Disclaimer: I don't own the Fantastic Four—Marvel Comics, Stan Lee, 20th Century Fox, and probably a bunch of other people do. However, if the aforementioned parties feel like loaning out the guys, put me at the top of the borrower's list. Also, I'm not making a penny off of this. I am banned from reading other F4 fan fictions until this is finished, so any similarities to other stories are entirely coincidental. Typos are mine. If you haven't done so, you really need to read 'Oxygen' before this story.
Author's Note: Belated hello, everyone. Wow, I never got that many feedbacks before. Thanks. I didn't intend to take so very long to finish the sequel to 'Oxygen', but, alas, I came down with bronchitis and complications shortly after completing that story and spent most of the winter trying to recover. For those of you who enjoyed the first story (and I appreciate and thank all of you) and have been waiting for the sequel, I apologize for leaving you hanging for so long---honestly, even I didn't know 'Oxygen' was going to be a cliffhanger. I made sure to motivate myself to finish by banning myself from watching the Fan. 4 movie and from reading the stack of comic book reprints I purchased until this story was completed. I sincerely hope you enjoy the sequel/conclusion. Get comfy, it's going to be another long one.
Once again, my F4 knowledge is quite limited (only the movie, the cartoon series, and a couple of graphic novels) and I'm merging movie bits with comic book bits, so there is bound to be non-cannon stuff that must be forgiven if you are going to enjoy this story. For instance, I see no evidence of the Fan 4 having communicators, but this is the age of cell phones and GPS and I can't imagine the team not at least trying to have communicators. I also can't figure if Johnny could or could not wear one. Feel free to debate it amongst yourselves. That's why it's called 'fan fiction' and not 'fan gospel truth'. I plugged what plot holes I could, but I did eventually just have to stop worrying about it if I wanted to finish.
Rating: I hate trying to figure out these ratings. I recommend it for readers 'teen' and older, definitely, as it contains violence, comic book action, and some bad language (I'll keep it to a minimum, but still it's in here). It also contains adult subject matter which some may (will) find controversial. Do not read any political statements in this story because I'm not making any. I'm far too lazy for that. It's all for plot purposes and opinions expressed are strictly those of the characters. No sex (gen or slash) or anything like that. Original characters are not meant to be Mary Sues.
"Shades of Gray"
by llnbooks (a.k.a. llnbooks)
The upper floors of the Baxter Building were a burned ruin. The sprinkler system, installed as a precaution by the current residents, had quickly extinguished the flames, but the damaged sections were blackened and still smoldering, like an ugly scar torn through the rest of the towering structure. For the crowd gathered on the sidewalk below, the only thing more astonishing than the sight of damage to the home of the Fantastic Four was the knowledge that it had been inflicted by one of its superhero occupants.
Carson Pierce lived for days such as this one.
Spectators gasped and whispered among themselves and the cameraman grumbled at having to sit, practically having to lie on his back, to frame both the reporter and the smoke from the upper floor, but Pierce ignored them all. "For those of you who are just tuning in, this is Carson Pierce reporting for 'Channel Six On-The-Scene'. We're continuing our coverage of the bizarre series of events that began with yesterday's abduction and imprisonment of Johnny Storm—better known as the Fantastic Four's Human Torch---which was broadcast live to the world.
"We now know that former multi-millionaire Victor Von Doom was responsible for the kidnapping. The self-proclaimed 'Doctor Doom' lived up to his name yesterday when he imprisoned the Human Torch in what appeared to be some sort of titanium box and began draining the oxygen supply while the remaining members of the Fantastic Four attempted what turned out to be the impossible task of rescuing their comrade from Doom's prison. Only a last-minute concession of defeat by the team persuaded Doctor Doom to release his captive unharmed. It was a harrowing situation for them no doubt; indeed it was difficult for all of us to watch as the events played out. Quite a crowd gathered outside the Baxter Building during that ordeal, and you can see most of the people remain here even now in a show of support for the Fantastic Four. Unfortunately, the story didn't end with the Human Torch's rescue."
Pierce glanced sidelong at the monitor in the news van as the crew switched from live shot to recorded footage. "What you're seeing now is incredible footage captured by security cameras at a brokerage house across the street from the Baxter Building. This video shows what can only be the Human Torch attacking the building---his home and the home of the rest of the Fantastic Four---and his teammates just a few hours after gaining his freedom from Doctor Doom. You can see a huge explosion and a trail of fire leading away from the Baxter Building. Fortunately, the fire was confined to the upper floors, which sustained heavy damage."
Carson waited impatiently for the crew to switch back to the live shot. "No one was injured, but speculation has been running wild about the implications of this strange turn of events. The remaining members of the Fantastic Four have offered no public statements about the situation, where the Human Torch is now, why he attacked his teammates, whether the public is in any danger. The possibility of any one with the Human Torch's powers turning against the public is----"
"---A great big pile of garbage," Ben Grimm answered, searching for his television remote.
Susan Storm beat him to the punch. Carson Pierce's report ended with a bang—or, more precisely, a crash---when a blast of the Invisible Woman's psychic energy sent the television flying into the wall. It shattered into a heap of smoke, glass, and wire. The demolished box fit right in with the debris and wreckage of what had been Reed Richard's laboratory only a few hours earlier. Sue stared at the mess, regretting only that the reporter cashing in on her family's suffering wasn't as easy to silence.
"Everything that the Matchstick busted and that," Ben gestured to the smashed box, "had to keep working so we can hear 'em trashin' us." At least the reporters knew better than to come knocking on their door, but the press would still be camped on the Baxter Building's doorstep for the foreseeable future.
Sue was defensive: "It wasn't Johnny's fault. Victor did something to him with that…"
She stared with pure hatred at the box that had been Johnny's temporary prison cell less than twenty-four hours earlier. It now stood in the middle of Reed's laboratory, a grotesque reminder of her brother's ordeal.
"I know, Susie," Ben answered.
At Reed's insistence that he needed to study the device with his own equipment, Ben had moved the box by helicopter from Victor Von Doom's former office to the Baxter Building less than an hour ago. He wasn't anymore happy about it than Sue. The loathsome thing was pristine (except for the damage Ben and Sue had inflicted upon it while trying to free Johnny) amidst the charred walls, damaged equipment, and incinerated furnishings of their home and Reed's laboratory. If not for the heavy-duty fire suppression equipment, the entire Baxter Building might have burned during Johnny's attack. As it was, the only damage beyond the top floors that was their home was a Ben-sized hole in the five floors below theirs, marking the spot where the Human Torch had burned the floor right out from under the Thing's feet.
Ben was getting dizzy watching Sue nervously pace around the room, so he turned his attention to their leader. Reed Richards was in the process of checking the damaged laboratory equipment to see what was salvageable, painfully aware that if Sue hadn't managed to shield him before Johnny's attack and the subsequent explosions, Mr. Fantastic would be as char-broiled as his computers. In truth, he could have studied the box right where it was in Victor's office, but he doubted the ability of that building's security to keep the reporters and spectators out of the way. The Baxter Building afforded the only true privacy and security for his work and his family.
"So, ya got any theories on how Vic got the kid to go Jerry Springer on us?" Ben asked as he picked up the television Sue had smashed and set what remained of it on a broken table. His words didn't penetrate Reed's undivided concentration on one computer screen. Ben cleared his massive throat to gain their leader's attention. "Am I interruptin' web surfing time?"
Reed waved them over. He pointed to the computer screen. "This is security footage from that dentist's office where Doom kidnapped Johnny." Interested now, Sue and Ben moved to stand behind him, watching the video display over his shoulder. The camera tracked a woman—forty-something, brunette, fair-skinned---as she walked into the office. She spoke to the dentist, displayed some sort of identification, and made urgent gestures that prompted the staff and patients to begin quickly filing out of the office. When they were gone, the brunette moved towards the small room where Johnny sat in the dentist's chair, removing her overcoat as she walked to reveal nurse's scrubs underneath.
"She comes in, clears out the office---now watch her left hand when she's standing by Johnny," Reed narrated the events. As they watched the video, the woman gave Johnny what appeared to be a normal Novocain injection. Johnny said something to her that had to be flirtatious, judging by the smile she returned. She then put her left hand on his shoulder.
Sue frowned. The placement of the mystery woman's hand was too perfect. Johnny always wore his uniform beneath his clothing, and the woman had touched his neck just millimeters above its collar. She obviously had known the uniform was there. Sue memorized the woman's face. She had played a part in what Victor had done to Johnny; Sue would find her.
Reed paused the playback and enhanced the image, centering on her left hand. "See there? Between her fingers? That's a needle."
Ben rolled his eyes. "Sheesh. I thought that stuff only happened in cheesy spy movies." He sobered as the remaining footage played out: Johnny lost consciousness just seconds after the woman gave him the second injection. Two men in Haz-Mat outfits (no doubt sporting fake credentials for the staff and patients outside the office) entered the room, put a third suit on Johnny, and carried him out the back door.
"According to the police report, the staff called 911 to report a gas leak. The receptionist assumed that Johnny was evacuated by the mystery woman," Reed said.
"That's how she knew what to give Johnny to knock him out---Victor's files from after the accident," Sue deduced. Their bodies didn't react to pharmaceuticals like a normal person's did. Injected medication, for example, was useless on Ben, as needles broke on his rock-like skin. Johnny's body tended to metabolize or burn off medications rapidly. Reed had done endless testing on each of them to study their unique reactions to various medications, knowing that the information was essential to surviving any illness or injury that befell one of them.
Reed and Sue had worried about the amount of data that Victor had managed to collect about their mutations during their stay at his medical facility. The Fantastic Four already had enemies and admirers---and suspicious observers who fell somewhere in between. Reed had been concerned about keeping their DNA samples, blood work, or other detailed information under close guard to prevent it from being stolen and used to harm his family. Knowing that their need for medical help was inevitable, Reed had negotiated to store such information on his own computers rather than at hospitals, insisting it was for the medical staff's safety as much as for the team's. Reed had examined Johnny's medical charts during his brief stay at the hospital, worried about the amount of time the younger man had been unconscious after his release from the box. All traces of the drug the woman had used on Johnny were gone by then.
"Do you know who she is?" Sue asked Reed.
"Yes, I do." Reed had found her name and picture on the Internet the previous night---just five minutes too late to figure out what Doom had done to Johnny and prevent him from attacking the rest of the team. Just five minutes… Reed called up her profile on his mostly-intact laptop, which had survived the assault on the lab because it had fallen behind a larger piece of machinery. "She calls herself Dr. Reinhardt on the tape, but her real name is Doctor Eleanora Sater, Ph.D. Born and raised in the Chendryn province of Latveria, educated at Stanford on a scholarship from Von Doom Industries. She's spent the last five years doing research privately funded by---"
"Victor," Sue finished.
"Specifically for one of Victor's front companies in Latveria---the only companies shielded from Selva-Uitti Corporation's hostile takeover of Von Doom Industries," Reed confirmed.
"Researching what? Manufacturing boxes with annoying lights?" Ben made a weak attempt at humor.
"Her research focused on the use of light patterns, subliminal messages, and post-hypnotic commands to alter behavior. Of course, her application for the research was intended to be on violent criminals, sexual predators, and anyone who could be rehabilitated by her methods until they no longer presented a threat to society. There were subliminal messages embedded in Victor's transmissions to Johnny over that earpiece."
Sue and Ben had both heard the recording of Victor's exchange with Johnny—sans the subliminal messages, which Reed had filtered out---which they hadn't been able to hear while trying to free the Human Torch from the box. The mention of the baiting words made Ben clench his fist and Sue's frown deepen to a full scowl.
Reed absently stared at the earphone that the hospital had removed from Johnny's ear, where someone (presumably Dr. Sater) had stitched it in place. It was sad to Reed. He couldn't ethically agree with her intentions, but Nora Sater had wanted to help rehabilitate people to live normal lives safely within society. He could at least respect her motives, but not her methods.
Ben, on the other hand, couldn't wait to meet this 'Dr. Sater' lady and show her why she shouldn't use the Fantastic Four as her lab rats. From the dark expression on Sue's face, Ben knew she was thinking the same thing. "Nice---Vic funds her research, she uses it for his dirty work. All that just to get the kid to kill us."
He heard a sharp intake of breath from Sue and regretted inadvertently reminding her of all the bad memories Doom had dredged up from the Storm siblings' past while Johnny was his prisoner: The death of their mother, their father's arrest, their having to fight to stay together when they were only teenagers, children themselves. Ben was grateful that Victor's part of the conversation had been over a closed circuit and not broadcast to the world with the video feed---not that it spared Johnny and Sue from having their private past dragged out for the public to see. The reporters had been gathering information on the team from the moment the team had unintentionally formed on the bridge six months ago. School, police, and Social Services files that were supposed to be sealed and confidential had been hacked and the press now was having a field day with the Storms' back-story. Ben suspected the media had even contacted N.A.S.A., and was glad to know they wouldn't find anyone from the disciplined top brass down to the janitors who was inclined to dish about Johnny's expulsion from the program.
"That could be good news." Reed was now thinking aloud. Sue and Ben stared at him with disbelief, and he hasted to add: "Johnny didn't kill us. If that was Victor's intention, then it's possible Dr. Sater's…mind control program…" The words were distasteful to the scientist, but he could find no better way to phrase it. "…isn't perfect. If so, we still have a change to counter-program Johnny." If we can get him back here.
His efforts at reassuring them only added to Sue's growing fear. "What do you mean 'a chance'?"
Reed desperately wanted to be able to give them more hope, to offer himself more hope, but he would not lie to them. "I don't know how many post-hypnotic commands Dr. Sater planted in Johnny's mind, so I don't know what to counter-program. Plus, the computer program she used to plant the subliminal commands essentially uses an original language that I assume only she can translate. Without understanding that language, if I try to duplicate it to de-program Johnny, I'll be speaking in gibberish. I could make Johnny worse instead of better." Reed had already picked at the computer language, but he could make no sense of the subliminal coding. It might as well have been an alien language.
"No offense, Reed, but what's worse than trying to kill his own family?" Ben asked.
Reed automatically listed the possibilities that he'd been pondering: "I could inadvertently command him to kill himself, to kill innocent bystanders, to supernova and destroy Earth's atmosphere…" Then there was the one possibility the scientist didn't dare consider, much less voice: What if Victor hadn't just 'hypnotized' Johnny? What if he'd completely and irretrievably erased Johnny's memory?
Ben waved a hand. "Okay, I get the idea."
Sue was ashen-faced, but, after absorbing what Reed had said, she resolved: "Then Dr. Sater is going to help us fix what she did."
"We can't exactly abduct the woman and force her to hand over the program…" Reed turned to Sue. Her eyes were worried but deadly serious. Her jaw was set firmly and her arms crossed in a gesture of determination. She was in 'Protective Big Sister' mode (Reed had seen it before), full force.
"Sure we can," she disagreed. "If she's in Victor's pocket, she's not going to do it voluntarily."
"What if she's not in his pocket? What if she's under his thumb? I don't believe this is a super villain we're dealing with, I think she's a scientist who's had her work perverted by a psychopath," Reed argued. He could have just as easily found himself and his research used by Victor if his work but for a twist of fate.
Sue had no sympathy for the woman. She had known what she was doing when she helped abduct Johnny. "If she's Johnny's only chance, I'm going to make sure she helps whether she wants to or not."
"Even it means kid--?"
"If that's what it takes, yes."
"I'm not prepared to resort to thei---"
"I'm not losing my brother, Reed!" Sue vowed, fear and worry making her tone harsher than she'd intended.
Ben jumped in before the two of them said something they'd regret. Bickering with each other wasn't going to resolve anything. "Hey, we're wastin' time yammerin'. Matchstick needs us. If we can find this Sater lady, we'll probably find Johnny. She's gotta be helping Victor keep control of him, right? So, I say we start by searching that whatsit province in Latveria and get the kid back before Doom uses him to attack us again. After that, you two can debate ethics all ya want."
Reed wished it were that simple. He was just as worried about Johnny as Ben and Sue were, and he shared their instinct, desperation, to act now, but—painful as it was to admit—Reed also knew that blundering in without planning would make a bad situation worse. He'd been mulling their situation and possible courses of action since the moment Johnny unleashed that firestorm on their home. Reed had already made a horrible mistake letting Victor trick him and get Johnny in the first place. So when Ben headed towards the door, Reed rose from his chair and intercepted the Thing. "We're not ready."
Reed resumed listing his apprehensions. "I already have satellites trying to track his heat signature, but so far I'm not finding anything. Victor's obviously gone to some trouble to hide him, so he's going to go to more trouble to keep us from finding him. And we can't treat this like we're rescuing a hostage. We know what Victor's done, but I'm guessing Johnny doesn't. Johnny's not a teenager who sneaked out after curfew or jumped off a yacht in Boston Harbor anymore, Ben, he's a human fireball---a human fireball who probably, at minimum, has a post-hypnotic command telling him to kill all of us on sight and then go on with is day like nothing happened. And who knows what else Victor and Dr. Sater planted in his mind? I'm sure 'resist capture' is in there, too. We need to plan how we're going to find him, how we're going to get him out of Latveria if that's where he is, and most importantly how we're going to keep Johnny here when we bring him home if he doesn't want to stay. If we aren't careful, we'll hurt him or he'll hurt us. Or worse."
Reed was right, but that didn't mean Ben had to be happy about it. Grudgingly, he nodded his massive head in agreement. One down. Now to convince the tougher of the two…
"Victor already gave us a way to keep him here." The quiet observation came from Sue before Reed could say a word to her. He and Ben found her staring pointedly, in revulsion and dismay, at the titanium box. The notion of putting her brother back in that cage, even if it was for his own good, made Sue sick down to the pit of her soul, but there could be no other option. They already knew it would hold Johnny, and it would be a simple matter to fix the equipment Ben had smashed or Reed had disassembled and run an oxygen line into the container. If she started working right now, she could have the container ready by the time Reed tracked down Johnny's location. She channeled her fear into determination now that she had a course of action and began inspecting the damage to the box.
The same horror she felt was mirrored on Reed and Ben's faces, but they rapidly came to the same conclusion. Even as Sue set to work, Reed's mind was already building on her insight. The box could fit in an office and be lifted by a helicopter; it just might be small enough to get to Latveria if they had an--- "Ben, how soon can you have the Warbird ready to fly?" Reed asked.
'Warbird' was the nickname for one of two planes that the team was collaborating to build. Reed had built a hangar at the roof of the building. Ben knew where Reed was heading with this train of thought. Ben grinned just a bit, feeling better now that they had the beginnings of a rescue plan. "Sure, but Matchstick's gonna get his shorts in a bunch when he finds out we messed with the plane without him."
That was putting it mildly, Reed winced. "Just don't mess with his motorcycles."
Ben grunted, "I didn't fall of the turnip truck yesterday, ya know." The bikes were Johnny's pet projects, only he had dubbed them 'hoverbikes', confident in his ability to modify them to fly. Reed still called them 'motorcycles' because the machines were in no danger of flying in the near future. Ben didn't know why Johnny was so attached to flashy vehicles, but he suspected the hangar had survived almost untouched by the fires was because Doom and Dr. Sater couldn't invent enough 'post-hypnotic commands' to make Johnny trash his prized machines.
Reed nodded at the feeble joke, more focused on the problem---the major puzzle---of interpreting Sater's computer program. Ben could read his old friend's thoughts just by looking at him. "It ain't your fault, you know, Reed."
The scientist played dumb. "What?"
"You're beating yourself up 'cause Victor got to the kid. Ya ain't psychic. We were all standing right there watching and we didn't know what Victor was doing with that contraption either," he reminded Reed. Ben understood the burdens that came with responsibility for a team. He'd been a commanding officer, hell he'd even been Johnny's C.O. for a brief time at N.A.S.A.
Doom's obnoxious words came back, unbidden.
"Grimm had a say in the decision to throw you out of N.A.S.A."
"Why did you hang on to your loyalty to him after all that?"
"Trust is a privilege. When it's betrayed, it's revoked.""Are you that desperate for a father figure?"
Ben imagined his own large fist squeezing Doom's metallic neck to silence the stinging words.
Reed wasn't ex-military and he wasn't in command of soldiers. It had always been in Reed's mind, since the first day they put on their blue uniforms and took on Doctor Doom, that something like this could, and inevitably would, happen. When he'd stepped forward and accepted the responsibility of leading this team…his family…he'd also sworn to himself to try to keep them safe.
Ben was trying to make him feel better, but he didn't quite understand. Reed had seen it---he'd suspected, no he'd known, that Victor was up to something more than trying to humble the team in front of a live audience. He'd known just hearing Johnny's side of their conversation that Doom was speaking of subjects he had no reason to bring up: Concession, loyalty, mentors, and 'emotional impurities'. Victor had spoken about N.A.S.A., about Johnny's father, even about Reed's relationship with Sue. Reed had known there was no reason for those lights to be blinking in that pattern. But, he'd been so preoccupied with getting Johnny out of that cage before his oxygen ran out that Reed had put answering the question of 'why' on the backburner until it was too late. Even worse, Reed had been the one to order Johnny not to remove the earpiece that was feeding Sater's hypnotic suggestion into the younger man's mind. Victor had gambled, correctly, that Reed would try to trace his broadcast, and he'd used Reed's zeal to capture Doom to ensure that Johnny heard every last subliminal command.
"I knew something wasn't right, Ben. I still know it. Victor didn't pick Johnny because he wanted to play mentor. No, there's something he specifically needs to do with Johnny's powers. We have to get Johnny back and counter that program Sater created before Victor does it---" Reed stared at the gibberish language on the screen and slammed his fast against the battered computer. "---and I don't have a clue how to do it."
Ben grinned at him. "You'll figure it out. I ain't seen a puzzle ya couldn't figure out yet." There was not a whit of doubt in the Thing's tone.
Trust you, Reed, Johnny had said before Victor's programming took over. Swearing that trust would not be misplaced, the scientist turned his concentration to the puzzle Dr. Sater had laid at his feet.