So -- not exactly what Reed had expected for his day, one that was supposed to continue his small new year streak of arriving and leaving the office at reasonable hours, following his to do list, and keeping on top of his emails and calendar. It was going to be a whole new year, a better year. A year where all the weirdness and missing time and bizarre security camera footage was left behind. A year where his investors weren't threatening to cash out and bail before the business even really launched. A good year.
But that was before Stella's strange texts, her quick dial this morning. Reed had always known his expectations of himself were high, and sure he was probably going to end up in that same old bad habit of ignoring his inbox in favor of eighteen hour lab streaks doing all the work himself, but a year without weirdness had seemed really plausible for a few days there. That hadn't seemed like too big a reach. Yet here he was, week one and breaking his new habits, slipping out of the office after getting off the phone with Stella so he could quickly step into a car and head towards her. It wasn't really like him to go this far out of his way for someone he liked very much but wasn't close with. He could have sent her brother, he could have suggested she go to the hospital, but here he was, knocking at her door. Frankly Stella hadn't needed to text him either, surely there were people in her life she'd turn to in a crisis. But she'd called and he'd answered, like their unexpected wakeup had created a bond. And anyway Reed was glad she had -- if only because coming to check on her in person seemed like the only thing that was going to stop him from worrying.
"Stella, it's Reed, are you okay?" he called through the door after knocking, just this side of impatient.
Maybe she should have messaged or called someone else, but Reed had been the first person to come to mind because ... well, he's a scientist and if this had anything to do with the shift or what it brought with it, he seemed like a good person to talk it out with. Because science. And they'd already decided they were shift buddies since their shifted selves apparently gravitated toward each other, so it made sense, right? Plus Reed had been calm once they got past their initial shock that morning they woke up together, so Stella was hoping he would be calm with this too. Because she was not.
It'd taken her longer than she cared to admit to get downstairs, but she done it thanks to the slippers she'd thrown on, so she could physically see where she was stepping. Stella felt like she was losing her mind, and maybe she was. Either way, she'd poured herself a healthy glass of wine while she waited for Reed, the minutes feeling more like hours until the knock came at the door.
Crossing over to unlock it, she let him in, simultaneously grateful for him being there and feeling bad that he was. What important thing had she pulled him away from doing? Better not to think about it. "Okay is subjective," she replied, leading him back into the kitchen where she'd been before. "I don't -- I'm not going crazy, right? You weren't messing with me?" Kicking her slippers off, she looked down at her feet -- well, foot, only one was visible but she could feel the floor beneath them both. "Like, what the fuck?"
"I would never mess with you," Reed said, watching Stella's face carefully as he entered her home for only the third time ever and followed her to the kitchen. Mentally he was making a checklist -- burnout, head injury, spot blindness, latent psychological condition now manifesting itself -- potential reasons for the hallucinations she'd described. "And I don't think you're crazy. You trusted me, so together we'll..." Whatever he was planning to say died in his throat as Stella kicked off the slippers, directing his gaze downward as he recalled right he'd been hallucinating her feet and -- there was only one. Reed did a double take. Nope. Two legs, nothing seemingly off balance, and then the floor. In that order. He stayed silent, mind blank around the total physical impossibility of what his eyes were telling him. He flicked his gaze up to Stella's expression, some combination of outrage and frustration and impossibility. Back down to her feet. Well. Foot. Just as impossible as before.
Reed took a long blink, pressed his steepled index fingers against his lips, weighed his options, did some mental math. "Mmm, no," he said, simple as that. Just, no. No thank you, in fact, manners reflecting in his tone as if Stella had just offered him a glass of water he didn't want. No, this was just not how reality worked. No, he declined to accept any redefinitions that would make it work like this. "No, no," he said, now shaking his head, and beginning to circle Stella slightly, angling himself a few paces left then right, an attempt to throw off any kind of optical illusion or error in perspective or mirrors or holographic technology or anything. Nothing. No matter how he shifted his perspective what he saw, or didn't see, remained the same. "Well, I..." he started, then snapped his mouth shut, held up a finger as if to say hold that thought, and crouched down, coming closer to the missing appendage. The scene of the crime against the laws of physics. "Shh," he insisted inanely, nevermind that Stella hadn't said anything and sure things might be topsy turvy now but he didn't really think the problem would get worse if they startled it with a sudden noise.
He reached out his hand gently, aiming at the place he would have expected Stella's ankle to be, and flinching preemptively at the stomach-turning thought of passing right through her. It wasn't frightening, not really, just the kind of strangeness that made absolutely no sense, a sort of mind-bending inexplicability that called the whole world into question. Uncanny valley in 3D, in screaming technicolor. But his touch caught something -- skin, covering bone, an ankle, or what he would think was an ankle if he just shut his eyes. Reed froze for the second time, before straightening and looking to Stella again with wide eyes. "Well I can't explain that."
Stella watched him carefully as he went through varying stages, not saying a word but rather letting Reed cycle through whatever thoughts and hypotheses were happening in that big brain of his. She stood still, quiet, her eyes following his movements and lips just barely twitching at his starting and stopping statements. Not that she'd said much to herself out loud upon discovering this sudden oddity, but she'd certainly thought some of them. For instance: no.
Any other circumstance, Reed studying her, looking at her, so intently, might have had a different affect. She watched him crouch down, almost reaching down to steady him - not that he needed it, neither did she, it just seemed like the right thing to do except she didn't want to disturb his process. Because this was why she'd called him, wasn't it? Science.
She held her breath as he reached for her, knowing she could feel what was there but having a brief moment of fear that he wouldn't be able to and they'd be right back at the beginning. Except then his fingertips were pressed against her ankle, and Stella was able to exhale slowly. She bit the inside of her lip, giving a shake of her head. "I can't either. I tried different things - hot water, cold, sharp, nothing changes. It all feels and reacts normal, I just can't... see it. And it's gone further up, it was just above my ankle when I went to sleep and now it's almost to my knee."
As strange as this situation was, and as much of a shift team as they were, seeing Stella's slight reaction, her breath out and the shake of her head, reminded Reed that this problem, whatever it was, wasn't as shared as waking up unexpectedly together had been. That was strange for both of them, but this? This was something happening to Stella, and Reed was just a witness. Or, no, not just a witness, a partner, one who didn't want to let the total inexplicable nature of an invisible limb affect him when he, all hands and feet accounted for, should be the one to stay calm, be supportive, figure this out. Wasn't that what he'd wanted to do when he came over here, albeit expecting something entirely different? "Okay, well," he said, dragging a hand down his face in an attempt to compartmentalize away all of the shock and confusion. "Well, actually, this is a good thing. We know a few different things now. Think with me." His mantra: list the known factors, identify the variables, solve the problem. "One, we've both verified there's still sensation there, and still matter. Do you feel any pain at all, any kind of sensation?" For a brief moment Reed wondered wildly if this was just a quantum version of something as uninteresting as a foot that had fallen asleep due to lack of circulation.
"Two, we know it's not just you and not just me that can't see anything. So it's likely not a vision problem, blindness, anything like that. Probably not a shared psychosis." It wasn't quite a laughing matter, but Reed had to tip his head wryly, thinking about how he'd jumped to foie a deux in their last problem solving moment, hoping Stella would remember the same. "Three, and I would never want to make light of this, but there are a lot of things human eyes can't see. We have a very limited vision range, comparatively. Have you tried X-Raying it? Infrafred?" If touch indicated there was still matter there, still flesh and bone, some kind of radiation would have to pick it up.
It helped, having someone else there to run through everything with, so Stella wasn't simply trying to convince herself of the facts. She considered Reed's question, shifting her weight to her visible foot so the other could be lifted up, slowly rotating her ankle and putting it through a full range of motion, pressing her toes against the floor, checking for any strange sensations. "It all feels normal," she admitted, vaguely frustrated while still glad it didn't feel different - painful, or otherwise.
She huffed out a breath, a wry turn to the corners of her mouth at the mention of a shared psychosis. Maybe one day that'd be the answer, but so far not. "No scans yet. Shockingly I don't have any radiology machines here at home and this didn't happen until after I was home from the hospital." She bit the inside of her lip, considering. "It's just so strange, nothing happened to spark a change, whatever it is. It's not like I stubbed my toe, or spilled something on myself. It just happened."
"What, you don't keep a mobile unit in the storage closet like me?" It wasn't even a funny joke, Reed only gave it a cursory half smile and a slightly sheepish glance to Stella, but it felt good to at least try, to refuse to treat this like a reason to panic. It was strange, it was as-yet unexplained, and it was certainly unprecedented, but at least knowing that Stella wasn't hurting gave Reed some hope. "Okay, well, something must have happened. Humans have gone through thousands of years of recorded history without something like this happening before." A beat. "Well, to my knowledge at least. There has to be a reason."
And if it were up to him alone, Reed would be packing her off towards the hospital, trying to convince her to let him operate a CAT scan of some kind with his purely academic and not at all professional expertise and having her recount everything she'd done for the last few days, all in the pursuit of knowledge. But it wasn't up to him, it wasn't even happening to him. It was Stella and she'd trusted him to help her, not railroad her into becoming a science experiment. "If it were me, I'd want to know why. I'd be out there trying to sneak into a radiology lab. Or calling you so you could help me sneak into a radiology lab." He hadn't quite thought about it until now, but yes, if Reed found himself in a situation like this, Stella would have been his call too. "But I'm that way, I need answers. So what do you want to do? What do you need?"
"Sorry, must have left it at my other house," Stella said dryly, though he did get a flicker of a smile for his efforts. It all could have been worse, which probably shouldn't have been comforting but it was. The potential for worse was there, what with it spreading further. Would it stop on its own? Could it be reversed? Important questions, and ones that made her glad she had Reed on her side. He was methodical, smart, and calm. Exactly why she'd called him.
"I want to know why. I want to know what's happening, and why." She put her slippers on again and raked her hand back through her hair, considering the options. "A radiology lab is easy, just give me a minute."
It only took her a couple to go upstairs, get changed - into a dress that touched the floor, keeping anyone from being able to see what was going on - and grab her purse, complete with her hospital ID and the keys to her office, in case they needed a place to camp out. She came back down ready to go, already having texted one of the technicians she knew was working and would be there. "Alright, we just have to go to UCSF, we can use the lab and see what we can figure out. Can you drive? My pedal foot is invisible and that makes me nervous."
Strange to realize that the last time he was here was a holiday party, getting chastised for peeking into the gift bags. It was a happy occasion between two of the weirdest moments of Reed's life, but if they were locked in to a one to one ratio of festivity to unpredictability, Reed supposed he wouldn't mind it. And then Stella was downstairs again, ready to go, and Reed was promising he could drive without issue, because why risk it. Steering out onto the road, headed for the medical campus, he had to use that time to ask a few orienting questions. "When did you first notice this was happening?" Reed asked. A timeline would be important to establish, especially if it was spreading. For now a quantum anomaly they needed to investigate but not panic about, but the growth would have to be contained somehow. "Just, walk me through how you realized."
Stella did her best not to lose herself in thought while she sat there in the passenger seat, on the familiar path to the hospital but not in any kind of usual control. The questions helped, specific questions to focus on and answer. "This morning, I got home from work and took a shower, and when I was drying off is when I noticed - when there wasn't anything there." It sounded so ridiculous. It was so ridiculous. "Like I said before when I texted you, I thought I was just overly tired and hallucinating or something."
Her answer was so simple Reed almost wanted to laugh, like it was the plot of some cheesy science fiction movie. A woman wakes up with no foot. Instead he just shook his head, still trying to process around the absurdity of it all. "I thought you were hallucinating or something," he confessed. Just hours ago he'd been imagining something that seemed so much more normal but also so much more dangerous. "I really thought I was going to show up and, I don't know, try to convince you to take a vacation or quit the hard drugs or something." Okay so he had known even then that Stella was too sensible, too together to really be having a bad trip but he still would have done it if that's what it took. "So, glad it's not that, I guess. Keep talking me through it. Did you do anything at all different or new this week? Anything outside of your routine?" His expectations that allergies or a new diet had caused this were low, but Reed asked anyway. He was too shy to tell her he was going to do everything he could to fix this, that he couldn't believe how brave she was being about something so far beyond the pale, and certainly didn't think he could reach out for her hand or some other comforting touch, but he could keep her mind focused, try to help her stay calm and feel in control. More than just good sense, it was something Reed wanted to do, he wanted to show his care somehow.
"It would be so much easier if I was hallucinating." Stella glanced over toward him, a wry smile turning at the corners of her mouth. Her nerves, the anxiousness she was feeling, all channeled into the way her thumb was rubbing over the same spot on her phone again and again. Small, but helpful. Outwardly freaking out wouldn't help anything. She gave a quiet hum as she thought back over the week, if anything had been different, out of the ordinary. "No, it's all been so... normal. A lot of work, but that's not anything new. I work a lot, I'm used to long hours, weird hours. I went to brunch with Liam, which isn't normal, but I don't think eggs benedict would make my foot disappear. I'd blame Liam but I have no idea how he could have possibly caused this."
“If weird hours are the cause of this, I’m in trouble too,” Reed confessed, thinking of his own messy schedule, that cot in the lab where he spent more nights than was necessarily reasonable, let alone attractive, for a man of his age. “If I knew anyone who was about to unknowingly cause a huge leap forward for medical knowledge through a small personal crisis, it would be Liam,” he added, almost laughing as he thought of it, “but I don’t think he’s the root cause here either.” His eyes were trained on the road of course, steering them into a parking garage at the medical campus, but Reed couldn’t resist a lopsided smile in Stella’s direction. Having Liam in common was nice, sharing that joking scapegoat, that same loving exasperation for the young man, even if working with her brother was the thing that kept Reed one big step away from Stella’s orbit most of the time. “Alright,” Reed said after the car came to a parked stop and they got ready to enter the lab, a place he was guessing they both might feel a little more adept in the face of the unknown, “I’m glad it was me you texted. I think I really can help you here. I want to really help you here. Are you okay? Ready for this?”
"True, I didn't think about him accidentally doing it somehow. Let's hope that never actually happens." Stella huffed out a laugh, glancing down at her phone a moment, as if expecting to have a missed message or call from her brother. She'd texted him about what was going on but knew there wasn't much point in trying to expand upon it until they knew more. Not to mention, she was reluctant to tell him she'd called Reed. Not because she didn't think she should have, or she thought there was something wrong with it, but Reed was his boss and Liam had already reacted oddly when she'd mentioned their shifted-selves working together.
Answers felt so much closer once they were parked, right there outside the lab. Reed's words were reassuring and... sweet. Stella smiled softly, reaching over and lightly resting her hand over his, giving it a gentle squeeze. "Thank you," she said, truly grateful for his help, his brain, his general calmness that was definitely helping her. "For all your help, and offering to try and figure this out with me. I really appreciate it, I know you probably had a lot to do today and I interrupted all that but I'm glad you came." Drawing in a deep breath, she exhaled slowly and gave a nod. "I'm as okay and as ready as I think I could be."
"Then let's do this thing," Reed said with a nod of his own, teammates, about to head out on their mission. Later when the situation seemed less immediate and less bizarre he'd have time to think about Stella's grateful squeeze of his hand, wonder if he should be rethinking those boundaries he'd put in place between them, if they even still existed. But for now, he ducked out of the car to meet Stella on her side, like he was escorting her into the radiology lab instead of very much her guest, getting access only because of her credentials. "Do we have a cover story or anything?" he wondered, "Do we even need one?" He was pretty sure she didn't want to barge into the place telling people she had a missing foot to find, but this was Stella's world, and Reed wanted to be sure he was playing by her rules and keeping up her appearances. Whether lab access was as simple as asking a colleague to take an early lunch or if it required a little more finesse, he'd be there doing his best to follow her lead. "I'm not exactly trained in medical espionage, but I think I'm kind of quick on my feet." With Reed it was always either total honesty or polite avoidance of a topic, seldom lies, but this was an emergency after all.
"Oh so now you're rubbing in you have feet," Stella said teasingly, the joke made out of nerves more than anything. She didn't see things going badly, cover story or not, but still. There was always a chance. "I already texted someone to make sure it wasn't too busy, they know I'm coming. If we want to do anything more than x-rays or ultrasound, we might need to come up with something." Swiping her card to let them in, she led Reed down a hall to one of the radiology rooms, going inside without him for a minute before coming back out with the tech not far behind, giving Reed a brief glance before disappearing down the hall. "Okay, we're good for about ten minutes, come on in, you'll just need to push the button."
They hadn't been given a single strange look let alone a second glance, something Reed unquestioningly attributed to Stella's immaculate reputation and professional standing, which had him feeling an unexpected rush of appreciation and admiration. Still, after her urging, he gave a silly glance around and over his shoulder before he followed her into the radiology room, just in case anyone was overtook by a wave of suspicion. The hallway was, still, empty, but Reed counted that as a win nonetheless, an assurance that they weren't about to be interrupted by any unpredicited prying eyes in the middle of their little experiment. "Push the button, got it," he affirmed, nodding at Stella's instructions, "Believe it or not I am qualified to do exactly that, my parents will be thrilled." Thank god he'd spent all those draining years in grad school, juggling far too much institutional pressure with the heavy expectations of his family, learning just how to press the button at the right time. Any other circumstance and Reed would have felt like that was an ironic statement, but it was a genuine enough feeling now. "Sit down," he urged her, gesturing at the X-Ray bench, "No reason to radiate all of you if we know what we're looking for." A scramble through the storage cupboards that lined the wall, and he found a few of the heavy x-ray bibs that would protect the rest of her body, the non-invisible parts that didn't need to be subject to the radiation. "Do I have to tell you not to move? Trust the process? Your patients must do this all the time." Sure they were here to investigate her issue, but Reed knew Stella was the expert in the room now.
Radiology wasn't exactly her forte, but it'd only taken a quick show and tell by the technician for it to get set up to where all they had to do was get her invisible foot and leg in the right spot and for Reed to click the button. Easy enough. Stella was grateful for it all being digital, so they didn't have to fiddle with anything else and would be able to see the results immediately. She put on one of the bibs as she sat down, carefully putting her foot up under the generator and pulling it down to be focused in on... well, what looked like nothing but she knew was her ankle. "I promise I won't move," she assured him, flexing her foot almost absently, as if to get the movement out of it before it had to be still. "I'm much more used to ultrasounds than x-rays, but trust the process is pretty universal. At least I'm not in pain like most people when they have to get these done, that makes it easy to stay still..."
"Don't worry, we'll get to ultrasounds next," Reed promised before sure enough hitting the right button just as he'd promised. With this fancy machines, the height of technology, there wasn't even a flash, just a mechanical beep and a loading screen on the nearby computer console that gave way after a few seconds to... nothing at all of interest. Sure enough, the bones of Stella's foot were there, healthy and calcified to the degree that Reed's own medical training could appreciate. Sure he was hardly the expert in this room, but he was still wide-eyed in his analysis for a few seconds. If anything, this was all the more strange, that the tissue and cartiledge of Stella's body could be invisible to the human eye but appear perfectly healthy to the augmented vision that medical technology offered. "So, good news, bad news," Reed said, swiveling around on the radio technologist's chair to face Stella, "And I think you'll want to see this for yourself, but you still have a foot. Bones, cartiledge, tissue, all looks healthy to me." Thank god he'd done the medical rotations before deciding to be a fully research-oriented student. It was all worth it if he could reassure Stella somewhat in this moment. "It's just... not visible to the human eye for some reason."
Stella hadn't moved off the platform, not until after Reed confirmed she still had a foot. Which was ridiculous because she'd been using her foot the whole time and it was obviously there, but for some reason it felt like she shouldn't try to put any weight on it now they were actually using science to investigate. As soon as he spoke though, she set aside the protective cover and walked over to look at the screen. And yep, there it was, a perfectly normal looking x-ray. "Hm." Her brow furrowed as she zoomed in briefly, as though that would solve it somehow, but close up it was still normal. "Well, I mean, good it's all still there but what the fuck?" She emailed the imaging to herself in case they wanted to examine it further when they weren't in the room, sighing as she straightened up. "Anything you want x-rays of while we're here, just for kicks?"
The single thoughtful hum from Stella was enough to send Reed shrugging, already anticipating her confusion because he felt it the same completely. Years of education behind him, no doubt a capable and thoughtful researcher in the medical fields, and yet here he was, completely stumped. "I have no idea what the fuck," Reed answered her solemnly as if her question was anything but rhetorical. "I've never seen anything like this in my life." Not that it needed saying -- the strangeness of the situation was without parallel. "We should still try some other tests," he suggested, mind already spinning out into other possibilities, other research implications. "If we can center exactly what types of radiation do and don't work, that could tell us a significant amount about what kind of cellular alterations we're dealing with here..." Reed trailed off, as Stella had straightened and appeared to want to move on from those research implications -- he knew it was probably isolating to feel like a test case for some totally unknown syndrome, frightening to think there was something that medical knowledge couldn't explain. "X-Ray, no, not at all," he answered, with an emphasizing shake of his head. "Believe it or not I've never broken a bone before. For me this is all purely theoretical."
Mostly, Stella figured they knew what they were going to know from the x-rays, since it showed nothing more than what a normal x-ray would. The less time they spent there the better, since they were on borrowed time anyway. Not that they were about to get in trouble, but someone was bound to come along that actually needed the room. "I mean, if you haven't broken a bone then you're missing out on how fun it is," she said, nodding toward the machine. "But yes, other tests, because the more we find the more we know, even if it feels like we know nothing at the same time. At least, I feel like I know nothing." It wasn't reassuring, as much as it should have been, to know that apparently everything was right where it was supposed to be -- just invisible. "So it's there, seems fine based on the x-ray. I want to do an ultrasound to check blood flow and make sure that's all fine. At that point... if everything checks out, do I just count my blessings that I'm fine and hope it doesn't spread further? Fucking Liam, asking if I'll completely disappear, now I can't stop thinking about that."
"He said that to you?" Reed asked, a little shocked by what Stella had said about Liam's unfortunate question. He was practically wincing at it himself, not because he really imagined Liam had been malicious with it, but because it brought to mind again the fact that they had no idea what they were dealing with here, and no amount of cool under pressure was going to solve that. Stella had said it was spreading, total disappearance would be the logical outcome of that, but Reed wasn't about to suggest it again. "Look, at absolutely no point are we going to shrug our shoulders and say we're hoping for the best," he promised her. Reed didn't even think twice about his use of the word we -- he was in this now, a teammate. "We're going to do our best to figure this out, and we will, because we're very smart and capable. I promise." Maybe it was spreading, maybe it would keep spreading, but under no circumstances would Reed accept defeat and Stella didn't seem like the type to either. He knew it wasn't something they were really entertaining, but he felt like he had to say so out loud, refuse to tolerate even the idea that maybe they couldn't figure this out. Reed caught himself at the end of the little speech looking Stella straight in her eyes and startled a little at the intimacy of that, how quickly he found himself wanting to be able to protect her. "So that's settled. Ultrasound coming up." Equipment to set up, tools to work with, a happy distraction from whatever emotion was rising in his chest.
Stella raked her hand through her hair, pushing it back from her face as she sighed. "I believe the term he used was poof away, but basically, yes." She knew her brother hadn't meant it in a rude or callous way, but that hadn't stopped it from setting her nerves on edge. Thinking about it again, with the knowledge that there was a chance the ultrasound and whatever other tests they ran might come out normal and unhelpful too, started twisting her stomach into knots, giving a tightness in her chest. Because what if? But this time she wasn't alone, at home with nothing but her thoughts spinning out of control to keep her company. Reed was there, right in front of her, sounding resolute and solid in their ability to get to the bottom of things. And Stella trusted that, trusted him, the steadiness and surety of his voice making her swallow thickly, push that fear and anxiety back down. She nodded, clearing her throat and taking a small step back before she did something stupid or embarrassing like hug him, because that felt like the right thing to do in that moment but it wasn't. "Ultrasound coming up. We can do that in my office then figure out where to go from there?"
"Excellent plan, doctor," Reed agreed with a decisive nod of agreement, offering Stella his hand almost like a handshake to help her off the x-ray table before they headed from the radiology lab to her office. They hadn't needed a cover story at all, his espionage training not a detriment to their work today, and walking through the hospital hallways Reed was thankful for that. He wanted to believe he'd rise to whatever occasion necessary to solve a problem, but the fewer distractions the better with a problem this complex, plus the hospital staff's total disinterest in them meant Reed was less nervous about discussing the issue without being overheard, although he still kept his voice lowered just in case. "I'm thinking about this spread," he suggested to Stella, voice thoughtful as he tried to work through what it was about that factor that had caught his attention. It was rare that he actually had a thought partner to think out loud with at all, he noticed -- there were technicians and laboratory staff in his offices, all capable in their own rights, but they followed Reed's directions and best thinking, they didn't help him come up with it. It was a little lonely, he realized out of the blue. "If this condition is still developing, that's where we should be focusing, on the skin as it changes. Forget about stopping this for a second," a quick gesture of his hand to stop any protest, "although of course we will. What we need to figure out is how it's beginning, really see what is changing. If radiation tests don't help us, we're going to have to start looking at this on the cellular level."
Walking through the halls of the hospital, her hospital, was definitely where Stella felt comfortable, confident. This was where she belonged, even if parts of her were disappearing. It helped further push away the unease that had been growing, add more stability to her thoughts and emotions. She tilted her head toward Reed as he spoke, as though to indicate she was listening, corner of her mouth twitching as she took in his perspective. "No, I agree," she replied, speaking at the same low level as he had even though there wasn't much of anyone around, and definitely no one paying them much attention. "The spread is what's most concerning. If it was stagnant, unchanging, that would still be something that needs figured out but without as much... pressure, in terms of time. With it already spreading, especially in such a short span, it's easy to presume it may continue. That everything is functioning as normal is great but it's unknown if that will continue to be the case, particularly if it spreads to where there are organs to consider." She paused at a bank of elevators, waiting for one to clear out so they could take it to the appropriate floor -- a few passengers with them, which wasn't conducive to discussion, but it was a short trip. "If we're going to figure this out -- this is all new and fucked up territory so there are no stupid questions, no dumb ideas. Whatever testing you think might help find answers, I'm game. Okay?"
For maybe the millionth time, Reed was struck by Stella's bravery, her ability to work under pressure like this. It wasn't a new observation, if anything it was a trait he associated strongly with her, the way he'd seen her keep a level head in a situation where Reed himself hadn't. He was hardly the one who needed comforting here, but it was affirming to feel her confidence in him, in his ideas. He'd said it just a moment ago, but it was still sinking in even in his own mind -- they really were a great team, in both intellect and mutual support. "Okay, no stupid questions, no holding back," Reed nodded in agreement as the elevator bell rang and they began to step inside, "I hear what you're saying about the time pressure, the potential developing new symptoms. The spread is concerning, yes, but I think we're going to find we should be grateful that it's occurring. In a static condition we wouldn't have this opportunity to see the process of change in action, figure out how it works. As long as there are no other symptoms that develop, I think Liam was really onto something, asking how far it would continue. The fact that it's spreading means I think we should change our question here. We're not trying to figure out what has already happened -- that's very difficult. We're trying to just observe what is happening, and based on what we see, reverse it. Our solution is already there in the problem, my instincts are telling me."
It was easier to think of it as an abstract, like it wasn't her they were talking about. Easier still that she couldn't actively see the issue, her dress blocking it from view. If they were musing and hypothesizing, Stella found it better to dissociate and approach as though it was someone else's problem they were trying to solve. A scientific puzzle. Once it was solved, once they had answers and solutions, then she'd allow herself to feel everything she was deflecting for the sake of functioning. "As clumsily worded as he was, I agree," she said with a brief grimace. "Because there's no knowing how far it will go, or if it will continue on as it currently is -- or what if it affects a second area completely separate from the first? But I think you're right. Especially with the effect being that there's literally nothing to see, all the more important to focus on what's happening as it does. I think the best approach for that will be on the cellular level. Radiation isn't going to give us the answers we're looking for, if any at all."
"Radiation will help us make sure there haven't been any other symptoms so far, but I agree, it's not what we need." Following her off the elevators, Reed was happy to be moving from theory to strategy. He'd spent years of his life as an academic, thinking always about the approach, the hypothetical, the best case scenario, and that had never seemed like enough. He valued that training, the places it took him, but at heart Reed was a man of action -- he wanted to roll up his sleeves and try something, not dwell on possibilities alone. "Something we haven't talked about yet -- I'm guessing you'd like to keep this under the radar for as long as possible, is that correct?" She hadn't said as much, but there had to be a reason why they were standing in a building full of doctors and medical professionals, some of the best, and hadn't asked for help. Reed couldn't blame her, her condition had been hard enough for him to wrap his mind around, he could easily picture how a situation would descend into chaos with too many people involved. Still, it was important to know. "I ask because we'll have to strategize how to run the tests we're interested in. There are some things I can do at my lab for more privacy, but depending on what we find I'm not sure we can do this without more access."
Digging in her purse for her keys, Stella frowned softly as she considered his question, the valid points it raised. With a normal medical issue coming up, even if it was of a delicate nature she knew there were colleagues she could trust and turn to for assistance. This was different, and she was still struggling to wrap her own mind around it. "For as long as possible," she repeated slowly, nodding once. "Or until we know what we're dealing with, whichever comes first.
Letting them into her office, she felt the slightest ease of tension stepping into what was a space that felt safe, private, hers. It was particularly welcome after the sudden onslaught of thoughts of potential outcomes that might come with telling people. Even the people she trusted, there was no telling how someone might react to a part of her being invisible. "I don't want to make anything more complicated than it has to be, so if we need to tell someone for the sake of testing or whatever... preferably as few people as necessary." It'd be easy enough to draw up NDAs as needed, just for added protection. Stella hesitated, then added: "I don't want to feel like some sideshow, you know?"
"Completely understandable, I'd feel the same way," Reed assured her. Even the best intentioned scientists, doctors, researchers could have a prying gaze, a way of making even normal or predictable conditions seem pathological. When it came to the truly bizarre, Reed could only imagine how quickly it would turn into a circus. For as much good as their work did in the world, medicical research had done a lot of ugly things as well. Why take that chance if they didn't need to. "And I hope you know I haven't and won't tell anyone anything about this without your permission." He guessed that was part of why she had told him in the first place, but as nice as this little partnership was, it was still new, and the trust it required meant that they'd both need to be clear about these kinds of promises. It was important to him to not just be trustworthy, but communicate it to her. Stella's office was probably the perfect place to be having a discussion about privacy, tucked away from any potential eavesdroppers and as close to a feeling of comfort as they would get in this building. This was the first time he'd been here, Reed realized, but the little touches that made it clearly Stella's space weren't lost on him.
That was part of why Stella had reached out to Reed -- along with him being a scientist, smart, she hadn't thought for a second that he would tell anyone what was happening. Except maybe Liam, but even then she didn't think he would without her saying it was okay. Plus she remembered that morning in her bedroom, how quick and easy it had been to settle into problem solving mode with him, work as a team to try and find the answers to their situation. Even when there'd been panic, concern, there'd also been a quiet calm. So much of that echoed in her current situation, and given the oddity of what was happening she hadn't hesitated with choosing him to text for help. Still, hearing it said out loud was nice, extra reassurance.
"I figured as much, but thank you for saying it." Stella offered him a slight smile before pulling open a desk drawer to retrieve a notepad and a pen to pass over. "In case you want to write anything down. Let me get this ultrasound done real quick then, as long as everything looks fine, we can get to brainstorming."
Her slight smile put a similar one on Reed's face, happy to see her happy at least briefly, despite the circumstance. It used to be that Reed was proud of his ability to compartmentalize, shove away anything he felt in favor of the work, a survival instinct that was the root cause of both all his success and all his failures, but he found himself in this moment pushing down a few butterflies, ignoring an embarrassing, shy feeling suddenly. It was a crush -- how embarrassing. But above anything else, he was a professional, able to take the notepad with a nod that didn't betray any of that silly feeling. "We have a plan" he noted, feeling more in control already from that fact alone. "That goes a long way." Just as she'd suggested, he took the opportunity to jot down a few stray thoughts, contingencies and additional possibilities, reminders for himself later when, with any luck, he'd be too preoccupied with new information to keep track of. It was a big responsibility, being trusted to help figure this out, but Reed was always someone who loved to rise to an occasion. "Ready, Dr. Sawyer?"