Marriage is a three-ring circus: the engagement ring, the wedding ring, and the suffering.

Chapter 1: Crappily Ever After

"And do you, Blackheart?"

The demon prince of Hell, decked from head to heel in black silk and velveteen, wearing a crown of ebony studded with infernal jewels, smiled sneeringly and tightened his grip on Johnny Blaze's arm. "I do," he murmured darkly.

The satanic priest, clad in hellfire-red vestments with a large inverted cross swinging from his scaly neck, slapped shut the Hell Bible with a puff of sulfurous smoke. He grinned at the young couple warmly through his fangs. "Then I now pronounce you demon and devil. You may kiss th-"

But Blackheart had already thrown himself into Blaze's arms and was kissing him with all the ravenous passion of teenage nymphomaniac. Both sides of Saint Judas Cathedral erupted into cheers and applause, bringing Johnny Blaze back to his senses. He let out a startled cry and jerked back, gasping for breath. "Wh-what! What's happening! Where am I?"

The organist launched into Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D min, and hats flew into the air as the congregation went wild. It was Dante's Inferno meets Princess Di's wedding.

Johnny broke his horrified stare from the sanctuary and looked down at himself. He was dressed like a villain straight out of a Bram Stoker novel, complete with a black cloak and satin vest embroidered with spider webs and pentacles. He looked up at Blackheart, who gave him a coy smile and purred, "Hello . . . husband."

Blaze opened his mouth to scream, but his brain had stopped functioning. Along with the rest of his body. He passed the fuck out, right then and there, in the middle of his own wedding. Nobody seemed to notice his body thumping down the altar steps — it was Blackheart's day, after all. The Prince of Hell pulled the black rose from his lapel and tossed it into the crowd, who began gouging out eyes and tearing flesh to get it.

In the first pew, Mephistopheles stood up and put on a sad, fatherly smile. "They grow up so fast," he said wistfully. "It seems like just yesterday he was a little imp who could barely choke a puppy. And now he's a full-grown hellion-" The Devil choked, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, and blew his nose. "This is the happiest day of my life. Hold me, Beelzebub."

The Archdemon Beelzebub sighed and put his arm around his lord, letting him dampen the front of his suit with bloodtears of joy.

Two large demons approached the altar and dragged Blaze up, bearing the unconscious human from the cathedral as Blackheart gallantly led the way.

† † †

Johnny woke with a pounding headache and found himself lying in a large, comfy bed. He sat up and saw that he was in a stone-walled bedroom decorated in the gothic style, with tapestries and Rembrandts on the wall, black curtains and bed covers, candelabras and chandeliers . . . and a Nintendo Wii in the corner. And a Rob Zombie poster beside the shelf filled with Marvel comics and freshman biology text books.

Blaze threw himself off the bed and went to the open window for some air, but he couldn't suck in a breath because he began to hyperventilate at the sight that greeted him: a lovely sky of churning black clouds over a fiery red atmosphere; a range of erupting stratovolcanoes in the distance; to the east a broad desert tortured by whirlwinds and lightning; to the west a black ocean sending whitecaps crashing against the coast; before him a wide stretch of obsidian skyscrapers and medieval towers in a very Earth-like imitation of Brooklyn. They even had trees, and some of them weren't on fire.

"Oh, my God," Johnny uttered, drawing back. "I've died and gone to Hell."

"Well, you're half right."

Blaze whipped around. Blackheart was standing across the room, stripped down to his shirt and trousers from the ceremony. He was undoing his cuffs as he strode toward the man, who raised his hand warningly and was slightly shocked at the sight of a gold ring on his finger — where the hell had that come from? "Alright, I don't know how you did it, but I'm gonna kick your ass if you don't put me right back on Earth where I belong!"

Blackheart laughed. "Oh, Johnny. It's a little late for that."

Blaze backed away slowly. "Why am I here? What have you done!"

"You mean you don't remember?" The prince feigned surprise before his chuckles got the better of him — he raised his hand, showing off the matching gold wedding band that he wore. "Of course you wouldn't. You'd have to be an archdemon to see through the spell I put you under four months ago."

"Spell?" Johnny spat. "What spell? What are you, some kinda fucking witch now?"

"I'm your husband," Blackheart corrected firmly, sauntering closer. "I must confess, Johnny, at first I was surprised by your sudden 'change of heart'. But you wouldn't stop with the flowers and the movie nights at your place-"

Blaze's jaw nearly hit the floor.

"-then you begged for my hand and, well, you were such a gentleman about it that you won me over completely." He sarcastically clasped both hands over his heart and grinned. "Besides, now that I'm married my days as prince are numbered. Soon I'll be king — my father cannot deny me my inheritance, now that he's legally bound and obligated."

Blaze felt like he'd lost. His. Mind. "What!? I never asked you to-! How did-! You little son of a-!" He sprang at Blackheart, wrapped his hands around the demon's neck, and began to throttle him to death. The prince, thanks to his great powers, easily pried the man's hands off his throat and delivered a solid kick to his groin. Blaze immediately grabbed his aching, supernova-of-pain-filled crotch and fell to his knees, squeaking for breath.

"Damn it," Blackheart muttered, rubbing away the red marks on his skin. "You can't treat me like that. Don't you know I'm in a delicate condition?"

"Delicate my ass," Johnny wheezed, tears squeezing from the corners of his eyes and he glared up at his spouse. "You kicked me. In the nuts."

"And for that I'm sorry." Blackheart squatted down in front of Blaze. "Human men are surprisingly sensitive."

He reached out and brushed a tear from Johnny's cheek — Johnny made a revolted face and turned his head.

"Oh, come now. Don't be angry with me," Blackheart pouted. "You were so sweet a few weeks ago."

Something cold and sharp — like a scalpel of foreboding — went though Johnny's heart. He stared into the demon's cold blue eyes. ". . . what are you talking about?"

"Hmm, I really wish you didn't have to be spellbound for it," Blackheart murmured as a satisfied, secretive smirk came to his lips. "But there was no way you would have done it willingly."

"Done what?"

The shy, rosy expression that crossed the prince's face confirmed Johnny's worst nightmare long before the words ever came: "Planted your seed in my belly."

There was a 10-second-long pause.

"HHAAAAAAAA!" Blaze finally screeched, laughing hysterically and pointing his finger at Blackheart's startled face. "Joke's on you! You're a GUY!"

"I'm a demon," Blackheart snapped, silencing Johnny. "I can be anything I want. Have anything I need." He paused for effect. "Physically. Bodily. Anatomically."

Blaze's grin slid off his face with the rest of his hope, dignity, and sanity. He gulped dryly. "So you." He coughed. "You're. You're pregnant. By me."

"Mm hmm," Blackheart hummed, grinning smugly. "I would have told you sooner, but I wanted to wait until the spell wore off. So what do you think?" He straightened his back a little. "Am I showing yet?"

Johnny Blaze, once a fortunate man with a long life of loneliness and misery and heartache to look forward to, turned slightly and sat down on the rug, staring into space for a few moments. "Are you sure you're . . . ?"

"Three tests. All positive."

"Did . . . Did you try the EPT, too?"

"It was the first one I used."

Pause.

"Are you absolutely sure it's mine?"

"Of course. You've been the only man in my life, Johnny." He snickered. "And in my pants."

Blaze blinked slowly, all the fight gone out of him as the cold, hard reality set in: he was married to the demon Prince of Hell, apparently ass-over-tit in love with him, and had hellspawn numero uno on the way. His life could not possibly get any worse. And if it could, he didn't want to be around to see it.

He crawled to his feet with a tired groan. Blackheart rose with him. "Okay," Blaze said. "Fine. No, it's okay. Really. It's cool. It's all good. I'm fine. I'm just . . . I'm just gonna go swallow some razors, I'll be right back-"

"Oh, stop your whining," Blackheart groused, letting Johnny collapse onto the bed. "Do you have any idea what my life is going to be like for the next eight months?"

"Hey, you wanted it," Blaze growled. "You're lucky I don't punch you in the gut right now and abort that little-"

"Don't you dare," Blackheart snarled, covering his belly protectively. "I went through hell to get this baby and I'll be damned if-"

"I couldn't have been that bad," Johnny scoffed. "Sex is always the fun part of making kids."

"It wasn't for me," Blackheart retorted, giving Blaze an evil look. "The way you humans breed is positively disgusting."

"Hey, whatever works, honey. You're welcome. Now get me the hell outta here. I don't wanna see you or Blackheart Junior ever again."

Anger washed over Blackheart's face. "You think marriage is some kind of joke?"

"Our marriage? Yeah!" Blaze nodded enthusiastically. "I do! HA HA. See? It's hilarious!"

"Are you fucking kidding me?" the prince cried, suddenly looking the tiniest bit unsure of himself. "What kind of a deadbeat husband are you! You can't walk out on your newly-married, pregnant spouse!"

Johnny jumped to his feet. "This deadbeat husband can! Sayonara, pregzilla. I'm going home, where women have babies and witchcraft-possessed men aren't forced to knock up demons so that they can become kings of who-the-fuck-cares!" He started toward the door, and that was when Blackheart panicked.

"Johnny, wait! Johnny! Get back here, you lousy bastard! I'm you're husband and you will listen to me! Johnny!"

Blaze strode quickly down a long, torchlit corridor with Blackheart stomping behind him, shouting obscenities and curses and waving his arms angrily. As he struggled to yank the ring off his finger, all Blaze could think about was getting out of Hell and/or finding some implement of death to commit suicide with. And with Mr Blackheart Blaze already nagging at his heels like a demented bitch, Johnny knew that if he were forced to endure the next eight months in wedlock, he was going to need to start drinking. Heavily.

Blaze was just about to descend the main staircase when Blackheart grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around. The demon prince was livid, face red with anger and eyes gleaming dangerously. "How dare you think you can just leave like this. Do you have any idea of the planning and effort that went into arranging this whole thing? Do you know that my father has agreed to return your soul to you, and give you reign over a large portion of Hell? You're his favorite person in the world right now! You're his son-in-law!"

"Gee, thanks. I feel a lot better knowing I'm part of Satan's extended family."

Blackheart clenched his teeth, slowly shaking his head in disbelief while staring into Blaze's eyes. "I should have known," he muttered. "You've walked out on everything in your life, so why shouldn't you walk out on this? You know what that makes you, Johnny? A quitter. A big fat quitter who quits because he's scared of responsibility. Tch. You're nothing but a worthless carnie piece of shit who can't commit to anything, and I wish I never married you."

Johnny nodded wordlessly, placed his hand on Blackheart's chest, and calmly pushed him down the stairs.

Blackheart's arms shot out, spinning wildly as he tried to regain his balance, but it was already too late; he hit the stairs on his back and somersaulted end over end, thumping hard against the rug-covered stone stairs and screaming as he tumbled down and down.

In some instinctual part of Blaze's being, horror ripped through his heart when he realized he had just shoved a pregnant person down the stairs. He didn't know why he had done it, nor did he know why he found himself suddenly charging down the steps, taking them two and three at a time, bouncing off the railing and slamming against the wall.

Blackheart rolled to a stop at the bottom of the stairs and lay still. Johnny tripped over the last few steps and crashed at the demon's side. All he could think about was the baby. Blackheart's baby. His baby.

He gently reached down and pulled Blackheart into a sitting position, one arm wrapped tightly around his narrow shoulders. Blood ran from the corner of his mouth, his right eyebrow, and he looked as if he'd been hit on the head hard enough to knock him senseless.

Johnny leaned his back against the wall and looked down at the demon in his arms. He ran his hand over Blackheart's brow, combing his fingers through the jet black hair for the first time that he could remember. Why did he care? Why was he doing this? Was it the spell, or was it something else?

"Blackheart," he whispered, patting one pale cheek. "Are you okay? Blackheart, wake up. Hey listen, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do it. Open your eyes or something. Please. I didn't mean to push you. I'd forgotten all about . . ."

Why was his vision all blurry? Why did his eyes sting like that?

He gave Blackheart a gentle shake. "I'm sorry," he repeated. "Look, I'll stay already. I'll do whatever you want. Just wake up and tell me you're okay. Tell me it's gonna be alright. Tell me that I didn't kill it . . ."

Bruised eyelids slowly fluttered open over a pair of eyes way too blue and pure to belong to a demon. Blackheart blinked a few more times and then a look of terror crossed his face as he fully came to. "Oh. Oh no-!" he uttered brokenly, his hands flying to his still-flat belly. "Oh please no-"

He stopped midsentence when Johnny's hand covered his own, and he looked up with astonishment. "John. Johnny-?"

The man had a harrowing, remorseful look on his face, as if he'd just been found guilty of the worst crime imaginable. "I'm sorry I did this to you. You were right. I am a worthless piece of shit. Only a total, complete bastard would push his pregnant wuh. Hus. S-spouse down the stairs. You wanted this baby, and who the hell am I to take it from you. I. I'm so fucking sorry, you don't even . . ." He bowed his head shamefully, unable to look at those stunned, betrayed eyes any more.

A hand grasping his collar brought him back up, and he saw a twinkle of light bounce off of the demon's gold ring. Blackheart looked up at him expressionlessly, and licked his bloody lips. "I'm. I'm sorry, too, Johnny. I shouldn't . . . shouldn't have done that to you. It was a mistake. I was foolish to think you'd want to commit to this, and it was wrong of me to make that decision for you. I'm sorry."

The question that had been begging to be asked finally came to Blaze: "Why me, Blackheart? Why did you pick me?"

"I . . ." The prince looked away. "I wanted my inheritance. I wanted you out of the picture forever. By marrying you, I'd get my rightful title and my father would have to relinquish his power over your soul. I knew you might cause trouble once you left Hell, so I thought . . ." He struggled to say the words. "I thought that if I gave you a family, something you'd always wanted, you'd leave me alone and we'd be even." He smiled slightly, only to let it fade as he rested his hand on his stomach. "I guess that's not going to happen now. I'm sorry, Johnny."

Blaze bit his lip and told himself that men don't cry, that he was a man and that he wasn't going to cry because he was a man who didn't cry. He released a trembling breath and gave Blackheart a gentle squeeze. "Not as sorry as I am."

The sound of approaching footsteps reached their ears, and both man and demon looked up to see Mephisto, appearing out of place without his customary long black coat, hobbling hurriedly across the room. He looked like a worried old man, somebody's Papa or Uncle Roy. Not the Lord of Hell.

He crouched down at his son's side and Johnny eased him up a little. "Blackheart, my word!" Mephisto exclaimed, the fear apparent in his voice. "Are you all right? What happened?"

"It was me," Blaze confessed. "I was the one who-"

"The one who tried to catch me," Blackheart interrupted, sending a determined stare in the Johnny's direction. "I was on my way downstairs when . . . I tripped. Johnny tried to grab me but it was too late. And . . . and I'm-" He struggled for the words.

Mephisto waited. "You're what? What's going on? Why are you-"

"I'm pregnant and I think I just killed my baby!" Blackheart yelled. The first of many tears to come rolled down his cheek.

The Devil drew back, astounded and horrified. He looked at Johnny, then at his son. "When were you planning on telling me this? When I'm dead?"

"Dad!" Blackheart cried in exasperation, wiping his face with his sleeve. "Why are you worried about that now when I just lost-"

Mephisto ignored his overwrought son and reached out to place his hand on his belly. Blackheart became quiet and he and Blaze waited, watching the old man as he furrowed his brow, thinking. Assessing. Then, he smiled.

"So I'm going to be a grandfather, eh?" he said slyly.

Johnny laughed with relief. If you would have told him six months ago that he'd be happy his immortal enemy was carrying his demonic offspring, he would have flambéed your internal organs and turned your eyes into charcoal briquettes. But that wasn't the case now.

Blackheart released a huge sigh and let his head fall against Blaze's chest. Mephisto stood up with a strained grunt and put both hands on the skull of his cane. "Don't scare me like that again, young man," he warned halfheartedly as Johnny helped Blackheart to his feet. "And don't ever hide news this important from me ever again. There's a lot to be done, you know. This whole house has got to change. It needs to be baby-proofed. Can't have toddlers running into the lava pits or playing with the cutlery, and if the child is anything like you were, Blackheart, we're going to need a witch doctor to live with us until the boy's at least thirty — or the girl, if it's a girl, until she's married and sent off to live with her husband-"

While Mephisto continued to ramble on about this and that, interjecting a few exclamations about the pitter patter of little feet and the pride of being a grandparent, you know, routine insanity and out-of-characterness like that, Johnny and Blackheart slipped away and headed toward the fountain in the foyer. The man kept a firm hold on his demonic spouse, as if he were liable to trip and fall and kill himself and the baby in another freak mishap.

"I guess this means we're even after all," said Blackheart, sitting down on the edge of the fountain. Water gushed from the stone dragons in the center, and black lily pads floated in the pool.

"I guess so," Blaze agreed, sitting down beside him. "Here, let me, um . . . Your face is kinda bloody so . . ." He pulled his sleeve over his hand and dipped it in the water, and bashfully dabbed at the bloody cuts on Blackheart's face. The prince closed his eyes and held still until it was done, a hint of a smile growing on his lips.

"Thanks," he said.

"Sure," Johnny nodded.

An awkward silence fell between them. They listened to the water splashing and Mephisto's distant yammering.

"So, uh. Are you going to. . ." Blackheart began, suddenly very interested in a button on his vest. ". . . come back to collect the baby? When I have it."

Blaze sighed, leaning his elbows on his knees. "No. I don't think I'm gonna do that."

Blackheart appeared as if he'd just been shoved down the stairs a second time. If he had a heart, Johnny was sure he could hear it breaking.

"What I mean," he reiterated, "is that I'm not planning on going anywhere. Not now." He reached over and grasped Blackheart's pale hand, a bold gesture of determination. "I'm not running out on the most important part of my life. I've got responsibilities now: I'm gonna be somebody's dad."

He and Blackheart shared a brief glance with one another. Nervous smiles, worried eyes. They were going to be parents, after all.

"But if you put a spell on me like that again," Johnny muttered, "I'm gonna kick your ass and let our kid join in."

Blackheart grinned a sideways smirk. "Okay," he nodded. "Fair enough."

"But y'know," Johnny wondered, releasing Blackheart's hand, "I bet if you hadn't put a spell on me I never would've agreed to this."

"Naturally. No sane man willingly wants to get married. Even demons know that. Just ask my father about his marriage. He was solid drunk for the first two years."

"That explains you, I suppose."

"Hey."

"No, really. Coming from me, that was a complement. You don't even wanna know about my parents."

Pause.

Blackheart mused, "We've got a lot to learn about each other, don't we?"

"Yeah," Johnny agreed. "That we do."

The fell into quiet chuckles and nods, then Blackheart sighed in a moving-on-to-another-topic sort of way. "So. You think there's any way you can rig a car seat to the Hellcycle?"

The Beginning