After living with it for the last seventeen years, Jemma had become so accustomed to her soul song that she rarely even noticed it anymore. That was common, she understood. Your song was yourself, the musical manifestation of your character and dreams and abilities and potential. Did one regularly think about the color of one’s eyes or the sound of one’s voice? Only if one was a narcissist. Jemma could only recall hearing it a handful of times in the last decade or so: her first matriculation, the offer from SHIELD. It nearly always sounded louder on the verge of change. The long bowstrokes of a cello ushered in a quick, bright flight of violins and, with it, something that inevitably presented her with a course-defining opportunity.
So when the music nearly drowned out the soft Scottish voice from the back of the lecture hall, she took notice.
Turning around in her seat, she scanned the rows looking for the speaker. Her eyes lit on him just as he finished: Leopold Fitz, engineering, according to the SHIELD orientation packet she had spent the last month memorizing. She had paused at his picture for a long time, a squirmy feeling in the pit of her stomach; the image had been very bad, but hadn’t been able to hide his youth. She was accustomed to be the only infant prodigy in the room and wasn’t sure quite what to do with someone equally young and possibly equally intelligent. Listening to him now, she mentally removed the possibly. What he was saying was extremely clever, if limited in scope. Obviously, the thing to do was to join forces.
“Good,” the agent in charge of the orientation said. “Does anyone have a response to Cadet Fitz?”
Jemma’s hand shot up. “I think he’s right to say that we should expect the future of the sciences to be driven by technology, but he neglects to consider the way non-organic advancements are and have been for many years aping processes and attributes that organic materials evolved millions of years ago. To ignore that aspect would severely retard our progress.”
“Another good point, Cadet Simmons. All our surveillance devices, for example, are only making up for things the human body is much better suited for. Excellent. Moving on…”
As he continued, she peeked over her shoulder at Cadet Fitz. That had gone rather nicely, she thought; she had displayed her knowledge while acknowledging his decent point, which was the basis for commonality and connection. Maybe she could catch him after class and continue the discussion. Have a proper cup of tea. But when she caught his eye and smiled, he looked deliberately away. Prickled, she turned back to face the front. Just because she had gotten an “excellent” while he received a mere “good” was no reason to be shirty.
She meant to let the matter go. She really did. But on her way out of the hall she heard the violins again, and she looked up and he was within arms’ length and she had to try, didn’t she? “Cadet Fitz!”
He stopped, fidgeting with the straps of his backpack and hardly meeting her eyes. As she came up beside him she forgot what she was going to say for a half-second, discomfited by the difference between the idea of him she had created in her head and the actual shape of his face and color of his eyes. Oh, his picture hadn’t done him justice. Recovering, she extended a handshake. “I’m Jemma Simmons. It’s Leopold, isn’t it? Or do you prefer Leo?”
“Fitz,” he said, dropping her hand like she had spit in it. She felt her smile falter, but pressed on.
“I wanted to introduce myself. What you said in there—”
“Wrong, apparently.” He stared fixedly at a spot on the ground.
“Incomplete?” she offered instead. “I just thought, since you’re an engineer, you might not be considering all the angles. I was going for tea—can we—maybe—”
“Sorry, I can’t,” he said, and turned tail and ran, actually ran, into the crowds filling the corridor. Jemma stood and watched him, one hand grasping her other wrist over her pulse point. That was that, then, she thought as she decrescendoed to pianissimo. He didn’t want to talk to her. Her song had been wrong.
But he kept popping up in her labs and lectures with his accent like home and his brain like a machine and his hands flying at the speed of sound and every single time she thought well, maybe once more. At first she tried building on his comments, adding her different knowledge to his. Then she tried polite questions. Then outright challenges. Nothing ever gained her more than a one- or two-word response directed somewhere above her head, as if she was utterly beneath his attention. So be it. By the end of the semester, she had come to the conclusion that she heard her music more clearly when he was around because he was meant to be her nemesis, defining her by his contradiction. And that was fine with her. It really was.
Fitz slouched into chem lab and swallowed a groan. The oh-so-familiar trill of the clarinet echoed in his head expectantly, signifying that she was here—Jemma Simmons, the only person he had ever met who was smarter than he was and the one person he couldn’t manage to string together a complete sentence for. In front of, yes. He could talk at length as long as it wasn’t directly to her. But let her top his point with an equally (or more) brilliant one of her own and he was left gaping like a fish. Heck, let him get a tiny glimpse of her and everything flew out of his mind; even the back of her shining head made him flustered. All he wanted to do was impress her, just once. Beyond that he couldn’t go.
Dr. Hall bounced into the room excitedly, clapping for attention. “Let’s get started, lots to cover. First things first: partners.”
Fitz doodled on a scrap of paper, listening idly. With no one else at his bench, it seemed likely his partner would move to join him, making it unnecessary for him to pay attention. The idea he had playing at the edge of his mind seemed more urgent. Until, that is, an irritated “ahem” made the oh crap bassoon go off in his head and he looked up to the angry, wary eyes of Jemma Simmons. “It’s a good thing one of us was listening,” she said, hugging her books to her chest.
He half-started to his feet, a leftover courtesy drilled into him by his mother. The clarinet burst into bloom. “I. Um.”
She didn’t wait for a response. “I don’t suppose you were paying enough attention to know what we’re doing?”
“Acid tests.” He hadn’t been, but Dr. Hall had told him in their mentor meeting a few days earlier. “We’ve, um, got to test the efficacy of various solvents in ameliorating the acidic effect—try to turn them into bases if possible, but at least avoid the reaction.”
“That’s right.” She almost looked disappointed. “Well, you’re not a chemist, are you? And I am, so I’ll lead, all right.”
It wasn’t a question and he was more than happy to defer to her, so he held the beakers and maintained the heat and noted the results in silence for an hour, his song blaring too loudly to even try to come up with something clever enough to say. Nor could he remember any of the opening salvos he had plotted out as he lay awake at night. Something about her—her bright smile, her genuine kindness, her obvious brilliance—created a vacuum where his cognitive ability usually resided. He had to try, though. They could be friends, he knew they could, if only he could show her.
About halfway through the lab, Dr. Hall stopped by their bench. Fitz noticed smugly that other groups had already received multiple check-ins. “My two favorite mentees! How is it going?”
“Solvents one and two are entirely inert,” Simmons said briskly, not taking her attention from her careful pipette work. “Solvent three, which I judge to be a member of the alkali family, had some effect but only when we first treated it with a solution of…” Frowning, she appeared to be reaching for the name from her sloppy notes. With a glance at his neat ones, he quickly located the formula they had used and supplied it. Simmons gave him a sharp look from the corner of her eye and continued. “And modulated to a temperature of 87 degrees Celsius.”
“But it began to react negatively at 89 degrees,” he added, “which might have been due to the added solution rather than solution three itself.”
“And how would you counteract that problem?” Dr. Hall asked, looking between them.
For a split second Fitz wasn’t sure if he had actually spoken or if she had somehow managed to pull the thought from his head. Then he caught her wide-eyed surprise and realized he must have, that they had reached the same conclusion and voiced it in the same instant. Dr. Hall pursed his lips, considering. “”An unorthodox method, to be sure, but simple and straightforward. And effective. I might even go so far as to say brilliant. Well done, cadets!” He rubbed his hands together. “Why has no one put you two together before? If there were two people more likely to be in tune I don’t know who they’d be. Carry on. You might be on to something.” And he moved on, leaving Fitz and Simmons to stare at each other blankly. Fitz’s mind raced. In tune? He had never gone so far in his wildest dreams. In tune was one step away from soulmate harmonies. At most he had hoped they might be in the same key.
“Well,” she said finally, “I doubt that. I’ve got some accidentals that throw everyone off.” Fitz did as well, but as he made a habit of keeping his song to himself he didn’t offer that information. She took a deep breath and he watched something struggle across her face before she spoke again. “I didn’t know you were Dr. Hall’s other mentee. He’s told me you were working on something interesting with adamantium…”
“Yeah. Uh, yeah.” He put a hand on the back of his neck, hoping to hide the blush he could feel creeping up it. “It’s just theoretical right now, we can’t get our hands on anything more than shavings, but I think we might be able to treat it to withstand sub-zero temperatures.”
He did not think he imagined the interest in her eyes. “When you say ‘treat’ did you mean on an atomic level? Because I’ve often thought the covalent bonds could be fortified if one did just a little playing. Could you hand me what we’ve got of solvent three?”
Pushing it over to her, he shook his head. “I was thinking more like a film or a glue. Only—”
“—adamantium won’t accept it.”
“Right,” he breathed, wondering if she was actually magic enough to read his mind or if, by some miracle, Dr. Hall could be right. “Um. Do you need another pipette?”
“Yes, thank you. So how are you getting around it?”
“Making an alloy.”
“—counterintuitive, yeah, but the film will make up in strength what the metal loses. This is hot enough now.”
By the end of the class they’d forced solution three to play nicely with both acids and bases and she’d almost managed to convince him atomic manipulation had the best chance of solving his cling-film problem. By the end of the semester, they hadn’t succeeded (yet) in making adamantium cold proof, but they had invented a new kind of superglue and begun answering to the combined moniker FitzSimmons. Fitz still heard the clarinets when she walked in the room, but he learned to associate them with possibility rather than panic.