Once Ben and Johnny began dating, it was the quiet, separate moments that spoke the loudest.
Life on a team of superheroes was beyond hectic, leaving little time for dates — let alone grand romantic gestures. On Monday they might be stopping an alien invasion. On Wednesday they could find themselves racing through the Multiverse to prevent the collapse of another dimension. While date nights on Fridays were the norm for most couples, outings were so frequently interrupted by giant monsters rampaging through the city that all four of them had almost entirely stopped trying.
By the time all current threats were resolved and they had a chance to breathe, neither of Ben nor Johnny wanted anything more than to relax together on the couch. More frequently than not, that was the form their time together took, Ben sitting up and browsing through the sports section of the paper while Johnny lounged on his back, fiddling with his phone, his head resting against Ben’s outer thigh.
Those moments were the ones Ben craved, the ones that he lived for. The times when he and Johnny were just people instead of heroes, when they were just any other couple enjoying a Sunday morning rather than the Thing and the Human Torch. Ben wasn’t normal anymore, and he knew that, but he liked to pretend that he could be.
Being a hero was one matter, but having no kind of secret identity, no type of respite from the public eye or the constant catastrophes, was another entirely. The draining lifestyle affected the entire team, from their romances to their overall sense of morale.
“It’s not that I don’t want to be a superhero,” Sue said, voice exhausted, as she used her force fields to clear away rubble from the street. They were in California, providing disaster relief after an earthquake. “I just wish we could have vacation days every once in a while. You know, like a regular job.”
“I hear you, Susie. Believe me, I know what you’re sayin’,” Ben replied as he hefted a battered U-Haul from its haphazard position in the middle of the road and carried it over to the curb. “But at least we’re able to help more people this way than we would be if we’re normal.”
That was his main consolation about being irreversibly changed from human form into what by all accounts was a freak of nature. As the Thing, he was able to help more people than he ever would as just Ben Grimm. While it didn’t quite make up for his now complete recognizability and near total lack of privacy, at least his transformation could benefit others if not himself.
All of them were affected by the absence of the relative anonymity they once held. Now, if Sue was spotted shopping for lingerie, a meltdown erupted at the moral seams of society. The sight of Reed purchasing chemicals for his research brought panic from parent groups that children would be encouraged to create dangerous mixtures of cleaning fluids when playing scientist. And whenever a battle interrupted Johnny in the middle of a night out and he was forced to fight the threat in clubwear, his outfit usually garnered criticism from both fundamentalist and fashion groups alike.
And of course, anywhere Ben went, it was obvious who he was.
“It’s like I said, about you being a mascot,” Johnny told him one night as they lay in bed together. His slim form fit nicely with Ben’s hulking physique, like two puzzle pieces interlocking.
Never would Ben have thought Johnny was one to enjoy cuddling, instead figuring him for the love-’em-and-leave-’em type, the kind of guy who pulled his boots on the moment sex was over. But they’ve finished for now, and here Johnny was, tracing the lines on Ben’s chest as they talked, leaning forward every so often to kiss his neck.
“What are you talkin’ about?” Ben asked, trying to keep any hint of irritation from his tone. He always bristled at this type of comment, but now that the two of them begun dating, Ben trusted him enough not to use his insecurities as a punchline.
“Me, Sue, and Reed — we may all have superpowers, but at the end of the day, we look just like anyone else. We can pass for anyone else, for other people,” Johnny explained. He gently kissed Ben’s jaw before continuing. “But you’re distinct. You can be an icon. Everything you do has significance. Think of the people you could inspire, the kids especially — like that bunch back on Yancy Street.”
Realization dawned on Ben as Johnny continued to nuzzle at his neck. He’d been helping people, sure, the entire team had — but he’d never thought that he might be able to change people, to affect the way they thought. But once the idea hit him, it stuck with him like a suckerpunch to a weak spot. Hell, to think of all that he could do with the ability to convince people to think and act differently. Not only the things he could change, but the various what-ifs he could prevent.
Immediately, his thoughts shifted to his older brother, Daniel, who’d died at the age of sixteen, killed in a knife fight as leader of the Yancy Street Gang. The fight had been with the Thompson Avenue crew, Ben recalled, with a heavy heart. And he himself had gone on to lead Yancy Street as revenge for his brother, continuing the cycle of violence. But maybe now, he make up for that and find a way to permanently disband both gangs.
“I’m sorry,” Johnny said softly, bringing Ben back into the present. “I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories for you.”
“S’all right,” Ben said, his voice rumbling. He lifted Johnny’s chin, kissing him. “Besides, I think you might be onto something.”
Johnny smiled with the sad understanding of knowing loss, and looped his arms around Ben’s neck, pulling himself closer. They lay in silence, Ben’s rough fingers lightly carding through Johnny’s golden hair.
If there was one activity brought into their lives by the space accident that Ben hated, it was the ritzy galas and receptions they were expected to attend. With Reed’s various scientific discoveries, and Sue’s research not very far behind, it seemed like every other weekend was occupied by dressing up in flashy clothes and going to rub elbows with the upper crust at some lavish hotel or concert hall.
“I enjoy it,” Johnny said with a shrug as he pulled on his jacket. “What’s not to like? There are hundreds of people who want to talk to us and congratulate Reed or Sue for some science something-or-another. Not to mention the open bars.”
“These things are borin’ as all get out,” Ben groused, fumbling with his tie. His large, blunt fingers were next to useless for knotting the narrow strip of silk. “I’d rather be playing poker any day of the week.”
Johnny strode over and placed his hands atop Ben’s, offering him a smile. “Let me,” he said kindly, and, standing on his tiptoes, easily looped the tie around Ben’s neck, fastening a tidy Windsor knot.
“Thanks, kid,” Ben replied roughly, unable to block a rush of frustration at his inability to accomplish the simple task on his own. This instance was an embodiment of just how drastically his life had transformed — how pathetic was it that he wasn’t able to even knot his own tie?
“Hey.” Johnny tugged on Ben’s collar, pulling him down for a kiss. “None of that. I won’t have you getting down on yourself. You should enjoy yourself tonight. After all,” he made a show of preening, “you have me to enjoy it with.” He grabbed Ben’s arm and threw it over his shoulder, tucking himself next to Ben. “Besides, I haven’t named my price for helping you yet.”
Ben had to give Johnny credit: he was much more perceptive than most others realized, and he was good at reassuring others naturally, without disconcerting them. “What’s your price?”
“Save a dance for me,” Johnny replied promptly. “I want us to waltz together, just once, at whatever this reception is.”
Ben shook his head. “I don’t waltz, kid.” And certainly not as he was now.
Johnny arched an eyebrow. “To think I thought of you as a gentleman, Ben. What kind of scoundrel refuses the request of someone who just paid him in kindness?”
Ben huffed. “People will be watchin’ us.” That’s what got to him the most, why he wanted to keep their relationship private — he didn’t want the media noticing and speculating, wondering about “the odd couple,” and raising the point that Johnny could certainly do better, could date someone who wasn’t a freak.
“They’ll be watching me ,” Johnny replied, false modesty apparent in his tone. “Once I walk into the room, no one will be able to look away from me. They’ll be hypnotized by my radiant beauty, grace, and charm.”
Though he rolled his eyes, Ben could not help but be grateful for Johnny’s determined buoyancy. “Whatever you say, Storm.”
Not to be dissuaded, once they arrive at the gala with Reed and Sue, Johnny pulled Ben out to the dancefloor. Calmly countering every one of Ben’s protests, Johnny soon had them gliding across the room, and Ben’s worry and self-consciousness all but vanished. If only for a few minutes, they were just like everyone else.
“Thanks, kid,” he said to Johnny as the dance drew to a close.
“No problem, Ben.” Johnny smiled at him before leaning forward and giving him a light peck on the lips.
On one of the rare occasions Johnny and Ben went out for dinner, they found themselves at an upscale dining establishment that was currently hosting wedding rehearsal dinner. The wedding party was large, with at least eight groomsmen and bridesmaids each in addition to the bride and groom themselves, and the group was seated in the main section.
Ben couldn’t help but be grateful — all the hubbub about that crowd meant fewer people were paying attention him and Johnny as they walked to the private dining room. Here, partitions surrounding each table allowed diners serene seclusion. For obvious reasons, Ben preferred venues where he and Johnny could dine in peace, without interference from the public or the paparazzi. And this way, the Sommelier Society didn’t put out an article hassling him for drinking beer with his steak instead of a swanky vintage, or some other such nonsense.
“No offense, Ben, but there ain’t no way I’m doing an official wedding,” Johnny told him once the waitress brought them their drinks.
Ben started. “You mean — you think about us gettin’ married?”
Johnny quirked an eyebrow. “I don’t think you’re the type to start a relationship with someone just to spend the extra money on Hallmark cards, no.”
A beat passed as Ben absorbed Johnny’s words. “So, you think about us gettin’ married because you think I want to get married?”
Johnny playfully rolled his eyes, and reached forward and grasped Ben’s large hands. “Ben, I think about us getting married because you’re the type of person I’d like to marry. Because I can see us spending the rest of our lives together.”
The waitress cleared her throat, and both Ben and Johnny jumped at the reminder they were not alone, quickly retracting their hands.
“I’m so sorry to interrupt,” the waitress apologized, blushing. She looked guiltily at Johnny. “But I forgot to ask: what kind of dressing would you like on your salad?”
“Honey balsamic, please,” Johnny said promptly, and the waitress rushed off.
“I mean, it was just painful to watch Reed and Sue try to make things work with a long ceremony and the whole nine yards,” Johnny went on. “For us, I’m thinking a ketubah, a chuppah, then we swap rings, and then we break a glass. Boom, done. Our guests can be Sue, Reed, and your Aunt Petunia. And then we bring in all the rest of our friends to celebrate with an open bar. No media. No paparazzi.”
Ben snorted. “Never thought you would turn down the chance to get in front of the cameras.”
“I don’t want any distractions or delays from us going to our honeymoon suite,” Johnny replied casually, making Ben choke on his beer.
This latest planet looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Teal grass; a pink sky; and dandelion-like trees had either orange, maroon, or violet leaves.
“I feel like I ought to break into rhyme and start spoutin’ off a ridiculous series of names,” Ben grumbled as Johnny returned from his scouting flight, landing gracefully on the ground next to him. Even as Ben complained, he knew that it was during these times when he felt most at home in his rock form, and the least sensitive about his condition. On Earth, he was an anomaly, something people gawked at, but when he was out with his team, he was accepted. What’s more was that he was plainly useful for all scenarios; be it exploration, relief, or a flat-out brawl, Ben was the team’s heavy-hitter, the one with the strength and resilience needed to begin or end conflicts.
“Well, I’d offer you some green eggs and ham, but I know you only eat kosher.” Johnny grinned.
Ben snorted. “You’re a trip, Johnny.”
“Tripping all over you, honeycakes,” Johnny drawled, shimmying his hips provocatively. Then his focus returned to the situation at hand. “How long before Sue and Reed retrieve us?”
“Sue just radioed,” Ben informed him. “It’s going to take a few hours for her and Reed to make the necessary modifications to the ship, but they want us to keep movin’ north for about three miles till we get to a peak. Apparently the signal is strongest there.”
“Several hours alone, in this temperate climate? Ben, you know what I’m thinking?” Johnny waggled his eyebrows.
“Do you ever think of anything else?” Ben shot back.
Johnny put his hands on Ben’s chest and looked up at him through lowered lashes. “Let’s not pretend you don’t reap the benefits of it.”
Ben pushed Johnny off, but with a gentleness that belied his movements. “C’mon, Storm, not now. We gotta make tracks to this location. Besides, I don’t want to be gettin’ busy in a place where the Lorax might pop up at any minute and screech at us for pollutin’ the environment.”
“Hmph.” Johnny did not appear either convinced or dissuaded by Ben’s arguments. “We’ll see about just how busy we get.”
“Let’s move.” Ben began striding forward, expecting Johnny to launch himself into the sky and reach the rendezvous point by air.
Instead, Johnny grasped one of Ben’s hands and matched his pace, smiling up at Ben. And as they walked side by side, hand in hand, no force in the galaxy would have prevented Ben from smiling back.
To be honest, Ben never had been comfortable with the spotlight. When he was the football quarterback during high school and college, he could always deflect the compliments by praising his teammates and coaches. At no point would Ben have pictured himself deliberately stepping out to stand front and center, drawing the attention of hundreds of people, but here he was. Tonight, he was commemorating the opening of the Daniel Grimm Jr. Youth Recreation Center, fittingly located on Yancy Street. The purpose of the center was to give the local kids a place to go, and to show them there was more to life than just gang warfare and crime, that a future for them existed.
The funding for the center was secured — now, the only remaining goal was bringing the issue of juvenile crime to people’s attention, have them recognize the problem and take action to make a change. That’s why he needed New York City’s elite, their best and brightest. As Johnny pointed out when this gala was in the planning stages, it wasn’t the guests’ finances that would make the difference, but their power and status, their ability to influence and incentivize others.
Waiting in the wings, Ben took a deep, steadying breath, wishing Johnny was here with him. Though Reed and Sue were in attendance tonight, and their help with the event had been a godsend, Johnny had a natural way with people, being able to put them at ease and thoroughly charm them with just a welcoming smile and witty remark. But Johnny wasn’t here tonight — he and Spider-Man were off saving another dimension or galaxy or Earth. Or something or another.
“I’ll do my best to make it back in time,” Johnny had promised over the vid screen, his image flickering in and out.
“Do you want us to come as backup?” Reed had asked, he, Sue, and Ben clustered around the telecomm.
Johnny had grinned. “No need. We’re almost finished here. Now it’s just a matter of travelling back through the Multiverse — time can get wonky when you’re going that way. But I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Steeling himself for the meet and greet, Ben squared his shoulders. Johnny wasn’t back yet; he was still off saving another world. That was fine; Ben would just have to cope without him.
But just as Ben turned toward the door, it swung open, and Johnny Storm himself dashed in.
“Sorry I’m late,” Johnny apologized. He was already dressed in a tux, golden hair gleaming, cufflinks winking at his wrists. “I got dressed ASAP.” Striding over to the slightly stunned Ben, he drew him into an embrace, and then a solid kiss.
“You made it.” Ben grinned widely. “I didn’t think you would.”
“Hey —” Johnny pulled back and smiled up at Ben “— we’re the Dynamic Duo. All the power in the Multiverse couldn’t keep us apart. Now, come on.” He tugged Ben to the door. “We have people to see.”
And Ben, with Johnny on his arm, went out to face the crowd.
Johnny remained by his side as Ben made his rounds of glad-handing, effortlessly starting conversation with the guests, smiling warmly, and bringing them to laugh with his well-placed comments and compliments. He was good with people, able to use his words and presence to instill a feeling of true connection. Ben was grateful beyond words. He still didn’t feel quite comfortable enough with himself to do this type of socializing on his own.
Johnny was a true champion throughout the entire night. After guiding Ben through his rounds with the guests, he made the announcement when the time for dinner arrived, and after Ben finished his banquet speech, raised a toast to signify the beginning of the meal. Overall, Johnny’s aid was indispensable, and once they were able to steal a spare moment together, Ben told him so.
“I don’t know what I would have done without you tonight, Matchstick,” Ben said, one of his hands carefully grasping Johnny’s.
“You’d be out one amazingly sexy boyfriend, that’s for sure.” Johnny smirked, but he squeezed Ben’s fingers in return. “But you would have been fine on your own, Ben,” he said, his face softening. He placed a hand on Ben’s chest. “I just accentuate the best in you, that’s all,” he added, faux modestly.
Gently, Ben titled up Johnny’s face and kissed his lips. “I have something I wanted to ask,” he said, reaching into his jacket and withdrawing a small velvet box. His heart was pounding and his mouth dry as he fumbled for the box’s lid.
“Ben.” With an understanding expression, Johnny reached out and stilled Ben’s hands, and together, they opened the box, revealing a ring.
A blinding smile overcame Johnny’s face. “You gonna make an honest man outta me, Ben?”
Ben guffawed. “I have super strength, kid, not the power of miracles. But if you like,” he offered shyly, “we could give it a try.”
“My answer is yes. As if it could be anything else, big guy.” Johnny wrapped his arms around Ben in a fierce hug. “Call your rabbi and get us a bottle of wine. We’re going to have a wedding.” With that, he pulled Ben into a kiss.
With more hope for the future than he could ever recall holding since the accident, Ben gently cupped Johnny’s face, returning his fiancé’s kiss.