Summary - Only a few hours after Johnny Storm has been rescued from Victor VonDoom, his nightmares begin. The Avengers are sympathetic but unprepared to deal with the fallout.
A few hours had passed since the others had returned with Johnny Storm to the Tower. Tony played host for a while making sure everyone who wasn't sleeping was fed; but he was restless, and watching people sleep wasn't nearly stimulating enough for him so he eventually retired to his lab to start engineering a bed for Ben. He made periodic visits to update everyone on his progress and drop off random bits of furniture.
On one of Tony's rounds he was followed by some Stark staffers wheeling a Thing-sized arm chair. Ben seemed a little uncomfortable with all of the attention being paid to him by Stark - unfiltered Tony was a lot to take in – but Ben tried to take it with good grace. On a separate trip through the medical suite Tony noticed Ben struggling to turn the pages of a book he'd scrounged from somewhere; that resulted in a conversation about Ben's inability to use any touch-screen technology. Ben explained that it was something Reed was going to "get to". Tony had vanished after that but chances were good that he'd reappear in the near future with a Stark pad that would respond to a granite finger swipe.
Bruce, Sue and Reed did their medical things, without the urgency of when Johnny had first been brought in. Mostly it was monitoring temperature and heart rate and discussing Johnny's unique physiology in comparison to the rest of the Four. Then the conversation turned to comparative physiology of the Avengers. Bruce was much more forthcoming than Tony when it came to sharing information with Reed, and Reed wasn't above tapping the well for more information.
Clint took up a position on the stool Tony had vacated earlier in the evening; it gave the archer a good vantage point of most of the room. He wasn't terribly keen on the door being behind him, but with his back to the wall it wasn't an awful position to be in.
Over the course of the past few hours the group on the bed had changed positions only slightly. Periodically Johnny rolled around and switched between facing Thor or Steve. At one point Steve rolled away to cuddle Natasha – and she let him do it. Thor's vibrant red cape filled the space between their bodies, but it didn't prevent Steve from looping his free arm around Nat's waist and pulling her close.
It was adorable; totally and completely adorable. Clint was going to give her so much shit about it later. And Clint knew that Natasha knew that Clint knew she wasn't sleeping because of course she wouldn't with so many unknowns in the room – it was one of the reasons that he'd stayed; she could stay on the bed and be still and do what she was doing for Steve because Clint was there to watch her back.
The room fell into a quiet state, but it was the quiet of not wanting to wake a sleeping youngster as opposed to the more desperate quiet that fills the room of a seriously ill loved one. Steve's breathing was deep and steady. Even Ben slipped into a semi-doze in the armchair near the bed. Clint relaxed into the quiet, but remained vigilant. That was probably why he noticed the change first.
Johnny shifted restlessly and mumbled under his breath. He wasn't sandwiched quite as tightly between Steve and Thor as he'd been when they first got settled. Thor was lying on his back and Johnny was tucked into his right side. When Johnny shifted, he rolled toward Steve's back but stayed in the middle of the bed without crashing into the sleeping Avenger.
Thor responded to Johnny's movements by opening his eyes and casting a glance at the restless man. From the other side of the bed, Natasha raised her head far enough that she could see over Steve's shoulder. Natasha sent a question with her eyes. Thor shrugged slightly in return and shook his head; it was difficult to tell if Johnny would settle down, rise to waking or something in between.
They both seemed concerned that Johnny's movements would wake up Steve who had fallen into a deep slumber. Thor eased onto his right side and reached over to lay his left hand on Johnny's chest. As it had many times during the night, a touch from the Thunder God seemed to ease Johnny and his face relaxed slightly.
But the reprise lasted only a moment. Johnny's head tossed again and Clint could see his fists clench beneath the blankets. Johnny kicked with one foot pulling the blankets down. Clint could see him shiver from the sudden chill. Once again Natasha shared a glance with Thor but this time there was an understanding. It was not shocking after all Victor had put him through that nightmares were brewing. Bruce glanced sympathetically toward the bed; he'd caught the change in the air too.
Then the display on the monitor closest to him got Bruce's attention. "Reed?" He called softly. "There's been a jump in Johnny's temperature. Does that normally happen when he's dreaming?"
Reed was engrossed in a separate set of data; Bruce had given him limited access to some of Steve's information and Reed was fascinated. "I haven't done much research on what happens while he sleeps. Nightmares cause a problem sometimes though."
Sue raised an eyebrow and murmured an agreement.
Bruce didn't think much of it, but a moment later Clint saw Reed's head whip around. Sue and Reed exchanged alarmed glances and both moved rapidly toward the bed.
It didn't surprise Clint that every member of the Avengers responded to Johnny's growing distress with understanding and sympathy. What was surprising was when the Fantastic Four responded with alarm.
The bed was too wide and Thor was too much of an obstacle for Sue to overcome easily without getting inappropriately in his space. Clint could see that Johnny was moving less, but his muscle tension had increased and his breathing was erratic. Ben, alerted by the actions of Sue and Reed, rose from his chair and approached the bed on that side.
"Johnny!" Sue called frantically. Without an easy way to reach Johnny's arm or shoulder, Sue settled for grabbing his calf and tried to shake her brother awake.
"Oh my God, the oxygen!" Reed yelled. He snaked his arm toward the head of the bed and closed the valve on the tank supplying Johnny with oxygen a moment before Johnny's eyes snapped open. Unfortunately it didn't seem that he had responded to Sue; he was still clearly in the grip of a vision only he could see. Johnny's eyes were glowing with an eerie, orange light. "FLAME ON!"
The speed with which the situation moved from compassion to pandemonium was startling.
Clint jumped up from the stool, but he was just too far away from the bed to be of any help as Johnny, the blankets and the bed around him burst into flames. Sue slammed a force field between Johnny and Thor and pulled Thor toward her and off of the bed. He landed like a ton of bricks. Ben grabbed Natasha and Steve and dumped them unceremoniously on the floor, but not before Steve's back and shoulders had been singed by Johnny's flames. The heat and sudden movement woke Steve; he cried out in surprise and pain, but immediately rolled into a defensive position next to Natasha in front of Ben.
While Sue and Ben addressed the safety of the unprepared Avengers, Johnny kicked free of the blankets creating spot fires and scrambled backwards until he was standing against the wall at the top of the bed. The oxygen mask and monitoring instruments melted and fell away. Johnny hovered slightly above the burning pillow but hesitated as though assessing the situation. There was a moment when everyone around the bed paused and it almost seemed as though Johnny would wake and come to his senses…then two things happened simultaneously: Reed reached out and tried to prevent Johnny from flying away by grabbing his ankle; and the overhead sprinklers and fire alarm came on.
It was difficult to determine which stimulus created a bigger traumatic reaction, Reed trying to contain Johnny or the sprinklers. Clint was sure that Reed's intention was to prevent Johnny from flying away and hurting himself or from causing more damage but the last thing the kid needed was to be restrained – again. Reed wasn't in the warehouse when they were trying to get Johnny out of the ice. He couldn't know how torturous those last few minutes were while they worked to break Johnny free of the manacles on his ankles; how desperate Johnny was to be free of the chains that bound him beneath the water and trapped him in the ice. Even encased in flames it was easy to read the furious expression on Johnny's face when Reed grabbed him.
Though Reed's actions provoked anger, the overhead sprinklers caused outright panic. When water fell from overhead, Johnny's whole body flinched and he threw up his arms to protect his head. He yelled "FLAME ON" seemingly unaware that he was already encased in fire and rose further away from the bed. Johnny's flames spiraled rapidly from deep orange to bright yellow. Reed was forced to immediately release the younger man's ankle, but not before the heat caused his plastic limb to distort and melt.
"Reed!" Sue cried out with concern as she watched his arm lose rigidity. Reed gathered his injured hand and held it close to his side. Bruce stepped closer to steady Reed, but Reed waved their attention away with his good hand. Johnny needed to be Sue's focus.
Clint rushed over to where Natasha was helping Steve to his feet. Steve insisted he was fine even though Clint could clearly see blisters rising on his skin. Tony arrived just at that moment. Everyone was yelling which only added to the chaos.
"What the hell?" Tony sputtered as he caught a face full of spray from the sprinklers. "JARVIS! Turn the damn sprinklers off!" he ordered.
"Sir, the fire protocol prevents early termination of the sprinkler system until the flames have been extinguished." replied the AI.
"Not…EXTINGUISHED!" Johnny's voice broke as he screamed his defiance.
Sue made a new force field that slid behind and above Johnny to create an umbrella to protect him from the falling water. But the damage had been done. He burned even brighter and began hurling fireballs at targets no one else could see; he seemed to be focusing most of his energy on destroying the equipment around the room rather than the people who were attempting to bring him back to his senses but that didn't prevent a number of them from having to take cover.
Most of the machinery that they had employed to monitor Johnny's vital signs while he recovered was located on the right side of the bed. Almost as soon as he regained his feet Thor had to dive for cover as an exploding ball of flame whizzed over his head and into a blaring cardiac monitor. Bruce hit the deck as well when Johnny targeted the blood pressure machine and Reed curved into a "C" shape to avoid a third fireball.
"Johnny! Stop!" Sue yelled in vain.
Once Johnny started shooting fireballs at the spectators gathered around the bed, Sue expanded the umbrella shield and made a bubble to completely encase her younger brother.
"We've got to…" Steve made a gesture indicating the fires on the bed, not wanting to increase Johnny's distress by mentioning the need to put out the flames.
With some pressure on the bottom of the bubble, Sue managed to put out most of the fire on the mattress. Steve and Ben worked in tandem to smother the flames on their side of the bed. Natasha sprinted to the other side to help Thor.
Maintaining the force field, Sue worked her way around until she was standing near the foot of the bed. Her hands were raised to shoulder height as she poured her power into the buffer between them. "Johnny!" she called sharply, "Listen to me!"
Johnny hovered slightly above the bed. The acrid smell of fire filled the room.
Sue's voice didn't penetrate the fog Johnny was in. He was mumbling under his breath, repeating phrases picked up in the time he'd been with Victor. "Such an interesting test subject…let's see what happens when we add more water to the mix." Johnny ducked, his memory providing a clear sensation of water falling on his head.
Johnny flailed a little, overextending his arms like he wasn't sure of his range of motion. He was surprised when he was able to stretch as far as he could and distressed to realize there was a limit. With a fist he punched the shimmering wall of Sue's shield. It didn't take long for Johnny to realize that although he could move he was trapped.
"No!" he cried out in alarm. Johnny shot up toward the ceiling and cried out in frustration when he realized he was inhibited a few feet below his goal. Once again the flames surrounding him changed color, this time from brilliant yellow to incandescent white. He took aim with both hands and shot twin bolts of flame at the top of his prison.
Everyone outside the force field watched with helpless frustration as Johnny frantically tried to break free.
With slow, subtle movements, but his eyes on Johnny, Bruce took off his lab coat and folded it neatly across the seat of a stool. Then he stepped closer to the bed. In a low voice Bruce addressed Reed. "You'll let me know if you need…the Other Guy, Reed."
Reed winced and then glanced at Bruce apologetically. "It shouldn't come to that. It probably won't come to that."
"What's going on there?" Tony joined Bruce flanking Reed and pointed with his chin at Johnny. Across Johnny's torso and on his legs patches of black, broken skin appeared and disappeared within the dancing flames. It looked like the surface of a lava flow; black rock with molten lava flowing underneath.
"They look like cold spots on the sun," Bruce observed.
Reed looked at Tony and Bruce disturbed. "I've never seen that before."
"Reed! What does that mean?" demanded Sue as she struggled to contain Johnny's relentless barrage of power.
"I don't know!" Reed shook his head. "He's never…this situation has never…I'm concerned that he hasn't had enough time to recover from the hypothermia. If he keeps this level of heat up much longer he may burn himself out. Permanently."
"Can't you…I don't know…suck the oxygen out of the bubble and put the…" Tony looked over, not wanting to further provoke Johnny and stage whispered "f-l-a-m-e-s out?"
"It's not just the flames that need oxygen, genius!" Ben yelled from the far side of the bed. Johnny didn't seem to hear the by-play. He was too focused on escape.
"This ain't gonna work," Ben announced shaking his head at the deteriorating situation.
"Susie, you gotta let me in there,"
"What? Ben, no!" Sue argued.
Ben ignored her as he stepped up onto the foot of the bed and steadied himself on the mattress. "Shouting at him from out here isn't doing any good. Someone's got to get to him, and that someone is me."
"Ben…with the temperature he's giving off…" Reed began.
"With the temperature he's giving off either Susie gets hurt trying to contain him or he'll kill himself trying to escape." Ben argued as he cut Reed off. "I don't like either of those options." Ben turned resolutely toward the flickering bubble of power surrounding Johnny. "Just make a hole I can get through, Sue."
Sue nodded in agreement. It was a testament to the extraordinary skill she had over her power that she was able to create an entrance for Ben to step closer to Johnny while maintaining the integrity of the rest of the force field. But the wave of heat the emanated from the small opening made everyone gathered around the bed flinch and step back; it was just a small taste of the inferno Ben was walking into.
Ben didn't make the same mistake Reed had by grabbing Johnny's ankle. Instead he mimicked Sue and reached for his calf. Ben gave Johnny's leg a hard shake then quickly released him. "Kid! C'mon, now…you gotta listen."
"Don't want to know…how to freeze a flame…" Johnny's voice was desperate and panicked. "Not a test subject…"
"Jesus, kid…emlook/em at me. I'm not Victor!" Ben pleaded.
The mention of Victor made Johnny start and he flew backwards into the shield against the wall. He shook his head and begged, "No more lessons. No more chemistry lessons…"
"Gimmie your hand, John." Ben held out his hand in earnest.
Johnny didn't move; his color intensity decreased from white-hot to yellow, but the flat, black spots had increased in number. His gaze was fixed on Ben. Around the bed the Avengers and the remaining Fantastic Four members moved closer drawn in by the scene; willing Ben to be successful.
"Come on, Johnny. Come down here by me. Give me your hand." Ben insisted.
"Got to get out of the tank." Johnny shuddered; the flames surrounding him undulated wildly. He gulped a lungful of oxygen as he tried to speak around his panic. "Out of the ice…got to get out of the ice. Can't let him extinguish the flames…"
Either by his own volition or due to lack of power to keep himself airborne, Johnny drifted down until he was nearly standing on the mattress. But he kept his distance from Ben, keeping his back pressed against Sue's force field.
Ben changed his tactic. It was clear Johnny wasn't willing to reach out to him and make physical contact. It was also clear that Johnny was repeating bits of conversation from his time with Victor that were stuck in his head. Ben wanted to try to break that cycle; replace the words implanted by Victor with something familiar and safe.
"Hey kid…remember when you first started to control the fire?" Ben didn't wait for a response. "You did that thing where you snapped your fingers and made a flame appear. Can you do that?"
Johnny blinked. His brows drew down in confusion.
"And then you'd make the flame dance across your knuckles, back and forth like that trick with a quarter." Ben raised his hand and wiggled his four stony fingers. "You'd sing that song too, just to make me crazy."
By the side of the bed Reed nodded with approval. The exercises Ben was talking about were ones Johnny used to practice control.
Johnny swallowed hard and looked intently at Ben like he was trying to make sense of something or anticipating a trick. "Don't…I don't want to put the flames out," Johnny stated desperately.
"I know, that ain't what I'm sayin'," Ben reasoned. "Not to put them out completely, just show some control." Ben nodded encouragingly as Johnny's feet settled on the mattress and the flames receded into his skin until he was covered in only a moderate glow.
Johnny put his left hand behind him to steady himself against the wall, or to prepare for a push if he needed to take flight, but he held his right hand in front of him. With a snap of his fingers a small flame burst into life between his thumb and forefinger.
"Yeah," Ben encouraged, "that's it."
Johnny stared raptly at the small flame. His eyes cut to Ben, still ready to make a break for it, but he couldn't resist turning his attention back toward the flame. Johnny turned his hand palm down over the mattress and made a loose fist. One by one in rapid succession he flexed his knuckles and made the flame dance across the back of his fingers. As Johnny concentrated more on the small flame the corona surrounding him completely receded.
Ben stepped closer as he saw Johnny relax and started to croon off-key in his gravely voice. "I fell into a burning ring of fire, I went down, down, down as the flames went higher…"
Johnny started to nod his head in time with the tune and softly joined Ben to complete the refrain. "…And it burns, burns, burns - the ring of fire, the ring of fire."
In the silence that followed the only sound in the room was the spatter of water falling against Sue's force field.
"JARVIS," Tony said softly, "can you cut the sprinklers now?"
"Yes Sir, the protocol has been satisfied," the AI responded.
When the sprinklers stopped everyone looked up with relief. Sue released the shield she'd been holding around Johnny. She took a deep breath and staggered to the side. Thor was swift to move and lend a helping hand. She smiled with gratitude as she leaned into his support. Reed quickly came to stand on her other side. She held and squeezed his good hand.
The air released from the bubble was hot and arid to those on the outside, but the change in temperature caused Johnny to shiver violently. Bruce, keenly empathetic to waking up disoriented and naked in an unfamiliar place handed a blanket up to Ben. Ben wrapped it around Johnny's shoulders when he didn't make a move to do it for himself. Johnny leaned heavily against the wall. He didn't seem to have an awareness of his surroundings beyond what was right in front of him.
Ben began to sing the refrain to "Ring of Fire" once again; Johnny accompanied him softly all the way through. It was clear to the Avengers gathered around the bed that the tune was sort of grounding ritual for the young man; it made them wonder what sort of experiences up to this point had made it necessary.
When the second repetition of the refrain was complete Ben asked, "You with me now, kid?" He placed a hand on Johnny's shoulder and peered with concern into the young man's face.
Johnny shook his head in the affirmative and slumped wearily against the wall. "Yeah."
Once more Johnny shivered, but this time pulled the blanket tighter around himself. For the first time he looked around the room and really saw it. He tensed as he realized they weren't in the Baxter Building.
Ben stepped closer as he saw Johnny's anxiety rising. "It's okay, Johnny. Stark Tower…we're in Stark Tower. Pretty sure you don't remember getting here."
Johnny shook his head in response, but kept looking around. Even in his weakened and confused state he could see the scorched bed and walls, melted equipment and water-logged people and put together that he was the cause of all the damage.
"Did I? Did I do all this?" Johnny looked around and then staggered toward Ben. He couldn't keep his feet under him and fell against the older man.
"Hey…hey…calm down, kid," Ben tried to soothe him, but Johnny spoke right over him.
"Is anyone hurt? Did I hurt anyone, Ben?" Johnny scanned the room frantically, but couldn't make out enough information from the crowd to answer his own question. Ben saw Reed surreptitiously use his good hand to gather his loose hand and arm and place it into the lab coat pocket. Similarly, Steve slid Thor's cape around his shoulders as he approached the bed.
"Ain't nothin' that can't be fixed," Ben reassured him as he patted Johnny awkwardly on the back. "C'mon…"
Still unsteady on his feet, Johnny didn't pose any resistance when Ben walked him to the edge of the mattress and passed him down to Clint and Steve. He was still wobbly and instinctively curled into Steve to prop him up. Just as instinctively Steve put an arm around Johnny's shoulders to steady him and once again drew him under Thor's cape.
Sue made her way around from the end of the bed past Natasha and Clint and threw herself right into Steve's personal space. It was the first time since the whole situation had started that she could get her arms around her brother and she made the most of it crashing into Johnny's chest and wrapping her arms tightly around his torso. Johnny, with his arms inside the blanket pulled around him couldn't hug her back, but tipped his forehead to rest on her head.
Sue tilted her face up to kiss him on the cheek, and then reached up to draw his head down to her shoulder. "I'm so glad you're back with us," she whispered into his ear, her voice choked with emotion.
"Sue…" Johnny let out a deep breath and seemed to melt into his sister's embrace. They stood there for a moment until Sue stepped back, her eyes happy and bright with tears.
"Come on," she urged pulling Johnny slightly away from Steve. "We need to get you back to bed."
Johnny looked at the ruin of the bed on his left. "Not that bed!" Sue laughed.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry about all this mess." He looked around apologetically, not sure who he should address.
"Don't you worry about it, Johnny," Steve replied. "Tony never turns town a chance to remodel."
"Chances are good that by the next time you visit there'll be a fire resistant, flame themed guest suite with your name on it. Literally," Barton added.
Tony rolled his eyes but didn't disagree. "You should've seen Steve's "Star-Spangled Man with a Plan" room before Pepper made him change it," Barton continued.
Johnny blinked, unsure what to do with the influx of information. Before the conversation got completely out of hand, Bruce arrived with a wheelchair and more blankets. Sue knew it was an indication of how out of it Johnny was still feeling that he didn't fuss much about being made to use a wheelchair or the pile of blankets that was tucked around him.
There was some discussion about what room they would move to and what would be best for Johnny to eat. He wasn't listening to any of it as he gripped the wheels and tentatively rolled the chair back and forth. Then Johnny looked over his shoulder at Clint and asked,"How fast do you think this thing can go?"
Before Sue could protest, Clint grasped the handles of the chair, tipped it back so it rested on the big wheels and took off with a mighty push. Johnny yelled "Sweet!"
It was music to Sue's ears. She laughed with relief as she linked her arm through Reed's and followed them out the door. The rest followed at a more reasonable speed.