Reed never said anything to her about the pictures. Ben, however, had a few words for her and confirmed that Reed had seen the tabloid and was hurt and confused. "So while I was with the kids you were playing footsie with Vic under the table?" Ben had said angrily. He had softened after she hastily explained that the pictures were out of context and one of them wasn't even her. Then he accused Victor of arranging them, just as she had done, except now she defended Victor, which just made Ben angry again. He didn't know the exact truth of her previous relationship with Victor, but he knew there was probably more to it than she told Reed. He was also very protective of Reed and was afraid he was going to end up hurt again. She promised Ben there was nothing going on between her and Victor and that the last thing she wanted to do was hurt Reed. At least she knew the latter was true.
So Reed said nothing, probably rationalizing that there must be some explanation, and having an ugly confrontation with her about it would be pointless. She couldn't fault that logic, but still, it would've been nice to see some jealousy out of him. He hadn't fought to keep her before; would he fight this time? Not that he needed to, of course, because she wasn't interested in Victor. The very idea was insane, wasn't it? So why couldn't she stop thinking about him?
She had only talked once to Victor since the phone call after the tabloid pictures. He had sent over a package of research material for Reed about how he had been cured of the radiation's effects, and since then Reed had been engrossed in studying it and seeing if he could replicate it. The only other time she had heard from Victor had been the phone call offering whatever help he could provide after the news about Johnny broke.
Two weeks before, shortly after Victor's return and two nights before the parade that was supposed to honor the Fantastic Four, she'd gotten a frantic phone call from Johnny in the middle of the night. She wanted to believe what he was telling her was a nightmare -- he was under arrest for murder. Johnny told her he had gone to sleep with his girlfriend and awoke hours later with the bed in flames. He tried to pull Sarah from the fire but she was already badly burned and died in intensive care a few hours later.
Johnny had learned better control of his powers over the past year, but sometimes he was careless and started a fire by accident. He'd almost burned down the Baxter Building one night; fortunately, the smoke alarms awoke them and she had been able to contain the blaze and while Reed put the fire out. This time, Johnny must have started a fire in his sleep, and while the flames did not harm him, they burned Sarah. She had third degree burns over 80 percent of her body, and it was probably a blessing that she died.
The charges had been reduced to manslaughter because it was obviously an accident, but the prosecutors were determined to make an example of Johnny. They weren't just seeking a fifteen year jail term; they wanted to put him away for life, citing that he was dangerous and a menace to public safety. The parade had been cancelled, and public opinion had turned even more against the Fantastic Four.
Now she hurried to VDI, hoping that if she showed up there personally Victor would talk to her. She needed his help. Reed wasn't being cooperative, and she had to do something. She couldn't let her baby brother go to jail for the rest of his life.
Security recognized her and let her into the building. She hadn't worked there in over a year, so she had to sign in as a guest, but she was still allowed inside with no hassle. She took the elevator up to Victor's office, trying to compose herself, checking her makeup and hair in the elevator's mirror. She'd done enough crying in the past few days; she didn't want him to see her with blotchy cheeks and runny mascara.
Laura, Victor's secretary, looked up as she came through the door. "Hello, Ms. Storm," she greeted her.
"I need to talk to Victor," Sue said.
"He's unavailable at the moment," Laura said. "I can tell him you stopped by..."
"It's an emergency," Sue said insistently. "I have to see him!"
Victor opened his office door. "Sue!" he said, sounding pleasantly surprised. "What are you doing here?" He looked over to his secretary. "Ms. Storm never needs an appointment to see me, Laura," he said. "I'm always available for her." Laura raised an eyebrow and nodded.
"I...I need to talk to you, Victor," Sue said, hoping she didn't sound as desperate as she thought she did.
He addressed Laura again. "Cancel my next appointment," he told her, then held the door open for Sue and motioned her in his office. "Sue, what's wrong?" he said as he shut the door behind them.
She saw the suitcase next to his desk and was momentarily distracted. "Are you going somewhere?" she said.
He shook his head. "Just got back, actually," he said. "I was out of the country for a few days. I only got back to the office about a half hour ago."
"That's probably why I couldn't get a hold of you," Susan said, feeling a strange surge of relief that he apparently wasn't avoiding her. "I...I've been calling you..."
"I'm sorry, I had my cell off most of the time," he said. "I was in Latveria for a funeral. The king's son was killed in a car accident a few days ago..."
"Oh, I'm so sorry," Sue said. She knew how much Victor cared for his small home country. Much of the money his companies made had been poured back into Latveria, lifting it from a poverty-stricken nation to a more modern country.
"Things are a little chaotic there now," he said. "There's no heir, and the king is not in good health. But tell me, what's wrong, Sue? Is it...about Johnny?" She fought to keep calm, but failed, much to her embarrassment. The tears began to fall again. "What can I do to help?" Victor said, moving closer to her. "I told you before -- my lawyers...money...whatever you need." He raised his hand as if to brush away her tears, but dropped it before touching her.
"I want you to take away Johnny's powers," she blurted out. "If he...if he doesn't have them, they'll go easier on him. Otherwise they're going to lock him up for the rest of his life. He's my baby brother, Victor. I can't let that happen to him."
Victor nodded gravely. "Is this what he wants, too?"
She dropped her gaze. "No. I-I brought it up, and he refused. He's planning on fleeing the country if he's convicted. He won't go to jail."
"Understandable," Victor said. "His powers are part of what he is now. They've given him all the glory he's ever wanted in life. And no one wants to go to jail."
"He didn't mean to kill that girl," Sue said, looking Victor in the eyes again. "It was just an accident. But now people are thinking any one of us could turn dangerous and hurt people like...like you did."
He winced. "I know. I'm just thankful I didn't seriously hurt anyone. But, Sue, even if I do this, he'll still face charges for that. I promise my lawyers will do what they can for him. They have a little experience in formerly super-powered clients."
"I-I know," she said, nodding, wiping her eyes. "But if he doesn't have his powers they can't justify putting him in jail for the rest of his life. The prosecution will look favorably on him if the voluntarily gives them up. But he won't listen to reason about this, Victor. That's why I need your help."
"Wouldn't you trust Reed to do this instead of me?" he asked.
She shook her head. "He doesn't feel ready to try it yet. You know Reed. And he isn't as...as..."
"Ruthless?" he finished for her. She blushed, and he chuckled. "I'm not entirely fond of the idea of doing this against his will, but I can understand your reasoning. Of course I'll help you, Sue. Like I told you, anything you want from me is yours. Anything."
"Thank you," she said in relief, impulsively throwing her arms around him. She quickly drew back, but stopped before pulling away completely, her hands on his chest, feeling his well-defined muscles under his expensive shirt. "There is...one more thing you can do for me, Victor," she said. She swallowed hard, not understanding why she was doing this.
Looking at him, her thoughts went back to an evening two weeks before. The night before Johnny's accident, she had snuck into VDI invisibly. Her first stop was Victor's office, and she looked through his desk to see if there was anything incriminating or something that might indicate if he did have some sort of master evil plan -- or anything to do with the tabloid pictures. Finding nothing, she decided to go up to his suite as well. It was late and he was probably there and asleep, but she was anxious to take a look around.
He had been sleeping as she poked around his penthouse, again finding nothing that indicated he wasn't being honest with her. She peeked in on him in the bedroom. He seemed to be sleeping uneasily, tossing and turning, then he sat up with a gasp of "No!" He stared at his hands in panic and brought his fingertips to the scar on his temple as if to assure himself it wasn't growing, then seemed to relax.
When he threw back the sheet and sat on the edge of the bed, she drew in a sharp breath. She should've remembered he slept nude. He glanced sharply to where she stood, and for a moment she was afraid he'd heard her or she'd lost her concentration and become visible. But he shrugged slightly and got up and walked into the bathroom, turning on the shower. She watched him go, unable to tear her eyes away. She once told him he thought he was a god, but she'd never admit she thought he had the body of one.
"What is it?" he said, interrupting the memory.
She hesitated. This was insane. She shouldn't...she couldn't. "Kiss me," she finally said softly.
He looked at her in surprise, as if not sure he heard her right. "Sue?"
"Kiss me," she said again. "Please."
"What about...?" he began.
"Don't," she said. "Don't say it. I just..." She faltered and began to draw away.
He grabbed her by the hips and jerked her against him, then brought his mouth down on hers. The tentativeness of the kiss lasted only a few seconds before it became more demanding. He slid one hand up her back, lacing his fingers in her hair behind her neck, holding her fast as forced her lips apart and his tongue sought entrance to her mouth. She opened herself to him with a soft whimper, wrapping her arms around him. This was the passion, the intensity she could never find with Reed. This was what she had been craving.
He moved his other hand up her side and rested it on her breast, squeezing gently as he rubbed his thumb over her hardening nipple. She could feel his arousal and part of her screamed for him to throw her down and take her, no care of any consequences. But it was he who ended it; he pushed her away and took a step back. "You...you should go," he said raggedly. "Before something happens that you'll regret."
Maybe I won't regret it. She almost spoke the thoughts aloud but kept them to herself. "Yes, you're right," she said. "I, uh, I'll call you. I just need to get Johnny here, and..."
"Tell him you want him to talk to my lawyers," Victor said. "Reasonable enough." His calm tone was forced; she could see the restrained hunger in his eyes.
She nodded, backing toward the door. "Tomorrow? I'll call you." She pulled open the door and hurried out. Laura gave her a smirk and a wink as she left Victor's office, and she winced, knowing what she must look like, hair disheveled and lipstick smudged. Was she out of her mind? Why had she asked Victor to kiss her? To see if something was still there? And now she was afraid there was.
Sue called later that afternoon to arrange for a time to bring Johnny by the next day. He was out on bail (thanks to a mortgage of the Baxter Building) and was agreeable to discussing his situation with Victor's lawyers, hoping they could get him off.
Victor hung up the phone and sat back in his chair. If ever there was a time for an evil cackle of triumph, now would be it. Things were falling into place just as he had planned.
Johnny's downfall had been easy to arrange. He and the late Ms. Sarah Wilson had attended a ceremony that night to present some meaningless award. Each of the presenters had received a gift bag, as was custom for such events. Sarah's had been carefully prepared. The expensive bath products -- shampoo, soap, lotion -- contained highly flammable chemicals, and rather than leave an accidental spark from Johnny to chance, the diamond bracelet in the gift bag contained a transmitter that emitted a micro-pulse of radiation -- just enough to trigger Johnny's powers to activate. So as he slept peacefully, his girlfriend went up in flames. A necessary sacrifice.
He knew Sue would come to him for help, just as he knew the night she was invisibly searching his office and penthouse. He couldn't resist putting on a little show for her, pretending to be tormented by nightmares of becoming what he once was. Her compassion would be her undoing.
What he had not expected, however, was her asking him to kiss him. He wanted her to come to him, and had plotted a slow and careful seduction and manipulation, but she had rushed ahead. Surprising, but not necessarily a bad thing. He'd had to reign in his desires, however. Take her now and she might flee in shame and make it harder for him.
Surprise or not, her impulsive yearning for a kiss would serve his purposes. His secretary would dutifully inform the tabloids of how Sue had come in and demanded a meeting, and how he had accommodated her...and how she had left in an obviously disheveled state. Such a story could have only come from Laura, however, and he'd have to fire her in outrage.
Johnny would be dealt with tomorrow. The stripping of his powers and the betrayal of his sister would devastate him. And Victor would waste no time in going after Ben and Reed next. Ben would be easy, he reasoned. After all, he'd gotten him to give up his powers once before. He just needed the right motivation to do so again, and that motivation already existed in the shape of a beautiful, blind sculptor. As for Reed...Victor loved the irony of his plans. Sue had always wanted Reed to be more aggressive, to fight for her. She should be more careful what she wished for.