Prologue: The Third Time [Jess]
The dark enveloped around us like an endless blanket -- a stark change after the gleaming London skyline -- but there was something about it that made me feel almost warm. I knew, at that moment, that Nancy was not wrong: there was a certain charm about this place she'd dragged us to.
'Dans Le Noir ?' was definitely not the restaurant I'd have chosen if I was the one organising a meetup of a specific group of internet friends who had never met in person before, but her reasoning must have made sense to the ten or so fans of Game of Thrones' Stannis Baratheon she had found lurking in the corners of Facebook, so that had been it. Except, of course, she had not been confident to come on her own, so Sally and I had been forced to tag along.
"This is crazy," the little devil herself squealed. I could not see Nancy in all the darkness, obviously, but I could tell that there was only an air of pure ecstasy on her face. "Can you believe I'll be finally meeting all of them? This is crazy. I am not prepared for this. Wow, Jess, I am so not prepared for this."
I rolled my eyes but decided to humour her. She had humoured me numerous times before, after all, such as when I had been on my way back from the Comic-Con with the legendary Neil Gaiman's autograph in my own hands. It had been an incredible moment for me -- it was Neil Gaiman! Of course I had been excited! -- but once I had calmed down and accepted that I had genuinely shook hands with the God of Comic Books, Nancy had shown me a video of my reactions and I had realised how idiotic I looked. She had tempered my enthusiasm then, so it was pretty much understood that I had to temper hers now. It was why we were such good friends, really. Nancy and I understood each other like no one else could.
"I'm sure Team Stannis will love you, Nance," I assured her. "You can discuss all those Game of Thrones theories you've been rambling about for so long."
"Not Game of Thrones, Jess," Nancy snapped, though. Oops. "It's called A Song of Ice and Fire. That TV show is nothing but badly crafted fanfiction."
"Sorry," I said, apologising. "But you know what I mean. They'll love you as much in person as they do online."
Sally, our other best friend, patted Nancy's back, agreeing with me. Sal wasn't the most talkative of people -- she was the kind of girl who didn't speak unless spoken to -- but she was a secretary of her university's Katy Perry club and had been one for years, so certainly understood the excitement flowing through Nancy's veins.
The waiter leading us suddenly paused, nearly causing me to double over. "Mademoiselles, here we have the table reserved for Miss Wu and guests," he said.
Before either of us could say anything, however, we heard a vaguely masculine voice near us. "Wu? Nancy Wu?"
My best friend bobbed her head so sharply that I think everyone in a ten-foot radius felt her. "Oh my god," she said. "I mean, er, yes. Yes, I'm Nancy Wu."
"The night is dark and full of terrors, milady," the man replied, almost sagely. I didn't know exactly what that meant, as Game of Thrones had never really appealed to me much because of the blatant sexism on the writers' part, but I knew that it had something to do with it from the large poster that hung above Nancy's bed. I also knew that my best friend was, at this very moment, trying very hard to control her giggles. She loved being called 'milady'.
"Praise R'hllor, my lord," Nancy replied. "Er, sorry, who might I be...?"
"Oh, sorry, I'm Rizzy," the stranger replied. "Richard Musquets on Facebook, if you will. The one with the --"
"The one with the unhealthy Carice Van Houten obsession! Of course. Nice to meet you, Rizzy!"
And just like that, the two of them were off. Sally and I just stood there for a few minutes with the waiter, hoping Nancy would finish soon. Once it seemed like she wouldn't be able to do so on her own, I cut in, "Er, Nance?"
She looked up from one of the sofas she had seated herself on. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said, as though just remembering that she had friends with her who she had left hanging. "Hey, Rizzy, say hi to Jess and Sally, my flatmates. I'm still quite new to London, so they came along."
"Pleasure to meet you, my ladies," said Rizzy. "Thank heavens I'm not the only one to get friends with me. I really wasn't sure anyone would show up, you know, after what happened the last time we had planned a meetup, so I got some of my own mates along. They're here somewhere."
Nancy and her new friend once again began babbling about their precious fan club and the last failed meetup. I had heard the tale in great detail before, it being the primary reason I had been dragged along today. It had been so demoralising for Nancy that in her paranoia she had convinced me that the night was going to be dinner among just us girls. Evidently not. After another few moments had passed, I tapped Nancy on her shoulder once again, to gently remind her of our presence.
"Hey, Nance, we'll be off now. Alright?" I asked.
Before Nancy could say anything, however, I felt something -- or rather, someone -- collide into me. One minute I was standing, awaiting my best friend's permission to leave her alone in a no-lights restaurant with a stranger, and the next, I was on the floor, wincing in pain. My knee had knocked the floor pretty hard and I was pretty certain I would find it black and blue once I was in civilisation again.
"Wasn't that sudden," I growled, clutching my knee. Had it not been dark, I might have gone and crushed the collider myself, but it was pitch black around and my knee was hurt. A verbal lashing would have to do. "Who the actual fuck taught you to walk?"
My friends fussed over me, trying to help me get up while I tried to brush them off. Nancy actually made the effort of getting up. "I see how it is," I told her. The clash had not left me in a good mood. "As long as I am fine, you're busy talking to Fanboy over there, and it is only once I'm not okay that you realise I'm here with you."
I realised I was being a drama queen the second the words left my mouth, but ignored my conscience. My knee hurt.
"Jess, I --" Nancy tried to apologise, but I cut her off.
"Oh, shut up," I growled, getting up all by myself. Now that I thought about it, my breasts hurt as well -- whoever had run me over like that had clearly chosen the precise angle that would make me fall on them. This was not good. "Wait, did the little fucker run away? Sally, is he gone? How dare he --"
"That's kind of sexist, I actually," I heard a voice interrupt me. It was deep and masculine, and familiar like a distant echo, making me stumble for a bit. But I didn't let that stop me.
"It's not sexist if I'm right! It was a little fucker who bumped into me - you!" I said, reaching out to slap the... person... in front of me. All I could feel, though, was the air. The fool was actually dodging me.
"Alright, I am practically blind at the moment --," said the man, actually chuckling at my misery. I impulsively felt like thrashing his amusement out of him. "-- And yes, that is a rather ableist remark, forgive me. But I can't imagine you slapping the air is going to be much of an Oscar-worthy scene."
"Oh, fuck you," I fumed, awkwardly bringing my hands down from 'slapping the air' as the little fucker had called it. "You bump into a lady, hurt her knees and boobs, and the first thing you do is mock her. Real smooth, mate."
The man before me decided to argue, though, which annoyed me even more. "Well, technically --"
"Shut up, Leo," someone voiced suddenly, and it took me a moment to realise that it was Nancy's friend, Richard Musquets, cutting in. "You're not picking up any girls like that."
"That's what I keep telling him," came a new voice. This one was a bored woman's voice, definitely, and one that had clearly seen more of this Leo person's antics than just this one.
"You and I both, Nish," replied Rizzy. Then, in a different tone, he said, "Hey, Jess, right? Sorry about that. My best friend isn't too accustomed to talking kindly with the female gender. Or talking kindly with anyone, really."
"Hey!" protested Leo, now discovered to be Rizzy's best friend. Suddenly I wasn't all that sure about leaving Nancy with this Game of Thrones bud of hers -- it didn't look like the rest of the gathering was turning up, anyway.
"Oh, goodness. Come on, Nancy, we're leaving. Doesn't look like anyone will show." It was a little harsh, but I was on the road to getting really, really irritated. This Leo bloke hadn't even apologised, my knees still hurt and this was getting pretty irritating.
"But --" Nancy went to argue. Whatever reasoning it was for us to stay that she had concocted in the last few seconds I would never know, however, as just then, the bored woman -- Nish, I think -- interrupted.
"Aw, don't leave because of us," she said. "We were just about to go home, anyway, as you're here now."
She had got it all wrong. "Oh, no," I said. "I'm not actually here for Team Stannis. Er, Nancy is -- the one sitting with your friend -- but myself and Sally -- she's standing behind me -- we were planning to wait only until someone else arrived. You can stay if you want."
There was a short, awkward pause then, where the silence was filled up by the whispers of the rest of the restaurant. It was the most unlikely person who broke it.
"Hold on," said Sally. She spoke slowly, as though she had just figured something. "It's Nishi, isn't it? I thought you sounded familiar, I was just so --"
"Sally? Sally Burrell? This is so cool!"
And just like that, the bored woman -- Nishi -- rushed past me, careful not to topple me over, and went over to hug Sally. I had no idea how they knew each other, but they obviously knew each other quite well, as they giggled and hugged and giggled some more, speaking at a hundred words a second. I had hardly ever seen Sally like that, so talkative, and she was my best friend, and my flatmate.
Nancy wasn't long behind. Just a few seconds after the surprise reunion of long-lost friends Sally Burrell and Nishi Something-or-the-Other, she started chatting animatedly once more with Rizzy, who I guessed had moved close to her and the aisle judging by how louder his voice seemed. With all our friends engaged in conversation -- just my luck -- I stood there quietly beside the little fucker who had made my blood boil only a few minutes ago.
Only, he wasn't actually 'little'. He was in fact rather tall. This Leo bloke towered over me, and I was five-feet-ten. I didn't know how I knew his height -- I suppose that is just how it felt, with his shoulders next to my head. I was instantly experiencing the very syndrome I had laughed about in the past when Sally and Nancy had complained about it -- the Having-A-Tall-Friend Syndrome, though obviously, Leo was not a friend. Not even close.
"Well, this is awkward." Think of the devil and he speaks. Oh, god.
I shrugged, trying to get over my anger quickly. It wasn't rational, after all. He'd just knocked me over. And forgotten to apologise about it. And been cocky about it. "To be fair, it would have been way worse in a regular restaurant. They'd have been forced to watch me break your nose."
Leo laughed. "Hey, look, I'm sorry. I literally didn't see you there, alright? I didn't mean it. Let me make it up to you."
I rolled my eyes, not that he'd have been able to see. "I'm not actually going to break your nose, mate. And even if I did, I'd be a slight bit discreet about it. You don't need to 'make it up to me'. This is not some lame Victorian AU Wattpad fanfiction that you need to be so gentlemanly about it"
He laughed again. It was like he never got tired of laughing. "Am I hearing it wrongly or did I just get air-quoted and compared to fanfiction in a single sentence?"
"Under general circumstances, I'd say you were deaf as well as blind, but this time, fortunately, you heard correctly. You did just get air-quoted and compared to fanfic."
"Oh, what am I ever going to do?" Leo mock-whined. "I just got air-quoted. Air-quoted, of all things! How will I ever get my security lanyard if SHIELD finds out this dark, deep secret of my past? And heaven forbid if they also find out I was compared to Wattpad fanfiction -- that would just be a disaster. I think I'd die of embarrassment all alone!"
It took a lot in me to hide my surprise. I cleared my throat. "Well, the Koenigs are missing at the moment -- probably busy doing their own stand-up comedy, now that I think about it. You can just sneak in now. You know, disguise yourself as an already trusted SHIELD member, all that."
Leo paused. Then, slowly, he said everything I would not have expected him to say. "Bloody hell. You have no idea how long I have waited to hear something like that from a hot woman."
Rolling my eyes again, I fingered the jacket I was wearing. "You have no idea how I look, you fool."
"That doesn't matter," Leo replied, his voice sounding gravelly. He had moved, I knew, and now stood in front of me instead of at my side. "I can tell."
"You're not Professor X, stupid," I said. "Neither are you Jean Grey. You can't just tell."
"I name thee spoilsport, madame."
"And I name thee liar."
"It's still better than a tease," he shot back. "Besides, I may not be Jean Grey, but I can bet you look just like her. Red hair and everything. Hey, do you want to see my adamantium claws?"
"I don't have red hair, you buffoon," I said, rolling my eyes. Again. This was getting real old, and yet somehow... I enjoyed it. "Just as you don't have adamantium claws."
"Oh, I don't even want them," he said easily. "If I did, I'd have to kill you, Jean Grey, and never wake from that nightmare. No, now that I think about it, I'd rather be Scott Summers. You have to admit, his powers are hot."
I laughed. I shouldn't have, but I did. "If that was intended as a pun, it was a really terrible one, mate."
"Terence," he said, then, making my heart skip a beat. He must have mistaken my very loud and very audible gulp for confusion, because he added, "The name's Terence. Leo's just my middle name, somewhat, and it's what my mum used to use when I was in trouble. It caught on with Rizzy and Nishi, I guess. And don't even try denying it, Jean Grey. You know you loved my pun."
Terence. That can't be. I quickly regained composure, though -- I knew that it was a common name. It was.
"Look, as much as I appreciate Jean Grey's powers, I would hate being objectified by two men, so stop calling me that," I told him. "I'm Jess."
I knew right away that he was grinning. "Glad to know that you trust me enough to tell me your name, Jean Grey. I mean, I could be Mystique in disguise for all you know."
I reached out instantaneously to smack him and succeeded in that.
"Ow! What was that for?"
"For overdoing it, and for being a dick before," I said. "Although I doubt it'll make much of a difference since there's no real cure to such a predicament."
"I'll have to take your word for it," Terence replied. "I mean, you sure know how to make a poor grad student's life miserable. I'm glad I met you, Agent Jess."
"Wish I could say the same to you, not-so-Agent Terence," I said, purposefully making sure my voice was dripped with as much loathing as I could muster. I doubt I deceived him, though.
Looking back, I think that was the moment that changed everything.