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Truce

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“Who would have thought pizza would be so cheap in Milan?” Skye grinned at May’s back as she placed the boxes on the table in the darkened hotel room, knowing the woman was rolling her eyes. “One veggie pizza for you, one mushroom to split, and one with everything but the kitchen sink for me.”

“I’ll be sure to remind you to do some extra pushups tomorrow to work it off.” May shifted from her position at the window overlooking the city to glance over at Skye. “Any word of trouble?”

“Nope. She’s been quiet the last few days.” Pulling out a slice of her pizza, Skye gestured out the window. “She still in her apartment?”

“Yes. She’s been very careful not to attract any notice, though I can’t blame her. We’re not the only ones watching.”

“What?” Skye dropped her food and picked up the extra goggles to search the nearby buildings. “Where?”

May gently corrected her line of sight until she could see the line of a rooftop in the dark. “If you look very carefully, you’ll see the silhouette of a sniper. I almost missed it myself; just happened to be looking there as they switched shifts, and it still took a minute to realize what I saw.” Skye lowered the goggles and raised her eyebrows in question. “They’re too good for local law enforcement.”

The younger agent nodded in understanding. Hydra. “Great. So what do we do now?”

“I’ve already let Coulson know. He wants us to bring her in; it’s too risky to let anyone else get there first.” May grimaced slightly. “Never mind the fact that last time she was taken in, it took a strike team of 6 with a full support unit.”

Skye shifted uncomfortably. She really didn’t like being caught in the middle of May and Coulson’s arguments. “We both know that was only a precaution. And she’d cooperated with her handler for more than 5 years, we have no reason to expect her to be overly hostile. We can approach her directly.”

“Remind me how many people are currently in the hospital with ruptured ear drums, or worse?”

“But I don’t think that was on purpose. Think about it, May,” Skye reached over to the files nearby. “Four robberies with the same M.O., glass surfaces shattered by high frequency sound waves, but the first three without witnesses or casualties, and all four done late at night. I don’t think she expected anyone to be there.”

“She’s still dangerous.”

“Only if we present a threat.” Skye pressed. “We don’t have a single instance of her deliberately attacking anyone. There’s no reason to assume she’ll attack us.”

“All right. But we’re going in armed and wearing head gear.” May shook her head as her trainee started to protest. “That’s the condition. She can’t expect any less after the last few weeks.”

Skye grimaced, but she agreed. “We going in now, then?”

“The sooner we move her, the better.”

The two women silently changed into professional suits with light body armor beneath, and checked that both of their ICERs were fully loaded. Skye pulled out the headgear provided by Fitz, specially designed to filter out the vibrations produced by their target and protect their hearing. Unfortunately, they looked like old-fashioned pilot’s headphones painted bright orange, meaning they’d be spotted as soon as they put it on. Skye carefully repacked them into a shoulder bag that could keep them hidden, along with a couple of other goodies, until they were in the apartment building, then went to the computer to file a quick notice with the Playground that they were initiating contact.

“Time to move.”

Skye nodded sharply and closed her laptop. Hefting the shoulder bag, she followed May out of the hotel and into the streets.

At 10 PM, the local residents were still in the midst of dinner. Laughter and talk floated from the open-air restaurants in the cool autumn air, and Skye felt a small twinge of envy. The last time she’d been in a restaurant was - she quickly cut off that line of thought, and focused on the task at hand. She mentally reviewed the blueprints of the building and local map; both agents had memorized them on their flight into the country. May led them on a round-about route to the target’s apartment building in order to avoid notice by the other team, or at least prevent them knowing which direction they’d come from. Once inside, they’d be on the third floor of the building with three possible exits. Skye just hoped the woman wouldn’t disappear while they were out of sight. Operations were so much easier when they had satellite support, or at least an extra pair of eyes to leave at the surveillance point.

Eventually they arrived at the building. Skye easily bypassed the door security system and got them into the lobby. In the elevators, she passed a set of headphones to May and placed the other ones on her own head. “I feel like we should be listening to an 80s mixtape,” she joked.

May just looked at her. Skye shrugged, knowing it was as close to a laugh as she’d get right now. She also pulled out the backscatter glasses, offering them to May who shook her head. Skye slipped them on as the elevator chimed and opened the doors.

Once on the third floor, the two found the door marked 304 and knocked sharply. Skye took position to be seen through the door’s viewhole, while May stood off to the side with her hand resting lightly on an ICER. “Daniela Moretti?” Skye called. Watching through the door, she saw a petite woman come up carefully to the door and look through the viewer. Skye held up her SHIELD badge. “We’re here to help.”

The woman turned and ran from the door, and Skye swore. Before she could react, May kicked in the door and rushed into the room. Skye ran in after, calling, “Daniela, we don’t want to hurt you!” She nearly ran into May’s back, who had taken a shooter’s stance with the ICER aimed at the woman in the bedroom before her. Skye stepped around her, positioning herself between agent and gifted. Moretti was a few years older than her, with gray starting to appear in her short dark hair. Slightly overweight and dressed in leggings and an oversized shirt, she looked about as dangerous as a housefly as she held her back against a wall and trembled.

Trying to keep May at the edge of her vision, Skye inched forward with her hands out, plainly empty. “My name is Skye. We’re here to help.”

“No, you’re not,” Daniela squeaked out. “You’re here to take me away again.”

Skye winced. “Only because you’re not safe here. Not while Hydra is still out there.”

“And how do I know you’re not Hydra?” The woman demanded. “You’re all the same. You just want to use us!”

Her voice pitched high, and Skye saw May wince behind her. Please don’t let the headgear fail. “Daniela, I don’t know how I can prove that to you here. But there are others out there, and they will hurt you if they find you.”

“No. I’m safer on my own. I can protect myself.”

“Daniela -“

“I said NO!” May’s left hand instantly pressed to the headgear as she winced and a glass figurine near her shattered. Though Skye registered the higher pitch, she was glad it didn’t hurt. Something must be wrong with May’s headgear.

But then she heard a rattling sound, and whipped her head around to find it. The walls were trembling, and the furniture near it shaking ever so slightly. From the corner of her eye, she saw May fire her ICER at Daniela, but when she turned back to the asset she was shocked to see that May’s aim had gone wide. Instead, Skye saw the target pressed up against the wall as her entire body vibrated. Her face was drawn into a look of intense concentration, her eyes closed. The noise grew and bits of plaster cracked on the walls and ceiling.

“Daniela, stop!” Skye stepped forward, a hand outstretched and voice raised to be heard over the groaning of the building. “Daniela, you have to stop!”

But the woman opened her eyes to glare at Skye, and she yanked up her hand, opening it with her palm facing Skye and May. Skye felt a shockwave throw her across the room. A chunk of plaster fell onto her shoulder, and she instinctively rolled under the bed. Only moments later, the ceiling crashed down, and then the floor dropped out from under her.

{ ~ S.H.I.E.L.D. ~ }

Skye coughed as the dust settled around her. She crawled out from under the bed, thankful it had shielded her from the worst of the concrete and plaster. “May?” she called out, but received no answer. Panicked, Skye tried to orient herself - May had been near the room’s door, so if she’d been pushed back, she would be toward the center of the building.

Skye scrambled over the debris, looking for any sign of her supervising officer. Finally, she caught a glimpse of bright orange. “May!” She stumbled over and fell to her knees, pulling at pieces of rubble to clear May’s face. She pressed her fingers to the carotid artery and leaned down to place her cheek near May’s mouth, and sagged in relief as she detected both pulse and breath. “C’mon, May, I need you to wake up.”

She worked as quickly as she could to unbury her S.O., distantly aware of a growing buzz from curious bystanders. She kept her face down and kept calling to May until she reached a large cinderblock that lay across the woman’s hips. Struggling to find purchase underneath, Skye strained to lift the block, but only slipped and fell in the surrounding debris. She swore and wiped at the sweat and tears on her face. “Come on, Skye, you can do this.” Firmly setting her feet, she reached down again and tried to lift, but it hardly moved. “Damnit!” she screamed, looking around for something to give her better leverage.

Finding nothing, she desperately reached down again. As she started to lift, she sensed another person coming up beside her and also reaching to lift. This time, the block moved enough to shove off May. Skye nearly landed face first when the resistance suddenly disappeared. Arms grabbed her and pulled her back, with a sharp, “Watch out!”

Skye felt a chill run down her back at the familiar voice, and shoved her way out of the encircling arms. Backing away, she looked up into the face of Grant Ward.

“What. The. HELL!” she shouted, grasping at her back for her ICER. Finding nothing, she lifted her hands up into an offensive stance. But Ward was already moving again, clearing the rest of the debris that covered May. He glanced up quickly with a glare, as if to ask whether she was going to help. Gritting her teeth, Skye joined him. In the distance, she could hear sirens wailing. She reached down to pull up May. As she tried to lift her into a fireman’s carry, the weight lifted and she saw Ward lifting May up into a cradle.

“What are you doing?”

“She needs to get to a hospital, and I’m assuming you don’t want to answer any questions when the ambulance gets here.” He quickly picked his way through the rubble, Skye following behind.

“Well, yes, but what are you doing?”

“We can use my car.”

This isn’t real. I’ve hit my head and I’m hallucinating. Confused, Skye followed behind until the reached the car in a nearby alley and Ward opened the back door to gently place May inside. That was when Skye spotted his firearm peeking tucked against his back. While he was still burdened by her S.O., Skye grabbed the gun and stepped back to point it at him. He spun around quickly, giving her a wary look. Slowly, he raised his hands. “Get away from her, Ward.”

“Skye -“

“I mean it, Ward!” She tracked him as he slowly stepped away from the passenger door. Still keeping her finger on the trigger, she shifted into a one-handed grip and held out the other palm up. “Keys.”

“You need someone to put pressure on her bleeding.” She kept her hand out, freezing her expression as she imagined May would. But Ward was just as stubborn. “Do you want her to bleed out on the way there? Or stand here until some cop finds us? I’m just trying to help.

It was hard to see him in the darkness, but a splash of light across his face revealed his frustration. Inside the car, May moaned a bit and shifted, though didn’t revive. This is all my fault… Skye let out of groan of irritation, and dropped the gun. “Fine. But I’m driving.”

“Fine,” Ward agreed as he tossed the keys at her. He crawled into the back seat as Skye started up the car and tucked the gun beside her seat, then she roared out of the alley.

All through the drive to the hospital, she kept a watch on Ward in the rear view mirror. May was going to kill her for this, for letting him touch her again. But Ward kept a professional distance, only sitting close enough to keep pressure on the wound in May’s upper leg. In one brief look, it almost appeared that he was reaching to brush the woman’s hair from her eyes, but then he shifted and resumed his double-grip on the wound.

She screeched into the entry of the pronto soccorso at the hospital, and jumped out of the car as someone ran up to her. “We need help!” she cried. “We were in an accident, and my mother, she’s hurt -“ Soon, she was pushed aside as orderlies lifted May onto a gurney to wheel her inside. Dimly, she registered Ward telling them something in Italian, and then she followed May inside.

The next few minutes were a blur as she gave the front desk their cover story - her mother was in Italy on business, and she’d come to stay with her for a few days to enjoy Italy. Once the fake names were in the system Skye guardedly made her way to the entry area. Looking around, she saw no sign of her former teammate.

Chapter Text

It was nearly five in the morning by the time Skye returned to their hotel room. The attending nurse had assured her that May’s injuries weren’t too serious - they’d stopped the bleeding quickly, two ribs were cracked, her leg was broken but easily set, and she had a concussion and plenty of bruising. Her eardrums were ruptured, which the doctor couldn’t explain in the context of a car accident, but again it wasn’t serious and she was expected to make a full recovery. In the meantime, she was kept in the hospital under light sedation.

Skye knew she needed to file a report for Coulson, though she dreaded it - the op was blown and May was in the hospital, and Skye knew the blame lay squarely on her own shoulders. The only good news was Ward’s reappearance, the first solid lead they’d had since he escaped six months before. But again, Skye had let him slip away from her, and now he had a head start on the asset.

Overall, leaning against the room door and banging her head on it was a much more desirable activity.

But she couldn’t avoid the inevitable, so eventually she straightened and moved further in to find her computer. She’d barely turned it on when she heard the door lock click behind her. She grabbed at a nearby firearm and spun around, not entirely surprised to see Ward now standing in the shadows with his hands open and slightly raised.

They both stared silently for a few moments, assessing each other now they weren’t focused on an emergency. Skye noticed in the dim light of the computer screen that he still sported a beard, though neatly trimmed as opposed to the rough mess he’d had in the basement. He’d also regained some color to his skin, and overall looked much healthier. And while wary, his eyes no longer held that feverish light of desperation.

Take away the beard and the submissive gesture, he looked almost like he had before - well, before. She felt the anger spark, and she raised the gun threateningly.

“Come to turn yourself in? I wouldn’t have expected it of you.”

“No. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“That’s funny, coming from you.” Skye’s voice shook ever so slightly. “What, you think helping us tonight just wipes the slate clean?”

“Are you really going to shoot me, Skye?” He may have phrased it as a question, but he clearly was confident in the answer.

“I really should.”

“But you won’t.”

Damn him. Skye grimaced and dropped the gun to point toward the floor, though she kept a firm grip on it. “Doesn’t mean I trust you. It just wouldn’t seem right while you’ve still got May’s blood on you.”

Ward slowly lowered his hands. “Moretti didn’t hurt you?”

She raised her eyebrows. “Well, I guess I don’t have to ask if it was you on that rooftop across from her apartment.”

“I’m not working for Hydra,” he answered her implied accusation.

Skye snorted. “Right. You just happen to be spying on a SHIELD asset, and just happen to have others working with you, all at the same time she’s supposed to be recalled into SHIELD custody because she’s become dangerous. Not as if Hydra could possibly be interested in her.”

“You’re right that Hydra is interested in her, but I’m not here to take her to them. I’m trying to keep her away from them.”

Skye wanted to laugh. She really did - a mean, nasty laugh that says exactly what she thinks of him. But he looked so damned earnest, and though everything she knew about him told her he can’t be trusted, some small part still urged patience. “Explain,” she ordered him.

He gestured to a nearby chair, silently asking permission to sit, and moved slowly to sit down when she nodded her permission. He folded his hands in front and rested his elbows on his knees, his eyes downcast, a position she recognized as an attempt to be unthreatening. “I didn’t return to Hydra after I escaped. At first I just wandered aimlessly, until I came across someone I recognized from the Fridge. He was causing a lot of trouble for the locals, so I… took care of it.” His voice was even and face was blank, but Skye winced at the dark undertone. “I knew it was my fault he’d been out to make trouble in the first place… it’s the first time I’ve had a chance to try and fix anything. After that, I just kept at it - tracking dangerous gifteds, trying to clean up the mess I’d made. Along the way, I started to focus on the ones that Hydra was interested in. I’ve mostly been able to stay a few steps ahead of them.”

“If all you’re interested in is seeing gifteds taken off the street, then why didn’t you leave once May and I arrived for Moretti?”

“Because I knew you wouldn’t be able to take her down.”

Skye rolled her eyes. “Seriously? We would have been fine if May’s headset hadn’t shorted out or something. And if I hadn’t -“ she clamped her mouth shut, refusing to admit her failure to Ward.

“May’s headset didn’t short out, Skye.”

“What are you talking about? Of course it did, it’s just like mine and mine worked perfectly -“

“Skye, I don’t know why you weren’t affected, but I know it wasn’t because of those headphones because SHIELD’s specs were faulty,” he argued.

“How could you possibly know that?” she shot back.

“Because Moretti’s handler was Hydra,” Ward bit out. He lifted his face and met her gaze. “Her handler faked those records for years. Maybe the headphones worked when she was first tagged, I don’t know, but they sure as hell won’t work now. She’s been too well trained.”

Skye felt chilled at the implications. They’d found Fridge escapees who’d been enhanced before, and knew there’d been at least a couple of Hydra scientists embedded in the facility as well as the Sandbox. But this was the first time they’d come across a monitored Index asset who’d been in the control of Hydra.

Even worse, the fact that it wasn’t the headphones that had protected her from Moretti, but something unique about her disturbed Skye greatly. It wasn’t the first time her biology had distinguished itself, but was probably the most noticeable.

Ward waited quietly while she processed that information. When she met his eyes again, he looked away quickly. “Go home, Skye. I’ll take care of Moretti.”

“You’ll take her out, you mean.” Skye sighed. “Look, she hasn’t killed anyone yet -“

“That we know of,” Ward interrupted.

“- and my orders are to bring her in,” Skye continued, glaring. “I can’t just go back and tell Coulson, ‘Oh, don’t worry about her, Ward said he’d take care of it.’”

He squinted slightly in that way he did when he was amused but too stubborn to laugh. “Then tell her she was already taken out. She will be by the time you get back.”

“Look, even if I thought that was a good idea - which I don’t - how are you supposed to get to her now? She’ll be even more alert after tonight.” He didn’t answer right away, and Skye knew he didn’t have a plan yet. “Anything you do from a distance risks collateral damage, but if you’re right about her skills you can’t get anywhere close to her.”

“I can minimize the collateral risk,” he insisted.

“And I can eliminate it,” Skye offered. He looked up at her in surprise. “You said yourself, the reason May was injured and I wasn’t is because I’m… different. That means I can get close to her.”

“And do what? You can’t just go in alone, Skye. And if you haven’t already called in backup, that tells me you don’t have anyone to call.”

“Well, then we obviously have a problem. Because I’m not just going to let you kill her to keep her away from Hydra.” Or walk into a deathtrap, she thought, though she refused to say it aloud. They watched each other silently, listening the hum of early morning traffic outside the apartment. Finally, Skye set her gun on the desk beside her and took a deep breath. “I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but we’re going to have to work together on this.”

{ ~ S.H.I.E.L.D. ~ } 

Within an hour, they were heading out of the city in a small vehicle Ward had hot-wired. He’d said he had someone tracking Moretti and they were to meet up several hours out. They rode in the car in silence, both focused on the road ahead. A few times Ward opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it again.

Skye just watched the countryside rushing by, lit by the early morning light. Her mind was racing with doubts about her decision. She’d sent in a quick report on May’s status and said she was tracking the asset, but said nothing more about her plans or Ward’s presence. She didn’t know how Coulson would react if he knew. He’d been more and more unpredictable lately, despite the relief of finally understanding the alien writings. He didn’t leave the base anymore, preferring to stay back and direct operations remotely. When May was out on a mission, like this one with Skye, he literally locked himself away from everyone but Billy Koenig. But when he did come out, his moods swung between being overly-concerned for everyone’s well-being and a complete lack of patience with any setbacks or mistakes.

And any mention of Ward was certain to set him off, no matter the context.

At first, Skye could understand; she was furious when he escaped. Not only did it feel like another betrayal, but it had also messed up their deal with the Senator and made it that much more difficult to continue operating. But even tangential references, such as using intel that Ward has once gathered on an early mission, could send Coulson into a bout of shouting. He’d once thrown his mug against a wall during his fit, shocking even himself as it shattered. He locked himself away for a week after that incident.

So completely informing the team of her current plan was out of the question. If she wasn’t so desperate to bring in Moretti before anyone died, Skye wouldn’t have even considered this. But here she was, in a cramped car sitting closer to Ward than she’d been in nearly a year.

Eventually, she grew sick of her own swirling thoughts and decided to break the silence weighing between them. “So, you said we’re going out to meet your team,” she started, surprising herself when she felt a twinge of regret at those words. He used to be on our team. Ward’s eyes flickered toward her briefly, and she had the impression he was thinking along the same lines. Shaking off the sensation, she pressed with her question. “Who are they?”

“Others with a grudge against Hydra,” he said slowly. “Some former SHIELD, some former Hydra.”

“Friends of yours, then?”

“I knew one of them before,” Ward admitted. “The rest were… well, let’s just say our paths crossed, and we decided to stick together.”

“I’m surprised,” Skye admitted. “I thought you preferred to work alone.”

“Someone once showed me the value of being part of something bigger,” he said softly.

Skye swallowed hard and looked away. Her eyes burned momentarily, but she refused to show any emotion. “So, what, now you’re part of a bunch of specialist vigilantes?”

“Only one other specialist. One scientist, two computer techs, one admin assistant.”

“Admin assistant?” Skye couldn’t help but laugh and turn back to him. “Are you serious?”

Ward nodded. “Ben Garcia worked in human resources, doctoring a lot of files for Hydra. When he started, he was told he was helping a special black ops unit for SHIELD. He didn’t learn it was really Hydra until he was in too deep. When the Triskellion fell, he took the opportunity to use an identity he’d made for himself and disappeared - swapped out some records with another agent who died in the middle of everything so Hydra thinks he was killed.”

“Neat trick. Why bother with the camouflage?”

“He has an ex-wife and 7 year old daughter that Hydra was keeping tabs on.”

“Oh.” Skye fell quiet at that. “And the others?”

“Nicole Blood, the other specialist, and Dinesh Jhaveri, the scientist, both defected from Hydra. Thalia King’s husband died at the Sandbox. And Lane… well, he was a friend of Blood’s.”

“I see.” Not really; nothing that Ward told her explained why the little group had joined forces with him. But then, he’d never been particularly chatty. She’d have to talk to the others when she met them, make her own assessments. “So, they’re all waiting for us?”

“Blood and Lane are tracking Moretti. The others are about an hour behind them, and once they get word they’ll set up a monitoring station. They’ll call when they have the location set.”

“Oh.” At that, Skye fell silent and returned to watching the roads. The rest of the trip was silent, aside from a brief stop to refuel the car during which Skye insisted on picking up some snacks, as neither of them had eaten since the day before. Ward rolled his eyes at her bag full of chocolate covered pastries until she pulled out an egg and spinach roll for him.

It was mid-afternoon when Ward received a call on his cell phone with information about where to meet the others, and dusk when they turned off the paved road and trundled along an overgrown gravel trail to an old barn. Skye stepped out of the car and took a good look at her surroundings. A dim light came from the barn, and she heard what sounded like a gas generator running inside. Off to the right was the foundation for another building, most likely a house, with a few scorched remains of the walls. The field to the left and behind the buildings was overgrown and impassable. It looked like no one had been there for at least a year.

Skye noted her best escape routes, keeping in mind she was most assuredly not among friends, truce or no. She might be able to trust Ward with her safety (or at least his idea of it), but she didn’t know these others, or how they would react to her presence. As Ward pulled their bags out of the trunk of the car, she checked that her ICER was loaded and accessible. She knew he’d seen her doing it, but he said nothing as he led them up to the barn. Stopping outside the door, he knocked twice and called out, “Tag.”

The door was opened up by a woman in her fifties, her hair pulled back from her face in a ponytail. With her Mediterranean-olive skin and dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, she could have blended in almost anywhere without notice. She smiled slightly at Ward, and responded, “You’re it.”

He rolled his eyes and pushed his way past her into the barn. The woman turned to Skye with the same light smile. “And you must be Ward’s tag-along. Come on in.”

Inside, Skye took a moment to pinpoint the location of everyone. Ward was tossing their bags into the back of a truck parked at the back of the barn. Two men, one Indian and one Hispanic, sat near the generator working on computers. She noted a cable running out a window and guessed they had some kind of satellite receiver set up.

After giving her a moment, the woman closed the door and stepped up closer to Skye with a hand out. “Thalia King,” she introduced herself.

“Skye,” she returned, hesitantly reaching out to shake the woman’s hand.

“Good to have you on board, Skye.” King turned her back as she walked over to the truck. “You know, Ward, it’s a bad habit to pick up hitch-hikers.”

He didn’t respond, but looked carefully back at Skye. She raised an eyebrow, silently asking, You didn’t tell them?

In response, he pursed his lips, then squared his shoulders. “She’s a SHIELD agent, sent to bring in Moretti.”

The two men’s heads snapped up at that, focusing on her completely for the first time. She gazed back at them steadily as they assessed her. One spoke up hesitantly, asking, “Only Moretti?”

“Those are my orders,” Skye responded tightly.

“She’s a friend,” Ward clarified. “We can trust her.”

Her gaze snapped back to Ward again at that, surprised. It was quite a change from Don’t trust anybody. Further back, the second man snorted noisily. “That’s a first.”

King flipped him a one-finger salute, then waved Skye over. “If Ward vouches for you that’s good enough. Let me introduce these two goons to you. This is Ben Garcia,” the hesitant man waved at her, “and this idiot is Dinesh Jhaveri.”

“I’m Skye,” she said as she walked over. Spying the computer screens they were working on, she asked, “Hacking into surveillance feeds?”

“No, I’m downloading porn,” Jhaveri snapped sarcastically. Now that she was closer, she heard the slightest trace of an Indian accent. “Trying to figure out how close Hydra is on our tail.”

“Then you’d be better off hacking into the local traffic enforcement feeds than Italian intelligence. Their systems have glitches when syncing up the time codes.”

King chuckled softly. “Computer expert?”

“Among other things.” She looked for Ward again, but he was busying himself by the truck, leaving her alone with the others. Thanks for the backup, she thought grimly. “Want me to get you in?”

Dinesh stood from his folding chair and dramatically motioned for her to sit. “Be my guest.”

Skye slipped into the chair and popped a thumbdrive into the computer, then she started typing, bringing up the feeds she wanted. Jhaveri stood back watching her carefully, and Garcia turned back to his own computer, looking up every few seconds as if checking that she hadn’t moved. After five minutes, Skye opened up multiple windows on the computer with a variety of camera feeds as well as traffic data and the position of local police units. “Know what vehicles you’re looking for?”

Jhaveri rattled off a couple of plate numbers and Skye fed them into her analysis program. “Looks like one headed south from Milan and is stopped for the night. The other one stopped about 45 km northeast of here,” she read out.

“Damn,” Jhaveri muttered. “Don’t remember SHIELD having anything that could pull up that information so fast.”

“SHIELD didn’t. I wrote it.”

King laughed from where she was sorting through some equipment a few feet away. “I like you, girl.”

“Thanks,” she replied drily, moving out of the chair to let Jhaveri take his computer back. “And don’t try copying it, it’ll just end up scrambling your system.”

The scientist shook his head in dismay as he returned to the computer. “Lost all the good toys in the divorce.”

“That’s what happens when you’re caught with a mistress agency,” Garcia snarked back, a slight smile on his face. King snickered at the exchange, shaking her head as though it was well-trod territory amongst them.

Skye watched them in a bit of amazement. She’d expected to find a group of people as dour as Ward, all hard edges and repressed emotions. Instead, the three she’d met so far reminded her of old days on the Bus, though the jokes seemed a bit more sarcastic.

Turning around, she caught Ward watching her. He straightened and turned, but not before she caught the smile and pride in his eyes directed her way.

Chapter Text

Skye sat on an old crate while she listened to Ward’s team fill him in on what he’d missed. Moretti had entered a small town and went into a shop that Blood suspected was a front for illegal forgeries, then found a busy bed & breakfast to check into for the night. She’d been careful to stay in populated areas and executed a few amateurish attempts to shake any tails. Apparently Lane was trying to confirm their suspicions about the shop, and Blood was surveilling the town; Jhaveri and Garcia were going to head out soon to take up the night watch while Blood and Lane returned to strategize with the others. “If Lane’s right,” King said, “she’ll need to go back to the shop in the morning to pick up her new papers. Either way, you can just alert us if she starts to move.”

“Do not engage,” Ward growled. “We don’t need you waking up the whole village.” Garcia looked down and shifted uncomfortably; Jhaveri just rolled his eyes and scowled. “I mean it, you’re just there to watch and report.”

“Don’t worry, Ward,” Jhaveri grunted, “we’re not all eager to be the one to rush in and save the day.” With that, he grabbed a backpack and stalked out, shouting for Garcia to hurry up. Garcia gave them a sheepish grin and followed him out with a duffel bag; Skye heard an engine roaring soon after.

Looking between Ward and King, she kicked her heels against the crate. “Sounds like she’s trying to get out of the country, then. I can hack into the B&B’s network, see if she’s been online or made any calls for travel arrangements. That might give us some info on what her plans are.”

“Sounds great,” King agreed, waving her hand at the empty computer chairs. “Be our guest.”

Skye jumped off the crate and made her way across while pointedly ignoring Ward. She saw King stifle a smile, and lightly shook her head in response. Ward himself just turned back to… whatever it was he was doing, and King settled in behind the computer set-up and started working with some of the components.

The three worked in silence for a while, but Skye’s curiosity eventually got the better of her. She leaned a little to look around the computer screen. “You were a comms specialist for SHIELD?” she asked.

“Not really.” King looked up and smiled. “I used to be a field agent; mostly served as a handler to specialist teams. I became pretty familiar with the computer equipment, though, so when I got out I kept up with it in the private sector.”

“Why’d you get out?”

“Kids and working in the field don’t work so well together.” King yanked open a broken laptop case and started removing components, sorting between useable and trashed. “So I took a few years off when they were younger, then got a job with standard hours. It was a good life.”

“And your husband?”

A shadow crossed Thalia’s face. “Jamie…” she swallowed. “Jamie continued working for SHIELD as a scientist. Regular hours most of the time, more compatible with family life.”

With a rush of guilt, Skye remembered Ward saying King’s husband died at the Sandbox. “Oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t -“

King shook her head. “No, it’s okay. It wouldn’t be right to forget Jamie just because of what Hydra…” She yanked out a component with extra force. “I won’t let them ruin the good memories we made.”

Skye just nodded and turned back to her computer. A few minutes later, she saw the older woman come around and sit in the other chair.

“Jamie always loved solving the big puzzles. And SHIELD certainly had the biggest of them. We met on a mission together - something that couldn’t be just picked up and taken into a lab.” King laughed. “He’d tease me, say I’d seduced him with enough adventure and excitement to last him a lifetime. But he’d worry, sometimes, after I left SHIELD. Always worried whether I was happy enough staying home with the family. It wasn’t until our youngest left for college and he asked if I would go back to SHIELD that he finally believed me when I said I had no desire to go back to that life.” Her breath hitched a bit, and Skye reached out a comforting hand. King grasped it and smiled gratefully. “We had a good life together.”

“So why do this now? If you didn’t want to be in the field anymore.”

King sighed. “When Jamie… when SHIELD fell, Hydra took a lot from it. I knew he’d be horrified to see any of his work in their hands, so I tried to find out what happened to it. What Hydra’s doing… I can’t let them destroy his work like that.” She squeezed Skye’s hand. “And things just weren’t the same without him.”

“Then why not rejoin SHIELD now? Why -“ Skye struggled to find a non offensive way to describe their little ragtag group.

“Why run around with a bunch of ex-agents with shady pasts?” King smiled wryly. “When I found the records, I also discovered a lot of Jamie’s projects had been redirected without his knowledge. It wasn’t quite as bad, but SHIELD was doing the same damned thing, turning Jamie’s work into something it was never meant to be.” She looked over at Ward. “When I met up with them, saw how hard they were trying to make up for the damage they’d caused; it felt like something Jamie would’ve done, given the chance.” Then she raised her voice loud enough to carry. “Besides, somebody has to make sure this crew doesn’t turn everything into a suicide mission.”

Ward waved her off in annoyance; clearly it wasn’t the first time he’d heard the jest.

Skye shook her head slowly. “I guess I just don’t know how you can trust them, after everything they’ve done.”

“Sometimes it’s easier to trust the people who’ve already made the worst mistakes. They know exactly how dear the cost can be if they fail again.”

Screwing up her face in confusion, Skye opened her mouth to ask what the hell that was supposed mean, but she froze when she heard a vehicle roaring up to the barn and braking sharply. Her ICEr was out in an instant, and she saw Ward draw a weapon just as quickly. Motioning for the two women to stay where they were, he crept over to the door.

At the sound of two quick knocks and a South African accented voice calling out “Tag!” Ward relaxed his stance and opened the door, though he didn’t drop his weapon until he could see who was coming in. A tall woman with dark skin and long, black hair brushed in past Ward, followed closely by a short, pudgy man with closely cropped blonde hair and stubble. The man pushed Ward in the shoulder, saying, “You’re supposed to respond, you dof.”

Ward just rolled his eyes and closed the door, locking it securely. “What’s with the daredevil driving out there? Sounded like you had Hydra on your tail.”

“Just testing the new car out,” the woman answered. She’d stopped a few steps in and was eyeing Skye warily. “Good to know if it’ll be reliable for a fast escape.” In return, Skye just raised her eyebrows and holstered her ICEr.

Stepping between them, Ward bit out the introductions. “Nicole, Darren, this is Skye. Skye, this is Nicole Blood and Darren Lane.”

Lane grinned and waved. Blood studied her with a more suspicious eye. “Jhaveri mentioned it. Picking up stray SHIELD puppies now, Grant?”

Skye bristled and pulled her ICEr back out, holding it at her side. “Got a problem with that?” she challenged.

Blood just shrugged and turned to walk away. “I’d have a problem if you threatened me with a real gun, not that toy.” Before Skye could answer, Ward shook his head and muttered something that made Blood snort, and she turned. “Sorry. Old habits die hard. If Grant brought you in, then welcome to Team Maytag.”

Ward groaned loudly and rubbed a hand over his eyes. “We are not -“

“Shut up, Ward,” King admonished playfully, “you were outvoted on this weeks ago.” Blood laughed and dumped her bag by the truck, while Lane sauntered over to the computers, passing Skye.

“Maytag?” Skye looked around. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, we spend most of our time out there cleaning up after Fridge escapees, so we’re kinda like fridge repairmen, right?” Blood called over her shoulder.

“Wait, like the Maytag Repairman?” Skye asked incredulously. King laughed fondly and nodded. “But… weren’t all those ads about how the Maytag Repairman never had anything to do?”

She saw Ward’s mouth quirk into his almost-smile when trying not to laugh at something. The rest started chuckling, and Blood admitted, “Well, it’s not perfect. But we like it.”

You like it,” Ward emphasized. Blood just grinned and snarked back at him, and pretty soon the two of them were bantering back and forth quietly while going through the supplies she’d picked up for them while in town. Skye rolled her eyes in disgust and sat back down at the computer while King and Lane headed to another end of the barn.

After a while, she called everyone over. “She’s definitely planning to get out of the country. She’s booked a train ticket under a false name and was checking out several destinations along the train line. No surprise, she’s aiming for Switzerland.”

“Good work,” Ward praised and reached to place a hand on her shoulder. She stiffened and moved away slightly; she refused to look at Ward to see his expression. After a micro-moment, he continued. “She’ll probably want to be there as soon as the place opens up; they won’t let her in earlier if they’re trying to keep the front clean. What time do they open, Nic?”

“No posted hours,” she replied, “but the owner of the cafe across the street said the owner usually stops there for breakfast in the morning about 8 and then opens up the shop at 9.”

“Good, that gives us a window to get to the owner.”

“What are you thinking, Ward?” Lane asked. “You gonna grab the owner?”

“No, I think it’d be better to convince the owner to work with us. Then one of us can be waiting inside the shop to speak with her in a contained location, minimize collateral risk. Lane, think you might be able to find any common friends to use for an introduction, get us in the shop early?”

Lane rubbed at the stubble on his chin. “Maybe. I’ve a bru does a lot of business in the area. I’ll give him a call.”

“Okay. Skye, can you bring up the neighborhood on the computer?” As she did so, he turned back to Blood. “Nicole, what sort of vantage points do we have around the shop?”

“There’s not much available on the street surface, but there’s a couple of good rooftops we can use.” Blood leaned over Skye’s shoulder as the map came up on the screen. “Here,” she tapped, “and here. Both accessible by fire escapes, so we don’t have to get through any buildings.”

Ward hummed lightly as he studied the map. “Where’s the bed and breakfast in relation to the shop?”

“Northwest,” Skye answered, pointing it out on the map. “Only a few blocks away, so she’ll probably walk.”

“And that bridge will limit how many directions she can come in from,” Ward added. “Good, fewer variables to work with.”

Skye snorted lightly, biting back a comment about Ward and variables that she knew he wouldn’t appreciate. He still narrowed his eyes at her as though he knew what she was thinking.

“Okay, then,” King took over, “Dinesh and Ben will be at the hotel and can call when she’s heading out, let us know whether she’s on foot or in a cab. I’ll make sure one of them is ready to follow on foot, one in the car. Rooftop work is Grant and Nicole, leaving me, Darren and Skye on the ground.”

“I need to be the one in the shop talking to her,” Skye interjected.

“Aren’t you the one that scared her off in Milan?” Lane accused her. “We don’t want her runnin’ off again.”

Skye met Grant’s eyes briefly, both tense. “If she’s going back with me to S.H.I.E.L.D. with me, she needs to be able to trust me. So I’ll make the approach.”

This time both Blood and Lane opened their mouths to object, but Ward overrode them. “We’ll be set to take out Moretti if Skye doesn’t convince her. Both Nicole and I will have rifles, and Lane you can wait in back with the car.”

“Ward, this isn’t a wet op,” Skye objected.

“It’s just plan B, Skye,” he said in a low voice. “All goes well, you’ll take her out to the car and you and Darren can drive her back to Milan.” He looked to his teammates, asking, “Anything else?”

When they all demurred, King hustled Blood and Lane away from the computers to help them get out sleeping gear for the night. Skye and Ward followed behind, but when they lagged enough to have a bit of privacy, Skye said lowly, “I don’t want you killing her, Ward.”

“Skye,” he reached over and gently pulled her aside. “If she leaves that shop without you, we have to take the shot. You know that, right?” She opened her mouth to object but he cut her off. “Neither of us can afford to lose her again, not with Hydra so close.”

Pressing her lips tight, Skye studied his face for a moment. “She’ll be leaving with me. So you won’t have to do that.”

“But if she doesn’t -“

“She will.” Skye insisted, then turned and stormed away. She grabbed a blanket and found a corner to curl up in, but sleep was still a long time coming. While King and Lane set up their cots and were soon softly snoring, Ward stayed up for a while with Blood to clean and check their rifles. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, and Ward had his back to her. But she could see every smile from Blood as she leaned in and gently teased Ward. Skye ground her teeth, then turned her back to them and determinedly closed her eyes.