Chapter 1: Prologue - Days Go By
May 3rd 2015
“The service that you and your team have provided to S.H.I.E.L.D. is undeniable, Coulson. It’s why I don’t want to be the one saying this, but you know what they say ‘bout hard times.”
Phil Coulson remembers the day those words were said to him very clearly. They – he and Director Fury – were standing in one of the various control rooms of the Hub. The screen on the wall was alternating between displaying a satellite image of the Harbour where the once-smouldering remains of the Helicarrier were still being taken care of by a cleaning crew, a necessary sacrifice in their struggle against Ultron, and thermal imaging of New York, where clean up from yet another enemy large enough to warrant the Avengers – and a full gamut of cleaning crews who were Avengers in their own right - was taking place. The room itself had been a bit of a mess, but that was far from surprising. The arrival of Ultron had meant that the situation was an immediate ‘drop what you’re doing’ type. No more work in the fancy, but barely protected, control rooms. Everyone had been shuttled into the interior, underground ones. Everyone who hadn’t been called to the Helicarrier, that was.
They were carefully not discussing that. Not yet. It was too soon to dwell on all the lives they’d lost; less than 48 hours was not enough time for the wounds to close enough that everything became clinical.
“What exactly is it that you don’t want to be the one saying, sir?” Coulson had asked, carefully keeping his face neutral. He’d had his suspicions about this from the moment word came from Widow that the threat was over. The fact of the matter was that the Bus was going to have to be hangared; for a time at least. She had sustained serious damage, for all that May had fought to save her. Worse than the hole his team had blown in the side when Reyes and her guys went to town attempting to nab the 0-8-4. His Team, for all of the injuries they had sustained, were at the high end of the able list. The worst was Fitz, who had broken his arm when the plane had gone down. It was considered a minor injury in the grand scheme; he was still capable of working in his division, once they let him out of the med bay.
The team was going to be broken up. They were needed more apart than together, right now.
“I’m going to have to dissolve your team.”
Coulson nodded, looking away from the director. Even with having expected it, it hurt to hear. It had been a long time that he’d been with this team now, and they had certainly become more of a family than a team. There were levels of closeness between them that Coulson never could have counted on. Even Skye had outgrown her hacktivist-anarchy-down-with-S.H.I.E.L.D. party line. Let alone that, May had learnt how to interact with people again. FitzSimmons had gained social skills outside the laboratory instilled ones. Ward had found a spare set of people skills lying around. They had all grown so much. Learnt so much about each other, and about themselves.
It felt like things were still just beginning. Now, they were being brought to a swift end.
“I understand, sir.”
“Do you?” Fury asked, voice pitched just enough towards incredulity that Coulson looked up. “Because I’ll tell ya, Coulson. I don’t. I make the order. I know why I’m making it. I even understand the practical reasons why.” He shook his head, turning to leave the room, his boots heavy on the carpeted floor. “But, I just don’t understand why it’s got to be done to such a damn fine team.” He paused with his hand on the door. “I’m sorry, Coulson.”
The door closed behind the director with an air of finality, leaving Coulson alone with his thoughts, and his void of ideas on how he was going to break this to them. What was he supposed to say? What were they supposed to do? Fitz and Simmons could go back to SciOps, Ward could go back to the field. May would probably find her way back to administration, go back to her career therapy, making the red tape. If he was lucky, Skye could be fed into the academy; be trained up to be a real S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.
They could all do that.
It didn’t mean it was going to be easy.
Chapter 2: More Than a Feeling
September 12th 2017 - Six Months Ago
Time flies when you’re having fun. Or, when, unfortunately, you’re having fun, but less fun than you would have if it hadn’t been for the annoying and near constant ache caused by having some of the most important people in your life taken out of it. Not entirely, and maybe that was an overly macabre way to look at it, but it was difficult for Jemma Simmons to place any other set of words to the pit in her stomach. The one right next to the bundle of nerves that was churning in there somewhere. She’d been up too long, that was the problem. Or, not asleep long enough. In any case, she hadn’t gotten enough sleep, and she was nervous, and it was causing her to cast around for something – anything – to keep her mind off what she intended to do today. If she dwelt on it, she might just end up blurting it out the second Skye opened her eyes, and, well, that just wouldn’t do.
The last two and a half years had been long, but they’d also been short, as much of a conundrum that was for logical thought. The aftermath of the Ultron incident hadn’t been anything any of them had counted on. For one, when Coulson had come to the med bay where they were all getting patched up, and told them that the team was being dissolved, none of them had expected it to be forever. It was a testament to how much the team had grown and how they all had grown within it, that Ward had been the one to say there was no way they’d be apart for long. Said that Fury probably just needed them where they would of the most use until everything was tidied up nice and the Bus was back to good as new. May had nodded along with him, and that, maybe more than anything, had been what had given her hope that this wasn’t the end for the little family that the six of them had formed.
They hadn’t gone happily, but they had gone obediently. Clean up was needed in a big way, and they were ready and willing to help out wherever they could. Most especially because the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D. had been brutally decimated by the tragedy on the Helicarrier – or, of the Helicarrier. They each did their part, and, weeks later, when word finally reached them that the Bus had been repaired, Simmons knew what they’d all been feeling. Elation. Excitement. The pull to get back on that plane and get back to work. It was what they excelled at, what they had proven themselves with. They were an elite team, and S.H.I.E.L.D. would put them back in the field as a unit, and get them on the job again, taking care of things, in no time.
Except, another month passed. And then another. And it was finally Fitz who said it. It was finally her partner who turned to her and said ‘It’s over’ over the wreckage of one of the Ultron robots that they had been dismantling for examination but also in order to keep the pieces far from each other and not run the risk of an incident flaring up again. It had been so flat, so emotionless, and that, more than the words themselves, had hit Jemma the worst. There had always been the hope that they would be rescued from the lab and put back on that plane. Fitz had been the one who kept saying it. Fitz, the man who hadn’t wanted to be on the plane in the first place. He had been at her side, keeping her spirits up while they slummed through the wreckage left by the Avengers’ second outing. Hearing that tone in his voice, and seeing the expressionless light in his eyes, that killed the dream for her.
They weren’t going to be reinstated. It wasn’t going to happen. The Bus days were long over. It had been too much for her to take, and she’d left the lab without another word, going to her housing and locking herself in for the rest of the day, and well into the next morning. She’d slept for fifteen hours, slammed with a kind of depression she had only ever felt close to once before, when she’d punched in the buttons to open the cargo bay door so she could throw herself to her death. When she came to, Fitz was there. Well, he was there about ten minutes later, pounding on the door and demanding she let him in. She had, and they’d settled back, not speaking much. He had explained briefly that they were both excused for the day. She’d nodded slightly, and gone back to dwelling on the painful truth.
It hadn’t helped when Fitz started talking. The first thing he’d asked was whether or not she’d checked her phone. It had taken them another fifteen minutes before they found it jammed between her mattress and her box spring, shoved there during a half-conscious moment somewhere in her fifteen hour nap. There were eleven missed calls, every single one from Skye.
The image of those missed calls on her phone was what finally broke the floodgates and let her cry. Fitz put an arm around her, held her close, and let it happen. He was a good friend. He didn’t say a thing until she was quieted down. He didn’t try to move away. He held her firm and close and he let her cry, and she couldn’t have asked for more at the time.
Dissolving the team meant any number of things, but the one she was most uncertain on was: now that it seemed they were done for good, what happened to Skye? She wasn’t a true agent. Sure, she had all of them to vouch for her, but at the end of the day she was working for S.H.I.E.L.D. without having taken any courses at the academy, without having gone through what they all did in order to become level ones, let alone level sevens. What would happen to her? Would she be given back her personal effects and her van and sent on her way like a pardoned criminal? Or would S.H.I.E.L.D. take the steps to make her one of them? Jemma hadn’t known what to think.
She should have asked though, and that’s what she did then. When the phone went off again, she didn’t hesitate, didn’t try to avoid it, she’d answered it, and not even gotten her full ‘hello’ out when Skye’s exasperated and faintly hoarse voice was coming over the line. ‘Finally! Baby, you need to give me some warning before you go into these uber depressive stages where you don’t answer the phone and I have to call Fitz to ask if you’re dead.’
Fitz had given her room then, to find out everything that she’d missed in the last fifteen hours. When she had, she went to find him. He needed her just as much now, maybe even more.
May was going to be doing some piloting work, before she went back to administration. It was what she had requested when they came to her and asked her to go back into the field as a specialist. She didn’t want it, not without her team, was supposedly what she had said. Apparently, deputy director Hill had understood and appreciated that fact. She’d offered May this alternative, and it had been the one she’d chosen. She was due to stop by the Hub before going back to HQ, to say her goodbyes-for-now to them.
Coulson, well, Coulson was back in action as the Avengers’ liaison. The Avengers, not a single one of them, had been happy to find out that Coulson was alive and that they hadn’t been told. From what Coulson had told them, not even Romanoff had known. The Brass had managed to keep a pretty tight lid on everything, all things considered. The Avengers had been angry to have not been told, to have been kept in the dark, but elated to have him back. The information had, however, been the final straw on a very flimsy camel back. Stark and the rest of the Avengers had declared themselves independent from S.H.I.E.L.D. Yes, they would respond when S.H.I.E.L.D. called, within reason, but they were going to be their own entity from here on out. Simmons understood that kind of thinking. As the Avengers’ liaison, Coulson would be tasked with going back and forth between them and S.H.I.E.L.D., while still operating as something of a field agent. He was back to square one in some aspects, but not in others. Simmons couldn’t say she wasn’t proud and happy for him.
She and Fitz were being sent to the Hub, in order to work in SciOps there. Their work with Coulson had gotten them a lot of attention. Science division agents in the field weren’t uncommon, but in the way that they’d done it, it was ground breaking, and they had become stars in their own rights, even more than they had been before the team was put together. It was nothing to turn their noses up at. An invitation to the Hub was a massive honour, and with the additional note that they didn’t really have the room to refuse, she supposed they’d be packing up to board a plane in short order.
Skye. Her Skye, the hacktivist that she’d been so unsure of, then become a friend to, and then so much more, the woman that she loved, the woman who wasn’t really a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, was getting the chance. Director Fury had pulled in her favour, and she was being admitted to the academy. She would be trained the same as she and Fitz, Ward, May and Coulson had been, albeit, specialized to what the trainers and agents at the academy thought best for her, division wise. The Academy wasn’t all that far from the Hub. They wouldn’t be so far apart, and more, when Skye finished her training, there was always the faint hope that she would be put into a division that would have them cross paths fairly often. It was the most she could hope for. It helped that Skye had been insistent that they do ‘the whole long distance jazz’ and keep their still fairly new relationship – it had really only been about six months – rolling. They had a lot in them, she’d said, she could feel it. That had gotten Simmons crying at her over the phone about how much she missed her. It had been a while before she’d calmed down, and asked about the last member of their ragtag team.
Ward... When she heard what the Brass had in store for Ward, Simmons made the decision that she would be letting herself into Fitz’s quarters without a knock.
Grant Ward was good at what he did, that had never been a question. Grant Ward had only gotten better when he’d been put on a team with the four – ending out five – of them. Grant Ward had always been one of the very best of the current roster of specialists, and when May turned down the offer, he was the very next one they turned to. Ward was being sent back into the field, and he didn’t get a second option. It was what he was good at, and it was where S.H.I.E.L.D. most needed him. Skye had told her that they were shipping him out the next morning. He’d been in New York, far from where she and Fitz were now. He was being sent to Saudi Arabia. For six weeks. Deep cover, little outside communication allowed.
Fitz and Ward hadn’t exactly been friends when everything had started out. They had even gotten into some pretty spectacular yelling matches. Simmons had seen it coming miles away, even if Fitz hadn’t. Inside of a few months, Fitz had been slipping into her bunk on the plane and hissing a whisper that he’d kissed Ward and Ward had kissed him back. They’d been entertaining to watch, the way that they spun around each other and formed a relationship. Simmons had been happy for both of them. They were exactly what each other had needed.
She could see the upset on Fitz’s face plainly when she invaded his quarters, and it had been her turn to hold him and let him rant and rage and be angry but understand and still hate it. She let him have that, like he’d let her have her tears and her hiccups. It was going to be a long six weeks for him, and they were going to need each other to lean on during it. After it, Ward would go into the field again. Skye would be at the academy full time. Coulson and May were going to be what felt like galaxies away, at HQ, in New York, wherever their jobs took them. There was no question about how much she and Fitz would need their unnaturally easy bond.
She hadn’t left Fitz’s quarters until Ward called him, one last phone call before he had to hit radio silence. There had only been three more over the next six weeks. Two had been good. One, right in the middle, had been horrible. Simmons didn’t need to know the content to know that they had fought. She could always tell when Leo had been fighting with Grant, because he took on the other’s mannerisms. He got broody, and quiet, and answered everything with single word answers.
The technicality was that there had actually been four calls made while Ward was in Saudi Arabia. The fourth – technically third – had been made the very next morning after the phone call that had ended badly. Whatever had been said in the first call, it was cancelled out by the second. The broody Fitz from the evening before had disappeared, replaced with a much more relaxed and at ease Fitz. Skye had joked that night in their video call that obviously the two had indulged themselves in a little phone sex, and that it was nice to see Ward taking her advice for once.
Nevermind, that it had been a hint for Jemma to grab her own phone once she’d settled in bed...
After the Saudi mission, Ward’s missions abroad were cut down in length. Two to three weeks at a time, left to his discretion as to whether or not they truly lasted that long, if he felt he could complete the mission’s goal efficiently in less time than was allotted. It stank of Phil Coulson, Ward had said, but he wasn’t complaining. It had been another four months before he stepped foot in their lab again, allowing himself to almost be bowled over by both of them simultaneously hugging him. His work, and his status as one of Skye’s S.O.s, meant that he came by the Hub often enough.
Skye. Skye came by the Hub at least once a month. Always on a weekend. She always gave the credit for that to her S.O. Her lady S.O. Bobbi Morse. She was pretty, blonde hair, quick mind. A field agent, but analytically minded. She’d spent a lot of time doing analysis and science work. Simmons could respect her. Mostly after Ward and Coulson vouched for her, but more when Skye did some digging on her, feeling her out. Her main comment had been ‘Dang, how many chicks does Hawkeye know in a biblical sense?’ She had yet to elaborate on what that was supposed to mean.
Still, thanks to Bobbi Morse, Skye wasn’t forever far away. They had their visits, the balm to the distant reach that the video calls just didn’t quite span. Within a year and two months, Skye was walking into the Hub, shiny new badge pinned to her chest. Surveillance and Detection. She was being put into a division that both her S.O.s, deputy director Hill, and director Fury, alongside, Simmons was sure, the input of Coulson and May, felt was better suited to her skills. Skye was ecstatic. Thrilled that she’d made it this far, and ready to prove herself, again. It didn’t hurt that it put she and Jemma in the same place a good chunk of the time.
Skye’s move to the Hub had been preceded by Ward trying to give them all premature heart attacks. At least, that was Skye’s assessment. May had known. May had been the one Ward had spent hours on the phone with, talking over his decision. Coulson, well, Coulson claimed he had just known. Coulson always just knew things. All these years later, as Jemma stretched in her bed, she still had to smile and shake her head at that.
Grant Ward, Mister Lone Wolf, had taken Fitz out to dinner, and, in the fashion that most men proposed, had asked Fitz to move in with him. Ward didn’t live at the Hub. He lived well within the S.H.I.E.L.D. circle of protection, but that wasn’t right inside the walls of the Hub. It was a nice bachelor apartment, leased; they’d all been there at least once. Fitz, well, he’d been there more than that. And now, that was his home too. All in all, he claimed, it got him out of Hub housing, which he’d always minded more than Jemma did. She thought, but never said, that it also helped him deal with those fortnights when Ward was deep under cover. Being surrounded by him, even without him there, probably settled Leo a bit more.
“Time flies,” Jemma muttered to herself, watching the play of morning light on the ceiling of her childhood bedroom. It was hard to believe that had all only been settled bit over a year ago. It felt like ages ago. They’d all settled into their roles. They kept contact. They worked. Time flew when you were having fun, even if it wasn’t together, even if it ached how much you wanted it to be together.
Beside her, Skye stirred, as though some higher power was waking her to interrupt Jemma’s thoughts with a reminder of how lucky she was to have this. To have Skye. To have Skye with her, in this bed, close enough to feel her huff of breath on her shoulder when she stopped trying to force sleep to come back.
“Y’woke me up, Jemmaaaa,” she whined, cracking open as eye to look at her. “Talkin’ to yourself. Thoughts too brilliant to stay put?” she reached up, tapping one fingertip between the biochemist’s eyes. Jemma smiled, shaking her head.
“You know how it goes with me. Always being too brilliant to contain,” she answered. Skye smiled, closing her eyes and pressing her cheek to Jemma’s shoulder.
“S’my girl,” she agreed. “More sleep?”
“Actually, I was thinking about making us breakfast, and then maybe we can go for a walk?” Jemma suggested, attempting to ignore the swoop of the hoard of butterflies in her stomach. Skye shifted again at that, giving her a suspicious look.
“You’re gonna make me breakfast?”
“That was the plan, yes,” she asserted with a nod. The suspicious squint continued.
“Can I stay in bed until it’s ready?”
The Brit laughed, shaking her head. “You are lazy, Skye. Lazy, lazy, lazy.” But she consented, shimmying her way out of the former hacktivist’s grip around her middle, leaning over to kiss her temple before she made her way out of the room, looking back to see big brown eyes watching her leave from a nest of blankets and pillows.
“God, this place...” Skye turned on her heel, eyes taking in every inch of the landscape spread around them. England had contained a certain marvel for her. As a member of Coulson’s team, she had been able to go all over the world, but as Ward had once told her, overnights weren’t standard. They didn’t generally get a whole lot of downtime to do a ton of sightseeing. At least, nothing close to what she had experienced in the last week and a half here in England with Jemma.
The concept of a vacation had seemed almost too foreign to fit into the world she had formed in her head labelled S.H.I.E.L.D. At what point was it that secret agents got to have a vacation? Logically, it seemed like never. You were always on call, always had to be ready to drop everything and go into the field at a moment’s notice. But, as Jemma had pointed out, things were about as close to peace time as they got for S.H.I.E.L.D. There had been a few minor things, but nothing the level of the botched Chitauri invasion, or the Ultron incident. Things had, overall, been quiet, and that made a massive difference on how difficult it was for two Hub-based agents to get superiors to sign off on some down time.
She’d seen London. A lot of London. The main city district, and the historical sites. They’d gone to Manchester, Greenwich, down to the south, and up north. She’d seen all these places that she’d been left to picture when she’d read the Harry Potter novels as a child, and then some. England was different from the United States that way. A country that still had very firm ties to its past, a past that willingly went back so much further than what she’d been taught in the orphanage classrooms, and the classrooms of the few schools she’d gotten to attend on her in-and-outs from foster homes. Being there with Jemma had just made it all that much more magical, though she hadn’t said that more than once, that one time having been three nights ago while they huddled together on the London Eye.
This place was gorgeous. That was all she could say for it. When she’d finally roused herself from bed, beckoned by the wafting scent of eggs and sausage, Jemma had smiled at her and said she hoped she was in a hiking mood today. That had gotten a snort out of her. ‘I like it so much better when you say that, and not Ward or Bobbi,’ she had commented, dropping into the chair she’d dragged to Jemma’s side, leaning against her hip while she cooked, and asking where exactly they’d be hiking too.
The answer had been this place. It had only taken them an hour or so to get here, and it hadn’t been much of a hike at all. More of a slightly inclined stroll. Not terrible in the least, and the pay off was this.
“I know,” Jemma said in response to her unfinished comment. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” She beamed, looking around the area they had emerged into. The two of them were standing on the top of a slight hill that led down to a lake, sparkling in the morning sun, nestled in the basin of two hills. Trees lined their faces, a respectful distance back from the edge of the water on every side, as far as she could see. It was quiet, and green, and beautiful, and Skye loved it. “I used to come here a lot when I was a girl. This,” she continued, moving over the lip of the ledge they were standing on. “Is actually where I came to make my decision about whether or not to accept S.H.I.E.L.D.’s offer.”
Skye followed after her, trusting her sure-footed path down the green-spotted dirt path leading down to the water. “I’m half-expecting you to tell me that fairies came out of the trees to help you make that decision,” she said off-handedly, sliding the rest of the way on her right heel, miraculously staying upright. Jemma was giving her an exasperated look.
“Not everything you read in the Harry Potter books is fact about England, Skye,” she admonished, her mouth turning in a smile as she did. “Besides, they were brownies, not fairies.”
“Oh,” Skye rolled her eyes, grinning. “My mistake, please, forgive me.”
Simmons was moving towards the water’s edge, shaking her head. “Just this once, I suppose.” Skye followed after her, nearly looping an arm through hers before Jemma stopped and crouched down, unlacing her boots. Skye watched her for a second before she clued in as to what was going on.
“Uh,” she started, highly articulate. “Are we going swimming? Because I didn’t bring a suit, and something tells me the brownies might not be happy about us taking a dip at...” she glanced at her watch. “11:35AM, in our skivvies. Just a thought.”
The answer she got was an incredulous snort. “Swimming? Skye, it’s mid September, we’d be likely to catch our death of cold.” She pulled off her boots, and then went to work on her socks. While her movements were sure and confident, Skye swore that there was a slight tremble to her words. Maybe it was just excitement, or emotion at being in this place again. She had learnt that about the scientist over the course of their friendship-turned-relationship. She was sentimental in a way that could be seen as a fault, but just endeared her to Skye more. The things that she had shared with her on this trip, the least of which was her bed in her old room in her parents’ house, had been many and marvelous. It wasn’t any wonder that Skye felt alive and recharged, truly happy and at peace. This had been just what they had needed, both of them.
In the process of sharing this country with her, Jemma had shown that sentimental side quite a bit, the one that was excitable to a supposed fault, and Skye was beginning to get used to it, was fond of it. That had to be what this was, again. The tremble in her words was the onset of that sentimental side being suppressed while she shared yet another corner of her life with Skye.
“Ah, but you could cure that if we did,” Skye said, dropping down next to the other to start unlacing her boots. “But, seriously,” she tugged off the first, setting it down beside her. “If we aren’t swimming, what are we doing?”
Jemma smiled, tucking her socks into one of her boots before reaching down and rolling the hems of her jeans. Ah.
“We’re going wading, are we?” Skye asked, tugging off her other boot and reaching to pull off her striped socks. “How is that supposed to keep us from getting our death of cold?” she teased, laughing when Simmons gave her a flat look.
“It will just be up to our knees or so,” she explained, standing up and brushing dirt from the backs of her legs and rear. Skye rushed the rolling of her own jeans, getting them to just below her knees before she followed suit. “It’s going to be brisk, though. Ready, agent?”
“None of that agent talk,” Skye said, facing forward, chin up in a show of defiance to the chill of the water. “We’re on vacation.”
“That we truly are,” Jemma agreed, taking Skye’s hand in hers and leading her into the water. They both gasped at the cold, shocked looks turning into smiles after a second as the water lapped against their feet. After a few seconds they moved forward again, wading deeper into the lake.
The water was cold, but after the initial shock, Skye’s body was getting used to it, the goosebumps that had risen on her arms calming and smoothing as the seconds passed. Hand in Jemma’s, she could feel the sure grip of the other, feel how confident she was, how in her element. It was one thing to have spent all that time with her on the Bus, seeing her in her element when it came to science. This was a whole different explanation of the kind of element that Simmons was comfortable in. This was her childhood, this was her life, this was something that had been important to her when she had been growing up here. That made it important to Skye too.
“I think this is about deep enough,” Jemma said, her voice barely above a whisper, the water rippling just under their knees. Well, just under hers. Skye had a bit to get yet, though you wouldn’t have known it from the way her jeans had abandoned her lazy rolls, slipping down her legs until the hems were just under the surface of the water. Oh well, a little wet denim had never killed anyone. As far as she knew, anyway.
Skye looked up, looking around them from this new vantage point of being in the water. It really was unbelievably calm here. Nothing to disturb them, except for the rustle of the wind, and the shifting of the mud under their feet. Even the water seemed unnaturally calm as they stood there, taking it in. This was healing, in its own way. It was good to be out of the Hub, out of the labs and the control rooms. It was even better to be out of them and with Jemma.
As she thought that, she felt the other let her hand go. She turned, raising a questioning eyebrow. Maybe Jemma had just needed to adjust something, considering how she was reaching into one of her pockets. But then, she started speaking.
“I know that this sort of thing is normally done a different way,” she started, eyes flicking from Skye’s face, to her hands while she turned to face her properly. Skye could feel her heart hammering in her chest, it apparently sure of what this was while her mind struggled to understand and catch up. “But, I thought that this would be a bit more special than the middle of a restaurant or the top of the Eiffel tower.”
The wind picked up a bit, pushing their hair across their faces. Skye reached up, hurriedly pushing hers back, not wanting to miss a second of what Simmons was saying to her; not one word, and not one nervous smile.
“When we started, well, all this,” Jemma was continuing, eyes staying trained on Skye’s face for the moment, despite the fact that the tremble in her voice had seemed to move to her hand, the one that Skye could see, anyway. “It all seemed a bit too good to be true, and when the team was dissolved, I worried that it might have been. You would go your way, and I’d go mine. But, you were willing, just as much as me, to fight to keep this going. And here we are, standing...” she gestured around them loosely with her free hand, reaching up to tuck her hair behind her ear. “In a lake, but, the point is. We made it, and I think we can continue to make it, and, if you’d be willing, Skye, I’d like to make it with you as a family. You and me. So, I suppose,” she took a big breath, pulling her other hand loose of her jacket pocket, clutching a small, sky blue velvet box in it.
Skye’s heart was hammering almost so loud she didn’t hear the next words over it. Jemma carefully opened the box, revealing a simple but elegant ring, three diamonds nestled into a small curve against the band. Her hands were still shaking, and Skye nearly reached out to cover them with her own before, thankfully, realising how it may look like a rejection before she had even said the words.
“Skye,” Jemma said, her voice thick with emotion, eyes already brimming with tears out of nervousness. “Will you marry me?”
Time seemed to stop. The wind, the water, the hammering of her heart. It all stopped and went quiet, Jemma’s words echoing around Skye’s head. She didn’t hear so much as feel herself saying the word. She just knew that she had gotten it out correctly by the smile that spread across Jemma’s face, and the fact that the tears that had been threatening to fall finally did, rolling down her cheeks, unhindered, while she stood there, reaching into the velvet box to pull the ring loose. Skye paid no attention to it for a second, reaching up to brush those tears back. It was the second that she did that that everything came rushing back. The wind, the sensation of the water against their legs, and the half-sobbed laugh of the woman standing in front of her.
“I need,” she sniffed. “I need your hand, silly,” she was saying, reaching up to grab Skye’s wrist, the ring box safely nestled back into her jacket pocket. Skye held still, spreading her palm over the cradle of Jemma’s fingers, watching the ring be slid onto her finger. It felt surreal, it didn’t feel like this was something that could or should be happening to her, and yet, here they stood.
Jemma smiled up at her, and giggled. “You’re crying too,” she said, reaching up to mimic the swipe of Skye’s thumbs against her own cheeks, wiping away the tears. Her hands stayed there, the two of them enjoying the moment, lost in each other’s faces for a second. Skye knew she was a tumult of emotions, she could only imagine how Jemma felt.
Not a single one of those emotions, however, was bad. It was that knowledge that had Skye leaned forward, pulling Jemma into a slow, breath-stealing kiss, hands slipping around her back, holding her girlfriend close.
Not her girlfriend.
Chapter 3: Hard Day's Night
February 18th 2018 – Ivanovo, Russia
“I swear on my DNA synthesizer, Grant Ward, if you aren’t here tomorrow, I will personally come find you and break you.”
The Grant Ward in question laughed into the phone, nodding to the bar tender as he left the small out building and headed for the S.H.I.E.L.D. issue jeep he’d be taking back to Moscow. It had been a long week and a half, but the mission had gone off without a hitch, the Ultron power core that had cropped up way out here in the middle of frozen nowhere sent back to HQ for containment. He’d been saying his goodbyes to Mikhail, one of his Russian contacts, when Simmons’ phone call had come through. It had been a while since he’d heard her voice, and she must have gotten the OK from Leo to call him if that was how she was going to start things.
Nevermind that if it hadn’t been okay to call him, he wouldn’t have answered.
The team, as it was, was still scattered. Probably destined to never be together again, at least, no time in the near future. The aftermath of the Ultron incident had seen to it that they would all have to be settled down in certain places, for three years now, until the Brass saw no further reason to keep them apart. Until the Brass decided that its ranks were filled enough again that it would be okay to put six of their best on a plane together.
It was a long time coming, if that was what they had to wait for. The fact of the matter was that the destruction of the Helicarrier, and the disaster that was the Ultron incident, had taken their toll on S.H.I.E.L.D. The Academy was still churning out agents, they still had recruits, but it would be some time before those agents that were being dropped out of the Academy reached the level of competence that was exhibited by agents Fitz, Simmons, Coulson, May, Skye (and oh, how she’d bragged when Fury had allowed her to go by simply ‘Agent Skye’) and Ward. That wasn’t an ego, that was just simple fact.
It meant that while he was still going in and out of the Hub, he was spending a lot of time away from there, in places like Ivanovo. Such was the job of a specialist. May could understand, though this wasn’t her gig anymore. She’d done some pilot work – she’d actually been the one to drop him off for his six week stay in Saudi Arabia – before she’d traded out her field suit for the business suit and went back to administration. He and May had an understanding. He got why she’d traded in her leather for polyester. It was how she dealt with the things this job had left her with, and that was something he could respect.
Coulson, officially recognised as back from the dead, was back to Avengers liaisoning nearly full time. A job that was eating up even more of his time now since the Avengers had declared themselves independent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and moved their base of operations to Avengers Tower – formerly Stark Tower – in New York. That kept him and May in nearly the same place, about 70% of the year. The rest of that time was spent with him joy-riding around the world, playing field agent again, mostly investigating breakouts, anyone not on the Index. Word had it he wasn’t exactly alone in that, being assisted by one of the newest additions to the Avengers Initiative, Wanda Maximoff, A.K.A. The Scarlet Witch. As for whether or not that was true, Ward couldn’t say. He didn’t have regular dealings with the Avengers, and that was Coulson’s business.
FitzSimmons and Skye, they were at the Hub. FitzSimmons doing what they did best in biochem and engineering, though still fused together at the hip. No superior officer would be stupid enough to separate the two. Ever. They’d only tried it once after the Bus team had been dissolved. Ward had been in deep cover in Peru, but when he’d come out of it, he’d heard all about how the other superior officers had ripped this guy a new one for trying something so stupid and expecting the same result. FitzSimmons just worked best together, not apart. Skye was excelling in her division, as both he and Bobbi Morse had known she would. It was something she had been fairly adept at before he and Coulson had ever plucked her off the street, and with the full gamut of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s resources at hand, she was nothing short of the prodigy Morse had deemed her to be.
Still, the fact that they were scattered didn’t mean much when it came down to the upcoming weekend. Not once Jemma Simmons had gotten it in her head to submit their collective requests for leave to the deputy director herself. He’d arrived back at the Hub, and instead of a welcome home kiss, he’d gotten a welcome home ‘don’t kill her, you know she means well.’
The deputy director had taken it upon herself to have an apparently very verbal dressing down of Simmons, before she signed off on each and every single one of the requests, wishing her the best of luck. It had been shocking, to say the least. Hill had a soft spot in there somewhere, that much was fact. It was just rare to see it poke out. If it had to be any time, Ward supposed that this was a good one. Still, Simmons hadn’t minded when he repeated her direction not to go so far above all of their superior officers next time she wanted them all to be able to have time off.
Even if this wasn’t for the wedding.
This was for going to New York to do bridal gown shopping. Bridal gown shopping, and fitting for him, Fitz and Coulson, for their suits. And, in all truth, it was just a very good excuse to get the gang together for more than three days – the time they’d already taken off for the wedding, with the exception of the two brides, who would be taking an Australian honeymoon.
“I’m heading to the airport as we speak, Jemma,” he said, tossing his pack onto the passenger seat as he swung into the driver’s. It was going to be an overnight drive. He was glad for the multiple layers he was wearing. “I promise, I won’t be late.”
“You’d best not be,” she said crisply over the phone. “I won’t be the only one you have to explain yourself to.” There was a loaded statement.
“How is he?” Ward asked, switching the phone over to his headset, zipping it into one of the pockets of his jacket and starting the jeep. He’d been hoping to complete this mission in a week. The four extra days hadn’t been planned on, but wouldn’t have been needed if he hadn’t been ousted to the bad guys by one of his turncoat contacts.
“All right,” Simmons said, her tone a little lower. Ward wondered where she was calling from, if Fitz was close by. Close enough to figure out what she was talking about if he overheard her. Close enough to be hurt if he knew that this conversation had already lasted longer than the one they’d had the second Ward had secured the power core with the field team who would be taking it back to HQ. “It was pretty touch and go for a few days there. Do you realise how impersonal a text is when the whole reason you were held up is because of having to chase down some goons who could and would easily fire at you?”
“Simmons,” he answered warningly. “He knows the perimeters of my missions before I leave. He understood perfectly. I know he probably wasn’t the most pleasant to be around...”
“Putting it lightly.” She muttered.
“But I was checking in with him once a day. He knew I was alive.”
“It doesn’t change the fact that he missed you, and twenty-four hours is a long amount of time to be playing the ‘is he or isn’t he’ game.”
Ward sighed. He had been over all of this with Simmons before. She was logical person, and he was sure that, with the New York trip two days away, she was starting to get stressed out, and this was just her way of burning some of that off. He could understand it, and he’d even tolerate it. He knew Leo well enough to know that if he was in trouble, he’d know by now. Things had gotten a lot easier when it came to being apart. They were able to keep daily contact, if not one-on-one, than through his handler, and his mission lengths were dictated by him, not by the Brass. Suggested length of time was the maximum they expected him to take, by this point. It was up to him to prove them wrong. Nine times out of ten, he did, and was landing back at a S.H.I.E.L.D. base either just inside of or just outside of the halfway point.
This was all just Simmons looking out for the other side of her hivemind.
“You do know that I had this conversation with him already about five hours ago?” he asked, pulling into the road, and speeding off in the direction he needed to go. “He already took a strip off me for trusting Johannes, because I was shifty on him before I even got here.”
“Well, never hurts to hear it twice,” she rationalised. A pause, and then she gave a sigh of her own. “I’m sorry, Grant. I know it’s no excuse, but I’m a little bit—”
“—Stressed?” he cut in, saying the word before she’d have to. “You are going to go to New York in... roughly 54 hours to start searching for your matrimonial costume.”
“Oh, that’s a very nice way of putting it, thank you,” Simmons shot back, but he could hear the edge in her voice fading. “You’re going to be here, right?”
“Cross my heart,” he promised. “I’m on the road now. Do me a favour and remind Fitz to meet me at the airfield?” Not that Fitz needed reminding, but a small part of Ward worried that he wouldn’t be there out of spite. It had been a long time since they’d had an argument, a real yelling, angry argument, and he couldn’t feel one coming, but if Leo had been siphoning Simmons’ pent up frustration and stress, there was a small chance that he’d be driving home alone, and walk into the picture of a very pouty, very peeved engineer on his – their – couch.
“I’ll remind him,” she promised, voice much softer now. “Safe drive, safe flight, and I’ll see you day after tomorrow.”
“Day after tomorrow,” he agreed. “Night, Jemma.”
By the time Ward reached the airfield, he was ready to pop a few Advil, tip back his seat, and pass right the hell out. The benefit of these missions was that the jets they put him on to get him around were small, fast, and, most important right now, comfortable. The pilots met him at the foot of the stairs, both bright eyed and clearly well rested. He had to wonder how long S.H.I.E.L.D. had had them there. The Brass had taken to guessing how long the missions would take him. At least, that was his assessment. The pilots always were either there just before him, or just after. It was rare that they’d had much of a chance to rest and refuel, but judging by the lack of fuel line being fed into the jet, and the fact that these guys looked like they’d had a solid eight hours, like Simmons and Fitz, the higher ups seemed to have betted on him taking less time than he did.
“Nice shiner, Ward,” the older guy chirped. Ward had worked with him a lot over the last few years. He had a mouth on him, but he was one of the better pilots Ward had flown with. Salt and pepper hair and a thick moustache made him stand apart from his partner, a younger guy with a flyaway mop of straw coloured hair. New kid, learning the ropes, probably.
“Y’think, Mascuro?” Ward asked, slapping his palm into the older pilot’s for a firm handshake.
“Definitely,” the other responded, grinning and shaking his hand. “Really brings out your eyes. Your boy Fitz is gonna swoon hard when you come down the stairs.”
Ward snorted, hefting his bag onto his shoulder, and nodding towards the plane. “Better not keep him waiting then, huh?”
The truth about his and Fitz’s relationship had gotten out not long after he’d been set off to Saudi Arabia, though he wouldn’t find out about it for another four weeks after that. There had apparently been a bit of an altercation with another science agent, a smart mouth named Allisa Allamara, who specialised in demolitions. Fitz had gotten back to work after one of their phone calls during that time – the first, actually – and Allamara had seen fit to make a smart comment about running off to make small talk with his boyfriend. Fitz had ignored it, not rising to her bait, until she leaned over and criticised one of the mechanisms on the delivery system he was creating for her bomb. Something about it being off angle, and if he was paying more attention to what he was supposed to be doing, than to the field agent who may or may not end up Swiss cheese at any time, maybe he’d have gotten it right.
Surprisingly, it hadn’t been Fitz who started the fight, though he had been the one to end it. Simmons had spoken up, asking Allamara where she got the gall to say such a thing about one of their fellow agents, let alone someone that she knew both she and Fitz, as well as Skye, who was working in another team as part of her Academy initiation, personally knew. She had straightened up and walked around the work table, bearing down on Allamara, even while Fitz was quietly repeating her name and telling her that he would handle it.
From what Grant had been told, Fitz finally lost his temper, and yelled ‘Will both of you shut the hell up?!’
Both women had been taken aback, stopping their argument immediately to stare at him. Simmons he had waved off. Allamara, on the other hand, had been told, in no uncertain terms, that the angle of the piece was actually perfectly aligned, and that he was far from distracted from his work by the thought of his, yes, boyfriend, being in the field, because, unlike his feelings towards Allamara, he had no doubts about Ward’s ability to do his job. So, if she could kindly shut her mouth and let everyone get their work done, it would be greatly appreciated.
Ward hadn’t even had the presence of mind to be annoyed that it was out. He was just quietly impressed, though not surprised, by Fitz’s show of backbone. Once upon a time he might have gaped at the news, and asked them to repeat it. That would have been earlier on in their time on the Bus. The Bus had an interesting way of making people find abilities they never knew they had. All he had done was stand quietly through the slight dressing down and ‘keep this professional and I won’t have complaints’ that they got from Victoria Hand. He found out later that Skye and Simmons had each gotten nearly the same when Skye had been put into the Academy. Theirs had just had held the note of ‘if she becomes an agent’. In the case of his and Fitz’s relationship, there was no if about the agent status of either of them.
Fitz admitted that he had expected him to be angry. To rant and rage and ask how he could be so stupid as to out them. But, he had also admitted that he had more hoped for this reaction, and was happy to see it. He’d explained, while toying with the buttons of Grant’s dress shirt, that he’d hoped that the effects that being with everyone on the Bus had left with him wouldn’t have been lost on the specialist after spending six weeks doing the solo thing.
It looked like that wasn’t much of a concern, in the long run.
The biggest issue with them having been ousted was far from a true issue. Any concerns that could have been voiced about the other agents, in their divisions and without, viewing them differently, were mute. No one really seemed to want to spout the stereotypical comments, and if they had the urge, Skye had joked that they probably took one look at Ward and thought better of it. Probably didn’t want to spend the rest of their lives jammed into a tuna can. No, the biggest issue was these light comments here and there, like Mascuro’s. Playful, friendly, nothing but ribbing.
It wouldn’t have changed a thing between them, as far as Ward was concerned, if there had been more off-base comments directed their way. He’d gotten past the ‘what are other people going to say’ phase long before Fitz had ever climbed into his lap and kissed him like his life depended on it. Their secrecy had been more out of respect for the very real concern that one or both of them could lose their positions, or that they would be ordered to split. Once he’d tasted the nectar, as the saying went, he was doomed. There was no going back, so the fact that the agency had given them fair leniency, with a smart warning, was a godsend.
Ward settled into his seat on the jet, tucking his bag under his feet while Mascuro followed him, dropping into one of the other seats. The co-pilot continued past them, scurrying almost, and Mascuro sighed, snapping his fingers.
“Oi, Jameson,” he called, prompting the kid to turn around, eyes a bit wide. “Sorry about him,” Mascuro said, jerking his thumb at the boy. “He’s new. Fresh out of the Academy. Damn genius with a plane, but...” He looked over, waving Jameson into the cabin a bit impatiently. “Skittish as a deer with new people. You notice you didn’t even say hello to Agent Ward?” Mascuro asked, directing his words to Jameson now. “Trust me, he’s all bite, minimal bark. He just looks mean.” The older pilot shot Ward a wink. “Grant Ward, Ian Jameson.”
Ward extended his hand, and Jameson took it, a nervous smile on his face. “Nice to meet you, agent.” He said, sounding almost like he was reading off cards. Damn, the kid must be an impressive flier to have cleared S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Academy.
“You too,” Ward said. “Mascuro being a good drill sergeant?”
“Oh, the best, really,” Jameson said, nodding like a bobblehead dog on a car’s dashboard. He clasped his hands together, looking from Mascuro to Ward and back. The kid obviously wanted to say more, so why wasn’t he? Ward raised an eyebrow at Mascuro, hoping the other would give him an answer, and the other blew out a huge sigh.
“Just remember I tried to spare ya, Grant,” he nodded up at the kid. “Don’t talk his ear off. I need you up at the panels in five, kid. They’ll have cleared us for take-off by then.” He got up, shuffling past Jameson, who was now looking like Christmas had come early. Oh, wait...
“Is it true?” Jameson asked, dropping into the seat Mascuro had vacated, eyes sparking with excitement. “You worked with her for more than two years?”
For as much as Melinda May didn’t want to be a legend, and balked at The Cavalry moniker that had been nailed on her, she sure had a lot of fans. Academy kids, pilots, just like Jameson, hearing of her exploits, the way she’d used the Bus as a weapon more than once, without damaging it, and keeping all its passengers out of danger and without injury. They all got a bit starry eyed when her name was mentioned. Most of the time, he was able to avoid this question, but Jameson, it seemed, had done his homework.
Ward sighed, a tired smile spreading over his face as he settled into his chair. What he really wanted to do was prop his legs up on the seat across from his, tip his own back, and pass out for a few hours, but five more minutes of wakefulness wouldn’t kill him. “Yeah, I worked with her. Damn amazing woman, Melinda May.”
“Is it true that she used her plane to rescue you and another agent from insurgents?”
Ward thought back to that mission. The one without the extraction team. The one where he and Fitz had really started to come to an understanding, and where Skye had let Simmons get a taste of the bad girl life. His smile turned wry and he nodded. “She did. It was pretty damn impressive. Never get tired of seeing her pilot.”
“I...” Jameson looked down at his hands for a second, like he needed the courage to say what he was going to. Ward could guess, easily enough.
“You want to be as good as her one day, huh?”
Ward nodded back at him, reaching down to incline his seat. “Then, pay attention to Mascuro,” he said, loud enough to be sure the senior pilot heard him over the squawk of the radio. “And just do the opposite of everything he does.”
Jameson laughed. Mascuro snorted and turned around to look at the two of them. “Wasn’t aware reverse psychology was something they taught you specialists. Suppose it makes sense. You sure are a slippery lot.”
Ward waved him off, and Jameson took the hint, getting to his feet and moving forward to the pilots’ quarters, gathering up his headset and pulling it over his ears. Ward waited a few more minutes, drifting in his thoughts, before tipping his head back against the seat’s pillowed headrest, and closing his eyes.
Chapter 4: Youth Without Youth
February 19th 2018 – S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ, Undisclosed Location
The first time Melinda May pulled herself out of the field and put herself into a cubicle, she was hoping to numb the memories that were chasing her at every turn. It was tiresome and tedious to try and pretend that being in the field wasn’t digging those memories up and out, every time that she thought she had them totally hidden and submerged. She could hope all she wanted, but in the end, all she had to do was hit someone in the windpipe at just the right angle, or get punched in the ribs just enough times, and it all came rushing back.
When Phil Coulson had come to her and said that they needed someone to fly the plane, to drive the Bus, she had thought that would be it. She would drive, and pilot, and her involvement in combat would be minimal; no where even close to enough to allow old memories to come floating to the surface in more terrifying clarity than they had before. If that was what she had thought, she had been totally and completely wrong, and within the first few weeks, she knew it well. There was going to be no way for her to totally avoid combat on this team. She wouldn’t leave all the grunt work to Grant Ward and Coulson. She wasn’t that cold.
The weird thing was that, even with all the combat she saw in the field with them, and even with her exposure to the Asgardian piece of work that had left such a heavy imprint on both her and Grant – one that she’d coached him through, while coaching herself back into her steady place – it didn’t hurt her as much. There was something different about being on the Bus, something good about being with that team. There was just something about all of it that made dealing with the after-effects of their work so much easier to bear.
She credited that with the fact that she took so long when they were disbanded to go back to her cubicle. It was waiting for her, and she knew it. She had been good at it when she’d been doing it. She was rarely bad at anything once she set her mind to it. The administration division was glad to hear that she was coming back. There had even been a comment made to the effect of ‘finally, things will get back on track around here’. Still, she took her time going back.
She turned down the choice to go back into the field as a specialist. That, she couldn’t do. Not without FitzSimmons and Skye behind her, not without Ward and Coulson at her sides – or her at theirs. She wouldn’t do it. Strangely enough, they accepted that, and turned around with another offer, one that was better suited to her. Two other offers, to be precise. The first, was to go right back into administration. No waiting period, no other work, just the immediate dropping of her leather and field suit in favour of her blouses and skirts and dress pants. The second had been the offer of a brief stint of doing some pilot work before being taken back to HQ to slide back into those dress pants and blouses.
She still thought they were surprised by what she had chosen. Despite her legend, one that she was grudgingly coming to accept, there were still those who snickered behind her back, claimed there was nothing left of The Cavalry in Agent May. Said that the Bus and everything that team had done had wrung whatever was left right out of her. Those, she was assured, were the most shocked of the people who had any shock on what she chose.
For another eight months, she piloted for S.H.I.E.L.D., fielding agents all over the world, including the overly cocky ones who had the gall to attempt to get a rise out of her. She’d done nothing but smirk, eyes hidden behind her aviators, while a voice from the back of the shuttle plane spoke up in her defence, and then Grant Ward stood up when someone told him to shut up. She’d ignored the fact that she still had the seatbelt light on. Ward could handle staying on his feet during a little turbulence while he made some punk eat his words with no more than five sentences, and a few pointed looks.
At the end of those eight months, she no longer had to deal with smartass comments from cocky field agents and fresh meat specialists with something to prove. The respect that she garnered through her legend, and her refusal to let that legend be simply a legend, not to mention the backing of her former team members, had them all shut right up. At the end of those eight months, though, she was handing over the keys to her various pilot’s quarters, and took back the I.D. badge that would allow her access to some of the more restricted administration areas. The morning after, she was sitting down in her old cubicle, navy dress pants matched to her tailored blazer, white blouse tucked in, prim and proper, and absolutely an administration agent.
This time around, everything was a little bit easier, but it was still a hard sell to convince her brain to completely focus on her tasks at hand, some days. Some days it just wanted to wander, no matter how much she focused and refocused, trying to order it into line. Those days were few and far between, but they still happened, and she wasn’t a fan of them in any capacity.
At least she knew how to handle them.
Namely, staying at work late. Later than all the other administration agents. It was nights like this that had gotten her collecting her reputation in this division for being extremely efficient and hard-working and detail oriented. She didn’t tend to let people in on to why it was that she was coming around as extremely efficient and hard-working and detail oriented. If they hadn’t taken a close look at her file and seen the notes she knew very well were there, that was their problem. They could go ahead believing she was just very dedicated; and she was, but being all those things, when it came to this work, helped to keep the nightmare fuel at bay.
It was easier to force her mind to become tied down to the stamping and signing and sorting and filing and, most important, in Coulson’s words, manufacturing of red tape, than to let it pull up things from both the recent and long ago past. The clock was reading around nine at night, but she wasn’t planning on moving for at least another hour.
Or, she hadn’t been, until the file slapped down on her desk. She’d pulled it from the stack she was working through, and it wasn’t a surprise that it arrived in front of her, but the words stamped on the cover brought her to pause. There, against the brown cardstock of the file, stamped in blotchy red ink, were the words ‘CENTIPEDE PROJECT: MULTIPLE LABORATORY RECONCILIATION AND CLEAN-UP REPORT - UNITED STATES OPERATIONS’.
The Centipede Project. That had been the first big dark horse that the team had chased after, even if they didn’t realise that they were chasing after it for some time. It had been the focal point of their first mission together, and it had continued to crop up along the way. The labs themselves were spread all over the world, but there had been a fair amount in the United States, once the agency had taken a closer look at their operation. It was unsurprising. Homegrown terrorism wasn’t a new thing, far from it. Still, S.H.I.E.L.D. had worked to contain the laboratories as quickly as possible, rounding up those involved and confiscating the equipment and supplies they’d had in each facility, throughout the world.
As things are wont to do, however, they got interrupted. Between the issues caused by the Winter Soldier, and then the ensuing insanity that came hand in hand with the Ultron incident, the clean-up of the Centipede Labs was put on the back burner. It wasn’t such a big issue, in the long run. They had cleaned them out pretty well the world over. Locking them down, using state of the art mechanisms and security systems, had been the answer to what they should do with them until such a time as they could return to the task.
It seemed they finally had.
The report was probably already filed into one of the vast supercomputer databases that S.H.I.E.L.D. had on hand. There was little use for paper files anymore, but Director Fury still insisted on both, and for good reason. The chance of losing the computer system, their entire network, was always present. The only way to keep hold of valuable data, should it be eradicated, was through the old fashioned method. That was the reason for the Vault.
The Vault, which was actually a series of vaults, was where the hard copies of every single S.H.I.E.L.D. report was kept. May had been in it a dozen times, filing and retrieving hard copies in order to do what she was about to do here. Verifying the authentication, make sure the proper lines were signed, the proper boxes dated, and accurately.
Opening that folder, though, felt harder and heavier than anything else that she had signed off on that night – and day – to this point. There was a history here that was intertwined with her own. She wasn’t one to believe in omens and bad juju, but the fact that her mind had been so keen to wander earlier wasn’t so surprising now, as she picked up the first sheet, reading over the contents of the file. Try as she might, there was a little niggling at the back of her mind. She wasn’t sure if it was warning her to stay away, or encouraging her to keep going, but she would be doing the latter of the two.
Something on the contents sheet caught her eye, and she frowned, going against the system that she normally followed to the letter, and flipping into the report. Her eyes looked over images and blocks of text without truly seeing them, until she reached the page she’d seen listed on the first sheet. Leaning back in her chair, the squeak of the tilting piece loud in the quiet office, she began to read, committing the important pieces to memory.
There were a lot of important pieces. By the time she’d reached the end, she was frowning deeply, concerned more than curious at this point. There were things here that didn’t add up. Sitting forward again, her fingers brushed over the DVD disc that was shrink-wrapped inside a protective cloth-plastic material, tempting her considerations even more than she had thought possible minutes ago when she’d opened the file. It would be a direct way to put the file back into the circle of re-signing, re-dating, and re-stamping, if she were to rip open that DVD. The file, however, had said...
She was curiously concerned. Damn the consequences, she would deal with them later.
She slashed up the DVD package, tearing along the perforation at one side, the vacuum seal of the material loosening as she did, the DVD slip-sliding out into her waiting hand. She powered on her monitor and slid the disc into the drive, waiting for the icon to pop up on her screen for her to open it. May tapped her finger on the touch screen, watching while the DVD loaded, multiple files popping up on the screen. She skimmed through them quickly, looking for one dated just a little over a month ago. Second to last in the folder. Another tap, and it was opening.
Her eyes didn’t leave the screen once in the four minute segment. The video came to a close and she was presented with a black screen, almost mocking her with how little she had gotten from its predecessor. Daring her. Asking her what she planned to do now.
Reaching down, she pressed the eject button, gingerly taking the DVD disc from the drive and sliding it back into the protective sleeve, setting it back into the folder. She set the page that had originally caught her interest on top of it, and closed the folder, setting it in her lap.
She didn’t need another hour of work.
Waiting while her computer powered down, she shuffled the remaining folders into a neat pile. Their fellow, the one that had so ensnared her interest, was tucked safely in her briefcase. Coulson would be impressed, impressed to the point of stupid jokes and teasing smiles, at her. She was essentially stealing S.H.I.E.L.D. property, and when it came down to it, she had no arguments about whether or was right or wrong.
This was the right thing to do.
Shrugging into her blazer, and then into her long black wool coat, she gathered her things, and the short stack of folders she hadn’t gotten to, and headed for the door. Just before the misleading glass, there was a small podium with a drop slot. It led into one of the vaults, a chute directly into the Vault for those files waiting to be verified and sorted. The four that she’d not gotten to would end up on the desks of her associates in the division the next morning. She needed that morning to pack and get ready to head to New York.
And now, she amended, walking out the front doors of HQ into the brisk February air, she needed that morning to figure out how to present this to Coulson.
Chapter 5: One in a Million
February 19th, 2018 – Mick’s Sports Bar, New York City
This wasn’t exactly the textbook definition of a meeting, but that wasn’t really anything that Phil Coulson was concerned with. The important parts of the meeting had already been gone over long before Clint Barton had swung an arm around his shoulders and said Coulson owed them drinks. Them, meaning, him and the god of thunder in the room, Thor. Coulson didn’t remember exactly what it was that he had done that had ended with him owing the pair of them drinks, but he wasn’t in a position to decline. They knew he didn’t have any S.H.I.E.L.D. duties after he was done at the Tower. They were taking advantage of it, and, after the initial anger that the entire Avengers team had expressed at learning of his living status, he was glad for the chance to spend time with them outside of duties. The anger had never been directed at him; at least, not for long, once Potts had calmed Stark down, and he’d gotten ‘Why didn’t you come to us, huh, Phil? Answer that.’ out of his system roughly three times. Still, Coulson wasn’t adverse to spending time with the people – the superheroes – he’d come to think of as his friends. Just as much as the team from the Bus had been, and remained, the Avengers were, each and every one of them, his friends, in some capacity.
It had been that thinking that had ended with him shelling out the money for Clint and Thor’s first drinks. And then their second. He had capped it at the third. They had the money to pay for it themselves if Clint had it in his head to try and get Goldilocks drunk. Which he did. He got these ideas in his head now and again that there would be nothing more entertaining than getting Thor falling down drunk. He might be right, but Coulson didn’t really want to be the one holding the blame when the bar owner came at them with a bill for damages. If, that was a big if, Clint was able to get Thor falling down drunk. He’d been trying for the last few years. Ever since Thor had moved into Avengers Tower with the rest of them. So far, he hadn’t had success, but Clint Barton never missed his mark unless it was on purpose, and so he wasn’t giving up any time soon.
The last few years had been anything but quiet for Phil Coulson, but that was something he had accepted when he’d walked into that control room at the Hub. It wasn’t that his life before that had been quiet either, but there had been jokes made about how quiet his life must be now that his main job was ferrying memos between Avengers Tower and S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ. Blake had been one to talk, considering he spent most of his life cooped up in a small room, watching the world through video surveillance while his exceptionally snappy intern got him coffee and corrected him at as many turns as possible. Coulson hadn’t stooped to his level though, just took the comments in stride, smiling in that way he knew was infuriating to some of his colleagues.
The life of the Avengers Liaison was anything but quiet. Leaving alone nights like tonight when he was dragged along on their off-duty antics, which, depending on the mix, could range from bar visits, to nightclubs, to taunting the hoards of fangirls gathered around the Tower’s base, there were the nights – and days – when he had real duties to attend to. The times when he got the full attention of every one of those Avengers, and the, mostly, serious input they owed him. It paid to be friends with them. Less jokes, more getting down to business.
Nothing about what was going on in this bar right now, however, was business. Clint might not have gotten Thor to falling down drunk, yet, but he himself was in a right state. Not drunk, but tipsy. Tipsy, and loose, and smiling coyly at Coulson like he knew something, Clint Barton knew a lot of something, though, so Coulson didn’t bother trying to figure out what that thing could be. It could just be the alcohol smiling at him, too. That was always a distinct possibility when it came down to how many drinks Clint had downed already.
“Can I help you with something?” Coulson asked, tone light, teasing, reaching for his own heavy glass mug. Clint made a snort somewhere between a snort and a hum, Wherever it had some from, it didn’t sound comfortable, and the face Clint made when he made it backed that up. Thor reached over, clapping a hand on the archer’s back.
“All well?” he asked, waiting for Clint to nod before withdrawing his hand and sending Coulson one of his big trademark smiles. Coulson could see why it was that Jane Foster was enamoured with the guy. Leave alone the whole ‘body of a God’ thing, Thor had a smile that could probably melt even May’s careful composure.
Definitely could. The woman already thought he was dreamy.
“Seems our friend never learns, aye?” Thor asked, indicating Clint. “Every time we embark on one of these drinking trips, he is the one who is carried home when closing time arrives.”
Coulson chuckled, nodding. His grin only grew wider when Clint glared over at him and muttered a ‘don’t you start, old man.’
“Old man?” he asked, taking another sip from his mug. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Clint snorted and straightened, fixing Coulson with a look that was far more sober than it had any right to be. “You’re gettin’ old, Coulson.”
“Not that much older than you,” Coulson noted. On Clint’s other side, Thor nodded.
“You’re both rather young, in the time of my people,” he said, passing his mug to the bartender for a refill. Their tab was going to be impressive tonight. “However, Barton does have a point,” the look the blond fixed on Coulson was almost gentle. Probably to offset the blunt quality of his next words. “You have successfully reached the middle age, my friend.”
Coulson pointed at Clint. “He’s really not that far off, you know.”
Clint shook his head, waving a hand through the air between them as though he was waving off Coulson’s words. “We’re not talkin’ ‘bout me, Phil,” he said, “Talkin’ ‘bout you. Maybe, you know, sixty—”
“—Fifty three, thank you.”
“My point,” Clint said firmly, leaving no room for Coulson’s argument, facts or not. “Is that you’re gonna be givin’ away your li’l girl soon. Doesn’t that make you feel old?”
Coulson paused, thinking on Clint’s choice of words. When The Avengers had found out that Coulson was alive, the first thing they’d done, after having their moments of righteous anger – minus Natasha, glorious, wonderful Natasha – had been to ask what Coulson had been up to all this time since he had ‘died’. That had been when the introductions had happened.
Team, meet the Avengers. Avengers, meet the team.
Those had been the exact words that he’d used, and while they might not have been the most imaginative, he figured they’d suffice. It had taken Tony less than an hour to pull up records of the things they had done in the course of action on the Bus. He’d known their files inside and out within another hour, and gotten right under Ward’s skin by using the name ‘Maynard’. The team had all been wary around Banner to start, but immediately warmed to him when he warmed to FitzSimmons, the three of them ended up in some conversation that Coulson could barely make heads of, nevermind tails. May had been known to and had known both Barton and Romanoff, but meeting the others had been a treat for all of them, Coulson assumed. Skye... Skye had managed to make Ward full on laugh at her enthusiasm, and the way she sort of gaped at Stark, and then Thor, both for entirely different reasons. Suffice to say, it hadn’t been the smoothest of first meetings, but it wasn’t horrible.
Due to that meeting, though, the Avengers knew a lot about the Team. Particularly, they knew about the role that Coulson had taken up in regards to Skye.
The girl hadn’t had a family, outside of S.H.I.E.L.D., who had always done their borderline-parenting from the sidelines. She had never really known what it was like to have parents, let alone have a father. It hadn’t been planned, much less had it been conscious, but Coulson had slowly moved into a dance with Skye that had ended with him taking on that role. He’d never had children of his own. It wasn’t shocking, given his career choice. It was something that he had chosen to give up when he took on the badge and everything it meant. But, Skye...
She had been a different story. She was grown, as far as things went, she was self sufficient, she was capable. All she had ever looked for, though, was answers, and all she had ever received had been more questions, until Coulson had pulled the files on Agent Linda Avery, and followed that trail through.
That trail, though, hadn’t ended with larger questions for Skye. More, they had begun the final steps in the dance that she and Coulson had begun without even realising it. The man who had never had a daughter, and the girl who had never known her father. They made a strangely complimentary pair, the two of them.
There just came a point where fighting that and trying to keep that professional distance between them – particularly when Skye had no time for that professional distance – became futile.
And Barton and the others had seen that right away.
Hence why they’d taken to calling Skye ‘Coulson’s Little Girl’.
“Well, someone has to. I thought about doing the whole shotgun thing with Simmons, but then I remembered she isn’t lowlife scum like you, so I shouldn’t have to worry about her hurting Skye,” he gave Clint a cool look, a smile hiding in the corners of his eyes.
“Lowlife scum!” Clint repeated, mock-appalled. “Thor, you hear this guy?”
“Aye, I do,” Thor agreed. “A fair assessment, Son of Coul.”
Coulson tipped his head to Thor is agreement, fully smiling now at the truly appalled look on Clint’s face. It barely took a second before the archer launched into a detailed assessment of why he was not lowlife scum – though neither Coulson nor Thor truly thought that – complete with hand gestures and emphatic bar thumping.
By the time they called it a night, Clint was 0 for seven in his quest to get Thor truly drunk, and the so-called Thunder God was beaming like a doped puppy at all passerby on the streets.
“Dad’s walkin’ us home,” Clint pointed out, elbowing Coulson in the side. “Hey, speakin’ of; you never told us if you feel old.”
Coulson shook his head, looking over at the two of them, before turning his eyes back to the unmistakable facade of Avengers Tower not far from them. “Nope. I didn’t have to watch her grow all the way up, it makes a difference.”
He’d just had to see her come into her own. See her find her true calling and put it to work, and become the hero he’d known she could be from day one. In ways, maybe he did feel a little older, but he didn’t think he was much worse for wear for it.
“That’s cheating,” Clint pointed out.
“You’re calling, technicalities in things that don’t need technicalities, Barton,” Coulson said, reaching over to put a hand on the small of the other’s back and usher him up to the secured doors of the Tower, the three of them ignoring the admiring glances thrown their way by the thin crowd of fans, except to give them small, friendly smiles. Always keeping up appearances.
“Make sure you get him up and into his apartment,” Coulson told Thor, watching them as they waited for two separate elevators. One to take Coulson to the garage, the other to take the heroes to their floors. “I don’t want to be getting an annoyed text from Natasha, telling me he went to her floor again to give her a play by play of our drinking trip.”
Thor smiled, giving Coulson a curt nod. “Of course, Son of Coul. Safe trip home, my friend.”
“Thank you,” Coulson said, stepping into the elevator, giving Thor and Clint one last smile and short wave before the doors closed and the elevator descended to the garage. He stepped off into the cold light of the concrete structure, dress shoes tapping on the floor as he walked towards the ’62 Corvette in her place of honour between some of Tony’s more ostentatious luxury cars and thought on what Clint had asked.
It wasn’t the bit about getting old. That he could care less about. It wasn’t sticking with him so much, nor was it bringing a smile to his face as the words ‘giving away your little girl’ were.
He remembered the day Skye had asked clearly, because he hadn’t been expecting to see her. He’d been expecting not to be so much as spoken to for a course of hours, while he slaved away over a small mountain of paperwork related to the Avengers in his office. Skye was supposed to have been at work in her own division. That was why, when there were two curt knocks on his door, and then a head poked through, the first words either of them had said were ‘Don’t tattle on me’.
Coulson hadn’t tattled. Hadn’t even dreamed of it. He was a little bit of a rule breaker himself, and for him to expect Skye to become all protocol and rules, just because she’d been recruited into S.H.I.E.L.D. was ridiculous. That had never been Skye’s bag of tricks.
Besides, it wasn’t right to him, really, that he should tattle on Skye for sneaking away to come all the way to New York, sit in the chair on the other side of his desk, twist that ring around her finger, look him in the eye and say ‘I want you to give me away to Jemma. Please?’
No one outside of Coulson knew the way his chest had tightened at those words. Emotion, a lot of it, and a good chunk indescribable, had constricted itself around his heart. Phil Coulson was not a sentimental, emotional man, but he would admit to himself only that he probably could have cried with the emotions that simple question had conjured in him.
As it was, he had stood up, walked around his desk, and pulled Skye into a hug, giving her a quiet ‘Yes, of course’, and laughing when her loose, unsure hug tightened into the kind he was used to from her, accompanied by a laugh.
Coulson pulled open Lola’s driver’s side door, dropping into the seat to turn on the engine. That meeting seemed a life time ago. In a little more than a day, the six of them would be crowding into a hotel to spend the weekend together playing one of the most serious games of dress-up they were ever likely to play.
He found he was looking forward to it.
Chapter 6: Naked
February 20th, 2018 - S.H.I.E.L.D. Issue Agent Off-Site Housing: The Hub: Undisclosed Location
“I don’t think they make long days much longer than that,” Skye quipped, stepping through the unlocked door of the apartment that she shared with Jemma Simmons, waiting a beat before frowning at the lack of response. Jemma had gotten home before her, that much she knew for a fact. She hadn’t exactly been taking this all in stride. It wasn’t that it was all so easy for Skye to deal with either, but Jemma was taking it to all new extremes of stress. They needed to get their dresses, and May’s. They needed to make sure the boys’ suits all fit. They needed to make sure that Ward and Fitz’s ties matched their colour scheme perfectly because there was no way they were having Men of Honour who looked out of place standing to their sides at the altar, or in the photos afterwards, and so on, and so forth. Simmons had seemingly planned for every little thing that could go wrong, and then jotted it down under a neat header for which part of the whole song and dance it corresponded to.
It would be impressive if it wasn’t so worrying.
Skye toed off her shoes, making sure the door was locked, before she hung her keys up, watching the hook clamp down on the key ring – one of the agency’s more domestic security measures – and shrugged out of her jacket. “Jemma?”
“In here!” came the reply. Even from down the hall and behind their bedroom door, Jemma sounded stressed. Skye hung up her jacket in the closet, smiling softly. They were due to catch their flight in the morning, and they had laid out everything last night, in order to try and alleviate this whole thing from happening.
The whole thing being Jemma simply going to pieces with worry and panic over making everything just so. Including the positions of the toothbrushes in their bags, if the picture Skye found when she crept to their bedroom door was anything to go by.
Jemma was standing over two open suitcases – her own, practical, pale pink, and Skye’s, black with electric blue accents – scowling down at them and their contents like they had morally offended her. The clothes that they had chosen to take with them the night before were laid out in both, toiletries and the odd extra thing – like a book that Skye was convinced Ward needed to read – on top of them. Their passports – their proper national ones, not their S.H.I.E.L.D. ones, though using those would probably get them around the airports a whole lot quicker – were laid on top of each other on the dresser closest to the door. They each had a pair of slip-on running shoes next to the door – easier for security – and nicer shoes tucked into the ends of their suitcases. Everything, from where Skye stood, was fine.
“You... okay?” she asked slowly, trying not to break the second of calm that Jemma had fallen into. She didn’t have to have been here to know that Simmons was frozen in a moment. The other woman’s hair was a bit of a mess, thrown into a haphazard bun, clearly just to have kept it out of her face while she bustled around. She was stripped down out of her normal clothes, wearing a pair of old, faded track pants – Skye’s – and a tank top with the S.H.I.E.L.D. emblem emblazoned across the front. She hadn’t stopped since she got home, of that much Skye was sure. A quick glance at the alarm clock assured her that getting home for Simmons had been three hours ago, like she’d thought. “You look a bit... not.”
Jemma turned, more of her hair falling loose of the bun, falling on her shoulders and around her face while she focused on Skye and heaved a sigh of relief.
“Oh, thank God,” she breathed, beckoning Skye over with a hand. “Come here, come, I need the fresh, second set of eyes.”
Skye laughed softly, sauntering to Simmons’ side, following her gaze and looking at their suitcases. “Well,” she started, narrowing her eyes and frowning at the pair of them. “It looks like these might be fully packed suitcases, but I’m not sure. Did you want me to run some tests, Agent Simmons?”
The glare that was sent her way made it apparent that, no, Agent Simmons did not want her to run any tests.
“That isn’t funny, Skye,” she admonished, gesturing to their suitcases. “I’m forgetting something.”
“Not possible,” Skye said, waving a hand and leaning over the bags, certain in what she was saying. “We wrote out our packing lists a week ago, and added everything but the bathroom sink to them since then. It’s actually impossible for you to be forgetting anything right now,” she ascertained, looking over her shoulder at Jemma. “Unless you think we should pack the bathroom sink?”
“Oh, ha-ha,” Jemma said, but didn’t bother trying to hide the smile on her face. “You’re sure? Nothing sticks out to you as being missed?”
Skye straightened up, shaking her head. “Not a single thing. Except, maybe, your sanity.”
Jemma huffed out a breath and rolled her eyes, before giving Skye an apologetic look. “I guess I have been kind of going off the rails, haven’t I?”
Skye shrugged one shoulder, leaning forward. Her intent was clear, and without an ounce of hesitation, Jemma leaned into her, kissing her gently, letting Skye pull her into her arms. Resting their foreheads together, the former hacktivist smiled, rolling her eyes. “Only a little bit. Nothing I couldn’t handle. But,” she leaned back a bit, giving Jemma the best stern look she could manage. “You’re not handling it very well.” She had been able to feel the dampness of Jemma’s hair, which meant that she had, at least, showered when she got home. But what about everything else? “Have you eaten since you got home?” The biochemist’s silence and glance at the floor was all the answer she needed. “Please tell me you haven’t been packing since you got home, Jemma...”
“I needed to make sure it was all perfect,” she argued, stepping back out of Skye’s embrace to close their suitcases, zipping them up and doing her damnedest not to make eye contact. “If we forget something here, we’re going to regret it, because it’s not like we can just pop home to get it before we go into any of the preparations, or our appointments.” She hefted her suitcase off the bed and onto the floor, reaching for Skye’s to do the same. “This, these little things, I can control. The things I can’t control – making sure Ward gets there—”
“—You talked to him last night, and you know Fitz is meeting him at the airfield...” Skye glanced at the alarm clock again. “Now.”
“Making sure May is okay with wearing a dress in one of the colours that match our scheme, which we haven’t really even chose yet—”
“—She is, but she won’t be if you ask her for the forty-seventh time—”
“—Hoping that Coulson hasn’t gained any weight, because, you know, he’s getting to that age, and,” Jemma completely missed Skye’s snort while she nudged both of their suitcases over next to the closet. “It’s not a problem if he has, but, you know, I think it might actually bother him if he has. Liaisoning getting him out of shape, or something like that. And—”
“Jem!” Skye cut in, stepping forward and reaching out to take the other’s hands in hers. “Breathe for a second, would you?”
Jemma focused on her face, looking almost stunned for a second, before she blew out a breath and hung her head. “You have the patience of a saint.”
“Nah,” Skye amended. “I just have a bit of a perfectionist for a fiancée.” She put her hands to Jemma’s cheeks, tilting her head up until the other was looking at her. “It’s funny, do you know how much like Fitz you sound when you start to get all,” she shook her head back and forth slightly. “Spun up?”
“Oh, that’s romantic,” Jemma laughed. “Comparing me to my best friend.”
“You know you love the way I woo you,” Skye teased, letting her face go to tug her into a hug, holding her close and still for a minute. “In all seriousness, though... Baby, are you okay?”
Jemma’s arms tightened around her, and she made a contented sounding hum, pressing closer to Skye. “I’m okay.”
“Not... having second thoughts and-slash-or doubts about this whole thing?” It was stupid to ask, but Skye knew if she didn’t, the thought would come knocking at her subconscious later, even if she barely gave it an iota of merit.
In response, Jemma hugged her that much harder, and shook her head against Skye’s shoulder. “I hardly could, so don’t you go and think something like that is even within the realm of what I could think,” she loosened her grip a little, sighing softly. “I’m not having doubts. More, I’m just fixating on things a little too much. It’s not so bad at work, but when I’m here, alone...”
“Mind gets to wandering,” Skye said, understanding, leaning out to catch Jemma’s eyes. “Well, you listen to me, Jemma Simmons. We’re going to get up at the asscrack of dawn tomorrow, go to the airport, laugh at Ward’s cowlick and Fitz’s morning hair, and get on that plane, get to New York, and meet up with mom and dad. And everything is going to be perfect, even if we forget to pack underwear.”
Jemma froze in her arms for a second, muttering a low ‘did I forget to pack underwear?’ before her look of mild horror turned into a coy smile. “All right,” she agreed. “You’re right, as per usual, this week.”
“I know,” Skye chimed, preening as much as she could with her arms around the other woman. “It’s because I’m pretty great.”
“While I am not arguing that fact,” Jemma said, her smile turning teasingly stern for a moment. “Careful, or your ego is going to weigh down the plane.”
Skye rolled her eyes. “Fine. I’ll try and keep it in check. You better, though?”
Jemma nodded. “You’ve done it again, Agent Skye,” she sobered, the look she gave Skye sincere, open, and, above all, full of so much love that it almost made Skye feel a bit drunk to look at. “Thank you, love.”
The kiss Jemma pressed to her lips this time wasn’t the brief welcome home, or the gentle calming touch the last one had been. It was warm, and slow, and Skye felt it all the way down her spine, sparking fire in her belly and making her fingers curl against Jemma’s hips. It was full of love, and passion, and left her wanting more when the other pulled away, smiling loose and relaxed.
“Come on,” Skye said quietly, sliding her hands up Jemma’s sides, then back down. “How about we get something to eat, and then we get to bed, and I can help get rid of any lingering stress.”
The promise in her words wasn’t lost on Jemma, and the nod she gave – quick and firm – made Skye laugh immediately.
“God, I love you,” she muttered, leaning in for one more quick kiss, before she drew away, leading the way out of their room, and towards their compact kitchen. “Grilled cheese, or hot pockets?”
Chapter 7: When You're Gone
February 20th, 2018 - S.H.I.E.L.D. Airfield: The Hub – Undisclosed Location
In the years since he’d let Simmons goad him into going into the field, Leo Fitz had had a lot of regrets. Some were small, some were forgotten, and others, like the one he was having right now, were things he only remembered when it was too late.
“You’re sure that’s the issue?” Brunkard asked, staring at Fitz like he had just told him that the issues with his commpiece could be boiled down to the sad truth that the little people inside of it had all died of bubonic plague.
“I’m positive, Brunkard,” Fitz said firmly. “You can’t have both your iPod and the commpiece running at the same time, that close together. It’s going to shut down immediately in order to protect your iPod – which, by the way, is contraband on base – from picking up sensitive information and beaming it back to the drones at Apple in California.”
“What does Apple want with our flight path information?” the ground crew member asked, vaguely horrified at the reminder that civilian tech was contraband.
“Maybe nothing,” Fitz said, shrugging his shoulders in a non-committal way, and looking over as the hangar doors opened and the small plane was taxied in, doing his best to ignore the flip his stomach did. “Maybe everything.” As far as he was concerned, Apple could sniff around like an overly friendly dog all they wanted. So far as his tech was concerned, they wouldn’t learn a damn thing. Not S.H.I.E.L.D. flight paths, not how to improve their nearly reliable to fail iPhone 9S, none of it. “What I would suggest is just putting away the iPod when you’re on base, Agent Brunkard,” he continued, trying to make his path towards where the plane was coming to a stop and opening up look calm and cool. It wasn’t like the person the plane was delivering back to him might have been betrayed and died in the course of the last week and a half. Nothing like that, no reason to be eager to get over there.
Except, that was exactly what had happened, and Leo Fitz would be damned if his face wasn’t the first one Grant Ward saw when he got off that little cloud skimmer.
“Right, uh, got it,” Brunkard said, making what Fitz assumed was a subtle attempt to tuck the iPod into the zippered pocket down to the side of his knee. More than likely, he wouldn’t be bringing that to work anymore. It wasn’t that Apple was after S.H.I.E.L.D. secrets, exactly, but, with how every aspect of civilian technology had advanced over the years, there was very little the agency would allow. There was always the possibility that civilian tech could be modified to record information surrounding it, and transfer it remotely, somewhere else. They could never be too safe. There was no telling when some terrorist organization might try to use one of their more susceptible agents to get insider info through something in innocuous as a personal music player.
Though, Fitz thought, they would be best to use something a bit more reliable than an iPod.
The plane door was just opening when he reached the end of the rolling stairs, nodding and smiling to one of the other ground crew members, a well built Portuguese woman named Dias. He liked her; he actually liked her a lot. She was friendly, but not overly so, and didn’t tend to ask him stupid questions. And, well, there was...
“Don’t worry, Fitz, I’ll catch you when you swoon.” She shot him a wink. “Set you down, nice and comfy, before I take a seat myself.”
She was like a favourite aunt. Teasing, but, at the same time, she had a strong understanding of just what she was teasing about. A lot of agents didn’t like to draw attention to the looks of their fellows, and, really, it probably wasn’t professional, but with Dias, that didn’t matter. She had a strong appreciation for the human physicality – be it women or men – and wasn’t shy about pointing it out. She’d been known to both ask if others had seen Beyonce’s halftime show (‘I love her body, even after two kids!’), as well as tell Fitz that she was right with him when it came to appreciating the physical aspects that made up Grant Ward.
Well, to a point.
She was a strangely normal presence deep in the middle of the world that made up S.H.I.E.L.D., and that was what endeared Fitz to her.
“Thanks for that,” he said, giving her a genuine smile, before looking over and seeing his whole reason for having put up with Brunkard’s Q and A.
The first time Fitz had seen him, he’d thought that he was pretty attractive. That hadn’t gone away, had only gotten worse when they’d gotten together. Even with his hair mussed and eyes narrowed – not from annoyance, but from having just woken up – and looking like he needed a good night’s sleep, he was still a damn picture, even with what looked like a black eye.
Fitz sure hoped he looked the same, standing at the end of the stairs, wearing an old, comfortable pair of jeans, and one of his button-ups with one of his bigger sweaters pulled over top to keep out the chill of the wind out here at the airfield. That hope was at the back of his mind, though, when Grant got to the bottom of the stairs and smiled at him.
“Hey,” he said back, looking over Ward’s shoulder, catching sight of the senior pilot. “Thanks for dragging him back, Mascuro.”
The older man laughed, clapping a hand on Ward’s shoulder. “I know he ain’t much of a prize, but I found you the prettiest American in Moscow, Fitz.” Ward rolled his eyes, shrugging off Mascuro’s hand and giving him a loose salute as the other headed off to log in his flight details, his junior pilot following along in his wake. Fitz looked up at Ward, asked without words if they could please, please go home now. The question wasn’t lost, clearly, by the way Ward nodded, and looked over to Dias, waving to her. She waved back, and winked at them both, heading off to direct the taxi to the bay where they would store that plane for the time being until it was out in the skies again.
The two of them made their way to the back of the hangar, walking in silence past the big bays that held everything from tiny little one seater planes to Boeings that were dwarfed only by The Bus. Out of habit, Fitz’s eyes strayed towards her bay, a wave of nostalgia pricking at the back of his mind, abated only by the fact that, at the very least, he had seen her bayed up while standing next to the people that had been the most important thing about the plane. Ward was looking the same way, and hummed, drawing Fitz’s attention.
“Looks good, considering it’s been sitting for,” he blew out a breath, eyebrows furrowing as he thought. “Almost three years, I guess.”
“Well, they do take her out once a month, oil her, take her for a short flight, make sure everything’s in shape,” Fitz pointed out, both of them pulling out their badges to clear the security booth before the hallway that led to the rear parking lot. “Even if there’s no chance of her going in the air any time soon.”
Ward chuckled, looking down at him. “Say that again, I don’t think you sounded quite bitter enough.”
Fitz gave him a flat stare, reaching out to card through the last door before they stepped into the night air. “You say that like you’re not just as let down as I am that it’s been almost three years.” Ward was quiet, and, if Fitz didn’t know him like he did, he would have thought he said the wrong thing. It was funny what more than three years with a person would make you certain of. Ward silence was more of an agreement to what Fitz had said than offense to his words.
They didn’t say another word to each other while they walked to the car – a nondescript black four door that looked like an average sports car and was anything but – Ward automatically going to the driver’s side while Fitz pressed the key fob. The headlights blinked and the doors clicked and Ward opened the back driver’s side door to drop his pack on the seat while Fitz slid into the passenger’s seat, waiting for him. The specialist dropped in behind the wheel, reaching over, not for the keys, but for what Fitz was already leaning in for.
He’d missed Ward while he was away. No one could ever make fun of him for the grip that he got the other’s shirt in while he kissed him. Slow and lazy, and just enough to satisfy the restless hum in him. It wasn’t like what Grant had been doing was meeting with accountants and PR reps. He’d been deep in it with unsavoury types, and he’d been in trouble of paying the price for what that kind of business trip meant. If Grant didn’t come home on time, it wasn’t because his flight had been delayed. It was because something had gone seriously wrong. That was the biggest risk in their relationship, and the biggest strain. Fitz couldn’t watch over his shoulder anymore, couldn’t be not far away, sitting in the van, or on the Bus, monitoring. He had to sit on his hands – figuratively – and wait things out.
As such, he was allowed the soft, relieved sigh he gave against Grant’s lips. The only person who could say anything about it was lingering just as much as him, stealing one more quick peck before tugging the keys out of his loose fingers and leaning back in the driver’s seat.
“Guess that means you missed me,” he said offhandedly, turning the key in the ignition, the engine coming to life, quiet, purring like it was almost wary of interrupting their reunion.
“You guess?” Fitz said, dropping just enough faux-disbelief into his tones to justify beckoning Ward to him one more, kissing him again like they just had. There would be no room for words like ‘guess’. He knew that Ward had meant it off-handedly, but the chance was too simple to pass up.
It wasn’t like the older man was complaining...
“I missed you, too,” Ward said, finally, pulling back out of range with one of those small smiles that still did weird things to Fitz’s motor functions now and again. “But, if we don’t go home now, we’re not going to get home.”
Fitz settled back in his seat, tugging his seatbelt on and giving Ward a cool look. “You didn’t have to lean over that time...” he said, an open-ended statement that they both knew was a poorly disguised shot.
“Didn’t,” Ward agreed, shifting the car into gear. “But I did.”
By the time they got back to Ward’s – no, their, both of them lived there now – apartment, the sun had disappeared behind the horizon. “We’ve got to be at the airport when?” Grant asked, pressing the unlock and alarm keys on the fob while they walked towards the entrance to the building.
“No later than five in the morning,” Leo answered, looking over. “Flight is at 6:30. Then we land in New York at four in the afternoon.”
“Yay,” Ward said drily, holding open the door for Leo. “More planes.”
Fitz snorted, heading for the interior door, putting his key in before entering the security code. S.H.I.E.L.D. agents could choose where they wanted to live, sure. From a list of either the on base housing, or, buildings like this, or the one where Jemma and Skye lived, that were owned and operated by the agency. It wasn’t true autonomy, but, still, this place was a far cry from the blank walls and sterile sameness of the on base housing. At least here, they could pretend that they were outside of the agency for a little while.
“You’d think you hadn’t spent a lot of time on a plane and been okay with it, from the way you said that,” he said, pulling open the door and letting Ward through before he followed.
“No, the Bus was not a plane, the Bus was a mobile command centre. A plane is,” Ward pressed the elevator button, pausing while he looked for the right words. “Cramped, with watered down alcohol, and a lot of people who don’t want to be sitting elbow to elbow.”
Fitz waited until the elevator was lifting them towards the fourteenth floor before he spoke. “I wasn’t aware you and Mascuro were crammed into that plane so tight.”
Ward gave him a look, not saying a word. His annoyance at Fitz pointing out the flaw in his definition wasn’t deep, or, really, long lived, for that matter, and by the time they were stepping into the gloom of their apartment, he’d seemingly forgotten it completely, taking a breath and dropping his bag while Leo closed the door. “Oh, it’s good to be home.”
“It’s good to have you home,” Leo agreed quietly, turning the lock, before gesturing towards the living room. “Go.” When Grant looked up from kicking off his boots to frown at him in confusion, he made his tone more firm, pointing instead of gesturing. “Go. Sit. Relax. Reintroduce yourself to the couch. I’m starving, I doubt you’ve eaten for hours. I’ll make something, just, please, go sit.”
Ward held up his hands, mockingly shielding himself from Fitz’s orders. “Got it. Sitting.”
“Thank you,” Fitz said to his retreating back, slipping off his own shoes before padding to the kitchen. It wasn’t overly late, but it wasn’t early either. Something substantial, but not heavy, was what they needed to tide them over until bed.
When he entered the living room, his hands full with two plates with sandwiches – just basic cold meat, lettuce and cheese – he was glad for his assessment. Grant looked beat. He didn’t bother hiding his tiredness around Fitz anymore. He’d done everything but fall asleep where he was sitting on the couch, leaned back, watching the television but not really seeing it. He only stirred when Leo sat down next to him, holding out one of the plates.
“You have enough energy to chew and swallow?” Fitz asked, smiling. “Should I go back and blend it for you?”
“I’m not that incapable,” Ward said, taking the plate and straightening up. “I was giving myself a chance to recharge my batteries. You shouldn’t have told me to sit down. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get up. Might end up sleeping on the couch.”
Fitz shrugged, settling in against his side, not exactly leaning on him, but not far away either. “Wouldn’t be the first time. I’ll get us blankets if you do.”
The other man didn’t say a thing, just shook his head, and, though Fitz couldn’t see it from the corner of his eye, smiled, before digging into his very simple dinner. The television was still on the channel that Fitz had left it on when he’d turned it off to go pick Grant up. A comedian was on screen now, discussing how he’d gotten a police officer to play along and convince his kid that he would be arrested if he didn’t do his homework. It was easy, and mindless, and they ended up watching it through to the end. Their plates were discarded to the end tables and, in true testament to how tired he was, by the time the comedian was finishing up his special, Grant had stretched out, head pillowed in Leo’s lap, ankles crossed on the opposite arm of the couch. Fitz’s fingers combed through his short hair absently, the two of them just basking in the ability to be close, after what could have been a very bad trip.
“He’s funny,” Ward commented, turning his head so he could look up at Fitz. “I like him.”
Fitz nodded, smiling down at the specialist in his lap. “I could tell, by how much you were laughing.”
“You laughed, too,” Ward pointed out, yawning right after he had. “I’m beat.”
“Understandable,” Fitz said, combing his fingers back through the other’s hair, watching the way his eyes slid shut and his chest rose with a slow breath. “You drove all night to make the airfield, and then flew back here, probably barely slept on the plane... I think it’s time for bed.”
“Mm,” Ward hummed. “Got to be up in like...” he cracked open an eye, lifting his wrist to look at his watch. “Ten hours.”
“Let’s try and get some sleep into you, then,” Fitz decided, shifting, prompting Ward to swing his feet down to the floor and sit up. “I’ll clean up out here, you go get settled.”
It was funny, in some ways, how far they’d come. Once upon a time, Ward was the one telling Fitz what to do, and now, the other had opened up and let them all in so much – Fitz especially – that he didn’t even blink when he was told to do something. All he did was nod, stand, and shuffle off to the bathroom. Fitz set their dishes in the sink, turning off all the lights between the kitchen and the living room before he flicked off the television. By the time he made it to the bathroom, their bedroom light was on, meaning Ward had made it through his night routine. Fitz went through his own, and flicked off the light, crossing the hall and stepping into their room.
Grant had gotten his pants off, and socks. He was down to boxer-briefs and his grey T-shirt, standing at his side of the bed while he reached up to pull it over his head.
And reveal a short line of bruises all the way down his ribs, next to his spine. Fitz sucked in a breath, stepping up behind him, not hesitating or warning before he touched the skin. It was warm under his fingers – no warmer than any of the unblemished skin – and Grant didn’t flinch, but, then again, he wouldn’t.
“What happened?” Leo asked, eyes leaving the bruises to look at Grant’s profile. The other sighed, turning around to toss his T-shirt past the engineer to the hamper, shaking his head.
“Nothing I couldn’t handle.”
Fitz looked up at him, raising an eyebrow that got his message across clearly. He wasn’t going to take that as the be all and end all of an answer as to why his back, of all places, was bruised up. Seeing the other down to nothing but his Nordstroms, he was able to see the places where he’d taken a hard hit, or scraped himself. It certainly wasn’t the worst image he’d ever seen.
Ward didn’t fight it anymore, just flipped back the covers on his side, turning his pillow back, not commenting on how it had been turned against Fitz’s pillow while he had been gone. “Get ready for bed. I’m not telling you a thing until that’s done.”
Fair enough. Fitz stripped down until he matched his boyfriend, turning off their bedroom light, thankful for the lamp Ward turned on, letting him get around the bed in the dark, and settle in. Grant had quietly insisted that his side of the bed would be the one closest to the door, and Leo didn’t have it in him to argue, even if it meant that he had to walk around the bed in the dark sometimes.
Grant settled back against his pillow, opening his arm in invitation before he turned off the lamp. Fitz wasn’t about to ignore it, and moved over until he was curled at the other’s side, head resting against his shoulder, the reassuring thump of Ward’s heartbeat under his ear. “Tell me?”
He felt Ward’s breathy laugh more than heard it, and lifted his head to watch the other, eyes adjusting to the darkness. Ward’s eyes were closed, and he looked relaxed. It wouldn’t take long for him to fall asleep. A quick retelling was probably all Fitz would get, but it would be enough. He settled back down, arm loosely draped across his waist.
“So, you remember Johannes?”
“I remember you were already wondering about him before you even left, yes.” Fitz answered.
“Well, when we got to the first drop point...”
Chapter 8: Drink to That (Cheers)
February 21st, 2018 - John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York
The airport was in full swing. People rushing this way and that, every airline desk occupied by a staffer who was diligently working through the long line of passengers waiting to board their multitude of flights, children running underfoot and nearly running right into Ward. It was everything that JFK International always promised to be, which was what Simmons had expected. It was also why she looked up at Ward when he pursed his lips and barely refrained from rolling his eyes, and shook a finger at him.
“Oh, no, Grant Ward,” she started, leading their small pack towards the carousels to get their bags. “I told you it was going to be busy, and you said—”
“—Jemma,” Ward cut in, the bare hint of a smile on his face. “It’s fine, really. I’m allowed to be annoyed by the fact that people can’t keep a handle on their offspring.”
“He’s got a point,” Skye agreed, sidestepping into Ward’s arm to avoid a train of children, and then their harried looking parents. “Then again, got to feel bad for parents, right? Can’t be easy to control a herd of excited rugrats.” She moved, looping her arm through Ward’s while the four of them continued to walk, grinning up at the other. “I’m sure we all gave you a run for your money when mom and dad left you in charge, huh, big bro?”
Ward didn’t bother holding back on the eyeroll that time, nodding along with it. “Something like that, yeah.” He agreed.
Jemma shook her head, looking over at Fitz. “At least we were the good kids, right?”
Fitz smiled, glancing back at Ward and Skye, before shrugging. “Sure, we were. But, you know, I think at times, we might have approached something akin to being creepy twins.”
“At times,” Ward mimicked, his tone flat. Fitz’s smile grew and Simmons laughed.
“Admit it, Ward, we grew on you,” she said, ignoring the obvious. Of course they’d grown on him. They’d all grown on him, and they’d all grown on each other. It was obvious in multiple forms. Leave alone their relationships, there was so much that had changed between them from day one. From even week one. They’d come to understandings and they’d learned each other and they had become a family. It was why they were all spending this time in New York, and it was why Jemma wouldn’t have wanted anyone else along with them. Fitz, as her man of honour, was a given, but, marrying Skye, having Coulson walk Skye down the aisle, having Ward as Skye’s man of honour, and May in the bridal party...
Something about all of that said that they had grown on each other, maybe more than Coulson had ever intended. Somehow, Jemma didn’t think the senior agent minded much.
By the time they reached their carousel and everyone had grabbed their bags, Simmons was eying her watch critically. “We didn’t get out of here as fast as I had hoped,” she commented, turning, bag handle in her grasp, leading the way towards the exits, and, beyond them, the taxis that would get them to the hotel. “The traffic is probably going to be a nightmare...”
“It’s New York, Jemma,” Fitz said, matching her pace as they approached the glass doors. “I think the traffic here is always a nightmare.”
He had a point, but that wasn’t helping the schedule that Simmons had worked out in her head. Fitz glanced over at Skye, who didn’t do much but smile back sheepishly, before looking at Ward. He looked between the two of them, and then back at Simmons, just in time for her to start speaking again. “Yes, but Coulson and May are already going to be at the hotel,” she argued, waving her free hand. “We have to get there, check-in, I’m starving, I’m sure they’re probably hungry, I know you,” she jabbed a finger into Fitz’s shoulder, earning her a quiet ‘ow’ before she continued. “Are probably just this side of fading away into nothing...”
“We’ll get there with lots of time to go and grab something to eat, Jem,” Skye said, bumping their shoulders together before dropping her voice to a low tone. “Baby, don’t worry. Everything’s going great so far. You’re acting about as neurotic as Fitz and as uptight as Ward,” she grinned when Simmons looked at her, smile barely under wraps. “There’s my girl.”
For their part, Fitz and Ward hadn’t exactly been spared the comment, but didn’t say anything. On the flight over, Fitz had made a passing comment about how Jemma didn’t seem relaxed. The two of them had been side by side, Ward and Skye next to each other in the next row over and back. Simmons had glanced over once, making sure she wouldn’t be heard, and then took a breath, before smoothing her hands over her jeans, and speaking.
“I’m a bit nervous, Fitz,” she had admitted, giving him a shaky smile. “This is it; this is everything really starting to come together. I mean, yes, of course we’ve done the other planning. The venue, the caterer, the guest list, the seating charts and all of that.” She’d reached up, careful of the woman dozing to her right, and twisted her hair into a ponytail, more for the act of doing something with her hands than anything, Fitz suspected. “But this. Getting the gowns, getting the tuxedos; this is it all coming together, and what if Skye gets cold feet?”
“Cold feet.” Fitz had said, deadpan and disbelieving. “What if you get cold feet?” he’d countered, enjoying the shocked look on Simmons’ face maybe more than he should have.
“I wouldn’t,” she hissed, going from shock to offense in the space of two seconds. Fitz had smiled, settling back in his seat and making a ‘see?’ gesture with his hands.
“Then, why would Skye? She’s crazy about you, Jemma. You guys have gone through a lot, and I don’t think she’d let everything get this far just to run out of the shop screaming.”
Simmons had gone quiet for a minute, before jabbing him in the side with her elbow and settling herself, muttering something about hating when he was right.
That wasn’t true, of course. Especially in this instance. There was no hate for the logic that Fitz had brought to the table, only anxiousness for it to override the irrational fears Simmons had. Fears that she did not intend to share with Skye, now, or at all. It was normal, pre-marriage concerns that plenty of people had. She was glad that she was the one afflicted and not Skye, was the long and short of it.
That was, at least, what she was thinking when they stepped up to the curb and Ward directed them to a cab.
“What’s the hotel, again?” he asked, helping the cabbie with their bags.
“Bryant Park,” Simmons supplied, nodding to the cabbie when he smiled at her.
“Excellent choice,” he agreed. “Bit of a drive, though.”
Ward rolled his eyes, choosing not to comment, turning his back to the cabbie while Simmons nodded. She could understand his annoyance. The cabbie wasn’t commenting on the drive for no reason. Probably he had issues with the distance, given the time of day. More likely, he was fishing to make sure they were aware of his rates. It would be no problem for them to pay for the cab, but, dressed down as they were, they may not have looked it.
“We know,” Skye cut in, voice musical and placating. “It’s why we chose to favour you with the fare, and generous tip.”
The cabbie nodded, smiling jovially at her. “Well then, miss, I guess we’d better get you and your friends to the Bryant, shouldn’t we?”
“Couldn’t have planned it better if we tried.”
Melinda May closed her eyes, smiling and closing her book, before glancing over her shoulder in the direction the voice had come from. Standing next to her, dressed down to jeans and a trim looking grey sweater, was Phil Coulson, all smiles, sunglasses pushed up onto his forehead while he waited for her to greet him back.
“Except,” she started, setting the book into her bag before standing. “We did plan it. And you’re five minutes late,” she didn’t hide her smile, despite her chastising words, and let him pull her into a hug, returning it easily.
“You would have been counting the seconds,” Coulson grumbled, letting her go, his own smile still in place. Like always. “Good trip?”
“Nothing to complain about,” May said, lifting her purse onto her shoulder, glancing around the lobby of the hotel. “Quick, quiet. I got here and checked in already. Nice hotel.”
Coulson nodded, looking around the lobby before talking a few steps, signalling her to walk with him. “No kidding. Jemma sure didn’t cut any corners, even on this. The government discount is really good though.”
May hummed, running a hand through her hair. “It is. It’s why I had the charge switched to my card.” Coulson looked over at her, raising an eyebrow. She stared back at him calmly, raising one of her own. “What? There’s nothing wrong with giving them a bit of an early wedding present.”
“Look at you, and your heart of ice,” Coulson said, laughing and shaking his head. “That was really good of you, May. I’m sure they’ll be very happy. Them, the boys,” he spread his hands in a shrug. “Me.”
“I was waiting for that,” she said.
“Well, in gratitude for footing my hotel bill,” Coulson said, waving towards the hotel’s bar lounge. “Let me buy you a drink.”
May nodded her agreement, and waited while Coulson spoke with the hostess and had them lead to their table. He ordered for the two of them, waiting for the waitress to leave, before he turned to May, his smile less flippant now.
“Something’s up, Melinda. I can tell. You’re not the same kind of tense that I’m used to. You’re...” he frowned, casting around for words. ‘You’re waiting for an opening, aren’t you?”
May smiled, much more genuine than anything she’d given him thus far, and nodded, pulling her purse into her lap and unzipping it. “You still have it,” she said lightly. Across the table, Coulson didn’t speak, but she could hear the ‘I’ve always had it’ implied in the way he rapped his knuckles on the tabletop.
“I came across something last night,” she started, fishing the file out of her bag, setting it aside before she laid the folder carefully on the table between them. She watched the cool way Coulson read the file name, even though it was upside down for him, his expression not giving anything away, though they both knew what the importance of those stamped words were.
“Look at you,” he said, nodded to the waitress as she approached. May laid her hand over the stamped title of the file, smiling at the young woman while she set their drinks down, before asking that they just let her know if they needed anything else, and clicking off. “Stealing files now.” Coulson finished, lifting his glass and taking a sip before gesturing for her to continue.
May took a sip of her own drink, opening the file, spreading her fingers over the seam in the folder to make it lie flat while she looked at Coulson. “As Avengers liaison, I thought it might be best for me to come to you with something that is probably very pertinent to one of the Avengers. I know how he feels about S.H.I.E.L.D. and I don’t think he would take it very well, coming from me.” It wasn’t that her first, or subsequent, meetings with Tony Stark hadn’t been all right. The issue was, however, Stark’s general attitude towards S.H.I.E.L.D. since certain events. He had never been in their fan club.
Turning the file, she slid it across the table towards Coulson, taking in his now serious face as he pulled it towards himself. A few minutes passed in silence while he read, and she drank. Her phone buzzed and she lifted it, seeing a message from Ward. He was letting her know that they had landed and were on their way to the hotel. That he hoped all was well with her and they’d see her soon. She set down her glass, typing out a quick response that she was well, with Coulson, and they would both be waiting. By the time she’d finished, Coulson was shuffling the papers in the file and shaking his head.
“This could be bad,” he said plainly. May nodded.
“That’s why I thought you should see it,” she tapped the DVD with her nail. “This in particular is rather damning. I’m surprised no one recognised him in data analysis.”
Coulson’s smirk was mirthless. “They don’t have you in data analysis,” was his response. He sighed, raising his glass and taking a long sip, before he glanced at the file again. Coulson shook his head slightly, and looked up at her.
“You know, Jemma and Skye’s wedding isn’t the only one in the works.”
“I’ve heard rumours,” May said.
“I don’t think, in the middle of everything, I could put this down and risk disrupting everything for Pepper,” he went on. May was well aware of Coulson’s friendship with all of the Avengers, as well as Tony Stark’s fiancée, Pepper Potts. Pepper, she liked very much. That was a woman who could get things done, calmly and efficiently, and took no guff from anyone. While she had no doubt that, under Pepper’s direction, the plans for her and Tony’s wedding were going forward smoothly, she could understand Coulson’s reservations about putting this in front of her.
“And, really, considering how things have been going for them so far...” Coulson squinted down at one of the pages. “How do you think the team will feel about, maybe, getting back together for something like this?”
Ignoring the surge of victorious excitement in her gut was difficult, and unexpected, but May managed. The time that they had spent, flying around the world, and dealing with things as S.H.I.E.L.D. assigned to them, had taken its toll on her. Not necessarily in a negative way. Through everything, from the missions to her fling with Ward, to the destruction of the Helicarrier and the Ultron event, that team had its effect on her. And now, that effect was making itself known in the excited churn in her belly while she nodded calmly.
“They aren’t as dangerous as they once were,” Coulson continued, lifting one of the sheets – one with screenshots of the intruder from the lab. “Not after a fall from grace like that. Still probably dangerous, and definitely unstable, but I think we could handle them.”
“That was my intention all along.”
Coulson looked over the paper at her, flat for a second, before May spotted the twitch in the corners of his mouth, and the spark in his eye.
“You keep quiet,” she said stiffly, smiling a bit in spite of herself. Only enough that Coulson, who knew her so well, would perceive it. “I’ve missed the team. Administration isn’t the thrill it was before you pulled me out of retirement,” she crossed her arms on the tabletop, shrugging, something uncharacteristic for her. “As much fun as wedding shopping is going to be,” she paused, letting Coulson get in his snicker. “We could make the most of this bonding weekend by convincing Director Fury that we need to be together on this. Skye and Jemma’s wedding is just a little under four months away. That is plenty of time to track these goons down and have them turned into S.H.I.E.L.D. custody.”
Coulson nodded, sliding the papers back into order and setting the DVD gingerly on top of them. “I agree. I guess that means I’ll hand you the reins for doing as you see fit,” he flipped the file closed, looking up at May, that infuriatingly all-knowing smile back in place. “Somehow, I don’t think they are going to argue with you about giving it one last hurrah.”
May nodded, finishing her drink. “I don’t think they’ll be the major obstacle,” she agreed, reaching for the file to put it back into her purse, snug and safe. “Speaking of them, Ward texted me a while ago, saying they were on their way.”
“That who you were texting while I was having trouble wrapping my head around the idea that anyone could survive those kinds of deaths?” When May nodded, Coulson leaned back in his seat, glancing at his watch. “Given the traffic, then, they should probably be getting here in the next ten, maybe fifteen, minutes.” He raised a hand to signal their waitress for the check, shifting and reaching for his wallet. “Might as well go wait for them.”
Responding with another nod, May zipped her purse shut, waiting while he paid for their drinks before sliding out of the booth and straightening up, leading the way out of the bar lounge, Coulson a step behind her.
“You know, Melinda,” he started. “If I didn’t know how much you hated undercover work, I’d almost peg you for it now. Heels, dress, a purse?”
May glanced over her shoulder, giving Coulson a smirk while he caught up to her. “I’m on vacation.”
Chapter 9: Old School
February 21st, 2018 - New York City, New York
“You didn’t really!”
Jemma’s mock-affronted tone was loud, but not loud enough to carry out of their personal corner of the restaurant they’d walked to for dinner. The arrival at the hotel had been a flurry of activity, dropping their bags at the front desk, checking in, checking and double-checking that they had their room numbers right and that everyone had their room key and knew what to do with it. Namely, not losing it or putting it anywhere near their cell phones, for fear of deactivating the things. Once that was over, and they were assured that their bags would be delivered to their rooms, Jemma had turned and paused, before asking where was good for dinner.
The answer had been a long silence, before Fitz had piped up that he really did not care where they ate, so long as he got food soon, because he was bloody starving. Skye pointed out that the question was probably something they should have asked at the front desk before they’d moved on to the next guest. May and Ward had exchanged looks that were half-amused, half-exasperated. Coulson had kept smiling through the whole thing. He was also the one who came to Simmons’ rescue, suggesting that they could all just head out the front doors, pick a direction, and start walking. Hit the first restaurant that they came across. Simmons had smiled in relief, nodded, and gestured to their former team leader, declaring his plan excellent.
The walk to the restaurant had taken the better part of twenty minutes, though none of them really minded. The whole point of this trip was to get reacquainted with each other, the spend time together as a full group, since there was no real time for that sort of thing anymore. They were all so busy with the corners of the agency that they’d ended up in, that times like these were few and far between. The restaurant was an Italian place, and the menu wasn’t exactly cheap, but it wasn’t going to break anyone’s wallets. Plus, there was a lot of space, and a big, round table booth for the six of them to share. That had been a winning factor, once they’d been seated. Skye had pulled out her phone to give the place a thumbs up on Urbanspoon before they’d even been served. Ward had pulled his out to counter her with a thumbs down, and that had led to where they were now.
“’Course I did,” Ward said with an easy smile, slipping his phone back into his pocket. “What if this place gives us food poisoning and Skye just went and told people that it’s great? We have a duty to the greater good.” He leaned sideways to avoid the elbow to the side Jemma nearly gave him.
“Don’t say that,” she warned. “If we get food poisoning, and I end up bent over in the loo instead of trying on wedding gowns tomorrow, Grant Ward, you’re going to get it.”
The specialist laughed, incredulous. “Jemma, I’m pretty sure it’s not going to work out like that!”
“You’d best hope it doesn’t,” Simmons replied, trying to look stern, but failing, the little upturns at the corners of her mouth giving her away. The waitress came then, taking their orders with a large, cheery smile that seemed too genuine for her to have been on shift long. The restaurant was far from empty. She promised to be back in a minute with their drink orders, bustling off with a full notepad, and May leaned forward, turning to the two brides-to-be.
“Speaking of the gowns,” she started, looking from one to the other. “What are the plans for tomorrow? I know the appointment is at eleven, but, past that?”
“Nothing,” Skye said, leaning back in her seat, stretching her arms out to tap her fingers on the table top. “I mean, of course, lunch, probably dinner, but, really, we figured the dress appointment would be more than enough for one day.” She looked at Simmons, passed off the explanation torch with one look.
“We’d looked around,” Simmons explained. “And a lot of people said that the constant in-and-out of dresses, and the discussions, and the fashion show, and then, paying for the gown... Well, it all took it out of them, by the time the appointment was over.” She paused, smiling at their waitress and thanking her in unison with the rest of the table, as their drinks were set down. “So, while the rest of you won’t really be trying on ten or more dresses—”
“—Ten or more?” Fitz blurted. Simmons raised her eyebrows at him.
“As my maid of honour, I would have thought you had looked into how long these things could go on for.”
“First of all,” Fitz countered. “Man of honour. Second of all, I did, but, I thought three hours was enough time for the two of you to try a few each...”
“Three hours,” Skye spoke up, ticking off on her fingers as she listed. “For selecting dresses, trying them on, deliberating, getting out of them, putting on others, choosing veils, getting measured, and paying.” She waggled her eight ticked off fingers at Fitz. “Three hours is barely going to be enough. You know, most brides go to more than one bridal salon before they choose their dress? Jem and I decided to try and condense it into just this one.” Pointing a finger-gun in the engineer’s direction, she lifted her drink. “So, you’re welcome for only making you go through this once.”
Fitz made a face at the table, lifting his own drink and giving the floor back to Jemma to continue explaining the next day’s plans.
“Anyway,” she said, not bothering to hide her smile, catching Fitz’s return one, assured his feelings weren’t hurt by the telling he got. “So, the appointment is at eleven. Appointments, really. We’re trying to go a little bit traditional with this. I won’t be seeing Skye’s dress, and she won’t be seeing mine. Not until the big day. With any luck, those three hours will be enough time for us both to choose dresses and veils. At some point in there, you three,” she pointed at Ward, Coulson and Fitz in turn. “Will be going to the men’s area of the salon. I believe it’s in the basement?” she looked to Skye for a confirming nod. “To get measured for your tuxes.”
“Tuxedos,” Coulson quipped. “We’re going to be a trio of penguins while you two are being jammed in and out of dresses.” For their part, Ward and Fitz didn’t look overly thrilled about being measured up, but they didn’t look too put upon, either.
“Exactly,” Skye said. “Penguins are pretty cute, so hopefully looking like one will soften up the T-1000 over there up,” she winked at Ward. “Make him look a little less surly when he’s standing up there next to me.”
“No promises,” said Ward.
“Wouldn’t expect it any other way,” Skye sing-songed. “And, of course, May.” The agent in question gave Skye a soft smile, having been listening intently the whole time the two had been laying out the day’s plans. “Jemma and I thought we’d let you choose your dress. No finicky input from us, we both trust you to pick the right thing.”
“But, ah, nothing black,” Jemma tacked on, looking a little apologetic.
May waved her hand. “No, girls. I do appreciate it, but, it’s your big day. I’m honoured to be involved to the extent that I am, being ringbearer. I’m not going to go with anything black. What’s your colour scheme?”
The girls looked at each other, before giving the rest of the table a sheepish grin each. Coulson’s smile turned into a grin and he clapped his hands together, leaning back against the rear of the booth. “They haven’t chosen one yet,” he guessed, the nod Simmons gave answer enough.
“We’d been planning to go with whatever colour May chose for her dress.”
“Seems like a good idea to me,” Ward said, crossing his arms on the edge of the table and leaning on them. “More decisions off your plate.”
“And how could we not trust a choice made by the Calvary?” said Skye, risking a playful smile and being rewarded with one back from the senior agent.
“You two really trust me?”
“Really,” Simmons and Skye chimed at once.
“If it’s not too much trouble,” Simmons went on. “Of course, we don’t want you to feel pressured to choose a colour, so, if you’d rather we come up with something...”
It wasn’t May who answered, but Ward, jerking his thumb past Fitz to indicate her. “No way some dress colours are going to pressure May.”
“He’s right,” Coulson added. May nodded beside him, looking utterly unfrazzled, the matter seemingly decided.
“All right,” Skye said. “Well, then, that’s out of the way!”
Grant opened his mouth to speak, but held off as two waitresses, their own and another, older, less peppy woman, arrived with their food, passing the dishes out and making sure everyone was comfortable before they went off again. While the team went about unwrapping their linen wrapped utensils, Ward spoke.
“So, get up, grab breakfast of some kind, I assume...?”
“Mm,” Fitz chewed and swallowed the first bite of his meal, and nodded. “If we’re going to be in the bride store for three hours, I request time for breakfast.”
“If you get up in time, you’ll have plenty of time,” May said, not looking over, though she was smiling at her plate, just slightly.
“What May said,” Skye agreed.
“Right, so, breakfast, head over to the salon for, what, 10:45 to be safe?”
“To be safe,” Simmons agreed.
“Find you two dresses, find you veils, find May a dress, get the three of us measured, then, I assume, lunch?”
“Late lunch,” Simmons said, with a nod. “So, have a big breakfast.”
“Three hours sounds like a long damn time just to pick out a couple of damn dresses,” Ward said, loading up his fork with pasta. Simmons sent him a flat stare, setting down her own fork for a moment.
“You know, they’re a lot more than ‘damn dresses’.”
“By the price tag alone,” Skye supplied, smiling sweetly at her fiancée when she was given an unimpressed look.
“They are wedding gowns, and we’re going to have to live with our choices for the rest of our lives,” the biochemist continued, turning back to Ward. “You know, I hope you two appreciate how difficult this is when you’re planning your own wedding.”
The effect of her words was instantaneous. Coulson looked up from his food and smirked. May’s gaze slid to the side, watching the two of out the corner of her eyes. Fitz stilled with a mouthful of food partway to his lips. Ward put his glass down with a thump that was slightly more forceful than necessary. Skye grinned, leaning against Jemma, resting her chin on the other’s shoulder while she fixed Fitz and Ward in her sights.
“I think it’s a good idea for us to just focus on one wedding right now,” Ward said stiffly, not moving his head, but looking from Simmons to Skye and back again. “Let’s just get through yours before anyone starts breathing down my neck to produce a ring, all right?”
Skye shrugged, turning back to her food, but Simmons watched long enough to catch Leo exchanging a quick look with the older man, and then catch his eyes before they each turned back to their food.
The ‘why would you say something like that?’ was loud and clear in his eyes. She shrugged, the movement nigh imperceptive, her own response of ‘it was as innocent as Shirley Temple’ clear in the look she sent back his way. Fitz pursed his lips, his eyebrows rising for a second before he went back to his food.
Chapter 10: Happy
February 22nd, 2018 - Bryant Park Hotel, New York City, New York
Some people de-stress with exercise. Others turn to repetitive and engrossing activities like baking, or cleaning. Some listen to music in a dark room, some sleep, and some go for walks. There were dozens of ways to de-stress out there, and there were probably a number of them that Jemma could have engaged in, when she’d woken up, and the first thing she’d done had been to turn on her tablet and start to consult the dress guides. Again.
It didn’t matter how many times Skye said she knew that Jemma would be beautiful in any dress she chose. It didn’t matter how many times Fitz told her, in person, over text, or through the phone, that on her wedding day, there was literally no way she wouldn’t look beautiful. It didn’t even matter that Ward had glanced over her shoulder the night before when they’d all caught night caps in the lounge, and commented that he didn’t know what a website was supposed to tell her about looking gorgeous in her gown, since it would be impossible for her not to. None of it did much to stifle the voice in the back of her head that was driving her to concern over how the gowns would fit on her, how they would flow, if they would be able to accentuate her high points, and mask her low; no matter what anyone said, and how much she wanted to believe them, she worried about it.
Skye had stirred next to her while she’d been thinking over her cut choices again, rousing enough to pull herself up, leaning her cheek against Jemma’s upper arm to squint at the tablet screen. “Y’not thinkin’ ‘bout this again, are you?”
Simmons hadn’t answered, pulling up a page of mermaid cut gowns to eye them critically again.
“Why don’t you just ask the consultant for one of each?” Skye’d asked, lifting herself up against the pillows, pushing a hand back through her mussed hair.
“That’s what I’m beginning to think,” Simmons had said, glancing over at the other woman while she turned off the tablet’s screen, setting it on the bedside table. “Of course, it doesn’t matter what you choose, you’re going to look like you just walked out of one of these magazines.”
Skye had stilled, and raised an eyebrow. “And you’re thinking you won’t? Jem...” she leaned forward, slipping an arm around the other’s waist, kissing her shoulder. “You’re finding little things to stress out about again...”
“I can’t help it,” Jemma sighed, leaning her head to the side while Skye’s kisses had trailed over her shoulder, up her neck. “My mind wanders, ends up thinking about trivial things...”
“Think about something else, then,” Skye’s advice had been, fingers trailing lightly across the biochemist’s stomach, goosebumps popping under the thin fabric of her nightgown in their wake.
“Easy for you to say,” Jemma had countered. “You’re not the one worrying.”
“Mm,” Skye had lifted her opposite hand to Jemma’s shoulder, easing her back on the pillows. Then she’d given her the sweetest smile possible, mischief lighting in her eyes, far too bright for someone who had just woken up. “I could help you with that.”
That was how they’d ended up here, and, to be frank, Jemma wasn’t complaining, and wasn’t shamed in the least, by this particular brand of de-stressing tactic. Skye’s mouth was warm, and the hands trailing over her thighs and stomach were warm, and her tongue was terribly teasing and absolutely wonderful. She’d laid still under Skye’s ministrations; the kisses over her collarbone, the teasing, the barely there touches up her sides. By the time the brunette had coaxed her legs apart, she had been a wanting mess, hardly suppressing the shivers dancing under her skin as Skye had settled between her legs.
The first touch of her tongue had torn a loud gasp out of Jemma’s throat, making her eyes close. It seemed almost too long since two nights ago, when they’d last done anything to deal with their libidos. Every one of her nerve endings was electrified, sparking under Skye’s touch, no matter where it was.
It definitely made thinking, let alone worrying, about anything else a far away thought.
Her mind, in fact, was pleasantly blank of anything but Skye’s name as she twisted her fingers in the other’s already messy hair, tugging gently and whimpering. It was good, so good, and she wasn’t going to last long. Not with the way Skye was teasing her, alternating long and quick drags of her tongue over her clit, not with the look in the other’s hazy eyes while she watched Jemma’s face, certainly not with the way she hummed against her, sending electric jolts through her whole body. Fingers tightening in Skye’s hair, she arched off the bed, pressing her lips together, trying to stay quiet, trying not to disturb their neighbours. Skye’s hands gripped her hips, held her still, mouth relentless, just where she needed it, pushing her closer and closer to her peak, until she was choking back whines and shuddering in her grasp, eyes rolled back in pleasure.
Skye didn’t relent until Jemma sagged against the bed, taking a long shaky breath. She let her go, pressing a soft kiss to her knee, before crawling over her, smiling down at where she was laying sprawled against the pillows, trying to catch her breath. “Feeling better?”
“Mmhm,” Jemma answered, reaching up to push Skye’s hair back from her face, and rub her fingertips gently against her scalp, silent apology for the way she’d pulled. It wasn’t necessary – Skye had told her many times she liked it when Jemma pulled – but she did it anyway. Her entire body felt loose and relaxed, comfortable. She didn’t want to get out of bed any time in the near future, though she knew she would have to.
Skye laughed softly, quirking an eyebrow. “Ready to face the bridal nightmare?”
“Going to own it,” Jemma answered, not having it in her to be annoyed with how loose her own words sounded, liking the way Skye grinned when she said ‘own it’. The other had rubbed off on her in more ways than one, her colloquialisms infectious.
“That’s my girl,” Skye said, manoeuvring over her, getting out of the bed and ignoring Jemma’s protests.
“Just a bit longer?”
“Nope,” Skye said, hooking her thumbs in the elastic on her panties, dropping them to the floor, and stripping off her tank top after them, not shy at all in her nakedness as she padding over for one of the fluffy hotel housecoats. “We have to meet everyone downstairs in an hour – by our own decree,” she gestured to all of Jemma, laying boneless in the big hotel bed. “And since you’re not going anywhere soon, I get first shower.”
“You cheated,” the other argued, rolling over, burying her face in Skye’s pillow, catching her scent on the hotel fabric softener and detergent.
“Maybe, but you enjoyed it,” Skye countered, stepping into the bathroom. Simmons heard the water start, and a second later, Skye voice drifted out of the room. “Don’t you go back to sleep, either!”
“I’m not you!” Simmons called back, but roused herself from the bed, hearing the curtain pull back, and the soft fwump of Skye’s housecoat sitting the floor. Glancing at the other’s discarded clothing on the floor, she shook her head, slipping out of bed, testing her weight on her still shaky legs, before she set about packing up their sleep clothes, picking out clothes for herself for the day.
“I know you’re awake,” Leo muttered, tapping his fingers in a rhythm on Grant’s bare chest, waiting a beat before leaning up the short distance to press a kiss to his jaw. It was exceptionally rare that Ward slept longer than him, and this morning was no exception, judging by the low chuckle that came out of the man under him. “That’s what I thought,” Fitz said, smiling gently.
Ward’s arm tightened around his waist, and he cracked open an eye, looking at Fitz for a second before he spoke. “You can’t blame me,” he said, voice rough from sleep. “I’m comfortable. You know how long it’s been since we had a vacation? I’m enjoying everything about this bed right now.” It didn’t take much imagining for Fitz to understand that he was very much included in that ‘everything’. He wouldn’t argue that the bed was less comfortable than Ward made it sound, in all its aspects. The two of them had fallen into bed soon after they’d gotten back from dinner the night before, and he was loathe to get out of it anytime soon, either. He didn’t think, really, that either of them would, if it weren’t for the obligations that they had. Obligations he needed to bring to Ward’s attention, before he tried to fall back asleep.
Extracting himself from Ward’s arms, Fitz sat up, stretching, making a small sound of happiness as his muscles pulled and his joints popped. He dropped his arms back into his lap and glanced over his shoulder at Ward, both eyes open now, watching him. Some days it was a bit hard to believe that they’d ended up tumbled together like this. Getting to see Grant Ward, one of the most dangerous men alive, sprawled in bed, with tousled hair and a lazy smile, was definitely a good reminder that all of that had happened.
The two fingers trailing down the line of his spine were good reminders too.
“We can’t lay in bed all day, you know,” he said, nodding towards the door. “Skye and Simmons need us there while they’re getting all dolled up and dressy. Men of Honour and all.”
“Mm,” Ward said, the fingers he’d trailed down Fitz’s spine trailing back up, making goosebumps pop in their wake. “I know. Speaking of which...”
Ward moved, pulling himself up to sit back against the pillows, yawning and reaching a hand up to rub through his hair. Fitz stayed where he was, waiting for the other to finish his thought, curious as to what had been brought to his mind by the idea of their status as Men of Honour.
“You... Have you been thinking? About what Jemma said,” he clarified, looking up at Fitz, holding his gaze, even if Fitz could see the small twitch in his jaw that indicated he was at least a little bit nervous about the discussion.
The two of them hadn’t spoken about what had been said at the dinner table the night before, not at all, since they’d come back the night before. It had been a castaway comment, at least, that was what Simmons had said, without saying it, and it didn’t need to weigh on them at all, if they didn’t let it. But, morning always brought new perspective, and, clearly, for Ward, the new perspective was to actually breach the subject. Fitz wondered if he was curious, wanted to know where his head was in regards to being asked to marry Grant. He wondered if the idea had occurred to him before last night.
“I know, though, we’re on vacation,” Ward continued when Fitz didn’t immediately answer. “Maybe it’s a good idea for us not to open the can of worms. We are on vacation, and we’ve been doing well, there’s no need to start the second day with...” He didn’t say argument, or fight, or bickering, but the words hung heavy in the air between them. Fitz sighed, turning over and moving up the bed, taking Ward’s face in his hands and shaking him, just lightly.
“I’ve thought about it,” he admitted. “A bit last night, a bit this morning. It’s hard to ignore something like that.” Smiling, he settled, hands sliding to Ward’s shoulders. “But, just so you know? I’m not going to go all wedding crazy on you. It’s a bit hard to be bothered over something like that, when everything we have is already good. Besides,” he grinned, leaning in to kiss Ward quickly before swinging a leg over his, stepping onto the floor and out of the bed. “I don’t think we could situate planning a wedding around your mission schedule.”
Ward snorted behind him, the sheets rustling while Fitz bent over his suitcase, digging out clothes for the day. “Right,” he agreed, stepping up behind Fitz while he stood, jeans and a plaid button-down flung over his arm. His hands fell on Fitz’s shoulders, big and warm, and squeezed. “Remind me again how lucky I am that sometimes you’re so logically rational?”
“Extremely lucky,” Fitz chimed, glancing back at Ward. “They’re expecting us downstairs in an hour.”
Ward grumbled, nodding and stepping away. “First shower’s yours,” he offered, waving at the bathroom.
“You’re downright gentlemanly when you want to get back to bed,” Fitz commented, heading to the bathroom. “Don’t get back in that bed without me, Grant Ward.”
While the rest of their former team laid in bed, caught up on sleep, discussed heavy topics, or shared intimate moments, Coulson and May had been awake, both having the same idea. At least, May had had an idea, and Coulson had guessed at it. Making his way down to the hotel’s gym in the early morning, he’d found the woman there, going through her morning routine, body lithe and in control as she went through her tai-chi movements. May was unpredictable, and yet, predictable, and Coulson was no happier for that than now, save for a few moments in the field. He’d sat quiet, waiting while she finished, for once not talking at her while she was in the midst of her concentration. When she finished, she nodded to him, walking towards the change rooms.
“Good morning,” she’d said, almost cordially.
“Morning,” he answered, hands slipped into the pockets of his khaki pants. “I was thinking coffee.”
“Coffee,” she agreed, nodding once. “Let me shower, I’ve got my clothes for the day down here already. Then we can get coffee. The others aren’t awake yet?”
“Nope,” Coulson said, veering slowly towards the main doors to wait for her. “They’re taking the term ‘vacation’ seriously.”
“Go figure,” May smirked, pushing open the change room door, disappearing behind it. Coulson, for his part, went through the main doors, waiting in one of the sitting areas, flipping through the newspaper without really seeing it. It was hard for him to feel as though they were on vacation, though he knew he was. New York was his base of operations, and had been for a long time now. It was difficult to say you were vacationing when one of your workplaces was a short cab ride away. Having the others here helped, and when the six of them were together, he could almost pretend they were away again. He’d been doing this job for a long time, though, and the idea of a vacation was foreign.
When May found him, just a few minutes later, they left the hotel without speaking, walking the sidewalk side by side, until they found a Starbucks. The first and only words either of them had said since she came out of the gym were their orders. The next were Coulson’s, as they pushed out the doors of the coffee shop.
“So,” he took a sip of his coffee. “When were you going to tell them about the proposal?” The time they all had together was limited, and, while Coulson didn’t want to rain on Simmons and Skye’s parade, if they were going to tackle this event together, they needed to get a start on it as soon as possible.
“Not until tomorrow,” was May’s answer, almost too fast. She looked up at the buildings around them, frowning, the look giving away to Coulson that she wasn’t as sure about it as her shotgun answer had suggested. “Maybe. We’ll see how the appointment goes,” when she looked at Coulson, he could see the tinge of resignation in her eyes. “I don’t want to make this trip about taking a mission, but if we wait too long, we’ll miss the window. Maybe I’ll bring it up tonight.”
“Whatever you choose, I’ll support you.”
May smiled, quirking an eyebrow. “Thanks, for that.”
Coulson returned the smile easily, holding the hotel door open for her. “Anytime.”
As they were walking through the lobby, heading to find a sitting area where they could sit and finish their coffees while they waited for the others, they heard a familiar laugh, and a call of “Morning, AC! Morning, May!”
Skye and Simmons were walking towards them across the long hallway, both beaming, hair gathered into low, loose ponytails. “Don’t tell me we beat Ward and Fitz,” Skye said, grinning and glancing around. “We did! And Fitz even knows that we’re going to breakfast, you’d think he’d be here before all of us.”
Simmons smiled, nodding almost smugly. “We were more punctual than the super secret agent. That’s a score for us.”
May rolled her eyes with a small smile, turning back to her coffee. Coulson raised his eyebrows, looking from one girl to the other. “I’m not used to seeing you so bright-eyed and bushy tailed this early in the day,” he agreed. “Ward’s going to be pretty put out when you rub it in his face.”
“Put out?” Simmons said, rolling her eyes and scoffing. “You know why they’re probably late?” She hesitated a second, probably realising what she was about to say, and to whom, before Skye picked up the thought for her.
“They’re probably getting biblical,” the former hacktivist filled in. Her eyes lit up, and a smirk curled her lips. “Then again, it’s probably not like this is the first time the hotel’s had to deal with something like that happening in the morning, hm?”
The flush that Simmons turned away to hide didn’t go unnoticed by Coulson, or May, who had looked over again. Thankfully for her, the elevators dinged, and Ward and Fitz stepped out, both putting on nearly identical looks of confusion at the gathering in front of them.
“Ohhh,” Ward started. “No way! No way you two beat us down here.”
Chapter 11: Drink in my Hand
February 22nd, 2018 – Randall’s Bridal, Manhattan, New York City
The bridal salon was one of the most played up places a lot of them had ever been in. That was to be expected. If you were shopping for a wedding gown, you wanted to be in a place that looked like it was the height of architectural fashion and a hub of design. It was an important part of the whole experience that you sink into the couches when you were waiting to be gathered for your appointment, and that there be no less than two baskets of flowers on every table, spilling petals and leaves over their marble finishes. It was necessary that some elevator music-soft rock fusion be playing at all times, and that everyone who you saw be dressed in unassuming black.
It was exactly what it should have been.
Maybe that was why the sight of the place made Skye’s stomach clench when they stepped into the waiting area. They’d been in the works of planning the wedding for months now. Flower types, venues, places to look for dresses, who would be in the bridal party, dates for the wedding, their honeymoon, the bachelorette parties. It wasn’t like this was news to her that they would be knocking on this door, and it wasn’t like she hadn’t known it was coming. Still, faced with it, she found herself reaching over, grabbing Ward’s forearm and gripping, while Jemma spoke to one of the consultants – not theirs, but one who was being polite enough to engage them in small talk between her own appointments.
“Ow,” he muttered, voice barely above a whisper. “I’m going to need that.”
“Sorry,” she muttered back, between clenched teeth, relaxing back into the couch and looking over at him. “Little bit...”
“Nervous?” he supplied, smiling slightly, and looking around the waiting room. “I don’t blame you. This place is making me nervous and I don’t have a ring on me, or it.” Fitz, beside him, was chatting with May and Coulson, but didn’t miss the comment. His foot shot out and kicked Ward’s, not gently, but not enough to actually hurt.
Skye nodded, smirking at Fitz’s kick. “A bit, yeah,” she said, glancing over to make sure Simmons was still engrossed with the consultant. “I don’t have cold feet, but, I mean, the dress is a big deal. Probably one of the biggest, and I don’t want to pick something that Jemma isn’t going to like, and I don’t want to pick something that’s going to clash with hers. But, we already agreed, we won’t be seeing each other’s dresses until the big day, so I don’t have any way to cheat.” Her eyes lit up, and she tightened her grip on Ward’s arm, making him sit up straighter while he tried not to jerk it away. “Ward. Grant. You, you could be my cheat. You could be my eyes.”
“What?” he asked, leaning forward so that they were speaking more privately. “Listen, Skye, I get that you’re nervous, but don’t you think Jemma is nervous too? Don’t you think she wants to cheat and make sure you’re both on the level? The four of us are going to run back and forth but if you love a dress, you know we aren’t going to tell you no.”
Skye pursed her lips, giving him a flat stare that she’d tried to perfect from his. It wasn’t quite as menacing or firm, but it worked. “What if I want one of those dresses with the lace bodices? Or one with a lot of really gaudy sequins? Or what if I want a dress with both? Are you going to let me do that to myself, Wardie?”
“Don’t start that again,” he said in a warning tone, then glanced around her at Simmons, and the redheaded woman approaching them from across the room. That had to be their consultant, on the way. “Listen, I’m not going to let you look like a freaking disaster, but I’m not going to stop you from picking your dream dress.”
Skye thought it over for a second, before nodding, and finally released the death grip she’d held on his arm. “All right. It’s a deal. And, you know, don’t tell her that I was kind of freaking out?”
Fitz turned around then, not looking at Skye, but instead at the consultant that May had pointed to, though his words were definitely meant for her. “You both get to freak out, take your time, take your time.”
Skye rolled her eyes with a small smile, reaching across Ward to slap Fitz’s knee before she too turned to their approaching consultant, and slid closer to Jemma on the couch. Chin propped on her shoulder, she whispered a soft ‘ready?’
Jemma nodded, turning to her and smiling. It was one of her most beautiful smiles, in Skye’s opinion. Wide, and bright, a bit nervous, but excited. She could have kissed her right there. She would have kissed her right there if she hadn’t whispered back an affirmative ‘ready’, and then stood, pulling Skye with her, to shake hands with their consultant.
The woman’s name, it turned out, was Heather, and she’d been a consultant at the salon for seven years, and had handled quite a few same sex brides in her time. She’d introduced herself to all of them, and then shaken everyone’s hand, asking their relation to the brides.
“No parents or siblings?” she asked, leading them onto the floor. The interior of the salon was even more impressive than the waiting room, done in champagne and white, full of pedestals, more squashy chairs and couches, and mirrors, along with rack upon rack of dresses. They certainly didn’t give any inch to not looking like they had themselves together as a streamlined establishment geared towards exactly what Skye and Simmons were there for today.
“My parents live in England,” Simmons explained with a smile. “And Skye never knew her parents. Grant, Leo, Phil and Melinda are her family, and as good as mine.” Skye found her hand, squeezing it lightly. That was the honest truth of the matter, even if they’d done no more than introduce themselves as co-workers, with the exception of Fitz, who had introduced himself as Simmons’ best friend from university. It wasn’t strictly a lie, nor was it strictly the truth, but Heather had been happy with the answer all the same.
“That’s so sweet.” she said, leading them down a hallway near the back of the salon. “I’m so sorry that you never knew your family but,” her eyes took in the team as they turned a corner into an alcove that had its own mirrors and pedestal, and a door to what it was safe to assume was one of the dressing rooms. “It’s really, really wonderful that you found a family in all of them. And Jemma.”
Skye nodded, willing herself not to tear up. She could feel it already, and cursed herself for it. It was going to be an emotional day, and, most brides showed up with mothers, fathers, sisters, sometimes brothers, friends. She didn’t have any of the first four, all she had was the last, but she had been happy with that for years. More than.
“So,” Heather started. “You mentioned that you wanted to break up into two groups, right? Phil and Grant with you, Skye, and Leo and Melinda with you, Jemma.”
“If that wouldn’t be any trouble,” Simmons said.
“Absolutely not,” Heather replied. “You booked the appointment that way when the date was set, so the salon arranged for myself and another consultant, Victoria, to assist you both. In fact, here she is now.”
Another woman, dressed as darkly as Heather, with braided blonde hair, joined them, smiling and holding out her hand to Simmons and Skye. “Sorry I didn’t meet you all in the atrium,” she said. “I was just finishing getting the room ready for Skye. I’m Vickie, nice to meet you both.”
They went through the introductions again, Heather supplementing the story of how the others were Skye’s family, and Jemma’s parents were in England. Vickie, too, expressed her condolences that Skye had grown up an orphan, but her congratulations on the family she had built.
“So, then,” she clapped her hands, looking from one bride to the other. “Shall we split up and get to work?”
The girls looked at each other, then nodded, in near tandem. “Might as well,” Simmons agreed, opening her arms for a hug that Skye easily stepped into. “Good luck,” she muttered against her hair, quiet enough that no one but Skye could hear her. “I wish I could see you. I know you’ll be beautiful in every one of these gowns, but, I can wait.”
Skye held on to her a bit tighter for that, using the time to force down the base emotional reaction her body was trying to have to those words. “Same for me,” she agreed, in the same moment as Coulson quipped, “You’d think they were going off to war, with how hard they’re holding on to each other!”
“It is war,” May said, her tone dry, but her smile anything aside. She patted both him and Ward on the shoulder, shuttling them off. “Off into the fray you go, boys.”
“What number dress is this?”
“Leopold Fitz,” Simmons said, sticking her head back out of the dressing room at her best friend and partner, unable to keep the smile off her face at seeing the smirk on his. “You be quiet. You’re going to sit there while I try on every dress in the shop, if I feel like it!”
Heather laughed, closing the door behind the two of them. “He’s being a good sport,” she commented. Simmons had gotten the feeling that May was giving Heather a bit of an edgy vibe, but, truth be told, the agent was being almost bubbly. Fitz, on the other hand, had played the role of brother so well that he almost had Simmons fooled. Not that they were trying to fool the consultant, with her knowing their relationship.
“He can be,” she agreed, holding herself still while Heather undid the clasps and clamps in the back of the dress so that she could step out of it. “I’m sorry, though, he’s right, we have tried on a lot of dresses...”
Heather smiled, bundling the dress – a mermaid cut with an extravagantly beaded top – back into its sleeve. “That’s quite all right, Jemma. I promise you, you haven’t tried on near to as many as you could be. But, how are we feeling about the dresses you have tried on so far?”
Wrapping herself in the fluffy white robe they provided for between dressings, Simmons surveyed the parade of dresses hung up in front of her that she’d already tried on. The consultant had pulled one of everything, it seemed, or close to, and she had diligently tried them all on, trying to make up her mind. She thought she had an idea for what she had fallen in love with, now, but she was almost hesitant to say it.
“Ballgowns just seem so childish...” she said, thinking out loud. Heather’s smile widened, and she shook her fists in a little show of victory that Simmons hadn’t expected. “Oh, was that... the right thing to say?”
“Kind of,” Heather said. “I loved the ballgown on you, Jemma. Melinda and Leo really seemed to, too.”
Jemma thought back to the reactions on her former teammate and current partner’s faces when she’d come out of the dressing room in the ballgown. May had looked to be quietly reverent, and had even smiled and nodded. Fitz’s mouth had hung open for a moment. They had been the strongest reactions either of them had shown so far, but, her objection to the design still stood.
“And as for what you were worrying about,” Heather continued, shaking her head. “They aren’t childish at all. They’re beautiful, gorgeous gowns, and you looked like a princess in it... If I could suggest one thing?” Simmons nodded. “You tend to veer towards the dresses that have less pizzazz, the ones that aren’t all blinged out. Do you want me to go pull you a simple ballgown? We can try it on, and see how you like that.”
“It couldn’t hurt,” Simmons agreed with a smile, watching the consultant duck out of her dressing room door. She waited a beat before she got to her feet and opened the door, leaning against the opening, interrupting the conversation that Fitz and May were having.
It was all she had to say to have May nodding and Fitz emphatically saying ‘yes’. It assured her that she was making a good gamble, even if a small part of her was still wondering about the childishness of the cut.
“You’re both sure about it?”
“Ballgowns suit you,” May said. “They make you look very regal, and they really accentuate you in all the right places. Is that what she went off to get?”
“Yeah,” Simmons said, glancing down the hall. “She said she had just the dress in mind. Ballgown with minimal additions. So, I guess will see, right?”
Fitz nodded. “We will. I have a feeling this will be the dress.”
Their faith and kind words did a lot to solidify her belief that she was making the right choice. When Heather came back down the hall, cradling a plastic wrapped dress, she smiled, stepping back into the room. This was going to be her dress.
“That was too easy,” Ward said, glancing over at Coulson. “Is it supposed to be that easy?”
Coulson shrugged. “I was under the impression that there was going to be a lot of humming and hawing and then she’d try on ten or twenty more, and then she’d decide to come back to this one.” He grinned, looking up at Skye on the pedestal again. “But, if you’re sure now, Skye, then I guess we’ve got your dress.”
Skye stuck out her tongue at the two of them before turning back to the mirror, smoothing her hands over her hips, giving her reflection a critical look. It was the first dress that she had tried on; it was one that she’d had in mind since she had seen it in a bridal magazine three weeks before. The cut was what she had hoped for, it had a little bit of flare in a gathering of rhinestones under her bust, and it hugged in all the right places.
It was perfect.
“I love it, guys, I really do,” she looked at Vickie, her eyes hopeful. “Would I be able to try it on with a veil? Not a traditional one, um,” she raised her hands, framing her face. “A birdcage veil. That’s what I wanted.”
“Of course!” Vickie said, smiling. “Give me just a second, okay?” She disappeared off down the way they’d come, leaving Skye alone with Ward and Coulson and the mirror.
“You look beautiful, Skye.” Coulson said after a minute, watching her stare at herself in the mirror.
She really did look like a vision. The dress, even though it wasn’t fitted to her, only pulled into place by clamps so that it sat on her close to how it should, made her look like the bride she was going to become. They might not have been able to tell Simmons what Skye had chosen, but Coulson had no doubt in his mind that she was going to be radiant in the other’s eyes.
“Jemma’s going to love this,” Skye breathed, looking over at Ward. “You were right. I just know.”
“Of course I was right,” he said with a smug smirk, though it settled into a suspiciously proud looking smile just a second later. “And no lace bodice with bling.”
Vickie came back with the veil in hand, a small, delicate looking netted thing, a few minutes later. “Let’s get this on you, shall we?” She pinned the veil into Skye’s hair, and knelt down, spreading out the dress before standing and stepping out of view of the mirrors, letting Skye survey herself in the mirror. There was a long minute of silence, Skye turning both ways to check the dress from all sides, before she let out a choked laugh, and nodded.
“I think I’m going to say yes to the dress,” she laughed, wiping her eyes, not having let a tear fall. “That’s what I supposed to say in this situation, isn’t it?”
“Something like that,” Vickie agreed with an amused smile. “Let’s take you to get measured, shall we?”
The measuring, it turned out, was even more uneventful than the trying on had been. Ward and Coulson sat outside the curtain in the alterations department, listening to the muffled hum of Skye and the seamstress discussing the wedding; where it would be, when it would be, their wedding parties, how she and Jemma had met – greatly embellished. After about twenty minutes, Skye stuck her head out of the curtain and waved at them.
“You guys are probably really bored, huh?” she asked, not waiting for them to answer before she continued on. “Why don’t you go grab Fitz and head over to the men’s department? Make sure everything is good to go for the three of you. Gets us out of here on time, then.”
“Don’t need to tell us twice,” Coulson said, getting up. “Send us a message when you’re ready, okay?”
Skye nodded, looking between the two of them before mouthing ‘thank you’ and disappearing back behind the curtain. They made their way back to the main floor of the salon, before looking around the hallway and picking a direction. They had a good chance of finding Jemma’s party, either way, if they kept walking. It didn’t take long, either.
She let go of Fitz and turned on the pedestal, wiping her cheeks and looking at the two of them. There was a short second while she took them in, and then the tears came fresh.
“It’s perfect, isn’t it?” she asked through the tears, reaching down to tug out the sides of the gown she was wearing. The skirt was big, but not overbearingly so, and it had little adornment, other than a slight ruffle along the strapless top. The bodice hugged her to the waist. She looked like a princess.
“You look beautiful,” Coulson said, Ward nodding at his side. “It’s perfect. You’re both going to blow each other away.”
“He’s not kidding,” Ward said. “Skye’s down getting fitted now. We were hoping to steal Fitz while you guys both get measured up. Get everything over with so we can head out on time.”
Simmons nodded, reaching back to put her hand on Fitz’s shoulder again. “Go ahead and take him. May can stay with me.”
May nodded from her spot on Simmons’ other side. “I’m the only one who thought to bring Kleenex. She definitely needs me here.”
That comment set off another bout of tears, though these ones were accompanied by a laugh, and didn’t last long. They were over before the three had turned the corner, following the signs to the men’s department.
“How many dresses did Skye try on?” Fitz asked, walking at Ward’s side.
“Only one,” he answered. “She knew what dress she wanted right away. Why, how many did Simmons go through?”
Fitz raised his eyebrows, already speaking before Ward was finished. “One? Simmons went through about fourteen!”
Coulson laughed, leading the way down another set of stairs from the ones they’d gone down to get to the alteration department. “We got lucky, Ward.”
“That we did.”
The men’s department was much more low key than the main salon. There were racks of tuxedos and suits, obviously, displays of ties and bowties, selections of pocket squares, racks of belts. But it was a much more muted version of the room that they’d been in upstairs. The consultant came over to them the second they entered the showroom.
“Afternoon, gentlemen,” he said, shaking each of their hands in turn. “Are you first time visitors, or are you here as part of a party?”
“Party,” Coulson said, naturally taking point. “We’re with the Simmons’ party. We just to make sure the suits fit, and then another member of our party will be joining us to pick the colours for the shirts and ties.”
“Perfect. Well, I have the suits ready to go, so if you’ll all just follow me...”
Ten minutes later the three of them were standing in a line in front of the mirrored wall, adjusting their jackets. The suits fit them all perfectly. Simmons’ need to be exact with their measurements had paid off, in the long run. They were all wearing plain white shirts under their jackets, though, in place of the ties that Ward and Coulson normally wore, all three of them had little black bowties nestled at their throats.
“This is weird,” Ward grumbled, fumbling with his. Fitz sighed, stepping over and gesturing for Ward to turn to him.
“Honestly, you’re impossible at some of the simplest things,” he muttered, untying and retying the bowtie, pulling it tight and smiling at his handiwork. “There. You’re all together, Agent Ward.” He put a hand on his arm, turning him back towards the mirror, leaning against his side just a bit while he looked at their reflections. Ward met his eyes in the mirror and smiled, opening his mouth to speak, when May’s voice cut him off.
“You three clean up nice.”
Coulson was the first to turn, shrugging. “I guess a bowtie makes all the difference,” he said. “You here to help pick their colours?”
May nodded, gesturing for them to come over to one of the racks with her. “I already had a colour scheme in mind last night, when they said they were willing to leave it to me. I ran it by both of them while Simmons was being measured.” She rested her hand on the rack, having singled out two shirts. One was a vibrant blue, the other a rich purple. “Purple for Fitz, blue for Ward. Since you’re playing the role of father of the bride, Coulson, you can just wear traditional white. What do you guys think? The girls liked it.”
“Isn’t that all that matters, then?” Fitz chimed, smiling and nodding. “I think those are great colours.”
“And then we just keep the bowties black, right?” Ward asked.
“Right,” May answered.
“Then, I think we’re all done here,” Coulson said. “Let’s get undressed, go find the girls, and get them down here to sign off on the shirts.”
“Good idea,” Fitz said, shrugging out of his jacket and heading towards the dressing rooms. “Because I’m bloody starving. Who knew that looking at dresses all day would wear me out?”
Ward smiled and shook his head, looking to May and Coulson before he followed the engineering agent. “Fitz, hold up,” he slipped a finger under his bowtie. “Want to help me out of this?”
Fitz turned around, grinning and hanging his jacket on the doorknob for his dressing room, beckoning Ward closer with a finger, reaching up to tangle his fingers in the material, prying it out of its careful shape. “You know, I see you in suits all the time, but there’s something about seeing you in a bloody bowtie...”
Coulson and May were far enough away that their conversation couldn’t be heard, and Ward couldn’t help his playful smirk. “Gets you hot and bothered?”
“Mm,” Fitz commented, pulling the bowtie loose completely. “You could say that.”
Ward straightened up, slipping the bowtie from around his neck, wrapping it around his fingers absently. “We might have to try out that fancy hotel bed tonight.”
With that, he disappeared into his own dressing room, leaving Fitz to do the same before Coulson reached his side and asked why he looked like the cat had his tongue.
An hour later they found themselves, all six, sharing dinner at an All You Could Eat buffet. The girls had both assured each other that they had found the perfect dresses, and signed off on the shirts, and thereby colours, that May had chosen for Ward and Fitz. May’s own dress had been chosen, a modest cut that matched their colour scheme, putting the shade of the dress in purple, and the shade of the wrap that came with it in blue. The day had, all in all, been a success. The late lunch – or, as Fitz was calling it, early dinner – they were having would be enough to tide most of them over until they crashed. Skye was proposing they make good use of the hotel’s fitness room, if only to watch Ward nearly burst a blood vessel having to work out with other non-agents around. Simmons was countering that with the suggestion of a walk through Bryant Park.
Coulson met May’s eyes, and she nodded, clearing her throat.
Immediately all conversation at the table stopped, all eyes falling on May. “Did you have a suggestion?” Fitz asked. “Something that doesn’t involve unnecessary work out regimes?”
May tipped her head to the side, regarding the small gathering they’d pulled together, seeing all of them just about relaxed, smiling, full of food and alcohol and happy. She’d never admit it, but it killed her to be the one who would bring the mood down.
At least it all had a silver lining.
“How about you all come by my room, when we get back to the hotel?” she asked. “I’ve got something I’d like to discuss with all of you.”
She watched all four pairs of eyes flick from her, to Coulson, and back, before there was a light chorus of agreements and they’d each given her a nod. Every one of their faces held the hints of curiosity, suspicion, and, though it was well hidden, hope.
The table got very somber after that. May just hoped the tiny flicker of hope she’d seen in their faces would continue on when she delivered the news she had uncovered.
Chapter 12: Seed
February 21st, 2018 – Bryant Park Hotel, New York City
“Hey, her room’s—No, wait, nevermind, it’s not bigger than ours,” Skye dropped into the small loveseat in May’s room, glancing around. “We don’t have a couch, though.”
“Perks of seniority,” May said, a small smirk playing around her lips while she closed the door behind Simmons. “You two are the first here again.”
“Before even Coulson,” Simmons said, joining Skye on the couch. “There’s a reason for that, though. We wanted to thank you, for everything today.” She smiled, gathering her hands in her lap. “Especially me. For staying there while I tried on so many dresses, and for staying with me when we sent the boys off to do their thing. And for being such a good sport about picking our colours for us...”
May waved a hand, perching at the foot of her bed, facing the two of them while she spoke. “Don’t worry about thanking me, girls. You’re handling the wedding just about on your own, and if I can help with something like choosing colours, I will. It’s not exactly the kind of mission I’m used to tackling, but that doesn’t mean I felt put upon or like it was below me.” She smiled, warm and genuine, willing to let Simmons and Skye in while they waited for Coulson and the others to arrive. “If you need help with anything... I know that we’re all kind of spread all over the place for the moment, but never hesitate to ask. We’re still a team, even if the paperwork says otherwise, and I think Skye named me Team Mom. I’m not really living up to the title, am I?”
Skye laughed, leaning back on the loveseat. “You’re so cool, Agent Mom.”
“All right,” May said, raising her hands in a defensive position and standing. “Except for that, there. No ‘Agent Mom’, please.” There was a knock on the door, and she gave the engaged couple on her couch one more smile before she went to open it, finding Fitz and Ward, with Coulson not far behind them. “You managed not to get lost,” she quipped, standing aside so they could all enter her room. “I’m almost impressed.”
“Ha-ha,” Fitz said, bee-lining for the desk, rolling out the chair to drop into it, smiling cheekily at Ward when he came to a stop at his side. “Sorry, love.”
May raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment, or ask, even after looking to Coulson for an explanation that had been nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders. He himself sat on her bed, moving into nearly the middle, comfortable and in the center of the action. May took in all of them; Skye and Simmons on the loveseat, Fitz in the desk chair with Ward leaning against the desk at his side, Coulson on the bed, cross-legged and in a suit. This was the team that she had left administration for, years ago, and the team that she had grown to love and cherish over their time together, more than she had thought would be possible. This was the team that had been dissolved in the aftermath of the Ultron incident, and a team that didn’t look to be getting together again, in a professional capacity, any time soon.
Maybe, just maybe, what she had uncovered would be the piece that changed all of that.
“You all know that I went back to administration,” she started. “I know that you all at least have a basic idea of what that means. It means that I do a lot of filing and retention, and I do a lot of crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s. Well, this past week, something crossed my desk that I don’t think we can ignore.”
The change in the room was instantaneous. The four agents who didn’t know what she was talking about sat – or stood, in Ward’s case – more at attention, hanging on her words, no longer looking like they were contemplating giving in to the food that was sitting heavy in their bellies and having a nap. May forged ahead with only the slightest of pauses. “The reports that ended up on my desk have to do with the clean-up of the Centipede labs.”
“What?” Ward interrupted, shaking his head slightly. “That doesn’t make any sense. They... They’re still working on that?”
“Not so much that they’re still working on them,” Coulson supplied. “So much as they put them on hold for a long time, and they’re just finishing up now. The Winter Soldier events and the Ultron incident did a lot to put some of these things on the back burner.”
Ward nodded, apparently on board with that answer, though the face he’d pulled before his nod said that he was anything but impressed. May took that as her cue to continue.
“I was going to ignore them, aside from the basics,” she admitted. What she wouldn’t say was that she had felt a little bitter about the whole file, about the fact that there was a slew of S.H.I.E.L.D. teams out there working on a case that her team had cracked, and they weren’t being involved in any aspect. “But, something stuck out about them. They were way too suspicious.”
“Suspicious, like how?” Skye asked, leaning forward, balancing her elbows on her knees while she spoke. “Do you need me to start looking? I can dig into some of the buried files, see if I can’t pull up whatever Director Fury or any other higher-up might be trying to hide.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Coulson piped up from the bed. “At least, not yet, so, hold on to that idea for later, Skye.” He gave her a smile. “The most concrete facts were in the file that May received the night before we all came here, and we have all of that here.”
His looking to May was all the indication she needed. The floor was hers to do with as she would. “All right, so, the facts that we have so far are these: the labs are in much less of a state of disrepair than they should be. You all remember what those places looked like once we were done with them. The ones that we had gone into were burnt out, bombed out; they were messes. We all remember that.” The scene in her room reminded her of a quartet of bobble headed dogs on a car’s dashboard. “Considering that, after everything, the labs were put into lockdown by S.H.I.E.L.D. until the clean-up could be picked back up, until we had the manpower to spare, they should be looking a lot worse than they are. They’ve been contained, and, of course, if we contained them, the idea was that they were harmless, and safe, until everything direr was dealt with. The original clean-up crews took out anything that had anything to do with serums, or biotech, but what we’re finding now, going in, is loose ceiling panels and opened cabinet doors.”
“Couldn’t that have just been from when we cleaned out the sites?” Fitz asked, frowning.
“Could have,” May agreed. “That’s what I thought at first, until I saw the images of these ‘opened cabinet doors’. We aren’t talking about a cupboard door being left opened. We’re talking about the doors themselves being opened up. There were about a half dozen in one of the facilities that were broken open like this. Apparently they were hollow, but, if they held anything, we have no idea what that was, because all of that is gone from the insides of them.”
Fitz’s frown deepened, but he didn’t comment.
“That’s not the worst of what I found suspicious, though,” May went on, finally perching at the foot of her bed again, choosing to sit to continue addressing them like that, instead of standing. “There are parts of the labs that seem like they’ve been lived in.”
She paused, not for effect, but because those few words had all of them exchanging looks, narrowing eyes, shaking their heads and shifting. Ward started to pace, not saying anything, but clearly wracking his brain for the answer as to who could be living in abandoned, S.H.I.E.L.D.-sealed laboratories.
“Obviously the labs had living areas, but all of this evidence that is being found is fairly recent, from the looks of it, the way dust hasn’t settled, things like that. In some cases, it seems to have only been months ago that someone was hiding out in the labs. One of them had a floor tile removed, and the space under it was obviously some kind of cooler. The clean-up crew assigned to that lab removed it and took it to HQ for testing, but that report wasn’t tied to the one I found, so if they found anything, I don’t have it on hand.”
She took a breath, pausing to make sure that she wasn’t leaving out anything important. “About a month ago, a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents found a squatter in the lab they were rolling through. He seemed to be a young man, wearing jeans and a hoodie, they figured, maybe, just a homeless guy who had gotten lucky getting into the building. They found out that was very wrong when he managed to overpower all four of them before fleeing the premises, through an entrance none of the teams had uncovered, in the first sweep, or the current one. They’ve done examinations at the other locations since then, and found similar entrances, hidden right in the design of the buildings.”
“So, who is this homeless Jackie Chan?” Skye asked, looking perplexed.
“That is what we don’t know, or, what S.H.I.E.L.D. as a whole doesn’t know,” Coulson cut in. “But, from the report, suspicions are leaning toward him having been a former patient of Centipede’s.” As he spoke, May reached for her bag, pulling the files out of it and laying them across the bed. Ward picked one up, flipping through it.
“Is there any surveillance of the squatter?” he asked, looking up from the file.
“I knew one of them would ask,” Coulson said, a slight smile on his face as he reached for May’s tablet, next to the files she’d spread out. The corner of May’s mouth twitched in a smile of her own and she nudged the tablet his way. “That’s why I thought it would be best—” May cleared her throat. “—Actually, that’s why May thought it would be best that we have you all together, and go over all of this.” Powering the tablet on, he flipped through the screens, pulling up the video that May had transferred onto it, handing the device up to Ward. “You four should have a look at that.”
Ward passed the tablet to Fitz, and moved out of the way while he rolled the desk chair towards Skye and Simmons, the four of them crowding around it to watch. May knew what they would see would be blurry footage, nothing with a concrete visual on the squatter’s face. She also, however, knew that if there was something to be found, this team would find it.
They didn’t disappoint.
Within seconds, Fitz was tapping the screen, stopping the video and setting the tablet in his lap to enlarge the screen. “I imagine we don’t see his face,” he said, voice just above a mutter. “Or else we’d already have him in custody.” He looked up at May and Coulson for a second, getting their nods of confirmation before continuing. “But, is it just me, or are those tattoos?”
May and Coulson slipped off the bed, walking over to fill in the space on Fitz’s right, next to Ward, looking down at the screen in his hands. They’d both missed it on the first go through, but that was why they had all been put together in a team in the first place. They were pieces that solved a puzzle. Just below the loose, worn collar of the squatter’s hoodie, scrawls of thick black ink could be seen, dark on his skin.
“Those are definitely tattoos.” Ward said.
Simmons nodded. “I bet there’s a way we could track him down, using those. It might take a bit, but when we get back, Fitz and I could modify the facial recognition software slightly, and run through the database of known S.H.I.E.L.D. antagonists. See if any of them flag for having tattoos like this.”
“And this,” Coulson replied, taking in everything from the tablet in Fitz’s hands, to Simmons’ last words, to all of them gathered around. “Is why May thought it would be best to bring this up with all of you.” She nodded. It was like riding a bike, with the six of them. You never forgot how to do it, how to put all the parts in the right place and get the forward motion you needed.
“I can go grab my laptop,” Skye said, getting up and heading for the door. “I can get us into the database remotely, and we can start this hunt early. See if we can’t get this done with in less than a—”
Everyone froze, looking to May, who had straightened up and was holding both hands in the air. “Listen. I brought this to Coulson to bring to all of you because I knew that this is what would happen. We can figure this out, and stop whatever this squatter guy is up to before anyone gets hurt. But, I refuse to let the rest of this trip be ruined by the job. We are here to spend time together. Yes, we can still do that while working, but don’t you think we all deserve a real vacation?”
Those words, coming from May, stopped them all in their tracks. Coulson took that chance to jump in. “I spoke to Director Fury last night,” That notice had all eyes on him now, including May’s. “I thought I might as well get the tracks greased, just in case this whole thing went over like this. He’s given us approval to be a team again.”
May couldn’t have pushed down her smile if she’d tried. Ward was grinning, broadly, Fitz and Simmons had dropped their jaws before sliding into grins of their own, and Skye was bouncing onto May’s bed, next to Coulson, looking like all her dreams – her wedding plans going smooth, and now this – were coming true.
“For this mission and this mission only.” Coulson added, his voice firm. Those words didn’t have quite the dramatic reaction his last ones had, but they did serve to pull those smiles down a touch. “Due to the suspicions of who this could be.”
There was a strong moment of silence, the air itself seeming to still, before the bombardment of questions started.
“Do we have to prove ourselves again?”
“Do we get to stay together if we prove that we’re better as a team than we are spread out all over the bloody planet?”
“What kind of bribery did you have to pull off to make Fury agree to actually let us play ball, AC?”
“This isn’t some kind of sick joke, is it?”
“Who,” Ward spoke up, drowning out everyone else’s questions. “The hell do we expect is behind this? It has to be a pretty big fish if Fury’s willing to risk pissing off the World Security Council by reforming our team.”
He had a point. The directive had come right from the top, that team’s like theirs were nice, but served little purpose when it came to things that the agency needed done, things the world needed done. In order for Fury to have decided the risk was enough to take, they would have had to be looking down a pretty dangerous barrel. May looked at Coulson, silently asking if he wanted to drop the bomb, or was going to let her name names. His nod was all she needed.
“Aldrich Killian and Eric Savin.”
Surviving the explosion of Air Force One was one of the highlights of Eric Savin’s long and varied existence. A former member of the United States Armed Forces, Lieutenant Colonel, in fact, some would think that would have come in at the top spot, but, in reality, it ranked somewhere near the bottom. Being lucky enough that Stark missed enough of his heart, and didn’t hit his brain, was probably second or third on the list. That fatal error on Stark’s behalf had been enough for his torso to reform, at least enough for him to get off the plane. Barely. He’d been left to scramble for something to cover the gooey wreck that was his healing body, and bail out, in the nick of time too, because the plane had gone up like a twisted patriotic firework probably only five, maybe seven, seconds after he cleared the hole in the fuselage. Doing that had been putting Extremis to the test, to a test he wasn’t even close to sure it could handle.
Killian had always made a point of how unique Extremis was, how it worked, how it was housed in the brain. It may have been Maya Hansen’s brainchild, but it was Aldrich Killian’s baby, and he understood it about as well as she did. Maybe better, if only because he understood the lethal potential that it had. Lethal, but also, Extremis endured. That was probably why the small matter of a gaping hole in his torso hadn’t stopped it from stitching him together and getting him mobile enough to remember that, in the event of an emergency, your seat cushion can be used as a floatation device. Likewise, in the event of Air Force One cannibalising itself in a blaze of fire, multiple seat cushions, and seatbelts ripped from their holdings, could be used as a quickly tied on chest guard, a floatation device, and something to cling to when you fling yourself from the plane without a chute.
When he’d stumbled into the safe house in Cayo Costa – and come face to face with Killian, who, according to the newscasts he’d caught snippets of, trekking from the gulf to the small island, was supposed to be dead – he’d been told he was a perfect specimen. The perfect little project, turned out wonderfully in every way. Killian said he’d been right to choose Savin as his right hand. Extremis had taken to him like it had taken to only Killian before, and he’d had the savvy, the know-how, to get himself to where Killian was, in one piece, ready to face their next move.
Killian himself had been through an ordeal, though, and Savin had kept his mouth shut on this, the bastard didn’t seem to realise how fucking lucky he’d been. It hadn’t just been being inside one of Stark’s suits when he told it to just go on and do itself in. That in itself should have been a death blow, and Killian acknowledged that. It just got better when, minutes after that, with his body still fighting to reform, Pepper Potts had managed to send one of the small missiles from inside on the suits his way, and stop him, bringing him down in a big way. Much like Extremis had done for Savin, though, nestled in Killian’s brain, it had zipped out and gotten to work, gotten him up and moving before the clean-up crews boarded the Norco to put out the fires that were raging on her decks. Killian’s next move, like his, had been to get to the safe house in Cayo Costa, and do it without being recognised.
The house in Cayo Costa had lasted them a long time. Months, in fact, the better part of a year, while they healed, and plotted, and tried to figure out where they went from here.
Revenge, of course, was on the table.
But so was figuring out how in the hell Extremis was to be dealt with. Maya Hansen had died without figuring out the major issue with the thing, Stark wasn’t going to just smile and hand it over. They would need to figure out how to stabilise Extremis on their own. The issue had been present in Hansen’s work since nearly day one, and it hadn’t been resolved yet. She had gotten to Killian when she’d asked ‘what happens to you? What happens when you run too hot?’ It was only a matter of time before that came to pass.
Killian, intent on his revenge, wasn’t about to have either of them go out, even if it would be with a bang.
They had begun moving all over the country, stalking old contacts of Hansen’s, stealing their work, keeping themselves under the radar. It had been a change for Killian. No more Escalades, no more big, opulent homes, no more obvious money spending. He’d had the foresight to put money into untraceable, unlinked accounts, money that they pulled on now and again in the travels.
They had learned of the work being done by Centipede labs after S.H.I.E.L.D. had brought it down.
Killian had been furious at first. Furious that they hadn’t found out until now, enraged that someone else had taken Extremis and tried to build on it. It was when Chan Ho Yin’s involvement with the organization came up in the digging that they were doing that his tune changed.
Chan – or Scorch, as he’d nicknamed himself – had been one of the alleys that Centipede had attempted to dart down. Something about pulling from him to stabilise the Extremis in their serum. It hadn’t worked, but, better than having to intake Extremis every few weeks, it was the best alternative that Killian had found to the problem.
They couldn’t, after all, risk going after Stark and blowing themselves up.
That was when they had started tracking down the locations, all over the country, that Centipede had worked in. There were labs all over the world, but the US had its fair few. S.H.I.E.L.D. may have hollowed out the organization and detained most all of its employees, but some had slipped through the cracks. They were the ones who had told Killian the ways in and out of each building, the places reports and files were hidden, the truly important ones. They were the ones who had given them clear directions to samples of Chan Ho Yin’s biology, hidden within the buildings. In some cases, they had turned up nothing. In others, though, they had lucked out.
It had come at a cost, though.
Killian had intended to set to work the day Savin had dug out the remainder of the serum from the cooled floor compartment in the Little Rock lab. He had the notes, in parts, and was confident he could fill in the rest, they just needed the samples to get off the ground with.
What they had been doing that night instead, and every few nights since, was moving shop. Packing up the few things they had, and getting themselves off the radar and on the move. Staying one step ahead of S.H.I.E.L.D. for as long as they could was the ultimate goal. It was what had led them to the argument they were having now, trying to keep their voices quiet, because the house they were squatting in wasn’t all that far from regular patrol routes here in Jericho, even if it was condemned.
“They still saw me, and if anyone could make us from having just seen me, it would be S.H.I.E.L.D.” Savin said between gritted teeth, staring hard at Killian across the dusty former living room.
Killian had his sleeves rolled up, his hair tied back at the nape of his neck in a small ponytail, papers and bottles and jars laid out around him, a small handheld cooler next to his knee. “Don’t you think that if S.H.I.E.L.D. was on to us, they would have tracked us down by now, Savin?” he asked, his tone a mix between scolding and mocking. “Besides, you didn’t run hot when you took their agents down. With that, the only one who could have actually made us would be Stark, and he’s too busy fighting aliens and planning weddings to be worrying about the people under his feet.”
Savin snorted, reaching for the can of beer at his side, leaning back against the wall. “Wow, boss, you still sound a little bitter, all these years later.”
Killian looked back up from the notes he was adding to the serum, giving Savin a flat stare that he returned with a cheeky grin and another swig of his beer. “I’m not bitter. I’m vengeful.”
“You sound like a chick saying she’s not fat, she’s curvy,” Savin said, hauling himself to his feet and walking across the room to look out the window at the dark street. “I was just fuckin’ with ya, boss. Don’t get all steamed up.”
Killian slapped a hand on the floor, turning to look at him. “I get it, if this is a big joke to you, Savin, but, for me, it’s getting a little bit old to have to do these injections every twenty-four days exactly.”
“It’s like having a period,” Savin mused, crushing the beer can in his hand, and tossing it into one of the darkened corners of the room, going for the former 6-pack they had in the entranceway with their things.
“Yeah, well, it’s a lot more expensive than one of those,” Killian said, going back to work. “The ingredients aren’t common, they aren’t cheap, the process isn’t simple, and holding my breath while you take a hit, hoping you don’t go up and take us both with you, isn’t a picnic.”
“I sure hope not, or you fancy, rich types had really weird picnics when you were growing up.” He pried one of the cans loose, and then another, turning around and walking back to set it at Killian’s knee, dropping down on the dusty floor by him. “Boss, hypothetical, here.”
“Fire away,” Killian muttered, opening his beer, eyes looking over the papers in front of him.
“What if this isn’t the magical key we’re hoping for? I mean, we’ve been at this for a long fucking time. What if, at the end of the day, this just don’t pan out and we end up back at square one? Like, what if these Centipede jack-offs didn’t have the answer at all?”
The look Killian gave him was an even mix between condescending and annoyed. “Don’t you think I would have figured it out by now if this wasn’t going to work, Savin?” he jabbed the paper in front of him, the one he had most recently been writing on. “I’ve actually almost finished this.”
Savin’s entire demeanour changed, his posture becoming straighter, the lazy raise of his eyebrows furrowing into an interested one while he leaned over, looking at the papers. It looked like Greek to him, but he still wanted to know what Killian was doing; why he was so assured they were just about at the finish line. “What you got?”
“Everything but the last piece of the puzzle,” Killian answered, shuffling the papers back into a neat pile. “And unlike everything else we’ve needed so far, this piece won’t be all that hard to get our hands on. Once we’ve got it, I can synthesize the serum, stabilize Extremis, and we can get on with stabbing Stark in the back.”
Savin made a grab for the papers, not doing much but grumbling when they were yanked from his reach and slid into the battered case Killian was carrying everything in. “All right... So, just where the hell is this ‘one more thing’?”
Killian started picking up the jars and bottles he’d spread from the cooler, jamming them back into the plastic case, checking the ice packs they’d shoved in with them. Most of the samples only needed to be kept at slightly below room temperature, and, so far, they were managing.
“Chicago,” he said, finally, smiling over at the former soldier. “So I guess it’s a good thing we haven’t unpacked, because we’re going to have to start moving.”
Chapter 13: Like You'll Never See Me Again
March 7th, 2018 – The Hub – Undisclosed Location
“I don’t know how many times I can look at the data.”
Fitz looked over at Simmons, smiling in understanding. It had been two weeks since the revelation May had delivered, and they were no closer to narrowing down exactly where it was that Aldrich Killian and Eric Savin were, right at present. Pouring over the video data, and utilizing the facial recognition software had managed to pick them up, a few times. A flash in San Jose, a glimpse in Washington. But never anything concrete, nothing that formed into a sensible pattern. That had to be what they wanted, though, the former AIM founder and agent. They didn’t want there to be a discernible pattern, didn’t want to be easily found, or tracked. “Getting a bit tedious?”
“A bit,” Simmons said, dropping into a work chair and pushing her hands through her hair. “Puts it rather lightly, don’t you think?” She gestured to the bank of monitors in front of her. “Where are they going, what are they doing? They haven’t surfaced for days, now, and every time they do, they aren’t doing anything wrong. Getting drinks at Starbucks, for gods sakes. That seems to be their favourite.” She leaned forward, jabbing a few keys on the board in front of her, calling up multiple images of young people taking pictures of their coffee, either with or without them. In the backgrounds and edges of all of them, either Killian or Savin was able to be picked out.
“They really don’t look like the successful businessman and bodyguard anymore, do they?” Fitz asked, leaning on the back of her chair and reaching forward to tap the screen and bring one of the images to the front. “Killian looks like he’s seen better days.” He reached to another screen and tapped it too, bringing up old file photos of both of their suspects. The differences were striking. Killian’s well kept hair had grown out, and though clearly he still kept it trimmed, it didn’t have the styled look it had in the past, and was gathered at the nape of his neck in a small ponytail. The lines in his face had gotten deeper, and he’d lost some of the look of easy charisma, though, looking from picture to picture, it was easy to see that he could probably still pull it off easily.
Savin, for his part, hadn’t seemed to keep up on the regime of shaving his head. There was a shock of dark hair visible under the edges of his hoodies and beanies in every photo they had. It served to change his appearance quite a bit from the images that they had on file, and that had probably been the intent. It made him look less like a dangerous thug, and more like a roguish jackass that hung around in bars, hitting on single girls. Particularly with the smirk he effected in three of the pictures they had.
“How do you think they survived?” Simmons asked, leaning forward and enlarging one of the photos, flicking it to the side until the venti white mocha was out of the view. She squinted at the screen and shook her head. “It just doesn’t seem possible. I mean, obviously the effects of Extremis are amazing. The regenerative abilities and enhanced speed, strength, longevity, all of that, but...” she looked over her shoulder at Fitz, gesturing to the screen. “It just doesn’t seem possible for it to have worked that well. There aren’t even any marks on them. Though, I suppose it was nearly flawless, even at the point they were active.”
“Yeah,” Fitz pointed out, tone light. “Except for the thing where the person could blow up without any warning.”
“All right, yes, clearly that was and is an issue. But still,” she sat back again, waving at the screen. “It sure seems to have stayed stable enough for these two over the last five years.”
“Mm,” Fitz frowned, pulling up a stool and perching on it. “And I wonder why that is. You don’t think they’re self injecting, do you? It can’t be easy to manufacture, especially when you’re running around under the radar.”
“They might be,” Simmons said, nodding and pulling forward another screen, this one depicting news stories of the day the two supposedly had died. “Aldrich Killian isn’t necessarily a stupid man who stood on the shoulders of Maya Hansen and did nothing of his own accord. He was a brilliant man in his own right, he might be able to recreate the serum, given the time and materials. No, it wouldn’t be easy, but, don’t forget,” she made a face. “That man was determined enough to kidnap the president. Brewing a little serum in his free time probably wouldn’t be a hardship.”
“But, let’s think about this for a second,” Fitz said, abandoning the task of trying to piece together their presumed movements – and really, wasn’t that a job for the analysts? – to pursue something else that was eating at him. “With the way Air Force One blew up, and what Pepper Potts did to Killian, there should have been no feasible way for either of them to reform, let alone survive. Their hearts should have been totally destroyed, right?”
“Well, actually,” Simmons pulled forward yet another screen, pulling up old files. “Why they didn’t give us a room fitted with a holotable I’ll never understand,” she grumbled, flicking through the files to a schematic of the human body. “All right, so, the thing with Extremis, as research – both Maya Hansen’s and work to the present – as shown us, is that it isn’t reliant on the heart, and is housed in the brain, correct?” Fitz nodded, eyes trained on the screen in front of them. “Well, going by that, the fact stands that, were the brain still intact, and enough of the heart in place, Extremis would have a high probability of activating. From there, it wouldn’t have been all that difficult for it to reform the parts of the body that had been damaged.” Simmons looked at Fitz, shaking her head slightly. “It could have managed to save them, just like that.”
“All right, fair,” Fitz agreed, grabbing the underside of the stool he was sitting on and leaning back. “But that still leaves us asking what it is that they want with the Centipede labs.”
The door to the small lab opened and Skye came in, bundled up and grinning at them over her scarf. “Hey, kids. What are we talking about today?” she asked, pulling the scarf down, removing her mittens and unzipping her jacket. Simmons smiled, reaching over to squeeze her hand when she joined them, using one hand to drape her coat over Fitz’s shoulders.
“We’re discussing what or why but also how it is that Killian and Savin survived their respective deaths, and what it is that they’re after, behaving the way they are, keeping under the radar like this.”
“Ahh,” Skye said with a nod, leaning over Fitz’s shoulder. “Well, I figure it’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?” She looked back and forth between them. “What? You two geniuses haven’t figured it out yet?” Her grin widened. “You haven’t? Ohhh, I get to show you both up for once.” She squeezed between them, pulling the keyboard towards her and tapping in a few quick commands, taking over each of the screens in turn. The footage that she brought up was of a newsfeed. For a moment, neither Fitz nor Simmons recognised the location, but after a second the camera panned, and Fitz jabbed the screen.
“The Chinese theatre?”
“Exactly,” Skye said, tapping the keyboard again, pulling up another feed, these ones from the AIM files that had been brought to light by Tony Stark and James Rhodes. In the feed, a subject lit up from the inside out, growing brighter and brighter until the feed cut out in a burst of bright light. “It’s obvious what they’re after, right?” She said, looking at Jemma on her left, and Fitz on her right. “They’re trying to stabilize it. AIM never got there, and Centipede seemed to, even if we all know that they never actually did. So, that’s what they’re after. These two aren’t stable. They’re looking for a way to finish the serum and have their fiery cake and eat it too.”
“Oh...” Simmons said, leaning forward, cringing after a second. “Oh, that’s obvious, that’s utterly and completely obvious. We were so worried and caught up trying to figure out where they were heading—”
“—That we never even stopped to figure out that was what they were attempting to do.” Fitz finished. “It makes sense, though. They’re walking a fine line, until they get it stable. They could go hot at any time, and then...” He gestured, throwing out his hands in an impression of a blow up.
“Exactly,” Skye sing-songed, but her smile froze on her face, hands dropping into her lap. “But Centipede didn’t stabilise the serum.” She looked over at Jemma. “What happens when they figure out that you two did?”
“I’m going to allow this to happen, gentlemen, but that’s on condition that you don’t make me regret it.”
Ward sat straight in his chair in front of Nick Fury’s desk, and nodded along with Coulson. He understood that these were things that Fury needed to say in order for everything to be on the table and understood, but he couldn’t help the sarcastic comment in his head that they hadn’t previously given him any reason to regret putting the team together. Or, that was, allowing Coulson to put the team together. The fact remained there was little for Fury to be worried about with the team getting back together, because, previously, minus a few little bumps, they’d given him next to nothing to consider regretting.
But those were things that you just didn’t say to the director of the agency.
“Allowing this to happen will give you all the chance to prove that, as a team, instead of individuals, you are needed. Don’t waste it, because I won’t get a chance to swing this sort of thing past the World Security Council again.”
Ward kept his face passive, though he wanted to ask how it was that they hadn’t proved themselves on the first round.
They’d been thrown together as a rag tag group. Melinda May, a just about retired agent; Coulson, back from the dead; himself, not a team player; and FitzSimmons, who hadn’t been cleared for combat, but were being escorted into the field. Add in Skye, a completely outside factor to the entire game board, and they hadn’t exactly been going in with a recipe for success. Somehow, though, they’d proven themselves and gotten themselves specific note in the agency.
Why this second round had to be about proving themselves again, Ward didn’t know, but he wouldn’t ask that of the man in front of them.
“I know what you’re thinking, Agent Ward,” Fury said, catching him off guard. “You’ve already proved yourselves. You shouldn’t have to do it all over again. I agree. However, I’m not the only person looking, and the people who are looking tend to have selective memories. People have gotten set in their ways, and they expect you to be in the field,” he pointed at Coulson. “You to be running back and forth between us and the Avengers.” The director began ticking off on his fingers. “Skye, and FitzSimmons to be on hand at the Hub, and May to be keeping things in line in administrations. It’s been a long time to those people, gentlemen. And you remember how things ended up with our last high profile team? They’re sitting pretty, aligned with S.H.I.E.L.D. but not part of us, in their own tower in Manhattan. You’re going to have to prove yourselves, or, once this is over and Killian is in custody? You’ll all be going back to your assignments, and something tells me that isn’t what you want.”
“Yes, sir,” Ward said with a nod, a bit chagrined that he had been wearing his thoughts openly enough that the director had seen. “Understood.”
“Good.” Fury said firmly. “Now. You’re getting the Bus back. Designation number remains the same: SHIELD-616. You are to track and contain Aldrich Killian and Eric Savin swiftly and with caution, as well as discretion. The last thing we need is for Stark to get wind of this. I’m sure you can imagine why, Agent Coulson.”
Coulson nodded with a small, private smile. “Understood, sir.”
“Glad to hear it.” Fury leaned back in his chair and waved them off. “Go on, get. You’ve got packing to do, I expect you out of here by morning.”
Both men stood with nods and affirmative ‘yes, sir’s, before making their way out of Fury’s office, heading down the hall towards the elevators.
“So, that’s it then?” Ward asked, raising an eyebrow. “We get everything back, exactly as we wanted it, and so long as we do a good job and impress Fury, Hill, and the WSC...?”
“We get to keep the band together,” Coulson finished. “That’s what I understood, too.”
They waited for the elevator in silence, stepping on, Ward allowing Coulson to press the button for the lobby. The doors slid shut and the car lurched into motion, and Coulson let out a breath beside him, grinning, eyes alight. “Pack your gear when you get home, Ward,” he held up his phone, Ward recognising Simmons’ name on the text display. “Simmons messaged me while we were with the director. We leave for Chicago at 2300 hours.”
Chicago. That was where they were going to find Killian and Savin and have this all dealt with. That didn’t seem so far away, and it didn’t seem that difficult. Ward found himself grinning in spite of his normal, and previous, demeanour, and nodded as the elevator stopped and the doors opened.
May was standing on the other side, clearly already having been briefed. “Chicago?” she said, raising an eyebrow at them both, a small smirk twisting the corner of her mouth. “I suppose we have a plane to get in working order, then.”
“We do indeed,” Coulson said, waving in the direction of the elevators that moved through the compound to the hangars. “2300, Ward.”
“I’ll be here, sir,” he said, nodding to the two as they headed off, presumably to oversee the Bus being pulled out of her bay and prepped for flight. He headed in the opposite direction, making his way to the operations garage, getting into his car and pulling out after a quick check of his phone. Fitz had messaged him, apparently around the same time as Simmons had messaged Coulson, saying that he was heading home and would wait for Ward to get there, and that he assumed Ward would know when they needed to be ready to go to Chicago.
The drive home was a blur. Not a negative one, but a blur nonetheless. They would be going back into the field again, as a team, for the first time in years. He was almost unsure what to do with that knowledge. It was elating, and exciting, and, in some aspects, it still seemed unreal. Even as he unlocked the door to his and Fitz’s apartment, it didn’t seem like a probable thing, that in a few hours they would all be buckling in to take off and head to Chicago.
Fitz was lying on the couch, ankles crossed, fingers picking at his buttons, though he looked up and smiled gently when Ward walked in. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Ward echoed, closing and locking the door before kicking off his shoes.
“When do we leave?”
“2300,” Ward answered, looking over as he shrugged out of his suit jacket, and frowning. He would have thought Fitz would be happier about the arrangement, and while he didn’t look unhappy, he didn’t seem to be jumping for joy, either. “What’s wrong?”
“Skye figured out what those two are attempting to do,” Fitz said, launching into an explanation without needing to be pushed. Ward nodded, pulling his dress shirt loose of his waistband and undoing his cuff buttons as he moved over to the couch, filling in the space that Fitz made by shifting further into the back of the couch, sitting close to the other. “They’re attempting to stabilize Extremis, which is why they’ve been going through all the Centipede labs. To them, it probably looks like Centipede figured it out.” Looking up at Ward, he gave the specialist a rueful smile. “But, you and I both know that they aren’t the ones who did. That was us. Jemma and I.” Nodding, Ward rested a hand against Fitz’s side, swiping his thumb slowly back and forth against the other’s ribs. “And, no, they might not know that, yet, but, what if they find out?”
“I won’t let anything happen to either of you,” Ward said simply, like the question was a no brainer.
“It’s not me I’m worried about,” Fitz said, barrelling over his words, though he did flash Ward a smile to let him know they weren’t unappreciated. “What if the two of us being on that plane is going to put all of you in danger? Because, you know, if they figured it out... These men are ruthless killers, Grant. They’ll burn through all of you to get to us. Jemma already had a meltdown in the lab, because there’s no time to have a material created that will completely protect you all from the effects of Extremis. I just... can’t shake this concern that we’re putting a big target on all of your backs by being on that plane.”
The concerns were valid, and Ward felt a shot of worry stab in his belly. He hadn’t bothered trying to work out the men’s motivations, hadn’t cared aside from neutralizing them. Fitz’s words, however, their revelation, had him quieting for a minute to think. “It changes the game, a little,” he admitted, meeting Fitz’s eyes. “But you know me. I’m not going to let myself get got, and I won’t let you or Jemma be taken. Neither will May, neither will Coulson. Everything will work out, all right?”
Fitz searched his eyes, lips pursing and brows furrowing, before he finally nodded. “All right,” he agreed, reaching one hand up in a beckon for Ward to lean down. Their mouths met in a small, gentle kiss, and when they pulled away, both were smiling. “I guess we should try to pack, hm?”
Packing was a monotonous activity. For Ward, it was simple. His mission packs almost never ended up unpacked for long. They were emptied, laundered, cleaned, restocked, whatever was needed to get them back into shape, and then repacked, crisp and in place down to the last crease in his field jackets. For Fitz, it was a little less simple, but didn’t have quite the same amount of care. Jeans were tossed into the open duffel, shirts on top of them, a handful of undergarments, an equal handful of socks. There was no system, no rationale, and as much as Ward knew he didn’t need it, he couldn’t help bending down to pull everything into place, make it all fit so that when Fitz had to add things aside from clothing, there would be room. They didn’t discuss it, and Fitz didn’t tell him no, but they shared a short smile that said enough.
‘You can be so disorganised.’
‘And you kind of love it.’
Fitz disappeared from their bedroom for a while, and Ward could hear him rummaging in the bathroom, going through the closets. His clothing in order, Ward sat back on his heels, watching the engineer re-enter the room, hands full of toiletries and things he’d need on the Bus – including his own I.C.E.R. Fitz spared him a look for a second, and then dumped the lot of it into the open duffel.
“Really?” Ward asked, raising an eyebrow, before leaning forward to push everything into place. Hands on his shirtfront stopped him, though, pulling him to his feet. It wasn’t that hard, given that he gave just about no resistance, willing to let Fitz manhandle him all he wanted. The tension had been present since he’d walked in the door, and he would have started something if Fitz hadn’t.
But Fitz could always be counted on to go after what he wanted, when he wanted it.
Their mouths crashed together, that small edge of pain sending an electric current down Ward’s spine, and his hands found Fitz’s sides, running up, fingers feeling the deeps of his ribs. “We might not get to do this again for a while,” Fitz muttered against his mouth, eyes half-lidded, fingers curling and uncurling against his chest. “So, please, Grant, make it good.”
“You say that like you think I won’t,” Ward muttered back, fingers already deftly unknotting Fitz’s tie, his hands slipping it from around his neck to drop to the floor, mouth finding the other’s again as his hands found the buttons on his yellow and grey plaid button-up. The curve of Fitz’s mouth under his was confirmation enough that the other was proud of goading him. Not that he’d needed the goading, but he could have his pride.
If Ward had his way, he’d been a panting mess soon, anyway.
With the way Fitz made short work of his tie, and pushed his crisp white dress shirt off his shoulders, that probably wouldn’t be too long. Not with the way he was curling his fingers in the thin fabric of his undershirt and tugging it up. Ward broke the kiss, letting him pull the shirt up and over his head, instinctively moving back in to kiss him again, and instead being shoved back, his knees hitting the edge of the bed, forcing him to drop onto it while Fitz smirked, thumbs hooked in his own jeans, sliding them over his hips. “Eager?”
“Oh,” he stepped out of his jeans, and boxers, reaching over to flick off the light. “What was your first hint?” Ward snorted lightly, hands hooking in the waistbands of his suit pants and boxer briefs, lifting his hips from the bed to push them off, barely kicking them loose before Fitz was there, leaning over him, kissing him slow and deliberate, his touch and taste making Ward’s head spin a bit.
Minutes passed in a slow, oversensitive blur. Fitz gesturing wordlessly for him to move, pushing him back against the pillows and pressing down against him, whimpering into his mouth, something between need and desperation that made fire lick at Ward’s insides, made him grip the other man tighter. It made him defiant, pushing off the bed to keep kissing Fitz, forcing him to sit in his lap, legs wrapped around his waist.
He could have stayed there forever. Quiet and loud, still and unsettled between them, feeling Fitz’s breath in every kiss, following his pulse in every touch. Tomorrow wouldn’t allow them forever, though, and Fitz pushing him back down to lean over to their bedside table and press a small bottle into his hand reminded him of that fact.
“You want to...?” he didn’t need to finish the sentence, seeing Fitz’s expression in the light from the street. His lips were swollen, colour high on his cheeks, eyes looking feverish; the nod he gave was barely there. Ward didn’t need more of an answer than that, and the hands squeezing his shoulders when the other lifted up off him, pressing their foreheads together. He snapped open the bottle, listening to Fitz’s slow, deep breaths while he tipped it in his hand, tossing it to the side and reaching behind.
“Hn.” Fitz’s face screwed up in discomfort for a second, but after years of this, Ward knew not to dare stop. He wasn’t fragile, he wouldn’t break, and the faster they got on to it, the less chance there was that he’d be chewed out for being a torturing son of a bitch. After years of this, he knew Fitz’s body, knew how to coax and convince it to relax and open up for him, and in no time Fitz had his lower lip trapped between his teeth, smiling loosely, pushing down against his fingers, just about purring.
“Enjoying yourself?” Ward asked, voice quiet and hoarse.
“S’good...” Fitz answered, nodding, eyes opening, the look he steadied on Ward heated. “Make it better.”
Grant Ward didn’t need to be told twice, especially not when he was being given orders in that tone. He slipped his hand free, grinning at the grumble it got out of Fitz, reaching for the bottle he’d discarded to slick himself. This time, when he tossed it to the side, it bounced and clattered to the floor. Fitz pushed his shoulders down, glancing over and turning back with a raised eyebrow. “Excessive force, Agent Ward. Are you eager?”
Ward didn’t answer in words, just steadied his hands on Fitz’s hips, guiding him back until he was in good position to reach back, fingers curling around his cock, guiding him inside. That was a sight he never got tired of. Leo Fitz biting his trembling lip, eyes half shut, concentration etched into his features while he moved, slow, until Ward was pressed against him, hips to ass. The seconds dragged out until he let his lip go in a huff, eyes finding Ward’s face.
“That,” he said, lifting his hands from Ward’s chest and arching, making his breath catch in his throat, and Ward grit his teeth, “Was a yes.”
“You like it, Leo,” Grant replied, hands dragging down the other’s thighs, gripping at the knee.
“Probably too much,” Fitz breathed, rocking his hips and whining.
Leo Fitz was a creature of pleasure. From food, to sex, he knew what he liked, and he didn’t deny it from himself often. Grant had gone into their relationship knowing that, in regards to the food, but Leo, during sex, was something else. Not just his own pleasure, but Ward’s, was crucial to him. It made everything feel better, he’d once said, to see his big strong specialist falling to pieces, becoming a slave to his own body, while he was being driven closer and closer to his edge.
Tonight was no different, and it didn’t take long until Fitz was leaning over, hands gripping the pillow on either side of Ward’s head, their mouths meeting in sloppy kisses, their hips moving painfully slow. Grant groaned quietly, digging his fingers into Leo’s hips, pressing up into him and huffing a laugh when Fitz pressed his lips together and whimpered. The laugh turned into another groan when the other tensed around him.
“Let me,” he whispered against Ward’s mouth, pressing one last shaky kiss against it before he leaned up and back, dropping himself back into the bigger man’s lap, eyes closed, mouth tilted in a pleased smirk. “Better, oh, this is...”
Whatever it was ended up lost in a long exhale, his movements slow, building with every rock of his hips, Ward moving with him, letting him dictate their pace. It wasn’t a hardship by any means, had him holding tight to those hips, his low groans and grunts quieter than Fitz’s whimpers and whines, but no less present.
Fitz’s hands found his chest again, fingers curling, nails digging into the skin. “Grant...”
His eyebrows were drawn together, eyes dark, mouth hanging open, a look of pure, overwhelming pleasure being kept at bay, just barely. Ward could tell, could feel the tightness and contractions of the body around him. He wasn’t long for this either.
“Let go, Leo.”
Like a switch inside him was flicked, Fitz’s face crumpled, and a half-shout ripped from his throat, his nails dragging across Ward’s skin, hips stuttering, body winding tight, tighter, tightest, before his voice broke on a ‘yes’ and he fell apart. It didn’t take a whole lot past that to drag Ward behind him, growling and arching, hands probably gripping Leo’s hips too tight, but he wouldn’t complain. He liked that, liked the reminder of how strong Ward was, when they were intimate like this.
Fitz leaned over him, humming and whining his obvious approval, face buried against his neck, wordless until Ward melted against the bed, spent.
“Yeah,” he said finally, voice rough, accent thick with content. “I think that’ll tide me over.”
Ward chuckled, breathless, and rubbed a hand up his spine. They’d have to hope so, because in three hours, they were going to be in the air, and back in the field.
Chapter 14: Summer Shudder
March 8th, 2018 - Former Soap Manufacturing Plant – Chicago, Illinois
“Doesn’t this seem suspicious to any of you?”
Simmons had a point, but Coulson wasn’t going to voice it. Mostly because he couldn’t afford to talk, not yet, but also because she, Fitz and Skye didn’t need to be even more on edge than they already were. The fact of the matter was, however, that she was right. It was suspicious.
Their data had led them to this warehouse, there was no doubt that this was where Aldrich Killian and Eric Savin had last been known to be. Still, he, May and Ward had cleared room after room – storage, offices, manufacturing floors, everything – and found nothing. There was nothing to find, it seemed. Not a rusted machine out of place, not a window lock undone. It was almost too correct and settled. There had been a tense moment when they had entered the main manufacturing floor and found a junker car graveyard. The warehouse had previously been used as a storage place for one of the cities gangs, and their small collection of burner vehicles hadn’t been cleaned up by the authorities yet. It may not ever be. They’d had to go car by car, tensed and ready for ambush. Clearing that room alone had taken the better part of an hour.
And still, nothing.
There were a few explanations for that. One, was that their data was faulty, and Killian and Savin weren’t here. Two, was that they had been here, but were long gone. Three, was that their targets were still in the last few rooms that they needed to sweep. Four, the final explanation, was that they’d somehow managed to be wily enough to move from unsearched rooms to rooms that had been searched already, and the pair of them would be leaving the three agent team scratching their heads and assuming either explanations one or two were the cause for their empty hands. One, two and four weren’t the best options, and they wouldn’t do much for the morale of the three back in the small recon van they’d driven out here, so, danger aside, three was the most attractive explanation.
Though, it was seeming less and less likely. At least, that was the thought that crossed Coulson’s mind as they passed into another former office, Ward on point, and the sound of sizzling reached his ears. There was a split second where he exchanged a look with May, and then the woman was lunging forward at Ward’s waist, pushing him forward and keeping herself below grab level, twisting in the air and kicking.
Her boot connected with Eric Savin’s face, cracking him in the nose and sending him stumbling back into the wall.
Explanation three it was.
Savin didn’t look a lot different than the photos they’d been looking at. His hair was growing back in, changing him from the henchman that Stark had known and S.H.I.E.L.D. had in their databases. The orange glow burning in his arms and lighting up his eyes wasn’t different though. If Savin was here...
Killian wasn’t lit up the quite same as his partner – the orange glow was in his eyes, and very, very faint, almost possible to miss, in his hands – but he was standing in the room, at the ready, smiling, not the cordial smile of the businessman, but the cruel twisted smirk of the man gone mad.
“Not so suspicious anymore,” Skye voice crackled over the comms. “Be careful, you guys...”
The warning wasn’t needed. Every one of the three of them knew how dangerous this serum was, how dangerous these men were. Coulson suspected that Skye’s words barely registered with Ward and May, and that may have had something to do with the fact that May was getting to her feet, but it probably had more to do with the fact that both men were lunging at them, hands curled into fists.
The speed that Extremis shot up Killian’s arms with was mind blowing, and terrifying, and Coulson stepped in with May, blocking his hits and pushing him away, sparing a second to look at their sizzling, burnt clothes, before raising his gun and firing.
The brilliant blue shot didn’t go wide. It should have connected. It didn’t, though, Killian moving too fast for even its close range speed, and coming at them again. Out of the corner his eye, Coulson was aware that Ward was fighting Savin, that he was holding his own, but that he could smell burning fabric too strongly for it to be just his own, just May’s.
May drove Killian back with a firm kick to his chest, and Ward grunted, arm jerking forward as his gun was ripped from his grip, thrown against the wall, no longer discernible as a weapon, melted and twisted into a useless hunk.
This wasn’t good.
The pair had been ready for them, and they weren’t holding up well.
As much as it killed Coulson, they had to regroup, or they were going to end up dead. He cast about for a second, ducking under Killian’s arm and sweeping his feet from under him, knowing he was rolling to avoid the stomp that May was aiming at his head. What he needed, what they needed, to get away, was on the opposite wall, and Coulson ripped it from its holding, hefting it in his hands, glad for the weight of it.
Ward and May flashed on him for a second and then both ducked and rolled out of the blast radius, foam erupting from the hose of the extinguisher in Coulson’s hands, covering their two assailants.
God knew if that would power them down, but it was cover enough.
“Go!” he yelled, pointing for the window, their original entrance blocked by the two former A.I.M. agents. May and Ward didn’t need to be told twice, turning from their defensive stances and running for the window. Ward hit it first, tucking his head and turning his shoulder against the glass, shattering through it, and dropping out of sight. May followed, and Coulson behind her.
The drop to the next roof was less than ten feet, but it still left pain jolting up his calves. Pain he ignored as he followed May, Ward sprinting ahead of them, following the run of the roof around the corner of the factory.
The headlights of the recon van were out, but as they turned around the corner, its shape was unmistakeable, speeding towards them.
“I’m gonna kill him,” Ward ground out, his boots barely catching on the lip of the roof as Fitz pulled the van to a stop under it. “Driving without the headlights on in this place.” May jumped past him, landing on the roof of the van and sliding to her feet off the other side. Ward and Coulson followed her lead, side doors of the van being thrown open when they stood out of their crouches. Simmons and Skye, ashen faced, were sitting inside the doors, and Fitz was scrambling out of the driver’s seat as Ward jogged around the front of the vehicle, yanking open the door and jumping into it. May and Coulson heaved themselves into the van, the doors barely closed before Ward’s foot was on the accelerator, jerking the van into motion, and away from the window they’d crashed through, speeding away towards the far exit of the lot.
“Well,” Coulson said, letting Skye help him into a seat. “That certainly could have gone better.”
“Hold still,” Simmons said firmly, grabbing Ward by the wrist and pulling his arm back into place. “Honestly, you three are so stubborn. Yes, you can do this yourselves, but God forbid someone try to take care of you.” Ward frowned at the wall, somewhere over her head, and stopped trying to turn and inspect the data that Skye was laying out for Coulson on the tablet in her hands. It was probably for the best he submit to Jemma’s ministrations, anyway, because, even without seeing him, Simmons could tell Fitz was standing at her shoulder, just about simmering. He had good reason to be.
They’d thought they were prepared, and it was going to be easy. They had forgotten, each and every one of them, that these particular two had bested Tony Stark at least once. Taken him off guard enough to warrant his eternal ire. Simmons could just imagine what it would be like if Stark knew that the two of them were gallivanting around Chicago, giving S.H.I.E.L.D. agents fairly severe burns and destroying their equipment like it was nothing to melt through.
“The lucky thing is that Fitz was able to get the cameras back online before you all set off the bat signal,” Skye glanced up from where she was standing, with Coulson on one side, and May on the other, and smiled gently, taking pity on Ward, turning the tablet so that they could all see it as she continued talking. Jemma smiled, catching her eyes for a second before the explanation came. “So, this is us,” she pointed to a spot on the screen, a vehicle rapidly moving away from the factory lot. “And these are Misters Killian and Savin.” She flicked the screen, tapping and enlarging another camera’s view, one of the side doors of the building. Killian and Savin weren’t alone. Another man was with them, but he wasn’t instantly recognisable.
“They were meeting with someone,” May said, narrowing her eyes. She, like Ward and Coulson, was sporting gauze on her forearms, hiding the burns that were coated in a S.H.I.E.L.D. issued burn cream. “Don’t tell me that all the Centipede workers weren’t rounded up?”
“It’s possible,” Coulson said. “It’s not like a body or two hasn’t slipped through the cracks before.”
May made a noise that said she agreed with his assessment, but she still didn’t approve of it.
“So, is that who they’re meeting with?” Ward asked, glancing at Simmons as she finished off bandaging the least and last of his burns. She rolled her eyes at him gently, patting his unscathed skin and letting him go. “Centipede lackey?”
“Possible,” Coulson said again. “The question, of course, is why they’re meeting with him. What is he giving them? Centipede never stabilized the serum. It’s possible this guy thinks he’s doing the world a service by giving them a bogus serum, but...”
“...But if he is,” Fitz filled in. “Boom.”
“Boom is right,” Coulson muttered. “Where do they go after this, Skye?”
“Well, see, that’s the problem,” Skye went on. “The cameras were only online for so long. Long enough for what we needed.”
“And I was over generous with allotting that time,” Fitz said.
“They shut off before these three even leave the area,” Skye finished. “We have no idea where they were heading.”
“I can turn on the facial recognition software, get it going and see if we pick up anything of use.” Offered Fitz, crossing his arms next to Simmons.
“If we do, we can go on assumption from there, and go after them,” she added on. Coulson nodded at the two of them, pulling his phone from his jacket pocket. He glanced down at it, raising an eyebrow, and then nodded again, looking at each of them in turn.
“Let’s start there. We had them less than an hour ago, they can’t have gone far. It won’t be nearly as difficult as it was the first time. May and I will head to the cockpit, get the plane in the air. We’ll reroute to New York for the time being, until we know where they are. We know from experience that when they engage S.H.I.E.L.D. agents they tend to turn tail and run, far away. Besides, there’s... something in New York we need to take care of, or this is going to get bigger, a whole lot faster. The rest of you should try to get some sleep, once the software is running.” He gave them all pointed looks, then, with another nod, and a small smile, he and May left the lab, heading for the cockpit.
“What’s in New York?” Skye was the first to ask, though Simmons was pretty sure that she, like all of them, had a fair idea of what it was that they needed to deal with in the Big Apple.
“I assume it probably starts with an S, ends with a K, and has ‘tar’ in the middle,” Ward said monotonously. “He hacked the entire agency within hours when he was let onto the bridge of the Helicarrier. I can guarantee you, he noticed Coulson’s gone, and wanted to know why.”
“Curiosity killed the cat,” Simmons muttered, putting away her things and peeling off her gloves with a sigh. “I’d be more excited about going to Avengers Tower if it was under better circumstances. These two are dangerous.”
“It’s not like we haven’t faced dangerous people before, Simmons,” Ward said, smiling just a little.
“You almost ended up well done,” Fitz said flatly, eying the gauze wrapped around both of Grant’s forearms, and around his right bicep. “We’re going to need to rethink our strategy. They’re too fast for the I.C.E.R.s. Maybe if—”
“—No.” Ward cut across, sliding off the table and shaking his head. “You all heard Coulson. Get the software running, and then we’re all going to head up to the bunks and call it a night.”
Skye smirked, crossing the room and smacking the back of her hand lightly against his better arm on her pass by. “Okay, big brother. Don’t tattle on us.”
“And I quote ‘Coulson, I looked into why you disappeared off to Oz on us. Our liaison’s been busy. Be at the Tower in the morning, or I’m coming to Chicago myself to deal with Killian. Not amused.’ – Why can’t he just leave good enough alone?”
Melinda pulled one leg up, tucking it under her in her pilot’s chair, and shrugged one shoulder. “Because you didn’t actually give them an excuse or reason for you disappearing? After the whole thing with Loki, and your suddenly renewed livelihood, he’s probably a bit on edge about people disappearing. You, in particular.”
Coulson frowned, tucking the phone back into his pocket. “I guess.” He sighed, and turned to face the windshield, looking over the quiet, empty lot that the Bus was parked in. There were lights in the distance; other planes, the buildings that made up O’Hare, airport traffic. But here, at this end of the tarmac, it was quiet, and they were, relatively, alone. “I just wish he wouldn’t have gone digging. Do you think they figured it out yet?”
“The team?” May asked, giving him an incredulous look – which for her, was barely perceptible. “They probably had it all figured out – down to Stark’s wording – before we were out of the lab for thirty seconds.”
“Good,” Coulson said. “At least I don’t have to explain anything in the morning.”
The train was rocketing along the tracks by the time Aldrich Killian turned the package they’d received over in his hands and started to open it. It was only now, hours after fleeing Chicago, that he was able to breathe and look at what they had been given, at what they’d risked what they did for. Both he and Savin had expected S.H.I.E.L.D. to be on their tails. The fact that they hadn’t been was both relieving, and curious. There were few things that should have been able to stop the agency, though they hadn’t deigned to get involved with him, openly, the first time around. He very much wished he could be privy to whatever that was, but he suspected he wasn’t going to be able to figure it out on this train ride. That would be thanks, in no small part, to the former soldier dropping into the seat next to him.
“Nothing suspect?” Killian asked lightly, not looking up from the files. He turned over one of the covers and raised his eyebrows, a smile spreading across his face. He suddenly felt much, much calmer than he had been just minutes before.
“Nothing suspect,” Savin echoed, giving a small affirming nod that Killian saw out of the corner of his eye. He was quiet for a little while after that, only the way his knee bounced giving away that he was waiting for the right moment – or maybe digging for the right words – to ask Killian something. More than likely what they were going to do now.
“If you don’t calm down, you’re going to go hot,” Killian said, lifting his head and raising his eyebrows, expression thoroughly bored.
Savin’s face froze, and then turned annoyed, almost angry. Leaning in, which was entirely unnecessary with how quietly he spoke, he shook his head. “We were made.”
“We have been, so it would seem,” Killian agreed, flipping through more of the files, more out of habit, now that he’d gleaned from them what he imagined he was intended to.
Savin made an aborted sound, something like a growl. “What the hell are we gonna do now, huh?”
“The same thing we have been doing,” was the answer. The older man looked over, quirking a single eyebrow this time. “I’m sorry, you seem... perplexed. Maybe a little annoyed.” The flash of true anger in Savin’s eyes shouldn’t have given Killian the thrill that it did, but it was hard to keep it down, or keep away the smirk that twisted his mouth. “Let me remind you what it is that we normally do – we’re going to stop somewhere on this train line, and hide out for a while.”
“Let me remind you of something, boss,” Savin hissed between gritted teeth. “It was S.H.I.E.L.D. who made us. That was fairly fucking obvious. S.H.I.E.L.D. You know. The guys with the connections to The Avengers.” He said the last word slow, space out each syllable. Killian would have been offended if watching him get so worked up wasn’t so very amusing. “The Avengers who have pretty big connections to Stark.” He straightened up in his seat, waiting for Killian’s reaction.
Tipping his head to the side, the blonde nodded. “Yes, yes. I’m aware that’s how that whole thing is laid out, Savin.”
Savin spread his hands wide, looking dumbstruck. “Why the hell are you so calm about this?”
Not able to hold off any longer, Killian lifted the files in his hands and grinned wide, shark-like. “Because this was the last piece of the puzzle, and being made tonight just made our lives so much easier.” Savin blinked, actually dumbstruck now, and made a ‘go on’ motion with his hand, leaning over to look at the files as Killian opened them.
“It was never Centipede who pulled it off,” he began, spreading the top file out as he did. “It was S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Savin snatched the top page of the file from under his fingers, staring at it for a second before tapping it with the back of his hand. “This guy. This guy was at the warehouse.” Killian nodded.
“Yes. I noticed while you were scouting the train. His name is Agent Philip Coulson.” Pushing more of the pages towards Savin, he continued. “Look at these.”
The pages were mostly photographs, along with small explanations of who the people pictured were, and how they related to each other, and the Extremis problem as a whole. The next page was a file on a middle aged Asian woman, an Agent Melinda May. Extremely combat and espionage capable, it said. That much had been evident from the way she’d kept her teammate from being grabbed by Savin. The page below hers was for that teammate, Agent Grant Ward. Their contact had written ‘the most dangerous man alive’ on the page, and, given that Savin had been the one to take him on, he would probably know best. The next page after Ward’s was for a young brunette with almond shaped eyes and a quirked smile, simply described as Agent Skye, and ‘hacker, tech agent’.
“Don’t remember her,” Savin said, shaking his head. “Probably was in the van they took off in. Don’t see a hacker being much for combat.”
Killian nodded and flipped to the last two pages. The first showed another young woman, this one with wavy hair and a bright smile, Agent Jemma Simmons, biochemistry. Below hers was a young man with curled hair and an almost bored stare, Agent Leo Fitz.
“The team that tracked us and found us tonight,” he began. “Is the same team who were responsible for the downfall of Centipede in the first place. They, particularly these two, were also responsible for the end of the entire instability issue with Extremis.” He pulled loose one more page and showed it to Savin. On it were two schematic drawings of two different handguns. One was silver metal, the other black. Scrawled across the top of the page was ‘Night-night gun, or I.C.E.R.’ and under that 'name changed over the course of conflict’. “The trick was these guns, or, rather, what was loaded into the cartridges of these guns. We had our hands on the answer to our question the whole time we were fighting them in that warehouse, we just didn’t have all the components, all the information. There’s nothing in these files on how the guns are used, exactly. I would assume that it isn’t so simple as shooting ourselves in the foot. To figure that out, we’re going to need help. And since Jemma and Leo here don’t seem to be exceptionally combat capable, or the most dangerous man and woman alive, I think we can take them out for a bit of an extended vacation, and they’ll be happy to help me figure out how to put together those final pieces.”
The change over Savin’s face as Killian had spoken had been phenomenal. He’d gone from the edge of anger and annoyance to smirking and looking like he was already tasting victory. “We goin’ to New York?”
Killian gathered the file back into a neat pile, slipping it back into the envelope it had been in, and settled back in his seat, his own smirk matching Savin’s.
“I think so. Seems like a good place to start, since Agent Coulson is the Avengers’ pony express, and I don’t think they’re stupid enough to think we’d be stupid enough to stay in Chicago.” Stretching his legs out, he rested them on the seat opposite, crossing them at the ankles. “I hear it’s beautiful this time of year.”
Chapter 15: 99 Problems
March 9th, 2018 - Avengers Tower – New York City, New York
“Do you think we could get JARVIS for the Bus?” Skye asked, turning around as the group of them walked into Avengers Tower, past the main security, welcomed by the electronic butler. They had been right when they had guessed that Coulson was being flagged down by the Avengers because of what their particular mission was. That wasn’t really all that surprising. They had been told to be on their best behaviour, which Skye had found hilarious. Like they were never on their best behaviour. Not to mention that it really did make Coulson sound like team Dad, and that in and of itself was touching and hilarious.
“Probably not,” Fitz grumbled. “I think we could probably whip up something close, but JARVIS himself? Never.”
“I am a creation unique to Mr. Stark,” JARVIS intoned over the speakers built into the wall by the elevators. “But if Mr. Fitz wished to try to emulate my programming, I am sure Mr. Stark would be... amused.”
Skye snorted, looking over at Fitz, catching the glint of a noticed challenge in his eyes. Maybe when this was all over, he would be looking into how exactly to create his own JARVIS. The main concern, there, was that he would turn it into an actually holographic being that gave them aid. One that, knowing Fitz, would come in the form of a monkey. The elevator doors dinged and she turned back to them, walking on after Coulson.
“So, are we, like,” she rolled the words around in her mouth for a second before speaking. “In trouble?”
“Not exactly,” May answered, smiling just barely.
“Not yet, anyway,” Coulson said. There was more than a hint of smile on his face and he looked over at Skye, shrugging a shoulder. “We’ll see how they feel about us when this meeting is over.”
“Not like they have room to feel anything like trouble towards us anyway,” Ward cut in, crossing his arms, eyes on the elevator indicator as they went up. “This is a S.H.I.E.L.D. issue, and it’s being dealt with by S.H.I.E.L.D. Yes, Killian originally made moves that could be seen as being against Stark, but, let’s be honest.” He looked at each of them in turn. “We should have been involved from the beginning. Now he is blatantly taking action against S.H.I.E.L.D., we’re going to take sanction over that.”
The elevator opened and they were met with a man of average build in an AC/DC t-shirt and worn blue jeans, raising an eyebrow. “Is that so, Agent Ward?”
Ward didn’t back down in the face of Tony Stark, though he did straighten, almost imperceptively. Skye snorted again and brushed past him, nodding to Tony as she did. “Hey, Iron Man.”
Tony gave her a smirk and a nod, stepping back from the elevator to let them all onto the floor. “Hey, Hacktivist.”
Simmons groaned, rolling her eyes. “Don’t call her that, you’ll get her started again,” she said, knowing better than to hold out her hand, though she, Fitz and Tony all exchanged nods.
“Maybe that’s what you all need,” came a level voice, and a moment later Natasha Romanoff came down the hall, dressed in a red blouse and black pants. “Might be less painful than the earful Stark’s got planned for you.”
Tony scowled at her but didn’t say another word, jabbing his thumb in the direction she came. The message was clear enough. That was where the team was supposed to go, because that was where the other team was. Fitz led the way, Simmons at his side, shaking her head and muttering something about how he needed to stop hero worshipping Thor, because he had a boyfriend and it just looked bad sometimes.
Skye nudged Ward with her elbow and grinned when he gave her a flat look. “First you embarrass yourself in front of Tony Stark, and now your boyfriend’s going to spend the meeting drooling over Thor’s arms.”
“With you,” Ward pointed out, to which Skye gave an agreeing shrug. “So I guess Simmons and I will be commiserating over drinks.”
The room that they entered was large, and conceptualized as open. There were couches littered around the room, and two doors at the other end that led off to other areas of this floor of Avengers Tower. Across one wall was a large television screen, currently playing the morning news. Seated in front of it were Steve Rogers, Thor, and Clint Barton.
“Where’s Bruce?” Tony asked, walking over to drop into his own seat by himself, waving at the rest of the unoccupied seating. “Come on, kids, don’t be strangers.”
“Probably still sleeping,” Barton answered without looking away from the news. “He was up late last night doing I can’t even begin to understand what.” He turned his head and waved at them as they all took up their seats. “Nice to see you, Coulson and Crew. Sorry you got dragged in here by Stark and his paranoia.”
“It’s not paranoia,” Tony said. “JARVIS, television off, please. And could you do me a solid, see if Bruce is up?”
“Certainly, sir,” JARVIS answered, obediently. The TV flickered off and Steve tipped his head back, smiling faintly as Clint groaned.
“I wanted to know what happened to that guy who got his arm caught in the register,” he complained. “I think that one was Pete’s.”
“We’re not discussing Parker right now,” Natasha said, holding up a hand. “That is a discussion for another time. Probably like, three-thirty when he comes rolling by, asking to be made part of the team.”
“Indeed,” Thor agreed. “Welcome, Son of Coul and the rest of you. I hope, given the circumstances, you are all well?”
“As well as can be,” Coulson answered for the group of them. “And you?”
“Ah, things are well for us,” Thor said with a nod. “I’m sorry to say that Wanda and Pietro have gone abroad to Europe for the week, and so cannot be here for this discussion.”
“That’s all right,” Coulson said.
“Besides, it’s not like Tony’s going to let any of us get a word in, edgewise,” Steve said quietly, his small smile growing when Tony shot him a sarcastic look.
There was a shuffling from the other side of the room, and Bruce Banner appeared through one of the doors, not looking like he’d just woken up, but not looking like he’d actually gone to bed. Then again, experience had proven that was what Bruce looked like a good chunk of the time, especially when he had a project eating up his time. “Morning, all.” He greeted them. A chorus of ‘morning’s and waves met him, and he dropped into a chair to Tony’s left, clasping his hands and leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “So, now that I’m here, I guess we can start?”
Tony nodded and then set Coulson in his sights, glaring levelly at the senior agent. “You should have told me what this was the second you all had a single inkling that it was Aldrich Killian. This guy is dangerous. He was trouble enough for me to handle, and his sidekick, Savin? Not exactly going to pass a mental stability test. Do I need to remind you that the two of them kidnapped the president right off of Air Force One?”
“Probably not,” Natasha said.
“Not talking to you, Rushman,” Tony retorted, not even sparing her a glance as he referenced one of her covers, the one she’d used to infiltrate Stark Industries years ago. “I’m talking to your super spy friends.” Natasha rolled her eyes, one corner of her mouth quirked in the hint of a smirk. “My point is, this guy attacked me, he attacked Pepper, he attacked the president, and he was supposed to be dead. The second you had intel that he wasn’t dead, you should have been calling me up. You should have been calling up the Avengers.” He waved at Ward. “The bandages on you, Ward and May are proof enough that I’m right about that.”
“If bandages mean that we need to be calling the Avengers up at every turn,” May said. “Then you’d never get any time to yourselves. Or time to handle the actual threats that are above average human level.”
“She has a point, Tony,” Clint agreed, shrugging his shoulders.
Coulson held up a hand. “All right, I will say that I understand your issues with everything,” he said, nodding and rejoining his hands as he sat forward. “But May has a point, we can handle it, and, with respect,” he took a breath, the one that Skye had learned to take as meaning he was about to say something snarky, all with that firm government smile on his face. “It came up in relation to S.H.I.E.L.D. matters, and, correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought The Avengers, you especially, were done with all that?”
Skye had been right. That was definitely snark with the accompanying government smile. She had to press her lips together to keep herself from laughing, and caught Jemma doing the same, though her eyes were trained on the floor, unlike Skye’s.
It was hard to keep that laugh down when, after a beat of silence, Clint let out a low whistle. “Ooooooh,” he waggled a finger at Coulson, smirking, and then pointed at Tony. “He’s gotcha there, Stark.” Thor, next to him, was chuckling quietly, shaking his head, and Bruce was smiling, leaning back in his seat and pulling off his glasses to rub them on his shirt. A quick glance confirmed that Natasha was still smirking ever so slightly, and even Captain America was rubbing a hand over his mouth to hide the smile he was fighting.
Tony, however, apparently didn’t find the remark, nor Hawkeye’s subsequent comment, all that hilarious, judging by the look he was giving Coulson.
“You’ve got a week, Coulson.” He said, tone leaving no room for argument. “One week, and then myself and my team will be taking this matter into our own hands. Killian and Savin were difficult enough for me and Rhodey to handle with the suits. You all have nothing but your tailored fabric and fancy guns. Forgive me if I don’t root on behalf of your chances.” He stopped, leaning back in his chair, holding up a finger at them. “I don’t want Pepper to have to worry about being grabbed—”
“—Which she won’t, because she isn’t a damsel in distress,” Natasha cut across, regardless of how Stark ignored her and barreled forwards.
“So, you’ve got a week.” He finished. “I’m going to let you handle it your way, and if it doesn’t work, one week from today, we’re stepping in, and handling it our way. Got it?”
“I’m going to back that up,” Bruce spoke up, slipping his glasses back onto his face. “Our primary job as Avengers is to protect humanity from supervillians. A.I.M. definitely count as supervillians. Super powered whack jobs. So, I’m fully in support of you guys handling this, because I know what you’ve done and I believe you’re capable, but I’m going to stand behind Tony. If, in one week, these two are still on the loose, we’re going to have to take over.”
Coulson nodded, Ward parroting him. “We’ll take that to heart, gentlemen.” The older man said, without a hint of sarcasm in his tones. The fact was that they were right, Tony and Bruce. If they, as a team, couldn’t deal with this issue within a week, then the Avengers should be called in. Skye agreed. She remembered seeing the reports all over the news about the events that went down in Florida. If Killian had gone after the president once already, there was little to say that he wouldn’t attempt a similarly ballsy act once he’d taken care of his own personal issue.
“Count me in as agreeing with that as well,” Steve said. “But, I’m sure you’ll have no problem dealing with these two goons.” He gave them a smile, one that Thor mirrored.
“Aye,” the thunder god agreed, nodding before reaching for his mug of coffee on the table in front of them.
”Well,” Tony said, standing up and clapping his hands. “I’m glad we’re all in agreement. So, what the hell are you all doing sitting on my couches?” he asked, waving his hands. “Come on, up and at ‘em, S.H.I.E.L.D., the clock’s ticking away.”
“You’re not even going to offer them coffee?” Clint asked, spreading his hands. “Jeeeeesus. We’re gonna get a rep for being bad hosts, you know.”
“I’ll make sure to spread it around,” Skye said, nodding sagely.
“See?” Clint pointed at Skye. “Hacktivist just confirmed it!”
“My ego will survive,” Stark said, ushering them out into the hall. As they headed back to the elevator, he dug into his wallet, pulling out a $50 bill and handing it to Skye. “Buy everyone breakfast on your way back to the party plane, and ensure me my name is going to remain as foggy as it is right now and no more.”
Skye took the bill with a broad grin, tucking it into her jeans and saluting him. “You got it.”
Tony walked with them to the elevator, and then got on when it arrived, causing them to share a few questioning glances. He waited until the doors were shut and the elevator was moving to turn and address them.
“Listen, I know what I said in there was nailed down and harsh, but that’s because I meant it. Also, Ward, I forget what it was that you said just before the doors opened – and, really, did you think I didn’t have cameras in this thing? But, hey, good man for not falling on your knees and begging my forgiveness.” Skye could see the telltale splotch of red from under Ward’s shirt collar from here. A scolding and a compliment. He was probably basking in it, somewhere in there. “Still, try to be careful out there? No one die and come back again later, okay? Oh, and, hey, you two,” he pointed at Skye, who was closest to him, and then Jemma, who was two people down, Fitz between them. “I understand congratulations are in order? Sorry I didn’t say something sooner, you know how it is.” He rolled his eyes over-dramatically. “Superheroing. But, really. Congratulations. I – and by I, I mean Pepper – will send something around to congratulate you on the big day, if we’re not invited.”
Simmons blinked, and waved her hands. “No, no, we definitely invited—”
“Jem, how long have you been working alongside the Avengers? You should know by now I don’t know any of that stuff. That’d be...”
“Pepper,” Jemma finished for him, her sigh of relief heavy and visible. “Of course.”
“There ya go,” Tony said, pointing a finger-gun at her. “But, back to the whole serious thing. Be careful out there and get the job done. And don’t be afraid to call us for back-up if you have to.” He grinned. “That’s what the Avengers are here for.”
The drive back to the Bus was punctuated by a pit stop for breakfast at Skye’s insistence. She’d waved the $50 bill in the air and said that Stark had ordered them, and they’d better not get under his skin anymore than that already had. It had worked, and they’d ended up with breakfast sandwiches and drinks from Starbucks before they got back on the road to head to the S.H.I.E.L.D. airbase and get back on the Bus. The priority was going to be seeing if the scans had revealed anything about where Killian and Savin might have gone, or where they currently were. No one was optimistic that they had stayed in Chicago, and that had been the only reason why leaving the city that morning had seemed feasible and all right, given that they were on mission.
Getting back into the lab was a quiet affair, and Fitz carefully put down his coffee before checking the monitors, stomach tight with tension and hope that they would turn something up, that they had found something while the team was out and about. When the running scans told him that there was nothing of note, he made a noise of annoyance, rolling his eyes and slumping into his work chair. “Nothing.”
“That’s all right,” Skye piped up, taking a sip of her coffee – or, her syrup mixed with a little bit of coffee. “We’ve still got six days and twenty three hours to figure this out and get these jerks, right?”
“That’s the spirit,” Ward grumbled, moving to stand with one of his hands on the back of Fitz’s chair, the other on the desk, leaning forward to peer at the screens. “How the hell do they keep themselves off the radar like this?”
“They got a lot of practice,” May offered, stepping up behind him and looking at the data as well. “Five years worth.”
“It’s bloody annoying,” Fitz said, tipping his head back so he could look at Ward. After a second the other looked down, catching his eyes and nodding.
“They’re going to have to slip up soon, so we can find them and get this over with.”
“They will,” Skye said. “Just a matter of time. Come on, you guys, think positive, would you?”
“How about,” Coulson interjected. “We think positive while we try and come up with a plan to get them? Obviously throwing ourselves at them isn’t going to work out as well as I had originally hoped. I’m open to suggestions.”
They all moved, crowding around the holotable. Simmons pulled Skye’s tablet towards her from across the table, flicking it on to have it project onto the large screen across from them. Pictures of the two of their targets came up, surrounded by data, some of which had been taken from the night before’s meeting. “We are definitely going to need a new strategy,” she said firmly. “Not only do we need to find Aldrich Killian and Savin, but,”
“We need to neutralise them,” Leo nodded at her side, completing her sentence. “They’ve had far too long to let their bodies get used to Extremis. They have an understanding of it, and, of course, maybe they don’t have precise control over it, but they know how to use it to their advantage. They’re fast and they can get themselves into defensive or offensive form far too easily.”
Coulson nodded, listening to both of them.
“Which means,” May spoke up quietly. “We need to take them by surprise.”
“That might work,” Skye said, leaning forward on the holotable and crossing her arms, nodding. “They might be able to react, but if we moved fast enough, got on them and get them under, it might work.”
“That means a serious margin is left to get burnt,” Fitz said. “Literally. We’d have to time everything perfectly, so that they don’t get a chance to fight back before our strike team has them down and under.”
“There are ways around that,” mused Simmons. “We could create heat and fire resistant suits that cover at least 90% of the body, in order for the strike team to be protected.”
“But,” Fitz pointed out. “That would take time to get the material and put together the suits, and then honestly, it would be a gamble, because from Stark’s data, they can run very, very hot. I don’t know off the top of my head what their cut off temperature is before they go too hot, but I suspect it is probably somewhere above what the resistance fabric can handle.”
It was Jemma’s turn to make a sound of annoyance.
“What if we used that watch you guys developed, back when Coulson was taken?” Grant asked, raising an eyebrow. “I mean, getting them to ingest that might work out. It worked pretty fast on that guy I fought.”
“Yes, but again, you have to get close,” Jemma said. “Even with suits, the chances of being 100% covered are slim. We can’t cover every inch of skin, and even what we do cover may not be entirely protected.”
“She’s got a point,” agreed Skye. “These two are definitely vicious enough to go after whatever bit of bare skin there is.” Looking at her, then Coulson, May and Ward, Fitz felt the ball of tension take up space in his gut again, accompanied by the unwelcome image of Ward being grabbed by Savin and having his flesh melted right down to the bones of his face. He shook his head, catching Jemma looking just as stricken. Chances were, she’d thought the same thing, or close to it.
“We can’t risk that,” his voice had an air of finality. That would be the end of the discussion on using the watch and hoping to get close enough to make them swallow the dendrotoxin.
“Then the trick is going to be taking them by surprise,” Melinda filled in. “We’re going to have to find them, track them, and take—”
A shrill beep from the other side of the room cut her off and Fitz jolted straight up, looking at the computer before hurrying around the holotable and swinging around to look at the screen. On it, two faces he had been hoping to see minutes before were moving through the crowd in the back of a live news program currently being filmed, taking in a local street performers event.
He slapped the desk.
“It found them,” he announced, standing up again and looking over at the group at the holotable, hanging on his every word. “In New York.”
Everyone’s eyes turned to Coulson. His mouth pulled down in a frown, and his eyebrows furrowed for a second. New York, that was odd. It was unexpected, too, but, Fitz was well aware, wondering about it out loud right now would be a bad idea.
“Track them,” Coulson ordered after a moment of silence. “Do not allow them to be lost. We’ll take them tonight.”
Chapter 16: Hair of the Dog
March 10th, 2018 - Riverbend Motel – New York City, New York
The motel wasn’t run down, which was a surprise in and of itself, in Ward’s opinion. These two had been trying to keep a low profile for so long now, to risk being recognised by a place that was frequented by people who didn’t also have things to hide, and weren’t blitzed out of their minds on substances, was out of character. Then again, they had been made. Maybe that was making them throw caution to the wind, in a way. Whatever the reason was, Ward kind of wanted to point out that they’d made a critical error.
Choosing a hotel that gave the guests outside entrances to their suites wasn’t really going to work out in their favour.
It did, however, make his job, as well as May, Skye and Coulson’s, a lot easier. May had been the one who went out that afternoon, the one who had followed the pair much of the day, from a distance, until they had settled here at this hotel. The rest of them had met her at a coffee shop across the road, ready, with tactical gear in the van for her. She had changed in privacy while the rest of them stood outside the van and watched the hotel. Then it had been time to get into motion.
That had been just a little less than an hour ago. It was ten minutes past midnight now, as he and May walked along the terracotta tiled walkway that led between the suite entrances. In their ears, Fitz was guiding them, based on the heat signatures that were being picked up by the glasses May was wearing. Skye and Coulson followed behind them, watching their backs and listening to the same feed.
Clearing room after room was a quick affair. It was easy to guess where they might be. Having tested other people who had been injected with Extremis, S.H.I.E.L.D. had a fairly wide dossier on the heat signatures they gave off, even when the virus was dormant.
Leo’s voice was quiet, almost a whisper, and Ward glanced at May, catching her small nod. The room that they were clearing now was at the end of the block. The door was facing them, and the window was around the bend in the walkway, giving Killian and Savin a view of the parking lot.
Coulson tapped his arm, and he and May turned. The direction was clear. Coulson and Skye would go through the door. Ward and May would go through the window. That had been one of the plans, and in that case, Simmons knew that she would be the one to count them down so that they moved at the same time. The signal was a simple “Glass” spoken over the comms. That wouldn’t be until they were all in position though.
Ward followed May, swiftly and quietly, around the corner, backing up as far as the walkway would allow them, facing the window, shoulders dropped.
Coulson’s voice came over the comms.
There was a sharp breath, Jemma’s, and then...
Ward checked that the safety was off on his I.C.E.R. with a quick glance, even though he knew it had been the whole time.
Melinda nodded beside him, the glasses still on, her mouth a line of determination.
The movement was instant. May shot the glass and they both rushed the window, hitting it and shattering through, dropping into rolls and getting to their feet within a second. Across the room, Coulson and Skye had entered the room at the same moment, their own I.C.E.R.s drawn and up, fingers on their triggers.
Aldrich Killian stood between the four of them, looking caught between shock, anger, and, of all things... amusement.
“Get on the ground, Killian,” May ordered.
He laughed, smirking her way. “You didn’t say ‘please’.”
There was the faintest sound. Almost like something reverberating in an empty space, but not entirely. Then Ward saw Killian’s eyes.
In two seconds he was on him, swinging a hand up to crack him in the jaw, then the nose, and then turned him around, slamming him to the floor in a quick motion, knee against his back, gun pressed to the base of his skull.
“Don’t make me.” He warned in a level tone.
Killian groaned under him, holding up his flesh toned hands. “All right. All right, fine.”
May stepped forward, pulling the cuffs from her jacket pocket. Fitz and Simmons had been able to whip up one thing before they had moved out on this mission. Two pairs of cuffs that were, though untested, more than likely resistant to Extremis.
“Where’s Savin, Killian?” Coulson asked, not yet holstering his gun. Skye stood beside him, still holding hers trained on the former C.E.O. of Advanced Idea Mechanics.
It was loud, and for a second, Ward doubted that he’d heard it, but then he saw the look on Skye’s face.
It was so loud that he hadn’t only heard it over the comms.
He’d heard it coming in the shattered window.
The parking lot.
“He’s out for a stroll,” Killian said breezily. The sound Ward had heard less than a minute before returned, and Killian’s hands and wrists lit up, trying to burn through the cuffs. Trying to get free.
Trying to get to FitzSimmons, just like Fitz had been concerned they might.
A streak of blue shot past Ward’s head as he was standing up, as he was running for the door. He didn’t need to look to see who had got off the shot. He knew the light, hurried footsteps trailing after him. Knew that Killian, who was now probably out like a light, or well on his way, was now May and Coulson’s responsibility.
Skye followed him to the stairs, running down them while he took them groups at a time, hitting the pavement and spinning into the parking lot, running full tilt for the van.
One of the side doors had a molten orange hole melted into it where the handle had been. Both of them were flung open, and Eric Savin was pulling Simmons out. Or, trying to. She was fighting him, as was Fitz, and, since they were needed, he wasn’t lit up. He wasn’t hurting them.
Ward didn’t stop to think, he just moved, running at Savin and pulling his arm back to punch the attacker in the back of the head, forcing him to smash his face off the open van door with enough force to rock the van. The shock of it made him let go of Jemma, which was all Ward had intended, giving him the opening to pull Savin back, throwing him hard on the ground.
Ward wasn’t surprised when he rolled with it, feet over head, tucking himself into a crouch. The guy was a fighter, it was to be expected. Ward had anticipated it, and aimed a kick at his head, that he dodged, which, again, wasn’t a surprise. He dove to the side, and stood up, rocketing up lightning quick and grabbing Ward’s arm.
His fingers wrapped tight around one of the bandages, gripping and yanking Ward’s arm, wrenching it to the point of tight, shooting pain in his shoulder joint.
Swinging his leg forward, Ward hooked one of Savin’s, ripping it out from under him, sending him back towards the ground. Savin pulled his arm with him, back out of the painful position it had been in.
It also let Ward get his hand on Savin’s throat, using that arm to drive him back into the pavement, hard, knocking the air from his lungs. Bringing his other hand down, he squeezed his fingers against Savin’s throat, aware that his palms were beginning to burn, that Savin’s palms were glowing, his fingers outstretched, reaching for his throat. The other man’s grin was maniacal, his intent clear. He’d burn Ward’s palms, get his hands off of him before Ward had the chance to knock him out, and give Ward the same treatment he was receiving. Ward’s brain was spinning through options to keep the hands off his own throat, leaning back.
Then a foot shot between his arm and Savin’s, pushing the other’s arm back onto the ground, slamming down on it and holding it in place. A second later, another foot Ward knew to be Skye’s did the same to Savin’s other arm, and Simmons dropped to her knees at his head.
“Just, just keep him still, Ward,” she got out, turning the dendrotoxin injector in her hand and stabbing it into Savin’s neck. Ward looked up at her, and then at Fitz, and then Skye.
The intent had been to surprise Killian and Savin. Between the four of them, he was pretty sure they’d managed it. Looking back down, and becoming reaware of the pain in his hands – and how it was receding – Ward watched Savin pass out. Between the fingers on his windpipe and the dendrotoxin in his system, he hadn’t stood a chance.
The second he went limp, Ward let go, rising and backing up to sit on his hunches, taking a deep breath. “Everyone okay?”
“Is everyone all right?”
Four sets of eyes turned towards the stairs. May and Coulson were making their way down, supporting Killian’s limp body between them.
Ward looked at Skye, then Simmons, and finally Fitz, chuckling when the other smiled at him and stumbled back a few steps, dropping to sit between the open van doors. Then the four of them looked to their team leader.
And all four of them nodded.
He was cold.
That was the first thing that Aldrich Killian was aware of, and while that wasn’t a new sensation, it wasn’t exactly welcome. He reached for a blanket, or really, anything, to make the cold back off a little, and stilled, everything coming back in a rush. Wherever he was, it wasn’t what his foggy mind had told him when he first came to.
Sitting up, probably much faster than he should have, Killian looked around his room – his cell – and felt dread tightening his chest. A cell. A cell. He was trapped, he was captured.
Where had they gone wrong? They had deliberately put themselves out there, made sure that S.H.I.E.L.D. knew that they were in New York. It had worked perfectly. Melinda May had shown up to be their tail, and they’d managed to lure them to the hotel. Savin had been able to get out of the room, obviously without being seen by the agents as they had advanced on the room. He was supposed to get the scientists, and Killian would handle the strike team. They were going to leave New York and go underground again.
Everything was supposed to have worked out.
Once again, fate had laughed at his plans and ripped the rug out from under him at the very last second.
Even crueler than all that, fate had chosen to mix humiliation with failure.
Of all the people who could have been sitting on the other side of that thick glass wall, the last one Killian wanted to see was Tony Stark. Tony Stark, and, at each of his shoulders, not looking quite as smug as the billionaire, were the scientists. Jemma Simmons and Leo Fitz.
It was infuriating and humiliating and frustrating. They were right there, and his rival was smirking at him through glass, and he was in S.H.I.E.L.D. issue prison clothes, sitting on the low cot that he suspected was supposed to be his bed.
Behind Simmons’ head, Killian could see another person, behind more glass. He got to his feet, approaching the glass, and confirming his suspicions.
The ex-soldier looked enraged, though he was standing perfectly still in the centre of his cell, glaring at the backs of their enemies heads. That was, until he caught sight of Killian. Then his face twisted in true rage, whether that was at him, or at their situation, Killian didn’t know, and he hammered a fist against the glass.
“Hey, hello, hi, yeah,” Tony grinned, falsely cordial, directing Killian’s attention back to him. “There we go. Okay, so, Al. Can I call you Al? Not that I care what you do or don’t want to be called. Let me get you up to speed, okay?” He spread his hands, taking in the facility in which they stood. “So, you’re currently hanging out in a S.H.I.E.L.D. holding facility. Yeah, I know, it’s not much, but, you should really enjoy your time here. The place you’re going next it’s going to be a trip.” He paused, glancing over his shoulder at Fitz. “What was it called again?”
“Right,” Stark snapped his fingers, grinning at Killian again. “The Fridge. Doesn’t sound like much of a party, does it? Probably because S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t intend for it to be. So, like I said – enjoy your time here.
“I was going through your things while you were having your dendrotoxin nap, there, Sparky, and you know what? You got pretty damn close. You might have actually managed to stabilize it, you know. You were right there,” he pinched his fingers together. “On the cusp. But you just didn’t quite make it, huh? At least, not on your own.”
Tony gestured to Agents Fitz and Simmons, beckoning them forward until they stood not behind him, but at his sides, even a little bit more forward than he was. “Thankfully, Agent Fitz and Agent Simmons were happy to help you with your little problem. The Extremis virus within you is now extremely stable. I don’t think it will be giving you any more problems.”
The truth in Tony’s words wasn’t that Extremis was stable. Killian could feel it. The affects weren’t wearing off. His leg was still usable, his vision still perfect. But the added enhancements...
He couldn’t call it up. That constant warmth inside his brain that he was able to pinpoint and activate just wouldn’t wake up.
It was, for all intents and purposes, gone.
Tony must have seen it in his eyes the moment he realised it, because the other man’s grin widened, and he nodded, just once.
“You and Savin enjoy your extended stay at The Fridge, Killian.” He put a hand on each of the agents’ shoulders. “And try to be thankful for what the brilliant young agents did for you. They probably saved your miserable skin.”
With that, Tony Stark turned, and without a look back, walked down the hall, and away, the agents walking after him, confident, heads held high.
Killian met Savin’s eyes across the hall.
It was going to be a long, hard existence from now on until the foreseeable future.
Chapter 17: Epilogue - Something
June 15th, 2018 – Tunnels Beaches, Devon, UK
“Oh, my god, I’m a wreck.”
“You’re not a wreck,” Ward said, probably for the thirteenth time in the last hour. Skye was sitting calmly, regally, and still, in her chair in front of the mirror, staring at her reflection while the hairdresser finished tying her hair up. A good chunk of it was being pinned up elaborately at the back of her head, but much of it was left to spill down over her shoulders.
“Obviously not on the outside,” Skye corrected, meeting Ward’s eyes in the mirror. “But on the inside I’m just like...” She paused for a second, waiting while Megan, the hairdresser, lifted her hands from her head, and then Skye pressed the tips of all her fingers together, shaking them until she pulled them apart quickly. “Me. On the inside. That. Just like gravitonium.”
Ward laughed. “Excuse me?”
“Shut up, okay? It was how Fitz explained it to me but that’s how I feel on the inside right now. Just. What if I forget my vows?”
“I have them on hand.”
“What if I trip and fall?”
“Coulson will keep you up.”
“What if Jemma doesn’t say ‘I do’?”
“Do you really think that’s a possibility at this point?”
“What if it rains?”
“You forget that you have a thunder god sitting in attendance. I doubt he will allow that to happen. He’s pretty fond of all our funny Midgardian customs.”
“What if you don’t have an answer for every little question that pops into my head?”
“Then I’ll find the answer.”
Skye turned in her seat, blinking rapidly, obviously holding back tears, and Ward shook his hands. “No, no, don’t, don’t cry, Skye, you’ll ruin your make-up.”
Skye laughed, something broken over a sob, though she was smiling, and tipped her head back, continuing to blink. “You’re such a loser, Grant Ward.”
He shrugged one shoulder, catching the hairdresser grinning as she looked between them. “I try my best, you know that.”
“Your best is pretty good,” she said, taking a deep, steady breath and looking at him. “Okay.” She turned back to Megan, who was holding her birdcage veil in her fingers. “Sorry about that.”
Megan laughed, waving a hand. “Don’t worry about it. If it helps, everyone does it. Can I...?”
Skye nodded, turning back to the mirror and holding still while Megan pinned the veil in. “If it helps,” the hairdresser continued. “At least you have the thunder god standing by.”
Skye laughed softly, pulling a face and quirking an eyebrow. “I guess that much is true.” She fell silent, watching the veil be pinned in, and then took a deep breath, nodding. “Wardie? Turn around while I get into my dress, okay?”
Ward rolled his eyes and threw up his hands, turning around and facing the wall. There were a few minutes of scuffling, and discussion between Skye and her hairdresser, and then silence. Long, very, very quiet silence.
The use of his first name had him turning around, expecting the worst. What he saw, instead, took his breath away.
Skye was standing in front of the mirror in her bridal gown. Hair up, veil on. The train of the gown was spread on the floor behind her, not arranged, just dragging in her wake, while she stared at herself.
“You look beautiful,” he said quietly, meeting her eyes in the mirror, feeling his chest swell with pride. “You look absolutely stunning, Skye.”
She nodded, giving him a shaky smile, and grabbing her bouquet from the vanity.
“Okay,” she said, curling her hands into fists, one around the flowers. “Okay. I’m ready.” She grinned at him, and her eyes lit up. Determination, excitement, and commitment. Ward grinned, and opened the door, waving the way out.
“After you, bride-to-be.”
“You and Ward have to go first,” Jemma said, smoothing her hands over Fitz’s shoulders. “Try not to trip, and please, please don’t make me laugh when I’m coming down the aisle.”
“Jemma,” he said, reaching up to take her hands, squeezing them gently between his. “It’s going to be fine, trust me.”
She nodded, breathing in through her nose, and out through her mouth, before giving him a nervous smile. “Do I look okay?”
“You look absolutely gorgeous,” Fitz said, closing his eyes and smiling when he finished speaking. It was the truth. Jemma looked nothing short of a princess, and that was what she would be, walking down that aisle. Her hair was gathered, pinned and made up, and her veil was trailing down her back, light and elegant. She really looked beautiful, his best friend. She was a beautiful bride.
“All right.” She leaned in, pressing a quick, gentle kiss to his cheek. “I’ll see you up there, then?”
“You’ll see me up there,” Fitz nodded, squeezing her hands once more before he let himself out of the dressing room, and headed down the hall, to where the reception building opened on to the beach. Ward was already waiting, corsage pinned into his buttonhole, hair perfectly in place, the blue of his shirt, under his black suit, standing out, defining his features in the strangest way. Leo walked to his side and hooked their arms, raising an eyebrow and grinning up at him.
“Is Skye losing it?”
“Only slightly. How’s Jemma?”
“God, I can’t believe we’re here,” Fitz leaned forward, peering onto the sunny beach, taking in the small but important crowd of people. Agents they had worked with, Jemma’s family, people Skye counted as friends from her life outside of S.H.I.E.L.D. The Avengers. It was an interesting bunch. His own parents were there as well. “Seems not so long ago we were smashing your comm and swabbing you for the new one.”
Grant chuckled. “And now, marriage.”
“And now, marriage,” Leo echoed, straightening up as the officiator took up his place at the head of the altar set up at the top of the beach. “Ah, this’ll be us...”
“What?” Ward asked, his tone too quick, too clipped. Fitz looked up at him again, smirking.
“I meant in a minute we have to head out there,” he clarified. “But... Maybe one day?”
Ward turned back to the set-up, the crowd, the altar and the officiator. For a minute, he was still, but, as the music began, his smiled, looking down at Fitz, and nodding.
“Definitely one day.”
And then he moved them out the doorway, giving Fitz no chance to react to his words. Nothing but squeezing his arm a bit tighter than necessary, and giving him a soft smile when they parted ways at the head of the walkway.
And now, it was the brides’ turns.
Skye was first. Her arm was wrapped gently through Coulson’s, and she didn’t trip, not once, making her way up to the altar. Her dress fit like a dream, trailing behind her as she ascended the steps to stand next to and just a bit ahead of Ward, in front of the officiator, pausing before she did to kiss Coulson’s cheek, and squeeze his hand, eyes not leaving his until he was seated next to May.
Then her eyes trained firmly on the doorway, waiting for Jemma.
Jemma was a vision, holding on to her father’s arm. Out of her sweaters and blazers, and into a ballgown that made her look like royalty, she brought tears to Skye’s eyes.
Skye wasn’t alone in that, Jemma taking a deep steady breath more than once as she made her way down the aisle, eyes for no one but the woman in front of her.
“Hi,” Skye whispered when Jemma stepped in front of her.
“Hi yourself,” Jemma whispered back, reaching back to hand her bouquet to Fitz. He took it deftly, and Skye remembered what she was supposed to do with her own, passing it back to Ward.
“We are gathered here today” the officiator started. “To celebrate one of life’s greatest moments; the joining of two hearts, and to give our best wishes to the words which shall unite this couple in marriage.”
Jemma took Skye’s hands in hers, squeezing them delicately. Skye returned the motion.
“Should there be anyone who has cause why these two should not be married, speak now, or forever hold your peace.”
Skye turned to the crowd, pointing at them all in general. There was a round of laughter, and Jemma pressed a hand to her own cheek, joining in.
“I’ll take that to be a no, then,” the officiator said, reining in his own laughter. “Today we have come to this place to witness the joining of two lives. For them, out of the routine of extraordinary life, something even more extraordinary has happened. They met each other...”
Skye smiled widely, remembering being introduced to Fitz and Simmons after her interrogation was over.
“...Fell in love...”
Jemma’s smile turned into a grin, her fingers lacing with Skye’s.
“...And are finalizing it with their wedding. A rewarding marriage must be created. It is never the wrong time to hold hands. It is remembering to say I love you, even when you’re suiting up to save the world. It’s not just marrying the right person.” The officiator looked between the two of them. “It is being the right partner. Now... Skye, my dear, if you would repeat after me.”
Skye nodded quickly, biting her lower lip as she smiled.
“I, Skye Poots...”
There was a moment of hushed laughter, and Skye heard the snort that came out of Ward. The ceremony wouldn’t have sounded right, to her, if she hadn’t sacrificed something by giving herself a last name, though. The one that the orphanage had pinned on her, years ago, that she had thrown away, would do. It wasn’t like she wouldn’t have a new, perfect one in a few minutes, anyway.
“I, Skye Poots...”
Jemma giggled softly.
“Take you, Jemma Simmons...”
“Take you, Jemma Simmons...”
“To be my wife...”
“To be my wife...” Skye’s voice cracked, only slightly, on the last word, and she tightened her fingers in Jemma’s.
“My partner in life and my one true love.”
“My partner in life,” she took a breath to steady herself. “And my one true love.”
“I will cherish our friendship and love you today, tomorrow, and forever.”
“I will cherish our friendship,” Skye repeated, her words firming up as she spoke. “And love you, today, tomorrow, and forever.”
The officiator nodded, smiling broadly, and turned to Jemma. “Now, the same for you, Jemma, dear. I, Jemma Simmons...”
“I, Jemma Simmons...” she started, firm in her words, holding Skye’s hands in hers gently.
“Take you, Skye Poots...”
“Take you, Skye Poots...” she squeezed the fingers in hers as she spoke, all traces of a giggle gone.
“To be my wife...”
“To be my wife...”
“My partner in life, and my one true love.”
Jemma took a breath, blinking quickly. “My partner in life, and my one true love.”
“I will cherish our friendship and love you today, tomorrow, and forever.”
“I will cherish our friendship and love you today,” she tapped one finger on the palm of Skye’s hand. “Tomorrow,” another tap. “And forever.”
Fitz grinned at Ward around the two of them. Ward returned it, glancing over at Coulson and May, seeing them smiling softly at the two women in front of them.
“Skye,” The officiator continued. “Do you take Jemma to be your wife?”
“I do.” Skye said, no falter in her voice.
“Do you promise to love, honour, cherish and protect her, forsaking all others and holding only unto her?”
“I absolutely do.”
A quiet chuckle rose from the crowd, and Jemma pulled a hand away to cover her mouth, both to smother a laugh, and compose herself. It would be her turn in a second.
There it was.
“Do you take Skye to be your wife?”
“I do.” She said without hesitation, looking into Skye’s eyes.
“Do you promise to love, honour, cherish and protect her, forsaking all others, and holding only unto her?”
“I do,” said Jemma, her voice barely above a whisper. Loud enough for Skye, and loud enough for the officiator. It had been hard enough to get it past the lump in her throat, there was no way she was going to yell it. She could see Ward grinning over Skye’s shoulder, though, and caught his little thumbs up. Everyone had gotten her affirmation loud and clear.
“Wedding rings are an unbroken circle of love, signifying to all the union of this couple in marriage. Could I please have the rings brought forward?”
May rose from her seat, opening the large velvet box that had been sitting on her lap, revealing the two wedding bands. Skye plucked Jemma’s out of the cushion.
“Thanks for takin’ such good care of them, Calvary.”
May rolled her eyes and mouthed ‘only today’.
Skye turned to Jemma, taking a breath. This was her time to shine. “Jemma. God, I’m forgetting my vows already,” she laughed, and the crowd laughed with her. “That’s okay, though. I work better on the fly. Thank you. For everything. For being by my side in this word, for saving my life, for being my light. I love you, and I promise... All that stuff I said a minute ago, and more. Jemma, this ring is my sacred gift, with my promise that I will always love you, cherish you, and honour you, all the days of my life.” She took Jemma’s hand in hers, shocked at how steady her own were, slipping the ring onto Jemma’s finger. “And with this ring, I thee wed.”
Jemma raised a hand to her face again, covering her eyes, and then her mouth, before nodding and smiling at Skye. “I’ve got this,” she said firmly, turning to May and taking the other ring. “What she said,” she said, nodding her head towards Skye, before facing her bride again, looking at the ring in her fingers.
“Skye, I have managed not to forget my vows,” she started, earning her own chuckle from the gathered crowd. “Probably only because I repeated them at Fitz for the better part of last night. You opened up my world, Skye. You taught me to believe in things like true love, and magic, because you embody them both. You became my friend, and then my lover, and today, you are becoming, against all of my wildest dreams the first time I kissed you, my wife. I know that we have an exciting life ahead, and I cannot wait to enter into it with you. This ring,” she held it up, watching the light catch on the diamonds. “Is my sacred gift, with my promise that I will always love you, cherish you, and honour you all the days of my life. And with this ring...” her own hands were not as steady as Skye’s, but she got the ring on without difficulty, looking up, into Skye’s eyes, finding them brimming with tears, just as her own were. “I thee wed.”
The silence seemed to stretch on forever as they looked into each other’s eyes, hearts beating in what had to be unison, breath held...
“By the power vested in me, I now pronounce you wives. You may kiss your bride.”
Skye rushed forward, catching Jemma by surprise, but she didn’t lose her balance, didn’t gasp, didn’t jerk away. Their mouths met, slow, delicate, gentle, lips brushing, arms wrapping around each other, Skye’s at Jemma’s waist, Jemma’s around her shoulders.
When they drew apart, Jemma bumped her nose against her wife’s, grinning, feeling tears on her cheeks and not caring, because she could see the same expression on Skye’s face.
“I present to you Mrs and Mrs Jemma and Skye Simmons.”