Reed jerks out of his sleep with a gasp.
He feels dizzy. It takes him a moment to realize it must be late morning, the sunlight shimmering dimly through the curtains into his sparsely furnished room.
Reed shakes his head and runs a hand through his messy hair, giving a heavy sigh. The night has been bad. He barely ever slept well, and at this point he had practically given up on a regular sleep schedule. He simply slept when he was tired, and worked when he wasn’t. But still, his sleep was troubled, and four or five hours without waking were the rare exception.
Trouble falling asleep was one thing; the dreams are another entirely. Reed never thought himself prone to nightmares, but recently, dark visions had been haunting him at night, and often, he felt he recognized a tall, familiar figure in them.
Over his thoughts, Reed hears Sue’s dulled voice somewhere down the hallway, and he can make out something about Johnny setting the rug on fire again. At least, that’s what it sounds like.
Reed yawns, and, not without reluctance, decides to get out of bed. He stretches, a little further than other people do in the morning, perhaps, and opens the curtains, the sudden brightness stinging his eyes. He distantly checks the alarm clock; 14:43. Reed feels his mood sinking. He knows that the others let him sleep, even though they probably need him for some thing or another (he has work to do, after all), and it makes him feel terrible for some reason. He’s supposed to be the leader of the FF, not some invalid you allowed to sleep all day out of pity. He makes a mental note about setting his alarm next time.
When he’s done with his morning routine (he liked showering before he went to bed), Reed heads for the kitchen, silently praying nobody would be there, and he’d be able to just grab some food and a coffee and head for his lab, never to be seen again.
Of course, this hope is thwarted when he sees Johnny sitting at the main table, looking like the sulky teenager he never seemed to grow out of. Reed steadies himself.
Johnny’s face immediately lights up when he sees Reed, and it makes Reed feel a little guilty. The rest of the team liked him, he reminds himself; he didn’t have to walk around the Baxter building like an intruder all the time.
“Heeey, look who’s up! The Walking Dead, season 12!” Johnny grins. “I’d ask you how you’ve slept, but you know…” he trails off with an exaggerated wave of his hand, and Reed can’t help a smile.
“Hilarious, hotshot. I heard you and Sue arguing earlier, something about a burning rug…?” Reed’s grinning, too, now.
Johnny throws his hands in the air in a gesture of mock apology.
“Come on, it’s not my fault I get hay fever, right? Everyone sneezes! If Sue’s stupid carpet isn’t prepared for a sneeze, what am I to do?”
“Most people’s sneezes don’t set the house on fire, Johnny,” Reed replies drily as he pours himself a coffee. Johnny groans. “Yeah, right. Most people are lame.”
“That comment was lame. So, anything in the news I should know about?” Reed asks, sitting down opposite Johnny and picking up one of the various newspapers they received.
Johnny shrugs. “Nah. Well, depends on what you want to know about. Namor is up to some shenanigans with Roxxon, and you remember that attack on Slorenia by Doom a while back? They’ve apparently reached some “treaty” with Latveria, though you know what that means in Doom’s language. He’s basically annexed the country.”
Reed swallows. If there was any way to make a day take an instant turn to “terrible”, it was mentioning Doom. Victor. Reed still refused to call him Doom, even though Victor had stubbornly stuck with “Richards” ever since college.
“Oh. Yeah, I remember, sure. But we couldn’t do anything back then; I doubt we could do anything now. He hasn’t officially broken UN laws,” Reed says, trying to sound casual.
“Right. So Doom’s a dick, big deal. I think we knew that one already.”
Johnny gets up and turns to leave. “Agh. Anyway, I gotta go. You know, the rug.” He rolls his eyes, and while Reed is sure Johnny should have something else to do other than complain about that rug, he gives a sympathetic smile.
“Sure. I’ll be at the lab, if you need me.”
“Yup. But what would we ever need you for?” Johnny grins.
“Oh, before I forget, there was a package delivered for you earlier today. It didn’t look like regular fan mail, there was no sender given. Scans say it’s not a bomb, though,” Johnny adds, and looks a little disappointed.
Reed nods, and, apparently content, Johnny heads off to whatever he was up to.
Reed, finally alone, digs back into the newspaper. Johnny is right; there’s a headliner about the “Slorenia incident” several weeks earlier. Reed skims the article, but finds himself absent, distracted by the photo that heads the page. Victor, in his full armored regalia, shaking hands with the Slorenian president, whose smile looks forced even to Reed.
Stop it, Reed thinks to himself, just let it go. You’re not helping anyone with this…this sick obsession. But Reed knows that the little voice in his head is lying, that go on as it might, he couldn’t stop this. Stop Victor.
He carefully folds the newspaper and puts it away, and as he does, he sees the parcel Johnny mentioned. It’s small, rectangular, and wrapped in regular wrapping paper. Nothing out of the ordinary. Reed picks it up and examines it more closely, but his scrutiny reveals nothing; just a parcel. The handwritten sign catches Reed’s eye, however, the elegant letters seeming out of place on the brown, coarse paper.
Reed shrugs and tucks the parcel under his arm, picks up his coffee mug and heads for his labs.
Once there, he boots up his computers and settles in for a long, lonely work session. The systems always took a while to boot, so he grabs the parcel again and opens it on one side, the paper tearing easily under his hands.
Into Reed’s lap falls an unmarked disc. Reed tilts his head. This was odd. Most likely a spike containing a virus, he thinks. He turns the disc over in his hands.
Well, a little distraction is actually rather welcome.
Reed pops the disc into his safe drive.
Immediately, he knows something is wrong. The “system booting” message disappears, swallowed by a new display on his large monitor.
Reed’s heart drops into his stomach. Filling his screen despite his top-notch security measures preventing overrides from foreign systems is a large green and black symbol.
The Latverian flag.
Reed is frozen, fingers still on his keyboard, and before he can shake his stupor off, the flag disappears, making way for something even worse.
Victor’s face appears on screen, the mask’s familiar sinister expression sending Reed’s heart even lower.
“Hello, Richards,” Victor’s deep, slightly distorted voice booms from the speakers. Reed feels like he’s shrinking before his enemy’s visage, displayed larger than life on his HD projected monitors.
“I reach out to your pitiful person with a message. Do not bother to speak, this is merely a recording.”
Reed doesn’t know if that makes it better or worse. Still, he listens.
“I have recently hacked my way into the Baxter Building’s systems. Your measly security measures mean nothing to me,” Victor says, and now Reed is glad it’s just a recording, because his expression at that statement is doubtlessly undignified.
Victor had never managed to hack his systems ever before, but before Reed can process this information, the voice keeps talking.
“In searching your files for anything worth my attention, I have come across some rather…let us say, compromising VR simulation files you have created.”
No. Nononono. He hasn’t. He can’t. It’s impossible. He has to be talking about something else. He has to.
Reed imagines he sees Victor grin beneath his mask, the expression cruel despite its limitation.
“Have a look, why don’t you, Richards?” Victor says, and to Reeds utter mortification, Victor’s face on screen is replaced by an all-too-familiar scenery.
A dungeon. Victor, in his armor. Reed, chained to the wall. Reed, begging for Victor to touch him. Reed, bucking up into Victor’s rough handling.
The scenario changes.
The lab. Victor, in a three-piece suit. Reed, on his knees begging for mercy. Reed, sucking Victor off. Reed, letting Victor fuck him hard.
In front of the screen, Reed, feeling numb.
He found them.
The realization hits Reed in the stomach like a sledgehammer, and for a moment, he hopes he will wake up, that this worst nightmare of his might end. It doesn’t.
On the screen, Victor comes back into view, the look in his eyes enough to make Reed feel impossibly worse.
And then he laughs. Victor laughs, an amused, infinitely cruel sound, and Reed thinks he’s never wanted to die quite that badly before.
“Indeed, Richards…very interesting. It would seem you have your secrets.” Victor’s voice is dripping with contempt.
“I could continue this demonstration, but I am sure you understand me. Now, as much as this amuses me, I showed you this for a reason.”
Reed just listens. He feels dead inside; the distant tidal wave of terrible consequences has not hit him quite yet.
“I assume that you do not wish these tapes to become public. It would be in everyone’s best interest to let them stay private, would it not? And while I am loath to the mere notion, I could greatly use your assistance on some projects I have been working on. Your intellect is below mine, surely, but still above that of my drones.”
Where was this headed?
“Here is my offer. You will come to my castle within the next 48 hours, alone and incognito. You will stay there, for an amount of time yet to be decided, and when your work is done, you may return to your little flock of friends. Do not comply, and the consequences are obvious, I daresay.”
Blackmail. This was straight up blackmail, Reed thinks, and is distantly disappointed Victor would even consider that.
“You know I will keep my word. Come to my castle, and the tapes will stay private. I await your response, although if you have any interest in your reputation and your work, I think that the outcome is already decided.”
And with that, the Latverian flag flashes across the screen again, and the recording is done.
Reed wants to disappear. He wants to be wiped off the face of the earth, wants to never have existed.
The humiliation is physically painful. Reed’s gut twists, and for a long moment, he thinks he might throw up and just collapse.
He couldn’t. He could not help Victor with his nefarious work just to keep some explicit tapes private. It would be irresponsible to say the least. After all, everyone had their dirty secrets.
But these weren’t just dirty secrets. These were the visual representation of Reed’s weakness. Every single victory he’s ever achieved, his relationship with the rest of the FF, everything would be in jeopardy, were these tapes to go public.
Every single time he’s fought Victor and refused to kill him, sometimes even let him outright escape arrest, would be in question. He would no longer be Mr. Fantastic, the philanthropist with the strict moral code. He would be Reed Richards, the hypocrite who might as well be guilty by association of every single one of Victor’s crimes.
The others would be disgusted. Oh, they would feign sympathy, no doubt, but Reed could vividly imagine the disappointment in their eyes, the words spoken behind his back, the eventual breakup of the team, because they could not have a PR liability this massive in their group any longer. He could almost hear their voices in his head.
“Oh, Reed, we’re sorry, but you’re dragging the rest of us down.”
“Reed, no one will take you seriously ever again, really.”
“Reed, we can’t have a pathological sexual issue on legs in our team.”
Reed swallows. His mouth is dry, cold sweat running down his forehead in trickling beads.