"A man's true delight is to do the things he was made for."
She lies next to me, on her side. Her eyes, sapphire gems, stare at me with a longing gleam. A thin smile and, behind her eyes, passion—calm and warm—soothing both our souls. The second most beautiful thing in Creation. A completion of my person—an extension of my senses.
"Victor." Her voice is music to me. A soft and confident melody echoing in my ears. Beauty. "I love you."
She is the only friend I need. The only one who truly knows how to make me smile. To show me compassion. A boy of sixteen wouldn't begrudge notions of love—childish in nature though they may be. No, our love is more potent. A constant reminder of life's simple joys.
A silken hand, calm and affectionate, slides across my chest and down toward my abdomen. I inhale slowly, feeling my chest rise and sink with the exhalation. The air is the smell of jade and of nature, warm against my body. For a fleeting moment, the world's troubles—its injustices and unfairness—sink away in the sweet embrace of her lips on my own. I feel her smile in my core.
"Victor." Her lips pull away, and our eyes meet.
"What is it?"
"What are you thinking about?"
"The American," I reply curtly. "About what he spoke of today."
"Did you take his offer?" she asks. My eyes narrow and I regard her inquisitively for a moment.
"I'm sorry," she replies with a distant gaze. "I shouldn't have—"
"No," I interject, standing. The warmth of the darkness slips away. I stand and pull a robe around my body, hoping to shield myself from the new cold. I turn to see Valeria, sitting upright in the center of the bed. Her shoulders sag, and she stares mournfully at the ground. "You shouldn't have."
Her head rises and stares at me with a peaked eyebrow. "Victor?"
"Yes, my dear. I accepted his offer."
"I am to leave in the morning." It is a simple statement of fact. Devoid of emotion or pretense. "That is why I came to you tonight. To share a final moment together."
Valeria's hand passes over her face, wiping strands of onyx hair behind her ears. Her face is drawn—sad. Her eyes flicker in the darkness, and I approach the bed. I lower to the bedside, and embrace Valeria.
"Do not fear," I whisper calmly. "I will return. And when that day comes…things will be different, dear Valeria. I promise you."
In the darkness, our lips meet once again.
New York City. The Baxter Building.
"What is it, Matchstick?"
I look up from the afternoon edition of the Bugle and see Ben sitting at the opposite end of the table, spoon firmly clasped in his hand, going to town on a bowl of Lucky Charms.
"Have you read the paper today?" I ask narrowly.
"Nope," he says, and goes back to the blue moons. "And since when d'you?"
"Sarah recommended it. Apparently, it'll make me look smart. I guess she's into the bookworm thing."
"Sarah….Sarah," Ben's attention shifts from the cereal and his eyes roll in their sockets, pondering the name. "That's yer new squeeze? What happened to the last one? Melinda, Matilda…whatever it was."
"Melissa," I correct him with a sneer. "The one who ditched me and said her mother was dead just to get out of babysitting Val for a night."
Ben lets out a deep laugh and goes back to his cereal. "You knew what you was gettin' into."
"Fair enough," I shrug. "Anyway. The paper."
"What about it?" Ben asks, not looking up. I fold the paper and throw it across the table. My impeccable aim doesn't disappoint, and the heavy edge catches the pool of milk in the bowl, splashing it on Ben's super-duper-extra-large shirt.
"Aw, you sorry little ingrate!" he bellows and stands, throwing the chair out from behind him. It falls to the ground with a crash and splinters into a few hundred pieces from the impact. Ben's hands form into fists and he looks like he's about to pummel me back to the Stone Age. Upgrade.
"Tell me," I say with a hideously self-assured grin. "Are you more upset about split milk, or about that prize shirt of yours? 'Cause if you are, I know a Goodwill where you could get a whole truckload of 'em."
Ben grabs me by the lapels and hoists me into the air with one hand. The other hand stretches behind his head, ready to snap lose like a rubber band. Made of stone. And Lucky Charms.
"Ben, now wait a second. Let's be reasonable—"
"Bite me, Zippo."
"That's enough," a voice says sternly from somewhere to my left. My eyebrows peak and my eyes dart toward the threshold.
Reed, holding a mug of coffee in one hand.
Prepare yourself for a 'stern talking-to, Jonathan Spencer Storm.' Ben sees the inevitable coming too and sets me down. Well—more like just lets go of me, and watches me fall to the ground with a thud and an 'ouch.'
"One of these days, you two are going to bring down the whole building, you know that?" Reed walks toward the table and picks the paper out of Ben's cereal bowl.
"Aw, you worry too much, Stretcho. S'not like it ain't been done a hunnert times before."
"True enough," Reed says, sitting. "But Johnny had a point."
"I think I broke my coccyx," I say weakly, rubbing the small of my back and standing as upright as I can. "Wait," I say, my voice going normal again. "I had a point? Is the sky falling?"
"No." Thanks for building me up and breaking me down, Reed. "Just pointing out the obvious, Johnny. Take a look at this."
He lifts the paper up over his head so we can see the headline, and a grayscale picture underneath:
"Empire State to grant Von Doom honorary Doctorate—details inside!"
For about three minutes, none of us says anything. Me, I'm just waiting for one of them to say something. When neither does, I finally speak up.
"Okay," I manage, as nonchalantly as I can. "So what do we do?"
"It's a trick." Ben chimes in, punching one fist against an open palm. "I say we hop the first plane to Latveria and give Ironbox the what-for!"
Reed plays referee again and says "That wouldn't solve anything, Ben. We'll have to wait this out."
"Wait it out?" I ask in a sudden flash of disbelief. "What the hell?"
"The guy didn't even graduate! He was expelled before he even had a chance to get a Master's and those schmucks wanna give him a Ph.D? That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."
"You're right," Reed says with a shrug. He sips from a mug of coffee. "But they know as well as any of us that Victor's a genius on par with me or even Charles Xavier."
"Well, yeah," Ben says innocently, trying to sound reasonable. "But to be fair, Chuck ain't exactly lookin' in the pink lately, y'know?"
"Yeah, that's true," I say frankly. I make a mental note: next time we happen to run into one of those X-teams—and Wolverine, I guess—I'll start using up my sick days.
Reed finishes off his coffee and starts analyzing. The embodiment of a scientist. "The brunt of the issue here isn't what the University is doing. It's why they're doing it." Reed stands and sighs. He runs his hands through his hair wearily and walks out of the kitchen, into the adjoining lounge.
"Mebbe it's a publicity thing. Y'know...to boost enrollment or what-not," Ben says with a shrug. "Place prob'ly ain't been the same since you an' I left."
"Sure," I say. "Maybe they'll even rename it 'Von Doom University.' Sounds inviting."
Reed tunes us out—like always—and walks toward the far end of the lounge. He presses his hands against the panoramic window and bows his head, looking at the floor…or possibly Fifth Avenue.
"Something doesn't fit," Reed says; a hint of helplessness in his voice. "Why would the University suddenly welcome Victor back after the accident they expelled him for in the first place?"
"What's yer point, Stretcho?"
Reed turns back to us. "That he'll throw this back in their faces."
"You think so?" I ask, genuinely interested in the answer.
Reed pauses, regards us for a moment, then turns back to the cityscape. "I don't know…"