Jemma Simmons had been at her new job for exactly three days, and this was the third lunch break in a row that she had been forced to grab something from a fast food restaurant. She wrinkled her nose at what passed for lettuce on the tray in front of her, scooped it up with her fork, and took a bite.
She really needed to figure out where the nearest market was and start purchasing actual food. She sighed and went on with the fast food version of a salad. She had nearly 40 minutes left for her break and she didn’t want to get stuck in traffic on the way back to the office. At least, she reasoned, as she picked up her paper cup, fast food restaurants knew a thing or two about making the perfect chocolate milkshake.
She was just scraping the remaining contents of her tray into a garbage can when she heard a clinking and clunking from the women’s bathroom. The noise was odd enough that Jemma considered, for about five seconds, not going in to wash her hands, but the sticky feel of Italian dressing that just wouldn’t go away no matter how many times she wiped her hands on a napkin meant that she wasn’t leaving without a little soap and water.
Pushing open the door, Jemma walked into the small tiled room with a bit of trepidation. She didn’t see anything out of the ordinary though, so she made her way to the sink, pumped some soap into her palm and placed her hands under the automatic faucet. As she scrubbed her hands though, a slightly tousled head of hair appeared just behind her reflection in the mirror; it was upside down, above her, and belonged to a man.
She let out a very undignified yelp before spinning around on her heels and holding her wet hands up in front of her, only to find that the man had let out a yelp as well. In his position hanging from the air vent opening above her head, he couldn’t exactly escape her flailing hands.
“Stop! Stop! What’re you doin’?”
“Me?” She hissed. “I’m not the one hanging from the ceiling in the ladies’ loo!”
“Wha’?” He tilted his head back and appeared to examine his surroundings for the first time. “Well - er - I’m no’ - this is supposed ta be the diamond exchange…” He immediately clamped his mouth shut and bit down on his bottom lip, and Jemma couldn’t help but be just a little bit intrigued by the way his teeth dragged over the pink of his lips, but also by the words “diamond exchange.”
He didn’t exactly look like a jewel thief. He was, admittedly, dressed all in black and wearing some sort of harness that would likely be well known in cat burgling circles, but his light hair was uncovered and he wasn’t even wearing gloves. Weren’t burglars supposed to be very careful about leaving fingerprints?
She slowly lowered her hands, allowing her palms to relax, feeling water drip to the tips of her fingers. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, “are you telling me you’re attempting to steal from the jewelry store? In broad daylight?”
“’m not a thief.”
“Not a very good one anyway, or you’d realize the best way would likely be through their basement where the water main passes through -”
“Ugh. Sewers. You think I’m going to crawl through a bloody sewer? Do you have any idea the kind of -”
“So you’re obviously very bad at your job. Oh, or maybe you’re bad at it on purpose?”
“I’m not bad at my job!”
“Does someone have you under duress? Are they making you steal things? Blink once for yes, twice for no if they’re listening in.” Her mouth twitched and she tried not to laugh.
The man hanging half out of the air vent stared at her, an expression of complete confusion twisting his otherwise very pleasant features while his mouth hung open and his cheeks pinked, probably from the blood rushing to his head from the time spent upside down.
“All right,” Jemma told him, shaking her head and moving a step closer when he stubbornly refused to blink, “I don’t know what that means.”
“It doesn’ mean anythin’. Wha’ on earth are you on about? You are the strangest woman I have ever met in m’life.”
“I’m strange? Do I need to remind you that you are hanging from the ceiling in the toilet?”
They both froze as the door to the room opened again. Jemma turned her head to look over her shoulder when the man’s eyes grew to the size of saucers. There was a middle aged woman there with a toddler held on her hip. The woman didn’t say anything, but the toddler giggled, pointing, before the woman spun them around and out the door. Jemma heard the woman calling for an employee.
“Well, this was an… interestin’ chat, but I have ta go now.” The man shimmied and squirmed in the vent, but he seemed to be stuck on something. “Oh, bloody cables.”
Jemma tried very hard not to laugh at the panic sliding across his face because it was adorable, and climbed up onto the sink so that she was eye to torso with him. She leaned forward, snaking her arm up into the vent to help him untangle the cable that was keeping him in place. If her palm happened to run over his chest, and then down his abdomen a bit, well, she could hardly be blamed for the tight space of an air vent, could she? Obviously, she had to take her time to make sure she didn’t make the tangle worse and to keep herself steady on the sink as well, which meant gripping his hip for balance before she could remove her arm from the section of the ceiling.
“Thank you.” His tone was full of an odd combination of wonder and exasperation.
“You’re welcome.” She leaned carefully back where she was standing on the sink, one hand reaching out behind her to just graze the mirror as the heel of one of her shoes slid along the surface. “Oh!”
“What? Are you all right, then?” His gaze searched her as though looking for invisible injuries that could have happened in the span of that second.
“Yes. Fine.” She crouched and then hopped down from the sink, not wanting to admit that what had startled her wasn’t the slide of her shoe, but just how blue his eyes were. If she could remember all the different colors of paint and ink she’d worked with in the past, she would have a shade to compare it to, but all she could think was that no color she’d ever seen before looked quite like that. Her work was utterly insufficient. “You should go,” she told him breathlessly instead. “Before you get caught. Not stealing.”
“Right. Yeah.” He nodded his head, then seemed to realize that wasn’t the best idea. The sound of footsteps made him jerk in agitation and one hand hovered over the clip on his shoulder. It looked almost like a zipline release. “Thanks. For - erm - helping me? I guess.”
“Any time.” Jemma’s lips quirked up in a smile. “I’m Jemma, by the way. Jemma Simmons. If you ever get into trouble, you’ll be able to find me.” If he had more time, she suspected he would have wondered why she wasn’t reporting the strange occurrence of a man in the ceiling to someone in charge as well.
As the door opened, she turned to tell whomever came through that there was nothing wrong, but the manager who walked through the door looked around, rolled her eyes, and snapped, “Lady must be hittin’ the bottle. And with a baby too.”
Jemma shrugged in response, risking a peek up at the ceiling where the man was already gone and the tiles were all back in place. She allowed herself a small smile before she decided to head back to work.
“It’s not m’fault! You got the wrong bloody blueprints!”
“Oh, Fitzy, you can’t always blame the hacker when you take a wrong turn in the vents!” Skye snapped a bite from the twizzler clutched in her hand as Fitz climbed into the back of her van.
“I didn’ take a wrong turn. I followed your instructions exactly.” He threw his equipment into the back seat and snagged a twizzler from Skye’s stash, taking a vicious bite out of it. “I could ‘ave gone back up and figured it out, but there was a woman - “
Skye spun in her seat as their getaway driver peeled into traffic. “Did you hear that, Trip? Fitzy met a girl.”
“Knew it would happen eventually,” Trip deadpanned as he simultaneously pulled his sunglasses into place and sped into traffic.
“What’s she like?”
“I’ doesn’t matter. Someone knows the target now. We need a new plan.”
Fitz slumped in his seat and ripped another bite out of his twizzler. He let Trip and Skye bounce ideas back and forth while he chewed.
What exactly did Jemma Simmons mean “If you ever get into trouble, you’ll be able to find me?”
Fitz rubbed at his ear in annoyance, removed his earbud, and tossed it onto the table in front of him. “Tha’s the third time we’ve gone after the necklace. I think we need a new plan.” And new comms , he added to himself, but he didn’t want to insult Skye’s design. He resolved to make his own as soon as he had time.
“Yeah, well, now they’ve seen all our faces,” Skye said as she spun around in the chair at the head of the table.
“And whose fault was tha’?”
“Not mine. You were on lookout duty this time,” she pointed out to him with a tilt of her head before she spun again. “We’re lucky you’re still not burned.”
“Girl, you’re making me dizzy,” Trip joked, trying to diffuse the tension as he reached out and grabbed one of the armrests to get her to stop, sinking into the lawn chair next to her.
Fitz didn’t say anything, just ran a hand over his face and sat on the milk crate on the floor before covering his face completely with both hands.
He had the fleeting thought that he should invest in real furniture for this apartment, but then again, they weren’t even supposed to have been in this city for this long. He hated this place. San Francisco with its old fashioned trolleys and its hills and its historical buildings. It would have been a great place to take a vacation instead of trying to repeatedly steal a necklace from a millionaire who kept moving it around for cleanings and appraisals and seemingly every other reason under the sun.
“Maybe we’re goin’ at this all wrong,” the fourth member of their crew said. Lance was sitting in the folding chair on the other side of the card table, his feet propped up.
“Says the inside man who was I.D.ed as a thief,” Skye sing-songed.
Fitz peeked over the tips of his fingers to see Lance roll his eyes and Trip place his hand warningly on Skye’s forearm.
“Lance’s right,” Trip said softly. “If we’re going to finish the job, we need a new player, someone they don’t know.”
“I might know someone,” Skye remarked casually running her hand over Trip’s. “But you’re not gonna like her.” She addressed the final statement to Lance. “She was trained by the Mockingbird.”
There was a pause where Fitz and Trip both leaned back, their eyes darting back and forth between their teammates. Fitz chewed on his lip, unsure how Lance would react to that bit of news.
“Absolutely not.” He slammed his boots onto the floor. “You know how I feel about that hellbeast! She turned on us during the job in Rio and it took me three days to get enough cash to find a boat back to the States!”
“You know anyone else who’s actually in town that we haven’t pissed off?” Skye challenged.
The groan that Lance let out while dropping his head to the surface of the table was all the answer they needed.
Skye was giggling from the next room, full on giggling. Fitz would have thought she was talking to a mark if she wasn’t on her real phone instead of one of the dozen burners they kept stashed in the kitchen.
“Thanks, babe. I owe you one.”
Fitz and Trip both raised an eyebrow at one another from their respective places on the living room floor, if it could even be called a living room since all it had in it was a futon that had seen better days. Trip shrugged, so Fitz went back to following the water line on the map in front of him with his finger. He’d bit the bullet and requested building permit plans from the city office instead of relying on the maps and blueprints Skye had hacked into. He didn’t tell anyone his water main knowledge came from a random woman in a McDonald’s loo. He wouldn’t live it down.
Skye plopped down onto the futon, kicking her legs up just over Fitz’s head as she stretched out along the cushion.
“Watch it,” he cautioned.
“Who?” Fitz asked just as Trip said, “that’s my girl.”
“She has a condition though,” Skye continued, ignoring both of them as Lance came in with a six pack of beer and a box of pizza.
“Of course she has a bloody condition,” he muttered, dropping the containers unceremoniously onto the floor as he sat.
“She doesn’t believe you’re all as good as I say.”
Fitz sat up and crossed his arms, somewhat offended. “Did you tell her abou’ the Boston job? Or the one at the vacation home?”
“Yes. And I told her I’d never sign up with a crew unless I knew what they could do.” Skye heaved a dramatic sigh. “She said the same thing. She wants proof.”
“She wants us to pull a job for her?” Trip asked, crossing his own arms, his expression skeptical.
“Not exactly.” Skye grinned. “It’s more of a test. She’s going to this party tonight. Some charity is hosting it.” She waved her hand, indicating that wasn’t the important part. “She’ll be there working the room. She said if you guys can steal more than she can tonight, and she can’t I.D. you before we meet up, then she’s in. Obviously, I’m on comms so I don’t give her away since I’m the only one who actually knows her.”
“Three against one?” Lance twisted open a beer with a smug grin. “She’s cocky. I like it.” He took a swig from the bottle. “Obviously, three against one is no challenge for us. Sounds good.” He took another swig. “Wait staff or guest?” He asked Trip, pointing his bottle at him, then at Fitz.
“Do they have valet parking?” Trip asked with a grin. “People leave all kinds of stuff in their cars.”
“Guest,” Fitz answered.
An uneasy feeling settled in the pit of Fitz’s stomach. This whole thing seemed too good. Who willingly went up against three thieves for competition? Granted, Fitz was the only one of them besides Skye who was an accomplished pickpocket. Lance was better at getting women to give him things. Trip tended to go for safes and artwork. But still… how could one woman expect to take on a whole team and come out on top?
Fitz pretended to sip from the glass of champagne in his hand while he maneuvered by a group of ladies. He feigned a trip, apologizing as he bumped into them, dropping a diamond tennis bracelet and a mother of pearl broach into his pocket as he kept going. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lance flirting with a woman as he served her shrimp puffs. The woman glanced over her shoulder at what Fitz assumed was her husband, then discreetly tucked a room key into Lance’s pocket.
Fitz huffed in frustration and took an actual drink of his champagne. An occupied hotel suite wasn’t going to earn them any pull with their mystery thief. A woman passed by him with clips in her hair that had real sapphires on them though, and he smiled into his glass. Now, that would be an impressive lift.
He managed to get three of the five. He didn’t want to risk the other two and have someone notice they were missing.
After two hours at the event, he piled into the back of the van with Trip as Lance crawled into the front seat, complaining about having to wear a tie.
“Man, it’s a clip-on. It’s not hurting you,” Trip reminded him as he reached forward and yanked the accessory from Lance’s collar.
Fitz laughed at the expression of outrage on Lance’s face.
“I’ll have you know, my pain was very real.” He reached into the breast pocket of the white blazer he was wearing, but Skye shook her head.
“Keep all your stuff in your pockets. We’ll pool it all when we get there.”
“Where are we going?” Fitz asked her, his fingers flipping the pendant that had been dangling from one of the pieces of jewelry he’d lifted over and over. It was carved to look like an ancient gold coin, a fancy letter J inscribed in the middle of the circle. He kind of liked it.
“There’s a pink house, just outside of the city. Mansion land. She’s staying there.” Skye gave the vaguest of responses while she gunned the engine. “Bad news is she made two of you though.”
Lance turned around and pointed at Trip and Fitz accusingly just as Trip did the same to he and Fitz.
Fitz threw his hands up in the air, only just remembering to slide the bracelet back in his pocket. “I blended.” He shook his head and slouched down in the seat. “I miss the days when it was all disarmin’ security systems an’ forgin’ art.”
“You’re not even that old, mate. When was that all you did? When you were five?” Lance chuckled at his own idea of a joke and the rest of the ride went by in silence.
It wasn’t until Skye was hacking her way into the keypad at the community gate that Trip let out a low whistle. The community only had a handful of houses in it, spread far apart with pools, marble statues, and gravel drives.
“Next job, we should definitely look into staying in a neighborhood like this,” Skye remarked as the gate opened and she eased the van down the road, all the way to the end of the neighborhood, where a pink house stood like a beacon.
“You weren’t kidding about the pink,” Lance remarked as the van came to a stop. “It’s the color of pepto bismol.”
“I kind of dig it,” Trip told them. “A house that color, everyone knows it’s yours. No one ever gets lost. And no one’s gonna drop in by accident.”
“It’s conspicuous,” Fitz muttered. “Conspicuous is dangerous in our line of work.”
“Unless you’re conning a guy by pretending to be royalty or something. Which she’s done. Twice.” Skye cut the engine and opened her door.
“No way. Royalty is the hardest con to pull these days,” Fitz argued as the rest of them got out of the van. “Everyone pays attention to the royal family. You can’t do it.”
“I’m telling you, she did. She pretended to be a Duchess. Got into a film festival for free and got out with more than 500k in jewelry and clothes. She was the Lady of some place in North England for an entire summer. Dude bought her a winery as a birthday present. She cleaned up.”
“She pretended to have Shakespeare’s lost manuscript, didn’t she? Forged a Monet too?” Lance asked.
“How did you know?” Skye whirled on him.
“No.” Lance stopped short in the middle of the gravel drive shaking his head. “No, no, no. Absolutely not.”
“Oh, God. You didn’t sleep with her, did you?” Skye smacked him on the shoulder. “You have to stop sleeping with all the best grifters!”
“Ow!” Lance shoved Skye’s arm away from him. “And no! That’s…” He shuddered and began muttering to himself as he marched ahead of them to the front door, not bothering to knock, just turning the knob and barreling right on through.
“What the hell is his problem?” Trip wondered aloud.
Skye didn’t answer, too busy running to catch up. “Don’t be an ass, Lance!” She yelled after him.
Fitz and Trip hurried after them, entering into the house, whose real owners were clearly on some sort of extended vacation judging by how well things were covered up by plastic sheeting as they played a strange game of follow-the-leader while Lance led them down the main hall, sticking his head in each doorway he passed.
“Where the bloody hell are you?” He finally yelled with something of a growl, hands on his hips.
“Kitchen,” an altogether too calm and posh voice responded. “You’re almost there.”
Fitz’s mouth went dry.
He was pretty sure he’d heard that voice before. He almost didn’t want to follow the others just around the corner ahead and into the kitchen, hanging back and chewing on his lip until they were all in the room without him. He sucked in a breath and took the final steps to round the corner to see the very same woman from the McDonald’s toilet perched on the counter in a very appealing blue dress, a glass of red wine in her hand.
“What took you so long?” She asked, setting the wine glass down on the counter. “I’ve been waiting for nearly an hour.”
“I wanted to give the boys enough time to get a good haul,” Skye told her with a grin.
“Skye, honestly. You know at events like that you should be in and out in less than 60 minutes so no one notices the missing pieces.”
“Hey, I was just the driver.” She shrugged, grin still in place.
“All right then. Let’s see what you’ve brought me.” The woman flipped her curls over one shoulder and daintily dropped down to the floor, revealing a modest pile of jewelry and credit cards she’d lifted behind her. She was barefoot and her toes were painted a deep plum. Fitz tried not to stare, but his eyes kept working up and down her body. It was a good look. He had thought she was pretty before, but now? His fingertips drummed on his thighs for something to do, working out his nervous energy without drawing attention to himself.
“Oh, no. We are not working with you.” Lance pointed one finger at her accusingly, pulling himself up to his full height.
Fitz thought it would have been more intimidating if he wasn’t the same height as the woman.
“Are you still upset because you got caught with that counterfeit money and I got away?” She asked him incredulously. “That was ages ago!”
“You cost me a yacht.”
“I was sixteen!” She rolled her eyes.
“And a private plane.”
“Oh, please. You never would have got the plane. Victoria was on to you by that point.”
“Because of you!”
“No, because you wouldn’t listen to me.”
“You were a baby. You had no business doing the drop. I had to.”
“Yes, and that worked out so well for you, didn’t it?”
“It’s like bloody Christmas dinners all over again.”
There was a pause.
“I feel like we’re missing something here,” Trip joked. “Just a hunch.”
“Yeah… care to fill us in?” Skye glanced back and forth between the two annoyed Brits.
“You mean to tell me you didn’t know she’s my sister?” Lance shot back.
Skye gave him a look that clearly said would I have accused you of sleeping with her if I did?
“Step sister. Jemma,” Jemma said to them with a smile. “Well, at least, it’s Jemma for you. Two weeks ago it was Simone. I liked that one. At work this week, it’s Jennifer.” She caught Fitz’s eye and her smile widened. “Hello. You clean up very nicely, by the way.”
Jemma watched as Fitz swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing. She realized a second too late that maybe she shouldn’t have let on that they’d met before. He was probably a little embarrassed about the ceiling mishap.
“Thank you?’ His voice came out somewhat sarcastic. She couldn’t tell if he was angry with her for the comment, or pouring out the sarcasm for her brother’s benefit, or if it was something else entirely.
“I saw you, you know,” she told him, taking a step closer and covering up her blunder. “The way you got those hair clips? That was impressive. I’ve never seen someone pull off a lift like that.” She shook her head, trying not to look like an overeager school girl. “Could you teach me?”
Skye tried to cover up a laugh and it came out like something of a snort, making Fitz look away from Jemma to the rest of the team. Jemma’s smile faltered, but only for a moment.
“Nobody’s teaching you anything. My team isn’t working with you,” Lance snapped.
“Your team?” Skye echoed. “Pretty sure I didn’t put you in charge. Trip?”
“Nope. He’s definitely not in charge.” Trip put his hands in his pockets and began pulling out the items he’d plucked from the cars he’d parked, his way of getting the meeting back on track, Jemma assumed. There were several rolls of bills, cash pulled from emergency funds in glove compartments and center consoles, a few pairs of earrings that appeared to be real pearls, and a small bottle of a rare whisky. Skye had mentioned that he was very quick at searching for hidden compartments. He had apparently been trained by one of the greats, a man she only knew as The Director, and said man had a thing for secret doors.
Jemma nodded her head. “Not bad. For just going through cars.” She raised her eyebrows at her brother in a challenge, and he emptied his pockets onto the kitchen counter. Half a dozen room keys and phone numbers hastily scrawled on cocktail napkins emerged first and Jemma rolled her eyes.
“What?” Lance grumbled defensively, “I’m more of a long con kind of guy.” He added watches and necklaces and diamond rings to the counter, but his haul was still a relatively small one. Even combined, it was clear the two of them hadn’t surpassed hers.
She gestured for Fitz to walk forward, and when he brushed against her side to get closer to the counter, she gripped the edge with one hand and smiled encouragingly at him. She didn’t need to see the things he pulled from his pockets to know that he was far ahead of the others. She’d seen him back at the event first. In fact, she hadn’t been able to take her eyes off him most of the time that she was there. She had been increasingly impressed with his skills throughout the night, blending into the background and effortlessly unclasping bracelets and watches with one hand, his fingers skimming cufflinks and into pockets to retrieve wallets. He was quick, thorough, unassuming, and far too attractive for his own good. She had thought his awkward hanging from the ceiling was adorable, but his pickpocketing was another matter entirely.
“Holy shit, Fitzy,” Skye exclaimed, moving forward as he emptied the contents of his jacket and trouser pockets onto the marble, the pile growing by the second. “Where the hell did you hide all this?”
Fitz shrugged as if it was no big deal. Maybe to him it wasn’t. He had a gift.
Jemma smiled down at the swirling black and grey color of the counter now covered in bits and bobs of gold and silver. She picked up one of the hairclips with the sapphires encrusted over it and ran her finger along the edge. It had been a truly impressive act to watch him reach up and pluck the clips on a few passes by the older woman, slipping them in his pocket while he sipped champagne. How he managed to do it without disturbing her hair, without a single pull, was a mystery to her. He must have had the lightest touch of any pickpocket she’d ever seen. It made her head spin. She wondered why he had been the one sent into air ducts if he was that good.
“Well,” Jemma told them. “I think this will do nicely.” She nodded her head. Lance was still scowling and Trip was curiously picking his way through the wallets that Fitz had grabbed, but Skye was watching her with raised eyebrows.
“So, you’re in?”
“You’re in charge?” Jemma asked her before glancing in Lance’s direction.
“I can kick your brother off the team if you need me to. We only need him as a honey trap usually, and he’s no good to me this time.”
“Okay, yes,” Skye amended, “sometimes he’s the muscle too. But I’ve got Trip for that.”
Lance crossed his arms over his chest, looking like a child about to be placed in timeout.
“No, I don’t have a problem working with him. It’s been ten years since we pulled a job together. I’ll be fine.” Jemma winced as he strode angrily from the room.
“I’ll handle him,” Skye promised her. “Trip, call your guy to see if he’s interested in any of this so we can split up the cash. We might need some of this for new equipment too.” She gestured to the counter. “Fitz, since Jemma seems to like you so much, you fill her in.” She hurried after Lance, her face set in hard lines.
Jemma waited expectantly, watching Fitz while Trip pretended he wasn’t paying any attention to them and began organizing their spoils on the kitchen counter. Fitz had one hand in his pocket and he was bouncing on the balls of his feet, seemingly nervous. She cleared her throat, and he seemed to remember that he was supposed to be talking to her.
“Right - erm - A client hired Skye to retrieve a family heirloom,” Fitz started and Jemma nodded, hands clasped in front of her as she listened attentively, watching his mouth form the words and his eyes dart around the room, not looking at her. “’s a diamond necklace tha’ this woman’s grandmother got as a gift.” He shrugged. “Story’s no’ important, I guess. But it was stolen years ago, and she found it. Custom made, so she’s sure.” He pulled his phone from his pocket, fingers dancing across the screen until he brought up an image of one of the ugliest pieces of jewelry Jemma had ever seen, but she nodded again. “The man who has it, he’s an antiquities dealer.”
“Ah, a legitimate thief. So many dealers get their wares on the black market. If only people knew.” Jemma nodded again as Fitz swiped to the next picture. “Sunil Bakshi? He’s your target?”
“You know him?”
Jemma’s smile widened and she linked her arm through Fitz’s without thinking about it. “Oh, Fitz. I think this could be a mutually beneficial relationship.” Trip coughed from the counter. “Working relationship, of course,” Jemma added with a roll of her eyes, pulling Fitz along with her. “Let me show you something.”
He stumbled along with her into the dining room where she had a file full of photographs spread out across the surface of the table. She pointed to one photo in particular that contained a small statue of a cat carved out of jade.
“What’s this, then?” Fitz asked.
“That is what I was hired to… retrieve from him. Also a family heirloom. Also stolen.”
“Bakshi certainly gets around.”
“Yes. He does that.” Jemma pulled her arm from his to cross hers over her chest. “I was just going to swipe it. I’ve been working in his office as a one of their phone operators. Disguised, of course, so he won’t know me if I run into him. But he’s got it under heavy lock and key. It’s at least a two person job. He has too many vaults, and the statue isn’t on any of his official acquisitions lists. I imagine you’ve run into the same difficulties with the necklace.”
“Yeah. He’s been movin’ it around for appraisals. We think he’s gettin’ ready to sell it. Trip an’ Skye got made by his security team on surveillance. Lance tried to get intel from one o’ his exes, so he’s burned too. I was lucky no one caught me in the vents.”
“So… it’s just you and me then? On the front end?”
Jemma cleared her throat and tried to tamp down on her nerves. They had to get not one, but two items, from the same man who already knew that the majority of the team was shady. And they didn’t even know where the things were right now. “Do you have a plan?”
“We’re workin’ on it.”
“I suppose I should just keep working and keep my head down then?”
Fitz put his hands back in his pockets and Jemma heard the jangling of what sounded like keys. She cocked her head to the side with a smile. “Did you hold something back?” She took a step closer to him. “Keeping something for yourself?”
Wordlessly he pulled his left hand from his pocket and opened his fist, palm up. Sitting in it was the delicate chain with the antique coin charm in the middle, a J carved into it. Jemma sucked in a breath and looked down at her ankle. She was so used to the weight of it, she hadn’t even noticed it was missing, even when she kicked off her heels.
“When did you-”
“You were at the bar, watchin’ Lance, and I had just bumped a guy for his watch. I bent down to ‘pick up my keys’ when you were lookin’ the other way so you wouldn’t see me. I jus’...” He trailed off. “I wasn’t sure i’ was goin’ to be you, but I thought -”
“You were going to try and track me down after all? If I wasn’t Skye’s contact?” She watched him chew on his lip and added, “You must not run into too many women while you’re upside down.”
“No.” Fitz let out an awkward chuckle. “Not one who tries to give me another way to break into a buildin’.”
“Right.” Jemma laughed as well. She reached forward and took the anklet from his outstretched hand, allowing her fingertips to linger over his palm. “Well, I’m looking forward to working with you.”
Fitz was trying very hard to ignore the incessant chattering in his right ear. Skye had a habit of talking nonstop when she was nervous about the job at hand. She seemed to think it put the rest of the team at ease. It didn't. He shifted the white paper bag from one hand to another and pushed open the glass door to the lobby of the building ahead of him just as Skye pulled Trip into a spirited debate about whether the southern or northern states had more houses with secret passages. He bit back a groan and walked over to the front desk.
"What can I do for you?" The security guard was young, female, and it seemed, entirely happy to be approached by someone under the age of 30.
"Could you tell me what floor the antiquities dealer is on?" Fitz asked, not pulling his sunglasses down from his eyes and making sure to speak with the flattest American vowels he could.
The guard, the name "Palamas" on her nametag, straightened up even higher, probably thinking he had money to burn. He gave her a tight smile.
"Takes up the whole fifth floor." She leaned forward. "If you're looking to buy though, they don't keep their stuff here, just the offices."
"Yeah, thanks. 'm not." He shook his head and held up the bag, going for a shy smile. "Surprising my girlfriend," he almost stumbled over the word, getting a snicker from Skye over the earpiece, "with lunch."
"Oh." The guard slumped a little, picking up the pen from the desk in front of her "Right." She gave a half laugh and gestured to the elevator near the center of the lobby. "Head on up." As Fitz walked away from her, he heard her murmuring to herself about there being no single men left in San Francisco.
"If you'd flirted with her a little bit more, or at all, you could have come back and tapped into the video feed," Skye sing-songed in his ear.
Fitz just cleared his throat and jabbed one finger into the button to call the elevator to him.
"Yeah, but flirting with the guard and then meeting his girlfriend would've painted him as a dog. He needs to look safe and trustworthy," Trip answered for him.
Fitz nodded his head in agreement before remembering they couldn't see him.
"If you wanted him to pull a Lance on the girl, you shouldn't have given him a cover story that involved a girlfriend."
"They run too many checks on maintenance workers, and there's no IT orders in, so there wasn't really another good option to get him in and looking around unless we said he was her brother. And no one would buy that," Skye cut in.
Fitz rolled his eyes at her tone and tried to tune them out again as the doors dinged announcing the presence of the elevator. He moved to the side to allow a few men in suits to exit, feeling strangely out of place in faded jeans and an old t-shirt. No one else followed him into the elevator, so he hit the button for the fifth floor, and covered his mouth with his hand under the pretense of scratching his nose.
"Could you two keep it down? It's hard to think with voices in my head." It was bad enough that Jemma had her brand new earpiece in and he was listening to her voice for the last 20 minutes as she fielded customer complaints. Combine Jemma's even and supportive tone with Skye's excited one and Trip's mellow voice? He was getting a headache.
Skye snorted and Trip sounded like he was barely cutting off a laugh.
"You're doin' fine, mate. Don't listen to them," Lance remarked gruffly.
"I thought you were sittin' this one out," Fitz asked casually, dropping his hand as the elevator dinged and the doors opened.
"I'm down the street at Finnegan's grabbin' a beer. In case you need anything."
Fitz had a feeling Lance wasn't nearby to keep him safe, but to keep Jemma safe. Somehow, that didn't really make him feel better, but he hummed his acknowledgement as he stepped into the hall and found a maze of cubicles in front of him with people on phones and typing away at computers. He shuffled forward a few steps, then remembered that he was "surprising" Jemma, so he obviously couldn't rely on her to find him. He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand and stopped the first man with a clipboard and a headset he saw.
"Excuse me. Could you tell me where I can find Jem - Jennifer Simpkins?" He held up the bag in his hand as an explanation.
The man looked confused for a moment, then spoke into his headset. "Anybody know a Jennifer Simpkins?" Someone must have answered him because after a nod, he rolled his eyes. "Right. The temp. Likes to bring in cookies." His eyes refocused on Fitz. "Cubicle 27, near the back of that last row."
"Thanks," Fitz started, but the guy was already walking away. "Rude," Fitz mumbled to himself as he turned to the last row of desks. He allowed his eyes to roam as he walked, making note of the security cameras in the corners, the webcams on everyone's computers. Bakshi wasn't taking any risks with his employees and the merchandise wasn't even stored in the same building. He gave a sigh.
When he reached the cubicle in question, Jemma was facing away from him, speaking into her desk phone, and though he could hear her, he couldn't hear the other end of the conversation as the phone was on the wrong ear. She was wearing a wig and a simple cotton dress and he wouldn't have even known it was her if he hadn't had her voice in his head already.
"Yes, sir," she intoned patiently as she strung a few paperclips together, clearly bored. She had toned down her accent a bit to make it seem like she'd been in the country longer than she really had. "I understand your frustration, but Bakshi Antiquities only hires the absolute best. It is unfortunate that the painting wasn't worth as much as you'd hoped." She waited, her fingers stilling on the paperclip chain. "I see. And Mr. Turgeon said there was no market value to it?" Her voice had gone up a notch and she dropped the chain to ball her hand into a fist. Fitz smiled as she shook her head. She clearly didn't think much of this Mr. Turgeon. "I'll be sure to get someone else to take a look. Could you give me your number one more time?" She reached for a pen, but in her position, she just missed the cup of pens on the other side of her desk, so Fitz rushed forward, grabbed one, and passed it off to her. She twitched in surprise before a smile bloomed on her face, mouthing thank you to him. "We'll be in touch, Mr. Peterson." She copied his number down and hung up the phone with a click before spinning around to fully face Fitz.
"Surprise?" He grinned, trying to appear as the doting boyfriend. He raised the hand with the bag in greeting and rested his other on the monitor of her computer, allowing his pin camera that he'd been hiding in the band of his wristwatch to plug into the base of the webcam set up, hoping his sleight of hand was as good there as it was with removing wallets.
"You're the best surprise," Jemma murmured softly before standing and wrapping her arms around him, propping her chin on his chest, using the motion to slide Mr. Peterson's number into his pocket.
Fitz cleared his throat before remembering that he was supposed to be her boyfriend and wrapped his arms around her, the paper bag crinkling in his hand. He looked down at her and wondered exactly how far they were supposed to take this "public displays of affection make people uncomfortable" rule. The way Jemma was looking at him, he was pretty sure she'd be willing to take it pretty far.
"Ugh. Get a room," someone grumbled as they passed by, answering his unspoken question.
"Why do you need to get a room?" Lance's voice buzzed in his ear. Fitz was amazed he'd even heard the comment. "Don't oversell it."
Trip chuckled and Fitz could almost see Skye rolling her eyes.
"So, lunch?" Fitz laughed as Jemma rolled her own eyes and pulled back from him. His arms dropped back to his sides and he didn't entirely know what to do with them.
"Yes!" She grabbed her sweater from the back of her chair and remarked nonchalantly, "it's so nice out today. Let's sit outside?"
"Yeah," Fitz breathed as he helped her with the sweater. The plan had been to use the break room and walk him through more of the building, but he wasn't going to argue with her in front of a webcam that he was sure was audio enabled and doing its own surveillance. He wasn't expecting her to link her fingers through his and pull him along, but really, he shouldn't have been surprised. Jemma seemed to be much more comfortable playing a character than he was.
"We got a signal from the webcam. Well done, Fitzy," Skye remarked as they left the cubicle. "And really, you could walk a little closer to her instead of acting like she's pulling you to some sort of punishment."
Jemma gave a slight cough into her free hand and slowed her walk enough to allow Fitz to catch up. In response, he let go of her fingers and placed his arm around her waist, fingers resting on her hip.
"Better," Skye informed them through their earpieces.
This time, it was Fitz who pressed his fingers into Jemma and led her away from the computer. When they reached the elevator, no one else was with them, but Jemma tilted her head in the direction of the camera as she turned to fully face him, hitting the button for the ground floor as she did. On her toes, she invaded his personal space to put her mouth next to his ear under the pretext of a kiss and Fitz shivered slightly.
He felt her smile right before she whispered, "No audio, but the elevators still have cameras."
Fitz leaned his head back against the wall of the elevator and closed his eyes under the sunglasses as the sleeves of her sweater skimmed his arms, making his nerves go on high alert. This was a special kind of torture. He was being punished. For what, he wasn't sure. He hummed as a way of agreeing with her.
"There are too many people in the breakroom. We won't be able to talk," she added, explaining her choice to move them outside, her lips grazing his neck with every word.
Fitz dipped his head closer to hers in response, using her hair, or in actuality, the hair that was on her very light wig, to partially hide his face from the camera. "That's fine. I'll walk you back to get a better look at the floor."
"You're talking just fine now," Skye's voice muttered.
"There's no one else in here," Fitz said just as the elevator dinged, indicating someone else was getting on.
"Well, there wasn't," Jemma quipped, putting a couple of inches between them, but still not pulling back entirely, just in case.
The man that entered didn't even acknowledge the two of them, yelling loudly into his phone about a case that was going badly.
Lawyers. A professional brand of con artist. Judging by the look on Jemma's face, she shared his opinion.
Jemma and Fitz both wrinkled their noses at one another in something of a grimace before smiling. When they reached the lobby, they hung back, allowing the lawyer to exit ahead of them.
"So," Fitz asked, making sure to keep close to her as they walked through the lobby, "where are we going?"
"There's a lovely set of of benches near the fountain behind the building," she explained.
Neither of them said anything else until they'd actually reached said set of stone benches in front of an elaborate fountain with streams of water alternating to the beat of a barely audible classical music piece coming from speakers in the trees. Fitz raised an eyebrow when Jemma flounced onto a bench and smiled at him. He set the bag in between them before he sat, uncurling the paper and reaching in to retrieve a sandwich for her.
"Thank you. I actually am starving," she admitted as she unwrapped it.
"Can you talk and eat at the same time," Lance muttered, mostly to himself.
"So," Jemma began, ignoring her brother as she methodically peeled away plastic wrap and folded it under her sandwich, "as far as I can tell, there's nothing below board with the business itself. I think there's a small set of Bakshi and his people who are responsible for the theft. Mr. Turgeon. You heard me talking about him?" She took a bite while Fitz nodded his head.
"Yeah. He didn't think that guy's painting was worth anything."
She swallowed and then scoffed. "That man's painting has been in his family for three generations and is supposedly by a French impressionist who only has a handful of pieces in existence. If it's real, it's worth a fortune. And Mr. Turgeon would know that. So, either it's a fake and he spared Mr. Peterson's feelings, or it's real and he undervalued it so that they can buy it cheap. Or so that when Mr. Peterson tries to file an insurance claim when it's stolen from him, he won't be able to get much for it."
Trip gave a low whistle over the earpieces.
"I'm betting with what we know about Bakshi, it's that last one," Skye said. "We probably need to find out who else is in on it."
Fitz carefully unwrapped his own sandwich and thought aloud. "It would have to be small, like you said. The less people tha' know, the easier it is to control. If Bakshi's in charge an' Turgeon's his source, he needs someone in acquisitions, and maybe a salesman."
"Yes, even if they sell to private collectors, that's really the extent of the crew they'd need. But I haven't heard anything about any of the stolen merchandise I've looked into turning up in anyone else's collections yet. And I've been looking." Jemma took another quick bite of her sandwich, and Fitz's mouth twitched as a small spot of yellow appeared at the corner of her lips. He reached back into the bag and handed her a napkin. She nodded her thanks before delicately wiping the mustard from her mouth.
"Acquisitions." Skye chuckled over the comms. "What a nice way to say thieves."
"Wouldn't even have to be a very good thief," Lance chimed in. "Especially if most of these people don't even know what they've got."
"Mr. Peterson definitely suspects he's being played. But he needs the money. He's a single dad." Jemma ran her tongue over her front teeth in thought. "If they're running appraisals on these pieces, there would be a record though." She tapped her fingers on the plastic wrap. "And there haven't been many things stolen that are in their appraisal files."
Fitz sucked in a sharp breath, suddenly worried. "If you go through too many files, they're goin' to catch on to what you're lookin' for. Be careful."
"I'm careful," Jemma insisted, pressing one hand on his knee as if to reassure him, though it made his leg twitch as he stared at her fingers covering the fabric of his jeans. "I go through files only while I'm helping customers over the phone. They probably think I'm a horrible typist, always messing up names and numbers as I search, that's all." She left her hand there for much longer than Fitz thought was strictly necessary, but when her fingers squeezed and she cleared her throat to whisper, "that's Douglas from security walking this way. He's been flirting with me all week. I kept it up because I thought I'd be able to get information, but now…"
"Great," Fitz muttered and savagely took a bite of his own sandwich.
"I love it when Fitz gets to play the jealous boyfriend instead of me," Trip joked.
"That's just because he's not as good at it and you think it's funny," Skye remarked.
Fitz made something of a warning growl in the back of his throat, unable to reply with his mouth full of food.
"Fitz," Lance cut them both off, "you'll be fine."
He tried again to clear his throat, eyes still on Jemma's hand on his knee as she squeezed again and leaned closer to him.
"Well, well, well," a familiar voice said cheerfully from in front of them.
Fitz closed his hand over Jemma's, his jaw tightening. He hoped that voice didn't belong to Douglas.
"Fitz," Skye whispered over the comms, "that sounds like-" She cut herself off, unable to finish.
"Douglas!" Jemma's voice was warm, pretending to be oblivious to the sudden scrabbling going on though the ear pieces. "How nice to see you again!"
"I'm only a few blocks away. I'm coming, mate," Lance's voice ground out. "Don't let him near-"
Lance's voice was drowned out by Trip's. "We're stuck in traffic man, but we're coming."
Fitz was sure the sharp inhalation of breath in his ear belonged to Skye. He didn't want to look up, but he did it anyway, and he was glad he was still wearing sunglasses because he didn't want the man in front of him to see his eyes widen in fear. He swallowed hard and squeezed Jemma's hand, hoping she would see it as a warning.
"What do we have here, Leopold?" The other man smirked. "You know," he addressed his attention to Jemma without taking his eyes off Fitz, "this man isn't what he seems."
Jemma didn't falter though, just laughing. "You mean he isn't perfectly wonderful? I find that hard to believe."
He must have heard something in her voice because he twitched his gaze over to her.
"Huh. You must have expanded your crew. She's pretty good. I wouldn't have pegged her."
"Douglas?" Jemma asked, but her voice was no longer cheerful and bright.
"I'm just having lunch with my girlfriend," Fitz ground out. "That's all" He sat up straighter. "But I'm not the only one who seems to like fake names. Douglas, is it? I could have sworn it was Grant."
Jemma didn't say anything, but she turned her palm over on Fitz's knee, linking their fingers together. She could probably feel him shaking. He bounced his other leg in response. It was too hard to keep still. He wanted nothing more than to land one good punch. Unfortunately, Grant could probably break him in half without so much as a sweat.
"Douglas is the middle name. Sounds more professional." Grant cocked his head to the side. "So, what's the scam you're running this time, Fitzy?"
Skye growled in Fitz's ear.
"Don't call me that."
Grant turned his attention to Jemma again, eyeing her curiously. "I bet your name isn't even Jennifer, is it?"
She didn't answer him, and when he took a step toward her, Fitz stood, putting himself between them without dropping her hand.
"What is going on?" Jemma whispered, standing as well.
"Don't play dumb. It doesn't suit you." Grant grinned. "I thought you seemed too good to be a temp. What are you looking for?"
Fitz felt her shake her head, the movement of her wig hitting his arm.
"Are you on comms? Is Skye listening?" Grant held out his hand expectantly, but Fitz didn't move.
"Jemma," Skye growled through the earpiece, "give him yours. Your cover's already blown."
Lance's huffing and puffing came through the line just before he yelled for someone to get out his way. Fitz turned his head to look at her as Jemma hesitated, eyes shooting to him for confirmation. Fitz nodded, and Jemma reached up with her free hand to remove the earbud, dropping it in Grant's hand with a sigh. Grant didn't miss a beat, placing it in his own ear.
"Walk away," she hissed in response, and Fitz flinched at the anger in her tone. "Get the hell away from my people and I'll convince Lance not to kill you where you stand."
"Who's the new girl?" Grant asked her, either ignoring how angry she was or enjoying it. Fitz couldn't tell.
"Don't." It was Lance's voice, not Skye's that came over the comms, as he let out a ragged breath. "Fitz, don't let him near her."
"You won't what? What is going on?" Jemma whispered.
Grant smiled in response. "All right. You don't want to talk. Fine. I'm heading back in. We don't need to cause a scene." He jerked his head to the right, and Fitz saw a police cruiser parked on the corner. "I imagine I'll be seeing you all soon. But if I see any of you anywhere near this building again, I won't just walk away again." He pulled the earbud out, dropping it on the concrete, and letting his heel crush it, letting loose a string of feedback that would have had Fitz flinching and removing his own if he wasn't so intent on staying firmly between Grant and Jemma.
Fitz stood perfectly still until Grant disappeared around the corner of the building, but then, his knees gave out and he dropped back to the bench. He couldn't stop his hands from shaking, and Jemma pressed her palm even more firmly against his in response.
"Okay," she whispered, "it's okay."
"Meet us on the corner of fifth," Trip barked into the comms. "You too, Lance."
Jemma had to practically run to keep up with Fitz, their food sitting forgotten on the stone bench of the fountain, and she was becoming more and more worried the closer they got to meeting Trip and the others.
“Fitz,” she tried, her free hand coming up to press onto the back of her head, her wig still in place, “can you please explain?”
“We need to get out o’ here first.”
He had a tight grip on her hand, and he wasn’t letting go as he carefully weaved between cars stopped at a light.
“Jemma.” He spun around once they’d made it across the street and onto another sidewalk. “Please. He could be following us. Or have someone following us.”
She clamped her mouth shut and nodded her head, concerned about the naked fear on his face now that they were away from Douglas - Grant - whatever his real name was. She let him drag her along for another half a block, bumping into one woman so that she could snag sunglasses from her purse strap and place them on her own face. She quickly disposed of her wig in a nearby trash can, shaking out her real hair, and snagged a baseball cap for Fitz from a street vendor, depositing it on his head with no one the wiser. In a matter of 20 seconds, they were lost in the crowd of lunchtime commuters, and after a few quick peeks over her shoulder, she was sure no one was following them. She suspected Fitz had been watching more carefully than she had. She grabbed Fitz’s arm with her free hand, pulling herself in close to him after another half of a city block.
“I think we’re clear.”
His posture relaxed enough for her to feel his walk slow, and his grip on her hand loosen.
“Trip?” Fitz whispered. “We’re almost there.”
She didn’t say another word, just kept her pace perfectly even with his, holding on to him, until a van pulled in front of them, screeching to a halt just as Lance jogged across the street, eyes darting around, looking for the nearest threat.
“Are you-” Lance began.
“We’re fine,” Jemma cut him off as Fitz darted forward, dropping her hand and opening the back door of the van.
He inclined his head, and Jemma climbed in before he followed, Lance bringing up the rear and slamming the door shut.
“Let’s get out of here,” Fitz muttered.
It was ten minutes of silence as Trip sped the car through the city streets before getting stuck behind a trolley.
It was Skye who cut into the silence, yelling through the windscreen, “Come on, move your ass! People have places to be!”
Jemma didn’t mean to, but a giggle escaped anyway. Before long, it was full blown laughter, and she couldn’t stop even though Lance and Fitz were both staring at her with concern. Even Skye turned around in the front seat to watch her. It wasn’t until Jemma had managed to draw in a shaky breath, hands braced on her knees, and gave a slight hiccup that Fitz was the one to ask as he removed his hat and glasses, “are you all right, then?” He tossed her stolen goods to the floor.
“When,” Jemma began before she had to clear her throat, nodded, and tried again, “when is someone going to tell me what the bloody hell is going on?”
“Grant Ward is… dangerous,” Fitz offered by way of explanation. Jemma didn’t miss that he quickly glanced over at Skye before closing his mouth and looking back at Jemma.
Jemma rolled her eyes and gave an exasperated huff, shrugging out of her sweater and removing the stolen sunglasses from her face. “Yes, I gathered that from the way you all went into bodyguard mode. What did he do?”
Skye let out a slow breath and turned to face the traffic so that Jemma couldn’t see her face. “More like, what didn’t he do,” she mumbled under her breath.
“Look,” Jemma burst out, eyes flitting back and forth between Fitz next to her and her brother, still crouched on the floor in front of her instead of moving to the back seat, “I understand if you don’t want to talk about it. But if he’s in the way of us doing a job, I need to know what I’m up against.”
“You’re not up against anything,” Lance snapped. “We’re pulling out. Right, Skye?”
There was a long moment where Jemma opened and closed her mouth, wanting to protest, but Fitz was staring at Skye, and when she looked to the front, even Trip was staring at Skye, though traffic had started moving in front of them again. Lance shook his head when Jemma opened her mouth for the third time, and he squeezed around her into the back seat of the van, picking up a piece of camera equipment from the seat and playing with it.
The honking of a horn behind them made Trip pull forward and when the van was moving steadily, Jemma tried again.
“If you want to pull out of your job, fine. But I have a client of my own. And I made her a promise. I’m not backing out. I can do my job without you all. It’s just more difficult.” She sat up straight and ran one hand through her hair.
“Bloody stubborn,” Lance muttered from the backseat.
Fitz leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and covered his face with his hands. His shoulders were just as tense as Skye’s in the front seat. Trip was the only one who didn’t seem like he was about to punch something, but Jemma suspected that might just have been because he dealt with everything with a bit more ease than the rest of the van’s occupants did. Not much seemed to make him tense up.
It was Fitz who spoke next.
“I’ll help you.”
His words were so muffled, Jemma almost didn’t hear him, but everyone else did.
“Fitz!” Skye exclaimed.
“No way, mate,” Lance added loudly.
Trip sighed and braked at a light. “You can’t run from Grant forever. You’re bound to cross paths in this business.” He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. “We need to show him we’re not -” Trip hesitated, as though searching for the right word, “damaged.”
Jemma didn’t take her eyes from Fitz, his face still hidden in his hands. “Tell me.” She swallowed, worried when she could see that he was shaking again. He’d seemed so confident picking pockets the other night. He was uncomfortable pretending to be her boyfriend, that had been obvious, but he hadn’t shied away. She wanted to know what had him so scared.
He didn’t sit up, but his hands shifted so that the heels were no longer covering his mouth, fingers inching up into his hair. The balls of his feet bounced on the floor of the van as the light turned green and Trip took off.
“We took a job. The five of us,” Fitz began, then sighed. “It was in Florida. Off the coast, really. Trip, Lance, an’ me, we got fake jobs with a crew on a yacht. Skye an’ Grant were -” He cleared his throat. “They posed as a couple on their honeymoon. Guests of the mark. There was artwork on board that was bein’ smuggled to a dealer. We were supposed to switch it out with fakes so the guy sellin’ it couldn’t use the money. He’s a - what do you call it? Arms dealer. The client didn’t want him financin’ a war. It was supposed to be easy. Switch out the real paintings with the fakes Trip and I made when we stopped at a port. Get out. Disappear. Lance was supposed to cover us. Skye and Grant were supposed to keep the guy distracted. Easy enough, yeah?”
Jemma nodded her head, even though he couldn’t see her. It sounded like a basic switch to her. Of course, the mark being an arms dealer sounded like it complicated things a bit. She’d never stolen from someone like that before, but then again, her resume wasn’t exactly as long as she allowed people to believe either. She knew better to correct people when they thought she’d done a job and she really hadn’t. “Let the legend grow,” Mockingbird had always told her, and she did.
“It didn’t turn out that way. When we found out where the paintin’s were stored, Trip couldn’t come down to help because he was busy with the captain. Lance got stopped by these women for help on the dock and you know, women don’t let him go very easy…” Fitz trailed off.
“Skye and Grant had to keep the mark occupied then?” Jemma prompted, raising one hand from her lap, tempted to place it on his shoulder for reassurance, but she dropped it back down, thinking better of it.
“Yeah,” Fitz agreed. “But I needed a lookout and we had to keep a schedule, so Grant made up a story about feelin’ seasick to go back to his cabin so the mark wouldn’t be suspicious, came below to help.” He laughed humorlessly. “Skye had to distract the mark on her own. Grant - erm - he wasn’t what he said he was. He wasn’t really workin’ with us. He had another job.” Fitz faltered. “He was working for another guy. He wanted the art for himself. And he wanted the dealer dead. He wanted it to look like an accident to cover his tracks.”
Fitz finally dropped his hands and sat up. “We don’t hurt people, yeah?” He looked Jemma right in the eye. “Lance and Trip, they might hit people sometimes, but it’s always the people goin’ after us first. We don’t kill people. We only steal from people who deserve it. We don’t let people get hurt.”
“Grant does. He doesn’t care who gets in his way.”
“What was their plan?”
“They were goin’ to blow up the boat. Out at sea. With the crew still on board.”
“For one man? That’s,” Jemma blew out a puff of air, “completely ridiculous. All those people!”
“Yeah.” Skye sniffed from the front seat. “Apparently, this guy, Ian Quinn, he’s hard to get rid of. Grant had tried to kill him before and he always got away. He wasn’t taking any chances. He’s a psychopath. When he got the art, he locked Fitz in with the charges. Cleaning up his loose ends.” She slammed a hand down on the dashboard, making Jemma flinch.
“How - what did you - I mean -” Jemma stammered, trying to understand.
“There was more than one bomb. Insurance. I diffused the one with me. I had to talk Lance through the one at the other end o’ the boat over comms.” Fitz’s face paled. “We didn’t get them all though.” He closed his eyes and leaned back in his seat. This time, when Jemma’s hand raised from her lap, she didn’t stop it from reaching out. She wrapped her fingers around his forearm and allowed her thumb to sweep back and forth. His eyes popped open, but he didn’t look at her. “It wasn’t in a crucial spot. No one died, but the boat was grounded a’ port and it - i’ was a lot harder for us to get away.”
“Grant just disappeared. It was like he never existed. For about six months,” Skye chimed in from the front seat. “We went our separate ways for a while, laid low. We were retrieving diamonds in Australia the next time we ran into him. He was working security for the mark. It was supposed to be Trip going in to steal the diamonds, but he was too tall to get through the ventilation shaft. We sent in Fitz instead. Grant shot Fitz in the shoulder when we were almost out.”
“But I got the diamonds.”
“Yeah, you did,” Lance agreed, patting Fitz on the shoulder.
No one said anything for a long time. Jemma didn’t even realize where Trip was driving to until he pulled up in front of the pink house where she’d been staying. She had been so busy watching Fitz stare up at the ceiling of the van that she hadn’t even noticed when they’d driven through the open gate into the fancy neighborhood. She gave his arm a squeeze as Trip put the van in park and cut the engine.
“I’ll help you,” Fitz repeated his earlier decision, turning his head on the back of the seat to look at her.
“He’s tried to kill you twice,” Jemma whispered, “I can’t ask you to do that.”
Fitz shrugged, playing off the very obvious fear he’d been showing before. “You don’t have to.” He leaned across her to open the van door. “We can’t just let him win.” Jemma let go of his arm to hop down to the driveway, and he followed behind her. “We need to go over everything we know. Again. We might have missed something.”
To Jemma’s surprise, the rest of them got out of the car and followed her up the drive as well.
“Fitz is right,” Skye told her, hands sliding into the pockets of her jeans. “We can’t let him win. In fact, if we can get both of our clients’ stuff back, steal a few more things for our trouble, and frame him for all of it? I’d call that one hell of a win.”
“We don’t even know where they’re keeping everything,” Jemma said. “How do you expect to pull that off? And without him trying to kill anyone?”
“I don’t know yet,” Skye answered as they walked. “But like Fitz said, we need to go over everything again. We could have missed something.” She turned around, looking back over the neighborhood. “This isn’t the address you gave when you got in with the temp agency, is it?”
“God, no.” Jemma pulled a necklace out from under shirt and twisted at the pendent there, opening it to reveal a trio of lock picks before she set to work on the doorknob. “I gave them the address for an old apartment in the city.”
“You know, we could have made you a key with some putty and -” Trip told her, looking over her shoulder.
“I like the practice,” Jemma admitted, cutting him off. “I’m not that great with locks.” She sighed when she heard the click and pop, then twisted the handle to let them in. “I’m actually not great with electronic security systems either.” She paused, unsure how much to tell them, but since they were essentially putting their lives on the line to take on Grant, it only seemed fair that she told them the truth. “I’ve never done more than a few simple grifts and pickpocketing on my own. The big jobs that people say I’ve done? The winery, the duchess, Shakespeare’s manuscript?” She didn’t look at any of them as they walked through the entryway. “I was part of a team with the Mockingbird. None of that was just me. I didn’t really have to do much except look pretty and let people think what they want for the actual cons.”
“The Monet?” Lance asked sharply.
Jemma winced. “That one was me. That was my test. Mockingbird, once she trains you, she sends you out on your own. If you can get the job done, you’re ready for the big time. I passed. Barely.” She nodded her head. “I’m a great forger. But grifter?” She shrugged.
“And you were going to do this on your own? Are you insane?” Lance gripped her arm and spun her around in the middle of the hallway.
“I didn’t know there was a psychopath involved, did I?” Jemma snapped back at him. “I thought it was going to be a simple lift!”
“The first rule is to always assume the worst, you know that. Have a backup plan.”
“So what’s your brilliant backup plan, then?” Jemma shot back.
Hunter huffed. “You were our backup plan, obviously.”
Jemma’s hands moved up to her neck, fingers curling around her necklace again. “Right.”
Fitz gave a long, drawn out sigh before he pinched the bridge of his nose and threw the folder of photographs he’d been leafing through onto the glass coffee table. This whole thing seemed hopeless. Every avenue they tried to go down had already been compromised by their earlier efforts and it had been two days of them camped out in the pink house Jemma was “borrowing,” pooling their resources, and going over every inch of information they had.
The only saving grace for him now was that he was spared from listening to Lance and Jemma argue because Skye had taken Lance out with her to “run surveillance” on Bakshi. Their plant in the webcam at what used to be Jemma’s desk had long since been found and destroyed by Grant. Fitz just hoped the two of them didn’t run into him. Trip had even abandoned the search to go try out the home gym, saying he needed to clear his head and come back fresh. Fitz suspected Trip was just tired of hearing him grumble about there being nothing left to search.
The only one who still seemed optimistic about the whole thing was Jemma.
He snuck a glance across the sofa at her where she had a laptop perched on her knees, bottom lip pulled between her teeth as her fingers clicked on the keyboard every so often. With everyone else out of the room, Fitz was finally willing to ask her something that had been bothering him for a few days.
She didn’t look up from the keyboard.
“Why’d you take this job on your own?”
“What?” Her fingers faltered over the laptop and she looked over at him.
“You trained with the Mockingbird, yeah? You said you passed her tests. You must have known other thieves from her network. Why not…” He shrugged.
“Form a team?” Jemma licked her lips and gave a small sigh of her own. “I guess I just wanted to prove that I could do it. That I was as good as the rest of them.”
“When I first started with Mockingbird, I was a terrible liar, you know. Everyone could see right through me, even if all I was doing was giving the wrong dinner menu.” She ran one hand through her hair self consciously. “But I have excellent memorization skills. I’m good at mixing paints. Good at copying styles. So, she set me out learning forgeries first. I spent a year learning how to fake documents, paint like a master - I actually was one of the people who helped create that Shakespeare manuscript. Oh, that was a thing of beauty.” She sighed. “I’m still proud of that.”
“You should be. Skye still talks about it when she’s had one too many glasses of wine.”
“That’s how we met, you know? The forgery was so good, Skye tried to steal it.” Jemma laughed. “I’d never met someone like her. She wasn’t out to steal it just so she could have something no one else did. A lot of the people I met with Mockingbird were like that. They were out for the glory. Skye wanted to prove she could steal the impossible. And then, she was going to give it to a museum.” Jemma shook her head. “I’d never worked with anyone who stole for the greater good before. Obviously, I had to tell her it was a fake.” She laughed.
“Obviously,” Fitz agreed with his own quiet laugh.
“Maybe that’s really why I went out on my own.” Jemma looked back down at the computer, one finger running along the edge. “I wanted to do what Skye did. Steal for good, not just because I can.”
Fitz nodded again. “Yeah. Me too.”
“What do you mean?”
He hesitated, scratching at the back of his neck and fidgeting in his seat. “I - erm - I’ve been pick pocketin’ since I was a kid.”
“Like the artful dodger?” She offered up a shy smile.
“Somethin’ like that, yeah.” Fitz didn’t want to tell her how close she was to the truth. “The older I got, the better I got. When I lost my mum… I got reckless. I started stealing to see how far I could go, what I could get away with.” His nose twitched and one corner of his mouth lifted up in a smile. “I thought I was liftin’ a credit card, was goin’ to use it to buy a whole new tech set up when I realized it was contact information. Skye offered me a job.” He stood up and stretched his muscles. “That was five years ago.”
“You’ve been working with her ever since?”
“Off an’ on. Sometimes we go our separate ways. She needed help for this one though.”
“Like me,” Jemma whispered, her voice so low that he almost didn’t hear her. Face half covered by her hair, Fitz couldn’t see her expression, but he had a feeling she was the kind of person who was used to working out problems on her own.
“It’s okay to ask for help.”
Jemma seemed to shake herself a bit, sitting back up as she returned her focus to the computer screen. An angry red box popped up in the corner of the screen with a warning message.
“What the hell is this?” Jemma pointed at the box with one hand before she turned to Fitz.
“Tha’ is a program I had Skye install.” He bent down to run his fingers over the track pad of the laptop. “It’s an alert for the owners of the house. Travel plans have changed.”
“What? No! I checked and triple checked. They’re out of town for another week.”
“Not anymore. They caught a flight.” Fitz clicked, showing her the copy of their changed plane tickets.
“Great. That gives us only four hours to get out of here!”
“I’ll start packin’ everythin’ up in here. Go tell Trip. Then call Skye.”
It was only after the five of them had started walking up to the crappy apartment that they were using as their base of operations before joining up with Jemma that Fitz remembered the state of the apartment the last time they’d been in it. He shot a panicked look at Skye when Jemma wrinkled her nose at the paint peeling on the walls of the building hallways.
“We were short on funds when we came into town,” Skye explained as she unlocked the door. “And, uh, we didn’t check foreclosures or vacations like you did. That was smart.”
“Right,” Fitz chimed in. “Wanted to be close to Bakshi’s office too…” He trailed off when Skye pushed the door open and gestured for Jemma to walk in first.
“Oh.” She glanced around as everyone filed in after her. “Well. Okay, then.” She shrugged and plopped the bag she had been carrying down on the floor.
Lance shook his head. “It’s not like she’s a bloody princess. She can handle it.”
Jemma perched on the barstool near the tiny kitchen and crossed her legs, shooting him a glare in response.
“Doesn’t matter. We won’t be here long anyway,” Skye added. “We got this.” She held a white piece of paper between two fingers, but when Fitz took it from her and flipped it over and over, there was nothing on it.
“What the hell’re we supposed to do with this?” Trip asked, plucking it from Fitz’s fingers. “It’s blank.”
“Is it?” Skye asked them before giving Fitz a pointed look. He rolled his eyes.
“I don’t even know if I have a way to read this here.” Fitz started digging through a box on the floor before shaking his head and jogging into one of the bedrooms.
There was a crate on the floor of the closet that had some of the electronics he and Skye had used on their last job and had thought twice about putting into storage. He pulled wires and plastic out of the way, almost certain that he had a scanner. It took him a few more minutes of digging, and he could hear Trip pressing Skye for more information the whole time he was gone. When his fingers closed around a cylinder with two plastic pieces at the ends and a switch on the back, he nodded in satisfaction, jumping to his feet and returning to the living room.
Jemma hadn’t moved from her seat on the stool, just watching Lance and Trip pass the bit of paper back and forth.
“Bit thick, isn’t it?” Lance asked, running his fingers over it. “Like an invitation. But there’s nothin’ on it.” His frown matched Trip’s, but Fitz saw Jemma’s eyes light up as she realized what it was.
“Of course,” she murmured. “That’s quite -”
“Genius,” Fitz and Jemma said in unison. “Not too many people go through the trouble,” he added. “I imagine the Mockingbird has?”
“Yes. Only once while I was there though. Actually, it was in Paris.” She smiled brightly at him. “The whole process was fascinating. I could not believe some of the people who turned up.”
“You have any idea what they’re talkin’ about,” Trip asked Lance out of the corner of his mouth.
“No idea, mate.”
Fitz chuckled and strode the rest of the way into the room, removing the paper, which was really more like cardstock with a nice scalloped edge to it, from Lance’s hand and took a step closer to Jemma as she leaned forward on the stool. Holding the card in one hand, in the other he held the scanner, which was really a modified version of a blacklight, but he wasn’t about to explain the science behind it to Lance who would just go on about having a headache and needing a beer afterward. He clicked the switch on the back of the cylinder so that the bulb would glow over the paper, revealing a date, a time, and an address.
“Witchcraft,” Lance muttered with a shake of his head while Trip clapped Fitz on the back.
“A Zanzibar auction,” Jemma said with something of a sigh. “They’re legendary.”
“A what now?” Lance asked, looking back and forth between Fitz and Jemma.
“You mean I know something about the business that you don’t?” Jemma responded gleefully.
With a groan, he turned his attention fully to Fitz instead, and Fitz had to stop himself from smiling at Jemma. “If a thief needs to liquidate a lot of assets,” he began, trying hard not to sound condescending so Lance wouldn’t try to hit him, “he can set up an auction. Exclusive invites to a list of high payin’ buyers tha’ he knows want the merchandise means no one is goin’ to turn him in.” He held up the card.
“Bonus points if he’s blackmailing any of his buyers too,” Skye joined in.
“Yes, and they’re usually held in a respectable facility under the guise of some other event so no one is the wiser,” Jemma added.
“Everyone comes in for a couple o’ hours, bids on the items they want, the items are handed over an’ everyone disperses. In an’ out. Almost like a smash and grab, but classier,” Fitz finished.
“Yeah, If Bakshi’s willing to do a pop up auction for an afternoon, he’s got to have more than just two pieces to sell,” Skye added, practically skipping her way into the kitchen and opening the fridge before making a face. “I forgot that we haven’t been here in three days. Someone needs to buy us some food.”
“And beer,” Lance chimed in.
Jemma and Fitz shared an eye roll.
“I saw that.”
Fitz didn’t bother asking which of them he was talking to. At this point, it was probably both of them. Lance seemed to be getting more and more sarcastic with him the longer Jemma was on their team. Fitz had never thought of Lance as someone’s big brother before. He’d also never thought of himself as someone a big brother would be annoyed with.
Jemma smirked at her brother and leaned even more into Fitz’s space to look at the card. “Where is this auction?” She asked him softly.
Fitz cleared his throat and tried not to look at the ceiling as though asking for help. He was perfectly fine if she tried to invade his personal space when they were working alone, but she seemed to enjoy doing it to get a rise out of Lance even more. He had a feeling he should feel insulted by that, but it was more amusing than anything else. As long as Lance decided not to break his nose. He had enough to worry about with Grant and whomever else was on the traitor’s team than worry about Lance too.
“The Lorelei.” He tilted the card more firmly in her direction before he clicked off the light. “It’s not local.”
“No?” Skye asked from the other side of the kitchen counter. “Huh.” She tapped her fingers on the counter. “Where are we headed?”
Fitz grimaced as Jemma laughed and announced, “Las Vegas.”
Jemma gave a small sigh as they pulled up to the hotel in a rental car. “I love Vegas,” she whispered to Fitz. “It’s full of possibilities.”
“Yeah…” Fitz shook his head. “It’s full o’ people getting too drunk to remember which room they booked, marryin’ people they don’t know, and losin’ all their money in slot machines.”
Jemma laughed. “I would think all of that would be a dream for an artist like you.” He shook his head again and pulled into the parking garage, his eyes flicking to the rearview mirror to see Trip turn to access a different floor. Jemma watched him curiously. “Have you pulled many jobs here?”
He didn’t say anything else, coaxing the car through shadows and around sharp corners.
“I take it that it went badly.” She hated that he never seemed to have much to say. She wanted to know everything - the jobs he’d done, where he’d learned his tricks, what he liked about the work, what he liked about her… But then, she was getting off track.
“No, actually. I got what I came for.” One corner of his mouth turned up in a smirk and Jemma watched him in amusement. “It wasn’t a team job. I got to work alone for once.” He shrugged. “It’s just - Vegas brings out the worst in people. The casinos run everything, the hotels price gouge, the guests are always angry when they leave because they lose so much. Everyone’s mad. It’s easy to get caught up.” He gave a sigh and pulled into a space. “I don’t know why people come here.”
“I imagine it’s exactly that - to get caught up ,” Jemma offered, her voice low. When he cut the engine and turned to look at her, she hurriedly unbuckled her seatbelt and let herself out of the car. She took a breath of the hot air trapped in the parking garage and shut the car door behind her, taking a moment to mentally remind herself that while it was exceedingly fun to demonstrate that she was interested in getting caught up with Fitz, it would have to wait. They had work to do.
She moved to the trunk and stood patiently, waiting for Fitz to unlock it, her eyes roving over the other cars on the garage level. For the most part, they were all non descript sedans and a few trucks here and there. This was not where the penthouse guests parked.
She and Fitz each removed a duffel bag full of clothing and equipment, beginning their walk to the hotel’s main lobby, when Fitz’s phone rang.
“Yeah?” The relaxed expression on his face told her it wasn’t Lance, probably Trip or Skye with new details. “Okay. Got it.”
Jemma raised her eyebrows when he hung up and put his phone back in his pocket.
“Lance and Skye are in the restaurant off the lobby. She’s hackin’ in to see if she can piggyback on another guest’s charges to get us a room. She’s trying to score a suite so we have enough space to work. Eighth floor.”
When they walked into the lobby though, Trip was suddenly at their side and pulling them to a bank of elevators. “Don’t look at the desk,” he whispered harshly, steering them around the corner.
“Why?” Jemma’s pulse ratched up.
“We got company,” he told them, pushing them through open elevator doors and standing in front of them as they closed.
“Grant?” Fitz asked with a sigh.
“Yeah. He’s here, probably running security for the auction. I saw him talking up one of the art professors here for the convention they’re using as the cover. I think he’s trying to gauge her interest in an illegal buy.”
“Well, they’re certainly wasting no time getting set up,” Jemma offered. “That means the merchandise is already here somewhere.”
“It also means we can’t walk up to the desk and get a key card just yet,” Trip pointed out. “Can you hack a hotel lock?” He joked.
Fitz snorted and shook his head. “You can replicate the magnetic strip on a key card or unlock it from the manager’s computer, maybe, but it would take time.”
Jemma rolled her eyes. “Boys. You always make things so complicated.” They both looked at her and she smiled. “Do we know when maid service is for this floor?”
Jemma handed Trip her bag in the corner of the hall where there were no security cameras just as he disconnected from another phone call with Skye. He nodded to the door across the hall from them.
“Skye’s charging that room to a Dr. Whitehall. He’s here for the convention, but apparently, he’s got a nasty habit of cheating on his wife when he comes to Vegas, so he probably won’t dispute the room charges.”
“Excellent.” Jemma shrugged out of her sweater and then twisted her hair up onto the top of her head in a knot with a hotel logoed pen she’d found on a windowsill. “What is taking Fitz so long?”
Just as she asked the question, he rounded the corner, the towel she’d asked for in hand.
“They work in teams. There’s a maintenance cart an’ a maid on this floor. The maid is still a few doors down, but the maintenance cart is headed this way, and he’s got a key card clipped to his belt.” Fitz looked her up and down as she kicked off her shoes and started unbuckling her belt. “What are you doing?”
“I’m getting us into that room!” She hissed the words out, kicking her shoes over to Trip, who stuffed them into the duffel. “Grab me that newspaper from over there.” Jemma nodded to a room a little farther down the hall, and Fitz did as he was told, jogging away. She willed herself not to blush as she shimmied out of her jeans and pulled her top over her head in one quick motion, tossing them to Trip, and wrapping herself securely in the towel so she could remove her underthings. She was just stuffing them into the duffel bag held out to her by Trip when Fitz returned with the paper.
“Damn, girl.” Trip shook his head and zipped the bag up, stepping into the shadow behind a fake palm plant.
“Jesus.” Fitz brought one hand up to his face. “Lance is going to kill us all.”
“It’s a good plan,” Jemma told him, not meeting his eyes.
A part of her wanted to watch him watch her because when she glanced up to take the paper from him, he was rapidly blinking as he tried not to stare, bright spots of color on his cheeks as he pressed closer to the wall where Trip was and away from her. She risked watching him for about 10 seconds, and his eyes raked over her skin in a way that made her feel much more confident about her plan. She took a deep breath and marched to the area in front of the door they needed, waiting until the maintenance cart rolled her way. This was a simple tactic, she reminded herself. Lots of visible skin made people uncomfortable. A damsel in distress made men want to do the right thing.
As soon as the employee was within her eye line, she leaned her head back and gave a dramatic sigh, taking a few steps closer to him down the hallway. “Oh, thank goodness!” She waved the hand with the rolled newspaper in it in his direction. “I just came out to grab my paper and the door shut behind me!” The man, Carl judging by his employee badge, stopped short and watched her in surprise. “Could you please help me? I’ve got to get dressed. I’m attending a talk on Impressionist Art in the Modern Era in 45 minutes.” She did her best to look properly flustered, leaning forward just a bit when his gaze dropped to give him a better view of her cleavage. Nothing confused a man more than a naked woman asking for his help.
“Well - uh - I’m not supposed to - I can’t - You’re supposed to go through the front desk if you need a key,” Carl stammered out the words, not taking his eyes off her.
Jemma resisted the urge to roll her own eyes.
“I could get in trouble,” he added, his hand moving to the key card attached by a retractable cord to his belt.
“Are you telling me,” Jemma asked him, her voice going somewhat shrill, “that I have to go all the way down to the lobby like this?” She took a step forward, flashing a bit of her thigh and allowing the towel to drop another couple of inches for good measure.
“Well - I guess - that would be -”
Jemma let the towel slide a little bit more. If he was going to be this transfixed, she probably should have just dropped the piece of fabric altogether. She was getting dangerously close to indecent exposure. “Please?”
“Yeah.” Carl coughed into his hand. “Yeah, okay.”
He moved past her, and Jemma stayed as still as possible while he slipped the keycard into the door, breathing a sigh of relief.
“Thank you so much!” She reached out and squeezed his arm before bolting into the room and shutting the door behind her, listening until she was sure the cart was a significant distance away before she even moved. A quick rapping on the door made her jump, but she pulled herself together to open it up and let Trip in.
“He needed a minute," Trip teased at her unspoken question.
Jemma stuck her head out the door and hissed, “Fitz!”
“I’m coming,” Fitz grumbled, walking slowly to the room.
She used one hand to keep her towel in place and the other to hold the door open for him. Trip, on the phone with Skye again, told her they had a base of operations, while Jemma waited for Fitz to say something else.
“It was a good plan,” Fitz admitted, his face still pink.
She shut the door behind him and stood in the entry way with him, waiting. His expression was hesitant, but it seemed like there was something else he needed to say.
“Can you - just - not do that again while we’re here?”
Jemma smiled. “Fitz,” she whispered so that they wouldn’t bother Trip while he was busy on the phone, “do naked women make you uncomfortable?”
Fitz let out a bark of laughter and looked her in the eye. “No.” He took a step closer to her and she cocked her head to the side. “But you are very distracting. And I don’t want to be the one who tells your brother I couldn’t finish a job because you were naked.”
“Oh, I see.” Jemma pretended to nod her head very seriously, and she spoke quickly before she could change her mind. “Well, then. I guess we’ll just have to make sure you don’t see me naked again until after the job is done.” She turned on her heels and retrieved the duffel bag with her clothing from Trip, shuffling into the suite’s bathroom to put clothes on before the rest of the team joined them.
Jemma sat primly on the sofa, fully clothed, as Skye and Lance brought them all food in little plastic containers from the restaurant downstairs, looking remarkably uncomfortable for someone who had informed him he would be seeing her naked once they finished the job.
Maybe she was having second thoughts?
“Nice job,” Skye remarked, tossing Fitz a bottle of water. “How’d you get past the lock?”
“I didn’t,” Fitz told her before looking at Jemma quickly, then down at his hands so he could focus on twisting the cap from the bottle.
Jemma smiled enigmatically at Skye and Lance before shrugging. “It was simple, really. I asked someone to let me in.”
“That’s it?” Lance raised an eyebrow, clearly skeptical. Fitz looked back and forth between the step-siblings to see Jemma color slightly at his question.
“It was genius, really.” Trip laughed, then gave a little hop when Fitz stuck one foot out to block him from the food. “She did good,” Trip amended, taking the hint, and Fitz moved his leg out of the way so he could grab a container. If Jemma didn’t want anyone else to know how she got them the room, that was fine by him. “We still need a keycard though or we’re going to have to leave someone in here to let us in every time we go out.”
“Yeah,” Skye agreed, letting the subject drop. “We’ll worry about that later. First, we have to figure out where the goods are being stored.”
Fitz, realizing Jemma was still sitting stiffly on the sofa, reached forward and grabbed a random container from the pile and held it out to her. Food always gave him something else to focus on. She nodded her thanks at him as she reached for it and tapped the back of his hand gently with her index finger. She smiled at him, and Fitz could almost see her thanking him, not just for the food, but also for him not telling them she just disrobed in the middle of the hallway.
“Didn’t you say on the way here that you had an idea about that?”
“Erm - yeah.” Fitz let go of the container, and she leaned back on the sofa with it, just as Lance plopped down in between them.
“Subtle,” Jemma remarked before popping open the plastic with a sigh.
Fitz ignored Lance completely and focused on explaining what he had been thinking to Skye. “Bakshi and Grant aren’t going to risk havin’ the hotel lock anythin’ in their safe for them… or the casino the hotel owns for that matter.”
“Right,” Skye agreed. “They’re going to want security they can control.”
“So, one of the rooms they’re using is for the merchandise. Probably not a room with a balcony.”
“So no thieves can get in from the outside,” Skye finished for him while she paced the length of the suite’s living room.
“And?” Jemma prompted just before she popped a french fry in her mouth.
Fitz watched her lips close around the potato and her jaw work as she chewed. He was in trouble if even her chewing a piece of fried food was cute. He scratched the back of his neck and tried to focus on Skye again.
“An’ if they only have the four men, an’ Grant’s downstairs, they might’ve had to hire some muscle to guard it.” Fitz shrugged. “Turgeon, from what Jemma said, he’s the guy findin’ the pieces they want. Bakshi’s the brains. Grant’s usually the muscle, I’d bet. Their fourth is probably the one actually in charge of the auction an’ the money exchange.”
“Also probably a forger if they’ve got any paintings,” Jemma cut in. “Unless Turgeon’s better at it than I think.” She played with another fry in her hands, considering her words carefully. “I’ve met a lot of forgers. And I’m not conceited. But I’d consider myself better even than Mockingbird at replicating an artist’s technique. I don’t think Turgeon’s that good.” She bit off a piece of the fry as she thought.
“Jemma has a point. If part of the game is replacing the real thing with a fake, someone on the team has to be pretty perfect.” Skye snorted. “I think we all know Grant couldn’t forge a five-year-old’s drawing, let alone a masterpiece.”
“So… in addition to Turgeon and Bakshi, who already know Jemma’s face and most of ours, we have to worry about Grant, who definitely knows all of us, and probably two more people, maybe more if they have the room under 24 hour guard.” Trip sighed. “Well, if the job was easy…” He trailed off.
“All right, then.” Lance shot to his feet. “I’ll let you lot do the research and figure out when I get to hit Grant in the face.” He grabbed Fitz’s half finished water bottle and started to walk away.
“Where are you going?” Fitz asked, just missing Lance’s hand as he tried to grab his bottle back.
“I’m goin’ to get us a bloody key so you can replicate it and we don’t have to leave anyone here when we do the job.”
“How do you plan on doing that?” Jemma smiled sweetly.
He twisted off the top, set the bottle on another table, and Fitz watched in disbelief as Lance tugged his t-shirt over his head, leaving himself in the pair of track pants he’d been wearing, and then shook the contents of the bottle over himself, starting at the top of his head. He then emptied everything from his pockets onto the table and grabbed the towel Jemma had used, winding it around one arm.
“I’m goin’ to the gym. I must have set my key down by one of the machines.” Lance shrugged. “So forgetful when I’m wrapped up in the conference.”
“Hmm.” Jemma watched him critically. “Make your accent a bit more posh.”
Fitz nearly choked trying not to laugh. If he didn’t find this so funny, he’d be disturbed at how similar their techniques were.
“What’s wrong with my voice?”
“No one’s going to believe you’re here for an art conference.”
Trip did a little spin in the middle of the suite and Skye gave a polite clap at his attire.
“Ugh. Tweed,” Fitz and Jemma said in unison.
“Yeah, yeah,” Trip remarked, waving off their concern. “I went the stereotypical academic route. Figured no one would question what I was doing here then.” He ran a hand down the truly offensive green and orange stripes of the brown coat he was wearing and winced.
“Probably a good plan,” Jemma agreed with a smile. “No one’s going to doubt you’re a professor in that awful jacket.”
“Okay,” Skye stood up and tugged on Trip’s lapel, seemingly straightening it, though Jemma was sure it was already fine. “If you see Ward, or anyone else we know, just stay out of sight, okay? Don’t go after him.” Jemma watched Skye swallow. “Just - get us an idea of who’s going to the auction so we know whose schedules to check, okay? With Lance keeping an eye on Fitz while he’s tapping into the security feed, you don’t have backup.”
“C’mon girl, you know I’ll be fine.” Trip nodded and shot Jemma a wink as he put on his glasses, which were really just clear lenses with a camera embedded in the frame. “I’m always calm under pressure.”
“Last job where you were face to face with Ward, you broke his nose and Fitz got shot, remember?”
“Extenuating circumstances,” Trip said smoothly before he delicately removed her hands from his jacket. “He’d already tried to kill my boy once. I wasn’t in the mood for it again. I’ll be fine.”
“Okay.” Skye gave a sigh and returned to her seat next to Jemma, the conference schedule open on one laptop, black screens waiting for Fitz’s go ahead on the security feeds on the other.
Jemma understood Skye’s worry. Trip had an earpiece in when he left the room, but Fitz and Lance didn’t, not with their proximity to the security office - they had been worried other signals would interfere. Jemma kept squirming in her seat, waiting for something to happen on the black screens in front of her. She was multitasking by researching the different professors, art historians, even anthropologists, attending the conference to she could figure out who was most likely to attend an auction for blackmarket goods. So far though, everyone was squeaky clean, and she was getting antsy.
If there’s one thing she’d learned about herself on this particular job, it was that she wasn’t good at the waiting around. When she’d been under Mockingbird’s training, there was always something to do - a con to memorize, an artist to replicate, a technique to practice. Out in the real world, it was just a whole lot of waiting for someone who was better at a job than you were to complete their task before you could do anything.
And usually, she’d found, you cared about those “someones” quite a bit, and the idea of waiting around while they could get caught and potentially arrested or killed was not conducive to multitasking. She huffed out a breath and got back to work, taking back the laptop that had the conference schedule open in one tab, moving to the other tab, and typing quickly. She wanted to be ready for any names Trip threw her way.
Next to her, the black screen blinked a few times, a white film coming over the laptop.
“Come on, Fitz.” Skye tapped one finger just next to the track pad, waiting. “You’ve got the wrong input line. I know you know better than that. Are you letting Lance do all the work? You know he doesn’t know shit about cutting into a feed.” She mumbled the words, but Jemma glued her eyes to the screen, waiting for a glimpse of their team members. Elevator music came out of the laptop’s speakers in response, and Skye snorted. “I guess Trip’s on his way downstairs.”
A throat clearing let them know he probably wasn’t alone in the elevator right before one of the boxes on the screen flickered to life and Trip’s camera feed came into view.
“Look,” Jemma hissed, pointing at the screen as it blinked again and again, images beginning to settle into little boxes all over the screen.
“Eyes are up,” Skye said proudly. “I can see everything. Even you, Trip.” Skye allowed a smirk to settle over her face. “And the little old lady who is shamelessly checking you out.”
Trip smiled up at the camera in the elevator in response and tugged on his ear.
Jemma scanned the little boxes as Skye spoke and spotted one of them where Lance and Fitz were attempting to walk nonchalantly down the hall wearing the same jackets the staff wore. As they rounded a corner and another camera picked them up, Fitz shrugged out of his and dropped it in a laundry cart. Lance did the same a few steps later. Jemma sighed in relief, a smile crossing her face.
“So…” Skye started, picking up her coke from the table and taking a sip. “You got any big plans after this job is over?”
“Not really.” Jemma was still busy watching Fitz and Lance as they hopped into an elevator with a woman in a bikini. The woman not too subtly tossed her red hair over her shoulder and pulled her sunglasses down her nose. Jemma’s smile widened when Fitz turned away from her to watch Lance watch her. “I mean, I’m not exactly getting a big score or anything from this job.”
“We still could,” Skye told her. “Depends on what they’re hiding here.”
“If we pull it off.” Jemma didn’t want to be a pessimist, but this job kept becoming more complicated and she wasn’t sure there was a light at the end of the tunnel anymore.
“Don’t bring doubt into the job. One member of the team doesn’t believe in the job and-”
“And everything falls apart. I know.” Jemma sighed. “I’m just worried.” She watched her stepbrother making eyes at the woman in the elevator and Fitz struggling not to laugh. “I’m not used to so many people knowing my face.”
“Yeah, well apparently you haven’t pulled off as many jobs as you let me think either, so that’s not surprising.” Skye let the statement hang in the air for a moment. “Are you going to be able to do this? It’s okay if you can’t. I just need to know you’re in.”
Jemma tore her eyes away from the monitor where Fitz was exiting an elevator and Lance was nodding at the redhead, and she was glad Skye had chosen to ask her this when neither of them could hear. “I’m in,” Jemma told her firmly. “What you all told me about Grant - he needs to be taken out of the game.”
“Okay.” Skye nodded, watching her carefully, but she turned back to the computer with a cheerful smile as the door to their suite opened.
Jemma stood at the back of the suite’s living area and toyed with one of her earrings. Lance was sitting at one computer monitoring Grant’s movements, trying to get an idea of where he was hiding all of Bakshi’s merchandise. Skye was watching Trip’s progress as he mingled at a mixer for conference guests. Fitz was splitting his attention between Lance and Skye, intent on helping whichever of them sent a question his way. He’d grabbed information on everyone Trip had met so far. And she felt useless.
Sure, she was armed with her own iPad in case they needed additional research, but it was clear that this team was a well oiled machine, and she wondered if they really needed her beyond the fact that she had already been involved with Bakshi’s company. She was almost positive they could pull off this job without her. They could have probably pulled off their own and hers and just left her to watch.
As if he could sense her doubts, Fitz twisted in his seat to turn around and give her a small smile. She couldn’t help but smile back, reminding herself that the sooner this job was over, the sooner the two of them could really get to know one another.
Fitz forced himself to pay attention to Trip as his voice came through a set of speakers on Skye’s laptop.
“Dr. Randolph, it’s so great to meet you. I’ve been looking forward to this.”
Fitz froze at the keyboard, his eyes shooting to the screen.
“Fitz?” Skye prompted, as she flicked through camera feeds to get a better look at Trip’s new companion. “Find out who -”
But Fitz, when he saw the man on the camera feed, already knew who Trip was talking to. Jemma’s voice from behind them stopped him from opening his mouth. She leaned over the couch just above his shoulder so her voice would be picked up by the microphone.
“Dr. Elliot Randolph. PhDs in several anthropological and historical fields, but he specializes in Norse mythology. He’s obsessed with it. His pet project involves the idea that the Norse gods were actually real human beings whose legend has simply grown over time and he’s used various art and myths to support it.”
“You get all that?” Skye asked the microphone needlessly. Trip was already striking up a conversation with him. “Do we think he’ll go to the auction?”
“I don’t know.” Jemma’s breath ghosted over Fitz’s ear. Her arms were next to his head as she tapped on the surface of her tablet. “He doesn’t have a record, but he’s bounced around positions a lot. He’s only been a professor, working out of Spain now, for a few months.”
“He’ll go,” Fitz said. “He can’t resist havin’ a look, especially if he even thinks there’s a possibility of anythin’ related to Hela. She’s his favorite in Norse mythology. Ruled the underworld.”
“How do you know that?”
He turned to find Jemma’s eyes staring into his, her hair swinging down and partially hiding them from the view of the others. He hadn’t expected them to be nose to nose, and he swallowed hard. “I’ve met him. On another retrieval job. Also worked for him a couple of times. He’s not a bad guy. But he doesn’t care if he gets his stuff illegally. And he’s got money to burn. Family worked in gold or somethin’.”
Jemma nodded, her hair sliding against his cheek, and she stood up quickly, a little out of breath. Fitz tried not to be too pleased that she seemed to be affected by their close proximity as well.
“What’s the play then? Should I flirt with him, get him to invite me?”
“No!” Fitz cringed at his own outburst. Jemma was exactly Randolph’s type - young, intelligent, eager to learn, and bloody gorgeous; it would probably be the perfect set up. He tried to correct his own blunder for Skye and Lance, who were both snickering. “If Trip convinces him they’re into the same field, he’ll ask him. He’s not very discreet. An’ he loves to hear himself talk about his own projects.” He shrugged when Skye raised an eyebrow at him. “Besides, we already have an invitation, remember? We jus’ need to know where to go.”
“Trip,” Skye called into the mic, “you heard him. Turn on the charm and get him to tell you.”
Fitz had completely forgotten that when he had worked a job for Randolph with another colleague, there was a reason they had called him “rambling Randy.” The man could talk for hours about absolutely nothing. Lance had left them to go shower, and Skye had gone to grab them all some more food. Her motto seemed to be that a happy team meant a well fed team. It was one of the many reasons he liked working jobs with Skye. Jemma was curled up at one end of the sofa, arms folded under her head, as she watched security feeds. She yawned and moved to stretch, but her feet collided with his thigh, and Fitz froze.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, her knees curling back up.
“Nah, it’s fine,” he hurriedly reassured her, his hand reaching out and pulling on one ankle so she was encouraged to stretch her legs back out to their full length, her feet resting across his lap. “If you’re tired, I can take over.”
“Fitz.” She breathed out his name like she was only half awake, and he resolved to hear her say it like that again when the job was over, and under much better circumstances. She blinked rapidly as if trying to clear her eyes. “You can’t watch both feeds and keep giving Trip information about Norse mythology and make notes on where the merchandise is stored. I know you think you’re a genius, but it’s a lot for one person to handle.”
He smirked, but looked back at the laptop screen to keep an eye on Trip and Randolph. He waited a few minutes, and when she shifted her position, her feet turning over in his lap and her toes pointing to the end of the sofa again under his fingertips, he told her, “I am actually a genius.”
She made a disbelieving sort of cluck in the back of her mouth.
“Every school tha’ ever had me tested while I was growin’ up.”
He could hear the curiosity in her voice completely replacing the disbelief.
She didn’t say anything else for a long time, but when the water turned off and they could hear it slowing in the pipes, indicating Lance was finished with his shower, she nudged his knee playfully with her foot. “So am I. I think that’s why my father was so rattled when I left university.”
Fitz decided not to ask about her father. Family had always been a touchy subject with Lance and he got the feeling being related to Lance meant that it was for Jemma too. Instead, he asked the safer question as Randolph began spouting off to Trip about what he thought mankind’s fear of giant snakes really meant in the Norse underworld - it was all very phallic, and Fitz very much wanted to tune him out.
“What were you studyin’ when you left?”
“Everything!” Jemma’s whole body seemed to hum with excitement, and Fitz watched her as she spoke. Her eyes stayed on the screen as she tracked Grant’s movements, but she didn’t look nearly as sleepy. “I couldn’t pick just one field. How can anyone? Everything is fascinating. I took art classes and history classes and chemistry. I even took courses on archaeology. I took one history class on tracing the royal lineage. So fun! I spent one semester taking all of the courses offered on the poetry of John Donne. He was amazing.” She must have realized he was staring at her because she snapped her mouth shut abruptly and offered him a shy smile and a shrug.
“Bein’ interested in everythin’ is good in our line of work.” He rubbed his thumb back and forth over her ankle where his hand had settled back down when she stopped moving. Her anklet shifted, cold on his hand, and he pulled his fingers back to run them through his hair.
“Yes. Well. I don’t think this was exactly the life my father thought I’d be living.”
“Right.” Fitz nodded. “I guess most kids don’t have griftin’ as the family business to fall back on.”
“Lance did,” she said sharply, but then she was quiet again, and Fitz didn’t press for more information.
He had a feeling he could piece together that family photo album pretty well with that comment and what little he knew about Lance. Jemma only ever spoke about her father. Lance grew up with a grifter for a parent. Chances were, his mother was something of a queen of hearts, tricking wealthy men into falling for her and either marrying them for the divorce settlement or stealing whatever she could get her hands on before it went that far. Lance grew up learning how to grift, but Jemma only learned the basics as a teenager - from Lance - and from the Mockingbird, Lance’s old girlfriend, as an adult. It didn’t take a genius to see that was a complicated mess to wade into.
Loud laughter from the speakers of the computer had him leaning forward, trapping Jemma’s feet on his thighs.
“It’s fate, you know?” Randolph was saying through his laughter.
“Yeah, man. For sure.” Trip agreed, laying on the southern charm. “Can’t argue with fate.”
“Because of course they’d be selling the lost text about Hela and her pet snakes in the Onyx Ballroom. It’s a good omen!”
“Oh, because Hela is associated with onyx? The gemstone?” Randolph’s tone became skeptical.
“Oh, right. I’d always heard obsidian myself.”
“Be careful, Trip,” Fitz warned into the microphone. “He’s dabbled in geology.”
“He’s certainly got an impressive academic background,” Jemma mused.
“Yes, some people think they’re the same,” Randolph prodded.
Jemma and Fitz both reached for the iPad on the table at the same time, but Trip was already smoothly saying, “Well, that’s understandable. Appearances aren’t all that different. Some obsidian’s got a better shine to it. It’s the heat from the volcanic ash that does it.”
“Right you are, my friend!”
Jemma and Fitz breathed twin sighs of relief, and Fitz grabbed their map of the hotel, pushing Jemma’s legs from his lap so he could sit up, spreading the paper out between them on the sofa. They both searched the labels, but it was Jemma who spotted it first, her fingertip jabbing at a rectangular marking on the second floor layout.
“Onyx Ballroom.” Fitz grinned as she read. “The smallest of the ballrooms offered, it’s perfect for intimate gatherings and corporate events, so named for the intricate stonework and gemstone overlay running the length of the room.”
“Sounds classy,” Fitz remarked, turning back to his laptop and searching the information he had already gathered that wasn’t available on the free map offered at the front desk, the gift shop, the gym, and anywhere else a tourist might get lost. “There’s an office space right behind it tha’ can be rented out as well for guests plannin’ events so they’ve got space to work from. Only two ways in or out of tha’ room, right into the ballroom or through the back in the employee corridors that run through the hotel common areas.”
“Definitely where the merchandise is,” Jemma agreed. She leaned closer, bracing her hand on the paper to look over his shoulder at the more detailed schematics of the hotel. “How’s the ventilation in that area?” Fitz rolled his eyes at her when she smirked. “You do think you can navigate the ventilation shafts properly this time, don’t you?”
Fitz tightened the laces on his shoes before sitting up straight and flexing his feet experimentally. He needed to be able to grip the sides of an air shaft if necessary, and he wasn’t about to take any chances on this one. Jemma plopped down next to him on the sofa, her hair pulled back into a tight pony tail. It was a different look for her. She looked younger somehow, reminding him that this was a bigger job than she was used to.
He could tell she was trying to look upbeat and positive, but he could also see the way her skin crinkled just between her eyebrows and the corners of her mouth didn’t quite match up with her smile.
“Yeah.” He handed her the phone with their map in it. “Want another look?” He shrugged sheepishly. “Just in case?”
Instead of taking the phone right from him though and giving the route another once over, she wrapped her fingers around his whole hand and gave a quick squeeze before lifting the phone away, then hurriedly looked down at the screen as she followed the path with her finger.
“I don’t like it,” Lance snapped, arms crossing over his chest.
“I don’t care if you like it,” Skye shot back, her own hands on her hips. “This is our best shot.”
The two of them stood a few feet away where they had been arguing the entire time that Jemma and Fitz had taken to change their clothes and pack a backpack. Fitz chewed on his lower lip while Lance shook his head.
“Do we need to go over what happened the last time we sent Fitz into a ventilation shaft on this job?”
Fitz and Jemma looked at one another and they both stifled their laughter.
“Okay,” Skye said placatingly, “but that was my fault. Fitz was right and I got the wrong plans… besides, whoever the chick was that spotted him didn’t turn him in!”
Fitz covered his eyes with his hands so he wouldn’t see Jemma laughing next to him.
“Oh. My. God.”
Peeking through his fingers, Fitz found Skye staring at him and Jemma. He sunk further into his seat.
“Jemma?” Skye asked.
“Skye?” Jemma cleared her throat and smiled wide, passing the phone back to Fitz without looking at him so that he was forced to lower his hands from his rapidly flushing face.
“It was you, wasn’t it? That’s the only reason you made him at the party.”
“Well… to be fair, I would know Lance anywhere. I spent three years in the same house as him as a teenager. I know his routine, no matter how he dresses it up,” Jemma began to explain before licking her lips and glancing over at Fitz. “And… I think…” She laughed lightly. “I know I would have noticed Fitz in that suit even if I hadn’t seen him in the ceiling of the loo. I would have noticed the lifts eventually too.”
“Bloody unbelievable,” Lance muttered.
“See, they’ll be fine. Fitz only got made because Jemma thinks he’s hot,” Skye joked.
Fitz didn’t think that helped the situation as Lance strode over to them and pointed first at Fitz, then at Jemma, seemingly trying to come up with something intimidating. He gave a little bit of a growl before saying, “neither of you go anywhere near Grant Ward, yeah? Keep your heads down, get the stuff, and go. If anything happens to either of you, I’ll shoot you both myself.”
Fitz relaxed somewhat. At least Lance wasn’t just worried that he was about to get Jemma killed. He was worried about them equally. Nodding his head to show Lance he understood, Fitz chanced a glance at Jemma to see her smiling softly and doing the same.
“Aw, I’m sure they love you too,” Skye quipped. “Now, get to your post. I need you as backup for Trip in case he runs into any trouble. And keep your comm in!”
Lance grumbled as he left the room in complete cowboy gear, purchased from another gift shop on the strip on Dr. Whitehall’s dime since Skye had conveniently hacked in and set him up with accounts at every place they needed. Skye reasoned that it was karma getting the doctor back for the horrible things he’d done. In addition to cheating on his wife with an exotic dancer named Alicia, whom he’d also recently bought acting lessons for, he’d been embezzling from the psychiatric practice where he’d worked for more than 20 years. Skye figured this would teach him a lesson. Lance was hoping the weird attire, and the fact that he hadn’t shaved in nearly a week, would mean that someone like Grant wouldn’t recognize him right away while he hid behind a newspaper in a table at a bar and kept an eye on the entrance to the ballroom.
Black pants, black shoes, black tees, all covered up by the horrible green and gold sport coats the staff used for room service, the backpack tucked securely over Fitz’s shoulder, and they were ready to go moments after Lance.
“Okay. I’m going to pack up our stuff as I monitor everyone,” Skye told them. “We have to be ready to go immediately after you get the merchandise. You guys grab the stuff, change your clothes, and take Fitz’s car to the Amargosa Valley rest stop. If the rest of us aren’t there within three hours, keep going, get the stuff to the clients. I’ll find you.”
Fitz opened his mouth to protest, but Skye gave a look that made it clear he wasn’t meant to argue with her. He clamped his lips shut and nodded his head instead.
“Right.” Jemma clapped her hands briskly together, all business. “Let’s go.”
Sneaking into the kitchens and grabbing a room service cart stocked with a full load of desserts for one of the conference events on the second floor wasn’t an issue. They didn’t even speak on the way down to the staff rooms in the elevator. Jemma didn’t wait for him, just waltzing into the kitchen and rolling out the cart, stopping in front of him so he could slide their bag underneath it, and then they were off.
It was the second floor where things got a bit more tricky.
“Fitz,” Jemma murmured as they exited the staff elevator on the second floor, “Bakshi’s at the end of the hall; he’s shaking hands with Professor Randolph.”
“I see him,” he confirmed, twisting his head to the side and keeping an eye out for any other familiar faces. He spotted Trip, handing his card to the man at the door to the ballroom that Fitz didn’t recognize. The guard scanned it, pocketed the card and gestured for Trip to head inside. Fitz breathed out and gave the cart a bit more of a push, speeding up as they made their way through the crowded hall with scholars and hotel guests alike going in and out of some of the larger rooms.
They rounded the corner where the crowd thinned out a little bit to find Grant Ward talking in low tones with the man stationed in front of the office door.
Fitz cursed under his breath, and they kept walking, right on by him to another of the conference rooms, one that was empty for the time being. Jemma made a show of accidentally catching the edge of the cart on the door so that it closed behind them. The room was smaller than the others, but it had a nice person-sized vent on the floor near the back, right where they parked the cart.
“Don’t worry, guys,” Skye’s voice came through their comms. “Nobody paid any attention to you. And the room’s camera feed is now looped.”
Jemma stood at the cart and began to uncover dishes and set up plates. If anyone came in, they’d just be readying the cart for guests. Fitz, on the other hand, removed his jacket and crouched on the ground, keeping himself right next to Jemma and behind the cart, as he pulled their bag out, replacing it with his jacket and set to work getting the vent cover off the wall. It took less than a minute, and he put everything back in his bag, strapping it on tight before he looked up. Jemma was watching him with bright eyes.
“Ready?” He stayed on his knees while he waited for her to respond. When she nodded and stripped off her own jacket, stuffing it under the cart, he gestured for her to go first.
“What’s the matter, Fitz?” She teased him, trying to lighten the mood a bit. “Don’t want me checking out your bum on the way down the hall?”
Laughter came through the comms, and Fitz wasn’t sure if it was because Trip thought she was funny or if he was playing it up for the conversation he was having with someone else.
“No,” Fitz told her softly with a smile. “There’s plenty o’ time for you to tell me how attractive I am when we’re done.”
Jemma wasn’t the only one laughing as she crawled into the vent. When Fitz crawled in behind her, he awkwardly reached back to pull the cover into place. At least it would take a while for anyone to notice that it had been moved. They didn’t say anything as Jemma led them down a few feet of level tunnel, shuffling quietly along the space on elbows and knees. When she turned right to lead them under the hall and across it to the office, the shaft began to slope downward, and Fitz had to brace himself on the sides of the metal to make sure his weight and gravity didn’t just have him sliding right into her.
He grunted when the shaft narrowed in a little bit and Jemma paused to look over her shoulder.
“All right,” she whispered, her hushed tone echoing strangely along the metal surfaces around them.
“Bloody vents,” Fitz responded in a low voice. “Forgot how small they can be.”
Jemma gave a light laugh and started shuffling forward again, her feet narrowly missing Fitz’s shoulders as he nearly caught up to her. If they didn’t need to be quiet, Fitz would have kept up a steady stream of complaints just to hear her laughing again. They would likely have involved the possibility of coming across spiders. He hated spiders.
“The auction will begin momentarily,” echoed in their ears, Trip’s comm likely picking up the announcement, and they both froze for a few seconds. Fitz had to prod Jemma’s calf to get her moving again.
She moved beyond the grating to the office, breathing hard as she craned her neck to peer over her shoulder at him. Fitz slithered up to the grate, pulled the backpack from his shoulders, and waited, trying to see if there was anyone in the room. When all he could see was cheap tables, utility shelves, and boxes, hearing no noises beyond the sounds of Trip making small talk with Randolph again, he reached out and tapped Jemma on the back of the leg to let her know the coast was clear, and then he set to work removing the screws from the vent cover.
It took him a little more than a minute this time, working in a confined space, but soon, he was slipping the grating off and hauling himself out of the opening and to the floor. He was glad they weren’t in the deep south where most of the vents were near the ceiling in buildings like this one. Jumping up from his crouch on the floor, he turned around as Jemma shuffled backwards in the vent to put herself in front of the now open space, then he reached in and helped her out.
“That was fun,” she told him, eyes sparkling as she looked around at the office where Bakshi and Ward had set up shop.
“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” he joked. “We’ll get to do it all again as soon as we find the necklace.”
“And the cat.”
“And the cat,” Fitz agreed.
“Skye said we should pick up a few other things too. She wants to frame Grant for the thefts.”
Fitz nodded his head, moving slowly into the room, staying behind one of the open utility shelves just in case there was someone he couldn’t see on the other side. It would hardly offer them complete cover, but with items like hotel stationery and complementary clipboards all over it for the conference, they at least had something obscuring direct view of them. He spotted crates of merchandise spread out everywhere beyond his hiding spot. “This could take a while, Skye. You have eyes on everyone?”
No one answered him and he felt Jemma tense behind him.
“Lance?” Jemma whispered. “Trip?”
“Okay,” Fitz told her quietly, putting one hand behind himself that she caught, squeezing tightly and stepping into his personal space. “There’s probably a signal bein’ broadcast that interferes with the comms. But why in here? We know there’s no security cameras.” He moved to pull his phone out from its usual pocket to check the signal, but it wasn’t there. He must have left it in the hotel suite when they were talking to Skye.
“None for the Lorelei anyway,” Jemma added.
Fitz looked at her over his shoulder. Her eyes were still sparkling like they had been when she climbed up out of the vent. She wasn’t scared. That much was good. It would be easier to come up with a plan as long as they weren’t both panicking.
He held one finger up to his lips in the universal signal for quiet and she nodded to show she understood. Still holding on to her hand, he leaned carefully around the shelf and allowed his eyes to examine every inch of the room that he could, checking for any kind of camera. He saw nothing. And Fitz had hidden cameras in some very interesting places throughout his job history, so he knew exactly what to look for. He sighed, took a step forward and looked toward the door to the hallway. It was closed, presumably still being guarded by the security Bakshi had hired, but up above it was a small electronic box with a red light on it. He smiled. That box was probably blocking the signal - it was keeping track of everyone who went in and out of that door.
“We’re good as long as we don’t go within abou’ six inches of the doors,” he told Jemma, just before the door to the ballroom opened instead, and she yanked him back behind the shelf and to the ground.
Jemma held herself perfectly still as she pressed Fitz into the space between the shelf and the wall, her eyes glued to the space between the shelves that allowed her to see what was going on. Pressed up against Fitz as she was, his panting breath puffed against her cheek, and while she would normally find that very distracting, this time it was comforting.
There was a woman with a tablet walking around one of the tables. She made a note on the screen, then picked up one of the small boxes, and walked back out. Jemma waited all of two seconds before she turned around and said to Fitz, “I know her.”
“So do I.” When Jemma raised an eyebrow at him in response, he rolled his eyes. “Not like tha’. She was a’ the security desk when I came to see you at work .”
Jemma gave a small huff at the memory of their ruined lunch date. Even if they had been on the job, she had enjoyed the few minutes where she got to crowd him in an elevator. Then again, she was getting to do the same now. They were nose to nose behind a shelf, after all.
“Her name is Kara,” Jemma told him. “But I never saw her there.”
“Where do you know her from?”
“She trained with the Mockingbird, just like I did.” Jemma realized she was still squeezing Fitz’s hand from when he had reached out earlier. She loosened her grip, and dropped both hands to her knees. “Either she’s working her own angle from the inside for the Mockingbird -”
“- or the Mockingbird doesn’t know she’s got another job.”
Jemma nodded in agreement. “She studied forgery like I did, but she’s much better at the long con than I am, and she has some definite hand-to-hand combat skills.”
“Great. So, she’s the actual security we need to worry about.” Fitz ran one of his hands over his face before letting out a slow breath. “It’ll be fine.”
“Fine?” Jemma stood up behind the shelf, hands on her hips. “She’s going to be coming in for every auction item! She’s bound to catch us!”
“Then we have to move very fast,” Fitz told her.
She started to do as he suggested, ready to run into the center of the room, but he grabbed her hip from his position on the floor, and she faltered. “What?”
“Wait until she comes back to get the next piece. We’ll have a better idea of how long it’ll take her. And we can scope out the room from here, see if we spot our things.”
“Oh. Okay.” She slowly moved back into a crouch, but Fitz’s hand stayed on her hip as she did and she smiled when his fingers drummed out a rhythm in the fabric of her shirt. She didn’t stop smiling as she started trying to tell just what objects were on the tables.
“What is tha’ look for?”
“You look too happy to be stuck in a room where someone could come an’ kill us at any time.”
Jemma’s eyes raked over a table where the crates looked far too large to house a necklace or a tiny jade cat. “Aren’t you supposed to be looking at the tables instead of me?”
“I’m an excellent multi-tasker.”
Jemma gave a slight laugh. “You know,” she told him, her eyes spotting what looked like display cases for jewelry at the table closest to the door, “you are a lot bolder when there’s no one else around.”
He was quiet and his fingers stilled on her side. Worried she offended him, she turned her head slightly to better read the expression on his face, but he was smiling too, his eyes cataloging the contents of the tables.
“I think tha’ table there,” he said as he gestured to the last one, far from both doorways, “looks like it has the oldest pieces on it. Tha’ vase there? Looks like it could be Roman.”
Jemma shook her head and spotted the piece he was pointing to. “Something like that should be in a museum,” she mumbled. It was far from the first time she had been concerned about the objects she was supposed to be stealing.
“Yeah… We can’t take everythin’ with us.”
They both went quiet again as the door opened and Kara came in, tablet back in hand, and headed straight for the middle table. She picked up another crate; this one, from what Jemma could see, was full of books. Maybe it held the text Professor Randolph had been so interested in. She tried to shift to be able to see through the shelf and out the door, but as she did, Kara paused in the middle of the room, her tablet perched precariously on the top of the crate, and looked around.
Jemma froze, not even breathing, until Kara had left the room again, the door shutting quickly behind her.
It was Fitz who moved into action first, up and around the shelf and over to the far table before she could unfreeze her limbs. She followed him a bit more slowly, eyes roving the tables, looking for items they could take that would be easy enough to carry out, but important enough to get Grant into serious trouble.
She plucked a couple of antique coins from one of the containers and placed them in one pocket. She figured that was a safe bet, and if Kara came back in and grabbed the box, there would only be a few missing. She smoothly wound her way through the merchandise to Fitz’s table, just as he opened up a box at the end.
“Jemma, there are three of them.”
“What?” She rushed to his side to look into the box. “My client is only missing one.” She bit down on her lip, only hesitating for a moment before sealing it shut and zipping the box into Fitz’s backpack. “Jewelry is closest to the door,” she explained as she pushed by Fitz and across the room.
The two of them started at opposite ends, grabbing a few of the more promising pieces and tucking them away. Jemma paused at a pair of hair combs. The pearls along the top didn’t look real, but the paper that accompanied them claimed they had belonged to a duchess. With a smirk, she lifted them and slipped them into one of her pockets, and moved to the next display case.
“Got it,” she whispered, lifting the ugliest necklace she had ever seen in her life and carefully securing it in Fitz’s pack, wrapped in the same black display cloth. “Now let’s get out of here.”
They hustled back to the shelf, and on a whim, she grabbed a tube that likely held some sort of historical document, slinging the carrying strap over her shoulder before crouching down and scrambling into the vent, heading back for the Copper Conference Room where they had left the room service cart. She only went a few feet though, turning awkwardly to make sure that Fitz followed her in and secured the grate in place as best he could. He had just started moving after her when they heard Kara enter the room again, talking to someone as she did. Fitz’s eyes grew wide and he waved his hand, urging her to keep going.
Jemma moved as quickly as she could without alerting anyone to the fact that two thieves were in the vents. She wanted to ask if Skye could hear them again, but she couldn’t hear the auction activities through the comms, so she had a feeling they weren’t back online yet. When she reached the cover for the vent in the conference room though, she froze. There were people at the room service cart loading plates up with the desserts they’d left behind. She held a hand up behind her and frantically waved Fitz back before scooting back herself, banging her elbow into the side of the vent while she did, and hoping no one heard.
She backtracked until she reached the wider open space of a junction and flipped over onto her back so she could see Fitz more clearly.
“Wha’ happened?” He whispered.
“The room’s in use now. There were people all over the cart,” she gasped out, her heart thumping erratically. Getting stuck in the vents was not part of the plan. They didn’t have video looped throughout the hotel. Wherever they emerged now, the cameras would catch them, unless their comms came back on and they could ask Skye for help.
“Okay.” Fitz nodded his head as best he could in the small space, reaching out and squeezing her leg in reassurance.
Jemma smiled at him gratefully.
“Do you know the route tha’ will get us to the basement level?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Jemma answered, closing her eyes and thinking back to the maps they had pored over to find the perfect route. “Yes. Definitely.” She popped her eyes open and shifted to her side. “It’s going to take a while. You have a specific place in mind?”
“Employee locker room. By law, they can’t have cameras in there. People take off their clothes. It’s an invasion o’ privacy.”
“And we can change in there too.” Jemma grinned. She was so relieved she just wanted to kiss him, but she settled for reaching down and grabbing his hand. “You really are a genius. But we better move fast before any of these items come up on the auction.”
She squeezed along one side of the shaft to move into the larger space of the junction, finding herself pressed into his side as she tried to angle into a turn.
“Hi,” Fitz said with a grin.
“Oh, no,” she told him with an answering smile, using his shoulders for leverage to move into the turn. “We are not doing this in an air shaft.”
He laughed and followed along behind her, the vents taking on a sharp downward slope as they crawled and slithered their way through.
“At least someone keeps these clean,” Fitz muttered behind her as he panted for breath, his earlier train of thought coming back to him. “We could be climbin’ through spider webs.”
“Ugh. Why would you say that?” Jemma hissed. “You know once you say something like that, it’s bound to happen.”
A burst of static in her ear made her jump, her head thwacking sharply into the metal of the air shaft. Fitz had done the same behind her and they both groaned as Skye’s voice came over the comms.
“Jesus! If you two don’t answer me soon, I’m climbing in the damn vents after you! Someone tell me what the hell is going on!”
“Skye?” Fitz asked weakly. “Please stop yellin’. There was no signal in the bloody room.”
“Oh, thank God. I thought you were dead.”
“Glad to hear you have so much confidence in us,” Jemma snapped as she started crawling forward again.
“I have plenty of confidence in you,” Skye’s voice explained. “But not being able to hear from you and knowing that Grant’s down there…” She trailed off, not needing to finish her thoughts.
“Our escape room is fillin’ up with people. We’re headed to the employee changin’ rooms instead.”
Jemma felt Fitz collide with one of her legs as he slid along the downturn of the vent, but she just kept going, the document tube over her shoulder slapping against the wall.
“You two got the merchandise?” Lance’s voice cut in, a tinge of disbelief hanging in it.
“Yes,” Jemma and Fitz chimed in unison. Jemma was starting to get offended that everyone was surprised. At least Trip couldn’t come out and say anything in a room full of other people. Had they not been doing a good job so far?
“Then Trip should get out o’ the bloody auction now before he gets spotted.”
“Too late for that,” Trip muttered.
Jemma stopped at the next turn, heart pounding in her chest again, listening to find out just what Trip meant by that, but Fitz pushed on her leg again behind her.
“Keep movin’,” he instructed her. “We can’t help if we’re still in the vents.”
“You don’t help at all,” Skye called into her microphone, the sound of cases being slammed shut as she packed up equipment and put her own comm in echoing in their ears. “You guys have the merchandise. You get to the rest stop. You wait there. That’s an order.”
“I love tha’ she says tha’ like there’s some sort of ranking here,” Fitz mumbled while Jemma slid into place just beyond the vent for the changing room.
“There is. My job, my rules, remember?”
“Triplett,” Grant’s voice entered their conversation.
Jemma didn’t know Trip very well yet, but she could hear him smiling through his clenched teeth. Lance cleared his throat.
“On my way, mate.”
“Just, wait,” Trip said.
“I don’t know if that’s meant for me or the idiot,” Lance shot back.
Jemma twisted around, watching Fitz peer through the cover before he set about dislodging it from its position and pushing his head through the opening. It looked like this one was a tight squeeze, but she waited until his feet had disappeared, and then scooted back to follow behind him.
“Where’s the rest of your team, Trip?”
“What team? I’m here to buy Grandma Jones a present. You know, she has a thing for antiques. I heard you’ve got some cool Norse artifacts.” Trip’s voice was as smooth as honey. Jemma hated to think about the comparison, but he almost sounded like he was trying to flirt with the other guy. Somehow, she didn’t think that was going to play.
“You really got a one track mind, you know that?”
Jemma shimmied through the opened space, her hips catching on the sides, letting Fitz grab onto her arms and haul her out so she could stand, both of them panting as they haphazardly shoved the cover back into place and dusted themselves off. Luckily, there was no one actually in the locker room.
“And Fitz, he’s here with his new girlfriend, I bet?”
Jemma grabbed a jacket from one of the open lockers in front of her and tossed it to Fitz before finding herself a cardigan as well. Fitz found a pair of visors likely worn by employees on the pool deck, and plopped one on her head as they moved through the row of lockers to the door.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Fitz got out of the game. He’s tired of you coming after him.” There was a scraping sound over the comms and Trip cleared his throat again. “It’s weird, you know. You got a thing for him? Breaking Skye’s heart wasn’t enough for you?”
Jemma glanced over at Fitz as they walked quickly into the hall, blending in with the other employees. His jaw was tight, and he was breathing hard, but he didn’t say a word. She laced her fingers through his as they made their way to an exit.
“Ah, there it is. I always knew you were interested in her. She finally giving you a shot?”
There was a crunching sound next.
“Damn it,” Skye’s voice huffed into their ears. “I really hope that was you hitting him, Trip.”
Trip’s voice was muffled when he asked, “What are you planning on doing with me?”
As Fitz and Jemma came to the employee entrance that led to the parking garage, she looked at him for a moment. He had glanced back over his shoulder as if trying to decide whether they should turn around. Jemma yanked him to the door, and then reached next to them to pull down hard on the fire alarm alert. Sirens went off all around them, and she hoped that was enough to get Trip and Lance a distraction.
Fitz and Jemma spent the first 30 minutes of their drive in silence, just listening to the sounds coming through their comms. Skye lecturing Trip and Lance while she tried to work out a plan to get them out. Lance making sarcastic comments as it sounded like he knocked a few heads into walls. The fire alarm blaring. Trip was relatively quiet though - no quips or conversation with Ward - just a few grunts and plenty of background noise. He was clearly going head to head with the other man on his own.
“Hi, excuse me,” Skye’s voice came through, sweet as maple syrup over the comms. “This guy hit on me at the conference on the second floor, and I said no, and he’s threatening to hurt my boyfriend. Could you send security to find him?”
“Ma’am, all guests are being evacuated. Do you not hear the fire alarms?”
Fitz gripped the steering wheel so tightly, he worried he might pull it right off.
“Skye…” Trip’s voice had a warning tone to it.
“Skye what?” Ward asked.
Fitz sped by a gas station and hoped they’d see another one before they came on another stretch of highway. He was trying to focus on the good, and not the sound of things falling apart behind him: they had the merchandise that their clients wanted back, and they had enough extra to frame Ward for grand larceny on top of that.
“Bloody morons,” Lance griped. “Not even decent thugs.”
Fitz allowed a smirk at that, and it grew when Jemma let out something of a gasping laugh.
“Skye’s moved on,” Trip said. “You should too.”
A series of crunches and cracks followed that made Fitz wince. It was entirely possible that one of his friends just had one of their bones snapped in half.
“Is that all you got?”
Another loud crack and a few crunching sounds, like wood splintering, could be heard, and then static cut in.
“Lance? Did you make it to Trip?” Jemma asked over the sounds of the tires on the highway. She didn’t get an answer.
“We’re out of range,” Fitz whispered as he looked down at the GPS system. Next to him, Jemma’s breathing sped up as she made an effort to suck in air, but Fitz recognized an impending panic attack when he heard one. He’d had enough of them growing up to know.
“Jemma, you hafta calm down. I need you - I can’t - Jemma - count to five in. And then out.” He whipped his head to the side to look at her, and she nodded, sucking in a deep breath of air and letting it out.
“It’s fine,” she gasped. “I’m fine.”
When they pulled into a space at the rest stop, there were only a few other cars in the parking lot. Jemma had her earbud in her hand, rolling it between her fingers while she stared out. The sun had set, and Fitz watched her as he cut the engine.
“They’re goin’ to be fine.”
“We wait for another two hours and fifty-six minutes.”
Fitz sighed when Jemma dropped the earbud into the center console and leaned back in her seat. There were streaks on her face where she had been silently crying during part of the trip, and Fitz scrubbed at his own cheeks to make similar marks vanish. He was sure his eyes were red rimmed and glassy, but that could be attributed to a long drive. No one would question that.
“Jemma? Stay in the car, okay?”
“What?” She turned, eyes wide, body taught in alarm. “Where are you going?”
“We’re goin’ to need caffeine. I’m goin’ in to pick up a few things, yeah? I’ll be right back.”
She nodded uncertainly, then reached up and pulled the visor he was still wearing from his head, tossing it in his lap, before removing her own, along with the jacket. “Get rid of them,” she whispered hoarsely.
She scrambled to turn around in her seat, reaching into the back for a bag, any bag, to put them in. Fitz stilled her movements with a hand on her arm and gently pulled her back into her seat. He leaned between the seats and reached under the front of the passenger side, only realizing once he emerged with a plastic garbage bag that Skye had stuck there in case of emergency that it might have made an odd picture to anyone who happened to walk by. He hoped the windows were tinted enough. They didn’t want anyone paying attention to them if they were going to be there for another two hours.
He glanced up at her face again, but she was sitting back in her seat, hands in her lap, staring out the window. Fitz tried to follow her gaze, but all he saw were the passing headlights.
“I’ll be right back. I promise. Okay?”
He shucked his jacket and piled everything into the bag, tying the end in a knot, and climbing out of the car. He leaned back in to remove his keys from the ignition and slip them in his pocket. He didn’t think Jemma would leave him stranded at a rest stop - she had been the one who kept going so they could leave - but he thought it best to err on the side of caution.
“I want chocolate,” she told him, her face still sad, but her eyes fierce. “Lance always used to tell me it made everything better when we were kids.”
“Chocolate, yeah. Can’t say I disagree with him there.” Fitz nodded quickly. “I can do that.”
Shutting the door to the car, Fitz ambled up the sidewalk, trying to look like someone on a road trip who just needed to stretch his legs for a while. That’s all this was, he told himself, a couple on a road trip. They were most definitely not two members of a five-person team of criminals. That would be ridiculous.
When he made his way up to the building at the heart of the rest stop, he was expecting grimy tiled floors and trash littering the floor. His experience with East Coast stops on the highway had led him to believe that no one manned these places, but there was a woman sweeping up straw wrappers from the sidewalk, a couple of fast food places, a little convenience store, and vending machines. Clearly, this place catered to the drivers heading to Vegas from the west. He stood in the middle of the space after dropping his bag in a garbage bin and watched a woman doling out burgers and fries to three impatient children. He debated heading into the convenience store for prepackaged food or over to the burger joint for something a little more filling. Jemma might be too nervous to eat, but his nerves alway made him triple his calorie content.
He decided on both.
He nodded at the clerk in the convenience store who was seated at the counter flipping through a magazine as he walked by a display of maps. He grabbed a road atlas for the west coast, just in case. You never knew when your GPS was going to go out, and they didn’t have a phone. Remembering that Skye in fact had his phone, he quickly nabbed one of the pay-as-you-go set ups from next to the counter, and then the biggest bag of M&Ms the place had. He pulled a couple of bottles of water from the cooler for good measure.
He tossed everything onto the counter and waited expectantly. He probably could have easily stolen everything he’d picked up, but at this point, he thought it was better to be safe than sorry. He didn’t want to get nabbed by a highway patrol officer because he stole $50 worth of crap from a rest stop.
“Anything else you’re lookin’ for?” The woman behind the counter asked as she dropped her magazine to the side and scanned his purchases.
“Erm. Don’t think so.” But he threw a pack of gum on top anyway. “Pretty quiet around here?” He tried to keep his voice as flatly American as possible. He was a little out of practice, and it was always good to be careful.
She tossed each item into a plastic bag as she scanned. “Yep. Not a big travel week, I guess.”
Fitz nodded politely, then handed her a pair of crumpled up fifties from his pants pocket. He usually prefered one of the fake credit cards he or Skye had created, but emergency cash meant no paper trail. The woman raised an eyebrow at the cash, but Fitz just smiled as she counted back his change.
Carrying the plastic bag with him through the building, he saw a few large trucks pull into the front, men in boots and ball caps dropping down from their high cabs and lobbing jokes at one another as they took a break from their delivery routes. He kept walking toward the smell of burgers and fries, realizing the place’s logo was a little green frog.
“Burger Frog? Tha’ seems like the worst name for a fastfood place,” he muttered to himself as he walked up to the counter. Their menu was standard American fast food though, so he couldn’t complain too much. He ordered two large meals and a chocolate shake for Jemma before being told to have a “hoppin’ good time in Nevada.”
He shook his head and carefully balanced his purchases in his arms as he made his way back to the car where he didn’t find Jemma waiting as he’d instructed. Instead, she was sitting at a picnic table in front of it, her face illuminated by the glow of the orange lights in the lot.
“I thought I told you to -”
“Stay in the car, yes, you did.” Jemma rolled her eyes. “I wanted some air.” She leaned forward and pulled two of the cups from his hands so he could set everything on the table. “It smells like you just exited a grease fire.”
“Burgers and chips,” he told her coolly before handing her the other cup. “And a chocolate shake for you.” The way she smiled her thanks at him made his heart skip a few beats, like one of those cheesy pop songs you always heard on the radio. He pulled a burger from the bag and handed it to her. She looked skeptical, but he just kept waving it in front of her until she took it, unwrapping it and taking a small bite with a shrug. He removed the second and began unwrapping the paper. “Got us a phone too.” He took a larger than necessary bite of the burger, savoring the taste of beef and cheese and pickle for a moment before rapidly chewing and swallowing. “See if we can get ahold of anyone.”
“Oh, good thinking!” She twisted to look over her shoulder. “They sell phones here? Or did you lift someone’s?”
“Bought a burner. Seemed better than having a name attached to one. Just in case we get Grant.”
Jemma abruptly set her burger back down on the paper and nodded her head. “Right.” She stabbed a straw into her shake. “That is a possibility.” She took a long pull from the shake before swallowing and taking a deep breath. “How long do we wait before we call?”
Fitz dug back into the bag and handed her a container of fries, but she shook her head, so he set them on his own wrapper, then reached into the other bag for the phone. The phone that was wrapped in nearly impenetrable plastic, as he discovered after trying to find a way to separate it for nearly ten minutes between bites of his burger and handfuls of fries.
He was red to the tips of his ears when he tried to use a fingernail to edge the corner of the plastic apart, only to drop the whole thing on the table and have to catch his soda from toppling off the edge. It was worth the frustration though since it was enough to make Jemma laugh at his predicament.
When she held out her hand to take the package from him, he noted with something akin to delight that she’d actually eaten most of her burger. It was more than he expected from the fear that had been etched into her face for most of the drive. She placed the package down in front of her and half stood from the bench to reach into one of her pockets, searching for something. When she came up with a capped portable screwdriver, Fitz nearly smacked his own forehead in annoyance. His bag with their tools in it was in the car; he could have just run to get it. He demolished the rest of his burger and both sets of fries while Jemma very carefully worked the point of the screwdriver between the pieces of plastic in the corner that Fitz had tried so hard to pull apart. It only took her a few moments, but eventually, she was able to work into the gap between the spaces and pull the packaging open with a hard thwop .
Fitz wordlessly picked up their trash and walked it to a bin while Jemma activated the phone. As he walked back to her though, he saw a man who pulled up in a sedan eying her suspiciously. With her hair pulled back, her dark clothing, and her having a screwdriver and a burner phone in plain view, he realized that they might not look the most inconspicuous. Anyone who had seen an action movie was probably going to think they were up to no good.
“Jemma,” he whispered as he came up behind her at the bench, his hand hovering over her back. “Do we have any clothes in the car?”
“I think there are a few things in the back, why?” Her head was bent over the phone, keying in the code on the package.
“We’re all in black, at night, with a burner phone, in the middle of nowhere, an’ I paid in cash, an’ you jus’ opened tha’ with a screwdriver.”
“I think you’re being paranoid.” She looked up at him with a smile. But a man on the way back to his car with his son gave them a double take and her smile fell. “But you may have a point.” She sighed. “Let’s go back to the car for now.”
Fitz expected her to climb into the front seat with him when they got there, but instead, she opened one of the back doors and slid inside once he was already half into the driver’s seat.
“What’re you doin’ back there?” He twisted around, trying to see her.
“I’m looking to see what kind of clothes you have back here while you call Skye. I don’t know anyone’s number by heart.” She huffed. “And I don’t think we’re going to want to sit in the car for another…” She reached forward and grabbed his arm to see what time it was. “... two hours and seven minutes.”
“Oh. Erm. Okay.” Fitz turned back around in his seat as she pulled up a duffel bag, unzipped it, and began rooting around in it. He flicked his eyes up to the rearview mirror after punching in Skye’s number, only to see Jemma lifting a pair of boxers with a colorful monkey print on them out of the bag curiously. “Yeah, maybe don’t put those on…”
She laughed. “I forgot that none of my clothes are in here. Everything is yours.”
“You can have anything you want.”
“But not these?”
She blinked innocently at him as she waved the boxers in his direction, and he couldn’t help but picture her in them. Having seen her in a towel already, he could pretty well imagine the rest. He just shrugged helplessly and hit the call button on the phone. She laughed again before going back to looking through his clothes, and he was glad she had the distraction because Skye’s number gave him a “this wireless customer is not currently available” message. He disconnected and tried Trip’s instead, flicking his eyes up after dialing to see Jemma pulling out one of his white undershirts and nodding in approval. Trip’s number gave him the same message and he breathed out harshly, dialing Lance’s number next. He made the mistake of glancing up again as he put the phone to his ear to see Jemma whip off her black tee, revealing a plain white sports bra and lots of pale skin before she pulled his white shirt over her head. He bit down hard on his lip and closed his eyes, listening to the ringing.
Jemma made a concentrated effort to not pay any attention to the fact that Fitz was sitting in the front seat when she changed her top. She also made equal effort to not lift the fabric of the shirt to her face and inhale. As she had shrugged into it, Fitz’s scent had hit her full force, which was ridiculous because everything in the bag was obviously clean clothing. She was almost certain that it was the psychological effect of going through his clothes. She reached down and awkwardly unbuckled her belt and undid the top button of her pants so she could tuck the shirt in, listening to Fitz’s quickened breathing in the front seat.
“Lance!” He said suddenly, stopping her from thinking about the fact that he was watching her change. “Thank God your phone is workin’... I tried to call Skye and Trip to check on them.” He hesitated, meeting her eyes in the rearview mirror. “I heard you were takin’ a vacation and uh, I jus’ wanted to see how you were. Jennifer an’ I are…” His eyes widened comically as he looked to Jemma for help, and she realized a little too late that he had gotten voicemail. She reached a hand out to take the phone from him.
“We’re doing so, so, good,” Jemma gushed, transferring her voice to the one she had been using when manning the phones for Bakshi’s company. “But I really wanted to meet Fitzy’s friends! We both lost our phones on our road trip, so call us back at this number when you get this. We’re only going to be in town for a couple of hours!” She hung up quickly before she said anything that could lead anyone they didn’t want to their location. She thrust the phone back into his hands and he dropped it into the cup holder. She hoped that if they were in trouble, no one had actually found their phones in Skye’s tech equipment. If they had, keeping up her cover was moot at this point.
“You find somethin’ for me to wear?” Fitz asked her, breaking the silence that had descended over them a few minutes later.
“Oh! Um… yeah.” Jemma shifted in her seat, pulling something out of the bag at random and shoving it in his direction.
She watched as Fitz looked back and forth, as though he was making sure no one was walking by the car, before he pulled the black tee he was wearing over his head and dropped it behind his seat, only revealing another black undershirt covering him up. It was a bit unfair that he’d seen so much and she got to see so little. She rolled her eyes a bit and grabbed it, folding it carefully and placing it on top of her own on the cushioned seat. What he pulled on was a wrinkled light blue button down, and he made a dissatisfied sound at the back of his throat as he set about buttoning it up.
“Your options are a little bit limited,” Jemma informed him. “You only have a few things in here. Is this like… your emergency bag?”
“Yeah, basically. In case I hafta run.” He shrugged as his fingers climbed up the buttons. “We all have one.”
Jemma filed that information away for future reference. She’d never kept a go-bag before. She should definitely start.
An hour went by in which they sat in the car and chatted about everything and nothing. Fitz recounted scrapes that he deemed worse that both Trip and Lance had managed to get out of.
“You’re pulling my leg,” Jemma decided, her legs actually stretched out across the back seat while she leaned back, using his duffel bag as a pillow against the door.
“There’s no way Lance talked himself out of a military base. His American accents are horrible.”
Fitz chuckled and turned his head to look at her from where he was leaning the driver’s seat back just enough to get comfortable.
“What is that look for?” She demanded. “Are you trying to tell me mine are worse?” Fitz shook his head quickly, but he was still smiling. Jemma narrowed her eyes at him and then proceeded to name various regions throughout the states and imitate their accents. When she had made her way through a dozen, Fitz was nearly shaking with repressed laughter. She huffed.
“Please, never try to do Texas again!” He gasped, trying to catch his breath as he started laughing.
“Ugh. Fine!” She nudged him gently in the shoulder with her foot, her shoes discarded somewhere on the floor. “I can admit that you have a better handle on accents.” He smiled smugly, and she rolled her eyes in response, but didn’t remove her foot from the edge of his seatback. “It seems only fair. You have been doing this longer than I have.”
“True.” She watched him, his face shifting as though he’d just had a brilliant idea. “Did you really wan’ to learn how to lift hairclips?”
Jemma colored slightly, glad he couldn’t see it in the near darkness the back of the car provided her with. “I just… liked watching you. I’ve never seen anyone that good at it before.” She stopped just short of telling him that his hands were amazing, though she very much wanted to see the expression on his face when she did.
He shifted slightly in his seat, the orange of the street light falling over his face as he moved.
He chewed on his bottom lip in thought and Jemma sat up fully, bringing her hands up to remove the elastic of her ponytail, wanting something to do again. All of this talking to Fitz was great, but she had the fear that they were never going to see their friends again at the back of her mind, and all of the ways she’d really like to forget about their problems were not appropriate for a rest stop parking lot. She suspected Fitz might be thinking something along the same lines as a silly smile rested on his face while she ran her fingers through her hair, even shaking it out a bit to make it look normal after being up all evening. She was very tempted to tell him to move the car to a more secluded parking spot.
“When this is done -”
The phone in the cupholder rang, cutting her off and she sucked in a breath. She dropped her foot from Fitz’s seat, hooking her toes on the underside of the seatback and scooting forward so that she was sitting in between the two front seats as he shot up and reached for the phone.
“It’s Lance’s number,” he told her as he looked at the display.
“Answer it.” She motioned impatiently, despite feeling like her step brother, yet again, had crap timing.
“What if it’s Grant?”
“Then we’ll know what we’re up against, won’t we?”
She pretended not to be nervous, giving him a tight smile, but her hands were curled into fists in her lap as he answered the phone. His brows were drawn tight, his jaw working as he brought the phone up to his ear.
Jemma watched as his muscles instantly relaxed and he tapped the ceiling of the car with his hand in lieu of a victory fist pump. She was almost certain that’s what he would have done if he was alone.
His one word answers weren’t really giving her any idea of what was actually happening though, and she didn’t like that. Not one bit. Especially considering just how he had sobered up when he began listening.
Fitz kept his face carefully expressionless as Skye, not Lance, spoke hurriedly on the other end.
“I’m draining my Daisy Johnson bank account to bail Lance and Trip out. But I won’t be able to get them out of jail until the morning. I’ve got all my I.D.s as their lawyer. Grant and Bakshi are on the run.”
“Jemma’s right there, isn’t she?”
“Yep.” Fitz popped the ending ‘p’ like he had been chewing bubble gum.
“Okay, listen: And don’t let her know that something’s up, but I also talked to the Mockingbird after the police were done questioning me about the supposed brawl I was involved in. Kara isn’t the only member of her group that’s gone rogue lately. She’s seen a lot of information leak to other people about old jobs. I trust Jemma, but Mockingbird said she’s not sure how deep it goes.”
Fitz looked out the window instead of over at Jemma, watching a van pull into a parking space and several teenagers pile out of it. “So, wha’ do you want us to do?” He had a feeling he knew where this was going and he didn’t like it.
“Listen. You guys are going to give the clients their merchandise back.” Skye took a breath on the other side. “Here’s what you’re going to tell Jemma until I can check everything out.”
Jemma narrowed her eyes in suspicion when Fitz disconnected from the call. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed before turning to look at her. And when he started talking, he was staring at a point in the middle of her forehead, not in her eyes. It didn’t take a con artist to know that something wasn’t right.
“There was a complication with Trip an’ Lance.”
“They got arrested for fightin’.”
“Skye’s sortin’ it out, but she wants us to go ahead. Where’s your client? I can drop you off at an airport or a bus station if you need me to? And then I’m goin’ to head to ours.”
Jemma pursed her lips together and nodded. There was most definitely something that Fitz wasn’t telling her, and she didn’t know why, but apparently Skye didn’t want them to keep traveling together. That didn’t bode well.
“And after that?”
“Skye said to give it sixty days for her plan to frame Grant to go ahead. After that, she’ll tell us all where to meet up.”
Jemma hadn’t known Fitz very long, a few weeks, but she knew that the tone he was using was not his normal Fitz tone. It wasn’t his undercover tone or his long con tone or any of the other personas she’d seen him try on. It was more like the tone he took when he didn’t want to talk about something. She’d most often heard it aimed at Lance before, and she wasn’t sure why he was using it on her.
She didn’t know what else to say beyond that.
Fitz reached down to the side of his seat and hit the button to bring the back upright again. “Do you - erm - need to use the facilities?”
“No.” Jemma reached over and opened the door though, climbing out of the car, and taking a breath of the cool night air. A dozen different things went through her mind as she tried to figure out what he was hiding from her as she slammed the door shut and opened the front seat instead. Climbing inside and shutting the door, she buckled her seatbelt and sat stiffly until Fitz turned the key in the ignition and pulled out of the parking space.
“Where am I goin’?” He asked as he reentered the highway.
“Apparently, the closest bus station,” she informed him crossly. She knew she sounded petulant, but she didn’t care. The way Fitz was acting was a complete about-face, and she wasn’t sure what to do with it. The awkwardly flirting Fitz was gone and replaced by someone else and it was very confusing.
“Jemma, I -”
“Just drive, Fitz.”
When they reached the bus station, Jemma sat very still in the passenger seat of the car, arms crossed over her chest. She had tried to ask him questions as they drove, but Fitz didn’t give her any real answers. She jumped when he reached across her for the glove compartment, but he didn’t touch her, instead popping it open and pulling out what looked like a cosmetic case. He unzipped it and shook the contents into her lap before placing the case back in the compartment.
“For - for the ticket - or anythin’ else you need.”
“I don’t need your money, Fitz.” Her eyes burned at the thought. This was all entirely different from how she expected their night to go.
“It’s no’ like that.”
“Then what’s it like?” Jemma turned in her seat, her hands gripping the armrest between them. “I thought we made a good team. It doesn’t - how is it safer to split up? What aren’t you telling me?”
“Please, Jemma.” He shook his head helplessly.
“Ugh.” She grabbed the bills and crumpled them up in one hand as she unlocked her seatbelt and climbed back out of the car, heading for the trunk, stuffing the money in one of her pockets as she went. Fitz popped the trunk open from the controls before she even got there, but he was at her side before she could unzip the bag with all of the stolen merchandise in it.
“You should take a couple o’ things, you know, since there’s no real payment for the job.”
“Oh, how generous of you, Fitz,” she muttered sarcastically. “Cash and a present.”
Despite her sarcasm, her mind flashed to the antique hair combs she had wrapped and placed in one of her loose cargo pockets earlier. She hadn’t added those to the bag when they had emptied their pockets, and she figured what Fitz didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him at this point. She grabbed the box with all three of the cat figurines carved out of jade before realizing she didn’t have a bag. Fitz seemed to have anticipated that though, showing her his previously full duffel that now only held a handful of items. She slipped the box inside, then grabbed the document tube and put that in as well, zipping it all up with a harsh yank.
“Okay. I guess we’re done,” she snapped, turning away.
“Jemma, wait.” She tried to shake off his hand when he reached for her, but she didn’t really want to walk away from him, so she turned around to see his eyes, bluer than she’d ever seen them, holding his gaze while she waited. It was probably much easier to get her attention than he expected considering the way his mouth popped open and closed in surprise. A small part of her was ready to yell at him again, but a much larger part of her just wanted to beg him to not make her go alone.
She held up her hands in a what now gesture as his fingers slid down her arm where he’d grabbed onto her elbow. When they reached the palm of her hand, he pressed harder into her skin.
“It’s just a precaution,” Fitz whispered, stepping in close to her personal space. “I will see you once Skye’s plan is done. Just a couple o’ months, yeah?”
“A lot can happen in a couple of months,” Jemma whispered back as people milled about outside of the tiny bus station. “Maybe you’ll forget all about me.” Her throat started to close off at the very thought. She liked Fitz. She didn’t want this to be it. She wanted to find out just how much she liked him.
The anger she was holding onto shifted a bit at that, and she found the corners of her mouth starting to turn up in a smile. When he leaned forward and pressed a kiss to her cheek, she turned her head so that he got one of those upturned corners of her mouth instead, her breath catching in her throat and her heart pounding from that innocent brush of lips that could have meant absolutely nothing if it was anyone other than Fitz. But it was Fitz, and she tried to take a step closer to him as he pulled back and started to turn away.
“I’ll see you soon, Jemma.”
“No, wait!” When he turned and sighed, opening his mouth to undoubtedly tell her that he couldn’t, she shook her head. “Just, one thing.” She took another step, and then another, until they were only a breath apart. “Before you go.” Grabbing on to the fabric of his shirt with one hand to keep him in place, she looked him in the eye and slowly reached up, placing her other hand on the back of his neck. The duffel bumped awkwardly into her side as she surged forward and up on her toes, but she ignored it in favor of placing her lips squarely over his, no cheeks or corner-of-the-mouth for her this time. That just wasn’t enough.
She had intended for the kiss to be soft and sweet, a promise of what was to come when they met up again, but as soon as his lips touched hers, that wasn’t enough either, and she found him parting his lips against hers much sooner than she had anticipated, but she took his opening greedily, tasting chocolate and fizzy drinks and Fitz and how was she supposed to walk away from him ? Fingers curling into his shirt tighter than was necessary since his own hands had grabbed her waist and pulled her flush against him, she just wanted more. She tried to slide her lips against his carefully, slowing herself down, but it was nearly impossible, her teeth scraping along his lips when he started to pull away.
“Jemma,” he whispered against her lips, “I hafta -”
“I know.” She placed one more lingering kiss on him for good measure. “But don’t forget to come find me.”
He gave an undignified snort and she grinned.
“The second Skye gives the okay, I’ll find you.”
She swallowed down her disappointment at having to leave and pulled herself away from him. “See you soon, Fitz.”
Unlike Fitz, whose client actually was in Southern California, Jemma had to spend a very large chunk of time on a bus since she had no method of identification and none of her own belongings. It made for a very long and very annoying trip to Seattle. She was hit on by no less than four of the other travelers on the way to Washington, and she finally switched her seat to one next to an elderly woman knitting a sweater to avoid the other passengers. She taught Jemma how to knit a scarf, and then she let her keep it.
Ordinarily, Jemma would have stolen a credit card off her seat mate in that situation, but the woman was so nice, she didn’t have the heart to. Instead, she stole one from one of the men that hit on her and slipped one of Fitz’s fifties into the woman’s knitting bag when the older lady told the very drunk man who was leering at the two of them to mind his own business.
Which meant that when she arrived in Seattle, she was able to book a hotel room with her “husband’s” credit card and buy a change of clothing to make herself look presentable before she scheduled a meeting with her client.
Toweling her hair dry after her first shower in what felt like weeks, even if it had only been more like 48 hours, Jemma decided that the time had come to actually look at the items Fitz had let her take. With a robe wrapped securely around her and her hair pulled back so as not to drip on anything, she pulled the document tube and the little box from Fitz’s duffel bag. The antique hair combs were already sitting on the nightstand in the room, looking completely out of place in the modest setting. Lifting the lid from the box, she peered at the figurines curiously.
There were still three, just like there had been in Las Vegas when Fitz had shown them to her the first time. Three tiny cat figurines carved out of jade, and all, at first glance, in exactly the same position, but the longer she looked at them, she realized that wasn’t true. The cat on the far left of the box had a slightly different paw position than the other two. The cat on the far right of the box had a wider tail. The faces were all exactly the same though, and she wondered if they had originally been intended as a set, if that’s the real reason Bakshi had stolen the one in the middle (at least, she thought it was the one in the middle) from her client.
Jemma picked up her newly procured phone from the table and snapped pictures of each of them separately, then together, and set the app she’d installed to search for them. Something about them was bothering her, though she couldn’t put her finger on just what.
While the program was running, she moved to the document tube, uncapping the end, and carefully extracting what she thought was going to be some sort of thin parchment, but instead, it was canvas. The jagged edges made it clear it had been cut from a custom frame too. It wasn’t until she carefully unrolled it, holding it away from herself that she cursed out loud. It was Mr. Peterson’s painting, the one he had wanted appraised weeks ago. At some point while she had been working this job, Mr. Turgeon had either gotten him to sell or he had stolen it and left him with a copy from the very beginning.
She hated these people. They preyed on those who didn’t have money and whose family had all gone. She hoped that when Skye framed Grant that she took them all down with him.
Fitz waited impatiently at the back of a dimly lit restaurant. He hated San Francisco and he just wanted to be rid of it. And when the client got there in another few minutes, he finally would be. He hunched over in his seat and sipped from his vodka, eyes never leaving the entrance, waving off the waitress who wanted to take his order. He straightened when a woman in a dress walked through the door, her eyes flitting from booth to booth until she saw him.
She walked quickly and purposefully through the restaurant, skirting the hostess when she tried to seat her.
“Mr. Leonardo, I was so relieved to get your call,” she told him, extending one hand to shake his. Once they shook, he gestured to the seat across from his own. “Did you find my grandmother’s necklace?”
“We did. Daisy asked me to return it to you while she’s… tying up loose ends.”
He placed the package that had been sitting in his lap onto the table and he watched the smile that bloomed on the woman’s face, much like the flowers printed across the fabric of her dress.
She reached out and cautiously lifted the lid of the box, finding the necklace nestled inside on top of a file folder.
“You told us you weren’t sure why it was special to your gran, just tha’ it had been in your family for a long time. Well, the man who stole it did a lot o’ research on it when he had it appraised. It’s all there, everything you could want to know about the history.” Fitz lifted his drink and drained the rest of it as she opened her mouth. After he swallowed it down, he added “We’re happy to help. I know you an’ Daisy’re old friends, so she told me to tell you there’s no fee.”
“Yes, well, I met Daisy when we were both runaways and I was conning people into believing I was psychic. I was never good at retrieval, and I can afford her fees.” She opened up her clutch and pulled out a small envelope that was thicker than it should have been, pushing it across the table and placing the lid back on her parcel. “Thank you for this.” She stood from the table. “I get the feeling you have somewhere else to be, so I won’t keep you.”
“Sure you aren’t really psychic, then?” Fitz asked as he put the envelope into the inner pocket of his jacket and left some cash on the table for his drink, climbing to his own feet as well.
“Please. You and I both know there’s no such thing.” She straightened her shoulders. “But if you guys ever need one, I’d cut you a break.”
Fitz laughed. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Jemma signed the note she included in the package with a fancy scripted J, but nothing more, then tucked it inside the box with the document tube. She made sure to wrap the tube in bubble wrap and use a surplus of packing peanuts before she taped everything up and walked to the counter of the post office. Thanks to the post-it note she found at the bottom of the bag Fitz had given her, she had all the information she needed. It was the same one she had slipped into Fitz’s back pocket with Mike Peterson’s information on it weeks ago, it took less than five minutes to make sure the man and his son got their painting back. It took her nearly 20 minutes to locate her client’s apartment though.
When she knocked on the door, a woman she didn’t recognize opened it for her.
“Oh, hello. I’m… Jennifer. I’m here to see -”
“Jiaying, that chick you talked to this morning is here!” The woman in front of her yelled behind her. “Sorry,” she muttered to Jemma. “But I’m running late for work.” She held the door open and gestured for Jemma to follow her inside. “Make yourself at home.”
She laced up a pair of sneakers and threw a sweatshirt on top of her jogging ensemble.
“Where do you work?” Jemma asked curiously.
“Gym. I train distance runners.” She grinned, pulling her hair into a tight bun on the top of her head. “Something ironic about a runner always being late, right? Don’t worry, I’ve heard all the jokes.”
She grabbed her bag and was out the door before Jemma could respond.
“Sorry about that.” Jiaying glided into the room. “She really is always late.”
“Oh, it’s fine.” Jemma waved one hand in the air, but she stood up a little straighter. There was something about Jiaying, maybe it was the way she carried herself, that had made her seem regal even when she was nearly crying about her stolen family heirloom to Jemma at their first meeting. She always felt an intense need to be more respectful than usual when she was around her.
“Can I get you anything to drink?” Jiaying gestured to the kitchen behind her as she spoke, but Jemma shook her head.
“I’m fine, really.”
Jiaying was already walking into the kitchen and to the refrigerator though. “I have to say, I’d thought you’d forgotten about me. I hadn’t heard anything in months.”
“Yes! I know!” Jemma followed her and placed her bag carefully on the kitchen counter. “I’m sorry about that. The man that took the figurine from you -”
“Yes. He had a much more extensive operation going on than I expected. I, erm, had to do a bit more research before I was able to procure your property.”
Jiaying laughed and poured a glass of iced tea. “That is a very fancy way of saying it was harder to steal than you thought.”
Jemma blushed and accepted the glass with a nod of her head. “I did find something rather fascinating though.”
“The figurine that belonged to your grandmother, it wasn’t the only one.” Jemma smiled before she took a sip of her tea and set the glass aside to open her bag. Well, really, it was Fitz’s bag, but Jemma had decided it was hers now. Even if it still smelled like him.
“That’s impossible. My grandmother said it was hand carved for her grandmother. It’s been in my family as long as anyone can remember.”
“See for yourself,” Jemma remarked, lifting the box from her bag and passing it across the counter. “The other two are clearly made from the same hand. They have all the same characteristics, with only slight differences in the pose. I’m sure if you have them tested, but by a reputable professional this time, you’ll find that they’re the same age. I’d wager they were probably made for siblings?” Jemma watched as Jiaying lifted one of the tiny cats delicately from the box and examined it.
“I know you don’t have any family left. But I also know that you love genealogy and have thoroughly studied your family history. I think… if you wanted to… you could probably figure out who these are supposed to belong to.” Jemma tapped the surface of the counter as Jiaying looked up. “Maybe you’ll find a relative you thought was long gone.” She shrugged. “I tried to research the pieces on my own, but I couldn’t find an exact match, so I don’t know who the artist is.”
Jiaying broke into a wide smile. “Thank you, Jennifer. This is amazing.”
“Yes, well, all in a couple of months work,” Jemma joked.
“Do you have another job to get to? Or can you stay for dinner?”
Jemma licked her lips and thought for a moment. She had no other jobs lined up. She had no team to get back to. She didn’t even know Fitz’s number to call and ask him if a couple of days had been long enough for them to be apart instead of the full two months. She was truly on her own with no plan. The extent of the plan she’d made that morning was to max out the last credit card she’d stolen by flying to a tropical beach somewhere and waiting for Skye to call her. Or for Fitz to just show up. If anyone was going to suddenly find her, it would be him.
“Sure. I can stay.”
The safe house was dusty and he was clearly the first one there, but Fitz had prepared himself for that. In addition to the stolen merchandise, he’d also brought pizza, beer, and sanitizing wipes with him. Never let anyone say he wasn’t prepared. He let himself in with his security code and headed straight through the kitchen to what would have been the dining room, double and triple checking the alarm system he had set up there himself. The safe house was one of only three properties owned by members of the team that Grant didn’t know about. And it was where he had been instructed to go and start setting up the brilliant frame job Skye had planned for Grant.
He popped open a beer, drank half of it, then ate a slice of pizza before opening his bag and getting to work. He cleaned up the layers of dust in the converted office before turning everything on. Not only did he follow the trail Skye had left him to hack, creating and backdating emails from Grant to a very suspicious and very well known antiquities dealer who wasn’t Bakshi, but he also set up an online auction run by Grant where he would soon be offering his obviously stolen wares to the highest bidder. It was a little on the nose, but Skye claimed it was better to make the trail as easy for the police to follow as possible without just handing everything over to them. By the time he was finished with that phase of the plan, he had already eaten four slices of pizza and downed another beer.
But then, his security system went on alert.
He hit a few buttons on the computer system, disabling the alert and shaking his head. He’d warned Skye that the code had been changed. She hadn’t been to this house in more than a year though, so of course, she entered the old one.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she yelled to him as she entered the house. “I couldn’t remember the last digit, so I guessed. But hey, we brought -” Her face dropped when she found Fitz with a new slice of pizza halfway to his mouth. “Well, we brought pizza too.”
“You act like he won’t still eat it,” Trip joked from behind her, coming up to clap Fitz on the shoulder with one hand, his other still wrapped in bandages. “We’re hardly ever in New York. Might as well enjoy Carlo’s while we can.”
Fitz nodded at him, swallowing his mouthful of food and trying not to look at the fresh bruises on Trip’s face or the long slice on his chin that went down to his neck and disappeared under the collar of his t-shirt. It looked like Grant had been going for the jugular. Fitz was just glad he’d made it out.
“I don’t like New York,” Lance announced from the doorway where he was feigning a casual lean. “Too many other bloody con artists.” Lance’s face was nearly completely purple, his left arm was in a sling, and he was clearly in pain based on the way he winced every time he shifted his weight. “You know, someone tried to lift my wallet on my way out o’ the airport. Nearly broke their fingers. Amateur.”
Skye rolled her eyes and set her pizza box down next to Fitz’s, making sure to leave it far from the work space he’d made for himself.
“How we doing?”
“Everythin’s set. Over the next week, people will buy the merchandise from ‘Grant’ an’ I’ll put the money in his account, filtering it through an offshore bank first to make it just a tick more suspicious and appear harder to follow. Perfect paper trail. Then we’ll send a tip to your guy.”
“Ugh. I hate that we’re givin’ that wanker money,” Lance chimed in.
“We need the paper trail,” Trip said with a sigh, and Fitz could tell by his tone of voice, this was something they’d explained to Lance several times over the last few days.
“Whatever. I’m goin’ to take a bloody shower.”
Fitz waited until Lance was far enough down the hall that he wouldn’t hear them. “Did you talk to Mockingbird again?”
“Yeah.” Skye crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against the table. “She had an Interpol mole in her group. He’s been paid off. But information on jobs and clients is still leaking from someone. She doesn’t know who.”
“I don’t think Jemma would do tha’.”
“Neither do I,” Trip added. “And she’s probably safer with us while you’re setting up the long game on Ward.”
“Yeah.” Skye sighed. “I know. But there’s a problem.” She hesitated and Fitz drummed his fingers on the table impatiently while he chewed his next bite of food. “All of the clients that have been outed, all the arrests that have been made of Mockingbird’s team - they’re all from jobs that were done after Jemma joined up.”
“So… someone’s usin’ her as a scapegoat?”
“It’s possible. Or -” Skye watched Fitz this time, and he pushed himself away from the table angrily.
“No. She wouldn’t do tha’.”
Jemma slid her sunglasses down her nose and smiled at the man on the other side of the desk. “Darling, please. I pay in cash to preserve my anonymity. Are you really going to make me provide you with ID?” She gave her throatiest laugh and made sure to arch her neck just so, letting the man have a glimpse of the (very fake) tattoo on her collar bone. Impersonating a high fashion model was a bit of a challenge, mainly because she was so short, but so far, nothing had stopped her. She’d made her way all the way down the west coast over the course of the last month and then out to Hawaii on the dimes of several unsuspecting men who wouldn’t dispute the charges, too afraid to tell their wives they’d bought a pretty girl drinks or even dinner.
“Of course. I’m sorry.” He gave a nervous chuckle, then handed her a room key before mumbling, “do you think I could have an autograph?”
“For my favorite staff member? Where do I sign?”
After wheeling her luggage, which was mostly for show, to her own private bungalow, Jemma tipped the bellman and decided that this was as good a place as any to wait out Skye, to see if the other woman was going to invite her back to join the team. Maybe Fitz would get to her first. She hoped it would be him.
She spent more than a week slathering on sunblock and indulging in fruity drinks by the pool before she started to get bored and started fishing for work online. She just wanted one small job to take her mind off things. Something to pass the time, even. What she found had her a little worried.
So she made a call.
“Callie?” She asked once she’d heard it connect. “What the hell is going on?”
If anyone asked if he trusted Skye’s judgment, Fitz would have immediately said yes. She was the closest he had to family at this point in his life, but he also knew that outside of their very small circle of friends, she didn’t exactly let anyone else in. He knew she liked Jemma, but if the choice came down to Jemma or the rest of them, Skye was going to choose Trip, Lance, and himself. Fitz just didn’t think she should have to. So, he set about doing his own research.
Lance and Trip were busy doing absolutely nothing of use - recovering from their injuries meant they were both drinking plenty of alcohol and playing card games, trying to outbluff one another. Skye took over the frame job. So Fitz found himself with a very large amount of free time, which he spent obsessively following each and every one of the investigations that had resulted in arrests from the Mockingbird’s crew.
He’d found a disturbing trend amongst them that Skye hadn’t noticed. Not only did all of the thefts happen after Jemma started training with the Mockingbird, they also all happened at times when Grant was on jobs with Skye’s team. A couple of the jobs were even ones they had helped on.
Like the job in Rio where Mockingbird had suddenly left them stranded. Lance liked to claim that she’d betrayed them, but Fitz was starting to wonder if she had been looking out for them, if there was something else going on that he hadn’t noticed. As he slowly pieced together information about the different crimes that Interpol had suddenly “solved,” he realized something else: the arrests made weren’t nearly enough. The plans for the jobs they’d examined would have required at least three more people. Considering how loyal her people were, one would have been the Mockingbird herself, another was likely Jemma if she was suspected, but that meant there was a third person out there who should also be a suspect. And he bet if he had a little time, he could figure out who it was.
Of course, he couldn’t exactly say that to Skye when they were in the middle of framing someone.
“What? What do you mean you want out?” Skye swiveled around to face him from where she was sitting at the computer, periodically bidding on stolen merchandise under fake accounts.
“Not permanently.” Fitz rolled his eyes, but then remembered he was supposed to appear contrite if he wanted to sell this. “I jus’ want some space. We’ve been workin’ together again for months. I jus’ want to be able to breathe.”
“Right…” Skye’s voice grew softer. “I’m sorry. I forget that Lance and Trip can be a lot to handle when you’re not living with them full time.”
Fitz raised an eyebrow at her.
“Yeah, okay, I’m a lot to handle too,” she admitted with a laugh before she eyed him carefully. “So, a vacation then? You just want a few weeks to yourself?”
“Yeah, that’s all.” He waited a beat before saying, “I’ll take my phone. In case you need me for anythin’.”
Skye blew out a slow breath before she agreed. “Okay. We all need a break once in awhile. I get it. And this job was… more stressful than I thought it was going to be.” She nodded her head, and he was grateful she didn’t point out the obvious stress inducer was Grant. He didn’t want to use what Grant had done to them against her. “We’ll stay here for a few weeks. Come back when you’re ready?”
Trip and Lance weren’t quite so quick to let him walk away.
Trip examined him shrewdly before pulling him into a hug and whispering in his ear, “Be careful. You don’t know who you can call for help.”
Lance actually walked him out to the car and, making sure Skye wasn’t behind them first, said, “take care of my sister,” before he turned around and went back to the door without so much as a handshake. “Call if you need someone’s ass kicked,” he called over his shoulder.
Fitz suspected that Skye knew he wasn’t just taking a breather too; she was just choosing to pretend she didn’t know anything else for the time being. He could understand that. He and Skye didn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about their feelings. They compared pickpocketing techniques and competed to see who could hack government databases faster. That was their thing, and it worked for them.
It took him all of three days to follow the trail of unhappily married men and women Jemma had left from Seattle to Waikiki. But when he drove his rental car up to a very expensive private resort, he wasn’t entirely sure who he was looking for. Well, he knew exactly who he was looking for, he just wasn’t sure what name she was using. Instead of walking into the lobby and asking, he began scrolling through the “Jemma sightings” he’d kept on his phone while he sat in the lot, trying to figure out which one of the half a dozen people she had pretended to be would have worked best on the island. The picture of her in an oversized hat, a fake tattoo peaking out from the edge of the neckline of her sundress, made him smile as he realized who he was looking for.
“Excuse me,” he asked the concierge, adopting his most posh London accent for this conversation, “I’m looking for my client. A Miss Alison Blaire? She called me from here two days ago, but she didn’t show up for the runway show she was scheduled for. I need you to be discreet.” He slipped a large bill across the desk with a tight smile. “She tends to run away when she’s…” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “...off the wagon, so to speak. I want to make sure she hasn’t hurt herself.”
“Of course, sir.” The concierge nodded his head emphatically. “I understand. She’s a lovely woman, and she’s been a model guest. I’m really not supposed to, but, just to be sure she’s alright… she’s in bungalow 6. Did you need assistance to -”
“No, I can handle it just fine, thank you.”
Jemma rubbed her eyes and examined the computer screen in front of her. This wasn’t good at all. The information Callie had given her in hushed tones over the phone a few days earlier had worried her, but she was staring at copies of arrest reports for five different people who had personally trained her on different jobs for Mockingbird, and even more arrest reports for sources Mockingbird had used from different museums and security companies. She was starting to feel sick to her stomach. Pushing the laptop away from her with one hand and lifting the fabric of the t-shirt she was wearing to her nose with the other, she took a deep breath to try and calm herself, but the only scent she was getting from it was hotel shampoo and sun block. She sighed, wishing he was actually there. They had made a very good team.
Not to mention that she would very much like more of the kissing. And more than that.
A knock on the door startled her from her memories and she immediately jumped up from her seat at the table. No one was supposed to know she was there. She hadn’t ordered anything from the front desk, and she had made it very clear that she didn’t want any maid service for the duration of her stay. She hadn’t even stayed on the phone with Callie long enough during their phone calls to be traced. She swallowed and looked for something she could use as a weapon, but there was nothing around her except hotel furniture in a sea foam green theme and a few lamps.
A lamp would do just fine.
Scrambling as there was another knock, she picked up one of the lamps from a side table, yanking the cord from the wall before heading to the door and cautiously peeking outside. What she saw almost made her drop the lamp to the floor, but instead, it dangled from the tips of her fingers as she threw open the door.
Maybe she should wish to solve world hunger next.
“Fitz?” Dropping the lamp onto a nearby chair, she took a step over the threshold and reached out carefully, her fingers grazing his arm. He was wearing a suit, which made her think that there was a very real possibility that her brain had conjured up a very good dream for her. It was a very wrinkled suit, but it was still a suit. And Fitz in a suit was currently on her list of the top five things she wanted most on the planet. It was right there below not being thought of as a traitor. If she was honest, it might even have been above that. “Are you really here?”
“I told you I’d come find you, didn’t I?”
She didn’t think twice, grabbing his hand and pulling him inside, making sure the door was securely shut before she threw her arms around his waist and buried her face in the jacket of his suit. “I missed you,” she whispered, but then she abruptly pulled back, pushing him away slightly. “But what are you doing here? There’s no way Skye sent you to find me. I’ve seen… what’s going on.”
“No, Skye…” He gave a light sigh. “I told Skye I needed a break.” His fingers skimmed down the length of her arms until he was holding her hands loosely in his own.
“She thinks it’s me,” Jemma said flatly. “She thinks I’m the one turning people over to Interpol. Doesn’t she?”
Jemma cocked her head to the side and watched Fitz carefully. He was looking her in the eye, but his gaze dropped fairly quickly.
“Okay, she might think it’s possible. But I know she doesn’t actually think you’d do tha’.”
“I know you wouldn’t.”
Jemma nodded, her hands gripping his. “Is that why you’re here?”
“Yeah. O’ course.” Fitz grinned at her. “Why else would I be here? Just helpin’ you out.” The last sentence was said in far too sing-song of a tone for Fitz, and Jemma bit back something of a laugh. It was good to have him with her.
“Oh, that’s all?” Jemma pretended to sniff in disappointment, trying to shake off the tension that she’d been living with. “Clearly, I could ferret out the mole myself, so you can just go enjoy your little vacation then.”
“Ah. I see.” Fitz gave an exaggerated shrug. “All right then.” He dropped her hands and turned back to the door, but he only lasted a few seconds before he immediately spun back around, making Jemma grin. “Yeah, I can’t do tha’,” he admitted.
“I might have missed you too,” he said softly, stepping as close to her as she had to him over a month ago at the train station.
“Might have?” She pressed as he leaned in. An entirely different kind of tension gripped her then and all thoughts of moles and Interpol flew right out of her head, goosebumps rising on her skin.
“Definitely did.” His breath fanned over her face.
It was different, letting Fitz take the lead in the kiss this time. It was a little bit messier, a little bit more frantic. It wasn’t a promise or a goodbye this time. Instead it was more along the lines of an I can’t believe this is happening kind of a kiss. The entire world still narrowed down to the two of them. There was no sound of the waves outside. There was no knowledge of the ugly sea foam green of the walls and the furniture. There was no reminder that she could very well be wanted in several European countries. There was just Fitz and his perfect mouth and his wandering hands and the suit that she gripped in her fingers as he pushed her further into the bungalow.
When he pulled back for air and looked around to see just where they were, she slid her hands into the jacket and unceremoniously pushed it off his shoulders, forcing him to remove his hands from her for one torturous moment, watching the jacket fall onto the floor. “Did you wear this for me?” She wondered aloud.
“Did you?” He joked, plucking at the fabric of his t-shirt that she was wearing.
“Yes, I’ve only been wearing this for the last month in hopes that you would catch me in it,” she deadpanned. Though really, it wasn’t that far from the truth. She had been wearing it every chance she got in between the expensive dresses she wore as Alison. It wasn’t for his sake though, but for hers. It had served as a reminder that while she was getting better at grifting on her own, it was lonely work, and she wouldn’t be lonely for long.
Fitz chuckled before kissing her again, slower and softer this time. “I was a plastic surgeon travelin’ for a conference. Thought I should look the part.” He gave her another soft kiss, still guiding her backwards. “Came in handy. I told the front desk I was Alison Blaire’s manager an’ she was on a bender.”
“You look good in a suit.” She laughed at the confusion on Fitz’s face while she loosened his tie, slipping it from around his neck and tossing it somewhere behind him. “Fitz,” she teased, “clearly you aren’t going to be wearing it for much longer.” She pulled his face back down to hers as she spoke, her feet still moving backwards across the carpet, until she felt her back collide with the doorframe to the bedroom.
“Oh…” She grinned delightedly as his eyes lit up in understanding. “ Oh !”
Fitz found that he couldn’t wipe the smile from his face. He should have been worried about Mockingbird’s organization being torn apart from the inside out, about the possibility of Grant being connected to that, and about Jemma being a suspect. But really, with his head propped on the softest pillow he’d ever felt in his life and Jemma laying next to him tracing patterns on his chest while she tried to catch her breath, he was reasonably confident that the two of them could outrun any problem aimed at them until they found a solution.
“You look far too proud of yourself.”
Fitz shifted slightly so he could look at her, but she propped her chin up with one hand, the other still occupied in tracing his skin, leaving goosebumps in its wake.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Fitz joked, “I’ll try to appear less satisfied.”
Jemma stopped the movements of her fingertips to smack him lightly in the abdomen, but her pretense of severity lost all meaning for him when she placed a light kiss on his sternum, another on his collarbone, and then one on his neck, just below his pulse point.
“Jemma,” he whined, embarrassed at the hitch in his breath following her name.
“I came here to -” He paused as her lips moved up to his jaw. “Erm - I think we should -” She kissed his cheek, letting her lips linger for longer than they had on his jawline. “We can figure it out later,” he finally said, capturing her mouth with his own.
Fitz cut into his fish and devoured three bites in quick succession. Across the table from him, Jemma was doing much of the same. He couldn’t remember a time he’d ever seen her eat her food without commenting on nutritional value or at the very least, giving him a questioning look when he handed her something fried or made almost entirely of sugar. He’d only known her a short time, but she definitely had a higher standard when it came to food than he or Skye did. But there she was popping an entire french fry in her mouth and barely chewing it before she gulped down some of her wine instead of the tiny bites he was used to seeing her take.
Fitz couldn’t blame her. They’d more than earned a good meal after the rigorous afternoon they’d had. He hid his grin behind his own glass of wine.
“You have to stop with that expression or we’re never going to get any work done,” Jemma informed him primly, picking up her knife and cutting into her own fish before she smirked at him.
“I’m an excellent multi-tasker, I’ll have you remember.”
“Of course. How could I forget?” Jemma popped a bite of her own fish into her mouth and chewed quickly.
“What happens when someone here discovers tha’ Alison Blaire is actually in Italy shootin’ a movie?”
“Then I move on somewhere else.” Jemma shrugged. He wondered how often she’d just picked up and moved on since leaving her father’s home.
“Well, I think we should go… closer to Mockingbird’s headquarters.” Fitz chewed carefully while he waited for Jemma to react, but all she did was shake her head and take another bite, seemingly weighing her options.
“I know of two bases of operations, and I think both of them would be compromised at this point, wouldn’t they?”
“Maybe. Depends on if the actual leak knows o’ both places too.”
They spent the next few moments eating in silence before the waiter came up to check on them, and Fitz realized with something of a jolt that this was their first actual date, wasn’t it? They were wearing nice (or at least presentable to the public) clothes, sitting in a nice restaurant, and conversing over a nice meal. It was all nice . He wanted more of this as much as he wanted more of climbing through air vents with Jemma and teaching bad guys a lesson. He grinned at the thought.
“What?” Jemma asked as the waiter walked away, promising to bring them a fresh basket of warm rolls.
“Nothing.” Fitz bit down on his lower lip, trying to hide his smile, but Jemma kept staring at him with an expectant look on her face. “It’s jus’... this is nice, yeah?”
“Hawaii?” Jemma smirked again. “Yes, I quite like it here. Though I do go through an awful lot of sun block.”
“Tha’ isn’t exactly -”
“I know. I’m teasing.”
“Oh.” Fitz could feel himself blushing, but being embarrassed in front of Jemma for not understanding her teasing was probably the last thing he needed to worry about at this point.
Jemma scratched at the fabric of the table cloth with one fingernail, keeping her eyes on her plate as she spoke. “I don’t get to do things like this with someone who knows who I really am very often. Do you?”
Fitz leaned forward, placing one hand over hers so she would stop picking at the table. “I know we have other things to worry about but, we’re goin’ to do this again, yeah?”
Other than the wide smile on her face, Jemma remained perfectly motionless. Even the hand beneath his had gone still.
“Is that your way of asking me for a second date?”
“Did you want me to be more creative with it?”
“Considering we skipped straight to third date activities before even making it to dinner, I was expecting a serenade at the very least.”
“There’s still time for tha’.” Fitz pretended to think about it. “Would you prefer ABBA or maybe some Sinatra?” Jemma laughed and Fitz tried to keep a perfectly straight face. “You laugh, but ABBA is highly underrated. Everyone knows ABBA.”
She laughed again and pulled her hand far enough away that she was able to reach up and link their fingers together, and Fitz gave her hand a gentle squeeze in response. As first dates went, he was fairly certain this was the best one he would ever have.
“Alright, tell me who was involved in the Berlin job.” Fitz tossed a water bottle up and down while he laid back on the couch. He had a mental list going already from the research he’d done before coming to find Jemma, but he wanted her first hand account. He didn’t know everyone who worked with Mockingbird. He’d kept his distance from the organization unless Skye had wanted to partner up with her and that meant her group had kept an air of anonymity.
“Well, there was me, obviously. I was the distraction. Then there was Mockingbird, running point and taking care of the retrieval itself. Callie was on comms, keeping track of security for us. She had the surveillance feed.” Jemma paced as she spoke, ticking off each person with a finger.
“You trust Callie?”
“Absolutely. I recruited her.” Jemma shot him a smile. “She’s a little like you. Grew up picking pockets, but she’s got a knack for machines, not so much people. I liked her immediately.”
“Are you sayin’ I’m not good with people?” Fitz stopped throwing the bottle, catching it with one hand and trying for an affronted expression.
“I’m not saying you’re bad with people, just that you like technology and getting around locks better.”
Fitz pouted just enough to get her to roll her eyes and perch on the edge of the sofa next to him.
“You are, however, very good with some people,” she added.
Reaching over him, she ran her fingers through his hair and he hummed his approval. He’d never really liked people touching his hair, but when Jemma did it, it was comfortable.
“Okay, who else?”
“On the Berlin job,” Fitz reminded her as he dropped the bottle to the floor, catching her hand from where it had been ready to make another pass through his curls. He could already feel them standing on end, but that didn’t mean he wanted her to stop touching him.
“Oh! Erm, well,” Jemma pursed her lips and thought for a moment. “Mockingbird’s inside man was Gonzalez. He’s the curator that was arrested. Poor man. And then the driver.”
“The driver?” Fitz prompted.
“Yes. She calls him the Pilot. He can drive just about anything. He’s even really a licensed pilot. I think he used to be military or something.” Jemma shrugged, her fingers running over Fitz’s hand instead of through his hair as she thought.
Fitz could get used to this. The constant presence of Jemma. The hand holding, the just-because-she-could kisses, the way she pressed against his side just to be that much closer when they were sitting together, the general invading of his personal space - all of it. He usually kept his distance from other people, but with Jemma he couldn’t seem to even think about it - or want to. The only downside to constantly wanting to touch Jemma was that he didn’t much want to think about anything else but her. It was making it hard to keep track of all the moving pieces involved in the different jobs she was telling him about.
“Did anyone else know about the job though?”
“A good amount of Mockingbird’s people, I imagine. She’s got an extensive network, Fitz. I don’t know if I’ve even met everyone involved on the jobs I helped with. I doubt it.”
He brought her hand up to his mouth and kissed her palm gently at the worried wrinkle that was working its way across her forehead. “Occam’s razor, yeah? Simplest answer is the best.”
“The simplest answer is that this is all my fault!” She protested sharply, but she didn’t pull her hand away.
“Simplest is actually tha’ Mockingbird did it, but I doubt tha’ very much.” Fitz placed another kiss on her palm. “Mockingbird is old school, as Trip would say. She takes pride in her work. She has a code. And you didn’t do it. But someone on the job probably did.”
“Gonzalez wouldn’t have gotten himself arrested if it was him. The Berlin job was the first time I worked outside of France... First time for Callie too. It was actually her first real job with me. It had all been training for her up to then. If it was me, I wouldn’t turn someone in from my first job. It’s too obvious. Besides, Callie wasn’t there when Mockingbird led that run on the Picasso, and two of the team from that job were arrested as well. Before Callie’s time.” Jemma swallowed. “But the Pilot drove our fake delivery truck.” She looked away from Fitz and down at the floor.
“What abou’ the development plans for the Chinese embassy?”
Jemma nodded, gripping Fitz’s hand tightly. “He posed as a real pilot to get on board the flight so he could get the hardcopies from the Ambassador.”
“Okay.” Fitz let out a breath. “And what about -”
“He worked all of them. Just like me. He’s the only other person directly involved in every job other than me. And Mockingbird, of course. But we know it’s not her. Fitz, it has to be him.”
“I take it you don’t trust him as much as Callie then?” Jemma’s shoulders were rigid in front of him, and he sat up quickly, tugging on her arm so she’d face him. “Wha’ is it?”
She shook her head as she turned to look at him. “Mockingbird’s smart. If she suspects me, she must suspect him too. We started with her organization at the same time.”
“Really?” Fitz raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Did you work together before?” If they had, he didn’t want to voice his concerns to Jemma, but it was entirely possible that Mockingbird suspected them both and this Pilot had already started pinning things on Jemma since she wasn’t there to defend herself.
“No.” She laughed lightly. “But we did compete on one job. I didn’t know him then.”
Fitz waited for her to explain, tracing her spine with his finger and watching her muscles start to relax as he did.
“You can’t just waltz into Mockingbird’s house and ask to be put on a team…”
“You pulled a job to get her attention.” Fitz nodded. Of course she did. And that’s why she wanted to see what they could do when Skye asked for her help. That’s how Mockingbird weeded out people who couldn’t handle the life, and Jemma had learned from the best.
“I tried to,” Jemma corrected. “But he was working the same job. So was someone else actually, because neither of us succeeded, but we did get her attention.”
Fitz laughed, and when she pulled away from him to give him a mock glare, he quickly grabbed her arm, pulling her back in, and kissed her temple. “I’m no’ laughin’ at you. This whole thing is ridiculous.”
“Do you want to know what happened or not?”
“There was this gala in Ireland a few years ago, and I’d heard rumors that Mockingbird had set up a temporary base nearby. One of the artifacts being shown off was this gorgeous sword, rumored to belong to royalty. Beautiful craftsmanship, jeweled handle, you know, the works. I thought if I could get in and steal it, she’d find me .” Jemma paused and Fitz nodded to show her he was listening. “So, I pretended to be working for a private collector, got into the gala, but the sword was already gone by the time I got to the display room where it was supposed to be. That’s where I met him. He was posing as security. But we were both too late. We got out of there before the authorities got there. Mockingbird sent a message to my hotel the next day. His too, apparently.”
“Yes, you were probably too late by about two minutes.” Fitz smiled in satisfaction. “Tha’ was a good job.”
Jemma jumped off the sofa and spun to stare at him in disbelief. “You did it?”
“And a friend.” Fitz smiled somewhat smugly. It had been a difficult job and everything had to be timed perfectly so that the guests saw the sword and knew it was in the building before he got away with it. “I wasn’t workin’ with Skye then. She was on another job with Lance in Canada.” He chuckled. “In the dead of winter. Lance still doesn’t let Skye forget tha’. Claimed he almost got eaten by a moose.” Fitz could still remember the rant that Lance went on any time Skye decided on a job in November.
“We were in the same place at the same time years ago , and we didn’t cross paths?” Jemma threw her hands in the air in frustration. “I could have avoided this whole thing if I’d met you then.”
“Hey.” Fitz stood too, hands on her shoulders to look her in the eye. “You don’t know tha’. I was… different then. I bet you would’ve hated me.”
She reached up and toyed with the buttons on his shirt, making him draw in a sharp breath. Her fingers deftly undid one button and her hand skimmed to the next. He waited, eyes not leaving hers, as she unbuttoned three in a row. He slowly moved his hands to her arms and tugged her forward, kissing her before his hands moved lower, searching for the hem of her dress.
“I thought we were supposed to be working,” she teased as he began to pull her dress up and over her head.
“You started it.”
“I’m still not sure this is the best idea. I should have just called her.” Jemma shifted in her seat as the plane prepared for takeoff.
“No. Goin’ in person is a sign o’ good faith. Besides, we need proof that it’s this Pilot.”
Fitz pulled on his seatbelt and made sure it was securely fastened. Jemma wasn’t the only one nervous about this flight. Mockingbird didn’t get to be in charge of a global group of thieves by being stupid. She had to know that Jemma wasn’t the only possible leak. And she was likely already looking into it. When Jemma had called her friend Callie that morning to find out just where they were working from, Fitz had started to worry it was a trap. And he had nearly a full day of flying and airports with Jemma and their forged identities to continue to worry about that. He needed a distraction. Instead, he closed his eyes and gripped the arms of his seat as the plane began to climb into the sky.
“Fitz? Are you afraid of flying?” Jemma sounded almost amused.
“No. The flyin’ is fine. It’s just the takeoff that makes me worry.”
He felt her skin, warm on top of his own, as she placed her hand over his.
“Statistically speaking,” Jemma began.
“A plane is more likely to malfunction at takeoff than in flight, Jemma,” he said, cutting off whatever she had been about to tell him, his shoulders rigid against the cushion of his seat.
“Yes, but in your line of work, you’re much more likely to die in very different circumstances.”
Fitz popped his eyes open and turned his head to stare at her. “Tha’ doesn’t really make me feel better.”
“Sorry.” She scrunched her nose up to match her apologetic tone. “Would it make you feel better if I told you we could bribe the flight attendant to let us join the mile high club later?”
Fitz barked out a laugh and shook his head. “Do you know how small those loos are? When was the las’ time you were on a plane?”
“The loo?” Fitz watched as she shook her head. “What kind of girl do you think I am? Clearly, I’d angle for the pilot’s seat. That’s what autopilot is for .”
His laugh carried across the aisle and had other passengers turning to look at them with curious glances. Fitz ignored them to lean over and give Jemma a gentle kiss in thanks as the plane leveled out and he released his death grip on the armrest.
It had, though Jemma didn’t admit it to him, been over a year since she’d been on a plane, something that she’d been thinking about through the hours she and Fitz had spent talking about everything and nothing. The fact that this one was taking her back to England was making her more nervous than the fact that she was traveling to stop someone from sending most of her friends to various international prisons. While she had been all over Europe over the last few years with Mockingbird and her group, she hadn’t been back to England since the last time she’d seen her father - who had ended her visit by kicking her out when she’d inadvertently let slip that she and Lance had kept in touch since his mother had run off with half of her father’s money and never been heard from again. She hadn’t spoken to him since.
It wasn’t like she would even see her father. She had no reason to think of him. He was working out of London these days, from what she’d heard. They were going considerably farther north. She didn’t need to worry. Biting her nails to the quick was not going to help matters.
She balled her hands into fists to stop herself and turned carefully to her side in her seat. Fitz had his head leaned back, mouth slightly open, breath coming out in little whistles, and he had been asleep for nearly an hour. She really should have been asleep too. Instead, she watched him.
She watched the way his nose would twitch every few minutes, whether from some sort of allergy, or related to the dream he was having, she wasn’t sure. She watched the way his shoulders tensed and then dropped as his weight shifted to one side, like he was trying to roll over in bed, his body forgetting he was in an airplane’s seat, still buckled in even. She watched his hand twitch on the armrest between their seats too, his fingertips stretching out and retracting back before his muscles relaxed again, and she smiled. He was just as restless in sleep as he was when he was awake. But his breathing never changed, perfectly steady.
Chewing slightly on her lower lip, she reached out and placed her hand over his, just as she had when the plane had taken off and he’d turned as white as a proverbial ghost. His hand shifted slightly, thumb swiping along her skin, but his eyes didn’t open. She slid her fingers between his, liking the way they slotted together, like they were meant to be there, and left her hand in place while she tried to settle herself in her seat.
She watched the steady rise and fall of his chest, letting it lull her to sleep.
Jemma’s hand twitched at her side as they walked up the stone steps in front of them. Longing to reach out and hold on to Fitz’s hand, she settled for straightening the hem of her shirt instead. As much as she wanted to draw strength and support from him for this particular job, she didn’t want to appear weak in front of the Mockingbird either. Taking a deep breath in, Jemma marched purposefully up the remaining steps to the front door while Fitz gave something of a low whistle behind her.
“This place looks even bigger up close.”
“Most things do,” Jemma teased, trying to appear at ease.
The old English manor was more like a sprawling estate. It made it easier for the Mockingbird to hide her operation when she was in the UK. She was the American heir of some recluse coming from old money, or so the story went with the locals. With so many members of her group compromised though, Jemma had a feeling that Mockingbird wouldn’t be staying in the UK for long.
Without bothering to knock, Jemma uncapped the pendant of her necklace and made quick work of the lock while Fitz snorted in disbelief.
“Never hurts to practice,” she told him quietly as she pushed open the door, the feel of Fitz’s hand at the small of her back making her a little more relaxed at the idea of walking into the Mockingbird’s nest.
The sound of her boots echoed on the shiny floor, but that was all she heard until Fitz closed the door behind them. They both moved further into the entryway, but Fitz was the one who stopped first, a hand on her shoulder, pulling her back. Jemma furrowed her brow and turned to look at him, but he had a finger to his lips and his head cocked to one side.
“I don’t think there’s anyone here,” he mused.
“There’s always someone here,” Jemma responded, but she stood still and listened as well. “Of course, some people are more quiet than others,” she added, taking a few more steps forward with a sigh. “I’m sure they’ve spotted us on the cameras.”
“There’s no they. It’s just me.”
Jemma swallowed as she came face to face with the Mockingbird. One of the smartest women Jemma had ever met, and the most talented in their particular line of work, she still made Jemma feel like a teenager who was just starting out whenever she did something wrong.
“Bobbi,” Jemma whispered.
“It’s okay, Jemma.” Bobbi offered her an enigmatic smile before tossing her hair over her shoulder. “Come on in. You guys want a drink?”
Fitz crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head when Bobbi AKA the Mockingbird offered him a tumblr of Kentucky Bourbon.
“You sure? I had it flown in.”
He was anything but fine. Bobbi stalked around this giant house all alone in the lap of luxury. He’d spotted at least three Monets on the wall and a Van Gough while they were walking. He was pretty sure they were the real deal. Meanwhile, Jemma could be implicated in trading information on half a dozen arrests if things didn’t go her way. It made him nervous. He sat on the sofa when Bobbi gestured to it though, and Jemma sat primly at his side, accepting the glass from Bobbi’s hand with something of a wince. Fitz figured that bourbon probably wasn’t her drink of choice.
“Relax,” Bobbi told them. “I know it wasn’t Jemma.” She looked at Fitz as she spoke and waited for him to uncross his arms before she turned and added, “I sent everyone on different jobs because I thought you might come here. I didn’t want anyone getting in the way.”
“In the way of what, exactly?” Jemma asked curiously.
Fitz raised his own eyebrows when Bobbi announced, ‘In the way of us getting rid of the Pilot.”
Bobbi sipped on her drink while it seemed like all the air had been sucked from the room. Fitz had never felt the atmosphere in a room drop so dramatically before, and he’d been in enough scary situations that he’d had some pretty tense standoffs.
“Come again?” Jemma asked.
Fitz cleared his throat awkwardly and braced his hands on his knees, ready to explain that he wasn’t exactly an assassin. He was pretty sure at this point that Jemma wasn’t either.
“Oh my God, I don’t mean kill him!” Bobbi’s own glass of bourbon clinked as she set it down on her table. “I have other people for things like that, anyway,” she murmured softly, “but that’s only a last resort for people who are… out of control. Murder is not a nice habit to have. Everyone’s life matters.”
“Jesus.” Fitz scraped a hand down his face and let out a breath. “What’re we doin’ then?”
“I hear you guys are good at setting people up to take the fall.”
“Grant Ward hasn’t been arrested yet,” Fitz pointed out, eyes still covered by his hand, afraid to look at her, “and we didn’t do that alone.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve got eyes everywhere, and I know you two did a lot of the heavy lifting.”
“No,” Jemma protested quietly, “we really didn’t. Yes, we went in and stole something, but most of the actual framing is down to…” She trailed off, and Fitz got the feeling she wasn’t sure what she was supposed to call Skye around Bobbi.
Fitz mentally ran through’s Skye’s aliases, trying to remember what she had called herself the last time she’s worked with anyone on Mockingbird’s crew, but he came up short. He knew she had bank accounts set up under the names Tian May, Skye Coulson, Chuju May, Skye Johnson, Daisy Johnson, Rose Ward even from an old job… it was a long list with a lot of the same names jumbled together. Luckily, Bobbi filled in the blank for them.
“Yeah, I know Daisy did her computer thing, but I also know that Fitz is almost as good with computers as she is. The smaller we keep this, the better. So, the three of us, we take him down, get Interpol interested in him, and everybody’s safe.”
“Unless he trades more information for his freedom,” Fitz cut in.
“So, we frame him for the theft of something that Interpol can’t walk away from.”
“Like what?” Fitz lowered his hand curiously and peered back and forth between the two of them. “We’d have to steal the crown jewels from a monarchy in their jurisdiction on live television or somethin’ like tha’.” It was ludicrous, but it was the biggest attention-grabber he could think of.
Fitz found the way the Mockingbird smiled particularly terrifying.
Less than three hours later, Bobbi was throwing a stack of newspapers from various countries in front of Jemma and Fitz. He wasn’t sure where she’d found them so quickly.
“Find us a target,” she told them brusquely.
“I’ve already got one,” Jemma told her, brushing the stack of papers out of her way to place her laptop on the table. “See?”
“Where the hell is Bagalia?” Bobbi asked them loudly.
Fitz blew out a breath. “It’s a bad idea, is what it is. Doesn’t matter where it is because it’s a bloody island. We make one mistake, and there’s no way out.”
“So we plan for everything,” Bobbi told them with a head nod, starting to pace. Fitz was reminded of Skye when she planned any of their big scores. He even wondered if Skye had actually learned some of her planning skills from Bobbi. It was a scary thought considering how outlandish some of Skye’s plans could get. If she and Bobbi had even remotely similar styles, they were in for trouble.
“Like Fitz said, it’s an island. Relatively small, but there will be an influx of visitors very soon. We could probably plan for any eventuality if we hire our own boat though. We’d always have a way off the island.” Jemma shrugged and gestured to the screen she’d placed on the table. “Bagalia is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its rule under Queen Giulietta.They’re televising the ceremony where the people honor her, she comes out, puts on the crown, waves the scepter around, things like that. It’s the kind of high profile you’d want.”
Bobbi nodded enthusiastically while Fitz shook his head in trepidation. “Yes, excellent. We’ll pose as tourists visiting for the ceremony. We’ll get a yacht. I know a guy. Jemma, you’ll need to create all new documentation for us. We can’t risk using any aliases that any of us have used before. Fitz is going to have to be our eyes. He’ll have to hack whatever news and security feeds we can get our hands on. We’ll need him to doctor the images up too, replace us on the feed with my leak.” She was still nodding when Fitz shot his hand into the air to get her attention. “Yeah?”
“How d’you expect me to get into all those feeds on my own? I’m not as good as -”
“You’ll be fine,” Bobbi interrupted, waving off his concerns. “We’ll be fine.”
Fitz crouched in the loo at the back of a restaurant, quickly checking under stall doors to make sure he was alone before dialing a number on his disposable cell phone.
Fitz rolled his eyes.
“I need some advice,” he began without any preamble, hoping Skye didn’t ask him too many questions about the job itself.
“Aren’t you on vacation,” she deadpanned.
The sound of a door opening and closing, presumably Skye leaving whatever room she was in for privacy, came through the phone.
“If, hypothetically, someone -”
“ Someone ,” Fitz insisted in exasperation, “needed to simultaneously hack into three different security feeds, a dozen news station feeds, and replace footage, all while monitorin’ a pair o’ communications channels, where would you suggest they start?”
“Wow, Fitz. That’s, uh, okay. I probably don’t want to know what the hell kind of job this is, do I? You know what, don’t answer that.” She paused. “Well… if someone hypothetically had to get into all that at once, I’d say, it’s impossible .”
Fitz opened and closed his mouth, wanting to protest, but that’s what he’d been afraid she’d say. “So… this person, they should jus’ give up?”
“No… I’m not saying that.” He could practically hear her thinking on the other end of the phone. “These news stations? We talking local, national, worldwide?”
“Skip the locals. If you need to get into that many, you only need to worry about getting into the ones with the farthest reach. Hack the worldwide ones, worry about the local ones after the fact. Or ruin their feeds instead of hacking. That gives you enough time to get into the security feeds as well, which I know you can do. You’re good at multitasking, I’m sure you can handle talking on comms at the same time.”
“Erm. Right. I’m not sayin’ it’s-”
“Yeah, whatever. All hypothetical, sure.”
Fitz grinned as she scoffed on the other end of the line. The door opened as another man came in and he cleared his throat, trying to make himself look professional as he stood next to the sink.
“Right. Thanks. Talk to you soon.”
“Whatever you’re up to, and whoever you’re with, be careful. Call if you need anything, okay?”
He hung up, surreptitiously taking the phone apart with one hand as he left the room, depositing the sim card in the garbage and putting the pieces into his pocket, intent on dropping them in various garbage bins along the way once he left.
Tucking her hair behind her ear and pulling her hat down lower over her eyes, Jemma located her prize on the street corner. She sidled up to it, dropped in her coins, pushed the buttons, and waited. It was probably one of the last payphones on the planet.
“Wha’ever your buyin’, I’m not sellin’.”
She barked out a laugh. “Lance, it’s me.”
“Ah, me . Always love to hear you’re not in prison,” he jabbed.
“Yeah. You too.”
“I heard you might be on holiday.”
“Yeah, a tropical getaway,” she joked, thinking about the island she was about to visit.
“Is there a reason you’re callin’ me instead of havin’ fun with your new boyfriend, then?”
“He’s not,” Jemma began, but then swallowed her protest. Boyfriend didn’t seem adequate to describe Fitz. She’d never dated someone who had decided to put their own (admittedly illegal) career on the line to help save hers. “I need some advice,” she said.
Lance snorted on the other end of the line. “You’re both adults. You can figure it out.”
“Not that kind of advice,” Jemma groaned, placing one hand to her forehead. “That is all…” She hesitated, searching for the right word. Perfect , she thought to herself. She sighed.
“I don’t wanna know.”
“Have you ever borrowed a queen’s crown jewels before?”
“Is tha’ some sort o’ weird code I’m supposed to know?”
Lance didn’t say anything on the line for a moment and Jemma worried they’d lost their connection.
“Christ, what did you do?”
He blew out a breath before telling her, “I’ve only done it once, and I had to make the bird fall for me to get access to them. Minimum three week con. For you, probably four.”
“I don’t know why I call you. You have such little confidence in me.”
“Alright, give me the rundown.”
Bobbi made a phone call of her own while sat in a corner booth waiting to meet the others for dinner.
“Mack? Can you get me a boat? And are you free to be married to me this weekend?”
Jemma straightened the straps of her sundress and allowed the brim of her hat to shade her eyes while she followed Bobbi through a small airport in the middle of nowhere to meet the man who was going to be taking them all out on a boat. She linked her arm through Fitz’s while he pulled their one case of shared luggage behind him. Ahead of them, Bobbi was speaking loudly into her phone with words like “sweetie” and “babe,” her own bag slung over her shoulder.
“We’re doing the right thing, right,?” Jemma whispered softly, keeping the honeymooning smile pasted on her face.
“He tried to get you in trouble in international courts, Jem. And with Bobbi’s people. He deserves wha’ he’s gettin’.”
Jemma met his eyes and leaned up to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. “But can we do this?” she whispered.
Fitz didn’t answer her. Instead, he gave her a tight lipped smile as Bobbi called back to them that their ride was there.
“It’s so lovely to finally meet you,” Jemma exclaimed once the mountain of a man had released Bobbi from a hug. She held out one hand, waiting for him to shake.
She watched his eyes travel over Bobbi’s shoulder, giving both her and Fitz an appraising once over before extending his hand as well. Considering how large and obviously strong he was, she expected him to have a vice-like grip, but he handled her fingers gently before releasing her and turning to Fitz as well. Jemma tucked a piece of hair that had come loose from her short braid back into the elastic band at the end, and tugged self consciously on her hat again.
When Bobbi told Jemma she had to create one more passport for Mack, Jemma had wrinkled her nose in confusion, but she hadn’t voiced her concern. Bobbi had initially said it would just be the three of them, and even if Jemma didn’t know if she could trust him, another person on their side couldn’t hurt. Besides, he was captaining the boat. Fitz couldn’t handle security feeds and a boat.
When they piled into Mack’s car, she took a seat in the back with Fitz while Bobbi outlined their plan in the front. Mack navigated traffic quickly, not speaking much unless he needed Bobbi to clarify a point in the plan. When Bobbi explained that Fitz would be staying behind on the boat with all of equipment, Jemma reached across the seat and grabbed his hand.
It was strange. She hadn’t known him very long, but she wasn’t really looking forward to heading into this job without him next to her. At least she’d still have his voice in her ear.
“Don’t worry, I gave my usual crew the week off. Told them my girlfriend was coming for a visit,” Mack called to them. “We’ll have plenty of space on the boat. No one will bother you.”
Fitz just nodded, and Bobbi went back to her explanation, but Jemma watched him carefully. He was pretending that this job was easy. He didn’t even look as nervous as he had when they stole so much merchandise right out from under Grant’s nose. But every so often on the ride, his knee would start to bounce, he’d look down at it, and then squeeze her hand before stopping his movement.
She blew out a breath and chewed on her lower lip as the car pulled into the lot at the marina. Colorful flags lined the docks for all different countries and several men and women walked around with fishing poles. Jemma had never been fishing before and she briefly wondered what it would be like to sit, legs dangling off the side of the boat or off a dock, as she waited for something to nibble on her line. It didn’t sound all that different from conning really, the waiting for something to happen after all the preparation, but it was supposed to be more relaxing, wasn’t it?
She was shaken from her thoughts by Mack cutting the engine and opening the driver’s side door, ready to take them to his boat. Of course, when they walked down the dock to slip 24, she realized she was very quickly going to have to stop referring to it as simply a boat, even in her own mind. It was a luxury yacht. And it was huge. And attention getting. Perfect for a pair of wealthy couples on a tropical getaway.
“You run everythin’ yourself?” Fitz asked Mack curiously as they carried their bags on board.
“Not usually. But like I said, I sent my crew on vacation.” A noise from somewhere below decks made everyone except Mack freeze though. He continued down the steps to put their bags in their respective cabins. “The prince and the princess are in here.” He gestured to the first room they came to.
Jemma smiled when Fitz blushed slightly. She rolled her eyes at him good naturedly. “That’s disgraced duke and duchess actually,” she reminded Mack. “Better keep your stories straight.”
He gave a soft chuckle, and the click of a door unlocking ahead of them sounded.
“Mack,” Bobbi pressed in close from where she stood behind Jemma. “I thought you sent the crew on vacation.”
“Oh, I sent my crew on vacation,” Mack clarified. “But you said you and the duchess over here don’t know anything about boats. So I hired a temporary skeleton crew. Just in case. They come highly recommended.”
“By who?” Jemma whispered, gripping Fitz’s arm in alarm when the door opened ahead of them.
“An old friend.”
“Yeah…” A familiar voice came from the opening doorway. “I don’t actually know anythin’ about boats, but he does.” Lance gestured over his shoulder to reveal Trip coming out the door behind him.
Trip shrugged at Fitz’s shocked expression and Jemma’s wide eyes. “We couldn’t let you guys have all the fun. Daisy’s finishing up on our other project. She said she’s working on contingency plans back on the mainland in case we need, her words not mine, an emergency extraction.”
“So,” Lance rubbed his hands together gleefully. “You wanna fill us in on the plan?”
Jemma opened her mouth, but Bobbi beat her to it.
“I thought you were never going to work with me again?”
“I’m not here for you,” Lance snapped back quickly. He swallowed hard though, and Jemma suspected that wasn’t entirely true. Lance might have called Bobbi a traitorous hellbeast to anyone that would listen since their last breakup, but he wasn’t going to let the empire she built come crashing down around her because one Interpol informant was slowly dismantling it. He threw his hands up dramatically. “Well, is someone goin’ to fill me an’ Antoine in on the plan?”
Trip sighed. Jemma’s mouth twitched in amusement. She had a feeling Trip liked using his given name as much as Fitz did.
The trip across the sea was relatively uneventful. Fitz hadn’t been on any kind of boat in a long time, and he expected the choppy water would leave him seasick, but setting up all of the electronics across the yacht’s dining area was enough to distract him from the back and forth motion as they sped across the water. Trip spent much of his time on board learning all about the controls from Mack in the event that he did have to take over captain duties, while Bobbi, Jemma, and Lance, went through the plan with a fine tooth comb.
“How we lookin’, Fitz?” Bobbi asked him, clapping one hand down on his shoulder for good measure as he set up their private wi-fi access. Anyone looking for free internet would think it belonged to local law enforcement and would leave it alone. People who lived on Bagalia were notorious for not trusting the police.
“Good. Good.” Not glancing up from his work, he connected one wire into another port and hit a sequence of buttons, watching the lights slowly power up on another monitor.
“Good. Mack says we’ll be hitting the dock in about 10 minutes.”
Nodding in acknowledgment, Fitz kept his focus on the set up in front of him.
“You should get changed. You need to look more like a wealthy tourist checking out the beaches, not a nerd I picked up from a computer science classroom.”
“Very funny. Jus’ a couple more things to do.”
Bobbi’s hand removed itself from his shoulder and her footfalls slowly traveled away from him. Taking a quick moment to stand and stretch, he took stock of his set-up, grabbed the various thumbdrives he’d loaded with different worms and viruses from hackers across the internet that couldn’t be traced back to their team, and pocketed them. He nodded. It wasn’t Skye-level tech, but it would do the job.
He left the dining area behind and located his shared room with Jemma. Changing quickly into the pressed khaki shorts and polo she’d lain out for him, he looked every inch the stuffy tourist he was meant to be. He clipped his very fake and supposedly very expensive high-end watch around his wrist and settled a designer pair of sunglasses on the top of his head. A pair of boat shoes completed the look. Making sure to grab his fake wallet, disposable phone, his case of earbuds, and all of his thumbdrives, he was ready in record time, taking the steps to the outer deck two at a time to meet Jemma and the others, only to walk outside in time to hear Lance and Jemma arguing about her wardrobe choice.
“You’re supposed to be a duchess. Shouldn’t you be more covered up?”
“A disgraced duchess. She’s basically been disowned by the family. And she’s on vacation on a tropical island. Of course she’s going to dress like this.”
Jemma waved her hands at herself, showing off a black two-piece that was relatively modest and a purplish sarong knotted around her waist keeping everything fairly hidden. She did, of course, have plenty of expensive jewelry and her own pair of designer shades perched on the top of her head to complete the outfit. Fitz, other than acknowledging that Jemma looked bloody gorgeous, as usual, didn’t see what the problem was, but he was wise enough not to mention it.
“Where are you even goin’ to hide any equipment?” Lance crossed his arms.
“Camera bag.” She picked it up from a nearby table. “This part of the job is just getting into the feeds. I’m not crawling through an air vent this time.” She rolled her eyes and pulled the strap of her bag over her shoulder. Mack and Trip were busy getting the yacht lined up with the dock and securing it.
“She’ll be fine,” Bobbi told Lance soothingly. “Eleanor is a bit showy, but that’s so she blends in with everyone else.” Bobbi paused when Lance glared at her. “Besides, she’s got Fitz with her. Or Jasper.”
Cutting in before the argument could really get going, Fitz produced the small plastic case he had their ear pieces stored in. “Ear pieces. Glad I brought two sets since we have extra people.” He passed the case around so everyone could grab one, then tossed the box to Trip, who put it away, tucked into a hidden compartment.
“Alright,” Bobbi commanded once everyone was standing together on deck again. “Lance and Antoine are staying here, keeping an eye on the boat and the equipment. Let us know if anything is fishy. Mack and I will scope out the palace. Jemma - I’m sorry, Eleanor and Jasper - are going to meander their way through the news crews that are setting up. Meet back here in four hours. Keep your comms on at all times.”
Lance gave her a mock salute, but Jemma just linked her hand in one of Fitz’s and prepared to pull him along. Fitz let her dominate the conversation as they walked, her voice carrying loudly to sell that this was an anniversary trip for them - one year married since the scandal they’d created back in England. He wasn’t sure why Bobbi had created such a colorful backstory for them, but if he got to walk around with Jemma in a bathing suit all day, he didn’t much care.
“Jasper, I love this color.” Jemma thrust one arm out to point to the ice cream parlor in front of them and she tamped down a giggle when Fitz shot her an incredulous look. “I want to do the spare room with it!” She ran her fingers down the side of the peeling paint and tilted her head to get him to look in the window.
Inside was one of the cameramen from the local station, his equipment set up on a table. She gathered he was interviewing the locals. When Fitz’s eyes lit on the camera and the man inside, he nodded nearly imperceptibly at her.
“It’s very… yellow.”
Jemma frowned. She wasn’t entirely sure how to proceed from there. Was he saying they should use caution, like a yellow traffic light? Or was he hinting that their covers were having a baby? Yellow was “gender neutral” after all. Or maybe he was just trying to keep the conversation going and he wasn’t talking in any kind of code at all? Using the paint to get him to notice the camera equipment had been a poor choice. She was too confused to keep going, but she kept petting the wall just the same, probably looking very strange indeed.
Fitz gave a long suffering sigh, and Jemma realized there were people behind them waiting to get in. Right.
“Come on,” Fitz said, pulling her toward the open door. “Don’t think I don’t know this is just a ploy to cheat on our diet.”
Letting out a laugh, she squeezed his arm in relief and followed him inside the little building. She should have known he’d think of something. In her ear, the low tones of Mack and Bobbi commenting on foliage at the other end of the plaza square buzzed in her ear, but she ignored it.
Fitz made a show of tripping over the man’s camera equipment as they walked by his table, while Jemma apologized profusely and offered to buy the man an ice cream cone to apologize for all the trouble. She stayed pressed to Fitz’s side, her fingers taking hard disks and backup drives from him and placing them neatly in her own camera bag while her eyelashes batted at the news crew. Any time someone’s eyes would stray to Fitz, who had horrifically tangled himself in a cable and then a bag strap and then another cable like something out of a Laurel and Hardy flick, she would lean forward just a bit more, the pendant on her necklace catching the light and landing just so on her chest to get their attention again.
They left with everything that would allow the camera to record or transmit footage and a pair of ice cream cones.
“You guys are getting pretty good at that,” Trip mused in their ears.
“You can’t even see us,” Fitz muttered out of the corner of his mouth.
“I can tell,” Trip insisted.
“Sure you can.”
Hearing the smile in his voice, Jemma turned and grinned at Fitz before impulsively leaning up and capturing his lips in a kiss, making them stop in the middle of the busy sidewalk. When she leaned back, he sighed and looked down at the ground.
“There goes the chocolate,” he said mournfully.
“Here, we can share,” she handed him her ice cream cone and stepped around the already melting chocolate that had splattered onto the walk when she surprised him. “Ooh,” she squealed, tucking her arm around his waist. “That outdoor market looks lovely. Shall we see if they have anything interesting?”
Fitz nodded, mouth too full of ice cream to speak. One side of the street ahead was lined in tented stalls with vendors selling their wares. The other was vans, camera crews, and spotlights, all facing the castle steps on the far side of the square where Bobbi was posing and letting Mack take her photo. It was the home of the press, setting up for the main event in another two hours. Jemma was going to make sure they saw exactly what she wanted them to see. And nothing more.
Several ruined video lines, three input viruses, two complete system failures, and an incessant amount of flirting with camera men on Jemma’s part later, and Fitz finally pulled his last thumb drive from the last news crew in line for the perfect shot. He gave Jemma a surreptitious nod of his head as he walked back toward her.
“Lincoln,” she said softly to the man whose arm she had grabbed onto, “have you met my husband?”
The man, Fitz was disappointed to note, had an athletic build and stood nearly a head taller than him - and was exactly the kind of attractive he’d have thought Jemma would go for. He frowned.
“Hey, man. Nice to meet you.” Lincoln stuck his hand out to Fitz with a genuine smile. “Never covered an event like this before. I usually get local puff pieces.”
Fitz raised an eyebrow at that. Clearly American, unless Lincoln was faking an accent as much as he was to hide where he was really from, he was probably the only member of the American press there. Fitz had been too focused on the task at hand and Bobbi and Mack chattering away about security in his ear to pick up on Jemma’s conversation.
“I moved here about a year ago. Kind of took off… to get over a girl. Never went back.” Lincoln shrugged, giving an answer to Fitz’s unspoken question. “But you don’t want to know all that. You’re here on vacation!”
Fitz just gave an awkward attempt at a smile. He wasn’t entirely sure why they were still talking to this guy. They were supposed to avoid the reporters.
“Yes,” Fitz agreed. “We are on vacation. And we actually have a dinner reservation before everything starts.” His fake smile tightened. “Nice to meet you.”
Jemma wiggled her fingers in Lincoln’s direction as they walked away, Fitz assumed, going for a flirtatious wave.
“You didn’t have to be so rude to him,” she told him as they began to make their way back to the boat.”
“Scale o’ one to ten?” Hunter’s voice asked over the coms.
Fitz rolled his eyes.
“Fitz?” Trip prompted.
“Dunno,” Fitz sighed, his fingers twining with Jemma’s, hoping she wasn’t going to catch on to what they were asking him. “Eight?”
“Yeah, he did,” Trip and Lance responded in unison.
“What?” Jemma eyed Fitz with a healthy amount of curiosity. “What are they talking about?”
“Too attractive,” Lance supplied through the earpiece.
“And a journalist,” Trip added. “Bad combination. Stay away from him.”
Rolling her eyes as they walked along, Jemma said, “I didn’t realize the three of you were so insecure.”
“Not about insecurity. The more attractive a journalist is, the more likely they are to use our techniques in their work. We’ve seen it. Happens all the time. They’re more likely to make you,” Trip explained patiently.
“We’ve seen - ah - Daisy’s head turned at a six, alright?” A swishing noise followed that seemed to indicate Lance had downed a drink. “And she’s usually a better judge o’ character than we are.”
“Are you drinking on this job?” Bobbi’s voice came through tightly.
Fitz sighed again and reached up, breaking one of the cardinal rules of working with a team, and removed the earpiece. Next to him, Jemma did the same.
“I can’t listen to them fighting again,” Fitz told her.
“Five minutes,” she agreed, keeping her earpiece in her free hand. “Lance tends to lose steam after that.”
Fitz laughed and slowed his gait, giving them a chance to enjoy the tropical climate and the atmosphere, pretending that they really were a couple on vacation instead of a couple planning an elaborate heist. They walked in companionable silence for a while.
“Do you like it here as much as Hawaii?” He swung Jemma’s hand back slightly as he spoke and she twisted her face up in thought.
“I don’t know. Hawaii was… pretty special. I don’t know if anything could top that.”
There was a shine to her eyes when he glanced over at her that made him impulsively pull her in closer and lay a kiss on her hairline.
“I think,” she added softly, “it’s nice here, but I would never relax here.”
“Yes,” Fitz agreed with a smirk. “Hawaii was very relaxing.”
She laughed, letting go of his hand to smack his chest lightly with the back of her own.
He rolled his earpiece between the fingers of his other hand and thought about, for one fleeting moment, just dropping it. He could crush it under his heel. He could take her hand and just run. They could create new identities they’d never used before. They could get lost somewhere on the other side of the world and never look back. He’d never been to Australia. Or Costa Rica. Or plenty of other places where they could make a new life.
He’d been a part of the forging and conning and burgling world for long enough though that he knew it didn’t really work like that, no matter what anyone said. Someone could always find you, even if it took decades.
He cleared his throat, and with a sad smile at Jemma, put his earpiece back in, watching as she did the same.
“All I’m saying is that if I have to stay on the boat, I should be allowed to have a bloody drink.”
Twin sighs echoed through the line, and Fitz slipped an arm around Jemma’s waist as they went back to work.
Anxiously pacing back and forth behind him, Jemma watched as Fitz double checked every single feed he’d planted his bugs in during their walk around town. He had feeds that he’d rerouted, feeds that were nothing but black screens, and feeds that were playing the same footage on a loop. Peering over his shoulder at her, he grinned, making her stop in her tracks.
“Daisy would be proud,” Jemma told him as Bobbi walked in to check on their progress.
“Everything’s set,” Jemma confirmed, her eyes drifting back to one of the camera feeds that Fitz had hacked into and was using to monitor the finishing touches on the festivities. “Except for that.” She pointed to the screen just as the camera panned away, her heart lurching in her chest at what she saw.
“What?” Bobbi and Fitz both looked where she pointed, but the camera was on the newscaster, who was explaining what events would occur that evening.
“Can you make it go back? I thought I saw him.”
“Your Pilot?” Fitz hit buttons quickly, the feed backing up frame by frame.
“No,” Jemma whispered, pointing when the man she was looking for was on the screen. “Douglas. Grant. Ward. Whatever his name really is.” She tapped her fingernail on the monitor. “What do we do? I thought Sk - Daisy was taking care of that?”
“She is.” Fitz smacked one palm down onto his work surface, his anger reminding Jemma very much of Skye in the moment. “What the hell is he even doing here?”
“He’s not just here on vacation?” Bobbi sighed. “Maybe he’s after the same thing we are.”
“What could he possibly need the crown for?” Jemma started pacing again. “His people don’t do high profile. Everything they steal is carefully planned and hidden under legal channels.” She didn’t like this. It gave her a very bad feeling about what they were about to do.
“I didn’t realize Daisy’s boyfriend was actually a thief. ”
“Ex. And he’s the worst kind o’ thief,” Fitz grumbled and Jemma was too busy pacing to agree with him.
Everything she’d learned about him over the time she’d worked with Fitz made her think that there were no thieves lower than Grant Ward. He had no code. Not like the rest of them. But he should have been busy dealing with the fallout from Bakshi’s antiquities company reorganizing their assets. He should have been busy figuring out what was stolen. And he also should have been busy getting questioned about stolen merchandise if Skye had set up her trail properly - and there was no doubt that Skye had likely been meticulous about making sure he looked like the culprit. She had a feeling him being there wasn’t a coincidence. She wheeled in on Bobbi.
“Did you tell anyone what we were doing?”
Bobbi shook her head. “Just Mack.”
Jemma raced from the room and up to the deck, not bothering to listen to Fitz or Bobbi calling after her. This was her one shot to clear her name and she wasn’t letting the likes of Grant Ward take it from her. If she was honest with herself though, when it came to Ward, it wasn’t herself she was worried about. She would allow herself to be caught a hundred times over if it meant keeping him away from Fitz. The pressure of clearing her name was one thing, but if Ward managed to get to Fitz again? She didn’t even want to think about it.
“Who did you tell?” She demanded, her breath coming in sharp gasps when she was in front of Mack, Trip, and Lance.
“About what?” Lance asked incredulously.
“The job?” Trip cut in. “No one.”
Mack shook his head as well. “I didn’t even tell my usual crew what I was doing. Told them they could have a couple of weeks off. I was going to be with an old friend.”
“Did you tell them who?” Jemma pressed, stepping forward into Mack’s personal space, having to tilt her head back to look him in the eye. She hadn’t really appreciated just how massive of a man Mack was before this moment, but she was worried and angry enough to not care.
“My first mate knows Bobbi, so, yeah, I told him?” Mack narrowed his eyes at her. “But Bobbi sent him to me to fill in for the last few months. Joey got pinched on a job so -”
“Who is he?” Jemma whispered as Bobbi and Fitz came pounding up the steps onto the deck behind her.
“The Pilot. Bobbi didn’t tell you he was our mark.” Jemma reached out and grabbed onto the railing next to her, fingers curling around it for support. “He must have figured out what we were up to when Bobbi sent everyone away and decided to go on vacation with you.”
“Jemma, you don’t know that,” Bobbi said from behind her. “You’re assuming that they’re in on this together.”
“Who?” Lance crossed his arms over his chest.
“Why would Ward and this Pilot be on anything together?” Leaning toward Jemma, Lance tried to get directly into her line of site. “Jemma?”
“He’s here. Ward’s here.”
Fitz waited a few moments while the group argued about Jemma jumping to conclusions, but when Trip caught his eye and nodded back below decks, the two of them headed down without saying a word to anyone else.
“What’re you thinkin’?” Fitz asked him as he bounded back to his tech station. The footage was still running, and he reached out a hand to pause it.
“You recording the feed you caught Ward on?”
“Can you follow him back? See if he met anyone?”
Fitz nodded, cracking his knuckles, irritated he hadn’t thought of it first. “Of course.” He took a seat and, fingers speeding over his keyboard, he began backtracking the camera feed from the moment Jemma had pointed out Ward. Switching between feeds to follow him around the marketplace, the courtyard, the castle, and everywhere there were news crews - just like he and Jemma had done earlier - Fitz followed every second of Grant’s movements during the day, as long as he was in range of the cameras that were all over the city.
He ground his teeth at the sight of Ward flirting with a few women on the screen, of him sauntering around like he owned the place, and he bit down hard on his lip when he watched him plant his own lines into cameras to steal their footage. As Ward paused to sit on a bench outside of a boutique and began chatting with the other person there, Fitz nodded his head. Two more people stopped by the bench as the camera continued recording, and Fitz hated that he recognized them all.
Finding exactly what they needed, Fitz covered his face with one hand, whispering, “Damn. I thought he was in on it. But I didn’t know it would be this bad.”
“I’ll get the others,” Trip remarked, clapping him on the shoulder before jogging topside.
Bobbi didn’t seem all that surprised to find Ward meeting with Kara on the screen when Trip brought them in and they all crowded around Fitz’s set up.
“I knew I never should have let her in.” She shook her head and crossed her arms across her chest, a mirror of Lance across from her.
“She was helping Grant on the last job we were on too,” Jemma told her softly. “And that,” Jemma explained as she pointed to the man Grant met on the bench, “is our Pilot.” She sighed.
“I don’t think they know we’re here though.” Everyone’s eyes were on Fitz as he spoke. “I sped up the time an’ watched their movements. We never crossed paths with any o’ them. They never notice us, don’t follow us, nothin’ like that.”
“Then what?” Lance made a disbelieving noise in the back of his throat. “It’s a coincidence that this is the job they picked next?”
“I think they had the same idea Jemma an’ I did - pull a big job while they think the competition is busy.” Fitz cleared his throat and hit a button, speeding up so everyone could see the fourth person the trio was meeting up with. “Do you know who he is?” He directed his question to Jemma, his knees bouncing in his seat.
“John Garrett. He works for Interpol. He’s notorious for catching the uncatchable thieves. Rumor has it the Director got out of the business because he was afraid of him.”
Trip gave an undignified snort. “I’ve worked with the Director. Nothing scares him. He retired because it was time.”
Fitz turned fully to face Jemma, placing one hand on her arm. “Garrett’s dirty. Has been for years. His game is getting his people on crews undercover an’ on high profile jobs so he can make big busts. But he and his crew never report their findings completely. They pocket the difference, gettin’ rich off o’ other people’s work.”
Jemma shook her head. “You think Will and Kara were plants the whole time?”
“That’s impossible,” Bobbi cut in.
“I think either he or Ward turned Kara. Ward’s… persuasive.” Fitz tightened his grip on Jemma’s arm. “I think they wanted to take Bobbi out, get a crew they could control in charge in Europe.”
“Framing me was just one piece of the puzzle then. Just… putting doubt on the Mockingbird’s team.” Jemma slipped her arm from Fitz’s until he found his fingers tangled with hers. “I guess it’s nice that it wasn’t personal.”
“Okay,” Bobbi breathed, and though Fitz kept his hand in Jemma’s, he made sure to look at their de facto leader as she spoke. “If they aren’t here because they know what we’re up to, but because they want a high profile steal they can pin on someone, probably me, then we just need to steal it before them.”
“But that will just make their case for them,” Jemma protested. “If we steal it, they win. If they steal it, they frame us for it, and they win. Or you. Or me. I’m not really sure which one of us they’re really setting up at this point.”
“What if…” Lance spoke up, but hesitated when all eyes were on him. “I’m not sayin’ this is a great idea, but -” Fitz had never seen him this nervous. “What if we help ‘em along? Let ‘em steal it? But broadcast it?” He uncrossed his arms and placed both palms up in a what-else-can-we-do gesture. “Fitz is already in every camera on the island. We already know how to get to the jewels. We just -”
“Make it easier for them. Make sure everyone sees that it’s them. That’s brilliant.” Bobbi nodded her head, and Fitz’s face curled into a smile when hers scrunched up in disgust. “I hate it when he’s brilliant,” she added to no one in particular.
Jemma rolled her shoulders, trying to get used to the feel of moving in the sleek pantsuit Bobbi had made appear out of one of the suitcases on Mack’s boat. Flexing her calves, she took a few experimental steps in the heels that were higher than she would normally wear, even if she had been trying to con someone with a foot fetish. No teetering, no missteps, so she nodded her head in satisfaction and moved to jewelry.
She tucked her necklace, complete with lock picking tools still sealed inside, into the deep V of the blazer before securing a stolen hair comb in place to make her look a little more regal. She had a few rings in place, a bracelet that glittered in just the right light, and a pair of (fake) diamond studs that would make everyone around her envious. Without a mirror, she didn’t know if it would have the desired effect, but Trip whistled when he came in the room to hand over her bag of supplies, so she figured the outfit must have done the trick.
“Do I look properly disgraced?” She joked.
“Yeah, it’ll do,” Trip deadpanned. He grinned though as she unzipped the expensive designer label bag and double checked that he’d stuffed it with proper shoes, gloves, and everything else she would need.
“Everyone else ready?”
“Yeah. Fitz is mainlining caffeine at this point, so he’s a little jumpy.”
“Probably not just the caffeine,” Jemma acknowledged with a wince.
“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Trip promised. “If I’m stuck here as the last resort, I’ll make sure he stays calm.”
“You’re not a last resort. You and Mack are the ones who can run the boat. We need at least one of you here.” Satisfied with the contents of the bag, she zipped it up, and slung it over her shoulder, brushing by him to meet up with Bobbi and Mack above deck.
“The fact that you just said ‘run the boat’ makes me realize how much I’m needed,” Trip joked. “You do know it’s still something you drive? Or captain?”
She rolled her eyes and kept walking. When she got to the dining area though, she paused, sticking her head into the doorway while Trip continued, watching as Fitz flicked between two different camera feeds, seemingly making calculations in his head as he mumbled to himself and then switched to a different feed.
“Don’t take the east side entrance,” he told her just when she was almost positive he didn’t know she was there. “They doubled the security. Have Mack and Bobbi cover you on the west instead.”
“Make sure you keep your comm in. I can’t tell you if you’re in trouble if you don’t use it.”
“Blend in. I know the duchess is supposed to stand out, but unnecessary attention won’t help you.”
“And if you run into Grant Ward or any of the others -”
“I’ll hit them with a poison tipped dart.” Jemma cut him off, trying to lighten the mood a little bit. She did kind of wish she had poisoned darts though.
“I’ll be careful.” She paused since he still hadn’t turned around. “I’ll be as careful as I can be.”
“And you’ll come back.”
“And I’ll come back.”
His shoulders shifted as he took in a shuddering breath in his seat and nodded his head. “Okay. Good.” He scratched the back of his neck with one hand. “You got everythin’ you need?”
“Almost.” Striding the few steps into the room, she stopped just behind his chair, bent at the waist, and leaned around him to plant a quick kiss to his cheek. Straightening quickly, and giving his shoulder a squeeze, she added, “I’ll see you soon, Fitz.”
His only response was to reach back and place his hand over hers, tilting his head just enough to lean back and look her in the eye. “You better.”
Jemma strolled through the crowd easily, laughing when conversation from Bobbi and Mack prompted her to, but really listening to the earpiece that had Lance muttering information to them about the guard changing and additional weak spots. By his estimates, in about three minutes, they would have a 45 second window to get inside the palace. She wasn’t sure if they could be that fast, but she knew they had to be in order for their plan to work.
“We’re getting drinks,” Bobbi told her pointedly, her head indicating a tent on the west end of the courtyard. Jemma nodded in understanding, trailing behind them.
“I want something with bubbles,” she informed them. “But I’m going to pop to the loo.” She unzipped her bag as she walked, asking, “camera?” To anyone around her, it would seem like she was searching for a way to take photos, like any other tourist.
“Already hacked,” Fitz’s voice informed her. “I’ve got it under my control, and it’s going down in about 20 seconds.”
“Nope,” she countered, hoping he would understand that she needed a delay as a familiar face walked into her path.
“Duchess!” Lincoln smiled warmly. “Enjoying yourself so far?”
“I am, yes.” Jemma forced a tight smile onto her face, bringing her bag back in close to her.
“Where’s your husband?” The reporter looked around as if searching the crowd for him, but Jemma knew an act when she saw one.
“Jemma, you have to shake that guy,” Trip’s voice told her.
“Now,” Fitz added.
“He’s taken ill. But I promised to get him plenty of pictures. Though maybe not of the queen. Makes him a little homesick. If you’ll excuse me.” She gestured in the direction of the signs for the bathrooms, but Lincoln didn’t move out of her path.
“Jemma?” Fitz’s voice was in her ear, and she remembered that he could see her. She glanced up at the camera on the corner of the gate at the side of the castle. There wasn’t anything she could really do short of shoving Lincoln out of the way.
“Was there something else?” She asked politely, trying to keep up the facade of a woman with an intense need to relieve her bladder, shifting her weight from foot to foot.
“I know who you are.”
Jemma stopped shifting, but she kept the smile pasted on her face, not dropping the polite act. “I’m sorry?”
“Kick him in the balls and run,” Lance snapped through the earpiece, but Jemma ignored him in favor of seeing how everything would play out. Lincoln hadn’t been seen with the team they were up against, so she didn’t think he was one of Garrett’s men. She could usually recognize someone in the business, and she didn’t think he was one of them.
“I know you’re not going to tell me who you really are,” Lincoln added, looking over his shoulder. “That’s fine. You did some work for a friend of mine awhile back. Jiaying?”
Jemma allowed herself a real smile then, breathing out, her muscles relaxing. “What can I do for you, Lincoln?”
“The way she talks about you, you don’t steal for yourself. You’re here for someone else?”
She nodded, not wanting to say anything in case he was recording them, though she knew that was unlikely since he called Jiaying by name. He wouldn’t want to implicate a friend in theft.
“Are you stealing from a bad person?”
Jemma shook her head and then winced. She wasn’t entirely sure if she could or should explain her situation to this guy. Even if he was a friend of a client, he was a reporter.
“You can’t tell me because you’re in the middle of it, right.” Lincoln nodded, his fingers flexing at his sides as he thought, still unwilling to move out of her way.
“Jemma,” Fitz’s voice came to her. “Tell him to come to the boat.”
“What?” She hissed the word out, turning her head slightly away from Lincoln, not sure what Fitz was up to.
“We want to get Garrett and Ward for good, right?”
“Who are you talking to?” Lincoln pressed, but Jemma held up one finger to silence him.
“We give him the exclusive on who they really are, what they’re up to, we give him the footage first, it’ll spread like wildfire if he’s here from an American paper. All newspapers have their own websites these days. It’s a win-win.”
“You’re brilliant,” she whispered.
“Thank you?” Lincoln asked, clearly confused at the situation.
“Not you,” Jemma told him quickly. “Well, I don’t know. I guess you could be. We don’t really know one another well enough for me to say.” She shook her head. “But that’s not important. You want a story that could make your career?” She hurriedly told him where to find Mack’s boat. “My husband will tell you everything you need to know when you get there.”
“Wait, so he’s really your husband?”
Jemma smiled enigmatically and walked away toward her real target.
“Fitz?” She whispered, again reaching into her bag.
She watched as Bobbi and Mack moved around the back of the bar tent toward the pair of security guards, until they were just close enough to distract them with an argument. Jemma slipped behind the gate as her twenty seconds were up.
“You’re good for probably the full 45 seconds while the camera resets,” Fitz informed her.
She slipped into an alcove and changed her clothing in record time, stepping out and into the service entrance for the castle just as the guards changed shifts. No one gave her a second glance.
“And she’s in,” Fitz said in case anyone had any doubts.
“Yes, she is,” Jemma agreed, walking quickly and purposefully down a hall in the standard dark slacks and grey top that the employees wore, jewelry now dropped at the bottom of her bag. She’d hidden the antique comb and put her hair up in a neat bun as she walked, keeping her lips pursed and her eyes focused ahead of her, the very picture of someone late to work.
“Take a right at the end of the hall,” Fitz told her before she could even ask.
“Tell us if you run into any trouble,” Bobbi added quietly before laughing loudly in the midst of the crowd at something going on in the display outside.
“I still think one of us should have gone in with her,” Lance muttered.
Jemma resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She was fine. Rounding the corner, she found herself coming up on an elaborately decorated sitting room, empty save for a florist putting the finishing touches on a large display of roses and a lot of gilded furniture. She nodded politely at him, making sure he wasn’t someone she recognized, and kept right on going.
“Back stairs,” Fitz told her. “Second floor.”
For the next few minutes she followed Fitz’s instructions exactly, winding up in a small spare bedroom where there were no cameras.
“The feed’s looped in the halls and the offices. You’re good to go.”
“Well, you were right, Fitz,” Jemma remarked as she locked the door and kicked off her shoes, looking for her best cat-burgling-boots in the bag.
“Not that he doesn’t love hearing that,” Trip joked, “but about what?”
“There’s no way any of the rest of you could get in these vents. I’ll be lucky if my hips fit in there.”
Lacing up her boots, she surveyed the room, looking for her best option, before pulling on a pair of gloves and dragging the desk chair underneath the vent, using the miniature screwdriver in her necklace to remove the grating on the vent’s cover from the wall. She thought for a moment, then climbed down, placing the chair underneath the doorknob and moving the nightstand into place instead. The guards might have had keys to all the rooms, but if anyone had suspicions, they’d have to take the time to unlock the door and break the knob to get in. She’d have at least an extra minute or so to scramble for a new plan. Since she made hardly any noise, she could hear Fitz’s sigh through the line as she worked. Not being able to see what she was doing was already getting to him.
“You worry too much,” she told him absently, knowing that with everyone else on the line, he probably wasn’t going to say much to her beyond giving her the necessary instructions.
“You would too if you were the one sittin’ here starin’ at video feeds from all over that bloody castle.”
Jemma smiled, reached up to the edge of the airshaft, and hauled herself inside. It would have been much easier if someone like Fitz had been there to pull her up. She grunted with the effort of sliding into the vent, just in time for Lance to ask if she was all right. Apparently, Fitz wasn’t the only one worrying.
“I’m fine,” she hissed. “I just don’t have the strength of a bloody body builder.” She cleared her throat. “Which way, Fitz?”
He led her through the ventilation system with ease, and she saved her energy for movement rather than speaking, the noise of the crowd surrounding Mack and Bobbi blending in with Trip and Lincoln introducing themselves to one another.
“Should I give this guy an earpiece?” Trip asked them.
“Might as well,” Lance told him. “Give him a front row seat.”
Jemma listened in as he was led to the video monitors to sit with Fitz.
“And you’ll give me a copy of everything?” He asked eagerly.
“Maybe not everything,” Trip told him. “Nothing with our faces in it.”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Fitz?” Jemma asked impatiently while Lincoln and Trip went over the ground rules.
Lincoln’s voice mingled with Fitz’s instructions.
“Ten more meters, you should be at your exit point.”
“The queen’s out with the jewels,” Bobbi put in as cheers and shouting filled Jemma’s ears. “Shouldn’t be long now.”
Jemma shuffled along her route and thought, not for the first time, that she really needed to invest more time in cardio. She was breathing heavily by the time she reached the opening, using the tools in her lock picker’s necklace to disconnect the second covering and remove it, setting it to the side in the airshaft.
“The room’s clear,” Fitz told her before she could ask the question again, and she smiled to herself. Stealing with Fitz, she had a feeling, would be very fun - if they got the chance to do a job where their own freedom wasn’t on the line.
She eased herself through the opening and allowed her feet to land on the desk below her.
“Why is she in the security office?” Lincoln asked.
Jemma rolled her eyes as she lightly jumped to the floor and began rerouting the alarm system completely, per Fitz’s instructions, while he ignored Lincoln for the time being.
“The alarms are on a closed system to alert security internally. Fitz couldn’t hack those like he could the cameras. So, someone has to go in and reset it,” Trip explained.
“But why? Aren’t you guys just stealing something? Doesn’t that waste time?”
“If he’s going to be like this the whole time, can we mute him?” Lance cut in.
Jemma stifled a laugh and made sure the alarms surrounding the crown jewels were on a 20 second delay, giving Garrett’s team enough time to think they were in the clear once they got them.
“The case is armed,” she told Fitz as she heard a noise outside. “Fitz?”
“There are two members of the guard in the hall, but they aren’t coming your way. They’re moving past you. Probably on patrol.”
Jemma straightened up from where she had been bent over the computer station. “But why aren’t they coming in here? Shouldn’t at least one person be stationed in here?” She looked carefully around the room, trying to see if anything was out of place. “You have me on camera, right?”
“But you’ve looped the feed for their cameras…” Jemma walked over to one of the monitoring stations, where the video was most definitely looped, and almost tripped over the body of the guard on the floor, her breath coming in sharp gasps as she jumped back. “Fitz!”
“Jemma, what is it?”
She willed herself to calm down and took the few steps over to the space where the guard’s body was. “Can you see me?”
“No. Blindspot in the room… damn it.”
“No, Fitz, it’s fine. There’s no one here now. But the guard that was in here, he’s…” She squatted, not touching anything, her eyes roving the surface of the man’s body. “He’s dead. Looks like he was strangled. Just in front of the closet in here. Is there ventilation to it?”
“Yeah, but Jemma, don’t -”
“I’m not going in,” she said patiently. “It would just… probably be nice to have a stun gun or something when I go back in the vents. I thought we’d be ahead of them.”
“Get out of there,” Bobbi snapped suddenly. “I’ve got eyes on Garrett. He’s out here in the courtyard, talking to a reporter, and he’s got his badge out.”
Fitz felt Trip at his shoulder, looking through the outside feeds for Garrett, but he spotted him before Trip’s finger pointed him out.
“Jemma, you need to head back the way you came,” Fitz instructed calmly, “but Garrett is in between your exit and Bobbi.”
“Do you think he knows what I look like?” She wondered as Fitz watched her walk back up to the desk. His eyes flicked across the feeds while he considered her question.
A pair of guards walked down the hall, coffee cups in hand, as they made their way to the office.
“We should probably assume that he does since the other three do. But you have to get out of that room, now. You’ve got guards coming your way.”
“We can create a distraction,” Mack cut in, “but there’s no guarantee Garrett won’t spot us too.”
Jemma did as he instructed, her body slowly disappearing from view as she hauled herself into the airshaft and replaced the cover. Only a few seconds after her securing it in place, the guards entered the room.
“I could take him out,” Lance supplied.
“He might be a crook and a psychopath, but he’s still Interpol,” Bobbi answered.
“What if she went through the kitchens?” Lincoln asked, interrupting Fitz’s train of thought about how to get Jemma beyond Garrett without him noticing.
“They’re on the east side of the building. Security’s doubled there.” Fitz waved a hand in annoyance, his brain running through a hundred different scenarios for them to make sure the jewels were stolen on a live security feed without any of them getting caught. Everything he thought of ended with someone getting arrested or pictured on live television.
“Yeah, but security’s making sure people don’t go in, not that they don’t get out, right?”
Fitz turned and stared at the reporter for a moment before meeting Trip’s eyes.
“You sure you’re not a thief?” Trip asked with raised eyebrows.
Lincoln laughed. “I’ve seen a lot of movies.”
“It’s never like in the movies,” Fitz countered, but he turned back to the cameras just the same. “Okay, Jemma.” He hit a few buttons on his laptop to give him a wider shot of the castle’s ventilation system. “We’re going to the kitchens. You’ll have to blend in. Which means -”
“Which means I’m going to have to exit in an area with no cameras and I’ll have to enter the kitchen as wait staff from inside the castle. Which means -”
“Please be careful,” Fitz whispered, not taking his eyes away from the screen and the tracker that she had in her pocket that let him know exactly where in the castle she was.
“I’m always careful,” she teased softly, but it didn’t make Fitz feel any better.
He spent the next few minutes giving her instructions while Lance made his way to the opposite end of the courtyard and Bobbi and Mack kept an eye on Garrett while pretending to drink their fill of complimentary champagne. When her tracker stopped suddenly at a junction, Fitz stopped talking.
“Jemma? You need to go left.” She didn’t respond. “Can you hear me?”
“Shh. I think there’s someone else in here.”
Fitz froze in his seat, tuning out everything but the pattern of Jemma’s breathing in that airshaft that he couldn’t see. After a few seconds of shallow ins and outs, she relaxed to normal breaths, but she still didn’t say anything. Fitz wished his own heartbeat would slow so the pounding in his ears would stop getting in the way of him listening to her.
“Fitz?” She was barely audible.
“I have an idea.”
“It’s a good plan,” Jemma hissed. She knew Fitz wouldn’t agree with her, but it was too late for him to put up much of an argument considering he had given her the directions she asked for even while he argued with her. She was already removing another air vent.
“It’s a horrible plan,” Fitz hissed right back, but he also added. “Feed’s looped.”
Jemma smiled and poked her head through the vent to look at the room below her. Fitz had been smart about the way he looped video, only doing sections as they needed them. It might have been more complicated for him, but it meant that it looked less suspicious when someone went back and looked at it. She held her breath as she pulled her head back up and lowered herself into the room, having to dangle over the floor for a few seconds before letting go of the grate to land with a soft bump on the tiled floor. She crept closer to the display case in front of her and peered inside. The jewels were still intact.
“How close is he?” She asked.
“You don’t have much time.”
She quickly got to work, moving one of the decorative chairs into place below the vent so she’d have a way out, then raced back to the case, reached into her pocket, and pulled out her tracker. Fitz wouldn’t be able to “see” her in the vents anymore, but she knew he could keep up with her. The tracker was just a precaution.
“He’s at the end of the hall. Do it now before you run out of time.”
She nodded, opened the case without preamble, and hid her tracker inside one of the pieces of metalwork in the scepter. She just hoped they took all the jewels. If they didn’t take the scepter, this would end up just putting her in more danger than necessary. As soon as the tracker was hidden, she ran back to her chair and jumped up, pulling herself into the vent just in time since she could hear the door opening below her. She froze, but then quietly began putting the vent’s cover back in place, hoping he wouldn’t look up.
When he left the room below her, the crown, the scepter, and the queen’s prized necklace all stored in his own bag, she started moving again.
“Which way, Fitz?”
Jemma made it to a supply pantry just off the kitchen nearly five minutes later while the rest of the team was busy getting back to the boat and away from the security that had been alerted to the theft. No one had told her she was going to have to practically free fall back to the ground level through a vent to get there, and she hoped she hadn’t made too much noise as she slipped and slid through the vent. When she finally stopped in front of the grate she needed, she was panting again. She peeked through the slats to make sure there was no one below, and when she was sure the tiny room was empty, she began to remove the grate, mumbling so low she wasn’t sure anyone would be able to hear her, “I have really got to work out more.”
When she crawled through the opening and dropped to the floor, she realized there was no way she’d be able to climb back up on anything to put the cover back in place. With a huff, she fixed her hair and stuck her gloves into one of her pockets, using a towel to open the door so she wouldn’t leave any fingerprints behind. She was fairly certain any record of her fingerprints wouldn’t exist in this country, but once Interpol was involved, she didn’t want to take any chances.
“Jemma, you hafta move quickly. The guards don’t want guests to know that anythin’ is wrong, so you need to grab something and take it out of the kitchen before they lock it down,” Fitz said. “You can leave the room… now!”
Jemma pushed the door the rest of the way and began walking briskly, a jar of maraschino cherries in her hand, down the hall. She had to look like she’d gone in the pantry for something, didn’t she? Keeping an extra storage space for dry goods that far from the kitchen seemed like poor planning to her. Just outside of the kitchen though, Fitz cursed over the line as two guards crossed her path.
Jemma sucked in a breath and tilted her head just enough to avoid eye contact, but as she did, one of them recognized her.
“You know her?” The other guard asked. “She’s not wearing her name badge. You got your credentials?”
The real guard was promptly hit over the head, crumpling to the floor, and Jemma stood there in shock for a moment, her mouth hanging open.
She struggled to keep her composure, to act like she hadn’t just seen him take the crown jewels of Bagalia. She pretended like she didn’t know that he had passed them off to Ward to be smuggled out of the building. And that Kara had been waiting in a van that supposedly belonged to one of the caterers to get them. She even tried to mask the fact that Fitz had already recorded everything and given a drive to Lincoln, who was racing to get it broadcast as they spoke. She had to get out of the castle. Immediately.
“What on earth are you doing here?” She asked with a smile, going for genuine.
“Me?” Will scoffed, his face twisting into one of his usual sarcastic smirks. “What about you? Last I heard, you were striking out on your own. You working a job?”
She shrugged and waved the jar of cherries. “I was. But the duke I was conning figured me out. I’m just trying to pick enough pockets to get a credit card that’ll get me off this bloody island.”
“You just need enough for a plane ticket?” Will reached into his back pocket, coming out with a credit card with the name Gideon Malick emblazoned on it, handing it to her. “Picked it off one of the government guys. He’s got about 50. Won’t even notice.”
Jemma wanted to narrow her eyes in suspicion, but she didn’t. He was being too nice. Was he feeling guilty about setting her up?
“I can’t take that. You know -”
“You like to do the work yourself, yeah, I know.” He looked back and forth in the hall.
“Jemma, just take the bloody card from him and get out of there,” Lance ground out. “You can toss it later.”
“Lance is right,” Trip put in. “Stay too long and you risk getting caught with him.”
“Thank you,” Jemma managed to say as Fitz started relaying an escape route to her - instructions for how to get to the new dock where they were moving the boat. She reached her hand out and took the card from him, slipping it into one of her pockets. “Erm - good luck with -” She waved the jar of cherries in his general direction, indicating the guard uniform he was wearing. “- well, with whatever it is you’re up to?”
Will let out a chuckle, and Jemma realized for the first time how similar it sounded to Grant’s own laughter. She wondered how well the two of them knew each other. Had they been doing the same kind of work all along? She couldn’t believe she had ever considered him a friend.
She continued her walk to the kitchen, feeling a slight twinge of regret that he made one less person she could trust in this life she had chosen. Fitz must have realized what was running through her head as she landed in the midst of the catering staff, setting the jar of cherries down on the table where desserts were being assembled. She deftly picked up a tray of tiny cakes for the VIPs as he began talking.
“Jemma, he made his choice. You don’t have to feel badly about this. This isn’t your fault. It’s his. He fooled all of you, even Bobbi.”
“He’s right. I let him on our team,” Bobbi agreed. “He was good. There’s no way you could have known.”
She held her head high as she balanced the tray with one hand and removed the credit card from her pocket with the other, depositing the little piece of plastic into the trash compactor on her way out of the room.
She wound her way through the crowd of dignitaries mingling in a “secure” area of the courtyard before slipping around one corner and setting her tray on top of a nearby table.
She hurriedly untucked her gray top, pulling it over her head, and stuffing it into a garbage can, hoping her movements would go unnoticed by the celebrating crowd. Underneath, she wore a glittery tank top that would still allow her to blend in with the crowd all over again. She pulled the elastic from her hair and shook it out, pasting a smile on her face and blending in perfectly until she could get to the path that led to the boat.
“And the guards just found your bag.” Fitz laughed. “Good call on putting one of Kara’s alias’ IDs in there.” He nodded in satisfaction as the team of guards passed around the ID, looking at her picture and talking into radios. She was already long gone in the van, but Fitz was tracking that van’s movement as well, so he knew exactly where she and Ward were headed on the coast.
Jemma didn’t respond, but he knew she was in the midst of a crowd of people, so he could forgive her for that. Lance walked up next to him and took a seat, passing him a beer, but Fitz shook his head. He’d drink when Jemma was back with them.
Jemma giggled over the comms. “Oh, excuse me.”
Lance and Fitz exchanged an eye roll as a very deep, and very male, voice answered that it was fine.
After a few moments, she breathlessly whispered. “I’ve got keys to a moped. Give me the rest of the directions to the dock.”
It was something close to 18 hours later when Fitz, Jemma, Bobbi, Lance, and Trip were seated at a pair of tables at the back of a dive bar, their eyes glued to the eleven o’clock news as it started on the screen. Jemma shifted in her seat when a waitress walked up to them with two pitchers of beer and a stack of hard plastic cups. She wrenched her gaze away from the screen and watched Fitz instead as he was the one to thank the waitress, taking the stack of cups from her, and separating them on the table. He poured the drinks, distributing them to everyone, even filling two more glasses for the people they were waiting on. He slid hers over last, smiling as Lincoln’s face emerged on the news.
“What was that you said about not trusting reporters with a pretty face?” She teased him as Lincoln explained for the cameras that an anonymous source had provided him with valuable tips that had helped Interpol break the case wide open.
“I guess he’s alright,” Fitz agreed, lifting his cup in a salute to the TV. A split screen showed Ward, Kara, and Garrett being apprehended by Interpol just outside of a private airfield on Bagalia while Will was detained by local police.
“ I guess I’ll take that as a compliment,” Lincoln’s voice remarked from behind her. Turning, Jemma granted him with a smile.
“We bought you a beer,” she said, pointing to the glass.
“Oh, thanks, but -” He shook his head and lifted his keys from his pocket to show them a year sober chip hanging there.
“Hey,” Lance called to the waitress, “could you grab my friend here a coke?” He flashed his most flirtatious smile in her direction, and she wasn’t the only one to roll her eyes at his antics.
Lincoln took one of the empty seats as Skye walked up, another young woman in tow.
“Look who I found stalking me.” She stuck a thumb over her shoulder. “I thought you trained your people better than that, Bird.”
“Maybe she wanted you to catch her,” Bobbi told her with a smile as Jemma jumped up and grabbed the other girl in a hug.
“I’m so glad you’re safe,” Callie whispered. “I didn’t know where else to go, but I saw the paper, and I figured you guys had to be involved.”
Pulling back, Jemma grinned at her. “I’m glad you’re safe too. Here.” She handed her Lincoln’s unspoken for beer. “So we don’t tempt Mr. Campbell, you can have a beer.”
“Um, she’s only 19.” Bobbi reached out to grab the glass, but Fitz and Jemma both stopped her.
“Funny that’s where you draw the line with American law,” Fitz sniffed. “Perfectly legal for her to drink in most of the world. Let her enjoy her surviving Garrett nearly taking all our jobs from us.”
Once everyone was seated, drinks in front of them, and the news broadcast was winding down, Jemma reached over, taking Fitz’s hand under the table. He didn’t look away from his conversation with Trip and Skye about the likelihood of the sentences Ward and the rest would receive, but he squeezed her fingers affectionately, and for the first time in a long time, Jemma felt like she was right where she belonged.
“So, what’s next then, Bob?” Lance asked. “Startin’ over with a new crew? You an’ Mack goin’ to be benevolent pirates or something?”
Bobbi drained the last of her drink before answering. “Mack is taking an extended vacation with his brother. He doesn’t actually like stealing, you know. He only does favors for me once in awhile because I kept his brother’s garage from going under.” She sighed, setting the cup back down on the table. “I’ve been thinking about retiring.”
“The Mockingbird? Retired?” Lance laughed. “I’ll believe that when I see it.”
“Most people don’t leave the life until they’re forced to,” Skye spoke up quietly. “They do it when they’re in their fifties or sixties and someone younger is stealing the jobs right out from under them.” She nodded her head. “I say if you want to retire go for it. It’s not like you wouldn’t have plenty of contacts to get back in if you wanted to.” She gestured at herself and the company in general.
Jemma nodded in agreement, but she didn’t say anything. She liked parts of this job - the slipping into someone else’s life, the rush of a proper con, the satisfaction of a completed heist - but what she’d loved most was stealing from the people who deserved to have their wealth stripped away. She didn’t want to walk away from that just yet, even if she had thought about it quite a bit over the last few months. She wanted to help people.
“Well, there’s a problem - if I retire.” Bobbi feigned nonchalance as she played with the cheap paper coasters in front of her. “If Mockingbird disappears and is never heard from again, people will think she got scared off because of Garrett and his team. I can’t go out like that.” She paused, but no one said anything else, and Jemma wondered where she was going with this. “But, you know, outside of a very select few, most of them in this room, no one knows the real identity of the Mockingbird. It’s just a name.” She sighed and stood. “Between Jemma, and Callie, and Lance, you all know where all my safehouses are. So, I feel like I’d be leaving the operation in good hands.” Reaching into her pocket, Bobbi pulled out a small flashdrive and tossed it to Fitz. “You might find some interesting clients in there.”
With that, she walked away.
“Did she really just quit?” Jemma sat up, twisting in her seat to watch Bobbi leave the bar. “Just like that?”
“What do we do now?” Callie asked.
Lance stood up, his chair legs scraping on the floor. “I am going to take something of a holiday myself.” When Jemma glanced up at him, he was watching the door where Bobbi had just gone as well. He met Jemma’s eyes and she nodded in understanding. “I’ll give you all the safehouses I know soon. But for tonight, take the win. Relax.” He walked away from the table, following the path Bobbi had cut through the bar.
Jemma leaned back in her seat, half a glass of beer still in front of her, the fingers of one hand still twined with Fitz’s. His other hand was busy playing with the flashdrive, twirling it between his fingers and flipping it back and forth on the surface of the table.
“You guys know where to find me if you ever need to take anyone else down,” Lincoln told them, standing as well, and leaving a handful of cash on the table. Trip and Skye both raised their eyebrows at him. “What? I can pay for my own drink, even if I’m out with all of you.”
“I mean, if you want to, that’s cool.” Skye grabbed the cash and pocketed it with a cheeky grin. “But I got the bill covered.” She pulled a credit card out of her pocket. “Or really, a Vernon Masters has got it covered. Don’t worry, he’s a dick who has plenty of money to spare.” She stood up too, placing the card on the table in front of Fitz. “I’m heading back to my penthouse suite where I’m going to order the most expensive champagne they have to toast that bastard finally going to prison. Trip? You coming?”
Jemma grabbed her cup, smiling into it when a lazy grin spread across Trip’s face and he tried to act like Skye announcing he was staying with her to the room at large happened everyday. The way he scrambled to his feet though, Jemma was fairly certain that was a new thing.
“You got a suite?” Callie stood as well. “I could only cover a single.”
“Oh, I can hack you a better room.” Skye threw an arm around Callie’s shoulders. “I think you’re going to like working with us. How do you feel about Calista? Calypso? Calliope? Those good for you? We’re going to have to make you a few new identities.”
“You can call me whatever you want if you teach me how to hack a hotel’s guest list.”
Jemma didn’t watch the four of them leave, keeping her eyes on Fitz instead, who was still playing with the flashdrive. Setting her drink down, she reached over and plucked the drive from his hands, putting it in her own pocket for safekeeping.
“They’re right. For tonight, we should celebrate.”
Fitz turned to face her, his eyes examining every inch of her face like he was drinking her in.
“You want another round?” The waitress asked, walking back up to the two of them.
Without taking his eyes from Jemma, Fitz handed over the credit card. “No, cash us out please, and give yourself a generous tip. I know my friends are a handful.”
“How generous we talkin’?”
Jemma laughed and said, “Take a hundred. Then you can have tomorrow off.”
“I like the way you two think.”
She was gone to the register in a matter of seconds, leaving the two of them staring at one another.
“So, what do you want to do for the rest of the night to celebrate?” Jemma asked him expectantly, eyes shining. She moved a little closer to him, shifting to just the edge of the chair, their clasped hands on her knee.
“I don’t know…” Fitz pretended to think about it. “There’s this girl, you see. We had our first date not too long ago.”
“Ah, a girl.”
“Yeah. She’s fantastic. But she’s been so busy with work, I haven’t been able to take her on a second date.”
“You should really fix that.”
“Do you think she’d be up for a midnight walk on the beach?”
“Why don’t you call her and find out?”
“Jemma,” Fitz whispered, leaning in closer. But he didn’t get to say anything else as she closed the distance between them and kissed him hard, pressing in as close as she could without tipping her chair over. “Actually,” Fitz breathed when Jemma let him pull back for air, “I’m thinking we should skip the beach.”
“Good plan. I’ve always thought you were brilliant.”
Thank you to everyone who read, commented, liked, kudoed, etc. I hope you enjoyed the ending!