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Tonight we'll both go MIA

Chapter Text

 

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.

Oh no.

“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.

What?!

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.

What now?

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.

48 hours.

Chapter Text

It takes Reed all of seven hours to decide.

He can’t. He just can’t risk these tapes going public. He’s been tormented by horrible visions of what would be to come if they did. He has avoided the others, shut himself in his lab, all the while feeling like a dead man walking, as if somebody had ripped his guts right out of him. He tries to work, tries to tell himself that he has plenty of time to think this through, but in the end, he always arrives at the same conclusion.

He has to go.

Reed packs a bag with some nonsense, he doesn’t really care. He’s running a million different excuses in his mind about what to tell the others. He’s always been so bad at lying, and he hates having to lie to his friends, but this time, the truth simply couldn’t be spoken.

He is at least okay with the end result.

He fights himself, he knows it’s a cowardly move, but he ultimately decides to leave Susan a message. He grabs his laptop computer from the desk in his room and starts typing, his hands shaking only a little.

“Dear Sue,

I’m sorry for heading out so suddenly. Our systems have been hacked, and your safety might have been compromised if I had stayed. Don’t worry, the danger has passed, but still, I’ll be staying at a SHIELD base for a while. They upgraded our security, and in return, I offered to help them on the Slorenia matter, and they accepted. I really don’t know how long I’ll be gone, though. I probably won’t send any messages, either; the base is very secure and hidden. Tell the others, I’m sure they’ll understand. If you need someone on a mission, ask Tony, I’m sure he’ll be glad to join.

Lots of love,

Reed”

Reed closes his laptop and shoves it into his bag. He hates himself more every second he’s doing this. He’s maneuvered himself into a situation with no possible good outcome, and he has only himself to blame. Why? Why did he have to program these simulations in the first place? Why could he not accept that he couldn’t have Victor, and carry on with his life like a regular person? The questions keep hammering at his mind, twisting into his heart like worms seeking to suck the very life out of him.

Reed sighs, and steels himself for the journey ahead. (At least, he likes to think he does. In reality, he just resigns completely.) Shouldering his bag, Reed heads for the elevator to the first floor. He’ll have to go by taxi to the airport and fly economy class to Latveria. His private vessels would hardly serve to keep him incognito.

As the elevator descends, it begins to dawn on Reed just what he is about to do. He will enter the lion’s den unarmed, without backup, and even though Victor was usually true to his word, there was no knowing what he might do once he had Reed in his power.

Reed tries his best to suppress the sick notion of liking this, wanting to be Victor’s prisoner, but he does a poor job.

Guess I’m a lost cause, Reed thinks, and gives a bitter laugh.

Suddenly, the elevator halts, and Reed looks up, expecting to see the foyer. Instead, he’s looking straight at Sue’s disapproving face.

“Oh,” is all Reed manages to get out. Sue drags him out of the elevator, and Reed just goes limp, not even attempting to resist the scolding that’s doubtlessly in score for him.

He steadies himself and meets Sue’s eyes, and is surprised to find only fond worry in them.

“Reed,” she says, and Reed feels his heart sink. He hates this, he hates himself for this, and more than anything he wishes he could hate Victor for it. He doesn’t.

“I got your message early, I guess. Come on, I know you. What are you really up to? I haven’t seen you in days, you’re as white as a ghost, and that message was a poor lie. Really, Reed, you should know better. Just tell me what’s wrong.”

Reed shrinks visibly. He really didn’t think he’d run into anyone on the way to the taxi, and now he’s at a loss for what to say. He shifts uncomfortably.

“Well…look…I…I can’t. We’re dealing with some top-secret inventions here, and I…I don’t want to drag you into this if I can avoid it.”

Sue looks utterly unconvinced. But if she is, she doesn’t act on it, because she just leans back, looks at Reed, and nods.

“Alright. If you feel like you can’t tell me, that’s okay.”

She puts a hand on Reed’s shoulder.

“Just…be safe, okay? And contact us if something goes wrong. We’re here for you, even when it’s top secret.”

Sue gives him a warm, reassuring smile, and Reed dies a little bit on the inside. He wishes he could tell her, he wishes so badly she’d understand, but he knows that even Sue’s seemingly limitless sympathy would run out at this.

Reed somehow manages a weak smile back.

“Thanks, Sue. You stay safe, too.”

And with that, he hurries back into the elevator, and he just can’t muster up the courage to meet Sue’s gaze when the doors slide closed.

--- 

The JFK International is terrible. Reed never liked crowded places, and airports always gave him a distinct feeling of being out of place, even more so than regularly. People are buzzing about, the general hustle and bustle of New York City’s busiest people distribution centre as confusing as ever.

Reed stands in a corner in one of the large halls, slightly removed from the flow of people that steadily pours to and fro. He’s wearing sunglasses and a hat that he thinks looks terrible, but it’s the only disguise he could come up with. It’s one step short of a clown’s nose, he thinks, but there was no helping it now. At least it seems to be working. People tended not to recognize him out of his FF uniform, and while it usually irked him a little (it made him feel like Clark Kent), he is rather glad for it now.

Reed checks his watch. He still has nearly an hour before his flight departs, the only plane to Latveria that day; they only arrive every other day, anyways, and Reed wonders why any company would even bother keeping a flight route to a country that had only a single airport and literally only a 17th of New York City’s population. He can’t imagine why anyone would want to go to Latveria on their own volition. It is a beautiful country, no doubt, but not exactly tourist-friendly, and there’s very little to see besides Balkan landscape, anyways.

But Reed’s not a regular visitor, either. He readjusts his bag on his shoulder and absently watches the planes land and start on the rollway. He imagines just getting into one of them, any one, really, and seeing where it takes him; he could go incognito to any other country in the world, and he fancies that he’d be able to hide himself from SHIELD, as well. He could assume a new identity, live a happy, secluded life and work as an engineer, and Reed Richards would never be heard from ever again.

But he knows he can’t do that. His friends would miss him (he hopes, at least), and he liked to imagine that he was of at least some use to the general public, if only through his inventions.

Am I really?

The thought creeps into his mind unbidden, and Reed tries to shake it, as he has so many times before.

Of course you are, Sue would say, you’re the smartest man on earth! Who would keep the world safe, if not for you? The Fantastic Three?

He hopes she’d be right. Regardless of how often people told him that he had value as a person, that they enjoyed his company, he would never quite shake the feeling that they only endured his antics for his intellect; that, were it not for his merits in defending the world as the leader of the Fantastic Four, they would simply label him a freak and shun him. This way, they label him a freak and flock to him, Reed thinks, and wonders if that is truly the better option. 

Except for Victor. Victor’s respect had to be earned. He measured on the same scales as Reed did, perhaps even higher, and while normal folk were impressed by comparatively simple calculations and parlor trick inventions, Victor would only sneer and start the real talk. He had been the only person in college Reed could actually talk to about matters of science, the only one to really understand what he was saying. Sure, his best friend was and still is Ben, but he never quite knew what Reed was getting all excited about when he’s solved some high-level problem.

Victor, on the other hand, had usually already solved it two days earlier. And that way, it remains; Victor is always one step ahead of him, Reed thinks, always the one who seems to know about all that’s going on in detail.

And now he has lost all hope of ever truly earning said respect he craved so badly, regardless of how feeble that hope had been in the first place.

Now Victor has seen Reed’s darkest abyss, his terrible obsession with Victor, and Reed can’t imagine ever looking into his eyes again. It was difficult enough before; now he feels like Victor will never behold him with anything but contempt and disgust.

Did he ever do anything else?, Reed hears the voice in his head say, did he ever respect you anyway? Just stop. Give up. It can’t get any worse.

Reed shakes his head and tries to focus back on the present, on the planes steadily going through their routines, always the same. He knows the little voice all too well, and he wishes it was a different part of his personality altogether, that he could claim multiple personality disorder as its origin. He knows better. He knows that it’s just him, speaking with a different voice the things he couldn’t bear to admit to himself.

Reed feels hollow, numb on the inside. It really doesn’t matter anymore, does it, he thinks, and when he checks the departure schedules, he sees that his flight has arrived already. He heads off to the boarding hall, feeling like he’s walking towards the gallows, and pulls his atrocious hat a little deeper into his face.

Chapter Text

Back at the Baxter Building, Susan Storm is feeling very worried indeed.

What have you gotten yourself into now, Reed? she thinks, and takes another sip of her well-deserved iced coffee. She’s ordered a replacement carpet, cancelled all of Reed’s upcoming appointments for the next week, and now she’s waiting for Ben and Johnny to return from their visit to some elementary school Sue doesn’t remember the name of. She grins into her coffee. As much as Johnny hated to admit it, he was really nice around children, and Ben is a big softie anyways. She’s sure the children enjoyed their visit, even though Ben had been moping about it for a while (“Ain’t no job for us, Sue, I’m telling ya”).

Sue hears the elevator doors slide open, and sure enough, out pop Johnny and Ben, heartily laughing about some infantile joke Johnny probably made.

When Johnny sees her, he flashes a grin.

“Hey sis, fancy seeing you here!”

Sue raises an eyebrow. “I live here, you know.”

Johnny raises his eyebrow in return, and puts on a puzzled face.

“Really? Well, at least we see you around sometimes. Reed, on the other hand…you know, he might as well declare his lab his own country.”

“Would still be bigger than Latveria,” Ben throws in, and Johnny chuckles.

Sue, however, doesn’t laugh. Quick as she usually is to laugh at his stupid little quips, Johnny picks up on it far more quickly than Sue would have liked. He puts on a worried expression, genuine this time.

“What’s wrong, Sue? You look like you had some worry to go with your coffee.”

Sue smiles gently.

“It’s nothing, really. Just…you haven’t seen Reed around on your way back here, have you?”

“No? We were just talking about how we never see him,” Johnny replies, with a shrug in Ben’s direction.

“What is he up to this time? Building a hydrogen bomb in the basement?”

As realistic as that sounds, Sue really isn’t in a laughing mood now. She stares out the window, looking absent and taking a few moments before she answers.

“No…I guess not. You know, I think he’s gotten himself into something bigger than he can handle on his own. He left earlier today, and he wouldn’t tell me where he was headed. Only that it was top secret and that he’d be gone for a while.”

Johnny and Ben sit down at the table, too, both now mirroring Sue’s worry.

“That’s not really his style, is it? And he really didn’t say? That’s odd,” Ben mumbles as he pours himself an iced coffee as well, only his is about half a liter. Johnny shoots him a grumpy look.

“Sorry. Can’t help that I’m big,” Ben shrugs.

“There’s more in the fridge, Johnny, if you wanted one, too,” Sue says, jabbing her thumb in the general direction of the kitchen counter.

“Nah, I’m fine. And anyway, iced coffee is not the issue here, as much as it pains me to say that. What are we gonna do about Reed? We can’t just leave him running off to some catastrophe.”

“I say we can,” Ben says, taking a massive sip of his coffee. “He’s done this a few times, hasn’t he? Just run off to god-knows-where, and turnin’ up a week later with some fancy new stuff. He’s probably in Wakanda, brainstorming some new weather gadget or whatnot.”

Sue looks unconvinced. “I don’t think so, Ben. This seemed different. He was so pale, even more so than usual. He looked like somebody had told him his guinea pig died. Well, more like his guinea pig colony died, from how shaken he was.”

“Did he ever have a guinea pig?” Johnny asks, looking actually interested in the question.

Sue side-eyes him, and he shuts up, looking sheepish.

“Well, whatever we think, I say we owe him at least some privacy. Maybe he’s finally got himself a girlfriend.” Ben says.

“Or a guinea pig,” Johnny chimes in, seemingly unable to pass up this opportunity for a terrible joke.

Sue ignores him and sighs heavily into her coffee.

“You’re right, Ben. There’s nothing we can do at the moment. I’m just hoping he’ll at least send a message.”

“Well, I’m just hoping that while Reed’s gone, we have to contact Tony for help on…whatever, really. He’s hot,” Johnny grins, and Ben and Sue simultaneously roll their eyes.

“What? Come on, he really is! Cut a guy some slack here!” Johnny replies, throwing his hands up apologetically.

“Keep it in ya pants, hotshot. He’s at least twenty years older than you…” Ben grumbles, and Sue silently agrees.

Johnny shrugs. “Who cares,” he says lightheartedly, and Sue feels her mood lighten a little. Johnny’s antics always made her feel a little better; he was her little brother, after all.

And she’s sure Reed can handle himself. At least, she tells herself that.

 ---

Reed definitely can’t handle himself.

As he sits in his plane seat, most of the nearly nine-hour flight already behind him (obligatory fat snoring passenger next to him) he desperately wishes his friends were there to support him, and at the same time, he’s glad they were about to be separated by 7000 kilometers and an ocean. This is possibly the worst situation he’s ever found himself in, Reed thinks, and that includes the numerous Galactus incidents.

When the “fasten seatbelt” sign starts glowing, Reed feels his heart sink ever further into his stomach. They’ll land soon, at the appropriately named Doomport, and from there on, he has no idea how he’ll get to Victor’s massive castle and still keep his incognito. The fake passport served him well on the plane trip, but in Latveria, he doubts a regular citizen will be granted entry into Castle Doom.

As he leaves the plane, however, his thoughts are soon put to an abrupt end when he sees two uniformed figures heading towards him, apparently on course to intersect Reed before he can even enter the tiny airport’s main hall.

As they step closer, Reed realizes that the figures are sophisticated androids, most likely a new model of Doombots developed for public service. When they speak, their voice sounds eerily human.

“Welcome to the country of Latveria, Dr. Richards. Please follow us.”

Reed’s pulse rises rapidly. He knows they must have facial recognition systems advanced enough to see through the usually infallible sunglasses trick, and for some reason, that terrifies him. Victor is seemingly tracking his every move, and Reed wonders whether that was already the case before he even left America. Victor could have hacked the security cameras on the entire way, tracking Reed right up to this spot.

Before he can think further on it, the android on the left continues.

“Do not attempt resistance. We will now escort you to a private automobile His Majesty has provided for you.”

Lovely, Reed thinks, what a warm reception. Private limousine. I’m almost impressed.

As he follows the Doombots to the car, he shoots glances to all sides, hoping that apart from the robots, no one has recognized him. It doesn’t seem to be the case. There’s barely anyone in the main hall, and the people who are seem preoccupied with their own matters. At a booth on one side, he sees a man arguing with an android over the legitimism of his passport.

.Reed enters the car at the backseat, and the door shuts behind him. He flings his bag on the seat next to him and resigns himself to his fate.

You won’t stay here forever, he reminds himself, it’ll probably be barely a week.

And yet he knows that the length of his stay is not the issue here. It’s meeting Victor in person that horrifies him, and for the umpteenth time that day, he wishes he could just disappear.

 ---

The car pulls to a stop in front of the menacing castle that had been looming in the distance on the horizon ever since Reed arrived in Latveria. Now, it seems massive, towering over him like a living beast ready to swallow him whole. Reed wishes he could just stay in the car, but one of the Doombots is already at the door, holding it open with perfect programmed politeness. Reed grabs his bag and sighs one last time, then steps out of the car and onto the lowered drawbridge.

As he approaches, the massive doors seem to crack open of their own volition, and Reed already fears Victor might be there to receive him. He is relieved when he sees two servants, apparently human this time, stand behind the large doors. He really would have preferred more androids, Reed thinks, and yet he’s glad he won’t be completely alone with Victor in his giant castle.

The servants, clad in traditional garbs, greet him with a silent nod and beckon Reed to follow them. He wonders whether they don’t speak English, or if they’re not allowed to speak at all.

Reed follows them, every step feeling like a mile. He knows where they’re headed, he’s been here before. The throne room, situated at the end of a long, imposing hallway lined with ancestors’ portraits and expensive tapestry.

The servants stop in front of the doors, and motion for Reed to enter.

Making me pull the trigger myself, are you, Victor, Reed thinks, and opens the ornate doors. 

Chapter Text

Victor is there. Of course he’d be, Reed doesn’t know what he expected.

Perhaps for Johnny to jump out behind a curtain and tell him this was all a very elaborate prank.

He doesn’t.

“Richards,” a steely voice says, commanding even from the other end of the room.

Red musters all of his willpower and looks up.

Victor sits on his throne, in full armor as always, looking as imposing as a king ever could, with his emerald cape draped over his shoulders like he’s a Roman emperor. Reed can’t help but be impressed, but the thought barely registers behind the infinite wave of humiliation washing over him. He can’t bear to keep looking, and lowers his head in defeat.

He knows. He’s seen them, Reed thinks, the thought like a knife to his gut.

He’s seen me.

Walking through Central park naked with a sign that says “I’m a terrible person” would have been less mortifying.

“Come closer,” Victor commands, his tone leaving no room for defiance.

Reed stand rooted to the spot, unable to do anything. He feels very distinctly like a shark turned over, completely stripped of the ability to react. He knows Victor will disapprove, but he can’t help it. He just stands there, looking at the expensively tiled floor like it’s the most interesting thing in the world.

“I said, come closer.” Victor’s voice has a distinct edge to it now, low and dangerous, slightly distorted through the steel mask.

Now Reed does react, and without meeting Victor’s eyes, he steps closer to the imposing throne, stopping a few feet short of the steps leading up to the throne’s raised position.

He keeps looking down, because there’s no way in hell he’s looking Victor in the eye, the last remains of his pride be damned. This man had seen Reed’s darkest fantasies, had seen Reed beg the other man to fuck him, and the fact that the other man was Victor von Doom made things infinitely worse.

Reed hears Victor get up and walk towards him with heavy, metallic steps that resound in the large throne room like thunder.

“Look at me, Richards.”

Reed doesn’t. He can’t. He thinks he feels his face flushing bright red, even though he’s never been prone to that.

Great. Blush like an idiot. Makes the situation a lot better, Reed, good job.

Out of nowhere, a steel grip yanks at his jaw yanks his head around and up, so that he’s forced to look Victor right in the eyes.

Reed takes a sharp breath.

Victor’s hand remains on his lower jaw, the grip painful through the combination of sheer force and metal gauntlets, and Reed can’t help the rush of excitement, of exhilaration he always feels when Victor touches him, even in hostile situations. He hates himself for it.

Victor gives a crooked grin behind his mask.

“Hello, Richards. How lovely to have you here. How was your flight?”

The sentence is sharp like a knife, spoken with barely hidden contempt. Reed resists the urge to squeeze his eyes shut. He knows that Victor must have noticed his sharp breath, he imagines him laughing inwardly at Reed’s obvious weakness.

If Victor does, he doesn’t act upon it, either way. He releases Reed, and he shrinks back on instinct, holding the spot where Victor no doubt left a bruise.

“I do hope you will enjoy your stay. Let me show you to your quarters personally, I think I owe this much to an honored guest such as you.”

He loves this, doesn’t he? Reed thinks. Finally, a reason to belittle me for the rest of eternity, the depravity he’s suspected in me for so long exposed. He’s enjoying every second of this.

Reed follows Victor with shuffling steps, his posture slumped. While they walk, Victor keeps talking, his tone casual now, as if they were good friends who hadn’t seen each other for a while. He speaks of Latverian affairs, of how the Slorenian treaty will affect the country’s economy, of the recent repair done to Castle Doom’s west wing, of how he has tried to make the castle a UN World Heritage Site.

All the while, Reed listens, and a part of him thinks he could keep doing this all day, feigning friendship with Victor and listening to him talk of the most mundane things in that amazing, deep voice of his.

The other part wishes he were dead.

Finally, they arrive at the North wing, and Victor opens a door to a luxurious, if old-fashioned, guest room that looks like it’s never been used before.

Can’t imagine he has much need for it.

Victor gives an approving hum.

“There we are, Richards. I imagine you are tired from your long journey. Rest, and I will meet you for dinner at ten, so we might talk of your upcoming work.”

As if we were colleagues, Reed thinks, and his guts twist a little further. There can’t be much left of them by now.

“I do hope these rooms are to your liking. Although…” Victor trails off, and when he speaks again, Reed almost jumps, because his voice is right in Reed’s ear, Victor standing far too close behind him now.

“…perhaps shackled to a wall in my dungeons would have been more enjoyable for you?”

Reed’s heart simply drops right through the floor. Victor hadn’t mentioned the simulations until now, and when he does, it’s like a physical punch in the face.

Oh god.

But before Reed can react, Victor just chuckles quietly and leaves Reed in his quarters, standing there like a man struck by lightning.

 ---

By half past nine, Reed thinks he might as well be buried six feet under. He’s unpacked his bag (which, it turned out, he had packed very poorly), and inspected the rooms he’d been given. They consisted of a bedroom and an adjoining bath, both of which Reed thinks are too luxurious for his status as a factual hostage.

He assumes Victor has camera surveillance set up, but so far, he’s been unable to find any. His thoughts are mostly elsewhere, anyway.

He knows. Oh god, he knows.

This was like being caught jerking off as a teenager, just about a million times worse, and also permanent. The shame never subsided, and Victor’s remark about the simulation he knows was labeled “Dungeon_02” had left him crushed.

Reed’s thoughts, try as he might, always return to a vision of Victor running these simulations, watching Reed come unraveled before his eyes as he begged for Victor to touch him, choke him, fuck him. He imagines Victor would laugh, a mix of disgust and triumph at realizing his arch-nemesis’ deepest desires were about being conquered by him. Reed could practically see the look in his eyes, the gaze piercing him even through the fog of Reed’s mind.

By the time the clock chimes ten, Reed considers just staying in his rooms and skipping on dinner altogether. But hunger and some sick, masochistic curiosity get the better of him, and so he follows the servant that arrives at ten sharp to take him to one of the dining rooms.

As the heavy oak doors swing open, Reed is greeted with the admittedly lovely smell of a lavish dinner.

And the much less lovely notion of spending it with Victor, who sits at the long table almost casually, reading documents on a clipboard. When Reed enters, he looks up expectantly.

“Ah, Richards, I see you have taken up my invitation. Come, sit with me, I am sure you are famished.”

With a gesture that, to anyone else, might have seemed genuinely inviting, Victor points to a chair opposite him. Without much choice, Reed trots over and sits down awkwardly, avoiding looking at Victor.

Promptly, a servant walks over and pours them both some doubtlessly very expensive wine, and some moments later, another servant arrives with their dinner.

Reed assumes it’s Latverian cuisine, as it’s very meat-heavy and doesn’t look like anything he’d eat out of his own volition, but for now, he’s glad to have something to look at other than Victor. He is also untypically happy about his alcoholic beverage at this point.

Reed grabs his fork and eyes his food, then wordlessly pokes a piece of meat around before eating it.

He can feel Victor watching him intently, but chooses to ignore it as best he can as he digs into his odd meal. From the corner of his eye, he can see Victor doing the same (with perfect table manners, of course), and it surprises Reed that Victor can even eat with his mask on. He assumes the mouth grills are retractable, and can’t resist shooting a look at his enemy’s familiar faceplate.

Indeed, the grills are retracted, allowing Reed a slightly more detailed look at Victor’s mouth. Victor doesn’t seem to notice (or he simply doesn’t care), so Reed keeps watching as Victor takes a long sip of his wine, Reed’s attention caught by the way Victor’s lips are ever so slightly visible as he drinks. When he sets the glass down, Victor flicks his tongue out to catch a stray droplet, and Reed swallows heavily.

He’s doing this on purpose. He’s toying with me.

Now Victor looks at him, and Reed notices he’s been holding his fork in the air like an idiot. He quickly looks back at his food and stuffs some in his mouth.

Victor tilts his head.

“What is the matter? Is the food not to your liking?” he says, and Reed really hates him in that moment.

“No. It’s, uh, great. Awesome.”

10/10, brilliant response. Well done.

“Very well,” Victor responds, and Reed, his brain apparently intent on making this even worse, chokes on a piece of…whatever it was.

When he’s done coughing, Victor is still watching him, his food mainly untouched. Victor gives a polite nod, and Reed dares to shoot him a look that could kill. Victor chooses to ignore it.

“So, then, Richards, you are here for a reason. I want you to help you with my work.”

Reed eyes Victor suspiciously. This can’t be good.

Reed opens his mouth to protest (or something, he doesn’t really know what he was going to say), but Victor cuts him off with a wave of his armored hand.

“Now, now, Richards, I know that you are, let us say, averse to some of my methods. As not to cause you undue stress with your…strict moral code…” He puts emphasis on these words, and Reed visibly flinches,

“…you need not worry about that. Your tasks will be limited to upgrading Latveria’s comprehensive supply of clean energy. I have heard you are considered somewhat of an expert in the field.”

Okay? Good? I guess?

Still, Reed is thrown off.

“Are you serious? I can’t imagine you’d need my help on something like that,” Reed says, hoping he will not live to regret making that remark.

Victor looks almost surprised.

“While I am flattered by your trust in my abilities, you would do well not to doubt the work of Doom. I have my motives.”

Oh god, that is not what I meant by that.

Though, if he’s being honest, the statement is true. Victor was proficient in pretty much every field of science. There really was no reason for him to bring Reed here, other than to watch his humiliation. Reed supposes that’s enough of a motivation for Victor.

“So…how long will I be staying, then? I mean, I’m practically your hostage.”

Victor feigns an expression of hurt.

“I am disappointed, Richards. Of course, you are free to leave at any time, as long as you can accept the consequences of doing that.”

Reed flinches again.

“Other than that, you may wander freely around Castle Doom. Consider yourself my guest. My resources are yours to use.”

That offer, as terrible as the circumstances are, Reed finds actually very tempting. Victor’s labs were doubtlessly very advanced, and Reed knows he’d enjoy working there. Still, it feels awful, knowing the only thing that’s keeping him in Victor’s grasp is his own shame.

 ---

Night has settled over Castle Doom, and a half moon illuminates the picturesque Balkan landscape with soft light, making the troubled country appear peaceful and serene to any onlooker.

Reed lies fully dressed on the large, comfortable bed in his room, turning the awkward dinner conversation over in his head.

When he’d been done, Victor had told Reed to meet him at his laboratories in the morning, and wished him a good night. And with that, he was gone, leaving Reed to follow a servant back to his rooms, where he had found clean clothes on the bed that definitely didn’t belong to him.

Reed had refused to acknowledge the stack of clothing, but still, he’d lain down next to it, not really wanting to remove them quite yet.

He sits up with a sigh. The day has been too much. Absent-mindedly, almost without noticing, he grabs the shirt from the pile and buries his nose in it. He can’t help imagining that Victor might have worn this (though he’s positive they’re brand new), and his mind wanders, thinking back again and again to how Victor’s mouth had looked without the mask grills. He knows what Victor’s face looks like underneath the mask, knows he only hides a tiny scar on an otherwise unblemished face, but seeing him in person is always like a revelation to him.

Reed wonders how long it has been since he’s been so close to Victor without fighting, and can’t really think of anything. Slowly, practically of its own volition, Reed’s hand wanders beneath his waistband, and before he really wants it, he’s touching himself, thinking of Victor, of his mouth, about how lovely it must feel to kiss these soft lips, to have them wander down his throat…he stifles a groan with the shirt he’s still holding over his mouth, imagining it smells like Victor, and comes into his hand with a gasp, and an almost inaudible whisper of Victor.

Still panting, hand wet with his come, Reed’s momentary exhilaration from the orgasm is quickly replaced with a terrible, sinking feeling.

What did I just do? Am I really this pathetic?

Clearly you are, the little voice in his head replies with dripping contempt.

Reed buries his head in his hands and suppresses a sob.

 ---

After he’s showered, Reed lies in his bed, staring at the ceiling and waiting for sleep to come, when a terribly thought hits him.

The surveillance.

Victor might’ve seen this.

Oh god.

Reed rolls on his side and hides underneath his blanket, sending a silent prayer to the heavens that if there was CCTV, Victor hadn’t been watching it.

This keeps getting worse.

Chapter Text

Reed jolts awake in the morning, a sense of dread rising in his chest.

Where AM I?

Oh. Right. Castle Doom.

Fuck.

Reed had slept surprisingly well, the strain of the previous day apparently enough to tire even his sleep-resistant systems out enough for a decent night’s sleep.

Reed gets up, checking the ornate, antique alarm clock on the bedside stand; 12:32. It would seem even Victor took pity on his sleep schedule, and Reed’s mood worsens just a little (if that was even possible at this point).

He heads to the adjoining bathroom to brush his teeth and get dressed, and is surprised to find a set of cosmetic products, neatly organized in the drawers, complete with a toothbrush.

Huh.

Reed must not have noticed before, or perhaps someone had entered the room while he had still been asleep. Reed really doesn’t know what to expect around here.

It turns out that a toothbrush was a rather necessary commodity, because he had straight-up forgotten to pack his own; Reed does manage to procure toothpaste from somewhere in his bag, but he’s not sure himself how he had packed it and still forgotten the brush. Scatter-brained genius, the Times had called him once, and now Reed thinks back on that moniker with a cynical note.

Scatter-brained indeed.

As he brushes his teeth, Reed’s mental gears start churning.

How did he do it?

How had Victor hacked his systems? Reed had been turning the question in his mind for a while now, and the only feasible conclusion he’d arrived at was just that – a blunder on his part, some stupid mistake that had allowed Victor to breach their IT security.

And yet, try as he might, Reed simply can’t think of anything he might have done wrong, but then again, one rarely notices one’s one mistakes.

Resigning with a sigh, Reed instead turns his mind to the possibility of a breakfast and coffee. He gets into his clothes from the previous day, even though they already smell a little weird, refusing to wear the garments Victor had apparently ordered be laid out for him; also, the shirt has a rather embarrassing stain on it, Reed thinks with a flinch.

He wonders whether the shirt might say “kick me” on the back, and despite himself, he grins. He distinctly remembers that one time at college where Ben had convinced him that sticking a sign saying “I’m dumb” to Victor’s back was funny and/or a good idea, and can’t help a laugh as he remembers the outcome. Victor had simply turned around to Ben with a look in his eyes that had been somewhere between furious and incredulous.

Ah, fun times. He would think, if it was true. It isn’t, really.

He doesn’t wait for any of Victor’s personnel (though, he thinks, he wouldn’t be surprised if they were slaves), and instead heads out for the dining room on his own accord, hoping his poor sense of direction doesn’t stab him in the back here.

Indeed, Reed finds himself a little confused, but eventually, orienting himself on the massive portraits of people he didn’t know, Reed finds his way to the dining room he’d been at the night before. Only then does it occur to him that there are probably at least twenty different dining rooms in this castle, and the breakfast might very well be served somewhere else.

With a sinking feeling, Reed decides to gently open the door, and is distinctly disappointed when he finds the room beyond completely empty.

Oh dear.

Quietly closing the door again, Reed tries his best not to think too hard about the fact that he’d just gotten himself lost in Castle Doom. He feels incredibly stupid, wandering around like a freshman lost at college, and lets out a groan of frustration.

Good job, Reed. Ridicule yourself further. Excellent.

He looks around the hallway in resignation, when a portrait on the wall catches his attention. It doesn’t really differ from the others, Reed can barely keep the people depicted apart, but this one has something about it that draws Reed in closer.

Caught on the canvas in thick oil paint is the likeness of a man well past his sixties, with a long white beard and piercing green eyes. He’s dressed in traditional Latverian garb, Reed assumes, and holding what looks like a tome of spells. The man’s eyes look straight at the viewer, their gaze commanding yet pensive.

Reed notices a little sign below the portrait, carefully engraved brass reading:

Otto von Doom

Squinting at the tiny letters, Reed realizes that the man’s similarity to Victor is what must have drawn him to the painting. Reed assumes this is Victor’s grandfather, or a more distant relation perhaps, and looks back at the man. The closer he looks, the more similarities start to emerge; the set of his jaw, hidden as it might be underneath his beard, the piercing gaze, the upright posture, the commanding air.

Reed realizes how little he actually knows of Victor’s history. He knows that Victor is Romani, and that his past had been troubled; that his mother was a witch and his father had died protecting him from the sheer mountain cold. He knows that after college, Victor returned to his home country, freed his people and claimed Latveria’s throne, and had been ruling (with some breaks in between) ever since.

But those were vague facts, things you might read in a newspaper perhaps. Reed thinks that he doesn’t know about how Victor must feel about his family, how he really ascended to be king, what might keep him up at night. He doesn’t even know the name of his grandfather; for all Reed knows, the man in the portrait could be an ancestor from the 1600s. Or Cagliostro. Victor has a habit of conferring with strange people long dead.

Reed has never understood the dark arts, either; while he kept saying they were a form of science yet to be explained, his attempts to do so had been met by failure in the past. It makes him somewhat sad, that something as apparently integral to Victor’s life as magic is something Reed can’t grasp; he wishes Victor would teach him about it, indulge Reed in his secrets, allow him to learn from Victor.

Reed lowers his head, staring into a corner. His chest feels tight, constricted as if by some weight, and a wave of immense sadness hits him.

Victor doesn’t want you. He will never accept you. You are barely good enough to be his toy, to keep him amused with your humiliation, and he will never cease to belittle you. You are not his equal, you never will be…

Reed violently shakes his head. He knows, and yet he wants the little voice to shut up, as if not saying it somehow made it not be true. Feeling exhausted and hollow on the inside, Reed leans with his back to the wall and slides into a crumpled sitting position, burying his head in his hands.

This was terrible on every single level imaginable; this whole situation was practically Reed’s personal purgatory. Allowing himself a moment of unbridled self-pity, Reed gives a bitter laugh.

Good job, Mr. Fantastic.

Saving the world from Galactus, and yet unable to get a grip on his own affairs. Great.

Suddenly, Reed feels a light touch on his shoulder, and he almost jumps.

“Dr. Richards?” a heavily accented voice says.

Reed looks up to see an elderly servant with a worried look on his face.

“Uh, yes?”

It’s all Reed manages to get out.

“His Majesty is looking for you. He told us to find you. You should come with me.”

Reed heaves himself up from the floor, both relieved and uncomfortable about being found.

The man leads Reed up some stairs, and, as he had suspected, to a different dining room. The man carefully pushes the doors open and motions for Reed to enter.

Chapter Text

Reed instantly freezes. Inside, sitting at a comparatively short dining table, is Victor, reading a newspaper. It’s slightly bizarre, this powerful man, encased in a suit of high-tech armor, sitting at a table reading a newspaper like any other person might; but Reed can’t help but admire Victor’s dedication to keeping the suit on at any and all times. He distantly wonders what the chair might be made of, a vague memory from a few years back telling him that Victor weighed nearly 400 pounds in his armor. Maybe he upgraded it at some point, or the chair was just very sturdy.

It was technically pointless little details like this that made up most of Reed’s mindscape, noticing tiny things out of the ordinary and committing them to memory, to be used when the time was right; Reed had learned from experience that life was basically rocket science. A tiny missing detail could upset the entire equation, and then you’d crash and people might die.

Story of my life.

Now Victor has seen Reed, and looks up from his newspaper with an almost pleased expression. Almost, because Reed could hardly ever seem to tell the genuine emotions from the fake ones, and with Victor, it’ was even worse because nearly his entire face was hidden. It was like a permanent phone call, his voice basically the only thing to go off of, and Reed hates phone calls with a passion.

Victor waves his hand in the vague direction of the table.

“Good morning, Richards. I hope you have slept well. Why don’t you join me for a belated breakfast, and after that we may discuss your upcoming work.”

The little “belated” sting hurts a bit, but when Reed spies a coffee pot and breakfast rolls with jam, he really doesn’t care. Anything happening before his first mug of coffee he considered to be non-canon, because really, he couldn’t be held responsible for anything he did in that state.

So Reed sits down, carefully avoiding eye contact with Victor, and silently pours himself a mug (actually, it’s a lovely porcelain cup) of coffee. Scrambling for some milk and rolls, Reed realizes he hasn’t eaten in nearly 14 hours. It happened sometimes, he’d just forget to eat entirely and only notice when he’d get dizzy.

He sees Victor watching him out of the corner of his eye, and does his best to ignore him. If it were Johnny doing this, Reed thinks, he’d have to prepare for a buttered roll in his face and a rebuff, but like this, it’s not like Reed can do much, so he just demonstratively buries himself in a newspaper that takes him at least two minutes to realize it’s Hungarian. Which Reed doesn’t really speak.  Good.

Form the little he does understand, there’s not much going on in Latveria at the moment, but really, there barely ever was. With a sigh, Reed lowers the newspaper and looks at Victor warily, who seems to find this entire situation endlessly amusing, as far as Reed can tell.

“Victor. Seriously, what is this about? We’re not friends. We don’t eat breakfast together. I don’t help you with your work, because you don’t need help. Why am I really here?”

Reed addresses the elephant that’s been lingering in the castle ever since his arrival, but with how big of a castle this is, it was more like a Tyrannosaurus.

Apart from your sick amusement, I mean,” Reed adds with a mumble behind his coffee.

Victor raises an eyebrow (probably); he seems to very much disapprove of Reed’s usage of his first name, but there is no way in hell Reed will call him Doom, much less Your Majesty. Not in real life, anyway.

“Indeed, Richards, your intellect surprises me…”

Reed passes up on the sarcasm.

“…but you are right. I have not been telling the full truth as to why I called you here. Indeed, the matter is most delicate.”

With that, Victor waves for the servants to leave the room, and now Reed feels a bit like the rolls, spread on a silver platter.

“You are something of an expert on interdimensional travel, are you not?”

Reed is taken aback.

“Um...I guess? Yeah. So what?”

Victor looks at him gravely.

“As much as I hate to say it, your assistance is of great value to me in this matter. You see, on a recent astral field projection I undertook, I have seen into the Negative Zone, as well. You and I both know its ruler, Annihilus, all too well, I daresay…”

Victor folds his hands and leans forward on the table. Reed resists the urge to shrink back by the same amount.

“He is preparing an army, Richards, far greater than any before. “

What?

Now Reed’s eyebrows furrow. This is not good news. At all.

“He must be stopped, and I believe you and I are the only ones who can accomplish that.”

Reed tilts his head. Victor seems earnest, his voice grave, and Reed doesn’t doubt that this is not some sick game he’s playing; this danger is very real.

“Why us? I mean, why me? You could call Dr. Strange, or the Avengers, or anyone else really. They might not like you, but I’m sure they’d listen.”

“Believe me, I have considered the options before I settled on you. You see, Annihilus is prepared this time. His hordes are on standby, and at the slightest provocation, he will attack. This is why our strength lies in stealth, rather than numbers. The Avengers would only cause unnecessary commotion that I believe would lead to nothing. You and I, however, might be able to execute a successful ambush.”

This is very unexpected, Reed thinks. The entire situation has been turned upside down by this revelation. Reed has no reason to doubt Victor’s words; he knows that if he says he needs assistance, he really does. But Annihilus? Really?

Reed swallows the piece of roll he’s been chewing on for a while now and looks a bit sheepish.

“Um…wow. Okay? Well…where do we start?”

Pragmatism comes easily to Reed in situations like these; he likes having a concrete topic to talk about. It eliminates the need for lengthy awkward small talk. Also, in this particular instance, it draws the general focus away from the comparative Seismosaurus in the room: Reed’s tapes.

Victor leans back in his seat and examines Reed. Reed imagines he sees a smile beneath his mask.

“I like your attitude, Richards, that much I have to give you. Now, Annihilus has not been a massive threat in the past, as you might know. He’s usually easily thwarted. Now, however, he seems more powerful than ever, and I suspect that power has a distinct origin.”

Reed picks up quickly.

“You mean like an artifact?”

He runs through the most likely options.

“Infinity Stone, Quantum Bands, magic, something with time travel, Galactus’s severed head...?”

Reed counts on his fingers as he lists the common methods super villains tended to use (okay, the Galactus head one wasn’t that common, but still, it had happened in the past).

Victor raises an eyebrow.

“While I am sure that Galactus’s severed head is by far the most entertaining option, I am afraid you were right on your first guess. It would seem that Annihilus has acquired an Infinity stone. Which one, I am not sure as of yet, but my assumption is the Power gem,” he says, and gives a disapproving look at Reed, who hasn’t bothered interrupting his breakfast.

Reed chews thoughtfully on his roll.

“If he really had the Power Gem, don’t you think he’d be all over us at this point? I mean, it is an Infinity Stone. We’ve seen what they can do. These things are overpowered, to say the least…”

Victor nods.

“That thought had occurred to me, as well. I assume Annihilus, being the inferior fool he is, does not realize the full extent of the Gem’s power, or if he does, he cannot harness it. But I fear that he might learn with time, which makes it all the more important to strike quickly and regain the Gem.”

“And you need me for what exactly? Moral support?” Reed quips, feeling a little more comfortable now that the real issue has been laid out.

Victor ignores him.

“I need you to help me in constructing an inter-dimensional transport device that will allow us to enter Annihilus’s lair unseen. It must not leave any traceable signature. So far, everything I have developed has left a trail that was would be easy to follow, given the right methods. I am sure we are not the only ones who have noticed Annihilus’s acquiring of an Infinity Gem. Were anyone able to follow us, they would undoubtedly trigger an all-out attack from his hordes, and even in the unlikely case of their victory, I doubt the Power Gem would be in much better hands.”

Reed gives a surprisingly enthusiastic nod.

“I think I can do that.”

Victor nods curtly and gets up.

“Good. If you are…finished,” Victor says pointedly, no doubt referring to Reed’s messy eating habits, “then let us go. I will show you my laboratories.”

Chapter Text

Back in New York, Reed’s own labs had been lying empty for two days now.

Sue’s worry has stagnated; it’s not like she doesn’t have work to do. Namor had called, precise like clockwork the day Reed had left, asking for her assistance as honorary ambassador of Atlantis on the Roxxon case.

Sue really doesn’t mind; she likes Namor (she suspects he likes her, too), and hanging out with someone other than her FF colleagues is a nice change of scenery.

Now, she’s at the kitchen table, her favorite spot because of the large windows overlooking Central Park, looking through the documents Roxxon’s multiple attorneys have sent her, all detailing how the oil brig right in Atlantean territory was perfectly legal and practically ought to be there.

Sue closes the file with a sigh. They’re jerks, she thinks.

Absently, she wishes Reed were there. Even when he’s only gone for a few days, his absence is felt in the Baxter Building; he’s like the resident spirit, haunting the halls at night and sometimes emerging for a little scare. She’s already gotten calls from his university, because Reed usually never cancelled his lectures, but she had to wave them off, saying Reed was out of country for the moment.

Sometimes, Sue wishes there were a few more catastrophes that required the intervention of the Fantastic Four. Ever since the formation of the Avengers, they’d been quarreling over who got to do what, and usually, the Avengers had the job done by the time the FF were barely there. Mole Man’s last attack had been an exception; apparently, even the Avengers thought he was their issue.

Great, Sue thinks, is that what we’ve come to? The official Mole Man intervention team?

But as it was, the recent weeks had been eventless, and so Sue’s mind returns once again to Reed.

Even before he’d left in a hurry, she’d been worrying about him. He’d seemed absent lately, more so than usual, and more than once, Sue had noticed him staring at pictures of Victor on the news for far too long, with an empty, removed expression.

Sue suspects…something. She doesn’t know quite what, either, but she’s seen the way Reed looks at Victor. She’s tried to confront him about it once or twice, right after they’d had to stop one of Victor’s various evil schemes, but every time, Reed had closed himself off and just said he was alright.

Sue knows they’d been at college together, and for a while, she had thought that was the reason, that Reed was simply reluctant to fight an old friend. After some time and some failed advances toward him from Sue’s side had passed, however, she’d realized, however, that there was definitely more at work here than a broken friendship. Reed had never really had any longer relationships, with either men or women, or if he did, Sue doesn’t know about them.

But he seemed to hold Victor in very high regards, even when he had tried to kill them all multiple times, and on the rare occasions she’d seen them talk, the look in Reed’s eyes had been more than telling. At least, to her; one time, Johnny had made a throwaway joke about how Reed and Victor were probably secret boyfriends, and while Reed had said nothing, she hadn’t seen him for two days afterwards.

She feels terrible for him. Sue knows that Reed deserves better, that he shouldn’t spend his days chasing what he couldn’t have, what would only hurt him, but all she can do is provide comfort whenever she can, and keep Johnny from making any more stupid jokes.

Speaking of Johnny, Sue is torn from her gloomy thoughts by the sound of loud conversation coming down the hallway. She looks up, only to see Johnny walking arm in arm with Tony Stark, both of them laughing. They spot her, but don’t really seem to mind.

“Hey Susan, lovely to meet you. How are you?” Tony asks, grin still on his face (no doubt from some lewd joke Johnny made, Sue thinks).

Sue shrugs.

“Okay, I guess. How are you? I see you two are getting along,” she adds, side-eying Johnny suspiciously.

Johnny waves at her.

“Yeah, we were just talking about…science stuff. Really interesting,” he says, clearly not really caring about his excuse.

“Anyway, we were on our way to the roof terrace. Tony’s been dying to see that new radar of ours.”

“Right. The radar. Sure. Have fun,” Sue replies drily and turns her attention back to the files while Tony and Johnny waddle off down the hallway, resuming their conversation.

Sue sends a silent prayer that Reed might return soon.

 ---

Reed had always wanted to see Victor’s labs up close. He’d seen them in passing, of course, but now, being led through the massive halls filled with equipment by Victor himself, he feels a bit like being given a private walk of the St. Peter’s dome by the Pope.

All over the place are inventions and machines he’d love to inspect further, but even Reed knows that he should focus on the task at hand. As bizarre as these circumstances are, an impending attack of Annihilus’s hordes is nothing to dismiss easily.

They arrive at the metal doors to a lab with at least ten different warning signs, and Reed watches as Victor types something on a keypad next to it. He lets the device scan his iris, and the massive doors slowly swing open.

Behind them looms a large, unfinished looking device, reminiscent of the earlier versions of Victor’s time platform, bundles of multicolored cables jutting out at every other spot. Reed eyes the contraption, taking in the details of the construction as he steps closer.

“I think I already see at least one instance where you went wrong,” he says, more thinking aloud than really talking to Victor.

“You should have wired the power output differently. Like this, the magnetic coils aren’t used to capacity…”

Reed keeps mumbling, circling the device with slow steps. He feels his spirits lift, as they always do when he had a problem to work on; it was like tossing a Rubik’s cube to someone who lived on a deserted island.

When he’s circled the device, Reed comes back into Victor’s view, a sparkle in his eyes at the complexity of the task set to him.

“I’m confident that I can come up with something,” Reed says, turning more serious again, “but I’m sure I’ll need your assistance on this.”

Reed had always been much less reluctant to accept outside help than Victor, even in their college days; although Reed suspects his eagerness for teamwork was limited to Victor only, both because he was just about the only person who could keep up with Reed and realistically offer help in the first place, and for…other reasons.

Victor gives a reluctant nod.

“Very well, Richards. I understand that this task is bigger than our mutual animosities. Let us get to work right away.”

Reed is a little surprised at that. He’d expected more resistance from Victor’s side. It seems this Annihilus thing is very serious indeed.

He makes an indistinct noise of agreement, but his mind is occupied elsewhere for a moment.

So why this façade? Why had Victor kept the true reason he’d called Reed to Latveria from him?

Reed tilts his head and looks at Victor, who has already started assembling an assortment of tools Reed only partially recognized.

“So…Victor?”

Victor stops his rummaging and looks up, the usage of his first name always enough to get a rise from him.

“Yes, Richards?” he says, speaking Reed’s last name pointedly, as if to make a statement.

Reed ignores it.

“So why didn’t you just say there was an impending attack from the Negative Zone, for God’s sake? I would have immediately come over, and we could have skipped this whole blackmailing thing!”

Reed shakes his head in disbelief with an exasperated wave in Victor’s direction. He’s out of his depth here, Victor’s behavior making less sense by the minute, and topping the pile is the still enormous embarrassment of Victor having seen his explicit VR simulations, which really doesn’t help at all, Reed thinks.

Victor looks up, stops his rummaging, and steps closer to Reed, who shrinks back a little (maybe even literally shrinks, he can never quite tell when he accidentally does that).

Whoops.

Reed suspects he’s overstepped his boundaries a little. Questioning his motives was usually not something that lightened Victor’s mood.

Victor looms over him now, and Reed is awkwardly aware of how much taller he really is, the armor adding a few centimeters to an already imposing frame.

“Be careful, Richards. My motives are not yours to question. Remember your position.”

Victor’s voice is a little too low and too dangerous for Reed’s liking. The remark hadn’t been that rude, and Reed is worried he’s caught Victor in a bad mood.

“But I shall lay my reasoning out to your limited intellect nonetheless. Your absolute secrecy was vital, and what better way to ensure your silence in the matter than this? Besides…”

Victor leans a little closer to Reed now, and this time Reed doesn’t shrink back, as much as he’d like to (or, he thinks, really wouldn’t like).

“…I must admit that this whole situation is quite amusing to me.”

Victor grins underneath his mask, and Reed gives an angry scowl now. As much as he’s ashamed of this, he’s really kind of had it with Victor’s antics at this point. He opens his mouth to give a reply, but Victor cuts him off.

“Also, you shall address me as either Doom or Your Majesty. I will not tolerate further use of my given name by you.”

Victor is way too close to Reed now, and Reed hates it; it always does things to him, makes his head spin, makes him stop thinking clearly, and he knows that Victor knows. Reed swallows heavily, and some part of his brain, probably the one wearing the shirt “Cause of death: poorly timed sarcasm”, comes up with a snarky reaction.

“Yeah? What are you gonna do if I don’t, hit me?”

Reed immediately regrets the comment. He expects Victor to be angry, and so he’s quite put off that Victor’s only reaction seems to be an entertained smirk.

Victor leans even closer, the cool metal of his armor almost, almost brushing Reed’s face, and Reed is hit by a wave of air heavy with the scent of ozone and the silk of Victor’s cloak as he tilts his head to speak in Reed’s ear.

“Would you like me to?”

Reed freezes.

Oh god.

The situation is too much to process, Victor’s overwhelmingly close presence enough to use up most of Reed’s mental RAM. Reed takes a shaky breath and says, with a thin, quiet voice:

“Maybe.”

Wait, what?

Reed can’t see Victor’s expression at that; all he hears is a low chuckle that sends an electric chill down his spine, making his back hairs stand on end. Reed thinks this would be an excellent moment for him to immigrate to the Siberian tundra, but before he can mentally pack, he feels a light touch on the nape of his neck, ice cold and threatening.

Reed’s breath hitches, and Victor’s hand wanders down Reed’s back, slowly and ever so lightly. Reed shudders, and his eyes flutter shut for a moment as the steel touch comes to rest on the small of his back.

And then it’s gone.

Victor takes a step away from Reed, and Reed stumbles forward a little, not realizing he’d arched his back unnaturally at the intrusive touch. Victor assesses him as Reed stands there, profoundly confused and with a noticeable flush to his cheeks, and Victor grins, not without a hint of triumph.

“Indeed…very interesting. I shall get back to you on that offer,” he says, turning away, and it takes Reed far too long to understand he meant the whole hitting thing (which really didn’t make it better), not…whatever that just was.

Reed Richards, what have you gotten yourself into?

Chapter Text

Victor steps back, satisfied (for the moment) with the reaction he’s caused in his adversary.

Most entertaining indeed.

When he’d hacked into Richards’s systems, he had actually been rather content already with the achievement itself; rummaging through his files had just been an extra, so to speak. As he’d expected, there had been little to nothing of major interest: blueprints he didn’t need, video logs of Reed’s lectures, utterly uninteresting photos of an apartment for sale in the Baxter Building, things like these.

Richards’s encrypted folders, however, had been a different matter. Most contained files of inventions that could have proven dangerous to the general public, even some weapons, which Victor knew Richards usually didn’t design, for reasons of misplaced pacifism. He’d been about to leave the server, when the title of a particular folder caught his attention.

Victor von Doom.

Seeing his own name in the jumble of useless data had been surprising; still, Victor hadn’t expected too much of it. Some sparse, incorrect data about himself, perhaps, or more likely about his exploits in connection to the FF.

He had been very wrong.

Perhaps the heavy security measures should have told him, only a handful of files were iris-encrypted, and this seemingly public one seemed out of place on a list with nuclear missiles and radio wave satellites. Cracking the iris scan hadn’t been too hard; Victor had at least six different high resolution scans of Richards’s eyes. One might have sufficed, certainly, but Victor felt like Richards’s hazel brown eyes occasionally changed their color, and he actually kept very thorough tags on whether or not that theory was true. The results so far had been inconclusive, and Victor was getting mildly annoyed with having to spend excessively long amounts of time staring at Richards’s face, the “mildly” part stemming from the fact that he didn’t actually mind all that much. There were worse things to look at, certainly. Autopsies or starving children, for instance.

With this extensive information about his enemy’s eyes at hand, the folder had opened like a Tupperware box, giving Victor free reign to sift through.

The titles had only served to further confuse him, however, as did the file format. Every single file was a VR simulation, specifically developed for Richards’s government-standard system, labeled with vague names such as Lab_01 and BattleSit_03. His curiosity piqued, Victor had copied the files to his own (doubtlessly superior) VR headset, and run a random file.

Needless to say, he had not been amused.

At least at first, until the incredulousness had been replaced by a growing feeling of triumph.

I knew it.

Victor always suspected that his long-time rival would have preferred to be called his long-time lover. Victor was most certainly not stupid, but even if he had been, Reed Richards was (and is) absolutely terrible at hiding his feelings. Even back in college, he would jump like a child on Christmas when he was happy (which was obnoxiously often the case), and put on a look like a lovesick teenager whenever Victor rebutted his overly clingy attempts at spending time with him. It had been nothing but annoying at first, but over time, Victor had learned to use Richards’s obvious infatuation with him to his advantage; whether to enlist his help in college, or to ensure he would get away unscathed in otherwise potentially dangerous situations involving the FF.

Richards would say something about pacifism, upholding the law, or general ethic standards to his clearly furious teammates who looked ready to take Victor apart at any given moment, buying Victor time to pick himself up, give a menacing speech and leave. Every single time, when Richards thought he wasn’t paying attention, he would shoot Victor a sideways look of utter longing, tinting his hazel eyes dark with sadness.

Victor never reacted.

He took immense triumph in the fact that his self-proclaimed rival was not-so-secretly obsessed with him , but part of Victor couldn’t help but want to act on those feelings, to give Richards what he craved so badly, if only to see what would happen…to either of them.

Now, with Victor’s suspicions confirmed by hard fact and their dynamic changed in such a drastic way, however, Victor is actually considering doing just that. From what he can gather, Richards is desperate for every bit of attention Victor gives him, and while the impending attack from the Negative Zone was no doubt very inconvenient, it did give Victor an excellent reason for calling Richards to his castle. Even Victor suspects that gloating over Richards isn’t going to keep him here for all that long (as fun as it is to watch him blush like a teenager every time Victor looks at him for longer than two seconds).

A loud clang tears Victor out of his reverie. Richards, it turns out, is more of a hands-on person than Victor would have given him credit for, because he has clearly recovered from Victor’s attack on his personal space earlier and is now enthusiastically removing a metal cover from one of the traveling device’s transmitters.

This is going to be…interesting, at the very least.

---

Reed’s super power came with some weird side effects at times. He’d stretch involuntarily when sneezing, and parts of his body would sag during sleep, but most of the time, being a human rubber band was somewhere between neutral and rather convenient.

Right now, it’s actually very convenient, Reed thinks, because being able to turn any part of his body limp and rubbery at will is clearly a skill he’ll have to use a lot these next days.

Burying his still slightly flushed face in a cable compartment, Reed silently thanks the higher powers for having something, anything to do, if only to escape this conversation with Victor that had somehow gotten out of hand really quickly.

“Maybe?” Really, Reed? Nominated for the yearly award of “not helping”.

There is clearly a bigger task here (you know, impending doom and such), but Reed can’t help but linger on the odd feeling of Victor’s cold gloved hands traveling down his spine…oh, how he’d wished Victor would keep going, put his hands all over Reed, gauntlets or no gauntlets, who really cares. Reed knows he doesn’t.

Suddenly, Reed hisses and pulls his hand back from the spike of pain traveling up his arm. Caught up in thought, he’d apparently managed to catch a small discharge from one of the cables. He mumbles a curse and shakes his hand, which is now tingling with pins and needles.

Concentrate, Reed!

Reed groans and sits back. There’s no way he’ll be able to work on this monstrosity of an apparatus without a clear plan, and as much as he really doesn’t want to, he’ll have to talk about that with Victor. They couldn’t each be doing their own repairs, otherwise, they’d end up with a space faring bicycle or worse.

Reed stops himself last moment from simply calling “Victor” in the man’s general direction, because smart as he is, he’s maneuvered himself into a situation where doing that might lead to unpleasant results. Later, perhaps.

“Err...can you hear me?” Reed says instead, stretching his neck over the device to search the room for Victor.

“Yes, quite clearly, Richards. This laboratory is precisely 48m², I daresay you do not have to shout.”

Reed jumps and instantly returns his form back to normal, because that voice is coming from right behind him. He rolls his eyes to himself and turns around.

“Great. Now look here, we need a plan to work on this…thingamajig here. You said you needed me to finish it, so maybe, for at least ten minutes, you could pause your act and have a normal conversation with me about this, because engineering issues usually aren’t solved by gloating.”

Victor just looks at him flatly and raises an eyebrow.

“Very well. What do you propose?”

Wait, just like that?

Well, wasn’t this going to be fun.

 ---

It was the closest thing to smooth sailing they could get after that, Reed assumes.

They’d formulated new blueprints for a teleporter cloaking device, divided the necessary adjustments between them and got to work right away; after all, the matter seemed to be at least somewhat pressing. They had worked away quietly for hours, only talking every once in a while over some technical issue, and Reed had to admit he really quite enjoyed Victor’s company. The fact that they didn’t have to talk all that often was telling already, because Reed assumes that if he’d had to do this with anyone else, the work would mostly be dumped on him. This way, there was some actual teamwork happening, which was rare indeed.

Right now, Victor is welding on the magnetic spools, and Reed has been tinkering with a motherboard for quite some time now over at one of the desks. It’s late, Reed assumes (the lab has no windows, and he hasn’t bothered checking the room for any kind of clock), and for the second or third time already, he can’t help a yawn. He’s been working tirelessly for hours, and he’s starting to think that motherboard is running some sort of personal vendetta against him.

Reed faintly registers the welding equipment’s whine die down, and for a second expects Victor to flip up his mask, like welders are prone to do when their work is finished, but of course, Victor opted for the permanent welding look years ago. Came in handy on occasion, after all, Reed thinks.

With a sleepy blink, Reed turns his attention back to the board, when he feels a heavy hand on his shoulder, and starts before realizing it’s Victor.

“What is it? You gave me kind of a heart attack just now,” Reed says, not looking up from his work.

“You are obviously fatigued. I suggest you retire for the night. It is three in the morning, after all.”

Is it that late already? Reed had hardly noticed the time passing, caught up in his work.

Reed shrugs, prompting Victor to remove his hand.

“It’s fine. I can keep working a while longer. What’s it to you, anyway? Worried about me?”

Reed really is tired, and he can’t help the bite in his voice at that last bit.

The hand returns, more forceful this time, and Reed does look up now; Victor’s eyes are narrowed, which Reed knows is never really a good sign.

“You are of no use to either me or yourself when you are working at half capacity. Go to bed. Now.”

Reed ducks his head a little and considers putting up a fight, but ultimately decides against it. He sighs in defeat.

“Fine, then. Do you have directions back to my room? I already got lost once today,” Reed says, his tone laced with irony.

Victor silently draws back his hand and assesses Reed.

“Leave the way you came. A servant will be waiting to escort you to your quarters. I shall keep working here. You will meet me tomorrow at nine for a breakfast, and then you may continue your task.”

Victor’s tone leaves no room for arguing, and Reed would protest to being ordered around like that, but really, there’d be little point.

Reed stands up, stifling another yawn in the process, and gives Victor a long look before quietly leaving for the lab entrance.

 ---

Back at his temporary quarters, Reed thanks the servant (even though he’s positive he doesn’t understand him), and closes the door behind him, thankful to have some time to himself at last. He leans his back against the heave oak door and runs a hand over his eyes.

This is so weird.

 How had he gotten himself into this situation? Reed feels somewhat like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole, only that the rabbit hole was an interdimensional portal and the white rabbit was, well, kind of a dick. A huge dick, to be precise, and at this point Reed doesn’t even care about the several lewd jokes he could make from that sentence.

Well, maybe he cares a little.

Reed takes a shower and brushes his teeth, wishing distantly for a radio he could listen to, or at least Johnny’s annoying late-night shenanigans. He misses his friends already, even though it’s barely been two days since he left for Latveria. It’s more the feeling of someone who kind of cared for Reed being around that he misses; it reassured him, even when he kept to himself most of the time. Here, he feels isolated, and everything has a distinct edge to it; he is in enemy territory, after all.

Feeling the exhaustion of a long day’s work settle in, Reed gets into his pajamas and heads for bed. Something is out of place, he thinks, and it takes him a moment to realize there’s a neatly folded black sweatshirt lying at the foot of his back.

Sheesh, Victor, I’m dressed, thanks, Reed thinks, and motions to pick up the shirt, when he notices something off. The shirt is clearly too large for Reed, made of some kind of heavy-duty sports or military fabric, and it looks distinctly worn, wrinkled and stretched in places.

Reed’s feels his heart drop somewhere into his guts.

No. It couldn’t…

Incredulous, Reed sits on the bed and inspects the shirt further, and when he buries his nose in it, a big, heavy knot of at least twenty different emotions forms in his stomach.

This is one of Victor’s shirts.

A real, actual worn under-armor suit top of Victor’s.

Oh dear.

Reed buries his face in the coarse fabric and inhales deeply. It smells of metal and soap and faintly of sweat, and most importantly it smells of Victor.

Reed’s head is spinning. What does that even mean? Why on the world would Victor leave him one of his worn shirts, unless…

If Reed’s face wasn’t already hidden, he’d do so now. It means that Victor had actually seen his little  performance the night before, and that mortifies Reed on at least three different levels.

It turns him on, however, on at least seven.

Reed inhales the shirt’s multitude of exquisite smells again, and can’t really find it in himself to care that he’s probably being watched, has been watched in the past, jerking off to the mere thought of a piece of clothing worn by Victor. This is the real deal, though, and Reed loves it.

He wants this, even if it’s a twisted game Victor is playing, like throwing breadcrumbs to a starving man and laughing, but Reed can’t help it. Reed wonders if Victor only enjoyed watching him suffer, or if there was more to it than met the eye. Reed allows himself to think that Victor might get off to this, that he likes watching Reed moan and call his name, touching himself in the dead of night, thinking of Victor…

Reed barely registers he’s gotten very hard in the last minutes as he collapses back onto the bed, shirt over his nose and mouth, stifling a small groan as he allows his imagination to run wild on the thought.

What if Victor was watching right now, biting his lip as Reed goes wild over a simple worn shirt of his? What if he’s hard underneath his armor, aching for release but unwilling to miss a single second of Reed’s pleasure?

Reed’s hand catches up with his thoughts as he slides down his pants, rolling on his side to stroke his burning erection.

“Oh god, Victor…” he mutters into the shirt, panting shamelessly as he imagines Victor’s hands running over him like they did earlier today, only in his fantasy, Victor doesn’t stop. Reed gives a tiny whimper as he thinks of Victor’s cold metal gauntlets sliding beneath his shirt, enveloping his neck, roughly stroking his cock as Reed begs him to keep going…

With an audible cry of Victor, Reed comes hard into his hand, shaking with pleasure as he drowns his noises in black fabric.

He’s wrecked after that, the orgasm taking all of the energy he had left, and with some effort, Reed pulls his pants back up and rolls over, deliberately wiping his hand on the shirt. The thought of his come being on Victor’s shirt is too sweet a poison to pass up on.

With that, Reed sighs, buries his nose back in the coarse fabric and falls asleep almost instantly, too tired to think of anything.

Chapter Text

“Doctor Richards?”

A raspy, accented voice calls out, and Reed rolls over and draws the blanket over his face. Surely he’s still dreaming.

“Doctor Richards!” the voice says again, more forcefully this time, and now Reed reluctantly raises his head and peeks out of his blanket fortress.

Standing in the doorway is an elderly man, carrying a stack of fresh clothing. Reed blinks sluggishly at him and wonders just who this funny looking man really is; it takes him far too long to realize he should probably recognize him. He vaguely assumes it’s the servant who lead him to the dining hall the other day, but really, people tended to look the same to Reed, especially at whatever-it-was in the morning.

Reed groans. “What is it?”

For all Reed’s biological clock cares, it’s the middle of the night, and that man ought to crawl back to the depths of hell he most likely came from. Naturally, he doesn’t.

“Doctor Richards? Finally, you are awake! I’m sorry, but His Majesty told us to wake you at half past eight. I bring you clothes, too.”

The man’s heavy, rolling accent does make Reed remember him, now, and he sits up, feeling a little bad for obviously having slept through some of the man’s more friendly attempts at waking him.

“Hey. Uh, thanks…I guess. I’ll just get up and…uh…do the thing or whatever.”

Reed dimly thinks he’s talking garbage, but the man nods courteously anyway.

“Very well, Doctor. When you are done, I will show you to His Majesty,” he says, placing the stack of clothing on a dresser next to the door. Reed squints at the man’s wrinkled face.

“Is he waiting in the same hall as yesterday? If so, I think I’ll find my way. No need for you to stand outside and wait for me. I’m not really into that, you know,” Reed says, beyond caring for the servant’s feelings at this point, because really, having someone lingering just outside the door while he tries to figure out which way his shirt goes on is not Reed’s idea of a comfortable morning.

The servant nods hastily, apparently not wanting to upset Reed in any way, no matter how trivial. Reed wonders if that just came with the job, or if he had received specific orders to treat Reed well.

“Yes, of course, Doctor Richards. His Majesty awaits you, then. But if you do need assistance…”

“No, it’s fine, really. I’ll get to “His Majesty” soon enough.” Reed is starting to get mildly annoyed at the man’s continued attempts to talk to him right after waking him up.

The servant clearly notices, because he nods hastily, mumbles something that sounds like an apology, and draws the door closed behind him.

Reed flops back on the bed with a whoof.

Urch. Bugger off, old man, I don’t care what your precious majesty said! Just leave me be!

He stares at the ceiling and considers just going back to sleep, if only to piss Victor off by not appearing on time. He sighs, and decides against it, because you know, important mission and stuff.

Rolling over on the bed, Reed’s face touches coarse fabric, and a flush crosses his cheeks as the memory of last evening hits him.

Oh dear.

Realizing he doubtlessly needs a shower and some less…compromising sleepwear, Reed gets up and scuttles off into the adjacent bathroom. The prospect of meeting Victor for breakfast had just become a lot more daunting, if that was even possible at this point.

Brushing his teeth under the shower, Reed wonders just what exactly that whole worn-shirt-thing was supposed to mean. Obviously, Victor knew about Reed’s obsession with him at this point, but why bother actually acting on that? Regardless of how many times Reed turns it over in his head, the only feasible conclusion he arrives at is that Victor, for one reason or another, had an interest in watching Reed masturbate.

Reed chokes on his toothpaste as the actual meaning of the words his mind just formed dawn on him.

That is weird.

For a moment, Reed is occupied coughing up white foam, but as he turns off the water and steps out of the shower, he mentally voices the thought again.

Victor has an interest in watching me masturbate.

Reed can’t help but bury his burning face in his hands at that; for all his weird kinks, actually wording any of them always made him feel like a teenager.

I’ll start giggling at the mention of sex, next, Reed thinks, and snickers at his own joke a little. Laughing about it was really kind of the only way of dealing with this whole situation, anyways. It did not, however, answer the burning question of why.

Why would Victor even do that? He had enough compromising footage of Reed for a lifetime; there was no need to record any more. Perhaps it was a sick way of exacting control over Reed.

Or maybe he’s just batshit crazy, Reed thinks as he stubbornly gets into last day’s trousers, ignoring the fresh clothing on the dresser. He has to admit, though, that whoever picked these clothes for him clearly had a good sense of what Reed liked to wear. He was just making a point of not wasting energy on washing when it wasn’t necessary yet.

As he gets out of the bathroom, Reed’s gaze falls on the crumpled black shirt that still lies under the covers. He looks away pointedly, as if the piece of fabric was some kind of insult, and sits down on the bed to slip on his shoes. When he sits up, the shirt is (expectably) still there.

Reed sighs and picks it up, burying his face in it. The overpowering scent of Victor envelops him, but this time, there’s something else mixed into it, and only after two deep inhales, Reed realizes it’s his own smell. Mingled in the shirt are the scents of sweat and soap and hair and aftershave, both of Victor and of Reed, and a knot forms in Reed’s gut as he takes in that delicate mixture, knowing that second-hand is most likely  the only way he’ll ever get to smell it. With considerable power of will, he peels his face off the fabric, and when he notices the dark stain he left on it the night before, the knot tightens into a full-on megalith.

Without allowing his mind to think the decision over, Reed fishes for his traveling bag under the bed, zips it open, and stuffs the shirt inside, quickly closing it again like a hazmat container. It was hazardous material, really, its existence apparently enough to stir all kinds of emotions within Reed, ranging from pleasure to existential sadness, the type one may contract from reading Lovecraft.

Reed hastily shoves the bag back under the bed and stands up, shaking his head defiantly.

Seriously, Victor? Fuck you.

 ---

If he’s perfectly honest, Reed doesn’t actually know the way to the dining hall all that well. He’d just really wanted to get rid of the servant guy. So, after having taken a few wrong turns on the way (more like a lot), he arrives at the imposing set of doors fifteen minutes late.

Great.

Any hopes of making a discreet “I’ve been here the whole time, you just didn’t notice me” type of entrance are, of course, thwarted by the fact that he’s kind of the only guest around; though Reed had realized pretty much the day he came that regular social tactics were not going to cut it here.

Steeling himself, he knocks on the massive door, a little too feebly at first; and the again, when no reaction comes from inside. This time, a servant opens the doors for him and politely motions Reed over to the table.

Victor is there, of course; and again, Victor’s ability to convey emotion mostly with his eyes amazes Reed as he’s met with the single most judgmental side-eye he’s ever faced. Reed hunches his shoulders a little and clears his throat, lingering awkwardly in the doorway.

“Hey. Good…um, morning?”

It isn’t exactly morning, but still, he has to say something. When Victor doesn’t react, Reed shuffles over to the nearest chair in defeat, wishing himself to be invisible, or better yet, back in his own bed at home with a blanket to draw over his head.

This is so awkward, Reed thinks, and hopes his face only feels like he’s blushing. He really, really hopes Victor is just going to let this matter go and pass up the opportunity to make a scorching remark about how Reed probably slept in because of…reasons. Reed knows he would, if this was the other way around.

Just act natural?

Reed fishes for a roll and butter, all the while still under Victor’s steely gaze. Reed buries himself in the task of spreading the butter as evenly as possible on the roll.

“Hello, Richards. I assume you have…slept well.”

Victor’s voice, laced with unmistakable venom, breaks Reed out of his butter reverie. The little pause was no doubt intentional, and Reed flinches internally as he does his best to look unfazed.

“Yes. Great. Thanks”, he clips, not looking up and instead reaching for the strawberry jam (why did Victor even stock stuff like that? Reed couldn’t imagine him ever eating it).

Suddenly, with irritating speed, Victor lunges forward and grabs Reed by the wrist of his halfway extended arm, towering over him as he leans his weight on the table.

Eek.

Reed is pretty much shell-shocked. Victor’s grip is literal iron at his wrist, likely enough to crush most people’s bones, as he assesses Reed with cold eyes.

“I hope you realize you are late, Richards. I will not tolerate such insults of my person.”

Victor’s voice cuts like a razor blade, and without looking away from Reed, he motions for the servants to leave. Reed, regaining some control over his body, swallows heavily, his eyes darting to the closing door.

Oh dear.

Reed looks back to Victor and gives a half-hearted attempt to free his wrist, which naturally amounts to absolutely nothing. Victor’s narrowed eyes glint dangerously, despite the warm light flooding the room.

Listen, Richards. There may be more at stake here than either of us knows. I demand that you devote yourself fully to our mission, and I will not take kindly to any further transgressions on your part.”

Reed blinks, and then, slowly, his brow furls in irritation. Who does Victor think he is? Well, yes, Victor von Doom, but still. Reed takes another poor life choice (does it matter at this point?) and speaks up.

“No, Victor, you listen. I daresay I can classify this situation rather more accurately than you think. I don’t think I need to remind you of my merits in defending Earth from harm, and I’m pretty sure me being fifteen minutes late for your sad excuse for a breakfast won’t cause anyone’s heads to implode.”

Reed’s voice is biting, genuinely angry now.

“This is no excuse to treat me like your pet, as much as you seem to enjoy doing that,” Reed adds with a sneering, bitter grin.

…and realizes three seconds later that this was probably not a good idea.

Victor’s expression remains unmoved. He carefully studies Reed’s face, and then Reed stifles a yelp as Victor roughly pulls him closer by his arm.

Reed can feel the cold metal of Victor’s mask on his cheek, and the faintest hint of hot breath as Victor tilts his head to whisper in Reed’s ear.

“Oh, the things I want to do to you…”

The low growl in Victor’s voice makes Reed’s entire face flush bright red.

Oh, dear.

Victor runs his covered face down Reed’s neck, slowly, almost carefully, and the cold touch of metal on hot skin makes Reed’s head spin far more than it should right now. Reed exhales, breathy and unsteady, and then Victor draws back and lets Reed’s wrist go.

Reed nearly falls into the butter as he struggles to recover his footing, and by the time he does, Victor is already heading towards the door, his stride as sure as ever.  Without turning back to Reed, he says:

“Eat, and then notify a servant to take you to the laboratories. Do not tarry.”

And before Reed can react, Victor is gone, and the servants scuttle back into the room.

Reed holds his wrist where Victor’s grip left a scorching red mark, one that Reed silently hopes will stay there for a few days, and flops back into his chair. He looks at his breakfast sheepishly, like he somehow expects the jam to hold all secrets of humanity, and tries to sort his thoughts, while also trying to get rid of the slightly belated rush of blood to his lower regions.

Reed folds his arms on the table and buries his head in them with a groan.

It’s too fucking early in the morning for this, Vic. Seriously.

He hasn’t even had his coffee yet. Nor his roll. All he’s had so far were Victor’s shenanigans, and a double helping of those while he was at it. Reed straightens up in his chair again, and silently wishes Annihilus to shove his damn Infinity gem right down his…nose. How in the wide, wide expanse of the Multiverse was Reed supposed to work with Victor and not only produce presentable results, but also run a covert stealth operation in the Negative Zone, of all places, when the man was making less sense by the minute?

Pouring himself a well-deserved XL cup of coffee, Reed genuinely wonders what Victor’s motives were at this point. There were several explanations for his behavior, of course, but when it came down to it, all of his possible plans seemed to involve getting into Reed’s pants one way or the other.

Reed’s not entirely sure whether he disapproves or not.

He’s leaning towards the “probably not” side of things. He just hopes that whatever happened in Castle Doom stayed in Castle Doom, because he doesn’t even want to imagine Johnny’s look if he found out Victor was flirting with Reed (god, how did any of this ever happen?).

Stranger things had happened, Reed assumes. Like that one time with Galactus’s severed head (that one had really left a lasting impression on him), or the weird teleporting dog the Inhuman Royals always kept around (he didn’t trust that thing. At all).

Fun times.

 ---

Reed had spend the remainder of his solitary breakfast thinking of things that classified as “weirder than Victor having a reason to flirt him up”, and had actually come up with quite a lot. Feeling somewhat reassured that whatever was happening here, it definitely wasn’t unique in its strangeness, Reed had set out to Victor’s labs, guided by a friendly, if silent, servant.

When they arrived at the steel doors leading to the higher security parts of the complex, the servant had left without a word, leaving Reed to figure out just how to get into the lab itself.

He’s about to consider knocking, when the massive doors open from the inside and Victor brusquely gestures him inside. Reed follows, glad that just for once, he didn’t have to make a complete idiot of himself.

As he follows Victor, Reed wonders whether he should mention…well, anything, from the shirt to the manhandling just now. They couldn’t very well leave this weird, sexually charged elephant hanging in the room for all eternity, but before Reed can make up his mind, they arrive at the lab holding the interdimensional traveling device.

Victor apparently didn’t require sleep, or he was very efficient when Reed wasn’t looking, because most of the menial work that didn’t require much coordinated input from both of them had been done in Reed’s absence; he can’t help but be a little impressed.

“Wow. You know, I do kind of wonder why you even insisted on my help with this thing. Looks like you can handle it just fine on your own,” Reed says, eyeing the machine for any possible blunders Victor might have might, though he doesn’t really expect to find any.

Victor inclines his head, which Reed optimistically interprets as a thanks, but says nothing. Instead, he walks over to a large, rectangular box standing in one corner and starts typing away at a connected keyboard.

Reed is starting to worry this might be a bio-containment unit for a symbiote, or worse, when Victor finally does say something, all the while working without looking over to Reed.

“I assume you realize how dangerous our mission in the Negative Zone could turn out to be. I have no interest in losing you prematurely to your severely lacking defensive equipment. For this purpose, I have designed a custom set of armor for you that you will utilize for the duration of our venture.”

As Victor finishes, the case opens, revealing a spotless, gleaming suit of armor inside. Reed is absolutely, utterly confused.

“Come again? You did what now?”

Victor raises an eyebrow.

“I did not realize you had turned hard of hearing in the last hour, Richards. I said, I designed this set of armor for you, in order to ensure your protection during our mission.”

Reed looks at Victor like he’s a Martian.

“Since when are you interested in putting forth any sort of actual effort into my safety? Was there something in the coffee you shouldn’t have drunk?” he says, stepping closer to Victor with a look that mixes mock concern with genuine incredulousness.

Victor narrows his eyes.

“Careful, Richards. Choose your words wisely. If I must repeat myself again: nothing is to be gained by your death or serious injury in this. As I know your stubbornness in utilizing any sort of personal safety equipment, I assumed you would not bring your own suit. Thus, I have prepared this one for you, so that you may not get shot.”

Victor speaks slowly and gestures to the suit as he speaks, like talking to a five year old. Reed would take offense, but he’s too busy staring alternately at Victor and the armor.

Victor looks at him expectantly.

“Do you want me to draw a diagram for you?”

Reed shoots back at Victor with more venom than would have been advisable.

“No, I think I can just about do without, thanks. So, what is this? First you flirt me up, now you try to stick me in one of your armors? One might think you’re getting sentimental, the way you’re all over me these days.”

This time, Reed postpones regretting his words to see Victor’s reaction to them. This was more interesting than Reed would have thought, like experimenting with a chemical that produced results by a system Reed had yet to understand. Most of the time, these result turned out to be acidic, though.

Like right now, because as Reed is still busy being smug over having come up with a witty response, Victor lunges at him with that disconcerting rattlesnake speed and grabs Reed by the neck with one hand, lifting him off the ground as if he weighed nothing.

“Ack…!”

Reed makes an awful choking noise and claws at Victors hand in desperate reflex, struggling to find footing anywhere and squirming like a mouse in an owl’s fangs. Victor looks the bird of prey part alright.

“You know, Richards, it is actually quite the task to have you around. You test my patience and my resolve not to injure you seriously on a daily basis, and not many get to say they prove a challenge to the will of Doom.”

Victor’s tone is conversational, almost friendly, like talking about yesterday’s football game.

Reed coughs and kicks out at Victor, but his legs don’t even reach the other man. Victor pulls him closer, but still doesn’t let Reed reach the ground.

“But tell me…” Victor’s tone lowers.

“…should a man who clearly enjoys being hurt and belittled truly raise moral accusations?”

Victor steadily looks into Reed’s eyes, whose vision is starting to blur a little, as he says:

“Because you could have easily stretched out of my grip a minute ago. Clearly, you do not feel the urgent need to, do you?”

And with that, he drops Reed, who crumples on the floor, clutching at his throat and wheezing.

It hurts, but the silent confession that Victor is right hurts him more; because it’s completely true that Reed has to consciously or, in this case, unconsciously allow most injuries to even affect him. If he’d wanted to, he could have simply continued breathing as normal.

He hadn’t.

God fucking damn it.

Reed shakes his head and stands up on slightly unsteady feet. Victor is still standing there, looking at him with an expression that makes Reed want to punch him straight in his damn pretty face. He’s had it, he really has, and so he steps up to Victor and bunches a fist in his cloak, pulling him down the few centimeters to be at comfortable eye level with Reed.

Victor lets him, looking amused.

“Now listen up, Victor. You and I both know that I’m not the only one enjoying your sick little games, don’t we? For the sake of our mission and Earth’s safety, I’m willing to put up with your insufferable arrogance just a while longer. But the literal bloody second we get back from the Negative Zone…”

Reed tilts his head and pulls Victor a little closer, his words muffled by the expensive silk of Victor’s cloak.

“…I demand that you stop your incessant teasing and finally fuck me. Hard. Because let’s be honest, you want me, don’t you? You love it when I scream your name into the blankets, and I’m sure you didn’t leave me your laundry to wash it, am I right?”

Reed’s words bite, both with anger and anticipation, because this is an all-or-nothing gamble, and Reed knows it. But he can’t help it, not when Victor is acting this way, when he has the man he so desires right underneath his hands and only needs to strip him of his eternally unhelpful armor to have him.

He lets Victor go and steps back a little, carefully observing Victor’s face. Reed’s breath comes heavier than he would have liked, and he imagines Victor isn’t quite as calm as he acts, either, when he speaks.

“…I have to give you this, Richards, you certainly have gut.”

He gives a crooked grin, the amused, almost mischievous kind that makes Reed’s insides twist, and leans closer.

“But I do think this is a bargain I can live with. However…”

Victor tilts his head to speak in Reed’s ear now, his voice a husky whisper.

“…make sure you do not regret your words. I am not gentle.”

Reed shivers.

“I don’t want you to be.”

Victor straightens his posture and assesses Reed, his grin now laced with unmistakable slyness.

“Very well. I do hope Annihilus will not take too long, then.”

Reed blinks, and then blushes.

If there’s any stronger form of “oh, dear”, I’d love to know.

Chapter Text

“Now then…”

Victor grins a second longer, then he turns around and gestures toward the suit of armor, back to business in no time. Reed sort of envies him for his ability to immediately return to his regular regal demeanor after having just made some rather lewd announcements.

Reed swallows heavily, and does his best to do the same.

“This armor allows you to retain your stretching abilities to some extent, mainly in the limbs. It will hinder you in that respect, of course, but I daresay the tradeoff is worth it. It comes equipped with hand-mounted repulsors, like my own armor, and features a variety of energy fields designed to repel most projectiles. I am sure you will understand its functions rather quickly. The installed AI can be altered and reconfigured at your leisure. I chose a silent model, as you usually talk enough on your own.”

Reed ignores the quip.

“Okay, no need for the speech. I’m buying it. Do you watch Channel 24 at all?”

“Excuse me?”

Reed snickers.

“Never mind. You know, as far as you’re concerned, that’s actually kind of nice. Thanks, I guess.”

“Spare me. Like I said, it would not serve me to have to drag your corpse around.”

Reed raises an eyebrow at Victor, then turns to inspect the imposing set of armor. It’s silver with green highlights, and Reed realizes that the Doom emblem is printed on the suit’s chest. Very subtle.

Reed can’t help but feel excited at the prospect of actually wearing one of Victor’s armors, one that was designed for him specifically, no less. He imagines the nights Victor might have spent on this design, how he probably crafted most of the parts himself, and how all of this effort was ultimately to keep Reed safe from harm. It makes Reed’s stomach flutter, but not exactly with butterflies; more like moths. Attacus or Acherontia, maybe; romanticism had never really been one of Reed’s strong sides.

The armor came with a helmet, though unlike Victor’s, this one featured a broad visor. It also lacked a cape, which Reed was rather thankful for; he’d never been a big fan of capes. Johnny had initially insisted his uniform have one, but after Reed gave a passionate ten-minute speech about the danger of capes, especially to the general public when they were on fire, he’d shut up.

Reed steps closer and runs a hand over the armor’s chest plate. The metal is surprisingly warm to the touch.

Apparently catching Reed’s observation, Victor types something on the connected keyboard, and the armor’s blueprints, complete with a list of the used materials, pop up on the adjacent screen.

“The outer layer is made of a Vibranium alloy; the inner layers are titanium and carbon fiber, respectively. The helmet can be removed separately when not in battle,” Victor says, and Reed raises an eyebrow at him.

“Unlike yours, I presume? I mean, the option of removal is kind of built-in with most armor.”

Victor’s eyes narrow a fraction underneath said helmet, and Reed wonders again just why Victor even bothered with the damn thing in the first place. He knows what Victor hides underneath is, has known for quite some time; but even still, he didn’t understand what would drive a man who looked objectively perfect (okay, maybe not objectively, but still) to hide his face from the world because of one thin scar, just a tiny line on his right cheek, barely noticeable if you didn’t know about it in the first place.

Reed knew that most people assumed Victor’s face to be scarred beyond repair, and Victor certainly didn’t do much to invalidate these claims. But Reed had been there, in the hospital, right after the explosion had set Victor’s dorm room on fire and he’d been rushed to the ER for burn wounds.

Reed had felt sick that day. He still remembered how Ben burst into their room, slamming the door open and yelling at Reed, out of breath from having run all the way, that Victor had been injured in a lab accident. Reed’s stomach had turned, and he’d dropped his work where it lay to have Ben drive him to the hospital. He knew Ben didn’t like Victor one bit, but he did like Reed, and his sincere distress had convinced Ben to give him a ride in his beaten-down car with the leaking roof and the stuck door. They’d arrived a full twenty minutes after the ambulance, despite Reed’s constant urging, and he’d rushed to the registration desk to ask about one Victor von Doom, treated for burns of unknown severity. The secretary had looked at him disdainfully; clearly hating her job enough to frown at a student worried about his classmate, but then told him to which wing Victor had been taken, though to this day Reed was convinced she’d done it deliberately slowly.

Reed hadn’t even waited for Ben, turning on his heel and running up the three flights of stairs to the room number he’d been given. When he’d arrived, breathless and his lab coat drenched in sweat, the door had opened, and Victor had walked out. Reed had felt instantly relieved. He walked, on his own to legs, which were still attached to his body, and his head was still on his shoulders. The world would not end; Victor was okay. Then Reed had looked at his face: red, sore, with lighter scratches all over it, some of them smeared half-heartedly with salve, and one single, deeper gash across his left cheek that looked like it needed sutures.

Now a nurse followed Victor out of the room, saying something in a pleading voice about stitches and painkillers and please, Mister von Doom, I just need to check your—

“You will do no such thing, woman! Stay away from me!” Victor had yelled, terrible in his anger, even when the cut on his face was still seeping with blood.

“I refuse your pitiful treatment! You will not disfigure my face with your so-called medical procedures!”

He’d been so furious; Reed had been scared he’d hit the nurse any minute now. But the dominant emotion had been Victor is okay. Victor’s gaze had turned, then, and he’d spotted Reed, standing there like a thief caught in the act; even then, Reed had felt like he’d just seen something he shouldn’t have: Victor injured, human. Victor had looked incredulous for a just a single heartbeat, and then he’d directed his anger at Reed.

Richards, you insolent fool! I knew it! Here to savor the moment of my defeat, I take it? It was you who tampered with my calculations, it must have been! Oh, how I…”

Reed hadn’t really been listening. He’d just stood there, rooted to the spot, sweat stinging in his left eye, looking at Victor like the sun.

“…and when I get a hold of you, I will make sure you regret the day you were born!” Victor had been nearly screaming, eyes ablaze like the fire that had just scorched him, and Reed had known that this fire had touched them both; leaving a visible scar on Victor and an invisible one on Reed.

It had been the last time he’d seen Victor’s unmasked face in years. Victor had stalked off, still rambling and shouting at anyone who dared cross his path, and hadn’t turned up to class again after that, leaving everyone under the impression that he was incapacitated. There had been talk in the class after the accident, and numerous people had asked Reed about Victor; none of them had seemed overly concerned for Victor. They’d just wanted to be in on the news. Reed had said nothing. He’d been as close to heartbroken as he came, because he’d understood that Victor wasn’t coming back.

“Richards?”

Reed starts, and looks up, Victor’s voice breaking him out of his reverie.

“What?”

“I asked if you were alright. You were not responding.”

Reed shakes his head.

“Sorry, I was just…”

He trails off, leaving the sentence hanging in the air, and looks at Victor.

“I was just thinking about how you got your scar, you know. Do you remember that I was there, in the hospital?”

Reed fully expects Victor to flip the lid at any mention of his facial scarring; instead, he seems to shrink, his rigid posture unwinding the tiniest bit, just enough for Reed to notice.

“Of course I do.”

Victor’s voice is strangely quiet, and his brown eyes seem to become just a hint darker, like a shadow passing over water.

“I know what you look like, Victor.”

Reed says, and it feels odd; it’s voicing hard fact that they both know, but still, shaping the words feels almost like swearing in a church, a desecration of some sort that couldn’t be taken back.

Victor looks away, his gaze fixating on something perhaps only he can see.

“That was long ago.”

“The accident, yes. The one time where you tried to take over the world or something by switching bodies with me, not so much.”

Victor’s attention snaps back to Reed. The moment has passed, Reed thinks; the shadow has left.

“I took specific measures to make sure you didn’t tamper with my armor then,” Victor says, suspicion forming in his voice, and Reed realizes that Victor didn’t know.

“Come on, Victor. You switch bodies with me, and the expect me not to try everything in my power to pry your damned suit off?”

Victor looks rather not amused by this revelation.

“What did you do, Richards?” he asks, dangerously low.

“Well, I overrode your security measures and removed your mask. What did you expect me to do, play tic-tac-toe at this one goddamn opportunity I’d get to see your face again, even if just in the mirror?”

Victor takes a menacing step towards Reed, but Reed doesn’t draw back.  Victor is really not amused, he thinks, amazed that his rival apparently hadn’t spent so much as a single thought to what Reed would do if given the opportunity to take over Victor’s body for a time.

“With whom have you shared this knowledge? Is the entire world aware of my mangled looks now?”

Oh, Victor.

Reed looks in Victor’s narrowed eyes and breathes out a small sigh. When he speaks, his voice is laced with more melancholy than he would have liked.

“No one, Victor. No one but me. I’m not the type to share my favorite memories with everyone.”

Reed knows he’s being too sappy for anyone’s good, but he can’t help it.

“And you’re not mangled, Victor. You and I both know that.”

Reed raises a hand, almost instinctively, and runs his fingers down the curve of Victor’s mask; his fingertips tracing the metal cheekbones and lingering over Victor’s covered scar.

And then, seized by the moment’s madness, perhaps, he closes his eyes and presses a kiss to the cold, unyielding steel of the mask. He feels the slightest hint of body warmth through the mouth grilles, and his chest tightens in on itself like a vise; still, he lets his lips linger, too taken to care what Victor might do to him for this.

After what feels like an eternity, Reed draws back and looks away. He doesn’t quite have the strength to look into Victor’s eyes yet.

He sees Victor stir in his peripheral vision and turns to look, when Victor whispers something Reed doesn’t catch, and then Reed’s vision blacks out completely.

What the hell…?! He thinks, a distant feeling of panic coming rapidly closer, when he feels a cold gloved hand catch his face at the chin and turn his head upwards. Reed opens his mouth to protest, but his attention is taken when his ears pick up a soft clicking noise. Before he can ask what caused it, the answer becomes redundant as Victor presses his very soft, very warm, very mask-less lips to Reed’s.

“Mff…!”

Reed makes a muffled sound against Victor’s mouth; his unseeing eyes wide open in shock. Victor flicks his tongue against Reed’s bottom lip, and Reed softly groans, his eyes sliding closed, and he practically melts into the kiss. He puts his hands flat on Victor’s broad, armored chest, and Victor nips his lower lip at that, none too gently, prompting an involuntary gasp from Reed.

Victor doesn’t miss a beat and pushes his tongue between Reed’s parted lips; a quiet moan escapes Reed, and he’s lost. Victor tastes like metal and electricity and, well, Victor, and Reed absolutely loves every single bit of it. He sucks on Victor’s tongue, pliant and in no way willing to question Victor’s dominance as he licks his way into Reed’s mouth. Victor is kissing him, and Reed would lament that he can’t see the no doubt exquisite picture if he weren’t so busy with the sensation of their tongues clashing.

After some time (not enough, Reed thinks), they have to separate for air, and Reed’s breath comes too fast and shallow for his own liking. His lips are tingling, and he’s aching for more, the separation from the warmth of Victor’s skin almost physically painful.

But then Victor’s hand leaves his chin, and the same soft click tells Reed that he’s put his mask back in place. Just on cue, Reed’s vision returns, and he blinks heavily at the sudden flash of brightness and color.

When he can see comfortably again, he looks at Victor and lets his hands slide slowly down and off his chest. Victor’s breath comes a little quicker, as well, and his ebony eyes sparkle with a vigor Reed would kill to see again.

Reed gives a sly grin.

“Did you just blind me? Seriously? We have a long talk about how I know your pretty face, and then you go through the trouble of magically blindfolding me just for a kiss?”

Reed has no idea where he takes the resources for sass at this point, but he’s glad he seems to have a reserve somewhere.

Victor inclines his head and smiles.

“All in due time, Richards. But oh, how you test my will…I am sorely tempted to just let Annihilus have his way.”

“So am I. But you know how it goes…job comes first.”

Reed gives a theatrical sigh, and Victor huffs out something that might have been a laugh.

“Indeed. I suggest you try on your suit of armor now, to familiarize yourself with the controls. If all goes well, we can set off tonight.”

Reed nods, his mood more serious again. But he can’t help licking his lips to relish the last remains of Victor’s flavor on them.

His voice a low whisper, Reed says, more to himself than to Victor:

“You taste like a lightning strike.”

Victor leans a little closer.

“And you like a solenoid.”

Reed breathes out a laugh.

“Like oil to fire.”

“Perhaps.”

Victor’s expression is enigmatical. Reed wonders what to make of it.

Chapter Text

“Wheee!”

Ten feet below him, Victor groans.

Seriously, Richards? A little more sobriety, if you please!” he calls up.

Reed laughs.

“Come on, this is fun! I can see why Tony likes his suit so much, now!”

They’re outside, the early afternoon sun shining warmly on one of Castle Doom’s many courtyards. Reed is busy testing his new armor, and he’d been positively giggly when Victor had explained the repulsor flight system to him (as if he couldn’t have figured out himself…).

The armor was more comfortable to put on than Reed had feared, and while he couldn’t stretch to his full extent in it, it felt oddly reassuring to know a bullet would glance off of him, instead of uncomfortably distorting his body at its point of impact. Being shot at was among Reed’s least favorite pastimes.

Reed wavers a little in the air, trying to compensate for a sudden gust from the left, and hopes he doesn’t look too much like kid using stilts for the first time. That one…hadn’t gone too well, either. He decides to land voluntarily, rather than forcibly, and slowly descends back to the ground, his HUD telling him his exact altitude and speed at all times. It also showed some other variables that Reed was sure would come in handy at some point, like his own vital stats, the surrounding temperature, and for some reason, the current time. Reed wasn’t too sure what good that would do in the Negative Zone, but it sure was practical in most other planes of existence Reed was aware of.

Right now, the display shows 16:44:12 as Reed comes to a stop on the lawn next to Victor, the boot repulsor array of the armor leaving a singed spot on the grass. Victor gives a disapproving look at that, but Reed is just happy that he landed upright on his own two feet, instead of, say, in an enormous smoking crater.

Reed flips up his visor, and he can’t help feeling that for his standards, that probably looks pretty cool. He flashes a grin at Victor, who only raises an eyebrow in response.

“I take it you are finished with repulsor flight testing for now?” he says, and eyes the smoking spot on the lawn again. Reed rolls his eyes.

“Yes, Victor, and stop looking at me like I just burnt down your house. It’s just a singed spot of grass, I’m sure both you and your no doubt plentiful gardeners will survive just fine.”

Victor’s judgmental look grows a little more intense.

“Certainly, Richards. To be honest, I am almost surprised that you have indeed not reduced Castle Doom to its foundations so far. “

Reed opens his mouth for a witty remark at that, but completely out of nowhere, before he can speak, all the air is knocked out of his lungs with a heavy blow right to the center of his chest. It sends him flying backwards a few meters, and he ends up worsening the lawn’s condition as he skids through the soil, clumps of dirt flying up like sparks around him. Reed’s vision spins, and he hacks out a coughing sound as oxygen returns to his system. He leans on one elbow, and after a few seconds, he realizes it was Victor who struck him.

“Are you…ack!...are you out of your mind? What the fuck was that for?”

Reed spits out at Victor, who just now lowers his outstretched arm, palm repulsor glowing bright green from the attack. He straightens his posture and looks at Reed, not without a hint of smugness, no doubt pleased with himself at having caught Reed completely off guard for once.

“First, I thought it fit to test your armor’s resistance against close-range energy discharges. Second, I do believe you yourself told me to hit you, should you use my first name excessively often.”

Reed’s scowl takes a turn toward incredulousness as he stares at Victor.

“Are you serious? That’s not what I…I mean, that isn’t…”

Reed groans in exasperation and decides to leave the sentence hanging, rather than make the situation any worse, and drops back onto the grass in defeat.

Goddamn it, Victor.

Victor sports a sly grin now, and Reed hates how it’s so difficult to be really angry at him when he smirks like this; the hint of playful mischief that came with this type of grin sometimes, rare as it might be, always sufficed to make Reed’s insides twist in the simultaneously worst and best way possible. He loved seeing Victor smile like that.

Your misplaced romanticism will be the end of you, Reed, he thinks as he picks himself up and stands on surprisingly steady feet. He looks over at Victor, braces himself against the kickback, and fires a discharge from his own palm array, aiming straight for Victor’s head.

Victor doesn’t so much as flinch. He simply waves his hand in a broad, sweeping motion, faster than any human should have realistically been capable of, and the bolt glances right off of his hand, as if he was waving a fly away.

Reed is a little disappointed.

“Growing cocky, are we, Richards?” Victor says, and while he sounds amused, Reed definitely notices the sharpness lacing his voice. A small shiver runs down his spine, and he has to chase away the thought of how delicious that tone would sound with Reed tied up underneath Victor’s strong, lithe form, the razor edge of the words emphasized by his hands trailing down Reed’s chest…

This time, Reed sees the blow coming, and he instinctively crosses his raised arms in front of him, activating the armor’s high-energy projectile shield (as Reed has learned around ten minutes ago. Neat, he thinks).

The green bolt ricochets off the invisible shield with a high-pitched whine and hits the ground, leaving a small crater at its point of impact.

Well, there goes the lawn, Reed thinks, and readies another shot himself. He gets to test his armor stretching capabilities, as well, as he reforms his body fast as thought to dodge another bolt of energy, this time aimed at his midriff.

Victor cuts him no slack as he keeps firing away like Reed was moving target practice, and one of his shots painfully connects with Reed’s shoulder when Reed doesn’t deflect it in time.

“Ngh!” Reed grunts through gritted teeth, but he stays on his feet, growing accustomed to his suit’s attenuator systems. When he turns his attention back to Victor, though, the other man is simply gone. Reed looks around for a moment, assesses the situation, and just in time, literally by a hairbreadth, he spins around rapidly to catch Victor’s arm before he can land a blow on Reed’s back.

Reed’s breath comes heavy, and they both stay frozen just for a heartbeat. Then, Victor smirks.

“I must compliment you, Richards. There are few who can anticipate my attacks like this.”

“Probably because I know you like to play dirty.”

Victor inclines his head.

“I do not “play dirty”, as you put it. Just because you are no sorcerer, I do not have to refrain from using the dark arts to my advantage.”

Reed frowns, but says nothing.

“Oh, and also…” Victor leans closer, Reed still clinging onto his wrist.

“Do not think I did not catch your trail of thought just now. It is ever so endearing how you tend to view my words…out of context, one might say.”

Reed is really thankful for his helmet at this point, because he’s pretty sure he’s blushing underneath it. He swallows heavily before he speaks.

“I have no idea what you mean.”

Lying had never been one of Reed’s strong sides, either. Victor smile broadens a hint, and Reed is close enough to see his teeth flashing through the mask.

“I think you know perfectly well what I mean. I am sure you remember my ability to read lesser minds like an open book.”

Yes. Yes, I do. Damn. Note to self: no sex fantasies around Victor. Then again…

Now it’s Reed’s turn to grin as he continues his earlier thoughts as vividly as possible, imagining in abundant detail just what exactly he wants Victor to do with him, how he would arch his back and struggle against his bonds as Victor bites down on his neck, lets his nails scratch down Reed’s back, how he fucks Reed hard enough to make him forget his own name…

“The depths of your depravity surprise me every single time, Richards, I have to give you that.” Victor’s guttural chuckle breaks Reed out of his fantasies.

Reed’s grin widens.

“Don’t tell me you don’t like what you see, Victor. I can see your heart rate accelerating on my HUD, you know. “

“Ah, indeed. I guess I would be lying if I said I was overly averse to your plans.”

Reed laughs.

“You know, if we weren’t both fully armored, I think I’d kiss you now. As is, this is a pretty awkward situation, kind of. “

“You could start by letting go of my arm.”

“If I do, will you stab me in the back or something?” Reed eyes Victor suspiciously.

“No.”

“Okay. Make me let go, then.”

Victor cocks his head and gives Reed a funny look, a bit like a hawk who’s been challenged by a mouse. Then he tries simply withdrawing his arm, to which Reed responds by tightening his grip. Reed feels victorious for about three seconds, exactly until he feels an electric shock of considerable voltage travel up his arm.

Ow!” Reed yanks his hand back on instinct.

“Why do you always have to go overkill, Victor? You could have just, I don’t know, asked?”

“Did you really expect me to do that?”

“Well…no.” Reed has to admit as pins and needles shoot up his tingling arm.

“Besides, you are the one with the penchant for begging here.”

Reed furrows his brow in irritation.

“You never skip a beat, do you?

“Of course not. Now, if you are done here, I suggest we return to the laboratory to begin final preparations for our journey into the Negative Zone.”

Reed sighs in defeat and resists rolling his eyes.

This man is infuriating. Hasn’t changed a bit since college, I guess…

 ---

On the way back to the laboratory, following Victor through the broad medieval hallways of Castle Doom, Reed silently marvels at how quickly Victor could go from lifting Reed off the floor by his neck to almost-playful banter with him. Well, as playful as Victor ever got, Reed thinks as he rubs at his arm that’s still throbbing with a dull, electric pain.

What are you playing at, Victor?

Reed looks over at Victor and wishes he, too, could read minds at will. Sure, Victor had kissed him (oh god, Victor had actually kissed him, what the hell), but Reed still had a hard time believing there had been any actual sentiment involved, apart from, at the most, physical pleasure. So far, nearly every single interaction between them had been somewhere between neutral at best, and hostile at worst, and Reed had no specific reason to believe this was any different. The possibility remained, of course, but the most likely option seemed to be that Victor took some sort of benefit from all of this.

But why now? There has to be something I’m not getting here, Reed thinks, and it irks him that Victor seemed to be one step ahead of him, now as much as ever. Reed had played the different scenarios out in his mind countless times, but try as he might, he never came to a fully satisfying conclusion concerning Victor’s behavior. He wonders whether that’s an issue on his side or on Victor’s.

As they descend an imposing spiral flight of stairs back down into the basement, Reed considers the possibility of this whole Annihilus situation being an elaborate plot to trap him in the Negative Zone. It was unlikely, sure, but so was the entire rest of this bizarre set of circumstances. He hopes he’s wrong, because even if he isn’t, there was no way he could allow even the slightest possibility of an attack from the Negative Zone to remain. He’d have to trust Victor on this one.

When they reach a set of high-security steel doors, Victor stops. Reed nearly bumps into him, lost in thought as he is; he really hopes Victor didn’t see that.

“This is the armory. Naturally, I have created several models of my armor, each suited for a different set of circumstances. For this mission, I will change into a version more suitable for combat and hostile environments. It will not take overly long. I suggest you wait here.”

Victor steps forward and lets the security system check his iris. Reed folds his arms across his chest and raises an eyebrow, the expression obscured by his helmet.

“Are you serious? You’re just gonna park me here? I can turn around while you’re changing, if it makes you feel any better.”

Victor gives him a very unimpressed side-eye.

“Hilarious, Richards. Your humor is most entertaining. I was more concerned about you nosing around in my plans.”

Reed rolls his eyes.

“Sure, because I’ve always wanted to be your look-alike. Do you really think I’d need to steal your plans if I wanted to build my own set of armor? I’m wearing one of yours, as a matter of fact. And I know what you’re thinking, no, I do not plan to look for structural weaknesses in your armor to exploit so I can backstab you when you’re not looking or something. Again, nothing I’d need your plans for.”

Victor looks almost taken aback. He seems to consider for a moment, then he tilts his head in a curt nod.

“Fine, I suppose you have a point.” As the doors slide open, he adds:

Do not touch anything.”

Reed raises his hands in theatrical innocence and follows Victor inside.

The interior of the large, windowless room looks more like a museum than an armory to Reed. The walls are lined with transparent display cases, all the way to the ceiling, each containing a different set of armor; one column of cases houses weapons, some of them completely foreign even to Reed.

Reed carefully removes his helmet and tucks it under his arm, marveling at the impressive collection. Victor gives him an amused look, and Reed realizes he must look like a child on Christmas. He turns his head away self-consciously, but he can’t help the sparkle in his eyes at this amazing display of Victor’s technological achievements.

“You know, you really need to give me a proper tour of this place at some point…” Reed says, stepping closer to a case that contains a particularly ornate suit of armor, more closely resembling a medieval knight than a piece of high-tech equipment.

“I rarely have people asking for tours of my wardrobe.” Victor deadpans.

“Right. So, do you wear all of these? What’s this one for?” Reed asks, ignoring Victor’s quip. He can practically hear Victor internally rolling his eyes at that.

“Yes, Richards, I wear most of the suits displayed here. The one you are referring to is a mainly decorative model designed for official Royal occasions. The corresponding cloak is made of silk velvet, trimmed with bear pelt and embroidered with gold thread. It is an heirloom of the Latverian Royal family.”

Victor sounds thoroughly bored as he speaks, drawling like a museum guide. He steps closer to Reed and points over his shoulder.

“All of this can be read on the accompanying plaque on each display case, if you had bothered looking.”

Reed turns over to Victor with an incredulous look.

“You have little signs on your armor? What for? It’s not like anyone ever gets to read them, do they? I mean, apart from me right now.”

Victor makes a dismissive gesture.

“Ah, indeed. Call it a fancy of mine, if you will. Now, if you will excuse me, I will change into more appropriate armor. I am sure you are well occupied.”

Victor’s irony is biting as always, but Reed is already busy reading a different sign and chooses to save his witty remarks for later (not that he had one in particular).

Victor stalks off through a door at the back of the room, and Reed is distinctly disappointed that he doesn’t get to see Victor suit up. Not yet, anyways. The door slides closed behind Victor, and the distant sound of whirring machinery reaches Reed’s ears, presumably helping Victor remove his second skin. Reed is certain that Victor’s armor is far more difficult to get into and out of than, say, Iron Man’s diverse suits, the different parts interlocking much more intricately and seamlessly.

Reed turns his attention back to the collection of armor before him, walking along the rows of displays in awe. He recognizes some of the suits, having seen them in action at some point, and he’s impressed how far Victor could alter the base design of his suit and still be recognizable as, well, Victor.

Or Doctor Doom, as he preferred to be called, Reed reminds himself. He’d always found the title both strange and, in some ways, very fitting at the same time; he couldn’t have imagined Victor taking up an alias that didn’t immediately connect to his person in some way. The name was striking in its simplicity, and Reed had overheard people wonder if “Doom” was really Victor’s name once or twice. Granted, von Doom was an odd surname, but still, he’d felt almost personally offended that people would accuse Victor of making up some impressive-sounding super-villain name like a common criminal.

Or a common hero, Reed thinks, aware that his own moniker “Mister Fantastic” had probably not been one of his most creative ideas.

Reed is busy examining a suit designed for prolonged exposure to outer space when Victor steps back into the room. Reed has no idea how much time passed, but a glance to his HUD clock tells him it can’t have been more than twenty minutes.

Victor is indeed wearing a new set of armor, though the visual differences are subtle. The model seems a bit bulkier than the one he was wearing previously, and he’s traded the silk cloak for an armor fabric one.

Reed straightens his posture and looks Victor over; then he nods.

“Looking fine as always. Are we good to go, then?”

Victor chooses to ignore Reed’s comment.

“Yes. Follow me to the laboratory. We can go over some final details on the way.”

 

“So, let me get this straight: We’re going to enter Annihilus’s lair…palace…thing, whatever, hope that he isn’t home, snatch the Stone and be off again?”

Reed is most skeptical.

“If you wish to put it that bluntly, then yes, that is our plan.”

“That seems like a really, really bad plan, actually.”

They’re standing in front of the completed transporter device, both fully armored now, with Victor typing coordinates into the machine, which he claimed to have tested as thoroughly as possible without attracting too much attention in the Negative Zone. Reed genuinely hopes that’s true; he’d rather not end up a jumbled mess of tissue when he arrives. Still, he trusts Victor, even though he probably shouldn’t.

“What do you propose, then?”

Victor looks up from the keyboard with an expectant look. Reed opens his mouth to say something, then he reconsiders and closes it again. After an awkward moment, he says:

“Err…I don’t really know? I just thought you’d have a really smart, foolproof plan or something.”

“I do not have the necessary information to formulate a more precise plan. As it stands, the best possible scenario is as you describe it: take the Infinity Gem and leave. Any resistance we encounter along the way, including Annihilus himself, must be dealt with as swiftly and silently as possible, so as not to attract undue attention. For all we know, Annihilus may have destroyed himself with the Power Gem already. I doubt he can handle it very well.”

Reed inclines his head and hums.

“Hm. I guess you’re right. So, any emergency protocols I should know about? “Ditch Reed in the middle of nowhere” or something?”

“What advantage would I have from abandoning you to your fate in the Negative Zone? I could have spared myself the trouble of bringing you here and simply teleported you into the middle of the Sahara desert, had I wanted to get rid of you in an effective way.”

Victor sounds completely unbothered by that idea, Reed thinks. Still, Reed finds some reassurance in the statement. It really wouldn’t have made a lot of sense for Victor to try and leave him in the Negative Zone. Reed strikes the option out on his mental list of “why the hell is Victor doing any of this”.

“Okay then? Thanks, I guess.”

Victor ignores him.

“I have programmed the device to automatically return us to our dimension within 12 hours. However, I strongly advise we return on our own before that time runs out, as the transporter will have to track our position for an emergency teleport, thwarting all hope for a covert operation. Should we fail, that will not matter anymore, for being able to trace our dimensional signature back will be the least of our problems then. Still, a safe return to the Positive realm is assured even then, so that we might at least warn Earth of the coming invasion. Let us hope we do not have to put that plan into action.”

Reed swallows.

Lovely prospect.

“We can return on our own volition at any point in time before that, provided we make it back to the teleport coordinates.”

Reed nods.

“Right. I know the drill.”

“Good. Now then…”

Victor steps onto the teleporter platform.

“Are you ready?”

Reed takes a deep breath, checks the fit of his helmet one last time, and gets onto the platform. Victor inputs the final commands, and the machine begins to emit a high-pitched whine that soon passes the range of audible sound.

Well, here goes nothing…

 

Chapter Text

Back in New York, in one of Reed’s labs, a red light flashes and a sensor starts quietly beeping. Naturally, Reed’s own equipment would instantly register if someone entered the Negative Zone; he’s sure enough, though, that everyone else’s wouldn’t.

Not that it particularly matters right now; the beeping goes unnoticed as the other tenants of the Baxter Building go about their daily grind.

Well, more or less.

“This is not a realistic representation of Atlantean culture! Who made this mockery of a movie? I can’t believe it even got past the writing phase.”

Susan rolls her eyes. This has been going for the last hour or so.

“Namor, I swear to God, I am never going to watch another Aquaman movie with you. You’re insufferable. It’s just a movie. Calm down.”

“But what if some uninformed outsider sees this as fact, rather than fiction? I really can’t believe…”

Sue tunes Namor’s incessant bitching out for a moment and shoves a handful of popcorn in her mouth. Chewing, she makes a mental note about telling Johnny that no, it was not a fun idea to invite Namor over for a movie night, and double no, he doesn’t like Aquaman. Who’d have guessed.

From the corner of her eye, she sees Namor scowl disapprovingly. She chooses to pretend not to have seen him as he turns around to nag Tony instead, who’s sitting on the other couch next to Johnny, churning through their nacho supply.

“Stark, don’t you think that – ow!”

“Sheeesh, can you shut it for a moment? I’m tryna listen here.”

Ben had flicked a nacho at the back of Namor’s head.

“Ben, what did you do?”

Oh. Right. Alicia’s here, too. Sue tended to forget she was around, with how quiet she always was. But even so, having a movie night with six people, four of which had super powers, one was a genius, and one was…well, blind, could have turned out much worse than nacho-flicking and bickering. Like, burning-down-the-house-kind of worse.

Still qualifies as the maybe the weirdest couple night ever, Sue thinks as Namor flops back on the couch next to her with an offended, but admittedly kind of cute pout.

 ---

Turns out, it was not the weirdest couple night ever, because at that moment, Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards and Victor “Doctor” von Doom, on a mission to save planet Earth and hopefully figure out their weird relationship thing on the way, are spat out into the Negative Zone with a loud whoosh.

Agh.”

Reed feels horribly dizzy and fights the urge to gag as he tries to figure out where up and down and everything in between are. Traveling to other dimensions, specifically the Negative Zone, always made him nauseous. Switching your entire body tissue to antimatter tended to do that to you.

He leans over on his knees and waits for his vision to stop spinning.

“Having fun, Richards?”

Reed musters the energy to shoot Victor a look that could kill. In his still shaky field of vision, he sees Victor’s tall, armored form walk up next to him, apparently completely unfazed by the transition. His cloak billows behind him in a gust of wind, and even though Red is busy trying not to throw up in his helmet, he can’t help but notice how commanding and regal Victor looks.

I’m hopeless, he thinks, and with a resigning little laugh, he straightens up again to take in their surroundings.

The Negative Zone hasn’t changed much, he thinks; still a dreary, inhospitable place, with cinnabar sand dunes dominating the landscape, stretching as far as the eye could see, only occasionally broken up by small gatherings of trees. Their naked branches stretch upwards like bony hands. In the distance on the horizon, a mountain range reaches for the grey sky.

Reed huffs.

“Lovely.”

Victor nods.

“Truth be told, I, too, can think of better places to spend my time.”

Victor looks off into the distance, to the mountains; then his eyes narrow.

“That was not there the last time I visited this place.”

Confused, Reed follows his line of sight, but sees nothing. Then he realizes Victor must be zooming in on the mountains, and quickly does the same with his visor.

There, atop a particularly high ridge, sits a massive building, monolithic and imposing, breaking the jagged lines of stone with sharp angles. Reed adjusts his HUD and frowns.

“Is that what I think it is?”

“If you were thinking that it is a castle built by Annihilus, then yes, it probably is.”

Victor sounds impassive, but Reed can tell that he’s a least a little worried, which is not a good sign.

“Oh dear.”

“I am inclined to agree with you, Richards. This is an unfortunate development.”

“One could also say “shit”, but of course you wouldn’t. “ Reed quips. Victor shoots him a look.

“We might not have to infiltrate it, though. Maybe he’s keeping the Infinity Stone somewhere entirely different.”

“My scans indicate otherwise. There is a large spike in the radiation readings around the castle, though it seems distorted. My assumption is that Annihilus utilizes some form of containment for the Power Gem, but clearly, he has not done a very good job at concealing it.”

Reed folds his arms across his chest and zooms back out to look at Victor.

“So. What now?”

Victor doesn’t turn toward him when he speaks, probably running more scans on the distant castle.

“I am loath to say it, but my guess is as good as yours here, Richards. I did bring you along for constructive input, after all. What do you suggest?”

Reed is a little taken aback by that; he hadn’t expected Victor to give up his leading role even in the slightest. Reed hums thoughtfully.

“Hm. I guess that first, we should get closer to the actual building and check the security measures. When we’ve got a better idea of what we’re dealing with, we should try and stealthily infiltrate the castle, snag the Gem, and then use it to make our escape – or better, coordinated retreat.”

Victor nods.

“For once, I agree with you. That does sound sensible. However, do not forget that Annihilus has his hordes gathered already. The last time I was here, they were camped near where the castle now stands. He must have built it in record time, no doubt with the aid of the Power Gem.”

“What exactly does that thing do, anyways? I can’t remember ever having seen it being used on its own.”

“Neither do I. As such, we are facing a threat of unknown severity, and that worries me. Be on your guard, Richards, something strange is afoot.”

Reed raises an eyebrow.

“You know, it’s kind of off-putting when you’re trying to not get me killed. I’m not used to that.”

To Reed’s surprise, Victor actually chuckles a little.

“It is a little odd, indeed. Try not to make me rethink my decision.”

Reed laughs, too.

“You’re such a romantic, Victor, really. It’s impressive.”

Victor gives him the side-eye; Reed returns it.

“Anyways. I guess we’d better get going. So, how are we going to get over there? That’s at least…”

Reed checks his HUD.

“…4,2 kilometers, according to the armor. Do we fly?”

“Too obvious. They would spot us.”

“Hm. True. Can we teleport over? I mean, can you teleport us over. You can do stuff like that, right?”

Victor tilts his head.

“Yes, I can. In this case, it might actually be a good option. Before we go, I suggest we switch to our inbuilt helmet communication.”

Reed nods, and hopes he’s pressed the right button for intercom. It really wouldn’t do to have to ask Victor to help him out.

“Can you hear me?” Reed tentatively says.

“Loud and clear, Richards. Good. Now, hold onto my arm.”

Reed does as he’s told, and even through their respective armors, it’s distracting to be so close to Victor. He watches in awe how Victor draws complex shapes with his free hand, leaving glowing green circles hovering in midair, and suddenly, Reed’s vision blinks out.

A split second later, he can see again, and with his sight comes a new rush of nausea. He stumbles a little, and really hopes that Victor didn’t notice how Reed was clutching to his arm just now.

“You know, retrospectively, maybe teleporting wasn’t such a good idea…”

Victor scowls.

“Are you actually nauseous again, Richards? It is a miracle you have even survived up to this point. It escapes me how you manage daily life.”

Reed makes an indistinct sound of agreement.

“I don’t,” he says, and lets go of Victor’s arm.

Victor doesn’t react to that, so Reed turns to look around.

They’re near a small gathering of the depressingly leafless trees that litter the landscape. To the north, far closer now, lie the outskirts of the mountain range that houses Annihilus’s stronghold, the stone mass even more daunting up close.

A rustle behind one of the bushes makes Reed spin around on his heels rapidly, aiming his and repulsors at the sound, his heartbeat accelerating.

For a beat or two, nothing happens, and then a little rat-like creature sticks its hairless, deformed head out from the lower branches. It makes a squeaking sound, apparently as surprised by Reed as Reed by it, and runs for it, disappearing in its den.

Reed huffs out the breath he was holding and lowers his arm.

“Sheesh. I thought we’d been spotted already. I wonder what that even was,” he adds, more to himself than to Victor.

Victor, who had already moved closer to the mountains, turns halfway.

“Yes, the inhabitants of the Negative Zone are most fascinating and deserve further study, I agree on that. I do suggest you do not blast them to high heavens, however. I daresay that might give us away.”

Reed grimaces in Victor’s direction and wonders how much of it he even saw through Reed’s visor. Reed catches up with him.

“So. Now what? Do we climb?”

Reed looks up at the steep cliff wall ahead of them and makes a rough guess at the distance. It doesn’t look very promising, and the prospect of hanging on the cliff face, out in the open like bugs on a wall, was daunting to say in the least.

“No. I have run several thermal scans; the coast upwards seems to be clear. According to my map, there is a courtyard right above us, a little to the west. I should be able to quietly teleport us to its outermost edge,” Victor says, and with a look at Reed, he adds, “do try not to throw up, will you?”

Reed gruffs, but doesn’t say anything, instead opting for holding onto Victor’s arm again. Victor looks like he’s about to say something at that, but seems to decide differently and starts reciting his arcane spells.

Again, Reed’s vision briefly blacks out, and he finds himself in unfamiliar surroundings, but with an all-too-familiar wave of sickness hitting him. It does seem to get better with each time he does this, though, so he shakes his head and swallows the taste of bilge in throat.

They’re in some sort of courtyard, like Victor had said; a large, open plaza surrounded by what might barely qualify as something like flowerbeds, arranged in a rectangular pattern with large blocks of concrete displaying reliefs of various scenes. Towering in the center is a massive statue, depicting Annihilus with the Infinity Gauntlet, holding some unknown enemy’s severed head up triumphantly.

Reed scoffs.

“Subtle.”

Victor raises an eyebrow.

“Indeed…”

Suddenly, Victor sharply turns his head, and before Reed can protest, he pulls him behind one of the relief blocks, motioning him to be still.

“What is it?” Reed whispers, voice low despite only being audible to Victor, anyway.

“A guard patrol. Do not move, they might have motion scanners”, Victor replies curtly, voice just as low.

Reed complies, and after what seems like an eternity, Victor relaxes again.

“They are gone. They looked like they walking a set route, so they might return at some point. This might be a good time to activate our armors’ stealth modes…”

“We have those?”

“No, I was joking,” Victor says, voice dripping with sarcasm, “of course we do. Simply say ‘activate stealth mode’, or select the option in your HUD menu. I trust you can do that.”

“Very funny. Sure. Activate stealth mode,” Reed says, feeling a little silly, but lo and behold, a note pops up on his HUD, saying “Stealth Mode Activated”. Looking down at himself, Reed finds himself almost invisible, the surface of his body marked only by a faintly glowing vector grid.

“I guess only our suits show this grid? Sure, would be kind of a worthless stealth mode otherwise…neat! Reminds me of Tron.”

“Reminds you of what now?”

“Never mind…” Reed says, and looks over to Victor, who is now being displayed as a green, see-through checker grid, his heat signature just as invisible as his physical body.

“That is a little weird, though. Can I turn that off?”

Reed imagines Victor rolls his eyes at that.

“Certainly, Richards. Just check your menu.

Reed does, and a few clicks in sub-menus later, Victor’s form phases back to normal on his display.

Really neat. Okay. So we’re prepared now. Are we protected against motion sensors, though?”

“That depends on the model. I am not keen on finding out, however. Let us keep a low profile.”

Reed nods.

“Right. So, do your area scans show anything like a map of this place? We can’t very well just wander in and walk into the general direction of the Gem, right?”

“Alas, it seems that this will have to be our strategy for the time being. A strong energy field of a nature unknown even to me distorted all scans I have attempted so far beyond usefulness. As is, we will have to infiltrate this palace the…old-fashioned way, one might say.”

Reed feels his spirits sink a little.

“That’s the least encouraging thing I’ve heard in a while. Okay then…”

Reed looks around him. The large concrete blocks towering above him were both a tactical advantage and a liability; Victor and he might be able to hide here, certainly, but so would anyone else.

“I say we get out of here first. Make our way over to the entrance, hugging the wall, and then seeing which hallway goes in the general direction the Gem might be in? I mean, like you said, it’s not like we have a better plan. We can’t very well stay out here in the open like this for much longer.”

Victor’s silhouette on Reed’s HUD nods curtly, the sight a little disconcerting, like some sort of digital specter.

“Alright then. Off we go...” Reed says, and with that, they both set out for the nearest gate leading inside the palace. The doors are massive, at least twenty feet tall, and wide open, which makes Reed wonder why they’re even there in the first place.

They hurry across the courtyard, sidling along the walls, Reed’s back bumping against a raised ornament on one of the reliefs. Reed has the front 180 degrees, Victor the back, which is a first. Reed assumes Victor wants to make sure Reed doesn’t get himself lost or killed. It’s odd, having to trust Victor to have his back instead of stabbing it, but Reed knows that Victor is a man of his word; when he says he won’t dump Reed off somewhere, then he won’t.

They reach the corner of the gate, and Reed takes cover on the wall, stretching his neck to look out for guards behind the corners. The armor feels a little tight around his neck, like a stiff turtleneck, but other than that, it doesn’t hinder him.

Reed hisses and instinctively shrinks his head back when he spots two Chitauri standing guard on either side of the doors from the inside; it takes him a long moment to realize that he’s most likely invisible to them. He turns to Victor, jabbing his thumb out at the guards.

“They’re Chitauri!”

“Yes, Richards, I noticed.”

Reed gives him an exasperated look, not caring that Victor probably can’t even see it through the cover of Stealth Mode; for all Reed knows, he didn’t deactivate it.

“You knew we were dealing with Chitauri, and you didn’t tell me?! Why?”

“I did not think it would make a difference just who we were sneaking past,” Victor responds, sounding both irritated and actually surprised.

“No, sure, of course not,” Reed says, heavy on the sarcasm, “don’t you realize what this means? Either Annihilus has formed some sort of treaty with the Chitauri, or he’s holding one of their Queens hostage or something in order to make them obey him. Both are really, really bad news right now, and—“

Reed abruptly stops midsentence, realization hitting him like a freight train. He turns to Victor, genuine, if invisible, concern in his eyes.

“Of course. That’s what he’s doing. Oh dear…”

Victor’s eyes widen in question, but a split second later, they narrow, his lightning-fast intellect catching on as fast as Reed’s.

“He is using the Power Gem to control a Chitauri Queen…of course. That way, he has a nearly infinite, completely loyal army at his disposal…”

Victor trails off, his gaze going distant while Reed can practically hear the quantum computer of his mind whirring.

“Very well. I daresay this calls for a slight change in our plans. We will have to make sure that once the Chitauri queen is freed from the Power Gem’s influence, she and her brood do not run amok through the Positive Universe. Otherwise, we may unleash a catastrophe of apocalyptic scale on the unsuspecting inhabitants of all the Mulitverses connected to the Negative Zone.”

Reed furrows his brow.

Well. This day just keeps on getting worse…

Chapter Text

Fuck!

Reed jerks his arm back in shock, the swear escaping him involuntarily.

“Richards. Language, please,” Victor comments drily over their armor intercom.

Reed whips around and glares at him.

“Are you serious?! That’s your issue right now?”

Victor doesn’t answer, so Reed keeps his glare up as long as he dares, then turns his head back to the cause of his concern. He’d apparently come too close to some kind of sensor, because a metal sliding door Reed and Victor were intending to sneak past had suddenly opened next to Reed when he’d touched it.

Thankfully, there hadn’t been any guards (or worse) behind it, just another empty hallway, but Reed was still wary; he was sure the movement had been picked up by surveillance somewhere, and the thought made him uneasy. Sure, they most likely wouldn’t be visible on camera, but a ghost door was bound to raise suspicion at some point.

So far, their journey had been surprisingly smooth sailing. The interior of the palace, or whatever this building’s original purpose may have been, was surprisingly nondescript. Reed had expected more grandeur, but if Victor’s estimation on the build time was correct, there probably hadn’t been much thought spared for interior decorating. Annihilus didn’t seem like the creative type, anyway.

The castle was large and spacious, with blood red and gold carpeting, and banners of the same palette adorning the otherwise bleak and windowless concrete walls.

The entire thing seemed to be made of hallways, hallway intersections, and doors leading to hallways, all of it arranged in a pattern that Reed was pretty sure was a maze; he’d have to check the map scans later on. Smart thinking, but not smart enough, especially not for the two arguably most intelligent people on Earth (possibly in this multiverse).

Other than the occasional guard patrol, the building was completely devoid of inhabitants. It gave off an uncomfortable atmosphere, oppressive and empty at the same time, and Reed was slowly starting to think this whole affair was rather more serious than he’d first thought.

In fact, Reed was getting more and more suspicious of their entire situation. What if this has been some incredibly elaborate trap to ensnare the both of them, laid out by some evil mastermind even more dangerous and vicious than Annihilus? It may be highly unlikely, but not completely impossible.

The thought settles like a stone in Reed’s gut as he keeps moving, Victor ever at his back, checking the rear like Reed’s bodyguard. Odd at first, Reed finds himself becoming more and more comfortable relying on Victor’s protection – alarmingly quickly, too. As he rounds the next corner, Reed just hopes his credulity won’t be the cause of his untimely demise.

As is, it seems more likely that cause will be insectoid and angry, as another guard patrol passes before them, Reed instinctually raising an arm to stop Victor.

“Annihilus isn’t taking any chances here, is he,” Reed says without turning, watching the patrol pass by.

“Would you, had you acquired an Infinity Stone?”

Reed inclines his head.

“Probably not…”

Reed switches his gaze to his HUD to check the readings the power scanner is steadily supplying. They were getting more and more garbled the closer they seemed to move to their source, and at this point they were basically useless, nothing but a jumble of glitchy graphics. Reed’s pretty sure a pointer app would have been more effective, but since these are Victor’s scanners, after all, he keeps his mouth shut.

“Left on the next turn, I guess. We must be getting closer now, right? I mean, you’re seeing those readings, too.”

They pass into the next corridor, and Reed stops short, Victor following suit.

“That looks important.”

“Why, you think the giant ostentatious doorway at an obvious focal point in the building’s architecture holds any significance? Brilliant observation, Richards,” Victor deadpans.

Reed is too busy to reply, already running multiple scans on the massive set of ornate doors in front of them. This was indeed the first doorway of this kind they’d encountered since the entrance, furthering Reed’s theory that the entire palace was constructed as a maze to deter intruders rather than an actual used building.

Multiple bleeps light up his HUD, and Reed furrows his brow.

“From what I can gather, they don’t seem to be locked. There’s not even guards stationed here, even though the entire place is full of them! This is strange, Victor. I don’t trust any of this. We can realistically assume the Power Stone is somewhere past these doors, why would they be unlocked and unguarded?”

Victor doesn’t answer for a moment, eyes fixed on the ominous portal.

“I do not know, Richards. It worries me as well, but for the moment, I see no other solution than stepping inside and finding out.”

Awesome.

“If we do this, our cover will be blown immediately. You realize that, right? We’ve got one shot at this. There’s no way no one’s gonna notice of we open these.”

Victor nods curtly.

“Yes.”

Reed lingers for a moment longer, concern churning in the pit of his stomach. This whole thing is wrong, and he has the distinctly sinking feeling something terrible is going to happen if he continues.

Still, there’s no helping it, so he swallows, steeling himself, and gives the left door wing an experimental push.

It opens immediately and with virtually no resistance, almost like an automatic door, and both wings soundlessly swing wide open.

Reed shoots Victor a look, and walks past.

-

Reed steps forward into the large circular antechamber awaiting them. Victor follows him, and just as he clears the doors, they slam back shut with a loud bang that echoes ominously in the empty room.

Reed flinches at the very loud and very un-stealthy sound that mercilessly reverberates again and again, until it finally fades off into the distance. Victor seems unperturbed, but Reed can tell from the way his posture straightens that he’s on high alert, as well.

Before them, the comparatively small round room opens into a gigantic hall, the already high ceiling rising far up and out of sight. Dead center of the hangar size hall, sitting on a plain pedestal, is –

“The Power Gem,” Reed says, unnecessarily; from the corner of his eye, he can see that Victor has spotted the prize as well.

“Indeed,” Victor says, but makes no move to get any closer. Neither does Reed.

“So,” Reed says, “now what? This is obviously a trap. I mean, there’s no way this is it.”

Victor makes an affirmative noise as he shifts his weight, obviously considering their options.

Reed dares to move a few steps closer and takes another look at their surroundings. The far end of the hall is different, he realizes. The wall isn’t the usual featureless grey; rather, it looks asymmetrical, almost organic, a strange, unhealthy green hue, shining like oil-slick metal.

As Reed wonders whether he should risk getting even closer to investigate, the wall starts to move.

It takes a moment, then another, and then Reed is hit by a pure, undiluted wave of terror as he realizes just what that means:

“Victor! The wall—“

Victor quickly moves to a battle stance right at Reed’s side, clearly having caught on the same moment Reed did.

“—isn’t a wall at all, Richards, I know!”

Reed is actually terrified as the “wall” keeps shifting, more rapidly now, limbs and other things moving on a massive scale.

“That’s a Chitauri Queen, isn’t it?”

Yes, Richard, I’m afraid it is.”

Fuck,” Reed says, and this time, Victor doesn’t reprimand him for his language.

The wall – no, the Queen – is still uncurling before them, the shape of her body now barely discernible, a massive centipede-like thing with too many legs, segmented and metallic like the feared Chitauri warships. Crunching and cracking noises fill the room, chitin and metal grinding in on itself, legs stretching, claws tapping, the sound bouncing off the walls and rising to a deafening roar around them.

Reed resist the illogical urge to cover his ears, and Victor has conjured up what looks like the beginnings of attack and defense spells around his hands as the Queen’s body keeps unfolding, seemingly never-ending.

After long, long moments, the writhing mass of legs seems to organize, settle down in place, and in the middle of the room, right above the pedestal, the Chitauri Queen finally rears her gigantic head.

Sixteen yellow eyes, arranged in two rows of four on either side of her head, focus in on Reed and Victor’ position, despite their camouflage, and her two pairs of mandibles click loudly. The Queen is enormous, her head alone the size of a large truck, made bigger still by the ornate crest sitting on her forehead like a crown.

Reed is stunned, both by the threat the Queen poses and by her strange, alien elegance; he relaxes his posture slightly, not too keen on sending the wrong signals too soon. He turns to whisper to Victor, keeping his voice low in case the Queen can hear through their helmets.

“She must be ancient to have reached this size,” he says, despite himself. ‘Curiosity killed the cat’ had always been his unofficial life motto; he wasn’t about to abandon it now, it would seem.

“Ever the scientist, aren’t you, Richards…?” Victor answers, and Reed thinks he hears a hint of fondness underneath the stress and exasperation, but he might be imagining that.

The Queen’s enormous head sways from side to side, seemingly sensing an intrusion but not entirely able to locate it, her mandibles moving rapidly in what might be fury. Reed unconsciously moves a step closer to Victor.

“Do you think she can see us? I barely know anything about Chitauri, let alone their Queens. It looks like she’s searching for us right now, doesn’t it?”

Victor barely inclines his head to Reed when he speaks, not taking his eyes off the Queen, who is still moving, legs writhing in seemingly every direction, growing increasingly agitated by the looks of it.

“I think not, at least not completely. I assume she hears and sees some of us, but we might be blurry or uncomfortable to look at, depending on her visual spectrum. As much as I appreciate a good exobiology conversation, however, I think we need to cut this short here…!”

The Queen seems actually furious now, loudly clicking and hissing and throwing her head from side to side. Apparently deciding staying put won’t get her anywhere, she lowers her head again, much like a snake would, and her hundreds of legs begin to move in unison instead of blindly flailing. Her shining body starts loosely coiling around the pedestal, once, then twice, as she scans the room for the source of the disturbance.

Said source is still standing in the doorway, a little lost for a good plan of action – at least, Reed is. He’s not sure if Victor has planned for giant hostile alien Queens, but so far, he’s not done very much either.

“I thought they could speak?” Reed asks, gesturing towards the Queen, trying to hold onto the faint hope diplomacy might offer.

Victor’s eyes narrow, and he doesn’t let up his defensive stance even a little.

“I thought that, too, actually. I was under the impression they were inherently peaceful,” he says, and he actually sounds worried; Reed knows that if Victor von Doom is sounding worried, matters must be grave indeed.

“I theorize she is indeed under the influence of the Power Gem, as you suspected. Look at her erratic movements, or the way she seems to guard the Stone unconsciously. She is behaving more like an animal than anything. I am afraid diplomacy is a lost cause here.”

As Victor speaks, the Queen moves ever closer to them, and by the time his sentence is through they need to start dodging metal legs, retreating closer to the wall. Her legs are as huge as the rest of her, with nasty-looking claws on every foot, much like a scolopender gone very wrong; still, the Queen can’t seem to spot them as long as they don’t move too much.

Reed furrows his brow and steels himself.

“Okay, Victor, listen. Standing here won’t do us any good, and the longer we wait, the more likely it is someone is going to find us, and I don’t want to deal with her kids, as well. The mom really is enough here, and even if we took her down, we’d have thousands of furious Chitauri trying to rip us apart for attacking their Queen! I say one of us distracts her, the other snags the Stone, and once he has it, teleports us away with it – that works, right?”

 “That is a – ach! “

A massive leg swoops between them, and Reed just narrowly avoids the sharp claw.

“ - a severely lacking plan, Richards!” Victor says, interrupted by the leg as well.

Reed groans.

“Okay, if teleporting doesn’t work, we can at least free the Queen from Annihilus’s, or the Stone’s, or whatever – the influence she’s under, right? Do you have a better idea right now?”

The legs start moving too close for comfort, and somewhere past them, equally too close, Reed can see the Queen’s head closing in on them. Victor seems to think hard for a moment longer, his eyes darting between the Queen and Reed, then he makes an angry noise and concedes:

Fine, Richards! We do it your way, then!”

Reed breathes an internal sigh of relief, and doesn’t wait for Victor to decide who does what.

“Okay! I distract her, you go for the Stone! Now!”

And before Victor can protest, Reed runs forward, into the open space the Queen is heading for, yelling “Deactivate Intercom and Stealth Mode! “ as loudly as he can to his suit’s AI, flipping his visor open as he moves.

The response is immediate. With an audible swoosh, the Queen’s head turns to Reed, sixteen eyes deadlocked on him as he stands there waiting.

Hey! You there! I’m over here, come get me!”

It’s the lamest taunt he’s ever given, but he’s not sure if the Queen even understood any of it; he’s just trying to grab as much attention as possible while he silently prays for his maneuver to work. He can’t see Victor anymore now that his visor is up, but he really hopes he’s closing in on the Gem right now.

Go, Victor, now...!

The Queen comes closer, towering over Reed by at least a dozen meters. She doesn’t seem particularly hostile, even now, Reed thinks; if she were, he’d probably be long dead. More curious than anything, she lowers her head to look at Reed –

-and then sharply jerks it back the opposite direction with an eardrum-shattering screech.

Reed’s hands fly up to his ears by sheer instinct. It must have been Victor touching the Power Stone that angered her so, but as Reed looks to where the Queen is now curling in on herself, heading back towards the shining metallic coils of her body that cradle the pedestal, he sees nothing.

That is, until he hears a sickening dull thunk of metal hitting metal, and sees a blurry figure sent flying through the air, image flickering in and out like TV static.

It takes Reed a moment to realize who that was.

Victor…?

As the camouflage system gives one last stutter, then shorts out completely, Reed can see where Victor landed, meters away from the pedestal, crumpled on the floor in an indistinct heap of green and silver. Reed is stunned for a second, and he expects Victor to get back up, to try again –

But he just lays there, unmoving, apparently knocked unconscious; or worse, but Reed doesn’t dare think that. Another moment passes, the Queen now closing in on Victor’s form, but still, he doesn’t move.

And then it hits Reed. It’s like a switch being thrown inside his head. In an instant, coursing through his veins, crawling in his skin, all he feels his hot, white rage.

Barely anyone ever hit Victor. He was too good for that. And if they did, and he stayed down, they left well enough alone – like Reed always did, making sure no lasting harm would be inflicted.

But right here, right now, the Queen had managed to hit Victor and kept going, and that was like a red flag for Reed. There were lines you didn’t cross, and hurting Victor von Doom with Reed present was the top one of them.

Without thinking, Reed lunges forward, almost blindly, rushing in Victor’s direction. He feels the repulsor arrays on his boots fire up at his silent command, and he jumps, taking off and aiming straight for the Queen’s head. He raises his hand and fires an energy discharge at the back of her head crest, not enough to hurt but definitely enough to grab her attention.

The charge connects, a static sound buzzing through the room as the Queen turns around to Reed, who is now up close at eye level with the massive alien. He’s just about as big as one of her eyes, but that’s the least of his concerns right now.

The Queen fixes him with her unblinking stare, and Reed says, low and dangerous, not caring if she understands him or not:

“Back off right now.”

The Queen tilts her head, apparently considering the tiny humanoid’s words.

Reed is a pacifist, he really is. He hates pointless violence, and he avoids it wherever possible, but this is self-defense, and he’s sure it won’t kill the Queen, so with her attention still focused on him, he fires a high energy projectile right into her top right eye.

The Queen screeches, a sound like wire on a chalkboard, and throws her head back, writhing in pain as her legs flail wildly. Reed knows this is his chance. He dives, aiming for Victor, who clearly got a hold of the Stone before being knocked out, the faintly glowing Gem lying next to his head on the ground.

Reed lands steadily and runs the last few steps to close the distance between them, crouching down and grabbing Victor’s arm with one hand and the Power Stone with the other. His one thought is we need to get out of here

--and then there’s silence.