The younger students at the Bax aren't supposed to have locks on their doors, but Victor does an awful lot of fiddling through the cracked-open door before he swings it open and leads Reed in. Reed gasps a little when he sees, not because it's so strange, but because it's so familiar. It's just like Reed's room, only more so. Every wall is covered with whiteboards, every whiteboard with equations and diagrams. Even the curtain's been pulled down and scribbled on in chalk, cutting off all natural light. There's a heap of notebooks next to the desk as tall as the desk itself, and almost every inch of the desk's surface is taken up with a partially-disassembled piece of machinery Reed doesn't recognize. The foot of the bed is piled high with books. Victor's tall and broad-shouldered; Reed can't imagine how he folds himself up to sleep in the abbreviated space he's left himself.
"Here," Victor says, and hands him the diagram torn out of a journal. "This is what you need. Bring it back."
"Thanks." Something on the nightstand catches his eye. "Is that a slide rule?"
"They'd buy you a personal computer, you know. They're only a few thousand dollars now. That's nothing to the Bax."
"I have a whole server room downstairs." He picks up the slide rule, turns it over in his hand. The light glints off the metal into his eyes, blue like Reed's. "Sometimes, I like to be able to do the calculations myself."
"Careful, Victor," Reed smiles. "You actually just told someone something about yourself."
Victor stiffens all over. "Your notebooks were full of calculations by hand."
Reed feels, unexpectedly, sorry. "Geez, I didn't mean..."
Victor sits down carefully at the desk, angles the light into the depths of the machinery, and peers in.
"Look, I'm going to go over the newest data from CERN when it comes in tonight. Want to come by?"
He picks up a pair of pliers and reaches out to adjust a wire as if Reed weren't even there.
Reed grimaces with annoyance. "Fine."
He turns to leave. It was stupid to think he could work with a stuck-up jerk like Victor, no matter how smart he is. Annoying no-good snobby weirdo--
When he reaches the door, Victor says, low, "I'll be there."
It's only later, describing the scene to an incredulous Johnny and Sue, that Reed realizes there wasn't a single personal thing in Victor's room. Unless you counted the slide-rule.
A few days later, when Victor comes into the dining hall, Reed waves at him. Victor nods, but sweeps on past to his usual solitary table, coat flaring behind him. Victor always manages to make something as simple as carrying a tray look dramatic.
Johnny elbows him. "Did you just wave at old Doom and Gloom?"
"Just a sec."
Reed gets up and goes over to Victor's table. Victor is eating carefully but quickly, his eyes on his food.
"Hey, didn't you see me wave?"
Reed waits for him to say more, but he doesn't. "You know, amongst kids our age that usually means 'Come over and join us.'"
Victor finally looks up. "Join you?"
"Yes. For lunch. Over there."
"Your friends are too loud. They talk about trivialities."
"Not everybody can talk about science all the time, Victor," Reed says, half-apologetic. "Even here."
"I know that," Victor says. "That's why I only talk to you."
He's surprised at the little warm burst of pride, of inclusion, he feels. It's something more even than he felt when he first arrived at the Bax, where old Moley never stops telling the kids how different and special they are. Something new. Still, it's kind of weird, so he just says, "Okay. See you in the lab, then."
"Don't forget to bring the new calculations." Victor goes back to his meal.
Back at the table, Johnny says, "You're socializing with Victor now? Please tell me it's just an experiment."
"Come on, Johnny. He's...not so bad."
Johnny just shakes his head and grins broadly. "I worry about you, man."
Reed's heard that some of the older kids at the Bax, especially the ones that specialize in biochemistry, do drugs to keep up the pace under all the pressure. He doesn't understand it. For him, research has always been a steady slow burn of excitement, calm and clear, searing away the puzzles to reveal the truth.
Working with Victor is something else.
Reed has posters of the great scientists who inspire him on his bedroom walls. Victor doesn't inspire him, exactly...more like ticks him off, or works him up, or whatever figure of speech puts the emphasis on shaken and stirred. Victor argues with Reed, all the time, every time, and for the first time in his life Reed actually feels like he has to think fast to keep up. He can't sneak anything by Victor, can't just skate along on his intuition; Victor will shred his theory in a second and look smug doing it. When they throw ideas at each other, it's like they're in a supercollider, atoms smashing to produce billions and billions of brilliant little particles, every one of them strange and new and beautiful.
Not to mention releasing an amazing amount of energy in the process. When they're arguing, Victor yells, throws things, storms off...and comes back five minutes later with a new angle. Reed yells back, pounds the table, pokes his finger in Victor's face (though he knows better than to actually touch him). People start avoiding their benches, which is just as well--they need the space to expand into. Funnily enough, though, Victor never gets upset when an experiment goes wrong. Reed mutters and tears at his hair and paces up and down, but Victor just cleans up in his methodical way and sits down to rethink.
"How can you just start over like that?" Reed asks him once, dropping his head into his arms in woe over the latest failure to probe the N-zone.
"Research never upsets me," Victor answers. "The universe is an overwhelming masterpiece of elegant design. There's no room for frustration with it."
"Just with people, right?"
Victor looks at him. "Maybe not all people. At least, not all the time."
"Are you actually trying to cheer me up, Victor?"
"If you're sulking, then you're not helping."
"I'm not just helping, ever--"
When things do go well, as they do more often than not, it's a bigger rush than it was before. Even Victor feels it; Reed can see it in the way his hands shake a little or he breathes a bit faster. Sometimes they both just sit and stare in wonder at their results, even if it's just a number on a screen, and it's all the more amazing that someone else knows, shares the feeling exactly. It's not a real discovery, nothing to make old Moley happy, but Reed likes it.
The night in Victor's room that they come up with their UV-dissipation theory, Victor kisses him. Kisses him breathless and open-mouthed and warm--no one ever touches Victor, ever, so it's a shock that his skin feels like anyone else's. But then it doesn't, because of the energy that crawls over them, between them, as Reed's fingers tighten on Victor's arm.
Reed's had the school lectures on puberty, delivered by an apparently disgusted Dr. Mole. Theory and practice have never seemed quite so far apart. He hadn't thought about this with Victor, but he hadn't not thought about it, either. With the energy between them, it's always felt like they were just a step away from something, but he'd always thought it was one of them punching the other.
Not Victor curling his fingers around his glasses and lifting them away to stare at his eyes like they were the visions projected out of the N- zone. Not the two of them half-stumbling over to Victor's bed and flopping onto it like a failure of engineering, knocking piles of books to the floor. Not Victor squirming against Reed til his breath catches in his throat and his eyes flutter shut, then opening them again and mouthing at the top of Reed's earlobe, and sliding his tongue, wet and tingly, in--and Reed didn't know that could happen quite so fast, it never has before--
"Oh, wow, Victor," Reed says, and he feels embarrassed to be a mess in Victor's tidy bedroom, even though he knows Victor has to be the same. Victor's watching him, guarded. "That was...wow."
He can see Victor let out a breath. "You think so?"
"When did you--?"
"Just now," Victor confesses.
Reed has to laugh, and, to his amazement, Victor laughs, too, letting his head rest on the pillow just above Reed's hand.
It turns out, later, that Victor can fold himself up to sleep with the books, wrapped tightly in about fifteen blankets. Reed slips off to his own room, wondering if everyone who passes him in the hall can tell.
The next day, Dr. Storm calls Reed into his office. They review the latest experiments, and then Storm says, "I see many of these are collaborations with van Damme. I hear you're working closely with him."
Reed thinks he can't breathe. "Oh?"
"Your benchmates have been complaining about the noise."
"Oh." The blood starts moving in his veins again. "Our collaboration is producing significant results--"
"I know. Quite impressive, actually. I just think you should be...careful, Reed."
"Careful?" For a minute he thinks again that Storm knows, thinks about the various weird safety precautions Dr. Mole mentioned in that lecture.
"Yes, careful. Victor is...not one of our usual recruits."
"What do you mean?"
Storm hesitates. "You know he's not an American."
"Sure. Everyone knows that." Victor speaks English as if it was a second language; he lives life like he has to stop to translate it in his head first, too.
"He came to us a little younger than most of our students, but not before he'd had some very...difficult experiences."
"I'm not at liberty to say, Reed. I can tell you he's an orphan."
Victor never talks about his parents, but then he never talks about anything outside the Institute, and not much inside it. It's not like Reed goes on about his folks, his dad who only cares about the monthly check and his mom who's too nervous to call. "And?"
"I'll tell you frankly, I didn't think that it was in his best interests for him to be admitted here. This isn't an appropriate placement for him."
"How could it be bad for anyone to be here who's smart enough?" The Bax, bad for Victor? Reed couldn't even begin to imagine him anywhere else. Reed's old middle school would have crucified him--or else he would have killed them all.
Storm smiles sadly. "That's something you may not understand til you're older, Reed."
"What does this have to do with whether he and I work together?"
"Just..." Storm sighs. "Just remember there's a reason most of the other students don't like him."
"That's not fair!" Reed protests, remembering the endless parade of swirlies in his own past.
"No, I'm afraid it's not." Storm looks at his computer screen. "Still, it's true. Thank you for coming in, Reed."
He isn't sure how to act when he sees Victor later. Certainly not the way he does in his fantasies where he's dating Sue and brings her flowers and holds her hand as they walk around the city. Fortunately, Victor is totally absorbed in the experiment when Reed comes in to the lab, and after, he picks up his suit coat and his books and leaves quickly.
It's like that for three whole days, then Reed decides that it's getting ridiculous. He should settle this somehow. He waits fifteen minutes after Victor leaves, then goes to his room and knocks on the door.
"Come in," says a muffled voice. Of course, Victor would have some way to know.
He hesitates. "Isn't there...security?"
"Not for you."
To Reed's surprise, Victor is lying flat on his back, in his shirtsleeves. He has one hand on his chest and he's listening to someone playing piano. Reed didn't even know Victor had a radio. Probably just for parts.
He sits on the one chair. "Hey."
"You've been leaving the lab pretty fast the last few days."
"I have to think."
Victor doesn't say anything. Reed takes the plunge. "Look, I know you think we should be serious all the time. If you think that...that other stuff is too distracting...It's okay. I mean, I liked it, but I won't get mad if you want to--"
Reed's at a loss. He sits and looks at the whiteboard behind Victor's bed. The piano keeps playing.
"I didn't think you liked classical music," Reed says finally, just to have something to say. "It's so boring." At least, that's what his father always said, and for once Reed has never seen a reason to disagree. The Bax never tries to push music, or any kind of culture really, on the students, and Reed hasn't thought to miss it.
"It's not boring," Victor says, "it's math."
Reed can't even tell if that's some kind of weird rationalization--if it's math, they have to love it? "What?"
"Let me show you." Victor sits up and takes his fingers. "There's a beat..."
Leave it to Victor, Reed thinks later. To see beauty in math, and math in beauty. He's probably trying to solve the equation of them. Reed doesn't know a whole lot about love, but he doesn't think it works that way.
It still feels good when Victor dozes against him, his breath brushing lightly over Reed's collarbone.
They don't tell anyone, of course. Reed knows better, and no one's more secretive than Victor. It's funny that none of the kids at the Bax can tell--they think he and Victor can still hardly stand each other- -but that's just one more thing they understand better than anyone else. Besides, it's not as if they're dating.
Months pass, and Victor is still as strange to him as if he were a creature who'd wandered in out of the N-zone, and as familiar as the person looking back at Reed from the mirror. They don't talk much about themselves, even when they're curled together in the little world whose edges are defined by the blur of Reed's vision without his glasses. After all, they're not girls, and they're not really friends, either. Reed can't imagine ever just hanging out with Victor, doing nothing in particular, the way he does with Johnny, or did with Ben. They do physics, and that's the most important thing in the world. It just doesn't leave them with much else to say.
One day, Reed comes into the lounge, and not only is the old TV that hardly anyone ever watches turned on, but Victor is hunched over on one of the couches, watching it. That's so much of a shock that Reed actually drops his notebook on his foot. The pain brings him back to himself; he picks up the notebook and walks over to Victor.
"What's going on?" he asks quietly.
"Shhhh," Victor says, annoyed.
It's the news, reporting on the overthrow of the last communist government still in existence, in an eastern European country Reed's never heard of, Latveria. "Is that where you're from?"
"Yes. Now be quiet."
The camera is showing crowds cheering in a city plaza as a crane takes down a giant bronze statue, but Victor has no expression on his face at all. Reed feels oddly anxious.
"Does this mean you can go home?"
"It would be too...humiliating."
That doesn't make any sense, but Reed can't ask, not in public. "But...don't you have family there? Anybody who misses you?"
He doesn't look away from the screen. "My parents are dead. There is no one else."
"I heard. That's...it's too bad."
"Not really," Victor says tonelessly.
"Don't you miss your folks?"
"It's easier like this."
Sometimes Victor is almost too scary to be close to. Maybe it would help if Reed could touch him when he's like this; maybe it wouldn't. But he can't do anything, not right there, where anybody could see, so he just sits down on the couch. When he puts his notebook down between them, he lets his fingers brush Victor's hand.
CNN covers the story for hours--longer than Reed can remember spending away from his work in months--and eventually he falls asleep. It's past one when Victor wakes him. "The excitement is over. For now."
"Did the good guys win?" Reed asks groggily. He doesn't know a thing about politics; that's another subject the Bax doesn't try to get them interested in.
"There are no 'good guys' there."
Victor goes. Reed's left staring muzzily at the static on the screen and wondering.
Life at the Bax always feels like it's never going to change, but it still does. Johnny runs through half-a-dozen girlfriends, gets into two auto accidents, and finally settles down in chemistry. He's really not working up to the Bax's standards, but because of his dad, the Institute is willing to leave him alone to putter around, as long as he doesn't blow too many things up. Sue goes from a smirking, cynical girl to a cool blonde beauty, and it's more obvious than ever that she's a top- rate mathematician. Only Victor doesn't seem to change, unless it's to become even more dramatic and self-assured. He gets a fistful of patents and prizes for his work in robotics--two more patents than Reed has, as Victor likes to remind him regularly.
But it's Reed's work that really has the Institute's attention. When the N-zone project reaches the later phases, it becomes the project. At first, Reed's glad that Victor agrees to work on it officially. He was afraid that Victor would be too proud, but he realizes he wasn't being fair: Victor cares about his ego, but he cares about the work more. It's only later that he discovers the drawback. The two of them don't have time for much else, and then suddenly there isn't anything else. Victor goes completely withdrawn, inside and outside the lab, and Reed doesn't know what to do.
"You didn't meet a girl, did you?" he finally asks him one day.
"Where would I meet a girl?"
"There are some in here. Grace, Ada, Susan C., Sue Storm..." You couldn't deny that Victor was as handsome as some old-time movie star; he could land any girl in the Bax--if he ever actually noticed one.
"I believe Miss Storm is your department."
"Are you telling me you're jealous, Victor?"
That would be a relief, if strange. Sue's been handling most of the dimensional mathematics on the project lately, but he certainly hasn't asked her out. Though he's given it plenty of thought.
Victor just snorts. "Hardly."
"Then why are you suddenly treating me like I have the plague?"
"I'm not. People with the plague are shut up in houses and burned alive."
That is certainly the strangest thing Victor's ever said, and he's said quite a few strange things, but Reed won't let himself be put off. "You know what I mean."
"There's no time anymore, Reed. The project--"
"You said it wasn't a distraction!"
Victor's tone is clipped, dismissive. "It is now."
Reed is stunned, his throat tight. "Why?"
"Don't be childish. We're in phase twelve. Priorities have to be adjusted."
"Priorities? You have got to be kidding me!"
Victor says coldly, "You know how dangerous our research has become, Reed. I would not care to see someone I...someone who matters to me hurt or killed."
"So you're just cutting me off?"
"No, I--" Victor stops, lowers his head. His hair flops down over his eyes. "Yes."
Reed thinks he just might punch him this time. But he doesn't. He takes three breaths, and then he leans forward and takes a reading. "Fine, then. If that's the way you want it. Fine."
Victor just scratches down some notes. Reed can almost see him hardening into the Doom-and-Gloom look.
The night before the experiment, Reed walks into the main project tent to find Sue bent over one of the computers, staring at a string of numbers on the screen.
"Cramming?" he jokes, feebly. All his jokes seem feeble in Sue's glamorous presence.
She tosses her hair, gives him a look. "Double-checking some things."
"We're ready to go tomorrow," he says, even though he'd come in to do the exact same thing. For several hours. "You should get some sleep."
"Dad has a lot at stake in this, Reed. I want everything to go off perfectly."
"Don't worry. I won't let him down."
She arches a brow. "We won't let him down. Even if he probably wouldn't yell at me about it if it all goes wrong."
Reed tries not to think about what the Bax will do if he blows this. He won't blow it. He doesn't make mistakes. However, he doesn't think the Institute will be very forgiving if he starts now. "You're lucky, not to have the responsibility."
"I'd still feel bad. Especially if Dad got fired and we had to leave the Institute. Do you have any idea how expensive apartments in Manhattan are?"
Reed's never known another girl like Sue, sleek and gorgeous and tough. She doesn't look very sleek or gorgeous just then, in her dusty khakis with her hair tucked behind her ear, but maybe that's what lets him gather up his courage and take the plunge.
"I was thinking..."
"Yes?" Amusement is creeping into her eyes, but it's not unfriendly.
"After the experiment...if you wanted to...maybe...we could..."
"Your assumption about the density curve is wrong, Reed!" Victor shoves open the flap of the tent and ducks in. Sue straightens up, and now she's all amusement. "I just realized--"
He isn't sure whether he and Victor fight more or less now that they're no longer anything to each other, but he is sure it's not the least bit of fun anymore. They've been wrestling with each other over this phase for weeks, dragging each other down until Reed almost hates the very sight of him. "We've already discussed this, Victor. I've properly compensated for the transformation--"
"But not if the rate of transformation changes as the object passes through the plane!" Victor thrusts a clipboard at him. "See?"
Reed doesn't even look. "We decided this several days ago, Victor. We're not going to go over it again just to make you feel important."
"Important? Don't be ridiculous. It's not about that at all! It's about your overlooking something vital! Again!"
"God, Victor! Ever since you joined this project, you've done nothing but nitpick and complain and undermine me. You haven't been any help. In fact, you've been less than help. And--and--" He gathers momentum as he goes along. "And it's my project, not yours, and if you can't deal with that, then you can just get out."
"You can't think this is because--I wouldn't--" He glances at Sue and stops. "Reed, you must look at this. If you don't--"
"If I don't, the experiment will still proceed according to plan, and you'll have to shut up for once. I think I'd really enjoy that."
Victor turns wordlessly on his heel and strides out of the tent. Behind him, Sue says quietly, "Don't you think you were a little hard on him?"
"Don't you start defending him, Sue. You don't like him, either."
"I don't, but I think that's at least half the Institute's fault, not his."
"I don't care whose fault it is," Reed snaps. "I'm sick to death of the way he acts as if he knew everything."
"Well, don't take it out on me." Sue rises. "I'll see you tomorrow, Reed."
Reed winces. "Sue, I didn't mean--"
"Sorry." She raises a hand. "I'm getting out of here before I suffocate on the male ego in the air."
Reed broods long after she's gone. Trust Victor. Not only does he disrupt the project, but he ruins Reed's best chance to ask the girl of his dreams out. Typical. After this phase concludes, he thinks, there are going to be some changes.
They don't find Victor until several days after the accident. Dr. Storm gets a call. His expression is strange as he tells Reed, "They finally picked him up."
"Are they bringing him in?"
"Good. I can't wait to have a little discussion with him about the project." He hasn't calmed down in the time that's passed. How can he calm down? Every time he moves the wrong way and his body stretches and falls away in great rubbery loops, he remembers. Every time he looks at Ben, Ben who's now pretending there's nothing wrong, it hurts. Johnny and Sue seem to be all right, but he knows they're changed, knows that something wrong has been written into them at a molecular level. And he hears the whispers, sees the glances--clearly the word is out that the golden boy finally screwed up. He's never going to forgive Victor for this. Never.
"You may not be able to see him right away."
"Why not? Don't tell me regulations--"
"He's coming in on a med-evac flight, Reed. He's not in good shape."
"Don't worry," Storm says grimly. "He's not going anywhere. You don't sabotage a hundred-million-dollar project and then go home for a late dinner."
"You think he used the wrong numbers on purpose?"
"Of course I do. I was shocked when he agreed to work almost full-time on your project instead of his own, but now...now his motives are very clear."
"But he wouldn't--"
"Reed, the brightest star at the Institute is either you...or him. He did just what he needed to do to make sure it would be him. It's consistent with his history."
Reed feels sick. No, sicker. He wants to go out and get some air, but, of course, he can't.
The guards do try to stop him when he visits late that night, but he tosses them aside with his coils as if they were toy soldiers. The light in the room is garishly bright; Victor is lying half in the shade of a privacy curtain, his face turned away. There's an IV running into his arm. The hand that rests on top of his blanket is heavily bandaged.
For a second, Reed falters. Then he thinks of the way Ben can't even hold a pen in his hand without snapping it in two. "I can't believe you did it, Victor."
Victor stirs. His voice is hoarse. "Did what, Reed? Changed the numbers, or made a mistake?"
Reed laughs. "You know, you haven't changed a bit since that day you decided to break into my room and start redoing my calculations. You'd actually think it was okay if it was only the first one, wouldn't you?"
"Of course not! This was still my project, Victor, and you had no right."
"I had the best right in the world. I knew you were wrong, and you wouldn't listen to me. You wouldn't even look at my proof."
"My calculations weren't wrong!"
"I'm still not convinced of that. Even if mine weren't better."
"Still not convinced? You really couldn't stand it, could you?" Reed demands. "That I was in charge of the project, not you. That I had the final say. That I was going to get the credit."
"So you sabotaged the whole thing, just like Dr. Storm thinks. You wanted it to malfunction, to discredit me. Congratulations, Victor. You got your wish. And now my oldest friend is a monster, and the rest of us are freaks."
Victor turns his head for the first time to look at him. The right side of his face is completely swaddled in bandages, except for the eye. Reed's so angry he doesn't think to flinch. Victor's mouth opens and closes a few times before he can speak, and Reed realizes he's actually gasping for breath. Victor always has something cutting to say when he wants to--that he can't even produce words is a sign of something tremendously important--but Reed doesn't care. "You think I would sabotage the project? That I would stoop to...that I would even think..."
"I think you'd do anything to get ahead in the scientific community, Victor, and taking out your closest rival would certainly help."
Victor shuts his eyes and turns away. His hand spasms painfully on the blanket.
"Well, this time your plan backfired. The government's going to try you for treason, and you're going to spend the rest of your life in jail. But no matter how much they punish you, it'll never make up for what you did. I'll be sure to remind you every chance I get."
"You were never my rival, Reed," Victor whispers.
"You mean, you never thought I could be. You're going to find out differently. You'll be able to follow my career in the papers from your cell. I hope you enjoy it."
Victor says nothing, but awkwardly yanks the privacy curtain forward. Reed's still seething as he leaves.
Upstairs, there are men going through Victor's room, the bigger one he got when he turned twenty-one, removing notebooks, copying down equations off the wall, carefully lifting prototypes into boxes. The image of how Victor would react to this invasion of privacy if he knew flits briefly across Reed's mind, but he pushes it away. He sits on the bed--the same narrow twin bed that they issue the teenagers--and everyone ignores him. He's shaking. He can't believe he never saw it, how Victor's pride had never, ever changed. Dr. Storm had been right all along. There was something wrong in Victor, something twisted, and sick, worse than anything Reed has ever known.
A glint of metal catches his eye, and he looks down. Someone's knocked Victor's slide rule to the floor. He bends to pick it up automatically, then sits there like an idiot for some endless length of time, clutching it. He only comes back to himself when Sue walks in.
"Did you hear?" she demands.
"Victor just overpowered his guards and escaped."
"Damn," Reed says, "damn." He should've anticipated that. Only he didn't like to think of Victor staggering through the hall, tripping over bandages, dragging his IV with him.
"So it really is true," she says. "Victor planned the whole thing. I didn't want to believe it."
"The Baxter certainly thinks so."
"Oh, God." It's all finally too much for Sue, who's been so brave through everything, and she sinks down next to him. "I don't...I just don't see how this could be any worse, Reed."
She leans against his arm, and he puts it around her. He lets his other arm flex out, looping up and around, and drops the slide rule into the wastebacket.
"Neither do I," and he can't help it, he lets it mean more than it should. "Neither do I."