts the mask just long enough to dry-swallow four pills. "Ugh, of course my suit heater is busted, right when I could really use it. Plus I still gotta find that woman. I can't believe I got thrown off the damn ferry and didn't web onto it, anything, just--thump, splash, like that rabbit in the song--no, the rabbit was doing the thumping, never mind."
“You’re concussed, remember? I'm pretty sure, by definition, you don't get to blame yourself for bad decision-making.”
“Meh, it’s just a small piece of light head trauma. You know how it goes.” Spider-Man huddles into his towel and hums a few lines of Little Bunny Foo Foo.
The problem is, he’s always kind of like this, which makes it hard for Johnny to tell how worried he should be. “Tell you what, next time you spot any of this leftover Vulture crap, let me know. We'll make it a party."
Spider-Man gives him a thumbs up. “A me-getting-beat-up party! My favorite kind. The only kind I get invited to, actually.”
Johnny means to sit up there and keep an eye on him until morning, but he dozes off at some point. When he wakes up he’s alone, the sun’s up, and the towel’s draped over him like a blanket. It’d be a real heartwarming moment if it wasn’t still damp and reeking of the East River.
“I wanna tell you something,” Johnny is saying on TV. “I wanna tell the story of how Reed and Sue met.”
“I thought you got together in college,” the host says.
“We did,” says the Invisible Woman, too quickly.
“Hey May,” says Peter, in the middle of making salad. “Did I tell you sometimes this guy shows up at Stark Industries? I don’t know why, hero stuff, I guess.” Whatever exactly Ms. Potts’s deal is, it’s definitely not May’s business.
Or Ned’s, who’s sitting up straight at the kitchen table, on high alert. Ned was not invited to dinner, but he’s somehow managed to turn up for every lasagna night for seven years. “Peter, you met the Human Torch and you didn’t tell me?”
“Okay, but originally, how they met, when we were kids--come on, Sue, it’s a funny story.” Peter’s back is to the TV, but he recognizes the glee in Johnny’s voice. “Imagine this--I’m seven, right, Sue’s thirteen, I’ve just trashed my bike and she catches me stripping hers for parts.”
May is mostly paying attention to the oven, which is why he chose now to bring this up. “So what’s he like? And no webbing in the kitchen, Peter, it’s disgusting, how many times--”
Peter rolls his eyes, pulls his sleeve back down, and trudges five whole feet to open the refrigerator with his actual hand. “Well, the good news is he’s kind of a jerk.”
“If that’s the good news, what’s the bad news?”
“The bad news is--” Peter’s about to say I like him anyway, but he realizes just in time how that sounds. Instead he chokes and says “He, uh--cheekbones?” and then puts his head down on the kitchen counter and dies, mercifully, of embarrassment.
Johnny and his sister are both laughing on TV, which just makes it worse. “Anyway, when she finishes chewing me out, she stomps outside and runs into the Richards kid from next door.”
“No one ever saw him,” the Invisible Woman adds. “Everyone talked about, you know, that supergenius Richards boy who was my age and about to graduate high school. I kind of thought people made him up just to mess with us.”
“So she runs into Reed, imagine little baby Reed with his big nerd glasses, he asks if she’s okay--”
“Nope,” says Ned, with all the wisdom of someone whose nice normal girlfriend has never once set anything on fire. “Bad idea, Peter. Don’t do it.”
May just makes a strangled noise into her hands. It’s the sound of a woman trying valiantly not to laugh at her nephew’s terrible life choices. Peter’s very familiar with it.
“It’s nothing,” he says. “Don’t even worry about it. I’m the intern, I’m the nerdy little intern who hides out in the garage to get out of doing my job. That's all he knows.”
“--and I regret this now, believe me--I said, I wish I could build a rocket and send my baby brother into space. And Reed said, totally serious, sure! I can help with that.”
The woman interviewing them doubles over in laughter. “No. No way.”
Johnny shrugs. “Well, here we are ten years later, so I guess the man can keep a promise.”
“Don’t you see him when you’re spidering around?” Ned gets up to set the table, in response to May’s increasingly pointed looks.
Peter catches himself smiling fondly at the TV, where Johnny is now wearing sunglasses made of flames because he’s a tool, and looks away. It’s weird how that’s the same guy who was trying to nurse him through a concussion a few nights ago, but Peter’s life is already endlessly weird; that doesn’t excuse the lump in his chest.
He shakes his head, which is easier than explaining any of that. “Look at them, they’re on a whole different level from me. I barely see them.”
Johnny lands on the rooftop and flames off. “You know, my lawyer told me never to go near Hell’s Kitchen.”
Spider-Man’s side-eye is recognizable even through the mask. “Do I want to know what you did?”
“Nothing!” Johnny says indignantly. “He said something about his home turf having enough problems already.”
“Foggy Nelson is a smart man,” says someone behind them. “You should listen to him, Mr. Storm.”
Spider-Man yelps and spins around--and to be fair, it’s genuinely hard to take him by surprise.
Johnny lights up one hand--not quite aflame, just enough glow to shed light on the subject. It gleams very nicely off the red lenses of Daredevil’s mask, not to mention the white of his teeth.
“Mr. Devil, sir,” says Spider-Man, slightly higher-pitched than usual. “We don’t want any trouble with you, okay?”
“Mr. Devil,” Johnny repeats under his breath, and kicks Spider-Man in the shin. “I’m sorry about this guy, I really can’t take him anywhere.”
Daredevil’s teeth sharpen into a grin; Johnny takes a reflexive step back.
“Don’t hide behind me,” Spider-Man hisses. “What kind of cut-rate superhero are you?”
“Cut-rate? I’ll show you cut-rate.”
“What does that even--”
Daredevil clears his throat. “What are you boys doing here?”
“A guy was robbing a night depository over by Columbus Circle.” Spider-Man points in a direction, probably the wrong one. “We followed him this way.”
Johnny jabs one glowing thumb at him. “Correction. I got dragged this way because Mr. Man here thinks he was using Vulture tech.”
“He bashed his way in with a powered exoskeleton. I’ve seen it before.” Spider-Man sounds a bit calmer now that he has a talking point to run with. “There’s a lot of Vulture’s stuff still floating around, and Hell’s Kitchen seems like a good place to keep a stash. No, uh, no offense.”
“No, you’re not wrong. I’ll keep an eye out and let you know if anything shows up. After all, I know where at least one of you lives,” says Daredevil, and melts back into the shadows.
“Huh,” says Spider-Man, still sounding kind of shrill. “Not such a bad guy after--wait, didn't Daredevil die?”
“Oh God, he did," says Johnny. "You're right. Daredevil’s ghost is going to haunt the Baxter Building now and it's all your fault."
Peter’s supposed to be conjugating irregular Spanish verbs. There are so, so many irregular Spanish verbs. He questions the entire concept of “regular” Spanish verbs. His neighbors’ bike room got emptied out last night and he hasn’t figured out yet who did it, but he’s too tired to think through that either.
It’s too warm in the garage, as it often is when Johnny’s working and forgets that other people have temperature preferences. At the moment, working mostly means that Johnny is handling scrap metal, forming it into miniatures of the Fantasticar. He’s working the metal with his glowing bare hands, stroking it into shape and then adjusting curves, singing quietly off-key to himself. “Got Chucks on with Saint Laurent, gonna kiss myself, I’m so pretty--”
It’s pretty pointless work--Peter’s pretty sure he’s more fidgeting than anything else--but FRIDAY’s still draped a holographic grid over the model, highlighting stress points in blue. Mixed with the red glow of Johnny’s hands, the light does complicated things to the brown of his skin, glinting off his cheekbones and the sharp line of his collarbone.
All the places Peter keeps catching himself wanting to touch.
Peter slumps back against the wall and closes his eyes. He’s spent so much time down here lately that he can still see the lines of the Fantasticar behind his eyelids. It’s going to be a beautiful thing when it takes flight. The gleaming steel skeletons of dragons are rising up through the streets, breathing blue mathematical flame; if he got closer he could almost understand--
“It’s Saturday night and we in the spot!” Johnny yowls at full volume. Peter jolts upright, and his Spanish book falls out of his lap to smack onto the floor.
“Dick,” he mumbles, shoving the heels of his hands into his eyes. He had--he almost knew--he was dreaming. It doesn’t matter.
“I’m gonna make this my official theme song,” Johnny announces. “I have people, they can talk to Mark Ronson’s people, this should totally happen. He could use the boost anyway, right?”
Peter reaches behind him, where Johnny can’t see what he’s doing, and webs his book back up into his hand. “I can’t tell if you’re joking, and that scares me.”
“I never joke.”
Peter gives up on the futuro del subjuntivo and shuts his book. “Do you actually need me for anything?”
“Not right this second.” Johnny gives him a gracious wave. “Go back to your beauty sleep, you need it.”
Johnny arrives in Pepper’s office one afternoon to find Sue already sitting there. It doesn’t look like a friendly visit; she’s in a suit, her usual cloud of hair scraped back into a tight bun.
He knows that bun well. It means trouble. “Nope,” Johnny says, and turns to go right back out the door.
“Johnny,” says Sue, a warning tone he also knows far too well, and he stops where he is. “You said you would ask her.”
“No, you told me to ask her.” And he doesn’t want to know the answer, so he hasn’t asked.
“Would you just listen?” says Pepper.
Johnny knows when he’s outnumbered, so he shuts the door behind him, but doesn’t sit down.
“Your sister was right,” says Pepper, and pointedly ignores Johnny’s groan. “I’m glad she came to me.”
“Half right,” Sue allows. “Given the information I had.”
“When this happened, Tony was pulling data from anywhere he could find, including the SHIELD data Black Widow dumped to the public. Which is a mess, as you can imagine. I went back and looked around, but we really don’t know how we know. Just that someone, at some point, stabilized an Extremis patient with a transfusion from a pyrokinetic.”
“But there was still someone like me who--who was experimented on at some point.” Johnny looks down at his hands. “Is that all you wanted to tell me?”
“I wanted to know what, exactly, Stark Industries knows about you,” says Sue. “You’re not a weapon, Johnny. I worry about someone trying to turn you into one.”
“And I told her, and I’m telling you, I’m making extra sure that FRIDAY’s not collecting any data on you. I’m having a--medical problem--and your job is to help me get it taken care of. That’s it.”
Johnny doesn’t understand what anyone wants from him in this conversation. “Tell you what, I’m just gonna go. When you two figure out what I’m good for, give me a call.”
It's a comparatively quiet night in New York--or it must be, because Spider-Man is hanging out on top of the Baxter Building again, eating a hot dog. "Don't you have security?" he says, when Johnny joins him. "I breathed wrong on a rusty Buick the other day and like ten sirens went off, but this place--nothing."
"The invisible laser cannons are warming up. Better eat faster." After the concussion incident, Johnny told the security systems to recognize Spider-Man as a friendly. It'll probably get him yelled at, whenever someone gets around to noticing, but--forgiveness, permission. "Slow night?"
"Yup. Hate 'em. Always feels like something extra ugly is about to happen, probably right when I'm on my way home to bed." Spider-Man finishes his hot dog, wipes mustard off his mouth with the back of his glove, and pulls his mask back into place. "What about you, don't you have exciting science to be doing or something?"
"Some people do." Johnny waves downward in the general direction of Reed's lab. "He gave me calculus homework, but screw that, so."
"Aw, poor little rich boy sounds grumpy," says Spider-Man. He leans back on his hands, staring across the street at the dark spike that used to be Avengers Tower. There's a half-finished ROXXON sign wrapping around it now.
Johnny glares half-heartedly; the Spider-suit is obviously expensive as hell, so it's not like the guy isn't doing fine. "I know, okay? Believe me, I know how ridiculously lucky I am. The money's great, sure, and the cool superpowers, but you can't teach handsome."
"You know, I have better things I could be doing right now. So many things." Spider-Man hops up into a crouch and rocks forward on his toes, a hair away from toppling forward off the building. "So is there actually something you wanna get off your chest, or--"
Johnny flicks sparks at him. “This stuff used to be simple, you know? It was always me and Sue, looking out for each other. I could handle that. I understood that.”
Spider-Man laughs. “Yeah, I remember simple.”
“Now every time I go outside and jaywalk it’s, oh, the Human Torch is a screwup. Oh, the Fantastic Four are dangerous. Oh, people with powers can’t be trusted. I’m not gonna lie and say I don’t love the attention, but I--I get jealous of you.”
“Jealous. Of me and my glowing press?”
Johnny taps Spider-Man on the chest. “Jealous that you can take this off and be a normal loser somewhere. I’m great at the actual hero gig, but I didn’t set out to be a symbol 24/7.”
"I didn't set out to lie about the coolest part of my life to, like, everyone I'd ever want to talk to about it. But I guess we're both stuck now."
"Huh. When you put it that way it sounds kinda awkward."
"I get tired of pretending to be--not this. Baseline human guy with no strength or webs. Or bruised ribs. I haven't been that guy for years. I don't know if I'm even any good at pretending to be him.” Spider-Man tilts his head. “And there are some people, friends, I just really wish I could tell. I love doing this and it sucks I have to hide it."
It's a common enough mannerism, but something about that thoughtful head-tilt reminds Johnny of Peter--of the gleam in his eyes when Johnny shows off the Fantasticar. The swoop of his heart, like flying, every time he manages to impress actual genius Peter Parker. “Hey. You ever try dating since you started?”
“Yeah. It--wasn’t great, you know, I put her dad in jail, that makes things weird. Obviously she didn’t know it was me, but I did, so--” He coughs. ”Anyway, it doesn’t seem like you’re having any problems.”
“TMZ has a lot of undeserved faith in my game.”
“I thought you and that singer, Darla Deering?”
Johnny laughs. Holy shit, he did not think real humans actually believed that. “Darla and I can’t get within half a mile of each other without Twitter flipping its shit, so we ran with it. It just got funny after a while. As long as her actual boyfriend knows better, which he does, who cares what anyone else thinks?”
“So in a solid year of being, like, teen idol of the century, you’ve been single the whole time?”
“Well. There’s dating, and then there’s--you know. Meaning it.”
Spider-Man flops dramatically onto his back and throws an arm over his face. “Oh boy, here it is, here we go.”
“Sometimes I wonder, what’s gonna happen when I really like someone? Like, enough to wonder if it’s worth dragging them into all of this with me?”
“Why, you got someone in mind?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know.” Johnny’s not taking that bait. All he needs is Spider-Man taking out billboards that say JOHNNY STORM LIKES PETER PARKER.
“I feel like the serious, mature answer would be to talk to them about it.” Spider-Man hums. “On the other hand, I gotta question the good sense of anyone who spends time with you of their own free will.”
“Oh, come on!” Johnny gestures wildly at him.
“Right, because I’m the poster boy for good sense.”
It’s obviously a joke, but it hits Johnny in a sore spot, and he deflates. “Yeah, you’re right. Why would anyone want to hang out with me unless they were trying to use me for something?”
Spider-Man sits up and extends an arm. “C’mon, firebug. let’s hug it out. You’re a hugger, right?”
“Ugh, fine.” Johnny leans into it, letting Spider-Man’s arm wrap around his shoulders. “You’re not bad at this.”
“Proportionate hugging ability of a spider! Six arms’ worth of comforting squeeze, in a normal-looking two.” Spider-Man pauses. “That sounded way less creepy in my head.”
Johnny laughs into his shoulder. “I take it back. You are a hundred percent full of shit.”
“So I’ve been thinking,” says Johnny after a training session.
Pepper eyes him over the top of a hyper-calorie-dense smoothie. “Is this about that conversation we had with your sister?”
“No, because we’re never talking about that again.” He doesn’t know what there is to talk about.
“Johnny, I understand if you’re--”
“Do you want some actual advice, or not?”
“Of course I do.”
He flames off and crosses the room to sit on the floor next to her. “Well, to begin with, I think what you need is a shrink, but it’s not like there are shrinks for this stuff, so you’re probably stuck with me.”
“You do fine,” says Pepper reassuringly. “You’ve been helping a lot.”
Johnny shakes his head. “No, I mean, you hired me to teach you control, right? And that’s ridiculous, now I think about it. Being in control is so not your problem.”
Pepper holds up her free hand and lights it up--on purpose, but her point is made all the same. “How the hell is control not my problem?”
“C’mon, you are fifty times more in control of your life than I ever will be. People just assume I flame on because I’m excited or mad or whatever and I can’t keep it in, but that’s obviously not how it works, right? You’re all CEO poker face all the time, and I’ve never hidden a feeling in my life. So what I’ve been thinking is, Pepper, what do you use your powers for?”
“Use them? I’m a walking bomb.”
Johnny makes a buzzing noise--wrong answer. “You know what I’ve done with my powers lately? Built a hovercar in your basement. Cooked dinner, twice. Etched macro-circuitry for something Reed’s working on. Flew to LA and back to film a shampoo commercial. Froze Ben’s bubble bath solid, with him in it, from across the house. I think I might have infrared vision, but I haven’t messed with it much yet. And that’s just, like, the past week.”
Pepper looks skeptical. “Sure, that sounds fun. For you.”
“I was talking to someone the other night,” says Johnny slowly, trying to untangle his own thought process as he goes. “And he got me thinking, like--you’re doing all of this because you want to be normal, powerless Pepper again.”
“Yeah, of course.”
Johnny shrugs. “Well, you can’t, so. Sucks. Sorry.”
Pepper stares hard at him. “Wow. Thanks, I’m glad we finally cleared that up.”
“Okay, but you really can’t. You’re not normal Pepper any more, you’re firestarter Pepper. That’s who’s running the company, that’s who’s marrying Tony Stark, that’s who you are now.”
“I don’t want to be a superhero, Johnny. You know that.”
“You don’t have to be. You don’t have to tell anyone, or even do anything with it at all, I guess. I just think you’ve gotta stop trying to wait this out like it’s going to go away. Figure out what firestarter Pepper’s life looks like.”
“Please stop calling me that.”
Johnny ignores her. “Because you talk like you’re hoping I can somehow fix this for you, or--I don’t know, shut it up in a box where you don’t have to deal with it. And that’s never gonna happen.”
She shakes her head. “I don’t know what you want from me here.”
“Neither do I!” says Johnny brightly. “I’m making this up as I go along. Anyway, the bad news is, Reed thinks he’s discovered some kind of miniature fifth dimension and he wants us to go visit it, Fantastic Voyage style. Which could take an afternoon, or a week, or I’ll get eaten by a bedbug and die, who knows.”
“I thought you were cheering me up here.”
Johnny pats her shoulder. “Since I might not be around for a couple days, I’m giving you homework, got it? Your homework is you find something to use your powers for. Throw tanks around for stress relief, grill burgers with your bare hands, shit, I don’t know. Just find something you actually enjoy doing with them.”
Pepper shakes her head slowly. “I see your point, but--Johnny, I’m getting married in the spring. I see my fiance once a week. I’m afraid to even touch him in case I hurt him. You don’t think I should be scared?”
He reaches over and hugs her, before he can think better of it.
“Oh,” says Pepper, startled, and pats him awkwardly on the back, like he’s the upset one. “Oh, we’re doing this now, okay.”
“It’s totally worth being scared of what we can do,” says Johnny, and lets go of her. “If I had enough sense I’d probably be scared too. What I want you to try is feeling other things about it for a change.”
“May!” Peter scrambles into the living room. “May, can I borrow your concealer? It’s not in the medicine cabinet.”
May is already at the door, buttoning up her coat. “It’s in my purse, where it belongs, because I have an appointment at oh my God what happened to your face this time.”
“It’ll heal by lunchtime.”
“Not what I asked. Sit down.”
Peter sits. “You always make a face when I tell you what happened.”
“I promise not to make a face.” May rummages in her purse.
“You’re gonna make the face.”
“Tell me what happened, or I’m not helping you with this.”
Peter resists the urge to squirm as she goes to work on his eye. He’s done this for himself a few times, but it feels weird having someone else do it. “I may have swung into a fire escape a little bit.” Because he was running low on fluid and the web snapped, for maximum embarrassment. “I hurt my arm, too.” He tugs at the sleeve of his sweatshirt, showing her the splint underneath.
May is making the face, a sad baffled smile, like she doesn’t totally understand how this is the child she raised. “Did you get the guy?”
“There was no guy, it was a little kid who needed an epipen. She’s fine.” And then he slunk off to set his own broken arm, with Karen’s guidance. Not quite the highlight of Peter’s month, but nothing compared to a little girl’s life.
“Jesus, Peter.” May puts her makeup bag away and ruffles his hair, pushing some of it down into his face. “There, that should cover you for a few hours until it heals.”
“Thanks!” He kisses her cheek and pops to his feet. “I’ll see you later?”
“And go easy on that arm!” she calls after him, but Peter’s back in the bathroom fast enough that he can pretend not to hear her.
“Hey,” says Peter. “How was the Micro-verse?”
Johnny doesn’t answer; he’s scowling at a tilt-rotor engine he’s disassembled and spread all over the floor of the garage.
“Cool. Great talk.” Peter navigates an obstacle course of expensive-looking parts, sits down in the corner that always seems to be clear for him lately, and cracks open his laptop.
Almost an hour later, Johnny pops up six inches in front of his face. “Hey, what are you doing?”
“Just proofreading some homework,” says Peter. He’s actually picking through his suit’s web-shooter control subroutines, but he feels fairly safe assuming all code looks the same to Johnny. Especially when he’s trying to read it upside down.
HEY KAREN, he pecks out one-handed. TELL FRIDAY TO TELL MR. STARK TO TRY COMMENTING HIS CODE FOR A CHANGE. DON’T TELL HIM IT CAME FROM ME.
SHE CAN MAKE THE SUGGESTION, Karen responds. I CAN’T GUARANTEE IT WILL HELP.
“Ugh, why are you so boring?”
“Why are you such a brat?”
Johnny pushes Peter’s laptop screen down. He’s really difficult to look away from, this close up. “Pete. Peeeeeeter. Entertain me. I’m so sick of this engine, I need a distraction before I melt the whole thing into scrap. Wait, is your arm broken? Can I not even leave you unsupervised for a few days?”
Peter raises his hand in vague acknowledgement. “Nah, just jammed up my wrist trying to skateboard. It’ll be fine in, like, a week.”
Johnny glances over at Peter’s bag and the board strapped to it. “I didn’t know you skateboarded.”
“‘Trying’ was the operative word. Can we not talk about it any more?”
“Aw, you never talk about yourself. What’s your deal? You have a deal, right?”
“Like you said, I’m really boring.” Peter glances past him at the disassembled engine on the floor. “But hey, I have a bad idea.”
“Now those are the words I love to hear.”
Which is how, the following Sunday, Peter winds up in the middle of nowhere, Long Island. Just like he always dreamed of. It’s chilly and horror-movie quiet, apart from the expressway traffic, and the huge SUFFOLK COUNTY SPEEDWAY sign is dark. “Torch,” he says, and clears his throat. “Johnny! You around or what?”
At this point in his life, he doesn’t even jump when a small meteor lands in the parking lot next to him and extinguishes itself. “Sorry, were you waiting long?”
Peter pulls the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head. It doesn’t really cure the urge to step closer to Johnny. For warmth, obviously. “I was expecting noise at a racetrack. People. Any people.”
“Are you kidding? This place closed down for the season weeks ago. You do not want to know what I paid to get us the run of the joint for an afternoon.”
Peter hurries after him. “I didn’t realize--it was just an idea, you didn’t have to shell out money for it.”
“It was your idea, it was a great idea. Of course I did.”
“I don’t even know why you need me here. It’s not like I can test-drive the thing for--right, of course, you want an audience.”
“Oh, you always make like you don’t know anything about anything, and then you turn out to have like ten opinions about everything. Also, yeah, of course I want an audience.”
The car sitting alone on the track doesn’t look like much of anything; it is in fact a battered green Toyota hatchback with the roof hacked off. “Behold,” says Peter, like he wasn’t personally involved in building this atrocity. “The flying car of the future.”
Johnny pats the hood. “Here, film this.”
“Film what, your last will and testament?”
“Yeah, just in case. C’mon, where’s your phone?”
Peter pulls it out and directs it at Johnny’s face. “Okay, go.”
Johnny grins at the camera and leans back against the car, spreading his arms along it. He looks utterly ludicrous, draped over a rusty hatchback like that, and yet he’s selling it somehow. “Testing, one-two. Pete, you better not have the front-facing camera on.” He waves at the camera. “Hey, Sue, it’s me, remember? Your brother? I just want you to know, if this goes horribly wrong, it’s not Peter’s fault. Don’t be mad at him. Even though he’s a total enabler, and now I think about it this was actually his idea. So maybe it’s a little bit his fault. Later, sis. Okay, that’s all.”
Peter flips the phone around. “Hi, Ms. Storm! Peter Parker here. If your brother blows himself up, it’s a hundred percent his own fault. Please don’t sue me. No, uh, no pun intended.” He waves to the camera and turns it off. “So are we flying this thing or what?”
“I thought I’d take it on a couple laps first to feel it out, you can film it for science, and then we can really cut loose. Deal?” Johnny’s already climbing into the car.
“Yeah, sure,” says Peter, resigned. The actual driving is still Johnny’s area of expertise, but he doesn’t have to like it.
Johnny flips a switch, and the car hums to life with a distinctly un-Toyota-like whine. A blue-white glow emerges below it, and it rises a few inches in the air. “Holy shit,” he says, leaning over to look down at the ground.
“Holy shit,” Peter agrees, laughing in astonishment.
“Hey, hang on a second. I wanted to do this when we launched the Awesome, but I got outvoted.” As the car continues to rise, Johnny bends down out of sight, plugging in his phone; a moment later the speakers howl “I like to dream! Right between the sound machine!”
Peter springs backwards. It takes him a few seconds to get the joke, and then he screams, “I hate you!” over the combined racket of engine and speakers.
“First Contact is the best Star Trek and you love me!” Johnny yells back, but he turns the music down.
“I’m going home. I’m calling an Uber right now and going home, and nobody will be here to save you when that car explodes.”
Johnny makes a rude noise from ten feet overhead. “Hey, remember that time I built a spaceship? And went to space in it? Nothing I build is going to explode.”
They both freeze for a horrified minute. The car does not, unfortunately, explode.
“Ha! Scared you!” Johnny whoops and jets off into the sky.
“Your spaceship crashed!” Peter yells after him, even though there’s no way Johnny can hear him. “Everybody knows this!”
He can’t hold the phone with his splinted arm; it takes him a couple of minutes to get the hang of steady filming with one hand. The car jerks and wobbles some as the engine changes angle, but as far as he can tell from the ground the ride seems pretty smooth. The pale glow from its underside tugs at a memory briefly--something about dragons?--but he can’t place it.
It makes Peter itchy, though, being rooted to the ground. He’s used to keeping up when Johnny takes flight, but right now, with nothing tall nearby and no mask on--this is why he hates the suburbs.
Johnny does a few quick laps and then glides down to a stop in front of him. “So what do you think?”
Peter opens his mouth and what comes out is: “It’s a Sierpinski gasket.”
Johnny swings himself out of the car. “Pete, I know you’re not the expert on engines here, but I promise that is not a thing.”
“It’s not a car part! I mean, the engine--it looks fine, it looked great out there, we can work on that. The Fantasticar, the whole thing, it’s a Sierpinski gasket.”
“Still not a thing.”
“It’s totally a thing. It’s a fractal pattern, like--” Peter digs a pen out of his pocket and draws it on the back of his hand. “You divide a triangle into smaller triangles, and then you divide those, and so on. It’s mostly just a pattern that shows up a bunch of places in math, it doesn’t have a lot of real-world uses. But the Fantasticar--it’s basically a triangle that splits into four smaller ones, right? And then each of those has a triangular cockpit, see.”
Johnny takes Peter’s hand and examines it closely for a few seconds. “Okay, so it looks kind of like the Triforce. Cool?”
“Well, yeah, that? But also we’re still having that weight distribution issue with the separation mechanism. I think, if I play around with locking mechanisms based on Sierpinski constructions, that might be the way to even out the weight distribution.”
Johnny blinks at him. “I have no idea what’s going on, but I want you to know I’m really impressed by it, okay?”
“P.S. 109 Mathcounts team,” says Peter. “Can I, um, I need my hand back.” They’re standing too close together now, like, generally, and Johnny’s thumb has slid under Peter’s cast to stroke his wrist. A kind of terrified anticipation is buzzing at the back of his skull. He indulges for a second in a nice cliched fantasy about the ground opening up and swallowing him.
Because this is Peter’s life specifically, this is when the car explodes.
Something solid pins him to the ground; he almost shoves it off before he realizes it’s Johnny, who isn’t supposed to know that Peter could bench him without even trying. “Get off me,” he says, muffled. “Seriously, you’re very heroic, now please get off.”
Johnny kneels up over him but doesn’t stand. The entire back of his body is on fire, wherever they weren’t in contact when they went down. He pats over Peter’s chest, checking for injuries. “Jesus, if you’d been in the car already--are you okay?”
“I’m okay.” Peter gulps. It would be easy to pull him close again, and god, he wants to. “Torch,” he croaks.
“Yeah?” Johnny’s hand is so gentle, pushing the hair out of Peter’s face.
“The bleachers are on fire.”
“Aw, hell!” Johnny launches himself into the air, drawing the fire up into himself, then blasts the flame harmlessly upward.
Peter sits up and feels along his arm; it hurts, but at least he didn’t break it again when Johnny knocked him down. But the bleachers, and a couple of billboards behind them, have been reduced to ash. The ground is torn up for fifty yards around him. The car itself is scrap at best. All that’s left is him, Johnny--and a surreal patch of pristine asphalt where Johnny shielded him from the blast.
“I told you this was a bad idea!”
“No, no, your exact words were I have a bad idea.”
“But the fact remains, I warned you.” Peter drums his heels against the unpleasantly sticky floor of the train. Johnny’s phone is ash now, and Peter refused to pay for an Uber any further than the nearest station. They’re on the third of three trains it takes just to get to Queens Village, but he takes grim satisfaction that it’s going to take Johnny like ten more years to get home after that.
Johnny glares at him, arms folded. “What is your problem? Sure, we maybe blew up half the speedway, but I got a good test flight in first. We can figure out what went wrong--”
“Great, so I can watch you have all the fun again? No thanks.” Peter shifts the box of charred scrap metal in his lap.
Whatever went wrong with the car, factually speaking, he knows better than to blame Johnny alone; they both worked on that engine. What he’s really thinking about is Liz trying to get him to go swimming; he's thinking about Johnny on top of him, hands everywhere, dangerously close to finding the collar of Peter's costume under his clothes. He misses out on so much, protecting this secret, and it's not fair that this is happening even with another superhero. Captain America probably never has these problems.
All Peter wants right now is some space to decide what to do about it. And personal space is really not one of Johnny’s strong points. “Hey, look, it’s my stop,” he says, and jumps to his feet.
An old lady shuffling onto the train pauses to look at them. “Why, aren’t you--”
“No,” says Johnny sullenly.
“Yes,” says Peter, on his way out. “Yes, he is, and he loves signing autographs.”
“Love to, sorry, but--my stop, oops.” Johnny scrambles off the train after him. “What the hell, Pete.”
“I’m just saying, if you hadn’t gone all chivalrous or whatever, maybe half the place wouldn’t have burned down.”
“Yeah, I’ll remember that next time I try to save my friend’s life. You’re welcome, by the way.” Johnny glances after the departing train, mutters “Oh, the hell with this,” and grabs the box of extra-crispy hovercar parts away from Peter.
He flames on, arms left unlit, and launches up and away in the general direction of Midtown. Peter doesn’t watch him go, because Peter is totally still mad.
“Darla, I think we gotta break up.”
“Wait, did you actually meet somebody?” Johnny’s left her on speakerphone while he picks through his box of charred engine bits. She echoes weirdly in the empty garage.
“I don’t know, maybe? Don’t sound so shocked.” Johnny grimaces at a rectangular lump that might have been his old phone. It feels like five minutes ago he was holding Peter’s hand, thinking maybe he could lean in closer, and then--boom.
He hasn’t seen Peter in days; he doesn’t know if Peter’s even been in the building. It's weird, working in here alone. Johnny misses him. This is awful.
"I don't know what his deal is," he admits. "He’s, uh, he’s hard to get a read on sometimes. But if there's a chance maybe--I just want to play it safe, you know?"
“Ugh, fine,” says Darla. “I was really excited to stage, like, a screaming dramatic thing in public with you sometime, but not if it’ll scare your guy off. You’re still flying out to be in my video, right? Because my agent will cry if you don’t.”
Johnny resigns himself to emptying out the box and lining all the bits up on the table. The world’s ugliest jigsaw puzzle. He can totally figure this out on his own, but it’s less fun without Peter around. “God, yeah, I wouldn’t miss it. Tell you what, I’ll come do the music video, then we can do the screaming dram--uh, crap. Gotta go, Darla.”
“Later,” she says, almost cut off by how fast Johnny mashes at the screen to hang up.
“So you and Peter blew up a racetrack,” says Pepper, clicking into the room to survey Johnny’s table full of scorched engine parts. “Tell me more about that.”
“Part of a speedway! Just a little bit of one. FF Inc. is covering the repairs.” Johnny freezes. “Wait, did you fire Peter? Is that why he hasn’t been around? Please don’t fire Peter.”
Pepper raises her eyebrows. “Why? Should I?”
“No! He was the one who said we should go test the engine outside the building. For safety reasons, which I guess he was right about.” This is a very tactful version of Peter’s actual logic, which was more about avoiding embarrassment than property damage. So much for either.
“The engine was built on Stark property.”
“Yeah, with my own labor and tools, and parts belonging to FF. I’ve been going to that track for years, Pepper, they know me, nobody’s getting sued. Probably.”
She sighs, dusts off the edge of his workbench and perches there, fidgeting with a piece of scrap metal. “Johnny, can’t you just take the boy out for pizza instead of trying to win him with property destruction?”
“Speaking of property destruction!” says Johnny desperately. ‘I gave you homework, how’s that going?”
“Well, the bad news is, I don’t think I’ll make it as a fry cook.” Pepper twists the metal absently in her faintly glowing hands, folding it like paper around her fingers.
“And the good news?”
“I dug out some stuff--we had a gym in the old tower. Some really heavy-duty equipment for Captain America. Obviously Tony didn’t bother shipping it upstate, so I’ve been pounding on it and it helps, kind of.”
Johnny leans over the table and taps her arm. “No, see. Progress.”
Pepper looks down at her hands. She’s collected a few pieces of the car while they were talking, twisted and melted them together into something like a rusted dead tree. It’s ugly, but weirdly fascinating. “Huh,” she says slowly.
“I like it,” says Johnny. “But I flunked fingerpainting when I was four, so what do I know?”
Peter’s not avoiding Johnny--oh, hell, he absolutely is. He’d avoid the Potts Building altogether, but one of his web-shooters got smashed last night, and it’s much easier to make repairs in a Stark lab than at home in his bedroom. So he slinks in one afternoon, meaning to go find a lab space where he can work, and is immediately collared by one of the electrical engineers. “Peter! Haven’t seen you around lately.”
“Dr. Dillon, hi,” says Peter, trying not to sound too resigned. God, he hopes he’s not going to be swinging around one-handed tonight. “I’ve been, uh, working on something for Ms. Potts, just not today.”
“Well, since you’re around, can you help me out? I could use an extra pair of hands.”
“I sprained my wrist last week? So if it’s anything too delicate I wouldn’t trust me with it right now.”
“Nothing like that. You’ll be fine.”
So Peter spends his afternoon helping assemble some new biometrics system the NFL wants to install in helmets, which is pretty cool, but it would be cooler if he wasn’t thinking about the suit repairs he still needs to make. So he almost doesn’t notice, packed away amid the clutter of the lab--there’s crumpled pile of shapes like limbs from a mechanical skeleton. “Hey, what’s that?”
“Oh, this is Stark Industries, you know? Half the people working here are trying to figure out the Iron Man suit on the side. None of us are close, but it’s just so tempting.”
“What are you powering it with? Is Mr. Stark letting people work with arc reactors now?”
“Oh, God no, never.” Dillon laughs. “All my own work.”
Peter doubts that. His memory is kind of fuzzy, under the circumstances, but he’s pretty sure he remembers that skeleton punching him in the head and tossing him over the side of a ferry last month.
“Hey,” says Sue. “Can we talk?”
Johnny groans, face-down on his bed. “Would it make a difference if I said no?”
She leans in the doorway, which means no, there is no escape. “Don’t tell me you’re sick. I know better.”
He tries to pull a pillow over his head; a force field bubble interferes. “Can’t I have a minute? Just for once.”
“Is this about Peter? Did something happen?”
“No!” Johnny didn’t kiss Peter, and Peter’s still not talking to him. And, luckily, he’s not smart enough to be drawing any cause-and-effect conclusions about it. So no: nothing is, strictly speaking, happening.
“If you say so. I just wanted to tell you--”
Johnny starts emitting clouds of smoke from his ears.
Sue doesn’t take the hint. She’s very good at not taking hints. “Oh, come on, I’m trying to apologize here. You were mad I didn’t trust Ms. Potts, now you’re mad we’re getting along? What do you want from me?”
“I want to live my life without getting ganged up on. I wanted this job, this one thing I’m good at that’s mine, without you going and background-checking it to hell.”
“All we want is to make sure you’re safe.” She throws her hands up. “But fine, you’re right, you’re old enough that I can’t actually stop you from making bad decisions. Just be careful, okay?”
“I’m careful!” says Johnny, even though they both know he never is. All he wants is to make this conversation end.
And an excuse to talk to Peter. That wouldn’t hurt.
Decathlon practice is over for the day, but it’s snowing and miserable out, so no one’s actually gone home yet. Peter and Ned are taking apart the fancy new electronic buzzer system, trying to figure out why the countdown timer runs at double speed. MJ is drawing in the corner--she claims to be making “a graphic novel about the slow decline of the human condition,” but she won’t show it to anybody. Flash is reciting atomic weights aloud, and getting louder every time MJ throws a wad of paper at him.
“I have never felt so threatened by the periodic table,” Peter mutters. He’d love to get out of here, but there’s no point suiting up until later tonight, when he can be absolutely sure Dillon’s out of the office for the night.
He’s not going to run around like a chicken with its head cut off this time. He’s going to figure out for sure who’s building that suit in that lab, and then he’s going to take it to Ms. Potts, and she can do what she wants with it. Or do nothing. Whatever.
Ned freezes next to him. “Peter. Peter,” he says urgently, and shoves at Peter’s arm. On the other side of the room, Flash abruptly and uncharacteristically shuts up.
“Ow!” Peter sucks at his hand where the soldering iron knocked into it. “Ned, what the hell?”
“Hey Pete,” says Johnny from the auditorium doorway; he’s steaming faintly from the snow, because he’s clinically incapable of being unattractive. He’s trying to smile casually, but Peter knows him better than that. “We have that thing, right? You know, that Stark thing.”
“Oh, God, I forgot. I’m coming, give me a second.” He sets the soldering iron back in its holder.
“I’ll take this home,” Ned suggests. “We can fix it over the weekend.”
Peter nods, frantically shoving his stuff into his backpack. “Yeah, sounds great, thanks.”
“I heard the Fantastic Four might sign the Sokovia Accords,” says MJ, not even looking up from her sketchpad. “Don’t you feel that, by willingly signing the Accords, you would sacrifice all the subversive potential of independent status for the security of aligning yourselves with a police state?”
“I--no? What?” Johnny looks helplessly at Peter, who shrugs back equally helplessly. “Can I get back to you on that one?”
“Oooooooh!” says Flash. “Look at me, I’m Peter Parker, I’m so important! I know Iron Man! I know Spider-Man! I know the Human Torch!”
“You know what,” says Peter, “that’s the nicest thing you’ve said to me since kindergarten, so I’m just gonna go now.”
The thing is, there is no thing; if there was a thing, Peter would never in a million years have forgotten it. Well, probably not. So he’s not really surprised when Johnny turns on him the moment they get outside. “I’m sorry,” he says, low and quick. “I know you’re mad about Sunday, though I don’t get why--”
“I’m not mad at you,” says Peter with a pang of guilt. He doesn’t want Johnny thinking that, but he doesn’t really want him here, either; so much for getting any space. “What’s wrong?”
Johnny slumps in relief. “I need your help. I went to meet Pepper and the whole building’s locked down. No lights inside, totally dead.”
“Do you know where Mr. Stark and Ms. Potts are?” Peter inches closer, mainly because it’s not snowing where Johnny’s standing.
“Stark’s in Geneva or somewhere? I think? If there’s an emergency FRIDAY’d alert him, but who knows when he’ll get here. And Pepper never goes outside, so she’s gotta still be in there.”
“My job is making Starbucks runs,” Peter reminds him. “Your whole family has powers, I mean, you live literally right over there. I don’t know what you want me to do.” He’s charmed and all that Johnny thought of him first, but please, God, he needs to go away for a minute so Peter can quick-change and check this out.
“They’ve been all weird and overprotective lately, I don’t want to get them if it turns out not to be a big deal. And I remembered, you know, the first time we met, you were definitely not supposed to be in that lab. You get all over that building. So I thought you’d know a way in.”
“Can’t you just blast your way in?”
“I’m showing forethought,” says Johnny, in a tone that suggests he expects a medal for it. He flames on and extends his hands, arms free of flame. “C’mon, I’ll fly you there.”
“No,” says Peter. “No, no, hell no.” No secret identity is worth this. Being a superhero in general is not worth this. Not even holding hands with Johnny Storm is worth this.
“People could be in danger,” says Johnny, and he sounds like he’s trying not to laugh, but he’s also--not wrong. “Anyway, I owe you a joyride, right?”
“If I plummet to a fiery Lord of the Rings death I’m suing you,” says Peter wearily, and takes Johnny’s hands.
The trip is undignified and painful, but they make it to the Potts Building alive, which is a start. It’s totally dark; not only are the lights out inside and out, it looks like metal shutters have descended inside the windows. No chance of seeing what’s going on inside, then.
Johnny sets him down on the roof and lands at his side. “Hey, are you okay there? I forgot about your arm.”
Peter realizes he’s rubbing at his wrist again; he makes himself stop. “Yeah, it’s just sore. No big deal.”
Johnny looks skeptical. “Sure, whiz kid. So do you have any ideas?”
“Wow, no pressure then.” Peter looks around. Right now the trees are bare and all the furniture is covered with tarps, but in warmer weather the roof would be brightly landscaped--people come up here for lunch, meetings, parties. But like anything Stark builds, the flashiness is there to distract from the function. “Okay, pretend you’re Tony Stark.”
“Into it. Keep going.”
“You’ve just gotten an emergency lockdown alert from one of your very expensive secret facilities. You get in your hot-rod armor and you fly down here and--what? You’re locked out too? No way.”
Johnny clicks his tongue. “A hidden entrance! God, I love watching your brain work.”
“Well, I mean.” Peter bites back his smile and looks away. “That’s my best guess. It’d be keyed to respond to an Iron Man suit, but we’ll have to find it before we tackle that.”
“Cool. I’ll check the east end, you take the west.” Johnny tosses off a salute and jets off towards the far end of the roof.
“Oh, thank God.” Peter ducks behind the nearest bench, reaches down the back of his coat collar, and tugs his mask up and over his eyes. “Hey, Karen, can you talk to FRIDAY for me?”
LOCKDOWN, the HUD flashes in front of his eyes. LOCKDOWN. “System incursion,” says Karen. “Protective shutdown initiated.” There’s a fizzle, and then silence.
“Karen!” Peter raps sharply at the side of his own head, then realizes how silly that is. “Crap. Okay.” He was kind of hoping that his own suit would still set off a door keyed to Iron Man.
“Pete! Over here!” A small fireball shoots up from the other end of the roof, out of sight.
Peter shoves his mask back out of sight and vaults over the bench. When he reaches Johnny’s side there’s a big area of patio burned away--and below it, metal etched with the faint outlines of an iris door. “Whoa. Good job, me.”
Johnny holds his hands out, flame growing around them--and then hesitates, looking over his shoulder. “Hey Pete, I know I said I wanted your help, but maybe you should hang back. Pepper’d kill me if I get you hurt.”
Peter glances up into the falling snow and makes a show of huddling deeper into his coat. He still can’t decide if he likes it, Johnny looking at him like he needs protecting, but he pretty much has to roll with it right now. “You brought me along to help. I want to help.”
“Okay, but stay behind me, got it?” Johnny shoots a blast of fire at the door, and then a continuous stream; the door starts to glow red. Then lightning crackles around its edges, and a bolt shoots back along the flame to strike Johnny’s hands. He yelps and jumps back.
“What’s--oh.” Peter takes a step back, too. The lightning is flooding up through the door, painfully bright to look at; it twists into a column that solidifies into the shape of a person, and then a face.
Johnny stares. “Dr. Dillon? What happened to you?”
Dillon makes a face that might be an attempt at a smile. “A change. An improvement. Better keep clear.”
“Torch! Get back--” Peter begins; then there’s a blinding light, a loud crack, and darkness.
Johnny wakes up, and the first thing he sees is Peter across the room watching him. “I don’t think it’s rising,” says Peter.
“What?” says Johnny; then he snaps fully awake and realizes that they’re sitting chest-deep in water. It looks like a basement utility room that somebody’s flooded. He could flame on from the shoulders up, but his arms are cuffed well below water level, so that doesn’t help much. “Pete, you okay?”
“He took my backpack,’ says Peter. He sounds calm enough, but he’s pale and wide-eyed. In the dim blue emergency lighting, he looks positively ghostly. “Probably fried my phone, can you believe it? What a jerk.”
Johnny can feel him from across the room, a steady source of warmth. God, this was such a bad plan. He should have sucked it up and phoned home, or tracked down Spider-Man instead. But no, he was just this desperate to see Peter. He feels sick. “I’m sorry I got you into this, but I’m gonna get you out again, okay? Just hang in there.”
Lightning crackles over the ceiling. “Well,” says Dillon’s staticky disembodied voice. “Very sweet.”
“Hey, Dr. Dillon. Max, right?” Johnny looks upward. “You know there’s a better way to deal with this, whatever’s going on.”
Peter swallows visibly. “You’ve gotta tell us what you did. Let us help.”
“Let me help,” Johnny corrects. “Pete’s harmless. Leave him out of this and you and I can talk.”
Laughter rumbles the walls. “Talk. About what? Easier with you down here. All of us better off. And Peter can keep you honest.” Electricity flickers downward, just shy of hitting the water and frying them both.
“Oh come on!” Johnny jostles his chair; it inches sideways, but that doesn’t help with the water level problem.
“Busy. Back soon,” says Dillon, and vanishes.
Peter groans and lets his head drop back, staring at the ceiling. “Hypothermia! My favorite way to have fun on a Friday night. Thanks for this.”
Johnny smiles at that; the water’s not cold enough to be dangerous. “Hey, I know how to show a boy a good time.”
When their eyes meet again, there’s something appraising in Peter’s expression that makes the hair on the back of Johnny’s neck stand on end. “Can you flame on underwater like this?”
“Maybe, if I really work at it for a while. And if you want to be boiled alive.” Johnny rocks his chair back and forth some more; worry about Peter is making him restless.
“Would you cut that out?”
“I just gotta get my hands out of the--shit!” Johnny overbalances and topples into the water with a massive splash.
He holds his breath and yanks viciously at his cuffs, for all the good it does him. It’s only a few feet of water, but the chair is weighing him down too much to reach the surface. This is it: he’s going to actually die trying to impress a boy, and Peter’s going to be scarred for life. Hopefully Sue will at least get a laugh out of it.
There’s a clank and another splash, and then his hands are free. Johnny scrambles to his feet, gasping for air, more startled than desperate.
Peter is stuck to the wall above the water line, laughing at him. “What is wrong with you?” He tugs absently at the remains of the cuffs around his wrists; they crumple like tin foil and fall into the water. “Do you just wake up every morning like, hey! I wonder how I can make Peter’s life more complicated today?”
Johnny wades closer to him. Something important is happening here, but the pieces are refusing to come together in his head. “I don’t--what did you do?”
“Look, don’t be mad.” Peter’s fond smile slips away. “Never mind, you’re totally going to be mad, but can you save it for later?” He reaches down the back of his own collar and pulls the Spider-Man mask over his face.
“Are you shitting me.” Johnny reaches forward to tug at the mask, like that’s going to help anything. “Pete?”
Peter catches his hand and pulls it away. “Are you going to come help me fight a bad guy, or not?”
Johnny wishes he could think of something to do besides stare. “Ugh, I should’ve guessed you were two of the three biggest pains in my life.”
“I’m assuming the top of the list is you.” Peter loops an arm around his waist and jumps them back up to the ceiling like Johnny weighs absolutely nothing, holding them both up there so they can get through the air vent. Johnny melts through it no problem, they climb up into the ventilation shaft, and then Peter says “Hey, wait, gimme a minute,” and Johnny has to suffer through watching him squirm out of his wet clothes to reveal the costume underneath.
“Wow,” he says finally. “So Peter Parker is Spider-Man.”
“Yup,” says Peter. He sounds weirdly resigned about it.
Maybe Johnny’s supposed to be angry right now, but all he can think is--it’s been Peter all along, tumbling through the skyline like gravity is for other people. It’s been Spider-Man bringing Johnny burgers in the garage and picking fights about aerodynamics. It was Peter dripping river water all over the roof--and they say you can’t see the stars from New York.
Okay, fine, he is angry. But not for whatever reason Peter thinks he should be. He’s mad because this guy was already ten kinds of amazing, and now he’s an obscenely athletic superhero on top of that. What an asshole. Johnny’s life is so unfair. “And here I thought I just had a type.”
“You’ve got a type of something, all right,” says Peter as he pulls on his gloves; then he double-takes so hard he bangs his head against the top of the shaft. “Ow. Wait, what?”
“Some genius you are.” Johnny pats his arm, which is a mistake, because then he doesn’t want to let go. Something is cracking open in his chest, vast and probably irreparable; it’s difficult to keep his mind on the job when all he wants right now is one good look at Peter’s face. “Come on, bad guy, remember?” he says, to himself as much as to Peter. “Where to next, bugface?”
“Spiders aren’t bugs,” says Peter, sounding pained.
Johnny nods. “Yeah, you’re right, we should head for Pepper’s office, make sure she’s okay. Good thinking.”
They climb in silence for a couple of minutes; as they pass up through lab and office levels they intermittently hear shouting, screams, the crackle of lightning as Max rockets around the building.
There isn’t enough space for Johnny to fully flame on, but he heats himself up a bit to dry off. When he glances down, he catches Peter holding up his hands to the warmth, like he’s a fireplace. “What are you doing?”
“Just warming up,” says Peter. “You must be really popular in public bathrooms.”
Johnny chokes, freezing on the ladder. Then he’s giggling, forehead pressed against a ladder rung. “Man, you’re worse than the tabloids.”
Peter claps both hands over his face, shoulders shaking hysterically. “Oh my God, I didn’t mean--I was thinking about those Dyson things, you know I didn’t mean--Torch, hey, cut it out.”
“Cut what out?” Johnny glances down again; the metal of the wall in front of Peter is starting to glow red.
A patch of wall melts away, and Peter yelps and jumps back, sticking to the other wall behind him. Pepper sticks her head through and frowns at him, then twists to look up at Johnny. “Do you think you guys could be a bit louder? I’m not sure Max knows where you are yet.”
“Ms. Potts! Are you okay?” Peter leaps through the hole, pulling his mask off.
Johnny follows him; it turns out they’re in one of the first floor public bathrooms. “Pepper, what the hell is going on? What happened to Dr. Dillon?”
"Dr. Dillon had some kind of side project going in his lab."
"Vulture tech," says Peter. "He was--I think he got some of Vulture's stuff from somewhere? He was reverse engineering it and selling it off. I was wondering why I kept seeing people around with new weapons."
Pepper folds her arms. "Peter, were you planning to share this with me at any point?"
"I only saw it in his lab yesterday," says Peter. "I was going to check in on it after he went home tonight, and then tell you when I actually knew what was up."
"Too late. Something he was working on backfired and turned him into--that." Pepper waves vaguely at the ceiling. "Cue automatic building lockdown--FRIDAY's gone, arc reactor's sealed off, everything."
Peter is rubbing at his arm again. "My suit's shut down too. So at least he can't get at FRIDAY or Karen, or this would be way worse.”
"So far all he's done is bounce around the building and scream at people. I think he’s panicking more than anything else, but obviously we can't just let him keep doing that. I want to draw him out somehow, see what he wants."
"Not just panicking," Johnny points out. "He got us inside, tried to lock us up out of the way."
"Okay, but that only makes it more important,” says Peter. “We gotta do something before he gets mad enough to really start hurting people."
Pepper swallows. “I’m still going to draw him out. Just, now I have backup, right?”
“Wait. Wait.” Peter holds his hands up. “My web fluid’s conductive! I can tase people through it. Not right now, obviously, I’m running on steampunk mode in here--”
“The point, webs?”
“A Faraday cage. If we find an empty room I can web up all the walls and turn it into a Faraday cage. It’ll contain him, at least for a couple of hours until the webbing dissolves.”
“Long enough to get him into the bug jar.” Pepper nods. “So how do we lure him anywhere?”
“Good news, Ms. Potts! We have, here in this very room--” Peter bows and gestures to Johnny. “The most annoying human being in history!”
“It’s true,” says Johnny; it’s just too easy. “We do.”
“Why are you both looking at me,” says Peter, after a moment.
“Just a little respect,” Johnny’s saying, a few minutes later. “You know, basic respect for your elders, which is everyone, but mostly me--”
“Hey, I’ve been doing this longer than you.” Peter is crawling along the ceiling overhead, mask back on, but he’s making a face. Johnny just knows it. “I am a seasoned veteran, Torch. You should respect that.”
“Boys!” says Pepper. “Boys, it’s okay, I promise you’re two of the most exhausting people I know. Which is really saying something.”
*Hey, I have questions for you too,” says Johnny. “Starting with, did you know he was Spider-Man when you tried to set us up, or were you just--”
“When she what?”
“Wow, nothing gets past you, does it.”
“Shh,” hisses Pepper.
There’s a rumble like distant thunder--becoming noticeably less distant. Dillon, heading down towards them.
“Aw, crap,” says Peter. “It worked.”
“Okay,” says Pepper. “Now we just have to get him in the jar.”
Johnny closes his fist and opens it to reveal a flicker of flame. Close, open, two flames. Close, open, four. “Hey, folks, I’ve got a bad idea.”
He can imagine Peter’s conspiratorial grin, clear as day. “Go ahead. I’ve got your back.”
“I know,” says Johnny, blindsided by another poorly-timed wave of affection. “Pepper, I’m gonna set you on fire now.”
Pepper gives him a wary thumbs up. “I’m so glad we’re friends.”
“Aw, Pete, she said we were friends!” Johnny lights her up with just enough flame to turn her into an indistinctly female shape. Then he focuses and--boom, a dozen more vaguely Pepper-shaped flames. “I don’t know how long I can hold these, but any one of them should be enough to bait him into the bug jar.”
“Love a good fireworks show.” Peter leaps up to cling to the wall above the door, which is seriously not helping Johnny’s concentration.
Dillon bursts through a minute later, more a lightning ball than a man. “Pepper Potts!” he bellows. “You want to talk?”
“Sure, Max. Let’s talk.” The room is humid and hazy; Johnny hopes that’s making it a little more difficult to tell which of the flaming figures is actually speaking. “What do you want?”
“The arc reactor. Drop the lockdown. The arc reactor. Let me feed from it.” Dillon is crackling all over the walls, feeling out the room.
Pepper shakes her head. The decoys shake theirs, a split second late. God, Johnny’s own head is killing him. “Let everyone out, Max.”
Still hanging above the door, Peter quietly begins to coat the back of it with webbing, closing the gap there.
“You dare!” Dillon roars, lashing out and striking Peter in the shoulder. “Think you can trap me!”
Peter drops to the floor with a yell of pain, even as he webs the last crack of the door shut; Johnny turns automatically to check on him, and the decoys flicker. Only for a second, but it’s enough to make the trick clear.
“Ms. Potts. The arc reactor.” Dillon coalesces into a column of lightning, almost but not quite human-shaped, gliding forward towards Pepper. The real Pepper, now alone in the middle of the room. Lightning strikes her; she stumbles and glows briefly, but doesn’t fall. That would be pretty cool, under other circumstances.
Johnny flares up extra hot. “Hey! Hey, Power Trip! You wanna pick on someone your own temperature?” It’d be a better line if Pepper wasn’t in the room.
It’d be an even better line if Pepper didn’t take a step back, square into the radius of the cage, and look pointedly at him. “Oh, no,” she says. “I think we should hear him out.”
Johnny would like to scream at her--at everyone--but there’s no time for that right now. Dillon glides forward, following Pepper as she fakes like he’s backing her into a corner--and then Johnny mashes the switch and the cage slams up into the ceiling. Trapping them together.
Dillon howls incoherently, bouncing off the curved walls. Pepper’s back is flat against the glass; she jerks every time lightning strikes her, but stays on her feet. Johnny sees that red glow building in her, realizes what she’s going to do, and thinks in the same instant: no way in hell can she--
For a second, Dillon comes together enough to have an arm. Pepper grabs it, and then they’re both screaming as she draws the raw energy out of him, heat hazing the inside of the cage until Johnny can barely see what’s happening beyond a red glow amid the lightning. He hurls himself up against the glass, but of course it’s him-proof too; that was the whole point.
“Torch!” Peter yells from behind him. “Stop it, stop it, you’re not helping!”
The lightning dies away first, then Pepper’s red glow. There are two thuds inside the cage--two solid bodies, flesh and bone. ”Aw, crap, it worked,” says Johnny, trying to squint through the haze.
“I’m gonna crack the window real quick while he’s out,” says Peter. “Can you--”
“--get her out of there, yeah, yeah.”
Peter tweaks the controls, opening a gap of a couple feet below the ceiling, and Johnny drinks up the rush of heat as best he can.
Whatever Dillon has been putting off feels weird and queasy, and there’s so much of it. Johnny grits his teeth. “Pete, you gotta get her yourself.”
“I would, but--”
Johnny flames on involuntarily; there’s an unfamiliar crawling on his skin that might be lightning. He’s barely soaking up a fraction of what Pepper pulled from Dillon, just enough for Peter to get in and out without getting fried, but he’s about to throw up from it.
“Holy shit, okay, jeez.” Peter slings a web up to the ceiling, and swings himself up over the edge and into the haze. He reappears a few seconds later with Pepper, unconscious and draped awkwardly over his shoulder.
It takes all of Johnny’s focus and then some to burn a gap in the webbing over the door so Peter can get Pepper out. Then he lets loose, hurling all the heat and electricity out of him, staggers to the controls to shut the cage, and wobbles out the door.
Pepper is lying on the floor, still passed out; Peter’s crouched next to her, his left arm securely webbed to his own chest. "Wow, you look terrible."
"Me? I look terrible? What did you do to yourself?" Johnny sits down next to him and touches Pepper's shoulder. She flinches and her eyelids flutter, so that's a good sign, he thinks.
“You know how last week you asked if my arm was broken, and I lied and said it wasn’t? It broke again when he knocked me down.”
Jesus, no wonder he had trouble carrying Pepper. “Sorry, I didn’t--”
Peter shakes his head. “You were right, someone needed to go in and get her out, so I went. It’s not like I haven’t been swinging around on it anyway.”
Johnny realizes to his horror that he may actually be the most sensible person here, if only by a hair. “We’ve gotta get you help. Both of you. She needs to eat something, like, five minutes ago.”
“Okay,” says Peter. His breath sounds shallow; his arm has to be killing him. “Okay, you’re right, one minute.” He’s leaning on Johnny now, which makes it very difficult to say no to him, or think in general.
“You get thirty seconds,” says Johnny. The unpleasant buzz under his skin is dissolving the longer Peter leans on him. Pepper is groaning and beginning to stir in front of them, so at least they won’t have to figure out a way to carry her upstairs.
He wonders, not for the first time, how he lucked into having a life full of such ridiculous and amazing people. It’s his good looks, probably. “Hey, Pete--”
Peter’s so much; he’s too much. He’s a hopeless mess and Johnny adores him; he almost even says so. “You know what my one flaw is?” he says instead. “It’s that I just care too much about people.”
Peter lets out a pained gasp of a laugh and drops his forehead onto Johnny’s shoulder. “Yeah, it’s my least favorite thing about you.”
The first people to come in, as soon as Pepper drops the lockdown, are a small army of paramedics. None of them seem to know what to do, medically speaking, about whatever the hell she just did, but they insist on leaving her to lie down on the couch in her office, so Johnny sticks around to keep an eye on her.
“That was a wildly terrible idea,” he says, spinning around in her desk chair. The skyline outside is a glittering blur. “I could have handled him, Pepper. You didn’t have to.”
“I couldn’t let you take that hit for me, a couple of kids. It just didn’t seem right.”
“I get it, okay? You wanna protect me, Sue wants to protect me. But that’s what we do, me and--and Spidey. We take hits, we bounce back. We’re pros.” Which doesn’t sound as reassuring out loud as it did in his head.
“Yeah. Which is how I knew you’d both have my back.”
Johnny doesn’t have an argument for that, so he’s not going to try. He’s been thinking he should go easier on Pepper, anyway; she’s new at this sibling relationship thing and trying her best. “Seriously, though, I drank up a fraction of the energy you handled and I thought I was gonna keel over. That was badass. I thought you didn’t want to be a superhero.”
“I don’t.” She sounds resigned. “But these things are going to happen around here whether I like it or not. I guess I should get used to it. And anyway--”
Pepper smiles up at the ceiling. “For a second there, I really just wanted to see if I could do it. So I hope you’re proud of me.”
“I am. I am so proud of you and your shitty decision-making.” Johnny gives the chair one more spin. “Hey, do you wanna come over for dinner next Tuesday? I’m getting pretty good at grilling steak. And you need fresh air.”
“I don’t want to intrude,” she starts.
“Cosmic ray blood, right? You should hang out with us more. I think it would help some stuff.”
“Okay,” says Stark from the doorway. “Is this the part where I cry? The part where I hug you? The part where I chew you out for being reckless? I’m used to being on the other end of this conversation, I don’t remember which bit comes first.”
Pepper sits up with an effort. “I like to switch it around, actually. It keeps you on your toes.”
Stark sits down on the arm of the couch; he actually does look alarmingly hollow-eyed. “You do realize, just because the building is named after you, you don’t actually have to personally bodyguard it? And you, Mr. Storm. You wouldn’t happen to know why my emergency entrance on the roof is welded into a lump, would you?”
Johnny gets to his feet, edging out from behind the desk. “Is it? I had no idea. Weird.”
“Parker’s downstairs getting his arm looked at,” says Stark, pointedly.
“Yeah, yeah, I can take a hint. Pepper, let me know when you’re recharged? For science or whatever.” Johnny tosses her a box of paper clips from her desk, in case she needs something to fidget with, and flees for the stairs.
Peter finds his backpack dumped in a corner; his phone is glitchy but it turns on, which is a relief; he’s pretty sure May couldn’t afford to replace it right now. His first order of business is calling her. “I’m gonna be home as soon as I can,” he promises. “I just need to get checked over.”
“Stay there,” says May. “I’m going to come pick you up.”
Peter really wants to object--he never wants May anywhere near any of this stuff--but he can’t take the web express home with a newly broken arm. He grits his teeth against the throb of it. “Okay. Just this once. I’ll meet you in the park, it’s a mess in here.”
The lobby is swarming with employees--more scared than hurt, it looks like--and first responders. Peter changes into street clothes from his bag and goes looking for somebody who’ll strap up his arm and give him ibuprofen without asking too many questions.
Then he finally, thank God, gets some fresh air.
Madison Square Park is deserted; everyone in New York knows better than to rubberneck at anything happening in a Stark Industries building. Even the Shake Shack is closed. The snow’s stopped, too, so it’s cold and dark and clear out, eerily quiet. Peter perches on the back of a bench and spaces out, fidgeting with the edge of his new splint, until Johnny walks up in front of him. “Please tell me you didn’t fix your arm yourself.”
“Nope, a paramedic did it. Although I swore up and down I’d go to a real doctor later, which is so not happening.”
Johnny folds his arms. “Let me guess, you can’t even skateboard.”
“I have the proportionate skateboarding ability of a spider,” says Peter. He wishes Johnny would sit down; it’s making him nervous. “Seriously, you’d be amazed how many bruises and scrapes people write off now I’ve started carrying it around everywhere.”
“Well, I’m not that amazed. Considering I totally fell for it.”
Peter looks sidelong at him. “So are you? Mad.”
“Of course I am, webs-for-brains.” Johnny glances away, and Peter’s heart sinks--but he doesn’t sound mad. “It’s a big deal, right? Not a lot of people know what you look like.”
Peter counts off on his fingers. “You, Mr. Stark, Ms. Potts, Happy, May, my friend Ned. And, uh, Vulture.”
“Ugh. I get it, you wouldn’t have told me if we weren’t backed into a corner.”
“What? No, that’s not--I was already thinking about it, okay, before you gave me an excuse.” Peter holds up his seven fingers in hopes this will somehow emphasize his point. “All these people found out by accident or, like, stalking me. You’re the only person I ever told on purpose.” He’s spent all week freaking out at even the thought of doing this, but now it feels like a massive load off his back. It feels right and safe, Johnny knowing.
Johnny groans, tipping his head back. “This is why you’re the worst! You just gave me this really important thing, and I feel like I should do something back, but it’s not like I have a secret identity to tell you. So thanks for making me look like a jerk, jerk.”
There are so many easy cracks Peter could make right now about Johnny’s face. Instead what comes out of his mouth is “There is, uh, something I’ve been wondering?” His voice cracks disastrously, and he can feel his face heating. “It’s pretty important, I guess.”
Johnny glances back down at him. “What’s up?”
Peter tilts forward and kisses him.
It’s brief at best, but Johnny looks stunned afterwards. “Wow, you--okay, wow.”
Peter grins. He might never stop. “It was that good, huh?”
“You’re such a smug piece of shit,” says Johnny, sounding strangely wobbly about it. He leans close again and--
“Ow!” Peter flinches back from the shock. “What was that?”
“I’m all staticky still. It’s kind of gross. Hang on.” Johnny lets off a cloud of sparks, his own gold mixed with electric silver. He's impossibly beautiful in the glow, and Peter's heart lurches; there's nothing to do but kiss him again, even through the prickle of dissipating heat.
For a few minutes, nothing else has to matter. He feels like he could float away if Johnny's hand wasn't on the back of his neck, anchoring him here.
“I was going to,” Johnny says. “Last weekend.”
“What?” Last weekend feels like years ago. Peter touches Johnny’s shoulder, runs a hand down his arm, getting used to the idea that he’s allowed to.
Johnny honest to God shivers. “You were being all brilliant and ridiculous, and I thought, you know what, I can do this. I’m gonna take this guy flying in this really ugly hovercar we built, and then I’m gonna kiss him. And instead, boom.”
Peter slides his arms around Johnny’s neck. Apparently he’s allowed to do that now, too. “Did you make a playlist for wooing me? Can I hear it?”
“Shut up.” Johnny kisses him again; if it’s a little harsh, Peter doesn’t mind.
“I wanna see the playlist.”
“There was no playlist!” Johnny groans, dropping his head onto Peter’s shoulder.
“It’s been cute though, you patting me down, getting all worried. Or, hey, remember that time you almost drowned in like three feet of water--”
“Aw, were you scared?” Johnny pats Peter’s knee.
“The only thing that’s scary is how embarrassing you are.” Peter stares down at Johnny’s hand on his leg, a perfectly innocent touch that’s completely frying his brain.
He means it, mostly. He wasn’t worried about Johnny; he totally had that handled. But in the split second between when Johnny went under and Peter’s handcuffs snapped off, he thought with zero irony I’m glad he’s in this mess with me and then, painfully clear, I want him with me in everything, all the time. Which is a thought that Peter totally feels justified in not examining right now, or ever, maybe.
Someone walks into the far end of the park, and he sits up straight. “Oh, no. That’s gotta be May.”
Johnny bumps their foreheads together. “Go ahead. I’ll see you later, right?”
“Yeah, if she doesn’t nail my window shut.” He goes for one last quick kiss; Johnny leans forward for more when he pulls away. “Later!” Peter says, pats his cheek, and flips forward over Johnny’s head, snagging his backpack with a strand of webbing as he goes. Johnny’s delighted laughter follows him halfway across the park.
The good mood fades as soon as May hurls himself at him. “Peter,” she says, stroking his hair. “Oh my God.”
“I told you I could catch the train,” he says into her shoulder. “You didn’t have to come down here.”
“I spend so much time pretending you don’t scare me out of my mind. Just this once, let me have this.” May sniffles, pulling away to look him over. “Are you actually okay, or are you trying to spare my feelings?”
“I fell on my arm again.” Peter offers his fresh splint for inspection. “Also my phone is broken, sorry about that.”
May stares at his arm, then back up at his face. “I don’t care about the phone! I care that I saw this on the news, and when I tried to call you--how are you always so calm about this stuff?” She gathers him up again.
“I’ve had an extra weird day,” says Peter apologetically, patting her back. For a second he glimpses how wild his standards are for what’s freakout-worthy; he can see why May and Johnny both worry about him. He just doesn’t remember how to be any other way. "Hey, I love you, I'm sorry I scared you."
"Yeah, yeah, you’re always sorry.”
“Hey, if that’s the good news, do you wanna hear the bad?”
May groans. “Fine. Hit me with it.”
At that moment, Johnny--the perfect showman even by accident--dive-bombs them both out of nowhere and then spirals up and away, cackling. “Later, Pete!” he calls, and shoots away towards the Baxter Building.
He can feel the moment May pulls herself together, exactly like he hoped she would. “Oh, Peter, what did you do?”
Peter is still staring up at Johnny’s suspiciously heart-shaped contrail. “Yeah, you know, I’m wondering that myself.”
Ben and Sue are in the living room when Johnny gets home, listening to an old episode of Trish Talk. “Hey, kids, I’m home,” says Johnny, and attempts to give Ben a noogie. “What’s it like, single-handedly keeping broadcast radio alive?”
Ben swats him across the living room, as friends do. “You’re too chipper, matchstick. What’d you do?”
Johnny makes a hairpin turn in mid-air, adds a somersault for the hell of it, and flames off so he can drop onto the sofa between them. “Meh, the usual, saved a building full of people, won the prize for all-time best life coach. Oh, and I invited Pepper over for dinner next week, because she kind of saved my life a little bit, so get your formal bike shorts dry-cleaned.”
Sue latches onto the actual important part of this, damn her. “Were you down at the Potts Building? Are you okay?”
“Nope,” says Johnny. He’s actually still kind of staticky, but it’s fading, and he’s not in the mood to be scienced by Reed right now. “I’m amazing. I’m a literal star.”
She frowns and pokes him in the ribs. “What. Happened?”
Johnny laughs in her face. “He kissed me! He--he really likes me, like, maybe a lot. Oh my God.” He sinks back into the couch, hands over his face, as the shock begins to set in. Peter is Spider-Man, sure, but that’s easy to handle next to the idea that Peter wants him.
Ben grunts. “He better, if he’s half as smart as you keep saying he is.”
Johnny peers through his fingers. “Was that a compliment?”
“Nah, you musta got flames in your ears. Now shut up, I’m missing the show.”
“It’s a rerun,” says Johnny sullenly, but he’s not in the mood for a fight, so he shuts up.
They sit in peace for a few minutes, listening to Trish Walker interview some guy who makes squid ink gelato. Then Sue nudges him and leans over. “Hey, congrats. Try not to immediately screw it up, okay?”
“Not funny,” says Johnny plaintively, slumping deeper into the sofa. “What am I gonna do?”
“He kissed you, right? He already likes you. Why, I can’t imagine, but--”
“So you’re already doing something right. It’ll be fine.”
Peter takes a few days off from his fake job, but he comes back to the Potts Building the week after the accident. The lab sublevels are still a mess, so he goes directly to the garage. “Hey, Torch. You around?”
Peter ducks around the half-finished Fantasticar, which Dillon threw against a wall at some point; it looks banged up, but hopefully no worse than that. There’s someone else here looking it over, but it’s not Johnny.
“Peter Parker,” says Stark, with a faint air of suspicion. “You do realize you’re not my actual intern, right? You don’t work here.”
Peter nods. “Okay, Mr. Stark. That’s your opinion, and you’re entitled to it.”
He snaps out of interacting-with-Johnny mode about three seconds too late. Stark is staring at him like he’s grown a second head.
“I come in for first aid supplies,” Peter admits. “Also you, uh, just have a really cool secret lair. In the middle of Manhattan.” In which Johnny Storm is sometimes shirtless, but that’s a side concern, totally.
Something embarrassing is probably happening on Peter’s face right now, so he lifts the Fantasticar and sets it gently back to level. There’s a bend in the frame, ugly but totally fixable; he catches himself patting it absently the way Johnny would.
Stark waits out this process with something that almost resembles patience. “Well, secret lair was the intention. Apparently what I’ve created is an after-school program for superpowered teenagers.”
Peter shrugs and tries not to look like he thinks that sounds like a great idea, actually. “What happened to Dr. Dillon?”
“He’s been contained on the Raft. You don’t need to worry about it.”
“They’re not going to try to--help him, or anything?”
“I’m sure they’re doing their best.” Stark winces. “By the way, someone called in an anonymous tip--turns out he was collecting a whole stash of Vulture’s gear in Hell’s Kitchen. Someone also got proactive and dumped it all into the Hudson, but at least we know where it is.”
“It wasn’t me,” says Peter, honestly. Hell’s Kitchen. Huh.
There’s a growing, awkward silence, and then Stark makes a vague shooing motion. “What are you still doing here? Go away. Have a youthful caper of some kind. Swing from something.”
Johnny’s not expecting a knock on his window, but there aren’t a lot of people it could be. He cracks the window and grins when he finds Spider-Man clinging to the glass side of the Baxter Building. “Hey, you got your cast off! C’mon in.”
They’ve been a thing for a week or so, technically, but they’ve barely seen each other. Peter’s aunt hassled him into cutting down on the web-swinging until his arm healed, plus his phone’s still iffy. Johnny’s missed him.
“Rapunzel, Rapunzel! Your hair is too short, so I climbed thirty stories on my own, like a chump.” Peter pulls his mask off. He’s grinning dopily, like maybe he missed Johnny too. “Hey, I had a thought about the Fantasticar, and there’s a midnight showing of X-Files I thought you’d wanna see. If you think we can go two hours without anybody trying to kill us.”
“I mean, we can try?” Johnny folds his arms on the windowsill. “Seriously, come in. It’s chilly out and you’re making me nervous.” He doesn’t actually feel the cold, and the winter’s turned mild this week, but this is a really awkward way to have a conversation.
Peter gives him a long-suffering look and launches himself backwards off the building, turning a neat backflip in midair and catching himself again by his fingertips and toes.
Johnny’s heart stops from awe, terror, or possibly both at once. He has a bad feeling that Peter knows exactly what he’s doing to him. “Okay, point taken, now would you please--”
“Seriously? You’re the guy who lights on fire and flies at supersonic speeds, but I make you nervous?”
“Yeah, you do,” says Johnny, and it comes out a little more honest-sounding than he’d like.
Peter’s smile fades. “What’s up, hothead? Everything okay?”
Johnny resigns himself to doing this through the window for now. “Still wrapping my head around it, I guess. You being--all of this, at once.”
“Well, jeez, sorry I deprived you of your helpless nerd sidekick.” Peter doesn’t look sorry.
Johnny reaches out the window to ruffle his hair. “Aw, no worries, you’re still my helpless nerd sidekick.”
Peter opens his mouth--then he pauses and stares. “Oh my God. You came to me for dating advice that one time, right?”
Johnny groans and buries his face in his hands.
“All of that--oh no, I can’t date a civilian, what if I put him in danger--was that me? Were you asking me for advice about myself?” Peter cups one hand around his mouth and shouts into the night. “Johnny Storm, everybody! The Human Trainwreck!”
Supposedly Johnny is fireproof, but maybe there’s a way for him to set himself on fire if he tries really, really hard. “Who else would I be asking about?”
“How should I know?” Peter swings up to sit on the windowsill, legs still dangling thirty stories above 42nd. “I used to imagine telling you I was Spider-Man, and you’d, I don’t know, see me in a whole new light or something. I guess I just assumed--”
“What, that I couldn’t be into you otherwise? Pete, I hate to tell you this, but I was turning myself inside out to impress you from day one.” Johnny turns his head to look at Peter’s hip. His leg is bouncing restlessly; the flex of muscle under textured fabric is hypnotic. “Hey. If you get indoors like a normal person we can make out before we go."
"If you insist," says Peter, but he lets Johnny take his hand and bring him inside.
It's almost too much at first--Peter kissing him quick and eager, again and again, darting away and making Johnny chase him for it. "Wow,” says Johnny, “desperate much--" and he knows immediately it came out wrong, because Peter's shoulders tense up under his hands. "I mean, because cool, me too, so." He kisses him just once, more leisurely. Reassuring, he hopes.
Peter gets that appraising look again for a second; then his fingers clench in the front of Johnny’s shirt, and he kisses back.
The first time Johnny saw Peter, the sheer force of his enthusiasm and focus--he never imagined it would be like this, having all that energy turned on him. Even as they relax into each other, Peter’s chronically restless, fingers skittering over Johnny’s chest and arms, murmuring happily against his cheek. “Shh,” Johnny says, even though he likes it, really.
“You shush,” says Peter, and kisses him to make sure of it.
Johnny leans back against the wall, sliding his arms around Peter’s waist to bring him along. He gets lost in it for a while--kissing long and aimless, just getting acquainted. Forget the movie, he thinks he just wants to spend the evening here, learning how to kiss Peter.
But one thing is niggling at him. "Hey," he says eventually, breathless. "Did you say, about the Fantasticar--"
"Not now, I'm busy."
“Okay, later." Johnny kisses his nose and laughs at the face Peter pulls in response.
"There was a noise," Peter mumbles against his jaw, five minutes later.
"What?" Johnny slides his hands up Peter’s ribs; he can't feel much through the Spider-suit, but Peter hums approvingly. He could really learn to hate the suit; it lets him see so much and touch so little. Nothing else really seems important at the moment.
"The engine. There was this, this noise, before it blew."
"I didn't hear anything."
"I've got good ears, I swear. There was this--this really high-pitched whine. I should've been paying better attention, but I maybe thought it was just in my head."
Johnny stares at him.
“You were holding my hand,” says Peter, sounding strangled, like this excuses anything at all.
“Oh my god,” says Johnny, faintly.
“See? All your fault. As usual.”
“A high-pitched whine.” He takes a deep breath and taps his thumb absently on Peter’s hip, trying to think. “And it started while the car was idling, it was fine in the air, right? So--”
“Power flow,” they say in unison.
Peter grabs his face in both hands and kisses him--badly, because he’s grinning against Johnny’s mouth. “If it’s backing up somewhere, we can even it out, or bleed it off.”
Johnny beams back at him. “Work later, though, okay? You wanted to go to a movie.”
“Mmm.” Peter gives him one more lingering kiss and then abruptly pulls his mask back on. “Last one to 94th pays for tickets.”
“Wait, what?” says Johnny, dazed by the kiss.
It’s too late; Peter’s already swung back out the window. There’s nothing for Johnny to do but flame on and leap out after him, chasing the sound of Peter’s laughter through the skyline.
Chapter 2: [obligatory post-credits scene]
May meets Johnny Storm in the worst possible way: she catches him early one Saturday morning, trying to creep out of her bathroom and back into Peter’s room. “This isn’t--we weren’t--” he says, and makes a concerningly ambiguous gesture. “I mean, Ms. Parker, hi, good morning.”
“For the love of God, please stop talking,” says May.
Honestly, the strangest thing is that Peter is home at all. Whatever he and Johnny have been doing with their time, they tend to stick around Midtown, near Peter’s school and the Baxter Building. They’ve been dating six weeks, Peter is still dodging her offers to have Johnny over for dinner, and yet--here he is, using May’s bathroom.
“I should just go home,” he says. “Sorry I startled you.”
“No, no, stay,” says May, too polite for her own good. “I was going to make myself breakfast anyway.”
Johnny considers this. “I can do eggs?”
They’re in the kitchen before May wakes up enough to notice that Johnny actually is fully dressed, in a shirt and dark jeans that are crumpled up like he slept in them. His sneakers, immaculate blue suede with gold leather flames, probably cost more than her rent. “Be honest. Do I want to know what happened last night?”
Johnny shrugs. “We had plans, but Pete texted me he was ‘held up,’ which could be anything from bus bunching to serial killers. He said to meet him here, but he just climbed in the window like an hour ago. And fell asleep.”
“But he seemed okay?” She has to ask; Peter tells Johnny things he doesn’t tell her.
“He seemed okay.”
“You could have waited in the living room, you know.”
“I was scared of meeting you,” Johnny admits. “So much for that, right?”
May laughs, startled. “What did Peter tell you about me?”
“Nothing bad! That’s the thing. You have, like, veto power. If you don’t like me--goodbye.”
“Yeah, you say that, but you weren’t around right after I found out about Spider-Man. This place was a war zone. It was awful.”
Johnny pauses in the middle of cracking eggs into a bowl. “You tried to make him stop?”
“I tried to make him stop,” says May. “And my God, I have never seen him so angry. For weeks he wouldn’t talk to me, and then he sat me down and said, ‘Look, the thing is, you can’t make me stop.’ And he was right, I couldn’t.”
“This--isn’t like that.”
“No, so I gave him a hard time for maybe a week and then let it go. I just want him to be happy, and it seems like he is.”
“He should be,” says Johnny, and flushes, looking surprised by his own vehemence. “He tries to carry so much--he should be happy.”
May waves a spatula at him. “See, you’re fine, you can stay. Trust me, you are by far the least of my concerns in his life.”
It’s hours more until Peter makes an appearance, wandering down the hall in his costume tights and a Mets hoodie that says THOR on the back. Color coordination is not, as far as May can tell, one of his superpowers. “Torch,” he says sleepily. “What are you doing here?”
Johnny waves from his end of the couch. “Hi, it’s me? Your boyfriend? You may remember me from the time you blew off a date and then climbed in your window at six AM, fell on top of me, and immediately started snoring.”
“I don’t snore,” says Peter. “What if I said it was a kitten in a tree?”
“Where was the tree? Wakanda?” Johnny sighs theatrically. “The romance is dead. Not that there’s any romance, Ms. Parker. How dare you touch me--hey!”
Peter smacks a kiss on his cheek and then registers, too late, the presence of May. And her phone. “No,” he says, horrified. “May, no, come on.”
“What? It’s not like your costume is showing.” May surveys her photo. “See, it’s cute.”
Johnny sits up and grabs for the phone. “Can I see?”
“Oh my God, you bonded,” says Peter. “My life is over.”
“Well, I left you waffles in the oven, but--” May shrugs. “If your life’s over, I’m happy to eat them all myself.”
“Aw, not even fresh?”
“No fresh waffles for people who flake on dates,” says May, and goes to take a shower while they hash it out.
When she comes back the waffles are on a plate on the coffee table, barely touched; Johnny’s fast asleep, curled into Peter’s side, head on his shoulder. Peter smiles sheepishly at her.
“He was here all night waiting for you,” May whispers. Her phone is, regrettably, out of reach.
“I know. He’s so--” Johnny shifts and grumbles; Peter goes still, looking stricken. “I’m gonna make it up to him, May, I swear.”
He’s turning seventeen next week, which should have given her enough time to brace for this kind of thing, and yet May feels lost. God, she hopes she did okay at raising this person, whoever he is. “Lucky for you he likes you, huh?”
“Yeah,” says Peter, almost inaudible. His fingers curl protectively into the hem of Johnny’s shirt. “Lucky me.”