two negatives make a positive (on paper)
She had thought it would be different here, that this would be a safe haven and new horizon and a wonderful place filled with like-minded people who would connect with her on an intellectual level (finally) and all sorts of exciting discoveries and experiences, and maybe it was such a place for some people.
The problem was that she was seventeen years old and even she could admit that she had the social skills of a brick thrown in someone's face.
It was nearly a month into her second semester that one of her professors, sighing, took pity on her:
"There's a boy in Engineering who's your age," she said. "You should try to be friends with him."
In her haste to get to Engineering and maybe find a friend that might make this place less awful, she forgot to ask his name.
No one really liked him, and, since he was very young, never really had — he was too advanced and, worse, too arrogant about being too advanced, to connect with anyone, and when the one year he spent sleeping through grammar school ended with a broken jaw after a whole lot of misery, he'd stopped trying.
But he'd thought that maybe things would be different here, in a place devoted to learning, populated by other brilliant minds, who were all too old and mature to engage in petty bullying and who would understand what he was saying, and maybe for the people who had actually sat through the standard decades of schooling, it was.
They understood what he was saying here, but no one liked to hear him say it — either they had already done it and were now doing something better, or they didn't want to get upstaged by a teenage first-year and pretended not to hear him.
And so, even at the place that was supposed to Change His Life (so the leaflet had said), he was stuck alone in a corner of the lab, headphones firmly in place while he tinkered with the projects that no one else wanted.
As such, he didn't see the girl come in and hesitate at the door, wringing her hands anxiously and looking around the room, apparently trying to make herself as small and unobtrusive as possible, before spotting him and skittering over.
He didn't hear her try to greet him, either.
It wasn't until she tentatively tapped him on the shoulder that he finally noticed her existence and, blinking rapidly in deep confusion, pulled his headphones off and stared at her.
"Are you lost?" he asked, and she winced.
"I'm looking for someone, actually," she replied, setting one of her books carefully on the table by his work — but right next to the edge, as though hoping not to get it in the way of anything. "They said that there was a boy in Engineering who was my age and I thought that maybe I could find you and speak to you and maybe we could… be… friends," she finished, a bit lamely, and finally met his eyes.
He was torn between irritation at being called boy and absolute bafflement at the girl and her quiet, rapid-fire explanation of why she was here, which he had only caught about half of. He settled on a blank "What?"
She blanched, swallowing hard. "Friends," she squeaked. "I think you and I are the youngest people here and so maybe we should be friends."
He stared at her, confused, and then laughed a little, looking around the lab. "Let me guess, your girlfriends are all giggling by the door?"
"I don't have friends," she said very softly, anxious hope fading out of her face.
"Yeah, right," he laughed, rolling his eyes. "Everyone's got friends."
(He decided not to tack on the "except me" because it would have sounded too self-pitying, and anyway, he didn't want to be the subject of even more mockery later.)
"Oh," she murmured, and seemed to deflate; then, hastily: "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt — or, well, I did mean to interrupt, only I didn't mean to… to waste your time. I'm sorry," she repeated, backing away and all-but bolting from the lab.
Good actress, he thought, turning back to his work and only then noticing that she'd forgotten her book, a well-worn copy of Gray's Anatomy. He lifted the cover like it was going to explode, and saw that there were several sheets of paper carefully placed there, with neat, tiny notes written in the sort of outline form every professor he'd ever had had tried in vain to make him use.
Whoever had written these notes must have had a lot of time outside of class on their hands.
She hadn't been acting.
Shit, he thought later, thumbing through the notes for any indication of ownership, she hadn't told him her name.
However, from reading over her notes, he determined that she was basically Hermione Granger, and there was one place in Hogwarts where Harry and Ron had always been able to find Hermione.
Jemma was fundamentally sensible and prided herself on not letting emotion cloud her judgment or get in the way of her studies, and so — although depressed and dejected at how horribly her attempt at finally making a friend had gone — she set herself up in the library with her textbooks and notebooks and an overlarge cup of coffee and determined to get her mind off of it in a useful, productive manner.
Only she couldn't find her notes.
She rummaged through her backpack with increasing dismay and the sinking realization that she had left them in her copy of Gray's, which she had set down on the boy's desk and been so flustered that she'd almost certainly left behind.
That meant she would have to go back for it.
And face the boy again.
She buried her face in her arms, and wondered if the day could possibly get worse.
He found her, sure enough, in a quiet little corner on the third floor of the library, surrounded by books but sitting with her head down on the table like maybe she was crying and he felt a little sick because now he would have to apologize and he really didn't know how to apologize.
He took a deep breath and walked up to her.
"Ah — " he started, before remembering that he had no idea what her name was, and so settled on a very strained, wincing, " — you?"
It startled her, and she jumped up, whirling around and knocking her coffee cup off the desk, spilling it all over him; he yelped and jumped back and she let out a cry, covering her mouth with both hands.
"I'm so sorry!" she wailed, as he stared down at the stain now spreading across his trousers in such a way that it looked like he'd pissed himself.
"It's all right," he said weakly. "I didn't really like these trousers anyway."
"I'll get towels!" she squeaked, running off to the ladies' room and leaving him standing there, torn between laughing madly and just leaving before either of them embarrassed themselves any further.
"So that's how it's gonna be," he muttered.
The whole trip to the loo, in the loo, and coming back from the loo, she kept repeating, "Stupid, stupid, stupid," to herself, and wishing she could just stop and beat her head against the wall until she somehow went back in time from sheer blunt-force trauma.
He was still standing there when she got back to the table and Jemma, extremely flustered and having been taught from a young age to always be as helpful as possible, moved to try and clean the spill up herself without really thinking about where she'd spilled her coffee. He jerked away and stumbled backwards, falling unceremoniously onto the chair she'd been sitting in a moment before.
"I've got it," he cried, taking the paper towels from her, and it finally occurred to her what she'd almost done.
She decided to just cover her face with her hands and hope that this was all a nightmare.
"You left your book," he said after a moment, and she finally peeked out from behind her fingers. The boy was still sitting on her chair, determinedly drying his trousers and looking anywhere but at her.
"Oh," she replied, voice strained, and spotted her copy of Gray's sitting on the table by her notes, miraculously only slightly coffee-splattered. "Thank you for returning it."
He winced. "I'm… sorry for… being an arse earlier," he muttered, still looking away. "I thought… I mean, you just… came up and talked to me, nobody does that."
"Is that not normal?" she asked blankly, fairly certain that this was the most mortified she'd ever been in her entire life. "I don't really… know how to make friends."
"Yeah, I can tell," he replied, looking a bit amused. "Seeing as how you didn't even introduce yourself."
No, this was the most mortified she'd ever been in her entire life.
"I'm sorry!" she cringed, and he rolled his eyes.
"Is there anything you don't apologize for?"
She stared at him, wide-eyed and nervous. "Not in the lab, I don't. Not unless I really muck something up, but I don't usually."
He nodded slowly, giving her an expectant look, and she started wincing, covering her eyes with one hand and holding the other out to shake. "Sor— " she cut herself off and continued, weakly, "I'm Jemma. Jemma Simmons."
"Fitz," he said, shaking her hand. "You already know I'm Engineering, what's your specialty?" he asked, then paused, looked at her books, and winced. "Biology, right, sorry, that was — a dumb question."
"Actually, biochemistry," she replied. "Is your name just Fitz?"
He cringed, looking away and rubbing the back of his neck. "I hate my first name, but the only way I can get people to not call me by it is to not ever tell them."
"I won't call you by it if you don't want me to," she said, and he gave her a skeptical look. She made a mental note to get it out of him someday. "All right, fine, Fitz it is."
"So…" he mused, nodding and looking around uncomfortably. "Friends."
"What…" he said, wincing again and going on like he really, really didn't want to do so, "exactly do friends do?"
She drew a blank, and for a moment they both looked at each other in silence, the shadow of are we really this pathetic? hanging over both of them. "Er… well… friends usually…" she started, but there was nothing else to the sentence.
After a long, painfully-awkward silence, he started to laugh, and then she started laughing too, covering her face with both hands and shaking her head. "I don't know," she admitted helplessly. "I don't know what friends do. The only time I ever had someone my age over, my mother made biscuits and she spent the whole time with her instead of me."
"In the movies, they always go through some horrible trauma together," he sighed. "Like fight a mountain troll, or watch the Star Wars Christmas special."
"I… would rather not do either of those," Jemma winced.
"Oh, it was a — it was a joke…" he mumbled, and she slumped down into the chair next to him, having forgotten that it was still wet with coffee.
She determined to pretend that it had been perfectly dry; if he noticed, he didn't comment.
"Oh, I got the references, I just…" she said, wincing again and taking a deep breath and, desperately: "I have one of the Doctor Who boxsets?"
He blinked. "Tom Baker?"
"Of course," she scoffed, and he grinned. "So… your dorm or mine?"
"Ah… yours is… probably cleaner," he replied guiltily. "I think you'd have to break several laws of physics to have a messier room than mine."
"Well, at least you're self-aware," she shrugged. "How is tonight? Six-ish?"
"Yeah, that works," he said, rubbing the back of his neck and gesturing to the coffee everywhere. "I need to change first."
She buried her face in her hands. "Yes, of course. I truly am sorry."
"It's… it's fine, I… really wasn't joking about these trousers, I hate them but I haven't done laundry in… a while, and…"
"Well, that's…" she began, but had nowhere to take the sentence that wouldn't make things worse. "So, I'll see you later?"
"Yeah, six, right, I'll be there," he replied tightly, and sort of slunk out.
Her mistake didn't occur to her until about thirty seconds too late, and she could only sigh and lay her head back on the table.
About five minutes later, he showed back up, presumably still coffee-stained. "So where exactly is your dorm?" he asked weakly.
Without picking her head up, she replied, "Carter Hall, room fifteen."