“There’s nothing to this blasted place.”
Peter bit the inside of his cheek and tried not to sound too exasperated as he said, “Yes, there is. There’s a tree, right there. And then another. And another.”
John kicked a rock out of his path. “You know what I mean,” he said. He shielded his blue eyes against the afternoon’s sunlight, gazing out over the land in front of them. It seemed, to Peter’s eyes, to stretch endlessly, though he knew that wasn’t the case. They would hit the water, sooner or later.
Sooner, Peter thought, if he was on his own, or if the fight against the dinosaurs the other day hadn’t taken so much out of them both. Sooner if John's talents had been in proper working order, but the storm that had shipwrecked the Fantastick and scattered her crew to the winds had seemingly stolen much of those away. But there was nothing to be done about that.
Hopefully with the water would come the rest of John’s family.
Night fell. Peter gathered enough shrubbery to give them a decent fire, and John provided the spark.
“Sometimes you’re very useful,” Peter said, warming his hands as the evening’s chill crept upon them. John laughed quietly.
“I’ll be more than that once I get the rest of my fire back,” he said, staring down at his hands. His smile faded. “If I get it back.”
Peter could not tell him that he would, because truthfully he did not know. The flame John held cupped between his palms was tiny and wavering. It threw strange shadows on his face. John’s blue eyes flickered up to find Peter’s face, and Peter quickly looked away.
“You’ll find them,” he said, because he had confidence in that, at least. John sighed. He’d done a lot of that since they’d started wandering three days ago.
“I hope so,” he said. “I worry for my sister and her babe. And Richard gets distracted so…” he trailed off, then added, “I’m not worried about Grimm. If one of those lizards tries to eat him, it’ll simply spit him back out.”
They found a stream in the morning and John’s eyes lit up. Before Peter knew it he was holding an armful of clothes.
“Am I your manservant now?” he said, scowling. John laughed, already up to his waist in the clear water.
“If the shoe fits,” he said, ducking down beneath the surface and coming back up with his fair hair plastered to his face. “I haven’t been without a bath in this long since I was Otto von Doom’s prisoner. The grime is not bringing back pleasant memories.”
The grime in question was barely more than a bit of traveling dust, but Peter had soon come to realize that John had different standards about such things.
Peter left his clothes by the edge of the water, and quickly added his own to the pile.
The water was freezing, but it was crisp and clear. Peter grit his teeth and waded in, casting a dubious look John’s way. The cold didn’t seem to bother him any; he dove back under the water and resurfaced, tilting his head back and smiling up at the sky. Water slid down his skin, stubborn drops clinging to his shoulders and the sliding down his lean stomach.
John Storm was a handsome man. There was no denying it.
Suddenly Peter was very glad the water was so cold. He tore his eyes away and busied himself with the rest of his bath.
“I really don’t like these monsters!”
Peter, awkwardly wedged onto a tree branch with a dinosaur in front of him and John Storm behind, grit his teeth and said, “Stop shouting and hold on tight! It’s a long fall!”
John, to his credit, did as he was told. Peter sucked in a breath and swung them out of the tree, praying that his plan worked. John was heavier than most of his usual passengers, and if Peter didn’t execute this maneuver just right they were both likely to get trampled.
Moments later he had a dinosaur bridled and he and John were seated quite comfortably on his back. Peter patted the beast’s neck.
“They’re not bad creatures, most of them,” he said. “They just have trouble looking where they’re going.”
“Do you look out for ants when you walk across the ground?” Peter asked him. John grumbled a noncommittal reply that quickly turned into a squawk when their dinosaur started to move. He grabbed handfuls of Peter’s shirt, hanging on tightly.
The day had warmed quickly, and John’s thin shirt was open. His chest pressed against Peter’s back, warm through one layer of cloth. His arms were solid around Peter’s middle, and his chin rested not quite on Peter’s shoulder. A lock of blond hair tickled his cheek.
“Tell me,” he said in Peter’s ear, “that you know how to steer this thing.”
Peter breathed in deep and urged the dinosaur forward.
It was nearly evening when they spotted the shore and the ship with it. John’s arms tightened around Peter. He sucked in a harsh breath.
“That’s it,” he said. “That’s her. The Fantastick.”
Getting down was a little tricky – it would have been easier, they both knew, if John was currently able to fly – but they managed well enough, and soon their dinosaur was lumbering back the way they’d come. Peter and John set off on foot for the ship.
There was a spark back in John’s eyes. Peter hoped it held.
The beach was deserted, and the ship looked the same. Its torn sails flapped mournfully in the breeze. John stood on the sand with his forehead creased and an unreadable look in his eyes. Peter wanted to reach out to him, but chose not to at the last second, and kept his hands at his sides.
“We should look inside,” he said. John blinked, looking for all the world like a spell had come over him, and then it was gone just as soon as it had come. He ran a hand through his hair.
“Right,” he said. “That’s a good idea.”
Peter did touch him then, the briefest of clasps on the shoulder.
“Don’t lose heart,” he said. “You do have an invisible woman for a sister.”
John gave him a wry smile.
The ship had run aground in the storm – and it had been no natural storm, Peter was sure of that – but climbing aboard still required getting wetter than Peter had planned. The seawater soaked through his shoes, and it stung the scrapes and scratches on his hands.
No one came to help them, and no voices answered their calls. John’s shoulders slumped further and further by the minute.
“That’s it, then,” John said as night fell, sitting on the deck with his head bowed low and four tiny lights flickering across the fingers of one hand. One by one, he snuffed them out, until there was only the single flame remaining. “My family’s been eaten by dinosaurs.”
“They haven’t,” Peter assured him. He was hardly sure they were safe, no, but he would have bet the meager contents of his pockets that it wasn’t being a dinosaur's dinner that had waylaid the other three Fantasticks.
There were rations on board, and most of the fresh water had survived. Peter was glad – they’d had to find their own supper the past few days, and it had been anything but filling. Hardtack was better than chasing wildlife for an hour only to be cheated out of your dinner by a raptor.
They ate underneath the stars, and when they were done Johnny looked up at the sky for a very long time, as if searching for answers.
“It occurred to me that if my powers suffered after the storm, then so might theirs,” he said. “And without their powers – Richard’s greatest skill has always been his brain, and Susan might be glad to be seen again. But Grimm without his rocky shell…” he trailed off, shaking head.
“It’s possible,” Peter said, having come to that conclusion himself.
“What will I do if they don’t come back?” he said at last. His voice sounded small and frightened, and Peter searched for some comfort to give and came up with none. He did not know what John would do, one Fantastick away from the other three. “If I can’t find them? I’ll be alone.”
John had been alone before, Peter knew, in Otto von Doom’s dungeons. Peter had been alone before too, in other ways.
The stars above were like a beacon, they were so bright. Peter tilted his head back and found two that glimmered particularly close together, one brighter than the rest.
“You won’t be alone,” he promised. “Neither of us will.”
When he looked back John was staring at him with his lips parted just so. Peter wondered, suddenly and fiercely, what it would be like to kiss him. Then John shut his mouth with a click of teeth and Peter looked away, unsure.
“Well,” John said after a moment. “That’s a promise, then.”
John shook him awake in the morning, when the sun was already high in the sky. Peter shielded his eyes with one arm, groaning, and John merely shook harder.
“Come on!” he crowed, sounding more cheerful than he had since they’d stumbled on each other. “Up, up! There’s a job that needs doing, and I don’t see anyone around to do it but us.”
Peter sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He eyed John suspiciously. “What sort of job?” he asked. John merely smiled.
Repairing the ship was no easy task, but John was right – it was a job that needed doing. They toiled together for hours beneath the hot sun, John barking instructions that spoke of his familiarity with ships. Peter, who had none, felt a little jealous of all that knowledge. His strength was much greater than John’s, though, and often it was up to him to do the actual labor.
They took a quick break when the afternoon hit its hottest point. Peter stood back on the beach with the sand scorching his bare feet and the salt and sweat stinging his eyes as he shielded them from the sun.
“She’s a beauty of a ship, isn’t she?” John said, standing next to him. Peter found that he had to agree.
Dusk fell before long, and with it came the familiar rustling of wildlife through the trees. John and Peter took refuge on the ship for a second night and Peter found that hardtack was much less appealing the second day.
“What you said the other night,” John said when they had finished their meal and there was not much left to do but stare at the sky. “About not being alone, either of us. Surely you have some place to go back to?”
“Not especially,” Peter replied, idly playing with a piece of hardtack.
“Someone?” John pressed.
Peter was no longer Fury’s boy, and there was no Virginia to go back to. Even Banner was gone, beyond his reach, though what he would have found in Banner’s company he did not know. It would have been company, at the very least. He shook his head.
“I have only you now,” he said, “and you only have me. And that’s about all we have in common.”
There was a strange look on John’s face again, similar to the one he had worn the other night. It made Peter’s heart ache; he did not know what to do about that.
“Well, that’s not so bad, then,” John said. His hand inched across the deck to lie by Peter’s, and Peter saw no harm in overlapping his fingers with John’s. “That’s something, at least.”
Peter wasn’t sure who moved first – if it was him or John or both of them in the same instant – only that they were suddenly facing each other and John’s face was very close.
John’s eyes were clear and bright. There was a spark deep within them that made Peter’s chest constrict. He put a hand to John’s face, trailing his thumb across sandy blond stubble.
“If you don’t want,” John began, licking his lips, and Peter cut him off with a giddy laugh and a brief press of lips. John gasped into it.
“Don’t be stupid,” he said, hand at the back of John’s neck. “Didn’t I say you wouldn’t be alone?”
“I wasn’t sure I took your meaning,” John said, sliding his warm hands along Peter’s neck, down his shoulders and arms. “You should have clarified earlier.”
“I wasn’t aware you needed clarification,” Peter said, and put one of his own hands on John’s bare chest, sliding lower. The skin seemed to heat in his path. “You’re warm.”
“That’s only the passion,” John told him, seeking out Peter’s mouth with his own. “You’ll have to get used to it.”
Peter bit John’s bottom lip in warning, then pulled away at the sudden rush of heat. There were flames licking their way along John’s shoulders, dancing in his eyes. His hair was a writhing mess of fire and sparks.
“That,” he said, scooting a safe distance back, “looks like a great deal of passion.”
John looked at himself in amazement. He beamed, hands all lit up. "If I had known a little passion was all it took, I would have kissed you days ago!"
Peter was unsure whether he should feel flattered.
John’s powers were stronger the next day, and better under his control. He tossed fireballs back and forth and stripped down naked so he could light up. Peter, busy fixing the ship, called out over his shoulder, “Seems a perfect waste of a view,” and was only a little delighted when John’s flames instantly sprang up a little higher.
At night he wrote their names in flames in the air, conjured up tiny fireworks and even a miniature (if somewhat lopsided) dinosaur.
“Don’t burn the ship down,” Peter warned him. “I’ve put too much time and effort into making her whole again.”
John scoffed. “It’s a simple trick. I used to do this all the time.”
“That,” Peter said, raising himself up on his elbows over John, “is not what I was talking about.”
“Oh,” John said as Peter’s hands explored, slinking lower and lower. “Oh. Carry on, then.”
He pressed himself up against John, as close as he could get. The night air was cool, but John was always so warm to the touch, and Peter ran his hands across every inch of skin he could find. Clothes were pushed out of the way and in one case torn open; the remaining integrity of John's shirt, Peter felt, was no great loss. He wrapped his hand around both of them, stroking how he liked to be touched, encouraged by the noises John made and the way he jerked his hips up into Peter's grip. He watched through the haze of pleasure as John threw his head back and closed his eyes, mouth falling open. Peter kissed him soundly, swallowing the sounds he made as the world exploded in a shower of sparks.
Afterwards he surreptitiously wiped his hand on John’s pants.
“It’s a good thing I’ve got my spider stickiness under control,” he said conversationally as John hazily kissed his way across one of Peter's shoulders. “Or that could have gone very badly.”
John’s wandering hands stilled.
“Wait,” he said, pulling back and staring at Peter with raised eyebrows. “Your what?”
“When the ship’s finished,” Peter asked on the fifth day as evening was falling and they were about to stop for the day, “will you sail it?”
John gave him an odd look. “Pardon?”
“Sail it,” Peter repeated. “Unless you intend to spend the rest of our lives on this beach. We have a ship. We might not have a crew, but we have a ship.”
John’s eyes flared, and not in the way they had the previous night when he’d slipped his clever fingers beneath Peter’s clothes. He looked out across the beach, then back at Peter, before he started to strip.
“What are you doing?” Peter asked him, and John tossed his shirt and trousers straight at Peter’s head.
“Going flying,” he replied testily. “I only have the one pair, and my powers do not extend to my clothes!”
He sprang into the air, all alight, and then he was gone, a fiery streak on the horizon. He did not return when night fell, nor after that, and Peter bitterly chewed his hardtack alone.
Peter woke with a start in the middle of the night.
“It’s only me,” John said. His warm hand was over Peter’s.
“You came back,” Peter said. John shrugged and didn’t reply.
Peter thought that might be the end of the discussion, and he was just about to settle down again when John said, “If we took the ship. Where would we sail it?”
“I don’t know," Peter said truthfully. “You're the adventurer, not me.”
John laughed softly. “Now there’s a lie if I’ve ever heard one. I’m being serious. Where would you like to go?”
“I really don’t know,” Peter said, brows furrowing together as he stared up at John’s face. “What are my choices?”
“Anywhere,” John said. “Anywhere you like. If we can get there by ship, I’ll do my best to steer us.”
There was a hint of desperation in his voice that gave Peter pause. "John," he said, "We don't have to leave."
“You were right, though,” John said, and then he cursed, shaking his head. “I can’t wait here forever. If they don’t – they might not come back after all. We have a ship. She deserves to be sailed.”
Peter pulled the blanket aside, making room for John, and John gratefully crawled beneath it. He settled his head in the curve of Peter’s shoulder. Their legs tangled together. Peter stared up at the sky.
“Go to sleep, John,” he said. “We can decide in the morning.”
There was a cape fluttering overhead, and nothing beneath it. Peter blinked and then sat straight up with a gasp, dislodging John from across his chest. John swore and nearly elbowed Peter in the eye as he woke.
“My apologies,” a woman’s faintly amused voice came from the air. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
Peter looked around for the source and found none, and then it dawned on him. He turned to John, who was staring at the space beneath the cape’s hood with wide eyes.
“Susan!” he cried. He leapt forward, got his foot tangled in the blanket and fell on more than embraced the shade made of air.
“Hello, dear brother,” she said. John drew back, wonder written all over his face.
“But how did you find us?” he asked.
“We have you to thank for that, I believe,” a man’s voice said, and Richard Reed’s elongated form snaked its way up the deck. He held an infant wrapped in one arm. “We were wandering the other night when we saw a fiery comet streak across the sky, coming in this direction.” He beamed. “A brilliant plan, John, my boy!”
Peter and John exchanged a glance, then John gave his family a sheepish smile.
“I’m afraid I can’t take all the credit for that idea,” he said. He hesitated, then added, “Just most of it.”
Peter elbowed him in the ribs.
“Well, you don’t seem to have destroyed ‘er beyond all recognition,” a third voice, deep and rocky, declared from down below. “I do believe she’ll sail again, with a little care and a good wind at her sails.”
A cheer went up from John and his sister. Peter took a few careful steps backwards and watched from the railing as the family reunited.
It was an hour or so before John found him. He sat down next to Peter, knocking their shoulders together.
“Do you have an answer for me yet?” he said. At Peter’s blank look, he rolled his eyes and said, “About where you’d like to sail. We have a ship and a crew now, and you’ve seen far too little of the world.”
“It doesn’t feel that way,” Peter told him. “It feels like I’ve seen a lot of it.”
“But that’s how you know you haven’t,” John replied. “The more you see of it, the more you’ll realize that.”
“Then, if it’s alright with you and your crew, I think I’d like to see everywhere,” Peter teased. John’s grin lit up his face.
“That,” he said, “I think I can arrange.”