At first Ben ignored the sound of a fist pounding on the front door, merely slouching further into his chair and gulping brandy straight from the bottle. No one would be coming to visit him, not with Aunt Petunia and Uncle Jake both dead for months and Sue and Reed still on their trip abroad. Ever since one day Ben had spontaneously mutated into this monstrous form, he hadn’t stepped outside, nor received any callers. Surely no one would be making the effort now, not after he had shut himself away from the rest of the world for nearly a year and a half. And his manor was too far from the village for it to be a mistake. No, whoever was at the door was trying to start trouble. Best he just ignore them.
But when the beating on the wood became insistent, to the point that Ben began to suspect his visitor had carted along a battering ram, he hauled himself up from his armchair and stalked through the winding hallways of his ancestral home. With every step he took, he grew increasingly infuriated. Wasn’t it torment enough that he was stuck looking like a monster, trapped in a hulking form with stone instead of skin? Why couldn’t he just be left alone?
Intent on terrifying his wayward visitor, Ben threw open the door, a ferocious scowl on his face. “ What do you want ?” He snarled.
The person standing on the pillared front porch did not seem particularly impressed by Ben’s show of temper, meeting Ben’s glower with a set jaw and frown of his own. “Well, it’s about time,” the stranger declared, hefting a suitcase that was resting at his feet and shouldering the rucksack he wore. No doubt he had been transported to the residence by the horse-drawn cart that was slowly disappearing down the drive.
“You should fire whichever one of your servants is responsible for answering your door.” The stranger stepped forward with the obvious intent to enter the house, but Ben was blocking the way, simply gawking, unable to comprehend that someone wasn’t running in horror from his fearsome appearance.
The stranger was young, likely not yet out of his teens, and very good-looking. He had a youthful look about him, with fair, smooth skin and long, coltish legs that matched his slim, leanly muscled frame. His features were fine, more pretty like a girl’s than handsome like a man’s, with well-defined cheekbones and no trace of a beard. His blue eyes shimmered as bright as gemstones, brilliantly complementing his golden blond hair that gleamed in the sunlight. There was a hardness to them, though, a sarcastic cynicism and gritty determination that spoke of having the weight of the world thrust on his shoulders too often, when he was too young to cope with such a burden.
But another aspect of his face nagged at Ben — there was a familiarity to the stranger that he could not quite place.
Occupied by standing and staring at this peculiarly fearless stranger, Ben did not recognize the growing impatience on the man’s face.
“Are you going to let me in?” The stranger asked, somewhat irritated. “I realize that it’s spring now, but the weather is still fairly blustery.”
Not yet recovered from his surprise, Ben automatically complied, taking a step back as the stranger squeezed past him, striding into the manor with a confidence and purpose that seemed misplaced in a mere guest.
“Ain’t you — ain’t you scared of me?” Ben finally managed.
The stranger glanced at him coolly from over his shoulder. “Hardly. I find your lack of manners far more frightening. I can’t believe you didn’t even offer to help me with my bags. Besides, your aunt and uncle mentioned your appearance was particularly . . . distinctive.”
Ben started. “Wait a moment! You knew Aunt Petunia and Uncle Jake?”
“My trunk, Mr. Grimm,” the stranger reminded him, an uncommon authority in his voice. “It’s still waiting on the porch.”
Grumbling under his breath, Ben stepped outside and easily lifted the trunk from the porch into the foyer of the manor, placing it at the foot of the large, winding staircase. A glance around told him his visitor, whoever he was, had vanished from sight, and Ben raced off to find him.
The stranger hadn’t gone far, just into the parlor Ben had vacated only minutes before. “Do you have a condition, either psychological or physical, that would dispose you to harm if you were to come into contact with sunlight?”
“No,” Ben growled. “But enough is enough. You’re going to tell me just who you are.”
“Very well.” The stranger yanked on the curtain cord, opening the drapes, which sent sunlight streaming into the room and dust sprinkling into the air. “Good Lord! You should fire your housekeeping staff and replace them at once. This room is absolutely filthy!”
Ben stomped up to the stranger, glaring down at him. “Tell. Me. Who. You. Are.”
Not at all intimidated, that stranger stared up at him challengingly as he reached into his blue overcoat, withdrawing a sheaf of folded papers. “You’ve find all the necessary documentation here. My name is Jonathan Storm — I’ve been called Johnny all my life, though.”
The combination of the name and the face sparked a realization in Ben’s brain. “Storm . . . you wouldn’t happen to know a Susan Storm, would you? Her married name is Susan Richards.” Now that he thought about it, Sue had often spoke of a younger brother named Johnny.
Johnny nodded. “Sue is my sister. She mentioned you in the letters she wrote to me.” He ambled over to study a portrait hanging on the wall. “You know,” he remarked. “I think Sue and I have talked more in letters to each other these past five years than actually spoke in person, with her attending university and then marrying Reed. But if you’re familiar with my circumstances, then we both know it’s just as well that she was away from home.”
Frowning at Johnny’s words, Ben struggled to recall what he knew about Sue. Not long ago, she had married Ben’s best friend, Reed Richards. Ben was with him when they had met. They had encountered her at a medical symposium that all three of them were attending to complete requirements set by their colleges. Though Reed and Sue sent letters regularly, Ben couldn’t bring himself to open them, nor had he seen either of the two since prior to the wedding. Ben turned to stone just days before Reed married Sue, therefore missing the ceremony. After their honeymoon, the pair had left directly for overseas, where Reed was lecturing and Sue was completing her studies to be a doctor. Now that Ben considered it, they should be returning soon.
As for Susie’s background, no details stood out in his mind. He would have to wrangle answers from this Johnny, then.
Ben folded his arms over his chest. “All right. So you’re Susie’s younger brother. That doesn’t explain just what you’re doing here.”
“I suppose you must struggle with paperwork,” Johnny commented, nodding to the letter still clutched in Ben’s grasp, which he had made no attempt to read. “The situation is as follows: exactly a year ago to this date, your aunt and uncle approached my father and me. They asked if I would be interested in entering a marriage contract that would legally bind you and me together. And thus, we entered into an agreement, and all the legal documents were filed. Today marks my eighteenth birthday and the beginning of our union, with you as the Alpha and me as the Omega.”
Jaw hanging open, Ben struggled to absorb the stranger’s — Johnny’s — words. An Omega — well, that explained why Johnny was more pretty than handsome and had no signs whatsoever of beard growth.
A year ago from today — his body transformed into stone sixteen months ago. Uncle Jake and Aunt Petunia would have had to go out and find an Omega for him. That was no simple feat given how few omegas remained, with Betas now considered the standard and consisting of almost the entire population. The two of them going forth and finalizing his marriage would have been an urge for him to stop brooding, to move on with his life, to continue forward. And now, for this Omega to arrive, it seemed as though the two of them were still looking out for him, even from beyond the grave. Once again, Ben’s heart ached at the loss of his aunt and uncle.
But he must resolve the situation at hand and do what was right. He couldn’t put anyone else through the torment and isolation that he underwent every day, especially not Susie’s little brother. Not when she had been such a good friend to him. He looked over at Johnny, who’d begun to prowl through the room and its contents, bringing Ben to bristle at the invasion of privacy.
“I can’t marry you,” Ben said shortly.
“You already have,” Johnny responded with a shrug, as he removed a book from the shelf, leafing through its pages. “If you recall a certain clause of your parents’ will, your family estate was to be held in trust for you, managed by your aunt and uncle until your twenty-fifth birthday. That date occurred just after they made the agreement with my father and me.”
“What a coincidence,” Ben muttered.
Johnny ignored him. “As such, they were entitled to make decisions regarding your financial assets within that time — including bringing me in as a partner in marriage. You had up to a year to petition your lawyer, a time span in which you could have had the marriage dissolved with just a simple signature, but —” Johnny tossed a meaningful glance at the desk in the corner, its surface piled high with unopened mail. “It doesn’t appear you responded to a single one of the monthly legal missives to indicate an objection to the union.”
Ben shook his head. “You’re gonna have to go back to your father, kid. I won’t have anyone subjected to being tethered to monster like me.”
“With that self-pitying attitude, it doesn’t surprise me that you consider your very presence to be a punishment,” Johnny returned tartly, snapping the book shut. “For your information, my father is dead. Following the death of my mother several years ago, he descended into ruin, squandering our family savings on drinking and gambling. He eventually was jailed for accidentally killing a moneylender after a dispute, and recently died in prison.”
Blinking at the deluge of information, Ben struggled with himself. He knew he could not allow this young Omega to join him in solitude, but a traitorous voice in the back of his head suggested it would be nice to have some company after spending such a stretch of time alone.
“It wouldn’t be honorable for me —” he started, but Johnny swiftly cut him off.
“Before you get high and mighty about your honor, think of mine. I don’t have the money to repay the bride price your relatives gave to my father, which despite being a quite significant sum, was gambled away in merely a single night. I have no collateral I could offer, either, and I’ll think you’ll understand if I’m reluctant to borrow the money, seeing how the process utterly failed my father.”
“I could forgive the debt and simply release you from our contract,” Ben suggested, though inwardly, half of him was cheering for Johnny to remain true and insist on maintaining their union.
Johnny arched an eyebrow. “And besmirch my family name even further? Have people gossiping that I’m just as unreliable as my father, unable to make good on either my word or my accounts? I think not, Mr. Grimm. Legally we are married, and married we shall remain.”
“But look at me!” Ben protested, still unable to comprehend Johnny’s easy acceptance of the situation. “I can’t ask you to marry someone who looks like a golem rather than a person!”
“You didn’t ‘ask.’ Your aunt and uncle devised a legal contract with my father,” Johnny informed him testily.
“To think I was once a man.” Ben sank into his armchair. “Now, children run from the sight of me.”
With a sigh, Johnny strode over and placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “It is a continual source of shame to me that I was unable to continue my education,” he told Ben, his voice softening. “I was always expected to attend a university, but when the time arrived, my father and I could barely afford to keep a roof over our heads thanks to his vices. So, you see, no one is without their flaws.” His voice grew determined again. “But our marriage goes beyond ourselves, Mr. Grimm. I must restore my family’s reputation.”
Spirits somewhat buoyed by the youth’s determination, Ben studied him. “You don’t seem at all put off by our unusual circumstances,” he commented.
Johnny shrugged. “I’m accustomed to such. Besides, I’ve always known I would have an arranged marriage. My family is — rather, was — from wealth, so that’s a guarantee right there. But I’m also an Omega, and with so few Omegas and Alphas both these days, I knew there would be some traditional family intent on having an Omega for their Alpha. And — forgive my frankness — once my father sank into debt, I knew I would have to marry to better my circumstances. Which is why I’m here.”
Truthfully, Ben wasn’t especially disappointed at the kid’s insistence that he stay; living alone in his manor, day in, day out, was incredibly depressing after a time. “Ben,” he told Johnny. “We’re married, so there’s no need for formalities.”
“Nice to meet you,” Johnny said with a self-possessed nod. He returned to scanning the room. “About your staff —”
“There is no staff,” Ben interrupted. “I wouldn’t have anyone else in the house.”
For several beats, Johnny simply stared at him in astonishment, but then shook his head and hastened to the desk. “We’ll have to get started straight away, then,” he noted, clearing a spot free of mail and rummaging in the desk drawers. “I was certain two weeks would be more than enough time to prepare for Reed and Sue’s arrival, but —”
“Sue and Reed are coming back?” Ben interrupted to ask.
Johnny did not pause in dipping his quill into the inkwell. “I don’t mean to condescend, Ben, but you should really open your mail. Doing so would help you to remain informed.” The quill scritch-scratched rapidly across the page. “They’re due back from abroad in fifteen days.”
Previously, Ben had worried about the possibility of Sue and Reed visiting him, tormented by the prospect of them being shocked and disgusted at his appearance. Now, after such a long time alone, Ben simply found himself looking forward to seeing the two of them again. Then a thought occurred to him.
“Why would Sue and Reed be travelling here?” He questioned curiously. “Reed told me his father established a homestead for them as a wedding present. Surely that would be a shorter distance and a more convenient location.”
“That’s right. I’d forgotten you didn’t attend the wedding. Just after Reed and Sue embarked on their honeymoon on the very night of their wedding, Mr. Anthony Stark burned their new home to the ground during an alcoholic fit.” Disgust was clear in Johnny’s voice. “What a reckless disgrace of a man. He recompensed Reed and Sue for their home, as he should have. If he hadn’t, I would gone and sent that pretentious mansion of his up in flames myself.”
Ben snorted. This kid had spirit, that was for sure.
“Luckily, neither Sue nor Reed had moved many of their possessions there by that point, and still more were already packed away and sent ahead for their travels,” Johnny continued. “So, I invited them to stay with us temporarily. If you bothered to read your mail, you would already know of these arrangements.” He glanced up. “Speaking of travelling, what’s the status of your horses?”
“Don’t have any,” Ben stated flatly. “Got rid of them, and it was for the best. Looking like I do, I just would have frightened them to death, wouldn’t I?”
“Or maybe you’d bore them to death with your constant moping,” Johnny snapped. He held up a hand in response to Ben’s sputtering. “I’m not going to lie to you and claim your circumstances are ideal. And as your spouse, it is part of my duty to hear and respond to your concerns. But your continued self-pity doesn’t particularly inspire patience or in endearment in anyone, least of all me. I can’t stand people who endlessly complain about their circumstances while making no attempt to better them.”
“Hmph.” Ben eyed the youth, trying to assess his character, torn between annoyance at his lack of sympathy and admiration at his bluntness. “Quite the firecracker, ain’t you?”
“Only when an obstacle requires blasting with dynamite,” Johnny replied absently. “Right, Ben, here I have a list of priorities. First, the guest rooms and servants’ quarters. We’ll need one room for Sue and Reed immediately, and then we’ll need to establish a place for our staff to live. Second, the kitchen, dining room, and at least one of the parlors will require immediate attention. As I said, I plan to have an active social life and entertain regularly, and I think you could do with the reminder that there’s still life to be lived. Third, we need to survey the stables and decide on horses to purchase. Fourth, I want to establish a work room somewhere. I can decide on location after a look around the property. I plan to continue my trade. I don’t know if I mentioned, but I work as a repairman in my spare time.”
“What do you repair?” Ben asked. He should be annoyed by this kid waltzing into his house and issuing all sorts of commands and demands, but he couldn’t summon the anger to be riled up about it.
“Anything that can be welded,” Johnny replied promptly. “Mostly it’s metal, jewelry, candelabras, weapons, that type of thing. And I should mention that Sue will be establishing a doctor’s surgery in the village, and I’ll be there to help her most days.”
“Thought you weren’t educated?” Ben pointed out.
“I’ve studied botany, and I know a decent amount about herbs,” Johnny said with a shrug. “Besides, I keep up with the medical texts, so I at least can assist in sterilizing equipment and so on.” He gazed thoughtfully out the window. “Oh, I just know I’m forgetting something. Wait, the lawns! They’re in a frightful state, and we’ll need a gardener right away. So.” He consulted his list. “To start, I think we’ll require a general handyman, a groom, a gardener, a laundress, a cook, and at least two maids. Maybe I should recruit some extra help as well, at least for these two weeks and then when Sue and Reed arrive. They’ll be the first household guests since we’ve been married, and I want them to be comfortable, especially after such a long journey.”
Ben scoffed. “Maybe you want to get a partridge and a pear tree while you’re at it.”
“Shut it, you,” Johnny retorted. “We’re going to have guests, and as such, we need to prepare your house for company. And speaking of company, I’ve just remembered: I have society meetings one evening a week. We won’t bother you at all, just hole up in one of the parlors and talk for an hour or two.”
“What do you talk about?” Ben asked, feeling obligated to show an interest.
For several moments, Johnny did not reply, bringing Ben to glance him quizzically, wondering why he would hesitate to answer.
“Society matters,” Johnny replied eventually, appearing to choose his words very carefully, in such a manner that seemed deliberately vague. He rose from his chair. “Mother of God, but it is cold in here.” He circled around to the massive fireplace, unloaded a few pieces of wood from the box, and then stood back, pointing his finger directly at the logs. To Ben’s amazement, flame surged from Johnny’s fingertip into the fireplace, instantly igniting the wood and morphing into a crackling fire.
As Johnny reseated himself, Ben could only gape, temporarily speechless in his awe. “You’re a fire mage!” He exclaimed at last.
Johnny smiled, and Ben realized that it was the first time Johnny had actually looked happy since he’d arrived at the manor. The gesture did wonders to brighten his features, causing all traces of cynicism to flee from his expression, vivacity and a hint of mischief emerging in its place. Gone was Johnny’s set jaw and determined scowl; now he simply looked as if he wanted to be here, to live in the manor with Ben. And for the first time in over a year, Ben felt a ray of hope ignite within himself, hope for a future — perhaps a future with Johnny.
“Like I said, Ben,” Johnny said, straightening his papers. “I’m quite accustomed to unusual circumstances.”