If anyone were to ask, Reed felt fine, amazing, better than he had in weeks. Of course, there was no one around to ask. The laboratory was meant to be a workspace for at least twenty technicians at any given time, but now it was home to only Reed and his new inventions, both mechanical and biotechnological. But that was exactly what made it so perfect, a vast empty space to work and redesign and pivot the company with no one to be accountable but himself. Sure, yes, there were probably investors and stakeholders out there just beginning to hear the rumblings of Reed's decisions, and doubtless they would be arriving soon, whether in person or in Reed's inbox, to demand information, answers, assurances. Actually, that was the beauty of it. Now with a workspace empty enough to think, really hear himself think, Reed had the opportunity to move at his own newfound lightning pace, fast enough so that by the time they showed up, he'd have enough changes in place to be able to show them the advantages. A problem that would solve itself.
And yes okay fine, Reed knew he looked crazy, Stella had been right to question him -- hair disheveled from combing his hands through it when he stopped to reassess, the sleeves on a shirt meant for board meetings now rolled up past his forearms and dirtied with grease from all these new machines, circles forming under his eyes because although reed's mind might not need to sleep but his body hadn't caught up yet. That was all just incidental -- the work was the most important thing now, pursuing this new line of thinking with everything he had. How long had it been since Reed was this motivated, felt so much like he was working towards a greater purpose? He refused to let his brain deviate from the work long enough to calculate the answer to that question. And anyway, what did it matter that he looked like this if no one was around to see it?
For the last couple of days, Liam’s phone had been blowing up with concerned, angry, and hurt messages from his coworkers at the lab. Some of them were worried about severance packages while others were worried about the loss of their health benefits, but Liam, who had somehow maintained his position, was more worried about Reed. He’d shot over a couple of courtesy texts – which were really more like welfare checks – all of which had gone unanswered, and while he definitely had his own fireproof issues to deal with at home, the feeling in his gut that something was wrong with the boss man was relentless. Besides, Stella had been on him to get a more “scientific” understanding of what was going on with him before he accidentally burned the house to the ground, so a quick visit to the lab would kill two birds with one stone. A quick one over of his vitals to make sure he wasn’t about to spontaneously combust in the middle of a Trader Joe’s wouldn’t hurt anyone, and if it gave Stella a little peace of mind, he could play lab rat for an hour.
Providing that Reed was in full science-mode. Not that he ever shifted out of science-mode.
Liam had parked his Jeep in the eerily empty lot of the lab, stuffing both of his hands into his jacket to pull the material closely around his chest. The lobby, normally occupied by a warm, overly talkative receptionist, was pervadingly still, and he pressed his palm to the optical scanner, tracing his normal path into the belly of the lab. It took him roaming through a few empty rooms before he finally found Reed, frantically working on some yet-to-be-identified piece of equipment while rocking an impressive amount of stubble and dark rings beneath his eyes. He should have brought coffee. Or maybe a shot of epinephrine, because it looked like Reed hadn’t slept in a week. “Uh, hey Doc,” he began, approaching carefully so that his voice cutting through the silence of the lab didn’t startle the other man. “I got a couple of texts,” (more than a couple), “—And Stella wanted me to stop by. Not to check on you, but so that you could check on me because some weird things have been going on... But I still wanted to check on you, so...” Liam realized that he was rambling, words spilling out of his mouth as he backed them up with hand gestures. “Anyway, how’s it going?” Not that a quick look at Reed didn’t give him a vague idea.
The sounds of the lab doors opening was unexpected enough to cause Reed to look up, startled, from his work, loose wires still clutched in his hands. Liam was careful enough to make a gentle entrance, but even subtle things were catching Reed's attention faster than ever before. Nice to know that all this frantic energy, all this singular focus, hadn't given him any precognition or psychic ability -- if anything he'd been a little jumpier than usual, his mind quicker than ever to switch it's attention to any new stimuli. He'd been anticipating investors, or maybe the building security coming by again to tell him he really couldn't stay here another night, but the man who actually appeared was a far more welcome surprise. "Liam," Reed said, the surprise probably evident on his face, in his voice, "Come in, perfect timing, I actually need your help with something, if you could just stand right here..." This rewiring could wait until later, Reed's mind already moving on, filing away the project to return to later, calculating what to reschedule or reorder to compensate for it. He was up from the workbench and striding across the room before he even finished speaking, preparing to pull up a program on the computer terminal, get Liam and his extra set of hands to push a go button while Reed himself operated a redesigned laser beam, another experiment in a long line of experiments -- until belatedly what Liam said finally sank in.
Some weird things going on. Well if that wasn't predictable in all its unpredictability. Weird things going on had become the new status quo, first Stella then Reed and now Liam apparently, but for as much as this was the third person who had hedged around something strange in that deliberate, overly-casual way, it never stopped Reed from pulling up short, discarding what he was doing for a second time, and facing Liam properly for the first time since he'd walked in. If it had just been a welfare check, Liam sent by Stella to ensure that Reed had left his office for a night's sleep at his home like he'd promised her, Reed would have been prepared to shrug it all off, apologize for all the messages from disgruntled former employees that Liam was probably fielding but swear to him it was all for the best, but this was a new factor to puzzle over. "You don't have to be worried about me, I'm fine, I'm great, ignore all this," he said, a wave of his hand through the air as if he could brush away Liam's concerns. Just because he looked crazy didn't mean he felt crazy. "What kind of weird things have been going on?" Besides Reed's manic energy and a disappearing sister, of course.
If he were any semi-disheveled scientist in a semi-disheveled lab asking him to ‘stand right here’, Liam might have taken pause, but because it was Reed, he moved over to the imaginary x that marked the spot and waited for further instruction while quietly taking in his surroundings. “No,” he began, eyes scanning over the exposed wires, the intensely involved mathematical equations that he couldn’t even begin to make sense of, and lack of evidence that Reed had taken in anything containing caffeine since he’d locked himself into the lab, “I’m sure you’re fine. It’s just, you know, people are kind of confused. About why they were let go. And that... honestly, it’s none of my business, but it was kind of sudden. You showed up to the company softball game, Reed – I know you don’t dislike those people.” Liam cut himself off, his finger tracing idle circles around the button that he’d just depressed, waiting for some imaginary laser to fire from the ceiling and blow something up in the lab. It didn’t, and he was left to theorize about what kind of reaction he’d set off behind the scenes as he fell heavily into a computer chair, leaning his weight onto his elbows.
Reed was a lot of things, but an open book wasn’t one of them, and he backtracked for a moment, circling around to the weird things that had prompted Stella to point him in the direction of the lab in the first place. “Yeah, so, uh... It turns out I’m kind of... fireproof?” Without further prompting or any questions from Reed’s camp, he whipped out the Zippo lighter that he’d been attached to over the last couple of days, flicking it open and sparking a blue flame. “I know, I know. Proof or it didn’t happen. What is it you always say? ‘Experiments must be repeatable to be valid? Well --,” After a brief shrug, pulling his shoulders into his core, his palm found it’s way into the center of the flame without so much as a flicker of interest across his features. Reed was the third person he’d pulled this parlor trick on, and he was hoping that he’d be the first person able to give him some kind of an explanation. “I had an accident the other day in the kitchen. Me, burner, open flame, woosh.” He mimed an explosion in front of his chest – slightly more dramatic than what had actually occurred, but Liam was an addict for dramatics. “The only casualty was my favorite sweatshirt. Nary a blister in sight.”
Just as he had witnessing Stella's improbable yet indisputable display of ability, watching Liam hold his hand over an open flame without flinching, without even reacting, had Reed's scattered energy, his dispersed focus, all suddenly snap back together. He was struck to stillness, no longer still categorizing the results of their brief laser firing, not recalculating his schedule and projected time estimates, not even aware suddenly what was going on in the lab around them -- his whole focus came together on Liam and that lighter, and although Reed had been opening his mouth to give some kind of lecture about open flames and repeatable results, he snapped it shut without a word. He steepled his hands over his lips in thoughtful consideration, pausing in silence for a beat as his mind fired through possibilities. Perhaps again it was because of Stella, because Reed had seen her limbs disappearing but still holding weight against every law of physics he knew or could imagine, or perhaps it was because all the new energy of his mind could suddenly anticipate potential reasons for this trait in Liam that previously would have eluded him, but Reed was thankful at least that he didn't feel the same total rejection of reality as he had only days ago with Stella. Instead of stuttering over explanations, shushing his friend as an almost hysteric reaction, Reed simply took his moment, evaluated, and then said, "Let me see that lighter."
Strange occurrences seemed to be the new normal, and Reed didn't think Liam was the type to play a joke in this style (except for all the ways Reed thought very much Liam was the type to play a joke in this style), but it was a simple scientific practice. Eliminate the variables. Get firsthand experience. He flicked it into flame and, game as anything, passed his own hand over the heat -- only to, sure enough, draw wincing away almost instantly with a curse and a burnt palm. "Well I don't know what I was expecting," he deadpanned, gaze downward on his reddening hand.
"Alright, let me get this straight," Reed said, backing up to the way Liam had told the story. "You, burner, woosh." He mimicked Liam's explosion, a perfect shorthand for something he could only imagine. "When was this? Did you feel any sensation at all? Have you noticed any other changes in yourself? Fever, exhaustion, any loss of other sensations? How are you feeling?" The previous stillness was over, Reed's supercharged brain gearing back up. "Actually let's just take your temperature. Does Stella know about this? Have you tried anything besides that lighter? Any other heat types? Because, as you know, heat is really just an energy transfer, we really ought to consider --" He'd been digging through a drawer of medical equipment looking for a laser thermometer, and cutting himself short, aimed it at Liam, "Don't move, this is data collection."
“Sure,” he replied without question, pressing the lighter in the palm of his hands and cocking an inquisitive brow as he sparked a new flame. At first, he thought that Reed was just testing the lighter itself -- making sure that Liam hadn’t switched it out with some cheap trick from Spencers – but when his hand moved toward the flame, he involuntarily flinched. “Oh, wait, I wouldn’t –” Too late. There was a recoil on his part, simply because he remembered the sharp pain that was associated with burns. It was only the week before that he’d tried to help the waitress at Papito Hayes, taking a sizzling fajita platter from her despite her warnings and basically incinerating any identifying prints from the pads of his fingers. Liam was just about to suggest aloe for the angry red spot already blossoming against his hand, but Reed seemed to have already forgotten about it. On to the next thing. And the next thing, and the next thing. Thankfully, he had grown accustomed to Reed’s inquisition-style questioning over the last several months of working in the lab, and he filed them each away, ticking them off on his fingers as he answered them.
“Sunday. I know it took me a little while to come in, but to be honest, doc? Compartmentalizing is more my style. But you know Stella – she worries, and she’s... persistent.” Liam was rolling up the sleeves of his jacket to offer out his wrist, prime real estate for the laser to grab a core temperature which, according to the last thermometer he’d used, was over 106F. He’d tossed the thermometer in the trash, covering it with the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition and a box of unused tissues in order to hide it from his sister. “I think I run a little hot.” The angry beep from Reed’s thermometer confirmed his theory, and he sheepishly rubbed at the back of his neck. “I don’t feel any different. I still sleep with the blankets on, I’m still not warm enough to give up the extra layer –” Liam held out the hem of his sweatshirt to punctuate his statement before pulling himself up onto the counter of the lab, making room for his hips amongst the exposed wires and paused projects.
Nonplussed, his legs swung freely below the desk, hands pressed squarely against his knees. “If you have any theories, assumptions, hypotheses,” he began, throwing up air quotes around the last word, “-- Or just things I can tell Stella so she stops thinking I’m going to burst into flames and burn down the neighborhood, I’m all ears.”
"One hundred six is much more than running a little hot," Reed said, more than a little bewildered by the number on the thermometer and Liam's casual explanation. A temperature that high for so long should have been causing brain damage, slurred speech, unconsciousness, shutting parts of Liam's body down, but here was the young man easily hopping up onto the counter and simply trying to find the right explanation for his sister. "Has Stella seen this temperature? I'm guessing she hasn't or you'd be at home in an ice bath right now." Reed had perhaps been gearing up to make some important points about home remedies and the value of a well-stocked first aid kit (case in point his burned palm) but a new idea crossed his mind. "Actually, the ice might not be a bad idea. Are you noticing any different reactions to ice, or cold?" Wanting to hold onto that idea, Reed quickly turned to a fresh page on whatever legal notepad was closest, jotting it down along with the 106 resting temperature -- really unbelievable. "My last question, for now," he added, "Would be if your appetite changed at all? Hungry more often, any cravings, things like that? Beyond these things, if you really want some answers, I think we're going to have to run some tests."
Which Reed would be more than happy to do, finding himself somewhere in between the curiosity he had for a problem he'd never seen the like of before and a shared sense of Stella's concern. "Your sister does worry," Reed said, pausing momentarily in his pursuit of science to address this, "I've seen some of it myself -- and by the way no need to tell her what all of... this looks like." His promise to sleep at his own apartment, get some good rest, had been fulfilled, but that was days ago and he'd been quick to fall back into old habits. "But you saw what happened to her the other week, that was..." Reed trailed off, thinking about the vanishing Stella and their attempts to figure out why. "...pretty scary," he decided on, more honest in his assessment than he'd thought he would be. "I don't think it's about whether or not you're going to burn down the neighborhood. Well, at least not all about that. It's about understanding how many strange things like this we should be expecting around here so we're a little more prepared." How quickly Reed was able to accept this unusual status quo, where the laws of physics and medicine could be upended so easily.
Catching himself using his lecture voice, Reed cut himself off with a wave of his hand. "I don't have to explain Stella to you," he disclaimered, although it had felt important to understand her worries in context. "Right now, I would say my theory is a heightened metabolism that's raising your resting temperature and affecting your nerve endings. Nothing that would suggest to me you're at risk for spontaneous combustion but, well, that is an area science hasn't full explained yet."
Liam passed off Reed’s comment about his temperature with another casual shrug, as if a core temp of 106F was as much of a nonissue or a minor inconvenience as getting hot instead of iced coffee during his morning Starbucks run. “Stella did a set of vitals before Kai came over – oh, sorry, my ex,” he added, realizing that Reed probably wasn’t up to date on the innerworkings of his personal life. Though, he didn’t embellish on that much further, instead turning his attention to the object on the desk next to him, turning the heavy item over in his hands and trying to discern what the purpose was. Half the fun of tooling around Reed’s lab came from not knowing if something was a paperweight or a scientific deathtrap. “I don’t think the fact that I’m fireproof is what’s freaking her out... it’s more what comes next. Or what could come next. I did some intense searches on Google after that e-mail showed up, and there’s a whole lot of burning, fire, and this thing called ‘nova flame’ where I can sort of... harness the power of a hydrogen bomb.”
Again, he found himself idly picking lint off of the knee of his sweatpants, choosing to focus his eyes on anything but Reed’s determined gaze. While the flaming on and off part of Johnny’s wiki had seemed like a fun time, the ‘living bomb’ subtext on had been a lot to handle. Liam had trouble balancing his checkbook – knowing that level of power could be his to grapple with someday was enough to push him away from general disease toward panic levels of anxiety.
He perked up at the mention of more tests. It was a controlled environment, and he knew he had (unintentionally) exploded things on more than one occasion in the lab – if he was going to test what was going on with him, he would rather do it in the presence of a scientist-slash-doctor who would be able to fix things, or cover them up, if they took a wrong turn. “Yeah, let’s do it. Where do you want me? Do you have, like, a death ray somewhere? Maybe not that, because I don’t know how immune to death rays I am, but... I know you have to have something fiery laying around here...” Liam picked up a stack of papers, as if a military grade flamethrower would be hiding underneath, newly energized and ready to tackle whatever was going on with him in whichever manner Reed saw fit. “My life is in your hands. And Stella knows I’m here, so... try not to kill me.”
"As much fun as nova flame versus death ray sounds," Reed said, striving towards deadpan but unable to completely contain the obvious fact that okay that did sound pretty cool, "My death ray is out to the shop this week. Let's start with something a little less intense and scale up as necessary." Nova flame -- his mind still reeled from the idea of Liam being granted the power of a nuclear reaction. Hardly his area of expertise, but Reed's mind was already spinning, collecting everything he'd ever heard or read about fission and fusion, speculating on how it could all be possible in the body of a young man he was so fond of. A young man already prone to a few accidental explosions, in fact. "Come with me."
With a wave of his hand, Reed beckoned Liam after him, moving from the examination-turned-r&d portion of his lab through a set of automatic glass doors, towards an area much more equipped for the kind of experimentation they were about to engage in. "I'd like to begin with a radiation spectrometer and then get some readings on you across several different wavelengths as we see if we can find some limits to your abilities," Reed said, gesturing towards a machine already set up and aiming at a lab bench behind yet another set of glass panels -- these shatterproof. "Nothing that can kill you -- a hair off on your head and Stella would murder me," Reed said, a bit of a laugh but also quite serious. "We just want to see what's going on across a few different levels. Head on in, I'll take the readings from here."
Admittedly, standing in a room and having radiation spectrometers fired in his direction sounded way less cool than being on the wrong end of one of the Russian military-grade flamethrowers Liam knew Reed had hiding in a locked cabinet somewhere, but Reed was methodical, and he knew that starting out with the big guns (literally) wasn’t the scientifically sound way to test his new abilities. He pushed himself off of the counter, nerves not even a little frayed at the idea of radiation spectrometers being used on him (though it helped that he had no idea what exactly they did), tracing Reed’s steps into a part of the lab he had never stepped foot in before. “Pretty sick setup down here, doc,” he began, his fingers tracing the length of the counter and tripping over detached wires, loose screws, and random circuitry. “Hey, I know you’re about to fire something into my body and all, and I really want you to be 100% focused on whatever buttons you’re about to push over there, but – you sure you’re good down here? And you’re eating? Drinking water? Sleeping once a week or so?”
Before he answered, Liam swung around the glass panes toward the spot that Reed had gestured to, lacing his fingers together behind his neck as he rocked back expectantly on his heels. “Just tell me if you need me to do anything,” he yelled, unaware if the shatterproof barrier blocked out sound as well as it would (probably) block out projectiles. “Kinda new to this whole lab rat thing.” There was a low hum from behind the glass that snatched his attention, his eyes searching for the source as a small red light centered on his chest. “No big deal. This is normal. Totally normal,” he mumbled to himself, unsure of where exactly to put his hands before settling them in his lap like he was taking a school photo. “Fire at will.”