All shirt designers should be shot, Johnny grumbled under his breath as he fumbled with a loose button-up shirt. Since he was getting released later that afternoon, Sue had thoughtfully brought him either a regular T-shirt or a button-up, allowing him to decide which would be easiest to put on. All it had taken was his raising his right arm and feeling his ribs protest angrily for him to turn immediately to the button-up. However, that brought another slew of problems. With his cast and limited mobility, sliding into and buttoning said shirt was turning into freakin' nightmare.
He had gotten the left half of the shirt on without a problem—cast and all—but his ribs were still vehemently denying him the ability to slip his right arm into the sleeve. He scowled at the fabric, cursing those who had decided that shirts, pants and shoes were acceptable attire.
He heard a soft knock and glanced upwards to find Frankie Raye hovering awkwardly in the doorway.
"Hey," Johnny began, breaking the silence, shaking his head in frustration before letting half of the shirt slip back onto the bed. He'd wait until Sue or Reed returned from checking him out or having one final discussion with his doctor. Hell, even Ben, who had been tasked with finding a place to stay for a few short days until Johnny was back to "normal", would be an acceptable option for helping him squeeze into this modern torture device.
And yes, waiting for Ben would be a big deal since his ears were still stinging from the tongue lashing he had gotten from his former CO for continuing to act in ways that were counterproductive to his continued health…or something like that. Five minutes into the rant, Johnny had stopped listening. Knowingly, Ben only continued for another minute before awkwardly patting Johnny on the shoulder muttering "Glad you're alright." The Thing then proceeded to set the land speed record for leaving.
But that was another story for another day. He turned his focus back to the beautiful woman who was nervously leaning against the doorframe.
"Hey yourself," she shot back, sensing that was an invitation to enter. Dressed in a light cotton skirt and white blouse with her blonde hair falling loosely out of a single braid, she looked completely different—and that much more sexy…or, at least, that was Johnny's opinion. She perched on the arm of the recliner, not looking at all comfortable.
"Sooooo," he drawled, shifting slightly so she was in his eye line.
"Yeah," she nodded, looking anxiously around the room. Her eyes landed on his half-clothed figure. "You need some help with that shirt?"
"No," Johnny retorted automatically.
Frankie raised one eyebrow in disbelief. "Let's see you put it on then," she slipped off the armrest into the chair and leaned back cockily, arms crossed over her chest.
"Okay fine," Johnny tried again to avoid shifting his ribs while reaching around with his casted left hand to drag the shirt as close to his hand as possible. He felt the fabric stretch taut but still the arm hole wasn't close enough that he would be successful without moving his ribcage. And he wasn't about to try, given the fact that he was getting released today.
"Yes," he admitted quietly.
Surprisingly without a snappy comeback, Frankie got up from the recliner and reached around him to grab the elusive piece of fabric. In their close proximity, he couldn't help but inhale her light and flowery perfume.
She noticed his nose suspiciously close to her person and poked him in the shoulder. Hard. "Eyes on the prize, Storm."
"Yes ma'am!" He sobered quickly, but the smile returned just as fast when she was able to gently maneuver his arm into the shirt with minimal amounts of torso jarring.
"They should pay you for that," he offered as a "thank you", focusing now on buttoning the front of the shirt and grimacing at the thought.
Small hands batted his away. "Let me do it," Frankie insisted, easily fitting each button into its slit. She was done in record time.
"Funny, women aren't usually trying to get it into a shirt," Johnny quipped as he leaned back against the raised portion of the hospital bed.
"Most haven't already seen you in a towel beforehand," she returned lightly, relaxing against the plush recliner.
"Or maybe they have," he countered, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. "That's for me to know and you to find out."
"What are you, seven?"
Johnny thought for a second. "That's more generous than most."
She opened her mouth to retort but was quickly reminded of her real intention for her visit. "Wait, let's start over. That's not why I came."
"So you weren't skulking in the hallway waiting to catch me shirtless again? I'm hurt," Johnny clasped his hand to his heart, a faux expression of pain on his face.
Captain Raye leaned forward and gently swatted Johnny's shoulder. "You wanna be serious for a minute?"
He frowned at the change in her behavior. "Yeah," he said slowly. "What's up?"
"I came to apologize," Frankie was speaking very quickly with words smashed together, pulling a face that let Johnny know that these words did not come naturally to her, "for what I said back at base."
The younger Storm shifted uncomfortably. "Well, it's not really necessary. You didn't say anything that wasn't true."
"At the time," Frankie amended. "I wouldn't say all of that was necessarily true now."
"Let's run through the list, shall we? Confident: check. Reckless: I don't even need to ask your opinion on that one. Irresponsible: Let's just consider the London Eye fiasco. Self-obsessed: Well, my motto has always been, if you've got it, flaunt it…What?" he paused as he saw Frankie shaking her head sadly.
"If that's all you see, John Storm, then I feel sorry for you."
His expression danced between confusion and anger, his eyes flashing dangerously. "Sorry for—"
"Two nights ago, I saw all those qualities, in a man who saved…well, it sounds really cheesy, but, yeah, you helped save the world. Helped dumbass," she added as his expression morphed into pure glee. "You separated Doom from his board and gave Norrin a chance at stopping Galla, Gallata—"
"Galactus," Johnny offered, still enthused about her words.
"Sure," she waved dismissively. "It's all about the context, Johnny. In the right context, all those qualities are honorable. Something I hadn't considered beforehand."
"You and the rest of the world," Johnny muttered.
Now it was her turn to look uneasy. "Well, that was really all I had to say, so I'm just gonna go," and within the next few seconds, she was already at the door.
"I just figured I owed you an apology. You're not the man I thought you were Jonathon Storm," she added softly before she stepped out of sight.
"Frankie! Wait!" Johnny shouted, pulling himself upright. Having forgotten temporarily about his injuries, he gasped as a sharp pain lanced through his ribs. He clutched at his side and focused on breathing to ride out the pain.
He heard the soft clicking of footsteps, too sharp to be any of the nursing staff, and lifted his head slightly to see Captain Raye standing by his bedside once again.
"Tell me you didn't just—"
"Yup," Johnny grimaced. Her hands reached out and helped to lower him against the bed.
"I can't believe you."
Johnny raised his eyebrows at her, shrugged his shoulders, and fed her his best shit-eating grin.
"Sooooo, what?" she drawled after the taut lines of pain on his face began to fade.
"What's so important that you almost set back your recovery?"
"I was gonna say, if you really feel that way, you can make it up to me," Johnny offered after a long moment.
She narrowed her eyes at him. "If it involves handcuffs, I'll pass."
As if she hadn't spoken, he continued. "I have a feeling Sue and Reed are going to try to tie the knot again while we're here. I was wondering if you'd like to accompany me in a mutual, let's-get-to-know-the-real-Johnny-Storm-and-Frankie-Raye kind of night."
"No strings attached," he continued when he saw her hesitate. "Just one 'date'," he used finger-quotes to loosely define the word.
She thought for another minute. "Sure. I've got some leave time coming anyway. It'd be nice to stay here for a little while."
"It's a date then," Johnny said automatically. "But not a date—just a get together. A meeting of business partners so to speak."
"Goodbye Johnny," Frankie laughed, stepping out the door, but turning back one last time so he could see the sparkle in her eyes.
"Goodbye Frankie," he muttered softly under his breath, not having any further time to mull over their conversation since Sue returned with the wheelchair, ready to take him 'home'.
"MISTER TORCH!" Johnny turned at the sound of a child's exclamation and saw a small blond boy, clothed in a white dress shirt and black slacks, running towards him.
"You must be Chris," he said with a smile at the boy's enthusiasm.
Chris nodded continuously, his eyes staring in pure adoration at his idol. After a second, he shook his head and slowly reached out his hand, still awestruck.
"Hi," was the only word he could manage. Johnny returned the gesture, enclosing the boy's small hand in his own and shaking it once.
"CHRISTOPHER!" The boy winced.
"Sowwy mommy!" He shouted over his shoulder at his family, which was quickly approaching. "I founded Mister Torch!"
Taking a few longer strides, his mother quickly caught up with them. She immediately crouched down so she was staring her son straight in the eye, "You can't keep running off Christopher. It makes daddy and me worry."
"I sowwy," Chris repeated.
"Just, please, don't do it again?" she practically begged.
"Yes mommy," the boy agreed.
The mother nodded and stood up, extending her hand to Johnny. "Mister Storm, I'm so glad to see you up and about."
"It's Johnny," he insisted, shaking her hand, "and I hear Chris had something to do with that."
The boy's eyes widened even further, realizing he had not been the polite gentleman like his mother had taught him. "This my fam'ly Mister Torch. That my mom—"
"Lori," the woman whispered so as not to disrupt Chris' introductions.
"—and my dad—"
"Dan," the man said, shifting his younger son into his other arm so he could shake Johnny's hand. "Thank you so much for inviting us. My boys haven't talked about anything else for the last two days."
"—and that Jake," Chris continued, immune to his parent's interruptions. "He gots a cast too."
"Does he have a Fantastic Four band-aid on his cast? Cos I hear that does wonders for the healing process," Johnny asked Chris, his head tilted knowingly.
Jake nodded shyly and raised his arm so the Torch could see.
"I like," Johnny was saying when he saw a feminine hand approaching his face. He pulled back instinctively, only to realize it was Lori.
"I'm sorry, I was just noticing your bruises. Did you do that yourself?" she pointed to the splotchy layer of off-shade concealer coating the fading discoloration.
"Erhm, no?" he shot back, rubbing the back of his tuxedo sleeve against his face.
Lori gently caught his wrist. "You'll stain your suit. Sit down, Mister Storm—"
"Johnny," the Torch corrected again.
"—Johnny," she amended, motioning toward a nearby chair. "Hmmm, you're about the same skin tone as me," she said, pulling tubes of pale liquids and neat boxes of powders from her bag. "I'll get you patched up in no time."
"Please, Lori," Johnny begged, recognizing the objects as makeup. "I'll be—"
"This is your sister's special day, Johnny. I don't think she wants to remember it with you looking like you stopped at a fight club beforehand." She pointed at the chair.
Johnny considered her statement. "Sitting down," he agreed, gently lowering himself into the plastic seat.
"Now just hold still," she instructed, wielding brushes, funny looking foam-tipped thingies and spray cans. Her fingers and the instruments danced lightly over his healing black eye and bruised cheek, causing him no additional pain.
"You's all right Mister Torch?" Chris asked worriedly.
"I'm fine," Johnny quickly replied. "I think…"
"Done," she announced. Unable to stop herself from first flattening his collar as she had done this morning for her three men, she produced a compact mirror from her pocket. "Have a look."
"You's look handsome, Mister Torch," Chris declared. And Johnny had to admit the boy was right. Lori had managed to minimize the vast color wheel dominating his face, making him look almost as good as usual.
"I don't think 'thank you' covers it," he stated.
She shook her head. "After what you did for us, this is nothing."
"Johnny!" the group turned to see Frankie heading toward them, chattering nonstop into the cell phone glued to her ear. "Yeah," they heard her say, "I found him. Yes, Sue, he's on his way."
She nodded once and snapped the phone closed. "The photographer needs you."
"Already?" Johnny whined, reluctantly standing. "We still have another hour before the wedding starts."
"Just go," Frankie lightly shoved him towards the archway.
"Wait," Johnny whirled around and turned back to the little boy. "I have something for you."
Chris' eyes went wide. "Like a present?"
"Exactly like a present," he reached into his tuxedo and pulled out a rectangle wrapped messily in brown paper.
Frankie snorted at the lumpy, unevenness of the package. "Hey," Johnny began defensively, "I didn't see you helping. This cast has a mind of its own."
"Sure, sure," Frankie pacified, gently patting Johnny's back. "Keep tellin' yourself that."
The two watched Chris make quick work of the wrapping. He tore the last piece away to reveal…
"A FANTASTIC FOUR COMIC BOOK!"
"Not just a Fantastic Four comic book," Johnny informed him, "that is the unreleased version of last week's events. It's not due to hit the store for another month. Plus," he reached down and flipped open the first page, "I had everyone sign it for you."
The boy stared at the pages without speaking.
"What do you say, Chris?" Lori prompted her son.
The wide blue eyes left the book and slowly rose until they reached Johnny's face.
Awestruck, he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Johnny's legs.
"T'ank you," he said soberly.
Tired of watching this whole exchange, Jake wriggled in his father's arms until Dan put him on the ground. He then walked up to Johnny and, following his brother's lead, hugged the Storm.
"You're welcome," the Human Torch replied, bending down slightly and patting the two boys on the backs.
Soft music began sifting through the air prompting everyone to head toward the beautiful archway erected only feet away from the ocean.
"I guess that's our cue to let you go," Dan picked up Jake and reached his free hand for Lori's. She quickly dumped her makeup back into the suitcase and grabbed Chris' wrist.
"Say—" she began.
"Bye, Mister Torch." His free hand clutching his new comic book to his chest, Chris waved continuously, his brother doing the same, as the family walked away. "You's the bestest!"
"Well that was nice of you," Frankie commented.
"It's the least I could do. I hear from Ben that he really distracted Sue while I was…" he rocked his head back and forth as he struggled to come up with the word. "And you know, the other stuff."
"Yeah, I do," Frankie tucked her arm around his and leaned her head on his shoulder. "Let's go Torch. Sue's waiting for ya."
As they walked towards the archway, Johnny reflected on his current situation.
Galactus was gone—Norrin too—though the silver dude had been starting to grow on Johnny, not that he would admit it to anyone; the planet was saved, at least until Reed underestimated the power of yet another experiment; his sister was getting married: yes, the marriage was to Reed but Johnny had already discussed how he was going to systematically dismember Reed if he broke Sue's heart so that wasn't really an issue anymore; he was battered and bruised but, due to his newfound healing rate, almost healthy again, which meant they could go back to the US as soon as the wedding was over; and, last but not least, he had a beautiful girl on his arm, one who had a head on her shoulders and who had learned to see past the dog-and-pony show Johnny put on to mask his true feelings.
So, yeah, he thought, if this were a comic book, I guess you could say, things were back to normal.
He winced as he heard glass shattering and saw Ben dancing out of a tent, frosting coating his index finger. In the background, he watched Reed's arm extend, snatching a camera from a younger man hiding behind some bushes and retracting to regular shape just seconds before the photographer snapped yet another picture and noticed Sue's concentration lapse briefly between shots, allowing the small healing cut on her forehead to come into view. Just out of the camera's range, volunteers scurried between trees, hanging bouquets of flowers and decorative ribbon, before the press could catch wind of this private affair.
Well, Johnny reconsidered, staring at the chaotic scene surrounding them, normal for us, at least.
Thanks to all who read, reviewed, alerted or favorited Stoking the Flame. I had a blast switching fandoms even for such a short fic. I hope you had as much fun reading it as I did writing it!
I'd love to hear what you thought on your way out.