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The Best Street Corner in NYC

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Johnny clicked the lighter and held it grandiosely over his head. “Ladies and gentlemen, you might wanna step back-”

The crowd gathered around him took his advice. Mothers and grandmothers pulled their wide-eyed children back by the shoulders, eyes glued on Johnny.

“-because I’m about to FLAME ON!” Johnny lit his clothes on fire. The crowd seemed to hold its breath as Johnny held his arms in a Y over his head, grinning. He brought his arms down slowly, leaned to the side, and twirled his skateboard into position. This was his favorite part.

The crowd gasped as Johnny mounted the (flame-proof) skateboard and rolled back and forth, as though testing his balance. He loved the way they gasped and stepped back whenever he leaned too far on purpose.

He flipped the skateboard this way and that, balanced on its side, switched from foot to foot, holding more and more difficult poses as he went.

And now, the overkill.

Johnny set the skateboard aside for a moment to pick up two torches. He lit them with his arm, held them both out to the audience with a wide sweep, held at arms’ length, and re-mounted the skateboard. Johnny juggled flaming torches, on a skateboard, while his clothes were on fire.

The audience screamed and roared. Money began pouring into his guitar case.

Johnny caught both torches, held his hands over his head, and soaked in the applause.

Once the applause began to decrescendo, Johnny extinguished the torches in a bucket, picked up a handful of something- deftly, so the audience wouldn’t notice- and shouted “FLAME OFF!” before throwing the handful of dust at himself. The flames sputtered to a stop almost instantly, leaving behind only small traces of white smoke which wisped away into the night.

People scrambled to pour money into his guitar case. Johnny thanked all of them, told them they’re a wonderful audience, “really, thank you. So generous,” and on and on. He signed autographs. He posed for pictures. He winked at the girls that threw their numbers into his guitar case. They giggled.

Johnny had been performing on this street corner every night for five years. He drew huge crowds. People called him ‘The Human Torch.’ He was the most skilled pyromaniac in New York City. No matter how many things he set on fire, Johnny was always trying new tricks at home, looking for new and spectacular things to burn. He’d been perfecting several varieties of homemade fireworks and sparklers for his holiday shows. He spent afternoons at the skate park, showing off and learning every trick he could. He incorporated the more stationary ones into his shows. The audience was always blown away that he could play with fire and skateboard at the same time. And Johnny loved it.

Johnny thanked the last of his stragglers and packed his supplies into his money-laden guitar case. Friday night crowds were always the best, because most of them had just hit pay day and were feeling generous. By his calculations, he had roughly enough money to pay all of this month’s rent and eat out at his favorite five-star restaurant, and then some.

He kept a handful of money in his pocket as he swaggered down the street, singing a pitchy version of Uptown Funk. His flame-retardant suit was custom-made, form-fitting like spandex, and done up in very flattering shades of black and burgundy. His flame-proof shoes were also custom-made, and custom-made to match. The puffy vest he wore over it was a redder, rosier shade of burgundy, but it coordinated with the sunglasses he definitely didn’t need to wear at night. Still, he looked pretty damn cool.

“’Sup, guys!” Johnny nodded his styled blond head at a group of homeless people huddled around a makeshift fireplace- a mesh garbage can full of newspaper. Johnny reached into his pocket. “Did pretty well tonight,” he said, congratulating himself as he handed each of the homeless people a small wad of cash, each amounting to about $50. “Get yourself some coats,” he suggested.

“Thank you!” one of them gushed, a gray-haired woman with tears in her eyes. He hadn’t seen her before.

“There’s more where that came from,” Johnny said, brushing her off. “And plenty of jobs around. Don’t give up, guys. I’m sure you’ll find something.” He pivoted away, pointing finger-guns at them, and resumed his swagger.

“I’m feeling… tacos,” Johnny said to himself.

“Who was that?” he overheard the new one say in a choked-up voice full of awe.

“That,” answered one of his regulars- a divorcee in his 60s with a smoking problem- “was Johnny Storm.”

*

Johnny Storm had a day job, but since he made so much money at night, it was really more of a hobby. He’d opened his own mechanic shop straight out of high school. Johnny had always loved tinkering with cars and motorcycles. He personally owned five vintage cars, although he never drove them anywhere except occasionally to car shows; he mostly took his motorcycle everywhere- or if the weather was nice, his skateboard.

Johnny had always felt at-home elbows-deep under a hood. He not only fixed his clients’ cars, he improved them. He’d started the business to help pay tuition for night school, but halfway to his degree, he’d decided college wasn’t for him and started performing at night instead. He’d been sort of fooling around with street performances on the weekends. At first it had just been for his own enjoyment. He’d get tips, but nothing crazy. And then he’d had the brilliant idea to combine his love for skateboarding with his love of pyrotechnics.

It was no surprise that Johnny’s mechanic shop was a runaway success. He made so much money at night, he really didn’t care how much he made during the day. Because of that, his prices were low, and he never charged extra for any ‘experimenting’ he did on his clients’ vehicles. Customers frequently tripped over themselves complimenting him and thanking him for the work, but he’d just grin and shrug it off.

Yes, Johnny was extremely popular all around. He drew large crowds every night, had long lines at his car shop every day, and his bed was frequently warmed by adoring fans.

Johnny didn’t date seriously, though- he always made it clear that this was gonna be a one-time thing. Most of them were okay with that. Occasionally, he’d get a girl who thought she could ‘change’ him and get him to ‘settle down’ and ‘date someone seriously,’ but Johnny always chased them away with a thanks-but-no-thanks.

He really wasn’t looking for a relationship. He was hot, talented, and in his 20s, living in New York City, and he intended to make the most of it.

Johnny was headed to his usual street corner and enjoying the florescent orange-and-pink sunset when he noticed that a large crowd had already gathered. Johnny snorted. “Little early, guys,” he joked. A few people glanced at him, but no one paid him much mind. Johnny thought this was odd, but dismissed it off-hand because this was New York, and distracting things happened all the time. Maybe a building was on fire, or a celebrity had just walked by. Anything was possible.

Johnny started setting up his show just as casually as he always did, but something felt off. The crowd usually started paying attention to him by this point. He usually at least caught a few glances at his butt while he bent over repeatedly. Johnny hadn’t noticed a single admiring glance. He wondered what was up.

That’s when he saw a plume of purple flame.

“Oh, no you don’t!” Johnny shoved his belongings into his guitar case and propped it up against a street sign. He stormed over towards whatever idiot was stealing his thunder. He elbowed his way through the crowd until he saw this dude in a tan trench coat twirling a flaming purple staff. Johnny rolled his eyes. That wasn’t even difficult. “Hey!” he barked, cupping his hands around his mouth to amplify the sound. “What’s the big idea?!”

The man caught his staff in one hand and turned in one swift motion. Their eyes locked.

Johnny’s anger dropped away into sheer, dumbstruck surprise. He gaped at those red irises until the man looked away. He barely registered what the man was even doing. He stared with sudden tunnel vision at the silky chestnut-auburn hair, the chiseled jaw shaded with stubble, the aquiline nose, the dark naturally arched eyebrows, dark curly eyelashes, and godlike cheekbones on this guy. He was unfairly handsome. Those eyes would stop anyone in their tracks. His irises were red. Ruby, sunset, cinnamon-candy red. And if the eyes didn’t throw someone off-guard, the rest of his face definitely would. This guy looked like a French model.

He did something with cards which Johnny only half paid attention to. It took him a good five minutes to get over how red this guy’s eyes were. After he realized this guy had intentionally distracted him with how handsome he was, Johnny remembered he was supposed to be angry. “Hey!” he said again as the guy’s show had apparently ended and he began accepting money from the smitten audience. “I’m talking to you!”

Those red, red eyes locked with his once more. One perfect eyebrow arched. “Oui?”

Johnny rolled his eyes. “Ugh, so pretentious. We’re in New York! Speak English!”

“My apologies, mon ami,” the guy said smoothly in an accent Johnny couldn’t place. “Ah thought dis was de melting pot of de world. But per’aps Ah am mistaken.” He borderline ignored Johnny as he accepted money and adulation from the lingering crowd.

Johnny scoffed. “Don’t get all high and mighty on me! I have a bone to pick with you!”

“A bone, you say…” The asshole seemed totally unaffected.

“Yeah! A bone! Do you see that corner?” Johnny pointed across the street at the deserted street corner where his guitar case lay propped up against a street sign for the intersection. “That is my corner! You stole my audience!”

The overly attractive asshole raised his eyebrows. “Excusez moi. Ah didn’ see any othah performers when Ah got here. Maybe if you weren’t so late…”

Johnny scoffed loudly, throwing his hands out for emphasis. “LATE?! This is the perfect time to show up! I’d know! I’ve been doing it for five years!”

The guy shrugged one shoulder and closed up the bag he’d been accepting cash in. “Seemed like a good time tu me.”

“That’s because you stole my audience!”

“It’s a free country, mon ami. If de audience watched me instead of you, dan per’aps you need tu step up your game.”

Johnny spluttered, furious.

The guy started walking away.

Johnny stomped after the guy. “HEY! You can’t do that! You can’t just steal my audience and walk away!”

“Ah can, and as Ah already said, Ah didn’ steal anyt’ing dat wasn’ willin’ tu be taken.”

“No. No, fuck you! That is my corner and that was my audience, and you just took my money!”

The guy stopped walking so that he could face Johnny with cool annoyance. One eyebrow arched. “Ah do b’lieve it was deir money, homme.”

“Which I should have earned, but instead your stupid French ass was parked on my corner, and now they’ve all left!”

The guy crossed his arms over his broad, muscular chest- not that Johnny noticed. (Damn, his biceps were nice.) “Excuse de intrusion, but you don’ exactly look like you’re hurtin’ for money.”

“That’s beside the point!” Johnny dodged. “You’ve gotta find your own street corner!”

Anger simmered in those red, red eyes. The whites of his eyes looked so white in comparison. It was like rubies embedded in the moon. Or like someone had set the moon on fire. Or—“…a challenge.”

“Challenge?” Johnny perked up.

“You perform on your corner, and Ah perform on mine, an’ winner gets tu stay. Deal?”

A challenge. This guy had actually challenged Johnny Storm to a contest. A fierce, triumphant grin slowly spread across Johnny’s face. This guy didn’t know what he’d just started. “Deal.”

The guy held out a partially-gloved hand. Johnny thought it was weird how his pointer finger and pinkie finger were only half-covered, while the middle two were completely covered. Usually that meant it’s time to get new gloves. But this guy’s gloves were cut in such a way that it looked intentional. Johnny thought about this as he gripped the guy’s firm, warm hand and shook for probably too long.

He stepped away feeling strange. His thoughts felt weird and distant and floaty. He found himself walking the wrong way when the guy’s voice stopped him. “Homme?”

Johnny turned.

“Isn’ dat your case?” The guy nodded his handsome head towards Johnny’s guitar case, which was still sitting where Johnny had left it.

Johnny snapped into action, crossed the street, and grabbed his guitar case with an automatic “Thanks!”

The amused “No problem” rumbled weirdly through Johnny’s chest as though he’d been the one that said it.

He got away from this weird guy and the weird way he made him feel and wandered around until he found his way home.

*

Weird, distracting guy with an implacable accent or not, Johnny was ready. His brain had unfogged itself once he woke up the next morning, and he showered with vigor. He scrubbed last night’s disappointment away head-to-toe until he smelled just as delicious as that guy’s mouth looked- wait what? Johnny shook his head. That had been a weird thought. It must be the eyes. They did something to him. Must be some sort of weird hypnotic thing.

Johnny shaved, brushed his teeth, and styled his hair into its usual swirly pompadour. He skipped work to go to the skate park instead to experiment with pyrotechnics. There was this beautiful stretch of asphalt which the skateboarders ignored all day because there was nothing there to trick off of. Johnny mixed various powders together, carefully measuring each one, and spread the mixture on various items to see how well they exploded. He was there well into the afternoon; in fact, he didn’t realize how long he’d been there until the sun started to sink low into the sky and his stomach rumbled loudly.

Johnny grinned. He pocketed his new inventions and headed for his favorite Cajun restaurant. He didn’t know why, but spicy food sounded really good right now.

As he was wolfing down his jambalaya (with extra cayenne), he was so transported that he failed to notice the absurdly handsome man in the corner doing card tricks for the waitresses.

In fact, he didn’t notice until he saw a man in a tan trench coat walk past the plate glass window and toss a wink at him.

Johnny frowned, stood, and nearly pushed his dishes off the table. “CHECK PLEASE!”

He hurried to pay his bill and had his skateboard out before he hit the double doors. “’Scuse me!” he said as he swung his skateboard past the entering patrons and boarded it halfway out the door.

Johnny wove around people on the sidewalk, using his guitar case as a makeshift battering ram. He pissed a lot of people off, but he got there right as that asshole was about to start. He set up his show in record speed and bellowed “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!” A few heads turned his way. Panting, Johnny held up his lighter. “PRESENTING NEW YORK’S MOST popular attraction, THE HUMAN TORCH!” Johnny ignited three of his longest torches and launched right into juggling.

Some members of the audience turned their attention towards him.

Most, however, were still watching whatever Frenchie was doing with his deck of cards. “…Is dis your card?” he asked in that inscrutable accent, picking a card from behind a busty blonde’s ear. She gasped and felt the hair around her ear. “How did you know?” she gushed. (It was the Queen of Hearts. Disgusting.)

“If you wanna see a real trick, look over here!” Johnny retaliated. Johnny held the torches over his head. “FLAME ON!”

“So,” the French asshole drawled in his annoyingly smooth voice a few seconds later, “de man can set himself on fire. But can he do this?”

Several heads turned his way as the guy started doing acrobatic shit with his purple flaming staff.

“Anyone can do that,” Johnny scoffed. “Let’s see you top this!” He took out his skateboard.

The audience’s attention was torn between the two attractive men. The brunet was practically break-dancing with a flaming purple staff, defying gravity as he twirled and spun and tricked off the wall just as easily as the ground. The blond also seemed to defy gravity as he balanced his skateboard in increasingly impractical ways, culminating in a one-handed handstand with the skateboard balanced on-end. All the while, the blond was on fire.

The audience went wild.

“Not bad, mon ami,” came the challenge, “but Ah bet dey’ve nevah seen dis.” The brunet pulled a deck of cards out of his jacket. He drew one card deftly between two fingers, showed it to the audience (Ace of Hearts, who the fuck cares), and threw it. Johnny wondered what the fuck the point was when, halfway through its trajectory, the card began to glow hot pink. High over the audience’s heads, the card exploded.

Attention turned in Frenchie’s direction.

Johnny hated to admit it, but that was a neat trick. He himself watched for a bit as the guy tossed a few more cards over the audience, and they all exploded.

“So you like fireworks, huh?” Johnny bellowed.  “Then you guys are gonna love this!”

Johnny pulled out his final trick. He ignited the edge of his skateboard. It crackled, white sparkles of lightning popping all around the edge, and resumed tricking on it until the powder burnt itself out.

The audience had never screamed so loud.

Johnny accepted generous tips that night. He posed for selfie after selfie, got an unprecedented pile of phone numbers, and was generally all for making people feel special until one asshole asked him to take a picture with both of them.

The other guy seemed surprised, but took it in stride. One side of his unfairly handsome mouth curled up into a smile, he lowered his dark sooty lashes, and focused those burning red irises on Johnny. “Only if he’s okay with it,” he said in that smooth baritone voice. But of course he said it in such a way that it felt like a dare.

“Of course I’m okay with it!” Johnny gritted, walking woodenly to stand next to him and offer his best fake smile.

The woman taking the picture lowered her camera. “Can you guys get a little closer?” she asked.

Those red eyes flicked over to Johnny.

Johnny yanked his eyes away before he could get sucked into those tractor beams again. “Sure!” he said stiffly. He leaned closer, careful not to actually touch the guy. (The other dude leaned in casually, as though he did this all the time. Showoff.)

“Thanks!” the woman gushed as her husband stepped away and they admired the picture.

Johnny had packed up his show and turned to leave when that annoyingly handsome voice once again halted him in his tracks: “Mon ami?”

Johnny turned.

The scruffy trench-coat wearing asshole who was ruining his life walked right towards him like he owned this street. He had the nerve to look perfectly at-home. “Ah have anothah proposition fo’ you.”

Johnny sighed and rolled his eyes. “Wasn’t the deal that whoever won got the corner? Because I’m pretty sure I won.” He meant to say ‘fuck off,’ but the words got stuck in his throat when their eyes met.

The guy was smirking. “Tha’s debatable.” His eyes fucking twinkled. “But Ah couldn’ help notice tha’ you seemed tu be havin’ fun.”

“Yeah. Duh. That’s why I perform in the first place.”

“Same.” He stepped closer, forming an almost intimate atmosphere. Johnny felt his cheeks warm. The guy’s eyebrow quirked up. “But tha’ was more fun dan usual, non?”

“Uh.” Johnny glanced at the guy’s mouth lightning-fast, then looked away, determined not to be swayed by his voodoo. “It would be more fun if you’d just leave me alone.”

“Au contraire,” the guy argued in that infuriatingly low, smooth voice with a note of humor, “Ah t’ink it would be more fun t’ do this every night.”

“WHAT?!”

“T’ink about it. De audience loves a competition. De drama, de action, de flames…!” Somewhere during this speech, the guy had thrown an arm around Johnny’s shoulders and was now gesturing grandiosely at nothing. “Wha’ do you say?”

Johnny ducked out from under his arm, cheeks burning. His stomach felt all weird and squiggly. “It’s MY CORNER!”

“It’s our corner, homme! –Tell you wha’, we do dis again tomorrow, an’ if you still don’ like it, we nevah have tu do it again.”

Johnny eyed him suspiciously. “You said that yesterday!”

The man held out a hand and wiggled his fingers.

Johnny rolled his eyes, reached out, and gripped that damn hand again. They shook. “-Fine. But after that, get out.”

“Ah promise.” The guy crossed an ‘X’ over his chest and smirked.

Johnny didn’t trust him at all.

*

Night after night, they performed on their opposing corners. The probably-not-French guy kept pulling more and more impressive tricks out of his repertoire; it turned out he was also somewhat of an expert at pyrotechnics. He could do things with cards that they’ve only dreamed of in Vegas. And somehow he had mastered the art of working with purple fire, which he revealed offhandedly one night was just a color preference. As much as Johnny hated to admit it, blue and purple fire were the hardest to control. Orange and yellow were much easier to create and maintain. Purple burned much hotter.

Johnny stepped up his game as well. He’d stepped up his game so much that he was seriously considering not only setting himself on fire, but turning into a human fireworks display. He’d already engineered fireworks into every other aspect of his show- his skateboard, his torches, the balls he juggled with- all of them had been enveloped in white crackling lightning. He was running out of ways to step up the dazzle.

And night after night, that asshole somehow talked him into sharing his corner for another night.

His least favorite part, by far, was the increasing number of people who kept asking them to take pictures together.

The one that sent Johnny over the edge was the idiot who thought they were working together. “WHOA WHOA WHOA!” Johnny objected loudly. “We are NOT friends!”

“More like co-workers,” the smug asshole interjected, not helping.

“NO. More like mortal enemies!”

“Smile fo’ de camera, ‘mortal enemy’,” he lilted. His fucking arm curled a little closer around Johnny’s shoulders.

Johnny rolled his eyes and snarled at the sky. Stupid moon. Fucking stars. Fucking—stupid black space between everything!

And that asshole fucking leaned a little closer and Johnny caught a whiff of whatever cologne he was wearing and he was so mad his heart actually stuttered.

It was a fucking relief when the guy drew his arm away and wished the idiot couple a happy evening. Johnny slung his guitar case over his shoulder and resigned himself to another fucking night working beside this asshole.

“Johnny, wait!”

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fucking fair that he knew his name, or that he could stop Johnny with his voice. “What,” Johnny said without even turning around.

“Ah have a new proposition for ya.”

Johnny clenched his fists and turned his burning face to the sky in exasperation. If he got any more pissed off, he was gonna do something really stupid, like punch a brick wall or something.

“…What if we do work togethah?”

Johnny’s furious expression plainly spelled out the words he didn’t have to say, but blurted out anyway: “Are you fucking serious?!”

“T’ink about it, mon ami! Ah push you tu become bettah, an’ you push me tu become bettah—imagine what we could do togethah!”

Johnny’s fists clenched. He turned to give this guy a piece of his mind, but the universe must have wrinkled in a cosmic misstep or something, because suddenly, even though Johnny was frowning and his mouth was poised to yell something, his eyes got stuck on that stupid face of his, and then he was imagining all kinds of unexpected things which he didn’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole.

“NO!” Johnny backed away. “I hate working with you! I—” Johnny was yelling at him with genuine anger. There was nothing playful about this. Johnny was shaking. “I…” Johnny backed up another step. He didn’t know how he felt anymore. Telling this guy to fuck off was causing this weird hole in his chest. He had a lump in his throat and he knew everything he was doing was just making it worse, but Johnny was confused and upset and his emotions were catching up to him too late and it was like he was watching himself from a distance as he concluded, “-I gotta go.”

He turned and bolted off into the night, shaking every step of the way.

*

Remy LeBeau had set out to forge a new life for himself in New York. He’d basically been run out of New Orleans, and Vegas, and Los Angeles, due to unfortunate incidents with mob bosses and mob bosses’ wives. He loved sleeping around, but somehow his dick always got him into trouble by fucking the wrong woman. He had at least $150 million total on his head if anyone ever caught him. Not that they ever would—the only name he ever gave them was ‘Gambit.’

He hadn’t come to New York looking for love. He hadn’t been looking for relationships in general for a very, very long time. He’d left behind an ex-wife amidst a storm of politics which he’d managed to escape by the skin of his teeth. He had no desire to repeat anything like that, ever again. Women were trouble. They were fun for one night, but anything beyond that was just asking for the mob(s) to hunt him down.

Remy had always had a talent for performing. He’d done stage productions, sideshows, and in one memorable weekend, landed a show in Vegas—that hadn’t ended well—mob bosses’ wives really ought not to be showgirls—but for many reasons (including the lack of possible mob involvement), independent performances were always Remy’s favorite. He didn’t have to trust anyone, didn’t have to rely on anyone for pay—it was just him and his charisma and talent.

He’d enjoyed teasing his rival street performer, known as The Human Torch, but he must have taken his teasing too far. He hadn’t seen him in about a week, and even Remy could feel that his performances had grown a bit lackluster.

Of course the day was overcast, and of course it was starting to rain when his motorcycle broke down. That was just the way Remy’s luck went—when one thing goes wrong, everything else follows along with it. Remy walked the hundred-and-fifty-pound machine to the nearest mechanic shop, an out-of-the-way little place done up in red and orange. The owner had taped several pictures of vibrantly colored old cars and neon price signs to the windows. Remy snorted softly. There was a sense of humor about it that he couldn’t help but find endearing.

“’ello?” Remy called into the seemingly empty shop. He wheeled his bike in, and out of the rain. A bell chimed overhead. “-Anyone here?”

There was a loud thump. “Ow!” A blond head popped up from underneath the hood of a purple Corvette. The guy rubbed the place where he’d banged his head on the hood. “Yeah, one sec!” he called.

There were several crashing and banging metallic sounds as the guy repeatedly dropped the same wrench into the interior workings of the automobile.

When he finally retrieved the wrench and approached Remy, wiping his hands on an oily dishrag, Remy’s heart fluttered. “How can I help you?” Johnny asked, face red, pretending like this was normal.

“Mah bike broke down,” Remy replied automatically. “De engine sputtered to a stop. It jus’ stopped working.”

Johnny pulled a face, avoiding his eyes. “Let me take a look at it.” He gave Remy a wide berth as he walked in a purposeful arc around him, impractically, to get to the other side of the motorcycle. He tinkered with it, stony-faced, cheeks burning, and fumbled a lot, but seemed to know what he was doing. He peered into the engine compartment, closed it back up, wiped his hands on the dust rag, and with his eyes fixed on a spot on the floor somewhere across the room, told Remy it was a “quick fix. Shouldn’t take more than five minutes.”

He gained Remy’s permission to take the motorcycle into another room. The muscles in his arms bunched up attractively when he pushed the motorcycle away.

Remy didn’t know what to do while he waited. He looked around the place, taking in the other cars Johnny was working on. Most of them were in excellent condition, coats shined, headlamps polished, tires fresh. A metal shelving unit lined one wall, full of supplies. Remy was no expert, but even he could deign that the wide array of bottles and boxes and cleaning supplies, all labelled with capital letters boldly scrawled in black marker, provided far more services than the shop advertised.

Remy heard the familiar sound of his engine starting up in the other room. Black smoke billowed out through the doorway. Johnny coughed. He didn’t sound distressed, though, and as he waved away the smoke with his arms and disappeared once more from view, Remy resumed his survey of the place. There was a stained reddish-blond wood desk by the door with a cash register on it. The cash register was old and outdated, probably picked up at a garage sale somewhere. The whole place gave off the feeling that money was not important to its owner.

Remy’s engine started up again, this time sounding smooth and brand-new.

“All done!” Johnny announced, rolling the now-puttering motorbike into his main room. He kept his head ducked. He set it near the door, nudged its kickstand into place, and left the bike running and ready for inspection.

“Thank you,” Remy said, touched.

Johnny shrugged.

Remy pulled his wallet out of his pocket, ready to ask-

“It’s on the house.” Johnny said this and walked away, keeping his back turned. He bent over the purple Corvette and picked up his wrench. He seemed deflated as he cranked the wrench on something out-of-view.

Remy turned the key on his motorcycle so it went silent.

Johnny’s shoulders visibly eased. He paused for a moment, slumped, and resumed working, more slowly.

Remy silently approached him. “Ah wanted tu ask ya-”

Johnny jerked upwards and dropped his wrench. He cursed loudly.

“-did ya find anothah corner somewhere, or did Ah jus’ chase you away?”

“You didn’t chase me anywhere, asshole.” Johnny stopped rubbing his head and brought his hand down to examine his fingertips and make sure he wasn’t bleeding.

Remy’s mouth twisted into a chagrined smile. “So ya quit?”

Johnny sighed. “I have a job.” He gestured widely.

“So Ah see,” Remy said, “but ya didn’ answer th’ question.”

Johnny gave him an odd frown. “What the fuck is that accent anyway? It’s been driving me crazy.”

Remy blinked. “Cajun. Ah grew up on de bayou.”

Johnny laughed once, quiet. Then he laughed again. Something seemed to break inside him, tears gathered in his eyes but never fell, and he started laughing harder and harder, but it was a weird laugh- rueful, somehow. After a long moment, Johnny wiped his eyes and repeated, “Cajun! Well, that explains all the cravings I’ve been having lately.”

Remy smiled uncertainly. “Ya like Cajun food?”

Johnny snorted. “Like it? It’s my favorite!”

“Really?” Remy said with genuine interest.

Johnny still wouldn’t look at him, and his tone was still rueful. “Yeah. Always loved spicy food. Grew up in California, so spicy food and seafood are kinda my favorites. Both of them together? Just heaven.” Johnny shook his head as though laughing at himself.

“Ah cook Cajun food, ya know,” Remy ventured.

“No,” Johnny said. “I didn’t know.”

Silence fell between them.

Johnny toyed with a loose string on the hem of his shirt, face turned away from him. He seemed almost like he was sorry for something.

“Look,” Remy said after a long silence, “Ah don’ have tu perform on dat particulah street corner if you wan’ it. You was dere first.”

Finally, Johnny met his eyes. There was so much sadness in that warm Caribbean blue. He broke eye contact almost immediately. “You don’t have to.”

Remy sighed. “Ah t’ink we got off on de wrong foot.” He held out his hand. “Remy LeBeau.”

“Johnny Storm.” Johnny gripped his hand, then seemed to realize what he was doing mid-shake. His eyes widened. He froze, staring at the point where their hands were connected. And then Remy felt it- the wave of heat coming off of him.

Remy held his hand, not letting go either.

Their eyes locked.

“…What are you tricking me into?” Johnny asked, gaze dancing across his face.

Remy’s lips curled up on one side. “No tricks,” he promised. “But if you’d like, we can do tricks togethah. Mah offer still stands.”

Johnny lowered their hands, but didn’t quite let go. “A partnership,” he stated blankly.

Remy felt heat creep into his eyes. “Do ya wan’ tu be partners?”

Johnny gulped. Those blue eyes betrayed him.

Remy stepped closer, backing Johnny against the front of the forgotten car. He lowered his eyelashes and tilted his head, leaning closer.

Johnny cleared his throat. “You mean- you mean like business partners?”

“Yeah,” Remy agreed in a low voice, pausing. “Business partners.”

“Oh.” Johnny seemed to relax.

“An’ den aftah we do a show together,” Remy continued, “per’aps you would like tu get dinner?”

“Dinner?” Johnny squeaked. He cleared his throat and looked away. “Um, I usually eat before my show.”

“Dessert then.”

“Dessert…” Johnny’s voice was faint; his eyes were locked on Remy’s lips.

Remy leaned a little closer. “Yeah,” he said in a soothing voice, “dessert.”

“You mean as friends?!” Johnny squeaked.

Remy sighed. “If tha’s what you want.”

Johnny was still staring at his mouth.

Remy pushed himself away with great reluctance, mouth grim. “So Ah’ll see you tonight?”

“Yeah,” Johnny echoed, dazed. “Sure. See you tonight.”

*

The great thing about pyrotechnics is that they don’t work so well in the rain.

Since that night, New York was trapped in a heavy downpour, Remy thought his chances with Johnny were just about shot down, but much to his surprise, Johnny was there waiting on his street corner with an umbrella.

He pretended not to notice Remy at first, typing something on his phone, but then he nonchalantly exited out of the screen and shoved it in its pocket. “We still on for dinner?”

Remy crooked an eyebrow. “Ah thought we was on fo’ dessert.”

“Eh. I wasn’t hungry. So? Where you wanna go?”

Remy wasn’t hungry. In fact, his stomach was in twists. “How about some coffee?”

“Sounds great.”

They walked side-by-side, each with their own umbrella. Neither of them spoke all the way to the coffee shop. And once inside, neither of them ordered coffee.

Never had Remy had so much to say and so few words to say it. He’d finished his doughnut and most of his hot cocoa before Johnny spoke.

“So. You really wanna do this?”

Remy met those Caribbean blue eyes.

“-You really wanna do a show together?” Johnny elaborated.

Remy couldn’t deny some disappointment. “Ah really do.”

“Okay.” Johnny drained the rest of his hot cocoa. “So here’s how it’s gonna go down…” Johnny began describing, in detail, the various tricks and acts they could do together with fire and pyrotechnics. He’d clearly put a lot of thought into not only the mechanics of the show, but the dynamics, the flow, and the pacing. The longer Johnny talked, the more Remy was solidly on-board with this plan.

*

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!” Johnny announced.

“And non-binary friends,” Remy added with a flourish and a wink.

“WELCOME to the number one show in New York, the pyros!”

“Short for pyromaniac,” Remy added. “It was too long fo’ him to remembah.” He winked at a smiling girl in the audience.

“And too long for him to pronounce,” Johnny rebuffed. “AUDIENCE! Feast your eyes on the masters of flame! Gambit-”

“-and De Human Torch!”

The audience roared as Johnny and Remy lit their props. The pair of them opened with their juggling routine. Five torches was always way more impressive than three.

The pair danced around each other, tossing torches underhand, overhand, twisting around to twist and catch torches they threw at each other, caught torches without looking, juggled back-to-back and side-by-side and across a large distance.

When the audience started to get bored with juggling, Remy started tossing up cards into their trajectory, never dropping a single torch. The cards exploded in-between torches. Johnny started adding his chemical mixture so the torches sparkled. They juggled faster and faster until they stoked the audience to a fever-pitch, then caught them all and stood side-by-side, arms up in a triumphant Y.

“And now,” Remy announced, “fo’ de dancing part of de competition.” He turned as though to bow to Johnny, but Johnny beat him to it. Remy gave the audience a comedic shrug, grabbed the hem of his coat, and curtsied. The audience laughed.

They started off in a tango, with Johnny holding a sparkling torch between his teeth. He passed the torch to Remy, without their faces ever actually touching, but Remy liked to ham it up and make it look like they were sharing a steamy kiss, just out of the audience’s view. Once Remy was carrying the sparkling torch in his mouth, Johnny spun him out, then back in, and dipped him so that Remy could extinguish the torch in the bucket and drop it from between his teeth. (The audience loved it.)

From there on, their dancing turned more and more acrobatic until they were essentially doing a daring gymnastic routine. Remy always found a way to incorporate pole-dancing. Johnny always set himself on fire near the end.

Their show was a spectacle so popular, they started getting complaints from the city begging them to move to another location or find a stage somewhere, because they were backing up traffic.

Every aspect of their show was ironed out to the point where the choreography was flawless. And no matter how spectacular their routine became, Johnny was always brimming with new inventive ideas, which he always shared with bare enthusiasm. Remy always listened with a tender smile, taking in every word. But no matter how many times they ate dinner together, no matter how many times Remy offered to walk Johnny home, no matter how close Remy leaned when they were dancing, Johnny somehow always found a way to push him away at the last second.

One night, during their now-regular after-show dinner, Johnny mentioned offhandedly that his parents had died when he was young. “Yeah,” he commented as though it was no big deal, “my sister basically raised me. She did pretty great, considering, but when she went off to college, she and I kinda grew apart, and she got married to this guy and moved in with him, so.” Johnny shrugged. “I just figured I’d move here and try starting a new life. You know- make some friends, earn some money. Whatever.” He said all of this very casually, but Remy had learned by now that Johnny always tried to hide any emotions besides happiness and anger.

“Tha’ must’a been lonely,” Remy said sympathetically.

“Eh.” Johnny shrugged. “I mean, I guess. For a while. But I’ve got friends here. I’ve got-” Johnny gestured vaguely. “Lots of people come see my show, and…” His vague gesture escalated in intensity. “I’ve got Ben and Peter. I haven’t talked to them in a while, but they’re- you know, they care.”

“Yeah.” Remy waited. Sometimes it was better to let him talk.

Johnny shifted and cleared his throat. “Anyway, so what brought you to New York?”

“Same as you. Lookin’ for a new life.”

Johnny laughed. “Yeah? And how’s that working out for ya?”

“Well,” Remy said, “Ah met you.”

Their eyes locked. Johnny fell silent.

Remy reached across the table and held Johnny’s hands between his own.

Johnny gulped.

The waitress chose to come at that moment with their desserts.

Johnny ate two small bites of his dessert, dropped his spoon, placed his share of the bill on the table, and left without another word.

*

Johnny sucked at reading people. He’d always sucked at reading people. He’d always hated confronting or thinking about emotions. But he’d gotten way past the point of realizing that there was something else going on besides being rivals or finding Remy distractingly and almost maddeningly attractive. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but whatever it was, he was pretty sure Remy felt it too.

Remy teased him a lot, but holding his hands at dinner like that hadn’t been a joke, for once. That time, he had been dead serious.

While they’d been holding hands, it had all come flooding back- the dinners, the coffees, hot cocoa, ice cream- heck, even their business meetings had this weird undertone to them, and now Johnny was questioning how much of that had ever actually been teasing or joking. He’d just kind of assumed Remy was trying to manipulate and fluster him. Remy got a kick out of riling him up; they both knew that so well, it was part of their act! But… what if it hadn’t been an act?

Johnny couldn’t sleep that night. He had too much to think about.

But by the time the sun rose the next morning, he knew what to do.

*

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!”

“And non-binary friends” (wink)

“WELCOME to the Number One Show in New York, The Pyros!”

The audience cheered. The attractive blond and the even-more-attractive brunet bantered, performed a stunning juggling routine, and segued seamlessly into a dramatic tango where the blond strutted proudly with a torch clenched between his teeth.

A tense undercurrent held everyone at rapt attention. Although the performers kept their voices light, there was an undeniable intensity between them.

As the blond leaned in to hand the torch over to the brunet, something palpably shifted. Their usual joke kiss went on for far too long. They seemed to forget they were onstage. The torch tumbled to the floor. The blond’s arms wound up around the brunet’s shoulders, tugging him closer. The brunet angled his head, mouth plainly open against the blond’s. Their clothes ignited, lit by the torch rolling away on the floor. The kissing figures burned bright purple and orange, mingling in the middle. Their hair danced in the heat.

The audience cheered louder and louder.

The brunet seemed to gather himself; he pulled away from the blond, said something, and the blond’s eyes widened. The brunet said something else which the audience couldn’t hear. He turned to the audience with a smile. They held hands, standing in a triumphant Y formation, and bowed.

They didn’t stay that night for autographs.