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love's perfect ache

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The respectful negotiations have completely dissolved into arguing a mere twenty minutes in. Grant can’t say he’s surprised. If this “real” SHIELD had ever been interested in hearing Coulson out, they’d have talked to him first instead of sending their own people undercover to ingratiate themselves, develop bonds of friendship with Coulson’s most trusted agents. They certainly wouldn’t have attacked the base outright.

“-and you bring him here,” Calderon says. He’s got an arm in a sling and a habit of leaning against the nearest table or wall to hide his exhaustion. Grant’s told that’s courtesy of Skye knocking him on his ass when he tried to capture her. He’s not gonna pretend he isn’t proud of that but he does his best to keep it off his face seeing as Calderon’s using his good arm to gesture straight at him. “As if anything can be gained from bringing a traitor into our midst.”

The irony of that statement would usually be amusing to Grant, but given recent events, his temper’s running the show. It takes all his self control to say, “Takes one to know one,” instead of choking the life out of the bastard right here.

Calderon, like most of his friends, ignores Grant. “If you had to bring the rabid dog, Coulson, you could’ve at least chained him up.”

It happens fast. Grant feels Trip’s hand on his chest, stopping his advance, before he’s even realized he’s taken a step forward. Hell, it doesn’t even occur to him until after Trip gets him pinned to the wall.

“Calm down,” he says, his voice deceptively steady. Grant can feel the struggle, how his muscles are straining to hold him back. The strength’s fading—that’s a good sign, means he might just be able to control himself here in a little bit—but it’s not gone.

“It wouldn’t make much of a difference,” Coulson says, a bit of an edge on his amicable tone. Trip might be able to hold Grant in place but that’s mostly down to Grant’s own shock helping him out; a pair of cuffs wouldn’t stand a chance. “And Ward has been exposed to the berserker staff before—he even managed to play on its effects for the sake of his cover-” the unexpected pride in Coulson’s voice knocks the rest of the fight out of Grant, and Trip finally drops his arm- “he knows how to ride it out.”

Grant shouldn’t be surprised. He’s worked hard the last few months to win back Coulson’s trust, it’s just he didn’t really think he was succeeding. Coulson needed him as an agent more than he needed him as a prisoner, that’s just simple math. And it wasn’t like he had much of a choice. Grant never gave him the chance to capture him again—not until Gonzales and his crew changed the rules—but he did give him plenty of intel on Whitehall’s operation, as well as what he needed to stamp out the new heads before they could grow into real threats. It looks like somewhere in there, the old man started to like him again.

Other than Coulson, who seems determined to keep acting like there’s nothing out of the ordinary in this whole situation, all eyes in the room are on Grant. And it’s not just Gonzales’ people with their hands straying to their weapons, either. May’s got a letter opener from the desk clutched in her fist, and Grant doesn’t kid himself it wouldn’t have ended up in his skull if Trip hadn’t stopped him when he did.

He already would’ve been persona non grata here even before that unfortunate encounter with the berserker staff. Now he’s an unwanted threat, no chance he can play the role of apologetic former agent. And, worse, the rage means he can’t let himself see the one person he wanted to when he agreed to lend Coulson a hand, the only reason he went along with this crazy scheme in the first place. It’s all been for abso-fucking-lutely nothing.

“Yes,” Gonzales says, “that was a regrettable miscalculation.” He shifts his focus back to Coulson. “But the matter at hand is not your unfortunate habit of picking up strays, it’s-”

“What the hell did you just say?” Trip asks, finally giving Grant his back. Grant’s thinking along similar lines, but he doesn’t trust himself to speak.

“‘Miscalculation’?” Coulson asks into the ensuing silence.

Gonzales lifts his chin and his eyes stay very conspicuously on Coulson’s face and away from Grant’s. “We obtained the staff several months ago and thought it might be useful for determining your true motives. We never intended for its strength to be bestowed on a Hydra agent—again.”

“You did this on purpose?” Trip demands. Maybe it’s just whatever he’s been through these last few days, sticking around base when it was being run by a bunch of traitors, but he sounds as angry as Grant feels. And that’s saying something.

Grant doesn’t ask questions and he doesn’t listen to Gonzales’ justifications. He slips past Trip’s shoulder and heads for the door.

“You are most certainly not allowed to leave,” Weaver says from behind him. One of the newbies, the spies these people sent in to copy Grant’s moves and infiltrate the team, moves into his path to block the door. Mack, Grant thinks his name is, and it fits, guy’s built like a truck.

Grant doesn’t pause and he doesn’t slow down. A single punch sends Mack back into the hall and knocks him out in one. Grant keeps moving.

“Stop him!” Gonzales roars.

“Belay that!” May says, her voice louder than Grant’s ever heard it and that in itself is terrifying. She says more, but Grant can’t hear it, not over his own pulse in his ears and the echo of Gonzales’ words. Regrettable miscalculation. That’s what his mental sanity comes down to with these people. They’re lucky he left; if he hadn’t, most of them would be in pieces by now.

“Back off,” he says. Trip’s tailing him, keeping back far enough he’ll be out of range if Grant suddenly stops and goes on the offensive, but it feels like he’s being crowded. He’s already caged in this damn underground base, can feel the walls too close around him, the ceilings too low. It could all come down anytime and then he’d be-

“Not gonna happen,” Trip says in a typically-Trip mix of friendly and stern. “You’ve never been anything but a prisoner here, you’ll get lost if I leave you alone and then won’t you feel like an idiot.”

Grant doesn’t know how many people in base know about the staff but at the very least everyone must know who he is. He gets a lot of glares from agents he passes, but everyone is smart enough to get the hell out of his way.

“You gonna kill me?” he asks, trying to sound casual.

“Hope not. I like your soulmate’s cooking too much.”

Grant definitely doesn’t nearly trip over his own feet.

“She’s fine,” Trip says, not unkindly.

“You said that already.” It was the first thing Trip said when Grant stepped off the quinjet this morning. While Gonzales and his people were full of disbelief and threats to Grant’s person, Trip was busy telling him that she was safe.

But she wasn’t there either. She hadn’t come to see him dragged off for a return visit to Vault D.

He doesn’t know why she would. She avoided him for months. Even his suicide attempts couldn’t bring her down to talk to him.

“You wanna fight?” Trip asks. Grant’s wandering has brought them to a workout area. The last three doors he’s passed have led to rooms with padded floors.

“I’d kill you.”

Trip laughs like it’s ridiculous.

Up ahead, the next room looks like it’s got workout equipment. Punching something might feel good, but it’ll only reinforce everyone’s bad opinions of him. A run can burn off his adrenaline just as well.

He takes a hard right into the room, intent on heading for the first machine he sees, whether he’s gotta scare its occupant off it or not, only to stop dead half a step in. Across the room, running on the farthest machine, is Jemma.

Trip curses in Arabic.

Grant nearly bowls him over to get out of there. Not before she can see him. He catches sight of her steps faltering, her shocked expression. The horror he sees there chases him halfway across the base.

 

-----

 

It’s not exactly helpful, but sitting still and pulling all his focus into his own body—no easy task for a man with his training—is the only way he can be sure he’s not gonna murder someone. It’s been two hours since he saw Jemma and he’s spent most of that time in this chair, eyes closed, with Trip standing—sitting, really—guard a few feet away.

He came here for her. She said she hated him, never wanted to see him again, but he’s still that weak teenager getting attached to anyone who shows him any affection at all. He can’t let her go.

Is that really his fault though? She’s his soulmate. They’re literally bound to each other for the rest of their lives.

He knows what answer John would give and the condemnation in it—as well as the judgment that he ran away from the only thing in this whole base he wanted instead of just taking her—sits heavy in his gut.

He thinks about giving her up, about what it’d be like to go a day without thinking of her. It’s doable. He lived like that for thirty years, after all. The thought of going back to that life makes him feel worse than the distance between them now.

The public room he’s in sees a lot of traffic, but Trip manages to wave off anyone who tries to make it past the door, and Grant’s long since stopped reacting to the sound of footsteps drawing into his bubble of still and quiet. So it’s not that he doesn’t notice the footsteps coming closer than any have in ages, it’s just that he doesn’t think he needs to notice them. It’s not until whoever it is is quite literally standing over him, putting pressure on the back of the armchair he’s in, that his eyes fly open.

Jemma.

He has just enough time to register her presence before he’s overwhelmed by it. Her slight weight rests in his lap and her arms wrap around his shoulders and her head settles into his shoulder like it’s only been a few hours since the last time she rested against him like this, not the better part of a year.

The effect is immediate, the way it always has been from the first moment Jemma touched him in the lab’s doorway so long ago. A sense of rightness settles over him. She’s described it to him as calm and peace, like all the best parts of Christmastime coming all at once. He gets that, and he sees why she’d feel that way, but for him it’s a little less PG. It’s a primal, bone-deep knowledge that this woman is his. There’ll never be anything so right in his life as having her in his arms.

Regardless, he doesn’t dare lift his arms to hold her close. For long, tense minutes he doesn’t move a muscle. He’s got the absurd idea if he acknowledges her, she’ll turn out to be a hallucination, a new, fun aspect of the staff’s efforts to ruin his life. But eventually his need to know overwhelms his caution and he asks, “What?” It comes out more hoarsely than he means it to, but that’s always made her smile; he can feel it on her lips when she nuzzles into his neck.

“The last time you went through this,” she says, sounding like the reasonable scientist she is—not that he cares what she sounds like, just the sound of her voice has him shaking, “you said it helped, having me with you.”

He can hear the hint of censure in her voice, the reminder that he didn’t say that, not until hours and hours into it when she cornered him on the Bus right before that final fight against the cultists. Up until then he’d been avoiding her, too fearful of hurting her to dare touch her. But of course Jemma couldn’t let him struggle alone. He really shouldn’t have been as surprised as he was to find her in his hotel room later that night.

She sighs, her breath ghosting over the exposed skin of his neck and chest. It’s not her touch, doesn’t have the same effect, but he’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel nearly as good. He lets out a breath of his own and finally—finally—lets himself rest against her. His arms take her in and she seems happy to curl her legs up so she’s all in his lap. She’s small—smaller than she was last time he held her. She’s definitely lost weight in the last year. He’ll deal with that—and the possibility he bears some of the guilt for it—later. Right now, his head drops forward so he can better breathe in the scent of her hair.

After a while she begins to relax. She doesn’t try to break free, but she does find enough room she can idly trail her fingers over his chest, tracing the patterns of scars she knows better than he does.

“I saw the footage from Coulson’s office,” she says softly. “May told me what they did to you, how you controlled yourself.”

He knocked a guy out flat. He could’ve killed him with a blow like that, something Jemma knows perfectly well. But he doesn’t say any of that, just like he doesn’t comment that it was May of all people who defended him. She did it in the heat of the moment too, didn’t she? He’s got some vague impression she reminded Gonzales that he put her in charge of the Playground so it was her decision whether Grant walked free in its halls or not.

Annoyance flares, feeding the rage. When he laid out his plans to spy on Hydra for SHIELD, he said he didn’t want May to know, reasoning she hated him more than anyone else on the team, maybe enough to blow his cover. He always figured it was a long shot, getting Coulson to hold to that, now he knows he was right.

He curls tighter around Jemma and the rage goes running. Not far. He can still sense it crouching at the edges of his mind, waiting for its moment to pounce and drive him to fight, to attack, to kill. He’s a threat, but not to Jemma.

“I won’t hurt you,” he says.

“I know,” she says simply.

He doesn’t know how. It’s not like he ever told her the last time the staff’s effects were fresh. It seemed out of place after the night they spent together, this gentle reassurance that the staff’s primal rage drove him to defend her, keep her safe, keep her his.

“I know about the undercover work too,” she says. She lifts her head so she can look at him. He strokes her hair just to keep up the same level of contact. “Why didn’t you want Coulson to tell me?”

She looks so- so hurt, that he doesn’t know how to tell her the truth: he knew it wouldn’t make any difference. He did it for her, of course. She’d made it clear she was SHIELD through and through so the only way of getting her back was to turn his back on Hydra. But she was so mad, if she knew from the beginning she’d only see it as a manipulation. She wouldn’t see the danger he put himself in or how desperate he was. He would’ve done anything, become anyone she asked—but she didn’t ask. She wouldn’t even look at him anymore.

“You hated me,” he says. He means to follow it up, tell her how he thought she wanted him out of her life, but she rolls her eyes at him in that my soulmate’s an idiot way she used to do and rests against his chest.

“That doesn’t mean I didn’t love you too,” she says sternly. “You’re not allowed to go back to Hydra. As a spy or not.”

“Never,” he says into her hair. Considering the number of people who know about his mission has grown by more than a thousand percent in the last few days and that includes some members of the fake SHIELD, that’s a promise Grant is more than able to keep. Even if Coulson wanted him to go back, he couldn’t.

Tension he hadn’t realized Jemma was holding eases out of her. She was really worried about him. Awe fills up his heart and even the rage, trying to grasp onto his fears she might not have cared, can’t gain any purchase against it.

Her breathing slowly begins to even out and her muscles relax as sleep takes hold. He holds her through the night, her simple presence—and the promise if many more nights in it—keeping his demons at bay.