Summary: Reed has a gift for fitting anomalous data into logical, reasonable-sounding theories. That's not always a good thing.
Notes: Written for feverbeats for Yuletide 2011.
Victor Von Doom caught Reed's attention from the first moment that he set eyes on him, bending over a microscope in the ESU labs. Reed wasn't sure if the sudden kick of adrenaline he got from the sight was annoyance that somebody else had scooped his act as most dedicated scientist on campus or the excitement of finding a potential kindred spirit.
It wasn't hard for Reed to figure out who his fellow enthusiast must be; the wooden trunk by his feet gave him away. It looked like it was hand carved, decorated with old-fashioned alchemical symbols and vaguely Cyrillic lettering - nothing any American boy would dream of taking to college with him. He could only be the Eastern European prodigy the Dean had mentioned during their last talk.
So this was the mysterious Victor Von Doom. Well, he'd certainly make interesting company. And if he was new to the country, he'd probably appreciate a friend. A hearty greeting ought to get things off on the right foot.
"Well, it looks like someone else is as anxious to see the science lab as I am!" Reed said brightly. "My name's Richards. Reed Richards." The Dean had probably mentioned his name to Victor too.
"That's no concern of mine," Victor said, turning on him with an irritable scowl. "I'm here to work, not to socialise." His English was excellent, though harshly accented, and he had the kind of darkly brooding features girls would sigh dreamily over.
Reed had made a point of studying the kind of men that women found attractive. It was useful data to have for his own potential romantic pursuits, and keeping company with the handsome boys meant there were always girls hanging around. He'd learned early on in high school that admitting that while you liked girls fine, you would rather spend your evenings studying fascinating science than angling for a chance to get to some base or other made people suspicious that you might be odd.
If Victor preferred doing science to socialising, maybe he would understand how Reed felt. And even if he didn't, well, no one would think it was strange that Reed wasn't getting anywhere with the girls if they were all flocking round his much better looking buddy.
Because he was sure he and Victor could be friends, even if his first approach hadn't worked so well. Reed was good at figuring out how to make people like him.
"Have you had a chance to explore the campus yet?" he asked. "I could show you around. I attended a few guest lectures here over the summer."
Victor straightened up with an aggrieved sigh, grabbing his luggage from the floor. "I'm not in need of a tour guide, Richards," he said curtly. Reed rather liked the way his name sounded in Victor's accent, all sharp edges and clipped vowels. "I can find my own way."
He shoved his way out of the room without waiting for Reed to move, brushing past his hip in the doorway. Reed stepped back hastily, feeling the heat of a blush for no good reason he could quite figure.
It drove him to chase Victor down the hallway more aggressively than he might have otherwise. "Look, I don't know why you've got that king-sized chip on your shoulder, but being as we're both here on science scholarships, how about us rooming together?" he said, blurting the invitation a little less elegantly than he'd planned.
Victor gave him a dark-eyed glare. "I have no wish to share a room with anyone. I desire privacy," he said, making Reed want to flush again. He wasn't used to being so easily embarrassed.
Flustered, he hurried to keep pace with Victor through the next turn, and only belatedly realised that he'd followed him into a bedroom. Rather than act like an idiot and turn round to walk straight out, he sat down on one of the beds to claim it for his own. Victor probably just didn't realise that shared rooms were the norm here in the US.
"They're not likely to let you have a room to yourself as a freshman," he pointed out. "And anyway, aren't you worried you'll get some kind of reputation? People will think you've got something to hide."
Reed had learned early on that the best thing to do when you were smarter than everyone else was to make extra sure you acted like one of the crowd. He'd supported all the high school sports teams and sat with the guys, nodding along to their discussions about the cheerleaders' various attributes even though he didn't really have much of an opinion himself. Most of the guys just figured he was shy and awkward when it came to girls, and they liked him better because of that. It was important to fit in and make friends. His father had always said so.
"The opinions of the feeble-minded do not concern me," Victor said, gathering up his luggage from where he'd just set it down on the floor. Apparently he was determined not to accept a roommate.
Reed leaned back on the bed with a sigh. "Well, it's none of my business, but aren't you carrying this 'mad scientist' bit a little too far?" he said. Just his luck that the first interesting person he'd met at State turned out to be a complete loon.
"Men always think that their superiors are mad!" Victor said. Reed tipped an incredulous wave after him as he left.
He couldn't help but feel a little disappointed, but still, he'd probably dodged a bullet there. If Victor went round making ominous pronouncements like that all the time, he really was going to get a reputation, and the last thing Reed needed was to get tarred with the same brush.
Besides, that whole thing with following the handsome boys about was just a tactic that he'd used to get through high school without getting beaten up. Maybe he hadn't found any girls who pushed his buttons back in Central City, but it was bound to happen for him now he was at college. He probably just needed someone more mature, someone with a brain he could admire instead of just a knockout body. He'd always been more advanced than his classmates in lots of ways, so why not this one too?
In a couple of weeks he was bound to have found the perfect girlfriend and be shaking his head over why it had taken him so long to see the appeal.
He was almost certain of it.
College was in some ways everything that Reed had dreamed, and in others sadly rather disappointing. He loved having the resources of the labs, the company of people who admired him instead of mocking him for his devotion to science. But in all honesty, the level of intellectual challenge just wasn't what he'd hoped. People were smarter, the professors especially, but that only meant they could follow him through the first basic outlines of his theories before he managed to lose them with the details.
Apart from Victor. Victor always knew what Reed was talking about. And he'd made it his life's mission to pick holes in it.
"It's infuriating!" Reed said to his roommate as they were walking back from class after the latest exercise in aggravation. "He always has to come up with a counter-proposal to every idea I suggest - the most arcane, over-complicated solutions he can come up with, just so he can have a theory that's different from mine."
In truth, Reed had to admit that Victor's convoluted equations were almost pretty: like using poetry to communicate a point instead of direct speaking. But he would appreciate them a lot more if they weren't solely aimed at proving him wrong.
"Jeez, big brain, that's the most emotion I've heard outta ya since I knocked over that doohickey on your desk," Ben said. "Sounds to me like maybe you're not used to having someone else who can keep up on your level."
Reed had a bad feeling all the obvious rebuttals that sprang to his lips would only end up sounding like whining if he uttered them. "It's just- why does he do it?" he demanded. "Why is he obsessed with spending every waking moment coming up with new ways to provoke me?"
Even when Victor wasn't speaking, even when he wasn't looking Reed's way, he somehow still found new ways to be aggravating. Scowling at the blackboard in that intense way that meant he was picking holes in the theory; sitting back with that self-satisfied smirk because he was so sure he was better than them all... It seemed like every expression Victor knew how to pull was designed to get Reed hot around the collar.
He jumped as Ben gave him a cheerful smack on the shoulder. "Aw, don't worry, Doomsie's just pulling your pigtails," he said. "It's probably just his way of showing that he likes you."
"Don't be ridiculous, Ben," Reed said, shaking his head, embarrassed and dismayed by the way his heartbeat raced at the remark. There was no reason why it should make him so anxious. Ben was only kidding around. He wasn't like the high school guys who would keep pounding the same stupid joke into the ground. He was a good friend.
Reed was just lucky he'd ended up with Ben as a roommate instead of Victor. He tried to imagine how crazy the two of them would have driven each other sharing the same room, and couldn't help a shiver.
Definitely dodged a bullet there.
Ben was a good friend. The trouble was, that made him determined to help Reed out even when Reed was sure that he didn't need help. Such as when it came to acquiring a social life.
"Ben, I'm fine," he insisted, in the latest round of what was becoming a very repetitive conversation. "I'm not hiding in the lab, it's just that my research has reached a very exciting point, and-"
"You think one number being slightly bigger than another is exciting," Ben said. Which was a wild exaggeration. Obviously it depended entirely on the meaning of the numbers. "Listen, I'm meeting up with Alynn for milkshakes later. Why don't you come along? I hear her roomie's looking to be cheered up after she just broke up with her boyfriend."
Then getting dragged along to a profoundly awkward double date with Reed was hardly likely to make the poor girl feel much better. "I, er, can't," he said quickly. "I promised Stanley Wade a chess game later."
"Well, sheesh, egghead, you really know how to keep your social calendar hopping," Ben said, but he let it go.
The promise of the game was real enough, though Reed hadn't actually set any particular time and date for it. Luckily, he managed to track Stan down to the college library and found him happy to set the board up then and there, which made him feel a little more at ease about lying to Ben. Unfortunately, the level of play wasn't quite the challenge he'd hoped for, and it was difficult to keep his mind from wandering.
He knew Ben was trying to help him out by pushing him at all these girls, but the whole thing was just awkward. He'd liked all of the girls just fine; liked spending time with them, had nice conversations. And he did want to have a steady girlfriend - someone to share his life with, maybe even someone he could think about marrying, raise a family with. That was the life he'd always wanted for himself when he thought of the future. But somehow figuring out how to get from A to B was much tougher than he'd expected.
That was probably the whole problem - he was overanalysing, thinking too hard when he should just be doing what came naturally. There had to be some sort of biological instinct in there that should tell him when to kiss a girl or hold her hand, when she was putting out signals that she wanted him to do that stuff. But his brain just worked too fast for its own good, dissecting every moment for romance and killing it instead of finding it.
The problem definitely wasn't down to any lack of libido. In fact, his hormones seemed to be embarrassingly overactive these days; it must be all those angry conversations in class getting the testosterone surging. He hadn't been this easily wound up even when he was going through puberty. Maybe he should take up some kind of sport. Or punch Victor in the nose.
Reed realised that he'd brought the game to checkmate without really noticing. "Rematch?" he said with a hopeful smile, but Stan was already rising from his chair.
"You're too good for me, Richards," he said, holding his hands up with a rueful grin. "I gotta go hit the books. Later."
Reed was left frowning at the abandoned chess board, wondering how the game had come to an end so fast. He guessed he hadn't used the most orthodox of openings, but he had expected Stan to dodge around that trap, not fall right into it. Maybe he should have refused the chance so the game could have continued, but he hadn't wanted to insult Stan's intelligence.
Apparently he was alone in that. "Imbecile," a harsh voice spoke up from behind him. "That checkmate should have been obvious a dozen moves ago." Reed's stomach tightened at the sound of that unmistakable accent. How long had Victor been watching the two of them play? All of a sudden he felt itchy all over.
He swung round in his chair to see Victor standing in the doorway of some library back room so obscure even Reed hadn't explored it yet. The stack of battered books under his arm looked like they were older than the building.
It was an image that suited him, somehow. There was always something old-world about Victor, something that sat more easily in some imagined feudal history than in bright, sterile labs full of computers. Maybe it was just the fact that he was European. He had an aura of history and authority about him that always made Reed feel gawky and self-conscious.
But he refused to let it show how much Victor's presence got under his skin.
"You play chess, then, Victor?" he asked with pleasant smile.
Victor sneered. "I have no time for such frivolous diversions," he said, because Victor never made conversation when he could make declarations.
"That's a pity," Reed said, deliberately turning back to the board. For somebody who supposedly had no interest in anything going on around him, Victor sure seemed to hate being ignored. "I was hoping I could find somebody who would put up a bit of a challenge, but I suppose I'll just have to retire from the field." Really, it was more of an honest statement than a taunt, even if it was one he would ordinarily have kept to himself out of politeness. The last person he'd managed a proper game of chess against was his father; nobody else that he'd played was anywhere close to being in Reed's league.
"Your boundless arrogance is as obnoxious as it is misplaced," Victor said, which was really a bit rich coming from him. "I suppose it falls on me to educate you in the error of your ways." He stalked across to take the seat opposite Reed, gesturing impatiently at the chess board. "Set the pieces quickly. I have no wish to spend more than a few minutes away from my studies."
Reed's first thought of a response to that would have betrayed the aura of cool and calm he was trying to project, so he turned his gaze instead to Victor's books as he organised the pieces. He raised his eyebrows in genuine surprise as he recognised the nature of the texts.
"The occult, Victor?" he said. "I never imagined you to be the superstitious type."
"The sheer volume of things that are beyond the bounds of your feeble imagination can scarcely be described, Richards," Victor said, narrowing his eyes as Reed restored the last knight to its place. "Play."
If the previous game had passed in a blur of casual inattention, this one was entirely the opposite. Reed could scarcely remember the last time he'd had to focus so hard on anything to just to keep his head above water. Victor saw the implications of every move he made in an instant, and more often than not anticipated his tactics beforehand. More than once Reed caught himself on the verge of making some foolish step into a trap, and one time he'd already committed to the move and had to sacrifice both of his bishops to escape disaster.
His jaw was aching from gritting his teeth when he finally spotted the opportunity that might bring their drawn-out battle to an end. The one tiny flaw in Victor's game was the way that he favoured his most valuable pieces, always preferring the more impressive capture to letting a lowly pawn take the glory. If Reed pulled a feint within a feint, letting Victor take nearly all his best pieces in return for some seemingly insignificant gains for a couple of pawns nowhere near close to reaching promotion...
Even then, with the route to victory in sight, he barely pulled it off. Victor realised what he was up to halfway through the execution, and launched into a sequence of countermoves that Reed wouldn't have predicted if he'd had an hour set aside to plot it out on paper.
But it was too late for Victor to manage a win, and Reed fought him every step of the way to avoid taking a stalemate. After a gruelling extra half hour, he finally moved his last rook to close the jaws of the trap and gave a smile of triumph. "Checkmate." In a gesture that was probably a little smug but definitely well-earned, he reached out to flick Victor's king over with the base of the rook.
Victor's hand whipped out to close over his, stopping him in mid-motion. Reed froze, staring wide-eyed into the dark intensity of Victor's glare.
Victor's fingers were very warm. That was the only coherent thought echoing through his mind. It seemed wrong, somehow, inappropriate: Victor ought to feel as cold and smooth as one of his robots, all cutting-edge metallic like the sharpness of his words.
But he wasn't; he was warm, like a furnace, his skin emitting a heat that radiated through Reed's whole body in a tingling flush. Reed's lips felt too dry to speak, but he didn't dare to wet them with Victor staring at him like a predator about to strike.
"This is not a victory," he hissed, bending close to Reed over the chess board. "Merely your defeat postponed. Ponder your next move very well." He held very still, as if waiting for Reed to say something, do something, but Reed honestly didn't have a clue what. After the moment had stretched far too long, Victor gave a snarl of disgust and yanked his hand away, rocking the chair with the speed at which he swept his books off of the table and stalked out of the library.
The distant door slammed, and Reed realised belatedly that he was still cringing over the chess board as if waiting for a blow to land. As he sat back, his sleeve brushed the board and knocked his remaining pieces over, leaving Victor's black king standing unopposed.
A superstitious mind might have considered it an omen, but Reed was a rational, reasonable thinker. Not like Victor with his books of the occult; Victor who was always so creepily intense. What on Earth had all that been about?
Reed realised he still had the hand that held the rook dangling loosely out in front of him, as if Victor's touch had broken his fingers, infected him with something. He swallowed and breathed and straightened himself out, glancing hastily over his shoulder to make sure nobody was watching as he fumbled to pack the chess pieces back into their box. He was still buzzing from the adrenaline spike and the whole thing felt irrationally furtive, like anyone who saw him would immediately know that Victor had been here and left his mark on Reed's skin, contaminated him with wrongness.
It was only a game of chess. It was Victor who had made things weird.
Victor was clearly halfway to crazy, and Reed should have stayed well away from him. He didn't want other people thinking he was the same way.
He tucked the chess board under his arm and hurried away from the library, glad that Ben had said he'd be out most of the afternoon. He wasn't sure he could have explained his need to take a long, cold shower and wash Victor's touch off of his skin.
After their chess game, it was as if he'd developed a new sensitivity to Victor's eyes watching him. Whenever Reed looked up, he caught him staring with that same darkly intense look; sort of wary, sort of angry, like he was waiting for Reed to do something. But Reed still didn't understand what.
He dissected every word that Victor had said to him, trying to make sense of it all. Victor was waiting for him to make a move, or... he was planning to make a move and Reed should be ready for it...? Reed didn't even know what kind of game they were playing. He was sure it was no longer just a matter of chess; this was some kind of greater game of one-upmanship, some way for Victor to prove his superiority, because what else did Victor even care about?
It was obvious that he was planning something. He was always scribbling crazy calculations in class, too obscure for even Reed to understand from only a quick glance. And those books of the occult he always carried, the arcane symbols that he sketched around the edges of his work - surely Victor couldn't actually believe in that stuff? Was it meant to be some sort of clue, some sign of his next move that Reed should anticipate?
There was no roommate he could press to spill the beans; Victor had gotten his wish, a small private room away from the rest of the freshman dorms. But why had he been so desperate to have his own secret space? What was he doing in there that he didn't want anyone else to see? Was he seriously practising the occult? Reed's imagination tortured him with vivid imagery of perverse rites and rituals, all the obscene things that Victor might be doing with the impressionable girls and even guys who followed him around like starry-eyed groupies.
Reed had to keep an eye on him for everybody's safety, make sure he didn't have the chance to set some terrible plan in motion.
But that was far from easy, considering Victor never lingered a moment more in other people's company than he had to. He spent most of his time out of class working inside the private lab that the college had given him to pursue his robotics research.
Reed had some lab space on the same hallway too, though he'd rarely used it so far, preferring the atmosphere of working in the shared labs. But now he found himself making any excuse to drop by, setting up a series of experiments that required taking regular readings. After the third time he'd had to reset an experiment because he wasn't actually writing the readings down, he knew he had to take the bull by the horns. He could always just invite Victor to play another game of chess; at least that way he might get slightly more conversation out of him than a few growled words in passing.
As long as Victor didn't do anything weird like grab him by the hand again. His stomach squirmed at the thought. He didn't understand why Victor made him so stupidly nervous. It was something to do with the way that he disregarded the proper boundaries, didn't allow Reed the comfortable personal space that any normal guy would understand was appropriate. It was creepy and, and... just not right.
But Reed refused to be ruled by irrational emotional reactions. He knocked softly at the door of the lab, and pushed it open when Victor didn't answer. Rows of blank-eyed robot faces in various states of assembly stared down at him from the surrounding shelves, like watchful armoured guardians.
Reed had never understood the obsession people had with trying to make robots that looked like human beings. If you were making a robot, why not make it perfect for its function? The design of the human body was riddled with inefficiencies, pointless evolutionary relics of an older time.
Like the way his heart was racing and his palms were slick with sweat as he slipped past the rows of shelves in search of Victor. There was no logical reason for it; just the inherited instincts of some more primitive past, when there was something to be feared from crossing territorial lines and entering unknown spaces. What was the worst Victor could do? Snap at him in annoyance? He did that practically every time they met.
"Victor?" Reed said tentatively, peering round the end of the shelves. But it seemed Victor wasn't around.
He'd left the work surfaces scattered with the electronic entrails of multiple projects in progress. Some Reed recognised immediately as robotics components, but others were much more mysterious. He peered at the exposed inner workings of some kind of hand-held device. Obviously a scanner, but why would Victor need to track such esoteric energy readings? Was he experimenting with breaching dimensional barriers? That was-
Reed jumped as he heard footsteps and the sound of the lab door being pulled closed behind him. He hurried back around the shelves, a nervous smile in place. "Oh, hi, Victor, I was just looking for-"
"Richards." Victor's scowl was thunderous as he strode towards him, backing Reed up against the wall. "What are you doing in my private lab? Are you spying on my work?"
Reed's first reaction was to laugh incredulously. "What? Victor, that's absurd. I just came by to ask you if you-"
Victor's eyes narrowed sharply at what he probably perceived as ridicule. "Turn out your pockets," he demanded abruptly.
"What?" Reed blurted again, honestly convinced he must have misheard. "No!" What did Victor think this was, some kind of police state? "I'm not going to justify your ridiculous sense of- Hey!" His voice shot up in shock as Victor, not waiting for his permission, just stepped into his personal space and started to pat him down. "You can't just..."
He trailed off, utterly failing to figure out any sort of follow-up. This situation had rapidly gotten so weird that he'd lost all frame of reference for it. Victor was standing so close Reed could feel his breath on his face, his hands running over Reed's body brusquely but not roughly, exactly, and the whole thing was - well, obviously horrifying and completely unacceptable and creepy, but at the same time strangely intimate and less off-putting than it should be.
Victor's questing hands ran out of pockets, and he gave a put upon frown. "Why are you here, Richards?" he demanded, sounding wearily exasperated. He made no move to back off, and Reed didn't quite know where to focus with their faces still so close together.
"I, um..." Victor still had his left hand halfway down Reed's back pocket, and it was really very difficult to think about anything else. "I... don't know?" he admitted uncertainly.
Victor let out a breath that was almost a sigh. He gripped Reed's upper arm with his free hand, his face dipping forward, and for a moment Reed had the bizarre conviction that Victor was going to lay his head down on his shoulder, as if too wearied by the exchange to go on any longer.
Instead, Victor's lips touched against his, and he just had time to wonder if it was some sort of strange Latverian custom to kiss someone before you murdered them, when abruptly there was a tongue where previously there had only ever been his own. He almost choked, banging his head on the wall as he jerked backwards, but Victor followed up, pushing Reed's shoulder back flat against the wall, and pressing the whole length of his body against Reed's.
And that was- Oh. Well, that was really rather intriguing, actually...
Beyond that point, thought blurred away into a sort of pleasant haze, where there were tongues doing interesting things and warm hands on his body - plus occasional bumped noses and awkward clashes of knees, but nothing really distracting enough to pull him away from a new and highly motivating field of research-
-Until he heard the crash of a door somewhere off in the building; not anybody nearby, but enough to remind him that there were actually other people in the world, and he was standing in the corner of an ESU science lab with one hand up under Victor's shirt and Victor's hand somewhere he didn't even want to think about and what the hell were they doing?
He shoved Victor away from him, harder than he meant to. Victor rebounded off the corner of the shelf unit, eyes flying back open. His lips moved from momentary startlement into a scowl as he prepared to say something, and Reed didn't know what it was, but he was absolutely certain that he couldn't bear to hear it. He shoved past Victor, lunging for the lab door, and fled towards the sanctuary of his dorm room.
If Victor tried to shout anything after him, the blood was rushing in Reed's ears too loud for him to hear it.
That night, lying awake and trying not to cry while Ben snored like a clogged up drain across the room, he developed a plan that would allow him to avoid Victor for the rest of their time at ESU together. It mostly involved staying in his dorm room and never leaving it ever except to use the bathroom.
He convinced Ben that he had the flu easily enough the next morning, and his professors were all quite willing to accept that he was sick. Reed had never missed a single session of any class before, even the ones that were far below his level, and they had no reason to suspect him of malingering. Victor might know differently, but Reed didn't have to care about what he thought. That was the entire purpose of the plan.
The downside of the plan was that it involved a lot of time trapped alone with nothing to do but think - something that had just slipped pretty far down on his list of favourite activities. He couldn't even take the usual route of burying himself in math, because that just led straight towards the things he was trying not to think about. His mind's ability to make associations lightning fast had turned against him. He spent most of his time huddled under the covers, trying to convince himself that the stuffy heat and prickly eyes really were the signs of some kind of mind-altering fever, trying to convince himself that he really needed to sleep.
The least said about the dreams he had on the second night, the better.
On the afternoon of day four of the plan, Ben unceremoniously picked him up off the bed, covers and all, and dumped him in front of the door. "Okay, pal, we're going out," he announced.
Reed's protests got him exactly nowhere, and ultimately it was easier to let Ben drag him along than expend the energy to make a fight of it. He got properly dressed for the first time in days, and miserably followed along to the college cafeteria. At least Ben didn't make him stick around to eat, but led the way out to a shady hill on the far side of the campus.
"This is where I go when I need to think," Ben said, settling down under the tree at the top of the hill. "Figure you probably don't need much help with that part, but my Aunt Petunia always says fresh air does a body good. And you sure ain't looking so good these days, roomie."
Reed turned his eyes away from Ben's expectant look, picking at the sandwich in his lap with no enthusiasm.
"So," Ben said eventually. "Is it a girl?"
"No!" he retorted hotly, and hated the way his eyes immediately started stinging. It was hard not to let out a bitter laugh. If this was about a girl, it would be easy. He poked holes in the mushy bread of his sandwiches in sullen silence.
Ben leaned back against the base of the tree, gazing out over the campus. "Guess I'm used to not being the smartest guy in the room," he said reflectively. "Football scholarship, everybody's pretty pleased if I can write my own name without a spelling mistake. Nobody ever expected anything impressive outta me." He glanced sideways at Reed. "Must be tough, being younger than everybody else here, and them expecting you to be the best at everything all the time."
"Everybody except Victor," Reed said, and then wished he hadn't when he heard the sound of his own voice. He hugged his knees.
"That guy giving you trouble?" Ben asked. Reed let out a snort that skirted the edge of a sob, and didn't answer.
After a while, Ben let out a quiet sigh. "Look," he said. "I ain't never been too good at all this huggy, feely stuff. And I guess I'm probably too dumb for a smart guy like you to talk about your problems with. But I'm still your buddy. And, yeah, sure I tease ya, but you know I think you're somethin' pretty special, right? Not because you're some kinda super-genius. Just because you're you."
Reed pressed his fingertips against his eyelids, swallowing, and managed a jerky nod. There was silence for a while, and then he heard Ben shift positions.
"All right, so tell me again about this molecular-resizing thingamajig," he said, voice changing tone. "I think I almost understood about a quarter of it last time..."
Reed went back to attending his classes the next day, but he didn't catch any glimpse of Victor around. Maybe he'd retreated even further into his secret projects. Maybe he was hiding too. Nobody else seemed to be looking at him funny, at least, so he guessed Victor hadn't spread any nasty stories. After all, he had as much to lose from it as Reed.
They needed to talk. Somewhere private, without other people listening in. But not in Victor's lab. Not after what had happened. Victor might think he wanted... well, Reed didn't even know what he wanted. But he knew they had to talk.
And the longer he put it off, the harder it was going to be to do it. That Saturday, a lazy, sunny afternoon where the college was mostly deserted, he headed over to Victor's dorm room. One of the few single rooms in the building, it was tucked away around a corner, out of sight of the rest of the freshman dorms. Even so, Reed found himself absurdly jittery, looking over his shoulders to make sure he wasn't observed as he knocked on the door.
It swung inwards under his knuckles, and he peered inside. "Hello? Anybody home?"
No sign of Victor. Reed took a nervous breath. He could go - but he knew that if he did, he wasn't going to make it back down here again. Victor couldn't be planning to be away for long, or he'd have locked his door behind him when he left. Better to just wait for him here.
But not out in the hallway. If someone came by, if they asked him why he was waiting to see Victor, what would he say? He let himself in and pushed the door mostly closed behind him, concealing his presence from curious eyes.
His stomach was too knotted up with nerves for him to stay still. The room was smaller than a normal double; the bed seemed to dominate the space, and everywhere he turned his gaze to look away from it there were occult symbols and warped little figurines leering at him from all corners. It sent his mind back to all those nights he'd spent obsessing over visions of the sordid things that Victor might be getting up to with the devotees he'd lured into some crazy cult.
Was that what was happening to him? Was he being lured? He didn't think he was... that kind of guy, but...
He paced the room, looking desperately for any kind of distraction. There were papers on the desk, more of Victor's nonsense scribblings. He picked them up, sure that puzzling over that would at least keep his mind occupied and stop it veering down all these disturbing tracks.
Except as he read through the equations, he realised that they weren't just nonsensical. It was pretty far out stuff - matter transmutation and dimension warps? What the hell was Victor trying to do? But the science behind it was sound. Well, almost, there was a little bit of fudging in the math where Victor had clearly been roughing his work out with estimated numbers in a hurry to get the ideas down, but still, with a little refinement...
His efforts to distract himself had worked a little too well; the sound of the door slamming open behind him made him jump out of his skin. Reed swallowed hard as he turned to face Victor in the doorway. All of a sudden he was very, very aware of all the reasons it had been stupid to come here, and all he could do was babble desperately to fill the air before Victor could say anything he didn't want to hear.
"Oh - there you are! Listen..." But the forthright and insightful things he'd been planning to say had melted away under the force of Victor's glare. He seized gratefully on the pages of calculations he still had clutched in his hand, taking refuge in the one area where he knew he was on solid ground. "You'd better double-check some of these equations. You're off a few decimals in some places, and that could mean-"
"Give me that!" Victor snatched the pages from his hand. His eyes were ablaze with anger, but he also seemed... upset? "Now get out!" Reed hesitated, on the verge of saying something, and Victor's voice rose even higher, almost cracking. "Did you hear me? Get out!" He physically manhandled Reed towards the door.
Reed couldn't afford to let this turn into a public shouting match. He let Victor shove him out into the hallway and slam the door behind him, mustering a nervous smile as he saw that several curious passing heads had turned to see what the commotion was.
He jerked his thumb towards the door behind him. "I guess he really doesn't like being corrected on his math." That drew nods of understanding, and even one slight chuckle. After all, everyone knew Victor.
Reed felt a little bad about it, but really, he was protecting Victor's reputation too. He hurried back towards his own bedroom. That... had not gone well at all, but at least he'd mustered up the courage to make the attempt. And Victor hadn't killed him...
Next time would go better. He just needed to give Victor a chance to calm down, and come up with an actual plan of what he was going to say, and then he could try again. He'd get it right eventually. Getting things right was what he did.
But there was never any chance for any next time. In the early hours of Sunday morning, the dorms were rocked by an explosion, and wild rumours spread across the campus. Daniel Kurtz had lost an eye. Victor was in the hospital with second degree burns. Victor had been expelled for his illegal experiments.
Reed's heart was pounding when he found himself called in to speak with the Dean.
"I understand there was some sort of incident between you and Von Doom shortly before last night's tragic accident?" the Dean said, cocking his head inquisitively as Reed almost stopped breathing. "The boys from the rooms nearby said there was shouting."
Oh. The argument. Just the argument. Reed still felt like he was going to be sick. "We... argued about his theories," he said. His palms were sweating. "He had some interesting ideas about trans-dimensional warps, but... his numbers were wrong. He didn't want to listen to me."
Technically he was speaking nothing but the truth, so why did he feel like such a liar?
The Dean pressed his lips together in a thin line. "Indeed. Well, we can only be deeply sorry that Mr. Von Doom didn't have the wisdom to listen to you." He shook his head sadly. "I always thought it was ill-advised to give a young man of his dubious background access to such sensitive technologies. They just don't instil the proper academic rigour in these backwater countries."
Reed swallowed down his first instinct to speak up in Victor's defence. He couldn't afford to sound like he was too invested - and really, how could he even argue? Victor had been messing with dangerous untested theory work, and Reed had tried to warn him of the flaws in it. Even if the circumstances hadn't been ideal... well, shouldn't a true scientist rise above emotional distractions and weigh all information dispassionately, regardless of personal biases?
That was what Reed should have been doing. He should have listened to the voices of logic, instead of letting himself get caught up in all this craziness. He should have known better than to have any involvement with Victor Von Doom at all.
The Dean dismissed him with a distracted sigh. "Oh, well, that will be all, Richards," he said. "Thank you for your assistance in this matter. I could wish all of our students were as conscientious and aware of their responsibilities as you."
Reed hurried to his feet, eager to escape more probing questions, but before he left the office he had to stop and turn. "Sir... is Victor going to be all right?" he asked.
The Dean frowned slightly. "Oh, I should imagine so. He'll have some scars, of course, but really, he brought the whole thing on himself. He's lucky some poor innocent wasn't killed."
The crime scene tape was still across the charred door of Victor's bedroom, but campus security were only too relieved to take Reed's offer of his services in analysing whether it was safe. He studied the remains of Victor's apparatus and his notes until he was sure he understood the implications.
They weren't good. Victor had definitely been trying to breach the barrier between dimensions and bring something back from the other side. And judging by the multiple layers of defences he'd built into his machine, he'd expected it to be something hostile. Had he been planning to unleash extradimensional terrors on the campus in some twisted act of revenge?
Victor was clearly far more unstable than Reed had even begun to guess. Were the occult symbols scattered around the room truly just stage dressing to impress the gullible, or had Victor honestly believed in their legitimacy? Maybe he'd somehow expected that magic would patch the gaps in his flawed equations.
Quite insane - and really, Reed should have seen the signs long before now. He'd behaved in ways no decent person would have considered remotely acceptable. And if Reed himself had almost been lured into participating... well, there was always a degree of exhilaration associated with the idea of breaking taboos, and of course Victor had that kind of mesmerising charisma that so many madmen did. Reed would have come to his senses eventually, even if this hadn't happened. He just wasn't the kind of person who took part in that sort of thing.
No sense trying to construct any sort of logic around Victor's side of the equation. Although he had to admit, there was one piece of the experimental apparatus that continued to nag at him. Everything else made sense, when viewed from either a scientific or some sort of mystical standpoint, but why on Earth was the centre of the piece focused around what appeared to be a sentimental keepsake in the form of a photographic locket?
The locket held a picture of a woman and child who must assuredly be Victor and his mother. They both had the same dark eyes he knew so well, though the Victor in the picture looked far happier than the one Reed had encountered.
Struck by impulse, Reed picked the locket up and tucked it away in his pocket. Victor wouldn't be coming back for it, and the college would just dispose of it with everything else. A little more analysis would surely help him figure out its purpose in the arrangement, and then he could put the whole thing out of his mind.
It would be best if he could just forget that he'd ever met Victor Von Doom, and certainly forget what had happened in the lab.
After all, they were never going to see each other again.
Endnote: Some dialogue from Reed and Victor's first and last scenes together is taken direct from Fantastic Four Annual #2 (albeit with the punctuation filed off). All credit to Stan Lee et al.