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We were going to the ocean, hundreds of miles away,

because I wanted to see the ocean and my father said that it was about time the four of us made that journey.

I remember asking, 'What’s the difference between a trip and a journey?'

And my father said, 'Narnie, my love, when we get there, you’ll understand.'

 

- On the Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta

 


 

 

Technically speaking, it all starts with a round of long-overdue psych evaluations.

The sessions are a sharp wake-up call for all of them, May thinks. They’ve been neglecting themselves, and each other, for far too long now, and this forces them to slow down and let it all catch up. Which is terrifying and painful, of course, but it’s ultimately good.

So that’s how it starts, in the strictest sense.

But that’s not what really does it.

What does it is May walking past the room set aside for consultations, only to find Fitz and Skye sitting on the floor opposite the door. They’re side-by-side, about as close together as two people can be, pressed together at the shoulder and hip. Fitz’s knee is jiggling; Skye is chewing nervously at a thumbnail.

They’re worried.

And they’re waiting for Jemma.

May can feel it, then – the way it hangs heavy in the air, lining every hushed inhalation. The very walls seem to whisper it, a determined promise sworn to the universe.

This has to be different.

This can’t be like last year.

It can’t.

(That’s how it really starts.)

 

 

-

-

 

 

When Andrew finally emerges from his session with Jemma, May’s waiting for him in the kitchen, restless energy keeping her on her toes. She doesn’t exactly expect him to be forthcoming – she knows him, she knows how he is about these things – but she still thinks he might give her some indication of how the sessions went.

No such luck.

He pulls two mugs down from the cupboard to make tea, so May knows that he’s seen her, but he doesn’t otherwise acknowledge her presence. Delaying the inevitable, May thinks.

She doesn’t have the patience for it.

‘Well?’ she asks. Hands stilling, Andrew pauses briefly before turning to face her. He studies her expression for the longest time, as though he’s trying to work out where to begin.

Just say it, she pleads mentally. Rip off the band-aid.

‘It’s not been an easy few years on any of them.’

May raises an eyebrow, trying for a levity she’s incapable of feeling right now. ‘I could have told you that.’

Andrew just sighs, scrubbing a hand over his face, and the familiarity of the motion burns a little.

‘You know I can’t discuss individual diagnoses with you.’

‘But?’ she presses, sensing a continuation of that thought. Maybe she’s not sensing it anymore, she realises belatedly. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking.

But then he only blinks back at her, gaze steady, and it’s immediately apparent that she’s right. Something heavy clenches in her chest.

‘It’s Simmons, isn’t it?’

He firms his lips. ‘They’re all in need of a little therapy, but Jemma’s going to need a bit more help, yes.’

May allows that to sink in. She’d suspected as much, of course – it’d be difficult to miss the tenuous hold the girl has on herself, the way she’s almost constantly teetering on the brink of tears or collapse. But there’s just been so much going on, each of them being inundated again when they’re just barely coping with the previous thing, that it’s been hard to do anything about it.

(They’ll do better. They have to.)

May exhales. 

‘What are you going to tell Coulson?’

‘Mandated time off for all three,’ he replies easily, without hesitation.

‘He’s not going to be happy about it,’ she murmurs, but even as she says it, she knows it’s not entirely true. They’ve all got a lot of work to do, of course they do, but Coulson cares about these people, wants them to be okay. And clearly he trusts Andrew’s professional opinion.

Even so.

‘It’s for their own benefit. He’ll see that.’

Pursing her lips in reply, May reaches for her tea. She’s staring into the murky liquid when Andrew speaks again, his voice a little more gentle. 

‘They’re crazy about you, Melinda. And I know you think it’s just mutual respect, but…’ he shrugs, as though what he’s saying is fact, plain and simple. ‘They love you.’

May wonders if that’s maybe what got them into this mess in the first place.

 

 

-

-

 

 

‘Three entire weeks,’ Jemma repeats for what has to be about the fifth time, by Skye’s count. Coulson had gathered the three of them together in his office to tell them they’d be getting some time off, and they’ve been holed up in Fitz’s room ever since. She isn’t completely sure how they ended up here, of all places. Maybe because it’s neutral territory or something.

Or maybe it’s just that there’s shit strewn across Fitz’s room, the way it always had been on the Bus, and something about that is comforting right now.

God, do they need some comfort – Skye feels like she’s been rubbed raw from her psych evaluation, and it hadn’t even been as comprehensive as her initial sessions from months ago. She can only wonder at how shitty it had been for the other two, but if she had to guess, she’d probably go with “extremely.” Fitz had left his session a little quiet, pretty subdued about the whole thing, but Jemma had emerged with a pale, splotchy face, her eyes red-rimmed, before leveling the two of them with a watery smile.

Comfort would be pretty great, basically.

The biochemist is shaking her head now, disbelief written across her features. ‘Truthfully, I don’t even remember when I last had so much time off.’

(Skye does. It’s just that Jemma had spent all of it by Fitz’s bedside, waiting for him to wake up. And then waiting for him to recognise her again. Probably best not to bring that up just now.)

‘Pretty weird that we don’t have anything to be doing, huh,’ she agrees, stretching her legs out in front of her on the floor.

‘Well, I just want to sleep,’ Fitz declares to the room at large, sprawled out across his bed. Skye snorts. From where she’s perched on the end of his bed, hands folded neatly in her lap, Jemma shoots him a tentative smile.

‘You always want to sleep, Fitz.’

Lifting his head, Fitz meets Jemma’s eyes. ‘Yeah, well. Not so much lately.’ 

A kind of awkward silence falls across the room, and there it is, Skye thinks. The reason why they need to shake things up a bit (pun totally intended), why they can’t return to just scraping by like they have been for the past year. Fitz and Jemma are dancing around each other even more cautiously than before, and while she can’t really tell whether or not it’s making them miserable, it’s making Skye super uncomfortable. None of them have talked to each other, really talked, in a very long time.

Plus, Jemma looks like the next stiff breeze will send her into a breakdown of truly epic proportions.

It’s time to take some affirmative action here.

‘Come on,’ Skye finds herself saying, hitting her thighs a couple of times for emphasis. ‘Let’s go do something. We can’t just sleep the whole time.’

Fitz mumbles something that sounds suspiciously like “we can try,” but Jemma starts nodding, determination sparking behind her eyes. Good. They need Jemma’s drive. They also need Jemma’s common sense, because if this comes down to just Skye and Fitz, then… well. It’s a good thing they have Jemma, anyway.

‘Did you have something in mind, Skye?’ 

‘Leaving.’ Her answer spills out before she’s even consciously formed the thought, but as soon as she says it, she knows that it’s exactly what she needs – what they need. She meets Jemma’s gaze. ‘Let’s just… get the hell away from here. Just for a bit.’

(What she doesn’t say is let’s get as far away as possible, let’s just leave this whole mess behind, but she thinks it’s pretty strongly implied.)

No one says anything for a moment, Jemma’s brow creasing as she thinks it over

‘We could go to Australia?’ Fitz suggests. ‘‘S at the other side of the world.’

Australia. Leaning her head back against the wall, Skye considers this. She’s only been there the one time, on that mission where Trip – and then her dad… but she never got to venture any further than the edge of the Bus’ ramp. It had been hot as balls at the time, she remembers that all too well, but they had been in the middle of the outback at the time. They’d be doing beaches this time, she thinks, instead of the freaking desert, because she honestly might scream if she has to be landlocked any longer.

And it’d be winter at the moment, right? She’s pretty sure it doesn’t even get cold enough to snow over there.

A smile creeps onto her face, certainty settling deep in her chest.

‘Yeah,’ Skye says to herself. She looks across to find two sets of eyes fixed upon her and regarding her with open curiosity. Weirdly enough, it only strengthens her resolve. ‘Yeah. Let’s do Australia.’

‘You’re serious,’ Jemma states, all incredulity.

‘Sure am. C’mon, we’ll road trip it! It’ll be great.’

Fitz props himself up on his elbows, frowning. ‘Australia’s big,’ he points out. 

‘Thanks, Fitz.’

‘Really big.’

‘Fitz, we get it,’ Jemma joins in, rolling her eyes.

‘I’m only saying that going on a full Australian road trip might be a bit too ambitious.’

‘So we’ll just do one side,’ Skye counters, and she cringes at the way her voice is dipping into desperation but she can’t really do anything to stop it at this point. She’s in this now. ‘Go along the coast, see the beaches. Right?’

They stare at her, a little taken aback by her intensity. She winces. 

‘I just…’ and she allows that to trail off because she doesn’t know how to explain it, not really, except that she’s been hemmed in by the four walls of the Playground, and then again by a freaking mountain range, and she just really needs to find some openness again. She needs to be able to stand on a beach and look out over the endless ocean, and try to at least begin to understand the enormity of the world again, free from all the politics of SHIELD and Hydra and everything. She needs –

She needs the Bus.

She needs the freedom, the constant motion as they skim the tops of clouds and cross oceans and just exist, away from it all. Things made sense with the Bus. And she knows they can’t have the same old Bus anymore – the universe seems determined to keep reminding her of this fact – but she still has the people. They’ve taken a battering, sure, but they’re still here. 

What else is there to hold onto?

‘You’re right,’ Jemma murmurs, before clearing her throat and speaking a little louder. ‘No, you’re right. Let’s do this.’

A hopeful smile stretches across Skye’s face. ‘Yeah?’

The smile Jemma gives her in return is gentle, but there isn’t a single trace of doubt to be found. 

‘Yeah.’

Holding her gaze for just a little longer, Skye then turns to Fitz. She reaches out and swats at his leg a couple of times.

‘How about you, Fitz? Up for a road trip?’

Fitz flops back down onto his back. ‘Well I’m hardly just going to stay here on my lonesome, am I?’ he huffs.

Skye grins. ‘Hey, now there’s that adventurous streak.’

Fitz throws his pillow at her.

‘Oh, I’m sure you can sleep in the car, Fitz,’ Jemma assures him, only a bit condescending. Then, a more troubled expression crosses her face. ‘Should… we don’t have to ask her, it’s just a thought, but should we perhaps invite – ’

‘May?’ Skye asks. Jemma meets her eyes, as though she’s assessing how into the idea Skye is, before nodding.

‘She’s… she’s done a lot, and she stayed behind when she really didn’t have to, and… she’s May, you know?’ 

Skye does know.

‘I mean, she might not even want to spend time with us outside of work,’ Jemma continues hurriedly, ‘But I still think…’

‘No, it’s a good idea,’ Skye nods, trying to coax a tentative smile out of Jemma. When she gets one, she nods a few more times for emphasis. 

Can’t hurt, with the way her friend has been recently.

‘We should definitely do it.’

Jemma nods. ‘Alright then. It’s settled.’

And just like that, it’s done. They’re going on a road trip. They’re going to Australia. It feels like a whole heap of weight’s been lifted off Skye’s chest, and they haven’t even officially left yet. 

This vacation is going to kick ass.

‘You know,’ Jemma begins, her gaze suddenly distant. ‘There are constellations visible in Australia that we can’t even see from the Northern Hemisphere.’

Fitz has lifted his head again and he’s looking at Jemma now, transfixed by the awe on her face as she becomes lost in her thoughts. Skye isn’t sure which of her friends is more captivating in this moment.

Then Jemma blinks out of her daze, turning to look at them.

‘A new perspective might just be what we need, don’t you think?’

Yeah

Smiling, Skye closes her eyes and leans back against the wall.

 

 

-

-

 

 

The very second May registers the faces of the three kids in front of her – a mixture of nervousness, exhaustion, and excitement – she knows that she’s going to agree to whatever they’re asking of her.

Which is worrying, but she’s choosing not to focus on that just yet.

A road trip, Skye is saying. But we’d be going to the beach a lot. So, like, a beach trip. A beach road trip.

What gets May is this: it’s just so startlingly innocent, this impulse to run and put actual geographic distance between yourself and the very things that hurt you. It’s the sort of innocence that they have no right to possess after all they’ve been through, and yet here they are. They know the strength in standing their ground, and they’ve shown that again and again, but they’re just now recognising that you can’t keep fighting indefinitely. You have to give yourself time to recuperate, to recover.

She gets it.

But more than that, she feels the exact same way. 

(They love you, Melinda.)

And when she agrees to go with them, when some of that ever-present tension leeches out of Jemma’s shoulders and a relieved smile chases the stress off her face; when Fitz starts nodding in approval, hands going up to their resting place on his waist; when Skye rewards her with a close-lipped grin; when May sees that, she knows she’s made the right call.

Besides. She could do with a little sun.

 

 

-

-

 

 

Coulson wouldn’t be Coulson if he let them travel halfway around the world with no purpose, which is why, just a few days later, the quinjet’s dropping the four of them off at the main Australian SHIELD base in South Australia. May’s meant to go meet with high command, while the others have been tasked with picking out a car from the SHIELD garage.  

When May returns from the briefing, the three of them are standing around what is probably the shittiest, most generic-looking sedan she’s ever seen. The girls are poring over a road map that they’ve spread across the hood, while Fitz is walking around the outside of the car – checking to see if it’s roadworthy, May hopes to God.

This is their ride. She doesn’t even need verbal confirmation at this point; she just knows.

(There’s something kind of poetic, probably, about this broken team trying to reclaim themselves in this broken car. It’s most likely the reason they chose it, in fact – that, or Jemma felt a little sorry for it.

But she’ll reflect on that later, once she’s convinced the thing will actually start.)

‘So,’ the agent accompanying May enthuses, clapping his hands together and looking around at everyone’s faces. ‘Road trip, huh?

Skye raises her eyebrows, glancing significantly at the car and then back to the agent.

‘Looks that way.’

‘Where’re ya headed?’

The man’s Australian twang is so strong that May can practically already hear the impressions Skye’s going to be doing later.

‘We thought we might start in Melbourne, work our way North along the coast,’ Jemma jumps in, shooting him a polite smile.

‘Sounds nice,’ he replies with a nod of approval. He takes a few steps over to the girls then, scrutinising their map, then points out a particular section.

‘I’d recommend you take this road here, since there’s a nice mountainous pass. Or,’ he stops, glancing up at them as though evaluating. ‘If you’re not in a hurry, you could always take the Great Ocean Road.’

Everyone’s eyes light up.

 

 

-

-

 

 

‘Wait. So we’re going from the Great Ocean Road to the Great Barrier Reef, correct?’

‘Yeah, why?’

‘Oh, nothing. It’s just that… it sounds like a pretty great road trip, don’t you think?’

‘Ugh, Fitz!’

 

 

-

-

 

 

All it takes is half a day’s worth of driving for Fitz to realise that things aren’t quite right.

Actually, that’s not completely accurate. He worked it out within the first hour, in reality. What does take half a day is the realisation that this is not just going to fix itself, that it’s going to take a very specific kind of action to remedy this one.

The problem, as he sees it, is that everyone’s trying just a bit too hard to make this work – so hard, in fact, that nothing is really clicking in the way they all know it can. They’re forcing it, instead of just letting it happen.

Skye’s been complaining loudly about May’s decision to bar her from driving (Fitz is pretty grateful for it, actually, given the whole other-side-of-the-road thing, but he’s hardly wanting to incur the wrath of Skye thank you very much) and they all know she’s just kidding around but she’s bringing it up a lot more than is natural. It’s like she’s waiting for someone to pick it up and make something of it, like it’ll spark some kind of conversation. They’re certainly trying to do just that, but there’s too much desperation from all involved parties.

May, for her part, doesn’t seem sure of how to address the tension, opting instead to simply drive in silence and let it work itself out.

And then there’s Jemma. Jemma, who’s supposed to be keeping him company in the backseat and yet keeps casting furtive glances in his direction, only to snap her gaze away when they make eye contact. Jemma, who seems to be both eagerly anticipating something from him while simultaneously dreading it. 

He knows what it is; he’s not stupid. And if he’s being completely honest, he’s feeling much the same way himself.

But then she keeps on looking at him with those big eyes like she’s got the sword of bloody Damocles hanging over her head – which, really, give him some credit. He’s not just going to blurt it out in front of Skye and May, for crying out loud. Plus with the way she’d looked after her session with Dr. Garner, Fitz’ll happily wait, even indefinitely, to set that particular ball rolling.

If there even is a ball to set rolling. Which is just a whole other matter, and not one that he’s going to –

Anyway.

Point is, it’s just wrong, and everyone can feel it. Skye’s practically vibrating with it, in fact, the nervous energy seeming to roll off her in waves, and it’s that more than anything that gives Fitz his idea.

Bloody hell, Fitz, he thinks. This one’s borderline. 

But he takes a deep breath and barrels right ahead anyway.

‘If,’ he begins, drawing out the word and then pausing, giving everyone time to pay him proper attention, ‘I were an Inhuman. What would my powers be?’

Everyone collectively holds their breath. It’s a taboo topic, he knows, one of those unspoken things they’ve all been avoiding, but its presence in the car is undeniable.

Someone say something. Please. Just run with it, just grab it and run with it, because we need this.

‘Metal,’ Skye finally, finally answers, and Fitz has to swallow down his relieved smile.

Until he realises what she’s said.

He blinks in confusion.

‘The music?’

‘No, dork. The stuff. Like, actual metal. You’d be able to control it with your brain.’

He opens his mouth to make a joke about how that would have been pretty damn helpful a year ago, but one look at the soft, relaxed expression that has overtaken Jemma’s face has him cutting off that particular train of thought.

Close save. 

‘That’s a bit… obscure,’ is what he settles on.

‘How is that obscure?’ she counters. ‘You’re an engineer!’

‘Is that what you think my job is? Just metal?’

‘Hey, you asked. I answered.’

Rolling his eyes, he looks to Jemma instead. ‘What do you think?’

She turns to regard him innocently enough, but there’s a wicked glint in her eye. That look has never spelled anything but trouble for Leopold Fitz.

‘You might get some sporting ability?’

‘Oh ha, ha, ha,’ he grumbles, watching delight spread across her face at his reaction. ‘Like you’re just the pinnacle of athleticism.’

‘You’re the one who made this about you,’ she reminds him, smiling sweetly. Then, catching on, her gaze slides towards May.

‘May would be able to shield people,’ she states, certain, before her brow creases. ‘Although I’m not sure how that would work, exactly. Some sort of electromagnetic field, perhaps? Oh! Or maybe if you were to…’ 

She trails off, suddenly self-conscious.             

‘Shielding, at any rate,’ she finishes, voice quiet. But May shoots her an appreciative look in the rearview mirror, causing a timid smile to make its way back to her face.

(Fitz can feel it all in his chest; the way the weight unfurls ever so slightly.)

‘Okay, but these are all kind of boring,’ Skye’s saying. ‘Like, anything’s possible, you know? Not just the textbook superpowers.’

‘Oh, so, for example, talking to animals?’ Fitz pipes up. ‘Because that’d be Jemma.’

‘Yes!’ Skye agrees over Jemma’s little noise of complaint. ‘Oh my God, yes. Real life Disney princess Jemma Simmons.’

Jemma’s looking over at him with such a betrayed expression that Fitz can’t stop a dopey smile from spreading across his face.

‘You’re pretty quiet over there, May,’ Skye says, pulling her knees up to her chest. ‘Like, suspiciously quiet.’

‘I’m thinking,’ May warns.

The silence that follows isn’t uncomfortable and stilted, like it’s been all day; instead it’s all warmth, more like a comma than a full stop, and Fitz finds himself staring out the window at the passing gums and scenery, contentment washing over him.

Because this is it, he thinks. This is us. Maybe they can’t go back to the Before, but they can sure as hell bring the best parts of it to this vague and uncertain After.

Eventually, May answers. 

‘You’d be elemental,’ she says. ‘Skye controls air and earth, so… Fitz would have fire and Simmons would have water.’

That changes the silence.

Jemma looks stunned. They’d all seen the way she’d kept a decent stretch of sand between herself and the ocean at the few beaches they’d stopped at already; they’d all respectfully not drawn any further attention to it. And to say that she has a history with large bodies of water would be a gross understatement. So she looks like she’s half-expecting May to realise she’s made a mistake and take it all back. 

But then May tosses a glance over her shoulder, deliberately making eye contact with Jemma before looking back to the road, and Fitz realises that she truly believes every word.

The corners of his mouth tug upwards, completely outside of his control.

Because she’s absolutely right.

If anybody could master water, it’d be Jemma. 

‘And I’d be able to control all four,’ May adds, face deadpan but light dancing behind her eyes.

Skye snorts. 

‘Like that was ever in doubt,’ she mutters, earning a little smirk from the older woman. Grinning, she turns to face Fitz and Jemma again.

‘Okay, so May’s the freaking Avatar, apparently. What else have we got?’

‘Sorry,’ Jemma says, ‘I’m still a little distracted by the notion of Fitz being able to control fire. That particular skill has evaded him his entire life.’

She levels a beatific smile at him. He gapes, affronted.

‘Yeah? Oh, well, like you can talk.’

Something familiar sparks in her eyes at that, and as she rotates in her seat to face him more fully, Fitz feels it thrill through him – this knowledge that they’re both dancing on the precipice of something more, but still safe within the language, the unique synchrony, that has always tied them to each other.

(And, as Jemma Simmons opens her mouth to argue with him, he thinks he sees some of it pass across her face as well.)

‘If you’re referring to that single, entirely accidental chemistry lab incident in first year – ’ she begins.

‘ – Incident? You almost burned down the bloody building!’

‘And you only laughed at me! Fat lot of good you were. Not to mention the fact that that was the only time it happened – ’

‘ – only time you were caught, you mean – ’

‘ – and need I remind you that the local fire department knew you by name – ’ 

Ignoring Skye’s barked laugh, Fitz adopts an indignant expression.

‘Hey! Only because I was the only person to ever say thank you! Bit of human decency goes a long way, you know.’

She sighs. ‘Oh honestly, Fitz. If the only criterion for a firefighter remembering names is gratitude expressed, I rather think they’d have a lot to remember, don’t you?’   

Fitz looks away for a second as Jemma works herself up into a rant, only to catch a glimpse of May’s smiling face in the mirror. It seems that Skye’s watching them too, her cheek resting on the neck of the seat, and she’s grinning widely. He’s still not the greatest at reading non-verbal cues, not by any stretch of the imagination, but he knows relief and gratitude when he sees it.

Feeling lighter, he turns back to Jemma, readying himself to counter her next claim.

 

 

-

-

 

 

‘This is, by far, the biggest disappointment of my life.’

‘Now I know that you’re just being overly dramatic.’

‘Hey, I’m serious!’

‘I don’t doubt it, Fitz, all I’m saying is that you’re over-reacting.’

‘Well, all I’m saying is that calling them the 12 Apostles is a bit misleading when there are obviously only eight rocks.’

‘Clearly there used to be 12, they’ve simply eroded over time.’

‘Change the name then!’ 

‘The name doesn’t have to be descriptive! May agrees with me, don’t you May?’

‘… It’s very beautiful.’

Thank you. See? What do you think, Skye?’

‘Nope, I’m with Fitz on this one. There are way fewer rocks than I was promised.’ 

‘Hey, Skye, d’you reckon you could knock one of them over?’

‘Oh, for sure. Easy.’

‘Ha, ha, ha. You’re both hilarious.’

‘Alright then, I dare you to knock one over. They practically deserve it, the ruddy liars.’

‘Fitz, stop.’

‘Going to have to sweeten the deal there, buddy. Make it worth my while.’

‘Skye! Don’t encourage him!’

‘What if, I double dog dared you?’

‘Oh screw you!’

And, I’ll buy you a drink.’ 

‘… Three drinks.’

‘Two.’ 

‘Ugh. Fine, you’re on.’

‘You can’t just – this is a national park, you know, it’s protected by law – ’

‘Hey Fitz, can you get Jemma to stand back a little? Her environmental spiel is messing up my focus.’

‘You do know I can hear you, don’t you? This is ridic- May!

 

 

-

-

 

 

By some unspoken agreement, they all agree to bypass the major cities – something that sets Fitz enormously at ease. It’s not that he doesn’t want to see them, of course, it just that it feels… unattainable, really, at the present time. Like maybe, with what they’ve seen and done, with what they’ve been through, it’s not meant for them anymore. They simply don’t belong in that space with other people. And they can always work towards it, claw their way back to being able to simply be in the company of so many others, but they’re not there yet.

So they weren’t actually going to go to Melbourne at all.

That is, until Skye remembered that koalas exist.

Which, naturally, is how they find themselves at Melbourne Zoo after a full day of Skye crapping on incessantly about the bloody things. The weather’s decidedly gloomy, and Fitz finds himself wondering whether the lack of sun has any impact on koalas.

Not that it’d worry Skye in the least. She’s almost bouncing out of her skin with eagerness.

‘Which exhibits would you recommend in particular?’ Jemma is asking the lady at the ticket office, making polite conversation as May fiddles with the credit card machine. Fitz is only really half paying attention by this point; the woman in line behind them has a toddler in a pram, and the kid keeps pulling faces at him when her mother isn’t looking.

Fitz has taken to reciprocating. He’s pretty sure he can win this one.

‘Depends on what you’re wanting to see, really. The elephant walk is always very popular – the butterfly house is down that way too,’ she points at Jemma’s map, ‘tourists love that one. There are lots of “meet the keeper” sessions around the place too, where you can ask questions, so look out for those.’

Fitz glances over at Jemma; predictably, she’s perked up at the idea. 

‘I should also tell you that one of our hippos has recently had a baby, so if you want to go see him, you’ll need to head down in that direction.’

‘That sounds fabulous,’ Jemma replies. Skye seizes the opportunity to butt in, pushing her way forward to the actual ticket booth.

‘Hey, is there any chance we can maybe, uh,’ she leans in towards the woman, conspiratorial, ‘hug a koala?’

The attendant smiles in apology. ‘Ever seen the claws on those things? It’s not really something you want to spend your time doing.’

Skye’s face falls. ‘Seriously?’

‘We do have a native fauna exhibit though, which is pretty funky,’ the woman rushes to add. ‘It’s a walkthrough, so you can get up close and personal with the emus and roos. The koalas are right near there, but they’re strictly look-don’t-touch.’

Skye looks like she’s fully prepared to fight for this one, backing down only when she sees that May’s finished up with the payment and has her eyebrows raised in warning. 

The ticket lady glances around at each of them, wariness written into her gaze. ‘Will that be all?’ 

Fitz clears his throat pointedly, grabbing Jemma’s attention. Confused eyes meet his own, but as he watches, realisation breaks across her caramel irises, the muscles around her mouth relaxing before curling up into a smirk. 

Not that he’s looking at her mouth, of course.

‘Is there a monkey exhibit?’ Jemma asks the woman, never once breaking eye contact with him. Fitz’s stomach swoops at the intensity reflected back at him.

‘There is, but we highly recommend you go to the ring-tailed lemur exhibit first – the lemurs run loose in the enclosure, it’s very popular.’ 

That causes him to tear his gaze away.

‘They run loose?’

She nods. 

‘So you can hold them. You can hold the lemurs.’

The lady hesitates. ‘No, we’d actually advise that you don’t have any contact with them. Much like the koalas, it’s look-don’t-touch.’

‘What if they jump into your arms though?’

‘Sir, we have to insist that you’ll refrain from touching the lemurs.’

‘Even if they come right up to you with their adorable little faces.’

‘Sir – ’

‘He gets it, thank you,’ Jemma cuts in, slipping her hand into his own and tugging him away from further confrontation. She doesn’t let go right away, and Fitz wonders if she’s noticed. Risking a quick glance at her face, he sees that she –

Oh.

Her cheeks are dusted with pink.

‘Okay, so I thought I was pissed off about the koalas,’ Skye begins, pulling him from his distracting train of thought, ‘but I’m pretty sure Fitz is going to have a freaking meltdown if he doesn’t get to hold a lemur. So, start there?’ 

Fitz only scoffs. ‘Please. I do have some self-restraint.’

Besides. He’s going to need some time to work out how to sneak a lemur out of the zoo without detection.

 

 

-

-

 

 

Jemma has decided that she rather likes eucalyptus trees. She likes the completely nonsensical combination of colours – the faded, subdued greens of the leaves, the bright pinks of the blossoms, the ghostly grey-white of the trunks. She likes the way some of them grow in groups, whereas others stand alone, stoic and proud against the countryside.

More importantly, however, she’s found that if she focuses enough on the landscape, she’s paying less attention to the distinct feeling of unease that’s settled deep within her stomach.

She hadn’t quite been naïve enough to believe that this road trip would somehow solve all of her problems, of course. There’s no quick fix for the headspace in which she currently finds herself. And all things considered, she’s having a perfectly nice time; really, she is. She simply suspects that the churning sensation in her gut won’t really abate until they get to the ocean.

But she’s lasted this long. Surely she can hold on just a little longer.

Surely.

‘Okay, what the hell is that?’ Skye blurts out.

Everyone looks across at her, trying to see what she’s talking about, and that’s when they spot it. Fitz’s jaw actually drops open.

‘No way,’ Skye exclaims, laughter bubbling up in her throat. ‘No. Way.’

‘Is that actually…’ Jemma squints, as though that might elucidate something in what she’s seeing. No such luck.

‘A sheep?’

It is. It’s a gigantic sculpture of a sheep, the size of a two or three storey house. In the middle of this tiny country town, in the middle of nowhere. 

How absurd.

‘“The Big Merino,”’ Fitz reads slowly off a street sign. He blinks. ‘Well, they’re not wrong.’

‘Oh my God, this is actually a thing,’ Skye calls out, scrolling at her phone. ‘Like, a thing thing. Australia just has big-ass sculptures of random objects everywhere.’

As May pulls the car into the public parking lot and they try to process what they’ve just heard, Skye’s face lights up even further.

‘There are literally more than 150 of them across the whole country.’ She looks up. ‘I don’t want to go too early, but this could be the most amazing thing maybe ever.’

‘Sorry, I’m sure that this is an obvious question, but… why?’ Jemma asks hesitantly, not wanting to accidentally rain on Skye’s enthusiasm. 

But Skye only shrugs. ‘Why not? Kickass pics, good excuse for a road trip.’

She jumps around in her seat to face May.

‘Speaking of, can we –?’

‘No.’

‘You don’t even know what I was going to say!’

‘You want to visit them all?’

Judging by the expression on Skye’s face, that’s exactly what she was going to ask. Still, she looks at May with wide, pleading eyes.

May sighs.

‘If you can find any that are vaguely on our route…’

‘Really?’

‘Really.’

‘You pinky swear?’ 

The incredulous face that May pulls in reply is one for the history books, in Jemma’s opinion. She finds herself smiling a little at it, glancing across to see that Fitz is doing the same. 

May decides then that she needs to go to the visitor centre – their map isn’t quite detailed enough for them to sufficiently navigate the mountainous route to the coast – and Skye seems keen to ask about the sculptures, so the two of them head off on a little fact-finding mission. Jemma watches them until they disappear, Skye’s bouncing exuberance a stark contrast to May’s brusque determination, before turning to face Fitz.

He’s already looking at her, a bashful smile on his face.

‘Want to go check out the sheep?’ he asks.

Despite the faint churning in her gut, Jemma musters a smile of her own. ‘I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t, don’t you?’

Underneath the giant sheep, as it turns out, is quite a cute little gift store, filled with the usual souvenir odds and ends that you’d expect from such a place but also with a variety of more classy knitwear – all made from Merino wool. Hence ‘The Big Merino,’ it would seem. It’s nice, actually, like a boutique, and certainly not the sort of store Jemma has really walked into since taking her job with mobile command. Inhaling deeply, she forces a calm she absolutely doesn’t feel. 

Because this is normal, isn’t it? This is what normal civilians do – they shop, they browse for pleasure. They don’t have a hidden purpose or ulterior motive. They’re not looking for ways to further their survival. It’s just for fun.

Normal. Just a normal, healthy human being.

She can do this.

Focusing on the shelves in front of her, she has to blink a few times before she registers what she’s looking at. She’d conservatively call them “hats for old people,” she thinks, with their flat, surprisingly fancy designs and their slight fuzziness. They remind her of a distant aunt, actually, one of her mother’s sisters who moved to France off family money and who dresses awfully stereotypically, considering her circumstances. It’s the thought of what her aunt would say to this place – a cheap souvenir store in the belly of a gigantic sheep of all things – that ultimately prompts her to pick one up and put it on.

Fitz rounds the end of her aisle at that very moment.

‘What do you think?’ she asks him, striking a pose and pouting a little. He’d been reading the cover of some book, but when he looks up at her words, he stops dead in his tracks. His mouth drops open.

Suddenly self-conscious, Jemma forces a smile. 

‘Bit posh, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah,’ he breathes, before abruptly clearing his throat. ‘I mean. Posh. Yeah.’

They stare at each other, the seconds seeming to stretch into minutes, and Jemma is just trying to figure out why he’s studying her so intensely (do I have something in my teeth?) when he comes back to himself.

‘Oh. Uh, hold on.’

He disappears, ducking behind one of the racks and hurrying off purposefully. Jemma waits, the smile on her face turning indulgent and a faint warmth spreading through her chest. Finally, the rummaging sounds stop.

‘Speaking of posh…’ he introduces dramatically, before rounding the corner again with an absolute monstrosity of a hat perched crookedly on his head. It’s more of a hollowed out plush sheep than a hat, really, complete with spinning cartoon eyes and its tongue is sticking out the side of its mouth.

Jemma can’t help it; she bursts out laughing.

(And if his answering grin – all dopey and lopsided – is anything to judge by, this had been his plan all along.)

Once her laughter dies down a little, she waves him over.

‘Come here, it’s not even on properly.’

Fitz readily complies, jogging over and dutifully bowing his head so that she can fix it. It’s only once he’s straightened up again that Jemma notices how close they’re now standing.

She swallows thickly, looking up to meet his eyes.

‘There you are. All proper now.’

‘Yeah,’ he says, voice low. With a sharp pang of awareness, she realises his gaze has dropped to her lips. ‘Proper.’

There’s a distinct ringing in her ears as she takes a step closer to him, suddenly in his personal space, and she’s been there a thousand times before over the years, maybe even more, but never like this. Never with the air between them so charged.

It’s like nothing she’s experienced with anyone else. It’s exhilarating.

And then Fitz’s tongue darts out to wet his lips, drawing her attention downwards, and suddenly his lips are the most interesting thing Jemma can recall seeing for months, perhaps even years, and she wants nothing more than to –

‘Hey, you guys ready to – oh.’

A bucket of cold water would have had less of an effect than Skye’s voice; they spring apart as though shocked by electricity, looking towards the interruption. Skye is frozen mid-stride, as though she genuinely believes that even the slightest movement from her could somehow impact the situation even further.

‘Uh. Should I come back?’

‘No, we’re ready to leave. Aren’t we?’ At that, Jemma hazards a glance up at him, immediately regretting it when she takes in his wide eyes, his slackened lower jaw. She wrenches her gaze away, smiling at Skye in a manner that she hopes it reassuring. ‘Of course we are.’

Skye looks unconvinced. ‘Uh huh.’

‘We’ll be right there,’ Fitz promises.

‘Sure thing, weirdos.’ 

Jemma makes to follow, because oh God, what does she even do now? She didn’t plan for this, she never expected something to just happen – but then Fitz clears his throat.

‘Erm, you’re – you’ve still got… the hat.’

Oh.

‘Thank you,’ she murmurs, pulling it off as quickly as she can.

By the time they’re back in the car and on the move again, she’s still managed to avoid making eye contact with him altogether. She has bigger problems right now, however.

Because it had been a distraction – an intriguing one – but now that it’s gone, the roiling sensation in her stomach comes back full force. In fact, she isn’t sure it ever really went away.

She squeezes her eyes closed. 

It’s fine. Everything is alright. Totally under control.

She’s fine.

 

 

-

-

 

 

She’s not fine.

She is absolutely not fine.

Their little pit stop has shattered Jemma’s concentration into tiny shards, it would appear, because ever since getting back into the car, she’s been finding it incredibly difficult to re-employ her ignoring tactics.

Because now that she’s focusing on the sick feeling, she can feel all of it; it’s so much more than just a general feeling of unease, sitting vague and ominous in her gut. It’s her inability to focus on a single train of thought for more than a few minutes, her mind being overcome by a fog of blankness. It’s the way she can’t force herself to sit still, the agitation that thrums beneath her skin causing her to fidget restlessly. It’s the threatening sting of oncoming tears behind her eyes. It’s her teeth being gritted when she should, rationally, be feeling relaxed, safe and protected in this little sedan. It’s the stiffness across her shoulders and the pain that’s shooting up her neck as a result.

It’s the way she feels like all of her nerve endings are exposed, like she’s been rubbed raw and her skin is sensitive to the touch.

It’s how it’s becoming increasingly difficult for her to expand her lungs to capacity. 

But more than anything, it’s the simple fact that everyone else in the car seems perfectly fine, oblivious to what she’s experiencing.

Jemma knows what this is now.

She’s no stranger to panic attacks, after all.

For the longest time, she tries frantically to swallow it down, to deny that it’s happening to her; she nods along to idle conversation, laughs when everyone else does, rolls her eyes when the situation requires it. But it’s all to no avail. By the time they’ve made it to the coast, it’s reached absolute fever pitch, and she can’t hold it in anymore.

It’s clear that there will be no avoiding this one.

She cringes, just barely holding back a whimper, before finally conceding defeat.

‘Can we stop?’ she rasps out, her voice more hysterical than she’s comfortable with anyone hearing but she can’t bring herself to worry about that now. Everyone startles, turning to her in concern, but May simply takes one look at her in the rearview mirror before swerving for the nearest exit. 

‘Jemma?’ Fitz questions, sounding fearful.

Pursing her lips together, Jemma just squeezes her eyes shut and shakes her head. She hopes he gets the message, because she doesn’t think she can verbalise it. Her breathing is already ragged, her lungs not working the way she knows they can – she knows, she knows they can – and she’s trying frantically to get it under control again but there’s not enough air, there’s just not enough air.

(One breath? But there’s two of us.)

She isn’t sure how much time passes but before she knows it, her door is being flung open and a strong hand is on her shoulder. 

‘What do you need?’ 

It’s May.

‘Air,’ Jemma gasps.

An arm wraps around her shoulders, guiding her into a standing position.

‘Is this okay?’ May asks sharply – referring to being upright, Jemma guesses. She whines out something vaguely affirmative, staring at the ground as she tries to stop herself from fully hyperventilating. There are tears streaming down her cheeks now, she thinks. She doesn’t care.

Come on, Jemma. You can do this.

May guides her forward for a little while – the arm around her like a vice, keeping her from stumbling – until they draw to a halt once more.

‘I’m going to sit you down now, Jemma.’

Hands put the slightest of pressure on her shoulders and she finds herself obeying, through the haze, sitting down rather than pushing back. She feels May sit down next to her.

May doesn’t remove her arm.

‘You’re okay. Just breathe through it. Keep breathing.’

The hand on her back is rubbing soothing circles between her shoulder blades. Squeezing her eyes shut, Jemma focuses on that sensation, using it to ground herself.

‘You’re alright. You’re safe here.’

‘I know,’ she replies, the words a hiccupping gasp. She thinks she might nod; she isn’t really sure. 

The hand keeps rubbing circles at her back. Anti-clockwise, anti-clockwise, clockwise. Breathe in, hold it, breathe out. In, hold, out.

‘Just breathe through it,’ May murmurs again. 

In, hold, out.

In, hold, out.

Gradually, she starts pulling more and more air into her lungs, managing to hold it in for longer stretches each time. She becomes aware of May in her peripheral vision, the woman nodding encouragingly, and she feels a pang of gratitude.

Slowly, surely, Jemma Simmons comes back to herself. 

With a few laborious blinks, all the while still carefully regulating her breathing, she starts to take in her surroundings – namely, the broad expanse of blue before them.

Oh.

Oh, wow. 

They’re on a beach.

May must have just exited at the nearest beach town, driving them as close to the water as the road would allow.

She’s just wondering where Fitz and Skye have gotten to when she spots them hovering around twenty feet away, clearly giving her some space and trying to disguise the fact that they’re shamelessly staring. Even from this distance, she can see the worry on their faces, echoed in their restless movements.

Her stomach drops. 

I must have really scared them. 

Swallowing hard, she turns to May. 

‘They don’t have to…’

‘You want them over here?’ May guesses. Jemma nods, pulling her knees up to her chest.

With a single gesture from May, the other two practically sprint over to them; Fitz sits down on her other side (as close as he always used to sit, Jemma notices) and the look on his face is –

Oh, God.

He looks devastated.

She bites her lip, looking up at him in apology, and he leans towards her with his arms outstretched until he seems to remember something. He freezes. 

‘Is this…?’

Okay?

God, yes.

All he’d needed was the half-nod she gives him, apparently, because suddenly he’s wrapping her up in the hug she’s needed for over a year now, pulling her to him as tight as they both can bear. A sob rises out of Jemma’s throat, completely unbidden, and she clings to him tighter, burying her face in his neck.

She’s missed this. Oh, she’s missed this so much.

Tears start to leak from her eyes again, so she turns her face to the side, trying to spare his shirt the majority of the wetness. In doing so, she meets Skye’s eyes.

And Skye, the very same Skye who had proposed they spend the road trip visiting beaches; who spent the last five or so hours carrying on about how they were going to see the whitest sand in the world, you guys, in the world; who needs the openness more than any of them; that Skye is ignoring the ocean completely, sitting with her back to it and regarding Jemma with naked concern.    

Despite everything, Jemma’s heart feels a little too full.

‘You okay?’ Skye asks.

God. What a question. The lie is on her tongue before she even registers it’s there, born out of habit that has become even more deeply entrenched over the past year, but she stops it before it can escape. 

She’s too exhausted to keep this in any longer.

Extricating herself from Fitz’s arms, Jemma shuffles over, trying to prepare herself as best she can.

‘Dr. Garner says I have PTSD,’ she admits, the words lined with the brokenness that she feels. In front of them, the waves crash onto the sand, relentless and ever reliable. Fitz leans into her side a little further – subconsciously, she thinks, which is an oddly comforting instinct. 

Once she’s let it sink in, she huffs out a bitter laugh. ‘Doesn’t really sound like something they let you have if you run the science division, does it.’

‘Hey,’ Fitz begins, bumping her shoulder gently with his. ‘Don’t you worry about that, alright?’

‘I already am, though,’ she protests. She drags her eyes up to meet his. ‘You know I can’t help it.’

He hums in agreement, although she can tell that he’s not altogether pleased with it.

The four of them lapse into silence, watching as the day draws to a close with an ease they so often miss at the Playground. Locals are going for their evening walks, dogs darting in and out of the surf and becoming tangled in their owners’ legs, and there’s a carefree quality to the slight breeze that speaks to something deep inside Jemma.

It’s all very soothing, actually. She has to wonder if May took this into consideration when the panic attack started, since she probably could have just as easily pulled over to the side of the road.

The sun has just dipped below the horizon behind them, painting the skies with a gorgeous palette as it goes, when May breaks the silence.

‘When we go through things like this, people tell you that they’re proud of how you’re coping. And that’s… that’s alright, but I need you – all of you – to know that it’s alright if you don’t feel proud, or brave. If you feel that you’ve only done what you had to do, just to survive? That’s okay.’

She’s watching the waves roll in, her gaze distant.

‘You’re surviving. It doesn’t have to be glamorous. It doesn’t have to be heroic.’ She turns to look at them. ‘You have to learn to forgive yourself for that.’ 

How, though? Jemma so badly wants to ask. But her heart is in her throat anyway; because she needs to believe May’s words. God, she needs to believe such a reprieve is possible.

(Can she?)

Shifting, she stretches out her legs before crossing them underneath her once more. 

‘Jemma.’

Blinking sluggishly, Jemma looks across at May. The specialist’s gaze is ferocious in its intensity.

‘As long as I’ve got a job, you’ve got a job. You understand?’ 

In May’s eyes, Jemma can see the shadow of all the woman has been through, all of the hardships she has endured to bring her to this moment. She can see fierce protectiveness, and genuine care.

But most of all, she can see an unwavering promise.

So she nods.

Just once, just barely, but it’s enough for May.

‘Same here,’ Fitz adds then, his voice a little croaky from lack of use. When Jemma looks at him in question, he just shrugs and holds up his bad hand, as though that explains things.

‘Me too,’ Skye chips in, cutting off Jemma’s automatic protest. ‘Hey, if I can literally cause earthquakes and still get a promotion? You’ve got nothing to worry about.’

Jemma tries and fails to muster a smile, so Skye inches a little closer, her face suddenly serious.

‘Jemma. If you got canned for reacting to trauma like a normal person, there’d be, like, a mass walk-out. Trust me.’ 

‘You know that it’s not the… getting canned that worries me,’ Jemma begins. Because it isn’t. Maybe the Jemma Simmons of two years ago would have been more worried about losing her job, but that’s not what terrifies her now. It’s the thought of having to do this on her own again, curled up in a ball in the bathroom of some pristine apartment that was never hers, not really, with no one around to help ease the pain. It’s being alone, going through this without the people she loves. 

She barely got through it once. She isn’t sure she could do it again.

Skye seems to understand though, her eyes softening as she nods. 

‘We know.’

Jemma chews on her lip. ‘Well, hopefully Coulson continues feeling magnanimous, otherwise we’ll all be out of a job.’ 

Fitz huffs out a laugh; May just rolls her eyes. But it’s all very fond, and Jemma feels the corners of her mouth twitch a little.

‘So,’ Skye says definitively, as though that settles the matter. ‘Want to tell us which of these stars we can’t see in the Northern Hemisphere?’

The awed disbelief Jemma feels must be written across her face, because Skye only shrugs one shoulder in reply, all nonchalance. Her voice is gentle when she speaks again.

‘Different perspective, right?’

A smile splits Jemma’s face then, and it feels like it’s been dredged up from the very depths of her being.

‘Right,’ she confirms.

Her smile gentling, she looks first to Fitz, who’s watching her with pride and fondness glittering across his eyes in the low light. A quick glance at May confirms the woman is looking at her too, private smile tugging at her mouth. She looks back to Skye, who’s rotated now so that she’s on her back with her head in Jemma’s lap, and Jemma takes in the breathless excitement on her friend’s face.

A different perspective, she thinks. 

And then, as she so often does when she’s feeling lost and untethered, Jemma looks to the skies.

‘Well, for starters, there’s the Southern Cross…’

 

 

-

-

 

 

Eventually, the sea breeze off the water becomes more of a wind, biting into their faces just a little too much to be entirely comfortable, and so they collectively make the decision to retreat to the car and drive the last stretch. Jemma had been exhausted as Fitz and Skye corralled her into the backseat (giving her the middle so that they could firmly flank her on either side), but by the time she’s settled in between her friends, she’s feeling wide awake again.

Fitz and Skye, on the other hand, fall asleep within minutes.

Jemma can’t help but grin when she realises. It’d happened on the Bus more times than she can count, so it’s hardly an unfamiliar position in which she finds herself, but there had been a while there when she wasn’t sure whether she’d ever get to witness it again. Yet here she is, the two of them positively dead to the world on either side of her.

They still sleep as though the goal is to take up as much space as possible, which is oddly heartening to see. Skye has her head resting on a balled up jumper against the window, her legs thrown haphazardly across Jemma’s lap, whereas Fitz has slumped down in his seat, his head on Jemma’s shoulder. She can feel his breath feather across her collarbone with every exhalation.

It’s sort of perfect.

She’s become so completely transfixed by her slumbering friends, by how young they still look when their faces are slackened by sleep, and so she has no idea how much time has passed when May clears her throat. Blinking, she pulls her gaze away to train it on the woman driving the car.

‘You’re allowed to want things for yourself,’ May says. She turns to look at Jemma, their eyes meeting significantly before she concentrates on the road once more.

‘You just… you don’t have to feel guilty for enjoying yourself.’

Jemma bites her lip, at a loss for how to reply. May’s completely right, of course – she knows that’s what she’s been doing, has known for a while now, but she just hasn’t had a clue what to do in order to remedy it. Something in the way May says it though, stated so frankly in the darkness of the night, makes it feel achievable.

It makes recovery seem entirely within her reach. No, more than that – it makes it seem like a certainty.

And Jemma doesn’t know how she can ever quite repay her for her unwavering confidence.

Because how on earth can she adequately convey her gratitude?? It extends far beyond today; even when Jemma hadn’t wanted it, May had been looking out for her. Words fall short.

But that doesn’t mean she can’t try.

‘Thank you,’ she says softly, studying her hands on Skye’s shins; the way Fitz’s hand is mere centimetres from her own. She swallows, looks back up. ‘For… for staying.’

May meets her gaze in the rearview mirror, and her face, illuminated by the dim controls on the dash, becomes almost impossibly gentle.

‘Of course.’

Just like that. As though there was never any other option, not really.

For Melinda May, it seems, there truly wasn’t. 

It’s still another hour or so until they reach their destination, but Jemma stays awake the entire time – too much on her mind to sleep just yet, she suspects. Eventually, however, May makes a turn-off, driving through a cute little beach town before pulling into a parking lot and killing the engine. 

‘This is it,’ she says.

‘The whitest sand in the world?’ Jemma asks, voice light and lilting. May meets her eyes in the mirror again and they both smile, caught up in a moment of mutual fondness for Skye. Feeling lighthearted, Jemma turns her attention to her snoring friends.

‘Fitz,’ she breathes out, knowing he’ll wake instantly at her request – the memory of earlier weighing upon him still, even in his slumber. Sure enough, the sound of her voice causes him to stir.

‘Hmph?’

Lifting his head, he blinks sleepily at her as he forces his eyes to focus. Jemma can’t stop the smile that creeps across her face at the sight.

‘We’re here,’ she murmurs, giving in to the impulse to reach out and smooth down his hair. He gazes back at her, owlish and – oh, she realises with a pang – adoringly. That’s adoration. How had she truly never before recognised it as such? Curling her hand briefly around the back of his ear, she runs her hand down his cheek to his neck, watching as he leans into her touch. 

‘Ah. Where are we?’ he asks, his voice low and croaky with sleep.

‘Hyams beach,’ she tells him, indulging in a private little smile. ‘Whitest sand in the world, remember?’

He blinks. ‘Uh.’

Of course, it’s possible that he’s still asleep.

Giving him a moment to regain his bearings, Jemma pulls her gaze reluctantly away and turns to shake at Skye’s arm. 

‘Skye, we’re here.’

Skye groans, squeezing her eyes shut. ‘Not now.’

‘You are joking, right? This was your idea.’ 

‘Do I sound like I’m joking?’

‘‘S still dark, isn’t it?’ Fitz mumbles, drawing her attention once more. His eyes are a rather intriguing dark blue in this low light, and Jemma finds herself briefly distracted, her counter-argument dying on her lips.

‘Don’t you want to go see it though?’

He just blinks back, sleepy gaze softening at whatever he sees there.

‘It can wait until morning,’ May decides for them all, shimmying over to the passenger seat where there’s more legroom.

That’s that, apparently, because Skye readjusts her “pillow” before stilling once more, and Fitz’s eyes are fluttering shut again. Conceding defeat, Jemma hesitates only briefly before resting her head on Fitz’s shoulder, ten years of practice seeing that she finds the most comfortable position almost immediately. Seconds later, Fitz is resting his head on hers, and Jemma isn’t sure how she knows that he’s smiling, but he is. She’s certain. The thought brings a relaxed, sleepy grin to her own lips. 

She’s just dozing off when she feels Fitz lift his head again.

‘Jemma?’

Jemma turns to him. ‘Mm?’

He hesitates, eyes searching her face before certainty overtakes his features. ‘You’d be a healer. If… your Inhuman power. You’d be able to help everyone you wanted to.’

There’s a sudden lump in her throat, and Jemma’s spent enough of the day with tears on her cheeks but she finds herself blinking back a fresh batch regardless.

She loves him. 

It’s as simple and as stunningly complex as that.

‘Thank you,’ she whispers.

Still achingly serious, and holding her eye contact the entire time, Fitz raises a hand to brush a few loose tendrils of hair back behind her ear. Jemma thinks it’s entirely possible that she’s stopped breathing altogether. His fingers are shaking, just a little bit, but she realises that it’s got nothing to do with his brain injury. Her lips curl up into a gentle smile.

Then:

‘My money’s still on talking to animals.’ 

Fitz rolls his eyes, leaning forward to look at Skye. ‘Go to sleep, Skye.’

‘Trying to!’ she shoots back, all exaggerated grumpiness.

When Jemma Simmons falls asleep that night, sandwiched between people that she loves, there’s a faint smile still lingering at her lips.

 

 

-

-

 

 

They wake to the early morning sun blazing in through the windows – or, to be more specific, Skye’s incoherent groaning at the early morning sun blazing in through the windows. But as far as “cold light of day” goes, Jemma thinks, she really could do significantly worse.

Before she knows it, she’s up to her ankles in the whitest sand she has ever seen in her life, pulling her jumper tighter around her in the breeze as she marvels at her surrounds. With every gust of wind, tiny granules of sand are flicked into her exposed calves. A smile flirts at her lips at the foreign, gentle sensation, and she brushes flyaway strands of hair out of her eyes.

The others seem to be enjoying themselves just as much. As Jemma watches, Skye all but tackles Fitz to the ground, loudly cajoling him to create “sand angels” with her in the fine sand. May has braved the chill, rolling up her jeans and wading out into the clear blue ocean so that she can get a better picture of the sand. Spotting the other two in the sand, she smirks, aiming her phone at the ungainly pile of limbs instead.

That’s when Jemma feels the certainty wash over her. 

Because they’re okay. They’re still standing – figuratively, at least, since Fitz is still on the ground making reluctant snow angels, Skye laughing and diving on top of him now.

They’re still here. They’re still fighting.

They’re going to be just fine.

All of them.

And, for the first time since she woke up on the ocean floor, Jemma actually believes it.

 

 

-

-

 

 

They opt for driving straight through the next night – mostly to appease Jemma, May thinks, since the girl had been particularly worried about her panic attack putting them off-schedule. A whole lot of eye rolling had ensued from the rest of them at that, but they conceded pretty quickly.

Anything to put distance between the utterly defeated Jemma of yesterday and the bright-eyed girl of today, really.

May actually quite enjoys night driving, can’t remember a time when this hasn’t been true. Nowadays, it seems, it reminds her just enough of long nights on the Bus, when she’d sit at the controls alone with her thoughts and the relentless motion around her. It’s a bit different tonight, with Fitz riding shotgun to keep her company on the long drive.

Not just different, she decides, glancing across at her quiet companion.

Better.

She’s just thinking about the silhouettes cut by the gum trees against the starry sky, marvelling at the strange foreignness of them, when Fitz clears his throat.

‘Do you want me to drive?’

May blinks, glancing across at him. The light from the dashboard dials casts him in a surreal, semi-shadowed glow that seems to obscure his expression, making it hard for her to get a read on him. But when she raises an eyebrow at him in question, he only shrugs.

‘We can share the driving,’ he explains simply. ‘Not that – only if you want.’

It’s such an unassuming sentiment, such a Fitz thing, that May finds herself smiling.

‘Thank you, Fitz.’

Despite being pretty much the only ones on the road at this time of night, May goes to great pains to ease them into a stop at the side of the road, hoping the gradual deceleration won’t wake the sleeping adults in the back seat. It’s to no avail, however; the second the car is stationary, Jemma jerks upright, instantly alert.

‘Is everything alright?’ she asks, wide eyes flitting worriedly between Fitz and May. 

Skye stirs, scrubbing a hand over her face.

‘Mmph?’

‘Fitz is going to drive for a while.’

May misses the response to that, because she’s climbed out of the driver’s seat, stretching out her back before rounding the hood to the passenger side. Fitz is massaging his hand idly, checking something on the car’s tyre, but he straightens as she approaches and throws her a lopsided grin. Without even hesitating, she tosses him the keys and climbs back in.

Once she’s settled again, she notices that Jemma is beaming, a knowing glint in her gaze.

‘How come Fitz get to drive?’ Skye whines, rubbing at an eye with the heel of her palm. ‘This is bullshit. You guys have seen him play Mario Kart, right?’

Jemma makes a little tsk noise. ‘Fitz has always been a remarkably proficient driver.’

‘Thank you, Jemma.’

‘You’re very welcome, Fitz.’

‘Okay, okay, laugh it up. My time will come,’ Skye insists, but her threat is undermined by the huge yawn she releases. 

‘Shhh. Back to sleep now,’ Jemma says, voice sweet and condescending in that teasing way none of them have really heard for far too long now. May finds herself smiling at the sound; a quick look at Fitz confirms he’s doing the same as he reaches for the ignition. Even Skye isn’t able to keep her scowl in place.

‘Has anyone ever told you you’re a bit of a jerk?’

‘Aw. People love me, Skye.’ She sighs, as though put upon. ‘It’s not my fault I’m adored.’

‘You are so full of shit, Jemma Simmons.’

And then Fitz pulls the car back onto the road, and they’re out on the open road once more.

 

 

-

-

 

 

Fitz has missed driving.

To be fair, he misses it a lot less when Skye’s in the passenger seat, apparently having made it her sole mission today to torture him with her music choices.

But speaking generally, he’s missed this.

‘Oh!’ Jemma exclaims all of a sudden, drawing everyone’s attention. Looking around in alarm, she sinks back down in her seat. ‘Sorry, that was somewhat louder than I expected.’ 

‘What’s up?’ Skye asks.

‘Nothing, it’s alright.’ 

‘Jemma,’ May cautions, and Fitz glances into the mirror to see the older woman regarding Jemma sternly in the back seat. After ten or so seconds of silent conversation, Jemma’s shoulders slump a little in defeat.

‘It’s just…’

She bites her lip then, and Fitz has to force himself to tear his eyes away from the rearview mirror. He’s kind of on the fence himself about whether Jemma’s face is worth wrecking a car over – mostly because he already knows his answer, and it’s a little terrifying and a lot pathetic and he’d rather not admit it out loud – but he figures it’s probably a decision in which everyone in the car should have a say.

‘Just…?’ Skye prompts.

Jemma hesitates a moment longer, before finally relenting. ‘There’s a telescope – and it’s out in the middle of nowhere, so I understand entirely if you’d prefer we just stayed with the coastal route – ’

‘ – Tell us about the telescope,’ Skye butts in, cutting her off before she talks herself out of it. Fitz is glad for it. 

Then, his brain catches up.

‘Wait. You don’t mean the Parkes observatory?’

Jemma beams at him, proud. ‘The very one and the same.’

He grins stupidly at her in the mirror. 

‘Okayyy, you guys want to stop making eyes at each other and tell us what this telescope is?’

‘It’s a radio telescope in the Australian outback,’ Jemma begins, her excitement audible.

‘Yeah, yeah they used it in the original lunar landing – ’

‘ – seeing as the satellites in the United States didn’t adequately cover the angles – ’

‘ – the angles required to guide the spacecraft to the moon. Simple maths, really.’

‘Yes, the landing would have been impossible without it, I should think.’

Everyone’s quiet in the wake of that. Out of the corner of his eye, Fitz can see Skye smirking at him. He refuses to meet her eyes.

‘Seems to me you’ve already made the decision,’ May says eventually. 

Jemma protests. ‘Well, I just… I wanted to be sure that everyone… that – ’

‘Jemma!’ Skye yells. ‘We’re in, it’s fine.’

‘Well,’ she says, and Fitz isn’t even looking but he can practically hear her fidgeting. ‘Alright then.’

When Fitz glances in the mirror again, it’s to find that her face is relaxed and pleased. His relief is palpable.

Then Skye’s shaking her head in disbelief, a fond smile on her face as she stares out the window. ‘Swear to God, if you’d told me three years ago that I’d be ditching Sydney to go see a giant telescope…’

‘I thought we agreed on no big cities,’ Jemma points out.

‘And look how well that’s worked out so far,’ May remarks dryly.

 

 

-

-

 

 

Fitz has been gone for around ten minutes when Jemma decides to leave May and Skye, who are still browsing through the exhibit section of the observatory, in order to find out where he’s disappeared to. It doesn’t take much effort on her part; he’s just out the back, by himself, clearly deep in thought as he frowns at the base of the satellite dish. One foot is poking at the wall, both of his hands resting on his waist, and Jemma feels a flood of warmth wash over her.

She doesn’t know that she’ll ever tire of watching his brilliant mind at work. 

You’re allowed to want things for yourself.

Jemma wants. God, how she wants.

But can it honestly be that simple?

As though he can sense her presence (which is a ludicrous notion, she reminds herself, even distracted as she is by the sight before her), he looks across to where she’s standing. His entire face seems to light up, like her sudden appearance in this dusty, secluded facility in the middle of nowhere is truly the greatest thing that could happen to him.

The simple reality is that Jemma’s pretty certain that it is.

It’s the very same feeling that overcame her when she stepped out of the exhibit and spotted him there, just being Fitz. 

Just being her Fitz.

And that, more than anything, gives her the confidence to do what she does next.

‘You should see the electronics on – Jemma?’

She doesn’t stop to explain.

She doesn’t stop to let herself overthink it. 

She simply walks right up to him, places a hand on the back of his neck, and pulls his mouth down to meet hers. 

His lips are unmoving beneath hers at first – it seems that she managed to catch him completely off-guard – and his hands hover over her waist for a moment before he finally, finally, seems to trust that this is real, this is happening, because his hands glide around her back and up between her shoulder blades, pushing just slightly to bring her closer. Jemma finds herself grinning against his lips at the sensation, at the heady knowledge that this is Fitz, but then he parts her lips with his own and suddenly she’s gasping into his mouth, fingers tightening in his hair instinctively. 

It’s messy, and it’s inelegant, and he clacks his teeth against hers on three separate occasions, mumbling an apology each and every time. But it’s Fitz, and he smells like home and he feels like imperfection and perfection and her body might just be alight with it.

So yes, it’s messy and yes, it’s inelegant.

But so are they.

They pull away eventually, both of them gasping for air, but she doesn’t let him move far; leaning back in, Jemma succumbs to the urge to rest her forehead on his, her mouth pulling into a smile despite the panting. The expression he levels on her then, all awe and disbelief and admiration and want, makes her stomach lurch pleasantly. Still, she finds the utter blue of his eyes entirely too distracting for a moment, so she casts her eyes down towards his chest, where her hands are smoothing over the fabric of his shirt, as she tries to catch up to her riotous thoughts.

It’s a little difficult, really, when said riotous thoughts all scream variations of Fitz and more.

Jemma swallows, shifting a little closer to him.

‘We’ve… got a lot to talk about,’ she begins, forcing her voice to remain level despite the raggedness to her breathing. At her words, Fitz’s eyes grow wider still, and he tries to extricate himself clumsily from her arms. 

‘Ah – yes. Yeah – no, you’re right.’

Frantic, she grips onto his shirt to stop his retreat. 

‘No, Fitz – wait. Let me finish.’

He’s adorably confused – not that she can blame him – but more than that, he’s adorably rumpled, and Jemma is suddenly struck by the reality of this in a surreal, depersonalised sort of flash.

She did this to him. She’s the one who made him all ruffled and awestruck. She’s the one who made him blink at her like that, like she’s the only aspect of the outside world upon which he could possibly focus in this moment.

Like she’s the only thing he wants to study.

She – God – made his lips look like that.

Gaze fixated determinedly on his kiss-swollen lips, she hastens to explain.

‘As I was saying, we’ve got a lot to talk about, and there’s a lot we need to sort through – ’

‘ – I know Jemma, it’s okay – ’

‘ – but I really just want to kiss you again,’ she finishes in one breathy rush. The expression on his face is indecipherable now, a sort of mix between dumbfounded and confused, and Jemma’s suddenly overcome by a wave of doubt.

She winces.

‘If that’s alright with you?’

His mouth parts in disbelief. ‘If that’s…? Jemma.’

‘What?’ she asks, a little irked at his tone – because really, Fitz, she’s just trying to communicate better since they’ve been so unerringly horrific at it up until now – but then he captures her mouth with his own again, instantly moving to deepen the kiss, and his disbelief begins to make a bit more sense.

Oh.

She’s sighing into his mouth once more, already stuttering and embarrassingly into this, when he pulls back again.

‘Are you sure this is alright?’ he breathes, and it’s a good intention and he’s certainly very earnest but his eyes are darkened, apparently as enthralled by her lips as she had been by his before. Slowly, deliberately, she darts her tongue out to wet them.

He makes a strangled sound.

‘Fitz.’

It’s a command if ever she’s heard one and he immediately heeds it, coming back right in where she wants him, except she wants more now, doesn’t she? Unwilling to part from him again, she continues working his mouth as she backs him up, pushing him up against the base of the satellite dish with a final, not-particularly-graceful shove. His eyes snap open, and he breaks away to watch dazedly as she presses herself more fully up against him, her hands creeping up to thread through his hair again.

‘Is this okay?’ she asks, going for sweet but hitting husky instead. Judging by the way his eyes slam shut, Fitz doesn’t seem to mind the difference too much. 

He curses under his breath then, and Jemma barely has time to register how the expletive in that thickened brogue makes her feel like she’s outside of herself before he’s kissing her again, more fervently and with much less control than before. She tilts her head, leaning into it a bit more and then he does this thing with his tongue which God, Fitz, where on earth did you learn that? She’d almost be scandalised, actually, if she weren’t so utterly delighted by it.

She’s just pulled back to press kisses along his jawline, her teeth scraping against the stubble on his neck and fuck, the sounds he’s making – that Fitz, Fitz, is making – have her wanting to –

‘Hey! What the hell do you think you kids are doing?’

Fitz startles so violently that he hits his head on the structure behind him. Gasping, pushing her messed hair back from her face, Jemma turns around to find a middle-aged employee standing a few feet away, arms folded and expression thunderous.

Uh oh.

‘Oh! Sorry, uh, sir,’ she calls out, trying to discreetly check on Fitz. He’s still rubbing his head, cheeks rapidly turning pink. She can feel her own cheeks flushing too, the delicious haziness in her mind slowly dissipating. 

Honestly, look at them. What a pair. 

The man is still watching them, radiating impatience and fury, and does he want an explanation? An apology? Jemma’s a little lost.

(Also a little kiss-addled, but nobody needs to know that right now.)

‘He had something, um. Stuck.’ She cringes. ‘In his teeth. So I was just checking it for him! That’s… what I was doing...’

Next to her, Fitz starts laughing, trying hurriedly to hide it with a cough.

With your tongue? God, Jemma. Get it together.

But she has to bite her own lip to keep from laughing.

‘It won’t happen again, sir,’ she insists, fighting to appear contrite. The man remains unimpressed, his frown only deepening when Fitz’s “coughing” fit grows more violent.

‘You better believe it won’t. I’m calling security.’

Shit.

She looks at Fitz in alarm. He sobers up pretty quick smart at that. 

‘That won’t be necessary,’ Fitz says, nodding a little too emphatically. ‘We’re, ah. Happy to leave.’

‘Right then. I’ll escort you out.’

‘Sure,’ Jemma replies weakly, falling into step behind the man. Then Fitz is at her side, his hand slipping into hers with a confidence that makes her stomach clench again.

Wow.

‘Bloody unbelievable,’ the guy’s muttering, shooting them a disgusted look every few steps. ‘On a national icon, fair dinkum.’

‘Thanks so much for all your help back there,’ she hisses under her breath at Fitz, keeping her eyes trained carefully ahead.

‘Well excuse me for not exactly expecting you to pounce on me outside a bloody telescope.’ 

He doesn’t sound at all upset about it, swinging their joined hands between them. Truthfully, she isn’t either.

‘And besides, I thought you were some sort of lying expert now.’

‘What on earth would lead you to believe that?

‘Uh, you?’

She raises her eyebrows at that, conceding the point.

Fitz hesitates then, fingers tightening around hers before he hazards a glance at her.

‘This is still alright, isn’t it?’

Tugging on his hand, Jemma brings him as close as she dares with Mr. Cockblock in the vicinity.

‘Of course,’ she promises, her eyes not leaving his.

(His responding expression is one that she suspects she’ll take with her to her grave.) 

‘Here you are,’ the man says gruffly then, giving them the stink eye and directing them out into the parking lot. Jemma makes sure to beam at him, all exaggerated politeness.

‘Thank you for all of your help, sir, and again, we’re very sorry.’

She pulls Fitz away before his sniggering pisses the man off any further, biting back her own giggles, and they’re giddy and they’re sort of half-jogging, half-skipping and honestly, it feels like they’re teenagers again.

How have they not been doing this since they were teenagers?

There aren’t all that many cars in the lot (which is a good thing, Jemma reasons – a lower probability of any kids having seen their little, um. Display, shall we say, out the back) but it’s only when they reach their car that Jemma realises their problem. She drops his hand.

‘Oh.’ 

‘What?’

‘May’s still got the keys.’

‘Huh,’ he says, walking towards her. Jemma would probably be more inclined to notice the way he’s backing her up if she weren’t so distracted by the way he’s looking at her.

(It’s absolutely thrilling.) 

‘Do you think they’re almost done?’ she asks, almost embarrassed at how breathless she sounds.

‘I hope not,’ he mumbles, and Jemma only just has time to notice the steady press of the car at her back before he’s slanting his mouth over hers again. She hums against his lips, pleased at the shudder that runs through him at the vibration.

She could get used to this.

‘Mmm, watch out, incoming,’ she mumbles eventually, noticing May and Skye headed their way. She shoves at his shoulder a couple of times.

May’s already smirking when she approaches, making her way around to the driver’s side without a word. Skye, however, strides straight up to Fitz and promptly punches him in the shoulder.

Ow! What the hell was that for?’

‘That’s for making us drive to the ass end of nowhere to seduce someone.’

Fitz opens his mouth to argue, but Jemma jumps to his defence first.

‘Why would you automatically assume that it was Fitz’s plan, hmm?’

A split second of shocked silence follows, and then:

‘Jemma Simmons!’ Skye crows, eyes alight. Even Fitz has turned to gape at her, slack-jawed and – oh. Oh, he’s into that.

Oh. 

So Jemma simply smiles back, all indulgence and cheekiness, before turning to climb into the backseat of the car.

‘Don’t hate the player, Skye.’ 

‘Jemma Simmons!’

 

 

-

-

 

 

For the entire drive back to the coastal route, Fitz’s fingers remain laced through hers, their hands fitting together much better than they have any right to. 

Yes, Jemma thinks, smiling up at his adoring face once more. I could definitely get used to this.

 

 

-

-

 

 

Skye is a genius.

Like, she doesn’t say this lightly. Two out of her three travel companions are certified geniuses, and the jury’s still out on the third one (but honestly, at this point, it wouldn’t surprise Skye in the least). So she knows geniuses.

Still. She can safely say that she’s a genius here.

Sitting back on her heels, she observes her handiwork with a pleased grin. She just barely found time to buy souvenirs in Parkes before they were escorted out, but she managed to get a tee with a dumb I went to the Parkes observatory and all I got was this t-shirt slogan plastered across the front. 

And then she went and crossed out this t-shirt, writing a super hot girlfriend in Sharpie instead.

Impersonal souvenirs are overrated, anyway. 

Jemma’s still finishing up in the bathroom, leaving Fitz to mess around with some gadget he managed to stuff in his bag before they left, so Skye figures now’s as good a time as any for her to bestow her “congrats on the future sex!” gift upon him.

‘Hey,’ she calls across the room. ‘You guys got kicked out of the telescope before you could get souvenirs, right?’

Setting the gadget down with a clatter, Fitz turns to regard her warily.

‘Yeah, why?’

‘Just, um, remind me why you got kicked out again?’ Skye asks, feigned confusion on her face as she points at her ear. When his cheeks begin to redden, she starts to laugh.

‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. Very funny.’

‘It is very funny, Leopold, you are correct. But that’s so not my point here. My point – ’

‘ – there’s a point to this?’ he grumbles, flopping facedown onto his bed.

‘My point,’ she repeats louder, ‘is that I’ve totally got you covered.’ 

Fitz lifts his head at that, narrowing his eyes slightly in suspicion.

(He’s not wrong.)

Smirking, Skye balls up the t-shirt in front of her and aims it at his head. 

‘Think fast!’

Fitz really doesn’t think fast in the slightest, letting the t-shirt hit him square in the face. He starts grumbling almost immediately, but Skye watches as he reads the shirt, falling silent.

Then he looks up at her in wide-eyed horror.

‘I can’t wear this!’ he hisses. 

‘What are you talking about? Of course you can.’

‘I can’t!’

‘Oh c’mon!’ she whines, flouncing over and jumping up next to him on his bed. ‘You have to at least try it on.’

‘No.’ 

‘It’s a present, don’t be rude.’

‘No, I’m – Jemma would kill me.’

Skye pulls a face. ‘I’m, like, 98% sure that’s not true. It calls her hot, see? Right there.’ 

‘Who’s hot?’ comes Jemma’s voice, causing Fitz to startle violently. Skye rolls her eyes. Moments later, the woman herself enters the room, still towelling at her hair.

Skye raises an eyebrow. ‘You.’

‘Mmm, thank you, Skye.’

‘You’re welcome.’

Fitz makes a weird coughing sound, burying his face in the bed covers. If Skye has to guess, she’d say it’s about 30% because of the tee, 70% because of the woman clad only in a bathrobe, wandering through the room obliviously. 

‘Fitz?’ Jemma asks, concern in her voice. ‘What’s wrong?’

He lifts his head, trying pretty obviously to look at her without looking at her, and Skye changes that previous figure to 80%. At least. 

‘Fitz doesn’t want to wear the shirt I got him,’ she tattles, shooting him a wicked grin.

Jemma tilts her head, curiosity piqued, and crosses the room to sit next to him. ‘Why not?’

Fitz seems a little shell-shocked at her sudden proximity – or maybe it’s the wave of scented shampoo that’s suddenly assaulting them. Hard to tell. At any rate, he just kind of half-squints at her helplessly.

(Skye’s glad the two of them seem to be working things out; she’s pretty convinced that if they were left to their own devices, they’d avoid this stuff literally forever.)

‘That’s – I don’t, just – not in public?’ he tries, scrubbing at his face with a hand in frustration. Skye makes an exaggerated sad face, patting him on the shoulder in comfort. He swats at her.

‘Can I see the shirt?’ 

Grimacing, he hands it over to her. Jemma spreads it out, reading the message before regarding Fitz very carefully.

‘Are you ashamed?’ she asks, and her voice is all gentle teasing but there’s a tiny trace of hurt underneath. Fitz almost injures himself with how quickly he jumps to counter that.

‘No!’ he yells. Smooth. ‘I mean… no. It’s just that, I didn’t… get you. Acquire you, or whatever.’ 

The tips of his ears have gone red, and holy shit, Skye thinks. He’s actually bumbling his way through a super sweet sentiment.

Way to go, Leopold. 

‘And there’s no “all I got” about it,’ he mumbles, eyes cast downward.

Jemma’s lips are parted in shock, the corners of them tugging upwards into a smile. Leaning down, she presses a lingering kiss to his cheek. When she pulls back, they just stare at each other for the longest time, grinning stupidly.

Jesus Christ.

‘You don’t have to wear it in public,’ Jemma agrees finally, standing up from the bed. Fitz watches her go, his eyes shining. She pauses at the door.

‘In bed, however…’ she suggests coyly, before walking out of the room.

Fitz chokes on air.

 

 

-

-

 

 

Eventually, they get far enough North that the weather starts to heat up (‘Ugh, finally,’ Skye announces, shedding her sweater alarmingly fast), and before too long, Skye’s demanding that they stop at the next town, for “supplies.” 

Whatever that means.

Of course, the towns are starting to get more and more sparse, so after an hour or so with no likely candidates, May simply pulls in at a gas station, figuring they’ll have to make do. She’s just finished up in the bathroom and is searching for them in the store section when she hears their semi-hushed conversation one aisle over.

‘… but they make my face look weird.’

‘Oh my God, Fitz. Just put them on and shut up.’

‘Alright, alright,’ he grumbles under his breath. ‘No need to get rude about it.’

‘You don’t suppose she’ll think we’re making fun of her?’ Jemma’s worried voice asks.

‘Jemma. It’s fine. Seriously, it’ll be hilarious.’

‘But are you positive that she won’t be – ’

Rolling her eyes, May decides to make her presence known. 

Yes I’m positive, alright? Now – wait – oh shh, shut up, she’s coming!’

The sight that meets her as she rounds the shelving is truly ridiculous. All three of them are wearing aviator sunglasses, white price tags sticking out the sides at awkward angles. Fitz and Skye are doing a relatively good job at keeping a straight face, but Jemma’s doing horribly; the corners of her mouth are creeping upwards, despite the girl’s obvious attempts at keeping them downturned.

May’s not quick enough to keep the smile from spreading across her face.

‘Get in the car,’ she grouses out, turning away. She can hear the sound of high fives behind her, followed quickly by the shedding of glasses, and she manages a sigh.

(The smile on her face shows no sign of leaving, though.)

 

 

-

-

 

 

Back at the car, Skye comes bounding up to her. ‘Can I drive?’ 

‘No,’ May says simply, tossing the keys instead to Jemma. Caught off-guard, the biochemist fumbles briefly but still manages the catch, turning to beam at Skye.

Skye only gapes.

‘Are you kidding me?’

 

 

-

-

 

 

‘Hey, Bob! You got a message!’ Lance calls out across the exercise room, waving her phone in the air. She’s in the middle of her last rep, Mack helping her, so Bobbi just grits her teeth.

‘Can you check it for me?’

Glancing at her once more for confirmation – this sort of openness is new territory for them both, so they’ve been navigating it with caution – Lance keys in her code, smiling almost instantly.

‘Oh, hey. It’s from our runaways.’ Then, his face morphs into one of offence. ‘Oh, what? Bloody hell.’

‘Bring it over,’ she instructs, sitting upright and backhanding the sweat dripping into her eyes. When she gets the phone, she can see why he was smiling.

Skye’s sent her a photo of the four of them in front of a massive sculpture of a banana – the banana itself helpfully labelled “The Big Banana.” They must have found someone else to take the photo, since Skye’s managed to time a jump so that she was in mid-air when the picture was taken, her arms outstretched. Fitz’s knees are bent, and he looks like he was about to jump too before he got distracted. Said distraction is clearly one Jemma Simmons, who is kissing him on the cheek.

May stands off to the side, holding up a bunch of bananas and regarding the others with a smile that’s amused and undeniably fond. 

Bobbi huffs out a relieved laugh. It’s just such a far cry from the tight, drawn faces that have haunted the halls of the Playground for the past year, and the heavy darkness that has sat behind everyone’s gaze for so long seems to have dissipated.

Thank God. 

There’s a message too, and she quickly thumbs down the screen to read it.

--

bobbi!! we’re at the big banana!! the picture doesn’t do it justice bc it’s really v big. like, so big. biggest banana i’ve ever seen for sure. (jemma made me promise not to make a joke about lance’s banana so just imagine i made one here) anyway CONSIDER THIS PROOF OF LIFE. hope everyone’s cool & ur kicking PT’s butt!! lots of love xx

ps. the bunch of bananas is for scale. jemma’s idea obvs.

--

Mack is reading over her shoulder, and when she looks up at his face, it’s to find that his features are uncharacteristically softened.

‘They’ve earned it,’ he says, voice low.

That they have, Bobbi thinks. That they have.

Leveraging herself into a standing position, she makes a grabbing gesture. ‘Hey Hunter, pass me my crutches, will you?’ 

He tries to frown, but there’s amusement playing at his lips. It seems the message has put them all in a better mood.

‘Where are you off to in a hurry?’ he asks, handing her the crutches.

She grins, slipping the phone into her back pocket before grabbing for them.

‘I’m going to go show Coulson.’

Lance snorts, walking at her periphery as she hobbles to the door. ‘Sure you don’t want to print and frame a copy first? Cut out the middleman?’

Bobbi stops in her tracks.

Not actually a bad idea.

 

 

-

-

 

 

It’s the sunlight, May thinks. When she remembers it later, she’ll recall the way the sunlight glinted across the windscreen, highlighting all of the smudges and imperfections and casting all four of them in a faint, healthy glow.

Just like late afternoons on the Bus.

She takes a moment to observe the car’s other occupants, wrapped up in their own thoughts as they are. Skye’s staring out the window into the sunny pre-twilight, her bare feet up on the dash, and the image of the girl in denim cut-offs, her hair pulled back in the sort of loose braid that May hasn’t seen in a very long time, ultimately decides her.

A quick glance in the rearview mirror confirms that Fitz and Jemma are still simply sitting side-by-side in the backseat, doing very little aside from staring at each other. She’s pretty sure they won’t mind the intrusion.

So May looks down at the steering wheel and flicks the auto switch to open all the windows.

Given the speed at which they’re travelling, the car is instantly filled with a nearly deafening roar, startling everyone out of their reverie.

‘What the…?’ Fitz questions, confused, but soon enough May can hear the chiming sound of Jemma’s laughter over the wind, and she knows that Jemma, at least, gets it. 

Skye brings her legs back down and folds them underneath herself, turning to May with wide eyes and a questioning expression. For the longest moment, the two of them simply hold each other’s eye contact, and May knows that Skye can see it all – the afternoons spent up in the air, slicing through the clouds with the sun peeking through, and feeling as though they’re on top of the world. That they can’t be touched.

She can see the freedom, May knows.

A smile slowly makes its way onto Skye’s face.

‘May, your hair!’ Jemma laughs then, drawing attention to the way her hair is flying all about her face. May’s wicked grin only grows wider in response, and she shakes her head rapidly, stray tendrils becoming swept up in the wind and whipping around her face even more. 

Jemma’s laughing in utter delight, Fitz grinning away next to her, and then suddenly Skye’s sticks her head out the window, whooping loudly. May can only look on in wonder as this girl – this endlessly strong woman who searched so long and hard for her family, only to lose them again – leans out into the wind, closing her eyes from sheer happiness.

She’s outside of herself with it.

Someone in the backseat claps excitedly, and then Jemma’s letting out little whoops as well, Fitz laughing along now. May shakes her head, turning to face the open road once more.

And so they drive, the roaring wind competing with the rushing blood in their ears, and their giddy, hyped up laughter seems to mingle in perfectly with the cacophony surrounding them.

(May’s cheeks hurt from smiling.)

 

 

-

-

 

 

The biggest difference between the Bus and this road trip – aside from the obvious – is the fact that if this were her plane, May would simply be able to switch it to auto for a while and move about as she wishes. Here she can switch out the driving, of course, and she’s certainly been taking advantage of that option, but she’s still spending their travel days confined to a seat.

Which is why she’s in desperate need of a work out.

They’d stopped at a cheap motel the night before – one that’s nice enough for the price, sure, but chosen solely for its proximity to the beach. May had made highly unchangeable plans to rise with the sun and go down to the beach for Tai Chi. She was looking forward to it, even foregoing staying up late with the others and actually getting some decent sleep in anticipation of it.

So when she emerges from her bedroom a little after five the next morning, she’s completely unprepared for what meets her in the communal area. 

Or, more accurately, for who meets her.

All three of them are up already, dressed in loose workout gear and clearly waiting for her. Skye is bouncing on her toes, looking ready for some physical exertion; Fitz is sitting at the table, his face pillowed on his arms, and May’s not entirely convinced he’s conscious.

Seems about right.

Jemma’s waiting at the bench with two steaming mugs of tea and when she spots May, she greets her with a bright smile and a small wave. She hands a still-stunned May one of the mugs before turning to prod at Fitz. 

‘Fitz, wake up.’

‘‘M up.’

Fitz.’

‘Yeah.’

May has to smile at the quiet familiarity of it, taking a long sip from her tea.

The sun hasn’t quite peeked over the horizon when they make their way down to the beach, but the sky is alight with the promise that it’s soon to come, all oranges and pinks and purples as far as the eye can see. It’s early enough that the beach is mostly deserted, with only a few surfers and the odd dog-walker keeping them company. 

It’s perfect.

Feeling contentment wash over her, May finds a nice spot facing the water, takes a deep breath in, and begins.

There’s a relief in it, more than anything – in returning to this unconscious knowledge deep within her, tapping into that. Better yet, however, is the knowledge that she isn’t alone on this morning. Every so often, she rotates just enough to catch a glimpse of her companions, who are mimicking her motions from behind her. Skye looks the most comfortable, well-used to going through the motions by this point, and Jemma had trained with May before going to Hydra – just enough – so she’s got a fairly good grasp of the basics as well. Fitz, on the other hand, looks incredibly ungainly, unused to moving his body in this way. Even so, he’s concentrating hard, following everyone else’s lead, and by the end of the session he doesn’t look half-bad.

It makes May’s heart feel lighter than she can fathom.

By the time they finish up, the sun is high enough in the sky that it’s illuminating the water in a brilliant golden colour, making the ocean look enticing in a way it hasn’t for most of the trip so far. Maybe that’s what’s responsible for what happens next, or maybe they pre-planned for it. Whatever the cause, suddenly the other three are stripping down to their bathing suits (Fitz much more reluctantly, and then with a furious blush as Jemma helps him out of his shirt) and sprinting madly down to the water, sand flicking up in their wake.

Holding her breath, May watches as Jemma comes to a dead halt at the water’s edge, letting the water lap at her ankles as the other two barrel straight past her. They instantly stiffen, Skye letting out a stream of expletives at the temperature of the water, but May’s pretty sure that’s not the reason Jemma stopped.

(Actually, May has a sneaking suspicion that the ocean was part of what set Jemma off the other day, without her even noticing it.)

But either Fitz and Skye have noticed it too or they’d guessed this would happen, because Skye starts splashing at Fitz, cajoling Jemma out into the water. While the girl doesn’t actually move right away, May can observe her body language pretty well from behind. She knows how the girl looks when she’s worried, knows that she wears all her anxiety and stress physically.

Right now? She barely looks tense at all.

Fitz and Skye start backing away into the surf, and something about the challenge inherent in that must spark a flame within the biochemist.

She straightens her shoulders.

Her fingers flex at her sides.

And then, with barely a pause for second-guessing, she moves. She ventures out after them, step by assured step, drawn as if by magnetism to Fitz’s proud smile and soundtracked by Skye’s loud whooping, and May isn’t sure when the smile crept onto her own face but she knows she wouldn’t be able to budge it if she tried.

Well. How about that?

‘They’re brave, hey?’ 

May very nearly startles, unprepared as she is for the interruption, and looks towards its source – a middle-aged woman in denim cut-offs, out walking her dog.

‘Sorry?’

The woman gestures at the other three with her chin. ‘Those three, going for a swim without wetsuits. Chilliest morning all year, I reckon. They’re bloody daring.’

May looks back out to where they’re messing about in the water; Jemma has jumped onto Fitz’s back now, squeaking about how cold it is, and Skye is tugging on his arm as the two girls gang up to overpower him. They’re very vocal about it, but it’s mostly laughter that’s floating on the breeze over to where May stands.

Bloody daring seems about right, really – just probably not for the reasons this woman thinks.

But that’s just the thing, isn’t it? A passerby wouldn’t have any clue of what these kids have been through, probably wouldn’t even believe May if she told them. She thinks of their pale, worried faces back at the Playground and looks at them now, cackling and splashing each other and unable to wipe the wild, giddy grins off their faces, and a warmth fills her chest that has nothing to do with the early morning sun.

May smiles back politely, but when she speaks, it’s completely genuine.

‘They’re something.’ 

Skye calls out to her then, waving her into the water as the others laugh along. May rolls her eyes.

Nothing for it, really. 

She strips down to her own bathing suit, ignoring the cheering sounds coming from the ocean. And when she makes her way out into the surf, fighting her way through the icy cold waves, she’s met by three toothy, chattering grins.

 

 

-

-

 

 

(The thing is, May had honestly thought the Tai Chi was a one-off. A very nice one-off, of course, and one that had filled her chest with an inexplicable lightness for the remainder of the day, but a one-off nonetheless.

And then, she leaves her bedroom the next morning to find her three sleepy travel companions waiting for her.

As she does the next day.

And the next.

And the next.

Every time, May doesn’t even bother to stifle her smile. And every time, May leads the way down to the beach.

Every single time.)

 

 

-

-

 

 

They end up on the beach one night, fish and chips and beers shared between them, and it seems that things dissolve into a loose game of Truth in no time at all.

Staring into the embers of the fire (that Jemma and Fitz had spent ten whole minutes arguing over earlier), May allows their drunken babbling to surround her, wrapping around her heart in a comforting way that she’s sure to revisit on her worse days. It’s the sort of easy-flowing conversation that had stubbornly evaded them at the start of the trip, and on this night, with the sky so clear and the salty sea air so crisp, it feels nothing short of a miracle.

(Of course, May knows better; she knows that it was all stubbornness that got them here, all hard work and perseverance and an inability to let each other go. But right now, she thinks that perhaps that, too, is pretty damn miraculous.)

‘Alright, May’s turn,’ Skye declares, having finished the unsurprisingly terrifying story of her worst first date. She puts on an exaggerated announcer’s voice, using her beer bottle as a microphone.

‘Melinda May: truth? … Or dare?’

May raises an eyebrow at the girl’s antics, getting a crooked grin in return.

‘Truth,’ she replies easily.

Skye sits back, her face serious as she thinks it over.

‘Say something completely honest,’ she decides. ‘Something you know to be true.’

It’s a good question, May thinks, taking a swig from her beer. Because the truth is not a constant; she knows this better than most. Her life with Andrew had been full of truths, many she’d believed unshakable before time had proven her wrong. These kids have had to confront this concept in the harshest way possible this past year, and so she knows that they get it.

There is one thing that particularly stands out in her mind, though – it’s been toying at her for days now – and May knows that this is it.

This is her truth.

‘I never thought I’d feel this light again,’ she murmurs.

They’re silent for so long, just gazing back at her with wide eyes and soft smiles, and she can see it all written there – the gratitude that she finds herself engulfed by, day after day, on this trip. It’s endless appreciation of the fact that the better days for which they’d longed have finally arrived, and they hadn’t even seen them coming.

It’s all-encompassing.

‘Your turn, Fitz,’ she says eventually.

But Fitz only shrugs, still watching her. ‘What other truth is there?’

Something bright seems to bloom in her chest, enveloping her in its warmth.

What other truth, indeed.

Then Jemma sits up abruptly, swaying just the tiniest bit with the motion and pointing a triumphant finger at Fitz’s face. ‘Hold on. So that means you’re choosing dare?’

Fitz’s eyes widen comically.

‘Oh, God. I take it back.’

‘Uh-uh,’ Skye sing-songs, ‘No take-backs, Leopold.’

‘I don’t think that’s in the rules.’

‘Bullshit. It totally is.’

‘Oh cheer up, Fitz!’ Jemma enthuses, prodding at his bicep. ‘It’ll be fun.’

As Fitz puts on a big show about being a grump, all the while unable to wipe the dopey smile off his face, May settles back on the sand a little more comfortably.

She figures she’ll intervene if they decide to go drunk-swimming.

 

 

-

-

 

 

They’ve barely been driving for an hour when the idea strikes May, breaking through her meandering thoughts, and she’s pulling the car over to the shoulder before she can second-guess herself. 

Breaking her gaze away from the passing landscape, Skye turns to look at May in question.

‘Why are we stopped?’

May meets Skye’s eyes very deliberately by way of reply. She seems confused at first, but then recognition sparks and a wild smile spreads across her face.

‘Oh no,’ Fitz whispers from the back seat, horror lining his voice.

May ignores him. ‘Don’t make me regret this,’ she warns Skye. 

‘You won’t.’

Jemma is glancing between the two women and Fitz, still lost. ‘Wait, what’s happening here?’

‘My destiny,’ Skye breathes reverently, jumping out the passenger side door and hurrying around the hood. Sighing, May closes her eyes for a moment before turning around to face the other two.

‘Just for a little while,’ she says, probably the closest she’ll come to an apology.

Comprehension dawns on Jemma’s face, her lips parting ever so slightly in worry.

‘Oh dear,’ she murmurs.

Then Skye’s opening the door, and May’s relinquishing her seat. She climbs back in the car just in time to see Skye fully rotate in her seat, grinning uncontrollably at the others.

‘You kids ready to party?’

‘Dear God,’ Fitz pleads. 

‘Skye, actually,’ she corrects, shit-eating grin firmly in place. She turns the keys in the ignition. ‘But I’m flexible on the name thing.’

Then she stomps down on the accelerator. Hard.

There’s a collective gasp from the backseat.

‘See? Told you. I’m amazing.’ 

Jemma only hums, looking distantly worried.

Despite Skye’s complete inexperience with driving on the left-hand side of the road (to say nothing of a car that’s a right-hand drive), she really picks up on it with a rapidity that May finds impressive. The whole thing is utterly without incident, and even Jemma eventually relaxes enough to sit back in her seat.

Until they get stuck behind a slow-moving truck.

They sit through about ten minutes of Skye bouncing impatiently in her seat, everyone silently willing the truck to either exit or pull over, before Skye finally gives in.

‘Yeahhh, I’m going to pass him.’

‘I don’t think that’s strictly necessary, actually,’ Jemma replies immediately.

‘What she said,’ Fitz adds.

‘Wow,’ Skye says, eyebrows raised. ‘Thanks for the faith, you guys.’

‘Oh, you know that’s not what we – ’

‘ – it’s nothing personal, you’re just – ’

‘ – lack of familiarity with the – ’

But Skye’s not listening to their rapidly babbled apologies; as May watches, her fingers flex around the steering wheel, and then she turns to look at May. 

‘What do you think?’

May just shrugs, all nonchalance as she turns to look out the windshield.

‘You’re the one driving the bus.’

There’s a split second where Skye’s eyes widen, and May knows that she’s processing the implications of that. But then a grin crosses her face, positively wicked, and before anyone can protest any further she’s pulling out to overtake on the wrong side of the road.

‘No, no, no, no! Skye!

(And no matter what happens next, May thinks, this will all have been worth it for the way Fitz squeals.)

 

 

-

-

 

 

They’re a few hours outside of Cairns, their final destination, when it happens.

Fitz is riding shotgun to Skye, choosing the most terrible music he can manage in order to punish her for the other week. He’s also flicking through some brochures they picked up at the last town, trying to find a boat that goes out to the Reef or something of the sort, and he doesn’t even think anything of it when he brings it up.

(He’ll regret that lack of foresight later on.)

‘Oh, hey, listen to this. “Scuba: explore the ocean floor in style.”’ Fitz scoffs. ‘“Explore the ocean floor?” No thanks. Think I’ve had enough of that for a lifetime, thank you very much.’

He rotates in his seat, seeking the comfort of Jemma’s gaze, but she only hums in agreement and stares at her lap.

That’s… not good.

‘What?’ he questions, and when she looks up, he knows. He knows before she even says it. It’s plain to see, from the determined set to her jaw and her pursed lips to the wild glint in her eyes.

It’s unmistakable. 

‘I want to do it.’

The occupants of the car fall quiet, at a loss for how to respond.

Fitz assumes that that’s their issue, anyway. For his part, he mostly just feels woozy.

Skye breaks the silence first.

‘No one’s making you – ’

‘I know,’ Jemma insists. The determination on her face is a thing to behold, Fitz notes with a cringe and a reluctant pang of pride. He thinks of all the other times he’s seen that expression over their many years of knowing each other, and he thinks of what has always immediately followed. It’s never been her backing down, that’s for sure.

This is a lost cause, has been ever since she’d championed going to the reef from the very start of the trip.

He squeezes his eyes shut, rubbing at them with the heels of both palms.

‘I would have done it before all of this happened,’ she argues. ‘You know I would have.’

His eyes snap open, fixing on hers.

‘Yeah, but “all of this” did happen,’ he counters, using air quotes.

‘Not helping, genius,’ Skye mutters. He looks across at her incredulously; she only raises her eyebrows at him, as though he should be doing something else to prevent this.

Like what? That’s his question. He’s only bloody human, and as far as he knows, mere mortals are unable to change Jemma Simmons’ mind once she’s set on something.

In the back seat, May closes the book that she’d been reading – before this whole mess began, that is – and regards Jemma carefully.

‘You don’t have to prove anything to anyone,’ she murmurs.

Jemma starts shaking her head. ‘But I do.’

Skye makes a strangled sound of frustration that Fitz feels he can relate to on a deeply spiritual level.

‘Jemma, seriously, we’re – ’

‘No! I mean,’ she takes a deep breath. ‘For me. I need to prove… I need to do this for me.’

God, she’s just really not going to back down from this. 

Which can only mean one thing.

‘I’ll go too,’ he declares.

Her wild gaze flicks up to meet his.

‘Fitz.’

‘I will.’ 

‘I don’t doubt that, but you can’t.’

Fitz feels a stab of hurt, but he vows to ignore it for now. ‘I can too.’

‘No, I mean. You can’t, they won’t allow it.’

He just looks at her, not comprehending.

‘Medically,’ she provides weakly.

And wow, that puts him off for a moment. He’s never really thought of his injury as an ongoing threat to his health, only ever seeing it as a past event that’s a hindrance, a thing stopping him from living his life normally.

Anyway, it changes nothing.

He’s still adamant.

‘So we fudge the forms.’

Fitz.

‘I’m not letting you do this alone,’ he swears, voice cracking a bit. Her eyes soften, and he can feel it now, he thinks. Right here, in this moment, he can feel the weight of all they’ve yet to discuss. It’s nasty, bearing down on them with vehemence.

‘Hey,’ Skye begins, when neither of them say anything for a long time. ‘How about Fitz and I wait up top? It’s not like I can scuba – God, can you imagine if I lost control and destroyed the freaking reef?’

She sounds bitter about that, but it’s possible that she’s just trying to distract Fitz. Unfortunately, he doesn’t think anything can distract him at this point – not from the growing discomfort bubbling away in the pit of his stomach, anyway.

Not when it’s about Jemma.

‘I don’t think she should go alone,’ he says, definitive.

Jemma bristles, elegant eyebrows raised. ‘I appreciate the thought, but I hardly think that’s up to you, Fitz.’

He’s just opening his mouth to argue again when May interrupts.

‘I’ll do it,’ she states, voice brooking no argument. ‘You two stay up the top; Jemma and I will go scuba diving.’

Jemma looks at May, quietly grateful, and May returns to her book, and Fitz knows that it’s decided.

That’s that.

He turns back to the front and stares out the front window, but he doesn’t think he’s really taking in any of the scenery anymore. Because he’s just put a name to the dominant emotion surging through him.

It’s not anger.

It’s fear. 

Fitz is terrified.

 

 

-

-

 

 

Jemma tries to give him his space on the boat ride out there – really, she does. She knows how he is, knows that he still needs some time to fully come to terms with what she’s doing, and she’s perfectly fine with allowing him to do so without her ongoing presence. 

In theory. 

In practice, however, she only manages to hold out for an hour before finding an excuse to go to look for him, her worried restlessness getting the better of her. 

(God, she just wants him to be okay. That’s all she wants.)

When she finds him in the outside section of the boat, she simply watches him for a moment, eyes raking over his back as he looks out at the clear blue of the ocean. She wonders if he’s really seeing it. She wonders if he’s seeing too much of it.

She wonders a lot of things. 

‘Apparently 50+ was the strongest they had,’ she begins, voice light to catch his attention. Once she has it, she holds up the pump pack of sunscreen that’s hooked onto her index finger. ‘We really ought to get around to designing something stronger.’

He doesn’t say anything in reply, just barely mustering a weak half-smile, and it’s clear that he’s still distracted. Jemma places the sunscreen down on one of the benches before tentatively approaching him. 

‘I knew you’d want to do it too,’ she murmurs, only hesitating for the briefest of moments before slipping her hand into his. He squeezes her fingers straight away, a silent promise, and she feels a little of the knot in her chest loosen. Pressing a kiss to his shoulder, she turns her head to rest her cheek there, staring out at the seemingly endless expanse of water with him. 

After a long while, Fitz sighs.

‘You could have told me.’

‘Yes.’

She really could have; there’s no point in refuting it. The issue is that she still felt the need to keep this from him at all, that she instinctively wanted to shoulder the burden herself. She’s trying so hard to be better about that, she is, but it’s going to take some time.

Fitz is apparently thinking along the same lines.

‘There’s, ah. There’s a lot, isn’t there.’ She lifts her head; glancing down, he meets her eyes. ‘That we still need to talk about, I mean.’

Swallowing down her reflexive protest, Jemma turns her head to rest it back on his shoulder.

‘Yeah,’ she says instead, the word spilling out on an exhalation. Then she sets her jaw, determined. 

‘But we will,’ she vows.

He squeezes her hand again, and she knows that he’s with her. They’ve got a long way to go, and it’s going to be painful – that much is certain. They’ll have to reopen a lot of poorly healed wounds in the process just so that they can dig around and find the source of their issues.

It’ll be loud, and it’ll be quiet. It’ll be thrumming rage, and it’ll be overwhelming hopelessness.

But they will get there. They’ll get there, because it’s the only acceptable outcome.

She will fight for this like nothing else.

Fitz turns to face her then, not a trace of hesitation to be found when he reaches for her other hand with his free one. His eyes are really rather strikingly blue, she reflects, especially when backdropped by the blues of the sky and ocean, and it makes her stomach swoop just a touch.

(It might be old and familiar in so many ways, certainly, but it’s also just so new.)

‘Are you sure about this?’ he asks her, imploring.

She shakes her head. ‘Not at all. But I suppose that’s sort of the point, isn’t it.’

His confusion is written into the very lines of her face, and Jemma’s fingers itch to smooth out the creases.

Later, she promises herself.

‘I’m not sure I follow,’ he says. Jemma sighs, sliding her eyes away from his.

‘I’m just… I don’t really know how to be sure of anything anymore,’ she confesses. She scrunches her nose at the thought. ‘But I can’t very well let that stop me from living, can I now?’

When she looks back up at him, Fitz’s eyes are shining.

‘What?’ she breathes. ‘What is it?’

But Fitz only shakes his head, and then he’s tugging her forward by her hands and wrapping her up in a tight embrace, the squeeze of his arms speaking volumes. She cuddles further into his shoulder, arms creeping around his back to squeeze back just as firmly.

Maybe Jemma had already made her decision about the scuba diving, and maybe she had resolved to do it whether he wanted her to or not, but she’s thinking now that maybe, just maybe, she’s been instinctively seeking this anyway. She doesn’t need his support; she wants it.

This is right. This – them – it’s just right. And they’ll work it out.

His breath ruffles her hair a little, and she finds herself smiling into the fabric of his shirt at the sensation.

Fitz says nothing. He doesn’t have to.

Jemma hears it anyway.

 

 

-

-

 

 

When they resurface after the dive, Jemma takes a few moments to allow her lungs to readjust to unfiltered air, trying to reconcile the muted panic she feels with the sheer excitement bubbling up in her chest. 

Then, she looks at May.

There’s a smile flirting at the older woman’s lips, and Jemma finds that she’s mirroring it herself, almost without thought. May only raises her eyebrows.

‘Seems you don’t need to be Inhuman to master water.’

Jemma can’t help herself; she throws her arms around May’s shoulders, ignoring the slight stiffening beneath her hands. Squeezing her eyes shut happily, she just holds on.

Five seconds pass.

Ten. 

And then, Jemma feels two arms encircle her in return.

 

 

-

-

 

 

She does it. Jemma does the dive.

Not that Skye’d ever doubted that she’d do it, of course. Like, she dropped out of high school herself, so she’s aware that any knowledge she has of science-related things is completely from Fitz and Jemma, but she feels like a lot of the time, Jemma must function like the scientific principles she holds so dear.

So yeah. Jemma was always going to do the dive.

That doesn’t mean that Skye’s any less proud, any less staggered by the sheer bravery involved in the act. 

She’s been snorkelling in the water with Fitz, trying to keep his mind off the dive going on a few yards away from him, but she could feel the tension rolling off of him. It was totally scaring away all the fish, too, but she figured she’d cut him some slack on that one, given the circumstances. When there were about five minutes left of Jemma’s dive left, she’d finally given in, grabbing Fitz by the scruff of the neck and pushing him towards the boat to wait for Jemma.

Which is where he’s waiting now, fidgeting anxiously. 

As soon as the instructors free her from her equipment, Jemma is darting across the ship deck for the waiting Fitz, instantly becoming engulfed by his arms. They’re kind of gross, actually, both dripping wet and wearing sagging rental wetsuits, but they’re so wrapped up in one another that it doesn’t really matter. Jemma pulls back after a moment, her lips moving around words that Skye’s too far away to hear, and then Fitz is cradling her face in his hands with a sort of reverence that makes Skye’s heart ache.

She’s still watching them when May rejoins her in the water, having swapped her scuba gear for the mask and snorkel now sitting on top of her head.

(And she still manages to look intimidating. God, Skye can really only dream of achieving this sort of badassery. Life goals, seriously.)

‘How was she?’ she asks May, once the other woman has swum over to her. May looks back towards the boat – to where Fitz is now pressing kisses to every spare inch of Jemma’s face – for such a long time that Skye’s almost convinced she’s not going to answer.

Then, she smiles.

‘Unstoppable.’

Moving to float on her back for a little bit, Skye thinks about that.

Unstoppable.

She kind of loves it.

Because they’re not unbreakable – they’re far from it, in fact. They’ve been shattered time and time again, broken seemingly beyond repair. They’ve been kicked down again, and again, and then once more just for shits and giggles. But despite all of that, despite everything telling them not to, they keep going. They brush themselves off, and they carry on.

They put themselves back in motion.

Letting her ears dip below the water’s surface, Skye smiles up at the cloudless blue sky. That used to be ours, she thinks. That used to be our domain. And she’s missed it for so long, so convinced that they needed the Bus back so that they could be whole again, but she’s realised now that it doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant.

They are the Bus. 

And she’s never been surer of that.

That night, their last night of vacation, they go for a walk along the beach together as the sun sets. There’s no sense of urgency at all, and not a trace of nervousness about their return the next day. They take their time with it – stopping and starting, darting in and out of the water, their laughter mingling with the waves like it belongs there.

For the first time in ages – maybe even since they first heard the name ‘The Clairvoyant’ – it feels like they’re actually running towards something, rather than fleeing from it. They’re not letting themselves become weighed down; they’re sharing the load.

Unstoppable, Skye thinks, watching as Fitz picks Jemma up, eliciting a delighted squeak from the biochemist. May’s smiling at their antics, tilting her face up towards the setting sun and closing her eyes in contentment.

Warmth floods Skye’s chest.

Yeah.

Unstoppable.

 

 

-

-

 

 

It ends in much the same way as it began: lost souls banding together, seeking contact for fear that the shaky ground beneath them could disappear at any moment, and God forbid they be alone when it happens.

But this time, there is no thrumming tension, no simply holding on by a thread. They fear the unknown, and they know now that it never quite goes away, but they’ve regained the confidence that they’d lost. They’ve got each other, so let the world change as much as it wants. Let it try to break them.

It can’t.

They’re reclining on the sand, staring up at the stars that will be hidden from them this time tomorrow. It doesn’t feel like they’re losing something, though, Skye reflects. It just means things will look different.

Good different.

‘What are you thinking about?’ Jemma asks, her voice pitched low and dipping in and out of a whisper. It’s directed at all of them, but no one answers right away – just as unable to put it into words as Skye is, probably.

And then, just like that, she knows. She almost smiles from it – from the truth of it.

‘Us.’

Jemma hums, satisfied. ‘Good things, I hope.’

Leaning back, Skye gives in to the smile dancing at her lips.

‘Only the best, Jemma Simmons. Only the best.’

 

 

-

-

 

 

(When May walks into the gym on their first morning back, it’s to find three sleepy faces smiling up at her.

She smiles right back.

They’re going to be just fine.)