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Across the Board

Chapter Text

. . . . . .

"I often used to wonder about this day, you know? Whether, once the Great Game had been played out, the players would have the opportunity to shake hands across the board."

. . . . . .

The first time Skye hears from Ward, after shooting him, is fifteen months after he escaped custody.

It's not the first she's heard of Ward in that time; she and the rest of SHIELD have their ears to the ground, all the time, and they've caught rumblings of a deadly dark-haired man, occasionally seen in the company of a woman with a scarred face, whom Skye has positively identified as former SHIELD agent 33. But they never do anything about these reports; Ward hasn't caused any trouble that they're aware of—at least not since the time he kidnapped a prisoner from Air Force custody—and while his previous crimes are not forgiven, they've got bigger fish to fry.

So Ward stays at the edges of their periphery and they all go on with their lives—until the day that Skye gets something in her old Hotmail account. (She has much better ways of communicating online now, but she keeps this one active partly for sentimental reasons, as it was her very first e-mail account, and partly for practical reasons, such as the fact that it can be useful on occasion to have a harmless-looking e-mail address to give to strangers.) She gets a ping from the widget she created to alert her of communications on any of her many varied channels, and opens the inbox to see an e-mail from username T1000, subject: Heads up. She makes a face; trust Ward to remember her decoy e-mail address after all this time.

It doesn't take long to trace the e-mail back to where it was sent from, an Internet cafe in a Toronto mall, and she pulls up the security camera trained on the door of the establishment. The image is low-res, but there's a broad-shouldered man in a black T-shirt walking out the door just then, and as though on cue, he looks up at the security camera and gives it a jaunty salute before disappearing into a crowd.

Ugh, she hates that man. But still, after a careful scan for viruses or malware, she opens the e-mail, because she's learned over the years not to dismiss things out of hand. Not until she knows what they mean.

The e-mail is just a name: Edward Park.

She hesitates again, and then she looks up Edward Park, and at first glance he's simply a moderately successful businessman in Toronto, but Skye digs deeper and discovers his outspoken public support of the Superhero Registration act and a number of other worldwide legal attempts to identify and suppress gifted individuals, and then she digs deeper and discovers criminal activity and funding of unsavory organizations and ties to a militant group that is arming itself against "future superpowered oppression." And then, well and thoroughly alarmed, she gets into his e-mail and discovers that he and other members of this militia have been discussing the possibility of publicly assassinating a superhero, and third on the list of possible targets is the mysterious Quake, who has gotten more famous than she ever intended to because of cell phones and YouTube.

Skye stares at the screen, and then she goes to get Coulson. She wishes she didn't have to tell him where the tip came from, but she does; fortunately, Coulson doesn't comment. He just looks at her research on Park, and he agrees that something must be done. They can't attack this group for their anti-superhero views—that would just be fuel on the fire for Edward Park's side—but they arrange for the Toronto police to stumble across damning evidence of Park's other criminal activities and, through him, the militia's various crimes.

They all go to jail, and Skye is safe. And she spends weeks trying to avoid thinking about the fact that she's alive because of Grant Ward.

. . . . . .

After this, she pays even closer attention to what Ward is up to. The first thing she learns is that the woman he's been traveling with, Agent 33, has gotten a job as the personal security detail for an Australian billionaire living in Bangkok. The woman is still former SHIELD, and if she really has conquered her former Hydra brainwashing, they consider bringing her in, asking if she wants to return to SHIELD. But in the end they don't do it; by all accounts, 33 loves Thailand and is happy as a clam with her new position, and after everything the woman's been through, Coulson doesn't want to drag the woman back into the spy game. So he tells Skye to keep an eye on her, and she agrees and goes back to her computer and pulls up security footage of 33 dancing at a night club, not a care in the world, as though she doesn't bear the scars, physical and mental, of what Hydra did to her. Her time globetrotting with Ward seems to have changed her. It's as though . . . Skye's mouth quirks into a wry smile. It's as though Ward has rehabilitated her and released her back into the wild.

As for the man himself, he's been popping up occasionally, taking jobs for governments and businessmen and millionaires around the world. He's an expert at staying off the radar, of course, but Skye is an expert at getting people back on the radar, and anyway sometimes his bosses aren't as discreet as he is. So Skye catches sight of him often enough to track his movements. What he does is mostly above board; sometimes the people he chooses to work for aren't the most law-abiding, but the work he does for them tends to be just legal enough to keep SHIELD and other law enforcement agencies off his back.

In the months that follow after the Edward Park incident, Ward sends her two more tips: one about a Hydra operative who has discovered one of their safe houses and nearly figured out a way past their security, and another about a gifted individual that has contacted SHIELD, asking for help, but really intends to kill whoever is sent to find him. With that forewarning, they are able to take care of these two threats with little fuss and no loss of life on either side.

"I can't decide if I'm more glad or worried that Ward appears to be looking out for us," says Coulson after the second incident. He's tense, his pulse accelerated, and she can feel his heightened vibrations—or electric impulses, she's still not entirely sure what they are—which is just increasing her own anxiety. It's an unexpected side effect of her Inhuman powers.

"Ditto," says Skye flatly. She was the one who'd been assigned to go talk to that gifted individual, a man who can turn his whole body to metal, and she would have had to kill him or be killed if Ward hadn't warned them about him. "Why is he doing this?"

Coulson hesitates. "If you ever get the chance," he says after a moment, "you should ask."

Skye looks at him, then nods her understanding. Talking to Ward is the last thing she wants to do, but they need answers; they need to know if this is all part of some nefarious scheme he's setting up.

. . . . . .

She gets her chance three months later. They've just finished responding to another Ward tip, about a Hydra mole attempting to infiltrate SHIELD. Like most of his tips, it's one that they probably would have figured out without his help, but it's all so much faster and more efficient with his information. Skye is pacing in her computer lab, trying to work off the anxiety she always feels when they accept any help from that traitor, when there's a ping on her facial recognition program, the one that's constantly scouring news and surveillance sources for sightings of persons of interest.

This one is from a news website, reporting on the Cannes film festival. There's a photo of an oil baron sheikh and his supermodel wife, in attendance because they produced a film that's playing, and standing in the background is their bodyguard, a broad-shouldered man in a black suit. He's turned away from the camera so his face is in profile, but it's undoubtedly Grant Ward. Skye examines it a long time, frowning. A man who's as careful as Ward about avoiding surveillance cameras is not likely to slip up and allow the paparazzi to plaster his photo all over the Internet, so either he had a momentary lapse and didn't notice the photo being taken, or he wants to be found. The latter possibility is worrisome, but either way, they need answers. Besides, she can take care of herself.

Coulson agrees, and the next day Skye is flying to the France field office, then driving into Cannes. It's not hard to find Ward—the sheikh he's working for is pretty noticeable, and by mid-afternoon she has tracked her former SO down to a bakery and coffee shop on a side street near his hotel. She doesn't take the front door—she knows how he works, so she knows he'll be facing the front window, so she finds a back door and sneaks in. As she suspected, he's sitting with his back to the wall, facing the front window, reading a newspaper and sipping from a cup of something steaming. She backs into the shadows again and takes some time to prepare herself for the encounter. She wishes for a moment that she'd agreed to May's offer of assistance; after everything that's happened, confronting Ward alone makes her a bit nervous. But May was needed elsewhere, and anyway Skye knows that between her powers and her skills as an agent, she can handle anything Ward can throw at her. Advantage of being trained by the Cavalry.

And besides, all these tips he's given them, most of which are to protect her specifically, have convinced her that he doesn't mean her any harm. If he'd wanted her dead, as retaliation for shooting him, he could have just stayed quiet about the various attempts on her life in the last few years, and eventually one might have worked. With that in mind, she squares her shoulders, puts one hand on the ICER at her belt to reassure herself, and with as much confidence as she can muster, strolls into the cafe and seats herself down at his table.

Ward glances up at her over the top of his paper, then goes back to his reading. "Skye," he says by way of greeting, sounding calm and polite and almost bored, and she wants to smack him right then and there because darned if that isn't the coolest way to greet an enemy that she's seen in a long while. She hates when he's good at what he does.

And he's not just faking his calm; his pulse has picked up, but only the tiniest bit—not at all as strong as she'd have expected. "You don't seem very surprised to see me," she says to the back of his newspaper.

"I would have been more surprised if you hadn't shown up," he responds mildly. "I got myself on TMZ. If you'd missed that . . ." He shakes his head slowly and turns a page of the paper.

"Anything good in there?" she asks, starting to get annoyed that he's only half paying any attention to her.

"There never is," he says with a sigh, and finally folds up the paper and sets it on the table. "Are you hungry? They make the best pain au chocolat here."

"What?"

"Marie!" he calls to the girl at the counter, and she looks up at him with a flirty smile.

"Oui?"

"Un pain au chocolat, s'il vous plaît."

Marie looks pleased, and as she hurries with the order, Skye can sense her pulse accelerating and her breath getting fluttery in a way that clearly indicates that Ward's been frequenting the bakery this week and laying on the charm with the shop girl. Don't fall for it, she wants to tell the girl. Best case scenario, he's using you to get free food. Worst case scenario, he's here to burn everything you love to the ground.

The girl sets the pastry on the table in front of Ward, but once she's turned around he pushes it toward Skye. "On me," he says magnanimously, and Skye has the distinct feeling that she has entirely lost control of this conversation.

"Well," he says after a moment in which Skye scrambles for words, "go ahead, give it a try. I promise I didn't poison it or anything."

Part of her believes him, largely because she can't imagine he'd come up with such a labyrinthine plan as to spend eighteen months sending their team useful tips as a way to lure Skye to a bakery on the French Riviera and poison her with a pastry. But she still doesn't eat. "So you're saying you wanted to get yourself seen?"

"I'm saying I needed to talk to you, and bringing you here was easier than getting myself to the US. I'm not popular there right now." He's got that look on his face, blandly polite, that he uses when he doesn't care if you know that he's hiding something. Or at least Skye assumes the look still means that; after all, she hasn't seen him in person in three years.

"Why didn't you e-mail?" she asks. "I thought we were pen pals by now."

He shrugs and drinks from his coffee cup again. "This is something I needed to be face-to-face for."

Skye pulse quickens, but she's able to keep her sudden discomfort from showing on her face—another advantage of being trained by the Cavalry. Her hands are already in her lap, and her forearm rests against the ICER at her side. She takes a moment, drawing strength from the gun's presence and doing a quick headcount of how many civilians are currently in the bakery, should a fight break out. Then she says, sounding cool as you please, "Well, you've got my face. What did you want to talk about?"

Ward's whole body tenses then, giving off tight, buzzy vibrations. His polite smile drops, and for the first time in their encounter, Skye thinks she's seeing his honest feelings on his face. "SHIELD needs to leave Kara alone."

Skye blinks a few times, processing; this is not at all what she expected. "Kara?" But the name is sounding familiar, and she racks her brain for a moment and then remembers. "33, you mean?"

He looks annoyed. "She has a name," he says.

"I know," she says. "I get that." She pauses, unsure of how much to admit to, but Ward obviously already knows that they're aware of his connection to the other agent or he wouldn't have brought her up. So she decides to admit to the occasional surveillance, as a gesture of goodwill. "Kara was still in Bangkok, last I checked."

"Yes, and she's being followed."

"Not by us," says Skye. Ward looks skeptical. "I mean it," she insists. "Unless they're doing it without the knowledge of anyone at HQ. Coulson and May decided she'd been through enough and they're leaving her alone, unless she shows any signs of returning to Hydra." She hesitates. "Have you considered the possibility that her tail is Hydra?"

He shakes his head. "No one at Hydra knows about her anymore. She was Whitehall and Bakshi's project, and they're both out of the picture."

Skye shrugs. "According to Simmons, a lot of people knew about the brainwashing program. Apparently it was the worst-kept secret at Hydra."

Ward gives her a considering look for a few moments, and then in one fluid movement he throws a few Euros on the table and stands from his chair. "I need to make a call." And then, back in fully insincere mode, "Thanks for the visit, Skye, I really enjoyed it." And he strides out of the bakery.

Dumbfounded, Skye lets him take a few steps, and then she's scrambling out of her chair to follow. "Wait a second," she calls after him, not heeding the confused looks from the other patrons. "I'm not done talking to you."

She finally catches up with him in the street; he's striding quickly away from the bakery, and she's not willing to grab his arm to slow him down so instead she darts in front of him to cut him off. "I still have some questions for you, bud."

He comes to a stop, perhaps not daring to start a fight out here in public, and looks at her with a look of polite impatience and boredom. She wonders if this is his new shtick: when he was in deep cover at SHIELD, he was upright and earnest and bad with people; as Garrett's lackey, he was cocky and devil-may-care and suave; and now, three years on his own, he's brusque and offhand and just as polite as he needs to be to stay on the near side of professional. Maybe this is the real him, since as far as she knows he isn't performing for anyone right now. Or maybe this one's a lie as well. Maybe even he doesn't know what he's like anymore.

"You needed something, Skye?"

She puts her hands on her hips. "Take a wild guess."

He looks at her, and then he gives her a knowing smile and tucks his phone back into his pocket. "Come on, Ward," he says in what she thinks is supposed to be an imitation of her voice, "why is a Nazi terrorist helping SHIELD out?"

"That's basically it," she says.

He shrugs. "I like putting my underworld contacts to good use."

"Try again."

"I wanted to tell SHIELD thank you for locking me up and then trying to turn me over to sociopath brother."

"Come on."

"Quake is my favorite superhero."

"Do you want me to ICER your sorry butt and drag you back to HQ?"

Something in his expression twitches just then—is he fighting a smile? "Why is it so important to know? Can't you just accept it for what it is and move on?"

"When you're involved? No." Her mind flashes back to Garrett, to Christian, to Bakshi, to her father. "You don't do things altruistically. You've always got a scheme—you know, a long con. We need to know if our accepting your help forwards whatever your twisty little plan is."

"No scheme," he assures her, and he sounds like he's telling the truth. That's the trouble. He always sounds like he's telling the truth. His heartbeat hasn't changed, though.

So she tries a different tactic. "Why is it always me?" she insists.

"Is it?" he asks casually, but now his pulse is picking up, almost imperceptibly.

She takes a breath, and then asks the question that's been on her mind since the first tip appeared. "Are you still in love with me?"

To her surprise, his body vibrations barely change at all, and the look he's giving her is not one of embarrassment or longing, but rather of a sort of "Are you kidding me?" vibe, as though she's said something ridiculous. "Skye, you shot me four times and left me for dead. I'm not an idiot. I can take a hint."

That's a relief, she tells herself, and almost entirely means it. "Then why is it always me?" she repeats.

"Luck of the draw," he shrugs. "I've just uncovered more chatter about you than anyone else in SHIELD. You're famous, you know. That video of you stopping that runaway train has 3 million hits on YouTube."

Her mouth tightens. "Ward, you know what my powers are, right? You know I can sense when your heartbeat changes or you get tense or twitchy. I can always tell you're lying." The truth is, she can't. She can indeed sense all the things she just said, and maybe some day she'll be able to parlay that into being a human lie detector, but people are complicated and her powers are simple. She can tell when a pulse speeds up; what she can't tell is whether that's from a guilty conscience or just anxiety at being interrogated. The only time she can use her powers to detect lies is when she's spent a lot of time with the person, gathering sensory data on how their body changes when they're telling a lie versus when they're stressed or anxious. And she just doesn't have enough data on Ward.

But he doesn't know that. He hesitates, and she can see his uncertainty, so she pushes it. "You want me to tell your boss who you really are? Just answer the question, Ward, and I'll leave you alone."

He doesn't flinch or clench his jaw here; he's too good at his job for that. But he becomes more still, which she recognizes from back when he was her SO. "Fine," he says tightly. "I'm not an idiot and I'm not in love with you anymore, but that doesn't mean that I want you dead. So if in the course of my work, I come across information that could keep you from being dead, I pass it on. Despite everything, I still prefer a world with you in it." He hesitates, and then the tiniest smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. "So I guess I am an idiot."

And then he brushes past her and wanders down the street, leaving her standing alone and going over his words and his expression and his vibrations in her mind until she comes to a conclusion: she thinks he's telling the truth.

. . . . . .

Skye returns home the next morning and gives her report to Coulson the next afternoon. He seems to accept Ward's explanation and Skye's impression of its veracity, and he tells her to stay vigilant but that he feels better about the whole thing. That's been Skye's takeaway from all this as well, and she gives him a willing "Yes, sir."

And then the next day, he calls her into his office again. "Can you get a message to him?" he says without preamble.

"I guess," she says. "I can reply to his e-mails, although I don't know how often he checks that account."

Coulson nods. "I need you to tell him something."

After the meeting, she pulls up her old Hotmail address and types out a message to T1000, subject: about your question.

AC wants me to tell you that he's looked into it and it was no one from our group. If your friend overseas needs any help dealing with unwanted visitors, she knows how to contact us.

Skye clicks Send and doesn't let herself wonder when she'll get a reply. It's not that she's that eager to hear from him, it's that . . . she's curious. She wants to know why Kara's welfare is so important to him. She wants to know if he took her for a ride and this all really is part of some scheme. She wants to know if the tips will keep coming now that she's seen (and annoyed) him in person. She wants to know if he's really turned over a new leaf and become as legit as he was pretending in that bakery.

And all the while, she wonders—and this is not something an e-mail from Ward can help her answer—if it makes her a bad person to be slightly disappointed to know that Ward isn't in love with her anymore. Not that she wants him to be in love with her, and not that she even remotely returns the sentiment, but . . . the truth is, she'd been just the tiniest bit flattered. In a horrified, disgusted way, of course, but still . . . it had been a confidence boost to know she inspired such devotion in another person. But that's all over now, and she's almost entirely glad of it and only occasionally just the tiniest bit not.

The day after she sent the e-mail, she gets a response, a single word.

Thanks.

She imagines him sitting in some Internet cafe in France, swallowing his pride and grumbling to himself as he's forced to admit that SHIELD isn't all bad, and she smiles.

. . . . . .