Title: R&R

Author: tarotgal

Fandom: Fantastic Four

Rating: PG

Disclaimer: Marvel's characters. I'm only playing and mean no harm.

Summary: Sequel to 'Symphonyflute's Request 2007' in which Reed is sick as well and the villains don't leave them alone.

Notes: I am not clever to have thought up Johnny's apron on my own. And I'm stretching canon slightly for the sake of plot but hopefully not too badly.

R & R


                Johnny glared at the tissue box. His nose was tickling again, but he really didn't want to pull his arms out from beneath the blanket to get to the tissues. Besides the fact that it was rather warm under the blanket, the blanket also felt too heavy to budge. His whole body felt beyond movement, apart from his nose, which twitched without permission. “ihhh… hihh!” Grudgingly, he lifted his arm and wearily reached for the tissues. “ihhh-HIHshoo!” It struck before he could get a tissue back to his nose, catching his arm and some part of the blanket draped over him. “ihhShuhhh! hihSchhhh! Heh-ehh-Shoo!” Johnny wiped his nose and shuddered with cold.


                He'd been shivering nearly nonstop since the beginning of this cold, even though the eight thermometers he'd gone through claimed his temperature was just above what a normal human's was supposed to be. “Hey!” he called out, giving his nose one more wipe and then retreating under the blanket almost entirely. “Can I get another hot water bottle?”


                He listened for the footsteps, and was not disappointed. A water bottle appeared out of nowhere, with no one attached to it. It hovered in midair in front of him, then landed in his lap. “Thanks, Sue,” he told his invisible sister.


                “I'm in the middle of changing. I'll be right back.”


                After nodding, Johnny claimed the water bottle and hugged it to his chest. It felt almost cold. Realizing that she probably hadn't had time to fill it with hot water, he took it back out from under the blanket. This was easily fixable. He held the bottle up with his left hand and held his right hand under it. In a flash, his right hand exploded in flame, heating the bottle. It was a great idea, and he kept going with it, looking forward to the relief a really hot water bottle would bring, until he felt a drip sizzle against his hand. For a moment, he thought it was a drop of water… then realized it was the plastic of the bottle. The bottom of the red bottle was melting and, a second later, it burst open with water rushing out all over his lap. “Aw! Shoot!” He scampered out from under the now wet blanket.


                Sue appeared, wearing a knowing smirk, a minute later with another water bottle and a blanket. She cleaned up, then tucked her brother back onto the couch. “This is as hot as it gets,” she told Johnny, giving him the hot water bottle. “Believe me, it's hot enough.” She bent over, running her hand over his hair the way their mom used to, then kissing the top of his head.


                “Thanks,” he muttered. This water bottle felt just as not-hot as the last one had.


                “I have a meeting in Chicago in an hour, in case you're wondering,” she told him, gesturing to the gray-blue suit she wore. “Or, don't tell me, you hadn't noticed?”


                He shrugged. He definitely hadn't noticed. “A-ehh-ehhShoo! h'Shihhhh! Sniff! A meeting?”


                “With the merchandising and advertising execs.”


                Johnny sat up at once. “What? I'm supposed to--”


                “I know you should be the one to go… but you're sick. Think about it. Do you really want to sit around a stuffy meeting with a bunch of suits while you've got the sneezes?”


                He shook his head and lay back down on the couch.


                “Feel better, Johnny. I'll be back tomorrow night.”


                He closed his eyes as he listened to her footsteps cross then leave the living room. Since the marketing had been his idea in the first place, he really should have been the one to go. Sue was a scientist; what did she know about t-shirt slogans? “ihhh-HihShoo! ehShoo! Sniff! Sniff!” Or maybe Ben could have gone, so at least Sue would be there to look after him. He blew his nose into what he suddenly realized was his very last two tissues. “Can someone get me some more Kleenex?” He didn't hear anything. “Please?”


                The footsteps were slow but light- it was Reed, then, not Ben. And not a moment too soon. “ihhh-ihhhh… ehhhHihhh…” He took tissues out of the box Reed offered him and cupped them to his face. “hehShehhh! ihhShhhh! Ih-ih-Shehhh!” He blew his nose and sighed in relief.


                “We're going to need to get some more tissues at this rate,” Reed said, in what passed for humor in his book. “I'm sorry.”


                “Sorry?” Johnny really didn't follow.


                “I'm sorry for giving you my cold.”


                Johnny blinked. “What was that?”


                “Don't waste your time, Reed.” Ben came lumbering into the room as well. “He probably didn't even notice.”


                “Wait… you're sick, too?” Johnny gave a little cough and studied Reed. His nose did look a little pink… and he did look a bit tired. But Reed was always working on something and looking tired was typical, especially after a fight.


                Reed nodded. “I know it's a pretty bad head cold. I'm sure you caught it from me.”


                “Sure you didn't catch it from me? Sniff! Sniff! When did you first start feeling sick?”


                “Since before Giganto- I mean, the Mole Man encounter.”


                Johnny nodded. He'd been feeling sick then, too, but hadn't told anyone. He thought maybe he should tell Reed now… but if Reed felt a little guilty… “Could I get some juice?”


                Reed nodded. “Of course.”


                Reed went to get it as Ben took a chair by the couch, pounding his bare feet down onto the coffee table which had been reinforced because of just that. “Come here to get your jollies watching me suffer?” Johnny asked, shivering miserably and hugging the water bottle to his chest uselessly.


                Ben cocked his head. “With you like this? Way too easy.”


                 Johnny scowled and stuck his tongue out at Ben, realizing all too late that he wasn't five years old any more. This cold had a tendency to turn him into a kid in more ways than one, apparently.


                Ben just chuckled while Johnny pouted. “Actually, Flame Brain, I thought I'd hang out here in case you needed anything. I don't want you bothering Stretch there. He's got his own problems.” He gestured by pointing a thumb towards the kitchen where the sound of sneezing could be heard. Lots of it. “And his own cold. Hey!” Ben called. “You all right in there?” Slowly, the sneezing stopped.


                Reed returned a minute later with a glass of juice for Johnny. He helped himself to a few of the tissues from the box he'd brought and turned away from them, blowing his nose. “Sorry,” Reed said. “Not feeling so great.”


                “I think you'd better take it easy today, Stretch.”


                Reed nodded. “I will. I have a few unavoidable experiments and then I need to do a little work on my particle trans… hhhh… huhhh-Urschhh! IhkShuhh!” He scrubbed the back of his hand under his nose, followed by his wrist and lower arm as his whole arm extended towards the bed in search of more tissues.


                “Neuh-uh” Johnny said, moving the box away. His cold slowed him up a bit but he still managed to keep the box out of Reed's reach. Reed's fingers grasped and his arm twisted about, forming a knot but still going. Johnny took the box under the blanket with him.


                Reed gave up. “hehh…” And he was bent in half, slightly more elongated in the torso region. “hyhhhShuhh! Chushhh! uhhh-Hutchhh! Ketchh!


                “Oh yeah,” Ben laughed. “Yeah, I can see you working on your inter-dimensional dematerializing particle thingy when you're like this. You'll probably blow yourself up.” He paused. “You need some help there?”


                “I can make it back to my bedroom all right,” Reed said, taking a few shaky steps towards the bedrooms.


                Ben crossed his arms over his chest. “You remember Suzie's not gonna be back until tomorrow, right?” Whether Reed had remembered or not, the idea seemed to stop him in place.


                “Why don't you take a load off here?” Johnny invited. “Nice warm blanket… good company… and we've got our very own servant here to wait on us hand and foot.”


                “Watch it, Matchstick. I'm not going to let you get away with anything just 'cause you're a little sneezy. I don't care if you have the plague or the flu--”


                “Actually,” Reed said, rubbing at his nose again. “Most likely it's just acute viral nasopharyngitis--”


                “That's just what I was going to say.” Johnny coughed out a laugh. “Whatever it is, it's a doozy. So come on and lie down already.”


                “Two against one isn't very fair.” Reed eyed the rectangular bulge under the blanket which was unmistakably the tissue box. “But in this case, I believe you make a convincing argument.” He took a seat on the other side of the couch and slipped under the blanket, which was large enough to cover them both with room leftover. The couch was even bigger than that. Add in the central location and the television, and this was why Johnny had chosen the couch to crash on. He also remembered that Reed had picked the couch out personally when they'd made the Baxter Building their headquarters.


                With Reed's body under the blanket as well, Johnny felt warmer than he had with the hot water bottle. He smiled until he felt something hit his underarm. “Hey, Reed, watch the stretching!”


                “Oh, sorry!” Reed's arms and legs had gone beyond their natural lengths as he yawned and stretched out in relaxation. He sniffed. “Could I get some of those tissues now?”


                Johnny passed the box over, then took it back almost immediately after that. “ihhh-ihhh-Shuhh! ihhhChhh!


                “Perhaps we should watch some television?” Reed suggested.


                Johnny agreed. As nice as the sound of both of them sneezing and coughing was, television was much more enjoyable. The remote was closest to Ben, but since he was sick, Johnny took control. “Try channel 87... yeuch… channel 20? Channel 5… no. How about channel 44… channel 188… now channel 255… or try--”


                “Johnny!” Ben roared. “Just take the remote and change the channel yourself!”


                Johnny shook his head, rubbed his nose, and crossed his arms over his chest. “I'm too tired. Don't wanna hold it. You can have it. Just… try channel 220?”


                “What about--" Ben started, but Johnny cut him off.


                “Oh no. If you get to pick the station, we'll be watching nothing but ice skating all day.”


                “Ice skating?!”


                Smirking, “Or maybe the food network.”


                Reed cleared his throat and tried to put an end to the quibbling. “How about we just watch the Discovery Channel?”


                The reply was a simultaneous “No!” Which caused both Ben and Johnny to laugh.


                After another few minutes of arguing, they finally decided to watch a movie instead. When Ben got up to get the DVDs, Reed coughed then called after him, “Ben… do you think you could you make me some soup before we begin? I'd do it myself but… I'm feeling kind of...”


                “No sweat, Reed. Johnny, you want in on this, too?”


                Johnny wasn't incredibly hungry, but the mere mention of soup made him want it desperately for the warmth alone. He hadn't shivered since Reed had joined him on the couch, but he was far from cozy. “Soup, yeah,” he nodded. Ben headed to the kitchen, tossing the remote on the couch as he went.


                “hehKetchhh! Kehshhhh! huhShehh!” Reed blew his nose again and closed his eyes wearily. “Does your head hurt as much as mine does?”


                Johnny shrugged. His chills were worse than his headache, and how was he to know how bad Reed felt. True, the man looked miserable, but he couldn't imagine Reed felt as bad as Johnny did. “I wish Sue was here.”


                “You wish Sue 'were' here,” Reed corrected him. “It's a simple past tense subjunctive.”


                A laugh and cough went along with a nod from Johnny. “Sick and still correcting my grammar. See? Cough! That's totally why I want Sue here.” He said it with a smile, which made Reed smile back.


                Johnny started flipping through the channels again, until Reed snatched the remote from him and turned to the Discovery Channel. Luckily, it was a program about volcanoes, and Johnny wasn't very good at hiding his interest. He was definitely like a kid again, snuggling up on the couch, watching the fiery lava which was almost as cool as Saturday morning cartoons. If it wasn't… weren't… whatever  for the head cold, he'd be in heaven.


                “Soup's on!” Ben called, backing out of the kitchen with a tray in his arms. He wore his black apron and wore the sort of goofy smile he reserved for his most casual, happy moments. Johnny was amused that Ben could look so happy at a time like this. But he was even more amused when Ben tripped over absolutely nothing. He gave a loud “Ooof!” and soup sloshed and splashed against his chest. Johnny burst out laughing. Ben sort of froze in place, letting the soup that hadn't spilled settle. He evaluated and then moved forward, but not without a glare at Johnny, who was still in hysterics.


                 “Here's your soup, Reed,” Ben said through clenched teeth.  He held the tray out and Reed took a bowl and spoon. He walked toward the other end of the couch. “Johnny… if you don't stop laughing, yours is going over your head. And if you think you're chilled now just wait until you're dipping in chicken noodle.”


                Johnny swallowed his laughter and took his soup. He ate a spoonful immediately to keep from chuckling about Ben's soaked apron.


                “Mmmm. This is great.” Reed nodded towards his soup. He stifled several sneezes into his shoulder. “Thank you, Ben.”


                “Yeah, thanks,” Johnny agreed. “Now where's that movie?”


                They started with the first Spiderman movie, moved on to the second and third, then capped off the evening with Daredevil. Reed didn't make it through before falling asleep and Johnny could barely keep his eyes open until the end. “Think someone will make a movie about us one day?”


                “If they do,” Ben replied in as low a whisper as he could manage. “I don't want this day to show up in it.”


                Johnny laughed in agreement. “Saving the world would make a much better- ihhh- movie. Aw, Man. Gotta…  ihh- ihhShihhh! ihhhShoo!” Johnny was beginning to think Reed was right about needing to get more tissues. He blew his nose and closed his eyes. “Besides, Brad Pitt wouldn't look good sneezing like this.”


                “Brad Pitt? That's who you think will play you in a movie?”


                “Sure,” Johnny nodded. “Of course you'll have to be totally CGI. There's no one in real life ugly enough to play you.”


                “Hey!” Ben leaned forward in his chair, pointing a thick, orange, rocky finger at Johnny. “Just 'cause you're sick it don't mean I'm gonna go easy on you.”


                “ihhh… hihhhSheh! ihhhChihh! Ihh-ehh-hehShehhh! Sniff!


                “Bless ya, Fire Fox.” Ben stood up and stretched. “I'm heading to bed. Are you going to sleep here?”


                Johnny felt far too tired to get up. And for once, he felt warm enough. He nodded.


                “Kay then. If you or Reed need me, I'll be down the hall. I'll hear if you shout.”


                The top floors of the Baxter Building were large, but definitely not too large. No matter how pissed at him Ben was, Johnny knew Ben would be there for them. “Thanks, Man. Night.”


                “Night. Feel better.”


                Johnny nodded and drifted off to sleep while Ben's heavy footsteps were still disappearing down the hallway.



*             *             *



                The doorbell sounded shrilly, drowning out the television. Johnny was right in the middle of sneezing his head off and Ben was in the kitchen making lunch. So Reed pushed himself up off the couch and volunteered, “I'll get it.” Out of habit, Reed had changed into his uniform first thing in the morning, even though he would have been much more comfortable staying in pajamas all day. However, pajamas didn't let him use his power of elasticity and that was a great help in moving from one place to another in an instant.


                Reed stretched his leg out for a long step, then the rest of his body glided forward toward his foot. He pinched his nose with his thumb and forefinger and squeezed so the little tickle backed off. The doorbell rang the moment Reed's reached the door. He unlocked the door and turned the doorknob. Then he slammed the door shut immediately. His hand fumbled for the lock and the deadbolt slid into place just as something hard slammed against the door and the knob turned in vain. He returned to the couch at once.


                “Who's that at the door?” Ben asked, coming in from the kitchen. The large, orange man wore a navy blue apron and carried a wooden spoon covered in something beige and gooey.


                “The neighbors,” Reed replied in a thoughtful sort of monotone.


                Ben rolled his eyes. “The Torgersons? Old Mrs.--”


                Reed shook his head. “The neighbors. All the neighbors. Everyone in the entire Bax… in…” Reed's breath hitched. “hehhShoo! KehTchuh! Keh-sheh! ehShhh! Sniff! Everyone in the Baxter Building is in the hallway, right outside our door.”  


                “What do they want?” Johnny asked. “Can't be eviction time already. Reed hasn't been working on any loud projects in days and Princess here,” he gestured towards Ben, “hasn't been practicing his ballet lately.” Ben glared.


                “I don't know,” Reed said, shaking his head. “But the term 'angry mob' aptly describes the situation.” He folded a tissue to his nose and blew hard.


                Ben took the oversized apron off and headed towards the door. “I'll take care of it.”


                “Ben, wait. We should--”


                He held up his hands to mime for them to stay put in the living room. “No way. You two are sick. I'll deal with this.” Ben's heavy footsteps were practically echoed by insistent knocks on the door. “Hold your horses. I'm coming, I'm coming.” Ben yanked the door open. “What's all the--” He shut the door just as quickly as he'd opened it. He started back down the hallway, calling. “Holy cow!”


                Johnny's curiosity was certainly at its highest now. He jumped up off the couch, taking the blanket with him, draping it over his shoulders like a cape. “Angry mob?”


                “Vicious mob,” Ben answered. The sound of a pop made all three of them jump, and two holes appeared- one in the doorway and the other in the wall. “A vicious mob with knives and guns and who knows what else.”


                “I wanna see!” Before he could be reasoned with, Jonny darted down the hallway toward the door. He peeked through the hole in the door. Though he was aflame, he noticed what the other two hadn't had a chance to. “Their eyes are all glassy. Lights are on but they're not home.” Another bullet hit the door, and he backed up as quickly as possible, retreating to the living room. He coughed and hopped out of the way when Ben went to pat him on the back.


                Still muddled in thought, Reed started talking. “Assuming this is some type of mind control, I'm sure the person responsible is--”


                “Dr. Doom?” asked Jonny.


                “Nah, the Skrulls,” Ben said.


                “The Skrulls couldn't control anyone if their lives depended on it,” Johnny said, waving his non-flaming hand dismissively. “But maybe Namor.”


                “Are you feverish? What would Captain Tuna want with us? Suzie isn't even here.”


                “Yeah, so--”


                “kehhShuhh! K'chtshhh! Sniff! Guys! Sniff!” Eyes turned to Reed. “It's clearly the Puppet Master.”


                “Oh yeah,” said Ben, rubbing the back of his neck with one massive hand. “So the whole building is after us and two out of three of us are sick. What do we do?”


                Something hard struck the door. “Well we can't wait here like sitting ducks.” Johnny's hands tightened into fists. “Flame on!” He lit up, hovering an inch off the floor in anticipation.


                “They're not in their right minds,” Reed argued. “We can't harm them.”


                Johnny put on a fake pout. “Are you sure? 'Cause I think kicking some ass would make me feel better.”


                “Don't hurt them,” Reed commanded. He coughed, but that did not undermine his authority.


                Something else, or possibly the same something as before, struck the door again. It was only a matter of time before the other residents of the Baxter Building broke through. And if a few bullets whizzing past were any indication, these people wanted the Fantastic Four dead.


                Reed continued to look thoughtful as he blew his nose. “If it is mind control, and it is the Puppet Master, I should be able to figure out a way to block the telekenesis he uses. I've been working on a device that emanates a particle field which--”


                “Hey, far be it from me to interrupt you when you're having a brain wave,” Ben interrupted. “But could we maybe skip the longwinded explanation this time?” There was another bang, and the squeaking, metallic sound of hinges breaking. “We've got trouble.”


                One more, quick bang and the door, in two pieces, smashed down upon the floor of the hallway.


                “We've got to get up to the lab,” Reed decided. The elevator in the hallway was clearly inaccessible, but there was a staircase past their bedrooms which led there.


                “You get a head start,” Johnny said. “Ben and I can dance a bit with these clowns.”


                Reed didn't have a great feeling about leaving just before a fight, let alone leaving a fight in the hands of Johnny and Ben. However, he felt confident neither man would hurt the neighbors and he really did need to get to his lab. Every second was precious. He ran, feeling the heat in his chest and ache in his head all the while. He promised himself a glass of water and a minute to cough properly once he was in his lab, and struggled up the stairs practically on all fours in order to get there in one rubbery piece.


                Once he regained minimal control of his sinuses, he set to work. The main computer terminal ran a tracing program. The secondary terminal linked to the Vault. A third was rushing through the results of the last few tests he'd run on the device. And a third was sending a message to Sue's blackberry, requesting assistance. Reed had wished for Sue's presence practically every minute since she'd left, but this time his reasons were less selfish.


                He could hear fighting going on downstairs, and from the sound of things, their inability to hit back pound-for-pound was only driving Johnny and Ben into a slow retreat rather than a victory. Reed would have to wore more quickly. His arms were all over the place, typing on a keyboard on one side of the room, then swiftly stretching over to grab a tool or circuit board on the other side of the lab. He scrawled equation after equation on his whiteboard, which were captured by another computer and automatically substituted into programs, which compiled and ran simulations almost before he could ask it to. There were still too many kinks to work out, but he hoped it might get the device to function well enough to slow the neighbors down and buy them enough time to find and stop the Puppet Master.


                Though his body still faced the whiteboard, his neck twisted so his head could turn 180 degrees to see Johnny and Ben burst through the door to the lab. “They just keep coming!” Johnny panted.


                Reed's face was illuminated by the multiple computer screens and he looked over, blinking for a second, then submitted to a double-sneeze. “hah-Ketchoo-Hesheeh!” He bent his neck again, rubbing his nose on his shoulder over and over again to keep his hands free to work.


                “Bless ya,” Ben said. Then, ““You need any of this right now, Pal?” Ben was slightly out of breath, pointing a thumb towards a table with a few beakers, papers and spare computer parts upon it. The second Reed shook his head, the Thing lifted the heavy metal table into the air. Stuff went everywhere, and the table went flat up against the door as an extra layer of protection between them and the bullets. The laboratory was easily the safest place in the building, with reinforced walls, shatterproof plexiglass, and keycode and iris scan entry… but none of them expected it to hold out indefinitely against an angry mob, especially not an angry mob of Baxter Building neighbors. With Ben holding the table against the door, the three felt at liberty to properly discuss their situation.


                “I don't understand,” said Johnny, after his flames were gone and he'd fallen into a chair. “I thought the Puppet Master was locked up. Did he escape?”


                Reed shook his head. “According to the security feed and hourly guard checks, he's still in his cell and still cut off from any material he might use to form puppets.”


                “Can't be him, then,” Johnny said. “My money's still on the Sub-Mariner. Maybe his revenge on the surface world is to drive everyone into a murderous rage and kill us? That'd get two birds with one stone.”


                “It would also get Sue killed,” Reed pointed out. “He'd never risk that.” He noticed that Johnny, though sweating, was shivering uncontrollably now. Reed thought about wrapping himself around the man, the way he had a few days ago when they'd been underground with the Mole Man. However, for the sake of decency, he merely grabbed a thick blanket that he'd been using to cover an array of modified disk readers and draped it around Johnny's shoulders. “I agree that we should not immediately assume it's Alycia's stepfather.  But whoever it is clearly has a great deal of control over a large number of people. That sort of power is most likely difficult to maintain and sustain. If we can block it even a little, it would cause the villain to expend more energy and eventually go under.”


                Neither Ben nor Johnny had anything constructive to say to that. This part of the plan rested entirely on Reed's tired shoulders. He continued to work, Ben continued to reinforce the barricade, and Johnny… continued to sit. “ihhShoo! ihhChhh! Ihh-ihh-HihShoo!” Johnny sneezed weakly, his whole body shaking with the force of the sneezes even more than Ben's shook when the neighbors struck the door. Even Reed had to admit that Johnny wasn't looking so hot now. The younger man looked pale and exhausted. His eyes were bloodshot and there were bags under them. His nose was pink and he breathed solely through his mouth. He moved unusually slowly, even just from the effort of breathing.


                “Kid, I gotta say, you don't look good.”


                Johnny managed a weak smile, directed towards Ben, and nodded. Then he snapped forward again. “HIHShoo! IhhChuh! ihhShuhh Shoo! TChoo! Snnnniiiiiiifffff!


                “You took the words out of my mouth, Ben,” Reed said once Johnny was in a better condition to actually hear them. “What happened down there?”


                Johnny and Ben exchanged worried glances. “Let's just say it's gonna need one Hell of a cleanup crew,” said Ben.


                “Things got pretty bad down there,” Johnny agreed.


                “You did good down there, Kid,” Ben told him.


                “Yes,” said Reed. “I appreciate you both buying me some time.” He paused. “Wait a second… how bad did it get down there?”


                Johnny, wiping his wrist under his nose, answered, “Um, Reed… the couch is gone.”


                'Gone' seemed a strange word to use. Couches did not just get up and leave, nor did they tend to vanish into thin air. And it was safe to assume it had not passed away. Reed cocked his head towards Johnny with a curious expression.


                “Ben tossed it across the room and I set it on fire to act as a sort of… ihhh… barrier. That always works in the monster movies, you know? 'Fire Bad!' and all that. But the people kinda knew how to put a fire out and then just scrambled right over the couch and down the hallway to us a few minutes later. But we're definitely going to need to buy a new couch.”


                Reed sighed. On top of an angry mob bent on destruction, an invention still admittedly in the testing phase, and two horrible head colds, now he had to worry about fitting the purchase of a new couch into their budget. “Maybe it's for the best,” Reed said finally. “We won't have to disinfect it now, at least.”


                “There you go, Stretch!” Ben said, taking the brunt of another neighborly thrust against the door. “Think positive. 'Cause the situation's not that bad, is it? Just a hundred people comin' at us at once and we can't fight them off. Sounds easy to me- ooof!” He withstood yet another assault on the door.


                Reed decided he wasn't going to get anywhere, especially with Ben descending into sarcasm, so he turned all his attention on the invention. It would have been exponentially easier to do the work if he didn't have the mob breathing down his neck and if he didn't have this ferocious head cold. If he could have just turned one or the other off, he was sure he could have it done in minutes. But as it was, he was having a difficult time concentrating. The equations weren't balancing out and there were far too many variables to take into account. Not to mention that his budget had been stretched to the limit already, no pun intended, so the parts at hand were not ideal or all-inclusive.


                After another fifteen minutes, he stepped back from the table, rubbing his nose and studying the overall creation. There was a large metal cylinder with several thick antennas sticking up from the middle. There were several switches and dials, providing incredible accuracy when used in conjunction with the adaptor card he'd plugged into one of his laptops.                


                “So is this invention of yours ready yet?” Ben asked, shaking slightly from the force ramming against the door, making Ben, the desk, and the door all shake.


                Reed shrugged. “There's no way of knowing if it's calibrated to block the sort of control that's being used in this situation. I might need to readjust the levels, but the only way we'll find out is to test it on them.”


                “So we're ready to rumble.” Ben cracked his knuckles in preparation. “The Fantastic Three vs. the entire population of the Baxter Building, part two. What's the plan?”


                “Ben and Johnny, you two are going to have to hold them off while I activate this. It will require a few seconds to fully load and compensate for the sheer number of people involved. I'll handle anyone who comes near me, but if we can keep them on one side of the lab, that would be best.” The room was circular, but large enough that if a few got past Ben and Johnny, the three would find themselves surrounded in no time. The fact that there were no windows and only a door which led to the empty jet hanger was no comfort should they need to retreat further.


                “Yeah, we can do that. Right, Matchstick?” There was no reply. “Hey, yo, Johnny. Up and at 'em!”


                Reed looked over at the chair Johnny was slumped in. The man was fast asleep. Reed felt bad about having to wake him up. In fact, he would have liked to have found himself a chair to sleep in for an hour or two as well. That sounded like an excellent idea. Except for the hundreds of innocent people trying to break down their door. “Johnny?” Reed walked over and touched Johnny on the shoulder.


                “Nngh,” Johnny muttered. “Just five more minutes, Mom…”


                Reed shook his shoulder. “Johnny!” The man instantly burst into flames and sneezed at the same time, which was quite a sight. Reed had, fortunately, jumped out of the way in time. “Sorry, Johnny. But we need your help again.”


                Johnny nodded. “I know, I know. Sniff! Sniiiffff!” He scrubbed his hand over his face. “I'm ready.”


                Reed seriously doubted that Johnny was that ready, but there was nothing they could do about that now. “All right them. Keep them away from the equipment, if you can. And try not to unplug any of the computers. And remember not to hurt anyone. And--”


                “And if you've got any more of them caveats, we're never going to get off the ground. We doin' this thing or what?”


                Reed took a deep breath and stifled a cough. “We're doing this now.”


                They traded off the countdown. Ben took 'three'. Johnny had 'two'. And Reed gave a firm 'one'. Then Ben jumped from the door, taking the table with him, and the mob burst through the door at them, activated the device. It emitted a high-pitched squeak that made everyone in the room wince, but the sound only last a moment. There seemed to be no indication it was working, apart from a green light flashing on the side of the unit. The neighbors didn't slow down at all in their attack. In fact, they seemed to have stepped up their attack, from what Reed could tell.


                Ben was practically tackled, but he took on twenty or thirty people, trying to push them without hurting them. Johnny flew around in front of the crowd and just above their heads to drive them back. Several brandished knives at him, which he skillfully dodged, but he couldn't keep this up indefinitely. Reed worked on the disruptor, adjusting the levels and trying to coordinate with what the computer readouts were telling him. Computer number one was picking up on the device and honing in one some sort of activity in the city. There wasn't a specific location but if he ran this long enough, he just might be able to get to the bottom of this.


                However, it didn't look like they'd be able to keep the mob back long enough. Johnny was flying so low several baseball bats nearly hit him. Ben was nearly overwhelmed. And Reed was unable to just stand by with his equipment and do nothing. He sprang into action- literally- wrapping his whole body around what must have been at least twenty-five people. They jabbed and kicked at him, but he kept circling them like rope and let his body give around the weapons. This gave Ben enough time to knock several people to the floor and for Johnny to direct another ten or so back towards the door.


                Reed gave a tight squeeze around them, spun the whole group around several times to disorient them, then released the group. He glanced over at the device that he desperately wanted to fiddle with some more. But then he looked up at Johnny. Was it his imagination or was the fire a little less bright than usual?


                Not a moment later, the mob charged at him. He stretched his arms out, spanning the width of the room in an instant. His limbs held back the group. They struck him and bounced back as though hitting a giant rubber band. Many stumbled backwards into others, knocking them over like dominos. Reed heard Ben chuckling and Reed smiled, knowing Ben was thinking the exact same thing. The lightness was broken by a groan overhead from Johnny.


                “Can't… I'm burning out… no more energy.” With a sizzle and a puff of smoke, Johnny's flame went out and he fell. Reed enlarged his hand and held it out so that Johnny fell right into it.


                “A pop fly caught in right field!” Ben provided the commentary. Johnny looked up from his spot in the net that was Reed's hand and smiled gratefully. Then he passed out. Reed sighed in frustration. This was not going well and now he literally had his hands full. So did Ben, since now there were only two doing what three had been almost able to do.


                “Change of plans,” Reed announced. He set Johnny down on the ground, and then enlarged himself, turning his body into a thin but large rubbery shield. “Ben, get under!” The timing could not have been better. Only milliseconds later, a gun discharged. One, then two, three, and four bullet came straight at Reed. They struck the shield that was Reed and bounced right off again. Luckily, Reed had managed to direct them up to the ceiling and not back into the crowd. His nose started tickling again, and despite the circumstances, he smiled to think of how the Mole Man had imprisoned him and Sue had saved them all… and scratched his nose in the process. Reed turned his eyes toward computer number three; there was still no response from Sue.


                “What do we do now?” Ben asked, huddling with Johnny under Reed's chest. “I ain't gonna be able to work these controls, Stretch.” He held up his hands with their four thick fingers in explanation. “And Johnny's still out cold.”


                Reed nodded, looking around, processing, deciding on his options. “All right. Looks like we've got to retreat again. Into the hanger.”


                “But the Jet isn't here…”


                “I know. And that room is too big to hold defensively for long. But I can't hold on here forever either.” Someone stabbed at him with a knife and another shot was fired. “Ben, you get Johnny. I'll cover your retreat and then make a run for it with the device and the laptop… and maybe I can grab my short wave--” He coughed.




                Reed nodded. “Device and laptop it is. On the count of three.”


                But Ben was already moving with Johnny over his shoulder. “Got a better plan,” he grunted. He moved Johnny in and then grabbed the laptop and the device as carefully as he could. He returned and nodded towards Reed. “You go. I'll hold 'em off.”




                “You're sick. I'm calling the shots this time. Go!”


                Reed retracted his body but kept it thin, floating like a piece of paper through open doorway. He landed right on top of Johnny and puffed up, knocking the air out of the younger man but bringing him to consciousness in the process. The door to the hanger was slammed behind Ben, who stood against it as he had done before. But after two doors down already, the mob was getting very good at breaking through by now. From the sound of it, and the way Ben shook and grunted each time the door was hit, they only had seconds.


                Reed plucked at the device's dials but didn't hear any difference. The shouts and bangs from the other room were killing his head so he couldn't think straight. “Johnny,” he said, coughing again. “Can you…?”


                Johnny shook his head. “Too tired,” he said. “My flame's out.” He nodded up at Ben. “Think we can stop them in their tracks with his beauty?”


                Reed smiled and Ben gritted his teeth. The door was forced open, but Ben pushed it back into place, holding it there without the courtesy of locks or hinges. Now it was just one wooden plank that separated them from the mob they couldn't properly fight. The hanger was open on the opposite side, but it was too far down to jump or stretch down to so Reed couldn't use himself as a human slide. Johnny couldn't fly and Ben couldn't move from the doorway.


                “Why won't this thing work?” Reed said, sounding half puzzled and half frustrated. He knew there was no use getting angry at an experiment. And he knew he could spend all day and night adjusting the levels before anything actually worked. But for the sake of his family, he wished that just this once, he'd get lucky. “Come on,” he whispered to the device with its flashing green light. “You need to work now.” He turned two of the dials all the way to the left and then waited a few seconds, hoping the next sounds he heard would be silence.


                What he heard was Johnny sneezing. “hehhShoo! ihhhChoo!” And then he heard the angry shouts, as clear as ever before. Reed's heart sank. Now he wasn't just running out of options, he was entirely out of them.


                “Reed?” Ben called, hope in his strained voice. “You got anything?”


                Reed shook his head. “I'm sorry…” He flipped the binary toggle off, waited to observe the reaction, then turned it back on again. “It's like tuning a radio when you don't know what the station number is… only instead of just FM and AM, you've got a hundred different--” He cut himself off. Ben wouldn't appreciate the details at this particular juncture. All he could do was apologize. He was starting to feel that constantly apologizing was his role in the group. He looked at Johnny, coughing and too weak to fight. He looked at Ben, barely able to hold the masses off on his own. And he looked at the experiment about which he had his doubts. It was strange to think that just yesterday they'd been sitting around, squabbling over what to watch on television and now they were so incredibly screwed. “I am sorry,” he repeated.


                Reed Richards took a deep breath, stood up and faced the door. They would do as much as they could do together. “We might not make it,” Reed said, clearing his throat. His head swam and he needed to sneeze again, but rubbed his nose so he wouldn't.


                “We've been through worse,” Ben assured him.


                “We'll be all right,” said Johnny, sitting up and rubbing his nose as well. “Let's give it another go.”


                Ben did not give in, but just after they'd declared their stand, the other residents of the building broke through to them. They did what they could do, avoiding weapons, controlling the crowd, trying to overpower the lot without actually doing any of them arm. People seemed to be everywhere. Johnny protected the blocking device and laptop, Reed protected him, and Ben took the front lines. Things went bad right from the start, however. There were just too many of them, and they were so riled up. Reed didn't know what the mob wanted with them, or even if they'd be alive in a half hour to find out.


                Something hard struck Reed's head, and he went right down, folding to the floor like an accordion. Weakly, he lifted his head and one hand, trying to carry on, but darkness crept up on him and he felt helpless to resist. Reed couldn't even call out for help, and there was no help to be had, even if he could speak.


                “Don't worry, Darling. I've got you.” The voice sounded far away, and before Reed could figure out what was happening, he passed out.


                Reed woke what had to be only minutes later, because everyone was exactly where they had been when he'd lost consciousness, with the exception of his wife, who now stood in the middle of the room. She was sending bursts of energy out at the mob, repeatedly driving them back, away from the Fantastic Four. “I've got the jet up on the roof,” she told them. “I can get us all up there now. Do we have somewhere to go?”


                Reed couldn't nod. He could cough and sniff, but he couldn't nod. He did, however, manage to whisper, “We have a general location.”


                Sue nodded and Reed closed his eyes. He felt himself be lifted off the floor and levitated right out the large hanger door. Before he knew it, he found he had been tucked into his seat on the jet. He also had the world's worst headache. Sue had his laptop. Ben had the controls. And Johnny had another sneezing fit.


                They landed not too far away, on top of another tall skyscraper. “Thanks, Sue,” Reed said, his eyes closed as though that would help guard against the throbbing which seized his head. It was so bad he thought he might actually be sick to his stomach. He pushed the button to open the cockpit ad climbed out, just in case he had to lose his lunch, but hoped it would not come to that. The others did likewise, to make talking amongst themselves easier. He swallowed and tried to focus on the situation at hand and not on his pains and sickness. It was hard to ignore, however, when Johnny sounded just as sick and wasn't doing a very good job at keeping it in check.


                “ihhhChoo! ihhhShoo! ihhhShuhh! ihhhShoo! Sniff! ihShooo!


                “Suzie, you ain't got a tissue on you by any chance?” Ben said, sounding a little exasperated.


                “As a matter of fact…” She tossed a small travel pack to Johnny, who didn't catch it but did pick it up off the concrete rooftop. He immediately helped himself to two tissues. “So let me get this straight: everyone in our building just started attacking you?”


                “Yup,” Ben answered. “Reed thinks it's the Puppet Master controlling them somehow, but we don't know how. The guy's still in lockup and he couldn't possibly make all those puppets. We've got more than a hundred people in our building.”


                Reed wanted to jump into the conversation, but he was physically stretched to his limit. If only he had someone who could talk for him. He could just push all his thoughts to the one person who could communicate what he wanted while Reed relaxed and recuperated.  “That's it,” Reed whispered, pulling his eyes open. All eyes were on him. “The Puppet Master isn't directly controlling all those people, but he is controlling them.” All expressions were ones of confusion. “He's controlling someone else. That person is in actuality the one who has made all the dolls and is ordering them to attack us. If he can control people and make them do whatever he wants, why couldn't he make the person he controls use that same control?”


                “Wait wait wait,” Johnny piped up after blowing his nose. “You're telling me he gave his powers to some other person who's doing all this to us?”


                Reed nodded. “He's channeling his powers through another person… but who? It would have to be someone he knows well enough. Someone whose mind he can touch. Someone who he could craft an exact likeness of from memory. Someone who's in our building enough to know the neighbors but who wasn't in that mob. Sniff! Sniff! And if it's not the four of us…”


                They all came to the same conclusion at once, and it was Ben who gave a start. “Alycia!”


                As they flew towards Alycia's building, Reed was kicking himself for not having seen it sooner. Alycia's apartment was right in the center of the area the computer had zeroed in on. Even if the others had doubted it, he'd been sure it was the Puppet Master's doing. Now Alycia was in trouble, Ben was worried, and the only way out of the situation was to get his device to work… before the whole city rose up and killed them.


                They landed on a tennis court just a block from her building. The art gallery was another option, and only a few blocks beyond that, but it was much less probable that she would keep a hundred small clay puppets at a semi-public location. Reed felt sluggish as he slid out of his seat of the jet. If the inhabitants of this building were going to fight them as well, he really did not think he'd have the energy to last very long. From the look of him, Johnny wouldn't last more than a minute. Reed took the laptop and device with him, and followed the others into the apartment building.


                At first, Reed was filled with foreboding as they mounted the stairs. After the third flight, however, fatigue was winning out over everything else. Johnny complained for the both of them. “I was thinking… maybe we shouldn't leave the jet unattended. I should go back and wait with it.” Ben, who was leading the charge up the stairs for a change, growled in reply. “Aw man. Sniff! Sniff! Guys… I don't think I can do much more of this.” Ben looked back, glaring at Johnny. Johnny kept his complains to a minimum after that, but didn't stop entirely. He ended up pulling himself up mostly thanks to the banister, a trick Reed had mastered back on the second floor.


                Since Ben had a key, it wasn't technically breaking and entering… even though he hadn't brought the key with him… and even though he broke the door down and entered. It was just as they had presumed and feared: Alycia sat, cross-legged, on the floor of her living room, completely surrounded by tiny clay dolls. She had her hands out, positioned over a large group of them, as though controlling them from above merely by thought. What was most interesting, however, was that none of the little dolls had the sort of detail the Puppet Master usually used. There was just enough to identify each person- clothing, hairstyle, and so on. However, Alycia never used visuals to identify people; she could sense them. And it was clear from the first second they'd stepped through the door, that there were strong energies at work in the room.


                “Alycia?” Ben called, shuffling over to her.


                “Careful where you step!” Reed called out. He extended his arms far out, setting his things down on a table that was a good eight feet away. “Remember, these people are all innocent.”


                “Yeah,” said Johnny, sarcastically, rubbing the back of his neck. “Real innocent. Sniff! Sniff!


                Even when they had surrounded Alycia and Ben had his hand on her back, she did not react to them. Her mouth hung open but her hands moved, selecting some dolls over others, moving them about like pieces on a chess board. But she had as much control over herself as the lifeless clay dolls had.


                “Alycia, snap outa this!” Ben pleaded uselessly. He looked up, helplessness in his baby blue eyes, and stared straight at Reed.


                “Can't we just destroy the dolls?” Johnny asked, snapping his fingers so that a weak flame danced upon his fingertips.


                Reed shook his head. He sniffed into his wrist then snapped forward. “hahhTuchhhhh! H'Shahh! Sniff!” His nose was beginning to hurt where he rubbed at it, but rubbing kept it from tickling and running so much. “Sniff! Sniffsniff! Don't touch the dolls,” Reed said. “If you destroy them, the people will be killed, too.”


                “Oh yeah.” Johnny snapped his flame away. “What about the Puppet Master? If we stop him, that'll stop Alycia, right?”


                Ben slammed his fist down on his thigh. “It's clobberin' time!”


                “No it's not!” Reed exclaimed. It hurt his throat, but that was worth it. “If you kill him before he releases Alycia, she and everyone else under his control may never regain their mental faculties.”


                Ben blinked. “But you've got a plan, right?” He sounded close to panic and anger.


                There was exactly one option. Reed swallowed, then nodded. There was only solution. He carefully stretched over the mass of clay dolls and took a seat at the table in front of his device. For a few minutes, he felt comfortable there, sitting in a proper chair with his invention in front of him, making adjustments, entirely absorbed in the science.


                But then there was a thump against the door. Chills ran up and down Reed's back and there was no telling what had started them- his cold or the fact that once again they had visitors. Ben seemed reluctant to leave Alycia's side, but after another crash, followed by some muffled angry shouts, he took up his former position at the door. Sue stood in the center of the room, ready to protect the team from whatever came through, if anything made its way through.


                Reed turned his attention back to the device. He reset the dial and toggled the switches. Then he sneezed and wiped the spray from the console with his sleeve.  The noise of the people outside the apartment was growing. The door did not sound as though it were very strong. He had to work quickly. He definitely did not want a repeat of the Baxter Building. Science, however, worked on its own timetable. Reed just hoped this time the door would hold out a little longer. He adjusted the third dial, waited a few seconds, sniffed, and then adjusted it again.


                Whether or not the door would have held, they did not find out. The widow on the far left wall shattered magnificently a moment later, sending pieces of glass everywhere. Fortunately, Sue was a fast thinker and stretched her arms out, extending a forcefield just in time to protect both the people in the room and the dolls from the flying shards of glass.


                The window was now a gateway for people to flood in from the fire escape. The forcefield stayed up, keeping the attackers away at least for the time being. Sue would not be able to keep it up indefinitely, however. “Not good, not good,” Johnny muttered at the seemingly endless stream of people, armed with weapons of all sorts. “Reed?” his plea was heavy with desperation.


                Reed tried to tune out the distractions. He moved the largest dial by the smallest of increments. Still there was no change. Alycia still did not acknowledge them and every member of the building and probably the entire city block kept after them. A defeated, sinking feeling settled in, progressing swiftly to fear. His worst fear of being unable to do what needed to be done to stop the destruction of his friends was being realized before his eyes. Here it was- a solution right here in front of him and chances were somewhere between fair and good that they would all be killed before Reed could make it work.


                He stopped turning the dial and rubbed the back of his right hand against the underside of his nose. He followed that by rubbing his left hand at his nose. He sniffed wetly and managed to smile at the irony of wishing he had a tissue a tissue mere seconds before facing almost certain doom. At least then he wouldn't die all sniffy and sneezy, and that would be an improvement over the present situation. He could not allow himself to give up, but it was clear this wasn't working.


                Reluctantly, he put the task on pause and looked up, evaluating and hoping changing gears would cause an epiphany to strike him. There was Johnny, standing ready to fight but needing a chair in order to remain standing. There was Ben, still staring worriedly in Alycia's direction, hoping somehow he knew she was there for here. And there was Sue, standing in the middle of the room with only one arm held out now and one hand over her forehead. “It's all right, Sue,” Reed said, preparing for the inevitable.


                Sue, however, shook her head. “I'm not giving up on you, Reed Richards. If you need time, we'll give you time.”


                Reed nodded, then he stifled a series of small sneezes into the crook of his arm. “ihhShhh! kehSheh! Kehchuh! tchhhh! hetchh! ehhTchh!” More than anything else, he wanted this device to work. But, failing that, he wanted to go to her, be at her side when the end came. Reed looked down at the floor and pushed aside several of the clay dolls that surrounded him. He retracted his hand almost at once, surprised at how warm the dolls were.


                He extended both arms, palms down to face the dolls. Yes, the dolls were definitely warm- warmer than room temperature- and it wasn't just his fever swaying his judgment. “Must be because of the radiation,” he said to himself. “


                Though the cosmic rays they had been bombarded with were ultimately harmless, it was those rays that had given the four their powers… and had given the clay powers as well. It was then that it hit Reed, harder than the bullets which had found him earlier, in fact. “I need my scanner gun from the jet!” The exclamation caused coughs, which he tried to force away but couldn't.


                While Reed coughed, Johnny spoke up. “I'm sorry but you should have grabbed your scanner before we left the jet, young man. And no bathroom breaks in the middle of a fight, either.”


                Reed rubbed his hand under his nose again. He was going to start sneezing again any second now, and he really needed to get this out. “ehhh… hehhhhh…” Reed struggled, pinching his nose and then holding his breath. The sensation built and strengthened. Then it backed off completely. Reed sighed with gratitude.


                They stood in silence after that, exchanging looks. Reed had the device. Ben stood at the door, ready to fight. Sue maintained her energy field despite the constant attacks. And then there was Johnny. “I'll go,” Johnny said before anyone else could point this out.


                “But, Johnny,” Reed started, not knowing where he was going with it but knowing that he didn't want to put Johnny in this position, especially when sick.


                But Johnny shook his head. “It's all right. I can't fight well right now anyway. I should have enough energy left to zip over to the jet and back.” He glanced at the window; people were still climbing in, but with any luck he would be able to get past them just fine. “Besides, Reed, you need to keep working and Sue, you gotta keep doing what you're doing. And Ben… well, if you went we'd all end up dead before you came galumping back.”




                “Assuming that fire escape even held out under your weight.”


                Ben sounded threatening. “Johnny!”


                Johnny cracked a smile, which was encouraging to them all to see. “Don't worry about me. Now, this thing you want, Reed?”


                Reed quickly described the item and the best way to remove it from the central computer. Johnny listened to the part about how it looked something like a modified radar gun; Johnny was more than familiar with those. He patiently waited through the bit about how to remove the main control panel in Reed's cockpit to get at it. But when Reed began to get into the best ways to remove the item from the jet, his attention waned. He appeared jumpy and impatient, glancing repeatedly towards the door. Reed realized before too long that he was speaking unnecessarily. He waved his hand dismissively and Johnny leapt into action.


                “Flame on!”


                The heat of Johnny's flames was enough to give him some room for his quick exit. Once the streak of fire was gone, Reed felt more nervous than ever. It was almost a comfort when his nose began to tickle.  There were worse things to do to pass the time than suffer a sneezing fit. He brought his arm up, and nuzzled his nose into the crook. “hehhTchoo! hehChuhh! Heh-hehh-hehChhhh! Ehh-Choo!


                “Reed? Are you all right?” Sue asked. Her voice was strained with the effort of maintaining the forcefield, but she was still concerned.


                With quite a lot of effort, Reed pulled his eyes open and lifted his head. His nostrils twitched violently and his mouth hung open. But he nodded and managed a soft “Just s-sn-sn-sneezy” before covering the lower half of his face back up with his arm. “erKShhhh! hhhh-huhChuhh-Choo! hehhShoo! hepTChoo!” Sneezing was so much easier than worrying about frequencies of cosmic mind control. He slumped in his chairs, his limbs feeling rubbery and heavy. “hehshooo!” He sneezed freely, then folded his arms on the table and let his head sink onto them. “ehhTChhh! EHTChhhhhh!” The sneezes were wetter now, and he needed a tissue. He sniffed long and hard and rubbed his nose into his sleeve.




                Reed opened his eyes to see Johnny standing beside him, holding the scanner and a whole bunch of cables. “This is it, right?”


                It took one minute… two… three… The scanner took an exceedingly long time to narrow in on the exact frequency. However, when the complex signature scrolled across the LCD screen, Reed recognized it at once. He transferred the data to his experiment, which took another minute which felt like an hour.


                Then, slowly, Alycia collapsed onto the floor. Ben rushed to her, crushing several clay figures underfoot in the process. That did not matter, however, nor did it matter that he'd abandoned the door. The people who had climbed in through the window suddenly regained their senses and the room was filled with the sound of apologies. Johnny tiredly ushered them out of the apartment, then immediately claimed one of Alycia's armchairs. Before Reed could do likewise, he felt Sue's cool hand against his cheek and then his forehead. He turned his head into her warm body and closed his eyes instinctively. “Sue, you're all right?”


                She petted his head gently. “I'm all right, thanks to you.”


                Feeling uncomfortable taking the responsibility for their victory when he felt as though he'd done the least, Reed moved on quickly. “Ben?” Reed called out. “How's Alycia?”


                There was a pause, then an “I'm fine.” Reed opened his eyes to see Ben hugging Alycia comfortingly and she was hugging him back, though her arms wouldn't reach all the way around his middle. She looked cheerful and grateful.


                “Johnny? You?”


                “A-okay,” Johnny said, giving him the thumbs-up then coughing into his fist.


                “Do you have a little energy left? I hate to ask but the best way to get rid of this clay…”


                Johnny coughed again, then he snapped his fingers to reveal a spark. “I think I have just enough.”


                 Sue and Reed gathered up every bit of clay in sight into a large metal trashcan. As soon as it was ablaze, Reed felt a wave of relief rush through him. Of course, they would need to go by the Vault and do the same with whatever clay the Puppet Master had somehow managed to smuggle inside. But afterwards, there would be rest and relaxation… until the next super-villain struck.



*             *             *



                “Reeeeed, can you toss me the tissues?”


                Reed nodded, open-mouthed, but instead took several tissues from the box and got them to his face in time. “hehhKShhh! ehhhKehtchooo! hehTChoo!


                “Never mind.” Johnny sniffed and rubbed the back of his hand under his nose. “You need them more than I do.”


                Susan was out getting much-needed groceries and Ben was in the kitchen reheating some of the chicken noodle soup. Johnny and Reed shared the couch once again in the living room, this time with several more blankets and pillows but a limited supply of Kleenex.


                When they'd returned home from seeing the Puppet Master in prison, the first order of business had been to clean up. Angry mobs, as a rule, were not particularly tidy. The second thing they'd done was to buy a brand new couch, this one even bigger than the last. Sue and Ben had forbade the other half of the four from doing any work. Reed had objected at first, but Johnny had been more than happy to give in to much-needed rest.


                Even after two days of doing nothing but sleeping and being looked after, neither man was feeling all that much better. Reed presumed that had to do with the quite trying Puppet Master incident. The incident with the Mole Man hadn't been a walk in the park either. Reed held the tissues out to Johnny. “Take theb,” Reed said.


                Johnny sniffed again and weakly shook his head. “Yeah, but-”


                “Just take theb, Johndy.” He passed the box over and Johnny eagerly helped himself as his nose wrinkled.


                “ihhShh! hihShihhh!” Johnny blew his nose miserably and started coughing. He continued coughing and didn't seem to be able to stop.


                “I'b goig to get you sub juice,” Reed said, pausing the X-Men movie and heading to the kitchen even though Johnny shook his head repeatedly.


                As Reed reached the kitchen, he noticed the door was strangely slightly ajar already. His eyes moved upwards and he cocked his head. Then he stretched his neck upwards to inspect what looked like a bucket perched upon the top of the door. Out of the corner of his eye, Reed saw movement and quickly squeezed through the opening into the kitchen. “Bed, wait! If you go through, you'll be drendched.” He placed a hand on Ben's chest insistently.


                Ben grinned, his blue eyes sparkling. “Yeah, I'm wise to that, Stretch.”


                Reed hoped his awful cold was getting to him, because he didn't quite follow Ben's logic at all. Of course, Ben was not often entirely logical, and he never ran from a fight. But Reed couldn't understand why anyone would allow a bucket of fall on his head.


                “Johnny's still feeling miserable, right?”


                From where he was, Reed could hear alternating sneezing and coughing coming from the living room. Reed nodded. “He's definditely dot good.”


                “Then I'm going through that door. Step aside.”


                “Actually, I was goig to get hib oradge juice.”


                “Leave it to me. Go back to the couch and I'll be right out.”


                Ben sounded so convincing, and Reed felt so tired, that there was no reason to object. Reed easily squeezed back through. Halfway across the room, Reed heard Ben's heavy footsteps clomping towards the door. He noticed Johnny perking up and Reed turned just in time.


                The door opened. The bucket tipped. The water went everywhere. The bucket struck Ben right in the head. The tray Ben was holding jumped and smashed into Ben's chest. The soup and juice ran down his front against the already dripping wet apron. Ben let out a fierce growl that started out with a sort of wind up. “Rrrrrrr-Jooohhhhnnnnnnny!”


                Johnny was in complete hysterics. It sounded as though he were laughing so hard it hurt, but also as though it be dangerous to stop laughing. He slammed the heels of his feet down repeatedly against the couch cushions and wrapped his arms around his stomach. “Oh man… you should see yourself!” he wheezed. “You're dripping… and your apron…”


                Ben lowered the tray, grinning. “Good thing I wore your apron.” It was black, just like Ben's, but this one sported the bright red words: Flame On!


                Luckily, after that, Johnny was in too good a mood to be angry. He continued laughing, wiping tears from him eyes. Even as the laughter passed and he coughed, he continued smiling. Reed caught the look of pleasure in Ben's eyes and understood. After Reed settled back onto the couch, Ben brought over a second tray with soup, crackers, and juice enough for four. When Sue returned, she squeezed under the blanket beside Reed and let him wrap an arm all the way around her while still holding his soup bowl with both hands.


                “I want another hot water bottle.” Johnny whined, shifting around on his side of the couch, hugging most of the blankets tightly around himself.


                “I'm not trusting you around water any time soon, Matchstick!” Ben replied, sending Johnny into another fit of light laughter.


                The others insisted on finishing the X-Men trilogy of movies so Reed was forced to tape the special about black holes to watch later. His experiments sat alone in his lab, and he hadn't checked e-mail in days. The couch was far too small now for three people, and he was still chilly. He wasn't feeling especially hungry, and the tickles in his nose were only getting worse. There was no telling how long this would last, but, all things considered, Reed had never been happier than he was at that moment.