When Henry entered Junk N’ Stuff, the first thing he noticed was the cannon. It was parked in the front area of the shop, pointed directly at the door.
“Ray?” The shop owner poked his head up from under the counter. Smirking, Henry pointed at the cannon. “What’s this?” Ray smiled.
“This is a working Battle of Swellview cannon replica.” His eyes flashed with excitement. “I’m thinking someone in town is bound to love it.” Henry chuckled, shaking his head. Ray was always full of crazy ideas, but who knew? Maybe someone would buy it.
“Do we have anything to take care of in the cave?”
“Not as of yet. Seems people are being nice today.” Ray quietly laughed, grabbing a rag from the counter. Turning to the cannon, he said, “Just gotta shine this thing, and then we can sell it.”
“Anything you need help with?” Henry shifted his feet, wanting something to do. Not seeming to hear him, Ray noticed a chain attached to the cannon.
“Wonder what this does?” he muttered under his breath. And before Henry could stop him, Ray pulled it.
Ray found himself standing behind the cannon, hands over his ringing ears. His knees threatened to buckle, so he set the right one down and tried to breathe. Smoke filled the doorway of the shop; thankfully, no one was around and the smoke detectors weren’t going off.
“Oh…” Ray pulled his hands away from his ears; thankfully, no blood. Wincing, he let the ringing subside. “That could have been bad, Henry.” And then he saw the state of his friend.
Henry was lying on the stairs, hair tousled from the explosion. A thin layer of dirt covered his body, but what scared Ray the most was the giant burn mark in the center of his chest. His eyes were closed, and if it weren’t for the debris and cannonball, he could’ve just been asleep.
“Henry!” Feeling returning to his legs, Ray leapt over the cannon and dashed toward him. Panic filled him. “Please be okay, please be okay, please be okay…”
It was even worse up close. There were hairline cuts on Henry’s face; the fringe of his shirt was torn. Trying not to overreact, Ray kneeled and felt for a pulse.
“Come on, come on, come on… You’re okay, you’ve got to be okay. You’re Kid Danger.” But deep down, he knew that wouldn’t matter. Because no matter how hard he tried, Ray couldn’t find a pulse.
“No…” He drew back and shook his head, panic overtaking him again. “This can’t be happening.” Leaning forward, Ray focused on Henry and shouted at the top of his lungs, “WAKE UP!” His friend didn’t even twitch.
Rage filled him. Picking the cannonball up from Henry’s lap, Ray turned and chucked it at a nearby lamp. The object fell to the floor with a crash and shattered; on any other day, he might have cared.
Pushing himself to the foot of the stairs, Ray squeezed Henry’s left ankle. He couldn’t think; he felt numb. How...he had sworn to protect the kid from anything. And then he went and did this.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen…” Ray shook his head, tears forming. “You had so much potential, Henry… Why did I go and screw it all up? We had so much time left.” His mind kept going, but his mouth stopped. A thought had entered his mind, and it scared him.
Before Ray could break even more, Henry suddenly stirred. Leaping away from him, the older superhero tried not to panic and prayed he wasn’t hallucinating.
“Ugh…” Henry sat up and shook the cobwebs from his brain. Eyelids fluttering, he took in his surroundings. Ray was in front of him, eyes wider than he had ever seen. In a word, he looked stunned (and perhaps a little terrified).
“How…” Ray didn’t even know where to start. Slowly getting to his feet, Henry rubbed his head and groaned,
“Well, that hurt.” Captain Man was flabberghasted.
“How are you alive?!” Henry looked at him, confused. Regret overtaking him, Ray shook his head. “Don’t answer that.” Crossing the room in two bounds, he took the younger man in an emotional hug. “I am so, so sorry.”
“Hey, it was just an accident,” Henry replied, still getting his bearings. Ray pulled him just the tiniest bit closer, shaking like a leaf.
“Don’t scare me like that ever again...please.”
They decided to get rid of the cannon shortly after that. Schwoz managed to find a buyer, and Henry went off to Bordertown with him. This gave Ray alone time to clean up the shop and think.
Sweeping up dirt from the blast, his eyes kept drifting to the stairs. Ray could hear the explosion in his head, he could see Henry’s lifeless body in the corner of his peripheral vision. He felt sick, and he felt sad.
There was no one around. Tossing out the last of the debris, Ray looked around. So many memories, so much potential...and he had nearly squandered it all.
His knees buckled, and he sank down onto the steps. Ray’s mind was turning again, bringing up the thoughts from earlier. The thoughts he couldn’t say out loud.
Henry was a 14-year-old kid. There were older, female options on the market, and yet Ray had somehow fallen for him. Out of all the people in the world, he had to fall for the one person he could not have.
Tears filled his eyes for the third time that afternoon. Pinching his forehead, Ray tried to convince himself he was just emotional. He had nearly killed Henry, after all. But the feelings didn’t subside, and memories bubbled to the surface.
“What does this mean?”
“Now we’re engaged.”
“Hah, just kidding.”
Had he been kidding? Ray shook, flexing his fingers in and out.
“It was just a joke, Ray. You’re not actually…” His voice cut out, sending a wave of terror down his spine. “You’re not actually in love with him.” And then, for the first time in a long time, Ray cried.
The next few months were a slog. Henry and Charlotte explained the former’s new invulnerability to Ray, along with the dangerous side effects. Schwoz spent many sleepless nights trying to come up with a solution, leaving them deadlocked. And as they succumbed to cabin fever, Ray’s feelings grew.
This is totally inappropriate , he told himself one day as Henry ate a bowl of cereal. You CANNOT have feelings for him. It is illegal and immoral. But his heart didn’t seem to care.
Finally, after a week of tension, Schwoz devised an antidote. Henry drank it down, winced a few times, and then Charlotte slapped him in the face. A nice purple bruise formed, bringing a new era along with it.
They continued fighting crime, defeating villains right and left. It was a career high, and Ray should’ve been happy. But he wasn’t.
He hated this, being in the same room as Henry and chewing on his tongue every time he spoke. Ray’s heart beat faster every day, and while it hadn’t gotten to the point of dreams, he knew he was obsessed. Obsessed with his sidekick and all the charm he brought to the team.
After some time, Ray realized he couldn’t continue like this. He couldn’t grow to resent Henry for something that wasn’t his fault. And so, six months after the incident, he asked the team to join him in the cave.
“You’re what?!” The words were Charlotte’s. Staring at them with a bag in his hand, Ray nodded.
“As important as fighting crime is, I have begun to overstay my welcome. But if I remain here in Swellville, someone will find me.” He tried not to look at Henry, who was confused out of his mind.
“But where will you go?” Charlotte asked. Ray swallowed down the lump rising in his throat.
“I don’t know yet. And that’s okay.” He finally turned to Henry. “I trust you, Kid Danger. I know you can handle this by yourself.”
Charlotte said her goodbyes and left. Schwoz gave Ray a hug and retreated back into his lab, choking away tears under his breath. That left the two of them there, all alone.
Henry glanced up at the monitors, digesting his new task. Swellview still needed a protector: him. And even if it proved to be hard, he would do his best.
“How are you feeling?” Ray was quiet, halfway between Henry and the elevator. The younger man shrugged.
“Nervous. Sad. I don’t know.” Henry bit his tongue. “Are you sure you can’t stay?”
“Positive.” It was the first time Ray had been honest with him in months. Swallowing, he crossed the floor toward his friend. The friend he loved more than anything.
“Henry...I’m going to miss you.” There was no humor, no double meaning in his comment. Reaching up, Ray held Henry’s face in his hands, a bashful smile on his face. Staring at him in wonder, the younger man whispered,
“Please be okay.”
After that, time blurred together. Ray left Swellview, and for a few months, he did nothing but travel around. Eventually he settled down in a town called Gaines, and from then on life was good. Schwoz sent profit checks from the store every month, allowing him to lay low. No more Captain Man.
Henry, meanwhile, was doing great. Every time Ray looked, there was another article about how awesome Kid Danger was. A couple of media outlets had questioned where Captain Man was, but every time they asked, Henry replied, “He’s taking a well-deserved break.”
Years passed. Kid Danger grew older, and Captain Danger began to mellow out. Charlotte called a few times to check it; really, Ray assured her, everything was fine. And for four years, that was true.
One night, Ray was startled awake by the sound of his cellphone ringing. A look at the clock told him it was just past midnight; processing this information, he fumbled for the answer button.
“Ray, it’s me.” He froze at the sound. How long had it been since their last conversation.
“Henry? What’s going on?”
“You have to come back.” That jolted Ray awake.
“It’s...too big to explain. I need to tell you in person.”
“Okay. See you soon.”
Swellville hadn’t changed in four years. Driving back into town, Ray kept his eyes peeled for any irregularities. Nothing caught his attention.
Junk N’ Stuff was also the same. No one was around, but Ray’s key still worked on the front door. Cracking it open, he sighed.
Henry wouldn’t have called him back unless something really bad had happened. Expecting a crisis of epic proportions, Ray headed to the elevator and got in. He didn’t even flinch when it hurtled down to the cave. Everything seemed to be normal...for the most part.
The cave was just the same as he remembered. Stepping off the elevator, Ray looked around and took a deep breath. It even had the same “miscellaneous food and chemical” smell.
No one was around. Setting down his bag, Ray ventured into the room. The decorative lights gave off a faint hue, but the monitors weren’t on and no alarms were blaring. Had someone already gotten in?
“Ray?” Standing at the foot of the monitors, he froze. “It’s really good to see you.” Fixing a smile onto his face, Ray turned around.
Henry was taller now, almost his height. His face had softened, his hair smoother and flatter. Hands in his pockets and sporting a friendly grin, he waited for Ray to speak.
“You...you got tall.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess I did,” Henry laughed, eyes briefly glancing at the floor. Ray watched him in confusion, not putting the pieces together.
“You said something had happened. So, what’s up?”
“Do you…” Henry let out a tiny chuckle; he was obviously very nervous. “Do you know what today is, Ray?”
“No, I have to admit, I don’t.”
“It’s my birthday. I’m now 18.” A genuinely shocked smile appeared on Ray’s face.
“That’s awesome, dude! Congratulations.”
“Thank you.” Henry swallowed. “Um...please don’t get mad, okay?”
“I could never get mad at you.” The comment slipped out before Ray could stop it. Henry only chuckled, stepping closer to him.
“Ray, there’s something I’ve been thinking about the past couple of years. Something I realized after you left.” He sighed, figuring out how to continue. “When you announced your retirement, I...I have to admit, I was shocked. It didn’t seem like you.” The space between them was closing, but Ray pretended not to notice. “And...in your absence, something happened.”
“What happened, Henry?” Stopping right in front of him, Henry looked up. His eyes sparkled, the intent evident in his expression.
“I...I started thinking about you a lot. Wondering why you left, wondering if I could’ve done better. It kept me up at night.” Henry swallowed, his face turning bright red. “I guess...I began to become obsessed with you.” And those were the words Ray needed to hear. If it were anyone else, they’d already be making out. But he couldn’t do that. Not to Henry.
“So...that’s why you called me back here?” he began. Henry flushed harder, nervous out of his mind. Smiling, Ray reached out and brushed away a strand of hair from his face. “How ironic.”
“How is it ironic?” Henry’s voice shook. Realizing his mistake, Ray softened, a rare feat.
“Well, the whole reason I left...is because you were 14 and I didn’t want to be stupid.” Henry’s eyes widened in shock.
“You mean...you were…” He winced, not able to spit the words out.
“Yes.” Ray gave a hopeful smile. Staring at him, heart pounding, Henry leaned forward and closed the distance between them.
The kiss was strange, yet enjoyable. Henry was soft against Ray; both of them were terrified about messing up. After a few seconds, the younger man reached up and wrapped his arms around the older one’s neck to stabilize himself. The kiss deepened; four and a half years of raw emotion finally pouring out. Stopping themselves before going too far, they broke apart.
“I…” Henry wanted to apologize, but Ray shook his head.
“You have nothing to apologize for.”
“I know.” Arching onto his tiptoes, Henry kissed him again. Then, returning to a flat position, he finally whispered, “I love you, Ray.”
For a moment, there was nothing. Then, Ray leaned forward and kissed Henry, still calmly but with more passion. Pulling away, holding him in his arms, he whispered,
“I love you, Henry.” And then they stood there, in each others arms, eyes closed and savoring the hug. The hug Ray never thought would’ve been possible.