From inside her bunk, Skye can hear ‘White Christmas’ playing faintly out in the lounge area. It feels nice, kind of like home, which is weird because she’s never really had a home before. Apart from her van, which doesn’t really count. She can hear Fitz and Simmons talking animatedly about something she’s not even going to pretend she understands, and it’s familiar and comforting, while at the same time feeling strange. She’d never expected this to happen when she’d infiltrated Coulson’s team to find out about her parents, never expected to find herself caring about these people, or for them to take her in like part of a family.
So, yeah, weird but not exactly unpleasant.
She can hear Ward cleaning his guns in the room next to hers. He does it every night at the same time when they’re not out on a mission, and the sound soothes her as she closes her eyes and settles down to sleep.
Her eyes snap back open. The sneeze came from Coulson’s office, and holy crap, it must have been loud for her to hear it down here. Ward has stopped cleaning his guns and the following silence is almost unsettling.
“Bless you!” Fitz and Simmons finally call out, and then resume their science babble. A moment later, Ward resumes cleaning, and Skye settles back down before finally drifting off.
* * *
It’s quiet when she wakes up in the morning, which isn’t unusual. Everyone else on the team seems to be an early riser and getting up early isn’t something she has got used to yet. When she was part of The Rising Tide, her schedule was pretty much ‘sleep all day and stay awake all night’, and that’s still what she falls back on when they don’t have somewhere to be.
Ward will be training somewhere and Fitz and Simmons will be working on their latest project, which leaves her at loose ends now that her computer activity is being monitored.
These days are the worst.
She showers, dresses, and heads up to Coulson’s office, knocking once before breezing in.
“Hey, Coulson, just checking in to see if there’s anything you - whoa!”
Coulson is sitting behind his desk, except sitting is pretty much an exaggeration. Slumped in his chair would be more accurate. His eyes are open, but they’re red and sore-looking, along with his nose. The pen in his hand is sitting loosely between his fingers as he stares blankly at the report in front of him. Slowly, he raises his eyes to meet hers, and she can’t help but wince at how awful he looks.
“Are you okay?” She shakes her head. “Stupid question. Of course you’re not okay. Have you been to see Simmons? What is it? Some sort of bio-weapon? Another alien disease? Oh, God, please don’t let it be another alien disease.”
The words come streaming out of her mouth faster than she can keep up with them. Honestly, nothing had prepared her for how stressful working at SHIELD turned out to be. She’s nearly lost Simmons, then Ward and Fitz had been left out in the field with no extraction plan, and now there was a chance she was going to lose Coulson.
“I’m fine,” Coulson interrupts her thoughts with a voice that sounds so cracked and broken that it does little to reassure her that Coulson isn’t a few moments away from expiring right there at his desk. “I’ve consulted with Agent Simmons, and she assures me it’s just a cold. A regular, garden variety cold.”
She heaves a sigh of relief. “Well, that sucks. Can I get you anything? I bet Simmons has the good drugs.”
“She’s given me some Dayquil,” Coulson replies, ending with a cough. “Just need to ride it out. If you’re looking for something to do, I’m sure Agent Ward can find something to keep you occupied until we get our next mission.”
He turns back to his report and she takes that as her cue to leave, but as the door closes behind her, she hears Coulson coughing again.
* * *
“You guys know Coulson is sick, right?” she asks, popping into the lab she goes to find Ward. She really doesn’t want some menial work to do when she knows Coulson is suffering. She wants to help him.
“Oh, yes,” Simmons replies with a wave of her hand. “It’s just a cold. I’ve given him something for it. He should be fine in a few days.”
“Yeah, he mentioned that. Don’t you have anything stronger? I feel bad for the guy. It’s his first Christmas after his near-death experience, and he gets to spend it feeling like he never recovered from that.”
“We don’t really do the whole ‘inventing a cure for something that already has a cure’ thing,” Fitz chimes in with an apologetic smile. “I mean, we could, but Coulson’s asked us to work on this.”
She wrinkles her nose. “Is that a cockroach?”
“Looks like it, doesn’t it?” Fitz replies with a gleeful grin. “It’s a bug.”
“Yeah, I know what a cockroach is.”
“No, it’s a bug! As in a surveillance device. Simmons created the outside. It’s actual living tissue over the top of a metal device.”
“Like a terminator?” she asks.
“No! Well, yes, I suppose. But it doesn’t terminate people. Well, I suppose it could but-”
“What Fitz is trying to say,” Simmons interrupts, “ is that while, yes, Jimmy could be used to administer poison or the like, that’s not what we designed him for. Surveillance only.”
“Jimmy?” Skye repeats.
Simmons shrugs. “It needed a name, so we named him after my Uncle James. He was a bit of a pervert, really. Always going after girls half his age. Would you like to hold him?”
“Your uncle?” Skye asks with a look of horror.
“No, silly, the device. He’s quite harmless, I promise.”
Skye looks at the bug, which is currently running around in Fitz’s hand, and shakes her head. “I think I’ll pass. I’m going to make Coulson some tea. You guys have fun with...that.”
* * *
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Skye asks, as she deposits the mug of tea on Coulson’s desk. “I can talk to May and see if she can find somewhere for us to touch down for a couple of days. Might do you some good to sleep in a real bed.”
Coulson shakes his head. “I’ve had worse than this out in the field. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me.”
She shrugs. “Honestly, having someone to worry about is kind of new for me.”
“It’s almost Christmas,” Coulson replies with a smile. “You guys can relax. You’ve earned it. Make sure Ward gets the memo, okay?”
“Make sure you do, too,” she says with a gesture at the pile of reports on his desk. “Pretty sure you should be resting right now. Those things aren’t going anywhere.”
“I will,” Coulson says. “Soon.”
She’s pretty sure they both know it’s a lie.
* * *
“Guys, I think we should do something for Coulson.”
They’re gathered in the lounge, putting up a small tree and some decorations while ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ plays in the background. The song has got an idea is forming in her mind.
“We could go Christmas shopping,” Simmons suggests with a happy smile. “It won’t quite be the way it is in London but...actually that’s not entirely a bad thing.”
“What do you even get Coulson for Christmas?” Ward asks. “He’s got plenty of guns.”
Skye snorts. “That’s all you can think of, Ward? Really?”
“A SHIELD agent can never have too many weapons,” Ward huffs stiffly.
“Okay, probably true, but I was thinking something a little more personal,” she replies. “And you really need a hobby that doesn’t involve killing people.”
“You have something in mind,” May says, and holy crap when did she sneak in?
“I do,” Skye replies, doing her best not to look freaked out by May’s ninja skills. “But it’s a little...we’d need to go off the books to make it work and I’d need all of you to help me.”
“OOH! Do I have to shoot someone again?” Simmons asks with an excited bounce. Her face falls when she sees everyone looking at her. “Because that was terrible last time, obviously.”
Skye’s attention is mostly on Ward and May though. She knows she can convince Fitz and Simmons to get on board with her plan, but if she can’t talk the others into it then it’s not going to work.
“Okay,” she says, after taking a deep breath. “I am going to tell you guys something pretty major that I found out when I was working out how to get in with your team. I’m pretty sure Coulson will freak if he finds out I know.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t-”
“Coulson and Hawkeye are a thing!”
She blurts it out before Ward can finish voicing his objections. At least now everyone knows. She really hates keeping secrets from her new family, especially after last time, and now the last one she had is out there.
“Coulson and… Hawkeye?” Ward repeats. “Clint Barton Hawkeye?”
Skye nods. “They kept it a secret. I don’t think many people in SHIELD know. Do you have a problem with Coulson being in a relationship with a man?”
“What? No, of course not. It actually makes a lot of sense. Everyone in SHIELD knows how tight they were, along with Agent Romanov. Agent Barton mostly refused to work with anyone but Coulson, or drove anyone crazy who tried.”
Skye catches the look on May’s face. “You knew, didn’t you?”
“Do you think Agent Barton knows that Coulson is alive?” Simmons asks.
“He doesn’t have the clearance to know. None of the Avengers do.”
“But if they were together before New York, how can Coulson be okay with that?” Fitz sounds sad and angry.
“He knows the rules,” May replies.
Skye sighs. “I know I keep saying this, but the rules are crap! Come on, if you thought someone you loved was dead and they turned out not to be, wouldn’t you want to know? Agent Barton still works for SHIELD. I can’t believe they’d keep him in the dark like this.”
“You want to tell him?” Ward asks. “You’d seriously risk the fallout after last time?”
She shrugs. “I owe Coulson. He could’ve kicked me out after the whole thing with Austin, but he gave me a second chance. We all owe him. Can any of you say he hasn’t made your life better by bringing you here? He’s sick and it’s Christmas and I don’t want him to be alone when he could have the person he cares about most here with him. Think about what he’s done for you, and then think about whether you want to help make him happy.”
For a moment, there’s silence, and Skye’s heart sinks. Then May steps forward.
“What’s your plan?”
* * *
“Are you sure about this? We haven’t sent Jimmy out into the field yet.”
Fitz is pacing anxiously while Simmons finishes preparing a tiny capsule of liquid behind him.
“Relax, it’ll be fine,” Skye reassures him. “Think of this as the field test.”
“Yeah, but I’m not used to testing my devices on one of our own. Especially not a superior office. Especially especially not Coulson.”
“Fitz, it’s fine,” Simmons says, as she attaches the capsule to a tiny band around the bug. “This isn’t going to hurt Coulson. It’ll just make him sleep for a while, and sleep is what’s best for him right now anyway. It’ll just enable us to land without him noticing.”
“It’s all very well you saying it’s fine,” Fitz grumbles. “You shot Agent Sitwell. You’re used to this sort of thing.”
Simmons ignores him and hands the bug to Skye, who tries not to squirm even though it’s not moving in her hand. It just looks so real.
“You just need to put him down outside Coulson’s office,” Fitz says, as he picks up the tablet used to control the bug. “I can do the rest.”
Skye nods. “Got it. Simmons are you ready to make the call?”
“I’ll get it done.” She takes a deep breath. “I hope.”
“Okay, Operation Jingle Bells is a go.”
“I thought Ward said we weren’t calling it that.”
“Yeah, well he’s not here.”
* * *
Skye pauses outside the door to Coulson’s office. She can hear him coughing inside, and this just strengthens her conviction that they’re doing the right thing. She knocks and enters.
“Sir, would you like some more tea?”
Coulson shakes his head and attempts to mask another cough. “I’ve still got some left in the mug you brought me ten minutes ago. But thank you.”
“Okay, no problem!”
She closes the door behind her and drops the bug on the floor, before making her way back down the stairs to rejoin Fitz and Simmons in the lab.
* * *
“I’ve cleared our landing with HQ,” Ward says when Skye arrives. “Told them we were going to take a day or two for R&R to let Coulson get some rest but that we’d be on standby if an urgent mission comes up. Sitwell offered to come by and check to make sure everything was okay, just as we wanted.”
“Nice work, there.” Skye grins giving Simmons a gentle nudge.
“Yes, well, that was in no way the most difficult conversation I’ve ever had to have,” Simmons mumbles in reply.
“Well, at least you didn’t have to flirt with him this time.”
“No, right, of course.”
“May’s going to bring us in on an airfield just outside New York. We should be there in a couple of hours. Fitz, you’re up.”
They crowd around the screen, which shows the interface of what the bug is seeing. It’s crawled under the door of Coulson’s office and is now making its way over to his desk.
“He must be really ill,” Simmons says sadly. “He’d have noticed this if he was himself.”
The bug is now crawling up the side of Coulson’s desk and Fitz settles it down just out of sight.
“I just need the right moment,” Fitz murmurs, half to himself, and half to everyone else.
The mug of tea Skye had brought in earlier is sitting just in front of the bug, and it’s poised, waiting. A few seconds pass, and Coulson starts to sneeze, leaning away to fumble in his desk drawer for a Kleenex.
The short distraction is all Fitz needs, and while Coulson’s eyes are focused elsewhere Fitz sends the bug scurrying up Coulson’s mug where the capsule it’s carrying detaches and drops into Coulson’s tea. By the time Coulson turns back, the bug is already halfway down the desk and out of sight.
Coulson sniffles, wipes his nose with an unhappy groan, and takes a sip of his tea,
“How long before it works?” Skye whispers, as though Coulson could hear her if she talked any louder.
On the screen Coulson has returned to his report. He blinks sleepily, once, and then slumps forward onto his desk.
“Oh, I guess not that long.”
Simmons lets out a sigh of relief. “He’ll sleep for a few hours. Long enough for us to land and put the rest of Operation Jingle Bells into effect.
Ward frowns. “I thought we agreed we weren’t calling it that.”
“Right. Of course.”
* * *
It’s dark when the plane lands, and Skye has a nervous feeling in her stomach that won’t go away. She’s sure this is a good idea; the rest of the team seems to agree, but what if Coulson doesn’t? What if he gets so mad he sends her away, or worse, locks her up? What if Agent Barton has moved on since Coulson ‘died’ and isn’t interested? God, so many things could still go wrong with this.
Ward has folded down Coulson’s bed and moved him into it to make him a little more comfortable. Coulson’s still out cold, and Skye tells herself that even if the rest of this plan goes horribly wrong, at least Coulson will have had a decent rest.
“There’s a car coming,” May says quietly, causing Skye to jump. They seriously need to put a bell on that woman.
Well, this is it!
Agent Sitwell walks onto the ramp first, with Agent Barton following behind him. She’s never met Barton before, but she’s seen a few photos, plus all the stuff that was on the news after New York. It’s enough to tell her that he doesn’t look good. His face is pale, eyes surrounded by dark shadows, which are the telltale signs of someone who hasn’t slept properly in a long time.
She can’t even imagine what he’s been through over these past few months, and just by looking at him she can only pray that this plan will be as good for him as it will be for Coulson.
Sitwell, rather than addressing Ward or May as the senior officers in Coulson’s absence, is currently talking to Simmons. Skye hurries over before Simmons ruins the whole thing with more attempts at making conversation.
“Oh, hello, Skye.” Simmons smiles. “Agent Sitwell - sorry, Jasper - and I are going to drive back into the city for a couple of hours to get some dinner while you do your thing.”
Skye sighs in relief. “Okay, great. Wait, what?”
“Jasper and I had a long conversation when I called to arrange this meeting. I apologised profusely for shooting him, and explained that I had just panicked.”
“She was looking out for her team,” Sitwell adds, with a fond smile in Simmons’s direction. “I respect that. Although obviously I’d prefer to not end up in the infirmary next time you need intel.”
“I really am sorry,” Simmons says with a small pout, and reaches out to place a hand on Sitwell’s chest. “It doesn’t still hurt, does it?”
Okay, this is weird. Simmons is flirting with Sitwell. Competently, and what appears to be genuinely.
“No permanent damage,” Sitwell responds with a smile. “Shall we go?”
“I’ll be there in a second,” Simmons says. “I just need to have a quick word with Agent Ward before I go.”
As soon as Sitwell is out of hearing distance, Simmons grabs hold of Ward’s arm. “How was that? Was it okay? I was so nervous! Did I make a complete idiot out of myself again?”
“You did great!” Ward replies with a warm smile. “I’m proud of you?”
Skye hold up a hand. “What are you talking about?”
Simmons turns back to her. “I really like him, Skye, but I get so nervous. I didn’t want to end up accidentally tasering him or something, so Ward kindly gave me some tips.”
“Now go and enjoy your date,” Ward says with a shooing gesture. “Just relax, and remember he’s no different from any of us.”
As Simmons scurries down the ramp, Ward waves, and then calls. “Don’t keep her out too late, Sitwell. My boss knows where you sleep.”
Sitwell grins and waves back, and a few minutes later the car fades into darkness. Skye just stands there staring at Ward.
“You. Giving dating advice. I didn’t know you had it in you.”
He shrugs. “Part of my training for going undercover.”
Before she can reply, Ward steps around her and moves over to Agent Barton, extending his hand. “Sorry about that. I’m Agent Grant Ward. I’ve heard a lot about you, sir.”
Barton shakes his hand. “You can drop the ‘sir’. You got a mission for me? Sitwell was kind of hazy on the details, and since he’s just gone off on a date, I guess it’s not something he’s involved with.”
Skye steps forward. “Hi. I’m Skye.”
As Barton turns to face her, she suddenly realises she’s given no thought to how she’s going to break the news that Coulson is alive and sleeping just a few feet away from their current location.
She takes a deep breath.
“I have something to show you, and you’re probably going to freak out so just take a breath or something, okay?”
She motions him into the Bus, and through to the lab where Fitz has access to all their security cameras.
Her fingers hover over the button, and she turns back to face Barton. “Look, I can’t even imagine what things have been like for you since New York, but I just want you to know if there had been any other way of telling you this, I’m sure it would have happened. Don’t be too hard on him, okay?”
Barton frowns, and a second later his eyes widen when Skye taps the button that brings up the feed to the camera in Coulson’s office. He’s still asleep, Ward having stripped him down to his shirt and pants and setting his jacket, shoes, and tie to one side of the bed.
“What is this?” Barton asks after a moment. His voice is quiet. Scarily quiet.
She reaches for him, but he jerks away, face even more pale now, and his eyes fixed on the screen with a mixture of anger, betrayal, hurt, and relief all playing across his face in waves.
“I don’t know exactly what happened,” Skye says gently. “He says he died for a few seconds and woke up in Tahiti.”
“Tahiti,” Barton repeats softly. “Shit.”
“He’s done so much for all of us since we came together as a team,” she continues, “and I know he’d have told you if he could. He’s sick right now, so I figured… well, at least this way it’s on me and not him if there’s any fallout.”
On the screen, Coulson twitches in his sleep and lets out a small whimper. Fitz frowns and starts tapping at the tablet in his hand.
“What’s wrong?” Skye asks.
“He’s having a nightmare,” Barton replies, his eyes still fixed on the screen.
A nightmare? Coulson? He’s the most unflappable man Skye has ever met.
The twitches and whimpers have now turned into thrashing and pained grunts.
“What do we do?” Skye asks Fitz helplessly.
“Where is he?” Barton snaps.
“Up the stairs, right at the top of the plane.”
Barton breaks into a sprint, and is gone before Skye can say anything else to him.
“Do you think we should go after him?”
May steps out of the shadows and gestures at the screen. “I think Agent Barton is handling the situation.”
Barton is sitting on the edge of Coulson’s bed, a hand stroking his arm gently as he attempts to rouse Coulson from the nightmare.
“Phil? Hey, Phil, it’s okay. Come on, you need to wake up for me.”
After a moment, Coulson stills, his breathing coming in heavy gasps interspersed with a few coughs.
“Clint?” Coulson finally rasps when he’s awake enough to realise he isn’t alone. “You can’t be here. I’m still dreaming.”
He reaches out a trembling hand and prods Barton’s arm. “Oh.”
He stares at Clint for a moment longer, as though he’s trying to process whether this is really happening.
“Remember Sofia?” Barton ask,s as he kicks off his boots and swings his legs up onto the bed. “That was the last time I saw you get sick. Didn’t tell anyone until the mission was over and you passed out in our room while we waited for extraction. Had to haul your ass off the floor and into bed.”
Coulson repositions himself so that his head is resting on Barton’s chest. “You yelled at me when I woke up.”
“I’m probably going to yell at you again when we have the conversation about you not actually being dead, but right now you need rest and I could use a nap myself.”
Coulson lets out a sleepy murmur and closes his eyes. “You should go. You could catch it.”
“I’d be here even if you had leprosy. Now shut up and go back to sleep.”
Barton closes his eyes, and then smiles. “Hey, Phil?”
The monitor goes dark.
“Hey!” Skye objects.
“Mission accomplished,” May replies, and the look on her face gets rid of any further objections Skye might have had.
“Who wants mulled wine?” Fitz asks, after a moment’s silence. “Simmons and I made a batch using my mum’s special recipe. Best there is.”
They all nod and head up the stairs into the bar area.
“A toast,” Ward proposes, when they all have warm cups of wine in their hands. “To the successful completion of Operation Jingle Bells.”
Skye snorts. “I thought we weren’t calling it that.”
“I’m adaptable. Merry Christmas.”