new old flame
february 19, 2021 — february bingo scene — reed van allen & stella sawyer

It was a blessing to have his auction date won by Stella, a stroke of good luck that had left Reed immensely relieved at the thought of spending the evening he'd planned out with someone he knew was good company, someone who he trusted to appreciate the observatory not just for it's sweeping views of the skyline and stars but also for the intellectual interest, the opportunity to learn something about the fascinating galaxy up there, just slightly out of reach. And although certainly there was a part of Reed that was still puzzling over his feelings for her, working methodically through the way he felt and still evaluating a risk assessment before he decided whether or not to give voice to that part of him that kept finding reasons to hold her hand, he didn't feel nervous at all about the night ahead of them. Maybe that was the clearest sign that his feelings for her were real — Reed felt nothing but trust and genuine excitement at the chance to spend time with her without the reason for it being a scientific anomaly. Stella was kind, she was thoughtful and interesting, and regardless of whatever emotions he was still resting his mind on somewhere in the back of his head, there was almost no chance Reed wouldn't look back on stargazing with her as anything less than a great night. For someone who was a compulsive overthinker, there was a kind of peace that came from that level of certainty, not a familiar state of mind but one Reed felt very grateful for after being so uncertain about entering the auction in the first place.

Waiting at their arranged meeting point, outside the observatory entrance, dressed for both the occasion and the weather, Reed used some of that freed up mental energy to run through the list for the evening. Dinner already catered in and set up on the observatory balcony, waiting their arrival. Sun already on its way down, a few stars beginning to appear in the dimming sky. Telescopes naturally at the ready, set up for them to get a view of the celestial bodies this time of year. It felt good, not just to have planned an evening that Reed would have been looking forward to regardless of his companion, but to be doing the thing Stella was always encouraging for him, stepping out of his lab, away from his work, and getting the opportunity to show her that when he did make the time to step away, he could do even that well.

Stella's participation in the date auction had started as purely charitable, planning to bid here and there, maybe simply to drive the bids up to help raise more money. Okay, most of her intention had been to do that, with the knowledge that she was planning to make a donation to the charity anyway regardless of the outcome. Then she'd read the description of one of the dates and genuinely wanted to win. It sounded fascinating, interesting, and like something she would actually enjoy. Not that there was anything wrong with fancy dinners or the other experiences that had been outlined, but the level of detail in that one had caught her eye. It shouldn't have surprised her to find out it was Reed who'd written it, but it did only because she hadn't expected him to be one of the people auctioning off a date. She was glad to make it easy for him, not having to host a stranger, and genuinely looked forward to the evening—yes, partially because it meant she knew he'd be out of his lab for a bit, which he deserved to do. Astronomy wasn't typically what she associated with Reed, but she had no doubt he was incredibly knowledgeable and she'd leave the night knowing far more than she had when she arrived.

She'd dressed nicely but not overdone, worn a light coat even though he'd assured her there would be a heater to keep them warm. Better safe than sorry. Walking up to the entrance, Stella smiled when she saw Reed there—that seemed to be her normal response to him now. "Good evening, Dr. Van Allen."

There was nothing cynical or self-effacing about Reed's smile in response to hers, nothing less than excitement to see her. "Doctor Sawyer," he said in return, his half of their exchange of titles that once had been a polite formality and now somehow had the tone of an inside joke, something that only the two of them would understand. "Thank you for joining me this evening," Reed added — because alright, the doctor, doctor routine was a shared standard, but he still wasn't above hiding slightly behind formalities at times. It was just that no matter how close he felt to Stella, how he'd been happy to note the lack of nerves ahead of this evening, it was still an unfamiliar situation, one that left him feeling just half a step off-kilter, seeking something routine. "Can I interest you in some dinner while we wait for the show?" A slight joke, leaning into the artifice of the evening. A winning auction bid, though Reed was grateful it was Stella, hadn't left much room for him to phrase their night as a question, an invitation. Maybe with a different date he would have felt different about it, but with Stella it felt important to offer it that way, pretend just a little bit that it was an idea he'd had and not a charitable donation she'd made.

"Thank you for having me," Stella replied, her eyes sparkling almost mischievously because this all did feel a bit silly, the formality of it, even with how the two of them joked around in that way all the time. It was different outside of their normal circumstances, their normal habitats, but that didn't make it bad. Just different. "I would love some dinner, thank you. Are you prepared to tell me all the mysteries of the universe?" She slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow, because that's what people did, and walked along with him on their path up to the balcony where they'd be able to observe the night sky and everything it had to offer. Giving his arm a gentle squeeze—a reassurance, maybe?—she offered Reed a little smile. "You look nice tonight."

"That's so funny, I just had the same thought about you," he replied, deflecting her compliment with one directed to her and another smile in the same direction. Reed was going to feel silly about it in just a second, the way excitement and slight nerves were mingling in him, making him smile at her at every opportunity — but even though he knew his own patterns, how quickly enthusiasm could turn to anxiety, it hadn't happened yet, and he was determined to enjoy these moments before that happened. The university observatory was a beautiful building in its own right, something that could be equally admired as the setting sun cast a dusky glow over the mirrored window, but it wasn't their final destination. Along the way, Reed added, "I really meant it, I'm glad it's you who won." He'd told her before, but after reflecting, he wasn't sure he'd communicated it correctly, appreciated the small moment to try again. "I mean, yes, I am very glad I'm not here with a stranger," as he'd said previously, "But that's not the same. I'm glad it's you." A subtle distinction, but an important one, lest she walk away thinking he'd have been just as excited for any of his friends to be here tonight. There were a thousand ways the evening could go, with a thousand different companions, some he might have had an equally fun time with, but this was the one Reed was most invested in. "I say that so you'll forgive me when I tell you I'm really not an astronomer, just an admirer, so unless you have some to share, I think the mysteries of the universe might stay that way," he added with a sideways glance and the shift of his smile into something a little more teasing.

Stella rolled her eyes a little, not surprised at all by the deflection because of course Reed wouldn't just take the compliment. But she'd meant it, even if it seemed like something people said in these situations no matter if they believed it or not. She glanced over at him as he spoke, a slight furrow in her brow as she waited for him to work through his thought. It was nice, him saying he was glad it was her, not simply glad it wasn't a stranger. The latter had been most of what had been said before, and she'd been happy to step into the spot and save him from having to make small talk with someone he didn't know. At the same time, since it was her and all, she could have deferred and they wouldn't have had to do any of this. The money was donated either way, Reed didn't have to put this on, not when she was the one who'd won. But it was nice, wasn't it? To take a step out of their normal elements and have time to relax? That was what she was always encouraging Reed to do, and it would be easy to say this was all for his sake, so she knew he'd taken time for himself, but Stella was glad to be there, had been looking forward to it. Reed was glad she was the one there, and she was glad Reed was the one there too.

"I know you're not an astronomer," she replied, bumping their shoulders together playfully. "If you were, there wouldn't be any mysteries left out there, you'd have solved them all. You could probably make up everything you tell me tonight and I wouldn't know the difference, I'm not really an astronomer either."

The press of her shoulder, the roll of her eyes, the insistence of her comment — all of it had Reed laughing in turn, drawing her arm closer in his grip to ensure the movement wouldn't carry her too far away, not when in just a few sentences Stella had managed to both compliment him and skewer him in equal measure. "I think they have actual astronomers here, to guide a couple amateurs like ourselves," he said, thinking of the staff he'd arranged his plans with in advance, how enthusiastic they had been about showing something new to people with no experience before, "But we should make a good faith attempt on our own first, right? I'm certain our microscope experience will translate to telescopes." Or maybe it wouldn't, and he and Stella could spend some time just making up ridiculous explanations for whatever they managed to pull into the telescope's view — to Reed, hearing her explanations for the universe was just as interesting a prospect as the scientifically-endorsed ones. "I know being a scientist makes people think you have all the answers, but for me, the questions are so much more interesting." Stella must have some inkling of the same feeling — being a doctor whether a practitioner or an academic often meant people assumed you were a genius, an expert in far more than you really were, when as far as Reed was concerned answers were boring. And then they were turning a corner, arm in arm, and the little picnic arranged by the restaurant was before them, laid out artfully over the observatory patio.

The thought of listening to an actual astronomer wasn't nearly as enticing as listening to Reed. While she hadn't ever been to a lecture of his, or even any official talk, Stella was incredibly familiar with his 'professor voice,' having been on the receiving end of it more than once. It was endearing, honestly, and she liked knowing he was so in tune with what he was talking about that he had slipped into that mode. There were likely topics that got her in the same type of headspace, conveying information to others in ways that might make their eyes glaze over or something but dammit why weren't they writing it down? While she wouldn't have minded Reed falling into that habit while discussing the stars, and maybe he still would, she just as much enjoyed listening to him talk in a normal conversation. Reed with his little jokes, his ability to make her laugh, and the comfort his presence brought.

"It's the same basic concept, right? Looking at something small closer up. We've totally got this." She laughed lightly, giving a shake of her head. "That's what science is, you know? Finding questions, then looking for answers. Having a question with no answers means there's so much to explore and experiment with, so of course they're more interesting." Though from a medical standpoint, it was often scarier when there were no answers as usually a question came up with a time limit, like a bomb, and the race was on to find a way to solve it. Still, she appreciated the concept in theory and in other fields. When they turned the corner, she glanced over and saw the picnic, her eyes widening a bit. "Oh, it all looks so nice."

More and more, Stella's enthusiasm was contagious. Not that Reed needed it — he'd taken care to ensure that no matter who his company was, the evening was something he'd be thrilled to do — but his own excitement was definitely bolstered watching her take in the little scene crafted for them by the caterers. Artful plates laid out, nothing less than what could be expected from such a highly-rated restaurant, a few candles lit since the dimming sunset couldn't be counted on to light up their meal. And even better, the slowly glowing skyline of the city, blinking to life over the edge of the observatory balcony, while stars overhead did the same. "It's really something, right?" Reed asked in return, just echoing her feeling without any ability to phrase it better than she had. "I won't pretend I didn't want to do arrange something impressive," he confessed, gesturing gentlemanly for Stella to take a seat before he did, "It's hard to think of a meal that can compete with the actual heavens, but I did my best." There had been no way of predicting it would be Stella he was here with — the idea of it hadn't even crossed his mind, let alone been something Reed entertained at all — but something about a takeout picnic, albeit a michelin-rated one, was just fitting for her, given how they shared a preference for delivery over making time to cook anything.

It wasn't that Stella hadn't expected it to be nice, she'd read the date description and all, because she knew it would be. Somehow it kept catching her off-guard just how nice it was, probably because she kept falling into the ease of who she was with. It was her and Reed, talking about microscopes and telescopes, joking about their lack of actual knowledge about the galaxies around them. So easy to forget it was a "date" and not just the two of them hanging out, dealing with whatever weird crisis turned up on any given day. No parts of her were invisible for the moment, so small favors there. It was all of her, all of Reed, and what looked like a delicious picnic dinner.

"It's really nice, Reed," she assured him as she slipped out of her coat, warm enough for the time being, and moved to sit as she looked out at the sky. "It's so beautiful here. I feel like I never think to... look up. Which sounds ridiculous, but I can't remember the last time I purposefully looked at the stars."

"I'm sure you can't believe this, but I can't think of the last time I did either," Reed said, nodding along with her confession as he placed their coats neatly to the side, counting on the heater to keep the temperature pleasant. It probably hardly needed to be said — Stella knew all too well how inattentive Reed could be for anything that wasn't under a microscope, literal or metaphorical. He was someone who liked the details, enjoyed the sort of focused, attentive work that came from working on the highest stakes at the smallest scale. "But that was part of why I thought this would be a good activity," he explained, thinking briefly on how quickly the idea had come to him when he agreed to be part of the auction, "People keep telling me to take a break and this is a very nice one of course, but when you spend so much time looking under a microscope, it's good to get a different perspective sometimes. Remember that there's not just a world up here that I should be spending time in, there's a whole galaxy. A whole universe, even." Things were so much bigger than his perfectionist bent would have him believe, deliberating over the tiniest imperfections sometimes — Reed knew he had to balance that out with the reminder that as small as his world could be, it was equally large. It felt good to start to explain that to Stella in particular, after so many talks about balancing work and life. He was settling in at their little picnic as he spoke, opening containers, serving food, small tasks that kept his hands busy and his eyes down as he admitted, "I think I wanted to be an astronaut until I was at least twenty years old, that was my dream."

That was actually easier to believe than Reed might think, not that Stella felt the need to point it out. It made sense Reed didn't spend much time looking at the stars when he spent so very much of it, as he said, looking through a microscope. A smirk twitched at the corner of her mouth at his mention of people telling him to take a break, well aware she was one of them, and she gave a quiet hum of acknowledgement as she listened to him speak. It was a different perspective, a refreshing one, a perspective she herself could benefit from too. As much as she tried to get Reed to find some balance, she wasn't the best at having it herself, could let herself get consumed by work and ignore everything else. How small it all seemed when compared to the vast expanse of the universe. She glanced over at his admission, raising an eyebrow. "Really? What stopped you?"

What stopped him — Reed didn't often spend time thinking about other possibilities after he decided on a course of action, felt like lingering on what ifs wasn't helpful unless there was a way to go back and change them, but Stella's question was one of the few things that he had returned to more than once in his own mind, thinking back on the young man he'd been, a college student and a developing scientist. If it felt like a lifetime ago, that's because it nearly was. "Oh, I don't know if anything really stopped me," he said thoughtfully, answering her, "There wasn't a big moment when I realized my career in space travel was over." No sports movie montage that ended with a tragic injury that kept him out of the game, no disheartening reveal of a corrupt mentor that jaded him forever. "I think it was just as I got older I realized the thing I really wanted to do was help people, and even though I had a lot of questions about outer space, all the ways you can really make a difference in someone else's life are down here on Earth. So here I am too." He gave a shrug, a smile, to indicate that it hadn't even felt like a difficult decision or a compromise at the time, just the right thing to do. "I do still have all those questions though, maybe we'll get some answers tonight."

Being an astronaut was such a typical dream for a kid, but very few of them ever came true. Reed was someone who was likely qualified, and if not as \][ an actual astronaut then someone who worked for the space program, surely. He still could do that, probably, if he wanted to. Stella appreciated his answer though, the reason why it wasn't something he pursued. Helping others was a big drive in her life and she'd always respected Reed and his contributions to the same. They'd talked about it before, the want to help as many as they could and how it could sometimes seem overwhelming, again difficult to find the balance when weighing themselves against the greater good. "So here you are," she echoed with a smile, leaning in to nudge his shoulder with hers. "Well I'm sure you would make a great astronaut, but I'm glad you're here instead of up there. Maybe we can find a way to get answers to your questions, if not through our observations tonight then through research later."

"I feel pretty good at being here too," Reed said, bumping her shoulder back in turn. She might have been talking about it in the broad sense, happy he was firmly grounded on this planet instead of somewhere in the atmosphere, but as far as Reed was concerned, he meant right here, at the observatory overlook, in front of the meal and the skyline behind it, right next to her. He often felt like he'd made the right choices in his professional life, something that gave him comfort even when so much else was going wrong, but in the last few months as he'd grown closer to Stella, a feeling of being in the right place at the right time had been growing in him. Not just that he was making progress in his research the way he wanted to, but that every part of his life was improving, becoming more balanced, a part of his overall happiness. "I knew I could count on you to put the research in after tonight is over," Reed laughed, easily able to imagine Stella going on a tangent of outer space research articles from here, "Is this the start of our very own astronomy club?"

Stella meant it in the general sense, sure, but also the more specific of him being there in that moment, in her life as he was, all of it. Trying to imagine what her life would be like without Reed in it was near impossible these days. It was better with him in it, she knew that much. Reed was someone she trusted more than most, the person she called when there was something concerning going on. Shifting had thrown them together, brought them together, in a way she never would have anticipated or considered, and it almost felt like they'd skipped right over various stages of friendship to get from where they'd been to where they were, but none of it felt wrong. It wasn't rushed, forced, strange. It was right. "I love research, I can't help it," Stella replied, laughing lightly. "And yes, an astronomy club, what a wonderful idea. Imagine all the different constellations and planets we'll be able to see."

"I love that you love research," Reed confessed, the words spilling out of him before he even had a chance to stop them — but who could blame him? Always a thoughtful, inquisitive person, a child and then a teenager who had been so full of questions but with very few answers, Reed had often felt alone in that curiosity, hiding it from his peers and embarrassed whenever it earned him any success. It had been too easy for his younger self to hide behind an ambient veneer of success, of athleticism and good humor, until no one thought twice about Reed and his incessant questions, his demand for knowledge, the way he was somehow left always unsatisfied by the world around him and the answers adults could provide. He should have been embarrassed, wished almost that he was embarrassed, by the enthusiasm he showed for Stella's similar thirst for knowledge, but it was just too tempting, too reaffirming, to hear that reaffirmed in someone else. "I'm sure you've gotten better compliments in your life," he hedged, with the understanding that someone, somewhere must have also touched on her kindness, her talent, how beautiful she was, but those things felt somehow out of reach for Reed, "But that's — it makes me very excited to know you." Present tense, because as much as it might seem like something that was just an impulse to get to know her further, it was Stella's bright, curious mind that had kept Reed seeking her input, seeking her ideas, again and again. Had he been too revealing? Reed certainly shied away from being too obvious about the awe and affection he felt for her, but this much at least deserved to be said.

While there were plenty of differences between the two of them, that all felt so small compared to what they had in common. Stella loved research, yes. She loved learning, taking in new information and adding to her knowledge base. It didn't matter what it was about, if it had any relevance to her daily life or work, she found it all fascinating. Like astronomy, she meant it when she said she'd do research later. Research was relaxing to her, which a therapist could probably have a field day with but she didn't need that kind of negativity in her life. Stella much preferred the positivity that came from moments like that one, sitting there with Reed—he understood her on a level she hadn't found before. It didn't matter if they were actively working on something important, like her disappearing limbs or his sudden ability to build medical equipment, or something just for fun, like looking at the stars. There was no need to dial herself back, which she didn't actually do otherwise but it didn't stop her from feeling that things would be easier if she did. So honestly? "No," she said, reaching over to give his hand a squeeze, even as a light blush crept into her cheeks at the last bit of what he said. "No, I don't think I have. No one's ever... complimented me about that before."

Reed's scientific mind couldn't discount the possibility that it was the glow of San Francisco's skyline that cast a slight flush over Stella's cheeks as she reached for his hand, but even if he knew what the odds were, Reed was willing to hope it was because his words had caused the reaction. It was nice to think that somehow, just a little bit, Stella might feel it too, the change in electric current that Reed felt more and more when he was around her, like suddenly he could pick up on all the potential energy between them, observe it without needing to change it, just rest in the knowledge that there was something here, that what they could have together would be special — astronomical. He could imagine, suddenly, how he'd say it, too, start a sentence with Stella, I — and finish it this time. It could be that easy, tell her how he felt, and Reed already knew no matter what it would feel like a relief just to say it out loud. Like he'd done already so many times, and it was funny that they kept ending up like this, Reed turned his palm over underneath Stella's to ever so slightly slip their fingers together. "Well I'm honored to be the first," he said simply, as easily or obviously as he might say about any new discovery, even if this one was so much harder earned. "I think it's getting dark enough," he suggested, tearing his gaze away from her face to check the sky overhead, "Do you want to look at some stars?"

Her fingers laced with his, hand comfortably resting there in Reed's like it was the most normal thing. And it kind of was? It certainly wasn't the first time she'd held Reed's hand, or even the second. Somewhere along the way it went from potentially awkward to second nature, a natural thing to do. Stella knew the calluses of his hand, the way their fingers fit together, the warmth of both where they were touching and how it spread through her in response. Like it had with Reed's compliment, truly one she hadn't heard before but one that meant a lot, especially coming from him. Her thumb ran lightly along the outside of his, as she followed his gaze, looking up to the sky and letting the potential of constellations and other sights take over her thoughts. "I think we should. First meeting of the astronomy club, officially in session."