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Wanderlust

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Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. –Stephen Hawking 


 It was another very late night of working and, pausing to stretch, Fitz looked across the lab to see Jemma hunched over her microscope as usual. She’d huffed out an exasperated sigh and, as he watched, she flung her long, dark hair backward over her shoulder. It was apparently getting in her way and becoming a bother. He’d noticed she’d been growing it out for awhile but he still had no idea why. It seemed more of a hindrance in the lab than anything else considering she generally wore it down now instead of pulled back with an elastic as she used to. If she wasn't careful, it could end up a downright hazard. 

It seemed it was always another late night in the lab these days. There was little else to do at the Foster/Stark Research Facility but work. Well, that wasn’t entirely true, if he’s being honest—there were flatscreen televisions and Xboxes galore. After all, the bill for this entire project and even the facilities themselves was funded by Tony Stark himself. However, he and Jemma agreed, really, they just wanted to finish their part so they could go back home but their part of the project seemed never ending. So they worked hard, and ignored the diversions provided by Stark so that they might get back sooner.

They’d been loaned out to work on the joint project because S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Coulson considered it his business to see that the technology they were developing here moved forward for the good of the world. (Or so he'd dramatically told them when he'd informed them of their transfers.) Coulson apparently believed that alien threats were here to stay and that mankind needed as many advances as they could muster to combat their enemies.

Fitz was always a bit of a fan of Stark’s, truth be told, so he was keen to come on board from the beginning. Problem was, he had yet to see hide nor hair of the man himself. Fitz was fine with the project, he trusted Coulson that it was important. Not to mention, Dr. Foster was completely brilliant to work with but he missed his friends and the grind of doing mostly the same work day-in and day-out had begun to get to him. That wasn't even mentioning being cooped up in the little base or having to face the New Mexico desert heat if they ventured out. Fitz was decidedly a northerly creature.

Jemma seemed to have her own reasons for being a bit leery of the project, she always seemed slightly ill-at-ease these days, but she hadn’t yet shared with him why her enthusiasm was oftentimes lackluster at best. So far, her part of the project was all about making sure the test subjects were coming out of it okay so they could carry on with yet more testing. There were some foreign samples that had come back from the last few tests and she seemed much more interested in those. In fact, that's exactly what she was working on so late. He’d stayed to finish some modifications to the control chip for the device. After the last field test, the circuit kept overloading but he thought he had it sorted now.

He heard Jemma stir and he looked over to find her beginning to gingerly stretch her neck as she sighed wearily. Then she made a face of sudden pain, gasping at the shock of it while she clutched her neck.

“Okay?” he asked, concerned.

Her lips tightened in a way that he knew meant she didn’t want to say something but felt she must for the sake of decorum. “It’s nothing. Just too long over the microscope,” she said with a dismissive wave.

Having spent many an hour with his neck bent tinkering over a project, and just wishing there was someone to work out the knots, he impulsively said, “I could—” But he stopped himself, suddenly unsure if that activity was out of bounds from where they stood now. However, he wasn’t able to think of anything to cover his potential faux pas, so he just held up his hand, repetitively flexing his fingers in a massaging motion. “I mean, if you, ehm, need that,” he added awkwardly, trying to give her a way to bow out gracefully should she not want him to touch her so intimately.

Though their working relationship was as strong as it ever was and they got on well enough in the professional environment of the lab, they hadn’t quite gotten back to where they once were on a personal level. Sure, they had film nights and chats but the subjects always seemed restricted. He felt he was always toeing that line of what was okay and what went too far. Three years ago, he wouldn’t even have thought twice about working on her tense neck. But now, everything seemed full of the weight of insinuation. He was constantly checking his words before he spoke to be certain they carried no potentially inflammatory or suggestive undertones. Apparently even acts of kindness now had to be second-guessed.

She rolled her head around on her neck—evidently, testing the damage—and he saw her grimace when it tensed painfully. She looked back at him, her face circumspect, as she rubbed half-heartedly at the area. “Alright, I mean, if you really don’t mind,” she said dubiously.

A small thrill of fear worked its way up his spine at her words, but he didn’t hesitate. He just shook his head, getting up and walking over to stand behind her.

“Course not,” he mumbled.

He took over as she let her hand drop away from her neck, dragging her long hair out of his way as she did so. Her skin was just as soft as he remembered, he couldn't help musing as he gently rubbed over the bunched muscles with long strokes of his thumbs the way she used to prefer.

Letting her head fall loosely forward, she supported herself with her elbows on her desk. “Oh, Fitz, that feels wonderful,” she said, her voice syrupy and infused with enough intensity to make his cheeks grow warm.

He tried desperately not to let his mind go where it wanted to: other scenarios where she might say something similar in that tone of voice. He just kept up his repeating motions until the worst of the tightness seems to be gone from her neck.

“Is that, ehm, okay?” he asked, taking his fingers away quickly to avoid seeming a perverted lingerer.

She brought her hand back up to smooth over the spot, then twisted her head this way and that.

“Oh, that’s lovely. Thank you, Fitz.”

She turned her head to smile broadly up at him and he felt the familiar tightness in his chest that let him know that, though touching in such a way may be okay for her now, it might still be too soon for him.

“Good. That’s good,” he muttered, immediately walking toward the coat rack and sliding his lab coat off his arms. “I’m just—well, ehm, goodnight.”

He watched her stand as well, stretching her shoulders back before she said, her tone conversational, “I’ll walk you back. I’m about knackered.”

He just nodded, waiting for her as she tidied her desk and shut off her work lamp before she finally headed over to shrug out of her lab coat and hang it next to his.

He locked up the doors to the empty lab as she waited for him, stretching her arms up in the air while he tried not to look at her. Did she not know how that affected him? She couldn’t. She would never intentionally do anything to draw his attention. She was just stretching after all—taking a very long time about it and making her breasts very prominent—but still, just stretching. Everyone did that, right? It was a thing people did. He just made sure to keep his eyes pointed toward the ground.

They walked down the empty hallways and back toward the dormitories in silence until Jemma asked, “Are you looking forward to the field test on Monday?”

He nodded absently. “Course. Square one again. Great. If that goes well then we get to analyze data for a month.” He spun his finger in the air. “Whoop-de-doo.”

“Still,” she said, tittering politely, “it could just be three more months or so before we get back.”

“Yeah,” he said, probably a bit too unhappily.

He felt her hand on his shoulder. “I’m very sorry you’re so valuable to the project that they can’t afford to let you go just now,” she said, barely suppressing a smirk. "They need you to save the world," she added, mocking Coulson's spiel.

He cast his eyes upward and sighed theatrically. “I know. And how can I say no to that? Bloody world, always needs savin'. S'pose it's down to me this time.”

She chuckled and he found himself joining in. He felt a bubble of happiness rising up within him at being able to make her laugh and then a little pinprick of sadness that popped it when she let her hand slide from his shoulder. He tried to shake it off because there was absolutely no reason for him to rehash these old issues in his mind.

The silence stretched between them again but it wasn’t uncomfortable as it once might've been.

He usually liked working in the evenings the best, when he and Jemma were alone together in the lab and no longer surrounded by all the assistants and techs. It reminded him of the way things were between them before he made her his ill-advised love confession.

It was almost two years since he woke from a coma to discover that his genius brain was damaged. He still wasn’t sure if he would recover any further than he already had. A little less than a year ago, an Inhuman named Hanna Lis possessed of incredible restorative powers had healed him and exposed an attempted Hydra plot to kidnap him and Simmons for reasons he still didn’t quite understand the full nature of. She'd revealed the Hydra plot and warned of an impeding attack when she admitted to posing as a double agent, ultimately saving the lives of many S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. She also told him he was something "more" than human. He'd thought she meant he was one of the Inhumans like Skye. However, Jemma had checked his blood for the indicative macromolecules and, despite the many tests she'd run on him, he appeared to be completely normal. He had no idea if it meant anything or not and Hanna was no longer around to ask since she'd died in the Hydra attack.

He never found out how far her healing had worked either but the benefits were considerable. Medical tests had revealed vast improvements in his brain but Jemma said much of what was damaged couldn't really be measured. So he had to live with never really knowing his level of deficiency but he tried to be grateful for the improvements he had.

His right hand still trembled slightly sometimes, mostly when he was tired or nervous. His fine motor control was slightly less than it was before his injury, though it was more of a mild frustration than an outright complaint these days. After the coma, he’d had significant difficulty speaking—aphasia—a frustrating stuttering and fumbling for words that his brain couldn’t quite grasp onto. He never had that problem now. He no longer had most of the other symptoms that plagued him in the year following his injury. By far, the most significant improvement was that he could work freely again—nearly as well as he ever could. At the beginning, his abilities as an engineer suffered greatly from the hypoxia but he thought he was at nearly a hundred percent now.

Jemma seemed to agree with his assessment which pleased him because he knew she likely had some residual guilt over his injury. Even though she'd saved him from death, she hadn’t been able to save him from the oxygen deprivation or his hurt after her rejection of his romantic feelings.

After he’d confessed that he was in love with her, Jemma pulled away from him completely, unable to accept or return his feelings. He'd turned to Hanna for better or worse. The events that followed had changed him, made him realize that whether Jemma wanted to be more than friends or never wanted that—it didn’t matter—she would always be the most important person in the world to him. That realization enabled him to let go of the hurt and shame he’d been feeling, allowing things to normalize between them in the aftermath.

Since then, he and Jemma had been able to work together again just as they always had, long before the coma or his admission. They were finishing each other’s sentences and pushing each other beyond what they were capable of on their own just as they had since they were students at S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy. He still loved Jemma and thought maybe he always would. He also believed that she knew, but naturally they never discussed it. There were many things they never spoke about—including Hanna.

And though it had been problematic for many reasons, his relationship with Hanna helped him realize that Jemma’s caring about him but not loving him romantically wasn’t because of a failing on his part, it simply was. Just an inexplicable fact of nature, and not something he should be ashamed of or feel unworthy over. No matter how it had begun, Hanna had loved him, and somehow being loved by someone had changed him too. He was no longer choking on feelings of his own worthlessness—well, most of the time, anyway.

He was hurt by Hanna’s betrayal when he’d found out initially and had a difficult time believing she really cared for him. He thought she was just using him naturally, but once he realized that she’d done it all to save her family, he understood, because he felt the same way about Jemma. He didn’t know what he’d do to save her and he hoped he never had to find out. In the end, Hanna proved beyond doubt that she was a loyal S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and that what they'd shared was real.

He had certainly cared about her as well but, in the end, he was forced to admit that the situation was just too chaotic and confusing to be sorted through rationally—or perhaps he just didn’t want to. Instead, he'd just accepted what had happened and tried to remember her with love. She left him with more hope and a greater measure of confidence than he’d had before. Somehow she'd helped him remember that he was worth something—and, really, in a way, that gave him his friendship with Jemma back. When he weighed out what Hanna had gotten in return, he couldn’t help but feel a deep guilt and regret.

He almost wished he could speak to Jemma about it at times but things were never quite that intimate between them, not even before, in truth. Years ago, she’d told him a few things about her exes but, really, he’d never wanted to know—not then and most definitely not now. And he certainly didn’t want to encourage that situation by sharing his own woes. Not that either of them had much in the way of relationship woes just now. But, even if they were on such close terms, he didn’t think he could ever explain any of it to Jemma. He wasn’t sure it even came out well in his own head, putting it into words seemed near impossible.

Still, things were good now between Jemma and himself. He could be around her without that near-constant pain in his heart. The anguish he once felt at her rejection was greatly diminished by the fact that she clearly did still care about him and wanted him in her life, just as he wanted her in his—even if he was never anything more than her best friend and lab partner. And at this point, that was all he was hoping for.

They turned the corner into the hallway where both their dorm rooms were located. They got to her door first. She quickly keyed in the code but, instead of opening it, she turned back and smiled up at him.

Then, with an odd look he couldn’t discern, she took a step toward him. His heart clenched and his brain seemed to grind to a halt. He had no idea what to do.

Once, back when they were both students at the Academy, Jemma had told him that all women sent out the same signals to let men know when they wanted to be kissed goodnight. Her outlined body language had never failed him. The confusing part was that Jemma's current behavior was modeling those cues pretty much to the letter.

But he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that couldn't possibly be true. She'd made her feelings absolutely clear less than a year ago: she only ever thought of him as a friend—nothing more.

If there was one thing he was sure of, it was that Jemma Simmons did not want him to kiss her—in his mind, that much was an absolute certainty.

She took another measured step forward and suddenly she was within the boundary of his personal space.

He swallowed what felt to be an excessive amount of saliva with a clicking sound in his throat that seemed very loud in his ears. He cleared his throat to try and cover up the embarrassing noise.

Still, she was just looking up at him expectantly with a small, playful smile tugging at her lips. And Jemma’s lips could easily become the central preoccupation of his life if he allowed himself to think that way.

“Good…night?” he said, his finger coming up of its own volition to point toward his room two doors down.

She looked vaguely dismayed (even disappointed, perhaps?) But he quickly dismissed that idea as ridiculous. He suppressed his urge to, quite literally, run away. If he could've thought of a good excuse he might've tried it.

"Early day tomorrow," he said, but even to his own ears, his voice sounded anxious and uncertain. He cringed inwardly, wishing he knew the right thing to say to escape. He hated not understanding what was expected of him. Clearly, he was misinterpreting, and just being a lovesick prat.

Suddenly, her features seemed to sag, making her look...deflated. Before he could really think what that might mean, she threw her arms around his shoulders and pulled him down into a brief but firm hug.

“Goodnight, Fitz,” she said into his ear, but it sounded oddly, if only slightly, quavery. He tried to pull back to see her expression but she turned away too quickly and went immediately inside her room.

As much of his life as he'd spent pondering the inner workings of the opposite sex, he was beginning to think it was a completely hopeless case.

“Shite,” he muttered to himself as he turned toward his own door. What the bloody hell did he do now?

Chapter Text

 

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms. –Muriel Rukeyser 


 This was not how he was planning for his day to go. All Tony had wanted to do today was see a successful field test and then go somewhere nice for lunch. Now he was gonna have paperwork. And he really fucking hated paperwork.

It had all started out fine. Jane introduced him to her new science-geek pets Fitz and Simmons. Coulson—who Tony still couldn’t quite believe was alive—was now the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and had loaned them out just for this project. A brilliant engineer and a brilliant biochemist, both of which Jane apparently needed for all the “testing” of her new trans-Asgardian portal-thingie as Tony was currently calling it in his head. Relativistic Electromagnetic Bound States Quantum Displacement Engine was the name Jane had chosen and he just couldn’t get behind that. It didn’t even have a decent acronym for chrissake. R.E.B.S.Q.D.E.? What the actual fuck?

He’d have to think of something slick when he had ten seconds together.

“It–it’s so nice to meet you, Mr. Stark,” Fitz panted out, holding his hand close to Tony’s so he might shake it. In his excitement, the kid had stepped right in front of his ostensible partner, Dr. Simmons.

“Yeah, thanks, kid. Nice to be met,” he said and put his hand on the kid’s shoulder, forcibly pushing him aside so he could shake the hand of the lovely Dr. Simmons instead.

“Nice to meet you, doctor,” he said with a grin, bringing his other hand over the top of hers as he shook it.

She looked down with a demure smile curving her lips. “Thank you, Mr. Stark,” she said in her lovely British accent with crisp consonants and nice round vowels.

Too bad he was taken. Come to think, Pepper could do a decent Brit when she was in the mood for a little roleplay. He made a mental note to stop by a flower shop or a jewelry store or something on the way home.

“All right, Tony,” Jane said, stepping between him and Simmons, ultimately forcing their clasped hands apart. “Didn’t you say you wanted to finish up before lunch?”

“Oh, right. Almost forgot.” He grinned sheepishly at Dr. Simmons. “Reservations.” He looked at Jane. “You comin’?”

“Did you bring a car?” she asked with a sweet smile and a hint of annoyance.

“Uh, nope. What? You don’t like the suit anymore? You seemed pretty interested in getting your greedy little hands on it a few months ago...” He cocked his head at Jane and waggled his eyebrows. Then he looked at Fitz, hoping for a little male support or at least a chuckle.

Fitz continued to look at him with a slightly dopey grin before his somewhat heavy brows came together quizzically. Ah, well, so much for male bonding.

He saw a look pass between Fitz and Simmons and it suddenly occurred to him that the two scientists might be ”together”. Maybe that's why he wasn’t getting the reactions he was used to? He swung his finger from one to the other and said, “You two, are you—um, you know, partners—or, uh, partners?” He flooded his last word with some very unsubtle insinuation and if that wasn’t enough for them, he added some air quotes.

“Well, we’re sort of—“ Simmons began.

“No, course not—“ Fitz began at the same time.

They looked to each other with matching faces of surprise and then quickly back to Tony.

“Uh, well, when you two figure it out, you let me know, okay?” Tony said with a quizzical smirk.

Fitz burst out in with a surprisingly loud guffaw and said, “No, no. We’re not. We’re only friends.”

Simmons just looked at Fitz with a slightly distressed crease in her brow and then back toward Tony but still wasn’t quite able to maintain eye contact as she slowly let her gaze slide to the floor. Tony wasn’t exactly an expert but—oh, who was he kidding? Yeah, he was totally an expert. By his estimation, Dr. Simmons seemed to have it pretty bad for her “partner”. That much was clear. Fitz seemed pretty oblivious to the whole thing, though. Either that, or Fitz was hoping to be Tony's type. Which he most definitely was not. Tony preferred not to be on the receiving end of whisker burn at the end of his dates. He might be able to get behind a science bros sorta situation but beyond that—uh, no. Besides, taken!

The pair wandered back to their respective stations and Tony shrugged it off as not his business, then picked up the device Jane had been showing him earlier. “So, how’s it work again?”

“Jesus, Tony. You spent five hundred million dollars, I think you’d at least check to see what you’re spending your money on,” Jane said irritably, taking it gingerly from his hands.

“What? I trust you, Jane,” he said and smiled sweetly over at Dr. Simmons again when he caught her looking.

He couldn’t help himself. She was so pretty and so damned young—not to mention—her pouty lips were adorable. He didn’t know what was wrong with Fitz, but if he were a geeky, young engineer he’d be all over that. Actually, back in the day, he had been. He’d been an equal opportunity philanderer. Any brainiac would do: biochemists, astrophysicists… Wow, if he didn’t settle down, he’d be in the middle of a full-on threesome in his head.

“The quantum field—“ Jane started.

“Yeah, yeah, spare me the physics," he said impatiently. "Physics I get. You sent me the emails. But how does this work?” He pointed to the little hand-held device that controlled everything.

Jane held it up. It looked a bit like a kidney-shaped remote for a television. It was segmented into four areas and each one had four flush-set buttons on the surface. Each button was surrounded by colored light.

Jane pointed to the large button in the center, surrounded by blue light, “This takes you back to Earth. It’s the home button.”

“Sorta like TiVo?” Tony joked.

Jane gave him a half-smile and pointed to the section of four yellow-lit buttons, “Asgard.” Pointing to the green-lit ones, she said, “Alfheim.” Then, the red-lit buttons, “Nidavellir.” Finally, she pointed to the purple-lit, “Vanaheim.” She cleared her throat and went on, “The four buttons in each segment are shape-coded, a circle to go there, a square to return to your previous location, a triangle to move you one mile away, and an octagon to move you back again.” She replaced the device on the table.

Tony was suitably impressed. The move-a-mile buttons were useful and he probably wouldn’t have thought of them. “Whose idea was that? And how do you make sure you don’t end up in a lake or something?” he asked, pointing to the triangle for Vanaheim.

“Fitz’s idea, actually,” Jane said, smiling proudly in said geek's direction. “The computer has a home location on each world. I’ve set them to be pretty far from any significant number of people, thanks to Fitz’s advice. I’d probably just go barreling into town asking questions and freaking everyone out.” She laughed and glanced over at Fitz, who was clacking away on his keyboard. Tony suddenly wondered if Thor had some competition. He looked over at the little nerd, giving him a once over. Nah. Probably not.

“Anyway, the main computer is constantly calculating because the world you’re on is constantly moving. So, it has to figure out, basically on its own, a place to move you that’s not underwater or inside a wall or anything. Fitz even helped me some with the calculations for going to the same on-world location even though it’s actually no longer in the same place in space-time,” Jane continued babbling happily. “He figured out an equation that uses the previous location, trajectory and mass of the planet as a relative positioning point. You know, along with the basic relativity equations. He also designed the locator chip. It was based on my ideas but I had no clue how to make that a reality. None of this would work without it.”

She picked up the controller again. “He helped me a lot with the design of the device itself too. Stuff I never would have thought of—like the kidney shape. It’s easier to hang onto than even a rectangle.” Tony gripped it, moving the thing up and down to see if it felt good in his hand and he had to admit it was ergonomic. “He also suggested the neck strap.” She showed him how to click a small metallic-mesh strap onto the back of it. The whole thing was only a little bigger than the palm of his hand but it was pretty heavy bling for your neck.

“Huh. How’d you get it so small?” Tony asked, hefting it for the weight.

“Fitz again,” Jane said, smiling over at the engineer’s back as he checked the main computer against some boring printout or something. The kid glanced over at his name. “He’s amazing at miniaturizing everything. You should’ve seen my prototype.” She and Fitz started laughing convulsively. Jane held out a hand and Fitz slapped her five just as their laughter started to die away.

“Heh, heh—great. Pretty handy to have around, isn’t he?” Tony said, setting the device down on the table and trying to tamp down the slight twinge of jealousy trying to work its way out of his ribcage. Sometimes—just on occasion, mind—he sorta hated not being the only smart kid. He sighed. “So, what’s Dr. Simmons doing?”

“Monitoring and testing the effects on the subjects, of course,” Jane said with a condescending tone that Tony realized he probably deserved. He was barely paying attention after all. Instead, he was trying to remember the exact combination of flowers it was that Pepper liked. “She’s also been testing all the samples we’ve brought back with the remote drones from Asgard and Vanaheim.”

“So, what’s going to happen, a good show? Fireworks? Shimmering portals of light? What?” he asked, just for something to say.

He was being a little facetious but Jane immediately started to explain, “No, no. It’ll be just like you disappeared. Poof!” She waved her hands mysteriously and grinned at him—clearly overly-excited and ready for her test to begin.

“A little anti-climactic, isn’t it?” Tony sniffed. He felt a smack on his shoulder. “Hey, watch the expensive Italian exercise gear,” he joked, batting her hand away. “So, we ready to do this thing, or what?”

“Not quite yet,” Fitz said, looking almost ashamed to admit it before returning to typing manically into his computer.

“We need to get Margery ready too,” Jane said.

Tony had no idea who Margery was. “Um, okay.” He started typing on his phone trying to get a little work done. “The World Beater!” Tony cried out suddenly. Jane was apparently ignoring him. “Come on, Jane. That name you came up with doesn’t even have a decent acronym we can use. Plan ahead next time, for crying out loud! How about—the Un-Earther?” Jane scoffed. “Gate Crasher? Oh, no, no! The Party Crasher!”

He heard Fitz titter but the kid tried to hide it by clearing his throat.

Tony did a little shuffling dance of triumph but Jane wasn’t having any of it.

“That’s the controller,” she said firmly, pointing to it so he’d be sure to remember. It wasn’t like he’d gotten his Ph.D. by the time he was seventeen or anything.

“Come on, Jane. Your main man, Fitz here, likes it!” He folded his hands together in a little faux-begging gesture. She shook her head firmly. “Fine. It’s not like I paid for it or anything.” Affecting a casual disinterest, he went back to his emails. In a quieter, more certain tone he suddenly said, “Oh, I got it now—Jeeves.” He waited for everyone to tell him what genius it was but when that didn’t happen he prompted, “You know, like a chauffeur? He takes you places?” Jane just stared at him, face inscrutable. “Ya know, Jeeves?”

“You know that’s actually a terrible British stereotype, don’t you?” Dr. Simmons said, turning to face him. “It really doesn’t need to be precipitated.”

Well, shit, she was adorable.

“Would you rather call it seventy-three syllables of science, or somethin’ snappy?” Tony asked, opening his arms expansively.

Dr. Simmons squeezed her eyebrows together and looked up in mock-contemplation.

Even though he was still faced away typing into his keyboard, Tony heard Fitz as he archly mumbled, “Somethin’ snappy, please.”

Tony couldn’t let that behavior go unrewarded. He hit the kid on the shoulder and said, “That’s it! Now we’re talkin’.”

Jemma scoffed at her partner derisively and Tony grinned broadly. That’s right, that’s what Tony Stark does. Just matchmaking all over the place wherever he goes.

“Isn’t the AI that runs your suit called, ‘J.A.R.V.I.S.’?” Jane asked, face all adorably squinched up in question.

“Um, yeah. Suit, house, life. It's an acronym for Just A Really Very Intelligent System,” he said distractedly, one eye on his phone screen. “What’s your point, sweetheart?”

“J.A.R.V.I.S. and Jeeves?” She just looked at him as if that cleared it up.

“Sounds just peachy to me,” he agreed. “You have a problem?”

She shrugged. “I mean, they’re both, like, English servant names?”

“Well, J.A.R.V.I.S. is named after an actual English butler but Jeeves is just a terrible British stereotype—or something.” He looked up while stroking his chin thoughtfully. “I mean, I think I heard that once.”

Dr. Simmons was refusing to rise to his bait, but Fitz was smirking at him gleefully—at least until his partner hissed, “Fi-itz!” and then he promptly returned to his work. Sheesh, poor kid was already whipped and he hadn’t even tasted the pie yet.

He looked around for someone more lively to talk to or, at least, less busy. There were lots of other techs and assistants scurrying around the room—in between server racks and behind computer screens. Hell, it looked like Mission Control in there (if you ignored the arc reactor), but Jane hadn’t introduced most of them. The little geeks all seemed scared to death of him anyway.

A couple of minutes later, a large chimp was wheeled into the room by an assistant. There were several things strapped to her chest, he recognized some basic bio-reading equipment but some of the stuff was just bizarre. As he inspected the doodads strapped to her, the chimp showed him her teeth and he couldn’t help but smile.

“You must be Margery,” he said to the chimp, tickling her chin.

Jane was putting Jeeves around Margery’s neck. “We’re going to set it off remotely but it still has to be on her,” Jane explained. “So far, we’ve only done live tests on rats. She’ll be the closest to human-size to go through.”

“Cool,” Tony said distractedly, already back to typing an email to his PA.

“We’re ready, Tony!” Jane said loudly.

“Oh, well—I can just, um—later,” he said, putting his phone back in his pocket. “Just like that? Do I need goggles or anything?”

Jane just shook her head slowly, looking somewhat annoyed.

“Was that in an email?” he asked opening his hands and smiling placatingly. “That was in an email, wasn’t it?” She didn’t respond, except by looking further annoyed. “Yeah, okay. Sorry.”

She sighed and looked back at Fitz. “All right. We're ready to go.”

Fitz was grinning from ear-to-ear as he began, “In five, four, three, two, one…”

That’s when everything exploded—literally.

If Tony wanted fireworks, apparently the universe fucking obliged. There were sparks flying everywhere, including all over his expensive Italian exercise gear. He really wished he had some goggles now. Then a small fire broke out in a rack of servers. Tony grabbed a fire extinguisher off the wall and quickly put the fire out.

He turned back to see Jane typing frantically on the computer and muttering curses as sparks flew around her. Fitz had taken the control device from around Margery’s neck and was futzing with it (or maybe “Fitz-ing” with it was more accurate) while Simmons handed him tools. They were murmuring quietly to each other as they worked. They were pretty cool compared to a lot of the other people in the room who were panicking and trying to decide whether or not to evacuate. Tony waved some of them toward the fire exit, trying to keep things calm.

“What the hell?” Tony called over the noise of electrical crackling as he came back to where Jane was trying to get control again. He clung to the fire extinguisher and blurted, “Hey! What’s going on?”

“The power from the three arc reactors is surging. I think we made a mistake in the calculations. I think the power requirements shouldn’t have gone up incrementally for the size increase in the subject!”

Just then, there was an exceptionally large burst of sparks as the room flared bright blue.

“You think?” Tony blurted loudly but the hurt look on Jane’s face made him instantly regret it. She went back to work, frantically tapping away on her keyboard. “What about Fitz?” he added, looking for someone to share in the blame. She said he'd done some of the math. He turned around and pointed to where Fitz was standing.

Except the spot was empty.

He wasn’t there—and neither was Simmons. They were both gone—for that matter, so was Jeeves. Hell, so was the goddamn table they'd been working on.

“Jane?” he said hesitantly, tapping her shoulder with no small amount of force while unable to look away from the terrifyingly empty air in front of him.

“What?” she answered, trying to shrug off his heavy, unwanted fingers while she worked. 

All Tony could do was point. When he didn’t answer verbally, she turned around to look.

Mouth agape, she asked, “Where’s Fitz? ...And Simmons?”

Tony shrugged. “Uh…Asgard?”

 

Chapter Text

 

Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves. –Henry David Thoreau


 “Hex!” Fitz shouted.

The lights flickered off and on as blue sparks flew from the overloaded electrical equipment.

“Pliers,” he demanded tersely.

Jemma was handing him tools so he could get “Jeeves” disconnected from the system before it blew the main locator chip. Damned bloody overloading circuit! He was just pulling the chip free when everything flashed blue, and just for a second, he thought one of the arc reactors had blown but then the light dissipated and was replaced by a soft, steady glow.

He breathed a sigh of relief, assuming the electrical feedback had ended once he’d gotten the chip out.

“Here,” he said, trying to hand the hex back to Jemma as he set the small chip on the table next to Jeeves.

However, she didn’t take the tool. In fact, as far as he could tell, she didn’t move a muscle. He looked up from the table, raptly seeking out her expression, but she was just staring intently ahead. He turned to see what she was looking at and barely managed to suck in a gasp through the tightness in his chest even as his mouth dropped open in shock.

They were standing on the lush, meadowy shore of a lake. Annoyingly happy-looking yellow flowers poked their tiny heads up from the grassy shore all the way up to the water. As far into the distance as he could see, everything was a rich, verdant green. Even the manky-looking lake had an unhealthy olive cast to it. He could see a small flock of white birds flying low overhead and could even vaguely hear their far off calls. Imposingly-tall trees lined the opposite shore, and beyond that, soaring into the violet sky, cragged mountains rose like immense fingers. Peak after narrow peak towered on toward the horizon, scraping the undersides of the fat lazy clouds that were being quickly pushed along by the cool breeze.

“Where’n the bloody hell are we?” Fitz asked in an uncharacteristically flat voice. “Are we...dead?”

Even as he said it, he knew it sounded incredibly dim. Of course they weren’t dead! They wouldn’t be standing on the edge of a creepy green lake if they were dead now, would they?

Ignoring his fear-induced question, Jemma finally said, “I think we might be a bit snookered, Fitz.” Her voice was airy and insubstantial as it carried out over the lake.

“Yeah,” he agreed hollowly, still staring out into the unfamiliar landscape. “Jesus. Yeah.”

He bit off the urge to tell her that they were more than likely completely bloody bollixed, buggered, and fucked six ways from Sunday but he didn’t want to scare her any more than she likely already was. He sighed in resignation instead and pressed a hand to his forehead. He might be getting a stress headache.

There was absolutely no sign of civilization. No man-made (or alien-made, for that matter) objects other than the table in front of them which had left its home at Stark Labs to travel halfway across the galaxy. They might still have been on Earth, at some remote mountain lake, and Fitz might even have believed so, if not for the wholly-alien violet-hued sky.

“Where are we?” Jemma finally asked after they’d stared in stunned silence for a few moments more.

“Before everything went to the devil, it was set to go to Asgard,” he replied, afraid to look at her, not wanting to see the fear that was no doubt closely mirrored in his own features. “But with the power surges cockin’ it all up, it could've randomly sent us somewhere else. Though, it would have to be one of the four pre-programmed destinations.” With a sweep of his hand toward where it sat on the wooden table, he vaguely indicated the unlit buttons on Jeeves’ face.

He knew it wasn’t all that reassuring to narrow down their location to one out of four alien planets spread throughout the galaxy—but at least it was honest.

Quickly, he looked back to Jeeves, his mouth dropping open at his own stupidity. Rolling his eyes to the sky, he ground out, “Ugh, for heaven’s sake! I’m such a bloody idiot!” He let his head lol to the side, dropping his shoulders limply in shame.

Jemma gave him a quizzical look as he picked Jeeves up from the table and hurriedly re-inserted the locator chip. Placing the cover back on without securing it, he flipped it over to see that the various lights were indeed, once again, lighting up. He gave Jemma a meaningful—even hopeful—look but she only peered back at him, the apprehension plain on her face. She now understood just what he was about to do, and they both held their breath as he pressed the large blue-lit button in the center of the device.

Nothing happened.

He pressed it again. Nothing. He pressed it three more times in quick succession. 

A bird called, its forlorn voice echoing out over the lake.

He pressed it again and again, ignoring Jemma's hand on his shoulder.

“Shite! Bloody bastard! Bugger it!” Fitz raised Jeeves up into the air over his head and would have foolishly thrown the damned thing into the lake in his sudden burst of anger if Jemma hadn’t caught his hand and taken it from him.

She set it down on the table again and, without warning, her legs seemed to give out beneath her. She sat down hard on the meadow grass, one hand grasping the edge of the useless table before them. He crouched down next to her and quickly saw that she was near to tears. He reached a hand around behind her shoulders and pulled her to him but she was stiff in his arms, not letting him bring her fully against him. He didn’t force it, just stroked down her back soothingly.

“It’ll be okay,” he said, not really knowing how but feeling that—somehow—it had to be. They were geniuses after all, that had to be worth something. And Jemma absolutely would be okay because his mind refused to accept any other scenario. “Jane and Tony’ll find us,” he murmured heedlessly into her hair and even felt mildly reassured by his own words.

“How?” she asked near his ear—the feel of her breath nearly making him shiver—but her voice was quavery and disbelieving.

He faltered. The equipment was fried, Jeeves was likely fried, and only if they were very lucky were Jane and Tony not fried.

“I don’t know,” he finally admitted. “We—we’re goin’ to have to help ourselves—at least for a little while until they can get things sorted on their end.”

She was so quiet, he didn’t realize she was crying until he heard her snuffling and her tears had soaked through the collar of his lab coat and onto his neck.

“I’m goin’ to take care of you, Jemma,” he said, squeezing her gently around the shoulders. He was completely unsure how he could possibly do said caring, but he was certain that he had to try at least.

She melted against him then—stretching awkwardly across his lap and making him fall back out of his crouch onto the damp ground. He just caught himself with his hands before he got too ungraceful but immediately bought his arms back around her, drawing her close. Instantly, her sweet scent was in his nose—he breathed her in, closing his eyes and inhaling deeply. They weren't often this close any longer, and though it seemed masochistic, he reveled in the feel of her against him.

She already clung to him as if she were drowning on dry land, but then, with her fingers clenching in the fabric of his cardigan (almost as if she thought he might foist her off), she came even nearer still. Her moist cheek slid against his neck as she brought her arms tightly around his shoulders. Trying to get comfortable, he stretched out his legs but she only used the space to scrabble closer, pressing herself tightly against his chest with her knees curled around his side. Now they were fit together as intimately as two people reasonably could be—and remain platonic, anyway. It was perhaps, as close as they had ever been, he realized. He felt her hand come up from his shoulder to stroke upward along his neck, her fingertips just teasing into the edge of his hairline and making the little hairs there stand on end.

The warm crush of her body against his was, at once, comforting but also slightly maddening. Her body wound around him and against him, pressed so closely—yet all he could do was stroke her back and grasp loosely at her shoulder. It made the breath catch in his throat, the feel of her and knowing she wanted this comfort from him. Just knowing that she wanted something from him, really.

He reminded himself that her need for reassurance was so very different from what he still wanted between them. However, her familiarity was making it impossible for him to ignore all the want he had bottled up within him. He knew it was a selfish notion but he couldn’t stop it from bubbling to the surface. He despised himself for it—the ugly, mercenary nature of his suppressed desire—and he tried fiercely to quash the sordid thoughts. Jemma needed him to be a friend now, not a lovesick arsehole. He brushed the hair back from her neck where it tickled his cheek, trying to ignore the softness of her skin and focus only on the effort to be a soothing presence for her. Perhaps he was a deviant, he thought, perverse and driven only by prurient lust. 

He was startled instantly out of his self-castigation by what he momentarily thought was her lips brushing against his neck. He stiffened, his stomach beginning to swoop and flutter while his heart started to hammer wildly, beating out a lively rhythm against his ribs.

Then she pulled back, wiping tears from her cheeks with the palm of her hand as she said, “What’s the next step, then?”

Surely he was mistaken. Because it obviously must’ve been her tears against his neck, not her lips. It was impossible for it to be anything else, really. It most definitely was not her lips after all. She would never do anything of the sort, she just wouldn't. No, he decided, breathing out a tightly-held breath and trying to let the sharp clutch of tension that'd filled him drain from his body along with the air.

“We should find someplace safe to spend the night,” he said, leaning away, trying to put some space between them. “We don’t know when it’ll get dark here—or what animals might be out in the wild.” He omitted his true worry, that there might be worse things than animal—alien beings or something fantastically unexplainable. He squelched the idea that, as yet, the only beast that seemed to be nearby was himself, with his crude animalistic yearnings.

She nodded. “Yes, you’re right.”

She stood a bit shakily and he pushed up from his knees to follow her, brushing the loose soil from his trouser legs and backside. He tried to stop the foolish reeling of his head and ignore the ghostly sensation he fancied he could still feel against his neck. And even though it was clearly impossible, it really had felt remarkably like her lips.

Trying to shake off the ridiculous idea, he took her gently by the elbow. “Let’s search around here, into the tree line just a bit,” he suggested, sweeping his hand expansively across the border where the delicate meadow met with the enormous trees. “But we should definitely stick together,” he added, swallowing hard as he looked into the deep black voids between the giant trunks.

Chapter Text

 

Tragedy delights by affording a shadow of the pleasure which exists in pain. –Percy Bysshe Shelley


Shivering at the chill that seemed to come off the deeply dark wood, Fitz admitted to himself he was feeling more than a bit nervous at not being able to see what was in there.

As they headed toward the gigantic, ominous trees—keeping one eye on Jemma to be sure she stayed close—he looked back toward the lake and noted it was very narrow but also clearly quite large. So large in fact, he could see neither side, only across it to the mountainous peaks on the far side. The shoreline was laced with little inlets and coves as far as he could see in either direction and there were a series of small islands within the narrow channel.

He scanned around as they walked into the cool darkness until it became apparent to him that this was no stand of trees, it was an extremely dense forest. The canopy was so thick that once they got a few yards in, the light from above had virtually disappeared. Looking back, he could see the well-lit meadow, but the farther in they went, the dimmer it grew. The trees were obviously very old, they stretched up into the sky taller than any trees left on Earth—at least five hundred feet as far as he could tell. The huge trunks were closely spaced, some so big around it would likely take at least a dozen people to encircle them with their arms. The tree branches gnarled together over his head—he even had to duck down on occasion to avoid the twisted lower branches. Greenish moss covered the side of the trunks facing the light of the meadow. The trees were slimy with it, shiny and wet from the dense moisture that seemed to be captured in the spaces between them. It was stuffy and he felt almost as though his movements were slowed by the thick, damp air. He had no idea how large an area the forest might cover—it could be a few kilometers or it might be the size of Britain for all he knew.

“It’s a bit scary,” Jemma admitted, looking upward into the thick, dark ceiling of vegetation. The tall trees moved with the wind some and they could hear the loud creaking of the wood as they swayed. There were no animal sounds aside from a distant chatter of birds high in the leafy canopy above. “It’s giving me a touch of the collywobbles.” She smiled self-consciously but he could only just make it out in the dimness.

There really wasn’t anything he wasn’t finding scary about this whole alien-world development in his life so he merely hummed his agreement. Finally, when the wood only seemed to be getting more tightly crowded and he could only barely see the bright shore of the lake, he decided they should go back.

“We really can’t afford to get lost in the woods. Not without some breadcrumbs,” he told Jemma, but she didn’t smile at his joke. He reached out to touch her arm comfortingly but she didn't seem to see in the dark and turned away, heading back toward the meadow. He dropped his hand and tried not to feel the irrational snap of rejection that popped him right in the heart. It seemed a startling reminder of his status of being acceptable only on her own terms. He forced his feet to move and followed her back toward the light.

Jemma sat clutching the edge of the table that had inadvertently traveled to another world instead of finding her comfort in him again. Though it was difficult, he tried not to take it personally. While she tried to find balance, Fitz found a rocky outcropping that he deemed suitable for shelter from the wind. She helped him bring the heavy table over to it. Laying it on its side, it made a small enclosure against the rocky backdrop. He wasn’t sure what exactly it would protect them from but it made him feel more secure and it seemed better than nothing. He first closely examined and then hesitantly pulled a few branches of shrubbery off a nearby bush. He then laid them over the edges of their "cradle" that he was arranging for them to sleep in. He didn't know what good the cover would do other than to make him feel they were slightly more hidden but that, at least, was something. Jemma quickly caught on to what he was doing and began to add to the layers of vegetation until they had something that appeared rather camouflaged—from a visual standpoint, anyway. He only hoped there were no dangerous scent-tracking predators about.

By the time they finished, it actually was beginning to get on toward dusk. Fitz’s old quartz watch had stopped after the heavy magnetic interference of the power surge, but for some reason Jemma’s digital still said it was only just after three o’clock back on Earth so neither of them was particularly tired. Jet lagged on an alien world was not anything he'd been planning for that day. With the darkness closing, he didn’t want to start a fire (not that he knew exactly how to make one without matches, anyway), however, he told Jemma it could make them easy targets for whatever was on this planet—potentially, aliens of unknown alliance. Plus, they should probably wait until they knew what they were dealing with in terms of the environment in his mind. Who knew what the chemical properties of the plants and trees were? Last thing they needed was the alien equivalent of bloody poison ivy. It was probably best to try to get their circadian rhythms aligned with that world as well, since he had no clue how long they'd end up waiting there for Jane and Tony to get their resources together and find them.

With their fear almost palpable, and despite not yet needing sleep, they both settled down in the grassy cradle they’d made with their backs against the rock wall as the violet sky grew a brilliant cerulean in the twilight. Jemma laid her head on his shoulder and he pulled her against him, enjoying her closeness this time—forcibly ignoring anything but the comfort of her presence.

Fitz reached into the pocket of his lab coat and produced a packet of crisps. “Hungry?”

She smiled and pulled an apple from her own pocket. “Split?” she suggested hopefully.

He nodded, and taking the apple, handed her the crisps. Shifting to the side, he reached into his front pocket and fished out his keychain. He pulled open an attached Swiss army knife and used the small blade to cut the apple in half. He then halved it again and seeded it before handing a portion back to Jemma. She wiped the crisp dust from her lips and smiled gratefully as she took them, offering him back the packet.

He waved her off. “I’ve got another,” he said, pulling it from his lab coat’s large pocket.

“We’d best conserve our food,” she suggested, looking to him for agreement. “After all, we don’t really know how long it will take Jane and Tony to find us.”

He smiled at her hopeful declaration and put the second packet back in his pocket. He took the crisps, and pulling one out, smiled reassuringly back at her before he popped it in his mouth. Minutes later, as he crunched his apple, he thought to ask, “Is it safe to drink the water, d'you think?”

“I should say not without boiling it at least,” she said crinkling her nose in disgust at the idea. As they were currently lacking the implements to boil water, he just frowned. That would make things much more difficult.

She was very interested as he took the empty crisp packet and carefully ripped it down the edges so he could open it completely flat. He laid it on the grass outside their enclosure with the foil-side up, then laid a couple of stones on its edges to keep the breeze from tearing it away.

He returned to his previous spot next to Jemma and suddenly picked up her wrist to check the time on her watch. Noticing that she was looking at him oddly, he realized that he might have gotten over-familiar with the gesture. He tipped his head to the side in apology but she just smiled shyly and glanced away.

“It’s a little after four o’clock New Mexico time so we need to check again at sunrise and sunset tomorrow and then I’ll do the math.” He cringed inwardly at his thoughtless choice of phrase. The memories of another life-or-death situation still likely hit a bit too close to home for both of them.

“Because," he continued quickly, trying to keep his tone business-like in hopes he might cover his blunder, "then we’ll know just how long the days are here."

That seemed to register as a positive development and she praised him for it. It wasn't exactly going to help them get back to Earth but it was better than nothing, he supposed. Things between them went quiet again as they sat awkwardly near to each other but not as close as they had when she'd gotten so upset. He wanted to think of something better. A plan. Anything that might make her feel a bit more secure that they'd get out of this. Nothing, however, came immediately to mind—much to his dismay.

The lower the sun crept—which barely peeked through the dense clouds as it was—the cooler the air grew and when the sky became black, Jemma began to shiver. To stave off the cold, they finally lay down together face-to-face in their nest-like cradle. Scooting awkwardly closer, Fitz wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close against his chest, trying to keep her half on him to save her from the chill of the damp ground.

She tipped her head to gaze up at him, her breath tickling his cheek, and said, “Fitz?” She hesitated and he angled his head sharply in order to see her. Blinking back tears, she continued, “Do you really think we’ll...survive this?”

“I do,” he said decisively, squeezing her shoulders almost as much for his own reassurance as hers. “We will.”

He was about to say more but was surprised when he felt her lips come to rest just on the crest of his cheekbone. It effectively halted anything more he might've been about to articulate as his brain went a bit fuzzy. Unable to move—half-fearing it would cause her stop if he did—he gave himself over completely to the experience. The feel of her silken lips against his skin was oddly unhurried. The lingering press of her mouth seemed to only reluctantly give way to the gentle pursing of her lips against his cheek. It was strangely dreamlike. All of it as if in slow motion, he would've thought time had slowed in his own mind if not for the chatter of the lake birds as they squawked to one another. It helped him know that this was real. Before the pod, there were a select few times he could remember her doing this, but it had always been quick and awkward, making them both blush and shy away. It had certainly never been like this: so slow and relaxed. It was almost sensual. But it was still…just a kiss on the cheek, after all. Clearly, it was affection and nothing more. He couldn't allow himself to get his hopes up over such things, not ever again. It wasn't fair to either of them.

He looked down when she finally drew away, instinctively searching out her eyes to assess her mood and get her feedback on the incident. But night had already fallen and it had grown so dark he couldn’t see more than the opalescent oval of her face in the dim light that reflected off the undersides of the clouds.

Not sure what she was feeling, and now needing to force down his own sudden upwelling of emotion, he cleared his throat and swallowed back a slight lump that had lodged there. Then he whispered, “'Night, Jemma.”

She let out a sudden long breath against his cheek, and in an oddly-level tone, said, “Goodnight, Fitz.” He didn't know what her tone meant but he felt reassured when she gave him a firm squeeze and snuggled her head more tightly against his shoulder.

They continued to hug one another close for both warmth and comfort as the call of some water bird echoed long and lonely over the lake, mirroring his inner feelings a bit too closely for his taste. He gazed upward for lack of anything better to distract him from the feel of her against him. Occasionally, he caught a glimpse of alien constellations through the cloud-streaked skies and he wanted to point them out to Jemma but the strangeness of her kiss lingered in his mind. He firmly believed it was meant as solace but the moment had caused a disconcerting pull on his heart and—as much as it was a sharp, painful tug that brought up old longings and even nearly-smothered hopes—he found he didn't want to let go of the daydream that it could've meant something more by opening the door to a new conversation where she might quash them with a word. 

He knew indulging in the illusion was not good for him or their relationship, but it felt fantastic to imagine Jemma happy to be here in his arms because she wanted his love—even desired him just in the way he did her. He fantasized about her lips falling not on his cheek, but ambiguously just at the corner of his mouth. Then her tongue would peek out to trace the shape as he responded by drawing her against him in an embrace inappropriate for best friends, but just the thing for nascent lovers. He thought of her saying that she loved him—completely and without exception—that she didn't know why she hadn't seen it before but that now she only wanted him.

All too soon, his mind was startled out of his fancy with an unpleasant jolt of reality. A voice that reminded him that Jemma didn't love him and never would.

It forced him to deal, once again, with the fact that—according to her very own words—friends is all they would ever be. He tried to blink away the tears that sprang to his eyes but one escaped down his temple and he rubbed it away angrily. No, he wouldn't go back to that place of despair ever again. The place he'd been after the coma—after she'd left him. He wouldn't frighten her off again with his feelings—not now and not ever again. Friends would have to be enough. It had to be because he still couldn't imagine his life without her and, more than that, he didn't want to. He couldn't muck it up again by telling her how he still felt. She likely knew anyway, so what was the point? Not that she'd given him any hope that she'd ever change her mind, but if she did come to that very unlikely conclusion—by some miracle—he was confident that she knew he still felt the same. To bring it up, however—to throw it in her face—that would only bollocks up everything. He'd never do anything of the sort, not intentionally. No, friends was enough for him. It had to be. Because after everything was said and done, it was all that was on offer.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t much more time before Jemma went still and then slackened against him. It seemed his heart beat in time to her slow, even breaths against his cheek. Fitz counted them faithfully for some while before he finally drifted off into sleep himself. 

Chapter Text

 

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. –Viktor E. Frankl


 Fitz woke to the feeling of someone shaking his shoulder. When he opened his eyes to the sight of Jemma kneeling over him, he instantly remembered where they were.

“So, not a dream, then?” he asked, only half joking.

“No. And I need the loo now,” she said urgently. Fitz noted her wide eyes and generally impatient movements.

“Oh,” he said, sitting up immediately. “And you—you need me to…” He trailed off, really not sure what she needed him for.

“I’m not going into those awful woods by myself,” she said. Her words were tense and clipped, making it sound as if that preference should be perfectly obvious to him. Despite her tone, he knew she wasn't upset with him. She was still just out of sorts most likely. Not that he could blame her, he was feeling more than a bit unlike himself as well.

“Sure, sure,” he mumbled, scratching the back of his head and yawning. “Let’s both…” He swept his hand in the direction of the darkened forest.

Fortunately, the trees were so large they could be within just a few yards of each other and still be quite invisible to one another. He relieved himself against one of the large trunks as Jemma kept up a bit of a running chatter so he would know where she was at.

“—ly think they’ll be able to find us?” He just caught the end of a question and realized that it would require an answer. He gave a great jaw-cracking yawn and tried get his half-awake brain to remember how language worked. 

“Mm-hmm,” he hummed, loudly enough he hoped she could hear. “I mean, I’m sure they’re, ehm, trackin’ down the location in the computer.” He sighed, knowing it wasn’t that simple. He wondered if she knew that as well and just wanted the reassurance. “Once they do, it’ll be just a matter of them sendin’ for us, okay?” he said, trying to peek around the tree, subconsciously attempting to search out her reaction to his words, until he realized what he was unthinkingly doing.

“You decent?” she asked in a overly-loud, almost theatrical tone.

It was so sudden, and her voice so much closer, that it startled him. Instantly, he felt guilty and slightly pervy for his accidental attempt to search her out. Quickly, he tucked himself away, and then, tugging a bit at his rumpled clothes, said, “Eh, yes, just over here.”

“That was definitely not pleasant,” she complained as she came into view around the tree he was behind. “I’m not looking forward to more of that while they get things sorted out.”

“Haven’t you ever been campin’ before?” He would've had her family pegged as outdoorsy folk, particularly her mum. After all, it was educational, physical, and then there was the communing with nature and that bollocks her mum was so keen on.

She shook her head. “Why would we do that when we could go on the train to the Louvre or the Musée D’Orsay?” She sounded genuinely curious and one of her brows rose quizzically.

He shrugged. He didn’t know why she would. It actually made perfect sense for her in hindsight. He, on the other hand, had grown up without the benefit of money for such things so his mum—always preferring to do something over nothing—had taken him camping now and then.

“Well, I s’pose that particular aspect of roughin' it in the woods is less challengin' for, ehm, y'know, men,” he said, scratching nervously behind his ear as he tried not to grimace in embarrassment at the turn in the conversation.

She smiled just slightly but then it suddenly evaporated from her face, leaving a serious, worried expression in its wake. Then she blurted, “What are we going to do, Fitz? We can’t stay here forever—we’ll starve.”

“Well, if we can’t drink the water then I think we’ll most likely die of dehydration first,” he said in a ill-timed, poorly-considered attempt at humor.

Instantly, her hands flew up to grip the sides of her neck in her anxiety and she set her teeth to worrying her bottom lip in anguish. Fitz knew the pose well, he’d spent more than enough time getting to know it over the years. He was being generous when he admitted that Jemma wasn't exactly what anyone would call a serene person under normal circumstances and he'd only pushed her over the edge into anxiety with his lack of consideration. He'd need to keep better control of his stupid gob in future, they were now facing some truly dangerous aspects of their situation and he needed to be more careful what he said to her. The truth was, he was still a bit in denial that this was actually happening. Jemma, he knew, hated inaction more than anything. The helpless feeling was undoubtedly beginning to gnaw at her and he was only making it worse with his callous attempt at humor.

“Fitz, we're going to die unless we do something," she said, her voice and her throat tight with tension. "What can we do?” 

Feeling like an insensitive bastard, he reached a hand out to soothe the panic that he’d inadvertently fanned into flame with his careless words, but let it drop away sharply when she cringed slightly away from him.

Hurt but feeling he deserved it, he shrugged his shoulders. “I dunno exactly. What’s your suggestion, then?”

Her expression serious in the dim light, she peered through the trees, off toward the mountains on the other side of the lake and then into the deep, dark of the forest. “I think we should go through the woods,” she said finally, although her eyes were large and worried.

He was a little surprised, only because she seemed so much more frightened of the woods than the mountains, but really it actually was the only practical choice. They had only a few options to begin with. They could—number one—try to follow the shoreline, but it pretty clearly looked to get rocky and mountainous in either direction. They could—number two—knock up a boat from scratch and sail to the actual mountains on the other side of the lake, then try to climb them before they died. Or—number three—Jemma’s option. Feelings aside, it was practical and logical, much like Jemma herself.

He sighed, rolling his eyes skyward, though there was nothing but darkness above and the eternal chittering of birds. “Okay, what’ve you got in your pockets?”

Her expression went from worry to amusement in an instant. She gave him a questioning look and said, “I don’t know offhand…Gollum.”

“Well, actually it was Bilbo who—know what? Never mind. Doesn’t matter.” He shook his head and managed a weak laugh, but couldn’t quite keep his tone less than serious as he said, “Look, Jemma, I’m not goin’ through the woods without a compass. It’ll be black as night in the bloody pit of hell in there. We’ll just wander in circles. C’mon.” He tugged on her elbow and then headed back toward their little refuge.

Once there, he first checked his homemade dew condenser made of a flattened crisp packet. It had a small amount of moisture on it which he siphoned into the center. It was hardly more than a thimbleful but he made Jemma stand with her head back so he could pour it into her mouth.

After that, he lifted their table back upright and began to turn out his pockets onto it. From his jeans, he pulled various change, his wallet, a handful of electronic components, a completely useless Stark S-phone (that he now remembered to switch off), and then his keyring with penlight and Swiss Army knife attached. From his lab coat’s larger pockets, he brought out the second packet of crisps, a granola bar, chapstick, a small notebook, two pens, and his small electronics toolkit. The last thing he pulled out—rather embarrassedly when Jemma smirked over it—was a battered paperback copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that was so well-loved and oft-carried that the corners had rounded out as they wore away inside his pockets.

Jemma brushed a finger over the book's cover before she began to turn out her own pockets. Finding nothing in her jeans but her S-phone tucked into a back pocket (which he also switched off), she turned to her lab coat's larger pockets. She was able to dredge a pencil, a hair tie, breath mints, a set of earbuds for her phone, and three paper clips clinging to a small pad of sticky notes.

“I think I’m a bit glad of your being such a packrat now,” she said with a small chuckle.

“Oi!” he complained. “I am not a bloody packrat. These are all completely useful things.” He splayed his hands over the table full of literally everything they had in this particular world.

With a grin and a playful tone, she picked up his keyring, and asked, “And what are these keys for, then?”

He looked around aimlessly, only wanting to delay the inevitable, before he finally—and quite petulantly—admitted, “The lab, plus…my car and my flat.”

“Which…?” she prompted, her smile growing.

“Which...I no longer have.” He crossed his arms over his chest and refused to look at her—or admit that he hadn't needed either of those keys for over three years. "At this stage, anyway," he muttered under his breath.

“Useful…” she said drily, setting them back on the table.

“Yeah, well—you wouldn’t be half as well off if I didn’t have my keys on me,” he threw back at her, disliking his own peevishness but unable to stop himself. Despite his desire to end the conversation (as well as his own contentiousness), he squinted his eyes down to glower at her slightly. He knew she was teasing him but he wished it didn't feel like criticism.

Ignoring his surly expression but no longer smiling, she nodded slowly. “True. I suppose I must admit that.”

He harrumphed more than a bit triumphantly at her concession before picking up one of the paperclips. He straightened it out before nipping it off with the cutters from his toolkit which left him with a perfectly straight little piece of steel.

Jemma looked on as he went back toward the woods and found what he needed still attached to at tree. He peeled the large hunk of loose bark away with his bare hands, and then after a short hunt under a broad-leafed tree, he found a nicely curled leaf which he tucked into his pocket. He went to the edge of the lake and filled the shallow trough of bark with water then returned to set it on the table. Jemma closely scrutinized as he dropped the leaf on top of the water and began to stroke the little section of paperclip along the cuff of his wool cardigan. When he thought it was sufficiently magnetized, he very carefully placed the bit of metal onto the leaf.

“Well, here it is: the fateful moment or—let's hope—the turnin’ point,” he joked, his tone a bit sarcastic, though he was already beginning to let go of his brief irritation. Packrat. Prepared!

They both watched, riveted, as the roughly-made compass just sat there unmoving. After enough time had elapse that it seemed unlikely to move, he slapped his hand down on the table in frustration. “Son of a…” he muttered, gripping the back of his neck uneasily. Then he twisted the entire makeshift compass in a different direction. They both stared down at the compass and waited once again.

“Perhaps this world…doesn’t have magnetic poles?” Jemma suggested in a hesitant tone pitched higher than usual with the tension of the moment as she eyed the leaf and its passenger. The words were barely out of her mouth, when she suddenly shrieked gleefully as the leaf began to rotate in the water. “I can’t believe that bloody well worked!” She threw her arms around his neck and he was immediately torn between being offended at her insult to his survival-skill toolmaking abilities and just being happy at having another chance to hold her. The latter won out as he hugged her to him tightly.

He couldn't help reveling in the feel of her bouncing lightly against him—but then she stopped abruptly, going up on her tip-toes to press herself against him fully. It suddenly felt as though every inch of her were molded along his body—from her cheek tucked into his shoulder to where he felt the fronts of her thighs against his (and so much in between that he didn't even want to think about just now). He dragged in a ragged breath, and somewhere in the back of his mind, he wondered if this all wasn’t a bit unhealthy for him—not that he’d ever really been a paragon of mental fitness. 

Chapter Text

 

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage. –Anais Nin


 “Jemma, please. One more day and then we’ll leave. I promise. I just—I want to give Jane and Tony a chance,” Fitz pleaded, his brows knit together in consternation. He was sitting on the table, leaning back on his arms, legs swinging aimlessly, and feeling like he’d already lost this battle.

He didn't honestly know how Jane and Tony would find them especially if the entire computer system had been seriously damaged back on Earth. It seemed to him that their arrival coordinates were the safest bet. If he and Jemma wandered off now, when back home they'd lost the capability to track their movements, they'd genuinely be on their own out there. Fitz was forced to admit he was still quite terrified by that possibility.

“And meanwhile, we use up all our food, have no water to drink and you have no idea how long we need to walk to get to somewhere resembling civilization,” she argued, punctuating her sharp words with stiff movements of her arms, angry gestures born of her anxiety.

“We can use minimal energy today and we’ll save the food for walkin' tomorrow,” he suggested, following it up with a sigh, knowing his suggestion wouldn't go far in Jemma's mind.

“Fitz, food won’t matter if there’s no water to drink. Without water, we’ll die—in just a few days.”

“You don’t know what we’ll come across, Jemma,” he said urgently. “There could be a clear stream or we might find rainwater or dew or plants or somethin'.” He was grasping desperately at straws and he knew it. Still, it seemed the right thing. Jane and Tony had to be looking for them—if they were okay themselves, that was.

She sighed heavily and it gave him a burst of hope that she was going to let it go—but apparently she was just getting in enough air for another barrage. “You don’t know, either,” she stated flatly, meeting his gaze with a stern look. Her eyes were full of disdain and—though on some level he felt he deserved it—that still hurt. She began listing on her fingers, “Precipitation levels, plant toxicity, bacterial virulence…you don’t know anything, Fitz.” She said the last bit so angrily, he was all but prepared to give in. He opened his mouth to concede but she drew in another sharp breath and then muttered, “Fine.” But her voice sounded empty and hopeless yet somehow still angry.

“Jemma, it’ll be better, I promise," he said quickly, taking his chance to accept her concession while it lasted. "We’ve wasted too much time today, anyway. It’s too late to go through all that dark forest now. I don't even know how bloody long the days are yet. Besides, if Jane and Tony can get us back, then we won’t need to worry about any of that business."

“And if they don’t, then we’ll die,” she snapped petulantly. Then she turned away from him abruptly, marching up to the edge of the lake in her upset. She toed the water with her boot and just stood there, her back to him with her arms crossed tightly over her chest.

After a moment, he hopped down from the table and walked up behind her. He never could stand for her to be angry with him for long. He started to put a hand on her shoulder but thought better of it.

“Jemma, I really do think this is our best course of action—our best chance to…" He hesitated but decided he'd best make his point while he could. "Well, to make it out of here alive." He waited another beat before adding what he'd really been wanting to say the entire argument but he'd been too afraid she'd never listen to the rest of what he had to say. "But, Jemma, I'll do what you think is best. We need to make this decision together. It affects you as much as it does me. I won't force you into anythin' you don't want.”

She didn’t move even when he'd finished speaking. He waited, pressing his lips together tightly. But when she still didn't move as the seconds ticked by, he though perhaps it was too little too late. Just as he was about to turn and leave her—maybe give her some space to settle—she spun toward him, closing the distance immediately, and bringing her arms around his neck.

“I know, Fitz. I know you think that it's our best chance. Maybe you're right. We–we can stay,” she murmured, her breath cool against his neck. “Just for another day. And I’m sorry I got angry. I’m just...” She shook her head against his shoulder like she didn't know how to finish.

He brought his arms around her, splaying his fingers over her ribs and then moving his hands downward into the curve of her waist. “I know. 'S alright. I'm sorry as well,” he said, his own small upset at their spat evaporating instantly. He stroked lightly up over her back, trying to ignore the suppleness of her body just beneath her thin blouse while feeling like a creeper.

She pulled back after a few moments and he noted that her eyes were dry. It was as if she'd cried all the tears she had the day before. “I never really meant to sign up for quite this much adventure, I suppose,” she joked, looking away in embarrassment and letting her arms slip from his shoulders. He still had her by the waist, and even though he was telling his fingers to let her go, they seemed to have developed a mind of their own on the subject. Finally, with conscious effort, he willed himself to release her and move a step back.

Unexpectedly, she took the same step toward him, and looking up at him from beneath her lashes, cracked a half-smile. “So what shall we do while we conserve our energy?”

Her timbre bordered dangerously on flirtatious but he heard anxiety beneath it. It seemed clear she was trying to lighten the mood between them. Unfortunately, her tone made his mouth go dry with wishing her playful lilt were real and not just some kind of joke to her. Feeling his wounded heart so carelessly prodded, he wondered bitterly what Jemma would do if he made a suggestion on the subject of exactly what he'd like to do just then. At that thought, he couldn't help glancing at her lips. He swallowed hard, the sight of the full sweet curve of her mouth making him ache with desire for her. Desperately, he longed to kiss her but the memory of their one and only previous kiss had him pushing the thought far away, deep into the shadows of his mind.

He knew in reality that he'd never risk the friendship they'd so assiduously rebuilt by suggesting any such thing. Yet, it felt a bit cruel of her to suddenly toy with his emotions that way. She knew how he felt after all. Before this disastrous accident had landed them here on another world, the admission of his love seemed like it must be tattooed on his bloody forehead for all her tiptoeing around the subject. However, since they'd been stuck here together, the constant reminders of her discomfort and avoidance of the subject—both in her words and even within the pregnant pauses around them—seemed to have evaporated. Still, it wasn't as if she'd forgotten how he felt. He thought he could see it in her eyes sometimes—just on occasion—that horrible pity for him. Not for his brain as it was after the coma, now it must only be for his pathetic lovesick heart.

It seemed to him uncharacteristically callous for Jemma to throw it in his face this way and it sparked his anger back again. Suddenly, in no mood for whatever teasing she was on about, he tried to shrug off her apparent jab at his tender feelings. He turned away from her, toward the wooden table, their lonely reminder of home, and in answer to her question, said, “We should leave a message for Jane and Tony so when they do get here, they’ll know where to find us after we head off tomorrow.”

“Good thinking,” she said listlessly, turning back toward the water.

He got out his flat-blade screwdriver and began to carve a message on the table top. It took him some time to finish as the day wore on, with Jemma watching him from the shadows as she inspected the alien plants and other life near the lake.

Just as he was blowing the dust from the surface of the table, Jemma came to see what he’d carved. “Clever,” she mocked, quirking a brow.

He rolled his eyes and said, “You didn’t seem interested when the votin’ was open on what to write.”

“True, but ‘Jane/Tony we went that way’ with an arrow, hardly seems conclusive,” she contended.

“If you can more accurately tell me where we’re headed, I’d absolutely love to hear it,” he grumped back.

“North through the woods?” she suggested hesitantly, clearly worried about dredging up his ire.

“Fine,” he said grudgingly. "I’ve got room."

He knew he still managed to sound thoroughly annoyed despite the fact that it actually was a good idea but he still couldn't let go of the notion that she'd tried to taunt him over his feelings. He began the addition as she wandered away, sitting in the shade of their rock wall during the relative heat of the day. They’d both shed layers because of the higher temperature, but even so, his brow began to bead with sweat as he carved.

Once he'd finished Jemma’s addendum, he had another plan he thought he’d see to—though it wasn’t exactly a conserving-energy type of activity. However, if it payed off, that might not matter so much.

He took one of the paperclips that came from Jemma’s pocket, and cutting it just so, he formed it into a slightly imperfect hook. He even managed a rough barb with his sharp wire cutters. Folding the top into a secure, multi-layered loop, he took Jemma’s earbuds and, clipping off all the ends, he peeled the two halves apart and securely knotted an end to the hook. He silently thanked his mum for the brief stint she'd forced him into the boy scouts. They'd taught him how to tie a fair knot at least (even if he had no clue how to make a fire from rubbing two sticks together).

He searched out a decent sapling which—lacking the proper tool for that particular job—he bent and twisted until he thought he might finally give up. Before he did, it ultimately gave way with a fleshy tearing sound and he tied the other end of the earbud wire to it. He then took a moment to admire his work.

Satisfied after checking it for design flaws, he got out his trusty flat-blade and dug into the moist soil close enough to the water to potentially be a home to something edible to fish. He finally found something remarkably similar to a worm. Pulling it up with the tool, he inspected it, and when nothing apparent seemed amiss (or dangerous), he started to take it off the end of his flat-blade.

“No!” Jemma cried, apparently watching him intently from the shade. “What if it’s venomous?”

He gave a long-suffering sigh, and holding the wiggling thing to the ground with the blade-end, he grimaced as he skewered it carefully with the sharpened hook. He then headed to a rocky outcropping he’d spied, having deemed it a decent fishing spot in his mind.

What seemed hours and hours later, he still had nothing to show for all his efforts. Though he’d never let Jemma out of his sight while he fished, she hadn't tried to speak to him at all for the entire afternoon. He assumed she was still a bit shirty after their quarrel.

It was nearly cerulean twilight, and for the first time, the sky was clear enough for him to see two moons. One appeared about three times the size of Earth's moon and the other was perhaps half the size of the first. He was marveling at the view and toying with the idea of leaving off with fishing for the evening when he felt a tiny tug on his line. He was so entranced with the double moons he nearly missed it. He waited for a few moments, wondering if he’d imagined it. Then he felt a slightly stronger tug. He pulled up sharply and soon had the thrashing beast—some monstrous cross between a fish and a lizard—up on the rocks where he ruthlessly pummeled it with a loose bit of stone so it wouldn’t get away before it became their supper.

Once it finally stopped its flailing struggle, he let out a long-held breath. “Bloody hell,” he muttered. He’d never known fishing could be so violent.

Now, he realized, it was time for the truly difficult part: fire.

He climbed down from his perch with his haul and was rather shocked to find that, while he’d been forcing their dinner to submit, Jemma had gathered the tools to make a fire. She was currently rubbing a largish stick through a bark trough with a bit of moss at one end. She already had a good deal of moss stacked under some kindling sticks in a pit, just waiting for ignition. He stayed quiet, trying not to distract her as he carefully beheaded, scaled and gutted his relatively fish-like catch.

Once he'd finished, he watched her silently as she continued to work, rhythmically moving the stick along the bark. She was using her entire body for the task, her back arched as she went forward and back again. Suddenly, his cheeks grew hot and he dropped his eyes away as he realized what her movements began to remind him of. Fortunately, it was only a short time later when a bit of smoke began to billow up from the end of the trough as Jemma panted over her efforts, her face gleaming with perspiration. He looked on in fascination and even admiration as she dumped the suddenly flaming moss into the pit she’d made for their fire. It quickly caught the rest ablaze as Jemma carefully fed it stick after stick, and before long, there was a lovely large fire going.

He managed to rig up a halfway decent rotary, and when the smell of succulent fish filled their noses, he brought his prize down and divvied it up between them. For a long moment, they both just stared at the mouthwatering white flesh as it glimmered in the firelight with a good sheen of fat coating it.

“It might be poisonous,” Jemma said hesitantly, unable to tear her eyes away.

“It might,” he agreed, taking in the smell with a deep inhale.

Fitz's stomach rumbled but it seemed to work as a signal and they both immediately fell upon their respective portions. When they were each finished and sat licking their fingers greedily, Fitz still couldn't help wishing for just a bit more.

“How long before we know for sure?” Fitz asked, wiping his greasy fingers on the knees of his jeans.

“Soon,” she answered rather smoothly, as if she’d been expecting the question.

After an hour of the two of them sitting by the fire, staring nervously into the flames, Jemma finally broke the silence and said, “Well, it could be only mildly toxic, in which case, we’ll probably feel the effects tomorrow.”

“Best get to sleep, then,” Fitz joked but was surprised when she immediately slid closer to him.

“Can we sleep here—by the fire?” she asked, the flickering light playing along her features and making her face glow gold. "Is it safe, do you think?"

Without warning or even waiting for his answer, she turned away from him and scooted herself up against him more fully. He shifted his legs to the side as she pressed her back to his chest and leaned into him, her head tipping against his shoulder as she continued to stare into the flames. Wordlessly, she pulled his arm low around her waist bringing his hand to rest lightly on her hip. His breath caught in his throat and he fought down some hot, sharp upwelling of emotion that he really didn't want to look at too closely just now—especially not after what'd happened earlier. He knew his anger at her over the tone she'd taken had been irrational but he still felt it even now.

It wasn't fair, was it? To expect her to know that her presence sometimes pained him? No. It wasn't fair at all. He couldn't tell her, either. Selfishly, he didn't want her to pull away again.

“Ehm, yeah. Why not?” he said in answer to her question, trying to modulate his voice so it didn't go too high. He also gave a slight shrug that she couldn’t possibly see, an excuse as he tried to expand his chest for a full breath of air and calm his sudden shakiness.

It occurred to him that, just now, with her so close, he was getting nearly exactly what he wanted—only it was beginning to feel like torment.

Without intending it, he continued on full-bore with that hurtful line of thought.

This sort of intimacy was the way he'd always imagined it being between them—if only she loved him back. This was precisely the level of affection and closeness he'd always longed to have with her. For a disgracefully lengthy moment, he dreaded getting back home again. He knew that without the threat of danger, she would inevitably go straight back to the distance that had existed between them less than two days ago.

He wasn’t sure if this situational closeness was better or worse for him. 

He wanted to hold her this way but that distance had allowed him to keep his feelings in check. It'd also given him a measure of emotional security that he had none of now. Routinely, it seemed he was overcome with it all and felt to be nearly in the middle of a breakdown—ready to beg her to reconsider her choice or just stop making him feel like she might. He’d been telling himself for nearly a year that he was getting better—getting over her, or closer at least—but the truth was, he was as much in love with Jemma as he had ever been. Jesus, maybe more than he'd ever been.

As she settled back against him further, relaxing easily into his embrace, he couldn’t quite seem to get enough air into his lungs but he was afraid she would feel his body’s protests for more oxygen as he tried to suppress the uproar still going on inside his head. The issue wasn't only how close she was, it was how much this meant to him—and how it obviously was nothing at all to Jemma. No doubt, it was little more than comfort and protection. For him, not to put too fine a point on it, but it was absolutely everything. It was the illusion of all he'd ever wanted or dreamed of with her, only without her reciprocation. The hollowness of it suddenly caused an ache in his chest that hurt more than he'd ever imagined was possible. He thought it was likely the worst feeling he'd ever experienced.

If she ever noticed his struggle to breathe with her body pressed to his, she said nothing of it. His breaths did shallow eventually, thankfully returning to normal as he fought down his feelings in some bitter internal struggle between rationality and emotion. Reason tempered his sorrow for the moment, however, as he grasped onto the certainty that—for Jemma—he would endure the most awful torture, the worst pain, if only he could make this easier for her. He would suffer it until he couldn't—until his sanity forbade it.

After while, they lay down on their sides to sleep with Fitz’s lab coat beneath them to protect from the cold ground with hers draped over them for warmth. Jemma pushed back against him, spooning them together with her back against his front and then she pulled his arm across to curl over her waist while they watched the fire burn down to embers.

Chapter Text

 

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness. –John Muir


They were in nearly the exact same position the next morning as when they'd both drifted to sleep the night before.

Fitz woke quietly this time, one moment he was asleep, and the next he was awake. His eyes blinked open to the sunny glare filtering down through the leaves above, the amber light was just fading into violet as the sun crested the mountains and he could hear the twittering of a great flock of birds as they sat high in the leafy umbrella of the forest. He didn’t move at all, just laid there listening to their soft warbling, coming to full awareness of the warm body he was pressed against: Jemma.

She must have heard his breathing change since she couldn’t see his face where it was resting just behind her head. She seemed to have her long hair wound over her shoulder but some little hairs had come loose and were just barely tickling his cheek. 

“Don’t be embarrassed, Fitz,” she suddenly blurted out and there was a strange desperation in her voice.

It took a shamefully long time for him to understand what she was on about. His hand had wandered up from her waist during the night and his fingers were just barely flexed over the curve of her breast. He figured it out more from location than actual sensory perception. And though one likely had little to do with the other, his brain made the lovely simultaneous realization that he was quite closely pressed against her and—euphemistically speaking—the “molecules” below his belt were currently in an “excited state”.

He jerked away, turning his back to her, wanting nothing more than to curl into the fetal position and cover himself up completely with dirt. If he sunk into the soft soil of the meadow, down into a bottomless pit, that would be just fine as well—a bonus, really. Perhaps the Balrog would take pity on him and swallow him whole?

He felt her turn toward him, sliding her hand along his arm (which was really NOT helpful just now) as she said, “It’s a normal, healthy biological reaction. It doesn’t—well, it doesn't mean anything. Don’t be upset, please?”

It was, oddly enough, not making him feel much better. “I’m fine,” he said, though it was rather muffled by his hand over his very red face. “Just—can you give me a moment?” he breathed out through his tense throat, tight with shame and embarrassment.

She hesitated briefly before finally answering. “Alright.” Without further ado, she got up and headed for the trees. “I’ll just be—well—you know,” she said sounding rather embarrassed herself.

He peeked between his fingers to see her shaking her head—at either him or herself, he wasn’t entirely sure. He might’ve considered asking her if he weren’t utterly, monumentally, horrifically, soul-crushingly mortified. He could console himself with the idea that, if they died, then at least she wouldn’t have the memory for long.

He shook himself mentally after that thought. That was not the way to be thinking just now! He couldn't be going off joking about giving up—not even in his head. What he really needed to be thinking about was how to get them out of this fucked-to-shit situation. So that's exactly what he would do—just as soon as he could manage to stop cringing in bloodcurdling, abject humiliation. 

Making sure she was out of sight and earshot, he sat up and stretched, bringing his hands down to cover his still-warm face as he groaned out, “Fan-fuckin’-tastic start to the day.”

It wasn’t like his life was difficult enough at the moment. Oh, no. Just add some horribly awkward discomfort to the mix to boot. Great. Thanks for that—bloody universe.

To continue the physics metaphor, his “molecules” down below were finally beginning to return to “ground state”. He wasn’t sure how he was going to deal with his “spontaneous excitation” situation now he was forced to spend absolutely all his bloody time with Jemma. He normally dealt with being around her not even half this often by “inducing emission” on a fairly regular basis. It wasn’t as if he would be able to go have a wank in the woods whenever he needed it. And with all the closeness that had been going on between them the last two days, he was in serious need of “inducing emission” right bloody now! Especially if they were going to be sleeping like that every night. He didn’t want to reach a point of becoming “metastable”. Ugh, the physics metaphor really was getting a bit thin.

He grimaced as an unpleasant dart of anxiety shot down his spine when he spied Jemma heading back through the trees. He was afraid she’d bring it up again. She wasn’t exactly one for letting things drop if she thought she could help—which she bloody well could not! He clamored to his feet and strode purposefully toward the trees. She opened her mouth to say something as he passed, but seemed to think better of it before continuing on by. He sighed, shoulders dropping with relief.

When he came back a few minutes later, she was sitting on his lab coat again and stirring the burnt-out fire aimlessly with a stick.

“Ready to head out, then?” he asked, hoping to forestall any talk on the subject of his “excitation”.

She just nodded without meeting his eyes. Which was excellent as far as he was concerned because avoidance was exactly the tactic he intended to employ. 

He got his homemade crisp-packet dew condenser, and though Jemma tried to argue, he forced her to drink the tiny bit of water it held by ultimately threatening to dump it out. He removed the pole from his fishing gear and left it by the fire pit, stuffing the rest into his pocket, the hook tucked safely away in his toolkit. He accepted his lab coat from Jemma’s hesitant fingers and gave it a shake before he put it back on. He dug through the fire pit on the spur of the moment until he finally found a few decent pieces of charcoal which he added to his toolkit. Finally, he checked the message he’d carved into the table one last time and patted his hand across the words. Please find us, Jane, he thought.

He turned to Jemma and nodded. “Okay, ready.” He picked up the compass he’d made the previous day and carried it gingerly in front of him. “Since we don’t know where we’re goin', one direction is as good as another. We just need to make sure we keep goin' the same way,” he assured her.


They tramped through the trees as it got gradually darker and darker beneath the dense covering of foliage until Fitz finally had to get his penlight out so he could see the compass needle. The air grew thick, making it seem difficult to breath, but it was also cool and dank, making his skin feel unpleasantly cold and clammy.

Jemma stayed mainly close to his right shoulder. Sometimes he could actually feel her there brushing against his elbow she was so near. He knew she must be scared but he actively tamped down his own fear, trying to keep his head clear so he could stay alert to potential dangers. Christ knew what might be lurking in the woods with them. All he had for a weapon was a rather good quality flat-blade screwdriver tucked into his pocket where he could get to it as needed. 

Their eyes having adjusted fairly well, he finally elected to turn off his penlight since he was afraid of the battery going flat all too quickly. He only turned it on occasionally to check that they were still following the compass needle where they needed to. He used one of the bits of charcoal he'd salvaged from the fire-pit to mark their way on the tree trunks occasionally. Jemma gave him a quizzical look the first time, but without a word from him, understanding flooded her features and she soon took over the task so he could focus on keeping careful hold of their compass.

They walked in the near-dark for a long time, taking a break to sit every hour or two. Once in awhile, the trees would creak so loudly overhead that they would both brace themselves for some giant branch to come crashing down from above—but it never happened. Sometimes as they rested, they would pass his chapstick back and forth, grimly trying to wet their dry lips. It helped some, but also served to remind them that their time was running short. 

They came to a spot of sunlight on occasion and, once, even to a little softly-lit glade in the middle of all that dark and damp; it had grass and even a few small purple flowers. Jemma let out a short little burble of laughter as they crossed over it. The sudden diffuse light seemed overly brilliant to his eyes, now adjusted to the dimness of the wood. He glanced over at Jemma in the sudden glow and saw how her eyes crinkled at the corners in her delight. She looked strangely happy, more so than he'd seen her for longer than he could recall. But he only trudged on, wishing he could share in her joy but also knowing the inherent danger now of letting his feelings go. He’d decided that he needed to begin looking at her comfort as a task. It was his job as her friend, but nothing more. He would try to keep his emotions in check by not letting them get in the way to begin with.

This sounded good in his head but somehow he couldn't quite believe he would have the discipline required to keep it up. If only because it felt too good to have her in his arms—even just for a bit, even if it was only until they got back home. He wasn't sure he could forgo the opportunity, not completely. Nevertheless, he also knew he needed that discipline—he had to maintain some emotional space between them to keep himself from running slightly mad. He'd be of absolutely no use to her then. Not to mention, the middle of a deep, dark forest of unknown dangers was certainly no place for them to have it out about his ongoing feelings yet again. And, really, what was the point? Nothing had changed. Though this was all emotionally overwhelming enough without Jemma plastering herself over him when she damn well knew what it would mean to him.

But then it occurred to him that maybe she didn't realize—perhaps she thought he was over his unwelcome sentiments? It'd been more than two years since he told her after all and he'd been with someone else for a time. Could she think he was now finished with his more-than-friendly feelings? It explained her freer attitude around him once again and her teasing remarks. If she believed it was no longer an issue between them, then she wasn't being carelessly cruel, she was just trying to return things to where they had once been. The thought of making her aware of his feelings again suddenly became unbearable. How he'd hate to shatter her illusion that he'd gone back to the old Fitz that she never had to walk on eggshells with. Who she felt free to be playful and affectionate with when the urge struck. God, how he'd hate to ruin everything again. He couldn't stand that.

Finally, after walking for seven hours or so, they came across a particularly dense spot where the ground was festooned with a great multitude of knotty, twisting tree roots growing across the peaty forest floor. Fitz caught his foot on one of the unseen gnarled roots where it lay writhing up from the ground and nearly fell headlong into the dirt. He was only saved by Jemma’s closeness. She caught him by the shoulder but the precious water in their compass sloshed over the sides of the bark bowl even as he tried to steady it.

He set down the compass and pulled the penlight from his pocket to check the level and found that he wasn’t certain if there was still enough liquid to allow the leaf to move freely. He twisted it in another direction and found that the leaf got caught up on the bark as it tried to rotate. Too much water had spilled and the compass would no longer function.

“Goddamnit!” he shouted at the top of his voice. Overhead, an enormous horde of birds took to the sky over his outburst and he immediately felt Jemma clinging to his arm as they both ducked their heads at the thunderous noise of so many wings flapping at once.

When the cacophony had died down to the occasional flap, they both just stared at one another in the murky shadows. Jemma was the first to laugh but he soon found himself chuckling with a hand pressed over his mouth, trying not to stir up anything else that might be lurking in the trees.

He sat down heavily on a giant root and said, “Now what’re we goin’ to do?”

She sat beside him and, still trying to control the last of her tittering, and said, “I have no idea, Fitz. But I suppose we’ll figure it out.”

“Next time I’m giving out advice to Jane about where to land on some alien world, would you please remind me of how long we had to walk through this bloody forest?” Fitz asked drily.

“Yes, no need for concern there. I’ll probably be reminding you for years to come regardless.” She probably meant it lightly but somehow it silenced them both as they each realistically contemplated what their prospects might be. He couldn’t quite picture what their future might look like at the moment, everything was just a bit too complicated and he didn't want to mire himself down with worst-case-scenario outcomes.

“What time is it?” Fitz asked suddenly, afraid to repeat his over-familiar gesture of looking at her watch for himself.

She glanced at it, poking the little button that lit up the face—with a bit of a laugh still in her words, she said, “It’s nearly one o’clock back on planet Earth.”

“Two more hours until it gets truly dark then,” he said, almost to himself. Trying to catch her eyes in the dimness, he said, more loudly this time: “Maybe we should just camp here for now? I’m done for and, well, I've got something I’d like to give a go before it gets too dark.”

“Good. I’m knackered as well,” she agreed and slid her fingers lightly along his knee. It was perfectly friendly but it was against his new policy. He ignored the shiver that went up his spine over the contact and stood. He tried to do it casually, he didn’t want to hurt her feelings but he also couldn’t let things get out of order in his head any longer. His will was the last thing standing between their again-comfortable friendship and him bollixing everything up by blurting out some new confession, or how much he wished she would just stop bloody touching him.

“Gimme your watch,” he said, holding out his hand.

She quickly took it off and handed it to him. He sat down on the ground, wrinkling his nose at the smell of decayed leaves, and pulled out his toolkit. Holding his penlight between his teeth, he quickly had the back of the watch off and, after half an hour or so of tinkering with it, he snapped it back together and held it up.

“There,” he said proudly, handing it to Jemma. “The first human-owned watch for, ehm, whichever planet this turns out to be.”

Jemma looked suitably impressed. “How’d you manage it?”

He shrugged and nearly bit his tongue trying to stop himself from saying that he’d done the math again. “I figured it out. Nineteen hours twenty-two minutes to a day, and then sunrise at seven forty-three. Resetting the watch was simple. Well, not simple but…” He shrugged again.

She smiled and put it on her wrist.

He laid out his homemade dew condenser for the morning before he took the full packet of crisps and the granola bar out of his pocket. “Shall we split one?” he asked.

She nodded enthusiastically, unsurprisingly, choosing the granola bar. He opened it and, breaking it in half, gave her the larger piece.

“Fitz,” she chided, breaking off a small bit and offering it to him.

By now, his piece was already gone and he held up a hand to wave her off. “Couldn’t eat another bite,” he joked, still chewing. When she continued to hold it out to him, his voice tinged with something like a plea, he finally said, “No, you have it, Jemma—okay?”

She only gazed at him inscrutably for a long moment, then sighed and popped it into her mouth.

The light was fading in earnest and though they’d brought Jemma’s fire-making tools there was nothing dry enough to burn. They huddled together against the trunk of a gigantic tree for warmth in the damp air. Dew had already begun to settle over their hair and in their eyelashes. Fitz thought if he had perhaps a hundred crisp packets he might be able to partially fill a small water bottle. He rubbed his dry lips together and looked skyward, asking the universe to give them some rain.

Apparently, the universe was in a generous mood.

He woke to the feeling of ice cold water showering down over his head. It only took him a moment to realize what it was. He brought the full crisp packet out of his pocket and, opening it carefully, he dumped the crisps down into his pocket. He then waited for it to fill up. It was nearly done by the time Jemma woke up.

“Want the first one?” he asked. She looked over into the packet at the drifting bits of crisp and wrinkled her nose.

Shaking her head, she asked, “Are you sure it’s, eh, safe?”

“Nope,” he said and began to guzzle the potato-water down, pausing several times so he wouldn’t get sick.

She yawned and stretched as he finished it off. She then waited as he held it up to a leaf that seemed to be a good funnel and, evidently, ignoring her own concerns, she drank her water almost as greedily as he had. Though she did pause frequently, more cautious than he, to let her stomach try to absorb the liquid.

They drank three more packets of water each, after which he refilled it and used Jemma’s hair tie to secure the top so he could put it in his pocket. Expecting a lecture, he sheepishly offered her some slightly soggy crisps from his pocket. But the reprimand never came and they ate them gratefully as the rain began to slow.

They both drank a bit more water, directly from the tap of a leaf this time, until the flow had all but stopped.

“We’d better head out,” he said finally.

The good news was that their compass was, once again, completely full. The bad news was that the paperclip was no longer magnetized. He tried running it over the inside of his soggy wool cardigan and over his rather damp cotton shirt but nothing worked—the wet had killed the static.

They headed off in the general direction they thought they’d been going. Unfortunately, they had no way to be sure and, without being able to see any hint of the sun, there was nothing to lead them—nothing but Fitz.

Chapter Text

 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. –Robert Frost


As they continued on through the dense, black, and very daunting forest, Jemma could do little but worry. Even though this course of action had been her idea, it made the venture no less intimidating to her. It felt better to be moving however, staying put with little hope of rescue and no resources to speak of had been difficult for her.

She could sense Fitz's nervousness now that their compass was no longer functional and that, in turn, made her own anxiety skyrocket. Navigation was unquestionably Fitz's area and his obvious fear that they might wander in circles, never finding a way out of this forest, terrified her. So with no idea where they were headed, no more food and very limited water, their chances seemed rather bleak to her.

Jemma knew just how vulnerable they were here, no matter how hard she tried to push the thoughts from her mind. If Fitz truly understood, he was making light of it. She found it interesting, since he wasn't often found playing the part of the optimist. In this instance, however, his recent attempts to look on the bright side were endearing, if not outright charming.

Fitz lead them steadfastly on through the wood, despite their lack of a fixed direction. Occasionally, they stopped to rest as they had the day before, passing the crisp packet of water Fitz had filled from the rain back and forth—it was already beginning to feel shockingly light.

She’d felt much better after drinking the water, even if she was still concerned about alien bacterial contamination. Considering what a trip to a foreign country back on Earth could do, she shuddered to think what might be lurking in the water they were currently sipping down as carefully as possible. Though it hardly mattered now really—it was done, for better or worse. She couldn’t bring herself to tell Fitz, but she’d been near to collapsing the day before and she was relatively certain that dehydration had been the culprit.

The rain had left them both sodden and in the moist, dank environment of the forest their clothes refused to dry, leaving them both extremely damp. Neither of them had seen any animals as yet (even if Jemma had seen some troubling movement in the underbrush on occasion) and she realized there was little hope of finding anything recognizably edible on this world. They’d now finished off the last of Fitz's food stash but she still had no desire to risk them becoming ill or—she hardly wanted to think of it—dying by experimenting recklessly with potentially toxic food sources. Jemma's wants notwithstanding, they would still need something to eat in fairly short order.

Considering all the factors in play, she couldn’t help but fear that they would likely expire of exposure, dehydration, or starvation all whilst lost in these ghastly woodlands. For some reason, the gloomy forest reminded her of a fairy tale—although more likely a darker version, where the good weren’t necessarily rewarded and the evil monsters got away with their horrible deeds.

It didn't help that all this brought up memories of another life-or-death situation—and how she’d responded to it.

Even more than dying now, she found herself afraid of never telling Fitz how she felt about him. She dreaded making another doomsday confession that might leave him just as confused as she had been after the medpod. It seemed selfish to make such a declaration, knowing there was nothing the other person could do and that the time to act on such feelings was past. It was almost cruel. At least, that was all part of what she’d felt when she’d been on the other side the scenario.

Now, however, she felt the urgency—the desire to just get it out and let the chips fall where they may. It almost seemed selfless, rather than selfish, to her suddenly. She only wanted to make certain that Fitz knew he was truly loved. Just that, without expectation: You are loved. She wondered if he'd felt the same when he told her of his feelings in the pod.

The words felt like they were clawing the inside of her throat at times, desperate to get out. I love you, Fitz. She'd rehearsed it in her mind as she kissed his cheek that first night but when he'd seemed to dismiss her, merely saying goodnight after, she'd faltered in sudden uncertainty.

She didn’t really know how he would feel about it now if she admitted her love. She’d lied to him after all—told him that she’d never felt anything more for him. Nothing but friendship, she'd told him and, for a year, she'd let him believe that was all. Ultimately, that lie had pushed him away and led him toward a great deal of hurt that she never could've anticipated. And that was what truly gave her pause: she didn’t want to hurt him anymore. Whether he still wanted more between them or not, another betrayal seemed too much—far too harsh. He deserved none of the pain that she'd caused him and the idea that she could bring about more made her blood run cold.

Maybe she didn’t need to include that particular detail—that she'd lied before? Perhaps eventually, but for now, she could leave it out? Let him believe her feelings were a more recent development? But she knew he would question her, wonder when it had begun, and to add another lie on top of the first—she couldn't. She'd made a promise to him a year ago, that she would never lie to him again. If she was dishonest now, it would break that promise and he would never trust her again.

She knew she’d mucked everything up after getting back from being undercover. She saw how far apart they were, even when everything she’d tried to do was only to help him. She knew it had all inadvertently pushed him away and, at the time, nudging him just a bit further had seemed oddly like the way to bring him back again. When that had instead caused him to get involved with Hanna, Jemma could hardly fault him. It’d been her own mistakes that forced him so far, much more than she’d intended. But when the truth came out about Hanna—a double agent, a Hydra spy—Jemma was guilt-ridden and thought immediately of giving him a respectful—if brief—amount of time before coming clean about her feelings, her foolish lie. She wanted to explain to him that she’d only done it because of her own confused feelings and fear that things would change irrevocably between them. She’d thought it would be kinder to release him from his hopes, let him find happiness, all so they might be friends again. The one thing she never wanted was to lose him.

Then, the rest had happened with Hanna—she'd proved herself loyal to S.H.I.E.L.D. and even to Fitz—and then she had died, a sudden hero. Jemma certainly hadn’t known how to deal with that situation, all she could do was comfort him, as his best friend. She never felt certain if Fitz had loved Hanna or not but she knew he grieved for her regardless. It had thrown her a bit to know that he cared for her that much. The two hadn't known each other for that long but Fitz was always one to fall hard and fast. She’d realized that from their earliest days at S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy. Unfortunately, she really just didn’t know what the right amount of time was for him to heal from, first, betrayal and, then, the grief of Hanna’s death on top of that. It was a complicated dilemma, one that Jemma had no frame of reference for how to handle.

The added news of Fitz's brain injury being healed—though wonderful—only added to her confusion about their relationship growing deeper. She didn’t want Fitz to believe she hadn’t loved him before because he was injured. But she didn’t know if that was something she could convince him of now. How could she leave out telling him of her lie without him believing that her ability to love him had changed along with his brain being healed? She didn't want him to think that his only value to her was his genius. He'd already been convinced it was the only reason she'd gone undercover to begin with—that she somehow found him worthless without the full scope of his brilliance. She certainly never wanted those doubts and fears to linger in his mind.

All this left her unhappily back in limbo.

She wasn’t entirely sure he even still cared for her in that way because he definitely kept his distance now—or, well, he had, until this new and potentially-deadly misadventure.

Jemma's thoughts were interrupted when the forest floor took on a sudden, much steeper incline. She'd noticed a slight grade a couple of hours ago and it had sapped her energy greatly. She noted that the leafy canopy above had gotten a bit thinner and, through it, she could see that it was now twilight. She thought Fitz might soon want to call it a night and that would be a relief—she was completely exhausted.

That was when she saw the sunset.

They came over a sharp rise and she could see it on the horizon, through the trees. Fitz was plodding along, looking at his feet, and hadn’t even noticed the light.

“Fitz!” she said, taking his arm.

He glanced at her, then quickly over to where she was pointing. “Yes!” he cried, his smile wide and happy.

She couldn’t help but share in the sentiment despite how much more there was to go toward keeping them alive until Jane and Tony could reach them. Immediately, she threw her arms around his neck and hugged him in a fit of jubilation but he didn’t respond as enthusiastically as he had been of late. Instead of pulling her close, he patted her back several times and then gently dragged her arms down from his neck. The sting of rejection wasn’t half as terrible as the expression on his face—he looked as though he wanted to be away from her.

“C’mon, Jemma,” he said in a low, listless voice, pulling her along by the sleeve of her lab coat as he headed toward the light.

She couldn't help frowning at his sudden capricious turn. 

In the last few months, Jemma had begun to sometimes test the waters of Fitz’s feelings. She would go to the edge of acceptable closeness between friends, just hoping for a quantifiable reaction from him—a clear sign that he still wanted more between them. But, so far as she could determine, nothing certain had come to the forefront. His responses to her entreaties were highly reserved, though occasionally only awkward, but that seemed unremarkable considering their split and somewhat incomplete reconciliation. She still wasn’t willing to give up their friendship just for the mere possibility of something more—certainly not when she was still so unsure of what he might say and do in response to her disclosure. She needed an obvious sign of reciprocation before she could bear to open their relationship up to that level of vulnerability again. She never wanted them to go back to the place they'd been when she returned from her undercover mission within Hydra.

Here, he seemed to be responding to her cues for contact at least, even if he never initiated anything more himself. He asked her for nothing, and only gave her what she requested of him. In fact, he'd apologized for taking her hand to bring her watch around where he could see it. To her, his level of concern for her comfort when they were so close seemed indicative of how much he wished to demonstrate that his feelings were no longer an issue between them. However, that said, he certainly was providing the physical comfort that she’d prompted him for since they materialized here. But even though she felt rather provocative in her urging, he appeared to be quite indifferent to her signals for anything more.

It seemed a terrible idea to press him too much however. She really did feel the need for his support just now. She’d been on-edge ever since this predicament had come about and, though she knew he shouldn’t have to provide so much emotional support, not as her best friend, the closeness they’d shared the last two days only reinforced how much she wished he were so much more than that. But it also made her feel selfish to rely on him to bolster her up, and though she tried to give the same encouragement to him, she knew it wasn't working. Her attempts to provide him with some measure of comfort were failing rather spectacularly, though she really had no idea why. It was frustrating and it pained her that it was all still so complicated between them. She wished it could be simple, as it used to be.

Her hope had been running low in the face of all these terrible things she could foresee just over the horizon. She could see their deaths ten different ways in any direction they turned and yet, somehow, death wasn't her most critical worry, it was just her primary motivator—her most urgent worry was Fitz. The notion of dying just left her feeling like she'd let things between them go too long again. The responsibility for repairing the single most important relationship in her life was pressing down on her like a giant weight. The clock was ticking and if she didn't fix it soon, it would be too late. She was ashamed of how many opportunities she'd had—both back at S.H.I.E.L.D. and while they’d worked on the new project. She even might've told him her true feelings the night they’d walked back from the lab together (was it only four days ago?) but she'd allowed her fear that she would upset their status quo stop her again. Each time she worked up the courage to tell him she loved him, his response to her overture would always be impassive or uneasy and then she would tell herself that the time just wasn’t right. She wondered if it would ever actually feel right or if she would just have be brave and jump in with both feet.

Yet her uncertainty over what he felt for her now was like a splinter in her mind—painful and persistent—she desperately wanted it out. She wanted to know, but she was also terrified of destroying what they had again. She dreaded bollixing up what they'd rebuilt in the last year and making everything uncomfortable between them once more—or even something worse. And if he told her, once and for all, that he wanted nothing more than friendship from her, she feared it might break her here in this place where her hope was already so thin. It would suck away that final bit of belief she'd been holding onto for the last year, that she was still clinging onto now, that someday they would be together.

She really can't stand the idea of losing the solace of his warmth wrapped around her each night or the feel of his fingers grasping hold of her and making her feel like he’d never let her go. She knew it was only the illusion of true intimacy between them but somehow even the dream had been keeping her from giving in to the fear that was eating at her slowly.

She hated to admit to fear, even in her own mind but, ever since they’d arrived here, she’d been terrified. For herself, of course, but even more so for him. Fitz—as he always did—took her protection upon himself but, once again, he’d done it in a way that put her safety ahead of his own. She was horrified at his selfless need to see her survive by giving her extra food and water—and she feared what he might do next. She believed in her heart that she was the physically weaker of the two of them and she couldn’t allow him to continue risking his own well-being for her sake.

Really, what she wanted was to believe they would have something more between them once they came out the other side of this experience. That bit of hope was just enough to get her through this. She'd considered in detail, over the last year, the true union that she believed they could have if they both still wanted it. But what she never wanted was to face Fitz sacrificing himself for her, not ever again. She wanted to survive together—or not at all. She wanted them to solve this side-by-side, save themselves as the team they've always been—twice as smart and twice as capable because they were with each other. If that wasn't possible, then she wanted death to take her fighting to survive, standing on her own feet—not being shielded by the person she cared about most in the universe. And as much as she didn’t want to be taken care of by anyone, even Fitz, she so desperately still wanted his arms around her—every moment that he was willing.

She followed Fitz as he walked on, exiting the woods with measured steps and occasionally glancing back at her slightly apprehensively. She didn’t know what was wrong with him now, if she’d done something or if he was simply too worn out.

“Should we, I don't know, keep going? The clouds are gone and there’s moonlight,” she said, brushing over his shoulder to get his attention. In spite of her own exhaustion, his rebuff of her affection touched off a sudden nervous energy. She felt fear and anxiety welling up inside her and it made her want to move, not stay.

He turned to her, looking rather disbelieving with his brows raised and his blue eyes wide. “I think we should stop an' rest, don’t you?”

She only nodded, knowing it was the right thing even if inactivity made her feel worse.

She searched his face in the dying light for a sign of what he was thinking. There was nothing she could discern from his expression however, and she continued to follow him as they trudged down a short hill toward an immense field of tall, dry grass. As they waded through the nearly waist-high stalks, Jemma examined one of them.

“This almost looks like barley,” she said, rolling it around in her hand and separating the kernels. “Do you think someone grew it?”

Fitz ignored her question. “Let’s just sleep here,” he said, tiredness suffusing his voice.

He’d chosen a spot next to a thicket in the midst of the expansive fields. It was warmer out here than in the woods at least and a dry, temperate breeze flowed over her, already beginning to dry her damp clothes. She stripped out of her lab coat and laid it on the ground. Fitz did the same, placing his next to hers. But, when they lay down side-by-side, he didn’t bring her closer to him as he had been doing each night.

Restless and upset, she finally curled herself against his side. Not too close, she let her knees just graze his outer thigh and gently curled one hand around his bicep. But even fearing he would spurn her again, she still pressed her head into the hollow of his shoulder. He did shift then, raising his arm and slipping it beneath her neck to come around her back. Gently, he began to stroke along the column of her spine.

She couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very wrong and questioned whether she should mention it. She wasn’t quite sure how though, it wasn’t as if he were doing anything wrong exactly. He was just cooler toward her now, more distant than he'd been since they arrived here. It scared her in a new way that this alien world couldn’t even touch.

It was on the tip of her tongue to say something. Somewhere in the back of her mind, a voice whispered, jump. Her breath caught in her throat and tears sprang to her eyes as she imagined a scenario where he was distraught—angry even—at her for all her dishonesty. Her heart clenched tight at the thought of him being hurt by her words, hating her for the pain she’d caused him and unable to forgive her. Then she imagined him shrugging off her worry, pulling her close as they spoke completely openly for the first time in—possibly ever—before he finally kissed her. She let her mind wander into a fantasy where they spoke of their future—together—as they kissed and held one another long into the night. It was a worst- and a best-case scenario, she knew, and the truth would likely lie somewhere in between. However, what side he would ultimately fall on, she still had no idea.

Fitz’s hand had grown slower as he stroked along her spine, following the contours of her body's topography with his fingertips. She drew closer, knowing she was pushing their boundaries as she pressed into his side and brought her arm around his waist while touching her forehead to his roughly whiskered cheek. He didn’t respond, in any form, to her more intimate embrace and the anxiety running rampant through her brain escalated another notch. Her desire to know his feelings shot suddenly through her mind in an urgent, white-hot flash.

Fitz, I love you. She rehearsed it in her mind again. Jump. Just bloody jump. Then she would know. One way or the other, she would know. She opened her mouth a fraction, air escaping her with a slight rasp before she pulled in another shallow breath.

Then he turned toward her, dragging her against his chest with an arm around her waist. “Jemma,” he said, his voice emphatic but tremulous, his breath soft against her chin. “It’ll be okay, yeah? We’re goin’ to be okay. You know that, don't you? I promise.”

Jemma’s chest swelled with emotion until she felt she could scarcely breathe. Her mouth was still open to speak, the words right there in her mind just at the edge of being expressed, but then she replayed his unsteady words and realized that it wasn’t comfort he was attempting to offer her—it was comfort that he needed. Jemma would always do what he needed her to—after all, she was his best friend in the world.

Pressing her lips together into a thin, hard line, Jemma reached up to cradle the back of Fitz's head. Pulling him down against her, she hugged him tightly with her other arm. She wasn’t sure if his uneven breaths were sobs or not, but it didn’t matter as he tucked his head beneath her chin and clung to her. She stroked along his back and over the frizzy corkscrews of his bedraggled hair as she silently mouthed I love you again and again.

Despite her fears and uncertainty as to where they currently stood, exhaustion overtook Jemma far sooner than she ever might’ve imagined. She fell deeply asleep wrapped securely in her best friend’s arms and he in hers.

The next morning when she woke up, Fitz’s lab coat was still beside her, but he was gone. She swallowed hard through her dry throat, thinking about how he’d seemed so strange and distant last night. He wouldn’t leave her here though. She knew that, it was silly to even think it.

Swallowing down her worries, she took a deep breath and called out, “Fitz?”

There was no answer.

She tried several more times before she finally stood up and looked out over the large field. It filled such an expanse of land she thought it would be easy to see him if he’d headed in nearly any direction within an hour or so. With no sign of him as she scanned the horizon, telling herself how foolish it was the entire time, she finally turned back toward the woods. Walking quickly and quietly, she headed back the way they'd come but she no longer called for him.

She was just starting to think how completely mad this was after all—he was probably waiting for her back at the thicket by now—when she happened upon him.

“Fitz!” she cried, her anxiety redirected as he popped another berry in his mouth. His lips were pink with juice and he had several handfuls of the fruits tucked into the tail of his button-down.

“Yeah?” he asked, eyes wide as he swallowed with an audible click.

“What are you doing?” she asked, horrified. “Those could be completely toxic!”

He picked up one of the familiar-looking berries from the pouch he’d made of his shirttails. Looking at it carefully, he said, “They taste just like raspberries.” His lack of concern was evident in his tone.

“Fitz,” she explained, “you know those are alien berries. You have no idea what effect they might have on our physiology. Even if the locals can eat them, they might be deadly to us. Asgardians eat the same foods we do, but is this even Asgard?”

Fitz sighed and dropped the berry in his fingers, then let the hem of his button-down slip away, spilling all the juicy-looking berries to the ground at his feet.

He still seemed less than worried as he asked, “How long would it take for them to make me sick?”

Jemma bit her lower lip, contemplating. “I don’t know. It depends on the type of toxin they might have. Up to twelve hours, maybe? After that it should be safe.” She closed the distance between them and said, “I mean, if they even are toxic. They might be fine,” she said, trying to reassure him, probably a bit too late. She reached out to touch his arm but he seemed to almost shrink from her fingers. Quickly, she dropped her hand and swallowed past the lump in her throat. “Don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll be fine, Fitz.”

“We better get goin’,” he said, striding past her out of the woods.

“I’ll be right out,” she said, watching his back as he kept walking. He never looked around once, as he tramped off toward their camp.

She took a few moments to relieve her bladder and quash the urge to cry.

She was just headed back out, thinking on how to broach the subject of his changeable mood, when she heard something. It sounded oddly like drums but deeper, less rhythmic—and it was getting closer.

Without hesitation, she ran for the field—for Fitz.

Chapter Text

 

The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper. –Eden Phillpotts


Through a gap in the trees, Jemma saw four men on horses riding directly toward Fitz. The thunderous drum of their hooves kept time with her furiously beating heart.

Fitz glanced surreptitiously back to where she was hiding in the tree line and gave her a subtle ‘wait’ sign behind his back.

Once the men dismounted, Jemma saw that they were quite tall as they approached, the smallest of them perhaps a foot taller than Fitz. All had very long limbs in proportion to their bodies and long hair done in elaborate braids or ties. Three were blonde of varying shades, from near-white to pale yellowy gold, and one was a brunette. He walked ahead of the others and seemed to be the leader. She saw his hand go to his hip and the hilt of a long sword. One had a quiver full of arrows on his back and all wore what appeared to be armor, with sleeves of mail extending from their tunics.

She could just make out the hostile tone of the brunette man's words and the sound of Fitz answering back, trying to be brave, playing dumb.

“Sorry? I don't understand. I don’t know who or what you're talkin' about,” she heard Fitz say. There was more from the brunette that she couldn't make out, then Fitz saying, "Asgardian? No—" but the brunette evidently didn’t like that answer because that was when he grabbed Fitz roughly, winding his large fist into the wool of his cardigan.

Jemma didn’t think, she just ran.

“NO!” she screamed, stumbling down the short hill toward them as the word burned in her dry throat. “Stop it! Just leave him alone!”

Fitz was being held by one of the blonde elves by the time she got there. (The only one with facial hair, she noted, a goatee.) Even with his hands restrained behind his back and nearly lifted onto tiptoes until his shoulders were raised up near his ears, Fitz was still shaking his head slowly at her but with a suppressed grimace of pain peeling his lips back.

“Jemma, why couldn't you just bloody wait?” he said. The pain lacing his tone made his words sharp but, along with it, she heard a hint of something like sadness.

“I’m not leaving your side,” she declared firmly, looking into the face of the brunette—elf, apparently. Up close, she could see that his ears were pointed. His eyes had an odd shape to them as well, narrow but wide. The pupils within were mere pinpoints and his irises a muted shade of pale amber. She was mesmerized by the strangeness and astounded at meeting an alien species in the flesh.

“Asgardians, you are trespassing,” the brunette said, clearly for her benefit even though addressing them both. “You must be brought to Geir. He will decide your fate.”

“Yeah, got that bit,” Fitz said, sounding exasperated. “Still not Asgardian, though.” He looked around at the elf holding his arms and boldly added, "You people don't really listen well, do you?" His face became pinched with pain and he repressed a groan as the blonde elf ground his wrists together.

"Stop!" Jemma cried, taking a step toward Fitz.

The brunette elf gracefully took one long side-step and blocked her way to Fitz. When she just stopped, bringing her hands to her neck anxiously, the elf looked from Fitz to Jemma with his eyes narrowed. His expression betrayed to Jemma his obvious astuteness and even an antipathy toward them. Even so, he gestured to the blonde restraining Fitz and said, "Release him. They are weak and no threat to us."

Jemma sighed with relief as Fitz took a step forward, glowering at the brunette while he rubbed his wrists as if they'd gone numb in the scruffy blonde elf's hold.

"Thank you," she said quietly to the brunette. Her curiosity quickly began to rise, overshadowing her fear. After he gave a sharp order to one of the blonde elves in his own language, she couldn't stop herself from asking him, “Who are you?” She was quite unable to keep the excitement from bubbling through her tone. “You are an elf, aren’t you? We're on Alfheim?”

He looked at her as if she were a bit dim and said, “I am Halli, Captain of the Guard, servant of Geir. You do not know your own location?”

“No, we were brought here by mistake. This Geir—he’s the king?” she asked, still trying to school her features against the exhilaration of meeting an actual elf.

“No, he is the steward of this land. Come now,” Halli said, clearly grown tired of her questions already. He pointed Jemma to his enormous gray horse. Its saddle was far higher than her head.

“Yeah, I’m not likely going to make it up there,” she said with a scoff, wondering if he would try to make her scrabble up.

She kicked her legs futilely over the ground as Halli unexpectedly lifted her up just as if she weighed nothing. She instantly realized how powerless she truly was in the face of this near-giant alien being and it instantly terrified her. Once he set her down in the saddle, she twisted around to see that Fitz was getting the same treatment. The scruffy blonde elf had him on his horse, having lifted the flabbergasted-looking Fitz like a feather. With graceful ease, Halli climbed into the saddle behind her and, with a snap of the reigns, they were suddenly off. She couldn't help but wonder, why horses?

They rode rather unhurriedly—much to Jemma's impatience—for hours, or so it seemed. The ground they covered was mostly farmland with only a few clusters of dwelling here and there, at least as far as Jemma could tell. It was all flat land that appeared quite bountiful from what she could determine. There were orchards, vast expanses of grain and even odd fields full of row upon row of strange alien-looking plants—orange-leafed stalks as tall as the elves who tended them with long purple fruits extending out at random intervals along their length and black vines of unknown purpose that climbed up tall metal towers rising high in the air.

From a long way off, Jemma could see the palace looming on the horizon—and that really was all it could reasonably be called. If this Geir wasn’t the king, then he was certainly very rich—by Earth’s standards anyway.

The building itself was immense—taking up sizable acreage and also towering to great heights with slender spires rising from the center—it looked like a cross between a futuristic castle and the Taj Mahal. It fairly gleamed; iridescent white, it was a bit like mother of pearl and all its accents seemed to be a lustrous gold. (Though she had no idea if it really was the precious metal or merely an illusion.) The seamless stone walkways they passed appeared to be inlaid with ribbons of shining copper. It was almost difficult for her to believe the sheer size of it all. The courtyard where they dismounted the horses had a garden that outshone Versailles. She saw sculpted shrubs, areas of mostly flowers as well as areas that appeared to be utilitarian, possibly for ceremonial or celebratory use. 

As soon they’d been set back on their feet from the horses backs, Jemma went immediately to Fitz and took hold of his arm. She hoped she fully conveyed her refusal to let him go by the firmness of her stance. Halli watched them curiously for a moment then whispered something to one of the other men. The four elves all broke out in a fit of boisterous laughter, eying the two of them knowingly.

With an unhappy frown, Jemma tried to ignore them. She focused on clutching Fitz’s arm to her chest in a death grip that she intended to maintain until they pried her fingers away, if it came to that. It would be fine just so long as they didn’t separate them, she told herself. It made her feel a little better even if she knew it was only a soothing lie. She felt Fitz’s comforting hand covering over hers and she clutched it tightly.

Now they'd finally arrived, she would’ve expected a prison cell with the way they'd been handled. Evidently they'd committed the act of trespassing—though she had no idea the severity of such an offense.

Instead of a cell however, they were quickly ushered through the luxurious estate's lower floor and then upstairs. Halli led them along hallways that were filled with murals that might have been painted by the likes of Michelangelo they were so masterful. Ultimately, they were led to a grand guest room with a large balcony overlooking the gardens. The open archway to the balcony had no doors to close out the warm evening air as far as Jemma could tell and sweet fragrances from below wafted freely into the room.

“You will bathe and dress for Geir,” Halli said, looking at them with what seemed a haughty air to her. He pointed to another door within the room and then the wardrobe on the opposite side.

“Fine,” Jemma said insolently, still hanging tightly onto Fitz’s arm.

Halli nodded once and backed out of the room, bowing ever-so-slightly before he closed the doors.

Waiting a suitably long moment, Jemma ran to the door to see if it was locked. Finding the wooden door, not only locked, but so heavy it seemed it would be nearly immovable, she finally turned back to Fitz.

He was sitting on the large grandiose bed and shaking his head slightly from side to side. “Why, Jemma? You didn’t have to come runnin’. They didn’t even know you were there.” He pressed a hand to his forehead and laughed humorlessly. “What if they kill us?”

“Seems a harsh punishment for trespassing,” she said, a little too uncertainly. She went to the balcony and looked out. Third floor—too high to jump.

“Okay, what if they throw us in jail, then?” he asked, grinding the heels of his palms into his eyes.

“Fitz—whatever happens, we’re in this together,” she said impatiently. Turning to face him, she placed her hands on her hips and said, “That’s how it has to be.” The strength of her words immediately drew his attention. He dropped his hands away and stared at her. “No more trying to sacrifice yourself or any more of that bloody business. Never again. Is that understood?”

His eyes were a bit wide with surprise but after a brief moment he began to nod slightly. “D’you think they might be able to send us back—or maybe just to Asgard? Lady Sif would surely send us back home, don’t you think?” Jemma realized he sounded hopeful for the first time since they’d left the meadow.

She thought it might be a bit much to hope for but she came forward and put a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t know, Fitz. Maybe.”

She gave his shoulder a squeeze as she gazed down at him a bit wistfully. He brought his hand over the top of hers and caressed it lightly.

She gave him a reassuring smile and, breaking away gently, she turned and went over to the wardrobe. It had three soft pastel gowns that were all much too long for her short legs. They had ridiculous flowing skirts and sleeves, but tightly fitted bodices. There were also several pairs of soft suede-like trousers in a similar style to what the elven men had been wearing and some fitted tops with tunics to go over them. She found silky socks and several pairs of soft, knee-length leather boots in the bottom of the wardrobe. Unwilling to be caught in an ill-fitting dress, Jemma searched through the other clothes attempting to gauge sizes. She wouldn't allow some lord of the manor to force his idea of a dress code on her, it just wasn't part her plans in the slightest.

She threw a pair of trousers, top and tunic toward Fitz, he only watched them as they landed beside him on the bed. Then, tossing out a pair of boots that looked to be approximately the correct size, she said, “You can try these.” Taking her own chosen set in hand, she sighed and added, “I’m not too keen on getting separated. I’m afraid to be in different rooms for long.”

“It’s not like they couldn’t separate us now if they wanted to,” he reasoned.

Logically this made perfect sense but she was full of adrenaline and ruled by anxiety. She didn’t think she could even explain the terror she’d felt when she thought they might take him away and leave her behind in the barley field.

She opened the door to the sumptuous bath where there was an enormous tub sunken into the floor. There was also a vanity much like what might be found back home with various bottles on the countertop by the sink and across the room was another door. She surmised it was the loo and, opening that door, she was rewarded with the sight of the most uselessly lavish toilet she’d ever seen.

“Even elves spend money on utter wank, don’t they?”

Fitz, who was standing in the door that led back to the bedroom, began some sort of coughing fit.

“What?” he managed in between coughs as it began to taper off.

“Just—can’t believe even here of all places people still spend money on fancy loos and…” she waved her hand around the room. “Just complete and utter—wank.” He coughed sharply several more times as she peered at him. “Are you all right?”

He nodded furiously, waving his hand up and down, as he ground out, “Fine. Fine.”

When he seemed to have recovered, she said, “You could…” she pointed to the loo. “We could take turns?”

He began to act in the manner she instantly recognized as: something-Fitz-did-not-want-to-do. She thought of it as his "please kill me now" look. He was gazing up mock-contemplatively (trying to come up with his excuse, no doubt) with his lips pressed into a thin line and—as if she needed more evidence—he began to hem and haw as he scratched nervously behind his ear. He began, "Jemma—"

“Never mind,” she scoffed in an instant, interrupting him and forestalling any excuse he might have been concocting. “Though they might just be waiting until we're apart so there’s less of a fuss!” she hissed.

She was suddenly so upset—as much to her own surprise as Fitz’s—that she charged forward and pushed him out of the room, closing and locking the door behind him as he stumbled away.

Turning her back to the door, she pressed against it heavily with her hands over her face trying not to cry. It was just stress, she told herself, yet somehow she already knew it was far more than that. But she was scared, exhausted and had no desire to analyze her feelings fully just now. She’d apologize to Fitz when she was clean and felt human again. For some reason, this made her laugh.

Not wanting to think too hard on that either, she turned the water on as hot as she could stand and then stripped out of her filthy clothes. She sorted through the bottles on the counter but their labels were barely recognizable as language. While she waited for the tub to fill, she opened each to smell and even rub them between her fingers, trying to find something like soap and shampoo. To her joy, she found a sort of toothbrush amongst the items on the counter. Though it was more like a dense sponge that seemed to conform to the shape of her teeth and was apparently already infused with a cleaning abrasive of some sort. She used it for a long time, until the deep tub was finally full. Pouring some of the surmised liquid soap into the water, she stepped in, groaning with satisfaction at the pleasant heat.

She let herself float in the ludicrously large tub for a few short minutes, luxuriating in the sensation. It really was ridiculously large, you could fit five people in it and still have room to properly move around.

There was really only one person she would’ve liked in with her however, she mused. A swift, unexpected tear slipped down her cheek, startling her. She rubbed it away with a hard swipe of her palm, suddenly angry with herself. This was not the time—or place—not while being held hostage or prisoner or whatever they were.

She scrubbed herself clean quickly and then got dressed in the trousers and tunic she’d picked out for herself, having to fold the cuffs of the trousers and tunic to an almost comic degree. When she opened the door, full of worry over what Fitz’s mood would be after her uncharacteristic outburst, she found him asleep on the floor to one side of the door. So much for all her concern.

She bent down and shook him gently. “Fitz?” He started awake with a bit of a snort and she just managed to suppress a small chuckle. “Your turn,” she said, picking a leaf from his hair.

“Thanks,” he said, getting a leg under him, his face suddenly becoming inscrutable with his awareness of her presence. She pushed down her hurt feelings as he picked up his fresh clothes and went into the bath without really looking at her.

She listened to the sound of the water running and tried to think her way out of this. If they couldn't escape, perhaps they could at least reason with this Geir-person? But she finally determined that it really had far more to do with their “host” than anything she might be able to prepare for in advance. Without knowing what his aims were, she couldn’t reasonably figure a way out for them. She twisted her hands nervously, even as she tried to quell the anxiety that was causing it.

What seemed like ages later, the door finally opened and Fitz stepped out. She couldn’t stop the smile that showed every last one of her teeth.

“This is so unfair,” Fitz said quietly. “I feel ridiculous.”

“You look wonderful,” she said, trying to reassure him. “Really.”

He did look rather like an elf in the outfit—just not the variety on this world. She knew he was far more partial to loose-fitting clothing and the rather tight elven garb was never going to be his taste but he did look rather nice. She noted that he’d even shaved again and it gave her a slight pang at the return to his more youthful softness. She’d only just started getting used to his scruff again as it grew in the last few days.

He sighed in resignation and went to look out the balcony. It was twilight and the sun was just beginning to set out the window. She followed Fitz hesitantly, unsure of their status after her awful tantrum and his strained behavior that had begun the previous night.

Stopping just behind him, she said, “I’m sorry about earlier. I shouldn't have gotten so upset.” Her voice was quiet but still seemed loud in the empty room. “I’m just spun out. But, Fitz, I don’t mean to take it out on you.”

He shrugged almost absently without turning around.

“It’s going to be okay, Fitz. I can feel it.” This seemed, in her head, a good thing to say but when the actual words left her lips, it just fell flat. It seemed a hopeful bit of conjecture and nothing more.

When he said nothing, she tried to think of something more reassuring but her mind was suddenly set to dwelling on her feelings for him. She so wanted to comfort him, to put her arms around him and feel him against her. She couldn’t separate whether this was selfish or selfless suddenly—and she nearly didn’t care. She just wanted their distance at an end.

She put her hand on his shoulder, ignoring his slight twinge at her touch and began, “Fitz—“

As if it were contrived, the lock suddenly clicked and the main door opened to reveal Halli again. She and Fitz both turned abruptly to face him.

“I will escort you to Geir,” he said, his tone oddly formal now.

A thrill of fear went down Jemma's spine at the memory of Halli's earlier words. He will decide your fate. She pushed her fear aside, however, and put a mask of confidence over her features. She was determined not to let Halli or anyone see her true feelings. Still, she saw the anxiety on Fitz's face but even he seemed to be pushing aside his worry in favor of presenting a more self-assured air.

As she took Fitz’s arm again and they headed for the door, Halli looked Jemma up and down but she couldn’t tell if his expression was distaste or merely discomfort at her attire. Regardless, she raised her chin high and pretended she didn’t care.

As they walked down the hallway, she took in the gorgeous murals again. It seemed they might display scenes from elven history. She saw elves on horseback with dogs hunting small unfamiliar-looking animals. There were also elves working, tending crops, making fabric, preparing food. The mural then gave way to unclothed elves copulating in numerous inventive positions. She blushed and looked away, noticing as Fitz did the same, clearing his throat uncomfortably.

Finally, they were introduced into a large room with a dais at the far end. On it, sat a lone elf reclining stiffly upon his throne. Between them and—who she presumed was Geir, their host—there was a long dining table that could easily seat a gathering of thirty. However, it was set for only two, on the end closest to the throne. There was an incredible bounty of food on the table, none looked particularly familiar except for bread and several large bunches of grapes in a bowl at the center. As they were led closer by Halli, Jemma saw that all their things were carefully arranged on the table near the banquet. Jeeves, Fitz’s toolkit, both their phones—everything—all of which she'd thought had been left behind. Even their lab coats, which had held most of their belongings, appeared to have been cleaned and were neatly folded to one side.

“Welcome, my guests,” the elf lord said from his throne once they’d come to a stop before him. Halli took up a position near his employer, eyes front, stiffly at attention.

Jemma tried to assess the man who would “decide their fate” as Halli had put it. He called them “guests” when clearly they were something else entirely and his feigned friendly demeanor clearly hid something more sinister.

Geir looked between thirty and forty to her eye—if he'd been a human anyway—but she knew that he might have an unusually long life as Asgardians did. He was also very handsome, she couldn’t help but notice. He was muscular in a way none of the other more willowy elves had been. His silvery-blond hair hung to his shoulders in soft waves and his features, though slightly hawkish, were symmetrically attractive—but his eyes were as blue and cold as discs of ice. She saw no contempt in them but she didn’t like what she did see. He seemed to be appraising her as closely as she did him.

He gestured them to the table. “Please, sit. Eat.”

The fact that their host was not eating was not lost on them but they were both so hungry that the smell of the food was nearly enough to drive them mad. She told herself there were easier ways to kill them if that was his intent. Deep in her mind, she also realized the food might be toxic to their human systems but as the first delectable bite came into contact with her tongue, she didn’t really even care if it did kill her. She and Fitz both tucked into the food as Geir looked on, seemingly pleased. There was a pitcher of wine and one of water, the latter she used to fill both their glasses. Though she’d drunk directly from the tap in the bath, her thirst had already returned, and she drained the cup of water greedily.

“So, not-Asgardians,” Geir said from his perch, his grin almost wolfish, as he looked them over. “Where are you from?”

She looked first at Fitz and when he nodded almost imperceptibly, she said, “Midgard.”

“I suspected as much,” he said, smile widening as he looked over at Halli in some wordless exchange. “I’ve been hoping some Midgardians might pass my way.” She tried not to be too worried by the undertone of his words. “What are your names?”

Fitz was eating with gusto, manners forgotten in his hunger as he tore messily into his food. Jemma looked back at the elf and, gesturing as she spoke, said, “Fitz and I’m, eh, Jemma.” She wasn't sure why she let slip her given name rather than just saying Simmons. But it seemed inappropriate somehow.

“Jemma,” Geir repeated slowly as if he were rolling the name around on his tongue, exploring it thoroughly. “And is this your..." he gestured toward Fitz, "husband?”

Fitz coughed explosively, bits of food flying from his lips. Jemma tried to catch his eyes even though they were already beginning to tear up with his choking coughs. She could tell he was desperately trying to get control of his throat but the elf-lord was already drumming his fingers impatiently.

She glanced over at him nervously and said, “Not, er—not exactly.” She hoped it left things vague enough to keep the direction of the conversation more neutral.

“So you are not bound?” Geir asked, his expression dispassionate.

“Bound?” Jemma tried to play dumb as Fitz wiped his teary eyes.

“In a ceremony?” Geir’s brows were raised high on his forehead now as he waited for her answer. He seemed to be appraising her for signs of deception.

“Eh, well, no. I mean—not as such,” she said hesitantly. She really didn’t like where this conversation was headed. “Why does that matter?”

She glanced at Fitz who had finally cleared his throat but was still wiping his red-rimmed eyes. He was darting nervously glances from her to the elf-lord.

Geir appeared rather arrogant, shifting casually on his throne, as he explained, “Binding ceremonies have a powerful magic that can’t be easily broken for matters of the heart.”

Jemma tipped her head to indicate her understanding (even though she had no idea what he was on about) but scoffed internally. Magic was just science that hadn’t been discovered yet—or more likely a bunch of hokum.

“So if this one is merely your lover—not husband—there is no reason you could not be mine,” Geir said, giving her a self-satisfied leer.

She felt the blood drain from her face as Fitz leapt up, taking a step toward the elf as he finally piped up, yelling, “Hey, just a bloody—who the hell d’you think you are?!“

Jemma's fear was almost immediately superseded by her anger. High spots of color bloomed on her cheeks as she shouted, “I most certainly could not!”

Ignoring Fitz completely, Geir held his hand before him in a placating gesture. “I think you misunderstand, Jemma,” he said soothingly. “I would only ask you to stay if that was your desire.”

“Well, it’s bloody well not,” she said bluntly, feeling her heart thumping too rapidly in her chest.

“Very well,” he said, settling back into his chair. “Wine?” he offered pleasantly as if the last of their exchange hadn’t even happened.

Fitz, looking awkwardly out of place standing before the dais, blinked, shaking his head as he turned back to sit down in his chair.

Geir waved a near-invisible servant over to pour for them but Jemma and Fitz both shook their heads. Her heart was still trying to return to its normal speed as she eyed the elf suspiciously.

“Well, on to business, then,” Geir said imperiously, his presence suddenly even more formidable as he sat up straighter on his throne. “You have breached my borders and I am completely within my rights to kill you.” He let the threatening words hang in the air and Jemma forgot to breathe. Fitz—eyes wide, mouth tight and his cheeks glowing deep red—looked both terrified and furious at the same time. “However, I have another suggestion,” the elf continued, his lips curling at the corners balefully. He snapped his fingers and a servant brought an ornate metal cup which he set in front of Jemma. With a pointed look, one brow quirked, he added, “Drink this—and I will set you both free.”

“What is it?” Jemma asked nervously, convulsively swallowing down a bit of food still left in the back of her mouth. She looked into the cup and saw what only looked like wine inside.

“A special draught. A magical drink. For you, Jemma,” Geir said, his tone having grown disconcertingly serious.

At the mention of magic, Fitz’s face instantly went a bit ashen and he caught her eyes, shaking his head at her sharply.

Jemma felt her heart clench in her chest as she tore her eyes deliberately away from Fitz. Meeting Geir's intense gaze, she scoffed loudly for effect, rolling her eyes in disbelief. “Right. Magical," she said, the word dripped with sarcasm, "And what’s it supposed to do, then?”

The elf sat forward on his throne and cocked his head to one side. His imposing and rather ominous posture did nothing but suffuse Jemma’s conscious mind with anxiety. She glanced at Fitz and saw that his face was rapidly filling with panic. He clearly understood that their predicament was quickly becoming grim. They had two choices, neither good. In fact, either most likely very bad indeed.

“Next to ours,” Geir began, “on the bark of the tree of life, the three fates have inscribed for each of us, the name of our one true love.” Jemma knew she was in real danger now but, still, she had to press her lips together and stifle a disapproving shake of her head over the elf-lord's theatricality. “This wine will erase your true love’s name from beside your own. You will be linked instead with the first person you touch—or who touches you.”

“Oh, well, that seems a good system—paramour tag, is it?” she said drily and couldn’t quite keep herself from huffing incredulously at the silliness of such a farce. Though underneath, she was quivering with fear, her belly had gone tight, and she felt nearly ill as she tried to maintain her façade of strength. She could easily read between the lines of what Geir had to be suggesting.

He smiled slyly and asked, “You don’t believe in magic?”

Chapter Text

 

The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost. –G. K. Chesterton


 “Of course, I don’t believe in magic," Jemma said, scoffing indignantly.

Geir's amused smirk did nothing to alleviate her fears for what he might have in mind. However, her anger was running hot, fanned by the helplessness she felt in the face of this strange alien world full of people, codes and customs she couldn't comprehend on such short notice.

"There is no such thing—but I do believe in science," she informed him loftily. "I’m sure whatever you have planned is some sort of science. Perhaps pheromones? But that’s rather crude, isn't it?” She glared at him warily, her fear was so palpable it was like a fist in her belly. “So, is that how you salve your conscience? Use some chemical to cause a reaction so you can believe a woman desires to be with you?” She practically spat the last part, hoping to prod to life some scruples in the elf. She really wanted him to have some sense of morality that ran along the lines of her own thinking but it seemed a bit much to ask for under the current circumstances.

“I assure you,” Geir said, holding his hands up before him in surrender. “I have no such intent. Love is my aim, not subjugation, and my name would simply replace that of the one you were destined to love. After that any decisions would be your own. Unless…” he grinned as if he’d thought of something terribly clever as he let the word hang in the air, “you’ve already met your true love as was fated.” He looked over at Fitz briefly and then back to Jemma. She was growing tired of Geir's showmanship. His pleased expression suddenly melted into irritation as he seemed to begrudgingly add, “The soul bond is notoriously difficult to break. If you have met, then the spell will have no effect.”

Jemma wondered if there were many elven women who fell for this. His last caveat sounded more like a carrot to her. How many women would like to believe that they already knew their “one true love”? She guessed that most would.

“How long does it last?” she asked, her voice echoing through the quiet room.

“This life,” Geir said. His voice was soft but he seemed no longer amused by her questions.

She scoffed again, having imagined some drug-induced stupor or perhaps some more authentic chemical reaction on the brain that might induce feelings of lust so he might feel less guilty. However, nothing could change you for the rest of your life. It simply couldn’t be done. Jemma's mind refused to accept it because it just wasn’t how the human body worked. Part of her was terrified of putting herself in this man’s power on any level, but she also couldn’t allow anything to happen to Fitz.

Geir had already threatened both of them with death, she suspected that he already understood that all he had to do now to gain her compliance was threaten Fitz. If he did, she would do just as he asked no matter what it might be. If he demanded she submit to his lust without drinking anything, Jemma knew she would do it, if only to save Fitz. She had little choice when it came down to it really. But Geir was speaking of a lifetime. She shivered at the horrible thought. However, he also said she would be able to choose—and she knew exactly what her choice would be.

“So, it will make me love you…until I die?” she asked, voice dripping with disbelief. Geir nodded at her question. “What makes you think we’d be a good match?” she asked, curious. The man was clearly mad, they’d barely met after all. Getting more information from him seemed her only potential way out of this rapidly worsening nightmare.

“It matters not, true love knows no obstacle. None but death,” Geir said sadly. Jemma felt as if she were in some fairy story—a grim, menacing, and exceedingly dangerous one at that.

“Well, what about your true love?” she asked, thinking of it suddenly as a potential escape from this madman. Even insanity had some sort of logic behind it, and perhaps she could reason his out and thereby gain her own freedom?

He chuckled rather humorlessly, dry barks of laughter that erupted from his throat like a cough, then he said, “She’s been dead for a millennia.”

“Oh. I’m sorry,” Jemma said automatically, annoyed that she suddenly felt guilty and even ever-so-slightly sympathetic toward such a monster.

Geir was looking at her with a slightly bemused expression again—she felt her anxiety rising—clearly he knew he had the upper hand and he would soon press his advantage.

She suddenly wondered how their mythology factored into her situation. She was desperate to latch onto something that might help her out of this mess and she blurted, “You know, I really don’t understand how you can believe in fate as this driving force of predestination and yet not want to worship it as a god. If it controls your fate and has consciousness as you seem to be indicating.” She realized she was rambling rather inanely but anything to gain information or delay the inevitable was welcome to her terrified mind.

“What makes you think that we do not? The three Goddesses of fate create our destinies before our birth. Magic is the only force that might sway them to alter our fortunes,” Geir said, gazing at her curiously.

"Oh," she said faintly.

She struggled to see how this new information might help but she wasn't familiar enough with the source material to come up with anything. Evidently, they really did look at fate as some sort of a God—or in this case, Goddesses—but how that might help her, she really didn't know. Why, when she was eight, had she been obsessed with Greek mythology instead of Norse?! Regardless, the whole concept of fate was ridiculous to her, she knew there wasn’t any such thing. There was no consciousness or any number of Goddesses controlling the events of her life. There was certainly no literal “tree of life” or "names carved by fate"—it was all ridiculous.

Failed by her lack of knowledge for once, all she could do was dread what would come next. 

Then a desperate thought flitted through her brain—that if she did have a true love, then perhaps it really was Fitz. Were that the case, there would be nothing to worry about because love would then protect her from the potion and the enchanted wine would have no effect as Geir said. As comfortless as it was (since all this was completely foolish), she was morbidly amused by her own desolate stray thought. It forced her to glance up, seeking him out, and she instantly caught sight of Fitz’s terrified, bloodless face.

It was a mistake. She was always an open book to Fitz and he instantly recognized her resignation, her readiness to make the sacrifice.

“No, Jemma. You can’t!” He started to stand but, in a sudden flurry of motion, Halli was there restraining him, forcing his arms behind his back. Fitz struggled weakly in the elf's grasp but he stood over Fitz by more than a foot.

Looking to Geir, Jemma asked, “If this works…" she indicated the wine in the cup, "and I would like to stay, then what will happen to Fitz?” She had to make sure he was alright no matter what happened to her. She wanted everything in order before she agreed to anything—no treachery or tricks.

“Jemma, no!” Fitz was yelling now as he struggled more fiercely, lunging and fighting, trying to wrench himself free. Having a difficult time despite his advantage, Halli bent down to speak into Fitz's ear and he went suddenly still and quiet. She felt a sudden swell of emotion looking at him with tears standing in his eyes, forcing himself silent, likely due to some threat she had no doubt. It made the tears come to her own eyes, just knowing he would somehow manage to blame himself for this as well, if something did ultimately happen to her.

“I swear an oath to let him leave freely," Geir paused a beat and then continued, "Unless, he chooses to stay as well.” Jemma suddenly felt hate for the elf at the sight of an unpleasant, treacherous curl to his lip.

“Why would he?” she asked, suspicious and suddenly terrified that no matter what she did it would all end badly.

The elf raised his open hand in a gesture of innocence. “I would never force him, of course. But if he wishes to stay—for you, Jemma. I will allow it. A companion of your own world would surely not go amiss.”

“If–if anything happens, p–promise me, Fitz—that you’ll leave. And get yourself back to Earth,” she insisted, her voice was harsh and broken as emotion spilled out into her words.

“You must drink now, Jemma,” Geir said, leaning forward on his throne. "I've given you answers but my patience grows thin."

She ignored him, she was focused only on Fitz. If he promised she knew he would go. He wouldn't lie to her. She had to make him promise. She didn't know how the concoction would change her thinking, even if it was temporary. She had to get his agreement so he would be safe. She couldn't bear for Fitz to stay here and see her brought low. His red-rimmed eyes were brimming but his tears didn't fall.

Fitz shook his head sharply.

“Promise, Fitz!”

“Drink now!”

She picked up the cup. “Promise me!”

His eyes were wide with horror as she brought the cup up toward her lips.

"Leopold Fitz, promise me you'll go!”

He shook his head subtly but resolutely, his tears bulging but not quite overflowing his lower lids.

She could barely contain the tears that were rapidly filling her own eyes. As she held the cup level with her lips, she looked across the table into the depths of her best friend's implacable expression and knew she had to do something drastic—for his own good.

"I said, drink!"

“Promise, Fitz, or..." her heart broke a little as the words came to her, "no matter what happens, it's over between us!"

Fitz's face seemed to crumple in on itself and he nodded his head once as his pent up tears finally dropped from his eyes, leaving glossy tracks as they slipped down over his cheeks.

"Drink now or he dies!"

Jemma drank.

From the moment the wine touched her lips, her vision grew blurred, cloudy. As she swallowed the acrid wine, she became woozy and had to catch herself on the table to keep from falling over. She vaguely heard the metallic clank as the cup bounced on the stone floor. Events unfolded so quickly after that, it was like a haze of images.

She saw movement and, darting her eyes to the side, she spotted Geir moving toward her purposefully with one hand outstretched. At his full height, he towered above everyone in the room, even Halli. He eyed her hungrily as he closed in and she instinctively cowered from his touch.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a kerfuffle as Fitz fought Halli, managing to wrench his arms from the elf's grip. Halli must have been prepared for him to run to the side, around the table, but instead, Fitz launched himself at her across the dining table. Dishes and food clattered to the floor as Fitz scuffled toward her. Thinking only of helping him, she reached out, feeling Geir’s hot grip on her neck just as Fitz’s clammy fingers took hold of her hand. It was so close, she couldn’t have determined who touched her first. 


Her murky head promptly cleared and, despite her previous assertions as to the ridiculous nature of the whole affair, she quickly took stock of herself. She looked down at Fitz and—yes, she loved him as much as she ever had. More even, for his effort to save her from such an unpleasant outcome.

She turned to see Geir, his large hand already dropping away from her neck. He searched her face and she frowned, unsure how to act. The sudden look of disappointment in his eyes was far less than the enormous amount of relief she felt at seeing it.

“Skuld has spoken,” Geir said, his eyes slipping away from her face as he turned to go back to his throne.

“I want to leave,” she said to his back, the words tripping over themselves to escape her lips.

“You should stay for the night,” he said listlessly, sitting back on his throne looking suddenly exhausted. “You have met the terms. You are under my protection now. No one will harm you.”

Fitz was clamoring down from the table, dishes and silverware clanking under his clumsy movements. Halli appeared to be helping him now, reaching a hand out to help him.

“If it’s all the same to you, I think we should go now,” she said firmly.

“If you wish,” Geir said, his voice much quieter and lacking the command it had possessed only moments before. “Halli will see to you. You will require food and supplies.” He was no longer even looking at them, he rested his elbow on the arm of his throne and then dropped his head down into his hand. “Give them whatever they need,” he told Halli. He waved his free hand at them in a lax gesture of dismissal.

Halli urged them both on toward the door, but Fitz used his arm to rake all their belongings into a hammock he’d made of one of their lab coats. Jemma helped him and they soon had it all in a neat little bundle as Halli led them out. She took one last look over her shoulder at Geir, he seemed full of sorrow now with his head still resting in his hand. She wondered what he’d really been after.

Halli took them to the room where they’d changed and told them to wait. Jemma saw that their dirty clothes had been cleaned, folded and placed neatly on the bed. Fitz dropped the lab coat full of their belongings down next to them. Once his arms were free, she rushed into them. He accepted her somewhat reluctantly at first but they were soon clinging together and she had a fistful of the back of his tunic clutched fiercely in her hand which she couldn’t quite make herself let go of.

“T–thank you,” she stuttered out near his ear as she fought down the urge to start sobbing uncontrollably. Her lips were quivering, but she managed to keep her tears at bay.

He pushed her back suddenly, startlingly. Gripping her upper arms, he shook her once, hard enough to make her gasp and clutch at his elbows. The look on his face was pure anguish. “You said no sacrificing myself! But that goes both ways, Jemma! Don’t ever do that again!”

She nodded, seeing it was the only answer she could give by the tormented look on his face. She knew that she couldn’t promise that and hoped he wouldn’t ask her to. She told herself it was a white lie.

He reeled her back in, hugging her tightly with his face pressed against her neck as he gasped in a few shaky breaths that might've been sobs. "Did you mean it? You'd've chucked me if I didn't promise to leave you?" Somehow she could tell by his tone that he was afraid of the answer. Jemma had never threatened him, never given him an ultimatum in her life. He'd believed her.

"No, Fitz, of course not," she said, squeezing him tighter. "We couldn't very well both become trapped here though. Who would rescue me then?" she joked. But Fitz didn't laugh, nor did he answer. 

After their tears had been successfully stifled and their limbs began to loosen around each other, she finally asked, “What did Halli say in your ear?” It bothered her that the elf had threatened him. She was curious what coercion had been severe enough to silence Fitz so quickly and she shuddered at the thought.

He shook his head slightly and, against the side of her neck, he almost sullenly said, “Nothing.” But when he pulled back, he didn’t meet her eyes and she knew it was something.

Halli returned shortly, barreling into the room without even bothering to knock. Fitz let her go quite suddenly—almost guiltily—as if he’d been caught at something.

Halli laid their supplies on the bed. There were two flexible fabric-like containers filled with water, bedrolls, a couple of packs filled with food, a large knife, two lightweight pots with some utensils, rope and a little pouch with some smaller items that Jemma couldn’t take in quickly. He also gave them a rolled map that glimmered strangely in the light and a warm cloak for each of them. Jemma tied hers on as Fitz nodded studiously while Halli showed him Geir’s land on the map and where they could go to find something like a public road. While Fitz learned the map, Jemma took all the toiletries they might reasonably need from the loo and stuffed them into her new pack.

“No one will trouble you while you are on Geir’s land. I would give you a horse but I fear you could not mount it,” Halli said, giving them a faint smile.

Jemma just stared at the elf coldly and waited with her arms crossed over her chest. After packing away the rest of their belongings, Fitz actually held his hand out to shake Halli’s. Jemma sighed as the two seemed to have some silent conversation over their clasped hands with a series of nods and blinks.

Halli then led them down to the courtyard and finally bid them goodbye. Walking quickly, and without discussion, they headed toward the road the elf had shown them on the map. Fitz clutched the shimmery paper to his chest and turned back to wave solemnly to the dark-haired elf.

They hurried out into the cool evening under a blue-black sky full of strange constellations and two bright yellow moons to light their way.

Chapter Text



There is no glory in star or blossom till looked upon by a loving eye. –William C. Bryant



“Fitz,” Jemma said, clutching at his elbow. “I need to stop.”

They’d walked nearly all night. Neither of them suggested stopping, so they’d just continued on. Fitz still wasn’t sure if it was because Jemma was afraid of Geir or if they were both just trying to, quite literally, outrun what had happened.

They were still on Geir’s land, in yet another of his endless barley fields, though they’d also passed fruit orchards and even vineyards full of out-of-place-looking grapevines. He found a spot to the side, sheltered from the sun among some trees where they could set up camp and sleep for a few hours. They laid out the bedrolls side-by-side and then Jemma went deeper into the trees to “brush her teeth”.

Fitz still couldn’t believe it. It didn’t seem real—some elf-lord wanting Jemma for himself? It was like a bloody fairytale, albeit an appalling one. When Halli whispered in his ear that if he wanted to keep Jemma he should touch her first, his brain had ridden right past what he meant by “keep” and only thought of saving her from becoming some sort of concubine. He didn’t know if Halli had taken pity on them or if he just had something against his boss. In the end, even though he’d put on a good show, Halli really had just let him go so he could make a grab for Jemma.

He still didn’t understand if the whole thing had been some sort of flimflam, hadn’t worked, or what the hell had happened and Jemma certainly didn’t seem any different than before. Even after thinking on it nearly all night, he wasn’t certain what he truly believed about all of it himself. What he really needed was sleep. He was likely just too exhausted and confused by it all to puzzle it out—not that it could stop his overwrought brain from giving it a shot.

On the one hand, magic seemed pretty silly. But on the other, perhaps there was more to the universe than even science could ever explain? In theory, magic was just science they hadn’t figured out yet. However, the scientific process also had definitive, measurable results—there were definitely no, “unless you’ve met your true love” bits. That was just daft in his view. Science was precise, and what the elves presented sounded too inexact to be anything factual. Somehow it just seemed like some sort of an elaborate hoax. However, if that were the case, why hadn’t it come out in the elf's favor? It all made Fitz nervous and prone to want to put as much distance as he could on the events of the previous evening.

The one thing that niggled at his brain was the idea that, as technology advanced—even back on Earth—the average person became less and less familiar with its construction. While they could use it without much trouble, when it failed them, the unfamiliarity with its development caused them to seek out an expert to make repairs. For instance, when your car broke down a hundred years ago, people often fixed it themselves because the mechanics were far simpler. Today, the complexity of the evolved engineering had to be repaired by those with the specialized knowledge to do so. This trend only seemed likely to increase as technology grew more elaborate. That left him wondering if magic was simply highly-advanced technology that the layperson could use but not explain the development or the underlying mechanism of in any way but with some sort of poetic license while being completely ignorant of the methods behind its function. It worried him deeply that this could be the case.

Realizing there was no use worrying about it until he could speak to someone knowledgeable on the subject, he thought about checking what they had for food but got distracted by the sun rising in the distance. There were no clouds in the sky now and brilliant amber was turning to violet as the sun peeked up from behind the lush emerald mountains on the horizon. It was simply stunning.

He walked out into the barley, letting his hands skim over the heads of grain, feeling them spring back in place as they bounced against the fronts of his thighs. Closing his eyes, he felt the pleasant warmth of the alien sun on his face. This world’s sun seemed much smaller than the one at home, its light less intense. He wondered if it was a blue star or possibly a brown. Hanging there low in the morning sky, it just visibly appeared sort of white.

He heard movement through the stalks behind him, and turned to see Jemma there. “D’you think this star is blue or maybe it’s a brown dwarf?” he asked, turning to face her fully so he might hear what reasoning she surely already had for her position. He was becoming convinced it was blue, actually, so undoubtedly she would argue brown.

But Jemma wasn’t looking at the sunrise, she was looking at him.

With a slightly nervous smile playing at the corners of her lips, she closed the distance between them quickly and, without warning, slipped her arms around his middle. She pressed her cheek to his shoulder and her forehead came to rest against the side of his neck. The sensation of skin-on-skin made him shiver embarrassingly—but then he froze.

Stiffening, his elbows stuck out awkwardly from his sides where her arms went round him in a vise-like embrace, he tried to think what to do. He hadn't really been expecting such closeness after last evening's near-calamity. Not to mention, this was against his new rules, after all. He was supposed to be keeping more of a distance, or so he'd promised himself. But as Jemma cozied against him, snugging her cheek against his shoulder, he realized her gesture was pure affection. Considering the chilling reality of what might've happened the night before, he simply couldn’t stop himself from indulging in this bit of comfort they could share. He relaxed and wrapped his arms around her, stroking lightly over her back. He hugged her close, enjoying the pleasant feelings that washed through him, even warmer than the sunlight.

After a time, Jemma lifted her head from his shoulder and looked up at him. The pinkish-amber glow of the newly risen sun was rapidly turning to violet as it played sharply over the planes and shadows of her features in a fascinating kaleidoscope. She wore no makeup, and all her usually-hidden freckles were plainly visible in the morning light. Her lips were full and pink as her tongue darted out to wet them. Unable to read her expression and before he could understand her intent, he was riveted as she leaned in closer. Her dark eyes were incredibly wide as she angled her head to the side, then rolled up onto her toes and brought her lips against his softly.

At first, he was almost more aware of the sudden rapid beating of his own heart than the feel of her mouth on his.

He inhaled sharply and something in his brain kicked on as he began to graze his lips over hers. Then, taking her face between his hands, he changed the angle so their noses wouldn’t bump as he opened his mouth to deepen the kiss. Her lips were sweet and yielding; responsive to him as he carefully echoed the movements of hers. Heart pounding in his ears, he brushed the tip of his tongue against her tender lips and she immediately opened, letting him slip inside to delicately explore the warm intimacy of her mouth.

He drew her closer to him by the shoulders, cradling the back of her head and winding his fingers haphazardly into the hair at the back of her neck—it was silky-soft and cool as it slipped between his fingers. Long hums of pleasure resonated from her as he stroked more boldly, swirling his tongue around hers. The slick, incredible feel of her mouth searching his drew a soft, satisfied moan from deep within him. It seemed that everything was quiet outside their small sphere of just the two of them clinging closely together. No birds or wind, nothing moved—the only sound was the slightly wet glide of their lips moving together and somehow the sudden unnatural calm gave it all an oddly dream-like quality. It was almost like deja vu, but instead of being like something half-remembered, it all seemed like something completely meant-to-be.

He opened his eyes for a moment, needing to confirm that it actually was truly happening. That it really was Jemma against him with her fingers wound so tightly into the fabric of his top it was as if she were attempting to hold him forcibly to the spot. Now, he could see her, smell her and even taste her as he felt the stirring slip of her tongue against his. Content, he let his eyes fall shut again—accepting, for now, that this was no illusion.

Their bodies instinctively seemed to close the gap between them. Without conscious decision on his part, Fitz found her pressed against him so fully he could feel the supple press of her breasts against his chest. He longed to touch her body tenderly but—afraid of bursting their frail bubble—he slipped his hands down to the far more neutral curve of her waist instead. He tried not to think of how, at any moment, this might end or maybe that it really was a dream after all.

There was a cadence to their movements and a harmony, as they mirrored each other. Then experiments, as one of them might encourage a slight advance and then wait to see if the other would catch up but they'd always been well-matched. So, much to Fitz's surprise—as they roused and tantalized one another—what had started as something seeming rather delicate to him, soon intensified to a reckless, frenzied pace. Their breath grew ragged, stuttering though the seal of their lips as their limbs became quivery with want. She moaned heatedly against his mouth as her hands fought under his layers to find the bare skin of his back, sliding up and down, and making him tremble with anticipation. Then, she took hold of his waist and brought his hips against hers in a delicious clash that sent shivers running all through his body. Her hips rocked purposefully back into him again and—almost beyond reason and without thought—he slid his hands down to cup her backside, guiding her against him so well it pulled an unexpected whimper from him. There was no doubt of how he was feeling, she had to feel him pressing hard against her. However, rather than pull away, she was grinding into him, driving his desire for her higher and higher. He was freeing the hunger he’d been suppressing for two years—no, longer—and now she seemed to be answering with startling passion of her own.

He felt joy bubbling up within him as he realized this was the way he had always dreamed of Jemma responding to him. No, actually it was far better than he'd ever imagined.

Then, he suddenly remembered that this was the exact opposite of their one previous kiss. That kiss had been shared almost a year ago, when, at the very touch of his lips, her mouth had gone tense and her stiff limbs curled in on themselves as she silently begged for release from his attempt to spark her romantic feelings for him. After she finally told him that he was only ever her friend, he tried to let go of the dream of more and just be that—her best friend—accept that he would never be the person she wanted, not like that...this.

Oh, God. No. Oh, no.

He came away from her explosively. Stumbling back, he nearly lost his balance, with his arms flailing inelegantly as he caught himself.

Her eyes went wide with shock and the fingers of one hand came up to touch her swollen lips.

He shuddered fiercely and pressed his hand to his own lips, then he wiped her precious taste from his mouth with a sleeve. He was stunned that he’d been so willing to believe the fantasy—even for a moment. He was ashamed of how long his mind had allowed him to indulge his own selfish feelings.

“Fitz,” she said, voice breaking slightly, her eyes even wider now with worry. She held a hand up to his chest but just let it hover there, not touching him, finally letting it fall back to her side. “I meant to tell you—I,“ she swallowed, the muscles in her throat working stiffly, "I—"

“Jemma, it’s okay,” he tried to soothe, pulling down the hem of his top to hide the shameful sign of his lust.

She didn't reply, only gave him an odd look, like she was sussing him out.

He knew he couldn’t blame Jemma for any of this, it certainly wasn’t her fault after all. She was only an innocent victim. But, in an odd way, now so was he. Of course he would help her however he could. "How" was really the problem though, wasn't it? How to get back to Earth, but then there was also who back there might be able to help her. "Counteracting magical spells" wasn't exactly a standard service you could Google to find a skilled provider. 

She looked ready to speak but, afraid of what she might say, he held up his hands placatingly, wanting first to reassure her that he was on her side and not trying to take advantage in any way. “W–we’ll figure this out, Jemma.”

She looked confused suddenly, her brows drawing up and together. “Fitz, I just meant to say that I should've told you before all of this. I’m sorry.”

“Told me what?” Now, he was confused.

“That..." she pressed her lips together tightly before continuing, "I'm in love with you.” She said it rather shyly, though her eyes never left his and the earnestness he saw there was terrible.

He had to fight the urge to cover his ears. A day ago, there’s nothing in the bloody cosmos he would’ve rather heard—but it was like torture now. It was all lies, it had to be. Whatever they’d given her, it had evidently worked between them. It was better than the alternative but, to hear her speak the words he'd wanted to hear her say for so long and know that it wasn’t real—there was no other word—it was fucking torture.

“Jemma, I’m sorry that I had to touch you before Geir. I just—the idea of him—doing…” He shuddered, emotion overwhelming him, and suddenly he wasn’t sure if he was choking back anger or tears—or both. "I had to stop him."

Her eyes were still wide and astonished as she began to shake her head. “Fitz, this isn’t—I mean, I felt like this," she gestured back the way they'd come, "before all of that.”

He didn’t know how she knew exactly what to say to make him want to believe her or even why she would lie to him about it but he had to ignore what his brain wanted to believe and listen to the cold facts. She never once kissed him before and she certainly never said she loved him before—only after all this mess. That absolutely had to mean it wasn’t real. He just needed to forget that it was what he wanted above all else in the entirety of the universe.

“Jemma,” he said, holding his hands up again, though now he wasn't sure if it was for her or just to make himself feel some measure of emotional safety. He used his most reasonable (and possibly condescending) tone as he continued, “You know that you never felt this way before, Jemma. You told me you only ever thought of me as a friend. Remember that?”

“Of course, I remember, Fitz. I haven’t gone bloody mental,” she said bitingly. She took a breath and softened her tone but she couldn’t seem to meet his gaze suddenly. “I was afraid to tell you, well, because of—Hanna. I thought you were, oh, grieving, I suppose. I believed you needed time to adjust or get over—well, all of that.” Crossing her arms before herself, she looked quite vulnerable but he still found himself skeptical of her halting explanation and false manner.

Reacting to her words, his brows pulled together in disbelief. "It's been a year, Jemma, when were you goin' to tell me then, on my bloody deathbed? And—I mean, of course, I cared about her," he dropped his eyes, tugging a few barley heads off their stalks and crushing them in his fingers, "but I—well, I mostly—" he sighed in resignation, "Okay, so, I made my peace with her before she," he cleared his throat, not wanting to say the word, "y'know, passed. But, Jemma, I used her," he swallowed hard and, still not meeting her eyes, added, "I was just tryin' to get over you."

He desperately wanted to look up, see her eyes, her response, but, instead, he rushed through the rest. "It didn't work naturally but, I suppose, now you know what a terrible person I am in any case." He shrugged, running a nervous hand over the back of his neck. Then, dragging his eyes up to hers, he tried to gauge her response to his unsavory confession.

Tears were standing in her eyes, fat and ready to fall. "I'm so sorry," she said, taking a step toward him, but he instantly took a protective step back. The tears she was trying so fiercely to hold onto fell, slipping over her cheeks, and leaving glistening trails in their wake that shone a violet-gold in the newborn sunlight. However, she now looked as if her urge to break down was past. "I'm sorry that I wasn't able to reciprocate then, Fitz, but my feelings have been changing for some time. It's not just today."

“When exactly did it start, then?” His tone was extremely suspicious because he still couldn't understand why she wouldn't tell him sooner if it were really true.

“It doesn’t matter, Fitz." She shook her head. "I mean, it’s been awhile. I was just waiting, I don't know, for the right time, I suppose. Looks like I buggered that up as well.” She chuckled humorlessly, her eyes darting up to his anxiously.

“Why, Jemma? I have to know why you wouldn’t tell me. You knew how I felt.” His mouth opened and closed as he tried to find the words to ask her why she would hold back this critical information if what she was saying were true. “You knew, Jemma, and it’s been nearly a year," he repeated, slowly shaking his head.

“Fitz,” she said pleadingly, stepping toward him again as he took another step back, maintaining their distance. In his growing agitation, his head was beginning to shake faster. “Please, I’m sorry. It seems foolish now but I just didn’t think you were ready to hear it—not after I told you that—well, that I didn’t.” His head was shaking so rapidly now things started to spin but the dizziness was oddly comforting. It was something to feel besides this pain that was tearing into him like a blade.

“It’s not true,” he said to himself as much as to her. His mind was reeling, fighting not to accept her story, but wanting to so badly, even though it didn't make any sense. “I know it’s not, Jemma. You—but w–we’ve been workin' together—you would’ve told me. You—would’ve...” He trailed off, his voice rough with pain, so much pain in his heart he couldn't continue.

“I just wanted to give you space—wait until the time was right—for us. Fitz, I do love you. I want to be with you. Please, believe me.”

He held up a hand, silently begging her to stop her argument. He felt tears burning the corners of his eyes. This was all academic, it was clear to him she wasn't being honest and that just wasn't his best friend. She was clearly somehow changed. He didn’t need to hear all this because it wasn’t bloody true.

“No. Jemma, please. I can’t do this. I—please.” He dropped his head into his hands.

He didn’t know if he could take this. He needed to get her back to someone who could fix this. Evidently, Jemma didn’t even understand that it needed fixing.

Then, she was touching him again, taking hold of his arms just above his elbows and rubbing soothingly. “Fitz, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about this for some time. I really have. I’m sorry I waited so long. How would I know that this—how could anyone ever prepare for something so...” She brought a hand up to stroke through the hair over his ear.

He let out a low whimper. He couldn’t save her from the bad guy only to become the bad guy himself. He remembered her words: Is that how you salve your conscience? Use some chemical to cause a reaction so you can believe a woman desires you? He was her best friend, he was supposed to protect her.

He thought of the silky softness of her lips, the tight fit of her body against his as if she wanted him as much as he wanted her. There was nothing he could imagine he would ever desire more than for that to be real—Jemma loving him, wanting him. He craved it so badly that—for a moment—he couldn’t breathe. He loved her more than his own life but he also wanted her and longed for her touch. It wasn’t only lust. He yearned to really hear her say that she loved him too, that she desired—not just his body—but his true self. And, yes, he had to admit it (at least to himself) he wanted to make love to her. He wanted to feel their bodies move together, be inside her, please her and see her face as he made her reach the point of ecstasy. More than that, he wanted her to trust him that intimately, with her body, her desires, herself.

But she had to want it from him. He needed for it to be real and forever.

He didn’t know if or for how long he could resist her while she said those things—that she wanted him too and that she loved him—no matter how wrong it was. It was too much temptation. He wasn't a saint, he was weak. But what if they couldn’t fix her? What then? Let her pine for him, just as he did for her, but stay apart on moral grounds? What sense did that make?

The argument dissolved into nothing when he thought of her words again: Is that how you salve your conscience? When she was back in her right mind, she would loathe him—and he would despise himself. For all he knew, whatever she’d drunk had a time limit. What if he gave in, let himself believe it, and then in three days or three months or three years, or worse—more than that—she woke up one morning and hated him, thought him vile for accepting what he knew she didn’t want to give? Could he ever survive being with Jemma for even three hours that way and then have her reject him, possibly blame and condemn him? Even if she were willing to forgive him, how could he absolve himself of responsibility? How could he ever go back to this friendship—which seemed enough three days ago—but after experiencing something more intimate would it ever be anything but a reminder of what they might've been?

“You didn’t want me then,” he said firmly, but unable to keep the awful defeat from infusing his words. “Not even yesterday—my god, Jemma!—if you’d told me that even bloody yesterday!” He shook his head sadly. “That would’ve been different but not now—I just can’t. I could never be like Geir, stealing from you what you don’t want to give.” He turned away, heading back to their camp.

Jemma took hold of his wrist, clearly intending to make more of an argument, but he turned on her, and shouted, “Do you want me to be like him?” Remorse flooded him the instant he saw the stunned look of hurt on her face. His tone went quieter but was no less harsh, as he said, “Do you want me to use that—chemical, drug, whatever it is—so I can make myself believe you want me the way that I want you? Jemma, no. I just—I can’t.” A tear slipped slowly down his cheek but she showed no sign of letting his wrist go. He brushed the wet streak away from his face with his other hand. “I can’t do that—steal your love. I only want it if you’re free to give it to me. Not like this. Not like a thief. Now, please, Jemma. If you really are still my best friend then..." he sucked in a sharp breath, "Then let me go.”

But, Jemma didn’t release him, her fingers stayed firmly around his wrist. Her eyes appeared desperate and her mouth worked as if she were trying to find something more to say—another lie perhaps. Finally—hating it but just needing to escape her—he jerked his arm away. Much to his relief, she was no longer holding on very tightly and his wrist slipped from her grasp. He turned immediately to leave her.

He heard her sob once as he walked away, but he couldn’t be the one to comfort her. It really couldn’t be his job anymore. It came with too many enticements now and he would never, ever survive.

Chapter Text

 

Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the fates. –J. K. Rowling


 Too stunned to move for a moment after Fitz had pulled his arm from her desperate grasp, Jemma watched his retreating back as he hurried away from her. It almost looked as though he were trying not to run as he headed toward their rudimentary camp just a few meters into the dense, dark tree line. 

A dry sob escaped her and she felt tears burning her eyes as they began to gather in her lower lids. No longer frozen, she brought both hands up to cover her mouth, which had fallen open in abject horror at what she seemed to have now wrought. 

“No, no, no!" It escaped through her fingers but, pressing her hands tighter against her lips, she managed to stifle her denials.

She shook her head fiercely, trying to negate what had happened somehow as her mind tried to come to terms with the new facts. Her vision blurred, with fat teardrops quickly pooling to blind her as she lost sight of Fitz entering the trees. Suddenly, she knew this was real but it was all so terribly wrong. This isn't what it was meant to be.

"No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” she muttered to herself, wishing she could reject this new reality that she'd created. Going limp, she collapsed into the rough stalks of barley with tears wetting her cheeks. 

She’d waited too long again. Done it all wrong yet again. She was doomed to repeat the mistakes of her past, it seemed, and this realization only made her cry harder.

It felt strangely good to let go and she indulged herself in crying freely for quite some time. The pale sun moved across the violet sky as she let go all the sadness and heartbreak that she'd been holding onto ever since Hydra, the pod, the coma—and what had come after. So many mistakes she'd made. She'd thought that was the worst day of her life, when Fitz almost died—but she was wrong. Because, now, she thought maybe she'd really lost him for good. She'd likely made the mistake that they could never come back from now. She'd ruined everything.

When guilt's sharp claws finally dulled from tearing her down to the bone—with her salty tears drying on her face and nothing coming out of her but a few short, hiccuping sobs—she wondered if there was now anything she could say that might persuade Fitz of her sincerity. Somehow, she knew that confessing her betrayal—the well-meant lie she’d told him a year ago that she never was in love with him—would only further convince him of her attempts to seduce him. It would be exceedingly difficult to make him believe that she wasn’t trying to lure him, she decided. Not now that he was waiting for her to do exactly that because he somehow believed her to be programmed in some way to love him. And of course, there was the reality that, because she did love him, in fact, that would be precisely what she was trying to do—just not for the irrational reason he seemed to believe. 

Once again, watching Fitz fight to save her from harm, wrenching himself free of a threatening elf to leap across a table, she'd thought—what more proof do I need that he still cares? She'd thought her own feelings might now be all that was left of any potential romantic relationship between them. However, it seemed clear to her in that moment that he did still love her—that he still wanted to be more than the best friends they had always been. It seemed small comfort now, that she hadn't been wrong.

Belly quivering with apprehension, once they’d set up their temporary camp, she’d prepared herself to finally just bloody well leap off that precipice, come what may. But she hadn't expected this. This was so much more grim and awful than the worst-case scenarios she'd dreamed up to prepare herself. This was all her fault.

As she’d approached him in the barley, ironically, she was struck with the rightness that'd always seemed to be lacking before. The rising sun behind him, as magnificent as it might've been, it couldn't distract her from Fitz. He'd asked her a question about stars or the sun but it barely registered. He'd looked so calm, happy almost, even stranded on another world. She'd rather optimistically fancied that it was just them being together that had him feeling so positive. He smiled at her and it seemed almost involuntary, a reflex that spoke of his deeper feelings. It reminded her of all they'd been through together and how, in spite this terrifying situation and as much as ever, they still could make one another happy. And, even here, she felt it, too. As if they could do anything so long as they were together. And, as he always was, even lost on another world, Fitz was her proof, her touchstone, her truth. She loved him.

Discarding her plan to simply state her feelings without preamble, she suddenly found herself overwhelmed with affection and she’d embraced him instead. Slightly worried that it could go wrong but believing in her heart that it was right, she'd looked up into his face and seen that adoring look in his pale blue eyes that he’d evidently kept hidden from her for such a long time now. Instantly overcome with her feelings for him, she'd abandoned prudence and rational discussion in favor of an impulse she’d never felt before. 

Full of emotion she gave in to her impetuousness and pressed her lips to his. However, for a terrifying moment, he’d remained motionless. She couldn’t even feel his breath and she'd thought her rejection was imminent but then he’d inhaled deeply and begun to kiss her with more feeling that she’d ever dreamed of. 

It had rapidly escalated to the point of arousal for both of them and she’d nearly wished he would simply lay her down right there and make love to her. She didn't think she would've refused even though the cautious part of her knew they should likely discuss the change. That part of her wanted things settled between them, with their new status consciously and willfully established. But, before she could voice anything or even contemplate the drawbacks of launching into a physical relationship without speaking first, he had leapt away in horror, explaining how she now needed to be fixed—the magic spell removed.

Startled and upset herself, still, Jemma could see in Fitz's eyes the awful distrust, his utter inability to believe what she was saying. All the insecurity that she'd always known was there but never understood how very deeply it ran, was right there at the surface suddenly and so easy to discern that she didn't know how she'd never realized before. He'd seen the revelation of her feelings as such a completely unthinkable change that the only way he could reason it out was that she'd been magically altered. His mind unable to fathom any other way that she could possibly want him. She’d nearly broken down then and there—devastated that she could've made him feel such a thing. That he could believe he was so unwanted, so undesirable, that it would take some sort of literal magic to change her heart toward loving him and wanting to be with him. Even now, she felt her eyes well with tears at the thought of such pain.

He seemed to believe in this silly magic now or perhaps that it was some sort of advanced science that forced her to want him. How could she ever convince him otherwise without some fanciful theatrics to make him change his mind? Would he believe that she loved him even then? Or was he now convinced that she could never love him? She wondered if Geir’s fake love-spell had ultimately dealt their friendship the final death blow and if this misadventure had doomed their partnership as well as anything that might have come after.

She felt like she was stuck in some sort of a puzzle box. If only she could see the right way of looking at it, she might find her way out. Try as she might, she couldn’t see her way through this. It seemed they’d both been shut into a hell of Jemma’s own making. Finally, they’d both made their feelings clear but it had now become unthinkable to act on them. For Fitz, because he believed her to be under some influence, a forced duress compelling her toward him. And, for Jemma, she wouldn't push him for anything. She couldn't, but only because she couldn’t bear to see him hurt any further. She knew that anything she did would only create more pain for him. She resigned herself to remaining neutral.

She thought of his kiss and it made her heart pound even to think of it. With no evidence one way or the other—Jemma had never been certain if the two of them would be compatible in that way. It didn’t matter to her much. Not that she was ever opposed to it but she’d always found sex to be rather overrated and, in any case, it wasn’t what she really craved. She longed for the deep intimacy that she somehow knew they would be capable of together. She believed that it was what Fitz desired as well. An open sharing of their most personal and private selves that would compliment what already existed between them. 

Though she’d never felt averse to the idea of intimacy with him, she hadn’t really planned on finding herself quite so impassioned. She reached up to trail her fingers over her lips, recalling the way he’d been so tender and yet left her in no doubt of his love and desire. It was the antithesis of their only other kiss—so inopportune it had fallen flat and given neither of them any sense of what might be between them. This time, it was more than she could’ve hoped for or dreamed of. It had been truly wonderful and so full of the promise of a future she'd only ever allowed herself to vaguely imagine. The thought that this might also be the last time she ever felt his lips on hers again nearly made the tears rush to her eyes once more.

For a long time, she lay there on her back with barley shafts poking her ribs uncomfortably. However, unwilling to move, she breathed in the acrid tang of the alien soil and looked upward, waiting. She watched the milky sun moving further across the deep violet sky as the day moved on. Staring up between the pale gold stalks toward the amethyst backdrop, she tracked the barley as it swayed above her in the breeze. She didn’t know for what she was lingering, but it felt good just to lie there. But with nothing to end her wait, still trembling as she tried to quiet her tumult of emotion, she did finally push herself to her feet and head back. All the while, dreading Fitz’s near-certain coldness and desperately hoping he would by now be asleep, she sucked in a breath and forced one foot in front of the other.

He hadn’t moved the bedrolls but he was on his side, faced away from hers. She lay down, pulling the top cover over herself even though it was full day and warm out. She could tell by his breathing that he wasn’t sleeping but she could think of nothing to say. She didn't know if there was anything to say. Or if, perhaps, they'd done what she never believed they would and finally run out of things to speak about in the end. 

Eventually, she drifted into an uneasy sleep.


Though he still felt almost sick with anxiety over their unpleasant situation, once Jemma returned, Fitz was exhausted enough to finally allow himself to fall asleep. However, he was soon assaulted with horrifying dreams that seemed to be on a constant repeat. He couldn’t wake himself and was forced to endure the nightmares over and over, though the images were sometimes fused or out of order, occasionally, almost to the point of senselessness.

In the basic dream, he found himself in a bright, beautiful meadow. The sky was like pure gold and the grass was the greenest he'd ever seen. There was an inconceivably gigantic tree (of fate, he presumed). Twisted and knotted, it grew in the center of the meadow. Its bark was white, the leaves a deep emerald and the branches were many as they stretched across the firmament. As Fitz drew closer, the far-reaching branches shaded him but did not mute the halcyon glow of the sky in the least. Though there was nothing else in any direction but the green and gold that met at the horizon line, the treetop was invisible to him as it reached for the heavens. He saw only more branches spreading across the sky into eternity.

At the foot of the tree as it grew from the ground, was a glimmering pond that fed the roots while it reflected the sky above like liquid gold. Sometimes gilded drops of dew that clung to the tree’s high branches fell down into the pond and, other times, the droplets fell upward from the surface of the water back up to the leaves. Coming closer, he saw there was a name carved deeply into the tree’s smooth white trunk in a strange foreign language. Though he couldn’t read that name, he could read Jemma’s beside it. There was a cackling old crone (Skuld, was the name he thought Geir had mentioned) who appeared. As he watched, she rubbed out the foreign name with a gnarled thumb and then began writing Fitz's own in with nothing but her sharp claw-like nail hovering over the bark. Though he mostly saw the crone, sometimes she was different—young and beautiful or somewhere in between in middle age.

As Skuld wrote, he always realized Jemma was in his arms. Her body was stiff and unyielding against his at first but, as the name changed, her eyes became soft and loving. Then, she was kissing him, tugging at his clothes and pulling him down to the grass-laden ground with her. Before he knew it, he was looking down at her beneath him, already inside her and thrusting wildly with her legs wrapped around his waist. Her hands caressed his cheek and slipped through his hair tenderly but, all the while, her face continued to change. Constantly distorted, it morphed back and forth from love and desire to appalled or horrified. Sometimes, she tried to push him away or would open her mouth to cry out but—feeling outside himself and unable to control his actions—his oblivious body hushed her cries by pressing his lips over hers in loving kisses. He endured the dream again and again.

It always ended with Jemma's expressions of hurt, betrayal and hatred as he looked to see that the name was again changed, now back to the original foreign name that he'd seen at first.

Finally, having suffered though it countless times, he woke with a start, head filled with the memory of Jemma's devastating look of loathing. Immediately, he heaved bile into his throat and, twisting to the side, he just missed the edge of his sleeping roll as he vomited. Her face from the dream—sadly despising him—still haunted him as he convulsed.

Sounding alert but fatigued, Jemma turned toward him straight away. “Fitz? Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” he managed, nearly retching again but swallowing it down with some effort. “Fine.”

“Are you ill?” she asked, sounding quite worried. 

When she touched his arm, he shook it off, bringing his sleeve up to wipe his mouth. “I told you—I’m fine.”

“But if—“

“STOP,” he shouted, interrupting her before she could start anything he didn't want to continue. “Just leave it. 'M fine. There's no need to go on.”

Turning away sharply, she settled back down into her bedding. Rolling to his stomach, Fitz pressed his face into his forearm and gritted his teeth as he tried to ignore her snuffling.

He never could go back to sleep. Too frightened of his persistent nightmares, he lay awake until twilight. Jemma had eventually fallen back into a fretful state of unconsciousness but neither of them had gotten enough rest. He left her there sleeping while he went to clean himself up, hoping she might get a touch more of decent sleep. When he finished, he dug through his pack, finding the food they’d been given. There were some dense, bread-like cakes, jerky (though he was loathe to imagine the animal it came from), dried fruit and something that looked like thick, dry seaweed though he discovered it had a much more pleasant taste and texture. He was far less concerned about how well they might fare eating the elven food after the previous night's banquet. They'd eaten all of it with no ill-effects and he decided the food of this planet wasn't very likely to sicken them. 

Jemma woke before he finished and he gave her some of the food as well as one of the water pouches to drink from, for which she mumbled a quiet thanks.

“We’re headed for the road,” he told her, “but only ’cause I don’t really know where else to go.”

She looked at him for a moment, face inscrutable, before she said, “I don’t know either. Are we still waiting for Jane and Tony to rescue us at this stage?”

He shrugged. “I think we need to try to get to Asgard so Lady Sif or someone can send us back.” It was really the only plausible plan his mind could come up with. 

She was nodding slowly. “I suppose that makes sense. But—how do we get there?”

“Last night, Halli told me that the king here, Frey, has a way to get there,” he said, trying to sound hopeful. However, Fitz also knew that Halli had said he didn’t know why the king would ever help them. But they had to try something. He had some vague hope that perhaps Frey might be able to help get the spell off Jemma in some fashion. Fitz didn't care what he had to give in return for such a cure. He'd give anything he had to get her home and somehow see her fixed. Fitz had to make certain she was set right again with some chance at a future and happiness one day. It was all that mattered to him.

“So, we’re headed to meet the king of the elves?” Jemma sounded quite skeptical.

He just nodded, unable to meet her eyes, fearing he might see scorn there. 

She finally shrugged and said, “I guess it’s a plan then.”

After she had finished her meal and gone off to get cleaned up herself, they packed their things and started away into the night. Fitz wasn’t terribly unhappy about traveling after dark, but he didn’t think he wanted to run into anymore elves than they had to—at least, until they reached the king.

They’d walked for a few hours or so before he heard an odd noise. It crackled like static but he couldn’t think what it might be. Bugs? It sounded too regular, more electrical. Did bloody elves even use electricity? He was extremely wary of anyone finding them now, for fear something worse than Geir might happen—and the noise sounded close, far too close for comfort.

“What's that?” he asked, looking around agitatedly for any sign of what might be making the noise. But Jemma had been lagging behind and he had to stop and twist around so she could hear him. "D’you hear that?"

Then it started again, a few bursts of what still sounded to Fitz like static. 

“Yes,” she said, cocking her head to the side as she came even with him. “What is it?”

It started again—a sputtering crackle—but even closer now. He had to resist the urge to slap his own forehead when realization hit him—there wasn't time.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” he cried, forcibly turning Jemma away and nearly ripping the pack off her back. 

“What—“ she said in confusion, spinning back around to face him once it was off.

“The thing—the whatsit—buggering—bloody Jeeves!” Though he was full of nervous anticipation, he practically whooped with joy.

They might finally get off this piss-poor excuse for a planet with all their walking and miles of damnable barley and bloody elvish land-barons trying to cock up his shite life and make it even more hellish and intolerable than ever before. He dumped Jemma's pack out onto the ground in his hurry to get the thingmie out. When he finally had it in his hands, he saw that the entire face was flashing. All the different colored lights were flaring in sync.

“I think—I think it’s Morse! Bloody Morse code!” he cried as he attempted to work it out in his head, “…we...go...get...ready...here...we...go...five...four—Oh, for the love of—” 

He grabbed Jemma in his arms, going down on his knees and bringing her with him, not willing to take any chances that they might get separated. Covering her head protectively, he pressed his forehead against her shoulder and waited.

…and waited…

…and waited…

When it seemed nothing would happen, he looked up slowly, only to find that they were back in the meadow where they’d started. He saw the table they’d traveled with still sitting by the lakeshore. He’d expected a flash of light like the last time but he'd forgotten it was the arc overload that’d caused it. 

“No!” he shouted, so angry he nearly hopped to his feet, but Jemma’s arms locked around him kept him there. He looked down at Jeeves in his hands to find that it was still flashing. 

“Here we go again,” Jemma said, having already deciphered the message. 

This trip, neither of them looked away. It was as if the table, lake and meadow faded into mist and was replaced by a river bank. It was now daylight and they were suddenly housed within a grove of red and yellow-leafed trees that might’ve been perfectly at home back on Earth. He saw a pale blue sky and golden sunlight as it filtered through the canopy, dappling the leaf-strewn ground while birds chirped happily overhead.

“Are we, er—back?” Fitz asked, feeling like a prat. How could he not know? Wouldn’t they come back to Stark Labs?

“I don’t think so, Fitz,” Jemma said, looking down at Jeeves. It flashed a few more times and then stopped. “I just caught the end. I think they overloaded the system again. They won’t likely try again for a bit. I think we've just moved to another of the four potential destinations now.”

This time, Fitz did leap to his feet. They were back at bloody square one at the arse-end of the universe—no idea where they were, no plan to speak of, bloody useless map—fuck! He paced around the small grove for a few turns, seething with frustration, cursing under his breath, before kicking out at a fallen log—but his soft elven boots offered little protection from the hard wood. 

“OW! You bastard! You cock!” he hollered, clenching his fists at the unbelievable agony in his toes. He glanced over automatically to see that Jemma was trying to suppress her amusement at his pained outburst. 

“Shoosh, you. Not bloody funny. I might've broken my bloody foot,” he told her, irritated and still trying to stop himself from letting loose a new string of curses.

Jemma looked away, pressing her lips together firmly. "Sorry," she said. "You just reminded me of that time—remember Fitz—when you spilled your tea down Sally Webber's back in Professor Vaughn's class and—"

"And she was so cross that she released five hundred crickets from the biology lab into my room and called it a prank instead of the petty revenge it really was?" he finished. "How could I ever forget? It was an accident and I didn't sleep for a bloody week!"

"You'd torn apart your bed, had all your clothes in the laundry and you were stomping around, furious, as you tried to hoover them all up from everywhere." She devolved into chuckles. "You were in quite a huff by the time I got there," she said almost nostalgically. "You had one on your foot and you tried to shake it off but kicked your desk instead."

"Then I fell over, right on my arse," he said, some of his annoyance beginning to drain away at the recollection. Jemma had laughed at him then too. Telling him how silly he was to be worried over crickets. But their legs were so spindly and sharp—he shivered. "I wasn't in a huff, in any case. That was me, incredibly pissed off. I got her back right and proper though."

"I can still recall the scream," Jemma said, laughing again.

Though he was hobbling a bit on his foot—Fitz came over to where Jemma was shoving her things back into her pack. All the things he'd dumped out had evidently made the trip as easily as the table had within the sphere of the transport field.

“Sorry about that,” he muttered, suddenly unsure if he meant the pack, his outburst or something else entirely. From the ground, he picked up a rumpled pile of clothing and held it out to her.

She just nodded, taking the wadded mass and stuffing it into her bag. She glanced around the little grove and then asked, "Where do you think we are?"

He shook his head. “Not Asgard from the descriptions I've heard." He sighed deeply, letting go the rest of his anger. He watched Jemma until she finally looked up to meet his eyes again. "I think we should likely, I dunno, stay here until Jane and Tony can find us. What d’you think?” he asked, knowing it wasn’t likely what she wanted to hear but wanting her to know he would listen to her objections if she had them. "We've food and supplies enough—for a bit, anyway."

She drew in a ragged breath. Still on her knees, she bent to pick up the last few smaller items from the ground and put them into her pack before she began to nod thoughtfully. “I think you’re right, Fitz. We’ll just wait it out here as long as we can.”

Her easy agreement surprised him but it also made him feel better that, at least, they could still make an agreement—even though that decision now required a certain level of inactivity. He just hoped he didn’t go mad from the boredom—or anything else.

Chapter Text

 

What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us. –Henry David Thoreau


Jemma got up from her bedroll, her spine creaking in protest when she stretched too deeply. Sleeping on the hard ground certainly wasn't doing her back any favors and she hadn't slept well. Trying to move quietly around the camp so that Fitz could sleep a bit more, she walked the short distance to the riverside and filled their largest pot with water. She placed it on the makeshift grating over the coals and added a few more sticks of wood to the fire. She watched it blaze up before she sat on the sorely-abused fallen log they were now using as seating. Waiting for the water to boil, she subconsciously glanced over at Fitz where he lay; still fast asleep, he was sprawled on his bedroll across the fire-pit from where she sat. Her eyes always seemed to end up drifting to him, she realized, drawn like a compass needle to the north.

Despite all, he was still her guiding star and she was only left now to wonder just how much that might change once they got back to Earth—no matter how much she might want for things to stay the same. She knew that now she'd spoiled things irrevocably between them and it was inevitable that it would be different when they returned. She didn't see how it could be anything but worse—no, not worse, unbearable. She could see how greatly he was distancing himself from her already and she could only assume that once they returned, all that would be left was for him to end their partnership officially.

He was on his side facing her and she was struck by how, in sleep, his features were such a contrast to what she saw daily. At least since she'd revealed her true feelings with the ill-timed kiss that now proved to have such disastrous consequences to their relationship. She noted how the normally tension-filled muscles of his face were slack and peaceful in repose and this thought filled her with a sudden regretful sadness. She hated being the cause of his distress but she still couldn’t think of any way she might convince him of the truth that was in her heart. She didn’t know how to make him understand that she’d loved him for much longer than she even dared to admit to herself, much less to him. She didn’t know the answer to this puzzle or how she might convince him that he was free to love her—if that was even what he still wanted now.

Part of her wished he could just forget such foolish concerns—magic wasn't real, it was ridiculous. However, she still tried to put herself in his place—the worry of forcing something on someone who didn't wish it. Unfortunately, she couldn't reconcile what he might be thinking with what was in her own head. It wouldn't be as if her intelligence were affected by "the spell," in any case. It wouldn't have been as if she couldn't reason for herself, should it have actually happened. She'd tried to ask him the previous night why he would think she couldn't make decisions for herself even if she were in a state of heightened attraction (or whatever it was he believed). He'd balked at the entire conversation, growing angry at her questions. Not wanting to upset him, she hadn't pressed further. Of course, she couldn't read his mind (as much as she might wish for that at times) and while he was so averse to speaking about it, she lacked sufficient information to confirm any of her hypotheses on his thought process.

She did understand that he believed, quite powerfully, that she didn't want to take that romantic step in their relationship "pre-spell" but, even if she were influenced in some way, Jemma knew that she could never hate Fitz for accepting what she was trying to offer him in spite of it all. It wasn't as if she'd never been able to imagine a life with him or that she'd been completely closed to the idea, she'd only ever been afraid of losing him over something that seemed so frivolous then. (Sometimes Jemma hardly recognized her younger self when she recalled such prior thoughts—how could she ever have believed love to be frivolous?) Nevertheless, losing Fitz, was and always had been, her greatest fear—some unfathomably awful thing taking him away from her. Before the pod it had been only a dim concern but, after, an outright apprehension. Somehow, she didn't think that would ever change now. To lose him was the dread of her existence—and now it seemed she'd achieved that loss all on her own.

Fitz stirred in his crude bed then and, realizing she was still staring at him fondly, Jemma looked away toward the river, pushing back the melancholy feelings she’d allowed herself to indulge in.

It'd been two and a half days since they’d arrived on this new world. They didn't yet know which planet it was and had yet to see any people. But that would likely only be a temporary situation, since they were beginning to run out of food. They ate rather optimistically the first day, both of them believing that Jane and Tony would get things sorted and bring them home after their double bounce around the cosmos. When it hadn't happened by the time they'd woken the next morning, they'd begun to ration more closely. They still had perhaps a little more than one more day's worth of food.

Ever since they'd arrived here, they'd both been skittishly walking on eggshells around one another. Without discussing it, they still slept side by side with their bedrolls laid flush. Jemma had been pleased at first—that he was still that comfortable, at least—but then she began to suspect it was only because Fitz still felt the need to protect her after she'd seen him bring his large screwdriver to bed with him. However, they rarely touched anymore—unless by mistake. Fitz never held her or comforted her, only stayed safely within the elaborate cocoon of his own bedding, his back turned steadfastly toward her.

They'd filled their time in this new place with domestic tasks: setting up camp, boiling water to drink, Fitz tried his hand at fishing again but the rapid flow of water in the river wasn’t optimal for catching them any supper. Jemma found a cake of soap in the bottom of her pack and even bathed in the river (which felt like a luxury despite the cold). When she told Fitz of her intention to get herself clean, it'd sent him into an odd mood halfway between annoyance and terror and he quickly escaped into the woods until it was nearly dark. When he returned, he'd crept back as warily as if he expected her to pounce on him. The next day, she'd used the soap to clean their elven clothes so they might continually have a spare set. Fitz fixed her watch once more, setting it to this new planet’s diurnal cycle (22 hours, 14 minutes). He also started tinkering with Jeeves, trying to see if he could figure a way to get the Morse code to go both directions, but—lacking some of the advanced tools he needed—he had, so far, been unsuccessful.

They did a strange dance of avoidance—eating their meals in silence, speaking only when they must—and, most importantly, never touching unless it was absolutely unavoidable. It hurt her deeply that he no longer seemed to trust her. Though on some level she knew she deserved it, that it was not even for the proper reason oddly rankled. The most painful thing was that he now seemed to look on her, not as an ally, but almost as an enemy—someone who sought to bring him harm in some way. It was little comfort that at least he believed it to be unintentional on her part. Though, of course, the last thing she ever wanted to do was see him hurt further. All she really wanted to do now was set things right. But she still had no idea how to fix this bizarre situation. If there even was any way to unsnarl the tangle of what had gone wrong between them. It seemed nearly hopeless to her and she found herself dwelling on the issue to no avail far more often than not. It seemed so cruelly ironic that now they’d finally both acknowledged how they felt for one another and yet, here they were, unable to act on it. Helpless in the face of their circumstances and prevented from being happy as it seemed they always were.

Waking from his sleep, blinking rapidly, Fitz sat up rather suddenly. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he looked around blearily, even though he still carefully avoided her gaze. Getting to his feet, still not looking her way, he began stretching his arms toward the sky. She couldn’t help noticing the sinewy line of him as he pushed at the small of his back with both hands to get a better stretch. He brushed half-heartedly at his rumpled clothes and headed toward the river bank without ever acknowledging her presence. 

He knelt by the side of the flowing water and, taking off his button-down, he wrapped it loosely around his waist, knotting the sleeves together to hold it in place. She glanced at the pot of not-yet-boiling water and pretended to ignore what he did next. Keeping her head firmly angled toward the fire, she couldn't resist darting a glance from the corner of her eye. She watched him remove his vest top and tuck it deeply into the back pocket of his jeans where it hung just over the ground. He filled his cupped hands with water and splashed some on his face, rubbing vigorously. She heard his gasp at the feel of the icy water. She still recalled it from her own bathing experience. It didn’t stop him from throwing several large handfuls over his chest and under his arms as he grimaced against the cold. 

Still avoiding looking at her, Fitz went about his morning grooming while—without even realizing it—Jemma gave up her pretense of not looking and nakedly stared at him. She noted that all the exercise and the lower calorie diet was already affecting him greatly. His jeans hung loosely on his hips. She could see the outline of his ribs and even the muscles beneath as he moved. The rivulets of water ran over his pectoral muscles and down to the concavity of his abdomen, following the central contour of his belly and over the line of hair that trailed down past his waistband. She felt her cheeks grow warm at the sight, though it was hardly the first time she’d noted that particular detail about him in their long years of friendship. However, she’d never before been interested in where that trail led. 

She noted that there was more definition all over his body than she’d ever seen before and, though she knew that being “muscular” was against his body-type (especially when you considered that his time was far better spent in the lab, anyway), she still couldn't help admiring his physique for what it was. Though he was not traditionally what she would've always found attractive, she was able to admit to her own pleasure in looking at him. There was a strange flutter deep in her chest as she watched him, an innocent longing that she could hardly put a name to. That said, she most definitely also experienced a reigniting of the lustful hunger she'd felt the few days prior when they'd kissed. Dragging her teeth over her bottom lip, she just stopped herself from sighing audibly.

Flailing his arms and dragging his hands over his face again, Fitz shook himself off before he pulled his vest top back over his head. Then he stood, brushing at his knees and tightening the sleeves of his button-down around his waist before he walked back to the fire. He had taken to sitting on his bedroll if she was on the log bench, evidently maintaining a distance that he deemed appropriate. But, this time, he sat down next to her as he seemed to become captivated by the flickering flames. 

She noticed that Fitz's disheveled hair was dotted with numerous glittering beads of water. They shone in the early morning light filtering through the thin canopy of their clearing. At the sight of his mussed hair, Jemma turned to face him and he immediately grew a wary, expectant look. Meeting his gaze, trying to give all the appearance of innocence that she rightly had on her side, she lifted a hand to point at his bedraggled curls. 

“You look a bit of a mess,” she said, bringing her hand up toward his hair. She did it slowly, as she would approach a frightened animal and, when he didn’t flinch away, she reached all the way up to try to arrange the chaos. Hoping the water he'd splashed might help, she patted at the beads in his hair as she tried to make something of the frizzy disarray his curls had become. She tucked down a few stray pieces and met his eyes again, intending to tell him that it was the best she could do. 

Her hand hovered near his ear as she looked unintentionally fixedly into his sea-blue eyes. His face seemed very close to hers suddenly, especially after so much distance the last few days. His eyes were strange as they studied her, a look she wasn’t used to, and she had no idea what it meant. She felt a sudden tightening within herself, a tension that begged to be released. His tongue darted out to lick his dry lips and she thought she could faintly feel his shallow breaths on her face. For a long moment, neither of them moved, just stared intently into one another's eyes waiting for the other to speak or take some action. 

Growing suddenly nervous under his intense scrutiny and, just wanting to break their staring contest, she blurted, “Take off your clothes.” His eyes instantly widened in shock, growing to almost comic proportions. When she realized what she’d said, and how it must've been taken, she gulped past the tightness in her throat and urgently choked out, “I meant, so I can clean them!” She turned her face away from him as a furious blush rose to heat her entire face. Bringing a hand up to cool her inflamed cheek and shaking her head at herself, she couldn't help feeling like the gawky, completely socially-inept teenager she'd once been.

He practically leapt from his seat beside her and went over to his pack. “Yeah, okay. Be right back,” he said in barely more than an anxious mumble, resuming his new disgruntled persona that he'd begun to put on for her despite her attempts to break through. It was almost as if they'd gone back to their younger selves. She, with her social awkwardness and, he, with his prickly exterior that she'd had to work so hard to get through back when they were both at S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy.

Jemma noticed that Fitz's eyes shifted back to her occasionally as he got what he needed from among the supplies in his pack before he headed off into the woods. When he came back a few minutes later, dressed in his elven-wear and dropping his now-familiar, dusty clothes over his pack, he said, “We should go an' look for food or people now. I think we ought to follow the river. We need to see if we can find somethin'. Doesn't look as though Jane an' Tony'll be comin' quite so soon, I s'pose.”

They'd spoken the previous day about the fact that they would need to look for some sort of settlement before their food ran out so they might find more. They even tentatively discussed how someone might potentially be able to help them get back to Earth. Though Fitz was quite wary of strangers now, he'd told her that he was resigned to needing more help than just they could provide for themselves. Even Jane and Tony, he believed may not be able to get them out of this situation. 

“Alright. When do you want to leave?” she said, knowing that, with Fitz, the answer was likely now.

He shrugged, looking up into the sky. “Soon as we can get packed up? Dunno how long it’ll take to find anythin'—”

“If we do find someone, how will we get any food? We haven’t got any money," she interrupted. 

He shrugged again. “Steal it—if we have to.”

She tried not to let her mouth drop open in shock. She’d never stolen anything in her life (aside from some Hydra intel, though really that'd been Bobbi, she supposed). The whole idea of thievery was rather shocking and—if she was completely honest—a little bit thrilling. However, that was quickly followed up by the recollection that they were on an alien world and at the mercy of alien beings who likely had a different code of morality than they did.

“What if they have laws as strict as they did on Alfheim?” she questioned.

“I’m not sure what else we can do, Jemma,” he said with an edge of apology to his outwardly irritated tone. "I'm open to suggestions if you've got them."

She just shook her head, unsure what else there could be to do. “But we should eat something first. We may have to walk a bit.”

He agreed, getting out some of the food they had left and sharing it out with her. They ate in silence again, it was punctuated only by the occasional self-conscious, over-loud swallow or the movement of a foot through the coverage of dry leaves on the ground. 

They packed up quickly and, after slinging their full bags onto their backs, they stopped next to the burbling water’s edge. Looking up and down the fast-moving river both ways, they each considered the most likely way to civilization.

They both began to speak simultaneously.

“I think we should—“

“Probably we need to–“ 

Fitz looked at her shyly and, gesturing with an open palm, said, “What were you goin’ to say?”

“Oh, well, just that perhaps we should go upstream.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I was goin’ to say down but—I’m okay with that.”

“I mean, if you have reason to believe—“

“No,” he cut her off. “It was arbitrary, really. Let’s just go.”

He started walking upstream and she followed, feeling defeated even in victory.

They walked for what Jemma estimated to be about five kilometers before they spotted someone at the riverside. Fitz put his hands to the small of her back and shoved her forcibly into the underbrush. Jemma didn't begrudge him a little caution but he almost seemed to be growing paranoid. Just the previous night, he'd heard a noise and tried to insist that they hide. She'd been certain that the noise had come from up high, likely a bird, and had refused. Fitz hadn't even bothered to argue with her, only stood by her with his long-handled screwdriver clutched in his white-knuckled hand.

From their covert hiding spot in the brush, Jemma watched and it turned out to be a pre-pubescent boy. He looked nearly human but for his clothing—he appeared to be trying to catch a fish in the rough river. 

“We must be on Asgard or Vanaheim,” she whispered to Fitz. Jemma knew that the only other planet supposedly held what Jane labeled as dwarves. Apparently, Thor had described them to her in detail and they were meant to be short, stout, dark and hirsute. Nothing like the slender, blond boy she was looking at, who might've been eleven or twelve if he were human.

“Let’s follow him when he leaves,” Fitz whispered into her ear. She nodded, for now, quite content and even fascinated to watch the boy go about his business. She was stunned to realize that it seemed to be the first time she'd felt her natural scientific curiosity peeking out from within her since this whole ordeal began. Fear forgotten for the moment, her mind raced with all the things she might learn from and about an alien people.

They watched as the boy toyed with his fishing pole, eventually giving up to lob large rocks into the water before finally sitting against a shady tree to read from a perfectly normal-looking book. Trees lined the riverbank, the sparse band of them giving way to what seemed to be a forest of large trees as it went inland. Eventually, the boy fell asleep with his book resting lightly on his chest. 

Fitz sighed beside her and she found herself wanting to just curl up with him and take a nap herself after her less-than-restful night of sleep. Then she remembered why that wouldn't be possible again. Sometimes it just hit her like that, the way things had changed now for the worse. Feeling far too much self-pity, she flopped onto her side in the dirt, frustratedly trying to push and form her pack into something of a pillow, though it was lumpy and full of too many hard, strange shapes. She just caught Fitz looking down at her with a distinct curve to his lips but then he seemed to catch himself and his smile evaporated. Evidently, it hit Fitz like that too at times.

Jemma woke to the feeling of Fitz shaking her and quickly realized that, somehow, her head had come to be resting on his knee. “Come on,” he whispered fiercely. “Wake up. He’s leavin’ now!”

It was late in the afternoon. Jemma checked her watch that Fitz had reset and saw it was only an hour or so until twilight. Feeling quite a bit less than sneaky, Jemma crawled out from under the brush. Waiting for Fitz to come out behind her, she let him lead them as they carefully trailed along behind the boy at a safe distance. They were following what seemed to be a wide track cut into the vegetation by many feet tramping along it over time. They soon came to the outskirts of an obvious settlement—a village housed within a clearing in the forest. As they began to see more people, Fitz grew nervous, insisting they hide in a hedge until it got darker. 

When it was sufficiently dark for his comfort, they finally came out from hiding, walking out onto a path that led into the village proper.

Everything around them was an odd mixture of old and new. The construction of the buildings was strangely futuristic—Fitz even whispered that he couldn’t determine the material used in their construction. However, they could also see that the town oddly seemed to have a central well from which people drew water. There were tall lightposts making the entire village glow golden, even in the darkness. They seemed not to run on electricity yet the street below their feet was made of cobblestones. As they walked down what appeared to be the main thoroughfare, they saw homes slowly replaced by shops and commerce until they reached the heart of the town where there was a large central square. Jemma couldn't guess its purpose, but it was surrounded by a low wall and at each corner was a statue of an odd beast with horns. Though there were only a few people out, Fitz forced them to cling to the shadows, keeping out of the light and away from the potentially-hostile aliens. 

They found a shop that sold food and Fitz insisted she hide around the side in an alleyway as he tried to determine if he could figure out their monetary system. She only agreed because he swore that he wouldn't attempt to steal anything without her and that he would only do a bit of surveillance to start. She saw no deception in his eyes and, only because it seemed to make him feel better, she waited at the side of the shop. Examining the texture of the building material as she waited for Fitz to return—finding it strangely smooth and unlined—Jemma heard a loud quarrel down the alley behind her. 

Hearing an indistinct shout, she turned to look and saw, just coming into view, a blond, teenaged boy—or what went for a teen on this world, in any case. He was attempting to casually walk away as he blustered loudly, arguing with a group of no less than four other boys. They were trailing after him slowly and she noted that they were all a bit larger and possibly even older than the boy was. Jemma's internal alarm bells went off immediately. 

“Cheat!” A redheaded boy called at him. Jemma thought the other boys looked as if they were working themselves up to hurting him. 

“I didn’t cheat you, Einarr,” the blond boy said. He clearly knew he was in danger, he was puffing himself up and trying to make himself appear larger. Truly, Jemma thought, it was his attitude that kept them at bay. He commanded far more presence than the other four boys combined. 

“You used your stupid magic,” said a thick-set brunette boy who stepped out from the pack to holler at him before ducking back like a coward. It struck Jemma then that they were afraid of the smaller boy.

“I didn’t!” he insisted. “I’ve always been lucky. Verdandi and Skuld have always favored me.” He crossed his arms over his chest and stood tall but he had run out of room to retreat. He was backed against a high stone wall. He would have to run out toward where Jemma was hiding in order to get away from the gaggle of ruffians as they were now blocking the way from which they'd all come. Somehow, Jemma could tell from his attitude that his pride would never allow for that to happen.

“You lie!” Another boy came out from the crowd. He also had blond hair but his was long and unkempt. “I want my money back, Øsmund—or else.”

“Or else what, Kettil?” Jemma grimaced, knowing the boy's—Øsmund's—return volley was a very bad idea indeed. Without hesitation, the other boys pounced on him, rushing forward to take him to the ground.

Without thinking, Jemma ran straight toward the brawl and, with her sudden surge of adrenaline making the blood pound in her ears, she just barely heard Fitz behind her. He was already calling after her as she made her way down the alley. The boys already had Øsmund down on the cobbled stone by the time she got there. 

The blond boy called Kettil was kicking him in the stomach. “STOP THAT THIS INSTANT!” Jemma yelled at the top of her lungs with all the tone of command she could muster.

All the boys instantly stopped what they were doing and looked around at the sound of her shouting. She heard Fitz’s panting breaths as he came up beside her. One of the boys—the gawky, redhead called Einarr—was smirking. 

“What exactly do you think you’re doing?” Jemma asked, cold fury infusing her every word.

Einarr blurted, “He stole—” But at her look of intense rage he didn’t finish, dropping his eyes to the ground.

Kettil stepped out from the group then and said, “And who are you—exactly?” 

“We’re the people who're goin’ to tell you’re parents what you were doin’ here if you don’t get your arse back wherever you bloody well came from,” Fitz said, squaring his shoulders and expanding his chest a bit. 

Kettil seemed to think on this for a moment. “I haven’t seen you around here before,” he said grinning at his own cleverness. “Are you even from here? You wear elven garb.”

“That’s because they’re my aunt and uncle on my father’s side, you puddle of bilgesnipe vomit!” Øsmund said, coughing and holding his belly as he got to his feet. “You better get out of here or they really will tell your father, Kettil.”

“Come on!” the dark-haired coward said, making a feeble attempt to grab his friend’s sleeve. “I’ll be made to work the forge again, Kettil!”

"Shut up, Ove," Kettil said, shaking him off his arm. 

“Come on!” Einarr parroted. “We got him already, Kettil. Let’s go now!”

That seemed to be enough argument for Kettil and he finally turned, leveling a glare at Jemma and Fitz as he did. 

“Consider yourself cursed, you can enjoy your victory as your pricks fall off!” Øsmund called after them with a grin before he clutched his abdomen again, his grin shifting into a grimace of pain. 

Jemma went to him, trying to take a look at his bruised belly. “Oh, goodness, are you alright?” 

He quickly pushed her hands away. “I’m fine. They barely touched me.”

“It’s okay, I’m a doctor,” she told him. “Let me take a look.”

“Best let her look,” Fitz told him firmly. “She won't give up until you do.”

Øsmund sighed in resignation and allowed her to direct him to a stone bench near the mouth of the alley so she could palpate him to check for internal injuries. He allowed her prodding for a long moment before pulling his shirt back down sharply. “I said, I’m fine!" He sat up and spun toward them on the bench but didn't get up yet, wrapping his arms across his injured abdomen instead. “Who are you people, anyway?”

“This is Fitz and you can call me, eh, Jemma, I suppose,” she said hesitantly. 

“I’m Øsmund Halvorsen and I’m surprised Kettil actually fell for that,” he said, sounding annoyed. “You two don’t even look Asgardian.”

“Is that where we are? Asgard?” Fitz asked excitedly. He looked like he was restraining himself from grabbing the kid by the lapels and shaking him.

Øsmund frowned and said, “No, this is Vanaheim and, more specifically, the shit town where I live. It’s called Vingdal. Where are you two from?” 

“Why would we look Asgardian if this is Vanaheim?” Jemma asked, curious, but also trying to evade the question of their origins.

“Because my father was from Asgard,” he answered, looking them both over more carefully. “I know you’re not from Asgard now and you’re sure as Hel not from here—so where are you from?” He didn’t seem like he would be put off as he looked back and forth from Jemma to Fitz. 

They both began to hem and haw simultaneously.

“Well—”

“Ehm—”

Fitz looked at Jemma pointedly and she shrugged. Perhaps they could get try to get something of an ally?

“We’re from Midgard,” Fitz whispered conspiratorially.

“Ha!” Øsmund laughed boisterously. “That’s incredible! And I knew it!”

“Tosh,” Jemma said. “How could you have known?”

“My father was a seiðman, he traveled to many worlds to help others with his magic,” he said. “So, I know of your world.”

“I don’t understand, your father traveled to Midgard?” Jemma asked, her brain skating over his use of the past tense and alighting only on the idea that aliens had apparently been traveling to Earth for some time.

He nodded. “One day, I will too. I have the talent.” He sounded excited by the prospect, but then looked off in the direction of where the other boys had gone. “That’s why they hate me.”

“Sounds like you cheated them out of some money,” Fitz said without any harshness.

“Well—that, too,” Øsmund agreed with a smirk.

Fitz looked at Jemma meaningfully again and she thought he was checking in with her to see if they should ask the boy for help. She nodded just slightly. 

“Do you think you could help us get some food, Øsmund?” Fitz asked.

“We don’t have any money, but we’d be willing to work or perhaps we have some things we could sell?” Jemma added.

“Midgardian things?” he asked excitedly.

“Ehm, yeah, I s’pose,” Fitz answered hesitantly, rubbing the back of his neck a bit anxiously. Jemma thought he must be worried about his tools.

“I know just who you need to see,” Øsmund said with a grin. He leapt up from the bench and headed off in the direction of the square.

Fitz gave her another significant, worried look. 

Jemma shrugged. "He knows just who we need to see." 

Chapter Text

 

It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see. –Henry David Thoreau


Fitz and Jemma jogged after Øsmund as he walked purposefully back the way they'd come into the village. 

"So, you've a way to get to Midgard?" Fitz asked immediately as he came even with him. 

To Fitz's surprise, Øsmund laughed outright. "What? No. I have no way to Midgard. My father did only because he served Odin. He settled here on Vanaheim after he met my mother. She was handmaiden to Frigga. My father told me stories of your world. I've never seen it though. But perhaps someday."

Jemma gave Fitz a meaningful look, quirking her lips regretfully. "What about a way to get to Asgard?" she asked.

Øsmund nodded slightly. "There are ways to get there, certainly. I think you would have to get to King Fjörgynn's palace. He could send you to Asgard, particularly if it met favorably with Odin. But everyone knows that he mourns for Frigga still and, unfortunately, it is many weeks journey from here on foot—unless you have better transport?" Øsmund appeared rather doubtful at that idea.

Fitz shook his head and, hearing Jemma's simultaneous audible sigh of frustration, decided he should concentrate on smaller potential victories. "So, who is it we need to see?" 

“Erlendr Bjargasen,” Øsmund said as he continued to lead them toward the outskirts of the village.

Fitz noted that the houses were rapidly being replaced by trees and the growing darkness the further they got from the well-lit center of the village. They were headed down a path that led them on a course parallel to the river; Fitz thought he could hear it not far though the woods. They'd already passed the perpendicular track they'd come in on that led back to the riverbank where they'd hidden all afternoon.

“Erlendr is somewhat odd but he loves anything Midgardian—collects it," Øsmund said. "And we should likely just allow him to think you really are my aunt and uncle." He glanced from Fitz to Jemma. "Hmm, not sure that your Midgardian names are going to be very convincing. You would do well to use something that sounds more Asgardian.” He stopped walking, forcing them to halt beside him as he turned to look at them appraisingly. “Well, your name is actually quite close to the name Fiske,” he said pointing at Fitz. 

“That’s not so bad,” Fitz said. “Close enough, I s’pose.”

“Unfortunately, it means 'fish',” Øsmund said with a self-satisfied grin.

Instantly, Fitz looked to Jemma and, seeing her trying to hide a small smirk behind her hand, felt his anger flare. He glared at Øsmund. “Hey! You're tryin’ to take the piss, you—” 

“Jemma,” Øsmund interrupted, completely ignoring Fitz’s ire as he took a step closer to her.

His tone of voice made Fitz want to step in between them. He thought better of it before he could make a fool of himself, however. Øsmund was just a damned kid, after all.

“That sounds close enough to Jora. Which means 'queen'.” Øsmund smiled at Jemma rather worshipfully.

“That’s lovely,” Jemma said, returning a pleasant smile (that was probably a bit too encouraging in Fitz’s opinion).

“That’s only because it doesn’t mean bloody fish, Jemma!” Fitz complained. The gall of that thieving criminal. “Try again, you—you— Well, I’m not waltzin’ about an alien planet with people calling me a fish!”

Looking a bit put upon, but seeming to recognize that Fitz wouldn't continue to be insulted, Øsmund finally said, “Finn, then. It means 'wanderer'. If that would do for his highness?”

Fitz grumbled another curse and a couple of insults under his breath, then said, “Fine.” He hated how petulant he sounded but could hardly stop himself as he stood there with his arms crossed over his chest.

Øsmund returned his eyes to Jemma and said, “I think you look the most like my father, so I think we should say you are his sister. Perhaps you can be the Vindrsens? It means 'to go with the wind'. Travelers. It would be fitting, would it not?”

Jemma tried it out: “Finn and Jora Vindrsen.” She shrugged. “Sounds all right to me.”

“Wait a minute,” Fitz said, shaking his head. “Finn Vindrsen? That sounds terrible.”

“Finn Anvindersen?” Øsmund tried, frowning in annoyance. But his lips quickly rose into a mischievous grin as he added, “That would mean 'the wanderer who goes against the wind'. However, be careful if you go against the wind, Verdandi will not be very well pleased with you.”

“I think Finn Vindrsen sounds quite nice,” Jemma said, taking a step closer to Fitz and smiling warmly as she looked up at him.

He hadn’t seen her smile like that in some time and it nearly made him blush. “Yeah?” Fitz asked, his eyes likely too wide and adoring but he found himself unable to control his reaction.

Jemma nodded, giving him a fond look as she gazed up from beneath her lashes.

“Okay,” he relented.

Her smile grew, and she bumped his shoulder with her own in the way she hadn’t done since they'd been at Sci-Tech in their too-small lab. His smile felt a bit dopey as he playfully bumped hers back. Øsmund looked suddenly unhappy and hurried off into the deepening dark, veering onto a path between two large and crooked trees.

Jemma quickly slid a reassuring hand up Fitz's back but then hurried off, walking swiftly to catch up with Øsmund.

Her attention had once filled Fitz up with nothing but warmth, but now it left him feeling strangely hollow and unsure how to feel about her once again. Since their wonderful-yet-awful kiss, he'd been staying clear of her—as much as he could, at least—convinced that she would try to argue or sway him toward going forward with some sort of change in their relationship that he just knew would come to a terrible end. You couldn't cheat fate and get away with it, he was quite certain of that. If it had never been meant to be between them, then he had to believe that there was nothing—not even magic—that could make it so.

No matter that he longed for her now even more than he had before. Forget that the possibility was now laid before him; suddenly, all he had to do was set aside his "moral qualms", and they could be together now just as he had always dreamed they might one day. But, to his dismay, Jemma never tried to persuade him, never enticed him. In fact, she seemed just the same as she always had, somehow—if just a bit sad now. It was confusing and upsetting because it didn't fit with what he thought should be if she were influenced by forces beyond her control. She seemed as much in command of her actions and decisions as she ever had. She brought up that fact the other night. He'd put a stop to that conversation, but only because it just reinforced his fears that he'd gotten this all wrong. Fitz understood that he might be choosing wrong, and it terrified him. Still, the risk was too great, wasn't it? He wondered if he wasn't going slightly mad with it all swirling around in his brain since this began.

One thing was certain, each day that went by without her changing back, he grew more restless—more tempted—to simply take what she offered and just hope that it never ended. It was selfish and vile, yet he felt it every moment he was with her. He also believed that, if it did ever end, it might destroy them both. Somehow that concept seemed far too ephemeral, however, unlike the real reason he could never bring himself to take that irrevocable step. It was because, no matter how much he wanted it, he couldn't erase from his mind's eye her horrified expression in his nightmare. Her eyes had been so full of hate and disappointment in him, but worse than that even, was the awful despair.

How could he ever risk hurting her so much? But what if he was hurting her now by refusing if it was what they both wanted?

Fitz gritted his teeth, balled his fists, and took all these things he was feeling and shoved them down deep into the pit of his stomach with all the will he could muster—then hurried after them.

“Who’s Verdandi?” Jemma asked as Fitz came even with them again. 

Øsmund looked surprised. “You do not know Verdandi?”

Jemma looked at Fitz, then they both looked back to Øsmund before they shook their heads in unison.

Øsmund peered at them oddly for a moment before his brows rose in seeming disbelief. “Verdandi is one of the three Norns—the fates—she is the Goddess of What Comes Now,” he looked uncomfortable suddenly. “Urd is What Came Before, and Skuld is—“

“What Comes Later?” Fitz asked rather impishly, chuckling at Øsmund's irritated expression.

“No,” Øsmund said sullenly. “Skuld is What May Be, or sometimes What Must Be—but always she is the link in the chain that makes past, present and future one.”

“That, eh—wait. What now?” Fitz questioned, trying not to scoff. It sounded completely dogmatic and illogical, and yet something familiar niggled at the back of his brain in what the boy said.

“Past, present and future are one to the Norns,” Øsmund said. “This is what the seiðr seek to do. If you change the Now, you also change the Then as well as the Time To Come.”

“How can you change the past by changing now?” Jemma asked, her voice full of curiosity yet her face lined with skepticism. 

“How can you not?” Øsmund sounded as disbelieving as Jemma looked. “The Norns have written out your fate; if you change it, then they must rewrite it before you were born.”

“Ah,” she said, nodding. Fitz recognized this as Jemma’s patronizing, 'ridiculous-therefore-no-analysis-needed' response. But he wasn’t so sure. This was all very similar to what they’d already heard from Geir. Perhaps Øsmund knew someone who could help them?

“They write it on a tree, yeah? With a pond next to it?” Fitz asked, remembering what Geir had said but also his horrible nightmares.

“Yes!” Øsmund said, smacking Fitz on the shoulder. 

“OW! Jesus.” Fitz rubbed at the stinging spot and glared at the kid. Well, he seemed a kid, anyway—perhaps fifteen, had he been human—but Øsmund was about five inches taller and probably outweighed Fitz by two stone at least. Bloody giant Norse aliens.

“The tree is Yggdrasil and the fate of the world is carved into her bark. The Well of Urd is the water that feeds the tree, and inside it, past, present and future dwell as one,” Øsmund looked almost reverent as he said it.

“How do you change your fate?” Fitz asked a bit self-consciously, feeling like Jemma’s eyes were on him.

“Magic, of course,” Øsmund said happily. “Here we are now.”

They came around a large tree, and there was a small house there. It was different from the rest of the village. It looked almost like it belonged on Earth. 

Fitz tried not to be antsy as Øsmund knocked on the door. After it seemed they wouldn’t get an answer, Øsmund glanced back to them and said, “Just wait, he is quite old.”

Fitz’s attempts to control his fidgeting faded as they waited for the house’s occupant, and he was soon pacing as Jemma eyed him disapprovingly. Finally, he heard the sound of multiple locks unbolting. Apparently, it wasn’t just his mum; even elderly aliens felt the need to lock their houses up tightly.

An old man peered out a crack in his door as Øsmund said, “Erlendr!” He held his hand out to him, but the door didn’t budge. “I’ve brought you something special. These are my aunt and uncle, Jora and Finn Vindrsen. They have been to Midgard. They might like to sell you some of their treasures.”

The old man looked a bit startled by the information, but immediately opened the door wider. “Øsmund? Is that you, boy?” 

Erlendr was in a powder blue dressing gown, and Fitz felt a bit guilty for disturbing him. He wore round spectacles, had a beard down to his navel and his white hair reminded Fitz a bit of Einstein’s. 

“Yes, Erlendr. Can we come in?” Øsmund was already walking forward and the old man stepped back to let them inside. “This is my aunt and uncle,” Øsmund repeated as they stood in the small foyer.

“I heard you, boy. I am not deaf,” Erlendr said crankily. He waved them into a small parlor and asked, “You have been to Midgard?”

“Yes,” Fitz answered, noticing Jemma was in awe of all the things so clearly from Earth that were all about the room. There was a stop sign, and Fitz also saw a piano-shaped music box, a Wedgwood tea cup, as well as a sampler on the wall that said “Home Sweet Home”. There were a few smaller items in a display case, including a roll of cello tape, a number two pencil, a porcelain-headed baby doll and a New York City bus pass. On a separate shelf were a number of books and among them were Moby Dick (of course, because evidently everyone in the universe had read it but Fitz), Webster’s Dictionary, The Collected Works of Edgar Allen Poe and The Paleo Diet. Fitz was a bit worried about the view an alien would take of humans with such books to read.

“We have some souvenirs from our journey. If you’d like to take a look,” Fitz said, taking his cue from Øsmund, and suppressing a smile at the idea of the few things from their pockets being souvenirs.

“Yes, yes,” Erlendr said and waved his hands impatiently. 

Fitz realized he’d have to get them out now. Setting his rucksack on the small central table, he dug through his things and began to bring out the items that had been in their pockets when they arrived. He pulled out his lab coat because he’d stuck his wallet and change inside it. Change seemed like a good thing to sell. He also dumped out his broken watch by mistake, but when the old man eyed it, he put it on the table. He added one of their two pens (he held one back in case he had to write something), a chapstick, breath mints and their last paperclip, as well as the small stack of Post-It notes. He set them all on the table before him. 

Erlendr perused them all like a museum curator, picking them up, examining them, and checking for blemishes. He ran a finger over Fitz’s wallet where he'd left it by his lab coat and, figuring the pickings were pretty slim, Fitz opened it up and started to take his personal items out of it. Erlendr quickly noticed his three credit and bank cards and, shrugging, Fitz handed them over. If they ever got back to Earth, he could always get new ones. It wasn’t as if the old man could go down to the market and run up his bill.

He also spotted Fitz’s completely full Subway sandwich stamp card, and when Fitz pulled it in close to his chest, Jemma said, “Sandwich now—or sandwich later, Fit–Finn?”

He handed the card over. He also placed his forty-three dollars on the table. Some people collected money, right? And money for money seemed a good exchange. He tucked his driving license, a few receipts and a photo of himself and Jemma from one of their early missions back into his rucksack. 

Erlendr seemed to be making a new pile of things on the opposite side of the table. Fitz’s cards, all his change, the paper money, his empty wallet, watch, pen, their last paperclip, and Fitz’s lab coat. Erlendr picked up Jemma’s breath mints and opened the box, inhaling deeply, he chirped happily and put the box in his pile. He opened the chapstick and eyed it suspiciously. 

“It’s for your lips,” Fitz told him, going around his mouth in a circular motion.

Erlendr sniffed it and, apparently finding the scent not to his liking, placed it back on the table near Fitz's rucksack. He picked up the pad of Post-It notes and peeled one off, touching the sticky side and smiling happily. It went in the pile. 

“Oh, Finn,” Jemma said with emphasis. “Didn’t you have a book?”

He felt like someone had let out a stopper inside him as feelings of disappointment eddied around in his chest. He actually loved that book, but he had to acknowledge that he could easily get a duplicate off eBay when they got back. He sighed and took out the battered copy of Harry Potter’s first adventure. Erlendr took it from his hand instantly. 

“Yes, yes,” he said, sounding very satisfied. “How much for all this?”

Fitz was struck dumb. He had no idea how much to even ask for or even what their money was bloody well called. He didn't know how much anything cost, just, nothing at all. He hadn’t managed to decipher any of the odd-looking writing at the shop before Jemma was off rescuing stray delinquents. 

“Ehm…” he said, feeling completely out of his depth.

“He wants two hundred for everything but the book,” Øsmund spoke up. “That, he will take three hundred for, but only if you give him two hundred for the rest. Otherwise it will be four hundred for the book alone.”

Fitz’s mouth dropped open. That lad was a con artist in the making.

Erlendr looked a bit shocked himself, but gazing longingly down at the book he still held, said, “Very well. Five hundred for all.”

He went out of the room, and Fitz quickly shuffled the few things the old man hadn’t wanted back into his bag. When Erlendr returned, he held out a sack about the size of Fitz’s palm. He wasn’t sure if it would be rude to open it or not, so he just tucked it into his rucksack and held his hand out to the old man. 

“Thank you, sir,” he said. “Very much.”

Erlendr appraised him for a moment and then took his hand shaking it with surprising firmness. “If you are staying for a visit, you are very welcome to come see me again—Finn, was it?”

Fitz nodded. “Yes, thank you again.”

Jemma smiled warmly and held her hand out as well. Erlendr shook it lightly and placed a kiss on the back of her hand. “Jora, I hope to see you and your husband again soon.” 

“See, I told you he loves Midgard,” Øsmund said outside as they headed back toward town. “I’m a good bargainer, you see?”

“Actually, I have no idea,” Fitz said, slightly concerned. “How much is that? I mean, how much food can we buy with that amount of money?”

“Food? That’s all you want? You have nothing to worry about. You can eat for two months on that. If you eat simply, twice that. Though you may want to get some clothing that will help you to blend in here if you plan to go about by day.”

Jemma nodded thoughtfully and Fitz could tell she wanted to do just that. 

He sighed to himself and said, “Are the shops still open? Can we get anythin' now?”

Øsmund shook his head. “Tomorrow would be better. You would do well to go with me. They do not like to see strangers here since the raids.”

Fitz took that in with a nod. “Okay, can we meet you at the river tomorrow?”

Øsmund nodded slowly as if he were thinking. “At noon?”

Jemma and Fitz both nodded. They passed through the crooked trees that marked the lane to Erlendr’s home.

“Don’t you have any schooling during the day?” Jemma asked with some concern in her tone. 

Øsmund laughed. “I’m much too old for school now. I’m apprentice to Erlendr.” He nodded back toward where they’d just come from. “I’m studying to be a seiðman like my father. Erlendr is the only one left in the village now. Most magical practitioners are women, and not many would take a male apprentice, and even fewer possess the power of a Seidr in any case." Jemma gave him a mildly offended look, and Øsmund held up his hands in surrender, "I do not say they cannot, only that they do not. It's actually because so few men posess the fundamental magic found in all women because they create life. While, for most women, it is merely a choice of profession, for men, it is a calling." Expression softening, Jemma tipped her head in acknowledgement, and Øsmund continued, "Nonetheless, my father apprenticed in Asgard. He knew I had the gift from the time I was small, and he taught me before…” he stopped and looked away, swallowing hard before looking back. “Anyway, no. I don’t go to school any longer.”

“Your father passed?” Jemma asked quietly.

Øsmund’s lips tightened as he nodded sharply. “He died in the battles that took place after the Bifrost was destroyed. He tried to keep the raiders at bay. They overwhelmed him—they killed him. The Asgardians came soon after, our village was saved. My father was a hero.”

“I’m so sorry,” Jemma said, touching his shoulder briefly. They were coming close to the town now, with it’s soft glowing lights, and it was too dark to fully see her expression, but Fitz knew the sympathetic look that was on her face. He’d seen it too many times after his coma. It popped into his head unbidden, and he tried to push it from his mind.

Øsmund grinned suddenly. “My mother owns the town’s pub. Maybe you would like to come by for a drink? We also have rooms to let above?”

As the trees began to make way for houses, in the brighter glow of the town’s lighting, Fitz saw the slant of Jemma’s eyebrows and it made him say, “Ehm, maybe another time. We’ve got a place to stay for now. But we’ll see you tomorrow, yeah? I think we can find our way from here if you need to be gettin’ back home.”

Øsmund looked disappointed but said, “Yes, I should check on my brother and sister. Our mother does not come home until the drunks are in bed. I’ll see you at noon.”

“Thank you so much for your help,” Jemma said, touching his arm again warmly. 

“No, thank you, Jemma,” he said sincerely. “Or perhaps I should get used to calling you Jora? But thank you for your help with Kettil. Though I would have had him just where I wanted him in another moment or two.”

“Of course, you would,” Jemma agreed with a placating smile. “Goodnight.”

“G’night,” Fitz told him, holding out his hand. Øsmund shook it hard enough to make him wince but Fitz thought he managed to hide it well.

They parted where the path that led to the river diverged. Without speaking, Fitz followed Jemma as they made their way back toward their clearing in the woods.


When they arrived back at their grove by the riverside, Jemma began to lay out their bedrolls in silence while Fitz made a new fire with the “lighter” she’d found in with the bits and bobs in the pack Halli had given her. She wasn’t sure how its inter-workings made it function yet but it certainly made starting a fire much easier than rubbing sticks together. 

They shared out most of their remaining food in the hope that they would be getting more tomorrow, then Fitz opened the small pouch from Erlendr, and found it filled with rather small metallic wafers, like coins. Each had a depression on one side but no other identifying marks. There were different sizes and colors, most of them looked unfamiliar to her except the gold. 

Without speaking, they both watched the fire for a bit, Jemma on her bedroll and Fitz on the log seat across from the fire. Finally growing sleeply, she turned away, settling into the thick bedding on her side to try and get some sleep. She hadn't yet drifted off when Jemma felt Fitz come to lay behind her. He settled down as he usually did, but she was stunned when she felt him slide closer, draping an arm tentatively over her waist. It wasn't at all provocative and she was left feeling uncertain of his intentions.

A bit of anxiety fluttered through her belly as she turned toward him cautiously and she only hoped she wouldn’t frighten him away. He was so close, she could feel air from his faint breaths ghosting across her cheeks as he exhaled. She couldn't quite see his face because he was turned toward her with the firelight at his back. His expression was eclipsed by dense, black shadow. The edges of his frizzed curls were lit from behind with a blazing yellow-orange glow and a few slivers of the warm light fell on his nose and temple as well as the plane of his cheek. However, she couldn’t see his eyes at all. They were dark voids, giving her no information to help her interpret his change of behavior.

“Jemma?” he said, but she couldn’t read more than the question in his tone.

“Yes,” she answered hopefully.

“Maybe—” He paused but the beat lasted so long, she thought he wouldn’t continue, then he said, “Maybe Erlendr could help us?”

“Help us get home?” she asked, curious what his thoughts might be.

“No.” He shook his head lightly, rocking it back and forth on the small roll of clothes he was using as a pillow. “With the, ehm—the spell.”

She scoffed instantly, frustrated suddenly by his continual worry over her potentially-influenced state. “There is no spell, Fitz,” she said, far more harshly than she intended. 

“I know you don’t think there is,” he said, his tone almost pleading and completely unaffected by her annoyance, “but just pretend you did—please—for me? What if it were me? I had suddenly changed? What would you do?”

“I can’t answer that,” she said honestly. It came easily, perhaps he might think, too easily. But Jemma didn’t need time to come up with her reply because she’d been thinking about this frustrating puzzle for days now.

She still couldn't swap the situation around in her head because she knew her own mind. She was certain that nothing was changed as he seemed to think. It left her completely unable to imagine what she would do if the situation were reversed—because it wasn’t. It was her. How could she know what she would do in his place? She didn't even understand what he thought or felt completely, and he seemed so loath to tell her. Nonetheless, she knew this was how she’d felt, even before they'd left Earth.

Didn’t she?

She remembered Øsmund saying that magic rewrote the past but—wouldn’t it have re-written Fitz as well? She bit her lip, feeling ridiculous, because now Fitz had her thinking about some silly magical thing going on. Well, she supposed it didn’t hurt to explore lines of thought but still—it was a preposterous idea. She knew how she felt and had felt for quite a long time. Nothing had changed—not one thing—except Fitz.

“I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I wish I could help you but I know how I feel—how I’ve felt. I do so wish I’d told you sooner but—” she sighed, “I didn’t and I suppose we’ll just have to deal with that.” 

She stretched out her hand to cup his cheek and felt the muscles of his face contorting. She realized he was crying—or possibly trying not to cry. Upset that she'd said something wrong again and only wanting to offer some comfort, she pulled him to her. He came willingly, fingers clutching at her shoulder blade as he hitched out a few dry sobs, but she never felt tears. Suddenly, she wondered if he was at a point beyond tears. She knew that place, that was where she’d been when she was undercover. Too far gone to feel the pain or do more than hold back the geyser of uncomprehended feeling that swirled around inside. All that feeling seemed always to be searching for the point of weakest resistance so it might get free of the dam she'd built to hold it in. 

As she stroked the back of his head soothingly, she gasped softly at the feel of his lips along her neck—slow gentle brushes that made her skin flush with heat. She closed her eyes and let the sensation wash over her but, when she let out a small sigh, he quickly pushed up onto his elbow. Though there was not enough light to see his eyes still, the orange glow of the fire made bright slivers of contrast cutting through the deep dark covering his face. Reaching up, she traced the crescents of golden-orange that lit his forehead, nose and chin. She imagined his eyes closing in pleasure as she swept her fingers over the plane of his temple and brushed over his cheekbone and along his jaw. He exhaled slowly and pressed his cheek into her palm. Then he was lowering himself, bringing his mouth down on hers in a passionate slide of skin on tender skin. 

From the first press of his lips, he rolled her back so his body lay over hers and, without even thinking, she brought her knees up to either side of his hips. It was, she realized, just for that small extra bit of contact that it would create between them as she pressed his narrow waist between her thighs. Her arms went to lock around his neck and she felt the licking flames of want flickering hotly as she squeezed her thighs against his sides, gripping, as if she could keep him there. He whimpered softly as his lips drew against hers fiercely, it was as if he were testing her receptivity before he dared surge deeper. She parted her lips and instantly, he delved in past with his tongue while the fingers of one hand wrapped tightly around the back of her neck. It was as if he suddenly feared she might try to escape him. 

Jemma caressed the back of his neck, her fingers sliding upward into his messy curls. She brought her other hand to his face again, stroking along his smooth cheek, feeling the prickle of his light stubble. She decided that she needed something more tender than this hopeless desperation with which his kiss was infused. She scraped her thumbnail over the whiskers on his jaw and felt his lips speed up, his tongue grow more insistent.

When he brought a hand to her chin tilting her head to the side, she used one finger to trace along the edge of his lip where it was exposed by the new angle. Somehow touching the soft outline where normal skin became soft, silken lip seemed as intimate as the slick wet glide of his tongue when he swept it heatedly against her own. As the increasingly fervent movements of his lips finally stopped her tracing finger, she went up to brush lightly over his brow, then his lashes. Her touch was feather-light as she barely teased over the soft hairs with her fingertip, making him flutter his lid lightly. He made some inarticulate noise that was half sigh, half tormented moan.

She surrendered to the demands of his achingly needy kiss, relaxing into the rhythm of this seemingly impetuous act. Though she was afraid of what this might make him feel, she still dreaded the moment when it must end. Despite all the barriers that seemed to separate them, however, she found that what she really wished was that it would never end. She wanted him to forget about magic and everything else. She just wanted him to let them be happy—to give up whatever his preconceived notions were and allow them to be together. Somehow, knowing it was too much to ask, instead—though it made her feel selfish—she embraced whatever he was willing to give her right now. She was only frustrated with how it was infected with the sad knowledge that they were now both captured in this puzzle-box purgatory. They were trapped in this hell that some bloody mad alien had put them in and it suddenly sharpened her anger to a razor fine point. Inside, she raged at the injustice of how they seemed to now be doomed to do nothing but cause one another pain.

In a sudden blaze of fury at the cosmic unfairness, instead of yielding passively, Jemma pushed back. Winding the fingers of one hand into the fabric of his top and the other tightening in his hair, she took control. Raising up slightly to meet him, she captured his tongue with her lips and drew it deeper inside. He made some noise of dismay at her sudden show of desire, as if he still just couldn’t believe that she wanted him too. With a gasp, he broke off, twisting away from her to huddle on his side toward the fire with his shoulders slumped in apparent defeat. 

Guilt overwhelming her at taking out her anger on him, she listened to his heavy, panting breaths then pressed her moist lips together as a slow, sad sigh escaped her. Fearing any words, even an apology, might cause him to bolt, she lay back on her bedding and wondered exactly how much she was hurting him now. She hated that there was nothing she could do about it except the one thing she desperately didn’t want to do. She knew that she might end his internal struggle by telling him she didn’t want him, that perhaps “the spell” had worn off but then the other pain would return. 

Jemma just couldn’t bring herself to do it. Not the deception or awakening the pain he felt over believing she just couldn’t bring herself to love him. Not when she did. She just couldn't bear that, even inadvertently, she’d already made him feel that he was somehow less—not enough for her or not possessing the desired traits. She hadn't meant to but somehow she'd done that, made him feel that he just wasn't the man she wanted or needed—that he was, in some impossibly untrue way, unworthy.

Instead of exchanging one pain for another deeper, more scarring pain, Jemma turned away from the man she loved and tried to find some peace in the blackness of sleep.

Chapter Text

First love is only a little foolishness and a lot of curiosity. –George Bernard Shaw


Just knowing that Jemma was right there behind him on the bedroll was like a physical pain, no longer an ache, but a searing tear in his flesh. It wasn’t the same as the pain he’d felt before; the dull agony of both of them aware of his love for her and yet never speaking of it. It had been the hurt of both of them knowing that, despite loving him as her best friend, she couldn’t bring herself to feel more for him.

This was so very different.

Even though he knew it wasn’t real, she wanted him now. He’d felt it in the way she’d kissed and touched him just moments before. His lips still burned with her kisses. She’d even told him that she loved him.

And, even though he knew it was all because of some alien science or “magic,” he wanted it to be true so much he was choking with it. He’d been trying to keep the hope alive in his mind that once they got her back to Earth, or some other, more sympathetic civilization, there was something that could be done for her. Getting her back to normal was really his only hope, because he didn’t know how much longer he could resist soothing this pain that was not just in his heart, but his entire body. It was about more than lust but he still felt sick that he was even remotely tempted to steal her love. He also felt like he was some sort of an animal that he’d let his desires take over while he kissed her. But he just didn’t know how to control what he was feeling. Her feeling it too, even falsely, made it nearly impossible to resist.

He’d never felt like this before. It was something about the idea that, right now, he could touch her and she would respond. She would let him do—oh, god—anything. Probably. She’d seemed to want that—more than just kisses. He’d felt it in everything she’d done. It was terrifying to know that he could let himself live in that denial for even those few moments.

He clenched his hands into fists and brought his knees nearly to his chest, curling his body into something close to a fetal position. He tried not to groan as his emotional pain sought an escape in his voice. He didn’t know if she was asleep yet or not and he didn’t want to worry or wake her.

Then he felt her turn toward him and her breathing was quick but steady. He could feel the faint coolness on his neck from each exhale. It was making it all worse.

Suddenly, he felt her hand slip between his arm and his side to hook around his chest and it was like agony. Her hand was flat against his heart, just sitting there, but it still hurt—it burned like fire. What he wanted was for her to touch him so much more intimately, no matter how wrong it was. Still, he was hesitant to pull away from her, or leave, but he didn’t think he could stand this, either—not when he knew what was possible now.

She shifted uncomfortably behind him, shuffling back and forth to finally end so close he could feel her body heat through his button-down. Then her hand slid lower, over his belly. He felt his breath hitch but she didn’t do anything more, just cuddled him like that with her hand clenching lightly over the fabric of his top. He gritted his teeth and squeezed his eyes closed. He was better than this awful baseness and desire he was feeling. To run away would only make him feel he was giving in to it. He wasn’t an animal, he was a thinking, very much feeling, human being and he could control himself. There was nothing else he was willing to accept.

Hugging her front to his back, Jemma pressed a cheek to his shoulder blade and he tried not to feel the little flare of light in the darkness of his tumultuous emotions. He tried not to give in to the happiness that she still inspired in him by her very presence because, somehow, that made it worse too. He tried not to believe in it—in them. He’d believed in them before and that had gotten him nowhere good.


Jemma woke to a bright light in her face as the sun filtered down through the tree canopy and into her eyes. She brought her elbow up over her face and listened to the birds chirping and the river running along making it’s usual flow of chatter. She moved her arm and saw that Fitz was already gone, his empty place beside her making her feel a sudden twinge of loneliness.

Getting up, she went to their usual spot in the trees and emptied her bladder before coming back to stoke up the fire. Then she filled the pot from the river and put it on to boil. Brushing her teeth while she waited, she was struck by how peaceful she felt despite her dissatisfaction with how things were between the two of them. It didn’t seem like there was that much to overcome in the grand scheme of things and she found herself surprisingly hopeful.

It wasn’t long before Fitz came out of the woods looking morning-grumpy.

“Good morning,” she said cheerfully, then gritting her teeth against an onslaught of his ire when he darted a sudden scornful glance at her.

But he only sighed and said, “Mornin’, Simmons.”

“I’m afraid we’ve nearly run out of food,” she said, knowing it wouldn’t make matters any better for his mood if he didn’t eat. “There’s a bit left. Why don’t you have it?” She dug into her pack for the last of the hard bread and a few stray pieces of jerky and held it all out to him on a cloth.

He immediately shook his head, waving her off, but she actually would far rather wait than endure his bellyaching over how he was starving to death. “Just take it, Fitz. I can endure missing one single meal far more contentedly than you can. We’ll have food in a few hours and I promise you, I’ll eat it. Alright?”

He sighed loudly and, nodding slowly, he finally took the meager offering of food, munching it discontentedly as he sat on the log bench by the newly blazing fire.

When he finished, without looking away from the flames, he said, “I don’t think we need to take everythin’ with us this time. I’ll repack one of the knapsacks with the essentials.”

“Alright,” she agreed, already anticipating exploring the alien village in the light of day.

While he busied himself with repacking, she filled their canteen pouches with the water she’d boiled.

He was just stashing their extra pack in a stand of bushes by the river when Jemma heard a noise. It was as if someone stepped on a tree branch. She tried to reason that it could’ve just been a creaking in the trees, but the way it echoed, it sounded off.

“Fitz?” she whispered harshly.

He was at her side in a moment. In her ear, he whispered, “It might be someone passin’ by let’s hide, yeah?”

She nodded and they went quickly into the shrubs near the riverbank. Fitz had a death-grip on her wrist as she peeked out from the thick foliage to see—

—Øsmund, of all people.

She looked at Fitz and he gestured with his index finger to his lips, asking her to wait quietly.

Øsmund looked around for them, perusing their camp and the fire which they hadn’t had time to scatter. He finally sat down on their log bench, apparently to wait. There didn’t seem to be anyone with him so when Fitz inclined his head toward her, Jemma nodded.

His back was to them, so he didn’t see them when they both stepped out of the bushes.

“Can we help you?” Jemma said, a bit more shortly than she’d intended.

He whirled toward them, nearly falling off the log in his haste, but he quickly recovered and stood. His face was instantly split by a wide grin. “Yes! Mr. and Mrs. Vindersen, my friends. Hello!”

He took a step toward them but stopped when he took in their expressions of concern.

“I thought we were meeting by the river at noon,” Fitz said, clearly trying to keep his tone neutral.

Øsmund looked slightly chagrinned. “I know, my friends, but I was anxious to see you again and…” he looked nervously to the ground, “I just happened to follow you back to your camp last night.” Looking around the little clearing, he added, “You know, my mother’s rooms to let are far nicer than,” he waved vaguely around their campsite, “this.”

“This is all we need for now,” Jemma said tightly, still unsure if she should be worried or not. However, it seemed that, had he wanted to report them, he’d had far simpler opportunities to do so since they’d met him. She wasn’t truly concerned, not yet. He had more of a curious air than that of menace or malice.

He seemed to pick up on her tone, though, and holding his hands up defensively, said, “I wanted only to be sure you had adequate shelter. You know the rainy season will soon be upon us?”

She shook her head. “How long’ve we got before that?”

He glanced up in thought. “Another week, two perhaps? Surely no longer than a month.”

“A month? How many days in a month?” Fitz asked.

“Thirty-six,” Øsmund replied, looking a bit confused.

“Nine days in a week?” Fitz muttered more to himself than her or Øsmund.

He looked down, as if he were calculating in his head. He took out his notebook and scratched some notes down with his pencil. When he looked up, Jemma gave him a questioning look and he nodded to her. He was figuring out the calendar system and how it related to the length of days and how they might keep track of the passage of Earth time as well. She knew he’d been trying to keep track of how long they’d been gone once they got back as well. It was difficult, however, with all their planet hopping.

Looking at Øsmund, she saw he was smiling faintly as if trying to figure out where to go from there. His gaze went back and forth between Fitz and herself.

“Well, will you walk into the village with us, then?” she asked.

“Mm, yes,” Øsmund agreed, nodding as though he were quite glad she’d picked up the conversation.

Fitz finished his calculations for the moment and stowed their extra pack in the bushes by the riverbank where they'd just been hiding. Then he hefted their lighter pack of necessities onto his back while Jemma took one of the two canteen pouches on her shoulder as they followed Øsmund out of the clearing.

They’d only just walked a quarter mile or so before Fitz slid the pouch of water off her shoulder.

Fitz,” she scolded, trying to heft it back up her arm.

Jemma,” he said, mocking her chastening tone with a wry smile. He didn’t let go and, reluctantly, she allowed him to hoist it onto his own shoulder.

She looked ahead at Øsmund’s back wanting to ask a few questions before they got to the village, but when she looked at Fitz, his expression had lost all of its previous amusement and taken on a cast of bitterness. His mouth was tense and twisted while his eyes were dark and brooding. He looked mostly at his feet, as if his bleak mood had no particular focus. She wasn’t sure of the change but she didn’t want to leave him on his own to push ahead and ask her questions of Øsmund.

That, however, did not stop their companion from chattering away. Sometimes turning to face them as they went, or just speaking loudly as he walked ahead, he told them more on the calendar system and named them the days of the week (Ondskapday, Skjebneday, Sunsday, Laurday, Týrsday, Odinsday, Thorsday, Lokisday, and Friggasday). He explained that each member of the royal family had a day named for them as did each of Vanaheim’s two moons and its sun. Týr, as it turned out, was Odin’s first stillborn son, whereas Thor and Loki they already knew about. Øsmund pointed out that the people of Vanaheim were a bit keen on renaming Loki's day after all the havoc he'd wrought, but, as yet, Odin had not agreed to allow it. Jemma asked Øsmund what Laurday was named for and he laughed. “Washing day, of course.”

She asked after the names of the moons and he explained that Ondskap, the larger moon’s name, meant wickedness. Named so because evil deeds were more easily done under cover of darkness with the light of the full moon to see by. He said that pranks and tricks were most likely to be played on Ondskapday. It made little sense to Jemma sociologically to have a day when wickedness was encouraged but the culture was strange to her and she tried to reserve judgement. She asked what day it was today and Øsmund said it was Skjebneday. The previous day had been Ondskapday. When she glanced at Fitz, he looked pale.

Skjebne evidently meant destiny. The smaller moon watched over the destinies of all the people of Vanaheim according to the ancients. Øsmund explained that the most powerful magic was done when Skjebne was at its peak of fullness.

Soon after, he began to speak of magic again. It seemed to be his favorite subject. He almost appeared to be pathologically frightened of having any silence among them. Jemma piped up with questions on occasion but nothing he said revealed anything at all that might help them out of this mess. Fitz, for the most part, remained silent throughout the trip.


Once they arrived in town, Jemma felt rather conspicuous as they began to pass people by. They goggled at them with wonder and suspicion but Øsmund merely waved and nodded to the few people they passed and it seemed to ease their fears, if not their awe. He leaned in close as they arrived at the town square and said, “Don’t mind them. You are strangers. I warned you they are frightened of outsiders. But I nearly forgot to mention, you will have to be friends of my father’s now. If my mother heard tell of your being my aunt and uncle she would know it was a lie. I often accompanied my father to the King of Vanaheim’s court and my knowing his friends will not seem strange.”

Jemma was even more fascinated by the village in the light of day than she had been the previous night. The materials were such an odd mix of rustic and futuristic. The colorful walls of the buildings gleamed like a composite material and yet the roofs were made of wood or sometimes thatched. They were all in bright colors of rusty red, butter yellow, moss green or wedgwood blue. The town square was surrounded by a low wall made of rough-cut stone but on each corner was a bizarre creature cast exquisitely out of a gold metal, which she wasn't at all certain wasn't real gold. She stepped closer and noted that the beast looked like some science experiment gone wrong, as if someone had tried to cross a triceratops with a moose. It had hooves, stout legs, scales over its body, a face that was partway between a dragon and a very unhappy mongoose and was topped with a set of gigantic antlers.

Øsmund chuckled when he saw her staring. “That’s a bilchsteim,” he offered. “They are hunted and quite fierce when threatened.”

“I can see that,” Jemma said, pointing to the very sharp-looking teeth inside its mouth. “They, um, have those on Vanaheim?”

Øsmund shrugged and nodded as if he were very much unconcerned by the prospect.

“Is this actual size?” Jemma asked trying not to sound truly frightened, even if she was a bit terrified of sharing a planet with something that looked like it could easily take her lower leg off. The decorative statue was perhaps eighteen inches high.

Øsmund laughed out loud rather boisterously. Once he got control of himself, he smiled at her and said, “Um, no. They are approximately the size of two horses and twice as tall,” he said almost sympathetically.

“Oh,” she said with a small gulp. Make that your head it could easily take off.

“Come on,” Øsmund said, walking toward the shops. “There are none around here. You’re safe in the woods. Bilchsteim graze the plains.”

“It’s an herbivore?” Jemma questioned hopefully, glancing at Fitz before she followed behind Øsmund.

“Omnivorous,” Øsmund corrected. “They eat the nutritious plains grasses and sometimes the langehalers that come out of the edge of the forests.”


Fitz followed along behind, trying to be watchful of suspicious eyes on them. He listened to Jemma question Øsmund about the planet and the village’s history. There was something like a longhouse at the end of the square. He guessed it was for village meetings or something like it. As he’d noted the night before, on one side of the square were the more service-oriented businesses. There was the tavern, some shops that looked as if they sold clothing, books, household items, and there was a blacksmith's on the corner. However, in the center, he saw what looked like the seat of government for the place. Something like a courthouse, or perhaps a combination of that and an armory or even a jail. He shuddered at the thought. But there were two guards standing outside with longswords on their hips, he couldn't help but think it.

He turned his attention to the other side of the square and saw that, in the day, the place was now a hub of activity. More like an open marketplace, the shop owners had their wares out in front of their shops. There were fruits and vegetables, bread, dried meats, spices, and what appeared to be cakes and pastries. There were other things he couldn’t quite take in yet as he followed along to the other side of the street and into a shop full of clothing.

Fitz and Jemma both were still wearing their elven garb and he knew she wanted to fit in there so she could explore without drawing so much attention. It was reasonable but Fitz was nervous spending any of their precious money on anything but food.

While Jemma chose some items to try on, Fitz asked Øsmund about the money and its value. As he explained to Fitz the small coins, Jemma went off to the changing room with the help of a young woman. Apparently a young woman, anyway. 

“How old are you?” Fitz thought to ask Øsmund.

“Nearly a hundred. Why do you ask?”

“No reason,” Fitz said, sorting through the coins in his hand again. Evidently, the people of Vanaheim were long-lived like the Asgardians. 

“Tretti?” he asked, pointing to a reddish gold coin. They all looked very similar except for the color and some had an imprint which he learned doubled the usual value. He supposed their system made as much sense as paper money, anyway. He pointed to a matte silver-gray coin. "Femti?"

“Yes, good on both counts,” Øsmund agreed, smacking Fitz on the back hard enough to make him have to close his hand to keep the coins from falling to the floor.

A couple of minutes later, Fitz nearly dropped them anyway when Jemma came out. It took him a moment to stop staring but then he drained the coins through his fist back into the sack as she came closer and asked him how she looked.

She wore a deep burgundy tunic that suited her skin tone very well. The fabric was woven with some sort of vine pattern in a slightly darker shade and there was a strange shimmer to it as well, like gold dust had fallen over it. The cut was draped at the neck and bared one shoulder. It had an intricately embossed gold clasp that matched the vine pattern on the other shoulder. The tunic fitted her well in the torso, coming in at the waist and flaring at the hips, and it ended somewhere around mid-thigh. She was wearing form-fitting trousers of a rich brown underneath and had matching calf-length boots on. As he watched, she shimmied into a sueded jacket that fit tightly, buckling at the waist, and then pulled her long hair out from inside the collar to let it flow into loose waves over her back. The jacket was a darker shade of burgundy like the detail in her tunic and covered her arms and bared shoulder. For that, he was grateful.

“Ehm…good,” he said, though that was certainly the understatement of the century. “Comfortable,” he added, glancing only briefly over the outfit she was wearing.

She gave a wan smile at his meager answer and then glanced to Øsmund.

“The most beautiful lady in the nine realms,” he effused with a grin.

Fitz scoffed and rolled his eyes. 

“Thank you,” Jemma said, smiling shyly.

Then she took Fitz by the wrist and said, “Now you, Fi—er, Finn. I’ve chosen some things, I hope you don’t mind.”

“Er…okay,” he said, noting the smirk on Øsmund's face as Jemma dragged him away.

She grinned herself and pressed a wad of clothing into his arms as the shopkeeper handed them to her. “Through that curtain,” she said, waving him toward a heavy-looking drape.

Fitz noted the amusement of the shopkeeper as well. He could only read her expression as one of sympathetic amusement. Whatever it meant was simply lost on him.

He quickly forgot about that as he tried on the strange clothes. The black trousers were soft and thicker than what he was wearing currently. The fly laced up rather inconveniently on his current pair from Alfheim but the new ones had all buttons which was, if not as convenient as a zip, at least familiar. The shirt Jemma had chosen was white with faint silvery leaves in the weave. It had no buttons and was open at the neck so he had to pull it over his head. It had three small silver clasps at the neck that he fumbled with and eventually got closed.

There was also a long cornflower blue tunic vest made of a similar sueded fabric to his trousers but it was thicker with pleats along the torso. It crossed over in the front and buckled at his left hip. It had black and silver trim. There was a black belt that went over the vest and it had a silver buckle that was engraved with the same leaves as his shirt.

The clothing on Vanaheim was quite nice considering the rustic village they were in. Of course, they were quite an advanced civilization and likely had centers of manufacture for such things elsewhere—or so he guessed. Normally, he'd be teeming with such questions, but at the moment, the only prevalent thoughts in his head had to do with getting Jemma back to rights. Fixing her, and thereby fixing himself, and his inability to think of anything but their dilemma for more than five minutes at a time.

He examined himself in the mirror once he was finished with the belt and thought that his attire looked rather better than the elven clothing he’d just taken off. He looked sort of…all right, he supposed. However, he was still in his stocking feet as he went out for Jemma to, er, approve his look, he supposed.

“Fit–iiiinn,” she singsonged but still stumbled over his name. However, it didn’t seem to faze her much as she clasped her hands in front of her and said, “You look fantastic!” She grabbed up a pair of boots and brought them over, setting them in front of him to try on. “Here,” she said, holding out her hand to steady him.

He tried not to take her hand. It seemed better but he nearly lost his balance immediately and then she grabbed him by the arm anyway. He took her hand then to get the other boot on and then stood straight, releasing her and taking a few awkward steps forward. He was amazed she’d managed to guess his size so easily. Back on Earth people who worked in actual shoe shops usually guessed his size wrong. He had deceptively large feet for his height.

Glancing down at the boots she’d chosen, he saw the leaf pattern from his shirt tooled into the suede. These boots, however, were meant for more than ceremony. Unlike the elven boots, these were solidly made and his feet felt well-protected inside them.

“You look very good,” Øsmund said, giving Fitz a whack on the arm that made his left eye twitch in annoyance.

“Thanks,” he replied, his lack of genuine gratitude clear in his tone.

“We’ll take everything!” Jemma blurted out behind him to the shopkeeper as he tested his weight on the boots—mostly for show, they felt amazing.

He turned and gave her a look that wordlessly said he hadn’t agreed to anything and the expression she gave him back was so beseeching that he sighed. She took it for the victory that it was and went to get their pack out of the dressing room where he’d left it. She handed him the sack of money, still stuffing their other clothes back inside the pack. He just caught a glimpse of black lace as she stuffed and he realized—right in the front of his brain—that it was her bra.

Cheeks warm and pink, he went to the counter to pay for their clothing and, with a little sweet talk directed at the shopkeeper, Øsmund managed to barter down their bill.

Fitz felt a bit badly for being grumpy at him suddenly. The kid really was helping them out a great deal with no promise of reward at all. He immediately decided that he’d endeavor to treat him a bit better. 

They next went to shop for food. Fitz didn’t know what sort of meat they had on that planet but he was just hungry enough to find out if it tasted anything like meat on Earth. There were grapes and a few other recognizable fruits. Some that looked like apples and others that looked like melons. The vegetables were slightly less recognizable except for potatoes. Jemma squeezed and smelled the fruits and vegetables and, in some cases, with the shopkeeper’s permission, tasted them. There was a basket of berries that she’d asked to try and had been so pleased with, that she took another and held it in front of his lips. “Try this, F–Finn.”

He cocked a brow at her still not getting his false name easily and she narrowed her eyes at him.

He suppressed his smirk because, as tempting as it was to eat out of Jemma’s hand, he had to take the berry and pop it into his own mouth. Her expression went from excited to flat instantly and he felt incredibly guilty. He didn’t know what else to do, though. He had to keep a distance. It was critical now.

As they continued on, she browsed through cheeses and bread, sweets—which he looked at longingly—and a case of dried fish that he looked at with anything but. It was difficult not to wrinkle his nose in disgust, in truth, but he didn't want to offend any of their suppliers, or their guide, for that matter.

Once they’d finished their shopping and Fitz was laden with two more heavy bags, Øsmund pleaded with them to come have a drink in his mum’s pub. Jemma demurred but Fitz, having promised himself that he’d be kinder to Øsmund, said, “Oh, come on, er, ehm…Jora. Let’s have a quick drink in his mum’s pub.”

Fitz tried to ignore the triumphant quirk of her lips when he’d fumbled her fake name as well. He was forced to admit that it was quite difficult when you’d been calling someone a name for a dozen years to suddenly call them another.

Jemma’s brows rose in consideration once he’d made the suggestion of a drink himself and, giving him an unreadable look, merely said, “Alright.”

Chapter Text

“The language of friendship is not words but meanings.”Henry David Thoreau


 

Inside the pub was rather dim and noisy, but the strong, musty smell of some sort of mead was like a vapor cloud hanging in the air. It was so dense, that Jemma was momentarily taken aback by it, somehow managing to resist the temptation to wave a hand in front of her nose to clear the air.

There were quite a lot of people there already and it was only just midday, but then she realized that most of the patrons were eating as much as drinking, if not more so. She guessed it was one of the few, if not the only restaurant in town.

It was not well-lit. There was some sort of ambient glow coming from the ceiling, but she couldn’t see the source of it. A few heads turned their direction, but as soon as they saw Øsmund leading the way, they all seemed to be put at ease.

The construction materials were the same mix of old and new. Roughly made tables and chairs contrasted with smooth, metallic walls and an ambient sound system with some sort of music played on stringed instruments, if Jemma’s ears didn’t deceive her. The room opened out in the back to a sort of patio, or celebration area. There were tables out there as well and a group of men were using one of the tables to have an arm wrestling contest, it seemed.

There was a long bar, much like you’d find back home on Earth, and behind the bar was a redheaded woman polishing a glass. She looked as though she might be Øsmund’s sister. He’d mentioned having several siblings, she recalled.

But as soon as they came up to the bar, Øsmund immediately introduced her as his mother, Eira. Fitz appeared nonplussed, despite the fact that they knew both Asgardians as well as those from Vanaheim were extremely long-lived. Even so, it was a bit of a surprise (if not slightly disconcerting) to be introduced to a woman who looked to be in her early twenties who had a son appearing to be not far from that age himself. Jemma made a mental note to ask Øsmund just how old his mother was at a later time.

“They are father’s friends from Asgard, Mother,” Øsmund was saying. This reminded Jemma that he had also said his mother was formerly a handmaiden to Frigga, which meant she had far more knowledge of Asgard than they did, and any attempt to elaborate on Øsmund’s fabricated history would be extremely ill-advised.

“I met them there on one of my last journeys with father,” he said, prompting an immediate shift in Eira’s expression to one of sadness.

“We were so sorry to hear of his passin',” Fitz said, offering a sympathetic smile.

“Quite so,” Jemma agreed, bowing her head slightly in deference.

Eira quickly appeared to push her feelings aside, forcing a smile as she offered a hand and said, “Thank you. Any friend of Einar’s is welcome here. You are seiðr, like he was?”

Jemma shook her hand, cursing the fact that they hadn’t come up with a better cover before entering, but was quick to say, “No, we study the culture and customs of the Midgardians. Their world fascinates us.”

Eira’s smile broadened and she said, “Oh! So you must’ve made the journey together, with Einar.” It didn’t seem to be a question and Jemma was grateful that she seemed to be filling in the blanks for herself. “His work was very secret,” Eira added, but it seemed more like she was probing for information than merely stating a fact. “For Odin, he would do whatever was required but even I he would not tell of his travels there.”

“We were not allowed to see the nature of his work, either,” Fitz said, picking up on Eira’s tone even more quickly and answering for Jemma when she took a fraction too long to respond. It was strange how tempting it was to want to expound on their story enough to ease her mind, but the last thing they needed was to give the wrong detail and be outed as charlatans. She didn't know what sort of punishments existed on Vanaheim, but she certainly didn't want to find out in practice. 

Eira nodded, reaching out a hand to give her son’s shoulder a squeeze. “You know, Øsmund is becoming a seiðr as well, just as his father was. I am sure he must have regaled you with tales of his calling already,” she teased fondly, giving her son a small smile. “Perhaps it is not too long before you will all be meeting again for another journey to Midgard.”

“We certainly hope so,” Fitz said drolly. Eira seemed to miss his sardonic tone, however, and his words prompted a smile. She looked at her son with eyes full of pride and it made something clench deep in Jemma’s chest and nearly made tears come to her eyes.

Ridiculous.

She blinked them back without giving herself away, and instead, put her arm around the small of Fitz’s back. He stiffened imperceptibly but she felt it plainly. Nevertheless, she stubbornly refused to remove her arm.

“What would you like?” Eira said, turning her attention back to them. “The first round is on the house, to honor your friendship with Einar, but we are also serving the midday meal and you are welcome to enjoy that as well.”

As Jemma and Fitz both offered their thanks, Eira offered them a printed card with—what Jemma presumed—were the offerings on hand, but it was printed in the runes of Vanaheim that neither she nor Fitz had seemed to have any luck in deciphering.

“I recommend the stew,” Øsmund said quickly, helpful as ever. “No one makes bilchsteim stew like my mother.”

Bilchsteim?” Jemma blurted, remembering the statue of the beast she’d examined in the town square. It was perhaps the least appetizing animal she had ever seen in her life.

“It’s not her favorite,” Fitz said, offering an exaggeratedly sheepish look to Eira.

“C’mon, Jora, let’s give it a go,” he added, nudging Jemma lightly in the ribs. She noted that he didn’t even stumble over her false name this time.

However, just the thought of eating the animal she’d seen the likeness of was making her feel nauseated.

“Perhaps Jora would prefer the roast fowl?” Øsmund said, smirking even as he somehow managed to look sympathetic.

“Fowl, yes,” Fitz chimed in, pretending to examine the menu in more detail. “That sounds delicious as well.”

A mischievous grin tugging at the corners of his lips, Øsmund said, “Finn, you really must try the stew. The recipe has been in my mother’s family, passed down from generation to generation, for longer than anyone can remember. Even Queen Frigga found it to be delicious.”

“Do not boast so, my son,” Eira said, blushing. “They prefer the roast fowl.”

“I’ll try the stew,” Fitz said, smiling at Eira as he offered her back the menu card. “That’s quite the recommendation. I can’t come all this way and not try the best of what Vanaheim has to offer.”

The twinge of jealousy Jemma felt was sudden and immediate. It made her mouth feel dry and her heart began to beat hard enough that she could hear the blood pumping in her ears.

Licking her dry lips, she said, “I’ll have a mead as well, thank you.”

“Of course,” Eira said, a faint flush still coloring her cheeks after Fitz’s complimentary response. With movements so smooth, she might’ve been a dancer and not a barmaid, Eira filled three mugs with mead (though neither Fitz nor Øsmund had asked for them) and slid them across the bar to them.

“I will keep them company, Mother,” he said, smiling as he turned and led the way to a small table in the back corner of the pub.

Jemma followed him, along with Fitz, carrying their mugs of mead ahead of them. Two tables full of people had gone since they’d walked in and the corner Øsmund showed them to was in a less crowded, if not exactly quieter area.

Jemma couldn’t get over the strange mix of old and new. The rough-hewn tables and chairs seemed a strange contrast to all the people in their fanciful (and quite posh) clothing. She and Fitz blended in perfectly now at least. Their clothes were just the sort everyone else was wearing in similar muted colors and with the same level of high-quality workmanship.

“You see?” Øsmund whispered once they were sat with their mugs—fully a third of which Jemma had drunk straight down, partially to deaden the unpleasant feelings she was struggling with but also because the drink was quite a bit more pleasant than the smell. It was sweet and the slight musky taste only seemed to add layers of complexity to the flavor.

She covered her mouth to mask a small belch and then nodded. “The mead is quite good.”

“I meant that you can move about freely now. My mother will tell her friends, who will tell their friends, and by tonight everyone will know that you are not outsiders, but friends of my father’s.”

“What about Erlendr? And your friend...Kettil, was it?” Fitz asked worriedly, his tone a hushed whisper. “They think we’re your aunt and uncle.”

“Oh, do not worry about Erlendr. He never leaves his house. I bring him supplies when I go for my training. He does not enjoy drinking in the pub or gathering in the meeting hall with the others. He keeps to himself. Your secret is safe with him. As for Kettil…” He shrugged. “He will be too embarrassed that he backed down. Besides, who would believe him?”

Jemma nodded as she considered Øsmund’s arguments. They made a certain kind of sense, but there were so many variables to consider. Nevertheless, they were in such a position that they had little choice but to trust his assessment of their situation. They couldn’t set out to heaven-knew-where without a goal or any information about whom they could turn to for help—not when the only person willing to help them so far was right there. To leave in order to pursue an unknown course seemed to have significantly less chance of success.

“Your mother didn’t question it, but what should we say we’re doing here?” she thought to ask.

“Passing through, perhaps? It would not seem strange for those who travel so far as Midgard to enjoy visiting other places as well. Perhaps you could say that my father spoke of the beauty of Vanaheim,” Øsmund said with a thoughtful tilt of his head.

“That was very clever of you saying you weren’t seiðr, by the way. She would have guessed you were lying had you said you were. But she knows I wish to go to Midgard like my father, so my interest in you as experts on that world is what she might expect.”

“I don’t think we should speak about your father,” Jemma said, bypassing Øsmund’s compliment to her quick thinking. “It seems…disrespectful.”

“I can assure you that he would not mind if he knew. My father would have helped you as I am. The village elders have grown wary of late. They would not offer food to a starving man if he were begging at their feet now,” he said in disgust. “My father would’ve fought them. But there is no one here to fight their callousness now. All our strongest men were killed in the raids.”

“There’s you,” Jemma said, putting a hand on his arm. “I’m grateful, Øsmund. You have no idea how much. I’m grateful to your father for showing you how to help those in need as well. I can tell he was a great man.”

“He was,” Øsmund said, smiling even as he blinked back a sheen of tears. “He truly was.”

Jemma gave his shoulder a squeeze and smiled.

Leaning back, Øsmund picked up his mug and held it up. “Do not worry, all is well, my friends. Let us drink and eat to celebrate our victory.”

Jemma raised her mug for the toast and Fitz was the last to tap his mug to theirs, each in turn. He looked as though he was not yet decided to agree on all Øsmund had said. It was a look she knew well. It was also a look that she had learned to respect over the years. Fitz could often see the angles that were hidden from her, but when he pointed them out, they suddenly became apparent. Her own mental abilities did not lay in seeing the larger picture, but in focusing in on the details.

They sipped their meads in silence for a few moments before Eira appeared with a tray full of food and more drinks for all of them.

“You have not eaten since early this morning,” she chided her son as she set a bowl of stew down in front of him. As she set down Fitz’s before him, she said, “I hope you will enjoy it.”

Jemma didn’t look, staring resolutely into her near-empty mug.

Even so, she could hear how Fitz smiled gratefully, simply from his tone, as he said, “Thank you, Eira. I’m sure it’s delicious.”

Jemma tried to ignore the helpless feeling inside her, like she was losing her grip on something she wanted so desperately. Instead, her head snapped up to give Eira her own pleasant smile as something that looked suspiciously chicken-like was set down before her. It was perhaps the size of a Cornish hen and steam was still rising from it as if it were just from the oven. It reminded her how long it had been since she’d eaten something appetizing instead of just the bland sustenance that would allow her to survive.

Then she remembered that the last time she’d eaten anything close was the feast at Geir’s—but she didn’t want to think about that now, or how it was ruining everything and making her feel this way.

“Thank you very much. It smells absolutely wonderful,” she said to Eira, keeping her forced smile in place so no one would suspect the turmoil going on inside her at that moment.

The food did really smell very good, in fact, and her mouth was nearly watering after all those dried biscuits and jerky that Halli had given them. There was some sort of wilted greens with the small bird and roast potatoes—or what passed for them on Vanaheim. She wasn’t even cautious as she dug into the meal. She was given a knife and fork but that seemed it would take too long and so she tore off a leg and started to eat, humming her appreciation at the savory flavor while Eira sauntered away with an amused backward glance.

“What do you think?” Øsmund asked several minutes later. Since their had food arrived, the time had been marked only by the sounds of cutlery scraping and appreciative chewing.

“Absolutely delicious,” Jemma said, wiping her grease-laden fingers on her serviette.

At almost at the same moment as she answered, Fitz said, “Fantastic. It’s difficult to believe somethin’ so ugly could taste this brilliant. There are spices in this that I’ve never tasted before, I’m certain of it.”

Jemma hadn’t particularly noticed the spices in her food, beyond the salt. She’d been too enamored of the sensual nature of chewing and swallowing something so flavorful to notice—though she had seen the little bits of spice clinging to the skin of the bird and the roast potatoes.

“Compliments to the chef,” Jemma said cheerfully. “Does your mother make all the food?”

Appearing as excited to answer that question as any other, Øsmund began, “They’re all her family recipes, but—”

However, before he could finish, a long shadow came over their cozy table in the corner as three men came up to them.

Jemma had to crane her neck to look up, they were all so tall—though certainly they were nothing to the elves they’d so recently seen.

The bloke in the center had pale white-blonde hair pulled back into a plait and he was flanked by another with darker, shoulder-length blonde hair in need of a wash and a closely-cropped brunette.

The man in the center gave a sneering smile and said, “Hello, visitors. I am Arvid and, as an elder, I come to bid you welcome to our village. These are my fellow council members, Rangvald and Uffe.” He gestured to the other blonde and the brunette respectively.

“It’s very nice to meet you,” Jemma said. She started to offer her hand, but realized that Arvid had not offered his. “I’m Jora and this is my…Finn.” Jemma’s hesitation to speak the lie that they were married was partly because she had no idea if the word ‘husband’ was one that was commonly used there, but also because the very idea of saying it out loud pained her now that it seemed it would never be more than fantasy.

“They are friends of my father’s,” Øsmund said, hard on the heels of her own words. “From Asgard. They serve Odin as my father once did.”

For the first time since they’d met, Jemma noted that Øsmund did not look at all amused. If anything, he looked as if he were afraid and trying to hide it. Jemma’s nerves immediately kicked up in response. If Øsmund was worried, there was likely good reason.

“Do they now?” Arvid said, a small, predatory smile coming to his lips. Even in the dim corner, Jemma noted that his eyes were a deep cerulean that nearly blended in with his pupils, making them appear nearly solid black. “That’s quite interesting. And why have you come to our small village?”

Fitz spoke up immediately, saying, “Einar spoke of it so highly and we wanted to pay our respects, of course.”

“He was a great man,” Jemma said, though her mouth felt dry.

“That he was,” Arvid said with a brief glance toward Øsmund. “He died with honor, protecting our village from the raiders. Had he not stayed to fight, we never could’ve lasted until Asgard’s forces arrived.”

“Of course, if he had not rallied for us to stay instead of fleeing, there would have been no need for anyone to die,” he added, a small, cruel smile twisting the corners of his lips.

“We would still be refugees had he not!” Øsmund blurted, his own smile long gone, to be replaced by a hard, thin line. “The raiders would’ve left nothing!”

“Alright, alright, my boy,” Arvid said, tsking as if chastising a child. “We all have our points of view, don’t we?”

Øsmund looked tense as a taut wire and ready to get up to fight, so Jemma put a light hand on his forearm. The last thing they needed was a bar brawl. He shot a look her way that was part resentment and part resignation.

“We do…” he conceded, lowering his eyes. “Even if some are more foolish than others,” he muttered.

Fortunately, Arvid didn’t take the bait, only tsked again and sighed as if he were dealing with an unreasonable toddler instead of a nearly grown man.

“Are you two staying here?” Arvid asked, gesturing with both hands to indicate the pub and its rooms above while directing his gaze and question to Fitz.

“They are,” Øsmund lied, answering before Fitz had time to respond. “I’ve been showing them the best spots for fishing and hunting, however. The places my father loved when he was a boy, before he went to Asgard. They’ve had little time to explore the village.”

“I see,” Arvid said, almost unhappily. He glanced from Fitz to Jemma, clearly considering, then nodded to each of them as he said, “Well, I bid you a good…visit, then. I hope you find our home as pleasing as we do and that you will offer our sincerest gratitude to Asgard when you return.”

Fitz gave a low nod and Jemma followed suit. Silent acknowledgement seemed a better choice than an outright lie, for Øsmund’s sake now.

Arvid clasped his hands behind his back as he turned and walked away. No sooner had he left the pub than Fitz whispered, “What the hell was that about?”

Øsmund held up a hand to silence him and Jemma immediately realized that quite a few eyes were now on them.

 

After saying their farewells to Eira, they left the pub and headed back toward their camp along the river.

No sooner had they left the village proper than Øsmund began to rant. “That son of a worthless dog!” he gritted out angrily. “How dare he insult my father that way.” He kicked at a large stone in the middle of the lane and Jemma was shocked by how far it flew. She kept forgetting that these people were aliens and not like them. One punch thrown in their direction could be the end of them. It was perhaps a good lesson to remember.

Fitz, who might’ve been feeling out of his depth, quietly said, “Maybe we should stay out of town, Øsmund?”

“What?” Øsmund said, his temper seeming to cool instantly. “Why? Because of them? Please, my friends, don’t let that son of a slow-witted goat force you to stay away. You must not let him dictate your terms.” Øsmund seemed quite upset by the idea that they might stay away, or possibly he feared they might leave altogether, and Jemma couldn’t help but believe it was because he was such an outsider in his own village that it took the two of them, quite literally from another planet, to make him feel somewhat at home, or at least not so strange.

“Arvid won’t trouble you now,” he said, looking from one to the other of them. “Believe me, he is not particularly enlightened—not having been blessed with excessive cleverness by the gods, as some others you might know,” he joked, smirking impishly at his backhanded compliment to his own intelligence.

Jemma smiled in amusement but Fitz’s mouth was set in a grim line as he looked over at her. She tipped her head and that was all the shorthand that he needed to speak.

“I think we should try to limit our time there at least and perhaps you had best rent us a room from your mum in case Arvid decides to check up on us,” Fitz said. “But we’ll stay at our camp by the river.”

Jemma nodded her agreement to Fitz’s cautious plan. If their jaunt to other worlds had taught her one thing, it was that an ounce of prevention was certainly easier to deal with than a cure for the resulting ills—to put it mildly.

Fitz offered Øsmund the pouch with their money in it, letting him pick out a few coins to pay for the room they wouldn’t be using.

“But I may still visit you?” Øsmund questioned as he sorted through the coins. There was something like a plea in his tone. “I assure you that no one will follow me. I will take every precaution.”

Fitz met Jemma’s eyes only briefly, but she saw the submission there.

“Yes,” she said, nodding. “Of course.”

“I wondered if I could speak to Erlendr again,” Fitz said quietly.

Jemma clearly noted that he said ‘I’ instead of ‘we’.

“Of course,” Øsmund said without hesitation. “If you were holding back more you have to sell, you would do well to bring me along to bargain with him again.”

“No,” Fitz said simply. “It’s not about that.”

With a small, nearly disapproving sigh, Øsmund said, “Do you ever plan on telling me what it is that you, two midgardians, are really doing on Vanaheim?”

Jemma stared at him, his question so oddly unexpected that she couldn’t find words for an answer.

“It’s better if you don’t know,” Fitz said, glancing up at Øsmund.

Jemma, not liking that ominous answer, said, “Just know that we’re here in peace and that all we really want is to get home.”

“That much I gathered,” Øsmund said with a dry chuckle.

“We’re waiting for our friends,” Fitz said. “We hope they’ll be coming for us soon.”

“I see,” Øsmund said, nodding his understanding. “I will help you as much as I am able until your friends come to help you. When would you like to visit Erlendr?”

“Tomorrow,” Fitz said.

“I will come for you and show you a way through the woods instead of through town.”

“Thank you, Øsmund,” Jemma said sincerely, reaching out to give his forearm a gentle, affectionate squeeze. “I don’t know where we’d be without your help.”

Fitz offered his hand and said, “Yes. I can’t thank you enough.”

“Please, there is no need,” Øsmund said, seeming abashed by their thanks. “It is my calling to help those in need. Your thanks is not required for my simply fulfilling my duty. Verdandi wills that I help you.”

Jemma shook her head. “But you don’t give yourself enough credit. Having a calling is difficult. If it were simple, everyone would have one.”

A smile came slowly to Øsmund’s face, but he also began to nod. “Yes. You are right.” Suddenly he looked at Jemma with something new in his eyes. “You have your own calling, don’t you?”

“It’s called science on Midgard,” she said.

“We help people as well,” Fitz added. “With science.”

“I do not know your word ‘science’,” Øsmund admitted, “but I can see that you, too, have been called by the Norns. It is a great honor here.”

“For us too,” Fitz said. Jemma met his eyes briefly, surprised he would say that.

“Sometimes it seems the odds are against us,” Fitz went on, “but that only makes it feel all the more worth the effort.”

Øsmund continued to nod. “Yes. My father spoke of it, the worthiness of our calling.” His eyes dropped as he added, “His death proves the difficulty.” After a beat, he shook his head as if trying to clear it of old memories. “At least he is with his ancestors in Valhalla now. I will see him there if I live up to the honor the fates have bestowed.”

“I know you will,” Jemma said, reaching for his shoulders and pulling him in for a brief hug. Øsmund seemed too surprised by it to respond more than a little but when Jemma pulled back he was grinning broadly.

“Tomorrow, then. I will see you then, my friends. Good journey,” he said, giving a small bow before he turned and headed back the way they’d come from the village.

 

It was at least ten minutes of walking along the riverbank before either Fitz or Jemma spoke, and then they both managed to blurt out a word at the same time.

“Would—”

“Are—”

Then:

“Go ahead—”

“You first—”

Jemma sighed and conceded inwardly that they couldn’t go on like that. “I was going to ask if you wanted to speak to Erlendr about the…spell.” It was on the tip of her tongue to say the word in a dismissive tone, but she pulled herself back from it at the last second. She didn't want to make Fitz feel he was all alone in how he felt.

“Yes,” he said, sounding almost embarrassed to admit to it.

“I understand,” she said. “And if he says he can’t help?” She saw little to be gained by arguing over whether or not there was anything to be helped with. He believed there was and that seemed all that mattered. 

“I don’t know,” he said, not meeting her eyes.

“What was your question?”

He hesitated a moment but then said, “I think it’s really nice…what you’re doin’ for Øsmund. His mum seems very proud of him, but I don’t think he really has anyone who understands him in the village. That's important at his age.” He paused, drawing in a long breath and then added, “Do you think we should leave?”

She knew he had to ask the question, at least of himself, but she appreciated that he was opening up the discussion rather than attempting to make the choice for both of them.

“No,” she said, perhaps too quickly.

Fitz glanced over at her, a small smile curving his lips. “I knew you’d say that…but I had to ask.”

“I know,” she said, reaching for his hand before she remembered and drew it back again.

But then, realizing that there was almost nothing hidden between them now—aside from the truth which seemed so obvious to her and yet was so convoluted for him—she reached for his hand anyway, taking it and holding it tightly. It was only affection, she told herself. He was her best friend in the world. In spite of it all, they still had that. At least that hadn’t been stolen from them.

He jolted very slightly, appearing taken aback by the gesture—perhaps there was even a bit wariness in his eyes—but then he did nothing to stop her or shake off her hand.

Smiling over gaining even that small bit of ground, she laced their fingers together as they continued on toward their camp by the river.

Chapter Text

Do not seek the because—in love there is no because, no reason, no explanation, no solutions. –Anaïs Nin


 

Jemma wasn’t expecting anything monumental to happen when they got back to their camp. Fitz allowing her to hold his hand was hardly a promise that all was right between them now but when he let her hand go as they entered the small clearing where their camp was situated, she still felt the lightness in her chest instantly replaced with the familiar lead weight that was almost beginning to make her feel something was missing when it left her. They were both glad to find everything just as it had been when they’d left that morning. And because talking about anything short of science had never really been their strong suit—she didn’t expect that to change after a decade—she immediately set about organizing their new supplies. If it was also a way to forget about how much she missed the warmth of his hand in hers, well, that was simply a bonus.

She quickly reclaimed their other pack from the bushes by the rushing river where they’d hidden it and took their largest pot to the riverbank to fill it for boiling. She sorted through the other cooking accoutrements—mentally thanking Halli for providing them—in preparation for cooking a meal out of their newly acquired food, once Fitz got the fire going again. She looked at him longingly while he added kindling to the flames and she cut potatoes to go into the pot once he’d positioned it on the makeshift stand he’d made to hold it over the fire. Fitz helped, cutting more vegetables while she washed fruit for dessert and tore apart a loaf of fresh bread they’d bought to go with their meal.

When they had their food simmering in a sort of stew, with Fitz’s help with the rope (thanks to his Boy Scout training), she created a makeshift food-storage device out of one of their elven cloaks by tying the food into it and then hoisting it up a tree in case of animals sniffing about. They’d heard them sniffing about in the night but hadn’t seen any as yet. Blessedly, they sounded small, and Øsmund had assured them that they were safe enough where they were. She considered sinking the food and cloak into the river and tying it up to a tree for the refrigeration qualities of the cold water, but the current was quite strong and she didn’t want to see their food get swept off downriver.

As she sat on the fallen tree they used as a bench stirring the concoction they’d made and testing the vegetables for tenderness, Fitz silently tinkered with Jeeves. Without warning, he surprised her by turning suddenly and blurting out, “I’m sorry about last night.”

She frowned and looked over at him where he was sitting on the bedroll he’d spread out on the ground by the fire again. He wasn’t able to meet her eyes as he went on. “It was…” but he trailed off and didn’t continue for a moment before he finally said, “I was wrong to kiss you. I’m sorry. I don’t want to make this more difficult for either of us.”

Jemma felt guilt but also a small flare of anger. She was sick to death of his back and forth, or perhaps it was just of his frustrating willingness to believe in this nonsense magic spell he was convinced of? And even though she was trying to sympathize with his situation, hers was just as untenable. She felt stuck and out of control and somehow it was even worse than the fact that they were trapped on another planet.

In her anger, she couldn’t let well enough alone this time. In a tone that was sharp without quite making her anger apparent, she said, “Why won’t you believe that I love you, Fitz?”

Immediately Fitz appeared stunned, his wide eyes darting up from his shoelaces to stare at her after hearing such a blunt question. Clearly, he hadn’t been expecting to spark a debate on the subject but also this was not how they talked to one another. Perhaps in the context of science, but not when it came to how they felt.

After a moment, he seemed to recover somewhat, and then said, “I do, Jemma. But, you don’t have a choice if you love me just now. If we were, er,” he shifted uncomfortably, “together, I would want—need it to be your choice.”

Getting up off her seat, she stood, perhaps driven by her own frustration, and said, “Everyone has a choice, Fitz. Maybe not the feelings in all cases, but how you act on them is always your choice. I could choose not to act on my feelings—and I have for a long time, because I thought you weren’t ready.” She stepped closer, but Fitz shifted back as if in fear, stopping her. “Fitz, I am choosing to act on them—now. I want to.”

“But, if those feelings were forced on you,” he said, a note of pleading in his tone, “it’s not a choice you would normally make.” He dropped his eyes again as if he couldn’t bear to even look at her.

“No one’s forcing anything on me. I am choosing.” She stepped closer again, causing him look up to meet her eyes again. He looked like a cornered animal, ready to bolt if she took another step. 

She didn’t take another step, she got down on her knees at the edge of the bedroll and looked intently into his eyes as she said, “I choose you, Fitz. Right now. I want to be with you. I want to kiss you and make love, get married and have children, and do science—together—with you.”

His cheeks had colored bright pink at her mention of sex and his jaw worked up and down for a moment as he seemed to search for a response. However, quite suddenly, his shoulders seemed to stiffen. “After I first told you how I felt, Jemma, you didn’t want that.” He looked down, his fingertip tracing the seam on his new trousers. “So what if this spell, or whatever it is, wears off and you wake up in two years—or ten—and decide you just don’t…” He paused, looking up with pain evident in his eyes, then he took in a deep breath and said, “What if you just don’t want me any longer? You decide that you don’t love me anymore? Or never did? Who’s to blame for that, Jemma? You? Who was under some sort of influence? Or me, who knew better and ignored it because it was what I wanted?”

She saw the worry and pain in his eyes. Was that his true fear? That she would want to leave him when she was no longer under the influence of the spell he imagined she was being controlled by? Or was it truly only his unrelenting morality keeping them apart? Perhaps it was both.

“Oh, Fitz,” she said, her words infused with the sorrow she felt for both of them. “You must know I’ve never found the idea of being with you objectionable—not by any means—I was only afraid of losing what we already had on just the chance that it might be better. I was…afraid.”

She looked away in shame, feeling guilty for the lie she’d told him then. It was on the tip of her tongue to admit it to him, but she couldn’t help but think that now, after all that was between them, that he wouldn’t believe her.

“I’m not scared anymore, Fitz,” she said earnestly, inching closer to him on her knees. “I don’t think it is taking a chance. Now I know it could be so much better.” She reached out a hand to him but was still far enough away that Fitz would have to close the distance. “Even if I were somehow cured, back to the way I was before all this, I would still love you—you know that, don’t you? And I would never, ever leave you. You must know that. Please tell me you know that.”

He looked at her hand but didn’t take it. She dropped her hand as she felt tears gathering behind her eyes, hot and stinging, but she also felt they might be close to…something and she swallowed down those tears, keeping them at bay with the hope that there really was something she could say to convince him of her sincerity—more than that, of the reality.

Fitz seemed to contemplate her words but then, shifting further away from her and pulling his knees up to his chest, he said, “But, Jemma, he could be out there. The perfect man for you…your soulmate. You deserve that, you know. You should have someone,” he lowered his eyes to the dull green bedroll, “someone better.”

She couldn’t help but scoff instantly, so many rebuttals going through her mind she didn’t even know where to begin. “There is no one better and even if there were some—quote, unquote—‘soulmate’ for me out there, I don’t want him.” Fitz glanced up in surprise as she finished, “I want you, Leopold James Fitz. Just you.”

She saw how torn he was, his shoulders tense, his knuckles white as he clutched them together around his knees, and his eyes were rapidly glazing over with tears. However, his internal struggle was short-lived. More quickly than she would’ve liked, he sniffed and said, “You can’t not want someone when you don’t even know who they are.”

“Yes, you can, Fitz,” she said quickly, reaching out to him again and only just resisting her desire to move even closer to him, to catch him in a comforting embrace, but she knew it would only make him bolt like the cornered animal he so resembled. Her tone softened as she tried to soothe him. “You can be grateful for what you have.”

It was Fitz’s turn to scoff. “Is that what you want? To be grateful for what you have when you could be so much happier with the person that was meant for you? Don’t be foolish, Jemma. Don’t be mad! I couldn’t let you commit yourself to a life like that. I wouldn’t.” He shook his head sharply, as if to cement his decision.

And just like that, it was the end of all discussion.

Fitz wouldn’t speak about it after that. Jemma gave up and nearly burst into tears when he flinched away as she tried to give him his stew. In their excitement to purchase food, they had forgotten to get any sort of herbs or spice, so they ate their bland stew in silence and then went to sleep with the greatest distance between them in Jemma’s memory. It wasn’t only the physical space he put between them, scooting to the very edge of his bedroll, it was the massive wall that shot up between them.

In the morning when she woke up, Fitz was gone.