Chapter 1: Spideytorch -- Wedding Photographer
Sue delegates one task – ONE TASK – to Johnny so he can help with the wedding planning: hiring a photographer. That’s it. It’s something so easy, even Johnny can’t mess it up. As long as he doesn’t forget.
Johnny promises and promises and promises that he won’t, but he keeps putting it off, because he’s a busy guy, you know? What with club openings and fashion shows and dates with hot models and, oh yeah, starting freshman year at college…and besides, how long can it really take to find a good photographer, like five minutes?
A week before the wedding, Sue finally gets around to double-checking to make sure he’s actually done it.
She would’ve checked earlier, but she’s been busy planning the wedding of the century – or at least that’s what the news is calling it, and she almost has a heart attack every time she hears the phrase, because her wedding has to be perfect because the whole world is going to be watching – and checking in on her little brother has been pretty low on her list of priorities.
“Ha, ha!” Johnny says, voice a little too high, eyes a little too wide. “The photographer. For your wedding! Yeah, of course I hired one! Would I forget something like that, sis?”
He gives her his most winning smile.
Sue squints at him suspiciously. He’s being weird. Well. Weirder than normal, even for him. “Really?” she says flatly. “So who did you pick?”
Johnny doesn’t know the names of too many photographers off the top of his head, so he says the first one that springs to mind. The only one, really. “Peter Parker.”
“Oh,” Sue says, somewhat appeased. “He does weddings?”
Johnny really has no idea. “Yeah,” he lies. “Course he does. He’s good at it, uh, really good. I know because I totally researched this.”
“Well,” Sue says. “Great.” She pats his hand. “I’m glad you actually remembered. If you hadn’t, I probably would’ve had to kill you. Slowly.”
“That…doesn’t sound fun,” Johnny says.
He waits a beat, just so it won’t be too suspicious, and then he checks his phone, and says, “Oh, god, look at the time! You know, I just remembered this really important thing I have to do. Uh. Right now.” He jumps to his feet. “So, bye. Talk later! Love you, sis!”
He runs out of the room before Sue can say a single word to stop him.
Now he just has to track down this Parker guy and get him to agree to photograph the wedding. Sky’s the limit as far as money goes.
Anything is worth avoiding the wrath of Sue, who is taking this whole wedding thing way too seriously. She looks frazzled and sleep-deprived and stressed out all the time and she yells about everything, even stuff that normally doesn’t bother her.
Johnny and Ben have been going to great lengths to keep out of her way as much as possible. Whenever Sue finally manages to corner Reed – who’s taken to hiding in his lab for days out of terror – to ask his opinion on the floral arrangements or the menu, they just shake their heads sympathetically and run away as fast as they can, before she asks them too.
Luckily, Johnny already knows where the Parker guy lives from the last time he hired Parker to take photos of him. He just hopes this time he can get through the ordeal of dealing with Parker with his dignity – not to mention his hair – intact.
Also alive. Getting out of this alive would be nice.
Well, that was a bust. Parker, it turns out, doesn’t live at his aunt’s anymore. Johnny flew all the way to Queens (yuck) for nothing, dammit. It looks like Parker’s been shacking up with that Osborn guy, or at least that’s what his aunt’s gossipy neighbor said.
Parker’s a mess when he opens the door. His hair’s in total disarray, a not-quite-healed bruise spans the left side of his face, and he looks like he’s been getting about as much sleep as Sue, which is exactly what he seems to have been doing at four o’clock in the afternoon, judging by the pajama pants that are slung low on his hips…really low on his hips. Right below a killer six-pack.
Wait. Parker has a six-pack?
It turns out Parker’s got one hell of a body hidden under those dorky sweaters. Like…really. A knockout. When did that happen? He must’ve started working out – a lot, judging by those abs – since the last time Johnny saw him.
Johnny can’t stop staring at his abs. His mouth might be hanging open just a little. Uh. That’s embarrassing. Johnny’s more used to being the one who makes other people’s jaws drop, not the one who’s standing around with his mouth hanging open. Like a total moron.
…is it weird that Johnny thinks Parker’s a pretty hot mess?
Johnny thinks it’s a little weird. Parker’s a total nerd. Johnny’s not usually into the whole nerd thing.
“I said, what are you doing here?” Parker says, very loudly, and Johnny’s pretty sure that wasn’t the first time.
“Have you – have you been working out?” Johnny says. “Cause…damn.”
“Is that really what you came here to say?” Parker snarks. “Because you could have just posted creepy messages on my Instagram. So I could ignore you. I would prefer that, actually.”
Parker has an Instagram? Where he has maybe posted topless selfies? Johnny makes a mental note to check that out. And then another one to never let Parker – or anyone else, for that matter – ever know about it.
Johnny shakes his head to clear it. “Erm,” he says. “No. That’s not why. I need a photographer. It’s sort of an emergency.”
“No,” Parker says immediately. “I’m not following you around all day again. You still haven’t paid me for last time.”
“It’s not for me, idiot, it’s for my sister,” Johnny clarifies. “Her wedding.”
That makes Parker pay attention. Johnny can tell because he stops slouching against the doorframe and stands up straight, eyes wide. “You want me to photograph your sister’s wedding? The one that’s all over the news?”
“Yeah,” Johnny nods.
“Why me?” Parker asks, frowning. “I mean, you guys could afford anyone. I’ve never even photographed a wedding before.”
“Well,” Johnny says. “See, Sue told me to hire a photographer, and it was the only thing I was supposed to do to help, and I sort of….forgot.”
“Forgot,” Parker repeats. “You forgot to hire a photographer for your own sister’s wedding?”
"I’m a busy guy, okay? I have things to do! Lots of really important…things! Shoes don’t buy themselves, you know!”
"It’s your sister’s wedding. How could you forget?”
“Hey, don’t judge, photo guy,” Johnny snaps. “I’m trying to fix it! Mostly cause if I don’t, Sue’ll kill me,” he admits.
Parker squints at him. “So basically, if I said no, you’d be–”
“Totally screwed. Possibly murdered in my sleep by my sister. Don’t say no.”
Parker looks like he’s really considering saying no.
“Don’t be a jerk. Sure, I’ll get in trouble with Sue and maybe murdered, but my sister’s the one who’s really going to suffer, because she won’t have any photos of her wedding. Don’t take this out on her. She’s great…when she’s not planning a wedding, anyways. Don’t tell her I said that. Besides, this is a big opportunity for you, photo guy. Wedding of the century and all that. Every news station in town is going to be begging you for your totally exclusive photos.”
“I’m not really a wedding photographer, though. It sounds a little boring.”
“It pays really well. Like, really well.”
“Oh, thank god,” Johnny says, feeling so very, very relieved. His sister’s not going to try to murder him now. It’s always good when that happens. “On to the second favor, then. Do you think you could get me the phone number of that blonde chick who was with you the last time I saw you? I totally need a date for the wedding, and she was smokin’. Her name was Wendy, or something?”
“Oh, for the luvva –” Parker says, right before he shuts the door in Johnny’s face.
“Did I say something wrong?” Johnny says to the door.
By the time the morning of the wedding rolls around, Johnny still hasn’t managed to find a date, which is unprecedented.
Literally everyone hot enough for Johnny to consider going on a date with is busy or already going with someone else. How is that possible?
Hmm. Maybe he should’ve started asking people more than a week in advance.
He can’t take just any random person off the street to his sister’s wedding. Sue would kill him.
Besides, out of desperation, he’s already tried asking the girl from the perfume counter, the cute boy barista from his favorite coffee shop, and half a dozen others, but everyone turned him down.
Why wouldn’t they want to go to a big shindig like this? Rubbing elbows with all of the Avengers and some of the biggest celebrities on the planet? Who would say no to that?
For god’s sake, he even tried asking this hot, hot dude he met on his morning run – who Johnny noticed because he always wore these tight, tight jogging shorts every morning that really showed off his perfect ass – but the guy disappointingly turned out to be a Doombot trying to sneak into the wedding for nefarious reasons, so it was no go. Damn you to hell, Victor Von Doom.
Johnny should learn to recognize Latverian accents, probably.
Johnny’s pretty much resigned himself to going stag and enduring more of Ben’s taunting – ugh, even Ben has a date and Johnny doesn’t, and how is that fair? – until he spots Parker setting his camera up in the chapel.
“Parker, my man!” he says, trotting over to him.
Parker looks up from the black duffel bag he’s been rooting around in and blinks. “Uh,” he says. “Is something wrong, Storm?”
“Well, you tell me,” Johnny says. “Got everything you need? Everything going good?”
“The wedding hasn’t even started,” Parker says. “I haven’t done anything yet.”
“Oh,” Johnny says. “Right.”
Parker stares at him. “Well?” he says impatiently. “Was there something else? Did Sue send you?”
“So…are you busy today?”
“I’m taking pictures of the wedding…so yes?”
“Right, yeah, of course. Um. Did your boyfriend come with you?”
“My boyfriend? I don’t – Johnny, I don’t have one.”
“What about that Osborn guy?”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Parker says loudly. “We’re just roommates.”
“Oh,” Johnny says. Well, this is going great. “So you’re single then? No date?”
“No, Storm, I don’t have a date. Because I’m working. Right now.”
“Well, hey,” Johnny says, leaning on the little stand thingy Parker’s set up so he looks sexy. “You don’t have a date, I don’t have a date, why don’t we date each other? I invited you, so you’re sort of my plus one already.”
Parker presses a hand to his face, which currently has that same expression Sue gets around Johnny all the time. “No,” Parker says, getting to his feet and shooing Johnny away. “Move. I need to finish setting up the camera before the wedding starts.”
“Why not?” Johnny says, stumbling backward. “Most guys would kill for the chance to date me.”
“So go ask one of them,” Parker says. “I’m working here.”
“Why do you keep saying that?” Johnny asks. “I know you’re working. Doesn’t mean you can’t be my date.”
Parker exhales, long and slow. “I. Am. Going. To. Be. Busy. Taking pictures. Of your sister. And the dancing. And everything else. I won’t have time to be your date.”
“But we can tell people you are,” Johnny insists. “I don’t mind if you take a couple of pictures. Just. One dance with me, and maybe, like, part of dinner. C’mon, it’ll be fun. And nice. Fun and nice.”
“Oh,” Peter breathes. “So that’s what this is about. You don’t have a date, and you’re embarrassed, and I’m, like, your last hope.”
“What?” Johnny says. “No. No. That’s not it at all.”
“So you’re asking me out because you think I’m hot? C’mon, I’m a nerd. You don’t think I’m hot.”
“You’ve been working out and you – hey, don’t sell yourself short, buddy. You’re…not bad. Especially around the, uh, torso region.”
“Aw, thanks, Torchy. You really know how to sweet-talk a guy.”
“You’ve been hanging out with Spidey too much. You’re starting to talk like him.” Johnny’s eyes light up. “Hey,” he says. “Do you think he’s busy? He can even keep the mask on. I don’t mind.”
Parker rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I think he’s busy. Something tells me he just got really busy. Swamped, even.”
“But could you, like, text him to ask? You have his phone number, right?”
“No, I can’t text him,” Parker says firmly. “Go away now. I’m busy. The wedding starts in half an hour. And I have…things. That need doing. In private. Far away from you.”
Off in the distance, there’s a crashing sound that’s rapidly followed by a deafening din, a combination of screaming and punching and Benjy shouting something about clobbering time.
“Aw, hell,” Johnny says. “What’s happening now? Sorry, dude. I’ve gotta go before Sue kills somebody for ruining her wedding. Uh. Maybe a lot of somebodies. Stay here. We’ll talk more about this later.”
“No, we don’t have to do –” he hears Parker shouting after him, but he’s already gone. “That.”
Chapter 2: Spideytorch - Teenage Heartthrobs and Autographs
Peter’s got his back against the wall, and he’s muttering angrily to himself as he watches a crowd of people fawn all over Johnny Storm across the street. Johnny’s drawing fiery shapes in the air with his finger, and even from here, Peter can hear the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of the crowd.
He resists the urge to snort. Idiots, all of them. What’s so cool about making shapes out of fire? Any idiot can do that. Maybe not with their finger, but with the right equipment, they can.
The Torch can’t sense danger coming before it happens, or stick to walls, or lift a jeep above his head. Peter can, but absolutely no one seems to think he’s cool. They think he’s a menace and a criminal, but not the Torch!
Apparently everyone thinks that fire powers are cooler than spider powers. Well, they’re wrong.
Peter doesn’t really know why he’s still watching this. It just puts him on edge, makes him feel bitter and angry. But he keeps watching while Johnny sets his head on fire, much to the delight of the crowd, and lasts even until he starts signing autographs.
Maybe if he keeps fuming in Johnny’s direction, it’ll make him trip or something. Oh, what he wouldn’t give for a little bit of telekinesis right now.
He’s a little weirded out when he realizes Johnny’s been sending glances his way.
Oh, god, he thinks. Does Johnny recognize the shape of his elbow or his backpack or something? Has he figured out that Peter’s actually Spidey?
He’s even more alarmed when he sees Johnny excuse himself from the crowd and walk purposefully in Peter’s direction.
Peter panics a little and debates over whether or not he should run away. It’d be totally embarrassing to get caught stalking Johnny as Spider-Man.
By the time he decides not to, Johnny’s standing right in front of him. Peter’s eyes are wide and fearful. What if Johnny knows it’s him? He can’t imagine any other reason why Johnny would abandon a crowd of admirers for a solitary guy. The Torch thrives on attention. He’s shallow that way.
“I noticed you’ve been watching for awhile,” Johnny says. Peter can’t tell if it’s supposed to be menacing. Johnny shoves a piece of paper at Peter. “Thought you might be too shy to ask or something, so here.”
Peter takes it and tears his eyes away from Johnny’s face long enough to look down at it. It’s an autograph. He blinks. This wasn’t what he was expecting. “Um,” he says. “Thanks?”
Johnny smiles at him. It’s a little crooked, but genuine and oh so beautiful. Peter’s heart flutters a little.
“You’re cute,” Johnny tells him.
“I — I am?” Peter stutters. He wasn’t expecting this either, and he’s not quite sure how to react.
“I mean, you’re a little nerdy, and you definitely need to buy cooler glasses, but…yeah,” Johnny says. His eyes fall to the backpack Peter’s clutching in his hands in front of him. His eyes go a little wide. “You like Buffy?”
Peter’s confused for a second, until he remembers that he has a worn out Buffy patch on his backpack that he sewed on there two or three years ago. “Yeah?” he says. “Do you?”
Johnny nods. “Ben and Sue think it’s stupid,” he says. “But I think she’s awesome.”
That’s a surprise. Peter would’ve thought Johnny was all about the Kardashians or Jersey Shore or stuff like that.
He hadn’t known that Johnny likes some of the same things Peter likes. That’s interesting.
“Yeah,” Peter says. “Me too.”
“Hey,” Johnny says, and it’s even a little nervous. “Uh, I was gonna get lunch after this. Do you maybe wanna, you know, join me?”
“You…want me to go to lunch with you?” Peter says.
Nothing that’s happening makes sense. Johnny’s actually being…normal, for once. Nice. Even interesting. The way Peter’d originally thought he was before their team-up against the Fox proved differently. Before Peter figured out that Johnny was a swell-headed jerk who was just as bad as Flash Thompson.
“If you want to,” Johnny shrugs. “No big deal if you don’t.”
“Just me and you?” Peter checks. “You mean like — like a date?”
Johnny Storm, going on a date with a guy as nerdy as Peter? Peter’s seen the kind of people Johnny goes out with, and he’s not it.
“I mean, if you want it to be a date, I’d be okay with that,” Johnny says. “We could talk about Buffy.”
Peter thinks about it, and realizes that he sort of wants to. This Johnny is the one he’d always hoped was buried in there somewhere, and he wants to see if there’s more to him.
Peter nods. “Yeah,” he says, “okay.”
Oh, god. That was probably a mistake.
Johnny beams at him. “Cool,” he says, sounding very pleased. “Cool. I’ve gotta go finish dealing with — “ He waves a hand at the crowd that’s mostly still waiting for him across the street. “ — the adoring public. Just, uh, stay here. Don’t — don’t move, and I’ll be back.”
Peter nods. “Yeah,” he says. “I’ll be here.”
Johnny starts to leave, but he hesitates and draws a little fiery heart in the air in front of Peter. “Here,” he says. “For you.”
He’s watching Peter expectantly. Probably wants a thank-you.
“Wow,” is all Peter can muster up. “You…really shouldn’t have.”
“Most people think it’s really cool,” Johnny says, thrown. “Girls love it.”
“It is, I guess?” Peter shrugs. “How do you get it to keep burning in the air like that?”
“That,” Johnny says, smirking, as he starts backing away, “is a trade secret, buddy.”
Peter watches Johnny head back to his fans, but he comes to halt in the middle of the street and whirls around before he reaches them. “Hey,” he shouts, “I forgot to ask! What’s your name, Buffy guy?”
“Peter! Peter Parker!” he yells back at him.
Johnny grins, holds up a hand, fingers outstretched, and says, “Give me five minutes, Peter Peter Parker!”
Peter nods, and realizes belatedly that there’s a huge smile on his face that he can’t seem to make go away. Even the corny little fiery heart that’s somehow still burning in the air next to him doesn’t dim his smile.
Peter maybe even likes it more than he’d originally let on.
Okay, so maybe fire powers aren’t that bad. And maybe the Torch isn’t either. He guesses he’s about to find out.
Chapter 3: Spideytorch -- Sexy Photoshoots, Jealousy, and Biting
When Johnny slips out of bed much too early in the morning and presses a soft kiss against Peter’s temple, Peter half wakes up, but he’s nuzzling back into his pillow and sound asleep again almost instantly.
It’s only when he hears Johnny bellowing his name from the general vicinity of the bathroom that he awakens fully. There’s a split-second of panic, where he’s afraid that Johnny’s being attacked by Skrulls? A supervillain? Something? But that’s before he realizes that it’s much too quiet for that. There’d be explosions and maniacal laughter or something if they were being attacked.
Also, no one has any reason to suspect that Johnny’s at Peter’s apartment.
The fact that they’re dating isn’t public knowledge quite yet.
He stumbles over to the bathroom, still a tad blearily, because it really is much too early for spider-guys who were out web-slinging and protecting their city from bad guys half the night (well, from four muggers and two car thieves, anyways. It counts!).
“What?” Peter complains when he finally reaches the bathroom and finds Johnny glaring at his own reflection in the mirror. He’s clearly just gotten out of the shower, because his hair is wet and plastered against his forehead, a towel slung low on his hips. “Someone better’ve died, Torchy. Nothing else excuses getting me out of bed this early in the morning.”
Johnny jabs a finger at his neck. “What the hell is this, Peter?” he hisses, eyes flashing in anger. “I could so kill you right now!”
“Please don’t,” Peter says. “I don’t think I’d enjoy that.” He squints at Johnny’s neck and tries to figure out why he’s so upset. There’s a small bruise there, it’s true, one that Peter is about 99% sure is a bite mark. Made by Peter’s teeth, at some point last night. He’d had some energy to burn off after he swung through his window, and Johnny certainly hadn’t objected. He doesn’t get why Johnny’s so mad about it now. “It looks like a hickey,” he ventures. “Why are we upset about this?”
It’s not exactly that uncommon for Peter to leave Johnny covered in bite marks when he’s in the mood. Johnny usually doesn’t seem to mind. Quite the contrary, really.
“I know it’s a hickey,” Johnny spits out. Peter does not like the way Johnny is glaring at him. Those are his murder eyes. The ones that typically result in the things near Peter getting burned. “Why is it there, Peter?”
“Well, Torchy, I don’t know what to tell you. See, when a boy really loves another boy—“ Peter starts. He’s having a hard time taking this seriously.
Johnny cuts him off. “That’s not what I meant. Stop trying to be cute.”
“I don’t have to try,” Peter sniffs. “I am cute.”
“Don’t even think about flirting with me right now, Peter Benjamin Parker,” Johnny threatens.
“Oh, boy. I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”
Johnny twists around, leans back against the counter, crosses his arms, and says contentiously, “Why am I up so early today, Peter?”
Peter squints. He has no idea where Johnny’s going with this. “Because you like torturing me?”
“It’s Thursday, Peter,” Johnny reminds him, emphasizing the word “Thursday.” “What am I doing on Thursday?”
“Making me a big breakfast?” Peter tries. “Lots of pancakes and bacon?”
Johnny face-palms. “My photoshoot, Peter,“ he grinds out from behind the hand that’s covering his eyes. “The one I’ve been talking about all week?”
Peter winces as the reason for Johnny’s fury begins to sink in. “Ohhhhh,” he says. He is a terrible boyfriend for forgetting about that. The worst. “Um…oops? They can cover that sort of thing with make-up, right? Movie magic, and all that?”
Johnny throws up his hands. “I guess,” he says frustratedly. “But we talked about this. You were supposed to be careful this week so I wouldn’t have to spend tons of extra time in the makeup chair.”
Peter’s had a busy week! Between the return of Morbius and Kraven’s latest attempts to murder Peter, Johnny’s photoshoot had slipped his mind entirely. “It was worth it, though, right? The sex was…not bad?”
Johnny’s expression is flat. He’s really not giving Peter a break with this.
“I’ll make it up to you,” Peter tries. “Later. Promise.”
Johnny’s still clearly miserable about the whole situation. “That’s how we got into this in the first place, if I remember right.” He turns back to the mirror to obsess over the hickey some more, and when he does…
Peter has no idea how to tell him that it’s worse than he thought. There’s a trail of hickeys running down Johnny’s back too, and Peter’s sure he hasn’t noticed yet. “You’re…going to be wearing a shirt for this photoshoot, right?”
Johnny’s eyes widen in horror. “Oh, no,” he says. “Peter. What did you do?”
“There are more hickeys,” Peter admits. “On your back.”
Johnny starts trying to twist around to get a good look at them in the mirror, though it’s difficult. Peter snickers a little.
“Dammit, Peter!” Johnny snaps. “This isn’t funny!”
“It’s a little funny,” Peter says. “Why’s this such a big deal anyways, Mr. I Had Three Sex Tapes On The Internet Before I Turned 25? People know you have sex. People even know you have a lot of sex.”
Shy about his sex life Johnny has never been.
“That was different,” Johnny says distractedly. “I didn’t care about those people. I didn’t care who saw.”
It takes a second for the implications of that to sink in, but when they do, they make a smile blossom across Peter’s face. “Aw,” he teases. “But you do care about me. I’m touched, Torchy.”
Johnny gives him a look that tells him he’s walking on increasingly thin ice. “This is no time for jokes, Peter.”
“It’s always time for jokes, Johnny,” Peter counters. He reaches out, snags Johnny’s wrist, and pulls him in close. Johnny’s stiff and unyielding in his arms. “I really will make it up to you later, and I really am sorry. I honestly didn’t remember.”
Johnny sighs exasperatedly, but some of the tension eases out of his body. He loops his arms around Peter’s neck and says, “I really don’t know if the fact that you forgot what I’ve been talking about all week makes this any better, babe. But you are definitely making it up to me. A lot.”
When the photos from Johnny’s shoot are released about a month later, Johnny is more than half-naked in them, and Peter’s a little startled to note that none of the hickeys are covered up at all. There they are, plain as day. For everyone to see, not just Peter. Johnny’s even twisted around in a way that makes them even more visible.
Peter and Johnny are sprawled out on a couch when Peter sees them for the first time, Johnny’s legs draped over Peter’s lap. There’s a mildly guilty look on Johnny’s face that makes Peter suspect that he knew that Peter wasn’t going to like this.
“The photographer thought it was sexier,” Johnny says when Peter points out the hickeys. He sits up and peers at the magazine. “What can I say? She was right. I look totally sexy.”
Debauched would be a better way to put it. The makeup artists seem to have deliberately been going for an “I literally just had sex” vibe, what with the mussed hair and lips that look almost swollen and the hickeys. Johnny looks like…pure sex.
Johnny and his photographer were not wrong. It’s maybe the hottest photoshoot Johnny’s ever done, and there have been plenty smoking hot ones.
“My publicist says that if I’m trying to win People’s Sexiest Man Alive again, I need more shoots like this,” Johnny says apologetically.
Oh. So this might not be the only time.
Peter frowns down at the pictures. He doesn’t know how he feels about any of this. It feels like seeing Johnny like that…should be his thing. What Peter alone gets to see, and no one else. It feels like…they just let the whole country — the whole world in on their sex life, and Peter doesn’t like that.
But, at the same time, it also feels like…those hickeys are telling the world that Johnny belongs to Peter and Peter alone. And there’s a part of Peter — an irrational, overly possessive part — that finds that very…hot.
Johnny’s watching Peter’s face. “You aren’t mad, are you?”
“Mad?” Peter protests. He knows he’s staring at the magazine in a way that makes how he feels obvious, but he can’t make himself stop. There’s one picture especially – you can’t see the hickeys on Johnny’s back, but the ones Peter left on his hip bones are plain as day. They couldn’t have given him more than a rag to cover himself? “Me? No, I mean, you can do what you want with your body. I don’t mind. Not my — not my decision. Your call.”
Johnny rolls his eyes. “Oh, please,” he says. “Peter, if you’re pissed, it’s okay. I probably should’ve talked to you about it first, but I was still kind of pissed at you for leaving the hickeys in the first place, so I didn’t —“
Peter waves a hand to cut him off. “Babe. It’s fine, really. Not angry.”
Johnny squints at him like he doesn’t believe him. “Uh-huh,” he says.
He keeps his eyes fixed on Peter for a while, chewing on his lower lip like he’s considering his next move. Peter ignores him, choosing to flip through the magazine again. He’s a little surprised when Johnny unceremoniously plucks it out of his hands, tosses it on the floor, and moves to straddle Peter’s lap, arms wrapped around Peter’s neck.
Peter’s not sure what’s happening now or how to react, not until Johnny dips his head down to whisper in Peter’s ear. “You know, I can think of a couple of really good ways for you to work out all of those feelings. If you’re interested.”
Oh, Peter is. He slides his hands under the hem of Johnny’s shirt and runs them up along Johnny’s sides, enjoying the way it makes him shudder, his breath quicken.
Peter’s overcome by an irrational urge to hold Johnny down and bite him everywhere, leave those fleeting marks on Johnny’s skin so that they will remind Johnny exactly who he belongs to: Peter. Not his public, not his fans, not his publicist. Peter.
It doesn’t make much sense, Peter knows, but Peter’s not sure it needs to. The thought of it makes his mouth water, his cock throb, and that’s enough.
“I don’t have any feelings to work out,” Peter lies. “But sure. Let’s do that.”
Chapter 4: Spideytorch -- Showers and Cuddling
“Why do I always have to be the one who gets gooed by the gross monsters?” Johnny rants furiously as he storms off across Peter’s messy apartment, headed for his shower, leaving a trail of clothes covered in disgusting purple goo behind him. “Why can’t Reed be the one who gets gooed sometimes? I’d pay good money to see a monster spit up all over Reed! It would be funny. But no, it always happens to me!”
“Reed would probably just think it was fascinating,” Peter chimes in. He’s following behind Johnny, picking up the discarded clothing, because his carpet. It doesn’t need to have nonflammable, bright purple spit stains everywhere. “I don’t think it’d be fun for anybody except Reed.”
Johnny harrumphs, but it sounds less ill-tempered than he’d likely hoped, given the way he’s hopping around Peter’s bathroom, trying to yank off his boot. “Fine. Ben, then.”
Peter takes a second to imagine that and smiles. “Now Ben would be funny covered in purple goo.” He rakes his eyes over Johnny’s body appreciatively and settles against the bathroom doorway with a contented sigh. “But you? Babe, covered in goo or not, you are definitely smokin’ hot.”
Johnny sends a glare Peter’s way. “This isn’t hot,” he says. He squeezes some of the goo out of his hair so he can flick it vindictively at Peter’s face. Peter ducks it easily. “It’s irritating. And disgusting. And stop checking out my ass. I’m not in the mood.”
That’s too bad because Peter is. It’s hard not to be when Johnny’s standing in his bathroom buck naked, bent over and fiddling with his shower. That’s his best angle, Peter thinks, until Johnny turns around and Peter sees his gorgeous — though currently disgruntled — face again. No, maybe that’s his best angle.
Their relationship is new enough that this is all still exciting for Peter. He wonders if he’ll ever grow bored of the sight of Johnny Storm, naked. He hopes not.
He sets the little pile he’s collected of Johnny’s clothes down on the counter. “You know,” he says, “I think I got hit by some of that goo too. Maybe I should join you. I can help clean you up. Get to all of those hard to reach places for you.”
Johnny gives him a look that says he knows Peter’s full of it, but he doesn’t say no. Instead, he rolls his eyes, sighs resignedly, and says, “Suit yourself,” right before slipping into the shower.
That wasn’t a no. Peter starts peeling out of his clothes. Not too fast, because he doesn’t want Johnny to think he’s desperate or anything, and then follows Johnny in.
Johnny’s standing under the shower, head tilted back, eyes shut, rinsing shampoo and goo out of his hair. He’s beautiful, even like this, even with purple goo sticking to unflattering places. Peter’s chest feels tighter than normal.
“This shampoo sucks,” Johnny tells Peter coolly. “If I’m going to be showering here now sometimes, I’m buying you a better brand.”
That’s fair. Peter usually buys whatever’s on sale. He doesn’t really care about those things. “I’m okay with that,” he shrugs.
Johnny reaches for Peter’s cheap body wash and even cheaper bath sponge, and he seems even less happy with those. “Ugh,” he says, nose wrinkling. “I am definitely getting you better body wash. And I’m buying you a loofah. They’re better. You know you’re supposed to replace these every two months?” he adds, shaking the sponge at Peter.
Oops. Peter’s had that one for six months, easy. “Oh,” he says. “Um. Right.”
Johnny mutters something that sounds like, “…can’t believe I’m dating you,” as he squeezes the bottle of body wash a little too hard and it squirts out against the wall instead. “Dammit!” he grinds out. He sounds furious as he throws the body wash down on the ground as hard as he can. “Why is everything going wrong today? Ever since I woke up, nothing good has happened to me!” He sags against the wall dejectedly. “I want to take back this whole day,” he adds miserably.
Peter’s had days like those. Too many to count. He decides to take pity on Johnny, so he reaches out to take the sponge away from Johnny. “Okay,” he says. “Here. Let me do that for you. And maybe let’s try not to take out our feelings on the toiletries. They never did anything to anyone.”
“They suck,” Johnny says sourly. “That’s what they did to me.”
Wow. He is in a bad mood.
Peter plucks the sponge off of the ground and then puts his arms around Johnny’s slippery waist and pulls him in close. “Hey,” he says, pressing his forehead against Johnny’s, “why don’t you let me clean you up?” He smiles. “Maybe together we can get something to go right.”
Johnny rolls his eyes. “Pete,” he says. “There’s no way you can make scrubbing gross purple goo off of your boyfriend sexy. Even I couldn’t do that.”
Peter’s smile turns into a grin that is, at the very least, bordering on filthy. “Wanna bet, firefly?”
“You’re on,” Johnny says. “What are we betting?”
“Well, let’s see,” Peter says. “I’ve got a pair of web-shooters, a bed, and you. If I win, I get to combine them.”
Johnny rolls his eyes but Peter can tell his bad humor is waning. He could swear Johnny’s nearly smiling when he slips his arms up around Peter’s neck. “It’s always about sex with you.”
“Well, when you have a boyfriend as hot as mine, it’s hard for it not to be.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Johnny shoots back. “My boyfriend’s not as hot as yours.”
That startles a laugh out of Peter. “Ouch, Torchy. I am hurt by that. Wounded, even.”
“I didn’t say you were terrible-looking,” Johnny amends that to. “But you aren’t as hot as me and you know it.”
“Not arguing,” Peter says. He’s too smart to, especially given Johnny’s current mood. “So what do you want if you win?” Peter slides a hand down to palm the gentle swell of Johnny’s ass, waggles his eyebrows in that way that always makes Johnny laugh and call him an idiot, and grins. “Little bit of that old Spidey action?”
Johnny bites his lower lip like he’s genuinely considering it, but he thinks better of it. “No. I just. Sorry, Pete, but I feel like – if I win, I want to curl up on the couch with you and watch terrible television. And I want pizza. Lots of it.”
“Mine’s way more interesting, but deal,” Peter says. He sticks his hand out for Johnny to shake.
Peter wins the bet – well, technically his mouth does – but he tells Johnny that he can pay up later, when Johnny’s more in the mood, because he’s a good boyfriend.
Peter spends the rest of the afternoon lying on the couch with an increasingly drowsy Johnny plastered on top of him, carding his fingers through Johnny’s hair.
Johnny’s dressed head to toe in Peter’s clothes, which does things to Peter.
It’s all actually sort of…perfect.
Chapter 5: Spideytorch -- Statue of Liberty + First Kisses
When Johnny burns a message into the sky asking to meet with Peter at the usual place, Peter drops everything, just like he always does.
The Torch could be in trouble, and what kind of friend would Peter be if he didn’t rush to help him?
Tonight, even though he’s impatient to get there, it takes him exactly twenty-seven minutes to get to the Statue of Liberty, but only because there are no helicopters flying past and Peter doesn’t have enough web-fluid left to make a raft.
When at last he drops down onto the Statue’s crown, he discovers that Johnny’s already there, feet dangling out between one of the crown’s spikes and gazing pensively out at the city skyline. He’s so lost in thought, he doesn’t even notice Peter’s arrived.
Peter wishes he had his camera. He thinks he could fill a gallery with moments like these, moments when Johnny looks like a living work of art, like…like he should be one of those pictures hanging in a museum. He—his beauty—it deserves to be remembered forever. Maybe Peter can make that happen. Maybe that’ll be his claim to fame fifty years from now. Maybe he’ll be an eighty-year-old going around telling everyone he was the guy who took those pictures of the Human Torch.
Peter shakes his head to drive away those flustering, bewildering thoughts that he’s never entirely known what to do with.
“Don’t think too hard, Torchy,” Peter says to lighten the tension as he sinks down next to Johnny. “You wouldn’t want to break anything.”
Johnny smiles faintly up at Peter. “Hey,” he says. “Thanks for coming.” He scoots a pizza box over towards Peter.
Peter yanks off his mask, pops open the lid, picks up a slice of the half-eaten pizza, and stuffs it in his mouth. He is starving. He makes a face. “Pizza’s cold, buddy.”
“It was hot when I got here, pal,” Johnny sighs. He stretches out a hand, palm up. “Want me to warm it up for you?”
Peter doesn’t see why not, seeing as how the Torch is basically a walking oven. Functional as well as beautiful.
When Johnny hands it back, it’s sizzling and perfect. Johnny’s gotten great at warming up pizza over the years. Peter’s truly impressed with how much he’s improved at it since they were kids.
“Buddy,” Peter says around a mouthful of his pizza, “if you ever need a job as toaster oven, look me up.”
Johnny snorts, but doesn’t say anything.
Oh, boy. He’s in a mood. Peter’s seen him like this before. Brooding and silent.
“So why’d you call me out here?” Peter ventures. “Because if you need me to explain how to tie your shoes again, Torchy, you’re on your own.”
Johnny’s wearing his standard pair of black boots, but that’s beside the point. Johnny knows Peter’s just kidding anyways. Peter’s pretty sure Johnny can tie shoelaces. He thinks so, at least.
There’s maybe a glimmer of a smile on Johnny’s face after Peter’s wisecrack, but it’s not the startled burst of laughter Peter’d been trying to tease out of him.
“I just…I dunno.” Johnny sighs. “Guess I just wanted to see a friendly face. Ryan dumped me again,” he confides quietly.
“Oh,” Peter says, at a loss. “I’m sorry.” This is the third time they’ve broken up in as many months. Each time Ryan would dump him for a “better” guy, and then get back together with Johnny the moment the relationship fell apart. Like Johnny was Ryan’s security net or something. His second choice. The thought is enough to make Peter see red. Johnny’s a great guy. The best. Anyone’d be lucky to date him. Lucky. “It’s probably for the best.”
“Probably,” Johnny echoes. It doesn’t sound like he really believes it.
“He wasn’t the guy for you, pal, and you know it,” Peter continues.
“I know,” Johnny admits. He sighs wearily. Peter doesn’t know if he’s ever seen Johnny looking this defeated. Broken. Run down. “I’m just…tired. Don’t you ever feel like that?”
“Tired? All the time. I’m tired right now. Give me a nice bed and I’ll sleep for twelve hours,” Peter says. He knows he’s babbling a little, but…he’s not great at the whole feelings thing.
“Not that kind of tired,” Johnny says. He takes a deep, shuddery breath. “I mean, tired of being alone. Or, I dunno, scared of being alone. I hate being alone, Pete. It’s the worst. Sometimes I think I was holding on to Ryan so tightly because I didn’t want to face what my life was like alone again. I knew he was—I’m not stupid. I knew what he was like. I just…didn’t care. As long as he kept coming back.” His mouth twists. “As long as I wasn’t alone.”
“But he’s not coming back anymore?” Peter checks.
Johnny shakes his head once, and only slightly. “No,” he says. There’s a finality to his words, a certainty. “I don’t think so.”
Peter swallows down another bite of pizza and thinks about what he should say. “You’re not going to be alone, Torch. You aren’t even alone now. You’ve got your family.”
And me, Peter wants to add, but somehow he can’t bring himself to say it.
“It’s not the same, Pete,” Johnny says, mouth tight. “As having someone to share your life with. It’s just not.” He gives Peter a knowing look. “You know it’s not as well as I do.” He shrugs, and his voice is bitter. “I just feel like I keep trying and trying to find someone to spend my life with, and the minute they see what I’m like, who I am…they all lose interest. Maybe I just don’t have anything real to offer them. Maybe that’s the problem.”
Peter has never heard anyone be more wrong. He’s frowning disapprovingly when he says, “Torch—”
His tone of voice must make what he’s about to say obvious because Johnny interrupts him.
“He said I was the worst thing that ever happened to him, Pete,” Johnny says. He tries to keep his voice even, but it’s clear that he’s deeply upset about it. “And that he wished he’d never met me. His exact words.”
“Well, you’re the single best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Peter finds himself saying. What’s more surprising is that he realizes, as he says it, that it’s true. “The best.”
Johnny goes very, very still. Peter’s not even sure he’s breathing. His eyes are wider than usual, and somehow they look impossibly bluer. Maybe it’s the dim light. Peter doesn’t know.
“Pete,” Johnny says breathlessly. “What do you mean by that?”
What does Peter mean by that? It’s an excellent question. Peter doesn’t really know either.
“I think it’s that I…like being with you,” Peter says, frowning as he searches through feelings he hadn’t even known were there. Peter’s not much for the introspection these days. “It. Makes me happy?”
It’s true too. Peter realizes that he looks forward to this. The days he gets to see Johnny. Even just get a glimpse of his lovely face. He lives for these days.
How is it possible for that to be true and yet…Peter’s never noticed before? Not consciously, at least.
Johnny’s examining Peter’s face with a piercing intensity that makes Peter feel his face heat up. Now he knows what it’s like to be on the other end of a microscope. He apologizes to every bug and spider he’s ever examined under one.
“And that’s all you meant?” Johnny asks with an earnestness Peter doesn’t get. “Just that?”
“What else would I mean?” Peter asks. He really wants to know. Maybe Johnny can help make sense of all of the confusing things Peter’s barely beginning to discover he feels.
Johnny purses his lips. “Well, Pete…when you tell someone they’re the best thing that ever happened to you, it a little bit sounds like…you know.”
Peter truly hasn’t a clue. “Like what?”
Johnny squints at him as though he can’t tell whether he’s being serious or not. “Like…you’re about to ask them out on a date or something. Peter. Is…” He takes a deep breath to steady himself, or maybe to work up the courage to ask, who knows. “…is that what you meant?”
Peter takes some time to think about it because he honestly has no idea. Does he want to go out on a date with Johnny? He’s never really thought about it before, but he does now.
He imagines what it would be like. Bringing Johnny flowers—roses, the yellow kind, because they’re his favorites—and then going out to eat with him at one of the lousy diners that he makes fun of but secretly loves, making him laugh and laugh until his sides hurt and there are tears in his eyes, spending his life making sure that there’s never again even the tiniest flicker of sadness marring those clear blue eyes, because they’d be Peter’s, all Peter’s…
Peter wants that so much he can hardly breathe. His eyes open comically wide as he realizes what it means. “Ohhhhhh,” he says. He falls back flat against the floor and shoves his hands in his hair and freaks the hell out. “Oh, my god.”
“Peter?” Johnny says, worried. “Are you okay, buddy? What the hell just happened?”
“I think I just realized that I’m in love with you,” Peter blurts out before he can think better of it. “Oh, my god. How long have I felt like this?”
Peter doesn’t know the answer to that either, but he thinks it may have been a very long time.
Johnny, mystifyingly, infuriatingly, starts to howl with laughter. He collapses back against the Statue too.
Peter, mortally offended, glares murderously at him. “I tell you that I love you and this is how you react? I am hurt, Torchy. Wounded.”
“Your f-face!” Johnny hardly manages to get out, he’s laughing so hard. He’s literally rolling on the floor and clutching at his sides. “Oh, my god, you should see your face!”
Peter throws his hands in the air. “I’m having a life-changing epiphany!” he protests. “My whole life is a lie. Let my face look how it wants!”
This just. Explains so many things. Holy hell.
“N-no,” Johnny wheezes. “You don’t g-get it. It’s not just your face.” He makes a herculean effort to get his laughter under control. “Pete, you dummy. You’re in love with me? I was in love with you first!”
Peter’s shocked, but it doesn’t take him long to, for some reason, find that hilarious. He can’t help it—he starts to laugh too. It’s all so absurd! “No,” he says. “Shut up!”
Johnny’s nodding earnestly. “For years, you moron!”
That makes Peter crack up even harder. “We are so stupid!”
Here they’ve been, wondering why none of their relationships ever worked out, and it turned out that it was because they’d been in love with each other the whole time!
“Well, you’re stupider than me, because at least I figured it out a long time ago,” Johnny points out.
“No, you’re stupider than me, because you figured it out and never said anything,” Peter shoots back. “Who knows, maybe I would have figured out how I felt if you’d said something.”
“Oh, no, no, no,” Johnny says, chortling. “Don’t blame this on me, Peter Benjamin Parker. You’re the one who didn’t even notice they were in love. I mean, who does that? I’m sorry, but that’s way stupider, dude. How did you not notice?”
Peter props himself up on one elbow so he can look down at Johnny, who smiles up at him cheerfully, blue eyes shining, golden hair shimmering with the distant lights of the city.
He’s beautiful. Peter can’t even begin to fathom how beautiful.
It makes Peter’s breath catch, and he realizes that he’s done it a thousand times before, whenever he’s been struck by Johnny’s beauty. He’d simply…never let himself feel it. Never let himself enjoy it. He’d always shoved it down, buried it away, refused to let himself think about it, about how he felt, about what it meant for him and Johnny.
For the first time in his life, he gives himself permission to feel everything, to plumb the farthest depths of his feelings for Johnny. He could spend a lifetime exploring them. Perhaps he will if he’s lucky.
He licks his lips. “You know, instead of arguing about who’s dumber, we could be—“
“Having sex?” Johnny finishes for him. He smiles, and Peter’s heart flutters. “Good plan. I approve.”
Peter’s taken aback, but he doesn’t object. “I was going to say ‘making out,’ but yours works too.”
Johnny’s still laughing when Peter kisses him for the very first time.
Chapter 6: JohnnyWyatt -- Jail Cells + Kissing
Wyatt is…not happy with Johnny at the moment, not that Johnny can blame him. It’s admittedly completely Johnny’s fault that they’re currently stuck inside a tiny, uncomfortable little jail cell, and Wyatt has every right to be pissed at him. He’s gone from college graduate to jailbird in less than a month, courtesy of one Johnny Storm.
There’s been an icy silence stretching between them for the past ten minutes. Wyatt’s doing his absolute best to give his buddy the silent treatment. He’s sitting with his arms crossed, eyes boring a hole into the bars of their jail cell. Looking at anything, in other words, but Johnny.
Ouch. Johnny is cut to the quick by that. He looks hot, thank you very much, and that hotness should be appreciated by someone.
Wyatt hasn’t been this angry at him in…maybe ever.
Well, what good is being the Human Torch if you can’t even get your own best friend to warm up to you?
“What if I told you that you’re really cute when you pout like that?” Johnny says, smiling as charmingly as he can. His smile always works on Wyatt. He’s a sucker for it. “Would you forgive me then?”
Wyatt gives him a look that says he’s not falling for any of Johnny’s sweet-talking, not this time. “I am not pouting, Jonathan,” he says stiffly. “And if I were, it would not be cute.”
Johnny hides a wince. Ouch. Full name. Wyatt’s definitely pissed.
“Hot, then,” Johnny tries, taking a different tack. He stretches out his legs so that his feet bump against Wyatt’s and widens his smile to a brazen grin. “And you’ve got to admit, I know hot.”
“Jonathan,” Wyatt snaps, pulling his feet away, “this is not the place to be making a pass at me. Do you see where we are?”
“Exactly,” Johnny says. He scoots sideways on his bench so that he’s closer to Wyatt. “You’ve got to admit, buddy, there’s not really much else to do inside a jail besides flirting. Plus, you’ve been telling me I need to lighten up. Consider me lightened.” He reaches out and tangles his fingers with Wyatt’s, and Wyatt, thank god, doesn’t pull away. Johnny gives him a wistful smile. “Besides, this might be just what I need, Wy. You and me together again. We were good together, weren’t we?”
They’d been…a thing back when they were college roommates, but it’d never been serious, official dating. Just…good times, laughter, falling into bed together every now and then, whenever they felt like it. No strings.
It was always good. Fun. Wonderful. Johnny could have fallen in love with Wyatt easily, he thinks, if he hadn’t already been so hung up on Crystal.
Sometimes he wishes he’d met Wyatt first, fallen for him before he’d ever even heard the name Crystal. Maybe he and Wyatt would’ve been the ones who were married now, instead of Crystal and Pietro.
Suffice it to say, Johnny has good memories of Wyatt. The best. He was always kind, generous, loyal, fun, and fiercely protective of Johnny from the first.
That protectiveness is what Johnny’s counting on now. Because Johnny needs this. Johnny needs to lose himself in someone. Forget about…about the terrible things that are going on with his family. Drive away every thought about his sister, his brother-in-law, but most of all, forget the sight of his poor little nephew and his blank, staring eyes…
He hopes that person can be Wyatt. If Wyatt doesn’t shoot him down, maybe he’ll suggest that they find a hotel somewhere. Not in Buffalo, though. Johnny’s going to get the hell out of here as fast as he can. The police here are not very friendly to superheroes.
Johnny deeply resents being stuck in a jail after saving the planet so many times. Buffalo would just be pieces of rock floating through space right now if it wasn’t for him. Or conquered by aliens. Either way, it’s because of him it’s still here.
Wyatt’s eyes soften, just as Johnny’d hoped they would. He squeezes Johnny’s fingers. “Yes,” he says, with a fond smile. “John. We were wonderful together. Never doubt that.”
Were, Wyatt said. Past tense. Johnny rubs his thumb in small circles along the back of Wyatt’s hand as he ponders that. “Do you think we ever could be again, buddy? Or is it too late? Did I screw things up between us when I…when I left you for Crys? Because I –“ He swallows. “I regret that now, Wy, really I do.”
Wyatt does the unexpected. He cups the back of Johnny’s neck and pulls him into a kiss that’s so tender and sweet it makes Johnny’s heart break. It makes Johnny feel as though he’s the most precious thing in the world. Maybe Wyatt really thinks that. Maybe that’s what ol’ Wyatt’s trying to tell him.
“It’s not too late,” Wyatt says, pressing his forehead against Johnny’s. “I have…I loved you then, I love you now, I will love you always.”
Johnny’s eyes widen. “Love?” he croaks. They’d messed around but never had the word “love” entered their conversations. Johnny would’ve remembered that. “Love? Wyatt, you were — are in love with me?” He makes a frustrated noise. “You never said! Why didn’t — why haven’t you ever said?”
That maybe would have changed things. But, then again, maybe not. Johnny was so blinded by his feelings for Crystal, maybe he would’ve made the wrong call even then, even knowing a guy like Wyatt was waiting in the wings for him.
“I tried,” Wyatt says, running the tips of his fingers along Johnny’s cheek in a way Johnny can only describe as loving. “I tried to tell you. So many times. You didn’t want to listen.” He raises his eyebrows. “John. I followed you all the way to Tibet.” He shakes his head. “Those were not the actions of a friend. I did it because I loved you and wished for nothing more than your happiness, even if it meant I had to lose you.”
Johnny knows his mouth is hanging open, but he’s too shocked to do much about it. “And you wait until now, until we’re sitting in a jail cell of all places, to tell me all of this?” he says accusingly.
“It’s your fault we’re in the jail cell, John,” Wyatt reminds him, a smile playing across his lips.
“That is so not the point, Wy,” Johnny hisses. A thought strikes him. Well, more like a suspicion. “Are you telling me this right now just to get back at me for getting you arrested?”
Wyatt considers that. He grins cheekily at Johnny, who finds it thoroughly charming and infuriating all at once.
“It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that I am, no,” Wyatt admits.
Johnny glares at him in response. “You’re going to be trouble,” he retaliates. “I can already tell.”
“Whose fault is it that we’re in the jail cell, John?” Wyatt says.
“Stop bringing that up,” Johnny says sourly. “I said I was sorry.”
Chapter 7: Spideytorch -- Weddings
The wedding ends at exactly 1:17pm. It takes another half hour for Johnny and Peter to escape all of the well-wishers and hordes of screaming fans that are gathered outside of the church and then climb into the limo that’s waiting to whisk them away to the reception.
It takes a moment for Peter to grow accustomed to the silence of the empty limo after the din that had greeted them the moment the ornate wooden doors of the church had swung open.
By Peter’s count, there were eleven kings, nineteen queens, and seventeen heads of state in attendance at their wedding. Every superhero in New York. Half the celebrities of every persuasion—sports superstars, singers, actors, everyone. A large portion of the invitees were not from Earth. Peter knows from the guest list that there were a few intergalactic emperors and the odd god or two sitting in those pews and listening to him recite his vows.
This isn’t, so far, like any wedding Peter’d ever dreamed of having. He’d expected it to be a modest affair, attended by his aunt, his uncle, maybe a couple of friends. Thirty people, tops.
At their last count, three thousand people had RSVP’d to his wedding to Johnny.
Peter has no idea how many fans are lining the streets outside of the church, eager to be part, even from a distance, of the so-called wedding of the century, but they’ve been driving for at least two minutes, and it hasn’t lessened.
Peter forgets, sometimes, exactly how famous and beloved Johnny is, but days like this make it all too clear.
He still feels a little dazed. They’ve been planning and talking and dreaming of nothing but this wedding for months—well, Johnny and Sue have been, with Peter running whatever errands he’s told to—and it’s a little surreal that it’s finally happening. Peter is officially Johnny’s husband now.
It’s one more—daunting—responsibility to add to the list. Peter’s glad that he proposed to Johnny, glad that he married him, but there’s still a small part of himself that can’t help but fear that the Parker luck will begin to rub off on the best guy Peter knows.
He casts around for something to say in order to break the uncharacteristic silence they’ve fallen into. Finally, he settles on, “I wasn’t expecting Reed to cry that much.”
Johnny smiles faintly. “You should have seen him at my high school graduation. I think he went through two boxes of tissues.”
Today he went through at least three. Val, in a cute, pink little flower girl dress, kept handing him fresh boxes whenever he ran out of new ones.
Johnny’s watching Peter closely, as though he’s noticed that something’s off.
Peter supposes there’s no point in keeping it a secret. “There are just—“ he blurts out. “—so many people!”
Johnny raises his eyebrows. “They love me,” he says. “I keep telling you that, but you never believe me.”
Peter glances out the window. It looks like the Thanksgiving Day Parade out there. The sidewalks are packed full of people carrying signs with his name or face on them and just. Peter’s never seen anything like it. He’s not used to all of this…attention directed his way. Not as Peter Parker, at least. It’s intense. How does Johnny deal with it?
“I will never question you when you say that again, ever.”
Johnny laughs. “Just breathe, babe. It’ll all be over soon.”
“I keep telling myself to keep it together until the honeymoon,” Peter says. “Then I’m planning on having several nervous breakdowns.”
“No, c’mon, you, me, a private island in the Caribbean,” Johnny says. “It’ll be perfect.” He beams at Peter. “Hey,” he says, as thought it’s just hitting him, and Peter can understand the feeling. “We’re married now, can you believe it? The Parker-Storms.”
“No,” Peter laughs. “I can’t.” He shakes his head. “Man, oh, man. Can you imagine what we would’ve said ten years ago if someone’d told us we’d be gettin’ hitched someday?”
Johnny snorts. “I wouldn’t have believed it. Not for a second.”
“We were so stupid,” Peter observes.
He still can’t believe how long it took him to realize his embarrassing obsession with Johnny was actually a crush.
It’d taken, oh, six years, give or take.
“Oh, totally,” Johnny agrees. “We had fun, though, when we were kids. Man, but those were some wild times.”
“I never knew whether I wanted to kiss you or web your mouth shut,” Peter confesses.
Johnny cants his head down onto Peter’s shoulder. Peter’s a little surprised, given how obsessed Johnny’s been with keeping his hair from getting mussed, but he puts his arm gingerly around Johnny’s shoulders anyways, and prays that he doesn’t somehow ruin Johnny’s fifty-thousand-dollar tux. And then he tries his damnedest to forget that his own cost around as much.
“I’m glad you finally figured it out,” Johnny tells Peter. There’s a brief pause. “Oh, and I hope you packed your web shooters, because I’m putting ‘web bondage’ on my list of things we’re trying on the honeymoon.”
Peter chokes. “There’s a list?”
Johnny’d mentioned it before, but Peter assumed he was kidding.
Johnny chuckles as he presses a kiss against Peter’s neck. “There’s a list. And a suitcase full of costumes. It’s our honeymoon, and we have a whole island to ourselves for a month. We’re goin’ all out, Parker.”
Peter’s eyes widen.
He doesn’t know whether to be excited or terrified.
He suspects he should be both.
Chapter 8: ReedSue -- Take-Out and Office Makeouts
Sue’s still trying to get a handle on being CEO of Fantastic Four, Inc, the company she and Reed started together a few months ago to capitalize on the Fantastic Four’s newfound status as celebrity superheroes and Reed’s inventions.
Reed’s patents may be the ones that create much of its revenue, but it’s Sue who’s committed herself to the day-to-day drudgery of running the company. She’s the CEO, and the company is her baby more than anyone else’s.
Of course, as a college dropout without so much as a Bachelor’s in Business Administration, much less a Master’s, the learning curve has been steep. She constantly feels out of her depth. She’s found herself working through many long, weary nights, trying to catch up to everyone else.
It’s exhausting and miserable and she misses her boyfriend. She and Reed hardly have time to see each other these days. He’s busy in his lab, and she’s busy with the company. Sometimes it feels like she only ever sees him when the world is ending or when they’re off exploring the far reaches of the galaxy. Which could be incredibly romantic, except for the fact that her baby brother and Reed’s best friend always tag along.
Tonight, she’s combing through the latest financial reports in an attempt to prepare for a stockholders’ meeting, but it’s difficult to focus. Her back aches, her eyes are tired, and she’s starving.
Ten more pages, she tells herself, and she’s done. She stifles a yawn.
She nearly jumps out of her skin when someone thunks a paper bag on the desk in front of her. She blinks at it, nonplussed, until she looks up and sees Reed smiling down at her.
“Have time for some Chinese takeout, darling?” Reed says.
“Probably not,” Sue sighs. She shuts the financial report she’s been going through and stretches her arms above her head, trying to get rid of that crook in her back. “But I’m too tired to keep going.”
“Hmm,” Reed says. “Perhaps you should try some of my—“
“I’m not drinking any more of your coffee,” Sue says flatly. “The last time I did, I didn’t sleep for three days.”
“Yes, I know!” Reed says enthusiastically. He grins. “Isn’t it wonderful? I have so much more time to work on my inventions when I don’t need to sleep!”
Sue chuckles at that as she shakes her head wryly. “Only you, my darling, would be excited by having more time to work.”
Reed looks genuinely puzzled. “Why shouldn’t I find my work exciting?”
“No reason,” Sue says. She can’t stop smiling. She really does love him very much. “Forget I said anything.”
She rises to her feet and reels Reed in for a kiss across her desk. She’d meant it to be a quick kiss hello, but, oh, it’s been so long since she kissed him, and she does love the way his mouth tastes. She melts into the kiss, makes it linger, and Reed doesn’t pull away.
“Oh,” Sue sighs contentedly against Reed’s lips when she finally has no choice but to pull away to catch her breath. She strokes her thumb across his cheek. She can’t get over the adoration she sees in the depths of his warm brown eyes, and doesn’t think she ever will. “I have missed you, my love.”
Reed tangles his fingers with hers, kisses the palm of her hand. It makes Sue shiver. “I know the feeling. Believe me. We must make more of an effort to spend time together.”
“Yes,” Sue agrees. “We really must.”
“I don’t suppose you’re free Friday night?” Reed asks hopefully. “I was thinking we could go out on the town.”
Sue thinks for a moment, then winces. “Johnny’s school play,” she says apologetically. “I promised I’d be there. But…you could join me. I’m sure it would mean a lot to Johnny. You know how much he respects you.”
Sue doesn’t want to go alone. She’s seen Johnny act and even helped him rehearse his lines every now and then, and…well. She loves her baby brother to pieces and she would do anything to keep him safe and happy, but an actor he is not.
She’s afraid the play will be a disaster, and that’ll mean a night of consoling a brokenhearted Johnny. He’s been so upbeat and excited ever since he got cast in this play. He’ll be devastated if it doesn’t go well.
Reed frowns. “I’m…not sure high school plays are entirely—what I mean to say is—“ He sighs resignedly. “Of course I’ll be there, Susan.”
“Good,” Sue says. She kisses him again. “Thank you, and also I love you.”
“I love you too, Susan,” Reed sighs wearily.
Sue feels terrible now. She did a little bit trick him into it. “Saturday night,” she promises. “I’ll see if I can get Ben to keep an eye on Johnny for me so he doesn’t set the house on fire again or something. It’ll just be you and me. We can curl up on the couch and watch Josie and the Pussycats again.”
Reed’s favorite movie of all time. He’s seen it 147 times. He’s keeping count.
Frankly, she doesn’t think he should count this time, because she and Reed alone on a couch after weeks of not seeing each other? Watching television is going to be the last thing they’ll be doing.
Reed brightens. “I would enjoy that,” he says.
Sue’s certain he doesn’t know that they aren’t going to actually see the film.
They spread the takeout on the floor like a picnic. Sue sits on the floor, legs tucked underneath her, high heels resting off to the side, while Reed sits cross-legged across from her. They eat their dinner, all while laughing and telling each other about their days.
Sue finally works up the courage to confide in Reed about how…inadequate she feels as CEO. She doesn’t understand why she and Reed ever thought putting her in charge of the company was a good idea.
“I have no experience,” she says. “I have no clue what I’m doing! Before the crash, I was trying to become an actress. This is a far cry from that. Maybe we should consider bringing in someone who knows what they’re doing.”
“Impostor syndrome is, regrettably, very common among high-achieving women,” Reed informs her. “We decided to put you in charge, if you’ll recall, because we wanted the company to foreground philanthropy and social justice rather than the bottom line. We wanted our company to help people. I stand by that decision. Susan, if you can defeat Victor Von Doom, you can handle a few businesspeople. You are the most intelligent, resourceful, and courageous person I have ever known. I have all the faith in the world in you. And if you make mistakes in the beginning…Susan, I will understand. We’ll figure out how to handle it together. There is nothing we can’t do, so long as we’re together.”
That makes Sue feel unbelievably better. Sometimes, every once in a blue moon, Reed will know exactly what to say. “I wish I had talked to you about this sooner,” she sighs. “It’s been weighing on me. You have no idea how stressed out I’ve been.”
Reed frowns down at his carton full of sweet and sour chicken, which he’s been monopolizing all night, and stirs the food around with his chopsticks. “I could…help you with that too. Destressing, I mean.”
It finally sinks in, very, very belatedly, that Reed’s wearing a very nice, very flattering, very expensive suit. Dark brown, too, the color Sue likes him in best, and doesn’t he know it.
Did he dress up and bring her dinner in the hopes of seducing her? That, she must admit, is truly endearing.
“Reed Richards,” she says, setting down her carton of chow mein and fighting down a smile, “did you bring me takeout because you were hoping to get lucky?”
Reed’s eyes widen. “Susan, no! Of course not. I would never!”
“Oh,” Sue shrugs. She bites her lip. “Pity. It probably would have worked. You look, mmm, really good, and it’s been a while. A girl has needs.”
That makes Reed change his tune. “I never said I would be averse to ‘getting lucky.’ I just didn’t bring you takeout with that…hope.”
“Uh-huh,” Sue says. She does not believe that. She leans forward, smirking. “Dearest, I love you, but you are a truly terrible liar.”
Reed smiles sheepishly. “All right,” he confesses. “I…may have been hoping it would put you in a good mood. I achieved a truly remarkable breakthrough in my lab today, and I felt like celebrating, and…Susan, there is no one on Earth I would rather celebrate with.”
“So Ben was too busy to go out for a beer?” Sue teases.
“Sue!” Reed says, wounded. “I haven’t asked him. I wouldn’t ask him without asking you first.”
“I know, darling,” Sue says. “I was kidding.”
She doesn’t see the point in wasting anymore time. She wants Reed, and he wants her. So she lunges at him. Reed makes a helpless little ‘oof’ sound and ends up flat on his back on the floor, with Sue straddling him, hands thrust into his hair as she kisses him senseless. Sue shivers and sighs happily when Reed’s hands slide up the backs of her thighs.
This, she decides, is the best thing that’s happened to her all week.
She kisses and kisses him until he’s flushed and panting for breath, until she can feel his unmistakable erection against her leg.
Yes. This is what she loves best. Taking the most brilliant man on the planet and reducing him to an incoherent mess. There’s something incredibly hot about that.
She pulls back and says, “Okay, so where are they?”
Reed looks confused. “Who?”
She starts rooting through his pockets. They’re filled with mechanical parts, some tools, a wallet, but no— “Condoms? Darling, where did you put them?”
Reed’s eyes slip off to the side. “Ah,” he says shiftily. “Now, Susan, before I tell you this, I would just like to mention the fact that I have always loved you, since the moment I first laid eyes on you, you were in your aunt’s garden, pruning some roses, and I recall that I—“
“Oh, no,” Sue says. “Darling. You didn’t. You forgot the condoms.”
Reed looks sheepish again. “I told you I didn’t entirely plan on this. I wasn’t lying.”
Sue sighs. “Well, for future reference, the next time you decide not to seduce me, bring condoms.” She drops a kiss against his mouth. “But luckily for us, your bedroom is just upstairs. You do have condoms there, I hope?”
Reed nods. “Well, yes.”
Sue gets to her feet, even though her knees feel a tad wobbly, smooths her skirt down, and does her best to make herself as presentable as possible, just in case they run into someone.
Reed’s still on the floor, sitting up and staring at her with unmistakable lust and something like worship.
She smiles down at him fondly and extends a hand to help him to his feet. When he’s standing, she links her arm through his, and says, “Then what are we waiting for, my love? We have some celebrating to do.” She presses a kiss against his cheek. “And I, for one, don’t plan on letting this night end until I have thoroughly worn you out and made up for all of the time we’ve spent apart.”
“I would like that,” Reed says. “Very much. I’ve decided to bring you dinner more often.”
“As long as you remember to bring condoms too, dear.”
Chapter 9: Franklin, Val, and ReedSue -- Terrible Cooking (Gen)
Valeria and Franklin are in the middle of one of the most important stealth operations of their lives. Getting caught is not an option.
They successfully made it through the dimensional portal, completed their mission, and are on their way back to the safety of their beds.
With any luck, they won’t get found out, but that’s assuming that Franklin can stop playing secret agent long enough for them to make back to–
There’s a throat being cleared very pointedly behind them, and then the lights are flicked on.
Franklin and Valeria both freeze. Oh, no. Oh, no. They are dead. They are both dead.
Valeria already knows what she’s going to find when she turns around, and, sure enough, there they are.
Mom and Dad in their pajamas, both with identical disapproving expressions on their faces.
“Young lady, young man,” Reed says levelly, but Val knows her dad well enough to tell that he is not pleased. “I hope you have an exceptionally good explanation for being out of bed in the middle of the night. And for using the dimensional portal without permission. You know how dangerous it is.”
Mom is more direct. “Where the hell have you two been? Your father and I were worried!”
“We were, uh–” Franklin says, casting around for an appropriate lie.
“Checking out a new universe,” Valeria supplies.
Sue raises her eyebrow skeptically. “So what’s in the backpacks, kids?”
“Uh,” Valeria says, fingers tightening around the straps of hers. It’s heavy. She was counting on being back in her room by now. “Tools. I was using. To. Do. Things?”
Reed sniffs the air. “Darling,” he says, “do you smell…hamburgers and fries?”
Valeria and Franklin exchange terrified looks. Oh, they are so in for it – Mom and Dad know!
Reed stretches out a hand. “Hand it over, young lady.”
Valeria sighs but obeys. She knows better than to defy him when he uses that tone.
Sue and Reed peer inside her backpack, and they’re baffled at what they find. “Hamburgers, french fries, donuts? What in the world is going on?”
Reed looks up at his children, bemused. “I think you’d better explain.”
“Mommy, Daddy,” Valeria sighs. She’s trying her best to be diplomatic and spare their feelings, but she’s not sure how. “You know we all love you–”
“I sense a ‘but,’” Sue tells Reed. “That’s a bad place for a ‘but.’”
“You can’t cook!” Valeria blurts out.
“Nope,” Franklin agrees. “You both suck.”
Reed looks a tad put out. “I think I’m a fine cook,” he says. “My Hangtown Fries, which your Uncle Ben taught me to make–”
“Are great, Dad,” Franklin cuts in. “But it’s the only thing you know how to cook!”
“We’re sick of them, Dad,” Valeria agrees. “We’ve all been, uh, throwing them through the dimensional portals.”
She winces. She hopes her dad’s not too offended.
“But my sandwiches!” Sue protests. “Don’t you all love them?”
Franklin and Valeria suddenly grow very interested in the ceiling.
Sue presses a hand to her face. “You hate them, don’t you?”
“Too much mayo, Mom,” Franklin says apologetically. “Not enough…anything else. And I think something you gave us last week was, uh, past its due date. It made me throw up. You should…check due dates, Mom.”
“So you’ve been sneaking to alternate dimensions in the middle of the night for food?” Reed says. “Because we’re terrible cooks?”
Franklin and Valeria don’t want to, but they nod.
“Well, why didn’t you just tell us?” Sue says.
“We didn’t want to make you sad!” Valeria says. “We thought this was the easiest way.”
Reed kneels in front of his daughter and puts his hands on her small shoulders. “Sweetheart,” he says gently, “you never have to be afraid of that. If something’s upsetting you, we want to know. We were so worried when you weren’t in bed, honey.”
Valeria nods. “All right, Daddy. I promise.”
Reed wraps her up in a hug, and Valeria wraps her little arms around her neck and buries her nose in her father’s familiar scent – chemicals, maybe a tiny bit of smoke (something must have blown up in the lab) – and she feels safe and loved, the way she always does when her father holds her.
Perhaps it’s the show of affection or just that she’s feeling particularly vulnerable, but against her better judgment, Valeria says, “Dad?”
“I miss Uncle Ben and Uncle Johnny,” Valeria confesses.
She misses the chocolate chip cookies in funny shapes that her Uncle Johnny would bake for her when it was his turn to babysit, the sight of her Uncle Ben in one of his funny aprons and that chef’s hat, the smell of his cigars, the way he and Uncle Johnny would toss her up into the air when they were happy, their pancakes, their steaks, their waffles…she just misses them. And she’s a little bit hungry.
When Reed pulls back, he smiles at Valeria warmly and brushes her hair back behind her ear. “We’ll see them again, honey. Just as soon as we find our way back home.”
“That’s what you said a year ago.”
She doesn’t mean to be difficult, really she doesn’t, but she wants to go home. She’s had fun exploring new universes, but…she misses the rest of her family.
Reed sighs and scoops her up into his arms. “I know, honey,” he says, “and I’m sorry we haven’t been able to find our universe yet. We’ll get back home someday. I promise.”
Valeria accepts it. She supposes she doesn’t have much choice. It’s been difficult locating the universe they belong to – everything’s been shifted around, and they have no clue where it is, and the Molecule Man has been less than forthcoming. He just laughs and tells them they’ll find it when it’s the right time.
“Tell you what, sweetie,” Reed says, pressing a kiss against her cheek, “why don’t we ask your mom if we can all go to Earth-20051 for some middle-of-the-night ice cream?”
Franklin’s immediately excited. “Yay! Can we, Mom? Please? Please? Please?”
Sue blows out a sigh and smiles. “I suppose. Why not? Let me go change my clothes.”
“Yes,” Reed says, frowning down at his own pajamas. “I suppose I better had too.” He takes in Franklin and Valeria’s black outfits. “It might be a good idea if you kids did too.”
“Can we get pizza too?” Valeria asks. “The hamburgers are for Bentley and everyone else.”
“The powdered donuts are for Dragon Man,” Franklin says.
“Even he’s in on it?” Sue says. “I need to have a talk with him.”
”Darling,” Sue says as she and Reed walk down the hall, arm around each other’s waists, watching Franklin and Valeria race to their bedrooms, “I understand why the children didn’t tell me my sandwiches are terrible, but why didn’t you?”
“Uh,” Reed says, looking like his life is flashing before his eyes. “Well, Susan, my darling, you know I—“
Sue grins and presses a kiss against his cheek. “Just messing with you, my love.”
Chapter 10: BenReed -- Accidentally Married
Ben knows there’s going to be trouble the moment Reed smiles charmingly at him over the rim of his coffee mug, a twinkle in his eyes that‘s all too familiar, and asks him if he feels like exploring a new universe today.
Ben wants to melt and sigh over how unfairly pretty Reed looks in the mornings with his hair all mussed from sleep, a thin robe covering an obviously bare chest, but he doesn’t. He’s carefully cultivated a pretense of indifference over the years, after all.
So instead he blows out the weariest of sighs. “Didn’t we explore one last week?”
“This is a different one,” Reed says, put out by Ben’s lack of enthusiasm.
“Don’t suppose hangin’ out and watchin’ a nice wrestlin’ match would interest you instead?”
“Why, Ben,” Reed grins slyly, leaning forward across the kitchen table, “where’s your spirit of adventure?”
“Must’ve misplaced it,” Ben grumbles, right before he takes a pointedly resentful bite of his donut.
Ben already knows he’s going to go with Reed. There’s no way in hell Ben’d ever allow Reed to go somewhere that’s potentially dangerous without him, and they both know it too.
This – his reluctance – is all for show. If Ben doesn’t give old Big Brain a hard time about everything, who will? It’s his duty as Reed’s oldest and dearest friend to make sure he stays grounded and practical.
Their mission…goes the same as they always do. Ben shouldn’t even be surprised anymore when everything goes haywire.
This specific mission is an unmitigated disaster within ten seconds of their arrival in Reed’s shiny new universe – their ship explodes for reasons Reed is at a loss to explain but deeply upset about.
“I spent a month building that ship!” Reed complains to Ben over the communicator in his space suit. “Now I’ll have to start all over and it takes ages to get the materials–”
“Stretch,” Ben says as he floats aimlessly through the vastness of space, all too conscious of his limited air supply. “We got other problems. Focus on those, maybe.”
“Ben,” Reed chides. “I got us into this, I’ll get us out. You have my word.”
“Heard that before,” Ben mutters.
“Well, I heard that.”
“You were supposed to, Stretch. I coulda been watching wrestlin’ all day today, but, noooo, you just had ta go and explore a new universe–”
“Once I happened across it – purely accidentally, of course – I could not, in good conscience refrain from establishing first contact with its inhabitants–”
“You could so, Stretch! Hasn’t anyone ever taught you how to relax?”
“I find exploring new universes extremely enjoyable and relaxing.”
“This is not relaxing! I mean goin’ out on the town with a gorgeous date on yer arm, cuttin’ up a rug on the dance floor, maybe takin’ ‘em back to your place and havin’ some fun.”
“I find this much more relaxing than that would be. You know I don’t particularly enjoy cacophonous noises. They’re rather overwhelming. Space is quiet. I like it.”
Ben truly cannot bite down a sigh. Reed is hopeless.
Reed does not, in fact, get them out of their predicament. He’s too engrossed with rewiring his space suit in an attempt to breach the dimensional barrier and return them to their universe to even notice the spaceship.
Ben, however, manages to catch their attention, and they’re picked up not long after by a colorful group of people in garish outfits, who Ben strongly suspects are space pirates.
“I had nearly succeeded,” Reed says once they’re onboard. “A few more moments and I’d have gotten us out of this. I want you to know that, Ben.”
Ben claps a hand on his back, purposely throwing enough weight into it to make him stumble, and says, “Sure you woulda, Stretcho, sure you woulda.”
Ben has known Reed for far too long to buy that. Maybe whatever gizmo he’d been tinkering with would have gotten them out of this predicament, but it only would’ve landed them in a new one.
Of that Ben is certain.
Reed has the uncanniest knack for stumbling into trouble that Ben’s ever seen, and that’s why he needs old blue-eyed Benjamin around to watch his back.
They’re dropped off a few hours later on a seemingly pleasant planet that, it turns out, is under the rule of a merciless tyrant, and end up helping local freedom fighters liberate the entire planet before dinner time.
It’s a pretty typical day, Ben supposes, when you’re Reed Richards’ best friend.
When Reed approaches him at the huge, blowout celebration that night, Ben knows there’s trouble just by the hunch of Reed’s shoulders and the stiltedness of his gait.
Sometimes he wishes he didn’t know Reed so well. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
“No,” he says, eyes wide beneath the flower crown two giggling, tiny, green-skinned alien kids put on top of his head. “Stretch. What happened?”
Ben doesn’t know what he’s expecting. What – Annihilus is here? Doom? This universe is collapsing? Reed doesn’t know how to get them back to their universe? What?
“Now, Ben,” Reed hedges, hands on his hips, silhouetted against the raging crimson bonfire in the center of the square, a matching flower crown atop his head. “Don’t panic, but…I think – no, I suspect. No, that’s not right either–”
“Stretch!” Ben hollers. “Spit it out!”
“That we might accidentally have gotten married,” Reed says, words tumbling out in a rush.
Ben is dumbfounded. “What?” he says when he regains control of his voice. “What?”
Reed’s eyes are fixed awkwardly somewhere miles above Ben’s head. “The drink – the old man who gave it to us, uh, he’s. Well, he’s rather like – like a priest, you see, or a rabbi, that also is, uh, an accurate comparison, and the drink and the phrases we spoke – the ones that our universal translators couldn’t, uh, translate, the ones we thought were part of the victory celebration, well, it turns out, Ben, you see, that they were, in fact, the local wedding ceremony, and we are, uh, married now. Legally.”
Reed winces, expecting, perhaps, an uncontrollable burst of anger from Ben. What he gets is an entirely different sort of explosion.
Laughter erupts uncontrollably out of Ben, tinged with an edge of hysteria – oh, he’s dreamt so often about marrying Reed, about kissing Reed, about being with Reed in every sense of the word…but he never once thought that this would be how it happened. On an alien planet, when he didn’t even know what was happening.
Then again…when has anything involving Reed Richards ever been ordinary? Life with him is never boring, not for one second, and complain as loudly as he might, Ben loves it. Loves Reed, and the life Reed’s made possible for him.
Reed is watching Ben apprehensively. “This…isn’t how I thought you’d react to this.”
Ben takes a step towards Reed and takes him in arms that have been waiting to hold him for years. Reed peers down at Ben’s arms as though he cannot believe what is happening, and then back up at Ben, wide-eyed. “…Ben?”
“Stretch,” Ben smiles, “who do we think we’re foolin’? I’m nuts about you. Have been since the day I met you.”
“You are?” Reed says. “I have – me too, Ben, me too.” His face darkens. “I didn’t think – I thought after…the crash, after what I did to you, after I failed to protect you, that it would never happen.”
“I hated you for a while,” Ben admits. “But I also loved you. Still do, Stretch.” He presses his forehead against Reed’s. “And now we’re married, so you ain’t gettin’ rid of me. Not ever.”
Reed’s smile is tinged with relief and something akin to joy. “I can live with that.”
Ben kisses Reed then, and he knows, he knows that on the outside he’s still a rocky orange monster, knows he may never go back to being what he was, what he still is inside, but this moment, it feels right.
Chapter 11: BenReed -- College Football + First Kisses
The biggest football game in Ben’s college career is fast approaching. Ben’s team is up against Metro College for the championship, and they’re going to be damn difficult to beat with that William Wingfoot guy on the team.
While Ben’s done his best to maintain his trademark cool, laidback, overconfident demeanor, he is being eaten alive by an anxiety that only grows worse as the date approaches. What if his team loses and it’s all his fault? What if he fails everyone he cares about?
Worse yet, Reed’s been locked up in the school lab for the last week working on his final project, so Ben hasn’t seen him in ages, even though they’re roommates.
He swears he heard Reed stumble in at three in the morning two nights ago and collapse on his bed, but he was half-asleep and Reed was gone when he woke up, so he’s not sure he wasn’t dreaming.
The thing is…Reed has never, in the four years they’ve been roomies, missed a single one of Ben’s games. Not one. Is it possible that he’ll miss this one, the one that counts the most?
Ben hopes not. The sight of Reed in those stands is important to Ben. He needs to know there’s someone on his side, someone who’ll root for him always, even when he makes mistakes.
(Ben’s not sure Reed would even realize that Ben had made an error. Ben’s tried to teach him about football and Reed’s done his best to learn, but he’s just. He doesn’t understand it. Reed is a genius on many subjects, but sports are not one of them.)
When the day finally arrives, Ben’s so nervous he can’t seem to force his breakfast down his throat.
His hands shake noticeably as he ties his shoelaces together in the locker room. “Get it together, Grimm,” he mutters to himself, hoping no one else can hear.
Ben jogs out onto the field when it’s time for the game to start. He’s almost afraid to look at the stands, at Reed’s customary spot. What if Reed’s not there?
He takes a deep breath and glances upward. A tide of joy swells and surges in his chest – there he is! There he is!
Reed’s clapping and cheering loudly, wearing his old State U sweater, and hollering something at Ben that he can’t hear.
Ben grins, and he knows, in that moment, with utter certainty, that he is going to win.
And he does. It’s a resounding win for State U’s team – Ben leads them to a victory in the double digits, and perhaps he just imagines it, but Reed’s cheers are what propel him on to every one of his touchdowns, like some kind of lucky charm.
When his coach hands him the game ball, Ben knows exactly who he wants to give it to. It’s customary, at State U, for players to give it to their girlfriend for safekeeping.
There are groans from the team when Ben hands it to Reed, in front of everyone, a token of his love. The rest of the team – they don’t get it, why Ben cares so deeply about Reed. They think Reed’s a bore.
They don’t know Reed the way Ben does. They’ve never seen how beautifully his eyes shine as he glances up at the heavens and talks about voyaging to the stars, meeting strange new alien races, or propelling the human race into the future.
They’ve never seen Reed clutching at his sides and laughing himself to tears at Ben’s terrible imitation of that pompous ass, Victor Von Doom.
They’ve never taken the time to notice Reed’s generosity, his kindness, his compassion, which radiates out into everything he does and says.
They’ve never seen the way Reed looks at Ben when he thinks Ben’s not paying attention, never wondered if maybe…just maybe…Ben’s not the only one who feels this way.
But Ben’s okay with that. If there’s no one else who knows the secret recesses of Reed’s heart the way Ben does, Ben doesn’t mind. It means he can pretend to himself that Reed is his, just his, and that he never has to share him with anyone.
Reed seems pleased by Ben’s gift – proud, even – but Ben’s not sure Reed understands its significance. He fears that what he is trying to say by it went straight over Reed’s head.
Ben has tried to tell Reed how he feels about him so many times, so many different ways, but Reed has never seemed to understand him.
Sometimes it’s as though they speak two entirely different languages, and try as he might, Ben cannot bridge that gap.
It’s a rarity, but Reed takes the night off from work to celebrate with Ben. He accompanies Ben and the team on a night of carousing.
Ben and Reed don’t stumble back to their dorm room until past three in the morning – well, they would have made it a half hour sooner if Reed had been steadier on his feet.
Not that Ben entirely minds being able to put his arm around Reed’s slender waist to ensure he doesn’t tip over somewhere.
(They’re not entirely successful because Ben is only slightly less tipsy than Reed – his head is spinning pleasantly and he feels good – so they do fall flat on their asses no less than three times.)
When they finally make it back to their dorm room, Ben leans against the door, hands in his pockets, and watches as Reed begins peeling out of his clothes.
It takes a few moments – Reed’s removed his shirt by then – but Reed notices Ben’s gaze or perhaps Ben’s abrupt seriousness or maybe it’s the thinly veiled want in his eyes, and so he looks back at Ben unflinchingly.
Ben glances away first, but Reed’s footsteps grow closer and then he feels Reed’s soft fingers tilting his chin upward.
Ben’s not brave enough to look into Reed’s warm brown eyes, too afraid of what he’ll find there and of what Reed will see in his own.
Reed presses his forehead against Ben’s and Ben can feel the heat rush to his face – Reed is so close, so close, his breath hot against Ben’s skin, and Ben cannot bear to not be kissing Reed a moment longer. “Can I kiss you?” he says lowly. “Reed, can I kiss you? I’ve been dying to kiss you all night.”
“Well, I’ve been waiting all night for you to ask me that,” Reed whispers.
“You have?” Ben says, startled, eyes looking searchingly into Reed’s, but he sees no deception in their depths – they are dark with want and need and perhaps even…could that be…love? He reaches up and catches Reed’s wrist, feels the pulse and heat of Reed’s body within the ring of his fingers. “You have?”
“I thought – I hoped,” Reed confesses. “The game ball. That tall boy with the yellow hair. He told me that players usually give them to their girlfriends and I…thought maybe, just maybe, you felt about me the way I feel about you.”
Ben smiles. “And what way would that be, Stretch?”
Reed closes the distance between their lips, and Ben is certain, in that moment, that there must be a heaven, because he has found it, here, with Reed. It doesn’t matter at all that Reed’s an egghead and Ben’s a jock – Ben understands everything Reed is trying to tell him with almost painful clarity.
Chapter 12: BenReedSue + The Kids -- Christmas Misadventures (Gen)
Sue loves her husbands. She truly does. But there are times when she does not know what they are thinking.
What they got up to today is an excellent example.
Christmas is in a month. Hanukkah, god, is in a week. Sue has been bugging Reed and Ben to put up the appropriate holiday decorations, but Reed and Tony have been so busy designing a new interstellar spaceship that Reed hasn’t gotten around to it, and Ben, she knows, won’t do it unless Reed is there to prod him into it, not while there are so many channels on the television.
So when she walks out of the elevator after a busy day at the office, running Fantastic Four, Inc, and into the FF’s quarters and sees every inch of the place covered in Christmas lights, stockings, trees, and assorted Hanukkah-themed decorations, she is understandably perplexed.
This is…going a little overboard. No, this is ten miles past overboard.
She wanders, bewildered, through the hallways towards the Christmas music that is blaring from the living room, which is where she finds Reed decorating the largest Christmas tree she’s ever seen. He’s stretched up to the top, hanging Christmas ball ornaments from the uppermost branches of the tree.
He is also dressed like a reindeer. There is a brown onesie. Antlers. Even…oh, god. He’s wearing what looks like a red clown nose.
He’s not dressed like just any old reindeer, she realizes. He is Rudolph.
Oh, that does it.
“What are you wearing?! Take off that horrible nose!” she hollers at him. “Take off that whole outfit too while you’re at it!”
Reed is so startled that he drops two or three of the ornaments he had cradled in his arms. He looks down after them mournfully. “What a pity. I rather liked those.”
“Reed,” Sue says. “You heard what I said. Take. It. Off. And come down here so I can yell at you.”
“Take what off, darling?” Reed blinks from beneath a pair of the most absurd antlers Sue’s ever seen – there are seven tiny Christmas ornaments hanging from them.
“The costume!” she says, vigorously shaking a hand at that hideous thing. “Why? Why would you wear that?” She gestures at her beautiful apartment that looks like it’s a refugee from the North Pole. “And what the hell is with all of the decorations? Reed, how much did this all cost us?”
“Oh,” Reed says evasively. “Not…that much. Just. A few—“ He winces. “Thousand.”
“Thousand?!” Sue is about to explode, so she takes a deep breath and steadies herself. “Reed. Darling. Light of my life. What is going on?”
Reed slides that absurd red nose off and places it on top of his head.
That is not better.
“Well,” Reed says, glancing at the ceiling, examining the Christmas ornaments in his arms, everywhere but at Sue. “You see, darling. Tony and I—“
“Oh, no,” Sue says. She presses a hand to her forehead and she feels so tired. It’s always like this when Reed and Tony hang out. They are bad influences on each other. Sometimes they get so lost in what they can do that they don’t stop to wonder if they should. “What did you two do this time?”
“Nothing!” Reed smiles nervously. “It’s just…I may have…we may have made a bet about who had more holiday…spirit.”
Something clicks into place. “Is this why Tony and Steve did a press conference on the steps of Avengers Tower dressed as Mr. and Mrs. Claus?”
“They did?” Reed squints. “Who was Mrs. Claus?”
“Tony. But it was a male version of the costume. Mr. and Mr. Claus.” Something else hits her. “And those snowmen. All along the sidewalks. That looked like the Avengers. I suppose those were Tony’s doing too?”
Reed’s eyes light up. “Snowmen! I had forgotten about those.” He glances up. “How many do you think we can fit on the roof? I wonder if I could build an ice version of Santa’s Workshop.”
“Reed!” Sue bellows. “You have got to be kidding me with this!”
“Susan,” Reed says, suddenly very serious. “There’s quite a lot at stake, you know.”
“Oh, no,” she says. She puts her hands on her hips and continues in her best mom voice. “What exactly did you bet, Reed Richards?”
“Well,” Reed says. “You see, I had been working without sleep for nearly three days and was perhaps not thinking quite clearly, and I—“ His eyes fix on something over Sue’s shoulder, widen, and he begins to shake his head vigorously.
Sue whirls around…to discover her other errant husband, standing there with Franklin and Val in his arms. Ben is wearing a blue-and-white sweater that reads “Happy Hanukah” and there is a giant plush menorah hat on his head. Franklin is dressed like a tiny elf, while Val has chosen to be a reindeer like her father. Sue doesn’t let herself be swayed by how cute her babies look. “Ben!” she shouts. “For god’s sake, Ben, tell me you’re not helping him with this!”
Ben’s eyes flick to Reed. “Did you tell her what ya bet, baby?”
“I was getting there, honey,” Reed says wearily. “I just wanted to explain that I was perhaps a tad sleep-deprived at the time before I told her.”
“I figured you hadn’t cuz you ain’t dead yet,” Ben says.
“What. Did. You. Bet,” she grinds out.
Reed looks down at the ground and shifts his weight back and forth on his feet. Hooves. Whatever those are supposed to be.
He mumbles something indecipherable.
“Reed!” she shouts.
“The loser has to go on television and say that the winner is the greatest scientist on Earth and that their team is the best,” Reed says, more loudly this time.
“Mom!” Franklin says. “We can’t let them win! We’re the best!”
“We have to help Dad,” Valeria agrees. “Mom. Come on. You know we can’t let Dad go on television and say that in front of people. Especially since I’m the greatest scientist on Earth, so it wouldn’t even be true!”
Reed makes an exasperated noise. “Val, honey, I already agreed. If you help me win, I’ll make Tony say you’re the greatest.”
“See?” Val says. “We have to win, Mom! For science! And – and truth!”
“It’s about honor, Suzie,” Ben says. “‘sides, we are the greatest and you know that. They’re the mightiest. We’re the greatest.”
“Also, the loser has to give a million dollars to charity,” Reed adds.
Sue can tell when she’s beaten. She sighs. This is a terrible idea. It will lead nowhere good, and she knows it. “What do I have to do to help?”
“Well,” Reed says, once the furor dies down. “Let’s see. Jonathan is off preparing his and Peter’s costumes. He said something about sexy elves, but I was much too afraid to ask what he meant by that.”
Sue snorts. “Knowing him, they’re probably going to show up in green speedos and maybe some bows tied around their necks. Or other places.”
Reed makes a face. “I hope not.” He coughs. “But, uh, we do need a Mrs. Claus, dear, for the press conference.”
Reed nods. “In half an hour.”
“We’re singing Christmas carols,” Val says.
“We can’t sing,” Sue answers.
“Uncle Johnny’s a rock star,” Franklin points out.
“Uncle Johnny is the worst singer of all of us,” Sue says. “Besides, I don’t have a costume.”
Reed scratches his head. “Well. Benjamin and I took care of that. When we bought ours.”
“Oh, no,” Sue says, horrified. “You two chose my costume? It’s either going to be skimpy or another reindeer costume, and I’m not wearing either of those.”
“Well, there was a hot one o’ Mrs. Claus,” Ben admits. “But Reed said no.”
“We are trying to project Christmas spirit,” Reed says firmly. “I don’t see how skimpy outfits are Christmas-y. And I quite enjoy reindeer. Although the biology behind one’s nose glowing red eludes me.”
“Skimpy’s better’n what you got her.” Ben winces. “Suzie ain’t gonna like it, baby.”
“She’ll like it,” Reed says. “It’s quite accurate.”
Ten minutes later, as she looks at herself in the mirror, wearing a full-length Mrs. Claus dress and silver wig and even a pair of tiny spectacles, Sue finds that she has to agree with Ben.
This isn’t as ridiculous as Reed’s, but it’s still terrible.
“Why do I let myself get talked into these things,” she mutters as she smooths out the long lines of her red velvet dress. “Every year, it’s something with them.”
She strides out of her bedroom, trying not to think about the fact that she has to appear on television in twenty minutes in such an ugly costume.
Next to her husbands, one of whom is dressed like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, while the other has a giant, plush menorah on his head.
At least her children are adorable.
Johnny and Peter show up five minutes before the press conference begins.
They are both wearing green booty shorts, elf hats, and curly-toed elf boots.
And nothing else.
Sue rolls her eyes but knows better than to try to argue with her baby brother over clothes. Or, rather, the lack of them.
Johnny has no such reservations. “Sis,” he says, mouth twisted in disgust. “What the hell are you wearing? That is not hot, and I know hot.”
“Ew,” Sue says, scrunching up her nose. “And Reed picked it.”
Johnny snorts. “Figures.”
During the press conference they hold on the steps of the Baxter Building (Sue doesn’t understand why Peter isn’t a popsicle – it is snowing), while Reed is announcing the various charitable Christmas-themed events the Fantastic Four will be participating in and hosting, Avengers Tower, visible in the distance, lights up as the image of a Christmas tree is projected against it.
Reed does not look pleased.
More worryingly, neither does Val.
By the next morning, the block around the Baxter Building is covered in intricate Christmas-and-Hanukah-themed statues, all made of ice.
“I asked Alicia for help,” Ben grins, when Sue asks him if he was responsible. “Pretty, ain’t they? Let’s see the Avengers top that. That’s real art.”
Events continue to escalate, but when Steve and Tony announce they’re getting married on Christmas Day, Sue knows they’ve lost.
Val and the boys are furious. Well. Happy Steve and Tony are finally tying the knot, but furious that they’ve been one-upped.
They try to talk Johnny and Peter into also getting married on Christmas, but Johnny refuses. He doesn’t want a huge public wedding.
Sue has never been prouder of him.
So Ben, Reed, Franklin, and Val lie around dejectedly in the living room, trying to come up with ideas.
Val sits up straight. “I have an idea! I can beat them, Dad!”
“To the lab!” Reed says, excitedly scooping up his tiny daughter in his giant hand.
“No, Daddy,” Val says, shaking her head, from her perch on Reed’s shoulders. She points down the hallway like a little general. “To the pogo plane. We’re going to the North Pole.”
The four of them rush towards the hangar.
Sue doesn’t have the heart to ask what they’re up to.
She’s a little surprised when they bring Santa Claus back with them. The real one, she means.
And then they set up a Santa Claus meet-and-greet for all of the children in the city, particularly the orphans sponsored by Fantastic Four, Inc.
She and Reed are standing in the snow, watching the glee on the children’s faces with no small amount of pleasure, when Tony and Steve approach.
“The real Santa Claus, Reed?” Tony smiles. “That’s cheating.”
“Getting married on Christmas, Anthony?” Reed grins back. “You know I’ve already had two weddings. Can’t have a third.”
Tony laughs. “I guess that was a little unfair of me. So how’d you get Santa to do it? I tried, but he said no.”
Reed looks pleased with himself. “He owed me a favor. I saved him from Victor a few years back. They don’t get along. If Victor hates one person on Earth more than he hates me, it’d be Santa.” He lowers his voice and confides, “Santa always gives him coal for Christmas, and Victor resents it.”
“Santa Claus owed you a favor and you used it to win a bet?” Steve asks incredulously.
“That’s what I said,” Sue says.
“The children are happy,” Reed shrugs. “Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?”
“I suppose,” Steve allows. “Now which of us won?”
“Personally,” Sue grumbles, “I think we all lost because we all looked ridiculous on television.”
Tony squints. “You have no Christmas spirit,” he says disapprovingly.
“That’s what I keep telling her,” Reed agrees. “She doesn’t like my reindeer costume, you know.”
Sue looks up at the heavens and sighs. Reed still hasn’t let that go, and it has been nearly a month.
Tony puts his arm affectionately around Reed’s shoulders and says, “Well, buddy, I liked your reindeer costume. It was very…you. Now, instead of winners and losers, what if we both go on television and say nice things about each other?”
Reed smiles approvingly. “Now that sounds Christmas-y.”
They stride off towards the press, and Sue is blinded by the flashes of a million cameras going off.
Steve hangs behind with Sue. “So, Sue, are they going to do this to us every year, do you think?” he asks ruefully, as though he already knows the answer.
Sue sighs. “I’m afraid so.” She claps a hand on his back consolingly. “How about we go inside and I get you a glass of spiked eggnog? Ben made it, so you know it’s strong.”
Steve laughs brightly. “Deal.”
Chapter 13: GwenMJ -- Shakespeare + First Kisses
Gwen is at her wit’s end. Mary Jane is failing her chem class, and Gwen’s been trying her best to help her, but Mary Jane seems more interested in having fun than she is in passing her school-mandated science classes.
Gwen finally, finally, finally, manages to talk Mary Jane into coming over to her place for a tutoring session, but the second she gets there Mary Jane makes a beeline for the old portable radio Gwen’s dad keeps on the side table next to his favorite chair. Mary Jane hunts around for a song she likes, whoops when she finds one, and then she starts dancing energetically in the middle of the room like she’s rehearsing for some Broadway show, and doesn’t pay any attention to Gwen’s increasingly desperate attempts to get her to listen.
Gwen tries everything—threats, reminders of what’ll happen if Mary Jane fails this class, promises of sweets and trips to nightclubs if she’ll just complete a few of the equations—but Mary Jane will invariably toss her head back, laugh in a way Gwen wishes she didn’t find so charming, and call Gwen a square for refusing to dance with her.
At her wit’s end, Gwen says, “Finish your homework and I’ll—I’ll kiss you!”
That catches Mary Jane’s attention. She goes very still and looks at Gwen.
Gwen, horrified, is about to apologize. She doesn’t know why she said that!
“On the lips?” Mary Jane checks.
Gwen’s a little thrown off by Mary Jane’s interest. “Yes? If you—if you want.”
“No backing out?”
“I won’t if you won’t.”
Mary Jane yanks the homework packet Gwen’s been chasing her around the room with for the past twenty minutes out of Gwen’s hand, sits down at Gwen’s dinner table, and starts to work without another word.
Gwen, stunned at the breakneck change of pace, flicks off the radio and settles down across from her.
Well. If Gwen had known that getting Mary Jane to do what she wanted was as easy as offering to kiss her, she would have done it ages ago.
Truth be told, there has always been a small part of her that was dying to know what it was like to kiss someone as beautiful as Mary Jane.
No. Scratch that. She has always wanted to know what it was like to kiss Mary Jane. The woman is a wonder.
She watches her now. The slight pout to her lips, the cute little frown, the sweeping curtain of fiery red hair…good lord, she is a goddess.
Gwen’s living room seems, all of a sudden, too plain and barren to contain such beauty. The dullness of Mary Jane’s surroundings makes her loveliness shine forth all the clearer.
The sight of her makes Gwen’s heart sing, but then again it always has.
After fifteen minutes, Mary Jane hands the packet, complete and all filled out, back to Gwen. “Done!” She rises to the tips of her feet, leans across the table, and grins. “So where’s my kiss, tigress?”
She shuts her eyes and puckers her lips, waiting to be kissed.
Gwen frowns sternly and doesn’t allow herself to be dissuaded from her task by that mesmerizing sight. There is no way Mary Jane finished that so quickly. She has been struggling with this class for ages.
“It’s not finished until it’s all correct,” Gwen informs her primly.
She takes the packet, picks up a red pen, and sets about correcting it.
“Mmm,” Mary Jane hums appreciatively, still bent over the table as she watches Gwen go and waits for her kiss. “I never got the whole hot-for-teacher thing until now. It’s pretty hot when it’s you.”
Gwen is much too conscious of the heat rising to her face. “Settle down,” she says, all business. “You haven’t earned that kiss just yet, gorgeous.”
Mary Jane’s grin is skeptical. “If you say so, tigress.”
Gwen reaches the end of the packet, and there is not a mistake to be found. She glances up at Mary Jane, confused. “What? If you know how to do all of this, then why—?”
“Am I failing?” Mary Jane smiles. “I’m not stupid, you know. Chemistry is just…” Her mouth twists to one side as she casts about for the appropriate word. “Boring.”
“There’s more to life than just fun and dancing, Mary Jane,” Gwen says disapprovingly.
“There’s more to life than books and science, Gwen,” Mary Jane shoots back. “And I didn’t mean dancing, not exactly. I meant…” She sighs and settles back down in her chair, uncharacteristically serious for a moment, and Gwen has the fleeting suspicion that she is being granted a rare look into what goes on behind that shallow party girl facade of Mary Jane’s, into the depths Mary Jane tries so hard to hide. “I’m interested in understanding what goes on in people’s minds and in their hearts. That’s why I want to be an actress. Maybe…maybe I’ll come out the other end understanding people better, you know? Why they do the crazy things they do.”
“But that’s what science is all about! Well, not just people, but understanding—the whole world! Everything! Why everything is the way that it is!”
Mary Jane arches a skeptical eyebrow. “There are some things even science can’t get at, tigress, not like art can.”
“Like what?” Gwen challenges. “Name one thing.”
Mary Jane bites her lip as she thinks that over. “A kiss,” she settles on. She smiles. “How you feel after you kiss the girl you’ve been nuts about for months for the first time, for instance.”
“Well, that’s easy,” Gwen says, not about to be distracted by Mary Jane’s shameless flirting. “Our brains release a cocktail of serotonin, oxytocin, and—“
Mary Jane blows out an exasperated puff of breath. “Oh, brother. Gwen. Come on. That’s not what I mean. I’m talking about the way kissing the person you love makes you feel like—like you’re soaring through the air, even though you’re standing still. Science can’t explain that, baby.”
Gwen disagrees. “Well, it can, I just said—”
Mary Jane pushes herself up onto her knees, presses a hand to her heart, the way she always does when she’s about to recite something, and lifts a hand in the air melodramatically. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio,” she says, in her best and yet thoroughly terrible approximation of a British accent, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Gwen grins at Mary Jane’s clowning. “I’m afraid I never dug Hamlet much, beautiful.”
Mary Jane seems to take that as a challenge. “But, soft! What light from yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Gwen, fair Gwen, is the sun.”
She finishes with a small flourish, a short bow, and smiles at Gwen as though she is expecting applause.
Her smile vanishes when Gwen says, “Is taking liberties with Shakespeare the new thing now?”
“So I tailored it to the situation, so what?” Mary Jane says dismissively. “Did you like it? Did it do it for you?”
Gwen gets up on her knees too and leans toward Mary Jane across the dinner table. “I always had more of a crush on Juliet than I did on old Romeo. She was a lot cuter.”
“Well,” Mary Jane says, running her fingers lightly down Gwen’s cheek. “Let’s try this, then.” Then she says, false British accent nowhere to be found, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep. The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.”
There’s a softness in the depths of Mary Jane’s eyes, in the tone of her voice, that steals Gwen’s breath away. Mary Jane doesn’t sound like she’s clowning anymore.
She sounded as though she meant that with all her heart.
Gwen reaches up and covers Mary Jane’s fingers with her own, pressing Mary Jane’s hand to her cheek, and wishes she could keep it there always. “You sounded like you meant that.”
“That’s what art is for,” Mary Jane explains. “To reveal the truth of what’s inside you. The words weren’t mine, but the feelings were, and they were all true.”
Gwen swallows thickly. She feels as though she and Mary Jane both are teetering on the edge of something world-shattering and enormous.
“Mary Jane,” she whispers. “I think you should kiss me now.”
Mary Jane does, and Gwen? She feels as though she is soaring towards the heavens at a dizzying pace, even though she is standing very still.
The way she feels when her lips meet Mary Jane’s is a scientific phenomenon that she will have to study extensively, she decides, even if it takes her the rest of her life to understand it.
Chapter 14: BenReed -- Pranks
Reed knows it’s reckless. He is well aware of the attendant dangers.
He does not, he decides, particularly care at this precise moment. He has run through every possible outcome of his chosen course of action thirty-seven times, gone over every possible form of retaliation Victor could possibly opt to engage in.
He has decided that it is well worth it.
Victor has been insufferable lately. His televised rant at the U.N., which contained no less than fifteen insults that were targeted at Reed—some of which were transparent enough for the press and the public to grasp, others, more vicious, based on events and conversations to which no one but Reed and Victor would be privy.
Victor knew Reed would be watching. His words were intended to cut, to wound, to make Reed’s heart bleed.
Victor does not know that Reed feels nothing for Victor, for what he has become, save for a deep and abiding pity.
Victor could have been a great man. He could have brought so much good into the world, created so much joy. Instead, he has become a walking nightmare, clad in an impenetrable suit of armor, all that could have been good and noble expunged to make room for a colossal ego and a lust for absolute power.
Reed looks at Victor and sees only tragedy. He sees what could have been, and he sees what there is.
But Reed, he remembers. He remembers the haughty boy Victor once was, back when they shared the halls of State University, remembers what it was like to startle a laugh out of him, remembers, even, on one drunken night they both regretted immensely later on, what Victor’s lips and body felt like pressed against his own.
Reed remembers too what it was like to take Victor down a peg or two when he needed it. (Which was always.)
He suspects it’s time to do the same now.
So he finds the only other man who knew Victor way back when, the man who was, as that quaint colloquial term goes, Reed’s partner-in-crime. Ben is lifting hundred ton weights in the gym Reed so meticulously built for him, every circuit, every wire, every inch of it, a love letter from Reed to Ben.
Reed is worthless when it comes to expressing how he feels through words. He is not a poet, not a writer. He never has been. He is aware of his limitations, and he accepts them.
He is a scientist. His inventions, the things he concocts in his dreams, the things he builds with his own two hands, the things into which he pours his time, his imagination, his heart, his soul, that is how he shows the people he loves how he feels about them.
Reed takes a moment to watch in wonder as his husband does the impossible, mindlessly lifting weights that would crush a normal man, as easily as others would tie their shoes.
He never grows tired of watching him.
“Honey,” Reed calls out at Ben from the doorway, “did you see Victor’s speech at the U.N. this morning?
The weights stop. Ben frowns suspiciously at Reed. “Why’re you askin’ me, Stretch?”
“He was…rather rude,” Reed says. “Insulted us quite often.”
“He was pompous, even,” Ben agrees. “Big surprise.”
“I don’t think we should stand for such behavior, do you?”
Ben’s eyes sparkle. He’s starting to figure out where Reed’s heading with this. “You wanna teach ol’ Vic a lesson.”
Reed nods. “I do.”
“What exactly did you have in mind, Stretcho?”
Reed cannot stifle a grin. He knows Ben’s going to like this.
Ben laughs and laughs when Reed tells him what he’s got planned.
“Aw, Stretcho,” he says when he’s calmed down enough to get the words out. “This is, without a doubt, the stupidest plan you’ve ever had. Of course I’m in.” He claps a hand against Reed’s back. “I’m proud o’ ya too. I can see I’ve been a good influence, haven’t I?”
“Well,” Reed says, “I suppose if I hung out with you long enough, it was bound to happen.”
“Yeah,” Ben says. “Now if I could just get ya to watch wrestlin’ with me, you’d be perfect.”
“I do!” Reed protests. “I do watch wrestling with you.”
“And like it, I mean,” Ben corrects. “Instead o’ yawnin’ every ten seconds.”
“Well,” Reed shrugs. “We can’t expect miracles, my darling.”
They infiltrate the Latverian Embassy in the dead of night, just Ben and Reed.
They shrink down to the Microverse, until they are tiny enough that Doom’s sensors cannot detect them.
They’re in and out in twenty minutes, the mission a resounding success.
Perhaps Reed is just imagining it, but he likes to think that he could hear Doom bellowing, “RICHAAAAAARDS!” all the way across town.
Reed is certain that is how Victor would have reacted to awakening in a bedroom that was bedecked with Fantastic Four bedsheets, quilts, and other assorted memorabilia, and dressed, of course, in Fantastic Four pajamas.
Reed does hope Victor enjoyed the action figures Ben left on Victor’s nightstand, one of Reed and one of Ben, both of them flipping him off.
Chapter 15: Ultimate BenReed -- Fond Farewells, Love Confessions
The day he hears Reed is going off to some fancy-pants school over in Manhattan, Ben is devastated.
Ben’s always known this day would come. He’s always known that Reed would never be his to keep…not that Reed has ever truly been his.
Someone as brilliant as Reed, oh, Ben was never going to be enough to keep him here, in the middle of nowhere, his genius festering from lack of use.
Ben watches Reed as he packs his experiments, listens as he prattles on enthusiastically about the school he’ll be attending, what Mr. Lumpkin said about how brilliant Reed is, confirmation of everything Reed’s ever known to be true—he is glowing with excitement.
Ben cannot even detect a glimmer of sadness in Reed’s demeanor at the thought of leaving Ben.
“Yeah,” Ben snaps. “I’m sure the school’ll be swell. At least I won’t have to put up with being blown up every ten seconds now.”
He’s being unfair and cruel and he knows it. He should be happy for his friend, who is getting everything he’s ever wanted.
He just wishes that Reed’s dreams for the future included him.
Reed freezes, the frammistat he was about to pack away hovering in the air. He’s finally caught on to how upset Ben is. “Ben? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing!” Ben says more vehemently than he’d intended.
“It doesn’t sound like nothing,” Reed says, eyes wide.
“I’m fine, Reed,” Ben says through gritted teeth. “Leave it.”
“Ben,” Reed says softly, “you can tell me. You can tell me anything.”
Ben doesn’t mean to, he wasn’t planning on ever telling Reed, but it just explodes out of him. “You’re my best friend and you’re leaving and I’m never going to see you again!”
Reed’s frammistat thuds loudly against the counter. “What? Ben. We’ll talk all the time!”
Ben snorts. “Yeah, I’m sure that when you’re surrounded by other big brains like you, all you’ll be able to think about is your stupid old best friend who never knew what the hell you were talking about.”
“Ben!” Reed says, cut to the quick. “That never—I never cared about that, Ben. It never mattered. I don’t care about how smart you are. Or aren’t. You’re still the best person I know. You always will be. ”
Under normal circumstances, Ben would be touched by Reed’s words. Not today. “Yeah,” he scoffs. “I’m sure that you and your new supergenius pals will all think that. Bet your new best friend’ll be tall and smart and rich and handsome, and you’ll forget all about me.”
But Ben won’t ever forget Reed. Reed is the best thing that ever happened to him. The one and only thing in his miserable life that brings him joy.
Reed reaches out and wraps his wiry fingers around Ben’s wrist. They are hardly long enough to circle all the way around Ben’s thick wrist. “I won’t. Ben. I could never forget you. I would never want to.”
Reed’s eyes are soft, something in their depths that Ben has seen there many times before. It makes him feel something he has never quite been able to name. Never dared to.
“I think I’m in love with you and I’m terrified,” Ben says. “I’m terrified that I wasted all the time we had together. Terrified that it’s all we’ll ever have–”
Ben never gets to finish because Reed gets up on the tips of his toes, fists his hands in Ben’s shirt, and kisses Ben hard enough to make him see stars.
“I’m not going to forget you because I love you too,” Reed says fiercely. “Now do you believe me?”
It takes a few moments for Ben to gather his wits enough to formulate a coherent thought. “Yeah,” he says. “Yes.”
And strangely enough, he does believe Reed this time.
Maybe everything’s going to be okay after all.
Chapter 16: GwenMJ -- Dancing + First Kisses
The night air is bitterly cold as Mary Jane waits alone outside of the nightclub at which she and Peter and Gwen all agreed to meet.
Peter and Gwen are currently half an hour late. And counting.
And, oh, man, is Mary Jane counting.
Mary Jane decides that she will wait ten minutes more. If they’re not here, she’ll go in and she’ll just—she’ll have a party all by herself. There are doubtlessly plenty of hot men and women with whom Mary Jane can entertain herself for an evening. They wouldn’t keep someone with her looks and her personality waiting.
As a matter of fact, she has no idea why she’s even waited this long. She should just go inside, order a drink, and dance until she drops.
That’s what she’s going to do. No one keeps Mary Jane Watson waiting out in the cold, not Peter Parker, and certainly not—
Mary Jane’s anger vanishes as she remembers the sweetness with which Gwen smiled at her when she asked her if she wanted to join her and Peter tonight.
There are times—oh, there are times, when Mary Jane could swear that what Gwen feels for her is something other than friendship. Times when Gwen will lean in just a little too close, when every touch feels like a caress, when every look seems to be saying, “I love you.”
And yet Gwen stays with Peter.
Mary Jane doesn’t understand why.
Gwen shows up, inexplicably alone, five minutes later.
Mary Jane puts her hands on her hips, about to say something cutting about how little she likes being kept waiting, but the words die on her lips when she sees the distraught look on Gwen’s face.
“Hey, tigress,” Mary Jane asks, concerned, “are you okay? Where’s Petey?”
“We broke up,” Gwen says tensely, body hunched and small and tight as a bow, eyes fixed on the filth of the sidewalk. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Now that Gwen’s gotten a bit closer, Mary Jane can tell she’s been crying. There’s a redness, a puffiness to her eyes that even her expertly applied makeup cannot hide.
“Oh, Gwen,” Mary Jane says pityingly. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.” She tugs Gwen into a hug, and Gwen doesn’t fight her. She clings to Mary Jane with a desperation that breaks Mary Jane’s heart. “If you’re not feeling up to this, we can do it another night.”
“No!” Gwen says, too loudly, jerking out of Mary Jane’s arms. “I mean. I just want—I need—to have fun. I don’t want to have to think about him anymore.”
“So it’s really over between you two?” Mary Jane asks.
She cannot find it within herself to feel upset about that.
“Yes,” Gwen says in no uncertain terms. “It’s over. I never want—I’m never going out with him again. We’re done. I’m done with him.”
Mary Jane wonders what Peter could have done this time that left Gwen so livid.
“Lady,” Mary Jane says, “you sound like you need a drink.”
Gwen’s tenseness and despair don’t ease away all at once. It takes two drinks before Mary Jane’s best gags can coax a smile out of her and another two before she can convince her to dance.
And then…out on the dance floor, the music pounding in their ears, Mary Jane’s hands on Gwen’s hips, their bodies swaying together to the music, their faces so close Mary Jane could just…if she were brave enough, she could—
Gwen kisses her. It’s a simple, fleeting brush of lips, but it changes the shape of Mary Jane’s whole world.
Mary Jane gapes at Gwen.
Gwen shouts something at Mary Jane over the music, but Mary Jane can’t hear her.
She tries a few times, before finally giving up, grabbing Mary Jane’s hand, and leading her outside.
The silence outside is unsettling and disconcerting after the overwhelming noise that permeated the club, the cool night air a welcome contrast to the sweltering heat of hundreds of sweating bodies crammed into an insufficient amount of space.
“What?” Mary Jane says. “Gwen—you—why?”
The words tumble out of Gwen then, as though she has been waiting to say them all night. Perhaps longer. “I broke up with Peter because of you,” she confesses. “How I felt about you. I couldn’t stop thinking about you, Mary Jane. Every time I kissed Peter, I kept wishing I was kissing you instead, every time he held me, I wished it was your arms around me instead of his. Even if…you don’t love me, I don’t love him anymore, and there was no point in staying with him. And I think—I hope.” She bites her lip. “Mary Jane, I’ve seen the way you look at me when you think I don’t notice. Please say you feel the same way about me.”
Mary Jane doesn’t know what to say. What she feels for Gwen, it’s—it’s immense. All-consuming. Terrifying.
She doesn’t know if she’s ready for this. Ready for Gwen.
All of the boys and girls she dates so casually, dumps so easily, none of them ever made her feel like this. None of them were Gwen, the woman she’s been inexplicably drawn to since the moment she first saw her, sitting in the Coffee Bean, seemingly so perfect, so beautiful, so intimidatingly cool and aloof and yet, Mary Jane soon discovered, simmering with fire and passion.
She knows that Gwen is The One. Her proverbial true love.
Every instinct, cultivated over years of avoiding commitment, clinging desperately to her freedom the way a drowning woman clutches at a life preserver, is telling her to run away as far and as fast as she can.
This is everything she has always been terrified of. Love, and the misery it can—it will—inexorably bring with it.
Mary Jane is tired of running.
“Yes,” she hears herself say. “Gwen, yes.”
Gwen leans in for a kiss, and this time, Mary Jane is ready and waiting for her.
Chapter 17: JohnnyBobby -- Hanging Out + First Kisses
Johnny is so over Reed, Sue, and Ben always treating him like a kid.
He’s not a kid anymore! He is sixteen and he’s all grown up, and he doesn’t know why they can’t see that.
His new buddy, the ice dude from the X-Men, seems to get it, though. It sounds like the X-Men treat him the same way. Why are adults all like that?
He and Bobby teamed up and gave these two losers a total beatdown not more than fifteen minutes ago and they were all over the news, so Johnny’s sure that Reed, Ben, and Sue saw him being awesome without them, and he hopes they’re all totally jealous of him and his cool new partner.
(Heh. Literally cool. Cool as ice, baby.)
Who needs those losers, anyway? They’re all so old and boring and—and Johnny swears his sister is getting gray hair, even though the last time he tried to tell her that she just gave him this look that reminded him of what he used to feel like on the days he’d run out of the house without a jacket in the middle of winter and then she said that she wanted him to know that every grey hair she ever gets is all because of him.
Totally not fair.
Johnny tries to be a good brother! He really does! But Sue can be unreasonable sometimes. No one cleans their room every month, Sue. And doing laundry? Johnny lights on fire. He just burns all of the dirt and stuff right out of his clothes. He doesn’t have to do laundry!
At least Bobby doesn’t care about that stuff. He’s a cool dude.
That’s why, after spending a couple of minutes posing for their adoring public, Johnny invited Bobby to come back to the empty loft Reed lets him use when he gets fed up with being around old people, and that’s where they are now.
There’s an old beat-up sofa and an equally beat-up armchair, a television Johnny managed to smuggle out of the Baxter Building, and that’s it. A little island of furniture in the middle of a giant empty room.
Bobby’s sitting on the other end of the couch, smiling at Johnny, and Johnny, well, this is the first time he’s ever seen Bobby not all iced up, and he’s a little surprised that Bobby’s so cute under all that ice.
Johnny wonders if his hair got mussed at all during the fight. Does it need fixing? Does it look stupid?
He regrets too that he didn’t work out as many times as he told himself he was going to this week, and he probably shouldn’t have eaten Ben’s giant tub of Cheetos, even if the look on Ben’s face when he realized they were all gone was priceless.
Johnny leans back against the couch and tries his best to look cool.
He tells Bobby all about the police scanner he got on Canal Street a few weeks ago. (Sue told him to give it back, but he didn’t listen.)
And then they start monitor duty. A bad guy’s bound to do something nasty, right?
They’ve been sitting around for half an hour, and nada.
And there is nothing good on the television either. Johnny should’ve made Reed wire that intergalactic cable service into this television too.
Johnny is bored. So bored. More bored than when he’s listening to his sister lecture him for the seven-hundredth time on why he shouldn’t set Ben’s things on fire inside the house.
“This sucks, man,” he tells Bobby. “There’s gotta be something we can do to pass the time.”
“Yeah,” Bobby says. He shifts a little in his seat. His face is weirdly more flushed than normal. “Too bad there’re no girls around. I totally feel like making out.”
“Huh,” Johnny says.
He goes back to watching the television for a while.
It’s a rerun of Jeopardy that he’s already seen twice.
No, this is too boring. He can’t do it.
“You could make out with me,” Johnny offers. “I don’t mind.”
Bobby’s face is even redder than it was before. “Yeah? You sure?”
“Yeah,” Johnny smiles bravely. “Get over here.”
Bobby scoots over, sideways along the couch, until his hip bumps against Johnny’s.
“You’re really sure about this?” Bobby double-checks. “You don’t think boys kissing each other is weird?”
“Nah,” Johnny says. “I’ve kissed boys before.”
He hasn’t, actually, but he’s thought about it, and he thinks he’d be into it.
Bobby leans in to try to kiss him, but he gets distracted because he doesn’t know where to put his hands. It’s kind of cute, really.
Johnny decides that it would help move things along if he just got this over with and kissed Bobby. So he does.
Bobby’s mouth tastes like coffee, but his lips are full and round and—
Oh. Oh. Kissing boys is—oh.
Johnny’s heart feels like it’s beating faster than normal. He can practically hear it, thudding away in his ears. That’s weird, right?
Johnny doesn’t remember ever getting this worked up when girls kissed him. He likes kissing girls—they’re pretty and fun—but this feels so much more intense than that ever felt. This is what he thought kissing would feel like before he kissed a girl for the first time.
He remembers how disappointed he’d felt afterward. The kiss had been…so anticlimactic. It was nice, but it didn’t make him feel the way people in the movies always seemed to feel after kisses.
Johnny decided they must’ve been exaggerating.
Now he knows they weren’t.
They’ve been making out for…Johnny doesn’t know how long because who keeps track of time when they’ve got a totally cute boy to kiss, when the door slams open.
Johnny and Bobby spring apart as far as possible. Johnny hopes no one saw that.
Reed, Sue, and Ben are all standing in the doorway, their jaws somewhere around the floor (Johnny wishes that weren’t so literal in Reed’s case). Johnny’d think the looks on their faces were pretty hilarious if he wasn’t the reason why.
“What did you see?” Bobby says nervously, at exactly the same moment that Johnny shouts, “It’s not what it looks like!”
“Uh-huh,” Ben says, a grin spreading across his craggy face that Johnny does not like at all. “So you weren’t makin’ out with a strange kid we never met before?”
“Who is he?” Sue hollers, hands on her hips. “Where did you meet him?”
“How do you know he’s not planning on robbing you, or a Doombot, or—or smearing this all over the tabloids?” Reed asks, glaring daggers at Bobby. “You should be more careful, Jonathan.”
“He’s not a random boy!” Johnny protests. Oh, man, he is in trouble. This is worse than the time they caught him dancing in his underwear while they were supposed to be at a charity event. It’s not his fault Doom attacked and they all had to come home early! “Or a robber! He’s Ice Man! He won’t tell anybody we were kissing or where my totally cool secret hideout is! Will you, Bobby?”
“Oh,” Bobby says, flustered. “Um. No, of course I won’t, bro.” He looks back at Reed, Sue, and Ben. “Please don’t kill me.”
“They won’t kill you,” Johnny scoffs. “And anyway, we were just kissing because there’s nothing on the television. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Oh, boy,” Ben grumbles. “He’s one a those.”
“Benjamin,” Reed chides, “let him figure things out at his own pace.”
“He can hear you two,” Sue hisses. She turns to Johnny. “Of course you were, honey. I’m just glad you were kissing a boy we all know.”
“But you’re famous now, Jonathan, and you need to be more careful about taking people you don’t know to isolated locations. We wouldn’t want you to get kidnapped. Again,” Reed adds.
They’re treating him like a kid again. Johnny scowls. “I was only kidnapped twice last month.” Which is better than the month before that, when he was kidnapped four times. That month sucked. Johnny doesn’t know what was worse, being kidnapped or all of the lectures he got from Reed and Sue. “Why are you guys here, anyway? This is where I come when I don’t want to be around you. I need my space, guys.”
Reed gives a long-suffering sigh and holds up a plastic bag. “We just came to bring you lunch, Johnny. Your sister was worried because you didn’t eat before you left. We didn’t realize you’d be…occupied.”
“Thanks for the food,” Johnny says, arms folded stubbornly across his chest. “But Bobby and me are okay. We don’t need you to baby us.”
“Oh, of course you don’t, baby bro,” Sue says.
Johnny’s pretty sure she was being sarcastic. “Leave the food when you go,” he says.
When they’re all out of the room and he and Bobby are alone again at last, Bobby turns to Johnny.
“So do I have to worry about your brother-in-law, like, hating me now or is he gonna be cool?” Bobby says.
“Reed’s never cool,” Johnny says. “Besides, it’s my sister you gotta worry about.”
“Oh, great!” Bobby complains. “That’s just great. You know, I don’t think they believed us when we said we were just making out cuz we were bored.”
“Who cares what they think?” Johnny shrugs. “Let’s eat. And then…” He looks at Bobby out of the corner of his eye. “Maybe we could kiss some more?”
Bobby blinks, surprised, but then he grins. “Yeah. I mean. Yeah. If you want to.”
Chapter 18: BenReed + Multiversal Love
Three months have passed since that terrible day…the day Reed’s family placed their trust in him, the day he failed them, the three people he loves most in all the world, more thoroughly than he has ever failed anyone in his life.
Reed recalls the unfettered joy of their trip to the stars, the exhilaration he felt as the four of them left the confines of Earth behind them, together…and he remembers too the painful aftermath—their hopes dashed, their lives ruined, all ruined, when a cosmic storm sent them all plummeting to earth. He remembers the horror, the pain, the terror of the crash—none of them knew what would happen to them.
They all knew their lives would never be the same again, and it was difficult to see, in that moment, how they would ever so much as be all right again. Would Sue someday become invisible permanently? Would Johnny flame on someday and never be able to flame off again? Would Ben ever escape his rocky form? Would Reed lose all control of his body’s shape? What sort of joy could the carve out for themselves when they were all monsters now, their bodies visibly far from human? Would the world ever see them as anything other than freaks and monsters?
Reed could see it all, in that moment. The terrors that could befall them all. He knew the danger they were all in. He swore to himself, as they all put their hands in a circle and swore to use their powers to help mankind, that he would do whatever was necessary to keep his family safe, no matter the cost.
The rocket crash shook everything Reed once held true down deep, down to their very foundations. All his life long, he put his faith in numbers, mathematics, science. They could not fail him. So long as he had done the calculations, he was in control—he could anticipate the likelihood of any and every outcome.
He failed to predict the cosmic storm. He had not even an inkling that it was approaching.
Perhaps the fault lay with him. Some error in his calculations, somewhere along the way—or so he told himself at first. So he redid them, over and over again, in the days that followed his return to Earth, with an intensity that bordered on obsession. He did not sleep. He did not eat. He worked himself ragged. He needed to understand how he had failed to see the obvious.
In the end, he was left with one inescapable conclusion — according to all existing scientific and mathematical knowledge, his equations were correct. And yet…they had not predicted the unpredictable: the cosmic storm.
He could not deny it. The math was flawed. Science had failed him. And he, in turn, because of his unreasonable faith in them both, had failed the three people he loved most in all the world. Three people who mattered so much more than all the equations in the world. He should have known the cosmic storm was approaching. He should have anticipated it, planned for it, kept his family safe.
He did not. And it was all, every terrible thing that had happened to them afterward, his fault.
He knows…he knows he will spend his life striving to atone for that failure, but he is wholly aware of the fact that there is nothing, nothing in the universe, that he will ever be able to do that will make up for all he stole away from his family. The lives they will never be able to have. The joys they will never know.
There are days when he can hardly bear to look at them, when the weight of his guilt is so heavy he can hardly draw a breath. He does not know that he can ever recover from this.
He is less sure that he deserves to.
All his fault. All his fault. All his fault.
He stumbles across Ben, standing in his bedroom, staring at himself in a full-length mirror. It is the seventeenth he has purchased since the crash.
For all that Ben’s body has changed because of the cosmic rays—his eyes. His eyes are the same. And they are eyes into which Reed has been gazing for the better part of a decade. They are eyes Reed knows better than he knows his own.
They have been together in every sense of the word for years. Since college.
Ben refuses to let Reed touch him, insisted on separate rooms. It is the first time Reed has not slept with Ben beside him since Ben left the Air Force. He has avoided sleeping in his bed since then, preferring to sleep in his lab. At least there, he does not reach out for Ben in the night and awaken to discover that he is alone, and then remember why.
Reed was initially fearful that Ben’s distance was because Ben blamed him for the crash—and he knows too that there may be some truth to that—but he now suspects that it may have more to do with Ben’s disgust at his own body.
He can see the pain, the sadness, the revulsion in the depths of Ben’s eyes as he gazes at himself in the mirror.
Reed cannot—for all the desperation with which he has tried—fix Ben’s body, but perhaps he can help him understand that Reed’s love for Ben has not wavered, and it never will.
He raps gently at the doorframe of Ben’s open door. “Can I come in, Ben?”
Ben glowers over at him. Reed steels himself and does not flinch. He does not fear Ben. He never has. A newly rocky exterior cannot change that.
Ben walks over to his bed, sits on its edge, and drapes a thick blanket over himself, as though to hide his shame from Reed’s prying eyes. Is he afraid that Reed will reject him because of his appearance? “Whaddya think we got to say to each other, Stretch?”
Reed walks over and stands in front of him, arms crossed. “Plenty. We haven’t talked about us at all since…since everything.”
“What is there ta say?” Ben says gruffly. “I’m a monster now. You don’t gotta tell me you don’t wanna be with me anymore, Stretch.”
Reed stiffens. “I wouldn’t say that to you. I will never say that to you.”
Ben looks up at Reed, eyes hard. “You deserve better than me, Reed. Go find someone else. Someone who can…hold you and kiss you and be with you without hurting you.” He lets his eyes fall. “I can’t anymore.”
“I am, as you are so fond of reminding me, rather like rubber nowadays. It would be exceedingly difficult for you to hurt me, even if you did forget your own strength. I would simply…snap back to my original shape.”
Reed holds out a hand and waits for Ben to take it. Ben does not. “You can’t hurt me, Ben,” he repeats.
“What’s the point?” Ben asks. “I can’t feel your hand anymore, Stretch. I’m never gonna—“ He takes a deep, shuddery breath to steady himself. “I’m never gonna get to be with you again, Reed. Who’re we kiddin’? You and me are over. No one could love a monster. Not even you.”
“I don’t love a monster,” Reed says fiercely. “I love you, Ben. I loved you the moment I saw you, and I will keep loving you, always. No matter what you look like.” He falls to his knees and tries to take Ben’s hands in his own, but Ben flinches away. Reed continues, no less earnestly – he desperately needs to make Ben understand the depth of his love for him. That it isn’t going away. “Ben. When I look at you, I just see you. The man I love. The man I’ll always love.”
“Aw, Stretch. You don’t gotta say this. It’s okay. I won’t blame you for breaking up with me. I won’t be mad. Promise.”
“I am not—“ Reed stops himself. “This isn’t working.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying ta—“
“No!” Reed says. “Not you and me. I mean…I mean I’m not getting through to you.” He gets up and holds out a hand. “Come with me, Ben. I need to show you something.”
Ben rises to his feet, clutching his blankets closer, but doesn’t take Reed’s hand. “Lead the way, Stretch, but this better be good.”
“There’s this machine,” Reed explains as he fiddles with the controls in his lab. “That I’ve been working on since the…the rocket. I had to know. Had to know. What our lives would have been if we had never boarded it. What I took from—from all of you. So I built this. It allows one to peer into parallel universes. I searched across the multiverse, Ben, and do you know what I found?”
“I’m an ugly orange monster in all of them?” Ben says.
Reed twists his hands, and all of a sudden, he and Ben are surrounded by images of themselves in countless universes, floating around them in a circle.
“Whoa,” Ben says, looking around, wide-eyed. “That’s a lot of universes.”
Ben doesn’t understand. Cannot see yet. So Reed explains. “It doesn’t matter how many universes there are. There will always be a version of me standing by your side. Loving you. Wanting you.”
Ben stands there and examines the images that surround them in stunned silence until he realizes that Reed is right. Old and young, metahuman and human, farmers, knights, pirates…in every universe, he and Reed are together, and they are deeply in love.
“I cannot be happy without you by my side, Ben,” Reed says softly, but with the utmost sincerity. “No matter what universe, what version of me you would care to name. We belong together. We are meant to be together. So you see, I will never leave you, my love. Never. The universe created us for each other.”
Ben says nothing in response, but he reaches down and takes Reed’s hand in his own.
Reed does not glance at his face – allows him that small privacy – but he is certain that if he did, those blue eyes would be filled with tears. Of joy, he hopes.
Reed cannot ever set right all that he has destroyed, but perhaps…he hopes…he and Ben can find something approaching happiness together.
Chapter 19: Ben + Reed + Johnny -- Shenanigans
“We are dead,” Johnny says as he stares down ruefully at the vase Reed knows is Sue’s favorite. Was her favorite. It’s the one her mother gave her. Right before the car accident that she died in. When Sue told Reed the story, she cried. And now the vase is lying, shattered, on the floor. “We are so dead.”
“Whaddya mean ‘we,’ squirt?” Ben scoffs. “You were the one who decided ta put a lizard down my shorts. This is your fault.”
“I put the lizard down your shorts because you put a snake in my bed!” Johnny retorts. “A whole live snake! The poisonous kind!”
“It wasn’t poisonous, I checked,” Ben says dismissively.
“Oh, you checked, did you?” Johnny challenges. “How? We all know you can’t read!”
“I can so read—I went ta college and graduated and everything, unlike some people in this room,” Ben snaps.
Johnny stiffens and his face flushes with anger. Everyone knows Johnny’s lack of a college degree is a sore subject.
“Besides, I asked Stretch!” Ben continues, jerking a thumb at Reed, whose head has been cradled in his hands ever since Ben knocked over that vase. “He said it was fine. He even helped me get it from the zoo!”
“You what?!” Johnny says. He turns to Reed, wounded. “You helped him with his prank, but not me? I thought I was your favorite!”
Reed’s mouth works as he casts about for an appropriate answer. “You didn’t ask,” he settles on. “Besides, Benjamin made it seem as though you had rather been picking on him lately, and that his retaliation was wholly justified.”
“I have not been!” Johnny counters. “He lied to you, Reed!”
Reed merely raises his eyebrow as skeptically as possible, but it’s enough for Johnny to flush, look guilty, and mutter something beneath his breath.
“Besides,” continues Reed, “I’m afraid you are correct, son. Sue won’t care who started this. She’ll only care that we all participated.” Ben and Johnny groan. They know he’s right. “We are dead.” Reed raises a single finger. “But I have a plan.”
Ben and Johnny do not, as Reed had anticipated, react with joy. Instead, their eyes narrow, and a profoundly skeptical expression settles on their faces.
“It doesn’t involve time travel, does it?” Johnny says. “Because I’ve sat through enough of your lectures to know that’s never a good idea.”
“Well,” says Reed, a trifle thrown. “It involves some time travel, I suppose—“
“Stretch,” Ben interrupts. “This ain’t gonna end with me havin’ ta punch a dinosaur again, is it? I’ve punched enough dinosaurs this week. I’m all dinosaur-punched out.”
“No dinosaurs,” Reed sighs. He remembers fondly the early days of this fantastic endeavor when they all did what he said the moment he—no, scratch that. He seems to remember being questioned at every turn even then, and special elections being held to replace him—no, no, this is surely better. “I don’t see why any dinosaurs should get involved. I am merely proposing that we create a kind of temporal bubble around the vase so that it revert to its…not broken state. And then trap it in a time loop. It should theoretically work quite well.”
Johnny squints. “And what happens when someone—like, say, my sister—tries to touch it?”
“Ah,” Reed says pensively. “Yes. I can see how that would be a problem. I expect they would also become trapped in the time loop. But—” He claps his hands and grins as he does whenever there is a problem that needs solving. “—we’ll find a way around it!”
“Groundhog Day,” Ben nods. “We’re gonna get stuck livin’ out Groundhog Day.”
“What?” Reed says.
“Groundhog Day,” Johnny explains. “It’s a movie where Bill Murray gets stuck living the same day over and over again.”
“Ben,” Reed says, put out. “I assure you, we are not. This will be quite safe.”
“I’ve heard that before,” Ben and Johnny say at the same time.
Reed frowns. He does not quite understand how they manage that.
Two hundred and fifty-eight days later, Reed, Ben, and Johnny finally manage to break out of the time loop they’d been caught in.
Sue’s vase remains, unfortunately, broken.
“I have another plan,” Reed says.
“No!” Johnny says, shaking his head. “No more plans. Let’s just fess up and tell Sue what happened.”
“I have a plan that doesn’t involve getting yelled at,” Reed says.
“I’d rather get yelled at than end up reliving the same day over and over again,” Johnny says. “That was the worst. I got so bored!”
“I got us out of it,” Reed points out.
“Eventually,” Reed sighs. “Some mistakes were made, I admit. The temporal mechanics behind it were quite tricky, but I’m certain that if it happens again, I can get us out of it fairly quickly.”
“No!” Johnny says. “No! We tell Sue the truth. She’ll be mad at us for a few weeks, but she loves us, right? It’s not like she’ll try to kill us or anything.”
“Are we sure of that?” Ben wonders. “When Suzie gets mad, it’s better to run. I vote we change our names and move to a new planet. She probably won’t be able to find us.”
“That seems rather extreme. Also, I am certain she would track us down in approximately 17.678 days, no matter where we went. Perhaps we should write her a note…and then take off to the Negative Zone for a few months. She’s bound to have forgiven us by the time we return.”
Johnny considers it. “I dunno, man,” he says. “Sue knows how to hold a grudge. She might just be madder by the time we get back.”
“What if we all get her presents?” Ben suggests. “Butter her up first. Reed, maybe you could…” He bumps his fist against Reed’s shoulder. “…you know. Show her a good time. And then tell her when she’s all afterglowy.”
“No,” Reed says, shaking his head. “I’ve tried that before. It never works. She’s much too smart for that.”
“Guys,” Johnny says, putting his arms around Reed and Ben’s shoulders. “There’s no getting out of this one. Accept it. We’re dead, and Sue’s gonna kill us. We had a good run, though.”
“Now, Johnny,” Reed frowns, “I don’t accept that. There’s always a way out of everything. We just need more time to think about this.”
“We had like six months,” Johnny points out. “Your best plan was, ‘Let’s run away to the Negative Zone.’“
“Now, Johnny. That wasn’t my best plan.”
“Dimensional travel,” Reed says instantly. He has had quite a lot of time to think about it, after all. He doesn’t tell Johnny and Ben, but he has come up with 432 possible solutions to their current predicament.
Ben and Johnny groan.
“Now, hear me out first!” Reed says. “What if we go to a parallel universe and steal a vase from another version of Sue?”
“But then that Sue won’t have a vase. Isn’t that kinda, I dunno, mean?” Johnny says.
“It wouldn’t be difficult at all to locate an evil Sue!” Reed says. “So we won’t have to feel guilty.”
“An evil Sue who still has our mom’s vase?” Johnny says skeptically.
“Sue is still Sue,” Reed counters. “Even when she’s evil.”
Johnny sighs. “Here we go again.”
Reed does not understand why Johnny sounds so trepidatious. This will work. He knows it will.
The vase means quite a lot to Sue, he knows, and it will cause her pain to know that it is broken. Reed will do whatever is necessary to spare her that. Even if it means going through all 432 items on his list.
Chapter 20: Spideytorch -- Peter Parker, Mr. Oblivious
Peter and Johnny are hanging out in Johnny’s living room, playing video games on his absurdly large television screen. They do this every once in a while—it’s nice to hang out, stuff themselves full of every kind of food that’s bad for them, and catch up.
“So,” Peter says, waggling his eyebrows at Johnny and shoving a potato chip into his mouth whole, “how’s the love life going lately? Met any nice matchsticks lately?”
Johnny freezes, eyes wide, mouth open, pizza slice left dangling in the air. Peter snickers.
Johnny puts his pizza down on the coffee table and makes a stab at being casual, although it’s too late for that. “Why? What have you heard? You haven’t, uh, talked to Ben lately, have you?”
Peter has no idea what Johnny’s going on about. But he would love to find out. “No? What is there to hear?” He grins. Oh, this is exciting. He loves discovering new things to tease the Torch about. Always has. “Is it something embarrassing? Please say it’s embarrassing.”
“No!” Johnny says, a little too quickly, a little too fervently, which he seems to realize far too late. “I mean. No. It’s nothing, dude. Really. Don’t, uh, don’t worry about it.”
Peter, not very shockingly, does not find that particularly convincing. “Torch. C’mon. What’s going on?”
“No, it’s just…” Johnny scrubs a hand over his face. “Okay. Maybe Ben figured out that I’m…kinda into someone.”
“Someone? Animal, mineral, or vegetable?”
Johnny considers that. “Definitely vegetable.”
“Are you…into that swamp guy?” Peter ventures. “It’s okay if you are, you can tell me.”
Johnny glares. “No, Peter, I am not into the Man-Thing.”
“Are you sure? Because if you were into the whole dangly vine thing, I wouldn’t…” Peter pauses, reconsiders. “No, I would definitely judge you.”
Johnny’s sigh is the longest-suffering sigh Peter’s ever heard. “Peter, I am not even a little bit into the Man-Thing.”
Peter’s not totally convinced. He’s seen some of the aliens Johnny’s dated, and most of them didn’t look even a little bit human. “Then who?”
Johnny’s mouth works as though he wants to say something important, but he shakes his head and settles on, “Not important. I just don’t really know how to tell him.”
“Oh, so he’s a him. Be honest. Is he hotter than me?”
Peter flexes his biceps to show off.
Johnny doesn’t seem to know how to answer. His mouth works silently for a few moments, and then he says, “I…don’t…I—“
“I’ll take that as a no.”
Johnny’s face turns bright red. “Pete, c’mon. Have a heart.”
Peter admits that he’s maybe giving Johnny a little bit too much of a hard time. “Just…tell him you love him,” he shrugs. “Honestly, Torch, he’d be lucky to have you.”
Johnny smiles, pleased. “You think so?”
“C’mon, you’re rich, you’re…okay, personality-wise. Not insufferable like you used to be when we were kids and I used to have very vivid dreams about punching you in the face. You can even be funny…sometimes. You’re hot…”
“You think I’m hot?” Johnny grins.
“I meant temperature-wise, Torch,” Peter lies.
Johnny sighs. “Of course you did.”
“But I mean, I’m sure he’d think you were hot. Yeah, he’d definitely think he was lucky.”
Johnny thinks it over and then seems to come to a decision. He takes a deep breath and seems to be steeling himself up for something. “I’m in love with you.”
Wow. Peter is…shocked. It really sounds as though Johnny means that. But he’s clearly just practicing for when he’s with the real guy. Peter feels a stab of something he’d swear was jealousy. “Yeah,” he says coolly. “Tell him like that. He’ll totally dig that. You know, I’m impressed. I’ve seen you act, but I never thought you were this good of an actor.”
Johnny’s face turns a perplexing shade of red. “No!” he says, much too loudly. “Peter, I mean I’m in love with you.”
Peter frowns. “Okay, so I take back what I said about the acting. You sounded like you wanted to strangle the guy that time. Go back to working on it in front of your bathroom mirror, Torch. Try being less angry next time.”
“Oh for— Peter, I am telling you, Peter Parker, that I’m in love with you, Peter Parker. You’rethe guy I have the thing for!”
“What?” Is Johnny talking about him? Is he the guy? Peter feels a confusing surge of joy. “Do you mean—Johnny, are you flirting with me? Is this you hitting on me?”
Johnny rolls his eyes. “I’m always flirting with you, moron. Keep up.”
“Huh,” Peter says. He snags a slice of pizza from the mess on the coffee table and starts munching on it as he digests this new information.
So Johnny has a crush on him. Surprising. Peter never so much as suspected. Although…he supposes…now that he thinks about it…there have been…some hints.
There was that…time that Johnny invited him to watch his sex tape, now that he thinks about it.
And he thinks Johnny maybe tried to kiss him one time when they were living together and Johnny was extremely drunk. And it would definitely explain all of the naked cooking. Peter thought Johnny was just an exhibitionist (…and he is), but frankly this makes more sense.
Johnny’s face turns twelve more shades of red. There’s even some purple in there, Peter thinks. It’s impressive. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen anyone’s face go through so many shades of red so quickly.
“Peter!” Johnny hollers. “Normally when someone tells you they love you, you’re supposed to say something back.”
“Like what?” Peter says, just to be difficult.
“Like whether you love them back, you Web-Headed, Wallcrawling moron!”
“Oh,” Peter says. He tosses his pizza onto the coffee table, reaches over, grabs Johnny, and kisses him. Hard. “That answer your question, Torch?” he grins.
Johnny’s face is no less red, although Peter suspects it’s for different reasons this time.
Johnny scowls. “If you knew you felt the same way, why the hell didn’t you say something?”
Peter shrugs. He could point out that he wasn’t sure at first, but he’d rather mess with Johnny. “I wanted to see how many different colors I could make your face turn.”
Johnny’s eyes narrow. “How many?”
Peter smirks. “I counted thirteen. Personal record.”
Johnny manages to keep a disapproving expression on his face for an impressively long time, but then he relents, laughs, and shoves at Peter’s shoulder. “You’re an asshole, you know that?”
“Oh, I know,” Peter smirks as he pushes Johnny down onto the couch with one finger, just to show off how much stronger than Johnny he is. “But you like it.”
Johnny doesn’t argue, for once, although Peter admits it might have something to do with the fact that Peter’s tongue is in the way.
Chapter 21: Ben + Johnny -- Unrequited Love
Johnny stands at one of the spacious windows on Foundation, the space station Reed had constructed for his children, and gazes down wistfully at the far-distant home he never once, while he was languishing in Annihilus’ prison for two years, expected to see again.
His thoughts—filled with nostalgia and even the smallest fluttering of hope that perhaps his life from now on will maybe not be a living hell—are interrupted by the gruff voice of Ben Grimm, Johnny’s best friend. His brother. Ben’s voice washes over him, warm and comforting.
Johnny smiles. It’s so good to be home, surrounded by the people he loves, the people who love him.
“So,” Ben says conversationally, arms crossed, a disapproving glint in his eyes Johnny has seen far too many times to count, “you’re moving in with the Web-Head.”
Johnny sighs. He already knows where Ben’s going with this. Ben is the only person who knows how Johnny really feels about Peter. Oddly enough, Johnny never had to tell him. Ben just knew. “Relax. It’ll be fine. I’ve had two years to get over him.”
Johnny knows full well that his words are lies even as they leave his lips. If anything, his time in the Negative Zone only deepened his love for Peter. Johnny buried himself in his fantasies of the blissful life he and Peter could have together when the horror of his life became overwhelming.
Ben’s eyes are hard. “You ain’t foolin’ me that easy, kid. You’ve had years ta get over him, junior, and you never did before.” He shakes his head. “This is a bad idea. It’ll only make you miserable. Don’t.”
Johnny rolls his eyes. “Come on, Benjy, this doesn’t even make it into the top ten of stupid things I’ve done. You’re completely overreacting. If I survived Annihilus, I can survive Peter. I’m tougher than you think.”
Ben makes an exasperated noise. “It ain’t about that, kid. You don’t have to put yourself through this. Come stay with us. Your family. We’ll watch all the television shows ya missed and I’ll tell you all about what everyone’s been up to. Who’s datin’ who, you know, the gossip stuff you was always into. Just. Don’t move in with him.”
Johnny knows he shouldn’t say it. It’s one of those unspoken truths about their life that no one ever talks about, but his temper flares, and it just spills out. “You mean, I should stay with all of you so I can watch you doing exactly what you’re trying to keep me from doing?”
Johnny glances pointedly over at Reed and Sue, at Reed, tossing a giggling Valeria into the air while Sue and Franklin cheer and laugh.
Ben follows Johnny’s gaze, and his eyes widen as he realizes that Johnny knows.
“I’m not stupid,” Johnny says. “I can see the way you look at them. I used to think the three of you were together when I was a kid, you know. The way you all looked at each other. I thought you were all in love. It took me years to realize you weren’t. That they loved each other, and you loved them, but they didn’t know how you felt.” It hits him. “That’s it, isn’t it? Why you were so quick to pick up on my feelings for Pete. You know what it’s like to love someone who doesn’t love you back.”
Ben doesn’t say anything at first, perhaps debating whether he should deny it, but he soon realizes there’s no point. Johnny’s too sure he’s right.
“Yeah,” Ben says bravely. “I do know. I’ve spent my whole life pining over the two of them. And I’m never gonna have them. I know that. I accept it.” He shakes his head. “Kid. Don’t make my mistakes. You deserve better than the life I’ve had. Standin’ on the outside watchin’ a happiness you’ll never get ta really be part of. Don’t move in with Peter. If he loved you, he would’ve said somethin’ by now.”
Johnny knows…Ben is right…but he also…he can’t. There’s still a small part of him that hopes that Peter loves him back. Or will love him back. Even if it has been so many long years.
“I’m moving in with Peter,” Johnny decides. He knows he could never do anything else.
“You’re hoping he loves you back,” Ben says, shaking his head disapprovingly. “He doesn’t, kid. Stop foolin’ yourself. You’ll only get hurt.”
“Maybe,” Johnny says. “Maybe not. And maybe, just maybe, we should both be brave and just…tell the people we love how we feel about them. Maybe…maybe the only thing standing in our way is us.” He looks at Ben. “Have you ever tried telling Reed and Sue how you feel about them?”
“No,” Ben says. “It’s been twenty years. Waited too long.”
“You should try telling them,” Johnny says. He hopes Ben finds happiness. And there’s a small part of him that suspects that perhaps Ben’s feelings aren’t as unrequited as Ben thinks. “Maybe their answer won’t be what you expect. Maybe Peter’s won’t be either.”
After everything he’s been through, all he’s sacrificed, it’s time one thing, just one, went his way. If he had Peter, everything would be…he would be satisfied with that.
Johnny will have months of living with Peter to see. If there is even the tiniest flicker of love for Johnny there, in Peter’s heart, certainly Johnny will be able to find it.
Chapter 22: VictorReed -- College Friends With Benefits
MANY YEARS AGO, AT STATE UNIVERSITY:
“Richards, cease that insipid sighing!” Victor snarled over the chessboard they’d laid out between them on Victor’s dormitory bed. “If this is an ill-advised attempt to win the game by infuriating me, I assure you it will not succeed. I am the master of my emotions. This will not distract me!”
“To be honest with you, Victor,” Reed sighed again, much to Victor’s great and visible displeasure, “I’m hardly paying attention to the game.”
“That much is obvious,” Victor snapped. “I win in three moves. There have only been four so far. Even allowing for your limited mental capacities, this is deplorable.”
Reed peered down at the board and found that what Victor said was true. “I’m sorry, Victor. I suppose I’m just distracted.”
While Victor never rolled his eyes (because he thought it was undignified), Reed could tell he wanted to. “Richards, whatever is the matter with you, I am not interested. Go whine to your football player.”
Reed started to sigh, but a glare from Victor stopped him. “I can’t talk to Ben about it. It’s about Ben.”
Victor’s snort was full of scorn. “Did the insipid oaf forget to bring you flowers this morning?”
“No,” Reed said mournfully. Ben had never brought Reed flowers, no matter how badly Reed wanted him to. “He started dating someone. Alynn Chambers.”
Victor looked genuinely confused. “Then you and he are not—?”
“No,” Reed said and he sighed again because he just couldn’t help it. “That’s the problem.”
Victor did not seem to realize that he had gotten himself sucked into precisely the conversation he had been doing his best to avoid. “Good,” he said firmly. “He is your intellectual inferior and by no means worthy of you, Richards. I don’t know what possessed you to waste any time on such a cretin. Surely even you can do better.”
“Intelligence isn’t everything, Victor,” Reed said. He slid one of his white bishops a few squares forward and took one of Victor’s black pawns. “Ben is kind, and compassionate, and generous, and brave—”
Victor cut him off, which was probably a good thing because Reed would have gone on listing Ben’s good qualities until he exhausted them, and there were a lot. “And he has biceps the size of my head. No doubt that had something to do with it. I would have thought you above such petty considerations, Richards.”
“It’s really more about the kindness,” Reed insisted. “And he has a nice laugh. Laughs are important, Victor.”
“Oh, I’m sure you think so,” Victor said viciously. He slammed his black rook down where Reed’s white knight had been a few moments ago, though now it was rolling off the board and onto Victor’s dark blue quilt. “How you manage to maintain prolonged conversations with imbeciles like him is beyond me.”
“It’s not so hard,” Reed said dryly, “when you learn to value qualities besides intelligence. Haven’t you ever cared about anyone who wasn’t as intelligent as you? Parents? Siblings? Fr—“ Reed was going to say “friends” but he stopped himself. If his time at State U was any indication, Victor had never had any friends. But, then again, Victor never talked about his life before coming to State U at all. Reed knew little about it. “Erm. Anyone?”
Victor stared intently at the chessboard. “Well,” he admitted. “I suppose there was a girl. Once.”
Reed didn’t know what he was more taken aback by—the fact that Victor had had a girlfriend once, or that he was telling Reed about it. “Oh. Did it matter that she wasn’t as smart as you?”
There was a long pause. “No. I suppose not. There were…other factors.”
“Precisely,” Reed said. He slid his last white knight three spaces to the left. “That’s why I love Ben. Other factors.”
“Still,” Victor said. “It would be better to be with someone who was your intellectual equal.”
Reed laughed. “That would be a very short list. Currently, it would be comprised of, well, you.”
Victor raised his eyebrows. “Richards, while I am flattered and of course I understand why you are interested in me, I am simply not interested you. I could also point out that we are not equals, as I am clearly your intellectual superior.”
“Victor, I wasn’t—I already told you. I’m in love with Ben.”
“Ah,” Victor said. “That’s convenient, because I am still in love with my Valeria.”
“Good,” Reed said. “So we aren’t interested in each other. That’s settled then.”
“Of course,” Victor ventured, right as he toppled Reed’s king over. “My Valeria is an ocean away, and your Bernard doesn’t love you.”
“Ben,” Reed corrected.
Victor waved a hand dismissively. “His name is unimportant.”
“Well. I don’t understand what you’re driving at,” Reed said.
“I’m suggesting that we distract each other,” Victor clarified.
“Are you proposing a ‘friends with benefits’-style arrangement?” Reed asked suspiciously.
He was sure he must be misinterpreting Victor’s words.
“I have no idea what that means, Richards,” Victor said. “But we are not friends.” Reed wasn’t sure Victor would recognize a friend if he was sitting on his bed playing chess with him. “I am proposing sex without any emotional attachment whatsoever.”
“Why on Earth would I agree to that, Victor?”
“To forget your Benedict.”
“Ben,” Reed said automatically.
Victor snorted derisively. “I do not care to recall his name. It is a waste of valuable brain matter.”
Reed thought it over.
Victor was actually very handsome, now that Reed thought about it, but there was a darkness to him, a rage, a coldness, that Reed found off-putting. He didn’t think he could ever love Victor the way he loved Ben.
But he supposed if it was just sex, that shouldn’t matter.
And he was, admittedly, desperate to forget about Ben, who had been all he’d been able to think about for years.
“All right,” he said. “You’re on.”
He suspected already it was the worst decision he’d ever made, but what was the worst that could happen?
NOW, AT CASTLE DOOM, DOOMSTADT, LATVERIA:
Reed found out years later in the middle of the umpteenth fight-to-the-death between the FF and Victor in Castle Doom.
Even Reed had to admit that Victor had, temporarily at least, gained the upper hand. His Doombots had managed to get power-negating collars round all of their necks, and handcuffs to keep them from attacking him anyway.
Victor, as always, was convinced he had won and that the FF were permanently beaten.
Reed wasn’t too worried. He knew he’d find a way out before too long. He always did.
He had plenty of time to come up with a way to escape, given that Victor was currently monologuing about his boundless genius.
Reed sighed. In some ways, Victor—now a dictator, clad head to foot in iron—had changed drastically from their days at State U, but in other ways…he was the same haughty boy who loved patting himself on the back for the smallest accomplishment.
Really, Victor never learned.
Reed was so busy trying to come up with a way out of their predicament that he was hardly listening to what Victor was saying…until, that was, Victor came to a halt in front of him, the heavy clang of metal ringing against stone floors, and said, “Richards, I must admit, you always did look rather fetching on your knees.”
Reed froze and hoped against hope that Ben, Sue, and Johnny wouldn’t catch the clearly sexual innuendo.
“Wait,” Johnny said, head poking out to Sue’s left. “What?”
“Reed,” Sue frowned, “what is he talking about?”
“He’s lyin’,” Ben said confidently. “Reed would never with the likes o’ him. ‘specially given how he treated me even when we wuz in college.”
“Have you forgotten?” Victor said, smiling beneath the iron mask. “I do not lie. I have no need to lie when the truth is so much more satisfying.”
“Reed,” Sue said, but Reed could hear in her voice that she was beginning to believe Victor. “Say it’s not true.”
“Dude,” Johnny said. “Tell me you didn’t fuck Doctor Doom.”
“No,” Victor said, although his meaning was rather unfortunately plain. “He did not.”
“Oh!” Johnny said when he caught Victor’s meaning, looking thoroughly disgusted. “Gross! Reed! Dude, just why?”
“I—“ Reed looked back and forth between Victor and his family. Now this he could find no way out of. “We were in college. He was just…Victor then, not a mass-murdering tyrant and supervillain. I had no idea he would become Doctor Doom. Besides, it only lasted a few months, and it was never anything serious.”
“No,” Victor said annoyedly. “Richards was far too besotted with his oafish football player.”
Victor glared at Ben, and Reed was uncomfortable with the degree of homicidal rage he saw in Victor’s eyes and half-tempted to throw himself in front of Ben protectively. He knew that Victor was perfectly capable of murdering Ben on a whim.
“Wait,” Ben said, remembering precisely what Reed had been hoping he wouldn’t. “Hold on. Is he that mysterious guy you were seein’ right before you ‘nd me got together? The guy you would never…tell me…anything about…and…you always came home with bruises in weird places…”
“Yes,” Victor said, seeming to take great joy in the dismay written all over Ben’s rocky orange features. “Richards was mine before he was ever yours.”
“I was never yours, Victor,” Reed said fiercely. “Not any part of me. I was always Ben’s. Even when I was with you.”
Something seemed to click for Sue. “Wait a minute,” she said, gazing up at Victor with something like pity in her eyes. “That’s what…this is all about, isn’t it? Reed chose Ben over you, and you’ve never forgiven him for it. Did you…were you in love with my husband?”
“No,” Reed said instantly. “Impossible. Victor never cared about me. It was just…sex.”
“Ew,” Johnny said. “Wrong. Did not ever need to know about this.”
“Richards is correct,” Victor said. “I never did love him.” Somehow, Reed didn’t find that quite as convincing as he would have liked. “I simply have never been able to forgive him for choosing that dimwitted lout over someone who was clearly superior in every way.”
“Why…would you care who I chose if you didn’t love me?” Reed said. Oh, god. He was…beginning to see Victor’s obsession with hurting him in an entirely new light. And Victor’s petty hatred of Ben—it was jealousy. He couldn’t believe it had never occurred to him that Victor had fallen in love with him. He was remembering now with great regret how indifferently he’d broken things off with Victor. It seemed cruel, almost. But he truly hadn’t thought that Victor cared. “Victor. If I’d known how you felt, I would have handled things very differently, I never would have—”
Broken up with him via text message. Ouch.
Victor waved a hand imperiously. “I have no interest in continuing this insipid conversation, Richards. Doombots, return them to their cells.”
As Reed was dragged out of Victor’s throne room, he couldn’t help but think that Victor looked…rather more lonely and tragic than he ever had before.
Chapter 23: Spideytorch -- Six-Armed Therapy
Johnny wasn’t sure how long he’d been waiting for Spider-Man on top of the Statue of Liberty, the dark waves roiling beneath him on an unusually turbulent ocean. Long enough for the pizza he had brought with him to become cold as ice.
He sighed testily into the night wind.
These weekly hangouts were exactly that. Weekly. So why couldn’t Spidey ever remember to be on time?
They’d been doing this for two months, ever since they built the Spider-Mobile together, and Spidey had yet to be on time once. Eight meetings. Eight times Johnny had been kept waiting for over an hour.
Johnny did not like to be kept waiting.
Sometimes he wondered why he bothered with Spidey at all, but then he remembered that he had no other friends, and, oh, that was why.
Besides, he supposed he could talk to Ben, Sue, and Reed about his broken heart, but he didn’t think any of them would understand the way Spidey did. It was easier to be himself around Spidey, for some reason.
Johnny didn’t know the names or many details because Spidey was less than forthcoming about that, but he knew that Spidey’d lost his own girlfriend recently too—only that his girl was dead and buried instead of off kissing another man, high in the Himalayas, like Johnny’s.
Johnny supposed he liked hanging with Spidey partly because as bad as Johnny’s life felt, Spidey’s was always somehow worse. There was a strange kind of comfort in that, on the one hand, but, on the other, it could get irritating that Spidey always had to be better than Johnny at everything. Even at being miserable.
There was a soft thud as Spidey landed lightly next to Johnny.
“Well, it’s about time,” Johnny said irritably. “What kept you this—“ It finally sunk in that Spidey was soaking wet and shivering. Johnny started to laugh. “What, did you swim here, you lunkhead?”
“No,” Spidey said sourly as he took off a glove and started wringing it dry. “I waited an hour for a helicopter to fly past, but none did so I had to make a web-raft.”
“That still doesn’t explain why you’re all wet,” Johnny pointed out.
Spidey shrugged. “It capsized halfway through. I swam the rest of the way.”
“So you did swim here, then,” Johnny smiled. “Why didn’t you call me? I could have flown you over, buddy.”
“I don’t like being flown,” Spidey said shortly. “It’s kinda humiliating, Torchy.”
“Because it reminds you that I can fly and you can’t?” Johnny couldn’t resist saying.
“Well, I can websling and you can’t, so there,” Spidey said.
“I can fly at Mach 2,” Johnny said smugly because he knew he’d won. “How fast can you websling, again?”
Spidey muttered something that sounded very much like a curse beneath his breath.
Johnny laughed again. Spidey’s jealousy was a nice reminder that his powers weren’t so bad.
“Well,” Johnny said, just to be nice. “Don’t feel too bad, Spidey. You probably don’t have to worry about sneezing fireballs. I do.”
“Yeah,” Spidey said idly. “Of course, you don’t really have to worry about growing two extra sets of arms.”
That brought Johnny up short. “What.”
Johnny could swear Spidey was smirking under that mask. “Six arms. Swear to God.”
“You did not have six arms. This is a joke.”
“Did so,” Spidey said. He started pointing at his sides. “Grew one here, here, here, and here.”
“Liar. Pictures or it didn’t happen.”
“I didn’t take pictures of myself with six arms, Flamebrain. I don’t want to open up The Daily Bugle and see that on the front page. People think I’m weird enough as is.”
Johnny couldn’t really argue with that. He thought Spidey was plenty strange too at the moment. “Well…how did you get rid of the arms, then? Why didn’t you call us?”
Spidey shrugged. “We weren’t really that friendly yet. Definitely not, ‘I accidentally gave myself six arms, can your brother-in-law fix me?’ friendly, anyways. Besides, you would have laughed at me.”
“Reed would have helped you anyway,” Johnny said. He didn’t say anything about the laughing because Spidey was probably right. He couldn’t imagine being anything other than amused at Spidey’s predicament—mostly because he would be very sure Reed could fix it. “He likes helping people. He also likes weird stuff, so. That would have been right up his alley.”
“Okay, okay,” Spidey said placatingly. “The next time I grow six arms, you’ll be the first person I call.”
“Is it…likely to happen again?” Johnny asked.
He wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer.
“Nah,” Spidey said. “I drank a potion that I shouldn’t have drunk. As long as I don’t drink it again, I’m probably fine.” He reconsidered. “I think.”
“Maybe Reed should take a look at you anyways,” Johnny said. “Just to be sure.”
Spidey seemed amused. “Johnny, be honest. Are you afraid that I’ll grow six arms right now?”
“No,” Johnny said, then amended it to, “Yes. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hang out with you again without being afraid of that.” He sighed. “I can see I’m gonna need years of therapy to get through this friendship. I’m sending you the bill.“
Spidey snorted. “Good luck with that, Torchy. I’m broke.”
Johnny rolled his eyes. Of course Spidey was broke. “Why do I talk to you again?”
“My winning personality?”
“Unless you’re planning on stealing someone else’s, you don’t have one. Try again.”
“I’m witty and a great conversationalist?”
“No, you just think you are.”
“Hey! I’m funny. Everyone thinks I’m funny.”
“No one thinks you’re funny. You’re about as funny as Chuckles the Clown.”
“None of the bad guys I fight ever complain about my sense of humor.”
“That’s not what I heard.”
“Ouch,” Spidey said, clutching a hand to his chest and pretending he’d been stabbed through the heart. “Torchy, you wound me.”
“You’re the one who brought up the six arms. I’m permanently psychologically scarred, thanks to you.”
“You’re psychologically scarred? I’m the one who had six arms! For like a week!”
Johnny supposed he had to give Spidey that one. “Okay, okay, we’re both psychologically scarred by your lousy powers.”
“Says the guy who can’t sneeze without lighting someone’s hair on fire.”
“That happened once, and it was Sue, and I put it out right away!”
“Oh, is that why she got that short haircut?”
“Well…yeah. It’s still better than six arms, though.”
“Meh,” Spidey said. “Agree to disagree. What do you do when you have a cold?”
It was Johnny’s turn to be smug. “Can’t get sick. I can boil my blood, remember? It’s like having a fever that’s the temperature of the sun. Viruses? Dead.”
Spidey muttered something unpleasant.
Johnny’s smile turned into a grin. He loved being better than Spidey. “Told you my powers were better than yours.”
Chapter 24: BenReedSue - Unexpected Explosions
Life for Sue hadn’t been easy lately. Between juggling college and work and caring for a baby brother who seemed incapable of keeping out of trouble for five minutes, Sue hardly had any time for herself.
She was so busy just making it through the day that she never had any time to think about whether or not she was happy.
That was the question she kept asking herself as she trudged home from her shift at the restaurant, arms full of heavy grocery bags—was this, what she had now, enough for her?
No. No, it was not. Sue was bored. Dissatisfied. Unhappy.
She wanted more from her life than this. She wanted excitement, adventure—she wanted something new and interesting to happen to her, rather than the same weary drudge, day in and day out.
“Hey, Suzie!” a voice rang out behind her. “Wait up, would ya?”
Sue turned to look, frowning. She didn’t recognize the voice right away, but she’d recognize those broad shoulders, rippling muscles, and blue eyes anywhere. It was Ben…something, the boy who was always hanging around Reed, her aunt’s new tenant.
Sue wasn’t sure, but she suspected that there was something going on between Ben and Reed, which was a pity because she would have dated whichever asked her first if given half the chance.
God. Sue couldn’t even remember the last time she’d gone on a date.
Sue smiled. She’d decided that she liked Ben and Reed the moment she met them. They were interesting. New. Exciting. “Ben! Hello! Here to see Reed?”
“Yeah,” Ben grinned. It lit up his face in a nice way that made him look twice as handsome, and given how handsome he normally was, that was saying a lot. “You know he’d be lost without me. Lemme take one a those bags, for you, Suzie gal.”
Sue laughed. Oh, yes, Ben and Reed were definitely dating. “Are you sure he’s not just lost in general?” She let Ben wrest a bag away from her without much protest. “The other day I saw him sitting in my aunt’s garden, staring very intently at a peony. You know, I timed him and he didn’t move a hair for thirty minutes? And then when he did, he just snapped his fingers, said ‘Hi-de-ho! I’ve got it!” and ran upstairs to his bedroom, and that’s the last any of us has seen of him for two days.” Her mouth twisted. “Although there have been some strange noises. Clanging and pounding. None of us know what is going on. My aunt’s a little worried.”
Ben was nodding along sympathetically. “Yup. That sounds like him. Listen, Suzie, no one really knows what goes on in that egghead o’ his. I’m sure he just figured out how to get to Mars using a toothbrush and some paperclips.”
Sue’s heart seized. Mars! Now that sounded interesting. “He can’t…really do that, can he?”
Ben laughed good-naturedly. “Not that I know of, Suzie.” His smile turned fond, perhaps even a bit proud. “But I’m sure he’ll get us to Mars someday. That’s the plan, y’ know. He’s designin’ and buildin’ the rocket, and I’m flyin’ it.”
Sue thought that over. She knew Reed was smart, but she’d had no idea he was that smart. “Just how smart is he, anyways?”
Ben snorted. “You ask his professors, he’s the smartest guy alive. But…” He shrugged. “I dunno. I’m not smart enough to be able to tell. Smarter than me, that’s for sure.”
“Interesting,” Sue said.
Could it be that the smartest man alive just happened to take a room at her aunt’s boarding house for the summer? Well. That settled it. Sue was determined to get to know him better.
Ben opened the small white gate that led to Aunt Marygay’s house and held it open for Sue.
Sue just so happened to glance up…and her eyes widened with horror. “Ben!” she cried out. “Reed’s window!”
It was less of a window now and more of a hole, blasted into the side of Aunt Marygay’s home and still smoking. Oh, she would not be happy.
Ben’s eyes followed Sue’s gaze and widened with shock and horror. He let Sue’s groceries fall to the ground, so that cans of soup and apples rolled everywhere, all over the path that led up to the boarding house, and then he ran.
Sue didn’t think she’d ever seen anyone run that fast.
Sue dropped her groceries and ran too.
The door was locked.
“Suzie!” Ben said frantically, eyes wild as he pounded on the door and rattled the doorknob. “Hurry! Reed could be hurt. He could be bleedin’—we gotta get up there!”
“I’m trying!” Sue said, no less frantically, fumbling in her purse for her keys, her heart pounding. Oh god, what if Reed was dead—he seemed so nice! She hoped he wasn’t dead. She had to clean out her purse. After this, she swore she would clean out her—her fingers finally touched cold metal.
She pulled out her keys and unlocked the door in a flash and Ben threw the door open the moment it was unlocked.
He ran up the stairs, taking three at a time the way only a football player could.
Sue, who had run track in high school, wasn’t too far behind him.
Reed’s door, luckily, wasn’t locked, but Sue suspected if it had been, Ben would have forced it open.
The room was filled with smoke that made Sue’s eyes water, but she couldn’t see Reed anywhere. “Where is he?” she said. “Ben, he’s not here!”
“He’s—he’s gotta be!” Ben said, tossing debris to the side in his wild search for Reed. “Where else could he be?”
A horrible thought came into Sue’s mind. “Maybe he’s not in the room anymore,” Sue said, looking at the hole in the wall.
Ben’s eyes widened in the smoke. They ran to the hole in the wall and looked down at the garden. Sure enough, there he was. A crumpled figure in a red sweater lying facedown in the grass, surrounded by shards of broken glass and splintered wood. Disconcertingly, there were thin ribbons of smoke rising from Reed, even though it didn’t seem as though he was on fire.
Ben and Sue shared a terrified glance and then ran back downstairs to the garden without a word.
Ben got there first. By the time Sue got to the front door, Ben was already kneeling in the grass next to Reed, hands on Reed’s slender shoulders.
“Don’t move him!” she shouted. Ben froze. Sue rushed to kneel in the grass on the other side of Reed. “If he’s hurt his neck, you could make it worse.”
Johnny had been in enough accidents for her to think it was a good idea to take CPR classes.
“We should call an ambulance!” Ben looked as though he was about to cry. “He’s—he’s not moving, Suzie!”
Before Sue could run and fetch her cellphone from the purse she dropped on the path, Reed began to shift in the grass. “That’s not necessary,” he coughed. “I’m just a little dazed, is all.” He rolled over, looked up at the hole in the wall, and sighed exasperatedly. “Not again.”
His face was covered in soot and ash, his hair blown out at strange angles, and there were tiny cuts all over his face from all the glass, and Sue was sure he didn’t have eyebrows, but he looked surprisingly unharmed, considering.
Sue could have kissed him, she was so glad he was all right.
Ben did. He kissed Reed hard enough to make Reed’s toes curl in his socks, and when Ben’s face came away, the skin around his mouth was covered in soot too, while Reed’s face looked somewhat cleaner.
“Don’t do that to me again, Stretch,” Ben said fiercely. “You almost gave me a heart attack, you know that? At this rate, I’m gonna have grey hair by the time I’m thirty, and it’s all gonna be your fault.”
Something about the way Ben said that made Sue suspect this wasn’t the first time something had gone wrong with Reed’s experiments. “Does this happen to you two a lot? Because ‘not again’ isn’t the response I’d expect from someone I just found unconscious in my garden,” she said dryly.
“No!” Reed said. “Not all the time. Never. Until now.”
Ben snorted. It was a distinctly skeptical snort.
Reed glared. “I just meant, Benjamin, that being found unconscious in someone’s garden was a first. And I wasn’t unconscious. I was just…resting.”
“That’s just cuz you don’t normally have a garden, Einstein,” Ben pointed out.
“The explosions do happen more often than I’d like,” Reed sighed. “I admit that much. I seem to have miscalculated somewhere.” He looked down at his State U sweater mournfully. “Oh, and I ruined my sweater. There goes another one. Third this month.”
Sue glanced up at the hole in the wall, a smile tugging at her lips. Now that she was sure Reed was all right, this was beginning to seem a bit funny. “You could say that again.”
“Ah,” Reed said, following her gaze and seeming somewhat embarrassed. “I mean. I will pay for repairs, of course.”
Sue wasn’t sure. “Won’t they be expensive? Are you sure you can—?
Ben shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, Suzie. He’s rich.”
Reed nodded in agreement. “Very rich.”
Sue raised her eyebrows. So Reed was brilliant, interesting, and rich! Why, oh why, did he have to be dating someone?
“Well,” she said. “All right then.”
And it was settled.
Ben wedged an arm under Reed’s shoulders and another under his knees, clearly planning on carrying Reed inside.
Reed did not seem to approve. “Now, wait a second, Ben!” he complained, trying to bat Ben’s arms away. “I won’t be carried indoors like I’m some child! I am perfectly capable of walking!”
“Stop yer whining, Einstein. You’re gettin’ carried and that’s that.” Ben kissed Reed again, but more softly this time. “C’mon. You scared me half to death. Least you can do is let me spoil you the rest of the afternoon.”
Sue didn’t think she’d ever seen anyone look at anyone else as tenderly, as adoringly, as Ben was looking at Reed.
Reed looked a bit guilty. “Fine,” he relented. “You can carry me. But just this once. I do not intend to let you make this a habit, Ben. I mean that.”
Sue wondered how many times Ben had carried Reed before this, for Reed to be making this much of an issue of it all.
“Aw, but, Einstein,” Ben grinned. Ben lifted Reed as though he weighed as little as a feather pillow, and Sue wished she had a strong, muscular boyfriend who would carry her like that. She wouldn’t complain. She certainly wouldn’t have her arms crossed stubbornly the way Reed did. “I like carryin’ ya. Makes me feel like I’m the hunk on the cover o’ one a’ those trashy romance novels.”
Reed’s eyes narrowed to signal that Ben was treading on thin ice. “I don’t know what you mean and I’m sure I don’t want to.”
“I’m sure I have a romance novel or two I could lend you,” Sue said cheerfully. She quickly gathered up the grocery bags she and Ben had dropped in the path and trailed behind Ben as he carried Reed up the porch steps to her aunt’s living room.
“Mebbe you should get one.” Ben winked at her. “We can read it to Reed here while he’s convalescin’.”
“Oh, no, you will not!” Reed said crossly.
“It’ll be good for ya,” Ben teased. “You could learn a thing or two about romance from ‘em, you know.”
Reed seemed to deflate a little at that. “I’m not…that bad at it, am I?”
Ben set Reed down on Aunt Marygay’s prize couch before Sue could stop him. It was bound to get covered in soot, and Aunt Marygay wasn’t going to like that either.
“Mmm,” Ben said noncommittally. He sat next to Reed on the couch. “You could improve. In some areas.”
“Oh,” Reed said, cheeks pink beneath the soot. “I didn’t realize I was that bad at it.”
“You’re good enough for me, Einstein, any day of the week,” Ben said, and kissed Reed again.
Reed’s smile afterward was elated, his bad humor seemingly on its way to improving.
Ben seemed to remember Sue was still there. “Hey, Suzie,” he said. “Do you have anything to clean Einstein here up a little? We’ll need disinfectant for those cuts. Maybe some band-aids.”
Sue winced. “I think we only have some Captain America bandaids. Johnny’s the only one who uses them.”
“You are not putting Captain America band-aids on my face,” Reed said firmly. “No.”
“Get ‘em, please,” Ben said, ignoring Reed's protests completely. “If someone didn’t want Captain America band-aids on his face, he shoulda been more careful with his experiments.”
“I was careful!” Reed protested.
Ben gave Reed a look that said he wasn’t buying any of it.
Reed looked sheepish. “All right. So maybe I didn’t take all of the necessary precautions. But I was excited and I—”
“And you not getting hurt is more important than your little experiments,” Ben said in a tone that brooked no arguments. “Capisce?”
“I didn’t think it would explode,” Reed said glumly. “If I'd suspected at all that it would explode, I wouldn’t have done it. It really shouldn’t have exploded.” He shook his head. “I don’t understand it.” He looked at Ben uncertainly, as though he already knew what the answer would be. “I don’t suppose you’d get my notes so I could look them—“
“You just got exploded, Reed! You’re taking the afternoon off.”
Reed seemed more unhappy at that than anything else, even being exploded. “But I was so close—“
“No more science today,” Ben said. “And that’s that.”
“But I was looking forward to finishing today and—“
“No,” Ben said.
“Damn,” Reed said.
Reed wasn’t the kind of man who pouted, but Sue suspected that if he had been, he would have pouted at that. Sue ducked out of the room so that Reed couldn’t hear her laughter at the sour expression on his face.
She went into the kitchen and poured some clean water into a bowl and wedged a roll of paper towels under her arm, then headed upstairs to grab Johnny’s band-aids and, just for the hell of it, one of her favorite romance novels.
She grinned as she thought about all of the fun she and Ben could have with Reed when they waved it around.
Ben and Reed certainly did make things around here more lively than usual.
She found herself very much looking forward to spending more time with them and wondering too what new excitement tomorrow—and Reed’s experiments—would bring.
Yes. She was sure they were all going to get along just fine.
Chapter 25: GwenMJ + Bedsharing and Nightmares
It’s the middle of the night when Mary Jane is awakened by the sound of her door clicking quietly shut, bare feet padding across the wooden floor of her bedroom, the soft rustle of sheets as someone slips into her bed next to her.
Mary Jane doesn’t have to open her eyes to know who it is—Gwen.
It’s only been two months since Gwen’s whole life had unraveled.
First, there had been her father’s tragic, unexpected death during a fight between Peter and Doctor Octopus.
Then, Peter, wracked with guilt, had hidden himself away, and so Gwen, reeling from the pain of her father’s death and her boyfriend’s inexplicable abandonment of her in her time of need, had angrily broken up with him.
Then, Gwen, stripped of her father’s financial support, had been unable to afford the apartment she had shared with her father. Mary Jane, fortuitously, had been in need of a new roommate, and so Gwen had come to live with her.
It’s only been a month, but it pains Mary Jane, truly pains her, to see the agony that Gwen’s life has become.
It’s hard to see the stubborn, proud, spirited girl Gwen had once been in the listless, melancholy, despairing mess she is now.
Mary Jane knows too well what it is to lose everything and everyone you care about in such a brief space of time, and her heart goes out to Gwen.
She’s done what she can to help Gwen, cheer her up when she can, be a solitary spot of light in the darkness that Gwen’s life has become, but she knows that there’s only so much she can do.
She knows Gwen has nightmares. She’s heard her whimpering, alone, in the dark. Heard her scream. Heard her cry.
The first night it happened, she went to Gwen and comforted her, and she held Gwen until her tears subsided and she fell into a fitful, troubled sleep.
The next night, a sobbing Gwen shook her awake and asked if it was all right for her to stay. Mary Jane said yes and scooted back to make room for Gwen, and she fell asleep with her arms around Gwen, her face buried in her long golden hair.
It kept happening after that, nearly every night. Gwen would fall asleep in her own bed, but invariably she would slip into Mary Jane’s at some point during the night.
Some nights, Mary Jane would awaken immediately and wrap her arms around Gwen’s trembling body, others, she’d awaken to find Gwen slumbering next to her, and sometimes, she’d awaken in the morning, and the only sign that Gwen had been there at all would be the tears she left in Mary Jane’s pillow, the sweet smell she left lingering in her sheets.
The mattress creaks beneath Mary Jane as she rolls over and casts a surreptitious glance at Gwen’s slim figure, trembling and fluttering like a terrified bird.
Mary Jane can’t do nothing, so she sighs and moves toward her across the bed.
Gwen stiffens when she first feels Mary Jane’s arms encircle her, but she sighs and relaxes back against her almost immediately. Mary Jane holds her tightly, her face buried against Gwen’s bare shoulder until she can feel Gwen’s body grow still and calm in her arms.
“You okay?” Mary Jane whispers into the darkness.
Gwen doesn’t say anything for a long while. “No,” she whispers back, and Mary Jane can hear the tears in her voice. “I’m not.” Her hand covers the one Mary Jane has wrapped around Gwen’s waist. “But listening to you breathe always calms me down. Makes me feel like I’m not alone in this.”
Mary Jane doesn’t quite know what to say. “You’re not. Alone. I’m here. And…it’ll get better, you know. Easier. All of this.”
Gwen sniffs and wipes tears away from her cheeks. Mary Jane has to fight off the strangest desire to catch Gwen’s face between her hands and kiss her tears away tenderly. As though Gwen were precious, so very precious.
She doesn’t quite know where the impulse originated, but she does know that this is not the time for that.
“How do you know?” Gwen asks. “You never talk about yourself. You talk all the time, but you never say anything that really matters. I hardly know anything about you, other than the fact that you have an aunt and she lives in Forest Hills.”
“I…” Mary Jane begins, and then falls silent.
She knows that’s fair. She doesn’t like to talk about herself.
She pretends to be lively, carefree, and joyous because she doesn’t want to face the harsh truths of her life. Because she hopes that if she pretends that everything’s all right, perhaps, someday, it will be. That she will be. That she’ll have the life she’s always wanted, be everything she has dreamed of being.
She has perfected the facade: Mary Jane, shallow, vain, vapid, glamorous party girl.
From a distance, for those who hardly know her, there are no cracks in her facade.
But Gwen…Mary Jane has let Gwen in, further than she’s let anyone for years. She’s let Gwen see that she wears a smile painted on her face the way others wear a mask.
She doesn’t know why. There is something about Gwen to which she’s always been inexplicably drawn.
It’s not her beauty, although it is undeniable that Gwen is perhaps the most beautiful woman Mary Jane has ever met.
It’s…her strength. Her courage. Her determination. Her loyalty. Her ability to be honest and vulnerable in ways Mary Jane simply cannot be. The walls Mary Jane built around her heart to protect herself long ago are too deep. Too entrenched. She has no idea how to even begin to tear them down.
Gwen is the first person she has ever met who has made her long to, more now than ever before.
Mary Jane always admired Gwen, but Gwen always seemed so unattainable. Her life blessed, somewhat akin to that of Disney princess. If Gwen had begun talking to wild animals during one of their picnics in the park, Mary Jane would hardly have felt surprised.
Gwen was Rapunzel, smiling down at Mary Jane from the heights of her tower, but there was no golden rope for Mary Jane to climb.
But now, now Gwen’s tower has crumbled, now Gwen has toppled to Earth, now Gwen is here, in Mary Jane’s bed, and she’s not unreachable at all.
All Mary Jane has to do is have the bravery, for once, to reach out and bridge the gap between them. All she has to do is be as brave as Gwen.
All she has to do is let Gwen in. Let Gwen see her for what she truly is.
The thought terrifies Mary Jane more than she can say, but somehow she dredges up the courage to begin to tell Gwen the truth.
“My mother died,” she says quietly. “A few years ago.”
“Oh,” Gwen says. “And…your father?”
“He’s—” Oh, Mary Jane doesn’t like to talk about this. She’s never. Not with anyone. “—alive. But. We don’t talk. I can’t talk to him. I won’t.”
Gwen says nothing, as though she’s waiting to hear more, and Mary Jane is afraid for one breathless moment that she’s going to push the issue, but she doesn’t.
“Then you’re alone too?” Gwen asks.
Mary Jane thinks of Gayle, and she feels a surge of guilt. She’s not ready to tell Gwen about that. The sister she cruelly turned her back on. Some secrets she’ll keep. “Yes,” she says. “Except…my aunt, I suppose.”
Gwen nods. “I have an uncle,” she says. “In England. And two cousins. I’ve only ever met them once. At my mother’s funeral when I was five. I don’t remember them. They called me when Dad died, you know. Asked me if I wanted to go live with them. I thought about it, but…I didn’t—I couldn’t face the thought of leaving my home right now. Everyone I care about. Not after everything else I’ve lost. I would just…feel even more alone than I already do.”
“Well,” Mary Jane says. “I guess we can be alone together.”
Gwen snorts. “I don’t think we can be alone if we’re together, MJ.”
“Then we’ll be together,” Mary Jane says. “You and me. Forever.”
Gwen doesn’t say anything for a long time. She rolls over, almost as though she wants to look into Mary Jane’s face and see the truth that’s written there, beneath the mask she’s cast aside for the first time in her life, but she can’t. It’s too dark to make out each other’s features. “Do you mean that, Mary Jane?” she asks. “Do you really mean that?”
Mary Jane strokes her fingers down Gwen’s cheek, and she can’t help it if it seems loving. It is. “Yes,” she says. “Always.”
Mary Jane understands, as her lips meet Gwen’s for the first time, that this is what was always going to happen between them, from the moment their eyes first met in the Coffee Bean and they stole each other’s breath away.
Within her breast blossoms the hope that perhaps here, in Gwen, she has found at last someone with whom she can share her bed, her life, her self, everything she is.
At last, at long last, she has found someone who will love her for who she truly is. No games. No masks. No lies. No roles to slip in and out of, onstage and off.
There will be only truth between them and, within that truth, love. Love, the likes of which neither of them has ever known.
That, Mary Jane knows.