It’s not until New Year’s Day, at the supper table, that Scott leans around Artie to say to Darla, “I’m glad you came back. It wouldn’t be the same without you.”
“You’d be fine,” Darla says, ducking to hide her embarrassment.
“Maybe.” Scott sounds doubtful. Artie’s lamp shows images of an explosion of flame and rubble, which may or may not have something to do with the conversation happening behind him. Darla’s never really sure.
“Well, I’m glad I came back, too,” she says. “I guess I missed this place, a little. I’m sorry for chickening out.”
“Speaking of chicken...” Scott reaches down the table for the platter the moloids have been serving themselves from and offers it to Darla.
Darla squints at the tan-colored globs remaining on the plate. “I don’t think that’s chicken.”
A field trip, Scott said. A very small field trip, Scott said, pinching the air with his fingers. Except when Darla shows up in the lab at the appointed time, there’s only Scott, looking sheepish.
“I guess it’s Inhuman versus American law debate day,” Scott says, rubbing at his neck.
“We should go anyway,” Darla says. “I’ve never been tiny before. And it looks like you’re all prepared.” At least, Darla assumes that’s what the landscape of paper, fabric, and flowers spread across the lab bench is for. Besides, Scott looks so crestfallen. “I’m not a kid, but I can be wide-eyed. And I don’t know anything about any of this stuff.”
“I don’t really either?” Scott swept a hand over the bench. “I got most of this from a microscope book in the kids’ library.”
“So show me,” Darla demands hopefully.
Getting shot with Pym particles feels less like you’re shrinking, Darla decides, and more like the entire world is growing up around you. What had been concrete is now a pitted gray desert spreading out in every direction beneath a merciless fluorescent sun. Lab benches are towers casting impenetrable shadows. She turns to Scott, floating a foot – or maybe some fraction of an inch? – off the floor. “How do we get up?”
“Uh.” Darla gives Scott a hard look. “When I thought we were all going, I was going to ask Dragon Man about transportation. Or, you know, zap everyone straight to the top. I don’t think I have a handle on the locator thingy yet, though.”
Scott maybe didn’t mean this as in invitation to jump onto his back from behind, judging by the squawking he makes. “Up, horsey,” Darla says. Then they start to rise, and she’s too busy to clinging to make jokes. The floor falls farther and farther below them. Darla wonders if she still weighs enough to break her neck if she falls.
Then upsadaisy, they pop over the top of the bench and Scott sets down. Darla hops off. “Wow,” she says. Cliffs and bluffs and valleys stretch out before her in all kinds of strange textures.
“Paper,” Scott says, pointing to nearest surface. “See, you can see the stringy fiber things, all stuck together? And that’s toilet paper.” He points a half a block away. “The fibers are looser so it can trap water. And, uh, other fluids.”
Darla nods, properly impressed.
Scott leads Darla down the many blocks of materials, pointing stuff out about each one. For a guy who doesn’t know about this stuff, he seems to know a lot about it. Finally she asks, “You got all this from your microscope book?”
“Oh, well.” He shrugs. “You hang around at this size for a while, you pick things up. Come on, I want to show you the flowers.”
The flowers are the best, Darla immediately decides. The rose blossom towers far above her head like some mutated tree, each pink petal a gracefully arching sculpture. On closer inspection, the entire surface of the petal is a forest of tiny hills, pebbly under her fingers. “This changes every song about roses ever,” she mutters.
“Hey, you’re almost camouflaged,” Scott says, pointing behind her. Darla turns, but all she sees is more rose. “No, I mean, your hair. It matches the petals. Hey, say ‘cheese.’”
Half a lifetime of photo shoots save Darla: her smile is automatic, open, the one she practiced so long in front of the mirror that it’s natural now. Scott’s phone makes the universal picture-taking noise. Scott looks down at the results and grins.
Darla makes him take another one, of them both this time, and then it’s time for lunch, and the world rushes in close again as she sizes up. “It was fun,” she tells Scott. “Thanks for showing me science stuff. You should definitely bring the kids.”
She sets the picture of them both as the background on her laptop. Whenever anyone admires it, she points to the rose petals’ bumpy surfaces and says, “Science!”
Scott wanders around one day looking particularly worn. Dreams again, Darla thinks. “You should come to my show tonight,” she tells him. “Carnegie Hall. With actual fans this time. Very low-key - you don’t have to worry about dancing lollipops or anything.”
Scott looks puzzled by that, and she’s not sure whether to be comforted or dismayed that he’s never looked up her concert videos. The lollipop one is still her first listing on NewToob. But what Scott says is, “Don’t tickets to your shows sell out way, way in advance?”
“It’s my show. I’ll get you in. You should come,” she repeats, curling her fingers around his.
So he does. She gives him the VIP seat she usually reserved for Johnny, back before he went gray and insane. It gives Scott a good view, but it gives Darla an okay view of him, too, out there just past the glare of the stage lights. He looks like he’s enjoying himself, and that’s all she wanted. That, and for him to hear a particular song she’s premiering tonight.
She saves it for second to last, just before the old favorite she always ends these unplugged shows with. She dedicates it to her Fantastic Four teammates – without looking at Scott, because she’d lose her focus if she did – and she finds her opening chord.
She wants to be a hero, she sings. Not for glory or for fame – she’s got enough of that, the line goes, and a few in the audience titter. Not for the rush, because a skydive that one time was plenty. But she’s got people counting on her, and she can’t let ‘em down, no she can’t let ‘em down, so she’s gotta be a hero.
She’s sung it before, of course, a couple hundred times as she tweaked the melody, the lines, the bridge, and then later to perfect her delivery of every memorized chord and inflection. Singing to a crowd, though, that’s what makes a song true. The fear every time the alarm klaxon sounds, the trust from the team and all the kids that propels her forward, it wasn’t real until now, every audience member bearing witness.
As the last chord dies and the applause rises, Darla dares a glance at Scott. He’s on his feet, clapping like his hands are on fire.
She finds him after the show. “That was great,” he says. “That was so great. You were great.”
“I’m glad you liked it,” she says, absurdly shy. She was never shy when Johnny praised her music, although his compliments were about the same. Maybe it was because the last time he’d come to one of her acoustic shows, his eyes kept drooping.
Scott leans in and says quietly, “I wish Cassie could have seen you sing.”
Darla’s breath catches. “Really?”
“She’d have liked that one you sang. About heroes. Not that she was ever afraid, like ever.” Even more quietly, he adds, “I wish she had been.” Darla reaches for his hand and squeezes. She doesn’t let go until Scott seems to be getting ahold of himself again. “But she always wanted to be a hero,” Scott adds
“I’m glad you liked the song,” Darla repeats. “Really glad.”
They get the real Fantastic Four back eventually. Of course they do. It doesn’t occur to Darla until the third day of story-telling and wound-tending that she’s free now. No more double duty. She can go back to music with a clear conscience and leave all this behind her.
“I don’t want to go,” she tells Scott when he finds her sitting in the deserted auditorium. She’s half an octave from wailing. “I didn’t want to be here, and now I don’t want to leave. I mean, I won’t miss trying to beat things up anymore, but all the kids, and Dragon Man, and—” You. Which wasn’t how she’d meant to end that sentence. “I’m going to miss everyone so much.”
“You could stay.”
Darla wipes away some tears, and also some mascara. “I don’t have anything to offer the Future Foundation, Scott. I didn’t massively let you guys down, but I’m still not a natural at the heroing thing. I’m not a science genius, either. Or an android or an alien. I’m just...”
“An international pop sensation?”
She laughs through her tears. “Yeah.”
Scott puts his arms around her, and she leans into the hug. When Scott lets go, he says, “I don’t think anyone here knows very much about music. I bet Reed would think you’d be a great addition. You could be Pop Star in Residence or something.”
“I mean, I don’t know. But you should talk to Reed. Or I could talk to him?”
“What about you?” she asks. It’s a more important question than she’d have thought it would be.
He shrugs. “I’ll be around, I guess. I don’t have a lot of other places to be.”
“Well, good,” Darla says, and tries not to feel too grateful.
Reed says the FF would be delighted to host Darla indefinitely in exchange for her musical expertise. Korr submits a request to learn the piccolo. Bentley-23 wants to learn the violin, because that’s the instrument villains play. Or maybe the pipe organ. Not that Darla knows the first thing about playing any of those instruments, but she has people, and anyway they’re sharp kids; even with her bumbling assistance, they’d probably have no trouble.
Of course, then she has two months of tour, which makes her earlier wailing about leaving feel a little silly. But when, between sets and harried costume changes, she thinks about how much tour she has left to go, the Baxter Building always stands at the end of it.
The tour finishes just in time for Darla to go home to Michigan to spend Christmas with her folks. “But the FF is coming to my place for New Year’s, right?” she asks before she goes, even though she can’t remember the last time she cared about New Year’s. “We can watch the ball drop from my roof.”
So on the afternoon of the 31st, twenty-odd members of the FF, past and present, mob Darla’s penthouse suite. Darla consulted with Sue Richards about the catering, so there are moloid and Inhuman dishes alongside the bite sized gourmet hamburgers. Ben Grimm eats approximately fifty of those; Darla is just grateful that Ben is back to eat them.
At fifteen minutes till, they all crowd out onto the rooftop and peer over the rails, even Darla. Scott ends up next to her with Tong on his shoulders and Turg floating somewhere left of his head. She’s hardly gotten to say hello since she got back, but there’s no time or privacy right now for them to have a moment.
Then again, Tong is on his shoulders and Leech is clinging to his hand, and he’s laughing. Darla can’t help but think of this time last year. So while the ball’s still dropping, she takes Scott’s face in both hands and kisses him now like she would have then if he hadn’t been too bent on vengeance schemes to notice, with her lips and her hands – and, oops, nose. Not too long, not too deep: a light poppy number. An album opener to lure the listener in.
By the time Scott starts to catch on, she’s pulling away. “What was that?” he asks, dazed.
“Ringing in the new year,” she says.
“Kissy face,” Tong says sagely.
“She pitches the woo!” says Mik, at Darla’s elbow.
“Am not,” Darla says. She tucks a stray curl of hair behind her ear, a nervous habit she broke herself of years ago. “Just, celebrating.”
“I’m not complaining,” Scott says, still looking a bit dazzled. He leans down to add in her ear, “I have no idea what woo is, though. In case you were wondering.”
She threads her fingers between Scott’s and turns to look out over the deck. “That’s okay.”