It's 5 a.m., and Scott's already on what, his third cup of coffee? Maybe it's his fourth. It's too early for counting. Or too late. One of those. Even with all the doodads and fancy machinery in the Baxter Building, even after all the weeks he's lived here, all he can make is shitty coffee, and he's drinking it black. It's like pouring battery acid directly into his stomach, but it keeps him awake, which is the important thing. He takes another sip and makes a face.
"Well, it's nice to see you, too," Jennifer says, clicking over on sturdy-looking heels. Her suit is a pale purple, her hair twisted neatly behind her head, and it’s just unfair for anyone to be that put-together at five in the morning. She crosses her eyes at him over the coffeemaker as she pours herself a cup.
"Sorry, it's just—you don't want to drink that." He gestures vaguely between his mug and hers.
"Honey, I'm invulnerable. I could drink a whole bottle of tequila if I wanted to. It's fine." She takes a sip, and grimaces. "Okay, ugh, you were right, I do not want to drink this."
"Sorry," he repeats.
"Yep," Jennifer says, walking to the sink and dumping her mug down the drain. "What are you doing up so early anyway, ruining coffee for the masses?"
"Didn't sleep." He takes another drink and, jeez, it really is awful. Is it possible he's getting worse at this? He’s certainly not getting any better.
Jennifer raises her eyebrows, giving him a sharkish, appraising look that must be absolutely terrifying in the courtroom. Even in the kitchen, it makes him nervous. "Mister Lang, you really must cease these wild nights of debauchery," she says, and then her lips quirk upward.
Scott almost chokes on his coffee. "'Scuse me?"
"That was a joke. Unless you're doing something other than working when you’re in Reed’s lab all night, in which case I so do not want to know about it."
"Seriously, Scott, get some sleep," she says. "I'm pretty sure replacing your blood with crappy coffee would just be a formality at this point."
"My coffee intake is fine."
Jennifer snorts. She reaches across the table and lays one strong finger against the back of his hand, stilling it. He hadn't even realized his hands were shaking. He grips his mug a little tighter.
"Go to bed, Scott," she says, lifting her hand. "The Foundation can get by without you for a day."
He rubs the back of his hand over his eyes. "If only. Today's a field trip."
Jennifer whistles lowly. "I'd say I'm sorry I won't be there to help, but honestly, that makes my civil hearing sound like a day at the beach."
"Yeah," Scott says. "Tell me about it."
The canister of Pym Particles is missing, the bus just passed a gummy bear three times its size, and all Scott can think about is didn't Cassie use to watch a show like this? He swears he remembers it from Saturday mornings when she was small, pigtailed and cross-legged and glued to the TV screen while a class of cartoon third-graders took off on their own fantastic voyage. Slightly manic redhead shrinks bus full of schoolchildren; children observe the wonders of science at microscopic size; field trip concluded, everybody heads back to school for juice boxes and animal crackers—that's how it's supposed to go.
But no, this is the Future Foundation, and Scott has yet to meet the field trip that goes according to plan. Or the class that goes according to plan. Or, hell, he'd settle for five minutes that passed in relative normality. So instead Medusa is kneeling in the aisle, the ruby tendrils of her hair searching every corner of the bus and her face radiating righteous indignation; Darla's shooting him frantic looks in the rearview mirror; and somewhere, that goddamn microtiger is running around gnawing on everyone's boots like some kind of rat. Half the kids are screaming. Scott's trying to find the canister, really he is, but holy jeez, is it hard to crawl around looking for something while arguing with the teenager right in front of you.
"What kind of freaking scientist are you anyway?" Alex continues. The bus swerves, and Alex stumbles in the aisle. Scott just manages to move his hand out of the way before it gets stepped on. "What if we're stuck this size forever?"
"Alex, I told you, we're going to be fine. If we can't find the particles—and we are going to find them—all we have to do is get back to the lab and have Dragon Man open a canister for us. Now if you could maybe just sit down—"
"And how is that supposed to work? We stay this size, the lab may as well be a hundred miles away."
"Alex, please, I understand that you're concerned—"
"Bullshit!" Alex snaps, and a collective gasp passes through the bus.
"Child, hold your tongue," Medusa says, her voice lofty and cold. Alex doesn't look at her, just keeps staring Scott down, stony-faced and defiant and beneath it all, more than a little scared. Then the bus lurches again, and the background chaos resumes.
Bentley is watching in open-mouthed, gap-toothed amazement, Artie is crying, and the Moloids are cheering like it's some kind of sporting event. It's hard to tell, but Scott thinks Tong even made pom-poms. Out of what? he thinks, and then everything goes sideways. They hit a sharp corner, and Alex’s fumbling boot sweeps his hands out from under him. Scott topples to his left, his head knocking back hard against the rubber-tread floor. He hears a thump in the aisle, and Alex swearing quietly. Scott blinks up at cracked vinyl upholstery and tries to work the spots out of his vision. He thinks he feels the microtiger scrabble across his feet.
"Kids, we're going to be fine," Scott announces to the empty seat above him. "Whatever you do, nobody panic."
You either, Scott, he thinks, and then he maybe passes out for a bit.
Scott gives the microscope’s knob another twist, but he can’t get the goddamn lens to focus. Maybe it’s the slide? He fumbles for a new one, looks up, and nearly falls off the lab stool. “Oh, jeez, kids. Where did you come from?”
Tong and Onome appear unfazed. “Um, downstairs?” Onome says, like she’s not sure it’s a real question.
“Are you even supposed to be up here?” Scott says. He squints at Onome’s Wakanda National Science Camp t-shirt and Tong’s ruffly flannel nightgown. “Isn’t it past your bedtimes? It’s gotta be past your bedtimes.”
“That’s kind of why we’re here,” Onome says.
“The Jen sent us,” Tong adds. “She says it is the time for sleeps.”
“Right,” Scott says. “Wait, no, you mean for me?”
Tong folds her arms in a way that brooks no argument. “The Jen must be obeyed.”
“That is a very good point, Tong, and normally I would agree with you,” Scott says, and pinches the bridge of his nose. God, is he getting a headache. “But it took us basically the whole day to get back from that field trip and I have more work to catch up on than I am likely to finish tonight. Or possibly in this lifetime.”
Onome looks at him suspiciously. “Ms. Walters said you had a concussion.”
“Ms. Walters is a lawyer, sometimes she exaggerates.” He starts to wave her off, then thinks better of it. “Maybe don’t tell her I said that,” he says, clipping the new slide into place. “Hey, were you kids messing with the microscope earlier? I can’t get it to focus anymore.”
“Blurred vision is a common symptom of head injuries,” Onome says, matter-of-fact. Tong nods authoritatively.
It really shouldn’t be possible for two little girls to stare him into submission, but after several moments of intense silence, Scott relents. He’ll blame it on the headache. It’s hard to win a staring contest with a headache. “Okay,” he sighs. “You’ve got me. Just let me pack up these slides and I’ll come downstairs.”
"Don't even think about it," Jennifer says, without looking up. Files and folders are strewn all around her, and she's aggressively streaking a pink highlighter across the pages of a book. She has multiple pens jabbed into her hair. "That is my coffee and I made it and it's awesome, and I'm going to be up all night and I'm not sharing."
"Not thinking about it," Scott says, raising his hands defensively. He takes an extra step away from the coffee machine and towards the refrigerator, just for good measure.
Jennifer turns in her chair. "Oh, hey, Scott," she says cheerfully. "I'm especially not sharing with you."
"Yeah, I kind of figured." He opens the freezer and peers inside.
"I'm glad we've reached an understanding on the matter," Jennifer says, mock-serious.
"Yep." Scott sticks his head in further. "I never argue with a lawyer."
"Good," she says. "Smart man." Well, at least that's what he thinks she says. It's kind of hard to hear from inside the freezer. There is a moment of relative silence, frozen things scraping together quietly as Scott rummages around. God, there's some weird stuff in here—he pulls out at least four bags of frozen seedpods that can't have come from Earth, a tray of ice cubes shaped like the letter pi, and a box claiming to be filled with "chocolate chip breakfast corndogs," and that's just from the first shelf.
"Scott, what the hell are you doing?" Jennifer finally says.
"Who eats this stuff?" he says, piling another bag of seeds on the counter. "Is this even food?"
"The kids, mostly," Jennifer answers slowly. "And yes. Those pod things are Medusa’s. Are you looking for something, or are you just going to take the freezer apart?"
"I'm looking for an ice pack," he mumbles into the freezer. "How do we run a superhero outfit in a building full of kids and not have any ice packs? Or, like, a bag of frozen vegetables? All we've got are these Greek alphabet ice cubes and a couple bags of space peas."
He can practically hear Jennifer rolling her eyes. "Okay, first? I'm pretty sure the ice packs are with the first aid supplies. Second, those are from Attilan, they're not peas, now put them back or Medusa will kill you." After a moment, she adds, "At least, I don't think they're peas."
At the back of the freezer, Scott finds a bag full of blueberries. "I am not going all the way back upstairs for a stupid ice pack. This'll work," he says, pulling out the bag. Then he looks at the pile on the counter. "Sheesh. How am I going to get all this back in the freezer?"
Jennifer sighs loudly. “Forget what I said before. I’m going to kill you.”
Scott runs into Darla on his way out of the kitchen. That is, he actually runs into her. When they collide in the hallway, their feet tangle together and suddenly they’re hitting the floor. One of Darla’s knees is trapped beneath his leg, and her chin is digging into his shoulder. The bag of blueberries smooshes wetly under his head.
“Ow,” Darla says. “Ow ow ow.” She extricates her leg carefully and flops onto her back.
“Ow,” Scott agrees. “Sorry.” He lifts his head just enough to ease the bag out and holds it up for inspection. It’s flattened and kind of soggy, but at least it didn’t explode.
“Scott, what are you doing with half a pound of blueberries?” Darla asks.
He drops the bag on the floor. “Trying to get rid of a headache,” he says. “And not succeeding.”
Darla frowns thoughtfully at the ceiling. “What, is that a new thing? Like, because of the antioxidants?”
“Nah,” he says. “Like an ice pack.”
“Kind of an expensive ice pack,” she says, pushing herself up on her elbows.
“Blueberries. They’re pricey. My agent always complained when we ordered them for events.” She leans over him and pokes at the bag. “And yours are all melty now.”
Scott watches purple slush leak from the corner. “Eh. They’re not that bad. I bet the kids’ll still eat them. As a change from waffles. Or in their waffles. Or on their waffles. Whatever.”
Darla bites her lip like she’s trying not to laugh. “On the one hand, that is an extremely terrible idea. On the other hand, I am one hundred percent sure that if you brought those to breakfast tomorrow, somebody would eat them. Possibly multiple somebodies.”
“Ten bucks says Vil stabs Wu with a fork because he won’t share.”
“I could see it,” Darla says, and then she does laugh, the ends of her hair swinging against his neck. His head still hurts, the floor feels hard and awkward under his back, and they should probably get up before someone trips over them. But for a moment, it’s just Darla smiling down at him, and it’s nice.
It’s dark in Scott’s room, but Cassie’s eyes shine brightly on the screen of his phone. The sharp contrast makes his eyes hurt, and suddenly it’s a little harder to breathe, but Cassie is only happy, big-hearted and so alive that he cannot pull himself away. He hasn’t seen this picture before—she’s dressed for a party, laughing, pulling her best friend into the shot. It was waiting for him when he checked his messages. I found this today, Kate had written. I miss her, too. He checks the time and wonders if he should text back now or wait until morning, tapping lightly at the screen to keep it from going dark. He falls asleep before he can decide, and dreams of Cassie spinning happily under the lights. The layers of her dress float around her, and it’s not until morning that he realizes that her dress was red and he did not think of blood.
Jennifer’s still at the table when Scott gets there in the morning. Her hair has sort of wilted, the pens sticking out at funny angles, and her mountain of papers seems to have grown exponentially. “Still my coffee,” she says, paper-clipping documents with a vengeance.
“Only fair,” he says, and pours a glass of orange juice instead. “Sheesh, how much more do you have to read?”
“You don’t even want to know.”
Scott takes a drink of his juice. “Probably not. But mostly I was wondering if it was a finish-before-the-kids-wake-up amount of reading or if I was going to have to keep the Moloids from making your files into confetti.”
“Anybody touches my stuff, they get made into confetti,” Jennifer says darkly, but she does start shuffling her papers into something resembling orderly piles.
“How was court, anyway?”
Jennifer rolls her eyes. “Ask me when my soul isn’t being devoured by legal briefs.”
“That good, eh?”
“Still better than your field trip,” she says, and smirks at him over her glasses.
“I’d believe it,” Scott sighs.
“Believe what?” Darla asks, slipping into the kitchen. She’s dressed for yoga, her hair pulled back in a messy braid.
"That defending a client on supernatural arson charges beats the pants off spending the day with screaming kids stuck in a bus the size of a nickel," Jennifer answers.
"The bus was actually much smaller than a nickel," Scott says.
"See? It's like he's making my case for me."
Darla comes up behind him and hooks her chin over his shoulder. “I don’t know, it wasn’t so bad. It was kind of fun, except for the whole part where we thought Scott bashed his skull in and we were going to be tiny forever.”
Scott winces, and Jennifer laughs. “That’s a hell of an ‘except,’” she says.
Darla shrugs, her shoulders moving behind him. “Yeah. But Medusa found the particles, so we got unshrunk eventually. It’s always like this when I’m planning tours, too—you get a couple almost-disasters with any of the cool stuff.”
“You routinely shrink yourself when planning tours?” Jennifer says, cocking an eyebrow.
“God, no. This is definitely its own kind of ridiculous. But I trust you guys. All of you guys.” She blushes, and Scott can feel the heat from her cheek creeping up his neck.
Jennifer gives her a funny smile. “Yeah, well,” she says, then looks away, pushing her glasses up her nose. “You’ve been doing pretty okay yourself.”
“Thanks,” Darla says quietly. She twines her fingers around Scott’s and leans into him a little more. The kids’ll be up soon, and then it will be another crazy day—both business as usual and unique in its absurdity. There will be screaming. Silverware will be thrown. Waffles will be devoured with truly frightening speed. Someone’s—probably Scott’s—science experiment will go horribly, horribly wrong. Classes will almost certainly not go as planned. But Scott will have time to worry about that later (and he will worry about it later). Right now, though, the sun’s rising pink over New York, Darla’s hand is warm in his, and he thinks, just maybe, that they’re all going to make it.