january 12, 2021 — january bingo scene — reed van allen & stella sawyer

Results inconclusive. Brain activity elevated, but only somewhat. No signs of disorder, psychological or biological. And, he's happy to note, the homemade EEG worked perfectly — a few stray electric sparks from rushed welding aside. A week ago Reed would have been doubting the results, would have poured over the data printouts for days to follow, searching for an error he might have missed, doubting fundamentally that anything could be this easy. He'd never been successful because anything came naturally to him, he'd made it this far in life because of that very instinct to doubt results, doubt himself, and devote himself to finding the mistake, invariably present. Even now, he could feel that urge still there, like muscle memory. But in fact as he sat there in the lab, letting Stella finish up any other tests or examinations she wanted to run, Reed didn't feel that age old anxiety, that familiar cynicism. He felt... fine. Certain.

"I really have to thank you," he volunteered to Stella, refocusing on the moment in front of him instead of letting his lingering questions send his brain spiraling away into possibilities and whatifs. Reed hadn't even realized that was a bad habit, always preparing for contingencies, until recently. "I don't have a lot of people who could come help me with something this crazy at a moment's notice. I really value our..." Okay, so newfound genius didn't appear to help so much with the emotional or interpersonal. Reed cast around for the right word. Friendship? Camaraderie? Alliance? Good to know all that confidence, all that surety of self couldn't help him when it came to Stella. "...partnership," he decided on, somewhere between neutral and appreciative, although perhaps, as usual, he was underplaying how he felt. As much as things were changing, some things, it seemed, were staying the same.

It had certainly been the most eventful week or so in her life, and that was saying a lot for Stella. She'd been serious with her concerns when it came to Reed's homemade EEG — though it wasn't homemade, but close enough. It wasn't like she had the technical know how to actually know if it was made correctly or not, which was a big part of her worry. She didn't want to stick electrodes to Reed's head and scramble his brains, all because he needed a button pressed. So she'd made him explain his process to her, show her the machine, explain it, until she was confident in his confidence. And with the comments he'd made about how he was feeling, the differences from normal, she'd done a quick but thorough check to make sure he didn't have anything going on physically, a neuro check to verify there wasn't any obvious clue for concern. Once again, being in a work space with Reed was comfortable, more comfortable than she might have expected if they hadn't just done this the other day.

"Of course," she replied with a soft smile. "You helped me with my crazy, of course I'm going to help you with yours." Partnership was a nice word, an accurate one. Wasn't that why she'd found it automatic to text Reed when she'd been disappearing? They were partners in whatever this was, both in the shift and the figuring it out of it all. "So obvious disclaimer that neuro isn't my specialty, but you seem fine — nothing concerning. It's strange that you aren't tired, with what you've described over the past few days... I know you mentioned migraines, can you describe them? Frequency, intensity, length, any difference from what you may have experienced before?"

"Migraines, yes," Reed confirmed. He cast around his body for the feeling, that dull ache in his skull, present in the background for the last few days, not debilitating but distracting. "Not a new condition, I've experienced them for years now, since grad school, but never for this long. Extremely painful when I woke up, all the typical symptoms, particularly the light sensitivity." It had been a hard morning, dragging himself out of bed — other people might have been willing to take a sick day, call it a wash, but at the time he'd felt so overwhelmed that the thought of being away from the office, the work he needed to do, seemed much more painful than the migraine itself. God, was he really that pressured, Reed wondered with a little shock at himself. "By the time I got into work it wasn't really much better, just easier to work with, does that make sense? I still feel it, but lighter now." It hadn't gone away, but Reed's thoughts had come so fast, his work was so instinctive, that it was almost meditative, drawing his focus away from a headache that any other day would have made him miserable if it didn't completely knock him out by noon, responsibilities be damned. Maybe this wasn't Stella's medical specialty but it was comforting to confide these things in her, it made him feel less bewildered by them.

"So you've had it all day and still managed to build an EEG," Stella replied dryly, a hint of amusement in her tone. No matter what, she was glad the symptoms had lessened during the day but it was still something she worried about, especially when Reed was the type of person who clearly didn't let that stand in the way of actively doing things all day despite the pain. That was another reason she'd wanted to be sure to check on him, because he was a person who slept in his office probably more often than not, got lost in what he was doing — and she respected his dedication, but also valued him staying sane. "So it was there when you woke up — can you show me where you were feeling it most? And tell me what you've had to eat and drink today, and your best guess of what time you had it."

Just the ghost of a laugh in her voice, it put a self-conscious smile on Reed's face. Sure he wasn't the best at taking care of himself, remembering the daily responsibilities of eating and going home to sleep, but it wasn't something he was proud of. He'd met plenty of those types in school, in his career — people who put everything in their life second to their research, the science. Reed had always wanted to be someone with a work life balance, but that necessitated a personal life to balance the work against, and right now that part of his life was emptier than he'd like to admit. "Well the EEG was more of an extracurricular," he hedged, matching Stella's amusement at the thought of building a medical machine from scrap parts on a whim, a wonder if he could do it, "I had to come into the office anyway, catch up on everything." Even on the best days Reed was a few paces behind where he wanted to be, and an unplanned afternoon out to do something very similar to this for Stella had been a necessary setback. "It's centered here," he said, addressing her actual questions by gesturing to the back of his head, the base of his skull where it met his spine. "I skipped breakfast because of it, and ate lunch around 3 as I worked on, well, my new hobbies." A quick gesture around at the salvaged parts, machines in disarray and reassembled for new functions. He hadn't even thought about eating except to fuel more work, absentmindedly eating whatever was in the office fridge as his whole focus was on comparing hastily drawn schematics to the parts in front of him.

Stella raised an eyebrow at his 'extracurricular' comment, because really, but let him continue without interruption. At his indication of where the headache had focused, she shifted to be standing more to his side, her fingertips palpating the area gently until he let her know she'd found the right spot. In this circumstance, it didn't feel weird to touch Reed even if that wasn't normal for them. They'd already crossed that line when she'd given him a brief exam before trying out his EEG machine, and it was much the same as when he'd been helping her with her disappearing limb. It still felt a little intimate if she thought too much about it, so she tried not to. "And to drink? Coffee, water, something else - how much? I'm shocked you had to come in to the office, by the way," she added, taking a step back. "And you weren't here already. Did you take any painkiller?"

It was tempting to lean into Stella's touch, not only because of the pain there at the back of his head, but because her gentleness combined with her easy expertise was so comforting. Anyone else might have felt too intimate, sending Reed in all his shyness recoiling with a slight shrug, but Stella wasn't the stranger she'd once been, Reed could no longer imagine the need to keep those wide boundaries between them that he used to insist on, he wouldn't move away or stop her. It was intimate, and if he'd realized they were thinking the same thing at the same time, it would have felt even more so. "Uh, coffee, mostly, probably too much," Reed answered, thinking guiltily of the coffee pot that had been running all day. The caffeine hadn't given him much of its usual boost, Reed supposed his brain chemicals were providing that all on their own, but he liked the ritual of it. "No painkillers, I... I guess I got distracted thinking about other things. I feel it, the migraine, it just never seemed important." Not as important as everything else. The day had been powerful, busy with the excitement of a fresh direction and all the new energy that came from that. "And I don't always sleep in my office, just for the record," he felt compelled to add, good-natured in his correction. "I have an apartment. It's very nice." And the once or twice a week he did indeed manage to sleep there, he was always glad he did. It was very nice to think of Stella as a partner, a collaborator on these strange shifts, but she was still a woman wanted to impress a little bit, and being thought of as someone who slept on a cot in an office too often was hardly that.

There wasn't anything irregular beyond Reed being even more genius-like than normal, which was a hard thing to register on a scale. It was clear something was going on, though not as obvious and direct as her dealings with sudden invisibility, and Liam's fire situation. She wasn't sure if he'd mentioned that to Reed though and she didn't want to bring it up if he hadn't. She hummed in thought as she considered for a moment. "Okay, well water might be a good place to start, as well as something substantial to eat." The corner of her mouth twitched at his description of his apartment. It's very nice. "Maybe you could have both at your very nice apartment, where I think you should go to get some rest whether you feel like you need it or not. Put an ice pack on the back of your neck, lay down in a dark room, relax."

She glanced over at the machine he'd built before looking to him again. "I don't know what's going on but we'll keep an eye on it, okay? Just like we're doing with my... whatever. And if your migraine persists or gets worse, seems different than the migraines you've dealt with before, we'll get some scans done."

He was tempted to make a joke, like that would shrug off the strange feeling of being the target of her concern, her good advice, but Reed couldn't muster it. However committed he was to always seeming together, capable, a problem solver, Stella had gotten past that veneer and her good sense was too important, too kind to disagree with or dismiss. That's why he'd contacted her, asked for her help specifically, not just because she was an adept doctor and a sharp mind to bounce off of, but because no matter what they uncovered or didn't, Reed knew she would be gentle with him. His active mind working away all day, targeting inefficiencies and overhauling workflows, it had been exhilarating but there was little gentleness in it. What new part of his mind had, in the background of all that focus and innovation, known to ask for Stella's help? The way she'd just rested her hand against his head came to Reed's mind again. Or had that instinct always been inside him, even as he downplayed it?

"You're right," he said on a sigh, "I know good advice when I hear it." Simple as it was, perhaps because of its simplicity, Stella was impossible to argue with. How long had it been since he did any of those things, let alone all together? Reed's brain hardly felt tired, but suddenly his body did, unable to expend any more energy here. He'd thanked her before, and meant it, but suddenly the urge to do so again was on the tip of his tongue, as if he was worried that she hadn't really understood the weight with which he appreciated her. Reed was loath to repeat himself, wasn't sure how he could say it that would make a difference anyway, so he simply shut his mouth again on an exhale, and tried a new statement, a little confession of failure. "My new year's resolution was to be better at all that stuff." So much for that.

"My two favorite words to hear put together: you're right," Stella mused with a smile, entirely joking but it was nice he wasn't trying to fight against her suggestions. It wasn't like she could force him to go home, drink water, get some sleep. Even if he went home there was no guarantee of the rest. She had to trust Reed would at least take those small steps to take care of himself — steps that seemed simple to some, not all, and especially not those with brains that wouldn't shut off.

"Well I have good news for you. There's the whole rest of the year to work on it." She shifted to sit, beside him but still with enough space between them it didn't feel crowded or awkward. "Now's as good a time to start as any, right? My resolution was to ease up on Liam. I think those type of immeasurable goals are hard because it's not going to the gym so many times a week, a clear yes or no if it happened. But I think they're more forgiving, because it's something gradual to work on and if you slip up, well, try to do better next time." She shrugged a shoulder. "I'm not good with resolutions because I'm really competitive and too much of a perfectionist, but I figured I can try."

"Are you competitive?" Reed echoed with a little surprise. Her reasoning was sound on immeasurable goals, the way she honed in on the uncomfortable lack of a definitive success or failure which had always made him uncomfortable. And perfectionist, that he knew, and frankly admired, Stella for. Nobody became a doctor of her caliber by playing it fast and loose with the details. But competitive, that was a side of her Reed hadn't seen yet, and it intrigued him. "Is that why you were so good at nailing me in the head with that pillow last month?" Only now did he think he could joke about that moment, quite the wake-up call, now that some time had passed. "Or was that the perfectionism again?" Hadn't they ended up in this position that day as well, sitting next to each other after figuring things out, a little breather and conversation before springing into action with their planned solution. Nice to know there were rhythms to everything. "Liam's doing great, by the way, I bet he loves that resolution," Reed guessed, thinking of a couple of the ways Liam had really come through in the last few weeks. "I don't know everything about your situation," just fragments from talking to Liam about his life, "But I know he's a success in large part because of you."

Stella gave a hum of thought, tilting her head. "I think the competitive part goes hand in hand with being a perfectionist," she replied after a moment. "Competitive against myself as much as anyone else. The pillow was, I think, equal parts self preservation and growing up with a brother." Liam may have been a fair bit younger than her, but that never stopped her from nailing him in the head with a pillow. It felt good to be able to talk about that morning casually, especially since at the time it had felt like that would never be possible. Reed's compliment to Liam made her smile, the corner of her mouth quirking a bit at his other comment. "Well I don't know about that, but I'm glad to hear he's doing so well. I didn't tell him my resolution, he'd probably try to use it to his advantage. Better it be a pleasant surprise for him."

"Either way, amazing aim, very impressive," Reed laughed a little, as if at the time it hadn't been completely mortifying to take a pillow to the face only moments after waking up in a strange place. "If you didn't tell him your resolution, I'll definitely keep it to myself too," he promised, amused a little at the thought of being on the inside of a secret like this. "You guys are lucky to have each other. I don't have any siblings, and I always wanted... more of a family I guess." Who was the last person Reed had ever confessed that to? He couldn't remember. "That's why I'm competitive," he explained, admitting to having that in common with her, "Being great at something, wanting to become the best, that puts you in some good circles. You find your group. Does that make sense?" Sure competition could have its ugly sides, and Reed was no stranger either to professional jealousy or imposter syndrome, but deep down for him it was just a love of his work and a desire to contribute to something greater than himself.

"Why thank you," Stella replied, tossing her hair with a grin before shaking her head, a light shrug of her shoulder. She hadn't thought that Reed would say anything to Liam, but it was nice to have the confirmation he wouldn't. Talking about family — it was always difficult, even if she was grown and removed from them, her own person. "Well, you can borrow Liam anytime you want," she offered teasingly. "I'm grateful for him, even if I'm bad at showing it. He's the only family I have, which I know I've said before but it's true." She gave a hum of agreement at his comments. "That makes sense. I always wanted to be the best, which does put you in a place where your colleagues are on a different level."

"I think I already have been borrowing Liam," Reed confessed, a little self-deprecating, "It's like I just have to mentor somebody now that I don't have grad students around all the time." Not that he had a lot of professional advice to offer Liam that wasn't applicable to the sciences — but it hardly stopped Reed from doling out life advice, and more than a few I'm so proud of yous when the occasion arose. He couldn't stop himself, that energy had to go somewhere. "It's incredible, right, to look around at people and think wow, I made it. I don't know, I've been thinking a lot about it lately though, failure is inevitable and if you're not prepared for it..." he trailed off, looking at the lab around them, all the half-finished projects geared for perfection, optimization, "...sleeping in your office too much and recreating medical machines, I guess." Perfectionism, fear of failure, no wonder Reed had ended up here, a little ashamed of himself. "Sorry, maybe that's too personal," he hedged, suddenly a little embarrassed and offering the reasoning, "You are way too easy to talk to."

Truthfully, each pairing between the three of them provided something different for each person. Liam was just as good for Reed as Reed was for him, same with Stella, and she was quickly finding the ease and balance between her and Reed as well. They each had something different to offer, something someone else could use. And wasn't that nice? "Well mentor away, I'm sure he appreciates it."

Stella followed Reed's gaze, taking in the lab and everything scattered around. Certainly not her particular areas of work or expertise, but she respected it and understood to a point. She couldn't help but smile at his last admission, the compliment feeling better than most. Then again, she so rarely was complimented on herself - usually more like something she did, or her work. "Maybe I missed my calling, should have become a therapist," she teased. "And is there a 'too personal' when I've already seen your brain activity? I think we're well beyond that, Dr. Van Allen."

"Is that why you spent so long looking at the data? All my deepest secrets revealed in the brainwaves? I should have known." He was joking, but Stella was right, they had moved far past that kind of separation. They'd gone through so much together in such a short period of time, the explainable and the very much inexplicable, and Stella had been a comforting presence every step of the way. It had him reflecting on meeting her, that feeling of wanting to take two big steps backward, perhaps not that much of a metaphor, every time she entered the room. Like he expected himself to do something embarrassing, like he expected her to be a distraction. Maybe it would have been nice to have Stella in his life sooner. "I think you're right, that ship has sailed," he agreed, and then, after a moment's deliberation, "I should apologize, if I was standoffish when we met. I can be a little slow to open up, and I don't want you to think that was at all because of you." Sure that was one way to describe a fear of commitment so deep an attractive, smart woman had sent him spiraling with here mere presence, but to say it any more bluntly would have been to admit that Reed had been harboring a bit of a crush, too silly and juvenile-seeming for him to want to put into words.

Stella's brow furrowed in thought as she tried to remember. They'd been around each other so much the past month, it was hard to remember what things had been like before. Before the lost week, waking up together, superhero emails. Before holiday parties, disappearing limbs, sudden genius turned super genius. What had Reed been like when they'd first met? Obviously she was aware of him — his name, reputation, developments in science and medicine. Beyond that, he'd been Liam's boss, with no reason to be anything but polite at her in passing.

"Nothing to apologize for," she replied, offering him a smile. "I don't think I ever thought you were? If I noticed, I probably chalked it up to eccentric genius tendencies, or that you had more important things to be doing and wanted to be off doing them. Either way, doesn't matter." She leaned over to bump his shoulder lightly with hers. "You got stuck with me anyway."

Her light bump had Reed laughing, suddenly so far away from that singular focus on his work from earlier that had him honing in on the smallest details until thankfully some psychological survival instinct realized what he was doing and called for help. He was a little too grown, a little too mature to be learning for the first time what the value of friendships was, but after a life spent on trying to excel academically and then professionally, Reed had to be humble about the fact that maybe in this arena there was more to learn. For the first time after that worry earlier, that fear that something in his mind was pathologically obsessed with work, Reed actually felt like there was something he didn't know about the world, and it was thrilling. "Or you got stuck with me anyway," Reed said, tipping his head to one side as he considered. "Either way, it feels lucky."