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Daisy

The first thing that Daisy thought when she saw the photo on question was ‘The fuck?’ with the second word being less of a verb and more a general inquiry. Of all the things, or rather – the people - that she expected to meet here, Grant Ward was certainly on the bottom of the list; neither Radcliffe nor Aida nor Ivanov had shown any indication of knowing him, so where did he come from (not that Daisy cared). Radcliffe, of course, had worked for Hive before working for S.H.I.E.L.D., and Hive had worn Grant’s face all that time, but Hive had been a fully different entity from Grant, and besides, for all the shitty things that Radcliffe has done lately, Daisy seriously didn’t think that he would make her Hive’s girlfriend, again, not after what the mad scientist had learned…

“Skye?” came the soft voice from behind the agent, who had walked over to the photo while still lost in thought. “What’s going on?”

Slowly, Daisy turned around, fully ready for a confrontation, (really), but… but the man who was sitting on their bed was not the smug and superior, (and almost irresistible) asshole that she met before Puerto Rico and during Lincoln’s rescue from Hydra’s Arctic base. Rather, it was the man from Vault D, looking at her in that lost and lonely, miserable and hungry manner that Daisy had seen during her visits to the Vault…and had never really forgotten.

“Um,” Daisy looked down, away from Grant’s face, lower down. This was a mistake, as her gaze slid down his toned torso and stomach, onto his member… “wow, you were always this big?..”

Rather than getting off the bed and onto her, (or into her), Grant grabbed and squeezed the blankets so hard, that his knuckles paled. “Skye,” he repeated again, his own voice tense and pained. “It’s really you? You’re really real?”

“Er,” Daisy looked down at her own two feet; since her, at least, was in the framework’s VR world, these were trickier questions than Daisy liked. “…May has called,” she muttered, looking at her – their – phone. “We should probably go and be briefed…”

“May wouldn’t call if it wasn’t important,” Grant agreed, still holding onto the blankets as if they were a lifeline, his own voice a mixture of disappointment and relief that irritated Daisy for some reason. Yes, sure, Grant Ward had betrayed them all back on the Bus, but if this was some sort of a crazy dream tailored for her, then shouldn’t Grant be professing his love for her again, as he did until Puerto Rico, when he met agent 33 and it all went to Hell and back? What was Radcliffe thinking when he had programmed Ward? (Mind you, the good doctor obviously had his own issues with sexuality, as demonstrated by Aida, but still…) “Shall we go?”

Daisy continued to look anywhere but at her former S.O., painfully aware that they were both naked and willing, at least on a physical level. “…I’m sorry,” she muttered, finally.

“…For what?” Grant asked, equally quiet.

“…Everything. What you did was shitty – really shitty – but what we did back to you? It was equally wrong. We should have been the better people, we were not. I can never forget you, but I can forgive,” Daisy muttered, looking down and anywhere, really, but at the man, who slowly got onto his feet and began to move forwards to her. “I don’t know if I loved you, Grant Ward, but—“

“There is no but,” the man in question firmly hugged Daisy against his chest – and it was also hard. Hard, and hairy, and warm…just like the entirety of him was. “What I did was wrong – simply wrong. I was damned either way, but I betrayed the team. I broke it, and almost killed the FitzSimmons. I am damned, Skye. Thank you for forgiving me at last.”

Daisy just burrowed her face in Grant’s chest, when she became aware of what was going on beneath their waistlines. Grant’s member, it seemed, was not unlike its master, twitching and trying to go upwards.

Daisy’s body, it seemed, also had a mind of its own; overriding any second thoughts, Daisy lifted one of her legs upwards, wrapping around Grant’s torso, and letting him into her instead. Just like his torso, down there he was hard and warm, even hot, and hungry, and greedy…just as Daisy was: ever since Lincoln had died saving the world, she had had no action, and she had needs…

And those needs were currently being satisfied fully, as she just sat on Ward, her arms and legs wrapped around him, and her face buried in his chest. The FitzSimmons, she knew, liked to do this sort of thing in positions, but Daisy had never cared for this sort of kink; this sort of straight-forward sex was what she went for instead.

Judging by the small sounds that Grant made, the same went down for him…

All too soon, the phone rang.

“Yes?” Daisy moaned into the speaker (that Grant held next to her).

“Daisy,” Melinda sounded even more cross than how she did usually. “I don’t know which one of you is on top of the situation, but get your asses to my office right now, or else I will drag you two there myself, and I won’t be gentle! You hear?”

“Yes!” Daisy gulped, fully pulled out of her hazy bliss. “We’ll be there ASAP!” She looked at Grant, aware that she had no idea where Melinda’s office in this reality was, so-

“We’ll be there,” Grant spoke, as he gently pulled Daisy off him. “Sorry about the delay.”

May just growled something in reply and hanged-up.

“You need to go to the shower?” Grant asked Daisy quietly, carefully.

“No, we need to get May’s office, and if we both go to the shower, she will need to drag us there, and we don’t need that,” Daisy looked away, as Grant gently took her by the arm and led her to the wardrobe. “Where is her office, anyways?”

“Oh, you cannot miss it – she’s the local head of the Hydra,” Grant spoke with nonchalance as he (and Daisy) got dressed.

Daisy blinked and stared at Grant with eyes wide open. “Seriously?” she exhaled. “Where did this come from? Hydra’s gone – I mean…”

“Skye,” Grant firmly took Daisy’s hands in his own. “You forgot? Hydra is was semi-immortal; even Hercules himself could not kill it completely, and had to bury Hydra’s last head under a cliff. S.H.I.E.L.D., and later on Talbot tried to kill Hydra and almost succeeded, but some Hydra still survived, and apparently hacked into Aida, so here we are.”

There was a pause as Daisy finished getting dressed almost mechanically, her thoughts being busy with other things.

“How do you know about that?” she asked her former S.O. head-on. “You died before Hydra fell!”

“Yes, yes, Coulson crushed my heart and all,” Grant shrugged dismissively, as he finished get-ting dressed too and led Daisy to the garage. “Very dramatic it was off him, too. But didn’t Reyes tell you? I and a few others have been back now for several weeks, if not months – or did you break-up with him already?”

“We didn’t break up, we didn’t have anything!” Daisy glared. “He just…went back to the other side when he got his hands on his uncle Ely…”

“That’s not good,” Grant muttered as he strapped Daisy in, (normally she would raise Hell of her own for being treated like some fragile princess, but right now, she was too distracted by the conversation to be bothered by this). “According to Kara, he should’ve sought out a man named Johnny Blaze – apparently, at the beginning of this century, Johnny was the Ghost Rider instead, so your friend should be seeking his guidance…”

“…Agent 33 is here too?” Daisy should not have been bothered by this, but after the (admittedly great) sex, she rather was.

“She is with Lincoln,” Grant muttered, apparently not very happy about this himself. “…Reyes didn’t tell you about him too?”

“…Reyes never told us anything,” Daisy muttered. “What are you talking about?”

“…Essentially, ever since May tricked me into killing Kara and until Coulson killed me on the alien planet? You have been following my plan-“

“To die?” Daisy stared, incredulously.

“Well, yes. I got tired of failures and off being the butt of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s jokes,” Grant gave Daisy a direct look. “Kara was the only one who believed in me in a long time and I let her down. I had to make it up to her, so I had to die and sort it out with her – either we both die and move on for real, or we both make it back. Only, she was in Limbo, and the fastest way to get there was through that alien planet, and the only way I could get there was by getting into Malick’s good graces…it sort of snowballed by the end,” he ended with a disarming smile, but Daisy wasn’t disarmed.

“It’s a damned good thing that you aren’t real,” Daisy snapped, “or else I would tear your crazy head for doing this sort of thing!” To her embarrassment, she burst into tears.

Grant quietly stopped the car, (it had driven like a dream over the various roads and highways of this world, it seemed), and just hugged her, until the tears ended. “I’m sorry,” he muttered gently into her ear, “I am. It is just that sometimes a man has to do what a man has to do, and… I’m sorry.”

“Yes, well, you’re not real anyhow, so you get a pass,” Daisy muttered into his shoulder. “Crazy idiot. So, what happens now?”

“Well, we’re at May’s new Hydra building, so the ball is in her court,” Grant shrugged, as he led Daisy out of the vehicle. “Oh, and the others are here.”

Daisy looked in the indicated direction. Jemma was getting out of her own car, as were Lincoln, and – agent 33.

/ / /

Jemma

Jemma Anne Simmons awoke in a coffin – a perfect end to a perfect week. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s rescue of May went FUBAR in a spectacularly bad manner, her boyfriend practically proposed marriage to her and was replaced by a homicidal robot, she had to kill him, and the only people left to help her and Daisy to rescue everyone else, not just May, were a few rookies, and Yo-Yo.

…Yes, Yo-Yo was a good friend and co-worker of her and Quake, and it was nice to have someone with powers and (some) experience on their side, but…

…But it seemed to Jemma, (even without the powers of hindsight), that lately Yo-Yo was having some issues of her own: the Latin-American woman was more distant, withdrawn, and subdued lately…not unlike Daisy, to an extent…

…Okay, Daisy still was not back to her old, regular, vibrant self ever since they had finally picked her up in California, after the mess with the Watchdogs, J.T. James and the Ghost Rider. True, Jemma didn’t know if Daisy will ever get her old self back – the new self was more like May’s, except that May was more like Daisy these days, except that Radcliffe and Aida had replaced her with a robot, who proved to be a better human that the original May was…right.

Jemma frowned in thought. Yes, these were strange things to think about while lying buried in a coffin, but the truth was, the English agent was procrastinating – she fully intended to save Fitz, (by herself – maybe), as well as everyone else, (with Daisy’s help, here), but first she had to get out of the coffin.

“The Bride in ‘Kill Bill’ made it look so easy,” Jemma muttered, as she gave first few tentative hits on the lid with her fists. “She just punched and punched and then got out and continued to have her revenge!..” She paused and added, much quieter after the outburst. “Of course she had her revenge to look forwards to – I don’t.”

Jemma fell silent in the dark, because she was not that crazy to be talking to herself in her own (virtual) coffin. Rather, she was upset, if not outright miserable – ever since Lincoln had died the old team just wasn’t the same anymore; Daisy was back with being one foot out the door and looking deflated in a metaphorical way; May wasn’t herself, period; she and Fitz…okay, she and Fitz were great, but right now Jemma had to admit that part of the reason as to why Radcliffe was able to work rings around them on their watch was because they weren’t really watching anyone else but each other – Daisy’s gift of their own home proved to be more ambiguous than an-yone, (including Daisy), had realized…

“We fell apart – sort of,” Jemma muttered. “Watchdogs aren’t Hydra; they are just some yahoos busy playing KKK and Ivanov is just an arsehat. We should’ve scattered them before us like chat in the wind, and instead…”

There was a pause in Jemma’s mental processes, as the coffin’s lid suddenly opened, flooding Jemma’s grave with light. “My eyes!” the Englishwoman shrieked, caught by surprise. “Who is it? Who is out there? Thank you! Help me out of here?!”

“Here!” Jemma’s flailing arms were caught in a solid grip and she was pulled up and out of the earth. “I see that you aren’t too traumatized? Agent Simmons?”

“Uh,” Jemma shielded her eyes from the sun. “Who is it? Do I know…you…” she trailed away as a cap was put onto her head, (shielding her sight further from the sun), and she realized her rescuers. “Campbell? And – agent 33? What are you doing here?”

“Getting you out,” Kara Palamas shrugged. “How are you feeling? You want to sit down? Right here on the bench? We got some food if you’re feeling like it…”

Jemma looked at the direction. Over there, indeed, was a bench with a basket, the contents of which were more appropriate for a picnic than a cemetery – rye bread and sausage, cucumbers, garlic, apples, and a bottle of booze, and also several disposable cups for drinking.

Soundlessly, Jemma walked over to the bench and sat down on it, thinking.

“Okay,” she finally spoke after some thinking, “Radcliffe has clearly gone off his rocker, there is no reason why he wouldn’t put the two of you together,” she made a sandwich, chose an apple, and began to eat. “Did either of you seen Daisy, BTW?”

“No, Grant’s got her instead,” Kara exchanged looks with Lincoln. “We honestly hope that the two of them work it out – this time.”

Jemma took a deep breath. She was really wasting her time, arguing with a crazy computer programming, but she could not help it:

“Grant Ward,” she said flatly, “is a murderer and a madman-“

“He didn’t rip you a second one after you tried to kill him with a splinter bomb in the Arctic, now did he?” Kara said conversationally, as she poured a couple of cups of booze. She drank one herself and gave the second to Lincoln, who was busy reburying Jemma’s grave. “So, um, can you get off the moral superiority horse? It doesn’t really work for you anymore.”

Silence fell as the two women stared each other, eye to eye. “Look,” Jemma picked up her own cup and poured some booze for herself. “…Wow, this is really good whiskey!”

Kara smiled slightly, but did not back down.

“…Right,” Jemma thought some more, especially about the Arctic mission in particular – she had not shared these details with Fitz, let alone. “So, why are you here and Grant’s with Daisy, and everything?”

“Because Melinda is right. She and I are different, and Grant is not Andrew, but… I do like Lincoln better than him,” Kara muttered, downing some more whiskey. “Skye is better for Grant, you know?”

Jemma looked away. Did she really want to argue with a computer program, and a crazy one at that? No, she wasn’t miserable enough, or crazy enough to do that; ever since Radcliffe was revealed to be, well, a mad scientist of Dr. Frankenstein’s school, her and Leo’s lives had grown increasingly wretched, and-

“We’re going to rescue them,” Kara said, as she rubbed Jemma’s shoulders. “She is looking for Coulson already, you know?”

“Mmm,” Jemma muttered in a general way. “I’m sorry that I’m acting like a heel, here. I do not like Grant, but this is not about him, it is more about Leo. And me, I suppose. We’re going to rescue him, right?”

“Yes,” Kara said firmly, as she shook Jemma by the shoulders and began to lead her to a nearby car. “We’re going to rescue everybody.”

“That’s nice,” Jemma said absentmindedly, until the she saw the logo on the car. “Um, why is it a Hydra octopus?”

“Because in this world? Hydra has won, apparently,” Kara made her own grimace of distaste. “That alone is a good reason to help you both here and in the real world.”

…It was then that Jemma’s mind completely refused to make sense of what was going on, and she went into some sort of shock. She did not resist when Lincoln and Kara hustled her into their vehicle and drove away from the cemetery towards the city center…

/ / /

Meeting May

“Jemma,” Daisy exhaled as she looked at the shorter woman. “How are you?”

“Daisy!” Jemma walked over and gave her best friend a hug. “Terrible. Nothing makes sense an-ymore!”

“I hear you,” Daisy nodded sagely, as the two of them, entered the building, flanked by their…well, Daisy didn’t know just who Grant and Lincoln were to her, anymore, and Kara was also rather ambiguous, but…Daisy was tired of hating; she was tired of hating everybody, even Anton Ivanov and his merry crew of idiots; she just wanted to win. If she and her friends had to kill their enemies – so be it, but hating them? No, just no. “It’s been a really bad month.”

“Bad month?” Jemma looked up at Daisy’s face: the Englishwoman was very subdued ever since the two of them entered the framework. “Daisy, our friends are kidnapped, the framework makes even less sense than what I’ve expected, and, and-“ she looked around. “Hah. It reminds me slightly of Dr. Whitehall’s building back in the old country, but with a more…exotic touch. May is making her own personal stamp here?”

“Yes,” Grant replied instead. “She really wanted to be rescued from here before Coulson and Fitz got captured instead.”

“You forgot Mack and director Mace,” Daisy muttered, feeling uncomfortable for some reason other than the look that Grant exchanged with Lincoln and Kara upon hearing this. “Problem?”

“Yes,” Grant nodded, thoughtfully, as the quintet went into an elevator with just a few curious looks directed at them. “But it can wait. Jemma looks flustered enough as it is.”

“Your friends gave me whiskey!” Jemma said faux-brightly.

“So? You cannot really get wasted here,” Grant shrugged. “This surrogate world is good, but not that good.”

“I don’t know, what we had was really good for me,” Daisy said brightly.

Grant turned red and sputtered into silence.

“Daisy,” Jemma began, but the taller woman gave her a look.

“Jemma,” she said quietly, but Jemma immediately fell silent, as she tended to, lately, whenever Daisy stared at her.

“Jemma,” Daisy repeated the Englishwoman’s name. “If you want to give me an earful, you can give it to me – but after we saved Phil and the others, okay?”

“Okay,” Jemma muttered, feeling subdued and unhappy once more. She was just as kickass an S.H.I.E.L.D. agent as Daisy was, so why did Daisy somehow this sort of a follower feeling from her? This warranted further investigation…

The elevator dinged open. “Hello,” Melinda May, clad in a classier version of the black-tac gear, but otherwise looking the same, spoke from the corridor as the quintet exited the elevator. “Daisy, Jemma? How have you been?”

Daisy and Jemma exchanged a look and promptly hugged the older woman. “That bad?” the Cavalry asked with slightly more emotion in her voice than her usual dryness.

“Melinda,” Daisy exhaled. “If it wasn’t for the LMD version of you, we would also be captured. As it is, our HQ was damaged – again, and-“

“Grant,” May said quietly, but Daisy immediately fell silent and listened – as did everyone else, actually. “Help them out. All of you-“

“We will,” Grant said crossly, “and you know it.”

“Sorry,” the Cavalry actually looked apologetic, “it’s just that you know that the LMD sounds like a better me than me.”

“Well, now that we know as to who didn’t get captured, when your first rescue went FUBAR, you will have time to work on this,” Grant shrugged.

“Mmm,” the Cavalry shrugged in a noncommittal way. “Maybe.”

“Since when are you so friendly with him, a piece of programming or not?” Jemma frowned, as she noticed something new in their immediate vicinity. “Since when are we in an office? Weren’t we in a corridor just now?”

“Yes,” Melinda nodded, as she sat into an armchair, like a boss, and took a jug in her hands. “Daisy, Jemma, here’s the thing. None of this is real.”

“We know-“

“It’s like a dream,” Melinda continued, overriding both of her friends. “And Jemma, since you like to find scientific explanations for everything, can you explain, in language that is simple enough for Daisy to understand, how dreams work in relation to one’s brain?”

Jemma opened her mouth, closed it, and began to think for real. “Daisy?” she finally turned to the InHuman agent, “this is worse than we thought. Dreams come from a very specific part of our brains; if that part of the brain is affected for too long, the effect will be unpredictable and irreversible; this whole framework just might be one of the biggest, and most expensive, and also one of the most mass means of brainwashing people!”

“Exactly!” Kara joined in brightly, before stopping abruptly. “Melinda? You wanted to add something else?”

“Yes; the thing that you all have to know? Radcliffe is dead – he dropped into the framework, over to Agnes’ briefly before you did, so now we got a mass means of brainwashing people managed by a homicidal robot…and most of the agents who could’ve stopped her are trapped on the wrong side of the framework in question…”

“And back in the real world our HQ was damaged by a mammoth explosion, our reputation is damaged even worse by the senator Nadeer’s manipulations and provocations, really we’re little more than a bunch of hobos these days,” Jemma added with a smile that was manic only slightly.

“Cavalry, after you’re done with Coulson, please find Fitz – Simmons is really not herself without him,” Grant muttered.

Jemma whirled around, about to lay it into him, when Daisy spoke: “Right, let us start from the beginning. Who is Agnes? I think that I heard this name from Mack, from one of his missions with Coulson, but I don’t remember the details…”

Melinda frowned. “She was his human girlfriend; she was dying from inoperable tumor, so Radcliffe first created Aida Mk I to replace her, and then the framework to contain her. This is some sort of a surrogate world, a world without death, a supposed dream come true. Only I can say from personal experience it isn’t so.”

May’s facial expression grew carefully controlled. “When I first was put into the framework, it was some sort of a generic oriental garden – I realized that it was fake immediately and began to escape. I did, so Radcliffe put me into a stimulation where I had to fight Aida time after time – the lines between the framework and the reality began to blur. And then he and Aida put me into a world, into many different worlds, where all I did was fight – to win, to lose, to defeat, to kill… I was losing myself,” Melinda looked at no one in particular even as she was saying these words. “If I hadn’t gotten an anchor from the InHumans,” both Daisy and Jemma looked at Lincoln and Grant for some reason, “I would’ve stopped being me, and became someone else – a head of the Hydra, maybe. The framework gives you what you want, not what you need, and that is a problem. The end game is for someone else’s benefit.” She looked in a way that on anyone else’s face would be considered begging. “Please, start figuring out on how to get us all out of here, would you?”
“Deal,” Daisy nodded, before turning to Jemma. “Um, Jemma?”

“Daisy, we must emerge from here first,” the Englishwoman frowned. “Something is wrong in the real world, I feel.”

“Then let’s do this,” Daisy nodded, before switching her attention onto Ward. “See you all soon.”

Grant just gave her an enigmatic look.

TBC

Chapter Text

Mack

…When push came to shove, agent ‘Mack’ Mackenzie had to admit that he was still a simple soul at heart; he may have been an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., but, regardless, he still was something of a rural Illinois man deep inside.

Mack’s ‘integration’ into S.H.I.E.L.D. occurred in a fairly mundane manner: he received one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s scholarship grants, rather than the grant of the Illinois state (for example). Regardless, he was still surprised when one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s recruiters approached him some time later, and broadly ‘implied’ that people who received and/or accepted S.H.I.E.L.D.’s grants usually ended up working for the department in question as well. Mack, who was well on his way on graduating from the university and already looking for a job, didn’t really have too many issues with the implication, but he did point out that he wasn’t a military man and that he wouldn’t make a good soldier. The S.H.I.E.L.D. representative, (nowhere as good as Coulson, but still fairly good at his job), just nodded in understanding and explained that since Mack was a graduate of an engineering course, S.H.I.E.L.D. was more interested in hiring him as an engineer instead – and so Mack accepted, since a job was just a job, right?

Since he was dealing with half-human half-alien hybrids, crazy aliens, and these days – even crazier robots, absolutely not. Maybe he should have done as many other of his former coworkers did and left S.H.I.E.L.D. after captain America and the other Avengers had denounced it, but somehow he never did; maybe he honestly enjoyed working for S.H.I.E.L.D. regardless of all the insanity, or maybe he just enjoyed working, period, especially after Hope had died and his wife – well, now his ex-wife – remarried to the son of the Wakandan ambassador to the U.S. instead.

True, there was Yo-Yo, but Mack honestly did not know where he stood with the Latin-American InHuman either: the FitzSimmons made it seem so easy, until Daisy got them their own apartment the young scientists would just do each other wherever, whenever they could, and they were neither subtle nor quiet, and it was annoying. In addition, Mack could not do that—

…Okay, he could, literally speaking. He was not an invalid or anything like this, he just—

He just did not know where he and Yo-Yo were going with this. It was all fine and dandy for the younger agents to involve in just some gratuitous sex, but Mack would rather get married first, and—

He had no idea if Yo-Yo wanted to, that was the problem. Aside from the fact that she lately seemed to have her own issues on top the entire LMD mess that S.H.I.E.L.D. was dealing lately, plus she was Catholic, and Mack was not.

There were interreligious marriages in S.H.I.E.L.D., obviously, but after one failed marriage, Mack was not looking to another one, not until he tried to iron out all of the kinks, preferably with Yo-Yo, naturally.

That said, right now all of these musings of Mack were null and void, seeing how he apparently wasn’t rescuing May alongside Daisy, Coulson and the others, but rather was stuck in an ancient city in an unknown land.

Okay, the land was not exactly fully foreign to him – the elegant buildings, the stately domed roofs, the smells of cooking foods in the streets, all suggested that he was in ancient India, rather than Rome, Egypt, or China, for example. That was not so bad – the people actually were quite varied in terms of race; Mack was not the only person of African descent in the crowd, but still. Ancient India. Definitely out of Mack’s area of expertise, plus there was the entire inconsistency with the actual S.H.I.E.L.D. mission…

“I think that our mission to rescue May went FUBAR,” he muttered mostly to himself. “Not even Radcliffe could change the world for real—“

“Oh, none of this is real, agent Mack, more of a pageant, so that the beautiful Sita, daughter of the local rajah, could choose just the right husband for herself,” a voice that was neither familiar nor unfamiliar spoke right next to the big man, startling him. Mack turned around, and saw that speaker had more than a passing resemblance to one of his fellow agents, Sukhwinder, from the Iliad, who died in the firefight with Hydra.

“Do I know you?” Mackenzie directly asked the man, “and BTW, where are you taking me?”

“To our seats in the city square – we get to see the brave and noble youths participate in archery, wrestling, spear throwing, all that so that the princess could choose the best man for her husband,” the man replied to the second question, ignoring the first.

“…Right. I do have my axe, but you know? Yo-Yo and I…we have complications and all, but I think that I would like to work things out first, before going out with any other women, royalty or not,” Mack told the ‘not-Sukhwinder’ before adding, purely from non-sexual curiosity: “but I would still like to watch.”

“No problem with that,” his interlocutor replied cheerfully as he let Mack to a couple of seats in the city square. “It’s going to be quite a show. Watch! The rajah is making a speech!”

And indeed, a man dressed in rich, even royal, robes, walked to the center of the square and spoke:

“Hear me, one and all! Many years ago, the founder of my family got a gift from the great god Shiva – a might bow! He was the only one in our family who could string it and fire from it – no one since! Those among you, who would seek my daughter’s hand, will have to string it and fire an arrow from it! That is my challenge and my oath! Hear me!”
Saying this speech, the rajah turned around and left the square, just as his warriors were carrying in the bow.

“It does look impressive,” Mack muttered to the other man, “but is it really a gift from the gods?”

“Oh, it’s a gift, all right, but not from the gods as you would think it, rabbi,” his interlocutor said with a bitterness that was not there previously. “Whom the natives consider gods are actually a race called the Kree – but never let it be said that the Kree weren’t self-aggrandizing gloryhogs, savvy?”

Mack frowned, thinking about this. The way that the other man said ‘Kree’ was reminiscent of some of the names that Mack himself used to be called – the n-word and its’ synonyms. All of them were racist words, but also outdated ones, and used only recently as accepted by the ‘other’ Americans. This was interesting, but—

But what was going on in the square was also interesting. Despite the initial despair, the grooms-to-be went to the bow, and – failed. Some of them grabbed the bow with all of their strength, straining their muscles, sweating heavily, but unable even to lift it. Others – the older, stronger men – were able to raise the bow, grab the string…but the bow would fall, unstrung.

And then something happened. The crowd parted, and a giant of a man, taller than even Mack himself and wider in the shoulders, approached the bow. He looked at it…and lifted it, without any visible effort. The crowd gasped, the rajah actually stood up from his throne, and the princess paled with fright, and Mack couldn’t blame her: for all of the newcomer’s determined facial expression and the impressive beard, (and Mack had actually won S.H.I.E.L.D.’s official beard pageant, so he knew a thing or two about beards – but that wasn’t the point here), the giant couldn’t hide the rather cruel and covetous gleam in his eyes; Mack wasn’t an expert on reading people unlike May or Coulson, but even he doubted that the newcomer would make a good husband to the princess.

The princess herself… Mack was impressed by her; her own royal dress and the delicate facial features could not hide the steely determination and the remarkable self-control in her eyes – but now even that was shaken as the newcomer continued his success as the warrior positioned the great bow vertically, grabbed the bowstring and began to string the bow. Thick, crooked fingers held the bow, the great muscles were as still and hard as rock. The string began to slowly get into the proper position…

“Can it be Ravana the invincible himself?!” came a cry from the crowd.

“Say who now?” Mack turned to his own companion, but his inquiry remained unanswered, as the man watched the unfolding situation very intently, as one would watch an old, familiar, miserable sight, so Mack switched his attention back to the surprise challenger, only to see things fall apart for the latter. With a clinging, metallic sound the bowstring slipped from the giant’s fingers, the bow snapped straight and fell to the ground. Everyone gasped and the giant emitted a cry, more suitable for a wounded elephant than a human being. His shape blurred, it seemed as if he had ten heads and twenty arms, no longer had he resembled a human—

“Woe, woe to us! This is Ravana the invincible, the maharajah of the rakshasas, the demon among demons, lord of the night stalkers, the warrior with no mercy!” the crowd yelled, but before they could stampede in panic, the entity rose into the air and vanished like a cloud of dust in the wind.

Mack opened his mouth and faced once more his own companion: even by S.H.I.E.L.D.’s standards, this was something else. However, before he could say anything, yet another contestant emerged from the crowd, and flexing his shoulders, approached the bow. Once again, the bow was lifted and the bowstring began to be strung. As Mack watched in genuine awe, the black, heavy wood of the bow gave way…with a mighty crack as the bow broke in two.

“He won! Prince Rama is the victor!” the crowd yelled, and the princess, doing her best to look demure, (and despite her petite stature she did not look too demure, BTW), approached him and hang a garland upon him. The crowd yelled in jubilation, and… the scene melted away, leaving Mack – and his companion – somewhere else.

“Okay, two questions: what has happened there in particular, and WTF is going on here in general,” Mack turned to his interlocutor, only to stop, as the man himself had changed, he looked less like the late agent Sukhwinder, and more like the director Jeffrey Mace, (though not entirely).

“What has happened, agent Mackenzie?” the man said with an old bitterness. “A long time ago two of alien races found Earth, and especially the Indian peninsula. They were the Kree and the Skrulls. The Kree were, or rather are, obsessed with purity, by the modern American standards they would be no better than Mussolini’s fascists had been, yet the natives made them into gods, while the Skrulls became demons, or rakshasas, instead…” he looked at the neighbourhood and continued. “Then, among the rakshasas, two brothers were born, and the name of one of them was Ravana. He was a paragon of the rakshasas, even more so than his brother, the rakshasas made him their maharajah – the first and the last of their kind to earn that title.”

“Not even his brother?” Mack could not help but to ask.

“Kunkarna? He was the rakshasas’ dream warrior, a great champion, but he never ruled,” the man’s face grew wistful. “But Ravana, ah, the man abandoned all of his kingly luxuries and went into the wilds to become a Brahmin, a holy hermit, and the gods believed him…after he followed all of the laws, requirements and regulations for 1000 years! The gods at last approached him and in return for his piety and propriety offered to grant him any wish that they could – so Ravana asked for invincibility…from gods themselves and from the wild beasts, for he feared no mortal, man or woman. And he received it, and he promptly enslaved the gods, so one of the gods had to be reborn as a mortal and defeat him…basically, by S.H.I.E.L.D.’s prosaic standards, the Kree had to use an InHuman to free themselves from the Skrulls,” he concluded wryly.

“How lovely, but what this has to do with the current situation…Ravana?” Mack made ‘an educated guess’.

His interlocutor stood up, and once again he was the giant from the city square, though now he had green skin and elf-like ears, (they looked almost cute, not that that Mack swung this way, BTW). “Alveus, whom you know more as Hive, was one of my children,” the alien said matter-of-factly. “After the accursed Kree got their hands on him and transformed him into a wretched worm of a weapon there was almost nothing left of him…not that there was much to begin with…but he was still my son. And you agents have killed him. I was going to have my revenge on the lot of you when the Darkhold appeared. Now I am mostly after it, but you agents are not off the hook at all. So, for now, enjoy your vacation in this collective mental landscape, for after it ends, you will have nothing to look forwards, but suffering!” And he vanished as he did in the ancient city square, as dust in the wind.

Mack looked around – the suburban street was empty, devoid of people and their pets, leaves were falling from trees onto the pavement… There was a rake nearby, and Mack always thought best when he was working. He began to rake the leaves – and then he found a bike just the right size and shape for a child, rather than an adult.

Suddenly feeling cold for no apparent reason, Mack took the bike into the house (his house?)…

TBC

Chapter Text

Real World

Back in the real world, Daisy and Jemma discovered, as they emerged from the framework, things were not much better than they were on the other side. Not only was S.H.I.E.L.D.’s HQ still largely demolished, (and it was not that long ago since Hive and his minions ravaged the HQ to begin with), right now, its’ agents were in a standoff with an intruding, and clearly unfriendly, force.

…Okay, this was actually a good thing, since at that moment in time S.H.I.E.L.D.’s total forces consisted more of just agent Piper and her two friends, Jemma and Daisy – and the last two were shot or stabbed by different LMDs, and they were also still disoriented from their visit to the framework, so they were not much help at all.

…Fortunately, it did not appear that they actually needed to help, since agent Piper and her two friends were not alone from the start: a good amount of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s other agents seemed to have survived the LMD-caused explosion and were standing alongside agent Piper and her two friends, (and yes, Jemma and Daisy, who were still sitting in their framework-connected seats), facing the other group of people – and there was the problem. For while some members of the other group wore the typical paramilitary fatigues of the Watchdogs, the others had a very familiar – painfully familiar actually – insignia of the octopus.

Hydra.

“…Daisy,” Jemma said in a tiny voice, “I thought that we made it out of the framework?”

“Jemma,” Daisy’s reply was wearier than worried because she was weary: if the version of Grant Ward in the framework was not real, it sucked for one group of reasons, and this was ‘the original T-1000’, then it was bad news for an entirely other group of reasons. “Have you forgotten? Hydra was coming back in the real world even before Radcliffe made his bid for Darkhold for real. See the scarface with the machete over there? He was in charge of the group who brought down the quinjet with the director, Mack, and Phil recently. That was when they began to hack in the framework or Aida or both…right?” she glared at the machete-wielding man in question.

Sadly, instead of replying, the man just cocked the safety on his firearm – some sort of a mini-Uzi, Daisy assumed – into a firing position. Since the men flanking him bore much bigger firearms, – machine guns of the M60 line – Daisy did not really want to comment. She already had one bullet in her shoulder, and another in the calf, and really was not looking to seeing how many bullets coming her way she will be able to block before it was time to do so.

For her part, Jemma somewhat wilted upon hearing Daisy’s statement and seeing their opponents’ reactions to it, but…not too much: just like Daisy she already was through too much to be bothered by overwhelming odds – and the odds didn’t appear to be too overwhelming. So… “What are we waiting for?” she asked no one in particular. “There doesn’t appear to be too many of them, we can probably take them.”

“True,” one of the ‘other’ agents replied – Daisy even vaguely recognized him: he was one of the ‘leaders’ of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new field agents, basically an analogue of a SWAT team of sorts. “We can, or could, but see their leader?” he jabbed the barrel of his firearm at a man wearing some sort of a fancy overcoat. “He’s a gifted and that is resistant to ordinary bullets as well. His name is Horten, BTW-“

“I heard of him!” Daisy exclaimed. “He is one of the InHumans who is against integrating into the American society-“

“Yes, and he is Hydra, and isn’t an InHuman,” Yo-Yo commented bitterly from her own position, which was closer to one of the flanks than to Daisy and Jemma, for example. “He’s ‘just’ a gifted, I suppose-“

“Okay, time out!” Daisy snapped at the older woman. “Yo-Yo, what is eating you? And don’t give us any LMD-related crap – you have been kind of withdrawn, distant and miserable even before Radcliffe began his insanity here—“

“Oh, I am her father,” the supposed Hydra leader, Horten, said calmly, “and, BTW? You can call me the Gryphon.”

Daisy blinked and exchanged a look with Jemma. Between the man’s English, accentless, and his overall facial features, he did look more like an Anglo-American rather than a Latin-American as Yo-Yo did, but he was also suntanned enough to pass for a Latin-American, especially if you didn’t know what to look for.

“…The Gryphon?” Jemma blinked. “Isn’t it the name of a species of vulture?”

“No, the Vulture is in NYC, fighting Stark’s latest pet prodigy,” the man smiled widely, showing off his teeth, which were just slightly too big and too sharp to be an ordinary human’s. “I’m the Gryphon.”

“Okay, ‘Gryphon’,” Daisy muttered sarcastically to the man in question. “So.” She took a breath. “You’re one of the leaders of the ‘opposition’ InHuman movement that I’ve encountered so often in the six months of my absence from S.H.I.E.L.D.? Tell me, do you even believe in anything regarding the InHumans, do you care about them, or is it just another power grab – this one from you?”

There was a pause as everyone just stared at Daisy. “Daisy?” Jemma looked honestly confused. “What are you talking about? The InHumans-“

“Jem?” Daisy interrupted her best friend, almost matching her look for look. “What did you do, during those six months that I was absent?”

“Agent Fitz!” everyone else answered instead.

“…That’s an oversimplification of the matter but yes, mostly Fitz and I were busy with each other and with the duties that director Mace had assigned us,” Jemma looked away first. “Daisy, you must understand! After Hive, and Will’s death, and Lincoln’s death, and you leaving after that fight with Melinda and Coulson, Leo and I actually wanted to work in the lab, as well as on our own relationship. We didn’t ignore the ‘outside world’; it is just that when I was with Fitz? The rest of the world didn’t really exist,” she finished, blushing. “What did we miss?”

“Basically? While we were busy with Hive and anything else that I missed by being away? The InHumans began to approach the American government directly and have kind of made a deal based on the Sokovia accords and what professor Xavier’s people have made regarding Genosha and all,” Daisy sighed. “Whatever plans Phil had regarding them and S.H.I.E.L.D. became simply obsolete, which isn’t bad, considering that Phil and May and the rest of you had never been fully on board even with the Secret Warriors, let alone anything bigger—“

“That’s a lie!” Jemma glared hotly at Daisy. “We were behind you all the way! Although, considering that Yo-Yo seems to have her own problems, Joey is just gone, and Lincoln’s dead—“

“Yeah, but then you people have kind of punched a hole between the world of the living and the world of the dead, so here we are,” Grant Ward, now decidedly real and – just real, commented, as he and Lincoln helped agent 33 carry in a bunch of medical supplies. “So yeah, Simmons - you should think of another argument.”

“…I give up,” Jemma told Daisy. “I don’t care anymore if we’re still in the framework, and this is some sort of a glitch or a defensive system made by Radcliffe and Aida—“

“Here!” someone in the agents’ crowd threw…something to Jemma – a cross between an old-fashioned taser, a pitchfork and a dildo. “Is this proof enough that this is the real world?”

“…” Jemma just tried to self-immolate as everyone just stared at her and her sex-toy. “I’ve made this before me and Fitz began to have a – more carnal relationship? And yes, there is no way that this is the framework – no one knew about this, really—“

“…I can see why,” Daisy did her best to keep her face emotionless – she rather failed. “Grant? If you’re real, then you’re here with-?”

“Skye? Not funny,” Grant said flatly, as he walked over to her and Jemma gave the self-proclaimed Horten/the Gryphon a look. “And you? I’m telling you again – leave.”

“Your father’s death has made you weak,” Horten did not sound too intimidated by Grant’s threat.

“I don’t know,” Kara – agent 33 – commented from the back. “It wasn’t just us leaving through the hole, plus I’m sure that someone was tagging behind us even before Campbell here has dropped onto us from space. Maybe Garrett has made it back – we just do not care personally. Now, leave, and Rodriguez?” here the ex-agent switched into Spanish, (and neither Daisy nor Jemma have really mastered it yet), and the other woman zoomed over to her, looking…happier than how she was before.

“You’re talking about the other device, one that Aida built to rescue Fitz, and Coulson, and – and Robbie Reyes,” Jemma muttered quietly. “Lord, nothing good has come from Darkhold-“

“Oh no, me, and Kara, and even Lincoln would still have come back – you just compensated for Lincoln dropping in on the two of us and slowing us down some,” Grant shrugged. “Coulson is the King of Improvisations, but give me enough time and I can make a solid plan, covering most of the angles, if not all of them.”

Daisy shifted – Grant had come to stand next to her and Jemma – and looked at him. “You were never afraid to die,” she made more a statement than a question.

“Yes, and going and returning taught me some new tricks,” Grant said mildly. “You?”

Daisy shrugged – and winced from pain coming from the bullet wound. “Right,” Grant nodded. “Campbell?”

Lincoln, who until now stayed behind with Kara, walked over to the others, gave the Gryphon a very unfriendly look – and blasted him with electricity. When the dust cleared, the Gryphon…was still standing, he just did not look anymore human, but more like his mythical counterpart, a half-eagle, half-lion winged monster (that was not a dragon, BTW).

Daisy swore. “Oh God! People, I have fought him like this before – I just didn’t know that it was him,” she told no one in particular. “If I didn’t have bullets in me-“

“Ward,” Lincoln said quietly. “You can do this-“

The other man did not reply, but Daisy felt an odd feeling come over her, as Grant grabbed her and pulled her upwards, however mildly. At first it felt kind of pleasant, but then the feeling hit her gunshot wounds, and there were flairs of pain, and some sort of a wet, popping sound, and suddenly…

And suddenly Daisy was actually no longer in pain. She did not feel all that great, but-

“Let’s try it together, as we did it with Lash,” she suggested to the other InHuman, who just nodded. Together, Daisy and Lincoln raised their hands and blasted their opponent, just as the latter was raising himself into the air with those wings off his. This time, they blasted him right through the wall…that promptly fell apart immediately after that.

“Guys, we’re winning!” Jemma said brightly, (as apparently she has hid her sex toy somewhere). “Pity that we will still be hobos!”

It was then that several of the agents’ comm.-links came to life. “Boss man?” the voice of one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s tech-support people came through it. “The military is coming; you just need to hold on for short while more…”

And something changed in the facial expression of the scarred Hydra agent. He abruptly put down his mini-Uzi and barked a short command. Immediately, the entire crew of Hydra… (remnants?) and their allies turned and left, almost fleeing. It possibly was not a win for S.H.I.E.L.D., but neither Daisy nor Jemma nor anyone else was going to complain.

“Is the military really coming?” Jemma nonchalantly asked no one in particular. Nobody was fooled either.

“Yes,” Grant nodded. “My sister and general Talbot have an understanding, and besides – Horten is Hydra.”

“And the scar-face?”

“His name was Kenji, or at least it was, until he ran across Brock Rumlow in a bad mood,” Grant shrugged. “The result is evident. He and his people won’t be staying for this,” he made a broad gesture, “but he is no friend of S.H.I.E.L.D., I wager. Kaminsky?”

“Yeah?” the same agent who pointed out Horten to Daisy and Jemma replied, but Daisy interrupted him with:

“What is going on here? Jemma may be happy with her new-old sex toy, but I-”

It was then that general Talbot arrived and more misunderstandings abounded.

Chapter Text

Phil Coulson

Once upon a time, there was Phil Coulson, who suddenly found himself well into his middle years, and – single. That would not be so bad, but it also meant that he still had not met a Ms. Right, and that was much more depressing.

Phil had plenty of encounters and relationships over the years, but somehow none of them had stuck. Well, except for Nick, but the garrulous cat in question was something else, and Phil, while very fond of his oldest friend, also had to admit that their relationship was not the sort that he would like.

…Sadly, it also seemed that Nick was the only being in the world that had the staying power to, well, stay with Phil. Everyone else just came and went sooner or later, and Phil had to admit that he was fed-up with this state of affairs: Nick was a good friend, to be sure, but Phil would’ve liked someone of his own species, preferably female, as well. (He was also beginning to pick up some of Nick’s lexicon, which was not healthy either).

…Regardless of this state of affairs, Phil found himself walking back home from his place of work – i.e., the local school. Part of the reason why he had worked there for so long and so hard was because he liked working with children, period, but another part was because the school was a local one, located not far from his home, so he did not need to travel a lot to get to it.

…Not that Phil did not like to travel – far from it. It is just that he did not like to travel alone, and Nick, while being a good friend, (Phil would not call him loyal because cats have a very different view of loyalty unlike humans or dogs), was not exactly good company, especially if traveling for a long period of time, so – no travel, unless Phil was risking leaving Nick for a long period of time and that could be risky for the obvious reasons…or just taking short trips, more like walks around the neighborhood, really, as he did right now. You could always find something new on these trips, or meet someone new, or-

Well, right now, there was a new car at the auto repair shop that Phil had left Lola at. While he was not much of a traveller these days, he still took care of his other (or was that his ‘other’ other?) companion, which was his car. Coulson did love Lola, just as any man loved his car, so he tried to take good care of her, the sort that she deserved, regardless of how annoyed, and irritated, and possessive, and demanding, and jealous Nick was of their relationship – yeah, Phil could use a few friends of his species, (regardless of gender), these days.

Anyhow, these Phil was, looking over Lola’s latest repairs/customization/etc., and figuring out how he was going to explain it to Nick, (maybe his life was a little sad, these days), when it came a rescue vehicle with a company car in tow, the logo – the octopus – depicted bright and clear.

“Nice car,” Phil told no one in particular, and he meant it – the car was in a good condition, (though Lola was in a better one, of course. He really needed to make some human friends). “Whose is it?”

“Mine,” came the reply – soft, lilting, and clearly feminine, which Phil was unprepared of, for a number of reasons, (including the ones listed above). “Thank you for the compliment, sir.”

Phil turned around and yes, it was a woman – about his age, about his height, apparently Chinese in origin and despite the fact that she wasn’t his type, (yes, Phil still had a ‘type’, thank you very much), Phil definitely felt something of his going out to her – and fortunately, it wasn’t his loins: he still had some self-control left, it seems.

“Um, I’m no ‘sir’,” he said brightly, trying his best not to sound like some sort of a socially stunt-ed idiot for no particular reason. “I’m Phil – just Phil – I… live in the neighbourhood, do you need a lift?”

“That… would be nice,” the woman flushed slightly and looked away, (and for no particular reason Phil decided then and there that she had some of the best eyelashes that he had ever seen). “I actually live in the neighbourhood-“ and she gave the address, and indeed, and it wasn’t that far away from Coulson’s own place of residence, although that suburb didn’t have too many people living in it-

“True, there’s me, and Agnes, and now Agnes’ friend, and there is a new family now on the other side of the street,” the woman agreed – apparently Phil made the last comment aloud, “and, um, also? I am Mel – I mean Melinda, cough. May – Melinda May,” she blushed.

“Yes, and I’m Phil – I mean Coulson. Phil Coulson,” Phil felt as if he was the local idiot today. “So, uh, lift?”

“Great idea!” Melinda sounded overly enthusiastic. “Let’s go!”

There was some background noises, kind of like snickering, but Phil decided to be above it. Ra-ther, he led May over to Lola and gallantly strapped her in. (Yes, he was dimly aware that it looked somewhat ridiculous for the two people of their age, but he did not care. Judging by Melinda’s reaction neither did her).

And then, once he got into the driver’s seat, (no, he was not ready to let Lola be driven by any-one else, sorry), they were off.

/ / /

Still Phil

Phil was never a company man; i.e., he was pro-Hydra, (obviously), but he wasn’t part of it per se; he taught the children about the InHuman menace, but otherwise, he didn’t go for the whole benefits’ package. Yes, compliance was rewarded, defiance was punished, but Phil was not defiant either – he was just unambitious, he would just rather be a small fish in a small pond and be done with it.

That said, he did appreciate the effort that Hydra invested into road maintenance, and car maintenance, and etc. – his ride over to Melinda’s place was one of the smoothest that he ever did…not that he had much to compare it with, he usually maintained Lola than drove her, (and yes, this wasn’t his best choice of words here), but still.

…As appreciative as Phil was of Melinda’s companionship – she just appeared to be enjoying her ride and his driving skills in silence…, which was nice. Phil himself liked to talk, but after the conversation that they had at the auto repair shop he could use the silence – to figure what to say next, (would ‘can I have your number’ be too forward?)…and to look around.

The suburb that May lived in with not exactly deserted, but rather neglected. The sidewalks were covered in fallen leaves and the like, there were not too many children or pets running around, and most of the houses had an ‘unsold’ appearance as well. Phil saw a couple of faces look from a window as he drove Melinda to her place; another man gave them a particular look as the two of them climbed out of Lola, but didn’t approach them either.

“Nice place you’re living at,” Phil commented before he could help himself. “Err – sorry?”

“Actually, Agnes and I are getting fairly along, even while she is a painter and an ‘artiste’, while I am a manager,” Melinda replied nonchalantly, “though now that her friend had moved in things will probably change. I don’t know much about the family down the street though – they moved in more recently.” She paused and added: “And yes, there aren’t too many other people living around, but, you know – Phil? I work in the city; I interact with plenty of people in the down-town, when I return home, I return to my proverbial castle, and relax.” She looked around and seemed to make a decision: “Want to come in and look around?” She seemed to be very interest-ed at looking down at Lola for some reason, too.

“Okay,” Coulson decided to take a risk. (Something that he was not prone to, especially if it involved his friends – Nick and Lola). “Lead on!”

And May did.

/ / /

The inside of the home of Melinda May was not that much different from Coulson’s own home, save that it was in a somewhat better condition. “No pets?” he half-asked and half-stated.

“No,” Melinda admitted as Phil continued to look around, both of them trying to figure what to say next. “I do have flowers,” she added, pointing both to the chrysanthemums and the Christmas roses growing in tall, jug-like pots, and to the shrubs of jasmine and japonicas growing outside. “Do you like flowers?”

“Yes,” Phil nodded, (he was kind of neutral to them, but still, a little white lie never hurt anybody). “Is this your hobby?”

“Mm,” Melinda replied, also in a noncommittal tone of voice. “Working downtown isn’t really a best place for this sort of thing, and Hydra generally doesn’t approve it either, but I’m a good manager, so I am able to get away with some small things at work, and here? This is my castle, as I said earlier.”

“I like it,” Phil replied this time with honesty. “Maybe you can visit me some time in the future?” His brain caught up with his mouth and Phil blushed.

“I’d love that!” Melinda, apparently, was suffering from the same problem. “…A drink?” she said after a while, when it became obvious that neither of them knew how to break the silence. “I’ve a bottle of white wine in the fridge, you know?”

“White?” Coulson blinked. “Not red?”

“No, I like white better. You?”

“I work with children; I am a teacher; I’m not a wine expert at all,” Coulson shrugged.

“…What’s it like, working with children? I work with adults, and it sometimes can be exhausting.”

“True, but it is worth it,” Coulson shrugged. “It’s not just about the children; it’s about the job itself. It brings something new to my life daily…” he paused and added, much more sheepishly, “I don’t have much of a social life, you know?”

“Neither do I,” Melinda blinked, and added, in a peculiar tone of voice: “Want to be friends?”

Phil blinked, as he tried to think it over. As it was said previously, his social, as well as sexual, life wasn’t very good, but—

But he was not still desperate enough, or crude enough, to assume that a woman would want to sleep with him on a first meeting. Maybe if he was a different man, or May was a different woman, but if wishes were horses…and besides, Phil was quite happy at being himself, and honestly? He already liked Melinda May for who she was. So…

“Don’t see why not,” he said brightly. “How this works, anyhow?”

Melinda opened her mouth, closed it, and turned red. Phil thought about it and just turned red without even trying to say something. Outside, a bunch of swifts or swallows were flying in the sky, blackbirds and goldfinches were singing in trees and shrubs, and a kingfisher or two fished in the river that was flowing next to the city limits.

Phil and Melinda were looking at each other shyly and thinking…well, who knows what they were thinking?

Chapter Text

Real World

…The situation has begun to change very quickly – the American military arrived, pulled-out Horten, (who had now transformed back into a more human-like entity, BTW), gave their respects to S.H.I.E.L.D. and co., and left. In part this was because Talbot was in charge of the force, and by now Daisy knew that the man in question seemed to have befriended Coulson, at least to a point, especially after S.H.I.E.L.D. had rescued his son from Malick and Hydra, but—

“Okay, what am I missing?” she asked Grant, who had kind of blended into the background while Daisy and Jemma exchanged pleasantries with Talbot and his people. “Your brother had denounced you before you killed him, remember?”

“What are you talking about? Tommy is still alive and, okay, whatever else you can think of,” Grant replied blankly. “I mean yeah, I planned to skin him alive and make some sort of a suit for Coulson, but…I guess I got over this idea – for now.”

“I am talking about Christian,” Daisy gave Grant a look. She was…okay, she had no idea how she felt about him in her head, (her heart knew exactly how she felt, and her loins…right; let us leave her loins alone for now).

“Christian was a career politician who didn’t care how many lives he ruined in achieving his dream,” Grant shrugged. “Talbot was one of them. I, for my part, had been acquiring compromising materials on Christian and the rest of his family. These days, they are gone, but their legacy lived on. I, and my sister, and her family, and other people, am helping Talbot and his friends dismantle it. My sister’s dream is for the InHumans to become a part of the U.S. society – she does not think that the mutants made the right choice with Genosha. I don’t have anything against that, so I’m helping her; and plus, she’s family.”

“…We’ve been doing it all wrong, haven’t we?” Daisy muttered as she sat down. “The world doesn’t want heroes; even the Avengers-“

“The Avengers have captain America, so they have a better chance to pull the whole heroic thing off,” Grant shrugged, as he sat down next to her. “S.H.I.E.L.D. was never into heroism, and more like doing the right thing regardless of personal cost. Skye, what this is about, really? You were never the one to mope for long.”

“I don’t know how to deal with you and your people,” Daisy muttered, “and don’t call me Skye!”

“Not so long ago you were dealing just fine,” Grant pointed out archly. “With me, in particular.”

“Yes, but, I don’t know, I want us to have more than just sex,” Daisy twitched, as she remembered all the comments about the moaning and the funny movements that she made during her time in the framework; some of the comments included suggestions that she should replace her underwear, which wasn’t helping her mood any. “Even the FitzSimmons had accomplished that, even though Fitz was doing Jemma in the arse whenever and wherever they could.” She paused and added, blushing. “…Can we forget the last part, BTW?”

Grant thought this over. “So, let’s leave me out of the equation’s brackets instead. What did you, and Jemma, and the others, intended to do when you returned from the framework having talked to May or any of the others?”

Daisy half-closed her eyes and forced herself to think about what mattered, not Grant, (and he did not matter, really. If she believed it really hard…no). “Okay, we need to rescue Phil, and May, and the others. We do not know where to start, but, Grant, since you are in the ‘brackets’, tell me. Is Hydra behind it?”

“My kneejerk answer would be ‘no’. My answer after I had time to think would be still no, and by that I mean that Hydra is around, it probably will always be around, but in this particular instance it isn’t calling the shots – it’s been discredited too much.”

Daisy thought about this herself. “Why would anyone want to use Hydra-?”

“Because while S.H.I.E.L.D. will always have some ideals for its agents to flock to, Hydra never did,” Grant shrugged. “All it has, these days, is the logo and very few people – Kenji’s, remember him, is the most competent of the lot.”

“Maybe, but it doesn’t matter – all some people have to do is to put the logo on the wall,” Daisy shot her…former S.O. a look.

“Yes, that’s what I did, and Hunter and May promptly arrived; Hunter’s infiltration was espe-cially amusing,” Grant nodded. “Or are you talking about me in particular?”

“I don’t know…”

It was then that one of Grant’s entourage appeared on the scene – Daisy recognized him. “Von Strucker,” she muttered. “Are you sure that you people aren’t Hydra?”

“Yes,” the younger man sounded even more indignant than Daisy expected Grant to sound. “But speaking of Hydra…boss lady, Carmichael is.”

“Carmichael?” Daisy nodded, aware of the agent in question, not so much vaguely, as – briefly, mostly as one of the faces that appeared in S.H.I.E.L.D. as part of Jeffrey Mace’s directorship. “Hah?”

“Augustus Carmichael – he and another bloke named Fanucci used to ‘manage’ me, while Gideon used our family money to further Hydra’s scheme without telling anyone,” the young man muttered, still clearly angry at the memory. “He just had that ‘bright’ idea of putting Ian Quinn into the equation, and while that man himself is an asshat, from what I learned, even he couldn’t handle what Gideon and his boys were doing with the family finances. So, when he learned that boss man was out and about, building his own posse, he promptly went over and had a good talk-to, and then the boss man went over and had a talk with my handlers, in that way of his, you know?” Werner looked at Daisy, clearly lost in the memories of those pre-Maveth times. “Carmichael was smarter and got out while he could. Fanucci did not – he tried to hide behind his bodyguards. One of them was Kebo, who knew boss man from their shared time in Austria and so he promptly began to work with him. The rest of them…did not…and I made Fanucci into a conversation piece…well, a part of him, anyways. The rest – good riddance…”

“…How nice,” Daisy winced, “but you’re sure that this the same Carmichael? I mean yes, it is a stretch, but he came with director Mace-“

“Daisy,” Grant exhaled, “director Mace is one of the oldest, strongest, smartest and scariest aliens who ever left their native solar systems behind and came to live on Earth. He could always handle Carmichael…without even noticing it. Moreover, when you killed his son – from his past life, one of his youngest and least promising, but still – he decided that he would have an axe to grind with you too. Only, with the Darkhold surfacing all of a sudden, he might’ve decided to change his game some, in the middle…”

“Jeffrey Mace is a fraud, yes, on some level,” Daisy shook her head, “he used an adapted version of Cal’s formula to give himself super-strength, the same sort that Cal has when he uses his own version, but he is a human, not a…completely non-human alien!”

“Have his samples of formula being checked by S.H.I.E.L.D. scientists…say the FitzSimmons?” Grant raised an eyebrow. “I think I know what you’re talking about, the military are very interested in your father’s formula, especially Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross and his people, but Mace was never a part of the group. Plus, Skye, no offence-“

“My name is Daisy!” Daisy snapped. “Please?” she added in a quieter voice. “Daisy is my name; Skye isn’t.”

Grant quietly looked down at her with an enigmatic look. “What am I missing?” he asked quietly.

“After you died it was good for a while…only it wasn’t,” Daisy exhaled, more miserable than fighting-angry, now. “Coulson still wasn’t himself, and the FitzSimmons…okay, I’m thinking that the FitzSimmons need drama to survive and as such they just generate it themselves, when they aren’t screwing like rabbits-“

“We’ll get Fitz and the others back,” Grant said simply.

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Daisy muttered. “You aren’t with S.H.I.E.L.D., you either threw it all away for Garrett or you never were in the S.H.I.E.L.D. for real-“

“Well, maybe my sister had a vision that unless the Avengers got off their collective butts and started heroing again, the InHumans of Earth will have to work with S.H.I.E.L.D. to save the planet again?” Grant half-suggested and half-questioned.

“…I can work with that,” Daisy said brightly, as she hugged Grant around his waist…okay, maybe a little bit higher – even Grant was not that tall. “How shall we do this?”

“Werner, get out of the room,” Grant replied brightly as he cupped Daisy butt and pulled her slightly upwards.

“…We’re in the corridor,” Werner blinked. “Boss man-!”

“Werner,” Grant gave the younger man a look. “I’m not leaving the issue of Augustus Carmi-chael behind, and me and Daisy will continue, but first,” he carried Daisy in the nearby room and closed the door. Moans began to sound soon after this.

“Um, Wu Ling?” Werner spoke with some uncertainty (and a lot of trepidation) into his comm.-link. “Think we’re going to have problems?”

Chapter Text

Mack

S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent ‘Mack’ Mackenzie was… okay, he had no idea where he was. Oh, on the obvious level, it was obvious – he was at home, living in the suburbs alongside his wife and daughter…it is just that it just could not be real, not with the evil/not-evil alien Ravana appearing every once a while to say high and to give him some sort of a strange look, whenever Mack’s wife and daughter weren’t around…right.

Getting back to geography, Mack knew that he had a problem – he honestly had no idea where he was. Oh sure, he had a home, and a place of work – he was working as an engineer at the local dam – but where was that? The state of New York, or Pennsylvania, or West Virginia, or what? Mack could not recognize, could not remember, and that was scary – for him. The fact that he did not have any idea of how he got here – he, Coulson and the others were rescuing May in Ivanov’s hideout somewhere at the Russian-Chinese border, nowhere near the U.S. – was even scarier – for him.

To add an insult to injury, Melinda May was living – also living – in the neighbourhood…as did Holden Radcliffe and his crazy robot, which did not give Mack any peace of mind. Rather, it felt like a mockery – at least the crazy alien overlord (who might or might not be S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new director…who also was kidnapped by Ivanov and his people, BTW) wasn’t living right next to him and waving hello every time Mack went to get his newspaper. (Rather, he did it every other day on his daily jog, but Mack did not care. Really). So, now what?

That actually was the big question: Mack did not know. Yes, he was an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., but that did not actually make him a superman. Rather, this was more of Melinda’s thing, and Daisy’s, and maybe even Coulson’s, but… these days at least Coulson and May were visiting each other - Coulson lived in another part of the city and worked as a teacher, whereas May went to and came from, her work driving a car with Hydra’s octopus logo on it, so this was no consolation either. The world stopped making sense…and then there was Mack’s own family issues.

…As far as Mack was concerned, after their daughter died, he and Faye fell apart – completely. The fact that years before S.H.I.E.L.D. was denounced as Hydra by captain America Faye had left him for another man, (but yes, they kept in touch – very loosely, as he explained to Yo-Yo, who sadly wasn’t in this world, what gives?), didn’t make it any more understandable as to WTH was going on here, and just who his wife was.

Oh, literally she was Faye, but Mack knew Faye, and even when their relationship was at its’ best, he was aware that Faye did love her luxuries more than he did…unlike Yo-Yo, but Mack couldn’t help but to feel that as far as this sort of thing went, he and Yo-Yo were taking one step forwards two steps back approach – and he didn’t like it either.

So, Mack was trapped in some sort of an alternate universe that was neither heavenly nor hellish, just pointless, in a bizarre sort of manner, and Mack did not have any ideas where to go from here, (because he was lost, literally and figuratively speaking). Yes, he was an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., but this was so far out of his league of experience that he was lost and kind of helpless – and he hated that sort of feeling…

“Are you feeling okay?” the voice of Melinda sounded unusually gentle and mild, almost as if she was an ordinary woman concerned for her friend and not the Cavalry. “I’m sorry that we weren’t in touch much recently, but – it is my fault.”

Mack looked up and realized that he was sitting on his porch, but also – it was more like a huddle, and given his mental state lately, it probably did not bore any good news for his mental health either.

“I’m – I’m fine,” he spoke in an uncertain voice. Things were just insane lately, and if Melinda were to turn into something from John K. Mortensen’s artwork, it would have been the cherry on top.

“…I see that you are self-aware, but I don’t think that you’re okay – I know that I wasn’t until I acquired an anchor,” Melinda did not transform into a John J. Mortensen’s character, but this was okay – she was still scary.

“Yes, well, so what?” Mack muttered crossly. “You still don’t make sense-“

“Mack. Your rescue of me went FUBAR completely; so now, instead of moving on, most of us are stuck in the framework that Holden Radcliffe has built; it keeps us asleep – sort of, while connecting our brains in some strange sort of telepathy. Mack, this is some different sort of a dream, but it is still a dream, and since you do not really believe in it, it does not really work for you. Does this make better sense?”

Mack thought this over. “Firstly, this is quite humiliating,” he confessed to his co-worker. “It was a while since we all got captured like that; even when Malick’s man Guyterra brought us all down by himself, we still had a better show for it.”

“By then he was more of Hive’s man,” Melinda shrugged, “but otherwise, I agree – oh.”

Mack looked in Melinda’s direction – and there was Mace. Or not-Mace, because Mack still was not sure about the shapeshifting alien’s actual identity. “Yeah, ‘oh’,” he agreed crossly. “He claims to be Hive’s father, BTW.”

“Yup,” Mace/not-Mace said simply. “Cavalry, hello. I see that you got yourself an anchor?”

“Yup,” Melinda nodded back in her trademark emotionless manner. “So, was there ever a real Jeffrey Mace?”

“Perhaps,” her interlocutor replied, shifting his appearance slightly so that he looked as someone else – an entirely new person. “Sadly, I must confess that lately my attitude towards humans is more like Alveus’, and you remember his attitude, correct?”

Mack twitched despite all of his experience. Whatever the true technical term might have been, for the lay people, (and even ordinary agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Hive ate people, which made him not so much as evil as just deadly. Of course, it also made Radcliffe, who did work with Hive, actually evil – in a ruthless brigand or mercenary manner: the man clearly did not care whether he worked for Hive or for S.H.I.E.L.D., which made S.H.I.E.L.D.’s hiring of him somewhat dumb. “You don’t differentiate between working for us and working for an alien space worm that ate people? Great, you’re hired!”

“Fair enough, so what is your endgame?” Unlike Mack, Melinda did not appear to be ruffled at all. “The Darkhold? So why are you captured by Ivanov and his goons? Isn’t it too much?”

“Cavalry,” Mace/not-Mace grinned in a not very humorous way. “Do you know how I took over the world in my time? Not by beating the Kree – by joining them and playing the game. You people are no Kree, but I still felt that the old ways are the best – it has worked for Alveus’ hu-man followers, has it not?”

“The Hydra took its’ cues from the rakshasa – from you? The Skrulls?” Mack blinked.

“Perhaps, only not. Alveus became Hive only after the Kree reworked him and destroyed his self, severing him from reincarnation forever!” Ravana snapped. “And then you people destroyed him for good! The Darkhold came only recently, it is a newer priority, and I do not know if it is a worthwhile one, yes! Still, there are rumors that the Mad Titan is awakening from his self-imposed slumber, so the Darkhold can provide an advantage to the Skrulls if apocalypse is coming and all!”

“So you’re seeing us as enemies? Okay,” Melinda nodded. “I can work with that – if you also believe in killing with respect, and dying with honor.”

Ravana stopped raving and gave her a look. “Interesting,” he gave May a look. “You have potential to become one of us. We handle this sort of thing differently from the Kree, we work from the inside, and yes, it will take several lives and reincarnations, but you can become one of us-“

“Pass,” Melinda twitched. “Already I am a worse human being than my LMD has been, so no, just no. I think I will try going in another direction now. It does sound stupid, something akin to switching horses in the middle of a river, but still.”

“Oh, no problem,” Ravana shrugged easily, and Melinda stiffened: for some reason this has reminded her of John Garrett, who had been a narcissistic psychopath and outright evil. “We’ll have more talks, I’m sure, but for now? Enjoy other classical Greek monsters that aren’t a multiheaded water serpent of a certain sort.” He gestured, and birds came from the sky – not swifts or swallows, (Mack has used to seeing them overhead, actually), but some sort of monstrosities, clad in bronze and looking like some sort of homicidal herons or storks.

“Run!” Mack reacted instinctively: he grabbed May by hand and together they ran…behind Mack’s house, where the river meandered by and there was no one else, at least no one else human.

“Mack!” Melinda freed herself from Mack’s grasp. “We cannot run! These are birds! They are flying faster than we run on the ground!!”

“…Sorry!” Mack peeked from beneath the japonica trees. “What do we do now?”

“Any idea what they can be?” Melinda muttered. “Our new…friend mentioned classical Greek mythology…”

“Yes, hydra – well, a hydra from the myths of Hercules,” Mack pinched his nose. “Let’s see – there was the hydra, a lion, a magical deer…oh, right, there were man-eating birds – Hercules defeated them by building some sort of a scarecrow that made crazy noises that scared the birds straight out of Greece…”

“Well, you’re the engineer – start building, while I try my singing to distract them,” May took a deep breath, opened her mouth and began to sing. In Chinese, rather than English, but it worked, as everyone, from Mack to the birds, stopped and listened.

And then things changed, as the crazy armored birds, (more like razors with wings than birds), shifted, lost their metallic plumage and transformed…back into ordinary swifts or swallows or whoever that just flew away back into the clouds, leaving Mack and Melinda alone… behind Mack’s house… um.

“May?” Phil Coulson opened the scene at the most awkward moment. “I heard your voice…”

He trailed away as Melinda ran towards him, positioning herself between him and Mack… and she was wearing a very dignified dress that Mack was certain she was not wearing just moments before.

“Phil!”

She grabbed him, and something sparked between them, Mack was sure.

“…May?” Coulson still sounded confused, but more like his usual self than his new crazy civilian self. “What is going on?”

May looked away first.

“I can explain?” she said rather meekly.

Chapter Text

Real World

“Thank you for returning to us at last,” Jemma said sarcastically, when Grant and Daisy joined her, and the others, after, well, sex. “How are you two feeling?”

“Jemma,” Daisy half-blushed but did not back down. “Did Wu Ling show you the video of us two in the framework? Apparently, I’ve been emitting funny moans and making certain poises.”

“Well…” Jemma looked away.

“It was more of the same, save that we’re sorer,” Daisy confessed, “or at least I am. So what are we missing?”

“I’m pregnant,” Jemma muttered. “Technically, I’m just about one month into it, so it’s not technically a baby yet but still…”

“Are you going to keep it?” Daisy asked quietly.

“Yes!” Jemma snapped, before having an epiphany. “Sorry Daisy, I forgot that this is a sore point for you… pun not intended?” she added, even weaker than before.

“Yes, well, apology accepted,” Daisy muttered. “Jem, are you aware that with director Mace absent, and Phil ditto, as the deputy director, are in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D., of everything and everyone in it?”

There was a pause as Jemma eyed the taller woman in a rather lost and confused manner – but then again, there was a lot of this going on around, Daisy had to admit.

“Say what now?” the Englishwoman muttered.

“After we returned from California and I got officially reinstated into S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Daisy muttered in a rather wary voice, “I began to skim through the official paperwork and update to be in the know, so to speak. Apparently, sometime around that director Mace officially made you his deputy – until then the post was vacant, May has abandoned it some time after Maveth…”

“Mmm,” Jemma nodded, thoughtfully. “May wasn’t a very good deputy director, whatever this post implies, was she? She just went along, just as the rest of us, with whatever Coulson would decide…”

“Coulson is a good man,” Daisy replied quietly, “I think that most people who knew him would agree with me, but this isn’t about him. Jemma-“

“Don’t go there,” the Englishwoman muttered, as she accessed her own tablet and saw the evidence with her own eyes. “I don’t think that I can handle this right now.” She did look rather miserable and exasperated. “Grant, you and I…let’s not go there. But you did have some ideas what to do-“

“So does Daisy, but first, I think Werner needs to say something, or to do something, or-“

“I delegated Wu Ling’s friends to check out Carmichael’s apartment outside of the department,” Werner flushed.

“Ah, those two,” it was Grant’s turn to look sheepish. “This can be tricky.”

“Why?” Jemma all but pounced on his apparent weakness.

“We’re fairly sure that the duo is spying on us for someone – whatever passes for the Avengers these days,” Grant admitted. “They go under the monikers of ‘Basil’ and ‘Alice’, BTW.”

“And you go along with it because-“

“Because they are my friends – our friends,” Wu Ling commented, as she fluttered into the P.O.V.’s of the others. “Plus, we weren’t S.H.I.E.L.D., so we didn’t see a problem with having a potential point of contact with the Avengers, and – we’re not Hydra. We aren’t!”

Daisy, Jemma and the others looked at who was essentially an InHuman version of Melinda May, (save for the age difference), and did not say anything.

Lincoln, of all people, broke the silence. “Next order of business,” he spoke, even while sounding as if he would rather not. “Agent Rodriguez should be benched-“

“Done!” Jemma said with relief and determination.

“Excuse me?” the agent in question said indignantly. “I may be-“

“What you are, or rather – what you have, Yo-Yo, are some very serious internal injuries,” Jemma interrupted the older woman flatly. “The fact that you can move and, well, function, shows just how a formidable person – and agent – you are, but given the state of your bones and organs and everything else, you cannot go into the field, period.”

“That bad?” Daisy, who was not there when Simmons, Lincoln, and Kara gave Yo-Yo her check-up blinked.

“Well, it’s tricky to point down,” Jemma frowned. “She is going to make a recovery and she certainly isn’t going to die, but neither can she do any field missions for a while: she can get permanently crippled in this condition instead. Mack will never forgive us if something happens to you-“

“Thank you,” Yo-Yo muttered to the younger woman before just sitting down and having a nervous breakdown.

“Don’t worry, Rodriguez,” Kara rolled her eyes and began to mutter something to Yo-Yo in Spanish.

“Um,” Daisy turned to Grant.

“Basically providing moral support,” Grant said simply. “After all the shit Yo-Yo went through at Hydra, she deserves it.”

There was an uncomfortable pause. “A different different topic?” Grant suggested.

“We’ve been defeated very badly,” Jemma confessed. “What’s more is that we’ve lost initiative. With Coulson around, we always had initiative-“

“We can always go into the framework and talk to him,” Daisy suggested half-heartedly. “Grant, do you think that people will deliver?”

“Oh, they will deliver – whether they will deliver anything useful is another thing,” Grant muttered. “It’s my fault – I should’ve seen what we could’ve gotten from Horten first-“

“Horten was just a thug,” Daisy said flatly. “He’s been in cahoots with my parents, but still-“

“Your parents are alive?” Grant blinked. “I’ve heard bits and pieces about Cal, I suppose, but-“

“Cal is bipolar,” Daisy said flatly. “I don’t know how he had shaken off the T.A.H.I.T.I. protocol-“

“T.A.H.I.T.I. is just like a dream,” Jemma said absent-mindedly. “If you believe it, it works. If you don’t, then it doesn’t…” she stopped as if she had some sort of mental breakthrough. “But go on, agent Johnson,” she said magnanimously, before checking herself. “It’s a joke… I mean I was trying to break the gloom?”

“Thanks, Simmons,” Daisy replied calmly. “Where was I?”

“Cal probably took one of your family’s fun-fun fish pills of fun and got restored,” Grant said helpfully.

“Yeah, and since he has already restored my mother once after Whitehall took her organs, leaving little more than just her nervous system behind, a broken neck wasn’t much of a challenge,” Daisy said bitterly. “Maybe this was actually a part of his plan back on the Iliad…”

“Maybe, but you think you can find them now?” Jemma frowned. “And moreover, why are they relevant?”

“Weren’t you listening? Horten – the same one whom you’ve met already – is working with them,” Grant looked thoughtful. “Horten, he is like Rumlow – only he can fly, and Rumlow couldn’t, at least not recently. That said, Horten is only interested in hurting people, and Daisy’s folks aren’t, at least not only?”

“Mmm,” Daisy nodded, “but they still aren’t very good people.

“It doesn’t matter – you’re still an amazing person regardless of who your parents are, you’re beyond them,” Grant shrugged. Daisy just sighed and hugged him – tightly.

“This is all very lovely, but where are we going with this? How can Cal and his wife help us? Horten decided to break in because Yo-Yo told him about our problems!” Jemma broke in.

“I was thinking about the other man – you know the one with the machete? He went after us way before any of Radcliffe’s machinations became truly known, so maybe things are not as clear-cut. Besides, the Darkhold is involved, and maybe my mother has any ideas of her own,” Daisy confessed. “Jemma, I am grasping at straws here; we must do something or we are done for!”

“I know, I’m sorry,” Jemma muttered. “All right, you have my official permission as the deputy director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Let’s start searching!”

And this was what they did.

Chapter Text

The past

…As a matter of fact, it was a dark and stormy night. Seven men climbed into a somewhat strange-looking “Mohawk” airplane and took off. The crew included a pilot, an agent named Brock Rumlow, who used to be a sergeant in the U.S. military but now was rising rapidly through the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D., a trio of local guides and specialist, agent Duncan, who was a field medic, (and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s medics, just like its soldiers, negotiators, etc., were some of the best in the Western world at least), and the agent in charge of the mission – Phil Coulson. Almost none of them made it back.

…On the next day after they landed, and a blood-red sun only rose above the horizon, the S.H.I.E.L.D. team saw a tall, smooth pillar of smoke raising into the sky, like a rope from a Hindu magician’s jar. When they traveled less than 500 m they found its’ source – a burned-out native village. Fire was still burning in places, shooting off big, white sparks all over the place. Given how damp the weather was lately, the fire could not have been natural. It had an artificial, chemical source instead. (The stench of the dead overwhelmed everyone’s sense of smell).

Agent Duncan pulled out his equipment and began to see if there were any traces of radiation. Like in the previous incidents, (which gotten Coulson to come over here with his people to investigate in the first place), there were none. Coulson asked one of the locals if the deceased were locals or raiders from the country next door. “Both,” he learned in his answer. “The raiding and guerrilla warfare between our lands has went for many years no; neither our people nor the Viet Cong are ready to back down.”

Coulson was not satisfied – this actually was not the answer he was looking for, but neither had he asked the right question. How did the enemy forces reach this remote village, lost in the jungle? They could have dropped some kind of napalm bomb from an airplane, but none of Coulson’s people heard any airplane-related noises last night.

Agent Duncan continued to pick pieces of skin and muscle, vertebrae and other bones, various organs – liver, heart, brain, kidneys – and test them with his equipment. Brock Rumlow was patrolling the perimeter, but judging by the looks he shot Coulson when the other man was not looking, he was making his own mental picture of everything that was going on – and it did not make him happy.

Then the forces of Kilong Khan attacked for real. Agent Duncan and the pilot of Mohawk were gunned down. The native-born agents fled and either died or vanished into their native country-side and were never seen again. Brock Rumlow got captured by Hydra’s forces and joined this organization, (and eventually became the man known as Crossbones).

However, the enemy fire was something else. Coulson almost got his brains shot out as he fled with the equipment of the late agent Duncan and knew now fully that he was in trouble, not to mention bleeding in a serious way. It had been a while since he was in such a bad state of affairs, and even his usual optimism was failing him. He knew that he was not immortal; he knew that the enemy forces on all sides probably surrounded him, and he had no idea of how he was going to escape – and at what price.

Coulson was not career-driven, but he was rather ambitious, and the idea of failing his mission simply went wrong with him. It was a fairly important one – to track down a new, unknown source of radiation, and as far as S.H.I.E.L.D. was concerned, this was not a military operation, but a scientific one.

The information about this new radiation has come to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s attention for a while now – but until now, it had been dismissed. First, it came from the actual refugees from the country – but they themselves were suspect as Khmer Rouge spies, so any information from them was taken with a grain of salt. But then S.H.I.E.L.D. agents from the team B-50 saw something similar to this first hand, and they contacted Fury and his personal circle, team Omega, which included Coulson, who by now was valued highly by Nick – and so he was sent here, on his first ‘real’ mission, when he was in charge, rather than Fury or anyone else... So far, he had nothing to show for it, except for whatever test subjects the late agent Duncan had collected, and he doubted that Fury would be impressed.

To make matters worse, now S.H.I.E.L.D. was in bad relationship with CIA over some pointless point regarding the hierarchy in D.C. But while for Coulson at the moment D.C. was very far away, he still remembered that if CIA – or any other rivals of S.H.I.E.L.D. hailing from the U.S. – were also to get their hands on him, things will be equally bad for S.H.I.E.L.D., for this mission of Coulson’s didn’t legally exist (cough).

True, Fury and his people (including Coulson) had uncovered many places like the village where Coulson’s team had been ambushed – they weren’t burned-down by the U.S. forces, the communists of Vietnam claimed that this wasn’t them, the southern Vietnamese had been actually proven innocent by Fury’s clandestine investigation, and the locals didn’t have the know-how or the resources to accomplish something like this. Something had to be done, and once an unknown type of radiation was detected at these sites, in came Coulson with his new team and his equipment to start doing just that... until all of them died. Except maybe for agent Rumlow, who was somehow weird – Coulson did not like him, neither did Fury, and while the man in question was very good in military conditions, his coworkers described him as a sadistic asshole, “even worse than Frank Castle, who is just an asshole”. The fact that the man was unaccounted for, (and was a very good survivalist by military standards), didn’t make Coulson feel very happy; the fact that Rumlow probably blamed him for this SNAFU made him feel even worse…

While Coulson was reminiscing, he was also taking stock of his possessions, and he was aware that dense jungle fog was rolling in. Thinking over his training, he pulled out a Geiger counter to see if he could use the local radiation level to pinpoint the east, (where the latest village used to be), when a soldier – a woman soldier emerged from the fog, flanked by two more people, all armed with AKMs of some sort.

Embarrassingly, Coulson was caught flat-footed by the fact that the woman was not local. She did not have the robust complexion of a native (and yes, Phil had had plenty of experience with the local women by now); she did not look Vietnamese or Thai. She looked more like a Chinese, but somehow, her ageless complexion, neither truly old nor young, kept Phil guessing and flat-footed at a time when he certainly could not afford to do that. But-

“Mr. American,” the woman spoke in English. “I didn’t expect for our experiments to go unnoticed. You are not here by accident. But then again, scouting is unavoidable in any war.”

“And who are you?” Coulson asked, aware that he was outnumbered and outgunned at this moment. “And what about your experiments?”

“If you come with me I’ll explain everything. Come. I’ll ease your load.”

There was a pause as Coulson eyed his new interlocutrix in a particular way – the manner she had said the last phrase stirred some sort of suspicion in him. He shivered, as a dog caught in the rain. The woman and her cohorts already knew about his equipment. He did not have any better options. He went along.

“Thank you, agent Coulson, sir,” the woman spoke, and Phil wondered, just how he knew his name. “My name is Jiaying.”

/ / /

As a matter of luck, it was a good thing for everyone involved that Coulson was not being quite himself now; he was still shaken by how quickly his mission fell apart, and he perceived Ms. Jiaying in some strange way; he could not shake the feeling that she possessed some sort of an aura and she was somehow special. (And Phil Coulson knew women and he was hard to be impressed by them).

This was a good thing, for otherwise things would have been different: Phil would have shot her and been gunned-down by her bodyguards. However, this never happened, and instead Coulson just followed her through the darkness. He was aware of her full lips, of her powerful body clad in soft skin, and did not care about this sort of thing – as an agent (cough). And her bearing!..

“I see that you’re hurt,” Jiaying commented as she led Coulson into some tent.

“It’s nothing,” Coulson spoke with more conviction than he actually felt. “I’ll probably recover.”

Instead of immediately replying, Jiaying led him to a bunk and half-coerced and half-forced him to lie down.

“Let me look.”

“Why, you can fix me?”

Jiaying’s first touch to the wound caused Coulson to shudder from pain. And then the pain was gone, seemingly forever, though Coulson was not sure about it. After all, he felt hot – as if he was floating in a sea of enveloping heat.

Coulson could not see, because Jiaying’s hand was on his face, but then she took it away he saw that he was still in a tent…that was located in the ruined village, next to a broken-down wall.

“Is this better?”

“Yes,” Coulson sat up and looked at her properly. She was still beautiful, truly beautiful, but he could not shake the feeling that she was more than how she looked, as if she hid a tail and hooves in her pants and boots, for example.

“Maybe you should lie back down?” Jiaying suggested, putting her hand onto Coulson’s chest and pushing him slightly. Her hand felt warm, pleasantly so.

“But I am not in pain! What did you do to me?”

Jiaying just smiled, and Coulson felt odd. No, rather he felt weak. He did not like to feel weak. If one is weak one can end-up being helpless, and who could guarantee that this beautiful woman won’t try to stab him with a knife next?

“You still haven’t fully recovered. Your body is still recovering. You just are not hurting anymore."

“Is this why I feel so weak?” Phil licked his lips.

“Yes, your pain is still inside of you – but is this not better than how things were?” Jiaying laughed.

Phil bit down on his initial answer. “Who are you?” he asked instead. “You’re no local. You are not a Vietnamese woman or a Thai one. You are not from Myanmar, and you do not look Japanese. Are you from China?”

“Perhaps. Or to use my mother’s logic, I’m not here and you don’t see me.” Jiaying’s face was absolutely still, and for some strange reason Phil thought of it as a painted mask that hid what really lay behind.

“So, you were saying something about experiments?” he asked instead.

“Why yes, for this is why you are here, are you not?”

“Yes, I’ve been sent here my commander, and his allies to investigate.”

“But this isn’t the full truth, now is it, agent Coulson?”

Coulson bit down on his immediate answer. Few months ago, Fury’s forces discovered a human corpse that looked suspicious to Fury for some reason, so he sent it to S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ in D.C. for a better investigation. The medical agent who examined the corpse in question had a brother, who was a friend of Coulson’s, (and his co-worker in Fury’s team), and who shared information with Phil, albeit informally.

“What is strange,” Coulson’s friend commented to Phil during one of these informal, clandestine talks, “is that my subject didn’t die in battle. Rather, she died from an internal cause and one that I didn’t expect to find.”

“Oh? What is it? A drug overdose?” Coulson decided to go for the obvious, knowing that this was the best way to get agent Richard (or his brother) to talk.

“No – she got plenty of genetic aberrations in her body, especially in the liver, spleen, kidneys and the thick intestine,” agent Richard did not disappoint. “They were the reasons why she died.”

“Okay. So what?” Coulson was genuinely confused about why they were having this discussion in the first place.

“So what? My brother putting these organs into storage for further examination! These tissue samples may not be as fresh as they were, but they still work! As an experiment, my brother injected them into some rats that suffered from a malignant cancer and they are healing. Phil, I don’t know what our boss has discovered in this God-forsaken part of the world, but it just might be the next best thing since the Shroud of Turin!”

…This was all in the past, and in the present Coulson watched Jiaying boil water on a portable stove. Smells of good warm tea spread through the air. Coulson was more interested in her luxurious black hair that draped her neck just so. The neck itself was sexy too-

“This is the ‘black powder’ tea,” Jiaying spoke. “It was very good and hard. Very useful, I mean!”

Phil Coulson sat back up. He still felt dizzy – not just from his wounds, but from Jiaying’s smell too.

The air was still dusty and so was the tea. So was Phil’s mouth from drinking it, but he was still grateful.

“Are any of my people still alive?”

“I think agent Rumlow is,” Jiaying shrugged. “I don’t think that he wants to be found by you, however.”

“I want to believe you, but I’ll be taking this with a grain of salt.”

“Feel free, because we both know what is really going on here.”

“What are you implying?”

“What am I implying?” Jiaying laughed. “You’re not here as an official representative of the U.S. military. If you were, you would have been in charge of much bigger force. We have actually been expecting something like this. But we got you instead.”

“So?”

Jiaying snorted. “You’re here unofficially, without any official status. And this is a dangerous place, so I doubt that the U.S. military would just allow you to come and go as you please.”

“Maybe they just don’t care about me?”

“Doubtful,” Jiaying shook her head. “Even after Rumlow, this disgusting- no, still doubtful.”

“War is always risky,” Coulson was still feeling dizzy but not backing down. “My people and I knew what we’re getting into.”

“I don’t know,” Jiaying still did not sound convinced. “But this is all pointless, isn’t it, agent Coulson? We have digressed from our main topic.” She gave him a piercing look. “Tell me, are you unique, or there are others like you?”

Phil looked into her eyes. They were bottomless. His instincts told him to lie, but he did not know about what. He could continue their banter, it was fun, but also pointless, and also delayed his escape back to the U.S. controlled territory.

“This is an operation of the highest level,” he finally made a choice. “Tell me, am I a hostage?” he took a tip of tea. “Tell me, do you know what a snafu is? Because if you don’t, my operation is a typical example of that.”

Jiaying just laughed. “I like English so much more than Chinese,” she took the cup away from Coulson. “How’d you like my tea?”

“It made me feel much better,” Coulson confessed. He touched his wound. It was gone. The spot was still very sore, but the wound was gone. “What did you do?”

“I’ve straightened pieces of wounded tissues and aligned them so that they would heal better.”

“…I’ve no idea as to what you just said,” Phil looked around. “Was radiation involved?”

“Say what now?”

“Our agents believe that someone here is experimenting with a new sort of radiation.”

“I’m sure that there is no radiation involved,” Jiaying replied firmly.

“Then what is going on here?” Coulson steeled himself in front of those enchanting eyes. “Where did you come from? How did you know where to find me? How did you know that only Rumlow and I are still alive? In addition, who are you? I really need to know!”

“Well, agent Coulson,” Jiaying smiled, “let’s suppose that I am an enemy agent to you people, who is also involved in a covert operation.”

“This doesn’t explain anything,” Coulson leaned onto the wall. He was still tired, but he was still struggling.

Jiaying did not say anything, but just moved closer. Now Coulson was sure that she was not a military type of any sort.

“This smell…”

“What smell? I’ve just bathed recently!” Jiaying said indignantly.

Coulson took a deep breath and tried to get his shit together. He failed. Jiaying was sitting right next to him, looking him straight in the eyes. There was a mystery at the end of these bottomless lakes, a secret. And now this secret was calling out to him, all that Coulson had to do with to reach out and take her.

Slowly, Jiaying took off Phil’s bloody and sweaty clothing. The tent, the mission, Fury and D.C. all seemed so distant and foggy to Coulson right now. Jiaying’s clothes literally slipped through his fingers. He grabbed her shoulders.

Her skin with clean and smooth, her breasts as firm as of any young woman. Her body was perfect. She lay down and arched herself. Her navel was deep, as a lake. Her hair, as black as a raven’s feathers, covered her arms almost completely. Phil pried her buttocks apart and inserted himself into the warm and pliant flesh. Jiaying shuddered and moved forwards and upwards, towards him. Phil did not resist and moved in further, releasing his load.

He moved in deeper and deeper, closer to the source of life.

And then it was over and he withdrew. Jiaying looked at him in a strange manner. “Get dressed,” she said simply. “I will lead you back to your people.”

“Will you come with me?”

“No,” Jiaying seemed to have made a choice. “This isn’t my destiny. Come.”

And she led him back to the territories controlled by S.H.I.E.L.D. and the rest of the U.S. military before going back.

And nine months later little Daisy/Mary Sue/Skye was born.

And in a couple of months later Dr. Daniel Whitehall caught the whiff of this and went looking – but Jiaying had already secreted Daisy away, to safety, so Dr. Whitehall had to pull her apart instead, but that was okay, for Cal Zabo put her together again, alive, but diminished and some-what deranged…but that was another story.

Chapter Text

Real World

The morning dawned bright and clear; Gabe Reyes was awakened by birdsong – the phone ringtones of his new/current guardian could sometimes be certainly strange.

“Are you going to get it?” he asked the older man. “’Cause I certainly can.”

The latter just rolled his eyes and picked up the phone himself. “Who is it?” he asked instead.

“Hi! My name is Jemma Simmons! I am an age – a deputy director of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’m assuming that this is Gabe’s new guardian?” The voice was bright, pert and accented – slightly too much on all of the accounts. The older man was suspicious immediately; Gabe, who did recognize the speaker as Jemma Simmons was less so.

“Yeah, you got the right number, all right!” he called out into the phone speaker. “What happened to Mr.-Director Mace and the rest of your yahoos?”

“This is why I am calling you about,” Simmons’ voice immediately stopped being forced-bright-and-cheery and became very serious and sombre and sad and scared. “S.H.I.E.L.D. was recently compromised, invaded even by forces sympathetic to Hydra, if not Hydra itself. As such quite a few of our agents are suspect, so this is more of a courtesy call and a warning than anything else is. Gabe, if you see anyone of our agents who you met, you better avoid them. If you see someone with S.H.I.E.L.D. insignia – keep your distance away from them. The impostors are aiming for the InHumans and the gifted in general; they do not know that your brother is gone; they may be coming after you. Moreover, if you see anyone with Hydra’s insignia – a skull-octopus thingy – you run. Or, you know, wheel. Hydra is always bad news, and right now it seems to have gotten the upper hand – again.”

“…Hydra. Now this is a name I haven’t heard in a while – not since Captain America returned and brought it and you down,” Gabe’s guardian said carefully, measuring each word.

“We know, sir, we been there,” Simmons spoke firmly. “And Hydra is notably diminished, it’s just that right now, so are we, and we owe you – Robbie was a friend of ours until he took Ely Morrow and just left back to the other side, so that’s that.”

“Robbie returned…and left?” Gabe asked quietly, before catching himself. “And what does uncle Ely-“

“Um, basically? He was behind your problems the first time around,” Simmons’ now sounded just guilty. “Um, I think your guardian has a better idea of how to explain things to you-“

With a burst of static, she was abruptly cut off. Blinking, Gabe looked at his guardian.

“This is really bad,” Johnny Blaze told him.

/ / /

…By the time Daisy finished telling her story, (she did not mean to, it just happened spontaneously), the narrative overwhelmed Grant and the others.

“So, this is when S.H.I.E.L.D. came into contact – and conflict, with the InHumans for the first time?” Kara looked thoughtful. “Makes sense. I think I even know the medic-agent in your story, you know, the one, whose brother was friends with Coulson? I got my S.H.I.E.L.D.’s diploma for the field medic on his watch.”

“S.H.I.E.L.D. has a field medic – program?” Daisy asked, a trifle uncertain.

“Yup, or rather it had – several, in fact. They were very good, maybe Coulson, or Mace, can get the licenses, or permission, or whatever, to restart them? Plus some trained soldiers, field medics, negotiators won’t go amiss,” Kara said brightly, before catching herself. “Err, sorry, deputy director Simmons?”

“Just Simmons is fine,” the Englishwoman wrinkled her nose, “and maybe you can restart the field medic program for S.H.I.E.L.D., err-“

“Just call me Kara – for now it’s fine,” the taller woman carefully replied, “and let’s first get out of this mess. Now how did the phone call to whoever go down?”

“This was to Gabe Reyes’ guardian,” Jemma said with a huff, “a courtesy call, really, to warn him about our mess with the LMDs, and Hydra, and whatever else, but it got cut off. This might be bad. Anyone here wants to take it?”

“I’ll take it,” Daisy said faux-brightly – she was somewhat peeved that no one present seemed to be overwhelmed by her story anymore, but were now just taking it in stride. “Grant, you’re with me?”

“Sure.”

There was a pause. “What?” the big man asked cheerfully. “Why is everyone surprised?”

“Not so much surprised as worried that you will be doing each other in public on the mission,” Jemma wrinkled her nose.

“Hey, if Fitz could restrain himself from ‘mounting shapely flanks’ of yours in public – or whatever you two called it, so can Grant and I,” Daisy sighed, then relented seeing how Jemma wasn’t handling a mention of Fitz so well. “So, where shall we go and what must we do, deputy director?”

Jemma counted to fifteen and exhaled. “Okay, you will fly to this address and check on Gabe and his designated guardian to see if they are fine. If they aren’t you – rescue them, I guess,” she looked away. “Hopefully, it will go better than the rescue of May that we totally failed.” A pause. “Otherwise, well, just leave them alone? Robbie may’ve decided to return to the other side with Ely Morrow of his own free will, but regardless…”

“Got it,” Daisy wrinkled her own nose in thought. “Anyone knows where this is, BTW?”

“Oh yeah, it’s close to Coulson’s HQ – the Playground,” Grant said thoughtfully; “technically, Wu Ling here could fly over there by her own power and do the checking, subtly-“

The phone rang. Jemma picked it up, since she was the closest by far, and listened. After a short while, she thanked the other person and hanged-up. “Talbot,” she said in a very sour voice. “Apparently, when they were passing Horten to Ross’s people the gifted in question escaped.”

Silence was her answer. “People, come on, say something,” Simmons now sounded more miserable. “Your comments and opinions are the only thing that is telling me that Leo and Coulson and the others will be rescued-“

“They will be,” Daisy said sincerely. “Did Talbot give the details?”

“No. I got a sense that he is setting Ross up, however-“

“He probably is, or can be,” Grant sighed. “Ever since the Republican win of the Presidential seat the relationship between the U.S. and the United Nations took a turn for the worse. Ross is working for the UN these days, and Talbot was never a big fan of the UN even before the whole mess with S.H.I.E.L.D., Hydra, the Avengers and the Winter Soldier. Still, this is going to be tricky-“

“Want to take over my job?” Jemma said brightly.

“No,” Grant shook his head. “If we get back, maybe you can give it back to Coulson – or have Mace give it to Coulson properly, but for now, you’re stick with it.”

Simmons muttered something unflattering to herself, but no one could blame her. The initial adrenaline rush has worn off some time ago, and most people in this particular building very tired – really tired, but with the director and Coulson (and May) gone in the framework they could not afford to take a rest all at the same time – not yet.

“…Right,” Grant exhaled. “I and Daisy will go to the kid and his guardian, the rest of you start figuring out a new schedule – who gets rest at what time and etc. Also, keep an eye on the phone, in case Talbot, or anyone important calls.”

No one argued.

/ / /

Some time later…

“Remind me, how does this work?” Daisy muttered some time later when their smaller aircraft (not the quinjet), landed at their destination. “S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, brave and strong, tireless and resourceful, poster children for energizer batteries-“

“You just want this to be over with?” Grant asked brightly.

“Yes! I also want sex!” Daisy groaned. “I’m sore in places where I wasn’t sore for months – I like this soreness, I need it – and now I sound almost as shrill as Simmons when Fitz giving it to her in the ass.” She blushed. “Can we pretend that I said something different?”

“Okay,” Grant nodded, deciding not to dwell on it, for now. “Does Coulson know-“

“No, I never felt the right moment to tell him, and now he’s stuck in the framework, and we don’t know where that is-“

“Can’t you hack your way into its’ IP or however it is called?”

“…There are several things wrong with this statement – let me guess, whatever your outfit had, computer skills weren’t a part of it?”

“No,” Grant admitted. “We had intranet, but otherwise we did most of our things manually, via literal paperwork.” He wanted to elaborate, but decided against it, apparently.

“…Right,” Daisy shook her head, trying to clear her own thoughts as well. “Here we are,” she said instead, as they exited their aircraft and began to walk into the town – though it did have an airfield, it did not have a lot of town. “Shall we go?”

“Daisy,” Grant checked his firearm and very firmly took her by an arm. “Lastly, it’s too quiet. Middling, something is off. Firstly, there was no dispatcher when we landed, or even began to land. Basically, something is off.”

Daisy blinked and looked around. The airfield did not look abandoned, and she could sense vibrations of living beings, but…everyone was hiding. “Hydra?”

“Not their M.O.,” Grant shook his head, “they actually try to make everything look the same as it was before their take-over…shite!”

“Excuse me!” Daisy blinked, but Grant indicated the object in question to it. “Oh! And lot’s of it!” She took another look. “And…it isn’t human?”

“Bird,” Grant nodded sourly, “this isn’t natural. What’s the precise address?”

Daisy flipped through her notebook and found it. Holding arms, (instinctively, of course), the two agents ran to their destination. Surprisingly, they made it there without intervention, and feeling kind of sheepish and embarrassed, they let go off each other and knocked on the door.

The door opened – slightly. “Sir?” Grant said simply. “I’m guessing that you’re Blaze from Mace’s notes?”

“Yes, and we were warned about you-“

“And you’re right,” Daisy nodded brightly. “There is several robot versions of me who might be gunning around InHumans and other gifted – but the InHumans in particular are aware of this,” she winced, “but in your case? What’s with the bad phone connectivity and all-“

“It’s not just the phones – the TVs and the like were on the fritz, and then there are all the birds,” Gabe pointed out from his position further in the house.

“What birds? We didn’t see any birds,” Daisy began, when the two of them became aware of something happening behind them. They turned around – and sure enough, a very numerous flock of birds was swooping down on them.

Wordlessly, Daisy lashed out with her vibrations and the birds scattered in all directions. “This is new,” she huffed, “they weren’t here when we arrived – any idea where they came from?”

“The sky?” Gabe’s guardian said brightly. “But seriously,” he amended, seeing Daisy’s glare, “they arrived from all over the tristate area and been harassing the place for the day. This isn’t a gifted, an InHuman thing, is it?”

“I don’t know, maybe it is,” Grant answered instead, as he pulled out a pair of binoculars, (yes, he had a pair of binoculars with him, because this was the type of person than he was), “but what’s with the tower? It got energy flickers all over the place-“

“Let me see,” Daisy took the binocular from him and looked for herself. “Oh dear, this isn’t good. I’ve seen this sort of thing before, in my half a year of absence from S.H.I.E.L.D. Cal and Jia are at it again.”

“Cal and Jia?” Gabe asked curiously.

“They are, nominally, in charge of the InHumans who are against integrating into the U.S. society and otherwise,” Daisy pinched her nose. “But the problem isn’t that, but their methods – this crazy bird scheme is typical of them; they don’t care who gets hurt anymore…and why you’re so sure that I am a friend, BTW?”

“Because I’m better at this entire superpowered vigilante thing than Robbie ever was,” came the reply. “Please, let me introduce myself – I’m Johnny Blaze!”

“Nice to meet you!” Daisy said brightly. “Kara has told us some things about you! I’ll be happy to talk to you after we resolve this situation.” She paused and added: “Can you help us get there, preferably without too much chaos and destruction?”

Johnny Blaze looked actually thoughtful…

Chapter Text

The Framework

Meanwhile…

The ball, thrown by Fitz and his team, was very lovely. Very hip, young and edgy too. Phil Coul-son could certainly understand why May avoided them – those parties etc., and generally kept a distance between them – not because they were disloyal, (cough), but because she did not fit in, she was too old – for this sort of thing, (or maybe it was the usual crowd was too young; who knows?).

Of course May and Coulson had other things to worry about, though they were enjoying the clickage, the instant clickage, between the FitzSimmons, (but then again, who doubted that that will not happen?). They were even discussing this with each other, as they sat at the bar and ob-served the progress of May’s ‘new protégé’ (i.e. Simmons).

“So,” Coulson took a deep breath. “This is,” he indicated the glamorous and fancy room, all those fancy, rich and important people. “All of this-? All of them-?”

May did not say anything, but this was Coulson, so he understood her silence loud and clear.

“How?”

“I don’t know,” May finally spoke, sounding about as miserable as Phil did, (proportionally speaking, of course). “Simmons can explain it better than me from a scientific P.O.V., but all I know is that it all is like a dream – you have to honestly believe it to make it work, but if you don’t – it doesn’t. It all looks very fine, very authentic, only it isn’t.”

The scenery shifted. Now May, Coulson, and other people were sitting in a theatre, watching a professional production of Jesus Christ, Superstar: “Welcome to Jerusalem!” was playing out on the stage.

“Your doing?” Phil blinked and raised an eyebrow, (he had been practicing with the goal to impress May with this action for a while before she was replaced by an LMD and they ended being captured in the framework, BTW).

“If only,” Mack commented from his other side of Melinda. “I just had another talk with our resident alien while you were busy with the FitzSimmons. Apparently, he got a taste for this musical back when it came onto the stage for the first time around, and it stuck. And then he shared it with us and it got stuck in my head, so it is annoying…”

“And this is one of the reasons why this entire framework device is bad,” May gave Mack a surprisingly sympathetic look. “Until I acquired my anchor, I wasn’t myself – not anymore, not entirely. Dreams AREN’T real, but people are-“

“I don’t think that this is entirely the point you were trying to make,” Coulson said wryly.

“If you believe in anything, it will become real, but centered primarily on YOU rather than on the rest of the world?” Mace/not-Mace offered his suggestion (from the other side of Coulson), and before the others could react, the scene changed again: now they were all at some fairly regular bar, complete with beer and chicken wings, instead.

“Jeffrey, or whatever your name is,” Phil spoke, trying to catch his cool, (and succeeding, mostly). “Is this all of your doing?”

“Oh my, no,” Mace/not-Mace shrugged, as he leaned back on his own chair, “I am an opportunistic sort of fellow, especially when it comes to S.H.I.E.L.D. Phil, you are just the sort of person to take an instruction manual and throw it out of the window just because, aren’t you?”

“…I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Coulson did not bat an eye at the accusation, (which may or may not be true, BTW), “but let’s talk about you instead.”

“I am listening,” Mace/not-Mace replied calmly, even as he shifted into a generally humanoid en-tity that still had way too many arms and heads, complete with fanged mouths. “Phil?”

“…Was he so bad with you?” the aforementioned man muttered to Mack and Melinda.

“No, he’s better with Melinda around…usually,” Mack confessed. “I think he is trying to court her or something.”

“The answer to that statement lies somewhere between yes and no,” the alien admitted. “My kind usually takes before asking permission.”

“Charming-“

“But I am their maharajah, I know the value of patience and right now I can afford to be patient,” the alien continued brightly. “The people who planned this are very smart – too smart, actually. Frugal lucre can be taken to an absurd extreme…but humans are infamous for taking everything to an absurd extreme…just look at the current preside of the U.S. …”

“We’ve no idea what you mean by this pithy political commentary,” commented Coulson, who was a Democrat, BTW. “But anyways, what? You saw someone’s plot to destroy us and hijacked it?”

“Kinda sorta,” the alien agreed. “Only it wasn’t a plot to destroy you – rather to improve it, because you suck!”

“…Okay, we talked about this with Melinda,” Coulson said placidly, “and as she may or may not have pointed out, you haven’t made it better-“

“But this isn’t about me, it’s about you,” came the reply. “I may be evil, but I really have views about self-righteous people, regardless of their species-“

“Is this some sort of a mental manipulation?” Coulson raised an eyebrow, but his interlocutor was unfazed.

“Nah, more like a casual conversation – we didn’t have too many of those, did we?” the alien shrugged. “One of us just had to be on top, but – oh hey there, Mr. and Mrs. FitzSimmons – we’re living in crazy times. The robot has rebelled against her creator and the good doctor is now also stuck in the framework, while comrade Ivanov out there has been reduced to a brain in a jar… yes, agent Fitz?”

The aforementioned agent Fitz looked ready to explode. “What is going on?” he yowled in a vo-cal pitch that was not unlike that of Jemma Simmons. “Phil! Coulson! I know that we have been through some crazy shit but this-“

“Oh, agent Fitz,” Jeffrey/not Jeffrey exhaled with equal shares of amusement and exasperation in his voice. “You haven’t seen anything truly crazy yet!”

…Before anyone could begin to argue with him, the framework crashed instead.

Chapter Text

Real World

Some time earlier

“Again, I am really enjoying the prestige of being an S.H.I.E.L.D. agent,” Daisy muttered, looking semi-apologetic as she and Grant raced through the local sewers. “And yes, I know that I am pointlessly complaining, but still – we usually managed to avoid this sort of situation, even in Cyberattack… in Puerto Rico… whenever…”

“It’s all because of attrition,” Grant pointed out, not unreasonably. “Ever since I died, it seems, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s fortunes have gone downhill-“

“Don’t you start,” Daisy muttered. “Though it’s not just you – even May, even the FitzSimmons, even Coulson himself, when we aren’t in public, are worried that S.H.I.E.L.D. is still going downwards as compared to what it was before-“

“That because it isn’t,” Grant sighed. “Margaret Carter and her coworkers and allies built one thing, and Fury built on it. Now Margaret Carter and the rest of her people are dead, Fury is gone, and Coulson is a good man, but he is not Fury or Carter, I suppose. Mace is someone else, of course, and as we learned, this isn’t good either.”

“The door is locked,” Daisy replied instead, even as she checked their position with the map. “You want to do this, or I?”

“Allow me,” Grant looked thoughtful, as he looked at the door…and proceeded to take it off its’ hinges. “After you?”

Daisy just sighed. “Thanks,” she quietly told him. “I’m being off – we’re all being off ever since May got replaced and all that. The time on the Bus is gone and done, but somehow things don’t really get better, not even when we stopped Malick – or thought that we did…” She trailed away and looked askance at her companion. “And you weren’t helping, you know!”

“I know,” Grant looked genuinely ashamed at this development. “I’ve changed…really!”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Daisy said brightly as the two of them made their way up the stairs. “Let’s see what’s behind door number one…”

Apparently, there were many people behind the particular door, as well as some very steampunk-looking devices. Miles Lydon, of all people, was the one running them. He took one look at Daisy – and blanched.

The machete-wielding ‘Kenji’ and his crew were doing the manual labour, or maintenance, or whatever. They were not very happy with this situation – or with the appearance of Daisy and Grant.

Finally, there were Cal and Jia, also apparently restored ever since the Iliad, (but Daisy has known this for a while now, ever since Lincoln died…which was another story, actually), looking rather sheepish, instead of anything else.

“So, you still haven’t changed,” Daisy spoke, sounding more disgusted than anything. “All is missing from here is Horten. Where is he?”

“He’s around,” the older woman replied in manner that was rather similar to Daisy’s when the agent in question was feeling shifty. “How’d you get past the birds-?”

“Look outside,” Daisy muttered, still clearly not impressed with all the familiar faces she was seeing. Her parents did, and saw Johnny Blaze clearly having a good time, driving around the city streets chased by all of the birds. There were many of them, and they clearly meant business, but the ‘senior’ Ghost Rider clearly was enjoying himself regardless of that. (Then again, given that he did save the world several times in the past, Steven King’s rejects were not going to impress him very much).

“I can’t believe my eyes!” Jiaying exclaimed. “I thought that he was an urban myth!”

“He isn’t,” Cal said bitterly. “And of course he would be here-“

“Okay, this is very lovely,” Daisy didn’t sound as if she meant it at all, “but, people? We at S.H.I.E.L.D. are somewhat busy with other matters, so we will be capturing you now-“

“I don’t think so, dear,” Jiaying said brightly, as she walked over to the machine and pressed a ridiculously large button. “Also, Miles? I guess that you are fired after all.”

Miles twitched, but Daisy was not paying any attention to him, (seriously, where did he come from), as Horten emerged from the machine, in his full winged glory and ready for a rematch.

“Seriously, what is this? My life for the last year, recapped in brief?” Daisy snapped. She was ready to blast the big gifted with her powers, when Johnny Blaze, looking every inch the Ghost Rider, blazed onto the scene (well…).

“So, this is Hydra?” he asked, sounding dead serious despite the otherwise jaunty tone.

“Yup,” Grant nodded, aware of the rest of Hydra agents fleeing the scene – or trying to. They were quite high up off the ground, and none of the angry birds up in the air were helping either. “Want to try?”

“Don’t mind if I do!” the Ghost Rider nodded solemnly, before, well, releasing of a blast of in-fernal flames, (or something to this sort). When Daisy had blasted Horten earlier, (with the help of Lincoln), the big gifted was sent smashing through a wall; this time, he smashed through the wall and the bizarre machine positioned, well, before the wall in a tremendous explosion.

Jiaying swore (something that she did not usually do, BTW).

“Well, this was fun,” the Ghost Rider commented in his part. “Now-“

It was then that several figures entered the smoky room, looking worse for wear, but – familiar.

“You have got to be kidding me!” Grant blinked. “Anyone here can be sure that they aren’t LMDs?”

“Yes, I got the control of most of the LMDs still left running around,” Miles muttered from his position, (he gotten knocked prone by the explosion), “as my part of the deal-“

Daisy blasted him into unconsciousness by her vibrations before turning back to the newcomers. “Yeah, they are real, all right, I can sense this through the vibrations, and so they are real…” and she had her nervous breakdown.

“…I’m guessing that we’re not in China anymore?” Coulson said brightly.

“Where did you come from?” Johnny Blaze, now looking human once more, asked brightly.

“The framework,” May replied, noticing the still unconscious Miles in another corner. “Also, I think that I have an idea of just who had hacked Aida – and the framework – and why.”

“We’re listening,” Coulson replied, before turning to face Grant. “Also, you’re real – sadly.”

Grant just glared.

Chapter Text

Real World

Some time later…

“So, let me get this straight,” Phil Coulson muttered as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s retrieval team arrived to, well, retrieve them. Jemma Simmons was in charge. Given how she was hovering around Fitz and shooting everyone else pointed looks, no one was commenting much on this being inappropriate behavior for a deputy director. “Since Ivanov had a submarine, and since the Sino-Russian relations aren’t very good at the moment, they decided to relocate the framework with us in it over here, to the U.S.’s West Coast?”

“Yes, this is how it looks,” Daisy shrugged. “Did anyone else find anyone else in the framework room?”

“Nope,” the Ghost Rider commented as he wheeled in Gabe Reyes. “Everyone else is gone, there are just some robots left behind.”

Daisy flushed. She still didn’t know as to how, and when, Miles got involved in this entire mess, (probably during the first six months after Lincoln killed Hive in space), but some of the robots – the ones that were made to look like her rather than the other agents – had a somewhat well-used appearance, which was just wrong, in a creepy manner.

“You sure?” Mack replied before Daisy could. “Jeffrey Mace – or rather the alien who’d impersonated him – is a shapeshifter; he could’ve escaped-“

“Oh, I know him, and I know that he is gone,” Johnny replied thoughtfully. “He was the one who introduced me to Gabe here.” He looked away. “I didn’t handle the situation with his brother very well, I kind of cut several corners in making him the next Ghost Rider without filling some of the blanks, and you people got caught in the mess. Of course, the former king – maharajah of the Rakshasas didn’t simplify things either, but still…”

“You knew who he is when you met him?” Jemma sounded shocked, (which was justified). “But, but, um-“

“I’m the Ghost Rider – I know when someone is a human or not,” Johnny Blaze shot Grant, and Daisy, a look. (Both of them returned it flatly, face on). “Mind you, this doesn’t mean that I’m following S.H.I.E.L.D.’s policy on this issue, whatever it is, but I know how to interact with them on my level – because I’m not exactly human myself – and I fought with him before.”

“Okay, and-?” Mack still sounded confused. “What’s the big deal? Or not the big deal? We communicated some, in the framework, and as a shapeshifter he can look truly intimidating – all arms and fanged mouths and all-“

“The great maharajah,” Grant spoke quietly, “is many things, including a trickster – and a liar. What did he tell you? That his feud with Rama became over princess Sita? That is not true. The feud began when Rama, and Sita, and one of Rama’s half-brothers were exiled and moved into a jungle to live as hermits. The sister of the great maharajah who also lived there, fell in love with Rama and offered to marry him – and off Sita in the process. Rama, who was an InHuman tool that he was, promptly cut off her ears and nose instead, forcing her to flee to the great maharajah, who immediately got roused into action – he’s a bad husband, but a good father and brother – and the wheels were set in motion…”

“And where were you during all of this?” the Ghost Rider asked quietly. “Kinslayer?”

“…Some time before the events I saw a celestial dancer, an apsara, not a goddess or a Kree, but one of their underlings – an InHuman in modern terminology,” Grant pointedly did not look at anybody, cough. “I feel in love with her. The court of Ravana was at its’ peak, the relationship between them and us was such, that I could, for example, drag her from heavens and, you know, sexually abuse her to death as it had almost happened to agent 33 while she was captured by Whitehall, but love her and marry her? No, just no. So, after a while, I and the great maharajah came to an agreement: he would send me – and her – onto the reincarnation wheel to see if we had better luck with each other in the future lives…”

“Sounds about right,” Johnny agreed brightly. “Reincarnation works. But it also sucks, agreed.”

“I hate you,” Daisy said for no particular reason. “I love you, but I also hate you.”

“I know,” Grant agreed, as he draped one arm around her. (Given their respective sizes, it worked). “I know.”

Coulson looked away from them, (for no particular reason, of course), and came across May’s own gaze. “Phil, before you do anything, we need to talk,” she said firmly. She sounded even more unhappy than how she usually did, but also resolute. “About – a lot of things…”

“I know, maybe we can start with the Darkhold,” Coulson looked away from her and towards the ‘senior’ Ghost Rider. “Do you-?”

“Yeah, I had it and I kept it and I lost it,” the other man agreed, also quite unhappy. “Now that Ravana has it, it won’t be easy getting it back. Well, might as well start now – and find Gabe’s brother in the process.”

“Good luck with that. Last time we saw him, he and Ely Morrow went back to the other side through a magic box that Ely has built,” Daisy said sourly.

“Oh, no problem – I don’t need that sort of thing,” Johnny Blaze replied brightly. “See you!” And he vanished in a blink of an eye.

“We really need to prod Kara to learn more about him,” Grant blinked. “I didn’t know that he could do that.”

“No, really?” Coulson gave the younger man a look. “We need to talk about many things.”

“Yes, and some of them shall be told to you by Kara,” Grant exhaled. “Speaking of talking, Daisy needs to talk to you personally.”

Coulson blinked and looked at the InHuman agent. “You do?” he asked, sounding more like his usual self.

“Yes,” Daisy muttered. “It’s complex, but, Phil? Do you remember your very first independent mission for S.H.I.E.L.D. and Fury? In southeast Asia?”

“Let me think,” Coulson grew thoughtful, before some sort of a realization hit. “Oh – bleep! I remember!”

Daisy gulped. Coulson looked at her, looked around, saw Jiaying and Cal – restrained by the U.S. military rather than just S.H.I.E.L.D. field agents – and something in his mind went click. He kind of blanched and sat back down.

Daisy did not say anything – apparently this so was not the time; she just sort of burrowed deep-er into Grant’s embrace instead.

“How about,” Coulson exhaled after some very intense thinking, (even for him). “We start again? Please?”

Daisy gave him a careful look and nodded.

Chapter Text

Epilogue

(I)

Melinda looked at Miles Lydon, (of all people), with her best ‘Cavalry’ look. Mack, who was sort of looming behind her, did not do so well.

“What?” Miles spoke nervously. “I, uh, I don’t care about what I’ve done… I mean I care, just not about S.H.I.EL.D.-“

“Shut up,” Melinda said flatly, and Miles complied. “Here’s the thing. Remember Horten? The asshole with wings, who’d been wired into the framework that held us captive and controlled the local birds?”

“Yeah?”

“He also used to physically abuse his own daughter, who is one of our agents, and who is the girlfriend of agent Mack over here,” Melinda pointed at Mack who blinked and stared at her, rather than at Miles. “We would rather be with her – she’s been hurt, seriously – than with you. So can you please cooperate and tell us how you got involved in this mess and well, anything else? Because frankly you are neither interesting nor intimidating, and Daisy just wants to kick your ass a little and throw you back out-“

“Fine, fine, I was hired,” Miles looked around at the ‘writing accessories’ that he’d been given – nothing with an online connection – and began to write something down. “Online, and I was supposed to be a part of the group that was hired, or assembled, or whatever, to take you down. Only it does not work – you people are jerks, but not jerks enough, it seems. Either that, or no serious player wants to take you down, this all was some sort of a roach fight, you know? A bunch of has-beens, fighting for scraps… The world has moved on. You people are trying to mat-ter, even though your last escapade on the West Coast was kind of important – a SWAT team important or something like that, but Cal and the rest of the people? Yeah, they are even lower on the food chain than you are. I’m even lower on the food chain than you are…” he looked away.

“You loved her?” Melinda asked quietly.

“Maybe… maybe not,” Miles did not look up. “Anything else?”

“No,” Melinda took what he had written down, and left, followed by Mack. She did stop at the doorway, however, and add: “Thank you for your cooperation.”

Miles did not respond this time.

(II)

“So,” Coulson turned to Ward, (Daisy was hovering nearby, not even trying to pretend that she was doing something, anything else), “most of the people working here – especially the veterans – were on your payroll rather than ours-“

“It’s the InHumans payroll – well, the InHuman Americans, if you want to be technical,” the younger man replied. “John use this sort of financial trick to keep the men on his and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s payroll, but I am not him.”

“And this matters?” Coulson shot the younger man a look. Ward did not reply but neither did he back down.

“Stop it, both of you,” Daisy exhaled. “Phil, Grant got the best of you this time – again – so accept it and move on. Grant, stop throwing the late John Garrett into Phil’s face – also, again.”

“I’m trying to, I just don’t know how,” Grant muttered, breaking the standoff.

“…” Coulson did his best to pretend that he was not thinking – or about to say something – along the similar lines.

Daisy not-quite-groaned. “Wu Ling?” she called out instead. “Is Melinda coming? I could really use her help here-“

“Yes she is,” the younger woman replied in a more subdued manner than how she usually spoke (via a comm.-link).

“May Mk II? Want to come over here and bond with your mother somehow else?” Grant spoke up.

“…Maybe later. I want to talk to her in more private circumstances,” Wu Ling muttered over the comm.-link and hanged up.

“Yeah, May and Garner managed to have a child of their own,” Grant said conversationally, “and I ended up hiring her, and it is a very funny story, and I will be hiding behind Daisy when I tell it, because otherwise Melinda will kill me-“

“You’re so lucky that I already heard her version on a comm.-link on our way back,” Melinda said nonchalantly, as she entered the room. “Yo-Yo says hi, everybody, but she would rather talk with Mack first than with anyone else, so Mack has trotted off to do exactly that. What am I missing?”

“Things are going to be very awkward around here now, even more so when they were before you got kidnapped and replaced by an LMD,” Daisy finally made her reply.

“Daisy, things are going to be always awkward around here,” Melinda muttered back to the younger woman. “In fact, they probably always were awkward – it’s just that back at the old S.H.I.E.L.D. it was better hidden…” She paused and added, unexpectedly: “I think that this Miles loves you, you know?”

“Yes, well, I’m more like Jiaying than I like to be,” Daisy muttered. “I will deal with this…somehow…later…”

“Yeah, you probably will,” the older woman agreed, before switching her attention back to Coulson. “And here’s what we got from him-“

“Hm,” Coulson looked at them and sighed. “Yeah, and unfortunately, it is something that I’ve suspected all along.

(III)
The man on the other side of the computer screen was familiar (albeit to different extents) to all the people present here; he looked rather like the famous actor Samuel L. Jackson doing a pirate impersonation.

“Is it too much to hope that you’re really Mace Windu, living in a galaxy far, far away?” Daisy said before catching herself. “Err – oops?”

Fury just gave her a look, before turning to his oldest friend (supposedly). “So, you have figured it out?” he asked Coulson instead.

“Kind of, yes,” Coulson looked his unhappiest – ever. “The InHumans’ mental anchor helped. The set-up was kind of Hydra-like, but not fully; Hydra never did believe in the carrot as S.H.I.E.L.D. did, and the framework, in the end, was some sort of a carrot gone evil, giving us what we wanted, not what we needed, not unlike how T.A.H.I.T.I. worked. Nick, WTH all of this?”

“I should be asking you the same question,” the other man snapped. “I made you the director – and what did you do? Drive them into some sort of a dead-end of a shadowy alley – and then make a mess with Grant Ward and his family. You didn’t want him? Just execute him; he could be useful? Use him properly; and if you just wanted Christian Ward offed instead of being used as an inroad to recovery, do so professionally, without making a pointless show of cooperation beforehand. I expected you to start restoring S.H.I.E.L.D. within few months; instead, it deteriorated, from a bloodbath on the Iliad to worse. Jeffrey Mace… I don’t know what his damage is, but at least he’ll offer something new-“

“Jeffrey Mace is an alien shapeshifter of some sort who just took a powerful artifact and left for another plane of existence,” Melinda said conversationally. “Right now, Jemma Simmons is the acting director-“

“Good luck with that,” Fury exhaled. “I tried to help you, to give you all meaning in life, to remind you what you’re fighting for-“

“You succeeded – at your own expanse,” Coulson exhaled.

“…Good. Then my job is done,” Fury did not blink an eye at the change of topics. “Good luck to you all, and maybe this time S.H.I.E.L.D. will get a proper director than a high-ranking field operative – sorry, Phil, but this is the truth. Don’t call me – I’ll call you.”

And he was gone.

(IV)

Some time later…

“So, what do you think?” Coulson asked Grant as Melinda and Wu Ling tried to work things out – supposedly in private, but because they were doing this in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s cafeteria, ‘privacy’ was relative – but none of them minded.

Grant just shrugged noncommittally, unwilling to play Coulson’s vague games right now.

“About Fury,” Coulson reluctantly elaborated.

“Well, sir, you’re a good man, but the job as the director? It was killing you, simply. Maybe now with Simmons in charge you will have a better chance at – everything,” Grant replied sounding emotionally blank and neutral.

“Hm,” Coulson looked away first – this time. “You think that we will learn to get along, for Daisy’s sake at least?”

“I hope so, sir, I really do,” Grant replied.

End