It’s 11:17 PM and he’s lying down in the bunk of his dorm room on the Berg and—just like every night before every major event in his life—Remy can’t sleep.
And it's not just phrases like "skin cocoon" rattling around in his mind, although, Jesus, shit like that certainly doesn't help. No, it's the weight pressing down on his chest that he can feel like a tangible thing, this compression of his lungs and anxiety twisting tension into his muscles, and all he can focus on is every worst-case scenario, fixating on all the things likeliest to go wrong in the morning instead of the things likely to go right.
It doesn't help that he closes his eyes and he's right back on that broadcasted starting platform, bright-eyed and naive, waving at the faces in the bleachers blurred by spotlights and wearing the t-shirt for Rembrandt Brothers Gym. Flashing this easy smile at the cameras because he's the fucking Olympic ninja and there's no way this ends in anything other than success. Then the clock starts and he's off like a shot and the soles of his shoes are slipping on the first fucking obstacle. Before he knows it, he's sinking into the water, chlorine in his eyes and nose and the groans from the commentators filling his ears, thinking he'd like nothing better than to let the shame of that moment drag him down to the bottom of the pool and to just fucking stay there.
It's hard not to imagine tomorrow going a similar kind of bad, and so those are the thoughts stuck in his mind as he stares up at the ceiling and tries counting his breaths or picturing sheep or something, instead feeling wired like someone's switched his veins for copper filaments, nervous energy pumping through his system and whole body keyed up to high alert.
Remy looks over at the alarm clock on the night stand, seeing it's barely been four minutes since he last checked the time, and that's the point he accepts sleeping as a lost cause. Kicking off the comforter and sliding his feet to the floor, he hunts in the half-dark for the hoodie he left slung over the back of his desk chair, fumbling his fingers through the sleeves before pulling on a pair of socks and shuffling his feet into the sneakers sitting next to the door.
And then he's out in the quiet hall, hair sticking up in the back and hands buried deep in his pockets, and even if he's only working with half an idea, he figures that's good enough for now. It’s the work of a moment to sidle down the hall on quiet feet before slipping into the stairwell, taking the steps two at a time until he reaches the next landing.
He's never had reason to visit this floor of the dorms before tonight, but it doesn't take him long to find the door with an "Irene Baker" nameplate pinned to the front. Remy gives a couple short and soft knocks against the wood, then immediately feels like such an asshole because it's late enough by now that Irene's probably asleep, and just because he's spent the past hour tossing and turning doesn't mean she's having the same trouble. And he's on the verge of heading back down to his own room—just accepting he'll face whatever the Fellowship's got planned while strung-out on too little sleep—when the door inches open and there's Irene standing on the other side, looking up at him through tired eyes and wearing a flannel robe pulled tight around her shorter frame.
"God, Irene, I'm so sorry," Remy says in a rush, voice lowered to a half-whisper. "Did I wake you? I didn't mean to wake you — I, uh, definitely didn't think this one through—"
Irene waves away his efforts at an apology and offers him the same small smile she's had on every time he's stopped by the Humanity department. "Oh, it's fine, Remy," she says, sounding as genuine as she always does. "To tell you the truth, I wasn't having much luck getting to sleep anyway."
"Thinking about tomorrow?"
She nods, and blinks down at the carpet for a moment. "Do you think it's awful of me to be a little afraid?"
Remy gives a quiet, nervous laugh. "I mean, it's not like I decided to go for a walk because of how at ease I'm feeling. Trust me, Irene, I'm the last person who will ever judge you for being worried over something like this."
"Do you want to talk about it?" She asks, pulling her door open a little wider, and he wonders if she's even aware of the way her voice picks up some of her standard and reassuring HR tonality.
"I do, actually," Remy says, "but I was thinking we get one more person first."
Nadiya's voice is clipped as she looks down at Remy and Irene from where she's standing in the doorframe, arms folded over a TEDxBoston t-shirt and expression patently unamused. And Remy would feel bad about disturbing her this late, but she'd pulled the door open no more than a couple seconds after they'd knocked and he can see tired circles dug in under her eyes and it's not hard to figure that she's had no more luck getting to sleep that night than they have.
"Can we talk?"
Remy takes a slow breath, feeling scraped up against the sandpaper friction that always seems to live in Nadiya's tone when she talks to him. "Look, maybe you're not scared about tomorrow—maybe you want to give me some kind of speech about how all fear is irrational and I'm an evolutionary disappointment, or something, I don't know—but I am. Scared, that is. Scared enough that I can't sleep, and it doesn't look like you're doing much better."
"What's your point?" There's no denial in her words for all that her tone is a little harsh, but Remy's got enough of a handle on Nadiya to figure that even those sharp edges in her voice aren't personal — that she's spent most of her life papering over her weak points with armor welded of high intellect and self-surety, and it's probably the last thing she wants for someone to point out where there's a break in the metal.
"Whatever's going to happen tomorrow—superpowers or skin cocoons or some new kind of fucked up thing—Potts told us that it only works if we're within 100 yards of each other. And even though I know you'd probably love to play this as a solo run, going forward, the three of us are a team. You get that, right?" Remy looks between her and Irene, flexing his hands a few times to get rid of some of the anxious energy in his fingertips. "You want to do some good in the world, but if one of us is struggling, then this whole thing falls apart. Whatever happens tomorrow won't be worth shit if you keep looking at us as liabilities instead of allies. So, I was thinking that tonight, maybe we could all find some common ground, or something. Try to become teammates instead of virtual strangers."
Nadiya doesn't say anything — just stares at Remy for a couple long seconds, mouth set in a line and clearly turning over thoughts that he and Irene can only guess at. Finally, she huffs out a breath that seems just as concessive as it does annoyed. "Fine, Remy. If you really think it's a good idea to waste tonight playing Never Have I Ever or Truth or Dare or something equally inane, then, fine. This sounds like an excellent idea."
"Great," Remy says, breezing past the sarcastic bite in her words with an easy smile. "You're gonna want to grab a jacket."
Nadiya frowns, a slight crease in her brow and tone slightly wary. "I thought you two just wanted to talk."
"Well, yeah," Remy says, enjoying it maybe a little more than he should to send Nadiya off-balance, "but I didn't say anything about talking here."
"Oh, Remy, I'm not actually sure we're allowed to be doing this."
"It'll be fine, Irene," Remy says as he shoulders open the door at the top of the stairwell. "I bet it's, uh, frowned upon — at worst."
"No, this is great," Nadiya says from where she's standing a few feet back. "I've always wanted to commit a felony. Thank you, Remy, this is a much more valuable use of my time than working on something that may win me the Nobel."
"It's not a felony — it's casual trespassing, maybe. And probably not even that because I didn't see any signs and if the Fellowship really didn't want people up here, they'd put up some signs or lock the door or whatever." He turns back to face Irene and Nadiya, glancing between the two of them, some of the surety in his expression slipping slightly. "I mean, it's not like you have to come with me, or anything — I just thought it'd be nice to get out of our rooms and do something different. But, hey, if you guys want to go back, I get it."
Irene looks over at Nadiya, as if trying to parse what she's thinking, but Nadiya's just fixing Remy with that same level look she gave him earlier — one he doesn't know what to do with, but has him feeling sympathetic for every sample she's put on a glass slide and studied through a microscope.
"No, I'll stay," Irene says after a beat, breaking the silence and offering Remy a slight nod of her head.
"Sure, alright," Nadiya says, eyebrows raised slightly. "Lead the way, ninja boy."
"Okay, well, I don't love ninja boy," they both hear Remy say under his breath as props open the swinging door and takes a couple steps onto the roof, a slight breeze pulling at the fabric of his hoodie and tugging at his hair. Only somewhat hesitant, Irene and Nadiya follow.
It's chilly on the roof of the Berg's residential building, but not uncomfortably so — slight winds sent skidding off the surface of the whitecapped water, laced with the smell of salt and feeling sharp against Remy's skin. His steps crunch across the rooftop's thin layer of gravel as he leads Irene and Nadiya away from the stairwell towards the center of the space, stopping somewhere near the middle before lowering himself to the ground, legs stretched out and arms reaching behind him to keep himself propped upright. After a brief moment, Nadiya and Irene follow suit, taking seats so they're all forming a rough circle on the gravel, Irene sitting with her knees pulled up to her chest and Nadiya's legs neatly crossed in front of her.
There's a clear sky overhead, painted the color of dark-wash denim and lit up by the silver half-circle shape of the moon sitting in the middle of this Pollack-splattered array of stars, the faint glow of the Milky Way running through the whole thing like a splash of white pigment bleeding into a watercolor wash. And the three of them stay there for a moment, just like that — heads tilted up towards the heavens, listening to the sound of the breathing ocean as waves rise and fall and break against the sides of the Berg.
Even if they're caught immediately, Remy thinks, blinking his eyes shutting and breathing in this deep lungful of saltwater breeze, it'll have been worth it.
"You know," he says after a beat, letting out a slow exhale and still looking up at the stars, "my brother Miles and I used to camp out on the roof of our apartment building sometimes. We'd take a couple of sleeping bags and pretend that our battery-powered lantern was a campfire and sit up there for hours — eating microwaved hot dogs and marshmallows straight out of the bag and sharing this big thermos of hot chocolate my mom would make for us.
"And it's not like we were fooling ourselves, really. Not like we could imagine we were anywhere other than the middle of a city with the sounds of cars on the street below and hearing some asshole honking from four blocks away and the closest thing to nature was some dog barking in the building next door." Remy pauses, lowering his head to look at Nadiya and Irene and giving them both this sideways smile. "Besides, between the light pollution and the smog, the whole sky ended up some hazy shade of orange — got to the point that were desperate enough, we'd see the lights of an airplane and tell ourselves it was a comet." He gives an easy shrug, tilting his head back up for a moment to take another look at the sky. "Never saw so many stars before coming to the Fellowship. Still, it was nice to pretend, even just for a little while — even with one of our parents nearby to keep an eye on us. We'd hike up the stairwell and tell ourselves we were exploring a far off wilderness, or spelunking in some unknown cave, or traveling across the frontier."
Remy leans forward, brushing the gravel off his palms and still not really making eye contact with Nadiya or Irene. "Miles loved ghost stories. I'd be in my Spiderman sleeping bag, burrowed into it like the fabric was ghost repellant, and he'd hold a flashlight under his chin and make up something about a woman who'd died in the building and liked to haunt kids who stole their brother's comics." He laughs, feeling this sharp tug of nostalgia as he remembers sitting on the floor with Miles between the shelves at a Barnes & Noble, thumbing through Marvel and DC trade paperbacks until their dad came to find them. "That story makes Miles sound like kind of a dick, doesn't it? But I swear it wasn't like that — it wasn't him trying to scare me because he got some kind of kick out of terrifying his little brother. He knew I was having fun, too — and, honestly, what's a good camp-out without a scary story?
"I feel like I fucked up Miles' life, all those months ago," Remy says after a beat, the words feeling heavy and bitter on his tongue. He blinks his eyes closed for a moment and thinks about sitting on Miles' kitchen counter, head leaning back against the cabinets and watching Miles sort through bills at his rickety table. "That fucking show was supposed to be the thing I could do for him, and instead he sunk his savings into a failing business and I ended up as a fucking meme.
"God, I don't know how to feel like I'm going to do anything other than fuck up tomorrow. I'm scared for whatever's going to happen, and I'm scared that I'm going to fall short again. And even if it all goes right, how long before I fuck up again when it matters? I swear, half the time since I've been at the Fellowship, I've felt like going to Potts and pulling myself out of the program. Stay in IT where the stakes are something I can handle."
He's got his eyes turned down towards the rooftop when he finishes speaking, voice trailing off and fingers loosely interlaced and wearing an expression that's as ashamed as it is self-deprecating.
"I didn't think it was possible Remy," Nadiya says after a beat, "but I've somehow ended up with an even lower opinion of you."
"No, Irene, it's fine," Remy says, lifting his head and raising his eyebrows slightly, meeting the flat look in Nadiya's eyes. "Let her finish."
"Sorry, Irene, but come on ," Nadiya says, "how naive can you be, Remy? You run the risk of failure when you try something new — that's how things work. Do you think I washed my hands of science after the first attempt at my polymer failed? Or the second? Or the eighty-third?" She leans forward, forearms resting on her folded knees and voice sharp and unapologetic. "Are you telling me that every one of you computer geeks in IT only need one round of debugging to fix your errors?"
"Well, no, but that's—"
"It is the exact same thing, and you'd see that too if you weren't blinded by whatever emotional baggage you're still carrying after that embarrassing failure on national TV. You screwed up. It happens. But continuing this endless exercise in self-pity isn't just counterproductive and useless, it's fucking annoying ." Nadiya leans back a little, propping up her chin on her palm. "Besides, you can't be entirely incompetent if you made it into the Fellowship, and if that doesn't somewhat console you and put this pointless wallowing to rest, I don't know what will."
It's silent for a moment after Nadiya finishes, with Irene looking half-horrified and Remy still trying to reconcile her blunt words with his own perception of things.
"Nadiya, I'm not sure that's really fair," Irene says, voice almost stern. "It's not like either of us can really understand what Remy's going through, and I don't know if it's our place to decide how he responds to it."
"Actually, I think 'not entirely incompetent' might be the closest thing to a compliment I'm going to get from Nadiya," Remy says, tone light and offering Nadiya a thoughtful smile in response to her impassive expression.
"So we're clear, you shouldn't get used to that level of sentiment."
Remy laughs, the sound bright and clear in the cold night air. "Trust me, no danger of that happening."
It's quiet for another few moments, the three of them silent save for the steady sound of their breathing synced up to the shifting waves around the Berg.
"Most days, I don't know what I'm doing here," Irene says into the dark, voice soft enough to almost be lost over the sound of the ocean. She wraps her arms around her knees pulled up to her chest, hugging them closer. "I think I do alright in HR, and I think I do alright when it comes to helping people, but this is all so much bigger than that. I mean—" she lets out this nervous laugh, voice breaking a little, "—Potts said gods, and that's not me." She rests her chin on her knees. "I'm not that special, I'm just not. Nadiya, you're up for the Nobel and Remy was going to the Olympics and you're both, just, wonderful — brilliant and talented and if I was going to pick two people to help save the world, I'd choose the two of you.
"But what could I have to offer? What can I do that's going to matter?"
Remy and Nadiya exchange a brief look, and even if neither of them say a thing, they both seem to recognize it's better that he handle this one.
"Irene, you talk about the way you help people in HR like it's something trivial, and—believe me—that's not even close to being true. It takes a different kind of talent to bring people together like you do — to sit them down and help them work through their differences and come to some kind of an understanding. You think that's something just anyone can do? You think it's something I'm capable of, or Nadiya?"
Nadiya snorts at that, and even Irene gives a small laugh.
"The Fellowship chose the three of us to be a team for a reason," Remy continues, the words as genuine as he can make them — even if he's still not so convinced they apply to him, too. "We're all bringing something separate to the table, and that 's what's going to make this work. And the skills you have are no less valuable and no less important than anything Nadiya or I can do." He nudges her foot with his own, catching her eyes when she looks up. "You say you don't know what you're doing here, but it's clear to me that the Fellowship has it right — that if anyone's going to be capable of acts of genuine good—of doing something that really matters—it's you, Irene."
"I think ninja boy's got it right," Nadiya echoes. "Whatever happens tomorrow, you're a vital part of it as well."
"Okay, seriously, with ninja boy? You know 'Remy' is already a nickname, right?"
"'Ninja boy' is easier to remember."
"Easier than Remy?"
She shrugs in lieu of an answer, but she's smiling as she does.
"Alright, well tell me this, Nadiya," he says, absently digging patterns into the loose gravel with his fingertips. "If you're not worried or afraid about tomorrow, why were you having trouble sleeping?"
"I'm not having trouble, it's just—" Nadiya starts before her voice trails off, leaving the sentence unfinished. And there's a look on her face that neither Remy nor Irene can quite figure out — staring past both of them towards where the horizon line is lost somewhere in the dark, expression mostly blank excepting the barest crease in her brow, like she's trying to mentally work through the solving of a Rubik's cube, or turning over a thousand thoughts in her mind at once. Her palms are resting flat over the curve of her knees, and Remy can see the slightest flex in her knuckles, almost like she's trying to ground herself in the moment. Like she's trying to steel herself for whatever words are sitting on her tongue that she hasn't quite figured out how to say.
"I'm not a child," Nadiya says after a beat, muscles a little rigid and tone a little stiff. "Even when I was, I never suffered from any irrational fears. My father used to say that fear is just a lack of information, and so has no place in a house of scientists."
"Sound like a charming man."
"He's a brilliant one," Nadiya says, giving Remy a level look, "and it's what I needed to hear when I was younger and would let my imagination get away from me. Whenever something would start to frighten me, I'd research it, and learn enough until it was something I understood and the fear was forgotten. Growing up, I was never scared of spiders, or the dark, or any other inane thing that keeps kids up at night.
"I'm not afraid, or worried, or anxious about what comes tomorrow, because there's no reason to be, and I know that. I know that, but—" she breaks off with a frustrated noise, her jaw setting in a tight line, "—but it's like I don't really believe it. I know what to expect from the procedure, and I know it's been successful before — regardless, I tested the final version of my polymer on myself, and so it's not like I'm unwilling to put myself in the midst of the testing process in the name of scientific discovery. Even so, it's like there's this underlying voice of doubt I can't get rid of. And I don't know where it's coming from or what it's about, and so I can't kill it with information and face the testing tomorrow with a clear mind."
"Man," Remy says, nodding his head solemnly, "it sounds like you're experiencing real human emotion for the first time. That's rough, buddy."
Nadiya shoots him a steady look, steel-sharp and unflinching. "This isn't funny, Remy. I feel like my mind is failing me. First, I lose sleep panicking over the inconsequential, and what's next? I'm watching conspiracy theory shows on the History Channel at 3AM and wearing aluminum foil on my head?"
"Nadiya, wait, wait," Irene says quickly, offering her an understanding smile. "Let's not get carried away here. Feeling a moment of anxiety doesn't mean your mind is failing you. We all know just how powerful your intellect is — do you really think it could give up on you so easily? You're allowed to let yourself feel afraid—even if it's just for a moment—and that doesn't make it some kind of personal shortcoming."
"Doesn't it?" Nadiya says, tone bitter.
"No, it doesn't," Irene pushes, a forceful note in her voice Remy's never really heard before. "But if even that's a thought you're not comfortable with, then how about this? It's taken you over two decades to experience this level of personal anxiety — this isn't a pattern, it's a fluke. And if it lasts further than tomorrow morning, you'll figure out what's really going on, and you'll deal with it, because that's what you do.
"Listen to me, Nadiya — do you honestly believe you'll let this trip you up for more than a moment? Because I don't. And even if it does, if you need someone to talk to—and don't protest or argue, just let me finish— if you need someone to talk to, I'll be here to help. Remy, too — isn't that right?"
Irene looks meaningfully at Remy, but he's already offering a nod in Nadiya's direction. "I'm sure you'd never take me up on it, because, you know, emotions or whatever, but I'm in too. Hell, we can even meet up here so no one will know your shame."
Nadiya looks past both of them out towards the water, wearing an expression that's mostly meditative, but seems slightly more at ease. "Thanks, both of you. I appreciate it. You're right in that I'll almost certainly never go through with it, but, I appreciate the offer." She blinks away from the horizon to offer Irene a slight smile, and then, after a beat, to Remy as well.
It's not much, he thinks, after Nadiya turns away and goes back to looking out at the water, but it feels like a start.
They stay up there for the next half-hour or so, trading stories in the quiet as the stars move overhead, lingering in that moment until their lips are chapped from the cold and fingers numbed by the wind and muscles feeling too stiff to do much more than pull themselves upright and ease down the stairs back to their rooms. And it's not until he's back in his bed with the lights off that it occurs to Remy he's spent more of the night feeling at ease about tomorrow than worrying over it.
He doesn't know if the same is true for Nadiya and Irene, but he hopes it is — hopes that tomorrow is the start of the best kind of adventure for all of them.