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Geniuses Are Idiots Too

Chapter Text

When Reed first stepped through the front gates of his new academic home for the next few years, he didn't know what to expect. Well, no, that's not true.

School had always been easy for him. Every topic Reed took, he absorbed quickly and passed with flying colors, skipping grades and taking advanced classes like trigonometry and calculus while all his peers were just starting basic geometry. It gained him quite the reputation, first in his city, then in his state, and later in the whole country.

Unfortunately, none of his classmates ever managed to reach his intellectual level, and every year, the chances of that happening grew smaller and smaller as he grew exponentially brighter and brighter. He hoped for a challenge still, but challenges were few and far between.

The smart boy was only eight when he realized it was because he was an anomaly in the system, not the other way around. He was 'too smart' for his age and therefore needed special teachers and more advanced work to keep him busy.

That was when Reed learned that he was a 'child prodigy'.

Most of his teachers had called him that in his first school years, but the meaning had always escaped him. A child prodigy such as him was, by definition, incredibly intelligent and incredibly rare. Very few people of his caliber were born in a generation, people capable of accomplishing tasks and equations that a group of talented and experienced scientists would have trouble solving on a good day.

So he stepped into college hoping for something new and different, but still, expecting the same. Always under-stimulated, looking for a way to progress in such a slow beating world while he ran a hundred miles per hour. And worst of all, there wasn't anyone who could ever keep up with him once he got lost in the math. He was, and always has been, alone with his thoughts. 

 

So it turns out there's another child prodigy.

But Reed hadn't known that when he applied to this particular institution. After receiving various scholarships to prestigious universities around the world and finally deciding on Empire State University in New York, he came across that information by eavesdropping. 

He went with ESU since it was known for having state-of-the-art laboratories and high-tech electronic consoles, and his scholarship allowed him full access 24/7 with funds for any projects he wished to start. That got his full attention and interest — because who doesn't like free funding? —, and on one of his visits to further acquaint himself with the campus and facilities, he overheard two professors talking about some promising students in their departments this year.

Naturally, he heard his name spoken with a kind of mythical reverence. It was ridiculous. They kept saying horribly cheesy things like 'scientific blessing' and 'young boy miracle', and he would have bolted out of there before either of them recognized him and started showering him with that weird praise adults gave that made the poor boy uncomfortable.

But then they mentioned another boy, and a burst of curiosity kept him stalling.

"You've heard about the foreigner, no?" one of them said. "An exchange student from Europe caught the eye of the Dean while he was overseas. From what I've heard, he hasn't gone to any school. No education papers, no registered citizenry. We'll be lucky if he even knows how to write in English!"

"Now, professor Howard, I wouldn't judge him yet," the other said with a patient tone, but obviously hiding his excitement. "I've spoken to the Dean myself and from what I hear, he's quite the brilliant mechanic! Built his contraptions from scratch, and I hear one of them can be used like a projectile, and it freezes upon impact!"

A mechanic. A mechanic with knowledge of thermodynamics and kinetic chemical reactions. Huh. 

Well now, he had to meet this fellow 'prodigy' the professors were talking about. Too bad he didn't catch the name.

Reed was very angry at himself for not paying enough attention. He could have, maybe, finally, found someone else who understood what it was like to be so far ahead of his classmates, even the professors. Even most scientists and bright minds of the world

He felt trapped in a giant, hard-shelled bubble, unable to expand and communicate his ideas to the world, eternally shrinking as his knowledge grew. It was so frustrating. 

That would soon change, for better or for worse, with one very stupid decision. And it all started like this:

One week before classes started, he was moving into the campus dormitory, as was customary. A kind, older employee helped him check in, explained the rules and schedules, handed him a paper of regulations, and told him something about a roommate inquiry.

"Excuse me, you said roommate inquiry?" Reed asked with a bit of confusion. There hadn't been anything on obligatory shared rooms in his pamphlets.

"Ah, my apologies, Mr. Richards, I meant to ask if you will be sharing your dormitory with a fellow housed student? While it is not mandatory, you may notify us if you wish to share living quarters, provided the invited party agrees and all paperwork is signed."

"Oh." The young teen scratched his head. "No, I don't think so..."

"Well, the rest of the freshmen will be moving in today. So if you change your mind, go to Housing on the first floor. All the paperwork needed is there."

"Yes, thank you." They shook hands and Reed was left standing at his door, awkwardly looking around the semi-empty halls.

Not putting too much thought into the roommate thing, he put his bags in the room and headed down to the labs, since he didn't have anything else to do and it was still barely noon. Checking the equipment he would be working with for the rest of his academic stay would also be a good start. The dormitories had the advantage of having personal laboratories installed inside the building. And with all the freshmen signing in to the dormitories and staff busy with paperwork, it would surely be empty.

Except it wasn't.

He had barely opened the door to the lab when he saw another student standing by the instruments cabinet. Having a look around didn't seem like such a good idea anymore. Company made him nervous.

It had to be another freshman, with a scholarship too, probably. There were bags on the floor by his feet, so he had yet to move in. He went directly to the labs? Reed couldn't help but think.

"What are you doing?"

The jittery teen was startled from his thoughts by the student in question, who had turned around, arms crossed, and flashed an irritated look his way. Realizing he could have come off as prying, Reed set out to apologize.

"Um, sorry if I bothered you," he tried, but it came off a little rushed, and might not have sounded sincere. It looked like the guy didn't believe him anyway.

"The name's Reed Richards," he offered instead with a hand, and not as confident as he would have liked. Thankfully, the guy uncrossed his arms and walked closer to shake hands and by God's men the guy was tall. And he had a murderously strong grip.

"Victor von Doom," he greeted with a firm shake that jostled Reed to the bones.

That's when his brain caught the accent. And he was here. In the labs. Early and on his first day.

A foreign intellectual. 

So it's you.

The small thrill he got thinking this could be the other rumored prodigy was, well, silly. There were many exchange students in the university, and it was still very probable that the yet-to-be-confirmed genius would not understand Reed's scientific jargon. Even the few esteemed doctorate scientists he's had the fortune of meeting had trouble catching his train of thought. 

But still, that little hope burning in his gut made him a touch irrational.

"Uh, I know this may sound weird and out-of-the-blue, but would you mind being my roommate?" And that must have sounded really out-of-the-blue because the guy — Victor — pulled back a little and raised a mildly offending eyebrow.

He didn't even know eyebrows could look offending.

"I mean!" Reed quickly tried to save the situation that was probably doomed from the moment he opened his mouth. "The dormitories are co-owned, optional of course, but it would be great to have company. That is—you don't have to accept my offer, it just sounds like a good way to...start making acquaintances?"

"So you think sharing rooms with a stranger is a good way to make acquaintances."

"Uh," was the only thing that came off Reed's mouth. What was he even trying to say there? 'Hi, nice to meet you. I want to be your friend. Let's be roommates.'

That sounded creepier summarized.

He must have gone into 'thinking mode' again because it looked like an awkward silence had settled between them like cement. Reed rubbed his forehead with terse fingers.

"Perhaps," the guy— Victor — said after a while, "I will consider it. I am new to this country, and you could serve me as a guide."

"Right! Yes, yes I can do that. Totally capable." Before Reed could repeat himself again in excitement, he tried to busy himself with helping out his new roommate with his baggage. "Here, let me help with that—"

"No." He was startled by Victor's strong command, and it was definitely a command, with a heavy hint of anger to it. Reed dropped the one bag he managed to grab a little too fast, and it must have angered Victor more. "Do not touch my things. Just show me to the room."

"Sorry, um. There's paperwork. Is that fine? It's just a permission slip." Reed twiddled with his fingers in a nervous way while he spoke. 

"It's fine," Victor said tensely. "Lead."

Oh great job, Reed. Way to start making friends.

With a suppressed sigh, Reed led the way to Housing, feeling more and more awful for starting with a foot in his mouth and making things more awkward.

He was just glad that for the rest of the day, he didn't say anything else that could have accidentally started a fight. Surprisingly, Victor still agreed to be roommates with him. He hoped there were no regrets to that decision.

This is going to be a long few years...

Chapter Text

Alright, so Reed didn't think things through, even though that was apparently what he did the most.

Revising a scenario multiple times and cross-referencing the results with both favorable and unfavorable circumstances was his way of understanding the world. Hypothetically, he can apply this method to any situation in order to analyze all results and learn how to better respond and react in any situation. 

Hypothetically.

He learned the hard way that hypothetic conversations and pre-planning entire dialogues didn't work well with people, so he tried what certain high school colleagues called 'thinking on your feet'.

That did not work either. It actually got him in this situation, where he maybe made a new friend that was possibly a genius like him but highly unlikely, and they were now going to share rooms for a very long time.

He's never doing that again. Spontaneous outbursts only make him sound weirder. 

At least the permission slip for sharing a dormitory really was only a single sheet of paper. They headed up to their rooms once everything was set and done, not looking at each other or even talking once. And here Reed thought that it was just him and his tendency to be oblivious when stale silences happened. But Victor looked like he very much did not want to talk, so the sullen foot-in-mouth expert did not talk either. Not until they reached the room. Their room. Oh God, what has he gotten himself into?

Reed, being the sort-of-host at the moment, felt obligated to open the door and showcase the main room. It was very wide, had two doors to the left, and the beds were on the wall opposite to the entrance. There was even a large desk-slash-cabinet between the beds. And by large he meant, humongous. There was a hell of a lot of free space, too much even. 

Awkward morning bumps and tripping on each other's feet disappeared on his list of things-he-might-die-of-embarrassment-for, thank you.

"Welcome to an American dormitory," Reed started dryly, since he might as well show Victor the place. "This is the living room, which also works as the sleeping room, dining room and the study room. The kitchenette here on the right is new from what the staff told me. It has a fridge with the capacity to hold four-hundred and fifty liters, which is a sizable amount, and a stove that goes up to six-hundred degrees Fahrenheit. So, be careful not to leave it on too long. That is, if you're the type that cooks their own meals."

Reed shrugged, trying to look casual and feeling like he failed miserably. Odd numbers didn't get filtered out of his presentation, but there wasn't any reaction to it, like the had been expecting. Usually, people gave him a weird look for being such a 'know-it-all', but Victor didn't even seem to notice. 

Okay, so that's one more thing he doesn't have to be nervous about. 

Victor just nodded once at his words and planted his clunky travel pack on top of the bed nearest the window.

Oh that's nice, Reed thought, we have a window. A window with one of those new air-conditioning units below it. He kicked his bag closer to the other free bed.

"This is the closet, and the bathroom's the farthest door but I haven't checked it. I don't know how long the hot water lasts either, if there is any."

And again, he got a single nod for an answer.

Seemed like Victor was still angry at the whole 'touching-my-things' incident. Reed made a mental note to keep away from any of his roommate's things if he wanted to be on the guy's good side.

He really didn't want to make his roommate angry. They'll be sharing close quarters after all and 'angry guy who can make ice bombs' is not something you can live through easily.

So far, the freshman teen was just one step away from getting horribly tongue-tied. Maybe staying out of Victor's hair for the rest of the day would be good on soothing tensions. 

And he did. They both did, actuallyA little too well.

Reed had distracted himself with separating his personal notes from his scientific ones, and arranging his weekly schedule, since on Monday he started class at seven-thirty sharp and finished all his classes at five. Only Mondays and Wednesdays though. He started the rest of the weekdays at nine a.m.

Reed gave Victor a hesitant glance.

Do roommates share schedules? He should probably tell Victor so he would know when to expect him and vice versa. But should he? Was it odd?

He never had close friends to practice social etiquette with, and his communication skills were severely lacking — their first conversation being a prime example. He hasn't experimented much in the area of small talk and chit-chat, but maybe now was a good time to start. 

Sadly, he hesitated too long on the thought. When Reed finally reasoned that, yes, it was the practical thing to do, and he should have Victor share his time-table with him in return, his company was already showered and fast asleep. It was half-past eleven in the night and Reed didn't even notice the sun had set hours ago. 

Well, at least the guy didn't sleep naked. That would have made everything extremely uncomfortable.

One quick shower later, he dressed fast and settled on his bed, relieved that the bed-to-bathroom walk was short and quiet. Victor hadn't stirred or anything, so Reed gave himself a quick nod of approval for being a considerate roomie. 

Now, if only he could fall asleep.

Right okay, sleeping, I'm going to sleep now. Go to sleep, he grimly thought to himself. In all his haste and impulsivity, Reed had entirely forgotten that this was his first time sharing a room with anyone who wasn't family, and it made him a little more than just nervous.

It's not like he had anything to worry about. Victor claimed his space, and the uneasy teen claimed his own. But looking at his roommate's sleeping back all the way across the room, it finally hit him that he just invited a stranger to share rooms with him. Who does that?

He didn't know anything about the man, other than his name, a few rumors and that he was not from America. That was barely anything. 

The anxiety climbing up his throat stopped for a moment and surged when he saw that Victor had turned and was awake, looking back at him. His nerves dissipated when he saw a bit of the same feeling reflected in Victor's face.

He must feel the same restlessness too.

Belatedly, he realized that, well, Victor had it worse. His home was an entire ocean away and now he was in a new place with a different culture, rooming with someone he met no more than twelve hours ago. It could be that he wasn't angry, and that was just how he normally acted. Brooding and staring at things with a frown.

Reed tried a smile and, while he didn't get one in return, Victor's frame did relax just the tiniest bit before he turned away.

Chapter Text

A week passed and Reed was, surprisingly, still unharmed and making progress in his budding friendship. Well, they weren’t friends yet, he thought, but they’re certainly getting somewhere. They could sleep in each other’s presence. That counted for something, right?

Good news for him was that they did end up comparing time-tables, and the young college applicant got a few surprises in return.

As it turns out, they were in the same scholarship program — according to their listed privileges — and were inscribed to the same major, Theoretical Science. Four-fifths of their program for this semester was advanced physics and mathematics. Which was bland academic talk for, "you’re going to drown in homework and midterms will be a living hell, hope you have fun, you smart asses!"

Honestly, Reed felt like Christmas just arrived on his doorstep and he smiled like a sap all day long. His chipper attitude was so strong, Victor frowned deeper on principle.

The rest of the week was tame in comparison. He explored some of the campus, ate when hungry, rummaged around his assigned laboratory to see if he would need any equipment, saw that most of it was inadequate, started making his own, and set apart a table for his still-in-theory space compound’s schematics.

Sometimes he saw Victor tinkering with copper and some flat iron bases in the dorm, making little gadgets here and there, and the curious-driven Reed wanted to ask so badly what they did, how they worked. Most of the time, he just watched from a distance and kept quiet.

All in all, it was a boring but productive few days, and he couldn't wait for Monday.

One other thing that Reed learned in his time with Victor was that he didn't talk much. Not because he was some misunderstood introvert with a penchant for mechanics. Oh no, quite the opposite. From what little conversation they had in the week, Reed knew that, one, he had an exceptional ego-bordering-superiority complex, and two, joy and excitement were not emotions he expressed. He was irritated ninety-two percent of the time and the other eight percent was spent making vague comments on how impossibly daft and inferior everyone was.

Frankly, Victor was an ass, and Reed wasn't all that thrilled about being his roommate anymore, genius intellect be damned.

 

On Monday morning, six o’clock sharp, they went through their morning rituals and went their separate ways to class. Later that same day, Reed saw him coming into the only class they shared and picking a chair a few rows to his left, pointedly and completely ignoring him. That was fine though, Reed’s bright mood couldn't be weakened by anything right now.

It was Theory of Spatial Mathematics and that was the class Reed was looking forward to the most.

Once the professor came in and introduced himself, they all went through the usual first day routine. Papers, basic personal information. Boring, same old stuff. Then, finally, he dove headfirst into the board, writing familiar equations and complex theorems on the wide, still mostly experimental math that was space.

Reed was smitten with the numbers. Professor Willmore started off with the recent theory of human space travel, and he listened with rapt attention as the man discussed recent events with Soviet project Vostok and its success with the first ever human spaceflight, all thanks to carefully calculated gravitational countermeasures facilitating orbital travel and safe return. Countermeasures that Reed had been tracking and keeping himself notified with for extraneous investigation and application in his outlined projects.

It was one big space-math festival that made him feel like he belonged.

Incidentally, there was a grave mistake written on the board that Reed couldn't possibly leave unchecked. Victor beat him to the punch.

“Your theorem is wrong.”

The straight-forwardness stopped whatever speech the professor had been starting. It even made Reed stop to consider the boldness of the statement, and blink.

“You are…" the professor paused to check his papers for a second, "Von Doom, correct? Care to explain what, precisely, is wrong?”

Victor answered without hesitance and with words as sharp as talons.

“You continue to evaluate space-time as two separate entities in your writings, when it obviously works as a unified dimensional event.” He flippantly pointed at the algebraic numbers in question for good measure. “You are describing it as a ‘flowing river’, which is ridiculous.”

There was displeasure hidden in the professor's face. He did not find his student's affront good-humored. “What, then, are you proposing, Mr. Von Doom? That our three dimensional world has four dimensions?  If time is incapable of folding, then what of all the stars we see that are actually dead? Does time not affect certain spatial areas first before being observed and confirmed elsewhere?”

Still an observer to the debacle, Reed felt his fingers twitch. Time was not subjective, like the professor said. Humans only perceived it as such because of the enormous distance in between stellar bodies. It was—

“Frankly, you are making yourself a fool by believing space-time can be viewed in ripples. It is a constant and if you deny it being a constant, you are implying that any one movement can be different in the same space.”

The bright, young foreign boy stood his ground with dignity and held his words with an air akin to power.

“I agree with Victor here, professor,” Reed cut in from his seated position. “Take a dead star and its surrounding empty space as an example. Space is wide and slow to our eyes, but the star already died, why would it die two-fold? Say two observers saw it die in differing ‘times’. That depends on the viewer, not the event. The star died on a time and a space and any observer is biased by their respective lagged time and space.”

“Oh? That is quite the statement, Mr. Richards.”

“Yes, and I did not need your assistance in the matter,” Victor stiffly told Reed. He didn't even turn around from his seat to address him and kept talking. “Although you seem to understand what this man could not. Tell me, do you have any other helpful comments to give?”

“Um,” Reed made an attempt to shrink back in his chair. But there's only so much space one can shrink into. “Well, if it was not made clear, the…fourth dimension you mentioned, professor, does have true value, as an addition to space’s three dimensional qualities…with…the time acting as…a constant between all three.”

All eyes were laid upon Reed when Victor put him on the spot and that was just mean and unnecessary, he gets a slight nervous bug in his stomach when everyone just stares.

Although he must have made the right assessment because his not-friend didn't try to dismantle his words and point them out as laughable nonsense. Victor just nodded in that crypt way that meant 'yes I agree with you, but I won't admit it out loud'.

Did that mean they were on the ‘same page’?

Evidently the professor had enough of the class — meaning Victor’s dispute tremendously frustrated him — and so he dismissed them early. Now, instead of leaving at five like he’d thought, he had an extra half hour.

Reed spent those thirty-some minutes sitting in the library having his brain catch up to the idea that Victor knew space-math. No, he knew spatial mathematics. 

His roommate did turn out to be a genius like him. A math genius. Spatial math with appliance in relativity and physics.

Oh, they were definitely going to have a nice, scientifically apt chat once he got back to their dorm, and there was no way for Victor to word his way out of it!

Chapter Text

Reed was chipper all the way to the dorm building, walking with a spring in his step and a lift of his chin. To think that he might have someone to plan projects and chart experiments with. Someone who could truly challenge him and his intellect! 

Well—not yet. He would have to ask Victor first if he’d like to, and that was exactly what he was going to do once he found his roommate. Which he did, once he opened the door to his dorm with a bit more force than necessary.

“Victor! I have something to—”

He stopped for a moment to consider the heavy-looking book resting in his roommate's hands, looking unusual and out-of-place.

Reed forgot for a second what he was going to say and why he came in so excited for. The hard cover was a curious thing and it managed to capture all of his attention, with its swirling reds and fading golden letters, probably well used and cared for. It must have been something Victor brought with him from his home. He would have to ask about it and what it said, no doubt it was written in something decidedly not-English.

Before he could have the opportunity though, its wary owner put the book back in a small cabinet after marking the page, suspicious of Reed's attention over it.

“Yes, Richards?” he said after all was set and done, sitting more comfortably in the room's sole chair.

Reed, though, regrettably back-pedalled into nervous ground and lost most of his eagerness.

“Um, I was thinking back on today’s class and—you’re very smart.”

Victor only raised one long and imposing eyebrow. How did his eyebrows keep do that? “And you thought I wasn't.”

“No, no, that's not—," Reed shook his head, taking a few steps forward with some regained fervor. "I already knew you were brilliantly intelligent, I just didn't realize how far and wide your wits really reached! It–it’s refreshing, is all.”

The chair squeaked a bit as Victor settled more of his weight into it.

“Is that the only reason you bust in through the door then, to tell me how smart I am?” He sounded smarmy and a little annoyed with Reed’s strange antics, but the quirk in his lip said he found it all very amusing.

“No—yes, well I mean,” Reed rubbed his temples trying to order his thoughts and sound less like a chaotic mash of words. “I wanted to—I don’t know, share ideas? Talk about Vostok 2, maybe project Mercury? What you thought about space-time dimensional travel? I've been working on that last one, actually…”

Reed thinks, for a dreadful second, that he might come off as forward or pushy, maybe even chatty, and Victor has made it clear that he is not the kind of guy to take any of those kindly or with patience. To be fair, he doesn't look like he reacts kindly or patiently to many things, one of those being the 'Reed-tries-to-communicate' phenomenon.

But Victor didn't say anything for a while. He only stared at his jittery — friend? classmate? bunkmate? — in contemplation, whether in reflection or confusion. He looked pretty confused to Reed.

Confusion changed to displeasure when his lip twitched down.

“I do not wish to share anything with you, Richards. You may be the only one capable of remotely understanding my genius but that does not give you reason or permission to seek me out for irrelevant means. Find someone else to entertain you, because I’m not going to.”

Reed deflated a bit and let out a slow breath as Victor straightened and scowled.

He made it sound like talking with him was some grave injustice. Victor sure had a flare for the dramatic, but it sent the message across regardless. One big and glaringly obvious no.

“Okay, I won’t push. I was just...curious.” Feeling more than discouraged, Reed went back to the door he had left open in his excitement and shrugged minutely, trying to wave it off. 

“I’m hungry from the long day,” he added shortly, in explanation. “So I’ll head out again, be back in a few. Leave you to whatever you were doing, I guess.”

 

Reed bought a burger from a nearby food joint and did not moan about his solitary life or his bad luck with people. The lady at the checkout did give him a free drink, though. She said something like, “You look like you need it, kid,” and payed for the soda. 

He doesn't need a drink. He needed a friend, and the one guy who could be fun to have as a friend, doesn't want to be.

He also does not say that, but apparently he's radiating 'kicked puppy' vibes and the nice checkout lady gave him a free hog dog in addition.

Reed accepted the free food, sat in a corner of the joint and took a bite out of his burger to bury the loneliness stuck in his chest.

It’s not like he never had friends, but they were all either short-lived attempts at using his intelligence for good grades, or acquaintances that admired him from afar. Most of the time, he was fine being left alone to his devices, but sometimes, sometimes a good discovery or new gizmo didn't satisfy the burning need to tell someone about it.

Like any other person, he longed for company.

And maybe Victor didn't. Maybe he preferred being alone. Maybe being smart had its drawbacks, and companionship was one of them.

Reed stubbornly refused to accept that. He couldn't accept it. Maybe he was going about it the wrong way, like always. Because his people skills needed help and he might not get all the right cues to bring about good conversation.

He should try again with a different approach. No one ever got anything without a little perseverance after all.

The fidgety teen tried keeping his distance, and that didn't work out. They could go days without interacting that way, and probably starve to death in the process. Playing nice and polite got him somewhere, but not very far. Victor tended to take the kindness and twist it so it looked like it was actually pity dressed in charity, and, well. He saw where that got him twice today. Victor did not like charity.

Maybe 'stubborn' was what he needed to finally succeed. And if it didn't, at least he tried. He'd learn something new either way.

Although...an idea was forming in his head, and it involved some hardened resolve. And some sneakiness.

With new-found purpose, Reed stood from his chair and headed out in the cool summer evening.

Not before buying another burger and thanking the miss for the food.

 

The day was already ending when he reached the dorm for a second time. Victor was still sitting at the desk, shifting through the pages of that strange book he was reading earlier.

"'Back," Reed said, closing the door behind him. "I got something for you too, in case you were hungry."

He offered the burger just as his roommate set his book down. They may have had a heavy disagreement a little more than an hour prior, still fresh in the mind, but hunger joins the masses. Victor looked over him with measured contempt and wariness, scrutinized the tin-foiled peace offering from his seat, but took it nonetheless. It wouldn't do any harm to humor Reed for a little longer.

"What is it?"

"A burger."

"And what is a 'burger' made of," he asked as he unwrapped the foil covering the roundish meal, curious despite his hesitance.

With hands on his hips, Reed answered, "It's meat, bread and a salad in one, all American."

"All American," he parroted. Victor stared, at both the patty and the skinny man before him. "It looks like a heart attack disguised as a healthy habit." He frowned at it, growing ever more suspicious.

"That's right, nothing more American than that." Reed took a seat on his bed, arms crossed and thoughtful. "You know, I wonder if astronauts are allowed food like this in space. Doesn't do any harm to eat in zero gravity I think."

Reed slid that tidbit of conversation in there, testing his bounds. It might have been noticeable but Reed found himself not caring. That's what tests are for.

And he got some results.

"Theoretically, it affects nothing," Victor said glancing up at Reed for a second and back down at the object in question. "They should not ingest food like this however. Too many calories, not enough nutrients." Even though he just criticized the burger, Victor took a bite out of it. He wrinkled his nose at the flavor. "It's...very greasy."

"Congratulations on eating your first burger?"

Victor knit his eyebrows together in a pensive way, not completely agreeing with the taste. Or maybe annoyed at Reed's odd-timed enthusiasm. Or both.

Eating with a frown. How about that.

"Do you like it?" Reed asked him with some amusement. 

"It is...acceptable," his burger-for-conversation test subject eventually said, frown still in place but posture slightly relaxed. Victor somehow managed to express more than he would want with his body language, to Reed's benefit. He's watched him enough times, just today, to know that Victor oozed irritation like sweat, but wasn't actually all that irritated. Just generally unapproachable.

It was a fascinating exploration of human language with him. All Reed had to do was learn how to grab the bull by the horns and steer it in his direction.

Say the words and pray it works. 

"I take it they don't have food like this in your country," Reed tried this time. "Now that I think about it—I never got exactly where you were from. Was it...Romania? No—Latvia?"

"Latveria," Victor corrected. "Small, but very beautiful. It lies in between the Carpathians."

"The Carpathians?" He leaned back on his bed, getting comfortable. He was going to make this last as long as possible while trying not to anger Victor past boiling point. So far, so good. And getting better.

"I've never seen them, but I bet they're impressive. Tell me more."

Chapter Text

One of the bad things about windows was that sunlight filtered through them.

"Ugh," Reed eloquently said as he rose away from the light beam zeroing in on his face with precision. He had fallen asleep at some point in the night, somewhere between the brief history of Latverian soil and a feudal system that was still in effect. Learning about Victor's homeland was a peculiar thing, almost like stepping back into the Medieval ages or reading a dark fairy tale. A rather drastic contrast to his suburban childhood and comfortable background.

He hoped that Victor hadn't gotten mad at him for dozing off.

But before Reed would have the chance to apologize, he saw that the place was empty, save for himself. It was ten past eight in the morning and if he remembered correctly, Victor had class at eight thirty today. 

Reed has one in less than an hour, so he got up to wash and get dressed. 

The bathroom was a blessing among his struggles. It wasn't big, but it wasn't small either. All the basic components were present — sink, toilet and shower, fluffy towels — and everything was in excellent condition. The water even heated up quickly at the right turn of a lever, up to a near-scorching, but acceptable, temperature.

Although, the closet next door was an odd thing. It was tall enough to work as a storage room and have some walking space, but the clothes tended to clunk and clutter together. So it was with great difficulty that Reed finally managed to strangle a cotton shirt out of a hanger and some pants that seemed to fight back ardently.

How did Victor even fit in there? he thought, ruffled and beaten by his own clothes. The guy was at least six foot two, and that dungeon of a closet was near-claustrophobic small. Reed coughed up a laugh thinking about his temperamental roommate constantly elbowing a wooden board at every slight turn.

He needed to eat something. Hunger was making him imagine delirious nonsense. Victor wouldn't make such a ruckus anyway.

 

A few hours later, it was already lunch time, and all the coffee shops and cafeterias were crawling with starving young adults. Reed squeezed his snug frame through a couple of places before finding a decently-occupied café where he bought a sandwich and a cup of coffee. Never before has he felt so blessed to have such a slight body.

Unfortunately, said body was also easily missed in a large crowd, and before he knew it, his prized coffee ended up spilled over someone's front jersey. 

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" Reed stammered, taking some of his napkins and dabbing as much coffee off as he could. 

"Hey, hey, it's no problem. Really," the burly guy said roughly with a strong Brooklyn accent tinting his voice. "This ol' thing's been through a helluva lot worse." 

'This ol' thing' was a faded football jacket sporting a few mustard stains and a sewn patch on the elbow. It has obviously gone through much use. 

"Please, the least I could do is give you the dry-cleaning money for your jersey. It's my fault after all." Reed pulled some change from his pocket, knowing that there was enough there for a good wash and dry at a nice laundromat. But the guy just laughed and patted his shoulder in a friendly manner.

"What about the coffee ya didn't even get ta sip, I owe y'one! Nah, it's alright kid, keep yer change fer another cup." He chuckled as he took off his freshly-stained jersey, wrapped it into a ball and buried it in his bag. 

His other hand extended forward courteously in greeting. 

"Name's Benjamin, but only ma aunt Petunia gets t'call me that," he joked with a half smile and a cocky flash of teeth. "You can call me Ben. Ben Grimm." 

Slowly, Reed took the offered hand gave a firm shake.

"Reed Richards." 

They ended up eating together at a table, Reed with his grilled bacon sandwich and Ben with his large submarine.

"So, Reed right? Like a reed stalk?" Ben smiled. "What brings ya 'round this joint?"

"I was—most of the places I usually eat at were full, so I ended up here." Reed had not expected the cafeteria near his department to be so full either. 

Ben took an impressive bite out of his lunch and settled his elbows comfortably on the table. "Ya picked a good place, kid," he grumbled through a mouthful. "This here's the best sub in the city, no joke. Great sandwiches I tell ya."

"A good discovery then. I'll have to try it another time." Taking in more of his surroundings into view, Reed noticed that most of the people in the place were ordering sandwiches like Ben's own. It must be a popular sell. 

Ben caught his smaller friend's wandering gaze and gave a throaty laugh as he finished his meal. "Eyes on the prize, kid, yer BLT's gonna get cold." 

Reed took his new friend's advice in stride and indulged in his sandwich, for lack of a proper response. Meeting the guy had been unexpected and sudden, but so far everything was fine. He didn't feel as awkward talking to a nice stranger, in sharp contrast to Victor, who made any person a nervous wreck with his towering demeanor. He was getting better at handling it though. Constant exposure built resistance.

"Say," Ben started, interrupting his reverie. "I take it yer not from this side'a the campus. Whatcha studying?"

"Theoretical Science."

That got him a startled look from his blue-eyed friend. "Jesus, doesn't sound like a walk in the park. Y'must be real smart too, or I hope ya are, 'cause if yer not, god bless yer soul during midterms."

Reed offered a smile at that. He knew that his subjects were formidable for a great number of the student population, and the tests would be equally difficult, if not, more so.

"I've been...described as exceptionally smart," he said instead. "I don't think it will be a 'walk in the park', but it shouldn't be so bad for me."

A solemn nod was given in return. He might have gained Ben's respect with that statement alone. Midterms were beginning to sound like a gladiator's melee, where the strong survive and the rest are left behind to feed the lions.

They fell into companionable silence for a short while, until Ben lit up with excitement again. "Y'know kid—well 'kid' sounds kinda stuck-up o' me, now that I hear myself talkin'! Ya probably just look young."

Reed's mood brightened at the words. He was the youngest of all his classmates, but most people, like Ben, thought him older because of the way that he talked. There was something thrilling about having people mistake you for an older fella, especially since he was always the youngest wherever he went. 

"Well, I'm seventeen," Reed shrugged. "So, I guess you're not wrong in calling me 'kid'."

Ben's eyes had comically turned into saucers. "Wait, wait—seventeen? Ya gotta be kidding me, when's yer birthday? It better be soon or I'm gonna feel like an ol' fart."

"My birthday was six weeks ago, actually. Why, is something the matter?"

Ben only shook his head, waving his previous stupor away. "Other than findin' out I'm three years older than a stretched out super-brain like you, nothin'."

"Oh, um." Reed hadn't a clue how to respond to that. Was their age difference that bad?

"Not that it's a big deal," Ben cut in after seeing Reed's confused and troubled expression. "I'm a freshman too, football scholarship. You?"

Reed took the cue and tossed his scrambled thoughts and concerns away. 

"Honors and academics. I'm also in a special program for up-and-coming interstellar engineers, with one other student."

He didn't need to mention that this other student happened to be his roommate, just as young, and not as friendly as his present company.

"I hope to make a star ship one day," Reed added very earnestly. "There's so much we have yet to explore and we're still reaching for the moon. I can't imagine what else lies in space, waiting to be found."

He didn't often share his passions, but he thought that Ben would understand and retaliate with his own. The great unknown that makes up all the stars and planets yet to be discovered, the sheer expanse of space beyond Earth, it's a lot to take in, and Ben took it with a matching ambition for the sky. 

"Tell ya what," his lunchmate said with a wide grin. "Ya make that spaceship an' I'll be yer pilot. I'm goin' to the Air Force once I graduate an' no one's gonna stop me from gettin' my stars."

Reed was positively taken with the idea, so taken that he'd already started to imagine how that would go.

Who knew spilling coffee on a guy produced such amazing results?

"We should shake on it then. I'll take your word for it." Reed put his right hand in the air between them for a good old-fashioned seal of the deal.

Not a second later, Ben took the hand and gave it his best shake, winning smile settled on his face.

With that same zeal he said, "Same time tomorrow?"

 

After a long day spent sitting through mind-numbing physics, Reed was finally on his way to the dorms, glad to finally set his books down. They were incredibly heavy and gave him arm cramps after a long day.

Once inside, he found Victor already at his usual post, shifting through some pages of a biology textbook. 

"Hey," Reed greeted as he set his things on his bed. "How was your day?"

"Uneventful," was his curt reply.

"Oh."

Not much talk happened afterwards, only a murmur, a couple of words and a hummed answer to something. It rattled something in Reed, ears and mind used to the day's rich noise and now twitching with the steady quiet.

Looking back on his lunch with Ben, the young academic found the differences between him and Victor visibly significant. While he warmed up to Ben quickly and rolled easily into his tempo, his reserved roommate was still a slab of ice, thawing at snail speed and mostly giving grunts and nods for answers.

Nevertheless, there was work to be done, and so Reed shoved his uneasiness away for later analysis, took a warm coat for the labs and headed out.

Not before stopping at the door, realizing he forgot something.

"Oh, Victor, um. I apologize for falling asleep yesterday while you were still talking." Embarrassed and fidgety, Reed scratched the back of his head, not knowing what else to do with his hands and fearing for another blunder on his part. "That was...rather rude of me."

Victor only gave him a side glance and didn't break out in anger or indignant bitterness, which was a pleasant surprise and hopefully a change of pace. "You stayed up longer than what I imagined."

Reed breathed a sigh of relief and felt tremendously better with Victor's non-compliment. "No hard feelings then?"

Victor shook his head no and went back to the text.

Reed took it as a win and cheered—internally, not literally. He kept his cool face on, albeit cracking into a smile on some parts. He should buy a pizza, maybe later in the week, in celebration for a successful attempt at holding a conversation with stone-faced Victor actively participating. It should be a large pizza then. That'll show him the wonders of triple cheese. Reed could almost hear Victor's annoyance, complaining about Americans and their weakness for piling fat onto fat.

"Good," Reed said, smiling brightly. "Good. I'm heading down to the labs for a while."

And with that, he headed downstairs, off to check if the new parts for a machine he was building arrived earlier than expected, and upon reaching his personal laboratory he'd confirmed that yes, all the parts were boxed and ready to assemble.

Today was a good day. 

 

The next day wasn't as lively, but he did learn something new.

Same as the day before, Reed went to the highly-esteemed sandwich shop and ordered that famous submarine sandwich everyone was snacking on. He might as well try it now that he was hungry.

It wasn't long before his brawny friend shuffled over to his table, out of the way of the crowd and resting against a window. Ben took the seat across from Reed and greeted him with a lift of his own meal, something with bread and layers of meat that he couldn't identify by sight alone. A heavy tomb of a textbook slammed onto the table while Ben put his bag on the floor and sat comfortably back.

"Hey, kid! Nice ta see ya back again," Ben said before jumping right to the task of devouring his sandwich.

"Hi Ben," Reed looked over his lunch to the book lying on the table. "What's this?"

His blue-eyed friend was already halfway through with his meaty delight when he got enough breathing space in his mouth to answer with. "Oh, 'got an engineerin' class in an hour and I hafta finish this problem but it's uh...not real easy."

"What kind of problem?"

Ben sighed and sipped at his drink a little morosely, which greatly surprised him. Ben was such a cheerful guy, seeing him so glum felt strange, even in their short, one-day old — or rather, one-hour old — acquaintance.

"The math kind," Ben grumbled out. "It's the equation here, I don' even know what it's asking fer." He flipped over to the page where a list of exercises were printed into and forlornly stared at it, willing it to fix its own problems.

An idea wormed up into his head once he set his baby blues back on his smaller, slighter company. Company that also happened to be good at this numerical stuff, probably showered in algebra and breathed statistics. Why hadn't he thought of asking for his help sooner?

"Say Stretch, yer'a smart guy, right? Think ya can dumb this down fer me?"

The request was innocent and good-natured, but Reed has heard it enough times in his life to automatically be wary of upcoming exploits against his smarts. And yet, Ben sounded cordial enough for him to think twice on it. He had only asked for a simpler explanation of his homework, not for his service in solving it for him, so, perhaps it was fine.

"Let me see." Reed tried, leaning forward and turning the book around so he could better see the exercise. It had a demonstration of a plane in motion surrounded by various numbers and letters, helpful to an extent.

A quick read gave him the idea.

"It's an aerodynamics formula," he started, already equating and calculating the answers in rapid fire. "It's purpose is to equate the drag force in any object, in this case an aircraft. It's easy once you understand what each variable is for. Here," he pointed at a capital R hiding at the tail of the plane. "This one's the Reynold's number."

Ben took one long sip of his drink, getting his thinking cap on. He wasn't a genius like Reed, but he would catch on with enough practice and patience.

"An' whats'a Reynold fer?"

Many clumsy explanations and roundabout metaphors later, Ben readied himself and finished his previously troublesome work, but there were still some things that stumped him. 

"So, this's tellin' me that I shouldn't go too fast in'a plane, or else I'll become a grade-A blueberry pancake?"

Reed rubbed the tension out of his temples. That was fast becoming a new quirk of his, and Ben's tendency to make whole mathematical theories into mundane analogies was making it worse.

"Well, G-force—or the gravitational pull if you will—multiplies by speed. The faster you go, the heavier you'll feel." A vacant stare was thrown his way in answer, or perhaps in silent question. Reed almost — almost — sighed. "Yes, Ben, it will tell you at what speed you'll become a 'pancake'. Depending on your weight and mass."

Ben finally cracked after half an hour of constant science-y comments, and it made his accent just that bit more strong. "Why can' dis book jus' tell me whatcha jus' said instead'a dis complicated mess'a words?" 

"The terminology is used for a reason, Ben," Reed argued for the umpteen time.

Ben was having none of it, but he did slow down.

"I mean, why cannit explain it in simple words first, then throw in the fancy words an' do the switcharoo, 'this means that' business? Feels like it woulda been easier fer a lotta people."

Reed couldn't help his smile at the drawled fade-in-and-out Bronx, which made his friend's frown deepen. "This is so strange."

"What, the fancy words?"

"Hm?" Reed realized belatedly he had accidentally spoken out loud. "Oh, no sorry, I was thinking about something else."

Ben set his head on an upturned hand, all ears and ready to talk about something else. "'Bout what?"

Reed wasn't sure if he should say. His thoughts had been drifting back into the strangeness that was his contrasting friendships, and how in one of them he was constantly whacked away with a sharp, ten-foot pole. A pole that sometimes retreated and allowed close contact, but only for an abysmally short time.

Then again, maybe Ben would be able to give him some much-needed advice. 

"All right. So, I have a—roommate—I guess?" He shakily started and followed through. "I could say friend, but, well, he's not really a friend—anyway, he's brilliantly smart, but he's not one for talking much, except, he has his moments, but then he gets angered—"

Reed shook his head to physically stop himself from going down the chatter road any farther. Ben gave no indication of being annoyed, but he did look vexed at Reed's tumbling speech. Reed breathed in deeply.

"My point is, that he still replies to queries and questions, just as long as they're not inanely 'stupid'. But he gets so defensive sometimes, about the simplest things. And I don't understand that about him." Hopelessly, he said, "I don't understand him."

It was alarming how clueless he was about Victor. Perhaps because he always figured out everything with such clarity, and now he was lost and helpless with this new, paradoxical person. Someone smart and brilliant, but isolate, unforgiving of the blind and thoughtless crowd, filled with measured contempt and unafraid of its consequences.

Reed wanted to uncover that rage barely hidden in his dark and knowing eyes, see why it was there, tear it out and watch what happened when there wasn't a barrier in the way. 

It was scary how far his thirst for knowledge went. Like with any enigma, Reed wanted to unwrap it and study it whole, to the last micro particle. And Victor was becoming another enigma he just had to understand. Like his teachers used to say, he couldn't leave well enough alone. He needed to search every variable of every component of every simulation.

He had to know everything, and while people usually escaped his single-minded interest, Victor somehow managed to become the exception to the rule.

Reed had almost forgotten what it was he had asked in the first place when Ben surprised him out of his trance.

"Hafya eva seen the way a kid gets angry at their folks?"

Reed blinked, still recovering what they were talking about. "Pardon?"

"Y'know, mom gives 'er kid some advice and they get all uptight and angry about it?" Ben signaled with one hand how worked up the aforementioned child got, and wholly captured his perplexed friend's attention. With his other hand, he went to signal another thing. "There's a rebellious moment all kids go through with their folks, some go the extra mile, some aren't so bad. They're all temper and zero attention."

Ben pointed a thumb at the side, as if an invisible person sat next to them. "Yer friend sounds like he's still kickin' through it."

Reed finally caught all of Ben's points and joined them to Victor's disagreeable personality.

"You mean he's...just doing it to be against me?"

A shrug was offered in return. "Not just you, fer sure. Everyone in general. Them kids act like ungrateful assholes and hiss at every kind hand in their way. Take it from me, I used ta be one."

He raised his eyebrows, but believed him nonetheless. "What can I do to...not, make him 'hiss'?"

"It's simple." He said. "All ya gotta do is take yer kindness and shove it up his ass."

Reed choked on stale air from the crass phrasing, which — he correctly guessed — was what his burly jock of a friend aimed for since he snickered loudly, unashamed and proud of himself. He waited for the shock to pass before he started talking again.

"It's better ta plant yer nice guy attitude on him without actually bein' nice. Like moms do. Instead of asking 'whadaya want for dinner' they give 'em a plate and call it a day. Kid'll eat it without as much hassle."

The analogy was adequate and Reed found himself agreeing with his friend's point. Having seen and somewhat done so himself, he knew now with certainty that force was necessary for progress.

Which meant he should start being more assertive and firm when he approached Victor, preferably with a plan of action. He should jot down some notes on how to work around a minefield, too. And how to recover from one exploding underneath you.

Grateful for his surly friend's insight, Reed thanked him.

"No problem, kid. I gotta pull my weight too," Ben teased with a clap on his slimmer friend's shoulder. "Can't have ya helping me without return service."

 

Once again, Reed went back to his shared room after classes and walked through his plan of action. He was going to have to be a strong and unyielding conversation starter.

Luckily, his sullen Latverian roommate was always in the dormroom by the end of the day. And there he was, reading another book at the desk, this time something small with the word 'flies' in the title. A novel, probably.

"Victor! I'm glad you're here," he called in hello and promptly walked to his side, showing him a pocket-sized device in the process. "I have a problem here. They're control operations for a small craft I'm working on."

It was a slender radio transmitter, fitted for portability and long-distance wireless communication, but when he turned the switch labeled 'on', static filtered through. 

"The comm doesn't work for some reason and I've already triple-checked the wiring. I'm embarrassed to say I'm not very skilled with this kind of work...but I'm sure you'll understand it better."

Reed, in truth, knew what was wrong with the transmitter, and also knew how to fix it. Mechanics wasn't his strongest talent, but he still did an exceptional job. He needed something to string Victor along though, and having him show off was a great way to establish a reason to talk.

As planned, Victor took the bait with a hint of smugness. "Let me see," he said, taking the little contraption and examining it's makeup quickly but thoroughly. The inside of the radio was more carefully inspected, and after only four seconds, he derived the problem.

Reed was impressed. He worked fast.

"You have two frequencies here, but they're off by point-two hertz." He adjusted the second frequency so they matched and the static instantly died out. "How did you manage to miss that? This is basic."

Reed shrugged, not willing to give a straight answer. "Sorry for bothering you with this," he said instead, and then more curiously added, "How did you learn to wire communication transmitters? From what you've told me, there's no such interest for this type of electrical know-how in the rural plains of Central Europe."

Even though Victor gave an irritated huff, didn't fight him on his query. "You might not remember from the other day but I am Romani. My kind wanders from town to town and whenever we camped somewhere for long, I would take the opportunity and seek a library, or a bookstore. There was always something interesting to read, and I learned much that way."

Reed could imagine him, a curious child rummaging through wooden shelves, exploring both the old and the new alike. Filling the vast space in his mind and absorbing it all, simply because he could. 

"Fascinating."

Victor furrowed his brow and observed the young, peculiar man with a odd tilt to his head. "Why do you want to befriend me so much, Richards. And don't look so surprised, it is very obvious that is what you are trying to do."

Sputtering and caught completely by surprise, Reed retreated into a defensive stance. Why? He had many reasons why, and he hadn't planned on saying any of them, but the words came of their own volition. If Victor wanted a reason, he'd give him one. He'd give them all.

"Because you're not another average human being living in ignorant bliss, you're—different and ingenious, and, andI don't know." He wrung a hand through his hair, high-strung and pulling the short strands harshly. "I've never met someone else like myself, but at the same time, you're not like me, you're something without equal. And—"

Exasperated, Reed threw his arms to his sides and blurted, "What's the point of being smart if no one's there to appreciate it?"

Silence erupted then, heavy and suffocating. Reed just stood there, tense and waiting for—something, it didn't matter what, he just needed to know what Victor was thinking right at that moment. He was prepared for another confrontation this time, he would not—

"You are a very curious American, Richards."

For some inexplicable reason, Reed's face burned red, utterly surprised by the strangely-worded compliment. He was sure it was a compliment coming from Victor, and he would have asked what his foreign friend meant by it, especially why it was necessary to add the 'American' part, but suddenly he'd lost his voice and was only capable of opening and closing his mouth soundlessly.

Being unable to respond made it so Victor had the next word.

"Why are you making a radio transmitter?" he asked faintly, device still in hand but returning it to its taciturn owner. Reed took it automatically and finally managed to strangle a sound out of his clamped throat.

"Huh?"

"I said," Victor repeated strenuously and pointing at the slim metal casing of the radio. "Why are you making a transmitter."

Oh, the skittish youth thought, and smiled to himself. That was the first time Victor ever started a conversation related to his life and affairs. 

"It's a long story," he warned despite his desire to explain exactly what he was making his radio for.

But Victor only quirked a dismissive brow, urging him on with a look and daring him to waste the opportunity.

 

Reed spent the next two hours talking about his prototype satellite-aircraft and had never felt happier to have someone angrily interrupt him to point out radiation resistant panels would be more efficient than corrosion resistant ones.

Chapter Text

Saturday came faster than Reed would have expected, but having the whole day to himself was a good thing. He decided to use all the time he had to work on his projects.

Victor seemed to pick up on the same idea and also went down to his personal labs. Unlike Reed, though, he was not planning on having any company over in his workspace.

"But we could—"

"No," the taller of the two said and promptly shut the door to his lab and went off to make some ruckus that probably involved heavy machinery and electricity-powered saws. 

And that was how Reed found himself tapping a finger on a work table, schematics open and ready to be started but mind not really motivated for his prototype satellite, which was a very odd development. He was usually very eager when he finally had the time to tinker and tamper with his inventions, but right then, his heart wasn't in it.

The sound of cutting metal kept distracting him from the task at hand. Whatever it was that Victor was working on filled him with a restless emotion. What could he be doing? Something large that involved splitting iron apart and welding it together, sounds like. A machine, perhaps? Did it power up, need liquid fuel? Would it even need energy? What if it was the building blocks to something else entirely?

His curious bug was acting up again, gnawing at the fact that he wouldn't be able to find out any time soon. It would not bode well to bother Victor when he's in his space, locked in labor. 

Understandable, but very deterring to the brunette's attempts at getting closer to his wayward roommate. 

'Strategic planning' would have to take place once more, and subtlety was the key. Despite Reed's apparent obviousness, indirectness went the long mile, even when Victor was only playing along for kicks.

Gathering enough wits to walk out on his pointlessly-opened schematics and into the hallway, Reed took a step towards Victor's lab and prepared himself for the worst. He knocked loud enough to be heard over the sheering noise.

Soon enough, the buzzing stopped and the door opened abruptly to the familiar disgruntled face, sporting protective gear. 

"What now," Victor asked, setting his wider frame as if to block entry. Reed pressed on, regardless.

"Remember that transmitter I showed you the other day? You said that platinum coating would be more effective in space compared to a silicone-based coating." Pulling out a rolled blueprint, Reed flashed a rosy smile with a dare. 

"Care to test that theory?"

A slight narrowing of eyes met the printed paper before zeroing in on the unwelcome interruption's face.

 

Victor had agreed. Reed hadn't expected the solid, bitter 'yes', but he wasn't about to complain. He led the way into his work station instead.

A craft — which he was supposed to have been working on earlier — sat in a spacious corner of the lab, still only a metal alloy skeleton. Victor raised a questioning brow at the sketchy framework.

"Work in progress. Never mind that," Reed waved off with a shake of his head. He pointed instead at a large, electrically wired machine against the far wall, shaped like a strange bulky oven. A soft thrumming sound kept trilling out of it. "I got this great new machine hooked up for us to play with. It modulates electromagnetic frequencies, and works as a generator if a power-out happens."

It was an impressive thing, almost reaching the ceiling and taking up quite the space. Reed was proud of it. Victor didn't waste any time though. The search for tools was more of a priority for him.

"Where's the sheet metal shear?"

"Next to the monkey wrench."

He pulled a face that almost made Reed laugh out loud. "'Monkey' wrench?"

Twenty hard-edged minutes later, the metal test sheets were evenly coated and almost ready for experimenting. Tensions were high, Victor was getting snappy and testy, which might not be a healthy combination in a room full of chemical cabinets. Reed had taken the chance to quiz his visitor-slash-unbecoming team player on gamma rays, and they agreed that infrared or ultraviolet was safer testing ground, even if slightly.

The craft in the corner kept catching Victor's attention though. The metal carcass curved like an oval, which was an unusual design for a flying ship. He would have asked, but he was more determined to figure the hows and whys by himself. Victor found it more interesting that way.

"Why are you making a—what was it, a satellite spacecraft?" he asked instead. Reed answered the question happily, unknowing of his friend's curious eye nor his wandering gaze.

"Well, the current space programs NASA's running are great and all, but they're not really progressing with their missions...and if my prototype is successful, this would help push forward the exploration of deep space." Reed scratched his head lightly in pause. He was very hopeful for the success of his prototype, and the subsequent attention it would gain from NASA officials. He might get the chance to lead a mission himself.

"Their current spacecrafts are too slow and they pack a lot of unnecessary metal just with shielding," Reed continued, facing the drying sheets. "I want to fix that, help reach the moon faster. This coating would be just as thin as the regular spray coat, but with careful calibration, it would have over five-hundred percent capacity. That's a good start, I think." 

Victor hummed and tapped the monkey wrench in his hand on the experiment table.

"Will you let go of the monkey wrench already?"

"No."

Once the sheets dried, it was decided that the platinum one would go into the machine first. But in a confusing haze of another argument over which metal would theoretically work best, Reed accidentally put the wrong electromagnetic frequency. Neither of them had noticed the mistake. 

Not until, while they tossed hands in the air and verbally punched each other about kelvin temperatures and solar rays, a fizzing sound came out of the grand machine and lightning sparks showered the internal chamber. 

Both stopped at the same time and kind of stared for a moment. The fizzing was becoming an annoying and worrying sound, escalating up to an electric hum. Neither thought about shutting off the machine until the last moment, when Reed's brain finally clued in that that was not supposed to be happening. He ran the short distance to the power panel to shut it down, but not fast enough to stop the sparks from growing into flames. Trapped oxygen fueled the fire, and soon the oven-machine gave a smokey creak before giving up and exploding in its left side.

Victor finally sprung to action and grabbed a fire extinguisher on a wall. He wielded the red tank like a sword and fed the flames with the white sodium bicarbonate solution, taming it with the same attitude he would a wild mountain lion. Reed's survival instincts weren't as fast or acute so he stood in the middle of the chaos, a little dazed and confused while the white puff of the extinguisher rained on the disaster. Some of the solution landed on his lab coat and ruined a pant sleeve.

A high-pitched beeping sound made itself known by giving Reed a headache. It was probably the fire alarm, which worked five seconds too late. They would have already been dead, in worse scenarios.

Once the fire had been taken care of, Victor settled awkwardly in the middle of the explosion, hair slightly burnt and clothes smelling of smoke and toxins. He still had that damned monkey wrench in his hand, the same hand holding the nozzle of the extinguisher.

Reed worked his lower lip between his teeth. "Well, that could have gone better."

Humor was not what the singed, involuntary firefighter wanted to hear at the moment. Victor's shoulders locked and tensed hard enough for Reed to flinch.

"What did you do? That was not ultraviolet."

"Uh..." Reed ran a hand over his forehead. He looked over the remains of the metal sheets and made a quick assessment. "I think I accidentally set it to microwaves."

"Microwaves!?" Victor shouted. Of all the things that could have happened, microwaves. They put metal in a time bomb and watched it tick down like fat rabbits waiting for a fox to show up. 

Reed didn't take the shouting nicely and for once, he shouted back, adrenaline finally catching up to his untimely nervous system.

"Don't give me that, you were distracting me with your fighting! How was I supposed to know I miss-pressed a button?"

"You double-check."

Another spark flew out of a burned wire and Victor shot at it with an intense ferocity. Reed blinked and set a hand over his eyes, trying to rub the tension out of them and failing. He gave up on that and summed up the damage done to his lab, which was minimal and fixable, but still infuriating.

"Right, well, now I need to fix my blown generator, thank you. Oh, and by the way, I still stand by silicone being better than platinum." He accented the last word by kicking the undamaged side of the blown machine. 

"What about a hard-cover silicone and a platinum inner platting," Victor suggested instead.

Reed hummed, mulling over the idea and finding it satisfactory. He started writing down a formula for combining the two metals when a lab-coated student burst into the room in panic.

 

"What were the two of you thinking? That fire could have put every person in the whole building in danger! Aren't you both supposed to be the best and brightest we have?! Explain yourselves, that was incredibly irresponsible!"

The Dean of Men at the university was a formidable, humorless figure. Young enough to be mistaken for a fourth or fifth year, he looked quite inoffensive and understanding when you saw him from a distance. Get close enough to hear him talk and the reality of his administrative position set in. Doctor Herbert Eagle took his job very seriously, and anyone who was stupid enough to end up in his office for inappropriate behavior, vandalism, or danger to the student body would learn the meaning of the words 'juvenile detention center'.

Despite the possibility of harsh punishment, Reed felt confident enough to be the one to give a calm answer.

"To be fair, sir, it was only a minor explosion. A miscalculation! No one got hurt and we contained the fire—"

"You mean I did," Victor cut in, ruining the moment. "You just stood there while was the one who grabbed the—"

The dean raised a hand and silenced the two with a single look. Reed felt equally fearful and impressed, and hoped Victor would keep his trap shut.

"Mister Richards? Since the fire started in your laboratory, I'll be holding you officially responsible. I'll be taking the repair costs from the money your scholarship grants you, which, lucky for you, won't even put a dent in your bank account. And I don't want to see another minor explosion happen again, are we clear?"

It was a struggle for the young intellectual to not roll his eyes. Logically, his request was impossible. He conceded regardless.

"I cannot control when accidents happen, professor, but you have my word that no intentional fires will be started."

Twin sets of eyes landed on the foreign student, one expectant and the other spelling out in bold letters, 'don't even dare, Victor, now's not the time'.

"I make no promises," was Victor's languid reply.

"That's good enough for me. Dismissed."

 

Two showers and an afternoon later, they found themselves back in the dorm, still smelling like chemical waste bins and burned plastic. It was hot, so Victor hit the air conditioning system and cooled down the room. Too cool, actually, for Reed's taste, but he won't start another fight. He grabbed another blanket from the closet instead and bundled in it to keep warm.

Fascinatingly, his counterpart roommate sat on his bed next to the AC in his sleep clothes, not showing the slightest hint of being cold. The artificial breeze tossed his dusky hair to the right, but not as it would have an an hour ago. Victor had cut the burned fringes off after his shower and now it landed a little shorter, close to his scalp but long enough to curl around a finger. It was a good look on him.

Reed wrapped the blanket tighter around himself.

"Hey," the chilly genius called to his lax friend. "I'm sorry for taking up your free time today. I don't know what you were working on, but I took you from your lab to test a slab of metal, and messed the experiment up in the end..."

Not to mention that they ended up being chastened by the dean of men for his mistake. That was really lousy. If he recalled correctly from past conversations, the Dean was singularly responsible for Victor's transfer from his home country to the States. Reed would hate for his friend's good status to change because of a little fire.

"Don't apologize. It's unbecoming."

Reed looked up from his layered den and saw that Victor wasn't bothered about the day's events. Sure, he wore his customary frown, but overall, no irritation or discontent was present in his voice. Well, there was some of it, actually, aimed at Reed's feeble attitude. Victor didn't agree with his roommate's meek nature.

"It was...interesting," Victor started again with a hint of humor in his words. "And seeing the Dean again was a surprise. It is good to know he still has that steel in him."

"Whatever it is you're thinking, don't," the blanket-hoarding adolescent almost begged, because whatever Victor was thinking about, could not end well for anyone. His type of humor did not sound friendly, this coming from a guy who witnessed firsthand how levelheaded his towering friend was in a chaotic scenario and how nonchalant he acted about said chaotic scenario.

Victor didn't even try to look innocent about his possibly-sinister implications either. 

"I'm not thinking anything," he still said, playing the age-old game of 'I didn't say anything, and you didn't hear anything'. It made Reed smile.

"Liar."

 

The room had cooled enough for Victor's preference, it seemed. He turned the condensing system off — to Reed's great joy — and rested more comfortably on his bed. Unfortunately, it was getting late, and both of them had skipped lunch after the minor explosion in the lab in favor of a good, long shower. Neither was willing to leave the dormroom either after a craptastic day full of disappointed stares from the Dean and his secretary. 

Reed remembered the phone line in the hallway and got a wonderful idea.

"I'm ordering in," he told Victor as he got up from the bed to put on some shoes. "You want some pizza?"

"I happen to like pizza." Which was as good a yes as any. Suspicion rose in Victor though, and he squinted at the eagerness Reed was showing for just some slices of pizza. "...There's a catch, isn't there." 

Reed didn't bother to agree nor deny. Not that he could, he'd already left the room and was at the phone, calling the pizzeria.

"Yes, hello, I'd like a large triple cheese pizza, and a side order of breadsticks—and can you put cheese on the breadsticks too? ...Great!"

He was starving.

Chapter Text

A month came and went, bringing October's festive zest and educational stress. The summer clouds started packing and winter breezes rolled in to take their places, just as midterms approached in a flurry. Many teens took the pressure badly. Reed was, unfortunately, one of them.

On the bright side, it has been a month since the lab incident, and Victor's sharp personality was becoming a normal everyday thing. The boy-teen was starting to find Victor's deadpan humor — which was really just laughing at other people's idiocy — charming, in a strange way.

The Latverian wasn't actively mean, really, just, coarse with his choice of words and brutally honest, and very open about his opinions. Which tended to sound…mean. Mean and rude.

At least he wasn't sore on the eyes. Reed would even dare to say that Victor was an attractive man. Too attractive, in fact. More attractive than the cheerleading girls in the campus, Reed would secretly think, and those girls were an inhuman level of classic beauty.

Reed never noticed just how attractive Victor was until it hit him in the face, and he means literally hit him in the face, to his utmost embarrassment.

It happened nearly a week ago, when their ‘dearest’ math professor had to leave early on a faculty meeting. Naturally, the class split and almost trampled to the door in thrilling liberation. And Reed would have made a run for the door too, but it had been a hot day, so he took his time putting his notes into his backpack instead of getting caught in the mass of sweaty limbs plowing a path to the doors.

Reed had not seen there were still people cluttering in the middle when he stood up to leave. His focus was entirely on getting his backpack over his shoulder at the time, so the poor sucker walked right into Victor's sleeveless left bicep, face first, to his greatest dismay.

Understandably, Reed was left stunned for a few seconds. The first thought that rolled through his head was, Wow — okay, you're real fit for someone who never lifts weights, and he would have said it too, but his stun reaction was still in effect, and Victor’s arm was a soft, warm pillow against his face. A nice pillow too. Would be nicer to feel that tender limb more often.

Victor, who finally realized there was a Reed attached to his side, grunted in aggravation over the boy’s clumsiness and shrugged Reed off with a brisk, "Get off, Richards, your sweating is disgusting."

Reed spent the rest of that afternoon, with the still-dry sweat of his roommate on one side of his face, flustered and confused. So flustered, in fact, he hadn’t even considered washing his face.

And now here he was, nearly a week later, sitting on a squeaky chair with a hoagie in hand, thinking back and freaking out about, about—he didn’t know what about, but he was freaking out, yes.

"Hey, Stretch, what's wrong?"

He was sitting at their usual spot in the sandwich shop, with Ben leaning back and resting a foot on a chair he dragged over from a nearby table. His burly friend crossed his arms and looked at Reed with squinted eyes.

"Is it midterms? ‘Cause I totally getcha, kid."

"What? Ah, no," Reed scratched an arm, picking at his fingernails and avoiding looking directly at Ben for as long as possible. He was not going to have a talk about—whatever it was that he was thinking over, not until he picks at the feeling a little more and gains some precious data from it. "I mean, yeah, I'm a little worried about midterms is all." Midterms, of course, that’s a good enough excuse for now.

Well, Ben didn’t look like he was buying it.

"That's not why yer twitchy, is it."

Ben’s tone was a little serious, a little worried, and a little too much for Reed to directly lie to. So he shook his head no, looking properly scolded, but he was not about to shed some light on the matter. Let Ben guess as much as he likes.

And Ben, despite the laws of probability, actually did guess. In a way.

He crossed his arms and huffed softly in return, thinking for just a second, because if his skinny little genius friend was acting strangely, it usually meant one thing.

"Is it that guy again? Victor whatzisname?"

There was something to be said about Benjamin’s people skills, because he managed to make Reed feel shock, embarrassment to the point of blushing furiously, and cold dread in his gut all in the span of three seconds.

He must look like a ripe apple by the heat coming off of his cheeks. 

Reed really didn’t know what to say to that. He wasn't about to admit Ben had guessed right — not that he needed to, it was written on his face — but, how do you explain to a guy-friend that you might think another guy is…attractive? Victor is attractive, yes, but, how to explain that without making it sound like he only found guys attractive, and not girls too.

Reed decided this is a conversation he was not having, and so said, "Didn't you have something important to tell me?"

Ben, swell guy that he is, let the previous conversation drop. He’s a good friend, and good friends don’t embarrass friends in public. They do it in private, with enough beer to make it sound funny and not as horrible as the mind remembers. He'd tease this out of Reed later.

But right now, he had other things on his mind. "That’s right! There's a frat party after finals hit in December, and yer goin'."

"A...'frat party’?"

Oh, the poor sucker doesn’t know what a frat party is! This is going to be even greater than Ben could have ever imagined.

Reed, noticing Ben’s sudden excitement at getting a chance to explain something, didn’t think a frat party was a quiet party, the kind that people go to be reasonable teenagers that do reasonable things. Oh no.

"Fraternity,” Ben started simply, “Durin' breaks, fraternities like ta host parties fer good ol’ fun, and mine’s havin' one at the end o' the semester. It's gonna be great, promise, and if it’s yer first, ye hafta come."

Determination was lining Ben’s big blue eyes, and Reed's a weak man to puppy eyes, so he agreed, if a bit worried over what ‘good ol’ fun’ involves.

"Alright. I guess I could go but, I'm not much of an outgoer..."

"It s'okay, I'll just show y'around the place then. Frat parties can get a little...intense," Ben said with a slight cringe.

Intense. Well, Victor’s intense on a good day, and insufferable on a bad one, maybe he could handle it.

Looking at the time, though, Reed saw that he was already running a little late to arrive early for his next class. "Right. If you'll excuse me, Ben, I have to go study."

"Don't break yer noggin'."

 

When Reed went back to his dorm room later that day, he found it empty. That was a normal happenstance these days, with all the projects Victor’s got running. And better for now. Reed had some thought-probing to do, and a shower to take.

On his way to the bathroom door, he saw that the cabinet of the desk is open, a peek of old rusty red showing at the bottom. He briefly remembered the book he’d seen Victor read at various times, but before he could think about secretly checking it out or closing the cabinet for privacies sake, Victor came in and saw him standing in the middle of reaching out to the cabinet’s handle.

"Richards," Victor called none too kindly.

Reed pulled his hand back in a jerk and turned around fully, nodding hello as nonchalant as he can while ignoring how Victor was looming menacingly over him. "Oh, hey."

Victor was not a dense man. He knew exactly what Reed had considered doing. He’s clearly not happy about it, but he’s not terribly peevish about it either, if Reed was reading his frown correctly, so that meant Reed has been given implicit permission to snoop, but if he summoned Victor’s rage, he really should have known better.

More likely than not, Victor was either humoring him, or too tired to care at the moment. Or looking for a fight. Or a combination of all three.

Gingerly picking the book out of the cabinet, Reed peeked at a page with open interest. All he saw, in return, was an almost-smudge scribble that could be words, but ‘words’ might be too strong a word for those swirl lines that blended into each other.

The confusion written across his face pulled a knowing smile out of Victor, but Reed's eyes were fully on the writings, puzzled, and he missed it entirely.

Looking closely at the single words he could make out, Reed was certain the book was written in a Latin alphabet, or a variant of, but it might be in cursive, and that's plain unfair to his guessing abilities. He tried scrolling through the other pages to see if he could recognize anything but it was the same scribbly-lined, uniformed mess at every page, some geometric drawings interrupting the flow of letters every now and then.

"Say, um,” Reed built the courage to look up at Victor and shrunk back a little because he was right there, hovering, and staring intently with his off-color brown eyes. “What's this written in?" He eventually squeaked.

"Latverian."

"Latverian?" He parroted and, well, it made sense at least, that in Latveria the inhabitants would speak Latverian. But he wasn’t familiar with the small country and it wouldn’t do well to assume things about places and people he didn’t know.

Gathering himself a step away from Victor’s imposing frame, Reed opened the book wider, careful of its spine, and asked, "What does it say?"

"Nothing that would interest,” Victor gruffly said and waited for Reed to grow bored with the thing, but his words seemed to be doing to opposite effect and it was making Victor twitchy. “It is just an old book of my mother's."

Patience running thin, the tower of a man sent him a nasty glower and pried the book out of Reed’s hands only to shove it under an armpit.

Oh, Victor should not have said that it was ‘just an old book’. Now Reed was really curious about it, and curious meant rudely nosy, which Victor hated with a passion.

Curious also meant manners were unimportant in the grand scheme of things: knowledge.

Eager and renewed with energy and a bit of playful fun, now it was Reed’s turn to hover over Victor’s shoulder and tried grabbing the red-leathery cover for a second look. "Can you translate it?"

"No."

The book was switched to Victor’s other hand, but didn’t deter Reed who grabbed at it again and failed by a slim margin. "But—"

"I said no," Victor warned for a second time but Reed was not one to give up easily after witnessing Victor’s gruff demeanor on a daily basis. He scrambled for the heavy tome, but Victor, having the greater height advantage, pulled it out of his reach and over his head each time. They were beginning to look like kindergarteners fighting over a favorite toy, with the little muttered ‘please?’s Reed kept giving and the constant flow of ‘I’m not giving it to you', 'you’re scratching me', 'I ought to push you out the window’ retorts, each promising more and more violence, until finally the taller of the two side-stepped into the bathroom, where he shut the door hard, locked himself in, determined to camp out the night in if need be.

Reed realized, taking a moment to catch his breath over his bed, that he had yet to wash up and change into his bedclothes. He found himself reconsidering if, perhaps, today was another battle lost, but he got to horse around without Victor crowding him with serious anger — threats and warnings aside — so maybe that was a small win on its own.

Some time later in the night, Victor came practically barreling out of the bathroom, to Reed’s hidden gratitude, but after busying himself with a quick rinse that he sorely wanted, Reed lost track of where the book went. Victor had hidden it, the paranoid imp, and had fallen asleep with purpose.

 

The next evening, Reed had arrived a little later than usual and found his frustratingly smart roommate — he hid that damnable Latverian antique of his really well — over a physics textbook, possibly reading ahead of what he was supposed to study.

Victor didn’t study. He found reading already-discussed material tedious, and Reed did too, to an extent, but studying was a refreshing pastime for the lively teen. Studying wasn’t on Reed's mind when he lifted a mattress and searched fruitlessly under it for a book that must surely be somewhere in their dormroom.

Victor was openly ignoring him and all the shuffling the determined youth was making.

"I'm just curious," Reed grumbled as he kept rummaging around, patting the mattress here and there. Maybe there was a wide hole in it?

There was no answer from Victor, just the sound of a page being flipped.

"It looked very old,” he tried again to no avail, and got only silence in reply.

Sitting down on the floor, Reed sighed into knees and gave a sad little shrug, mood graying. For some inexplicable reason, curling there with his legs folded up to his chin and slim hands over his ankles, Reed felt like a little boy cuddling into his mom’s legs and leaning back for a hug. Which lead him to think, when was the last time he had comfort in the shape of a warm body wrapping their arms around him? Reed had never been an affectionate man, or one for touchiness, and the only person who ever voluntarily gave him hugs was his mother when she’d been alive, or an estranged family member that had met him for the first time.

But to seek someone out because he was feeling a tad bit neglected or alone? No, he was more of the 'hunker down in a lab and ignore those unnecessary feelings’ type. They went away after a while, and so it would be now too. But it didn’t make the waiting any better.

His thoughts had turned back on the short, embarrassing incident between himself and the broodingly quiet man next to him and how he had wanted to rest against that solid weight for a few more seconds.

Perhaps it wasn’t a hug what he wanted, but the warmth of it, Reed thought a little bitterly and shuffled to his side of the room. Still resting on the floor, he pulled his bedsheet off his bed to wrap around himself and considered it a poor replacement, but much more preferable to asking for comfort, especially if the only available option was Victor, who he was beginning to annoy only because it was a change of routine and mildly entertaining.

It was all so childish, a small part of him quietly spoke up, thinking he should hurry up and forget his fixation with the big red book, and his sudden loneliness. And playing around with Victor’s responses for fun. He should be a responsible, capable adult who had control over silly little feelings and didn’t nose around other people’s belongings.

And it was with that thought settled in his head that Reed sat up and crawled over his bed to go to sleep early, not bothering to change his clothes.

Reed didn’t notice the gaze lingering on him, intelligent eyes mulling over secret things and people who could be worthy of knowing them.

 

One whole day passed in a sluggish rhythm, and when next Reed came back to his shared dorm, he was unexpectedly welcomed by a candlelit graph on the desk with a rabbit's foot.

A rabbit's foot. On the desk. Of all the things that could have been on that desk, the dead flesh of a small animal surrounded by wax candles—wax! Dripping on the wood desk! What if they left discolored spots? Oh, he is not cleaning that up.

Needless to say, it was bizarre, a lot more than the usual. Small cogwheels and loose wires? That was normal, acceptable. But a rabbit's foot?

"It is a luck charm," came the reply to Reed's silent questioning.

Victor let his presence be known from the kitchenette with the light ringing of glass touching ceramic. He was fixing himself a drink, and from the looks of it, red wine.

"Ever heard of a rabbit's foot for good luck?"

"Is that alcohol?"

Victor frowned at the Reed’s disapproving stare and pointedly took a sip from the glass. Reed, as always in Victor's mind, was being an impossible little man and mentioning the most obvious of things, completely bypassing the whole point.

At the quiet judging of his character, Reed sighed out, "Yes, I've heard of 'good luck' charms. Ridiculous things like four-leaf clovers, horseshoes and such.... But there's no founded science behind them being ‘lucky’, it’s all superstition."

"And traditional remedies have no founded science behind them either, besides old wives' tales, yet we listen to them, and some even work. Ever wonder why?"

Reed was about to interject with something snippy — trial and error was an underlined factor in old medicine, he was not ignorant — when Victor decided to grab the rabbit's foot and shoved it in his pocket

Grimacing in disgust and a little bewilderment, Reed looked up to his roommate for an answer because clearly Victor had lost his mind in the last twelve hours. Maybe the heat was finally getting to him.

"It is for the upcoming exams,” the possibly-deranged guy eventually explained with an eyebrow lift that screamed obviously, what else would it be for? “Luck is always a good thing to have."

Right. "And I suppose having a dead thing in your pocket is sanitary," Reed muttered to himself and straightened up when Victor’s stare turned into a glower. "So, that's what your book talks about? ...Magic?"

Victor just blinked, either a yes or a no. Reed scratched his head and shrugged.

"How does it work? I mean, does it actually work? It doesn't look like it'll work."

It shouldn't work, realistically speaking. Magic was the antiquated way of explaining how natural phenomenon happened, the pseudo-science of ages past. Brother to alchemy, first cousin twice-removed to astrology and divination. He doesn't see what Victor, a man of logic and true brilliance, would find useful about a faux branch of science.

(And didn’t he tell himself that he would forget about the book and its foreign contents?)

From the looks of it, Victor saw the disbelief rattling around Reed’s head as clear as day, and something in his gaze shuttered.

"You wouldn't understand, Richards," he said with a disappointed tone.

"Wouldn't, or shouldn't?"

"Couldn't."

Well, that was just an uncalled for blow to his pride and intellect. Now he had a point to prove.

"Try me."

Victor, on the other hand, is not going to ‘try’ him on account that he himself has a hard time explaining how magic is even supposed to work in English. It's not like he expected Reed to understand anyway.

Still, he gave it a moment’s thought, because Reed was not one for giving up easily once his attention was drawn.

"There is no need to prove how it works. It does without reason, it is—"

Reed's brain wasn’t up to deal with all this right now, and after the words ‘it does without reason’ filtered into his ears, thinking process kind of shut down. Victor’s mouth was moving, yes, and words were being said, but even that was too complicated at the time.

But he was determined to investigate that little ‘charm’ later. There are two midterm tests to be had the next day, and Reed needs to refresh his memory on a couple of notes.

"I'm going to go hit the books,” Reed blatantly interrupted, completely disregarding the fact that Victor paused mid-sentence and looked at him like he could set him on fire with the power of his glare. “Physics test tomorrow. Shower first," he tried weakly in his defense, and went to take that shower as soon as he finished talking.

His people skills still need refinement. That was horribly rude, but Victor has done worse, really, and that rabbit foot won’t be going anywhere.

Reed's actions spoke differently, though, and so Victor took it as a sign that he had given up on the matter.

Which he should have known, really. Magic was something Western scientists scoffed at, even joked about. Called it inferior, a foolish notion. Magic was something only stupid people believed in, in their minds. A child's fancy. He's met enough simpletons who were daring enough to laugh at him to know that.

He moved over to his candles to clean up the wax and wipe the desk. He should have known Richards would be like them. 

Before he could start blowing off the candles, a water-dripping head of hair popped out of the bathroom door and hurriedly said, "Don't move anything! I want to study it later!" and shot back inside, leaving a few specks of water on the floor.

Victor quirked an eyebrow at him and left the desk as it was.

Perhaps he was wrong about Reed. Too odd and fussy anyhow.

 

If there is one universal truth the odd and fussy boy named Reed was completely sure of it was that midterms were created to secretly murder students with stress and work.

It was near six and a half in the evening, and he missed lunch on his way to his second test of the day. He was hungry, tired and felt emotionally abused. Still, Reed got back to the dorm without tripping on his own two feet on the way up the stairs, crashed on a bed, sniffed at the waxy smell that lingered in the air and fell asleep immediately. No use eating now anyway. Too exhausted and brain dead for that. Maybe after a well-needed nap.

The nap worked wonders for his weary muscles, at least. But he was still disoriented when his sleep was disturbed, and the darkness outside the window didn't help him place the time.

And he had woken unnaturally, not by his own body's sleep clock. There was a hand on his shoulder shaking him slightly, someone saying something about being on the wrong bed?

Groggy with rest and not really fully awake, Reed tried getting up because something about that was important, but the rumble of a voice just said, "Never mind, this isn't working," and so he took it as his cue to go back to sleep.

 

When Reed next woke up, sun not yet risen from the horizon and stomach rumbling in hunger and regret, he felt it strange that the light from the window was closer to his face than usual. Was it already seven in the morning? That wasn't right...

It was when he sat up that he realized with mounting horror, This is not my bed. 

I am on Victor's bed.

I fell asleep on Victor's bed.

Of all the things—! Wait.

Where's Victor—

Oh. No.

It was worse than he could possibly imagine. There was Victor, sitting on his bed, arms crossed and wearing that infuriating tank top with no sleeves.

And with his arms crossed and the dawn light falling just over the top of his hair, he looked like he fell right out of a men's fashion issue of Esquire's magazines. Just toss him a suit and he'd fit right in.

There was no dignity to what Reed did after that. He shot out of his—Victor'sbed, stomped into the bathroom to wash his mouth and quite possibly ran out of the room, leaving a somewhat confused Victor to get something to eat because he is not handling this in the morning on an empty stomach.

He has class in two hours anyway.

Chapter Text

Breakfast at the diner was nice, and so was lunch. Reed's stomach appreciated the food input greatly after missing so many meals the previous day.

His anxiety, on the other hand, had time to evolve into guilty insecurity because he really did run away from his own (shared) room. He hasn't run that fast since he broke apart a blender to make a spray gun and his mother found out! 

How is he supposed to explain himself? "Sorry I slept in your bed and ran away in the morning, it's just that you're intimidatingly attractive"? 

Hmm. There he goes again thinking about that problematic word, attractive. It wasn't even a problem, per se. Reed was just a little...overwhelmed. Outside of his element. Physical attraction was never something he noticed about a person. Well, once in a blue moon, maybe, with the right lighting.

Besides, it's not as if everyone notices that stuff all the time. 

Right? 

...Maybe he should ask Ben about that. 

 

As Reed later learned, it turns out people do think about how good-looking everyone is, all the time. They even have clubs about it on campus and betting pools over who's hooking up with who on the cheersquad and football team. Real money, Ben says. According to him, it's the next best thing to tv 'round here. 

People are weird.

Then again, people thought he was weird. Which reminded him about someone else who was six feet tall and weirder. And in their dormroom, possibly with that rabbit foot still in his pocket. 

"Alright. Tell me about the rabbit foot."

Victor looked up from his class notes to find Reed's hopeful — and terribly confusing — smile. Reed had squabbled out of the room in the morning with some sort of purpose, and now here he was, as if it had all been a dream or a vivid hallucination. Victor hated inconsistent variables. 

Reed, of course, was oblivious of his roommate's actual thoughts and strode on.

"The rabbit foot? And the strange scribble on the desk? Please explain."

Victor pulled his usual uncooperative frown and waved a hand as if to shoo Reed away.

"I need to sleep, Richards."

Despite his words, Victor did not move from the chair and instead continued reading.

"Please, just Reed, not Richards. And the mathematics test was moved to next week. And it's not that late." 

As if to make a point, Reed sat on the bed as close as he could to the desk without bumping into it and waited. 

And waited some more, for a good ten minutes.

Three sighs later, Victor finally got tired of the determined look Reed was making at him and the furtive glances he kept giving the writing on the study desk. Ridiculous. Victor started talking—not because he caved in. Victor was not a man who caved in to anyone's command, he only took pity on the boy. Plus his staring was getting annoying.

"I already told you all there is to say. My charm does not follow whatever notion of physics you have of it."

"But how," he said, interested in the science behind that claim. "You saying 'it works' won't simply make it work. Give me a solid premise, Victor, objects don't have a will of their own." 

Victor almost barked something vicious, beyond tired of Reed's misplaced boldness, but a budding idea stopped him. English ultimately was lacking the right...the proper words. Word links. Word suffixes? It was lacking something-he-didn't-know-in-English, which was beyond frustrating. In Latverian he could say the charm worked-around-with reality. But he can't even say that flimsy excuse of a sentence because it wasn't adequate enough.

So without that, he might need to express himself in something other than words for Richards to understand. He'll need a demonstration.

Ignoring any oncoming drivel from Reed's mouth, Victor stood up and stepped quickly into the kitchenette, drawing two glass cups from a cabinet.

"Visualize this, Richards, it cannot be so difficult." He held one cup in front of his dumbfounded audience, saying in a very serious tone, "This is a cup, yes?"

"Yes."

"How do you know it's a cup?"

"Well," Reed started, confused as to where this was going. "Because it fits into the parameters of what a 'cup' is, by definition."

"What if I told you it was not a cup."

The young boy blinked, not catching the intended meaning behind the phrase. Were they going to talk conceptual skepticism over drinking cups? If so, Reed would persist.

"But it is a cup." 

Victor dipped his head forward very slightly. "And how do you know that?"

"Because it is! You use it to drink and, measure sometimes, and it has the basic structural features of a cup."

And, in the most brilliant of answers, Victor dropped one cup, shattering it with the force of the fall across the floor. From the shock of the noise, Reed jumped farther back into his bed, away from any flying stray pieces. "Why did—!"

But before he could start yelling about the mess—and demand why that had been necessary—, Victor cut in with, "Is it still a cup now?"

Reed blinked, again. And paused for a moment.

"No." He frowned. He still did not understand why Victor was focusing so much on the question of the cup. "Now it's smashed into a couple dozen pieces of glass."

"So it is a broken cup."

"Yes, it's a broken cup, Victor." Really, why was Victor being redundant, there was glass on the floor that needed cleaning and he was not going to be the one to do it.

"So then, it is still a cup."

"No—", Reed stopped, lingering on the words. A broken cup. He wrung his eyebrows in even greater confusion and looked again at the floor.

It wasn't a terrible mess, since the cup had shattered into big pieces, not small shards that could be found later pinching toes. He still didn't see the point of the act. What did broken glass have to do with a magic charm?

But Victor had some form of hope in Richards' logically-driven intelligence. This time, he pulled the rabbit foot out of his left pant pocket and opened his hand for Reed to see fully. 

"It is a cup. Just like this," Victor gestured at the foot, "Is luck. It does not matter what form it has now, the object still is."

Well, when he put it that way, Victor wasn't wrong, technically. It was a sound thought, curious though it may be. In theory, the cup was a broken cup, and therefore a type of cup. But...

Reed wrung his eyebrows together. "How does that translate to...magic?"

"It does not matter what form it has now, the object still is," Victor repeated curtly, patience wearing thin.

"You're saying," he paused again, running the information backwards and forwards in his head. "You're saying the foot used to be luck, but now it has another form, like that of the glass."

Victor nodded.

Metaphysical conservation, Reed thought, utterly fascinated. That all matter of things could be easily conserved in terminology. But theory and reality did not always match, and now Reed was left even more confused over the charmed foot's origin.

"Hold on Victor, if the rabbit foot is supposed to be luck, then according to what you're proposing, what was it before? What is 'luck', then? How do you turn a thing like luck into something real and physical? And when does it stop being 'lucky'?"

There were holes in the theory. Big, blatant ones like Abstract Concepts and Transitions A-to-C that started out rational and led vaguely to what they have in front of them now, and as Reed kept analyzing what he's being presented with, Victor bent down to pick up each shard.

"Luck," Victor began once he gathered all the pieces in the other cup he'd brought, "Is uncontrollable. Luck measures the probability of an occurrence, but it is unpredictable and therefore, at random. This is why it is easy to manipulate, because it holds no strong ties to any laws or rules. As for when does it stop being luck..." 

With a little twist of a wrist, Victor pulled at one of the shards inside the extra glass, but instead of it coming off as it was, broken and cracked, it stuck to another piece, and another. A harder tug didn't separate them. Instead, they seemed to stick to one another like glue until they all came off together, in the shape of a new glass, scratch-free and without a single imperfection.

"...It needs to only remember what it was before."

Reed, understandably, stared for a moment, trying to reason how that could possibly happen. That cup had been broken a second ago. And now it wasn't.

Victor, however, held the previously-shattered glass in one hand and flashed it wondrously in the light of the room, quite proud of himself. "This most basic of arts is called transmutation," and with his other hand, he lifted the rabbit's foot higher. "And this, transfiguration. Adding certain symbols, saying a few words and performing certain rituals turns it into Sorcery, and then it is no longer part of a science, but just as effective." 

Reed rubbed his forehead, perplexed not so much by Victor's words but by what he had done with his own two hands. Mulling over everything he's been told, it still didn't click in his brain that Victor—fascinating and completely-nonchalant-about-it Victor!—could just will an object into restoring itself. 

Either way, one thing was for sure.

"I hate magic. And I'm not satisfied with that explanation."

Victor shrugged one shoulder in indifference. "That does not discredit what I have just shown you."

Yes, of course. But Reed would stand his ground on finding a scientific reason for whatever it was that Victor did. And magic—Magic!—was not scientific. Not one bit.

"And Richards."

"Hm?" Lost in thought, again, Reed didn't notice when, exactly, did Victor get so close. He was practically standing on top of him, and the height difference of about four inches didn't help at all. Reed flustered a little.

"Don't sleep on my bed again."

"Um, yes of course—I mean—won't, happen again." 

Right. Time to shut up now and clean up that candle-wax mess. Or more accurately, have Victor do it, the whole thing being his mess and all. Reed had other things to do, like not think about how many theories of the scientific community had just crumbled feebly because of a tiny gesture and minimal effort.

This did not mean he didn't think about it the next day.

Analyzing faux-science — Reed refused to start calling it magic — was exhausting work, however. Writing down notes on it, even more so. There was a whole process to it. First, he had to break down how the event happened from both a scientific point of view and a non-scientific point of view (it may be very helpful in this instance). Then came the hypotheses. His notebook was looking splotchy with ink already from all the writing he did in the middle of the night. 

Ben, who had been glancing over and around Reed's shoulder for the past few minutes, worked himself into a knot just seeing Reed working himself into a knot. And the little fella's been staring the same page for over five minutes. That wasn't very Reed-ish, unless he finally busted a brain-vessel.

"Y'done reading that?"

"What?"

He's repeated that same phrase twice and now Ben's getting answers. The poor sucker even looked around their usual spot like he'd forgotten where he was. Must be something really important if Reed's that out of his wits.

"Somethin' goin' on, Beanstalk? Y'look awful serious."

That pulled a smile out of Reed. "So it's beanstalk now?" Trust Ben to try a new moniker every couple of weeks to spice up the routine.

Ben didn't say anything else, though. He just stared at his friend, quite used to Reed's tendency to divert questions when he didn't want to talk about whatever was going on in his life.

Reed sighed. "It's nothing, Ben. I'm just tired." For show, he flipped around a few pages to clarify 'of this'.

"Yeah, I getcha. Good thing it's Thursday! Week's almost over."

"I guess," he mumbled. He was starting to regret staying up until 3 a.m. Ben, too, noticed the darker bags under Reed's eyes.

"Ya look like y'need some sleep."

"Trust me, I've had enough rest." On beds that weren't his own.

Whether or not his muscly friend believed him, he didn't say. Ben only glanced away, over to the front door where one of his football pals stood waving. He flashed the guy a winning smile and hollered him over for a shoulder pat-hug, the kind that carries a lot of force.

They have a minute to themselves, talking about the last game and a coach practice, while Reed just observed from his seat. There's a moment where, between a joke they share about athlete's foot and something to do with the field plays, Reed looks over Ben — really looks — and sees how charming he is, physically. Ben's got the big baby blues and a sharp jawline that belongs in the big screen.

It wasn't often that Reed noticed people's aesthetically pleasing qualities. But with Victor it was...different. Not the same, not exactly. He doesn't get distracted with Ben's athletic looks. Not like he sometimes did with Victor. 

Reed's been watchful enough times in the past couple of months to know that Victor was fit, built with the muscle a wandering countryman needed to survive. It showed when he bent down to pick something up, or when he was working a kink out of his back. His very broad back. It made Victor look much older. And they were practically the same age. Yet, the differences were glaring. 

But what really drew in Reed's attention were Victor's eyes. Maybe it was the clashing mannerisms between their two cultures, but Victor tended to focus on someone's face and stare when he spoke to them. As if assessing their worth. And Reed, who never really looked at people in the eye, felt more like a fly under a microscope, twitchy and itching to fly away.

For some illogical reason, he liked, and hated, the attention. Simultaneously. 

Somewhere in the middle of all that thinking, Ben's teammate said his goodbyes and went on over to another part of the joint, leaving Ben to settle down again with his quiet company. He didn't notice much different with Reed, so he left it at that. But something else did catch his interest.

"Hey Reed."

Brought out of his reverie, and blushing in embarrassment at where his mind trailed off to, Reed glanced up at Ben with a questioning hum.

Ben just nodded his head to the side and gave him a pointed half-smile.

"Two o'clock," he said. "Over yer shoulder."

Turning back in that direction, Reed didn't see anything of importance. He only spied a group of girls two tables back. Judging from the letter seamed onto their jackets, they were part of the swim team.

"The one with the red top," Ben drawled on. "She's a good sport, smart too. A real beauty."

Confusion sparked in Reed's happily oblivious mind. Had he missed something? Was the girl a friend of Ben's? There must be something he's not getting. 

Ben frowned. "Not yer type?"

Type? Did he mean...type to go out with? 

"Well," the young boy started, because he had to move this conversation along, even if he didn't understand why it was brought up. "She's very pretty." The 'but I'm not interested' was implied as plainly as possible without outright saying it. Sadly, the message got lost in translation.

"So, not yer type? In general?" The jock quipped with a raised eyebrow.

"Oh." Was Ben suggesting...girls in general? "Uh, well, I'm not—" Not gay?

Well, he's kind of half-gay, half-straight, so maybe that would be a half-lie. He doesn't really find people interesting that way either. He's not completely uninterested though. It was just...a rarity.

"I guess," Reed continued eventually after many frustrated faces on his part. "What I mean is, dating isn't my...thing."

Ben's eyebrow went a little higher. 

Shrugging seemed like the perfect dismissal. If not, Reed would have to clarify that he never liked the whole 'dating' process, and then Ben will ask him how many dates he's been on, and Reed will answer none. He could almost hear Ben's incredulous, "Then how d'ya know it's not yer thing if ya haven't tried it?" 

Ben, too, offered a shrug, drinking the last of his coffee with a swig. He didn't get how a smart guy like Reed wouldn't want to go out with a pretty girl when he's got the chance, but he ain't one to judge.

Reed furrowed his brow in thought. He didn't want to land on an awkward note with his one and only friend (You-Know-Who didn't count).

"You wouldn't have a problem with me being...?"

Ben shook his head. "Nah, Stretch. S'not my business."

Reed smiled. He hoped that one day he could work up the nerve to properly explain to Ben how he felt about others. But before that, he'll have to work that out himself.

"Tell ya what," Ben said as he stood up from his chair. "I'm gonna get more coffee. And then we talk 'bout the party. Yeah?"

The younger boy gave him a nod, and off went Ben to get himself another unnecessary cup of coffee. His fourth this day. Reed was starting to worry for him. That was not going to go well for him later in the afternoon.

But before Ben could return to their usual hangout table, some guy bumped into his shoulder, hard as a brick, and coffee spilled over Ben's unfortunate jersey front. 

Reed only saw the last half of the accident and cringed. Looks like that jersey was getting another new memorable stain.

There was a commotion building up afterwards, which was odd. Ben was never one for unpleasantries on the first meet, even ones like these. Reed was far away enough that he couldn't make out much of what was being said, but the guy in question was obviously not being agreeable, if the stiffness in Ben's shoulders was to be trusted, and he prattled on loud enough to—oh no.

Reed had never burst into action as fast as he did in that instant because if Victor spilled that coffee, the clot was going to do everything in his power to blame Ben for something that was very much not Ben's fault.

As he approached them, he caught the tail end of Victor's, "Watch where you stomp next time, blind halfwit." 

Great. He doesn't waste time with the commentary.

"Listen here, bud," a finger poked Victor in the chest and—that was not going to end well.

"Hey! You two!" Reed grabbed each bristling man by the arm and pulled them out of the circle the crowd was starting to make, like vultures waiting excitedly for blood to be shed. He was not strong enough to pull one of them with all his force, but it seemed his impromptu entrance stunned both long enough to start leading them to their table. Then, after most of the attention warded off of them, he faced Victor.

"Do you need to start a fight with everyone you meet the second you meet them?"

Ben got out of his stupor fast and zeroed in on Reed.

"Wait—you know this guy?" 

"Unfortunately," answered Victor for him once he settled back defensively on his given chair.

Reed sighed. This wasn't going to be easy. Why did Victor have to come here of all places? And now Reed had to do the courtesy of presentation, since Victor was too busy glaring at his newest adversary to do so. How embarrassing.

"This is Victor. Von Doom. Victor, Ben Grimm."

"Ben?" 

"Benjamin," Ben cut in with a sharp grin. "Not the Eggs Benedict."

Victor wrung a lip, obviously displeased with the jock's acidic tone. "'Benjamin' carries too much noble prestige. Something more brutish would fit you perfectly."

"Well, Vic, ya shouldn't be talkin' with a name like 'Von Doom'. It complements yer loveable personality jus' fine."

Victor sat up ramrod straight, mouth open in a snarl—

—On second thought, Reed wondered to himself, maybe putting Ben and Victor together in the same table was a horrible idea.

"And I suppose Grimm fairs much better?" Victor gave Ben a once-over an scoffed. "Let me guess, American football. They need big, brainless mules like you to raze a field."

Ben smiled razor-sharp, teeth flashing in warning. "Hey, they don't call me Grimm Reaper on the team fer no reason." 

Victor, however, was not impressed. "Team? So throwing yourself against a wall repeatedly is considered sport around here?"

"Not walls, just people. Violence is good fer the soul, y'know."

Reed, helpless to do anything but watch in mortification, saw Victor's expression change just the slightest bit into something darker. Wilder. He swallowed hard. 

"Well, Grimm, is it? I know perfectly well that violence around here gets you medals. Even for someone as clumsy as you. Did you accidentally land yourself on the right spot of grass and get mistaken for someone who knows what he's doing?"

"Okay, I think you two can stop there!" Reed thinks maybe they're both going too far on purpose. It was ridiculous, as if Victor really did want to get punched in the face. And Ben was encouraging him! Looking absolutely thrilled for the upcoming fist fight instead of feeling insulted!

"Look—," Reed went on, this time facing Ben with disapproval clear in his eyes. "Weren't you going to tell me something about that party, Ben?"

"Yeah, sure." Ben still gave Victor the stickeye.

Victor returned it in kind.

And Reed almost, almost, let his head fall on the table, face reddening from second-hand embarrassment.

"Remember when I told ya 'bout my fraternity havin' a party afta finals?" Ben waited for Reed to nod before continuing. Victor, thankfully, remained observant. "The guys need ta know how many people are comin' so they can buy some stuff now that Halloween's almost here. Discounts are great on this season. Better than Christmas."

"And you'll be going?

Victor's sudden incredulous remark caught all three men by surprise. Though Victor seemed more shocked that Reed would want to mingle with the 'blockheads'.

"I was goin' ta ask if Reed'll be comin', thanks." Ben shot yet another long glare across the table. "It'll be a blast, Stretch, promise. No funny business."

Reed almost asked what he meant by 'funny business', but with two sets of eyes trained on him, he nervously saved that question for later.

He was, however, curious about what a college campus party would be like. So he didn't give his answer much thought.

"Alright, Ben, if you think it will be good, then I'll go."

"Great choice, math-whiz." He clapped Reed on the shoulder as he was wont to do. Then perked up once more, remembering a small detail. "Don't forget, everyone gets a plus one, so you can bring one of yer whiz pals with ya if ya like—"

Victor stood up at that moment and with great disinterest declared, "If all you two are going to talk about is unbearably boring social events then I see no point in wasting my time here any longer." And promptly left, leaving Reed to feel like he'd become sort of a disappointment for being...ordinary.

As if everyday things like planning a gathering or meeting up with friends were far below his distinguished tastes. Sure, this type of fun wasn't up Reed's alley, but he was willing to explore. 

It was...discouraging, he supposed. That Victor didn't want to experience more. 

"So that's the Victor guy, huh?" Ben laid his foot over on their new vacant seat, drawing Reed's attention. He pulled a disgruntled face. "Is he always like that?"

Reed thought briefly on what Victor's usual attitude entailed. He didn't think it fair to answer with a yes or no. It would be an unfair judgement to give Ben. He wasn't always so gruff. 

He shrugged and said, "On good days, he likes to be witty."

On bad days, he's tight-lipped, Reed doesn't say. Hot-tempered mixed with a quiet, calculating gaze. Some days, Victor wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and stays that way for the rest of the day, prowling the hallways between classrooms with a steely gaze, fists tight. Strangely, Victor tends to avoid trouble on those days. Then again, people tend to avoid him like the plague when he's in that mood.

It's one of those things Reed is extremely curious—and equally worried—about. One of those things he doesn't understand and fiercely wants to.

"Hmm. Must be exhaustin' bein' an asshole all the time." 

Reed didn't smile, though he tried, for Ben's sake. 

 

A few hours later, when the sun was only beginning to set, Reed sat cross-legged on his bed skimming over his faux-science notes. Since lunch, he hasn't studied or delved deeper into what theories he has on Victor's grand Drinking Cup Act (he's not even going to try on the luck charm, not for a while). Said cup was already thoroughly inspected and found in perfect working condition.

He thinks, rather cynically, that the reason is that the glass is actually a different glass, not the one dropped on the floor. After all, he saw two glasses on Victor's hand the first time, but there was no denying the possibility of another third glass prepared for the switch. Replacing the two would be easy.

But Victor's not the kind of person that presents falsehoods as the base truth. So the question remains, how did he fix the glass? He might need to see the luck charm after all. Compare data.

The door shuttered open, revealing a weary Victor coming from an American History test. Reed could sympathize with him. There's many wars in that section of history to keep track of. 

Pack dropped and forgotten, the guy went to the bathroom for a shower, after which Reed turned his attention fully to his notes. He didn't want to be distracted. 

A good while passed by this way, committed to ignore Victor for the moment. The night had fully set in when Reed finally looked up from his notebook to find Victor sprawled in his bed, seemingly dead to the world. 

The most peaceful he might ever get. 

That was giving Reed some very bad ideas. He side-eyed where he knew the rabbit foot to be and considered his chances. Victor wouldn't know, nor would he find out. He'd only take a quick look at the charm and properly examine it. But, it would be horribly rude of him to do so without Victor's permission...

He decided to risk it, in the name of science. Fishing the rabbit foot out of Victor's thrown pants with delicacy, he brought it to the light of the single lamp and wrote down what he saw. Well-preserved animal limb, fur still intact. Big for a rabbit, more likely to be a hare's hind leg. A thin rope was wrapped around the severed part, with something round and pebbly (a bead?) weaved into it. Nothing special. 

Time for a test.

If the foot is supposed to grant luck, he'll try it with something very difficult to reproduce. Making sure Victor was still asleep, Reed grabbed a science book, read the cover, and thought of a section in it. He put the charm in his pocket and left the room for a minute with the book under an armpit. The noise he'll make might wake up Victor.

There wasn't anyone out in the hallway, thankfully, so Reed lifted the book in his arms and said, "Forty-six," and dropped it on the floor.

It landed pages-down, on page 46.

He tried two more times, each time making sure the book would land with its spine facing the ground, and again the book opened at the pages forty-five and forty-six. 

That was...actually a little freaky.

Reed gingerly picked up the book and went back inside, not without first making sure Victor was still asleep.

He was. Reed breathed a little easier and put the charm back in his roommate's discarded pair of pants.

Reed couldn't help but feel guilty for the invasion of privacy. Searching through other people's things was terribly ill-mannered and rude.

He didn't, however, regret it. Strange though the experiment might have been, he got valuable data from it: randomness was, evidently, unattainable with whatever it was that Victor made. He reckoned that was what Victor meant to show him, the trustworthiness of 'magic'. The cup will always be fixed. The book will always land on the same page. And the charmed rabbit foot served as a medium, passing this certainty of result onto a third party. 

It was brilliant. Reed didn't care if Victor called it magic, it truly was remarkably brilliant. 

From the desk, where Reed had paused a second to see a spotless desk, he glanced at Victor's sleeping form. 

He lingered on Victor's face, stern even in rest. Reed never really saw him sleep much. He was almost always the one to fall asleep first, and mornings were rarely anything but muddled routine. In fact, anything before his first cup of coffee remained slightly hazy in memory.

Reed didn't notice when he'd gotten close enough to touch, but flushed a little when he did. The distance was short enough that he could reach forward and fix a stray lock of air on Victor's face. He wanted to, which was fairly alarming. 

Right when Reed decided it was time to pull back, Victor opened his eyes.

"Um," was all the explanation that came weakly from Reed's mouth.

He really needed to stop greeting Victor like this.

"Get off of my face or I will hurt you."

Scrambling back hurriedly to his own bed, Reed landed with a bounce and threw a blanket over himself as a shield. He didn't doubt Victor would follow through with his promises.

Groggy and misty-eyed, Victor kind of stared at what he could make out of a frightened, bundle-shaped Reed. He wasn't pleased with Richards' ill-timed peering, or how with how often it happened. He could tolerate it, maybe grow to accept it. But Reed was behaving like a newborn calf, shaky-limbed and making little bleating sounds whenever he was caught unawares. Had he been a lesser man, he might have mistaken it for a crush.

He has already allowed Richards to snoop through his mother's journal once, however, and showed him her best luck spell. And the skeptical youth had not entirely denied its worth. Only in ignorance did he err.

Richards, he secretly allowed himself to think, might one day be a good man to call an equal. 

In the meantime, Victor would go back to sleep and try to forget the small bit of panic he had seeing harmless, utterly inoffensive Reed staring at him with something akin to adoration in his eyes. 

It must have been a trick of the light anyway. 

Chapter Text

There was a particular way in which Victor spoke to others. He knew how to string together a sentence perfectly and eloquently, how to communicate with precision. He paused and flowed with the proper queues, and never stuttered. For Reed, this was an envious skill he was lacking and wished to greatly improve in.

"Watch where you're going, you imbecilic cretin. Keep your high-stepping hooves to yourself."

It was a shame Victor mostly used it to degrade others. 

Reed liked to think it was because Victor had the voice of a politician but the mind of an elitist art critic. He just couldn't keep his malicious opinion to himself, especially when it showcased how brilliant he was by comparison. But, by God, could the man make his words sound convincing enough to be true. 

They were currently in the hall leading to the personal labs, where people blundered about with boxes reaching up to their noses and a strange chemical air wafted around like a stifling miasma. Reed was sporting a lab coat, clean as can be, hurrying alongside Victor's fast pace while the boy carried a heavy package for his irritable companion's use.

It was nearing finals and everyone was rushing to finish their projects before the deadline. Victor was making last adjustments and tests on his own project when, by lucky chance, Reed wormed his way into helping Victor with moving a few components. He seemed unbothered by Reed's snooping about his labs as long as he served as a footman.

Reed had completed his own work late in the morning, and so here he was with free time and a disposition to help. Which lead to his current predicament: keeping a bored but harried Victor out of other people's hairs. 

The Latverian was bent over a table, replacing the older bolts on his masterpiece: a remote-less humanoid robot. Reed had hovered for a good while, engrossed in all the wiring detail he could find that was exposed before Victor decided he'd seen enough. It was extraordinary work, responsive to auditory commands and capable of replying through a programmed circuit. 

The machine's chosen form, however, Reed found distasteful. It had always confused him why everyone was so obsessed with making a humanoid robot. Reproducing so many incongruences, like joints which limited directional movement, was counterproductive to the machine's optimum capacities. 

He had to admit, there was beauty in Victor's vision. All the wires wound tight inside the arm-shells led to the core processor like veins to a heart. 

The mechanic-at-work eventually straightened from his repairs, hands smudged black with oil and looking proud. 

Reed handed him a paper towel and quipped, "It's finished, I take it?"

"Of course it is." Victor picked up a nearby notepad where he kept his records and wrote new figures in an empty column. "Everything is set for Mark 0.6 to be tested."

"O' six? Why not just six?"

Reed was shot an exasperatedly angry look. "Because it is the same machine from the start, Richards. I am not one of those idiotic scientists who builds from scratch each time something goes wrong. Secondly, titanium continues to be an expensive supply, why would I waste it?"

Reed raised his hands in surrender, mostly to avoid another verbal jab. "I didn't mean anything bad by it. Just wondering." 

With nothing else to add, Victor huffed and went back to powering on his project. Reed smiled a little to himself. It was very easy to ruffle Victor's feathers, but quite fun when harmless. Reed thought to himself, he really ought to stop doing that before he incited actual physical violence out of Victor. 

One touch of a button and an array of numeric codes later, the Mark o'six was ready and standing, movement soundless except for the hydraulics. Its dimly lit eyes scanned the room and shuttered brighter, but nothing else happened.

"Status report," Victor told it, and the robot's lights dimmed again. A metallic, pitch-less voice startled Reed and quickly gained his attention.

"Power at ninety-eight percent. Back-up reserves at full capacity. All systems at one-hundred percent capacity."

Pleased with the report, Victor wrote down the specifications and ordered the robot to become acquainted with his surroundings. He was later annoyed to find Reed following closely behind his work with wide eyes. 

"Stop hovering, Richards."

Reed turned his sparkling gaze toward Victor and reverently said, "But he's so proficient! The Mark is actually wandering around and analyzing the tools and equipment in the lab!"

Taken aback with Reed's evident praise, Victor chose to glance off at a corner, feeling strangely embarrassed. He was unused to having his work admired so...cheerfully. More often than not, people whispered among themselves of the danger that usually followed with the devices he made, regarding his genius with fear. The unknown, as always, was enough incentive for alarm among common folk. 

But for Reed, it was entirely the opposite. He celebrated the unknown, wanted to understand it. Enthusiastically. 

Victor breathed a sigh. It was refreshing to be admired, but Reed's energetic levels proved tiring. Noticing yet another quirk of Reed's, however, Victor turned back to meet the boy's eyes with a humorous, "Did you refer to my creation as a 'he'?"

Momentarily flustered, Reed shifted his weight in nervous avoidance and shrugged. It was such a guilty look, Victor had to hide an involuntary smile behind a hand.

Satisfied with his work, Victor powered down the robot and went to lunch together with Reed, a first in all of their acquainted time. His excuse was that they were both hungry anyway, and he didn't care where he ate just as long as it was good. Reed chose a small coffee shop a ways away from all the buzz of the student body. It was close to three in the afternoon on a Saturday, so business was slow, but the employees were cordial and the evening was blissfully quiet. 

As they ate, Reed idly recalled the party Ben invited him to, happening a week from now. He had the option of bringing someone along, but asking someone out of the blue was more uncomfortable than going alone. There was Victor, but Reed doubted that his roommate would want to go, preferring instead the peace and quiet of having the dormroom all to himself for the evening. 

He had to try, still. He wanted to bring Victor. 

With good hopes, Reed asked only slightly awkwardly, "What do you think about the party the local fraternity is planning? Ben told me their residence is near the playing field."

Victor glanced up after a bite of his slice of cake and remained silent for some time. Reed, taking his silence for the usual wordless refusal, had already dismissed the question when Victor prompted, "According to what I've read and heard of these types of gatherings, they can last until dawn and most of the menu is made of beer." 

Beer? Reed thought it over and took his answer for a no. He's known for a while now that Victor liked to drink sometimes, but he's only ever seen him with glasses full of red liquor, not the yellow suntan color of beer.

Victor felt it necessary to add, "I do not think even you can last past midnight, Richards."

"Well that's—I," he stumbled with his words, feeling affronted and a tad defensive. "I happen to be experienced in staying awake past appropriate hours." Or, at least, he's experienced in falling asleep over a telescope and not getting a cramp in his neck.

"With alcohol in your system?"

He made a good point there.

Meekly, Reed mumbled, "I won't be drinking—"

"Richards," Victor cut in with an almost-admonishing face. "You will be drinking. And then you will trip on a prickly bush and fall asleep there until morning."

Reed huffed, unamused with the weak esteem Victor seemed to have for him. Sure, he's never had beer — or any alcohol at all — but he believed he could handle a cup or two. "Are you trying to persuade me not to go? Why don't you come with me then? Laugh at me if I make a fool of myself."

"As tempting as that sounds, and you will make a fool of yourself," Reed frowned, or pouted, really. "I'm not interested in mindless noise."

"I guess that means I'll be having all the fun to myself. And I'll walk back just fine too." Reed then waved an uncaring hand. He did care though. Victor was—arguably—the best company he could have aside from Ben, even if just to provide a hand on the way back to the dorms and swat away the more social minglers. He was very good at that last bit and therefore an extremely convincing excuse to leave if Reed got tired but didn't want to appear rude. The perfect guy for an escape.

He told himself that it had nothing to do with his own biased attraction. 

Victor scoffed rather loudly. "You are a delicate stick, Richards. The wind could blow you over." As if to prove a point, he pushed his foot against a leg of Reed's chair and jostled him back without effort. 

Reed's face turned a shade darker explaining that, unless there were fifty mile-an-hour winds blowing or he abruptly lost sixty-five pounds, getting pushed over by the wind would be physically impossible. Victor sighed, seeing as Reed was taking it far too literal. But it was only marginally annoying, not like the rest of the people he's met at campus who range between too annoying and professionally annoying, almost to a humorous level. The addition of alcohol would no doubt make it worse.

All of a sudden, Victor grinned with childish malice. "On second thought...everyone there will be making terrible fools of themselves. I believe I might find ways to entertain myself." 

Reed wrung a hand over his eyes, knowing what Victor intended with that quip. He should have known better than to expect Victor to come without a means to gain against others. In this case, laughing at other people's inebriated expense. He liked Victor — really, he did — but he could be such an ass sometimes. 

Despite it all, Reed couldn't help but be happy. This meant Victor was going after all! With him!

Reed tried not to be visibly excited and instead focused on giving his best disapproving frown. 

 

One weeks later, as he stood out on the lawn of the bustling, loud frat residence, Reed was beginning to regret some of the decisions that led up to the present. Like agreeing to come in the first place.

The evening started out well. Back at the dorm, Reed rummaged through his clothes and after careful consideration, he put on a simple white button-up and black pants. Which was...perhaps over-dressing, judging from the rags some guys were wearing and the eye-catching blouses that fit very flatteringly on the girls. Victor was similarly dressed as his roommate by accident — to his utmost irritation — but after a few retouches, he managed to distinguish himself. And with his sleeves rolled-up but pressed, one side of his collar flipped upwards and hair tossed sideways, he could also blend easier into the suffocating crowd. 

One particular collective yell brought Reed's head reeling, and he hadn't even entered the house yet. There was something of a contest happening and many people cheering on a fellow. And loud music soon pulsed from the whole house.

Reed took a deep breath and steadied himself. No point in backing up now.

With slow steps he crossed the yard and into the party, eyes taking in the flashy purple and orange decorations hung over tables and walls, befitting what Ben had said once about 'early preparations' back in October. The place looked like a casual haunted house. He even saw multiple people drinking out of skull-shaped mugs. But it didn't clash as much as it stood out. The team's colors happened to be purple and white so it worked well anyhow. No one batted an eye. 

As it was, the skittish teen quicky lost himself in the constant shuffling of people into one room and out the other. Victor had wandered off at some point, setting Reed into nervous panic because, well, Reed needed to keep an eye out on him and his shenanigans, but Victor should probably also keep an eye on him.

So in the midst of dreadful distress, Ben — grinning and boisterous Ben — played the savior. As if a sixth sense alerted him of Reed's presence, he emerged from deep within the house, tossed an arm around Reed's shoulders in greeting and brought him to a blessidly quieter room. Reed jumped a little higher than he normally would have in surprise but thanked the coincidences of life for helping him this once. 

"Stretch!" He shouted over the swing rhythm beating in the air, "Yer here! Glad y'could make it!" Ben shook him up a little in excitement, but the familiar face calmed the younger man quickly. Reed hadn't noticed his own anxiety bubbling in the big crowd, but now he could feel it slowly ebb. 

"H-Hey Ben." He managed to reflect Ben's own excitement shakily. "Um, I have to admit I'm out of my element here. What...am I supposed to do?"

"Do? Nothing! Whadeva ya want. No rules here, 'cept no heavy drinkin' for ya. Seventeen, right? Just beer."

Spotting an empty couch for their taking, Ben grabbed his good friend by the shoulder and brought him over to sit for a chat. There were a few people hanging by the stairs that lead to another floor, two of which were being really inappropriately close to each other and—Reed shot his eyes back in Ben's direction. He did not need to see the next few minutes of that couple engaging in less-than-public actions.

Ben, either oblivious of what went on around the house, or purposely ignoring it, finally asked him in a hushed voice, "So, did ya bring someone?"

Reed froze. The tone in which Ben spoke in insinuated that the 'Bringing of Someone Else' was of grave social importance. Ben was smiling, however, so maybe it wasn't of serious nature, but for gossip. Or...was it?

"Well—," Just at that moment, another shout rang out in the other room and cheering followed. "What is that?"

"What? Oh that," he broke into roaring laughter. "That's Greg, he brought a keg stand!"

"Keg stand?" 

Despite the raucous noise around them that threatened to burst his eardrums, Reed was content catching up with Ben on the simpler things going on in their lives now that they've ended the semester. Their first semester. Ben, euphoric with his grades, thanked Reed heartily for his aid on the more difficult arithmetic of his classes.

Reed just shook his head and spluttered about his help not being that big of a deal. He was happy to help in any case. They moved onto other things, Ben seemingly forgetting about the plus-one Reed never got to say he brought.

The evening quickly progressed to late night and soon Reed could feel the people growing quieter, giggling over half-drunk cups and chatting about the most mundane of things. What they're studying, if they were single, how much they all hated that one assignment. Reed found himself drifting around the conversations going on around him in the room. Happy to observe, but not interfere. 

Ben, quite used to Reed's quiet spells, got up from the couch to grab a quick drink to offer his good pal, then another because it was nice once Reed got used to the odd taste. No more than that, though. Ben told him two was enough for his first try, something about tolerance and taking it slow. 

After those drinks, the night moved faster in a paradoxically slow way. There was a girl at some point hanging around Ben's arm, happy to slur about all the people she's met in the night. Said something about a rude guy lurking around the second floor laughing at a Tom—Tim?—Thomas? who wobbled and fell on the fruit punch. 

"I tell ya Benjy, an' he was real pretty. Too tall f'r my tastes though."

Something about that rang familiar, but at the moment Reed couldn't recall who it was. He swore he knew a tall, rude, pretty guy like that. It sounded a bit like Victor—

The mere name of his makeshift-chaperon drifting into his sluggish brain gave Reed a coughing fit from taking a big gulp out of his drink. Victor! In all the commotion from the start, he'd forgotten about where Victor went! 

"Wo-hoah, Stretch, take it easy!" Ben slapped his back a few times to help get his coughing under control. 

A glass of water wound up in his hand, which was a great help and wonderfully cool. Soon after Reed excused himself to catch a breather, a small non-lie to chance a quick look around. Maybe luck would be on his side and searching for Victor wouldn't be too difficult—

And there the bristling man was, off in a corner giving everyone the Glare. 

He had yet to notice Reed, which the wobbly teen took advantage of to compose himself and clear his clogged throat.

"How's-uh..." Reed cleared his throat again and cringed. That beer after-taste stuck in his tongue was far from pleasant. "How's the evening? I got—hm—got sidetracked."

Training wary eyes on his new company, Victor shot him a once-over and relaxed his posture upon seeing it was only Richards. He shrugged in a way that translated how unimpressed he was with everything. No one had recognized him, which equally relieved and bothered him. It's not as if Victor wanted to be associated with this crowd of fools. But he was hardly a nobody

A spark of tempered annoyance made itself known when Richards stayed quietly by his corner, a cup of that awful pisswater in hand and swaying already. The fool seemed perfectly content to stand there, utterly oblivious to anything and everything. Like Victor's insistent huffing at him to leave. And when the ruckus of a few drunkards threatened the peace of his chosen spot, Richards followed him outside like a tame pet. 

Reed had his reasons for tailing Victor. His head was feeling stuffy in the house, and the unpleasant bumbling about of others was giving him a headache. Except it wasn't a headache as much as someone popping his head open and throwing away its contents. He couldn't keep a straight thought. Why was he going outside again?

No sooner than breathing the crisp outside air did his discomfort melt out of him, and apparently so did Victor's. There was a bench nearby, roomy for two, and they claimed it for the moment. 

Reed's sight was swimming however, with the sudden change of angle. He hadn't expected that. Victor's sturdy presence ended up more or less as balance, with him leaning on and off on Victor's shoulder. Much to Victor's dismay.

"Get off. You stink of the pisswater."

Reed blinked up at him. "You mean the alcohol? I only had two cups." At this, he self-consciously leaned back, more into the bench's backrest. "It's the air in there I guess, kinda...clings to your clothes. I think someone had a—what's it called? There was grass in it and they were smoking it."

Victor raised one pointed eyebrow. "Are you sure it was grass?"

"No."

Drowsy and unawares, Reed curled into the warmth emitting from Victor's side. And Victor, sensing that his personal space was being slowly taken over by the sleepy lout, tried shaking him off. It went about as well as shaking off a fish, Reed's upper body slipping onto his lap instead and flailing, actually flailing his arms with the shock of the drop, and ending up with a dumbfounded Reed half crawling over his thighs and torso, unsure of what had just happened.

Whatever fight was rising in the Latverian quickly died watching Reed's pitiful attempt at sitting up. The boy was clearly drunk. So he sighed, deep breath rustling some of the hairs on Reed's head.

"Go home, Richards."

Apparently Reed agreed with that, nodding absently. "I think I'm gonna need help with that. Help me?"

And in his mind's eye, there Victor was, his given duty as a support crutch, it would seem. Victor was unwilling to be reduced to a crutch, and was not shy to voice this among other, ruder, expletives.

"Well," Reed tried reasoning out loud, "You do look like you've had enough socializing for one night. And we live in the same room."

He made it sound so infuriatingly rational. 

Victor pulled his lips back into a fierce grimace, which was quickly startled out of him when he felt a cold hand smoothing down the edge of his mouth.

"No, no, don't make that face." It was Richards' daring hand, bold in his inebriation, running over tensed muscles. He sounded distracted, mumbling under his breath something that might have been, "S'much better."

It was a very clear, fine line that was being crossed, never mind the fact that Richards was already propped over his lap like a doll. 

A low growl rumbled out of him, the warning completely bypassing Reed's hopelessly distant sense of self-preservation. So absolutely deaf to the sound as he pressed his own face to a firm shoulder, shirt wrinkled and smelling faintly of clean laundry. Inhaling the soothing smell and warmth, and so sleepy—

The ground met Reed's back abruptly, waking him up from the daze he was falling into with the cold slap of earth and grass.

Victor was standing up right above him, discomfort openly written in every feature of his body and red-faced—blushing—, according to Reed's bleary sight. And Reed, realizing what he had been doing, was likely sporting a matching color on his cheeks.

Had he just...snuggled up to Victor? The mortification left him frozen stock-solid where he sat. He'd been wanting to do that, admittedly, for a long time. And all it took was two full cups of beer to forget why it had been a Very Bad Idea and—wait. Victor was leaving. He was leaving and Reed's legs still shook like uncooperative snakes! 

"Wai—Victor, wait!" He had a very panicked thought that Victor was really going to leave him there, and doubled his efforts to string a proper sentence together. "I—sincerely apologize for that—for my inapo-inappropra—"

Oh great, now he couldn't even say the word 'inappropriate'!

His blundering worked in his favor, miraculously. He could see Victor had stopped, turned to face him and, amidst Reed's stuttering, quirked that familiar derisive smirk before it faded again to a frown. 

Reed stopped stuttering and speaking all together, glancing down at the poor control he had over his own wobbly limbs. 

And Victor, still boiling quietly with anger, saw the helplessness Reed found himself in, and smiled to himself.

He let Reed wobble futilely some more, greatly enjoying himself as he waited for his golden moment. Helping people out if his own volition went against every fiber of his being. But helping those who would be indebted to you? Now that's doing a good service. 

Finally, after managing to sit on his haunches, Reed set tired eyes on Victor and with exhaustion lacing his words asked, "Aren't you going to help me get back to the dorms?"

Victor smiled once more, wide and gleeful to a scary degree.

"I never said I would."

He lifted Reed off the ground anyway, slung one of the boy's bony arms over his shoulder and started walking for the both of them. This could possibly be the most amusing thing to happen to him in the whole night. Prim and proper Reed Richards, drunk of all things and needing help, his help, to walk. 

Yes, Victor was feeling generous.

 

For all their maneuvering and careful steps, the walk back to the dorm was difficult to achieve with Reed tripping Victor's feet instead of his own. The constant prattling coming from Reed's mouth about how the beer didn't taste good didn't help matters. The buzzed youth had the right idea, though, and Victor agreed heartily, and prattled on himself. Talked about 'real' drinks, old wine and German beer. Which confused Reed because, they are both minors, aren't they? 

"Where I am from, wine is something shared between family. It keeps you warm in the winter."

Reed broke into little gasps of laugher. He laughed even though Victor didn't say anything remotely funny. Briefly, he wondered if it had something to do with his inebriated state as he shook with another mouthful of giggles. In that moment, another student came up on their path and gave them a wide berth, muttering about "damned campus drunks". Even with the space the stranger gave them, Reed somehow managed to bump an arm into him.

Reed, of course, was still terribly polite despite his muddled thoughts and incessant laughing. 

"Sorry 'bout that. My bad," came his unnecessarily loud apology, right by Victor's ear. They kept walking, Victor pausing only to narrow his eyes at both the unwelcome stranger and Richards. He was irritated again. 

"Why do you let people walk over you?"

Reed pondered a second on Victor's sudden question. "I don't let people walk over me, I just know when to pick my battles. Unlike you. You—you'd fight with the wall if it could fight back! Not with punches, no. You're more of the belittling kind of guy. Make the wall feel inadequate and useless for holding the ceiling up."

Victor flashed him an exasperated stare.

"How is it possible you can still talk so much?"

"I guess I'm the talkative kind of drunk? Is that a thing? I know of the crying kind and the...peppy kind."

He was about to start talking about the singing kind and the one time Ben drank one too many beers and sang The Phantom of the Opera, from start to finish, but then the dorm came into view and he did a little hop and almost took Victor down when his foot caught a flipped stone. Maybe he was the peppy kind of drunk. 

Once inside and finally making progress up the stairs, Reed was feeling jumpy again and so with clumsy steps they ended up in a heap, sitting down, Reed in a laughing fit. 

"Okay. O-kay, no, I take it back," the blundering youth snickered into a sleeve. "I'm the laughing kind."

Victor didn't deem that worthy of a vocal response and just sat back against the uncomfortable jut of the stairs, waiting for Reed's fit to end. It took a while. 

"Okay, I can breathe again." And Reed was ready to tackle the stair problem. But said stairs were also the first seat he's had since the bench, and the walk had felt like eternity. Maybe if he closed his eyes for a second—

"If you fall asleep I'm leaving you here." Reed jerked upright and sent him a most betrayed look, but Victor was not one to be swayed easily. "I'm not an elevator to be lifting you up floors."

When Richards started snickering again, Victor hit him on the back to make him stop. It was admittedly a contagious laugh, and soon Victor was holding back on joining him, keeping a perfectly blank, composed mask in place. 

Victor did not laugh. His eyes spoke otherwise, and Reed read the mirth in them, the kindly mirth. Not sadistic or cruel, but kindly. Completely devoid of malice.

"You know if you smiled more, or at all you'd be stunning," Reed wrung out between the last vestiges of his giddy chuckling.

Victor stared. Stunning? Granted, he was well aware of his own symmetric and comely features, but for Richards to notice them? Then again this is the same man who sprawled on his lap and stroked his face not an hour ago. The alcohol in his system must be at fault, to make him so loose-tongued and stupidly bold. 

But 'stunning'? That...was very forward. He blamed curiosity for asking, "And what am I now?"

Reed, looking for all the world about ready to nap on the stairs, was not quite aware of what he was saying. Or thinking. Or why everything sounded so funny. His brain had finally begun its happy tour around the place and was not there to stop him from saying, "Now? Well you're...definitely handsome. I mean even when you're frowning you look good. 'specially with that one shirt without the sleeves? Marvelous work, that. Makes you look...more..."

"'More'?"

"Just," an undecipherable hand gesture, "More. More...?" 

What...were they talking about again? Did it matter? He wanted a bed, wanted to sleep, and the cramp in his side was telling him that stairs weren't good for that.

With restless fingers, Reed moved to crawl up a few steps but instead his hand smacked on the hard flooring and sent a little tendril of pain down to his wrist. 

Reed heard a huff and a grumbled, "Can't even crawl right," from his right and whined, because the voice—Victor? was right. But then the voice—Victor neared, said something again, he couldn't make out what, and felt himself become weightless. No ground under him, but something hot and solid curling around him, supporting, and his hands instinctively grasped at the comforting presence carrying him away. His feet, too, wrapped around the solid warmth. 

He was content, dozing, nearly asleep if not for the movement that had his head rolling back and forth. Too soon did the warmth drop him onto a softer but colder surface. A bed? 

"Yay," he said to the bedspread, though it came out more as a grunt. His arms were still gripping onto the solid heat, not wishing to let go. Regardless to his desires, it kept pulling back, stealing more of the warmth away. Bleary eyes opened to question why—

Oh, he was holding an unhappy Victor by the shoulders. 

"Richards." The trapped man gestured at the strong grip that was holding him captive, fingers digging into shoulder blades.

With a bit of embarrassment, Reed finally loosened his grip, quietly mourning the loss of such wonderful heat but not wanting to disturb Victor further.

Drowsy and lethargic, Reed took a second to sit up and take off his shoes and socks, debated on his clothes, and decided it was not worth the effort. He'd likely roll off the bed in his struggles. He was just so tired.

It took a while for him to realize Victor had not moved away, standing close enough for his knees to rub against the mattress. Close enough for Reed's face, level with Victor's chest, to feed off some of that blessed heat he emitted like a furnace.

And then Victor started to lean down, Reed pulling back to keep some room between them because he was really close, almost smothered by the closeness. It didn't work. Arms walled him in at each side, effectively trapping him, mirroring what he must have inadvertently forced on Victor a few minutes ago. Reed tried not to fidget too much. His own voice sounded strange to his ears.

"Y-Yes?" 

Victor's own voice was pure velvet, teasing. 

"'Handsome', am I? 'Marvelous work'?"

Here, Reed furrowed his brow in confusion. The night was somewhat of a blur after the bench — his face felt warm remembering that —, and the last few minutes felt more like a dream seen through fogged lenses. All he knew was that he tripped, laughed himself sore, tried crawling up at one point and—told Victor some flattering things.

Oh.

If his face was burning before, now it was absolutely scorching. He's never drinking again. Ever.

Then, impossibly, Victor leaned even closer, making Reed scramble back, but his sense of balance was off and his hands fumbled with the sheets, so he didn't really move any farther than a millimeter. 

There's nowhere else to look but up, the shift in direction making him sway slightly. Victor's gaze was a wandering, focused thing, taking in every detail, wisps of breath ghosting over blinking eyes. Reed felt his breathing speed up under his gaze, hands sweating, an inexplicable urge in him rising, wanting to do something. He's not sure what. He's never been this close to Victor before. It's making his stomach do somersaults and dragging his brain out of its buzzed stupor.

His heart was hammering fast now, wide eyes drifting more focused on Victor's own eyes, the slant of his forehead, down his cheekbone, his nose, his lips.

His lips, full and parted just barely, so wholly enticing now. He wanted to kiss him. So badly.

Then the mouth twitched back on one corner, the beginnings of that damnable smirk and Reed pressed his whole body forward, covering Victor's sinful lips with his own. He felt muscles tense under the kiss, before unwinding and returning Reed's sweet press with demanding fervor.

Unbalanced, Reed's hand shot up to grasp at the standing pillar, finding purchase in Victor's neck and squeezing when Victor tilted into the perfect angle. He followed the motion of Victor's lips over his own, mimicking the force, the tilt, everything. It was hypnotic, soothing, the chapped scratch of lips against his thinner, softer ones.

At the first swipe of tongue, Reed didn't startle, recalling past dalliances, brief though they were. He knows this game, and on the next swipe, he met it with one of his own. 

There's a surprised sound coming from Victor, but it quickly turned into a chuckle as he pulled back, drawing a low groan out of Reed.

Victor stood straight again, hands coming up to his neckline and tugging the fabric. Reed stared, still in a daze from what just happened—what he started. He just—he kissed Victor, right in the mouth. 

"You are very bad at hiding things, Reed. Stop thinking."

He said...Victor said his first name. He said his name! Finally, for the first time—

And—either he blanked out or was so completely distracted by Victor calling him his name because now Victor was half-naked from the waist-up.

It shouldn't be that shocking. He's seen Victor naked torso before, many times. They live in the same room, of course he has. 

But now, where Reed was happy to look away and dig his nose in study notes, he wanted to touch, wanted to map the skin with his hands. Victor's not hardened with exercise, he doesn't have but an outline of the muscle that could be there if he tried. From hips to waist to shoulders, he has all the strength he needs in the sensual build of his arms. 

Victor followed Reed's hungry gaze and preened under the attention. But he wasn't satisfied with just that. Reed had two perfectly functional hands, and he was keeping them to himself. He seized the limp hands and placed them on his stomach. His deceivingly hard stomach.

Fingers hesitantly traced the long line of his midsection, feeling the soundless pulse under the skin steadily climbing. Heat radiating off pores. Victor's deep breath and  shutter when hands skimmed the waistline of his pants, doing a poor job of hiding his arousal. He's aroused. Reed, too, could feel his own arousal, a minor detail to his mind when presented with the sight before him. But his hands dared not go any lower, fingertips shyly traveling upwards and away. He's not—he's never done this, nothing past a couple of shared kisses with a girl behind school bleachers. And the girls were the ones that sneaked those from him. He's not sure what he's supposed to do. 

A small displeased sound came from Victor when Reed pulled his hands in the opposite desired direction, followed by a sigh when nervous fingers stopped again at the belt loops. He forgot he was dealing with Reed, and the boy would second-guess himself over the most obvious things. He would need to initiate everything. 

Reed jerked his hands back when Victor went and undid his pants in a hurry — lowering them enough to be less of a strain on his stiff sex — and the skittish youth barely kept himself from jumping off the bed when one of his hands was taken in a strong grip and shoved over Victor's crotch, hot with trapped warmth. He felt strangely breathless, the stiffness under his hand making his entire body tremble.

He took a deep breath, then another, and on his third, his hand wandered tentatively, with slow, controlled pressure, lower. The ragged moan coming from above him after a particularly hard squeeze sent a hot shiver down Reed's spine. His throat swallowed compulsively, constricted and dry after long seconds of deep, shaky breaths. But he kept going. His hand slipped under the last bit of fabric, an inkling of pride sparking in his gut hearing just how affected Victor was.

He wasn't doing it on purpose, but Reed was teasing, and Victor didn't need more teasing with the butterfly-soft caressing— 

Hips stuttered with the strengthening grip Reed had on him, testing bounds now and aa-yes that's a good grip now if only he—

"Reed." He was panting hard, lungs turned into a knot with every inch of euphoric friction he was given, hips meeting each pump of the hand. 

At Victor's beck and call, Reed stood upright, forgetting how close they were in the first place and ending up literally chest to chest, accidentally rubbing his equally forgotten stiffness against a warm and inviting thigh. He hissed at the rough layers of friction against his sex, something inside him turning into liquid fire and spreading outwards. At a second, involuntary thrust of his hips, he gasped, pleasure curling and catching him off-guard with its intensity. A solid arm came up behind him and helped him seek out the hot pleasure again, hips moving mindlessly against Victor's body. 

His movements were stilled by the lead weight of Victor's arm guiding him clumsily across the space between their beds, towards an unruffled bed. Victor sat down and pulled his drunken load onto his lap, impatient fingers making quick work of removing Reed's button shirt and hindering pants. He managed to loosen the pants and pull down Reed's underwear — gray-turned-black from sweat and too tight — which was enough time wasted. He would work on the pants later. He wants release now.

If Reed had any logical thought left in his head, he'd fuss about the state of his sweat-soaked garments, but he was past thinking, uncaring, and a strangled groan from cool air meeting his sex erased any further possibility of cognitive thinking. He wanted more. And Victor, more than happy to comply, took them both in one hand and holy fuck why hadn't Reed ever done this before? 

His grip was sweat-slick and strong, perfect, pressing their manhoods together. Reed, entirely out of his league, can't get enough air into his lungs and Victor—panting hotly against him, in control, a determined gleam in his eye—, Victor looked like he knew what he was doing.

He flicked his wrist in a hard, steady pace, building up the pleasure, spine coiling from the tightness. Reed could barely keep himself upright, gasping and sweating, shallow thrusts in tandem with Victor's punishing strokes. His hands needed something to hold — back, sides, shoulders, he couldn't keep his touch in one place for long. It wasn't enough. Wretched sounds spilled from his lips when he brought a hand down on top of Victor's tireless grip, tensing when it sent blissful heat across his skin. Another erratic swipe of his hand almost ended him. He was so close, he needed more. More pressure, more—

Reed hissed at the long drag of nails in his flank, absolutely delicious, whole body stiffening with the pinprick sensation and mind numbed blank by the sheer unexpected pleasure of it. 

Faintly, Reed felt Victor's whole frame quiver like taught bowstring and the room shifting. 

He's not sure how much time passed between one breath and another. Or when he'd closed his eyes. Opening them was wasted effort, but the pliant, living body under him told him he was laying horizontally over Victor. Who was shifting him off.

Reed groaned at the change, flipped belly-up and grimacing at the cool air. The groan turned into a small cry when he felt his ruined pants tugged off, a towel or flannel patting him dry soon after. He was too exhausted to move, barely twitched at Victor's insistent manhandling.

His throat was dry and scratchy but he managed a weak, "Victor," and Victor stopped. That blessed warmth flanked him again along with a thick blanket and Reed couldn't help the satisfied sigh wheezing out of his chest. He was truly content just to curl sleepily into the hot—shifting—body next to him.

"What am I going to do with you?"

Reed could only just make out Victor's confusing words through the sleep-addled fog overcoming his senses.

"Keep me," seemed like the sensible thing to mumble back.

It didn't take long for him to fall asleep.

Chapter Text

Waking up to a pulsing throb just behind your eyes was not something Reed expected the next morning. Eyelids heavy and weak, he lied there in a heap of limbs, trying to figure out if staying awake was worth the exhaustion and discomfort. And with his body wrapped in the warm cocoon of bedsheets, sleep was truly tempting. That is, until the bedsheets knocked him in the ribs.

Confused and drowsy, Reed pulled an arm out to check what had intruded his sleep, and when a hand that wasn't his came out instead, he sat upright in a panic.

That's when the pulsing spiked into a full-blown headache, and he couldn't stop a pitiful groan from escaping him.

Whatever—whoever was lying next to his rigid frame wrapped a hand around Reed's forearm and dragged him back to lay down. The momentary lapse in awareness was lost on Reed.

His head was a mess, and trying to remember why was he in this kind of situation made it worse. Had he slammed his head painfully against a rock? A wall?

Then an all-too-familiar voice croaked, "I am beginning to wonder if what you drank was beer at all."

Reed could only blink in response. He—he was. With Victor—?

Almost as if summoned unwillingly with the mere thought of the name, last night's events filtered through Reed's head. All of it, in semi-perfect sequence. The party. The drinking. Victor. Crisp winter air and a solid body keeping him upright. Victor.

He was wrapped around Victor's body like a blanket. And Victor was holding him. Touching him. Putting his hand on Reed's temple and easing some of the pressure building there with the magnificent kneading of fingers. A quiet whimper left Reed, his little heart beating a hundred miles a minute and ready to take off skipping right out of his ribcage. His very naked ribcage. Reed squirmed under the touch, blood rushing up to his face.

Victor chuckled lowly at Reed's reddening features. "Come now, Richards, back to being skittish already?"

"W-well this is, this is not proper! It's—I mean—you are,Reed stared a bit at Victor's own state of undress, much to Victor's amusement. 

"Oh? As opposed to last night?"

Some of Reed's senses were too sluggish to notice Victor pulling himself slowly up and over, legs caging Reed's lithe, shivering body and wearing the most smuggest look he's ever worn in his life. As the boy stuttered on about his inhibited state the day before, he abruptly cut himself off, feeling as Victor shamelessly settled on top of him. 

It had the most perverse effect on Reed, as if lying there, trapped under Victor's weight was something erotic. Reed burned at the contact between their naked chests. He couldn't do anything but crane his neck back, and it was exciting him. Shock colored Reed's features when he felt himself harden against Victor's hip. This, of course, did not go unnoticed. Victor raised one inquisitive brow, but didn't move beyond a twitch.

"Don't look at me! It's," Reed stuttered helplessly, "It's-not voluntary! It's not—"

He was having a small crisis, red-faced, sweaty and a nervous wreck while his completely unhelpful erection strained against the fabric of his underpants and Victor remained equally unhelpful, stock-built like a wall and just as inert. Reed's mind was ten, twenty steps ahead of the drivel shooting out of his mouth, panicking, denying every and any accusation that could be made and coming up with a believable counter-answer. He waited for whatever verbal lashing would come, a physical one, anything, because last night must have been a fluke, for laughs. Victor wouldn't have slept with him seriously. He's just messing with him now, right? 

But, as the seconds turned into minutes, and Victor's puzzled frown didn't turn into one of disgust, he backtracked. Something critical had failed to be communicated.

Still jumpy with nervous energy, Reed asked as carefully neutral as he could, "You...aren't mad?"

Victor tilted his head in confusion. 

"Why would I be, Richards?"

"It's just that. You and, I. We. Had, uh. Sex? And we're both, you know." There was a palpable silence for a moment before Reed added, "Men?"

This time Victor scoffed, fully comprehending Reed's trivial worries. "You believe that is of import?"

Now it was Reed's turn to be confused. "I...did? It's, well, frowned upon. In America."

Violently and with prejudice, he didn't say.

Victor apparently didn't care about what was frowned upon or not, and he said so loudly, making Reed wince a little.

"If anything, you should be honored to have laid with me," Victor delivered with a disdainful turn of his face, as if such basic human needs were above him and Reed should feel indebted for what Victor graciously participated in last night. It was so utterly vainglorious of him that an involuntary smile worked its way up Reed's lips on reflex, all of his worries, gone. 

"Yeah?" 

Victor narrowed his eyes at the disbelieving tone. "Naturally," he snapped, driven to impatience with Reed's antics, and to further prove his point, he brushed his thigh none-too-gently over Reed's softening manhood.

Reed's breath hitched at the friction, startled, exhaling shakily when Victor retreated the limb, then repeated the action.

"V-Victor! What—what are you—doing!" 

"What does it look like to you?" Reed tensed as the pace grew rougher, longer. Turned to circling motions, until the anticipation of each stroke had Reed quivering, biting his lips to keep from moaning. It had only been a couple of minutes and he was already a sweating wreck, breathing hard though his nose. How was Victor so good at this?

"Don't keep quiet on me, Richards." He grabbed Reed by the chin and swiftly pried his mouth open. "Ready to beg for more?"

Reed wanted to deny it, tell Victor that no, he's not some sex-deprived teenager, but he could only form half-intelligeable groans and jerk against the thick wall of muscle above him, ears burning red, so incredibly embarrassed and turned on, what the hell was wrong with him? On a long, drawn out thrust, Reed felt Victor's own arousal pressing against his sweaty hip — through the underwear they were both still wearing for some infernal reason — and shuddered from the pleasure that rushed all the way down to his toes. He's going to kill me, repeated endlessly in Reed's head like a mantra. He's going to kill me he's going to kill me oh god I'm going to explode he's going to kill me—

"Stop," Victor breathed against Reed's hair, "Whatever you are thinking, stop, Reed and enjoy it." 

Hands shaky in need of purchase, Reed pawed at the solid mass caging him. It was driving him insane. Victor's skin was so tender and warm, sheen with new-formed sweat and his name on Victor's lips. His mouth went dry between one stroke and the next, panting low and pushing his face into a sweaty shoulder, the bitter taste of sweat bursting through on an accidental swipe of the tongue. Shocked by the pleasant taste, Reed lapped at slow-forming beads of sweat. He could feel the low vibration of Victor's voice as it tingled his tastebuds. He was so close now, toes curling from the—

Suddenly, his vision got skewed and twisted his stomach into a knot, nausea overriding all of his senses. 

And Victor, the damned asshole, was laughing. Laughing at the pale color creeping up Reed's cheeks.

"My-h, my apologies. I forgot about your 'weak disposition' and flipped you onto your stomach."

Oh yes, of course, 'forgot!' The mirth in Victor's eyes said otherwise. 

You're a troll, Reed nearly said, A troll and an ass and he would be yelling that and more, but he was too busy reeling from vertigo and groaning miserably. The flip effectively took away some, if not most, of his arousal. Victor didn't seem much bothered, from the look of the grin he was wearing. He did stop his ministrations though and gave Reed some space to breathe.

Once the nausea settled, the boy kept a firm, neutral expression, self-conscious of the last few minutes and perplexed with how Victor wasn't. 

Hadn't Victor always been quick-tempered about his personal bubble? Hell, Reed remembered a shove and the ground meeting his ass hard from last night. But, then, what about now? What changed? Perhaps there was a difference between physical closeness and sexual intimacy he wasn't getting yet. Was one fine and the other not? Could he even tell the difference? Would he dare ask? 

Victor tilted his head at the stiff silence between them, signaling his given attention. 

Well, there's no better time than the present.

"So, uh...this," Reed gestured at their fading erections. "Is this going to be a periodic thing?"

Victor gave him an odd look. "Would 'this' be a problem if it was?"

Reed furrowed his brow, thinking it over, but he couldn't settle on a yes or no answer. In the end, he shrugged.

"Just, wanted to know." The thought of more of this 'sex' thing, though, brought a small blush to his face. It was quite enjoyable — ignoring the colossal amount of embarrassment it gave him. And if it meant a more agreeable Victor, then what was there to lose? What was there to...gain? 

"Then I guess...'this' won't be a problem for me either?"

Victor huffed as if to say how ridiculous he found Reed's apprehension. His weight lifted off of the bed abruptly and chilled the befuddled boy's torso. 

"Um," Reed wrapped himself more tightly in the sheets, looking at Victor's retreat into the bathroom. Once he heard the shower turn on, he let his head fall back onto the pillow with a sigh.

Oh, what has he just agreed to?

 

One lukewarm shower later, taken with snail-pace steps, enough time had passed for Reed's nausea to fade completely. That's when he realized he was starving, ill-fed and positively dying for water. Victor was acting all lethargic, like a house cat resting on a sun-heated spot, but Reed curling in on himself and grumbling pulled him from his trance enough to ask, "Did you even eat yesterday?"

"Yes, of course I did."

Victor sent him a blank stare. "In the evening."

Reed very quietly said no, he neglected to, fretting over his clothes and only ingesting what he'd been offered at the party. Which was alcohol.

"Richards, get your delirious ass off my bed and put on a shirt." Victor then started rummaging in the closet for a thick scarf.

"Why?" Reed weakly complained. It wasn't as if he would skip a meal when he so clearly needed one. Rather, he meant why the hurry? 

Victor's answer was to shove a blue muffler in Reed's face and say, "Put this on, it is a cold morning."

Reed did as was told and followed his roommate sluggishly out the door. It was nine in the morning, and Victor had been right. A cold front was moving southbound and kept the wind cool and misty. 

They headed to the nearest diner and grabbed a table by the counter, the hot whirring of a lamplight keeping some pastries in pristine condition. Reed felt a bit out of it. This would make the second time he'd gone out to eat with Victor, although this time Victor was ordering all the food for them: classic pancakes with scrambled eggs, a side order of sausages and two glasses of water. 

Once the food arrived, Victor gave a simple, "Eat," and chowed down on the eggs without inhibitions.

Cuddling deeper into his jacket, Reed grabbed his folk and knife set and started taking small portions of the pancakes, no arguments. Took a swig at the glass of water and felt ten times better. For the next five minutes, they ate in comfortable silence, Reed way too hungry to think anything past forkfuls of delicious breakfast and Victor practically inhaling the meat strips. 

The waitress dropped by twice to check up on them, refilling the glasses with a bright, "D'you need anything else?" 

Reed gratefully asked for a newspaper, something the kind lady brought over from the back of the cash register with a wink. He got a little flustered over that, immediately looking over at Victor to avoid eye-contact, out of habit. What greeted him was a sausage half-stuffed into Victor's face.

Apparently he'd been staring for too long, Victor narrowing his eyes at him with suspicion as he munched on with a garbled, "What?"

"I'm," Reed couldn't help but snicker, "N-nothing it's just. You do know you have a knife on your plate, right?"

"And?"

Another laugh bubbled out of Reed, but he let it drop. "Never mind." He wasn't about to ruin Victor's good mood with table etiquette. And he was in a good mood. It made Reed's heart stutter and wonder if someday it will be like this all the time. Companionable stretches of time, no animosity, no awkwardness. He certainly hoped so.

Opening up the New York Times paper to shut out those whimsical thoughts, Reed browsed the international segment. There was always something interesting there, and today he was proven right yet again. He read the title, "VENUS ON THE HORIZON" and dove for the small print letter. 

"Hey, listen to this: 'NASA announces the launch of Mariner 1, headed for a round-trip to Venus next year'! Isn't that extraordinary?"

"Didn't the Soviets achieve that?" 

"Not successfully, no. They lost communications with the radio before reaching the planet." Reed smiled with brimming excitement. "I'm sure the engineers down in Houston won't make the same mistake. And wouldn't it be amazing if we learned the geological make-up of Venus? It's surely inhabitable being so close to the Sun, but imagine what that proximity has done to the planet's lithosphere!"

Reenergized by the meal, Reed went on passionately about the implications of a successful fly-by of the planet, what would be a first in human history, as Victor finished what remained on his plate. Also anticipating a successful exploration of space beyond Earth's atmosphere, he wasn't bothered by Reed's babbling. It was the only time Reed didn't fold in on himself, when he spoke about astrophysics and technicalities. A strange, almost gregarious energy enveloped the young genius. Reed rarely took such confident poise. 

"—and the following programs could work on atmospheric entry, don't you think? Victor?"

Victor snapped out of the lull he'd stumbled into and cracked his usual serious frown, but didn't say anything. He was partially embarrassed for losing the train of conversation, so he ignored the mishap entirely and blamed it on a full stomach and the cool weather. 

Reed had already noticed, however. "...Want to go back now? I'd love to sleep in today."

Victor grunted in agreement and stood up, calling the waitress over to pay for breakfast, to Reed's even greater embarrassment when Victor covered the bill and tip. 

"But, let me split it with you—"

"Shut, it, Richards, I don't care, I'm paying right now."

Heading out of the diner they were hit by a blast of wind so icy it was a wonder no snow had crystalized yet. Felt like winter was finally kicking in full drive. And while Reed stuffed his nose and hands in the borrowed muffler to stay warm, Victor strolled on uncaring of the temperature, a curious thing that was becoming more apparent as the days grew longer and colder. He wondered if the weather didn't concern Victor that much because he was used to worse. Past observations led to believe that to be true, but he couldn't be one-hundred percent sure. Victor has never talked about snow or winter in Latveria, only the bordering mountain range that surrounded the country. 

He was terribly curious about it now. But he let the opportunity pass. It was a pleasant stroll and Reed didn't want to bother Victor all that much.

Back at the dorm there was a letter crammed into the gap under the door, signed by Ben and a fellow named Greg, apologizing, as it turned out, because he had mixed the drinks at the last moment without telling anyone in the fraternity. Ben had written a whole paragraph stating how sorry he was for the fuck up, how he couldn't stay and check on him because the family was picking him up later for the holidays in a rush, but he'd gotten news from the guard downstairs that he'd seen Reed come in with help from his roommate so he was glad Reed got back safe.

"Get some rest, kid. And drink plenty of water. Whatever Greg cooked up got us all seeing double. Happy Hanukkah! — Benji"

Reed shook his head —no wonder — and tossed the letter on the desk. Later, he told himself, he would write a response. Rest came first.

"So, uh," he glanced at Victor's solid frame entering after him, eyebrow poised and questioning. "You were right about one thing. I did not drink beer."

Victor scoffed, making a bee-line for the bed. "I still believe you have no tolerance for alcohol."

The sheets had been changed for thicker ones, since the weather report on the newspaper promised snow later in the week. There was laundry to be done anyway, but Reed was too tired to care. Most of it belonged to Victor anyway.

While Victor made himself comfortable in his bed, picking up a book from the pile he's collected in a drawer, Reed stood by the desk stiffly, unknowing of what he was supposed to do. It was quite evident he wasn't 'dating' Victor. And now that their relationship developed into something not-friendship-ish but better-than-not, he arrived at a stalemate on where the line has been redrawn. 

On the list so far, sex was fine(?). Victor was acting nicer(?) in his usual gruff way (to be revised). But when no sex was imminent, what was his expectation? 

Reed didn't know what two guys in a quasi-relationship did. He didn't know all that much about men and women either. He knew he was completely, unequivocally inexperienced, but willing to make something work. 

So he stood there, pouting at the wall, trying to come up with an adequate plan. 

"Richards."

He turned from the wall and looked over at Victor — were they back to 'Richards', or is he only 'Reed' before, during, and after moments of sexual passion? —, Victor who saw his pitiful sulk and sighed to himself. As always, the boy was overthinking everything.

He freed a spot to his right for Reed to take and patted the mattress in the least inviting manner. That would make him compliant, he thought, remembering how limp and still Reed got leeching heat off of him. And a compliant Reed was a rare gift of peace. 

Seeing the invitation, Reed hobbled over, hesitantly.

"...Yes?"

Victor patted the mattress again, this time with more force. "Lay down."

Following it like an order, Reed sat down and started arranging his awkward joints as well as he could without elbowing something soft. A little color crept up his cheeks, aware of how silly they must look — him, half-curled over Victor's torso for lack of room — and a perfect reminder of how absurd their morning must have been sans clothes. How absurd this all was.

Eventually, he found the best position for Victor's benefit and his comfort, fitted like the last jigsaw puzzle piece. The crook of Victor's arm would bend under Reed's nape to reach the book, the only inconvenience of the set up. But Reed found that, lax from the warmth that was beginning to lull him to sleep, it was okay.

He'll stop worrying this once.