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Susan Storm stood staring at the commercial jet on the airport tarmac, its large belly reflecting the afternoon sun with a powerful glare. The engines of the jet were silent, at least to her, as she watched several figures on the ground loading luggage and moving around the jet with ear protectors fastened tightly to their heads. She lingered on the activity on the ground, the scurrying and the action that she was not a part of, grateful to have something else to focus on. Often she begged her fiancé, Reed Richards, to find some other way for them to travel, some other way that didn't make her feel so exposed, so seen.
Susan blinked away the darker thoughts, turning from the window of the airport terminal and letting her eyes become readjusted from the glare of the afternoon light. Inside the terminal at LAX, all silence was obliterated. A crowd had immediately formed around her and her family as soon as they'd arrived at the gate to wait for their flight back to New York. She tried to block out the squeals of delight from the onlookers, the rush of the crowd that usually seemed to suck all the oxygen out of the room. She attempted to refocus, to ignore the voices gathering around them, the clicking of cell phone cameras, the murmurs and whispers that stuck to her skin so quickly that sometimes she could feel them before she heard them. Before the strange hands touched her arms or shoulders. One time, there'd been a tug on her long blond hair.
Is that them? Oh my God, I can't believe it. They look so different up close. What the hell is she wearing? Do you think she's pregnant?
Of all the things that had changed about Sue's life since the cosmic storm the storm that altered her DNA and gave her powers beyond anything imaginable, powers that drew her back into the world of Reed Richards, powers that led to the defeat and death of Victor Von Doom it was being thrown into the public eye that remained the most difficult. She disliked it intensely: the constant staring, the roving cameras that followed them wherever they went, the intense scrutiny that came with such attention.
For the most part, she had accepted the fate that had befallen them. If they suddenly had powers that could be useful to mankind, so be it. She was willing to share them and to do her part to make the world a safer place. She wasn't haunted by the changes in her life, the way she suspected Ben Grimm might be; nor did she relish the limelight the way her younger brother, Johnny, did. And Reed? He barely noticed anything beyond a book or his PDA. With the outside world rushing so violently into their private space, she often wondered how he could remain so clueless to the million different ways their lives had been invaded.
Sue felt a small weight in her chest. She rubbed her hands together, staring at the slim band of silver around her finger, trying to dismiss her cranky, cynical thoughts. She knew these weren't the musings of a hero, or of someone grateful for her life and upcoming wedding, or of someone even the least bit fantastic. It happened to her sometimes, when the crush of it all became a bit too much, when she'd retreat inside herself, if only to get a break from the attention and the spotlight. But the thoughts were beginning to stay with her for longer periods of time, and even her power of invisibility, her ability to disappear from their sight, could not make them go away.
She walked over to where Reed and Ben were sitting, waiting for the flight. The airport lounge was large and quite generic, she felt, for such a metropolitan city. They had bypassed the coffee bars and newsstands, hoping to lose the seemingly necessary crowds. But they were unavoidable. She noticed the people all around them and made a note to speak to Reed again about finding a less public way to travel. An overhead television caught her attention as she noticed the people in the waiting area staring intently at the talking flat screen.
The TV showed a typical blond anchorwoman with too many teeth talking about Susan and the team. The anchorwoman stared blankly into space and spoke: "It's being called the wedding of the century. Reed Richards and Susan Storm, also known as Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman, will try again to tie the knot three days from now at a private ceremony at the newly remodeled Baxter Building. They're hoping the fifth time's the charm, as the unlucky couple has repeatedly had to reschedule the event due to 'unforeseen circumstances.' But even the delays haven't dampened the enthusiasm of the couple's fans."
Susan cringed at the thought of her personal life being so vividly displayed for the world to see. She and Reed were in love. It wasn't their fault that things kept intruding on their wedding plans. It wasn't like they were hesitant or filled with doubt, was it? She turned her attention back to the television screen, which now panned over a crowd of people. It seemed to her that these cable news shows always found the most extreme personalities to feature on their segments, making most of the public seem like freaks or extremists. This show was no different. The camera cut to rabidly cheering fans adorned with the now familiar and ubiquitous dark blue Fantastic Four T-shirts. Johnny had gone behind their backs again and struck a licensing deal to have their logo put on anything he could: clothing, hats, mugs, towels. Even a large lingerie manufacturer had been ready to make a deal before Sue put a stop to it. Her brother had no common sense, relying instead on his fiery ambition and, she hated to admit, his growing hunger for fame.
The news camera focused on a particularly ardent young couple, the man weighing about twice that of the woman next to him. He was wearing a blue T-shirt with a large number four on the chest and grabbed his young girlfriend for a particularly long, deep kiss, right on camera. When he came up for air he said, "My girlfriend and I are getting married on the same day. I even dyed my temples, right, sweetie?" He turned his large, round face to either side, showing the camera his gray temples. The young girl, with lipstick now smeared over her lips, was wearing a blue wedding dress also emblazoned with a number four.
Susan tried to dismiss the scene with a sense of humor. At least someone is getting married, she thought.
She made her way over to Reed and Ben. They were all dressed in regular clothes even though there was no way for them to blend in with the crowd. Johnny was standing a few feet from where they were sitting, surrounded, as always, by adoring fans. He was too busy signing autographs and having his picture taken to notice the others. A particularly loud group of screaming girls had just arrived on the scene, and Sue figured her brother would remain quite busy until before it was time to board their flight. Watching him interact with the public, it was easy to dismiss him as egocentric or selfish. But Susan knew her brother better than that, and for all his love of the spotlight and the fame and fortune that accompanied their high profile, he took his responsibilities very seriously. Wasn't he the first one to call this a job? She remembered him saying that, after their fight with Victor Von Doom. His powers, and his control over them, were growing exponentially. Susan, at that moment, almost envied how much her brother relished and was comfortable in the public eye.
Susan sat down next to Reed, who had his nose buried in some work, his long legs extended and resting on a suitcase. She smiled and rolled her eyes at Ben, who smiled back at her. Ben knew Reed almost as well as she did but was less frustrated by his distractions. She knew Ben had been working with Reed for years nothing much surprised him about the absentminded professor Reed so often claimed to be.
Ben Grimm watched Susan take a seat next to Reed, her slight figure hardly moving the cheap airport seats at all. It took Ben five minutes to find a seat that might hold him, and he had to ease into it gently so as to not send it flying through the large windows onto the tarmac.
Ben turned his attention away from his friends and watched a group of young kids inch near him. It wasn't that long ago that kids hell, most people had blanched in fear at the sight of him. Not that that didn't still happen on occasion. But for the most part, the world seemed to have made its peace with his appearance. Ben struggled to do the same.
The lead boy was pushed ahead, farther toward Ben, while the others lingered a bit behind. The kid, dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans, held a sheet of paper in one hand and a pen in the other. His young eyes traveled from Ben's rocky face to his blue Brooklyn varsity jacket down to his two large, stony hands. The boy's face was a mixture of excitement and trepidation, his feet not leaving the ground even as the rest of his body tried to move forward. Ben smiled to himself. If only most of their fans were this hesitant, this polite. Sure would be a change of pace for Johnny.
Ben moved his hands away from the sides of the chair and extended them toward the kids. The others flinched back, but not the one with the pen. He stood firm, his eyes growing wide at seeing Ben's large rock hands, with their thick, significant fingers. Ben put his hands together, palms touching, and raised them to a height just above the heads of the children. He moved his hands together slowly, grinding them, the sound of falling rocks suddenly filling the air. Small pebbles fell into a pile before the smiling children. "Cool!" said the boy, before joining his friends in picking up their bounty from the floor of the terminal.
The commotion of children at his feet caused Reed Richards to finally look up from the papers and PDA in front of him. He raised an eyebrow at Ben and watched his old friend shrug his large, rock-hewn shoulders. The entire row of seats moved along with him. The motion caused some papers to fall from Reed's lap to the ground. Reed looked up at the television monitor as if noticing it for the first time, noting the continuing coverage of the energetic fans of the Fantastic Four.
The scene cut back to the anchorwoman in the news studio. "Look for hourly updates and complete live coverage of the big event right here on your Global News Network. Jim?"
The camera cut to a grinning, chisel-faced, sycophantic anchorman, who began hamming it up on cue. "Sounds fantastic, Jane."
"Unbelievable," Reed said to Ben. "Bizarre anomalies have been occurring all over the world, defying every known law of physics. And all the media want to know about is what china pattern Sue and I picked out."
"Which one did you pick out?" Ben asked, trying to lighten his friend's mood. "The blue with the little flowers? 'Cause I liked those."
Susan ignored Ben's attempt at humor and spoke directly to her fiancé. "It's happening again, isn't it?" A frown tarnished her beautiful face.
Reed spoke up quickly, noticing her unhappiness. "No! We're not postponing anything. Not this time. We're having a nice, safe ceremony at the Baxter Building. No interruptions." Reed went to take her hand but she pulled it away, either not wanting to be comforted or simply not believing him. Reed stretched his arm around her slim body and eventually grabbed her hand, the one with the silver band. He looked deep into her eyes. "This is going to be the wedding you've always dreamed of. And I am not going to let anything get in the way of that. Not even the mysterious transformation of matter at the subatomic level."
Susan couldn't help but smile as Reed released her from his tender grip. "Reed Richards, that's the most romantic thing you've ever said to me."
That's so sweet, Ben thought, genuinely happy for the two of them. Then he noticed Johnny coming their way. Uh oh, here comes trouble.
Sue was about to pull Reed in for a kiss when Johnny pushed in between them, placing his arms around the couple. "Which is pretty pathetic, when you think about it," he said, grinning from ear to ear.
Susan turned quickly, intending to admonish her brother for eavesdropping, but she was interrupted by a representative from the airline. The middle- aged man seemed fearful and excited at the same time. He spoke barely above a whisper, a voice probably used to placate those who were about to be inconvenienced. "Dr. Richards, I'm very sorry, but it seems we're overbooked in first class. We do have some seats available in coach, though."
Reed looked over at his fianceé, who simply sat back in her chair and folded her arms. Johnny had already left them and was walking across the room to another group of beautiful female admirers. Reed knew that Susan and her brother wouldn't complain too much. His concern was for Ben, who at times felt a bit insecure out among the public. Reed tried to speak to him, to offer his support, but he felt apprehensive about pushing the point too far. Ben Grimm, out of all of them, had changed the most after the cosmic storm. He couldn't turn his powers on and off the way the rest of them could; Ben had to live with them every hour of every day. So Reed felt it better to let Ben work it out in his own time, on his own schedule. Still, that didn't mean that Reed couldn't try to protect his best friend whenever he could.
Reed looked over at Ben, who remained busy with the children, oblivious to their situation. He was smiling, the corners of his rocky mouth turned up, holding two young boys on his shoulder for a picture.
Reed turned back to the airline representative. "That should be fine," he said.
Those words soon came back to haunt him.
The shining silver plane looked larger from the outside than it actually was, and they all felt crowded in the close quarters. People with too much luggage jockeyed for position, trying to claim their seats, their overhead bins, and an extra blanket or two. The Fantastic Four's fame would prove useless in helping them get some extra storage space.
Susan was pushed from the side by a first-class passenger and longed to use her power to create a field around herself. The air inside the plane was already stifling, babies were crying, and the passengers were very aggressive in trying to map out some personal space. At least they're finally not staring at us, she thought, taking another elbow to the ribs.
Ben seemed to be reading her mind. "Reed, this is no way for super heroes to travel," he said from behind them, stuck between two chairs in the aisle. He worked his way free and set the two chairs rocking until their tray tables fell open.
"I'm working on it," Reed answered. He sighed. Susan patted him from behind as they moved down the crowded aisle.
Ben stopped a few rows later, having reached his designated seat. He turned to the two passengers already seated in his row, an empty seat between them. "That's my seat," Ben said, pointing a large finger at the narrow space. "Sorry." The man in the aisle stood to let Ben try to angle himself into the seat. The woman stayed quiet, hugging the window and arming herself with a thin airline pillow. Ben sighed.
A few rows back, Reed and Sue found their seats. At least they would be sitting together, Susan told herself, though she could tell from the look on Reed's face that he was worried about Ben. She loved that part of him, the part that tried to protect this group like a family. Reed struggled with trying to find some room in the overhead for their luggage. Of course, all the bins seemed to be full of overstuffed, too-large suitcases. It wasn't the first time that Susan considered traveling invisible, if only to save room in her luggage. She was about to pull Reed over and give him a kiss when her brother Johnny once again insinuated himself between them and spoke up. "Don't worry, guys," he said. "I'm working out an endorsement deal with an airline to get us a private jet." Johnny smiled his radiant grin and gave his sister a peck on the cheek, which burned a little.
She turned to him. "Another endorsement? Don't we have enough?" She gave her brother a familiar look of disappointment.
Johnny ignored his sister's look, as he usually did. "Never enough. Think about it." Seeing that he was getting nowhere with his sister, Johnny turned his attention to his soon-to-be brother-in-law. "Reed, I could help you subsidize more of your little inventions."
But Reed was having none of it. "No, thanks," was all he said in reply.
"No vision," Johnny muttered. "No one in this group has any vision. How can you be so inflexible?"
Just as Johnny finished the sentence, Reed's arm whizzed past his head and reached down the aisle, toward the back of the plane. Tired of struggling with their luggage, Reed found an empty overhead bin at the far end of the plane and put their bags there. After he was finished, Reed pulled his arm back quickly, moving the air just in front of Johnny.
"Just consider it," Johnny said, running his hand over his face. He blew a kiss to his sister. "I'll see you later."
Reed, who was just getting settled into his narrow seat, could not disguise his surprise. "Where are you going?"
Johnny looked back at them and made a face, his clean, clear features bunching up around the forehead, as if he smelled something foul. "I don't fly coach," Johnny said. He walked back up the aisle, which was significantly less crowded now that the seats were taken and the overhead bins were full.
Ben Grimm's large, rocky figure sat uncomfortably in the narrow seat. A flight attendant approached him, a sour look on her face. The attendant glanced at the passengers around Ben a man practically sitting in the aisle and a woman crushed against the small window and turned her attention back to the thing in the middle seat. "Sir, you'll have to buckle your seat belt before takeoff." She ran her hand over her perfect helmet of dark, shoulder-length hair.
Ben grunted loudly, startling the already startled passengers in his row. He turned from side to side, shaking all three seats, looking for the elusive seat belt. When he finally found it, he pulled the black belt up toward his lap. It barely reached past his leg. By now Ben was flustered, obviously unnerved by the extra attention and the disgusted look of the prickly airline attendant. Ben finally gripped the metal buckle of the belt and pulled, ripping it from the seat entirely. With a sheepish look on his rocky face, he handed the belt to the attendant. "Let's just forget about it this time," she said, her voice as cold as ice. She took the belt between her index finger and thumb, holding it as far away from herself as she could, and retreated back to her station.
Just then Johnny passed through the aisle and patted Ben on the back of his head. "Hang in there, big guy. It's only a five-hour flight."
Ben grunted again, this time as loud as he pleased. The light of the plane dimmed as it began to pull away from the gate. Ben tried to calm himself down, tried to shrink himself inside his bulky, rocky frame. He hated moments like this, times when his size and looks proved to be such a liability. Guess it isn't all pictures with cheering kids, he thought.
Ben glanced over to the window, past the woman next to him, who seemed to want to disappear herself. In the late-afternoon sky Ben could see Johnny all aflame and flying beside the airplane. The sunlight glinted off the long silver wing, its angled shape resembling a surfboard. Johnny stayed just off the tip of the wing, waving enthusiastically to everyone on the flight.
Ben leaned back in his chair. It groaned and creaked in agony. On the inside, Ben did the same. "I hope it rains," he said.
The rain was coming down in sheets half a world away, in a small and remote European village. The coming night cooled the water as it blanketed the heavy trees and forests surrounding the mansion. Water leaked through the centuries-old stone, just as it always had, leaving drops and puddles throughout the damp manse, the chill of the air even colder than it was outside. The moon stayed high and hidden above the clouds of the storm as if it, too, wanted to steer clear of the decaying stone palace.
Inside the main room of the mansion, a spark of activity could be detected through the sheets of rain and occasional thunder. The man and the woman from the United States stood nervously in the darkened room, scarves tied thickly around their necks, their breath showing in the cold air. Both kept their thoughts to themselves, only half believing they were in this cold and damp place, so far from civilization. They had pried away the damp, thick side of the large rectangular crate and watched it fall heavily to the dusty stone floor. Inside the crate the solid metal statue stood silent, dark, and heavy with anticipation.
They cleared out enough room for the welder to work. In the thin light of a single bulb, the welder approached the statue. He looked over his task, the metal unpolished and unimpressive in the dirty, stingy light. His eyes followed a trail from its two feet up the thick legs to the brandished torso and, finally, to his mark. The faceplate dated back generations, yet looked modern in its shadowed malevolence. The eye slots were dark A good sign, the welder thought but the rigid, tarnished look of the metal told him this would be a difficult task. He didn't want to be here. He was freezing and hungry. He wasn't even sure if this would work. But jobs were scarce in this forgotten corner of the world, and God did he need the money.
With shaking hands, the young welder lit his acetylene torch. The flame burned true in the cold, inky room. It offered little heat, and the welder could see his breath as he let the air out of his lungs, gathering his calm. He raised the torch to the faceplate of the statue. He thought he saw a flicker of something, though it could have been a trick of the light. Suddenly a window blew open, startling everyone in the room. The welder jumped back and lowered his torch. Just the wind. Still a bad storm outside, he thought to relax himself.
The welder let out another long breath and steadied his hands. He raised the torch to the faceplate again. He had no idea why anyone would want to take off the face of a statue, but he took the job, no questions asked. Crazy Americans, he thought to himself. Taking everything from this country and changing it to their liking.
The welder deftly brought his torch to the side of the faceplate, just below the statue's ear. The rigid metal gave way with surprising ease. The welder could tell by the brittle flaking that the metal hadn't seen heat in a while, having been locked away in the damp and dust for God knows how long.
When he brought the torch down the side of the neck, he smelled something burning. This can't be right, he thought to himself. There's nothing in this damp tomb to burn. But the smell grew stronger, wafting out from the statue and across the room. He looked back to see if the Americans had done something, perhaps lit a cigarette or candle. But they were standing as still as the statue, eyes wide and fearful, watching him. He could not quite place the smell, a rancid burning aroma, familiar and distinctive.
"Extraordinary," came the voice of the American woman from behind him.
As the welder turned back toward the statue he recognized the smell: that one time when he caught his finger in the torch. The smell of burning flesh.
He looked back at the faceplate just as the statue's eyes sprung open. He gasped, letting out his last breath. The arms of the statue came to life, one arm flashing up quickly to grab the welder's hand, the one holding the torch. The welder dropped the torch, its flame catching his pant leg on the way down.
The welder didn't look down as the familiar smell once again appeared in the room. His eyes were locked on the eyes of the statue, the one that had suddenly come to life, the one that now held him by the throat and raised him off the cold stone floor of the mansion. The last thing he heard was the voice of the American behind him. A man's voice. He thought he heard the man say "Hello, Victor" before he was thrown across the room, his neck shattering upon impact with the wall.
The statue put its hands together as if wiping dust from them. It locked eyes with the two others in the room. The man and woman shrunk away, shaking from the cold and something else.
The statue reached up and ripped away the faceplate, screaming. Bits of flesh hung loosely from the cold, hard metal.
Copyright © 2007 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Dune Entertainment LLC