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“Absolutely not!”

Jemma isn’t often given to questioning orders. As she once told Skye, she likes following the rules, and she doesn’t make a habit of rebellion. Which may explain the long moment of startled silence after her protest. Still, in this case it’s entirely justified, and she won’t be made to feel badly about it.

“Simmons,” Coulson says, shaking off his surprise. “It’s not a combat mission. We’ll be fine.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t take your word for that, sir,” Jemma says, keeping her tone respectful by sheer force of will. “Considering what happened the last time two of our team were sent on a classified mission.”

“This is different,” Coulson claims. “There’s nothing dangerous about this mission. We won’t need an extraction. We’re not even leaving DC. It’s just…a meeting.”

“How do you know?” she asks. “How do you know you won’t get there and be told you’re being sent into the field?”

“Jemma, there’s really nothing to worry about,” Grant says. He sounds a little annoyed, but there’s still the undertone of pleased surprise he always gets when she displays concern for his well-being. She hates it—the idea that he’s actually surprised that she cares whether he lives or dies is just…infuriating, so she tries not to think of it too often.

Unfortunately, she’s never been good at not thinking.

“If there’s nothing to worry about, then why the secrecy?” she demands. “Grant, the last time the rest of the team was cut out of a briefing, you and Fitz were sent into hostile territory with no back-up and no extraction plan. You would have died if we hadn’t hacked that file.”

“I’m with Simmons,” Skye pipes up. She leans against the holocom, narrowing her eyes at Coulson. “If it’s on the up and up, why isn’t May invited to the party? I mean, she’s Level Seven, too, right?”

“Agent May has a different meeting to attend,” Coulson says. “At the Triskelion.”

“And once that meeting is over, she can join you, right?” Skye asks. “And make sure you guys don’t get sent into a war-zone with no one to watch your backs.”

Grant gives a little scoff and turns away slightly. She recognizes the signs; he’s struggling with his rage, again. It’s worrying that such a small argument is enough to require it. Though he’s still experiencing the effects of the berserker staff, nearly three months after exposure, he’s mostly got it under control, with the help of Agent May. In the past week, however, he’s backslid a bit. She knows it’s her fault.

Well, not her fault, precisely, but certainly because of her.

She’s had nightmares every night for the past week. Most of them are, unsurprisingly, about Seth, the cadet whose life she failed to save, but she’s also seen a resurgence of her nightmares about causing the deaths of the rest of the team.

Every single one of those nightmares has woken Grant—usually before they woke her, in fact. He’s been wonderful about them, holding her and letting her cry and not trying to tell her that it’s not her fault.

She knows, logically, that there’s nothing she could have done to save Seth. She tried everything she could, and it didn’t work, and that’s that. Guilt cares nothing for logic, though, and there are no words that can soothe hers. So she appreciates that Grant doesn’t try to reason with her, doesn’t waste both their time telling her not to feel what she feels.

Grant shows her nothing but sweet concern whenever she has nightmares, but she knows they upset him. He’s a man of action, and there’s no action he can take in this case. He can’t shoot her nightmares, can’t take them away from her, and as much as she tries to tell him that just holding her does plenty, she knows he doesn’t believe it.

Which is why he’s been short-tempered again lately. He wants someone to punish for the way she’s suffering, and he’s fixated on Ian Quinn. The whole team has, really. They all want to find him and see him punished for leading Seth and Donnie astray—getting one killed and ruining the future of the other.

There’s an added dimension to their search for Quinn, however. Agent Coulson used Seth’s mobile to call Quinn, once the immediate clean-up was finished last week, and discovered from the call that Quinn is working for the Clairvoyant, the unknown man behind the Centipede project that has haunted them for months, now.

The knowledge gives them all an extra incentive to find Quinn, but it particularly enrages Grant. She’s not precisely sure why—perhaps the way that Centipede keeps slipping their grasp, again and again?—but he was completely unbearable for the two days immediately following the revelation.

At least he’s stopped snapping at everyone. Even knowing that it wasn’t his fault, Jemma was rather reaching the end of her patience with that particular behaviour.

“We won’t get sent into a war-zone,” Coulson says, pulling her out of her thoughts.

“But—” Jemma begins to protest.

“Even if we’re given a mission,” Coulson interrupts. “We still have to accept it, and we won’t unless we’ve been assured of an extraction plan. And it’s a moot point anyway because, as we’ve established, it’s just a meeting.” He holds up a hand when Skye starts to speak. “End of discussion. Ward, we’re leaving in ten.”

“Yes, sir,” Grant agrees.

Jemma barely resists the urge to stamp her foot like a child. She’d like to believe that Coulson and Grant are right, that there’s nothing to fear from a simple meeting, and once, not so long ago, she would have, but…

But SHIELD sent her soulmate and her best friend into hostile territory with no intention of pulling them out of it. She’s had nightmares, in the months since, of what she saw out the window when they flew over that compound—Grant and Fitz, surrounded by enemy agents, hopelessly outnumbered as the compound was exploding around them.

She might have lost them both that day. She would have, if not for Skye’s insistence on finding the mission file. So perhaps she’s just being paranoid, but it’s not easy to brush that experience aside.

Speaking of Skye, she won’t be dissuaded so easily, and she follows Coulson out of the briefing room, still arguing. Fitz is currently in his bunk, sleeping off the remnants of a very unpleasant bout with the flu—which reminds her, she needs to check on him soon—and May’s already left for her meeting at the Triskelion, so this leaves Jemma and Grant alone.

Grant sighs a little and takes her hand, tugging her away from the holocom.

“Jemma,” he says quietly. “We’ll be fine. I promise.”

She looks up at him, taking in his expression. He doesn’t look annoyed anymore, just confident. She wishes she shared in his certainty.

“How can you be sure?” she asks, equally quiet. “The last time…”

“I know what happened the last time,” he interrupts. “Believe me, I won’t forget that anytime soon. But that was a combat mission, and this isn’t. All we’re doing is gathering information, right here in DC. There’s no risk.”

She swallows and looks away. She knows she’s being irrational. SHIELD’s entire structure is based on the compartmentalization of information, and she’s only Level Five. It’s entirely logical that she and Skye (who has no clearance at all) are being cut out of this process. It’s just…she’s finding it a little more difficult to trust SHIELD, these days.

Grant puts his hands on her shoulders, gently squeezing them to draw her attention back.

“We’ll be back before you know it,” he promises. “You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

She steps forward and slides her arms around his waist, resting her head against his chest and letting the steady beat of his heart reassure her. He returns the hug at once, wrapping his arms around her, and they stand there like that for a few moments, just holding each other.

As always, Jemma draws comfort from Grant, and it’s enough to ease a little of the tension she’s feeling. She knows she won’t be able to fully relax until he’s returned, but that’s nothing new. She always worries when they’re parted—a hazard of having a specialist for a soulmate. His job is always dangerous, and she’s mostly accepted it. It’s just, the circumstances being what they are, a little more difficult this time.

“Just promise me you’ll be careful,” she says eventually.

“Always,” he says, and she can hear the smile in his voice. She rolls her eyes; ‘careful’ isn’t really the word she would choose to describe Grant in the field. ‘Reckless’ would work better.

He tightens his embrace for a moment, then gently eases away from her.

“We’ll be fine,” he says again.

“You’d better,” she warns. “Because I am not patching you up if you get shot again.”

“That’s fine,” he says, leading the way out of the briefing room. “Because I’m not going to get shot. No one’s getting shot.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” she murmurs.

“What’s with the doubt?” Grant asks, shooting her a playfully wounded look. “Name one time I’ve been shot on a mission.”

“California.”

“Other than that,” he amends.

“Peru,” she says flatly.

“That was just a graze. Doesn’t count.”

Jemma disagrees entirely, but she’s not currently in the mood to go through another round of trying to convince Grant that his safety is just as important of hers.

“Anyways,” Grant says as they come to a stop in the lounge. Skye, who obviously lost her argument with Agent Coulson, is sitting on the couch, pouting. “It’s completely irrelevant, because I’m not going to be in any danger.”

“That would be much more convincing if you weren’t so heavily armed,” she tells him, staring pointedly at his leather jacket. There’s no visible sign of the gun that’s holstered under his arm (or the one on his ankle, or the knife in his belt), as the jacket is specifically tailored to hide it, but she knows it’s there, since she watched him put on the holster earlier.

“I’m a specialist,” he dismisses. “It’s my job to be heavily armed.”

While she’s fairly certain that that’s not actually in the job description, he’s always seemed to treat it as such, so she lets it go. Grant seems to read her surrender in her face, because he gives her a slightly smug smile and leans down to kiss her. She barely has time to return it before he’s pulling back.

“I’ll be fine,” he says. “Promise.”

“I’m going to hold you to that,” she warns.

The corner of his mouth ticks up briefly, a touch of that pleased-little-boy surprise peeking through, and then he squeezes her hand gently and turns away.

“I’ll call you when we’re on our way back,” he says over his shoulder as he goes through the door to the corridor that leads to the catwalk.

“Thank you,” she calls after him. She waits until she hears his footsteps on the stairs, then slumps down onto the couch next to Skye.

“I’m giving you a pass on the PDA,” Skye says. “But only ‘cause this sucks.”

“It really does,” Jemma agrees. “I know it’s ridiculous to get so worked up about a meeting, but…”

“No, no, I’m right there with ya, sister,” Skye says. She sighs heavily and leans over, resting her head on Jemma’s shoulder. “What we need is a distraction.”

Jemma rests her head against Skye’s. “What sort of distraction?”

“Weeeell,” Skye draws out. “I’ve never been to DC before. We could be tourists for the day.”

Jemma considers this. “I’ve always wanted to visit the Conservatory at the United States Botanic Garden.”

“A garden? Really?”

“It’s not the sort of garden you find in a front lawn,” Jemma tells her. “It’s a very large collection of plants, many of them rare or endangered.”

“Wait, plants can be endangered?” Skye asks.

“Oh, yes. Between pollution, deforestation, and the rise of pesticides…and that’s just the human factor! When you add in natural threats such as invasive weeds, overgrazing by animal populations, and—”

“Simmons,” Skye interrupts. “I get the idea.”

“Right, sorry,” Jemma says. She always forgets that not everyone finds the natural world as interesting as she does. “My point was, yes, plants can be endangered, and the Botanic Garden has several of them. I’d very much like to visit.”

“Okay, well, I wanna see the Lincoln Memorial,” Skye says. “And the Washington Monument, and the White House…ooh, we should do a guided tour!”

“Of the White House?” Jemma asks. “I think you need to schedule those in advance.”

“No,” Skye says. “Well, yeah, that could be cool. But I meant the city. They have those, like, bus tours, right? We should get on one of those.”

“That could be fun,” Jemma agrees. “Are they very expensive, do you think?”

Skye sits up so she can get her mobile out of her pocket. “One way to find out.” She’s silent for a moment as she Googles, then winces. “Ouch. Ninety-six bucks for the two of us.”

“That’s a bit steep,” Jemma comments. “What sort of tickets are they?”

“This hop on/hop off thing,” Skye says, holding up her mobile so Jemma can read the description. “We can get on a bus that’s driving around the city, stay on ‘til we see somewhere we wanna explore, then get on the next bus that comes by.”

“Sounds fun,” Jemma decides. “Do they need to be booked in advance?”

“No,” Skye answers after checking her mobile. “We can buy them for today. But, nearly a hundred bucks, I mean…”

“My treat,” Jemma says.

“What? No, you don’t have to—”

“I insist,” she interrupts, plucking the mobile out of Skye’s hands. It’s only the work of a few moments to book them two tickets, which she then sends to the wireless printer in Coulson’s office. “There! All done.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Skye says, following her as she gets off of the couch and heads for Coulson’s office. “I can pay you back.”

“That’s entirely unnecessary,” Jemma says over her shoulder as she ascends the stairs. “Really, it’s no trouble.”

“Okay, well, thanks,” Skye says. “But lunch will be my treat.”

“Fair enough,” Jemma agrees, crossing Coulson’s office to pick up the tickets from the printer. “Just so long as it’s not Chinese.”

“You know, a few months ago I would’ve said it’s impossible to get sick of Chinese take-out,” Skye says. “And I would’ve been completely wrong. Actually, I’m craving pancakes. Pancakes with whipped cream and strawberries.”

“Ooh, that does sound good,” she says, folding the tickets and shoving them into her pocket. “I’m sure we can find a diner somewhere that serves breakfast all day.”

“It’s a plan,” Skye decides. “Fun touristy stuff this morning, break for pancakes, then more fun stuff.”

“Absolutely,” Jemma nods. Realizing she’s still holding Skye’s mobile, she hands it back. “I want to check on Fitz before we leave,” she says. “If you’d like to summon us a cab?”

“Oh, right, Lola and the SUV are gone,” Skye realizes. “I’m on it.”

Jemma heads down to Fitz’s bunk and finds him sleeping. He doesn’t look as though he’s even twitched since the last time she checked on him. She prods him awake, makes him drink some Gatorade—he needs the sugar—and lets him know that he’ll be alone on the Bus. He makes vaguely affirmative noises and falls back to sleep before she even finishes her sentence.

Shaking her head fondly, she leaves a note (telling him where they’re going and that he should call if he needs anything) on his bedside table and makes sure that his mobile is in reach. Then she leaves his bunk, sliding the door closed behind her.

She finds Skye waiting for her in the cargo bay. “How’s Fitz?”

“Barely conscious,” she says, shaking her head. “I doubt he’ll wake at all while we’re gone.”

“Poor guy,” Skye says as they walk down the ramp. “We’ll bring him a get-well gift. Like a little snow globe or something.”

“Or a monkey,” she suggests.

“Ooh, good idea,” Skye agrees, then brightens. “We should check out the zoo! We can see the pandas and then hit up the gift shop for a stuffed monkey on our way out.”

“Perhaps we should get something for the rest of the team, as well,” Jemma considers as they cross the airfield in the direction of the main office. “I should at least find something for Grant.”

“I don’t know,” Skye says. “Ward’s never really struck me as a souvenir kind of guy. What would you even get him?”

“I can’t imagine buying him a soft toy,” Jemma admits. “Something from a museum, perhaps?”

Skye pulls out her mobile and taps at it as they sit down on a bench outside of the office. After a moment, she gasps.

“Oh my god, look!” she exclaims, shaking her mobile at Jemma. “There’s a spy museum! We have to go there.”

“Really?” Jemma asks, taking the mobile from Skye. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s perfect,” Skye asserts as Jemma reads over the description of the museum. “We can get something for Ward and May there. And I’m sure they’ll have some, like, decoder rings or something for AC, too.”

“You’re right,” she agrees, handing the mobile back. “It’s perfect. It’s very near to Ford’s Theatre, as well; do you want to see that?”

“Sure,” Skye says, returning her mobile to her pocket. “Hey, can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Why did May go to the Tris—Trisklon?”

“Triskelion,” Jemma corrects.

“Yeah, that,” Skye says. “It’s where the big boss is, right? Why did May take that meeting? Why not AC?”

“Agent Coulson can’t go to the Triskelion,” Jemma tells her after looking around to make sure there’s no one in earshot. There’s no one in sight at all, but it’s best to be cautious. “You know he died before the Battle of New York?”

“Yeah, so?” Skye asks.

“Director Fury used Coulson’s death to motivate the Avengers,” she says. “Apparently they didn’t get along at all until Coulson’s murder gave them a common enemy.”

“Okay, but he didn’t actually…” Skye trails off, then nods. “Oh, gotcha. They still think he’s dead.”

“Exactly,” Jemma says. “The general consensus is that the Avengers won’t be happy if they learn they were deceived. It’s part of why Coulson’s survival is so highly classified.”

“And that relates to May’s meeting because…”

“Because, of all the SHIELD bases, the Triskelion sees the most traffic from lower-level agents. There’s too much chance of someone who doesn’t have the necessary clearance recognizing Coulson, which means there’s too much chance of word getting back to the Avengers of his survival.”

“Which means superhero meltdown,” Skye finishes. She shakes her head. “I know SHIELD is all about the secrecy, but am I the only one who thinks there’s no way this ends well?”

Jemma sighs. “Honestly, no. I’ve had occasion to meet the Black Widow, you know, and I am completely confident in saying that she, at least, will take the deception very, very badly.”

“Get out,” Skye gasps. “You’ve met Black Widow? How? Where? Is she more awesome in person? I bet she’s more awesome in person.”

“She is,” Jemma confirms. “She’s amazing. Unfortunately, the details of our meeting are classified, but trust me when I say, she is exponentially more impressive up close. She made one of our lab assistants cry.”

“I am so jealous,” Skye groans. “What did she do? Did she threaten him? Did she shoot him?” She leans forward. “Did she choke him out with her thighs?”

“Actually, all she did was say good morning,” Jemma tells her. “Poor Reeve was a little stressed, I think.”

Skye is obviously about to question her further, but before she can, their cab drives up.

“We’re talking about this more later,” Skye warns her. “In detail.”

“It’s classified,” Jemma reminds her, standing.

“Classified, shmassified,” Skye dismisses. “But I can wait ’til we’re not in public.”

“How kind of you.”

---

They spend the morning on the west side of the city—viewing the Lincoln Memorial, the reflecting pool, the Korean and Vietnam memorials, the Washington Monument, and the White House. They only view the outside of the White House, of course, since tours (as it turns out) have to be scheduled at least 21 days in advance. Although all of the places they visit are interesting from a historical perspective, Jemma, not being American, is a little less invested in them than Skye is.

She’s still impressed by them, of course—visually, they’re stunning, and the war memorials are particularly moving—she’s just not excited about them the way Skye, who spent her school days hearing about these places, is.

Skye picks up on her slightly lacking enthusiasm.

“So,” she says as they leave the diner where they ate lunch. “Now that we’ve indulged my patriotism, how about that garden you wanted to see? Where is it?”

Jemma brightens. “On the east side of town, outside the Capitol building. You’re welcome to go see that, if you like. You don’t have to accompany me into the Garden.”

“Are you kidding?” Skye asks. “I wanna see these endangered plants. Don’t wanna miss my chance before they go extinct.” She pauses. “Do plants go extinct?”

“Actually, yes,” Jemma says. She limits herself to that, remembering in time that just because Skye has expressed interest doesn’t mean she wants an entire lecture on the subject.

“Cool,” Skye says.

There’s a bus stop for their tour just down the street from the diner, and it’s not long before they’re boarding a bus bound for the east side. Skye keeps up a running commentary on the buildings they pass, famous and not, and Jemma’s glad to see her looking so happy. Skye’s been quiet this past week. Haunted, even.

Jemma doesn’t know whether it’s because of Seth’s death or not, but she knows it’s not her imagination. Grant commented the other day that Skye has been strangely dedicated to her training. She stopped slacking months ago, and Grant’s been reasonably pleased with her progress, but she’s suddenly begun working twice as hard.

Something has changed in Skye, and Jemma has been debating whether or not to ask about it all week. This is the perfect opportunity—it’s the most privacy they’ll ever get, certainly—but, listening to Skye make puns about the name of the café they just drove past, Jemma can’t bring herself to ruin the mood.

So she lets the opportunity slip by, and Skye remains cheerful as they exit the bus outside of the U.S. Botanic Garden. The bus lets them out right in front of the Conservatory, and Jemma leads the way inside.

“Huh,” Skye says, looking around the entrance area. “I was expecting something…bigger.”

“It’s bigger inside,” Jemma assures her, snagging a map from the desk near the front entrance. Looking at it, she discovers that the Rare and Endangered Plant Gallery is just through the Garden Court.

“Okay, Doctor,” Skye teases. “Whatever you say.”

“Does that make you my companion?” Jemma wonders as they cut through the Garden Court.

“Yes. Yes, it does.”

“In that case,” Jemma says. “Don’t wander off.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Skye claims unconvincingly, as they pass through the archway into the Gallery. “I…wow. Okay, that’s better.”

It’s wonderful.  Jemma’s visited botanic gardens before—she’s particularly fond of the one at the University of California at Berkeley—but they never get old. The first step inside a new garden is always thrilling, at least to her, and she’s gratified to see that Skye looks at least a little impressed.

“Okay, Simmons,” Skye says, shaking off her surprise. “Don’t forget we have to make it back to the Bus tonight, okay?”

Jemma rolls her eyes. “I won’t.”

“Good,” Skye nods. “Have fun, then.”

Grant has a habit of nagging Jemma about situational awareness. He would object to the term, of course, but it’s really the only one that fits. She’s lost count of the number of times he’s lectured her about the need to devote at least a little of her attention to her surroundings.

She doesn’t really seem to have the knack for it—she’s also lost count of the times Grant has (entirely accidentally) snuck up on her—but it appears that something sunk in, because they’ve only been in the Conservatory for a few minutes when she’s distracted from her examination of a Kokia drynarioides by the distinct feeling that something is wrong.

She straightens and looks around. Skye is a ways down the path, reading the sign for the Acacia koaia. The only other people in sight are three men, who are ignoring the Acampe longifolia they’re grouped around in favour of conversation.

She turns in place, scanning the area for anything unusual. Nothing stands out, but her attention keeps getting drawn back to the three men. After a moment, she realizes why. She recognizes one of them—a tall, beefy man with a nasty scar on his left cheek—from the diner where they ate lunch. He came in just after and left just before them.

One of the other men—shorter, slimmer, and somehow putting her in mind of a weasel—is familiar, too. She remembers seeing him at the National Mall.

It’s entirely possible that this is just a coincidence. After all, she and Skye have spent all day at high traffic tourist attractions—statistically speaking, it would be more unusual if they didn’t run into at least one person more than once.

Still…better safe than sorry, she feels. The men are between Jemma and Skye, but she knows that the path circles back around on the other side of this planter. She’ll just…act natural, go down the path, and join Skye on the other side.

Unfortunately, it’s not to be. She’s barely taken two steps down the path when one of the men speaks.

“Doctor Simmons?”

That is not reassuring. She considers pretending she didn’t hear him, but she’s already paused on the path, so she steels herself and turns around.

“Yes?” she asks. “Can I help you?”

“Yeah,” the man with the scar says. “We’re gonna need you to come with us.”

Oh dear.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m not available at the moment. Some other time, perhaps.”

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist, ma’am,” the man persists. “We’ve been sent to escort you to the Triskelion.”

Jemma would be willing to wager her entire supply of dendrotoxin that these men are not SHIELD agents. But if they’re going to play nice, she’s certainly going to do the same.

“Of course, I’ll report to the Triskelion at once,” she agrees. “However, I already have a SHIELD escort.”

The man from the Mall glances over his shoulder at Skye, who seems to have picked up on the tension and is approaching quickly.

“Doctor Simmons, I know she’s a valuable member of your team, but that woman is a consultant, not an agent,” he says. “She’s not an appropriate escort.”

“Really,” Jemma says. She surprises herself with how steady her voice is—her heart is hammering in her chest so loudly that it’s a shock she can hear these men speak at all.

“I’m sure she’d make a fine escort,” the man with the scar soothes. “But it’s about appearances, you understand? A valuable scientist like yourself needs a SHIELD escort.”

“Of course,” she nods. If she had had doubts about these men, they would now be eliminated. As it is, all this serves to do is confirm her suspicions—these men are not with SHIELD. Field agents don’t flatter scientists into doing what they’re supposed to. They give orders.

And while Skye wouldn’t be an appropriate escort to the Triskelion, it has nothing to do with appearances and everything to do with the fact that, as a consultant, she doesn’t have the clearance to even set foot in the lobby.

She tries to keep her thoughts off of her face, but she obviously fails, because the third man—the one she doesn’t recognize—eyes her and then gives a little laugh.

“Not buying it, huh?” he asks.

“No,” she admits, a little faintly. “I’m afraid not.”

“Well, it was worth a shot,” the man from the Mall shrugs.

As soon as he’s finished speaking, several things happen in very short order.

The man with the scar lunges for Jemma, and she throws herself out of his reach. She hears Skye shout something and is vaguely aware of the sound of a struggle, but she can’t afford to focus on that. For some reason, the man wasn’t expecting her to dodge; he’s left off-balance when she does so, and she hurries to take advantage of it.

Jemma may have failed her field test, but that was before she met her soulmate, a highly-trained specialist with a personal investment in her safety. She’s had hours of instruction in basic self-defence from Grant, and she puts it to good use now.

The punch she throws is perfect in form—thumb tucked on the outside of her fist, knuckles aligned with her forearm, wrist tilted slightly—and it impacts exactly where she aimed it, straight in the man’s nose. His head snaps back, but perfect form can’t eliminate the vast difference in their sizes, and it doesn’t knock him as far off-balance as she hoped it would; instead, he catches her with a very hard backhand that does knock her down.

She’s dazed by the blow, and the throbbing pain that radiates from the point where he made contact, but she has the presence of mind to scramble out of the way and to her feet as he tries to grab her. Unfortunately, she underestimates his reach, and he catches her in the ribs with a forceful punch that knocks the breath right out of her.

“Hey, asshole!” Skye shouts, and the man turns just in time to receive a heavy branch to the face. It knocks him down—and out, judging by the way he remains on the ground, collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut.

A quick look around proves that the other two men are in similar states. She also spots a bench and, still being a little out of breath, stumbles over to it and sits down, hard. Then she looks from the unconscious men to Skye. For perhaps the second time in her life, she’s at a complete loss for words.

Skye, naturally, does not have this problem. “Well, that was fun.”

Jemma makes a vague noise, the meaning behind which even she doesn’t know. Her mind is racing too quickly for her to worry about something as pointless as conversation. This was a kidnapping attempt. These men just tried to kidnap her. Why? It wasn’t random, obviously—they addressed her by name, and they knew that Skye isn’t a SHIELD agent. How? Where did they get their information? What on earth did they want from her?

Well, that’s fairly obvious, isn’t it? Money is out; she’s comfortable, but she’s nowhere near rich, and neither are her parents. The most likely motive behind abducting a SHIELD scientist is the knowledge the scientist holds. Jemma, of course, holds a lot of knowledge—two PhDs’ worth, even, and that’s before one adds in everything she’s learnt and discovered working for SHIELD. However, in considering which bit of her knowledge the kidnappers desired, only one thing springs to mind.

Centipede.

It makes sense. Centipede has already shown their willingness to abduct people—SHIELD agents and civilians both. And certainly the bulk of her research since accepting the assignment to Coulson’s team has centred around Centipede in one way or another.

There’s just one problem with the theory. Centipede’s dirty work tends to be carried out by soldiers with enhanced strength—strength that these men are decidedly lacking. Which begs the question, why? Is she wrong about Centipede being behind this? Is this the work of some other organization?

Or, more worryingly, has Centipede run out of soldiers? Perhaps that’s why they tried to abduct her: to enlist her help in creating more super soldiers. The vast majority of Centipede’s resources were seized in the raids SHIELD carried out whilst searching for Coulson, including what they’re assuming is the bulk of its science department. And at this point, she’s probably familiar enough with the Centipede serum to write another doctoral thesis on it—certainly it would be easy enough for her to fabricate it, given the necessary components. Not that she would, of course, but…

“Miss? Are you okay?”

The unfamiliar voice brings her out of her thoughts, and she looks up to see one of the Conservatory security officers standing in front of her.

“Yes, I’m fine,” she assures him, standing. It’s not entirely true; her torso is throbbing where the man with the scar hit her, and she’s afraid he may have done serious damage. Still, she’s not about to share that information with this stranger—for all she knows, he may be working with Centipede, as well.

“Okay, good,” he says. “I’m going to call the police.”

There’s no guarantee that the responders will be actual police officers, and she’s not willing to risk it. She thinks quickly.

“That won’t be necessary,” she assures him, pulling out her badge. Perhaps it’s silly, but she never goes anywhere without it, even when she’s not on duty. Recent doubts aside, earning her SHIELD badge was one of the proudest days of her life, and she likes to keep it close. “I’m a SHIELD agent. I’ll be taking control of this scene.”

“Uh, yes,” the guard says. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll just get out of your way then.”

He scampers off without another word, and Jemma stares after him, perplexed.

“Well he’s definitely into something,” Skye comments. “Probably skimming from the petty cash.”

“Why would you say that?” Jemma asks.

“Don’t know,” Skye says. “He just…looked the type.”

Jemma shrugs that off and pulls her mobile out of her pocket. “I’m going to call this in to HQ. Would you please make sure those men are secure?”

“They won’t be waking up anytime soon,” Skye promises cockily. “But yeah, okay.”

There’s a number that agents in the field are always supposed to call, regardless of which base they’re closest to, and that’s the number Jemma dials. It would probably be faster to call the Triskelion directly, but protocol is protocol.

“SHIELD HQ, field division,” a woman announces. “Identify yourself.”

“Jemma Simmons, authorization code Sierra-Echo-743.”

“One moment.” She can hear typing for a few seconds before the woman speaks again, this time in a much friendlier tone. “How may I assist you today, Agent Simmons?”

“I’m in Washington, D.C., in the Conservatory at the Botanic Gardens,” Jemma tells her. “A few minutes ago, three men attempted to abduct me.”

“I see,” the woman says over the sound of more typing. “What stopped them?”

“I’m accompanied by my team’s consultant, Skye,” she says. “She fought them off. They’re unconscious and secure.”

“Understood,” the woman says. “I’m dispatching a clean-up team to your location. Do you require medical attention?”

Jemma breathes in slowly, notes the accompanying pain in her ribs. “We could perhaps do with a paramedic, yes.”

“The team is on the way. ETA three minutes,” the woman says. “Authentication code is Foxtrot-Delta-994. Please repeat to confirm.”

“Foxtrot-Delta-994,” she echoes obediently.

“Is there anything else I can help you with, Agent Simmons?”

“No, that’s it, thank you,” Jemma says.

“Thank you for calling SHIELD. Have a nice day,” the woman offers, then disconnects the line.

“Did I hear you ask for a paramedic?” Skye demands as Jemma returns the mobile to her pocket. “Are you hurt?”

“It’s just a precaution,” Jemma assures her.

“Right.” Skye shakes her head a little, makes a face at the man at her feet, then walks around (and, once or twice, on) the unconscious men to join Jemma by the bench. “Let me see your face.”

Jemma obligingly holds still as Skye examines the sore spot on her cheek. She has the sinking feeling that it’s going to bruise, badly, which certainly doesn’t bode well for these men, whomever they may be.

“This is gonna bruise for sure,” Skye determines. “What else?”

“I’m a bit concerned about my ribs,” Jemma admits. “But I think I’ll save that for the paramedic.”

“Yeah, probably a good idea,” Skye agrees. “I saw the big one hit you. Is that what’s hurting?”

“Yes,” Jemma says, then decides to change the subject. Somewhat. “What about you? Are you injured?”

“Just bruised my knuckles,” Skye answers, showing her fist. “No big.”

“You took down three men and only scraped your knuckles?” Jemma raises her eyebrows. “That’s very impressive, Skye.”

“I know, right?” Skye says, a tad smugly. “All that training with Ward really paid off.”

Jemma can’t contain a wince at the mention of Grant, who is absolutely going to take this badly, and Skye’s eyes widen. They’re distracted by the sound of footsteps, though, and look away from each other to see five men approaching. Three of them are dressed in tactical gear, of the sort that Grant wears into dangerous situations, one of them is wearing a suit, and the last appears to be a paramedic.

“Agent Simmons?” the man in the suit asks, flashing a badge as the men in tactical gear move to examine the still unconscious attackers. “I’m Agent Lyle Torres. Authentication Foxtrot-Delta-994.”

Jemma nods at Skye, letting her know it’s okay to relax.

“It’s nice to meet you, Agent Torres,” she says. “This is Skye. She’s a SHIELD consultant. Thank you for coming so quickly.”

“Pleasure’s mine, and I’m only doing my job, ma’am,” Torres says. “I believe you requested a paramedic?”

“Yes,” Jemma confirms. “I’m finding it rather painful to breathe, at the moment. I’m concerned I may have bruised a rib.”

“This is Agent Manu Kappur,” Torres introduces the paramedic. “He can take a look at you while I take Miss Skye’s statement.”

Agent Kappur is equipped with the latest SHIELD med-tech, of course, so after checking whether there’s a chance she’s pregnant (absolutely not), he asks her to hold still while he scans her with a tablet. It takes a few minutes, during which Skye finishes giving her statement and comes back to join them.

“I don’t see any fractures or breaks,” Kappur says, showing her the x-ray. “Are you willing to submit to a visual examination, or would you prefer I call for a female agent?”

“That won’t be necessary,” Jemma decides. She’s a reasonably modest person, but her ribs really are starting to pain her, and she’d like to get this taken care of quickly. “Shall I remove my shirt?”

“Please,” Kappur says. He takes a pair of latex gloves out of his bag and pulls them on while Jemma unbuttons her shirt.

She’s amused to notice that Skye is keeping a suspicious eye on the rest of Torres’ team, just waiting to attack any who so much as glance at Jemma while she’s half naked. Jemma, for her part, is simply grateful that she’s wearing a sensible bra today and not one of her more appealing sets.

“Why do you even need to look?” Skye asks. “If there’s nothing on the x-ray…”

“It’s just a precaution,” Jemma tells her. “Rib fractures don’t always show up on x-rays, so it’s better to be safe. Although honestly, the treatment is the same, whether it’s bruised or fractured, so—”

She’s been removing her shirt as she speaks, and Skye inhales sharply, cutting her off. She resists the urge to look at her ribs out of an, admittedly childish, superstition that if she actually sees the damage, the pain will increase. However, the frown on Kappur’s face would be enough to give her an idea of her condition if Skye’s reaction hadn’t already.

“Not good?” she guesses.

Kappur shakes his head. “May I?”

She holds her arm away from her side in answer, and stands still while he runs his hand over the area that’s the source of the pain when she breathes. The fact that she doesn’t have to tell him where it hurts rather speaks for itself, she feels.

Jemma goes through the expected question-and-answer session with Agent Kappur (yes, that hurts; no, that doesn’t; yes, it hurts when you press there, please don’t do that again) and patiently withstands his repeated use of his stethoscope. Eventually he steps back and pulls off his gloves.

“I believe your ribs are just bruised. There’s no evidence of fracture,” he says. “No fluid in the lungs, no crepitus…well, like you told your friend, the treatment’s the same anyway. Apply ice, take over-the-counter painkillers, do not wrap your ribs, and, I know it hurts, but try to breathe regularly. Prolonged shallow breathing puts you at risk of pneumonia. Any questions?”

Jemma shakes her head silently, a little overwhelmed. She knows all of this already, of course, but it’s different to have to apply it to oneself.

“Are there any other injuries I need to take a look at?” Kappur asks.

“No, I think we’re good here,” Skye says, and Jemma nods in agreement. “Thanks, doc.”

“My pleasure,” Kappur says and, after shaking their hands, goes to join Torres, who’s overseeing the removal of the unconscious men.

Skye helps Jemma get her shirt back on her shoulders, but stops her from buttoning it, apparently wanting a better look at the bruises that must be forming. After a minute, she whistles a little and shakes her head.

“Wow. Ward is going to kill everybody.”

“Oh, Skye, don’t be ridiculous,” Jemma sighs, although to be honest…she’s not wrong.

“No, seriously, there is about to be some quality violence. I hope those guys have insurance.”

“Yes, well,” as she buttons her shirt, she casts about for a change of subject. Her eyes land on the branch that Skye used to knock out the man with the scar, which is lying on the side of the path.

Wait a moment. “Skye, where did that branch come from?”

Skye hesitates, which is all the answer Jemma needs.

“Skye! Did you take that from one of the exhibits?”

“Well, what else was I supposed to do?” Skye demands. “You saw that guy! He was like, twice the size of the two of us. Combined.”

“That’s certainly true,” Jemma admits. And, since she was losing that fight, well…She darts a look at Torres. “I’m sure Agent Torres and his men can handle anyone who gets upset about it.”

“Right,” Skye agrees. “They’ve got this. And, hey! Don’t change the subject. We have to call Ward and Coulson.”

Jemma knows it’s true. She was just nearly taken hostage in broad daylight—the team needs to know about this. In any case, it’s not as though she’ll be able to hide the bruise which, by the feel of it, is taking up at least half of her face by now.

And honestly, she’s more than a little unsettled by this whole incident, and Grant’s presence would most certainly assist her in calming down.

There are plenty of reasons to call Grant and Coulson. It’s definitely something they need to do. But she really doesn’t want to, because Grant is not going to be pleased. At all.

“Oh, very well,” she sighs, and pulls her mobile out of her pocket.

She hesitates for a long moment, staring at it. Which of them to call? Coulson is her commanding officer, and according to protocol, she should report to him. But Grant is her soulmate, and she would very much like to hear his voice right now.

Not to mention the fact that if she calls Coulson, it will fall to him to share this story with Grant, and that’s no way to repay the man who so frequently bends protocol on their behalves.

Grant it is, then.

Before she can make the call, however, Torres joins them.

“We’re about done here,” he says. “Technically, we still need to debrief you, Agent Simmons, but it’s probably safe to assume that your team will be taking over this case?”

“Oh, yeah,” Skye says, making a face. “That’s…not in question.”

“I figured,” Torres nods. “We haven’t found much here, but we’ll put what we’ve got in the database for you.”

“Thank you, Agent Torres,” Jemma says, attempting to smile. The motion causes a spike of pain in the bruised side of her face, and she longs desperately for some ice and paracetamol.

She doesn’t think Skye will mind returning to the Bus early—kidnapping attempts do tend to put a damper on sightseeing.

“What’re you gonna do with the thugs?” Skye asks, jerking her chin in the direction of the men being carried away.

Torres’ eyes flick to Jemma, then back to Skye. “They’ll be taken to a containment facility in Alexandria. You’ll have full access to them.”

“Yeah, that’s probably not the best idea,” Skye tells him, grimacing.

“Understood,” Torres says. “We’ll put Agent Ward on restricted access.”

Skye’s obviously surprised by Torres’ response, but she doesn’t get a chance to question him, as one of his men calls for him.

“We’re heading out,” Torres says. “Will you require an escort to your base?”

Jemma has to suppress a flinch at the word, which is just…silly.

“That won’t be necessary,” she says. “Thank you, Agent Torres.”

She and Skye shake his hand, then watch as he and his men leave.

“How did he know about Ward?” Skye asks.

“Word gets around,” Jemma says. She takes a deep breath and instantly regrets it when it causes pain to flare in her ribs.

“Right, the rock star thing,” Skye mutters. Then she looks around the room. The Conservatory has obviously been cleared of visitors, and it’s eerily quiet. “Back to the Bus, then?”

“Yes, I think so,” Jemma agrees. “Will you call for a cab while I call Grant?”

“You got it,” Skye says. She pats Jemma on the shoulder gently. “Good luck with that.”

“Thank you,” she says as she hits Grant’s name in her contacts list.

It occurs to her, as the mobile rings, that Grant may not answer—he was going to call her when they were done with their mission, wasn’t he? He hasn’t called, which means he’s not done yet, so…

However, Grant picks up after the fourth ring.

“Hey,” he says. “I was just about to call you.”

There’s a certain tone to Grant’s voice, a warm fondness he uses only with her, and, abruptly, Jemma’s eyes are filled with tears. That was a terrifying experience, and for some reason, hearing Grant’s voice truly brings home just how badly it could have ended.

“Oh, is your mission complete?” she asks. She tries to keep her voice even, but fails rather miserably. Not for the first time, she curses her complete lack of talent in deception.

“Jemma?” Grant says slowly, fondness replaced by concern. “Is something wrong?”

“There’s been a slight…incident,” she says carefully.

“What kind of incident?” he asks, a little sharply. “Are you hurt?”

She was hoping it would take him longer to ask that question. “Not…seriously.”

“Jemma.”

“Skye and I decided to spend some time in the city, since we had nothing else to do,” she says, and braces herself. “We came to see the U.S. Botanic Garden, and there was a minor…kidnapping attempt.”

What?” he snaps. “Where are you? How—”

“No, no, it’s all right,” she rushes to assure him. “We’re fine. Skye subdued all three of our attackers. You should be proud of her.”

She can hear Grant take a deep breath, and gives him a moment to collect himself.

“Okay,” he says eventually, sounding…well, not calm, exactly, but certainly calmer. “How not seriously are you hurt?”

“Skye scraped her knuckles a bit,” she answers evasively. She knows he won’t let her get away with it, but there’s no harm in trying.

Jemma.”

“I’m just bruised, that’s all,” she says.

“Bruised where?” he asks.

Bugger. She was hoping he wouldn’t catch that.

“I was struck in the face and in the ribs,” she admits. She hears him take a breath to speak and continues hurriedly. “I’ve already been seen by a SHIELD medic, and he’s confident that my ribs are merely bruised. Honestly, Grant, I’m fine.”

“You called in SHIELD already?” Grant asks, his tone unreadable.

“Well, yes,” she says. “We didn’t really have a choice. If we hadn’t, security would have called the police, and I thought it best to leave them out of it.”

He sighs. “Yeah, that was the right call. Okay. SHIELD took the attackers into custody?”

“Yes,” she says. Skye catches her eye and motions to the door, and they head out into the Garden Court. “They’ll be taken to a facility in Alexandria. The lead agent of the team SHIELD sent indicated that he doesn’t mind turning the investigation over to us.”

“Okay,” Grant says again. He takes another deep breath. “Where are you now?”

“On our way back to the Bus,” she says as they exit the building. “The kidnapping attempt put a bit of a damper on the afternoon.”

“No kidding,” he mutters. “Okay, we’re on our way back, too. It’ll be about two hours. Is there anything else I need to know?”

Judging by his tone, which is still not what one could consider calm, she has the feeling that he wants to ring off so that he can go hit something. Or someone.

He’s obviously furious, and he’ll only be angrier when he sees her. With that in mind, she thinks she should hold off on informing him that she was the intended target. It just seems like news that will be better shared in person.

“Not at the moment,” she says.

“Text me when you’re on the Bus,” he orders—and it’s definitely an order, not a request. “Then raise the cargo ramp and lock it. I’ll call you to let us in when we get there. Do you understand?”

“I understand,” she confirms. She can’t say that she appreciates his tone, but she’s willing to let it go, considering the circumstances.

“Good,” he says. “Be safe.”

“You, too,” she says. “I’ll see you in two hours.”

“Yeah,” he says, and rings off.

Her hands are shaking as she locks her mobile and returns it to her pocket. Adrenal crash, she notes clinically. The adrenaline which flooded her system during the confrontation is decreasing and being replaced by cortisol. If her previous experiences with the process are any indication, she’ll be crying soon. Irritating, but inevitable—there’s not much she can do about how her body chooses to handle stress.

“How’d it go?” Skye asks.

“About as well as you’d expect,” she says. “He and Agent Coulson will return to the Bus in two hours. In the meantime, we’re to go into lockdown.”

Skye nods. “I called May. She said pretty much the same thing.”

“Good thinking,” she says. “Is she still at the Triskelion?”

“No, she’s back at the Bus already,” Skye says. “She’s gonna wake up Fitz and fill him in.”

Jemma is absurdly grateful to hear that. It’s unfair of her, really—Fitz deserves to hear about this from her—but she knows she’s going to have her hands full with Grant, and she’s confident in May’s ability to calm Fitz down. Or at least keep him from storming off the Bus to confront her attackers himself.

Skye fidgets a little. “Can I hug you? I mean, I don’t—I don’t wanna hurt you, so—”

“Of course you can,” Jemma says. A hug sounds exactly the thing, at the moment. “Just…gently.”

Skye hugs her very gently indeed, tightening her hold slightly when Jemma does so first. They’re both shaking, a little—Jemma’s not the only one experiencing adrenal crash—and Skye’s voice is slightly hoarse when she speaks.

“God, when I saw those guys corner you…”

“The rescue was very much appreciated,” Jemma says into Skye’s shoulder. “And very well timed.”

“That was pretty awesome, huh?” Skye agrees smugly, surprising a (painful) laugh out of Jemma. “But you were holding your own, there.”

“That’s putting it kindly,” Jemma murmurs, but she’s pleased by the comment nonetheless.

She has to admit to a touch of embarrassment that Skye took down all three attackers when Jemma couldn’t even manage one, but she pushes the feeling away. Grant has trained them in two entirely different ways. Skye is being trained to become a field agent, a very physically demanding job, and, accordingly, Grant works with her twice a day, every day, cases permitting. In contrast, Grant’s aim in training Jemma was simple self-defence: the goal is to defend herself well enough to either get away, or stall any attackers long enough for help to reach her.

In that sense, she handled the attack perfectly—she held off the man with the scar until Skye came to the rescue.

Skye takes a deep breath and pulls away. “Okay, thanks. I needed that.”

“So did I,” Jemma admits. “That was…terrifying.”

“What did they even want?” Skye asks. “I heard the one say it was worth a shot?”

Jemma hesitates.

“It’s okay if you don’t wanna talk about it,” Skye says. “It can wait ‘til we’re back with the team.”

“No, it’s fine,” Jemma says. She leans back against the Conservatory’s gate. “When they approached me, they claimed to be SHIELD agents sent to escort me to the Triskelion.”

“So it wasn’t random,” Skye says, leaning against the gate next to her. “They were after you, specifically?”

“Yes,” she nods. “They greeted me by name. They did know who you were, though. Including the fact that you’re not an agent.”

“Did their homework, huh?” Skye asks, frowning. “Okay, but obviously they weren’t SHIELD agents, so…who were they?”

“That is the question of the hour, isn’t it?” Jemma agrees as their cab pulls up. “Centipede is the obvious answer, of course, but…”

“It was kind of sloppy for Centipede,” Skye finishes, pulling the door open.

“Quite.”

---

Back at the Bus, Jemma sends Grant the requested text message as Skye raises the cargo ramp. Then she waves Skye upstairs and enters the lab in search of pain relief. The first aid kit is very well stocked, of course, and she has no difficulty locating the paracetamol and the chemically activated ice packs. She grabs two of each, dry swallows the former, and then heads upstairs.

Fitz, Skye, and May are all waiting for her in the lounge, Fitz with visible impatience.

“Simmons! What—”

He breaks off as soon as he gets a proper look at her, presumably due to the ever darkening bruise on her face.

“Don’t fuss, Fitz,” she orders before he can start. “I’m fine.”

He mouths wordlessly for a moment before finding his voice. “Fine? You are not bloody fine, Simmons!”

“It’s just a bruise—”

“It’s not just anything! Half of your face is blue!”

“Yes, and it could be worse!”

“Of course it could be worse, that’s the bloody problem, isn’t it? What were—”

“Hey!” Skye shouts, gesturing sharply. “Time out! Back to your corners. Fitz, it is not Simmons’ fault that she nearly got kidnapped. Don’t yell at her. Simmons, please stop saying you’re fine. It’s really obvious that you’re not and it only upsets people.”

Jemma takes a deep breath, wincing at the accompanying pain. She knows how it bothers her when people she cares for brush off her concern about their well-being—Grant makes a regular habit of it—and she can see why it would upset Fitz.

“Okay?” Skye asks after a long moment of silence. “Are we cool?”

Jemma nods. “I’m sorry, Fitz. Of course you have every right to be concerned.”

Fitz looks mollified. “I suppose shouting about it won’t accomplish anything.”

“If that’s settled,” May finally speaks. She sounds exasperated, but Jemma thinks she detects a fond undertone. “Coulson and Ward will be here in half an hour. We’ll hold off the briefing until then. In the meantime, Simmons, you should put some ice on that.”

“Don’t worry,” Jemma says, holding up one of the ice packs. “I am absolutely on top of that.”

Of course, it’s not easy to keep two ice packs on at once, and in the end, she decides to ice one bruise at a time. The recommended pattern for icing an injury is twenty minutes on, one hour off, and naturally, she follows it.

So it is that when her mobile chimes with a text message alert twenty-five minutes later, she’s just laid aside the ice pack from her ribs and is activating the second one in order to apply it to her face.

“Grant and Coulson are back,” she reports to the others. “I’ll go let them in.”

“Don’t get up,” Skye orders, springing to her feet. “I got it.”

Jemma would protest that she’s fully capable of doing it herself, but she really would prefer not to move right now, so she lets Skye have her way. The paracetamol and the ice are helping, but she’s still in pain, and the exertion of going up and down the stairs certainly won’t help.

She sets aside the ice pack anyway—she has a feeling she won’t get the chance to use it just yet—and stands, bracing herself. She is not looking forward to Grant’s reaction to the sight of the bruise on her face. (Nor the one on her ribs, of course, but as it’s covered by her shirt at the moment, it’s not currently relevant.)

She can hear Skye giving Grant and Coulson an accounting of the afternoon’s events as they climb the stairs and pass through the corridor to the lounge, and she exchanges a look with Fitz. He’s less concerned about Grant’s reaction—she’ll have no support from his corner if she needs to talk Grant out of retaliating against her would-be kidnappers.

Grant is the first one through the door, and he stops in his tracks at the sight of her.

Jemma thought she understood the term ‘murderous expression’ before, but she was wrong. She barely catches a glimpse of Grant’s face before he turns away abruptly, but the look on it is enough to send ice creeping down her spine. It’s an expression of pure, unadulterated fury, the likes of which she’s never seen before—from him or anyone else. For just a moment, he looks as though he could kill someone with his bare hands.

No, not could—would. Wants to. She knows he’s always capable of violence, but right now he looks as though he’d like nothing better than to break someone’s neck. It’s…concerning.

The rest of the team obviously thinks so as well. There seems to be an unspoken agreement in place to let Grant regain control of his temper before they move on to discussing the day’s events, and they wait in silence as Grant paces.

It takes a few minutes, but eventually he stops pacing. He scrubs a hand across his mouth and takes a few deep breaths, then gives Coulson a little nod.

“You good?” Coulson asks.

“Yeah,” Grant says. He’s on the other side of the lounge, near the briefing room, and he crosses it to stand in front of Jemma. “Let me see your face.”

She stands still and allows him to tilt her chin up and brush her hair away from her face. His fingers are gentle as they skim along the edges of the bruise, but she’s watching his face, and it’s the farthest thing from calm. His jaw must be aching from how tightly he’s clenching it, and his eyes are terrifyingly blank. He’s not controlling his temper right now, he’s suppressing it. Leaving aside how unhealthy that is, she doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to keep it up—especially once he gets the full story.

Skye was mostly joking earlier, but looking at Grant, Jemma suddenly feels nothing but pity for those men, because she doesn’t know that she’ll be able to stop him from going after them.

She’ll still try, of course—she took this job to save lives, not see them ended, regardless of the wrongs committed against her—but she has a feeling that it will be in vain.

“Did you ice this?” Grant asks, straightening and letting his hand drop away from her face.

“I was just about to,” she says. “I did my ribs first.”

His eyes flick to her torso, but thankfully, he doesn’t ask to see the bruising there.

“You okay?” he asks instead.

“I’m okay,” she nods, consciously avoiding the word fine. “I’ve been better, of course, but…you don’t need to worry about me.”

His face conveys exactly what he thinks of that, and she has to admit it was a fairly ridiculous thing to say. Grant lets it go, though, and turns slightly to look at Skye.

“You?”

“Barely a scratch,” Skye says with an unhappy frown. “I’m sorry, Ward. If I’d been quicker I could’ve stopped them from—”

“Jemma said you took down all three of them,” Grant interrupts, shaking his head. “It’s good work. You’ve got nothing to be sorry for.”

Coulson, who has been speaking with May, presumably getting caught up, adds, “And you stopped them from accomplishing their goal. That’s the important part.”

Grant looks down at Jemma, frowning a little. “What was their goal?”

As predicted, he doesn’t take the news that the kidnappers were after her, specifically, at all well. However, he once again pushes his anger aside in favour of hearing the rest of the story. After relocating to the briefing room so they can reference the reports filed by Agent Torres’ team, Jemma and Skye walk the team through the events of the afternoon.

“Impersonating SHIELD agents,” Coulson muses when they’re finished. “That would be a new one for Centipede.”

“I’ve had some thoughts on that, sir,” Jemma says. “And I’m not entirely convinced that this was Centipede.”

Coulson raises his eyebrows. “And why’s that?”

“Well, if they were aiming to impersonate SHIELD agents, they did a very bad job of it,” she tells him. “They didn’t present badges, they didn’t identify themselves, they were dressed very casually, they offered neither explanation for their knowledge of our location nor reason that I was needed at the Triskelion, and…they called me Doctor Simmons.”

Coulson and May’s frowns have been growing progressively more severe as she speaks, and at the last item, they exchange speaking glances. Grant’s face remains worryingly blank.

Skye, however, is confused. “Okay, the rest of it I get—and wow, you noticed a lot for someone who was getting kidnapped—but…you are a doctor.”

“Yes, of course,” Jemma says. “However, according to protocol, rank trumps academic achievement. While not precisely inappropriate, it would be very unusual for a SHIELD agent acting in his official capacity to address me as Doctor instead of Agent.”

“Huh,” Skye says. “Learn something new every day. Okay, so they totally sucked at pretending to be SHIELD agents. So there’s that, plus the obvious.”

“The obvious?” Fitz asks. He’s leaning hard against the table, practically asleep on his feet, and she’s not sure he’s heard a word that’s been said since they entered the room. He really should be in bed—he’s still recovering from his illness—but she knows it would be useless to try and make him go.

“The kidnappers were ordinary men,” May supplies. “Not Centipede soldiers.”

“The question is,” Coulson says. “Is that because they weren’t Centipede? Or because Centipede doesn’t have any soldiers?”

There’s a long moment of silence.

“Centipede got hit hard last month,” May finally says, tactfully avoiding mentioning the reason—namely, that Coulson was kidnapped and tortured. “They might be out of soldiers.”

“Or they just didn’t see the point of sending them,” Skye points out. “Three thugs against a scientist and a hacker? Even that sounds excessive.”

“They didn’t take into account that you’ve been training,” Jemma says. “Is it possible they didn’t know about it?”

Coulson shakes his head. “Raina was very well informed—about me and about SHIELD. Skye’s been training with Ward since our first week. There’s no way Centipede missed it.”

“Okay, so that’s another point in the not-Centipede column,” Skye says.

Grant, who has been growing increasingly tense beside her, finally speaks at that.

“There’s only one way to be sure,” he says. “We need to question the attackers.”

Jemma’s not entirely comfortable with the inflection behind the word question. It’s obvious that he actually means torture, and she doesn’t know how she feels about that.

…Yes, she does. She won’t condone torture, no matter the crimes of the accused. It’s crossing a line, and she can’t be part of it. More importantly, she can’t allow Grant to be part of it. But how to stop him?

Coulson nods. “You’re right. Where did you say the attackers were taken, Simmons?”

“A containment facility in Alexandria,” she says, a little absently. She’s still caught on how to stop Grant from taking his anger out on those men.

“I’ll give them a call,” he decides. “Let them know we’re coming. Simmons, you’re out of the field for at least a week—we don’t want to risk making your ribs worse.”

It’s only to be expected, and in any case she doesn’t think she’ll be of much use when she can’t even breathe without pain, so Jemma simply nods in acknowledgement.

“And Fitz,” Coulson adds, pausing on his way out the door. “Go to bed.”

Fitz may have actually been asleep on his feet—he jerks a little when addressed, then shakes his head.

“What? No, that’s—”

“Bed,” Coulson repeats sternly. “Now. The rest of you, don’t go anywhere. We’ll continue this in a moment.”

Fitz starts to protest as Coulson leaves, but he’s ignored.

“Come on, Fitz,” Jemma says. “You really should lie down; you’re looking very peaky.”

“Peaky, she says,” he mutters as she rounds the table and takes his arm gently. “I am not peaky. You’re peaky.”

“We’re both peaky,” she compromises, leading him out of the room. “It’s been a long day for both of us.”

“I don’t see you getting sent to bed like a child,” he continues to grumble as she slides open the door to his bunk.

“I’m injured, not ill,” she says. “Now, just lie down for a spell.”

“I don’t need—” he begins to protest, even as he lies down.

“Of course not,” she agrees, interrupting him. “But it’s best to keep one’s commanding officer happy, isn’t it? Just rest for a while.”

“Fine,” he says. “But I’m not going to sleep.”

“Of course not,” she repeats, backing out of the room. As predicted, she can hear his breathing evening out by the time she slides the door closed.

She returns to the briefing room just as Coulson enters through the other door, and hurries to retake her place next to Grant. Coulson is frowning heavily, and she’s afraid she knows what he’s about to say.

“All three of Simmons’ attackers are dead,” he says bluntly.

May frowns. “The kill switch?”

“Cyanide,” he corrects.

There’s a brief pause.

“Wait,” Skye says, shaking her head. “What?”

“All three men were apparently in possession of cyanide tablets,” Coulson says. “Upon regaining consciousness, they took them. Died en route to the containment facility.”

Grant doesn’t say anything at all. He simply pushes away from the table and walks out of the room without so much as a by-your-leave. Jemma turns to watch him through the windows and, when he cuts through the lounge in the direction of the Cage, assumes that he’s headed for the cargo bay to take his frustration out on the punching bag.

Better the punching bag than a person. Jemma isn’t happy that her would-be kidnappers are dead (and not just because it means they can’t provide information), but she is relieved that there will be no opportunity for torture.

“Cyanide tablets?” Skye says finally, breaking the silence left in the wake of Grant’s departure. “That’s really…James Bond of them.”

“And very out of character for Centipede,” Jemma notes. “Centipede tends more towards unwilling conscripts.”

“And less towards the die-for-the-cause type,” Coulson agrees. “Also, the very few willing participants we’ve encountered didn’t have cyanide.”

“So they weren’t Centipede?” Skye asks, frowning.

“There’s no way to know for sure,” Coulson says. “But we’ll work on the assumption that they weren’t.”

Jemma takes a deep breath (and regrets it, of course). “Then I suppose the question is, who were they?”

“And what did they want with you?” Skye adds.

“SHIELD ran finger prints and facial rec,” Coulson says. “Didn’t get anything. We’ll keep trying, though.” He looks at Jemma. “In the meantime, Simmons, don’t go anywhere unescorted.”

Jemma glances in the direction of the door to the stairs. “I don’t think there’s any danger of that happening, sir.”

“No,” Coulson agrees, following her gaze. “I guess not.”

“I’m gonna take a crack at finding out who those guys were,” Skye decides, poking at the holocom. “No offense to SHIELD, but…they’re not me.”

“Go ahead,” Coulson says. “Let us know if you find anything.”

“Yep,” Skye says, already absorbed in her work.

“Anything else?” Coulson asks, looking between May and Jemma. “No? Then I guess we’re done here.”

He exits, followed by May, but Jemma stays where she is, dithering. Would going to Grant at this point calm him down or make things worse? She has a feeling it’s the latter; with her face bruised as badly as it is, laying eyes on her will only remind him of the cause of his anger.

She can’t avoid him until her face heals, of course, but she thinks she’ll give him a little time before going to pull him away from the punching bag. If nothing else, she still needs to ice her face.

---

She gives him two hours to work through the worst of his rage, then wanders downstairs. She can hear the impact of his fists against the punching bag long before she reaches the catwalk above the cargo bay, and it makes her hurt for him. She has plenty of very unhappy suspicions about Grant’s childhood, but whether or not she’s right, it’s obvious that he never learnt how to manage his emotions.

Violence always seems to be his first instinct, and while it’s certainly a useful one for a specialist, it worries her. Not for her own sake, of course—she knows Grant would cut his own hands off before he laid one on her—but for his. It’s not healthy, this tendency of his to bottle things up. He’s been doing better, with May’s instruction, but this is a major setback.

She only makes it down one step before Grant leaves off the punching.

“Hey,” he says.

“Are you feeling better?” she asks.

He huffs out a laugh. “No. Not really.” Before she can continue down the stairs, he holds up a hand. “Stay there. I’ll come up.”

She complies, mostly because she truly wasn’t looking forward to climbing back up the stairs. The paracetamol she took a few hours ago is already wearing off, and while she could certainly take something stronger, she doesn’t enjoy the way narcotic painkillers cloud her mind. She’ll save them as a last resort.

“How are you feeling?” Grant asks when he reaches her. He tucks some of her hair behind her ear with a slight frown. “You look like you’re hurting.”

“I am,” she admits. “I came to ask if you’d be willing to have a bit of a lie down with me before dinner.”

“Of course,” he says at once. “Lead the way.”

She slips her hand into his and laces their fingers together as they walk. It helps, a little.

For all that she’s spent the past few hours worrying over Grant and his tendency to bottle up what he’s feeling, she hasn’t dealt with today’s events at all. She acknowledges the hypocrisy in that, but honestly, she doesn’t know how to begin to process a kidnapping attempt.

She always knew it was a possibility, of course—she’s one of SHIELD’s foremost scientists, and she’s participated in her share of classified projects. She’s well aware that she’s in possession of knowledge that many people would kill for. She’s even been through training in how to behave in captivity, how to placate captors enough to keep them from causing her harm, without actually giving away any of SHIELD’s secrets.

She thought she was prepared for the eventuality, but evidently not, as the day’s events have left her absurdly shaky.

Perhaps Grant can tell, or perhaps it’s for his own comfort, but as they walk, he draws circles on the back of her hand with his thumb. It’s strangely soothing, and it eases a little more of her tension.

They go to his bunk, of course. She hasn’t actually slept in her own bed since the beginning of November. Even on the rare occasions that Grant has been away from her, she’s found herself sleeping in his bed. This is one habit that she’s entirely happy to keep.

Grant slides the door closed behind them and then turns to look at her. “Can I see your ribs?”

She hesitates, earning a raised eyebrow.

“It will only make you angrier,” she points out.

“I know,” he says, resigned. “But I’d like to see them anyway.”

Well, it’s not as though she doesn’t make a habit of taking her shirt off in his presence; he’ll see the bruising eventually. Why not now? She unbuttons her shirt and pulls it open, showing him her bruised ribs. He inhales sharply and mutters what she suspects is a very rude word (although she can’t be certain, since it’s Russian).

She looked at her ribs earlier, after the briefing, and would prefer not to see the very ugly bruising again, so she keeps her eyes on Grant’s face as he steps closer. There’s rage there, of course, but also pain. It hurts him to see her injured, just as it hurts her to see him.

He lays his hand against her ribs gently, testing the damage, and she allows it, despite the pain it causes. She knows he won’t be able to rest until he makes certain for himself that bruising really is the extent of the injury. It doesn’t take him long, and he steps back slightly with a little sigh.

“I’m sorry,” he says quietly, pulling her shirt closed for her.

“For what?”

“If I’d been there—”

“No,” she interrupts sharply. “Grant, this is not your fault.”

“You didn’t want me to go to that meet,” he reminds her.

“Because I was concerned for your safety, not mine,” she protests. “None of us had any way of knowing that I was in danger.”

“We should’ve guessed,” he argues. “How many of us has Centipede gone after? They kidnapped Coulson, tried to snipe me, lured Fitz to the Academy…”

“We have no idea what Centipede’s endgame is, Grant,” she points out. “We can’t predict their actions.”

He shakes his head.

“In any case, after you left the room, we came to the conclusion that the attackers probably weren’t with Centipede.”

“We can’t know for sure,” he disagrees. “Not with them dead.”

There’s something dark in his voice, but she chooses to ignore it. She wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to deal with that on her best day, and right now she’s exhausted and sore. Anyway, as Grant just pointed out, the men are dead. No one can harm them now.

“Regardless,” she says. “We had no reason to believe that I was in danger. And even if we had, I’m—”

She breaks off, remembering the earlier discussion about her use of the word ‘fine’.

“If I was there, I could’ve protected you,” he says before she can think of a replacement word. “You wouldn’t be in so much pain.”

“Skye did an excellent job of protecting me,” she reminds him. “And that’s because of you. Because of the training you gave her.” She steps closer to him. “So in a way, you did protect me.”

“Well, when you put it that way,” he says with a slight smile.

She knows he’s not convinced. However, she is, as previously noted, completely exhausted. He’s at least not arguing with her anymore, and she’ll accept that as a victory. Right now, she just wants to sleep.

“Ready for a nap, then?” she asks.

“Yeah,” he nods. “Just need to do one thing first.”

He leans down and kisses her gently—once, twice—cupping the uninjured side of her face. They’re brief kisses, meant for comfort, not heat, and while she’d like to turn them into something more, she’s not really capable of getting on her toes, at the moment.

Also, she’s still exhausted, but that’s less relevant.

Some of the tension has left Grant’s face when he pulls away.

“Okay,” he says. “Now that that’s taken care of…”

He kicks off his boots, then pulls back the quilt, sliding into bed, and she gladly follows.

It takes her a while to find a position that doesn’t place too much stress on her ribs, and Grant waits patiently as she fidgets on and against him.

“Okay?” he asks, when she’s finally settled.

“Yes, I think so,” she says.

Her hand is resting against his chest, and he lifts it to press a kiss against her timer. As always, the gesture makes warmth curl in her chest, and she presses a kiss to his shoulder in return.

She’s just so completely in love with this man. He’s so much more than she ever thought she would have.

“I love you,” she says quietly into his skin.

“I love you, too,” he says. She can hear the smile in his voice. “Now, go to sleep. I’ll wake you for dinner.”

She falls asleep to the sound of his steady breathing and the feel of his fingers carding through her hair. She wouldn’t have it any other way.