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REFUSING PARADISE, ESCAPE FROM HELL, An Interior Designer Is You

march bingo with stella sawyer
[03 . . . . . 21]

There was a grim set to Reed's face as he stared down the challenge in front of him: a sprawling warehouse of furniture and home wares, laid out across a seemingly infinite floor plan in small little demo arrangements, a thousand potential bedrooms, living rooms, dining rooms all nestled together to be tried out before one settled on a purchase. Perhaps not the most intimidating space to most people, and not the biggest challenge that could be undertaken on a weekend, but Reed found himself nonetheless gathering his strength and mental fortitude before taking the first steps into the fray. It was overwhelming to think of all the options, to feel the responsibility to make the right decision on things he felt totally inexpert on -- and frankly, when it came to decorating his own apartment, Reed often felt like whatever he picked out would hardly matter anyway given how much time he was away from the place. Why bother crafting the perfect ambiance in a space he'd done little more than sleep in?

Well, because the point was to start making an apartment he'd actually want to spend time in, a place that really would call him away from his laboratory at the end of a long day. The point was to actually enjoy something that wasn't work. The point was to admit he kind of hated being in his place of residence because it felt so foreign, so uninhabited, and do what he did with everything else: solve the problem.

Towards that end, Reed had enlisted the best ally he could think of, in fact the person who he went to for help in most cases: Stella. A quick and able partner in the strange circumstances that made up his regular life, but unsurprisingly also a sharp eye for redecorating -- Reed hadn't thought twice about asking for her assistance, and wasn't even surprised that she agreed. It was just the sort of thing that they did naturally, come to each other for assistance and work through it to a solution together, although the problems they brought each other felt smaller and smaller while the time they spent together grew longer and longer, the little excuses of seeking advice getting more and more flimsy. "I'm overwhelmed already," he confessed, a self-deprecating smile on his face as he glanced sideways at her. "How do you even know where to start?"

It was the first time she'd been to Reed's apartment, after joking about the place over and over again, though Stella had only been there long enough to get a general idea of the layout and what they were working with to start. As Reed had stated previously, it wasn't stark or barren but that didn't mean it felt anything like a place someone would feel comfortable, want to spend time. That was the goal, after all. Maybe if his apartment felt like a place he wanted to be, he'd actually go there from time to time. She was pleased he'd asked for her help - honored, even. If nothing else, their trip would be time she managed to get Reed out of his lab, but she had higher hopes for them than that.

"Well," she started, taking a step to the side to move out of the way of other people walking through, gently pulling him over with her. "If you see anything you like, or that looks like something you'd enjoy, we'll take a picture and write down the information so when we've gone through the whole store we can review and compare the options. Think of it like a research mission. And it doesn't matter if it's something big like a couch or small like the design on a throw pillow - if it stands out to you as something you like, we'll make a note of it. Are there any colors in particular you like to have in your space, ones that you're drawn toward?"

From Stella's gentle tug to get him out of the way of a family walking past, it was easy to just keep following her lead. Whenever he felt overwhelmed, focused as usual on the complications of a matter, she had a talent for making things seem so much simpler than Reed was anticipating, a kind of clarity that could only come from someone like herself, capable and compassionate. "I know you're just trying to make me feel better by calling it a research trip, but it's working," he said, laughing a little at the idea of this shopping trip as compared to the field work he'd done in university, something like wading out into ponds and rivers to collect specimens of algae and tadpoles. Still, her gesture towards something Reed was more comfortable with was appreciated, and it did seem easier to think just about what he liked, not yet committing to anything.

"Colors," he echoed, thinking through her question as they started picking their way through the aisles, a series of set kitchens featuring an array of countertops and silverware options, brightly colored dishtowels and plating sets to browse through. Absently, Reed ran his fingers over a series of forks, gleaming under the bright lights. "Something bright, I guess?" Strange, to realize he actually didn't have a good sense of his own preferences, given how little he thought about them, no room in research to think about what he liked more or less, just what worked. "You know, the lab, that whole building, it's all glass and chrome, which is great for working, but it doesn't feel very welcoming." Antiseptic was a better word, all that clinical white and silver, blank canvases for work. "I mean, I like simple, streamlined, but I just want someplace bright, that feels like real people live there. Warm colors. Does that make sense?"

"Did it work? Do you feel better?" Stella grinned a little, because she had been trying to make him feel better but also trying to make it approachable. Ikea was huge, overwhelming, a lot to take in. She didn't want their trip there to be some traumatizing thing when he looked back on it. Besides, it was a research trip.

She let Reed steer their trajectory, walking with him down the main path but following his lead into the different rooms set up as examples. Her gaze followed his, like she was studying where he was looking, what he was looking at a little longer than other things, little hints at what might be drawing his eye as he pondered over his color preferences. "No, that makes sense," she said, tilting her head as she considered a moment. "Things can be simple, streamlined, and still be colorful and welcoming. How about we just keep an eye out for colors that stand out to you too? If you see a color you like, we'll make a note of it and take a picture to come back to later. Deal?"

"Deal," Reed agreed, thankful for not just her reassurance, but also her organization. He had to appreciate too the way she wasn't leading him to the right answers, hadn't come here with him to show him what constituted good taste or design for him the way his space should look. Stella was willing to let his opinions be his own, just here to facilitate them and be a thoughtful second set of eyes. Sure he felt a little shy, feeling her gaze as he flicked through a stack of place mats, knowing she was watching to see what he lingered on, what drew him, but there was nothing evaluating or judgmental about her observation. "You're very good at this," he informed her, finding nothing in a small white kitchen demo that called to him, bored by all the plain and simple cabinetry and appliances. Reed meandered over to the next, still talking. "Interior decor, yes," he'd seen her house, knew she had taste, "But I mean just the way you help with things. Open, asking good questions." Reed had told her before how easy she was to talk to, how much he valued that. "How often per week does someone confess a deep secret to you?" He had to imagine it happened not infrequently. Not because she was interrogating them, demanding answers, but because just the way she approached questions had Reed volunteering information, wanting to explain himself more clearly.

Stella smiled softly to herself at what he said, because it was such a nice compliment to receive and she knew Reed wasn't there trying to butter her up for anything so he wouldn't be saying it if he didn't mean it. "I know, I missed my calling as a decorator," she joked, pausing to look at a table setting before turning her attention back to Reed. "That's nice to hear though, I try to be helpful." Hadn't they once joked that she'd missed her calling as a therapist? Something like that, if she recalled correctly. It was strange to think about because she didn't feel like she was doing anything out of the ordinary. Maybe it was simply that she knew Reed, so she knew how to approach questions, situations, most anything with him, what would make him receptive. His question made the corner of her mouth quirk as she thought about it. "Well, I don't know about deep secrets. People tell me personal things all the time, but I think that's a hazard of the job, you know? But on the flip side," she added, pausing a moment. "Maybe it's because I'm used to talking to people when they're in a vulnerable position and trying to put them at ease?"

"Maybe that's it," Reed supposed, still considering the possibilities as he checked the cabinets and appliances of a new demo kitchen, a new miniature setup in the middle of the overwhelming warehouse. He couldn't discount the possibility of what she said, that Stella had learned her good listening techniques through medical practice -- although frankly, Reed had seen enough of medical school students with no bedside manner, scientists at heart just looking for a problem to solve, with little regard for the patient in front of them. How could he begin to articulate the way he was certain that this talent was intrinsic to Stella, would have come naturally to her no matter her profession? Or, better still, the way that no matter how he could imagine she was a great listener to everyone in her life, there was something about the way she asked him questions, the look on her face as she lured out of him opinions and thoughts he'd never shared with anyone, that felt special, just for him? Impossible, Reed decided, frowning thoughtfully at a refrigerator full of prop food -- cute. Or, more honestly put, possible yes to tell Stella exactly what he was thinking, that she had a natural talent and how much he valued it, but impossible without tipping his hand, without showing too much about the way he felt about her without enough time to think it over, decide on the right phrasing to make sure he said it right.

"I do feel in a vulnerable position," Reed allowed at least, acknowleding how out of his depth he felt trying to shape a house into a home. "What do you think? Blue?" He held up a dinner plate, a bright cobalt blue, for her second take. "You don't have to tell me what to think, but you absolutely have to tell me if I'm committing a design faux pas, can we agree to that?" Reed had little doubt she'd let him walk out of the store with something completely embarrassing, so he was laughing as he asked for her promise. "Honestly, I've never had a home worth decorating before."

"Don't worry, I won't let you do anything I wouldn't do," Stella assured him with a soft laugh. Not that she would let anyone, but especially not Reed when he'd asked for her help, willingly left the safe bubble of his lab and was trying to make his apartment someplace he wanted to be. She wanted that for him too, so of course she was going to do her best to help. While she wasn't an interior decorator by any stretch of the imagination, she could tell when things looked good or they didn't. She took a moment to study the plate he was holding, tapping her chin thoughtfully. "I like the blue. I was thinking, which you can feel free to say no if you aren't feeling it, it's your home, but maybe blues and then a mustardy yellow as an accent? I'm sure they have some things that are nice, deep and dark blues as well, navy and midnight. What do you think?"

Reed found himself considering the plate he held with thoughtful eyes, as Stella volunteered her opinion. "No, I don't hate that," he said, trying to picture her proposed color scheme filling the four walls of his apartment, and realizing only after he'd spoken that he was hedging his opinion, as he did with so many things, "I like what you're thinking." It was difficult, honestly, to say out loud how much he liked something or how much an idea excited him. Sure he had his preferences same as anyone, a routine for how he liked his coffee and the ability to have a heated debate on the best music albums of all time, but those were just opinions -- it was taking care of himself outside of a ruthless efficiency that always was a challenge. What was his life for, if not for his work, after all? And why spend the effort on it. "I keep thinking about my parents house, you know?" he volunteered, "We lived in the same home my whole life, but except for maybe holidays nobody was ever really there." His parents working, Reed himself kept busy with a schedule of school and extracurriculars since early childhood, he didn't have many youthful memories of sitting around a kitchen table to guide his decor tastes.

I don't hate that was really the best Stella could hope for, not expecting strong opinions from Reed when it came to color schemes. As long as it wasn't offensive she figured he would be fine, but dark blues and mustard yellows felt like it fit with his thoughts of bright, clean, warm, simple. Plus it would be easy enough to add other colors in as little accents if they found something nice. She was looking inside a drawer to take in the organization system when he mentioned his family home, her brow furrowing slightly as she looked over at him. "No one was ever there?" she asked, leaning back against the model kitchen island and considering him. "When you were little, even?"

"I mean, we slept there, had breakfast there, but that's about it, usually," Reed said, acknowledging in his tone how unexpected that might sound. Perhaps by virtue of his success, his capability, people tended to imagine a picture-perfect family background for Reed, a suburban image out of some kind of bland sitcom. "You know, my parents worked all the time, and they didn't want me sitting around all the time, so I was in all these clubs and academies and all that staff. It wasn't bad, they just wanted me to be good at things and I liked most of it, there just wasn't really a lot of time spent talking around the kitchen table or relaxing on the weekends." It really hadn't been all bad, not the kind of thing that counted as a tragic backstory or traumatic childhood, and yet Reed always felt a little like he was defending his parents when he talked about it, however rarely. They had wanted him to be a perfect son, and he was, what was so bad about that, except the way it had set Reed up early to not know what to do with himself without a goal to achieve.

Stella felt a big tug at her heartstrings as Reed talked about what it had been like growing up. Though for different reasons and under different circumstances, it wasn't too far off from what she'd experienced. Like him, she didn't discuss it often. Why talk about a time she could so easily dismiss, far more interesting content in the years since she'd reached adulthood and been able to really pave a path for herself both personally and professionally. "My parents worked a lot," she said, tone even and practiced. "They were... busy.. I don't think either of them were ready for a child when they had me. They were much more prepared and interested by the time Liam came around."

Perhaps Reed hadn't known before that he shared this in common with Stella, maybe he'd been guilty of imagining her childhood as picture-perfect as people did with him, but the way her tone became carefully even, almost like a casual dismissal of what they were discussing, told him they had a similar experience. He found himself frowning again in sympathy, unexpectedly protective of her if he could imagine what she was talking about. "That feeling like they just want you to be fine so they don't have to think too much about you, right?" he guessed, leaning over the demo kitchen island to her. Not that he meant to prescribe his own experiences onto hers, but that he understood, could guess at the little details she wasn't saying so she wouldn't have to say them if she didn't want to. "I guess I have no idea what that would be like with a sibling, after," Reed added, trying to imagine how Stella and Liam might have gone from sibling rivalry to the kind of closeness they had now. "Are you close with them now, your parents?" A way of asking if they'd ever come around, realized how amazing Stella had become as an adult.

Stella considered a moment, pursing her lips and giving a shake of her head. Typically she wouldn't go any further, delve into the childhood she liked to ignore, but she didn't like lying to Reed - not even half truths or lies of omission. "It was more... they didn't want to think about me at all, no matter how well I did at anything." It wasn't a mystery to her where her perfectionism came from, she'd been through plenty of therapy. "They didn't seem to want a child at all, not until Liam. Mom loved him, doted on him and all that." She shrugged a shoulder, smiling in a way that didn't come close to reaching her eyes. "No, not at all. After I was eighteen and went college, I never really looked back except for Liam. It isn't his fault, everything, and then our dad being caught up in embezzlement or whatever -- I don't care, but he does."

Reed knew his own personality well enough to know he was an empathetic person, someone who cared deeply about any amount of suffering in the world, wanted to fix problems that weren't even his own, but still it hurt more than Reed expected, hearing Stella paint more of the picture of her past for him. He took it seriously that she'd want to share at all, knew from personal experience how much easier it often was to shrug these things off and disappear behind the veneer of success that was almost like a coping mechanism. More than anything it was the smile still somehow on Stella's face that Reed caught himself lingering on -- he knew by now how to distinguish a real look of happiness or excitement from her, and with that knowledge, the expression she held now seemed almost like it was designed to soothe whoever was listening to her, like she was reassuring Reed that she was fine. "That sounds so hard," he said, willing to say it even if Stella hadn't, "I didn't realize how much of what you've accomplished you did on your own like this." College, medical school, everything that came along with it -- those weren't easy challenges even with a support system of family behind you, Reed knew from his own experiences.

"I mean, I had a trust fund," Stella added, not willing to take full credit because she knew she was lucky in that regard, that she was debt free because there had been money set aside for her - even if her parents hadn't cared about it. "College, medical school, I definitely used it to go and not end up in significant debt." It was a luxury she was aware most of her classmates didn't possess. "I suppose... always trying to make them notice and be proud, that only added to my academic success? Not that they did notice," she added. "But I worked so hard and got where I am anyway."

"You're a success," Reed said, the fact of it beyond question. What more could Stella have been asked to achieve that she hadn't already done? He smiled a little as he pointed it out, because it was a joy to be able to say it to her. "And nobody can take any credit for that but you. A trust fund helps, I'm sure, but it doesn't do the work for you." Reed hadn't been given a blank check for his education, but he knew from scholarships and awards that kept tuition at bay that there was more to it than just being able to afford the price tag. "My parents, I know they mean well, but they love to tell anybody who will listen how they made me a genius." He couldn't help but roll his eyes as he admitted it, trading her admission for one of his own. "Like I was a science experiment myself." Engineered to turn out the right way through a program of high expectations and constant training. "And every time they say it, I just think, you know, there are so many other ways to be successful that I'm not good at, and I kind of wish I was." Successful at balancing the different areas of his life, for one.

It was all so interesting to think about. How her parents hadn't given a shit and she'd ended up where she was. How Reed's parents bragged on him even if they hadn't been part of his successes. She'd never looked into his past, despite being interested in his present. That was he down fault, her own misstep. "Thank you," she said softly, in response to his comment. "I've tried to be, despite them I suppose. Live my own life outside of what they were doing, which ended up for the best." She shrugged a shoulder, raking her hand back through her hair. "What ways do you wish you were successful?"

They were taking up this little kitchen demo with their conversation, but Reed didn't mind. It felt oddly intimate, not because the decor around them was so familiar or cozy, but because it was a small little set within the larger warehouse store, a feeling like they were tucked away, insulated from the rest of the world. Maybe that was why Reed caught himself hedging an answer to her question only briefly as he toyed with the papier-mache fruit in the displayed fruit bowl. "Oh, I don't know," Reed shrugged, finding himself unwittingly where Stella had just been, approaching a topic he so often shrugged off and realizing he wanted to tell her, see if it was something they shared or differed on. "Family, I think. Being closer with my parents, sure, but also just having my own. I always knew that was important to me, but it never seemed as important as everything else until..." A brief little hand gesture to mean, until suddenly here he was.

"Failing in the interior decoration area, I understand," Stella replied teasingly, smiling softly In Reed's direction before she busied herself in studying the glassware close by. It was so much easier to brush things off, pretend they didn't matter, yet there they were. "For what it's worth," she added softly. "Whether it was you parents' intention or not, your brain and genius has benefited so many people out there - and I'm sure it's just the beginning. You're incredibly smart and thoughtful with how you apply your ideas, I'm sure they're proud of you."

Why did Reed always catch himself frowning at Stella's compliments, even as he thrilled to receive them, found his heartbeat speeding up with just the mere idea that she saw something inside of him that he always wanted to be true? Reed asked himself the question as if he didn't already know why. It was because it embarrassed him to want her to see the best in him this much, was fringing on guilt to keep asking for her help or inviting her on these little trips without confessing to his ulterior motives, the fact that he wanted more than just this comfortable friendship and her kindness, and yet found himself continuously afraid to say out loud the rest of it, what he really wanted from her. "That's what I should be telling you," he said, rather than accept her praise. At least he could laugh with it, the realization that they must have been thinking the same thing at the same time. "You know how much I value your intelligence," he said, something easy to set aside since he'd thanked her for it so many times already, his own thinking and work improved every time he sought out her opinion on it, "But more than that, it's really admirable how kind you are. Not everyone would take that chance to improve themselves, let alone open their home to their brother, let alone someone like me." He laughed a little, thinking about Stella's generosity in letting him turn up there so often to the point of memorizing his breakfast order. She was examining the cut glass cups and vases in a cabinet, but Reed was leaning against the counter nearby, just gazing at her. "Stella, I --" And, what, was he really going to say everything he wanted to say here, in a fake kitchen in the middle of a warehouse store? Reed sighed. "You're really special, I don't want you to think I haven't noticed."

Stella was somewhat equally bad at accepting compliments as he was, it feeling so much like a spotlight being shone on her undeservingly. It was all things she didn't think warranted note - of course she'd let Liam move in, and stopped beaming Reed in the face with pillows when she woke up to find him there too. Wasn't that what anyone should do? But hearing it from Reed, how he thought she was kind, made a warmth bloom in her chest. She tried to be, especially to those who she cared about, but she knew she could misfire at times. How many times had she snapped at her brother, poked and prodded rather than encourage, which was what she was trying to do? Come off harsh and abrupt when she was simply trying to be concise? It was a fine line, one she didn't always walk well. But Reed thought she was kind. Special.

It was difficult to process such nice words, ones that made her feel like they could be true. In another world, another time, maybe she would have reacted differently. But she didn't want to ruin things, ruin this partnership they'd built over a short few months. Still, she reached over for his hand, giving it a gentle squeeze as she finally let herself look at him. "It's nice, having Liam, having you around. I'm so used to Liam living with me, I don't know what I'm going to do - he's looking at places to move out. But I -- thank you, you said some very nice things."

"Is he still planning on moving out?" Reed echoed, trying to imagine Stella's home without Liam's obvious presence in it. "He'd mentioned looking at places, it was nice to see him excited about one of them." With the new context of what Stella had shared about their pasts, Reed wasn't sure how to expect Stella to feel about Liam getting his own space, could picture her both excited to have the house to herself again as well as feeling the loss of her sibling. Likely a mix of the two, if Reed had to guess, as he abandoned the kitchen demo and headed towards similar setups for living spaces and bedrooms so others could investigate. "Are you going to be making an IKEA trip with him soon too? How do you feel about it?" Best to ask rather than make assumptions, and as with all things, Reed was curious about Stella's take.

"Last I heard, yes, he is." Stella paused to take a couple pictures of items and their information from a living room set-up, liking the look and feel of them. Not that she didn't trust Reed to point on when he saw things he liked, but she wanted to also keep track of things she thought might work well for his space to bring up later. Keeping his focus on why they were there probably wasn't going to work that well, but she'd knew that going into it. She didn't think he'd be offended by her keeping track of a few throw pillow covers for him. They could revisit when they got to that particular area downstairs. "I'd come with him if he asked me to, I don't know if he will," she said, shrugging and pausing for a moment to consider how she felt. "I think... I mean, I understand him wanting his own space, and I'm proud of him for being in a place where he can get it. Him living with me, it was always meant to be temporary, but I've grown accustomed to his being there. When he first brought it up, I was sad. It caught me off-guard, felt like it came out of nowhere. I think my house will feel empty."

An empty house -- Reed couldn't truly empathize with the feeling of a sibling moving out, but he knew what it was like to feel weirdly anxious at the thought of going home after a long day, dreading empty spaces and long silences that never seemed to bother him at the lab. "Did you live alone, before Liam moved in?" Reed asked. Truthfully it was hard to imagine what Stella's life was like before Liam had arrived to her, not just because Reed had met Liam first, after the two Sawyers were already a pair. She'd told Reed just now about some of her childhood, and Reed was still wrapping his mind around what she'd said, thinking through the new information to see what it explained about her. "You'll miss him, that just makes sense," Reed said with a shrug, not dismissing her feelings but eager to explain it was natural, something to be expected. "And as much as he probably does want some independence, I have a feeling he'll be coming around for dinner and laundry. It's not like he's moving away."

Even if it was natural, it felt a little silly. Or like it should have felt silly. Stella knew she was a grown adult, had anticipated living on her own in her house before everything fell apart with the rest of the family and Liam came to stay with her. Shouldn't she be looking forward to having that life back? She may have given him a lot of grief, but that was kind of her job as an older sister - especially when the younger brother was one who actually did start fires in her kitchen. "I lived alone, yes," she said after a moment, absently tucking her hair behind her ears. "He did say he'll be over often, but I guess we'll see if that's true. It's not like I cook, he could have the same dinner wherever he is without coming over." She offered Reed a small smile, shrugging a shoulder. "It'll be different. An adjustment. I'm sure it'll be fine, I'm happy for him finding someplace that makes him excited to live there. It's not like living with his big sister is some great thing, I'm sure."

It was an impulse Reed too was often guilty of, which was why he noticed the way Stella quietly evaded the reassurance he was trying to offer, not outright disagreeing but not truly accepting the comforting reality Reed had been trying to offer. How often had he himself dodged someone's kind words by offering a smile even as he completely discarded what they said, just like Stella was doing now? There were so many things Reed was delighted to have in common with her, but this wasn't one of them. "Stella," he said seriously, one more attempt to make the case that she would be hard to leave behind for Liam, for anyone, before it started to feel like it was no longer his place, "It's not about whether you cook or if he can have the same meal somewhere else. He's going to want to come back because he cares about you, because you're a family." Reed had seen enough of it at breakfasts, at the lab, to know Liam and Stella were close in the way family was supposed to be, able to recognize it because it was something he wanted to have one day himself with a wife, children, a family table, like he'd just confessed to her. "You don't need me to convince you," he added, understanding it wasn't necessarily advice she'd even asked for, "I just don't want you to think you're someone easy to forget about like that." Because she wasn't, not by a long shot, and he knew it from personal experience, no matter what her childhood experiences might have taught her.

It felt like it almost knocked the wind out of her. Maybe she was so used to deflecting, shrugging things away, where no one noticed or called her on it. Truthfully, Stella didn't realize she was doing it most of the time, it was just something she did. But of course Reed saw through her, and of course he managed to dig right to the crux of what she was dealing with subconsciously with her brother moving out. It was easy to frame it as how the house would be so empty, and she'd be alone, when really it was so much more. The time they'd been living together, it was honestly the first real time Stella had enjoyed living with anyone in her family. She'd come to know Liam much better than she had before, and she was scared of losing that closeness they'd found. Being family didn't automatically mean those included cared about each other, but she cared about Liam and was mostly certain he cared about her too. But it was what Reed said about not wanting her to think she was someone easy to forget - that was what put the lump in her throat. Because that was at the core of it all, wasn't it? Stella shifted a step closer, slipping her arm through Reed's to hook at the elbow, squeezing it gently. "You're quite kind yourself, you know? I'll be okay," she added, glancing up at him. "I appreciate you listening, even if you are kind of held hostage in a giant warehouse right now."

He'd gone back to sorting idly through a basket of linens, noting the ones that would fit the color scheme they'd been working from, not because suddenly Reed was so interested in interior decor, but because it had felt a little revealing on his part too, to say something to her that was both so true about her and so deeply felt on his part. But Stella's arm through his had him looking up at her again, squeezing back in turn and offering her a soft smile. "I know you'll be okay," he agreed, never a question in his mind, "And you can always talk to me if your house ever seems too quiet, I know what that's like." Reed couldn't even pretend it was the first time he realized he'd answer her call no matter what time of day, no matter what he was doing -- he could hardly imagine a task so pressing he wouldn't put it down to talk to her. His smile shifted slightly into something a little more lighthearted, a little laughing, as he added, "No need to drag me to the land of infinite living rooms just to spend time with me," a joke clearly at his own expense since that was exactly what Reed had done with his ask for her help.

Stella felt more sure on her feet there, where they made jokes and teased. Not that she didn't like being able to talk to Reed about deeper things, she definitely did, but when they were topics or feelings she typically kept buried far, far beneath the surface, that took some adjusting to be any kind of comfortable with. It wasn't anything to do with the Reed of it, it was all her. As much as he said she was easy to talk to, Reed was plenty easy to talk to as well, as far as Stella was concerned. Maybe it was their rapport that made it comfortable, easy. They'd done scans on each other, discussed scientific impossibilities turned reality, but also breakfast food, constellations, secret lairs. Stella knew that all she had to do to spend time with Reed, or even just talk to him for a while, was ask. She hoped he knew that went the same for him, because she would certainly always make time. "But they're such nice living rooms," she pointed out, smiling as she gave his arm a tug to pull him toward one of the displays. "Come sit, enjoy the vibe." She settled on one side of the couch and gestured for him to take the other. "It's really comfortable."

The ease with which Reed let himself get pulled towards one of the display couches, a large overstuffed thing in mustard yellow, made him laugh as he fell back against the soft cushions at Stella's side. Where were all his usual hesitations, all those old reservations? Long gone, to say the least. He had no sense of shyness or unwillingness to either let her tug him by the elbow to some unknown destination or to open up about things Reed seldom told anyone, let alone in so much detail. "This isn't bad, I like the whole setup here," he agreed, letting his head tip back against the back of the couch, imitating the rest he might get if it was in his own living room, "As long as you promise it doesn't come with the other family too. I'm not ready for roommates." A pair of kids and their exhausted parents, were nearby in the display living room, seated at a table as they planned their next move in the seemingly endless store. "How did you do it?" Reed asked after a beat, still relaxed against the sofa but turning his neck to look at Stella while he asked a question that had been in the back of his mind for more than just today. "Your house is so warm, I don't even live there and I like spending time there. It really feels like you. How did you know how to do that?" A vague question, perhaps, but it was the closest Reed could come for articulating the skill he didn't possess of transforming a space from an empty room into somewhere anybody would feel comfortable, safe.

"Noted." Stella pulled out her phone to take some pictures of the room in general, then the information for the couch. It was comfortable, on theme, and Reed looked like he might actually be relaxing for a few seconds while he sat on it. She glanced over when he mentioned the family, the corner of her mouth quirking as she slipped the phone back into her purse. "No, definitely not. Furniture and decor only, no humans included." She paused at his question, not sure what he meant until he elaborated, then relaxing back into the couch as he did. "Well... I don't know," she answered honestly, shifting to be turned more toward him, her arm propped against the back of the couch. "I just picked things I liked, that made me feel good or happy when I saw them. I know that sounds haphazard, but it's true. I spent a lot of time on Pinterest looking at designs and rooms and what people had done, kept track of the things I liked, then kept that in mind while I picked out things for my house. I'm glad you like spending time there," she added, smiling softly. "That makes me happy to hear. That's all anyone can really hope for, you know?"

Why was it so charming to hear her detail her thought process, her research and implementation phases, when it came to decorating her townhome? Reed's mind was adept at finding answers, or at least at theorizing potential answers, but in the moment, all he could guess was that it had something to do with the way she made the process seem so simple even when it evaded Reed completely, something to do with the way her arm was resting against the couch and her whole body was turned to face him. He found himself nodding along with only a barest understanding -- god, it should have been embarrassing, Reed insisted to himself, but her smile was so natural that it just wasn't no matter how much he might have liked to roll his eyes at himself. "This is why I knew you were the right person to call for help," Reed said, confident, as if Stella hadn't been the first and only ask he made. "I could use a little bit of your natural talent." Because whether or not she voiced it in her process explanation, whether or not Stella knew it, there was something about her energy, about who she was, that made all the difference in turning a house into a home. "You haven't told me what to do this entire time," he acknowledged -- truly something he was thankful for, the way Stella had arrived today just to support his own decisions without influencing him in any way, but Reed had to press the subject, out of something he told himself was purely scientific interest, "Be honest with me. Where am I going wrong?"

Stella laughed softly and rolled her eyes a little at his 'natural talent' comment, because really she leaned heavily on Pinterest and made alterations here and there as necessary. Even still, she was glad to be there and help Reed, if nothing else because it was him showing an interest in making his apartment someplace he wanted to be. "Of course I haven't told you what to do," she said, tilting her head and lifting a shoulder in a shrug. "Other than tell me when you see something you like. There's no... right or wrong answer, which doesn't really compute, I know." She offered him a smile. "You're not going wrong anywhere, Reed. You're doing great. This isn't something you're comfortable with, but you're here, you're taking part in the process, I'd say that's a success. Like I said before, this is a research mission."

Reed huffed in feigned dissatisfaction with that answer, only because it was getting a little ridiculous to keep grinning back at her, to keep letting her energy guide him from the uncertainty he felt earlier through to now, starting to think maybe he really could do this, grow beyond the sparse and lonely feelings of childhood to have a home of his own. "I think I wish you were meaner to me sometimes," he said dryly, but a smile broke through just the same, despite his reluctance. It was a joke of course, who wouldn't feel like Stella's kindness and faith lit them up, Reed wouldn't trade that feeling for anything, but she had to have realized how startling it was sometimes, to expect a reasoned and incisive critique, the sort of attention that Reed was accustomed to from his parents right through his academic mentors, care that so often took the form of a list of his flaws, places to improve. Of course Reed could understand that some things had no right answer, just a matter of taste and personal preference, but that didn't mean a part of him wouldn't always be expecting the critique to follow.

"I'll take that under advisement," Stella replied dryly, a little smirk turning at the corners of her mouth. She could be plenty critical when the situation called for it, not in a rude way, she hoped, but either way going shopping for home decor wasn't a scenario she saw needing a hyper critical approach. Especially not when it was so outside Reed's wheelhouse that she was surprised he was there at all. He could have so easily asked her to find him things without going along too, but he'd included himself in the process and she felt good about that. "Well, you could be telling me more things you like, but there's also the possibility we haven't come across more yet so it's difficult to know if you're holding out on me or not."

"More opinionated, I can do that," Reed said with a laugh. As if Stella must have somehow missed the fact that Reed was perhaps best described as fussy -- filled with opinions and preferences for every little setting, willing and able to delve into the microscopic level to ensure everything was exactly as he envisioned. That tendency had turned away more than a few qualified lab techs -- back when Reed relied on lab techs at all -- but maybe Stella had picked up on something Reed wasn't quite willing to admit to himself. He was hedging, a little bit, waiting to see what Stella's take was before he divulged his own. "Okay," he said, bracing, as he turned away from Stella's gaze, hard as it was to resist, and faced the living room setup around them. "Couch, yes. Table, no. It's too small, right? Carpet, no, I feel like it's going to make the room feel small. And I think I need art? Something on the walls. I like stuff that's easy to take care of, but I want it to be interesting in some way. Design-y. Not just whatever everyone else has." His eyes flickered in Stella's direction with another one of those smiles he couldn't seem to spot. "Company is spot on," he acknowledged, she'd always be welcome in any space of his, whether it was the lab or his apartment, "But I just want to have a place that feels special, not generic."

Stella enjoyed watching Reed dissect the room, especially when he started imparting more of his opinion rather than simply yes or no. It was different than watching him take apart something in his lab, which was also something she enjoyed watching. And when he said the company was spot on, it made her smile in a way that reached her eyes. She gave a little hum in response to the last of what he said, taking another glance around the room before turning her attention fully back to him. "See? All good thoughts, and helpful. You know what you want it to feel like, that's great. And remember, not everything has to come from here," she added, gesturing around the room to indicate Ikea in general. "In terms of art especially. It might be a bit generic here, but I'm sure we could find some interesting pieces for you. I know we can."

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