Fitz sat in a chair in one of the Bus's med pods, face pensive. They were enroute back to the Playground but still had at least two hours until they landed. Everyone else was on the upper levels of the plane, either resting or getting started on their debriefs. Coulson had let him stay with Jemma, though, both because he knew Fitz would be loathe to leave her side and because she would need someone there when she woke up.
Bobbi's assessment of Jemma in the cave was that she was fine, just knocked out. She'd had considerably more contact with the robot's hand than Fitz had, so it seemed safe to assume that she would suffer the effects longer.
Before they left the cave, May had taken a pistol and shot the console several more times in an attempt to damage it beyond repair; then, she and Hunter had rigged a small amount of explosives to collapse the entrance to the cave itself. They wanted to ensure that it would not be easy to get back into. After that they'd walked back to the Bus in somber silence, Mack carrying Jemma and Fitz carrying his backpack and the D.W.A.R.F. case.
It was strange, Fitz thought. He had seen Jemma turn and bravely face her own death, but yet there she was, warm and solid and real, sleeping on a bed in the med pod. He knew, logically, that they were both the same person, but he was having trouble reconciling them in his mind. Maybe it was his way of coping - if he thought of older and younger Jemma as two separate people, maybe then he wouldn't feel like he'd betrayed her by being forced to leave her behind.
But it was a big maybe.
He sighed and shifted in his chair, watching Jemma as she slept. It was the first opportunity he'd had to look at her, really look at her, in months. Before, he'd tried everything he could not to look at her, or he found reasons not to. As much as it was a relief to be able to look at her without fear of awkwardness or pain, he wasn't sure he liked what he saw. Her sleep wasn't restful. Her eyebrows were knitted together, and in addition to the cuts and bruises on the side of her face, there were dark circles beneath her eyes. She looked like she'd lost weight as well. Fitz wondered if it was a product of her time in the other dimension, or if she'd been unwell even before she fell through the portal. She'd acted just fine every time he'd seen and spoken to her, always projecting a cheeriness that never failed to infuriate him. He'd taken it as proof that he'd never meant as much to her as she had to him, how she'd been able to effortlessly separate herself from him and continue on with life as if the med pod had never happened.
The only times he'd ever seen her upset had been right after she'd come back from being undercover, and on the Quinjet in San Juan. That, coupled with everything he'd seen and experienced in the past day, had sent his entire perception of her post-med pod cartwheeling into unsurety.
If he'd missed the signs that Jemma wasn't well, what else had he missed?
He wasn't sure how much time had passed before Jemma finally stirred, mumbling under her breath as she turned her head toward him. When she opened her eyes, he was waiting with a tentative smile.
"Fitz," she murmured, shifting a little. "We made it?"
He nodded, his lips quirking a bit. "Yeah. We're - we're headed back to the base now." His fingers itched to hold hers.
Jemma smiled slowly back, and Fitz felt a rush of affection for her. It had been so long since he'd seen a real smile from her; today was proving to be a good day for them. She took a deep breath, blinking away the last of the sleep from her eyes, then looked around to take in her surroundings. When she made to sit up, Fitz rushed to adjust the bed for her so she could recline against the pillow while propped up. She said a quiet "thank you", her hand brushing against his arm, and he nodded an awkward "you're welcome" before sitting back down.
"Other me?" she asked once she was settled. "Where is she?"
Fitz looked down, afraid of her reaction. He'd known he would have to answer this question, but that didn't make it any easier. "The paradox didn't hold," he said after a moment. "It - she - she couldn't come through the portal." He left the rest unspoken, knowing Jemma could fill in the blanks herself.
"Oh." Jemma's voice sounded strange, a bit high-pitched and choked, and it was enough to make Fitz look back up at her. She was frowning, staring at her hands in her lap. "I - I feel like I should feel something," she said quietly. "Because she was me and she...died. But - I'm not sure what to feel. I don't know what to make of it." She cut her eyes over to him. "Is that wrong of me?"
Fitz shrugged lightly. "In all hon - well...no." He gave her a wry, faint smile. "I don't know what to think either."
"Oh," she said again.
"But I'm glad I got you," he added hastily. "At least. I mean - I - I'm glad we were able to - bring you back. That was…" He looked back down, scratching at the skin just behind his ear. "That was all I wanted. Yeah."
He could feel Jemma watching him, but when he didn't look back up, she sighed quietly. "It would have been an amazing opportunity to talk with her, though," she said. "Properly. There's so much we could have learned, scientifically. Even if it would have been a bit weird, with her being, well, me and all. But...I'm thankful for her. I'm glad it worked, what the two of you did, pulling me into my own future."
Fitz huffed the softest of laughs. "We got by on, um, a lot of luck."
"Fitz." He saw her hand move toward him from where his gaze was trained on the edge of the bed. "Don't sell yourself short. I know you put a lot of work into everything that was required to get me out of there. Just the tracker alone was amazing, but the way you combined it with the screen and the generator to get a lock on my genetic signature...that was brilliant."
He looked at her then, and her face nearly took his breath away. He'd expected to see a carefully neutral expression there or, even worse, the look that she'd so frequently given him since he woke up from his coma, the one he felt bordered on coddling or patronizing. Instead, his best friend was looking back at him. Jemma's eyes were shining with pride, her lips still curved in a small smile. It was a look that he had taken for granted during all their years together, and one that he hadn't seen in far too long.
It was a moment before Fitz realized that he was staring, mouth hanging slightly open, and he looked quickly back down as heat flooded his face. "I - I had help," he muttered. The rest of the team deserved credit where it was due, but he still couldn't stop himself from thinking that it might have gone quicker, that she might not have been stranded in the other dimension as long, if he didn't have his handicaps.
Jemma was still watching him - he could feel it - and he cast about for something else to say to mask his nervousness. "I'm - I'm curious...what was the thought you picked?" he asked. "For when we brought you forward. I could see you both saying something but, um, I couldn't hear what it was - what you were saying."
She didn't immediately reply. When Fitz looked up again, Jemma had turned her gaze to her hands, which were toying with the hem of her blouse. Her smile had vanished. "You probably won't believe me," she said eventually, her voice small.
A bit bemused, Fitz tilted his head. He thought again about seeing Jemma, both of her, mouthing the same phrase over and over. He had no idea what it could have been, what would be bad enough to make her close back up on him emotionally. "Um - after everything I've seen and, and done in the past day or so...I could believe a lot of things," he said, in an attempt to reassure her.
Jemma frowned, her fingers twisting together in her lap. As the silence drew out between them, she opened her mouth several times as if to speak, but thought better of it each time. Fitz tried to be patient, but he couldn't deny the nervousness that her reticence had settled in the pit of his stomach. Finally, she raised her eyes to his, and they were fearful.
"I said...I…" She hesitated again, her mouth struggling to form the words. "I...love you." Her bottom lip trembled. "I love you, Fitz."
It was as if all of the oxygen had been sucked from the room. Fitz felt a hot shock of something go through him from his head to his feet, but it wasn't elation. It was - disbelief. Jemma had just said the three words he'd longed to hear from her, and it was like his heart had suddenly hollowed out, allowing all his doubts and fears and insecurities to rush in and fill the vacuum. All the reasons why she couldn't love him were drowning out her spoken words.
He shrank away from her in his chair. "No."
Jemma's only reply was to swallow thickly, her eyes pinning him in place. That wouldn't do. Fitz shot to his feet and and took a few steps away, his back to her. "No," he said louder. "You - you don't."
"I don't?" There was an edge to her voice that didn't brook argument, but he couldn't stop. He shook his head, squeezing his eyes shut and pressing his fingers against the side of his nose.
"You can't," he bit out, moving to pace back and forth in the small space he had. "Not like that. You've never - you - and I -"
"You don't get to tell me how I feel, Fitz," Jemma said, her voice gone low and shaky. He caught a glimpse of her as he paced; her hands were clenched into fists in her lap, knuckles white, and her face was pale, eyes hurt and angry.
The very same emotions were overtaking him. He shook his head again. "But you've never said anything."
"I couldn't!" Jemma cried. "You wouldn't let me! I've tried, so many times, just to - to talk, at all, and then to tell you, but you avoid me or cut me off every time. I tried to tell you in San Juan, but then you -" She cut herself off as her eyes filled with tears. "You left the lab. You gave up on us."
He wheeled around to stare incredulously at her. "I left the lab be-because there was no point in me staying," he said. "I can't - it's - I can't do what I used to, so I'm just - it's a waste. And you - you…" He huffed out a breath, his heart clenching. "You don't want me there, you gave up first -"
"Please, let's not play that game -"
"You left, Jemma." Fitz tried to breathe, but his lungs just wouldn't expand. "You couldn't look at me after - after I woke up, you couldn't accept that I'm different, so you left -"
"Nine days!" Jemma shouted, stopping him in his tracks. "Nine days you were in a coma! They were the worst nine days of my life! I didn't know if you would ever wake up, and if you did, what sort of state you would be in. When you did, and I saw how bad the damage was, I -" She looked away and sniffed as the tears in her eyes spilled over. "I knew it was all my fault."
That brought Fitz up short. He frowned in confusion. "Jemma, I don't -"
"It's my fault," she repeated, her face crumpling. "If only we'd had more time, I could have found another way, or made you take the oxygen, or if I'd just swum faster, then maybe you wouldn't -" She choked on a sob. "It could have made a difference. You wouldn't have been hurt, and maybe you wouldn't - hate me."
All of the disbelief and hurt fell away at that, leaving Fitz feeling hollow again, at a loss. She thought his brain damage was her fault? She thought he hated her?
Well, a nasty voice in his mind said, you haven't exactly given her much reason to think otherwise.
He'd been so sure she didn't want or need him anymore, and his only (suddenly meager) defense was that she'd acted that part well by going about as if she were just fine - but he was supposed to know better than anyone else that Jemma didn't show her emotions, that she went on autopilot when upset. He thought about how Jemma had trusted him to bring her back from the other dimension, how her older self had kissed him, and what she had said at the portal. She still needs you. Don't think for one second that she ever stopped. He thought about how tired and drawn and pale she'd looked lately. He thought of how mere moments ago, she'd looked at him with pride in her eyes.
Suddenly, he felt like a fool. Nothing made sense anymore. "Jemma," he tried again, "I -"
She held up a hand to stop him, tears streaking her cheeks. "Don't. I know it's my fault, all of it. I couldn't fix you, I couldn't make things better, and I...I couldn't even help you. It was second nature for me to finish your sentences, which wasn't helping your recovery at all. You needed to relearn to speak on your own without me interrupting all the time. And you were trying so hard. I - I knew you didn't want to be different. For me. And you were just frustrating yourself. All I did was make you worse."
Fitz's mouth worked silently for a second. "You - you didn't make me worse, how could you -"
"But I did, Fitz." Jemma looked at him, her eyes begging him to understand. "Everyone could see it. I was blocking your progress. So when Coulson said he needed someone to go undercover, I knew it had to be me. It would take me out of the picture and then you could focus on your recovery without having me as a distraction. I...I truly believed I was doing what was best for you. I had to, or else I never could have done it. Every time I asked while I was gone, Coulson said you were doing just fine. I had to believe that too, because otherwise, what...what was the point? Fitz...I didn't leave because I don't love you. I left because I do."
All he could do was stare at her in something like shock and dismay. He couldn't find any words to speak. How could she blame herself for everything? None of it was her fault; he truly believed that. Some of it was down to his own shortcomings, but logically, he knew there was nothing to blame for most of it. It was just - what happened. It was beyond either of their control. Logically, she had to know that too. And that wasn't even getting into how she believed she had made him worse. He'd only become worse when she left; he'd started hallucinating her, for god's sake. Had Coulson lied to her, told her that he was fine in some attempt to keep her focused?
Would she have asked to come back if she had known just how low he'd sunk?
"But I suppose none of that matters anymore," Jemma said, looking back down and wiping at her cheeks with one hand. "It's too late. I'm - all I ended up doing was hurting you even more. I never meant - and now you - you don't -" The more she spoke, the more difficulty she had getting the words out; her emotions were clearly overwhelming her. It broke Fitz's heart to see her like that, miserable and wretched, and he wanted to comfort her, but he couldn't move. He couldn't do anything.
"That was my thought. That I loved you." She breathed out a broken laugh. "It was something - I knew she would still remember it. It would be important to her. If she really was me - then she would. I was there for a month with nothing but my own thoughts for company. All I could think of was - was how much I loved you and missed you. After twenty-six years...but I'm too late. You - don't -" She closed her eyes and rolled onto her side then, facing away from him, and took a deep, shaky breath. "I think...you should leave."
That was enough to break Fitz from his stupor; he felt like she had just driven a sharp, icy blade into his chest. Was that what he had done to her when he told her he wanted to leave the lab? "Jemma -"
"Please leave," she said, drawing her knees up as more tears slipped down her cheeks.
He couldn't leave her like that. "I -"
"Please," she repeated. Her voice was wobbling dangerously.
Fitz hesitated for a moment. The part of him that had been by her side for ten years said that he couldn't leave her, not when she was so obviously hurting, but the fear and the doubt and insecurity that had plagued him ever since his coma told him that he was at fault, that he had caused her misery, and that he needed to leave. He didn't need to cause any more damage than he already had.
He wanted to say something, anything, but in the end the words still didn't come. Sucking in a breath, he turned and stepped out of the med pod, quietly closing the door behind him. As soon as it clicked shut, he heard her break apart.
The sound of Jemma's wracking sobs followed him all the way upstairs back to the main level of the Bus.
When they got back to the Playground, Fitz couldn't find Jemma amongst the bustle of people going to and coming from the Bus. He couldn't find her in the lab or the common room either, or her room. He wanted to make things right with her, but he hadn't the faintest clue how to even begin doing that, or what he would even say. His thoughts were still in a whirlwind and he couldn't settle on any one emotion. All he knew was that he had hurt Jemma, and where once he had thought he might have felt vindicated - that she should feel even an ounce of the same pain he did - all he felt was heavy guilt.
Eventually he had to go do his debrief with Coulson. Some of the details of the mission were hard to share, despite knowing that the team had seen and heard everything via his glasses. They just felt very personal - from the way he had nearly self-destructed when Jemma had first fallen through the portal, to convincing older Jemma to help, to the kiss she'd given him and their final conversation. It felt like putting the darkest corners of his personal life on display, and it left him feeling tetchy.
He didn't tell Coulson about the memory Jemma had used. That was her story to tell, if she wanted to, and he still wasn't sure his mouth could form the words anyway.
When he was done, he hesitated in the door. "Sir...have you seen Jem-Simmons? Since we got back?"
Coulson gave him a look that was hard to read. "She gave her debrief as soon as we landed. Then I suggested she get some rest."
Fitz pursed his lips. "Ah. I - I see. Um...thanks."
He went by her room again and knocked on the door, but no one answered. She still wasn't in the lab, or any of the other usual places everyone gathered. The best he could guess was that she was in her room, but ignoring him. Feeling rotten, he walked to the kitchen and went through the motions of making tea.
He was sitting at the table, hands wrapped loosely around his mug and staring at nothing, when Skye came in. She did a double-take when she saw him, and then her expression turned thoroughly unimpressed. Fitz could only guess why.
"You've, um - you've talked to Jemma," he said lamely.
Skye narrowed her eyes at him before turning to the fridge to open it and pull out a bottle of water. "I don't know what you did," she said, "but you're an idiot."
Fitz felt a protest bubbling up in his throat as the instinctive need to defend himself arose, but he managed to swallow it. Instead, he prodded at his tea mug, watching steam rise off the hot liquid, and said nothing.
Skye grabbed a banana from a bowl on the counter before turning back to face him. "She was alone and crying her eyes out when we landed, but she wouldn't tell me why. She was a mess. I had to help her calm down so she could go do her debrief with AC, but...I have never seen her like that, ever. You were the only one down there with her...what happened?" Her expression turned concerned. "Because you don't look so great either. You didn't...fight or anything, did you?"
There was a part of him that was annoyed that Skye automatically assumed Jemma had been crying because of something he had had done, instead of anything else - like fallout from being stranded alone in a hostile environment for a month, perhaps. He couldn't get much feeling behind it, though, because he knew it was his fault. "Um. She -" He didn't know how much he wanted to say. If the details of the mission had been personal, this was even more so. "She was...very honest about some - things." He swallowed. "About why she left to - to go undercover."
He felt Skye study him for a moment. "I haven't forgotten what I asked you," she said, "when Hunter said you thought she'd left because she didn't care about you. Is...is that really what you think?"
Fitz prodded at his mug again. He didn't feel much like drinking his tea anymore. "I don't...really see any other reason why - why she would have," he mumbled, even as Jemma's words in the med pod bounced uncomfortably around his head. It wasn't that he doubted her sincerity; it was that things tended to become true if you told yourself them enough, and he'd had a long time to think that she'd left because she didn't want him anymore, in any capacity. "She - she saw the damage and...it was too much. She didn't, um - I was useless. Am useless."
Skye stared at him for another moment before she sighed and came to set her water and banana down on the table, taking the seat across from him. There was another pause where she seemed to be weighing her thoughts; then she looked him in the eye. "Fitz...when you were in that coma, Simmons didn't leave your side," she said. "Not once. We had to bring her food. She slept in a chair until Trip convinced AC to let him bring in a cot for her. We couldn't even get her away for a shower. Just using the sink in your room gave her a panic attack." Skye's eyes had taken on a faraway look, as if she were reliving the memories in her head. "And when she wasn't asleep, she was doing research. Reading. Anything she could do to learn about what had happened to you and how we could help you when you woke up. And, the whole time...I never saw her cry or get upset." She frowned. "She was like a statue. Just - so focused. She was like, literally living and breathing just to help you get better."
They were the worst nine days of my life. Jemma's voice echoed in Fitz's mind. He could imagine how she must have looked, folded into a chair at his bedside, tired and pale, going through article after article on a tablet. He could see it, because he knew if their positions had been reversed, he would have done the exact same thing.
"I don't know how much you remember from when you woke up." Skye was turning her water bottle in little circles on the table with her fingers. "She did everything she could. But...after awhile, it was -" She huffed out a breath. "I don't even know how to say it. She helped so much it stopped working."
When Fitz looked up at her long enough to furrow his brow in confusion, Skye's mouth twisted unhappily. "She kept finishing your sentences the way she used to, and it - I remember it got to a point where you barely talked at all, and just had her talk for you. And get things for you, that sort of stuff. And that wasn't good. At all. She told me once that she was worried she was hurting you worse than she was helping, and...it hurt to admit it, but she was right." She sighed again. "What I'm trying to say, Fitz, is that the absolute last thing Simmons wanted to do was leave you. I mean, she never told me that, but she didn't have to. It was obvious. All she cared about was helping you get better."
It was true that Fitz didn't remember much from the first few days after he woke up. Jemma was already wearing her too-bright smile to go with her too-cheerful voice by the time he could piece any concrete memories together. He turned Skye's words over in his head and had the vague thought that nothing she had said was contradicting what Jemma had told him. Once again, he was forced to reconsider his version of events, the way everything had played out in his mind. There still was one thing that remained, though. "She could have - at least told me where she was going."
Skye shook her head. "For what it's worth? She lied to me too. The only people who knew where she really was, were May and Coulson." She finally unscrewed the top off her water bottle and took a sip. "Trip and I thought she'd bailed on you, too."
Fitz's eyes snapped up. Skye was wincing guiltily at him. "Yeah, I know. It just - it seemed so wrong, after all she'd done for you here," she said. "But when we found out what she was really doing, we understood. She left so you could have room to heal. But...that didn't work either."
He looked back down at his tea then. He didn't like reminders of him at his lowest, of how he'd needed Jemma with him so badly that his mind had created a substitute out of thin air. "She said...she said that Coulson told her that - I was fine," he said quietly. "When she was with Hydra."
Skye's eyebrows quirked sharply as she took another drink of her water. "That...doesn't surprise me."
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Skye peeled her banana and took a few bites, and Fitz finally sipped at his tea, which had gone lukewarm. He'd put in too much sugar.
"Okay, here's the important part," Skye said suddenly, swallowing a bite of banana. "I know I probably won't ever know Simmons as well as you do, but I know her well enough to know that she's been doing the Simmons thing. You know, the - the stiff upper lip. Where she acts like she's fine and does her job because we all need her to. But...we've just been so busy. Everything's been crazy. We had you to worry about, then Hydra, then the obelisk, and - and Trip - and I feel like a really shitty friend now. We've been so busy for so long, and so focused on getting you better, that we never asked if she was okay." Her shoulders slumped. "I think this is probably the first time she's cried or let loose or anything since your accident."
Fitz frowned. Skye was definitely right on one thing, and it tied back into his earlier thoughts while Jemma had been sleeping - Jemma didn't show her emotions often, especially if she was upset. She'd always been that way, for as long as he'd known her, and it had taken a long time for her to feel comfortable enough even with him to show how she felt. He thought once again about how he'd been so convinced that she'd been just fine after the accident, that she could go on like nothing had happened, and he felt like an idiot. Of course she hadn't been fine. Of course she'd been hiding it. And he, as damaged and fragile as he'd been, had taken it at face value.
"You're, um - you're probably right," he mumbled, feeling shame tug at his gut. After a moment, he reached up to rub at his neck. "Um - do you know where she is? I - I can't find her. I wanted…"
He trailed off, because he still wasn't sure what he wanted, aside from erasing the sound of Jemma crying from his ears. Skye seemed to intuit his meaning well enough, though.
"Not since I sent her off to debrief," she said, shaking her head. "But she's probably in her room, asleep or something."
"Yeah, I...I tried there. She didn't answer." Fitz considered the idea that Jemma was too angry or upset to talk to him, and figured that maybe he deserved it. Pushing back from the table, he stood and went to carry his full mug over to the sink. Skye watched him go. "I'm going to, um, go get some rest," he said. He dumped his tea down the drain and rinsed his mug before setting it aside to dry.
"Fitz." He stopped, and turned to look at Skye again. She had swiveled in her seat to face him. "Look, I know things have been...not good between you two. And, I know, it's none of my business. But you were together for ten years. I've never seen anything like what you guys had. It's…" She shook her head. "I think it's still there. I could see it, in that cave. You guys just have to...talk, okay? Really talk. Talk from here." She thumped her knuckles against her chest. "Not here." Then pointed to her head. "I know that might be hard for a bunch of science nerds, but at least try."
Fitz couldn't help the way his mouth twitched at her attempt at humor, paltry though it might have been. She smiled slightly back, then shooed him away with her hands. "Go on, go sleep. I know you've got to be tired."
He nodded before leaving the kitchen and then headed for his room. But when he reached the door, he kept walking past it. He tried Jemma's again - still no answer - and went past the lab again, just to find it still empty. After that, he started wandering, his feet taking him aimlessly around the base.
He knew he'd been awake for at least thirty hours and desperately needed sleep, but his mind wouldn't let him rest. He couldn't get Jemma's voice out of his head. She'd said she loved him, and she'd looked so frightened, afraid he wouldn't believe her. And she'd been right.
He thought about how he'd immediately denied her. There were so many reasons why she couldn't and shouldn't love him, but when he forced himself to think about them critically, he realized most of them were excuses on his part rather than anything Jemma had actually said or done. They were walls he'd built up around himself to keep from getting hurt even more, but he'd never given her a chance. They were things he'd assumed she felt, but he'd never let her speak. He'd been so absorbed in his own frustrations and misery that he'd thought the worst of everything she did.
He thought of how she'd brought him tea when she'd first returned from Hydra, and how she'd tried to engage him in conversations a few times, or asked for his help with a project. At the time he thought she'd been coddling him, tossing him the smallest of scraps because she thought he couldn't handle anything more. Now, he realized she'd likely been trying to reach for him the best way she knew how. And he'd done nothing but push her away.
And then he thought of older Jemma, at the portal. Was that what she had wanted to say, but couldn't? I love you. Even twenty-six years later and knowing she was going to die, she'd still been too afraid to say it.
He needed to find her. It was likely he had done damage that couldn't be undone, but he needed to set the record straight at least. Jemma needed to know that he had never hated her, that he didn't blame for her anything, and that he still loved her despite everything.
His thoughts somewhat settled, he looked up to see that he was in the hangar, at the bottom of the ramp leading up into the Bus. The interior was mostly dark but he walked up the ramp anyway, drawn towards where the lab used to be. The walls were lined with boxes and crates now, but if he concentrated he could still see it as it used to be. There were the glass doors, and his workstation just behind it. There were the tables covered in samples and equipment, and the holotable just beyond them. There was the large screen on the back wall. And there they were - him and Jemma, moving easily around each other, hands gesturing as they solved yet another puzzle. He could almost hear her laugh, the way her voice would go stern - yet still fond - as she admonished him for some real or imagined lab etiquette trespass.
It made his heart ache. He wondered if they could ever be that way again.
He had just reached the center of the room when he heard a sharp gasp to his right. Startled, he jumped and spun - only to see Jemma, nearly hidden from sight by a large stack of crates, huddled against the wall with her knees drawn up to her chest.
"Oh - I - sorry, I um - I didn't…" Fitz trailed off as he looked at her. Her eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot, her skin bone-white. She looked exhausted. His heart clenched in his chest: he was responsible for this.
Jemma had looked up at him at first, but then her gaze had dropped to somewhere around his knees. She didn't say anything for a moment, just blinked and swallowed. Then, hesitantly: "I was thinking about our lab. We…I was happy here."
Fitz looked around the room again, still imagining the tables and equipment, and their laughter. "Yeah," he said quietly. "I - I was too." He hadn't missed the way she'd corrected herself. She needed to know that he'd been happy too. He turned back to her. "Look, Jemma…"
She held up a hand and squeezed her eyes shut. "Don't," she said, her voice cracking. "Please. I can't bear it."
His stomach twisted, and when he spoke, his voice was little more than a whisper. "Jemma, please."
She took a deep breath but didn't say anything. Instead, she looked as if she was bracing for some kind of physical blow. It broke his heart.
"I...I never meant for you to think th-that I - hated you. Because I don't." He sighed softly. "I hate myself."
Jemma finally looked up at him then, frowning, her fingers curling where they rested on her knees.
"It's just - I don't have the, um, the words for anything anymore, and - even though I can see it - I can't - and my hands aren't good. I feel like a burden, like, like everyone just feels sorry for me. I - I feel useless." He tried not to let it happen, but just speaking about the things he could no longer do made his depression swell like a wave within him. "My...my brain was the best thing a-about me. Now that it's damaged...what good am I?"
Jemma's eyes were glassy. "You know that's not you, right?" she asked quietly. "It's not because you yourself are lacking. It's the aphasia. If you just give it time, and keep up with your therapy -"
"Yes, I know, I know, but it's not -" Fitz stopped, wincing, when he realized how snappish he sounded, and that Jemma's mouth had clicked shut as she folded in even more on herself. He forced himself to relax, then gestured at the empty space on the floor next to her. "Can I -?"
When she nodded slightly, he stepped forward and lowered himself to sit down next to her, careful to keep a little bit of space between them, but not so much that it would make him look distant. He stretched out his legs in front of him and leaned back against the wall. "I don't hate you, Jemma," he repeated softly, after gathering his thoughts. "I never have. And I - I don't blame you for this, either." He pointed to his head.
In his periphery, he saw Jemma wrap her arms tighter around her knees. "Why?" she whispered.
He frowned. It still baffled him that she blamed herself, and he wasn't sure how he could convince her that she wasn't at fault. "I made my decision," he said, rolling his head to the side to look at her. "I - I knew what I was doing. You didn't t-take the oxygen from me - I gave it to you. I...I ex - I thought I would die." He shrugged slightly. "But I was fine with it. As long as - as you lived."
Jemma's throat bobbed as she swallowed, her eyes still trained straight ahead on the floor. "I was so angry with you," she murmured, "at first. That you made me take the oxygen, and that you expected me to leave you behind. That you thought so little of me, to think that I even would."
Fitz sucked in a breath. "I didn't -"
"I meant what I said," she said, cutting him off. "I couldn't live if you didn't. And I was angry that you tried to force me to. But more than that...I just wanted you to wake up. I didn't care what the consequences were, or how severe your injuries might be. I just wanted you alive, next to me." Her voice had dropped back down to a near-whisper, her shoulders slumping. "Maybe that was selfish of me."
He'd never really thought of it that way before. Of course he'd known that she would grieve, and miss him, but everything had been so rushed and he'd been so desperate to save her that he hadn't thought much beyond get Jemma to safety. For the first time, he tried to put himself in her shoes - to imagine how he would feel if Jemma had taken his choices away and all but demanded he leave her there at the bottom of the ocean. He imagined having no time at all to process the idea of a life without her. It made his stomach turn.
"Maybe it was selfish of me," he said quietly. "To - to put all of that on you."
Jemma shook her head. "I didn't even think of how it would affect you. I never considered what being injured would do to you."
Fitz shifted a little. "I didn't really give you any time to."
She was quiet again for another moment. The silence between them still felt strained, but it was different. Lesser, perhaps. He didn't feel like he was choking on it. They were finally having some semblance of a real conversation and, no matter how painful it was, the honesty was good for both of them. They were taking tentative steps forward together, back towards each other.
Jemma's head dipped a little. "Do you ever wish I hadn't? Pulled you up with me, I mean."
He swallowed and dropped his eyes from her. The words were there, but they were difficult to say. "Sometimes," he admitted quietly.
She gasped, and Fitz looked up to see her squeezing her eyes shut in pain and leaning away from him. Without thinking, his hands shot out to grab hers and pull them to him. "No - Jemma," he said in a rush, "no - that - that's not on you. That's me. It's just me feeling sorry for myself."
Jemma had shifted her legs out to the side when he'd taken her hands in his, but she still wouldn't look at him. "I can't bear the thought of you wishing you were dead rather than being like this," she said, her voice thick. She was crying again. "Because I did this to you."
Fitz thought it would probably take a long time to convince Jemma that he didn't blame her for his condition. "No you didn't." He let go of one of her hands to reach up and hesitantly slide his along her cheek, brushing a tear away with his thumb. "I promise." She leaned her head into his touch, and his heart twisted; but she refused to open her eyes and look at him. "Jem, please," he said softly. "Come here." And he opened his arms to her in invitation.
Her eyes opened and darted to his for the briefest of seconds; then she was shifting over to curl carefully against his side. Fitz let his arms wrap around her shoulders and drew her closer to him, until her forehead settled in the crook of his neck. There was a long pause before he felt her begin to relax against him, and when she did he leaned his cheek against her hair, sighing as his eyes fell shut. A wave of intense emotion washed over him. Never in his life had he ever felt such a strong sense of home-of finally being exactly where he was meant to be after a long time wandering lost. They were far from being fixed, but this - offering himself, and her accepting - was tremendous.
"I'm sorry," Jemma whispered. She'd slid an arm around his waist, and the weight and warmth of her against him was comforting in ways he couldn't express. "I'm sorry I left. I mean - I'm not, because you did get better while I was gone, but - I'm sorry I hurt you. I'm so sorry. I never meant to. I don't think I'll ever be able to apologize enough."
"Shh, it's okay." Fitz was having to blink back tears of his own, and it was all he could do not to turn his face and drop a kiss against her hair. Instead, he settled for rubbing circles into her shoulder with his thumbs. "I'm sorry too. I'm sorry for - for being an arse and pushing you away." He paused, considering his next words. "I'm..I'm still angry that you l-left and didn't tell me why -"
Jemma went stiff and tensed up, exhaling a sharp breath against his neck, but he squeezed his arms even tighter around her and rubbed a hand up and down her arm until she relaxed again.
"Yeah. I'm angry. But - I think I understand why you left," he said. "And I - I forgive you. It'll just...take some time. I'm sorry."
She shook her head and tightened her hold on his waist. "Don't be sorry. I'm not sure I deserve your forgiveness...but thank you." She sighed. "You were wrong earlier, you know."
"Your brain isn't the best part of you." She brought her hand up to rest on his chest, next to her face. "Though it's close. It's your heart."
Fitz huffed a small laugh at that, feeling a genuine mix of happiness and amusement bloom in his chest. "I'm going to, um, remember that the - the next time I ask for a monkey assistant and - and you roll your eyes at me. See how much you like my heart then."
Jemma's shoulders shook slightly as she laughed too. "Fitz - are you teasing me?"
They were rusty, the easy push-and-pull of their old banter stilted with disuse, but it felt good to finally laugh, and laugh with her. It didn't matter if his voice was hesitant, or that hers was still a little hollow. It was something. Fitz smiled a little. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I am."
She squeezed her arm around his waist again and shifted even closer to him, the fingers of her hand on his chest curling in. After a moment, she asked, "Are we going to be okay?"
Her voice was quiet and solemn again, still a little fearful. Fitz couldn't stop himself from kissing her hair then, no more than he could stop himself from breathing. "Yeah," he said again, and he meant it. "I think we can be."
It would take work. There would likely be missteps along the way, bumps in the road and things they couldn't avoid. But if they kept talking - really talking, like Skye meant - and tried their best to be open and honest with one another, he believed they could be. They would be. He knew he was willing to put everything he had into it, and now he knew Jemma was too. Better together, they had always said. They always would be.
It took Fitz a few moments of almost peaceful silence between them to work up the nerve to say what he wanted to next. "What you said earlier in the med pod...you - you really meant it?" He knew what she would say - but perhaps he just needed to hear it one more time, to confirm it.
There was another pause before Jemma answered him. "With all my heart," she whispered, her voice barely audible.
Fitz closed his eyes as he let her words sink in. He didn't feel any disbelief or hurt or anger like he had before. This time, there was a burning warmth in his chest, a quickening of his heart, a slight heady rush of joy. The sense of home he'd had before intensified. That was it for him, he realized. He was hers, for the rest of his life.
Maybe that was what being in love really felt like.
He swallowed several times. "I love you too," he said quietly.
Jemma's breath hitched. "Still?" she breathed, as if she believed he could ever do otherwise.
He smiled faintly where she couldn't see. "Always."
She sat up then, pulling away just enough to be able to look into his eyes. It nearly startled him, seeing her face so close to his-they were centimeters apart, close enough for their breath to mingle, for their noses to almost touch - but she stilled him by lifting a hand to him, her fingertips brushing down his cheek to his jaw. His breath caught in his throat. She looked like a wreck, but Fitz still had never seen anything more beautiful.
He realized she was shaking right before she leaned forward and kissed him, her lips so feather-light on his he was almost sure he was dreaming it. There was a burst of tingles where they met - not too unlike going through the portal - and before Jemma could pull away, he reached up to catch her shoulder and tug gently before kissing her back, just as light.
It was careful, soft and hesitant. It was tentative, almost shy, two frightened and damaged people learning to trust one another again. It was finally crossing over the line to something more, hands held tightly, unsure of what the future would bring but knowing they would face it together. Time slipped away from them as they relaxed into each other, mouths meeting and seeking and parting, their kisses light and gentle but never demanding. It was enough to lull Fitz into a daze where the world narrowed down to just him and Jemma and the miracle of her lips pressed against his, of the way she sighed into him and the way she curled her hand around the back of his neck as if she were afraid he would break.
When he felt Jemma start to sag against him, Fitz remembered the bone-deep exhaustion that had been threatening to overtake him before he found her, and he pulled back. Eyes still closed, Jemma's head tipped towards him, and he caught her with the softest of laughs. If he was tired, surely she was even worse. "Come on, Jemma," he murmured. "Let's get you to bed."
He took her by the shoulders and got to his feet, pulling her with him. Once they were both standing, Jemma swayed slightly and grabbed his elbows. "Sorry, Fitz," she mumbled. "I'm...I can't stay awake."
"It's okay." He kissed her forehead. "Think - um, think you can make it back to your room?"
She nodded, blinking her eyes open, and together they left the Bus. Fitz kept an arm around her as they walked, tucking her into his side, hands grasping her shoulders. Mostly, it was to help keep her upright, but he also wasn't eager to let her go, not after the strides forward they'd just made together.
As they turned onto the hall where all their rooms were, Fitz saw May at the far end, about to go into her own room. His steps faltered when she looked up and their eyes met. She looked from him to Jemma, and then at his arm around her, and something he couldn't quite read flickered across her face. He swallowed and looked down, hurrying Jemma toward her door. He couldn't face May, not after the portal, and he didn't know how long it would be before he could again. He understood what she had done and why, but it still didn't change the fact that she had forced him to abandon older Jemma.
Fitz got the door to Jemma's room open and guided her inside. "Okay, here we are," he said quietly, stopping next to her bed. Then he was at a loss for what to do. Jemma needed rest, and so did he - but he was still loathe to leave her. "Do - do you think you can get changed?"
"Yes." Jemma smothered a yawn behind one hand, then looked at him with eyes filled with such sudden longing that it made something catch in his chest. "Stay?" she asked. Then, just as quickly, she was visibly trying to calm herself - she was still afraid to let him see her feelings. "Please."
He wondered how long it would take for her to feel comfortable with him again. It didn't really matter, though. He would wait forever if he had to. Stepping forward, he gave her a soft, lingering kiss. "Of - of - sure." He gave her hand a squeeze. "Just give me a minute, yeah?"
He escaped down the hall to his own room then, shedding his clothes in favor of his pajamas. He needed a shower, but he was tired more than that; he could get one in the morning. Or the afternoon, whenever he woke up. He had the feeling he was going to be sleeping for a long time.
Once he was done, Fitz looked both ways down the hall before rushing back to Jemma's room. He wasn't necessarily worried about anyone seeing him coming or going from her room, but if he had to choose, he'd always pick the option that invited the least gossip. When he got the door closed behind him, he turned and blinked into the darkness, letting his eyes adjust. Jemma hadn't left a lamp on. He finally picked her out, a lump on the bed already huddled beneath the blankets.
"Hey," he whispered, moving carefully toward her. "I'm here."
Jemma made a pleased noise. Fitz went around to the side of the bed that she'd left empty for him, and - after a moment's hesitation - crawled into the bed next to her.
His heart twisted with a bittersweet ache as he shifted over to curl up behind her and she wriggled to fit herself snugly against him, her back to his front. They'd shared a bed occasionally while at the Academy and then SciOps, and even a few times on the Bus, but it had been far too long. Being allowed into Jemma's space like that, after everything they had gone through, was a privilege. One that he hoped she would let him use often, now.
He slid his arm over her waist and she caught his hand, pulling it up to rest just beneath her breasts. Then she sighed, and if Fitz wasn't mistaken, it sounded content. "I love you," she murmured, her voice thick with sleep.
His heart pulsed brightly, one heavy thud to sound out just how much he loved her in return. He pressed a kiss to the back of her shoulder, then rested his forehead there. "Love you too, Jem," he whispered back. "Rest now. I - I've got you."
Jemma's breathing evened out within minutes, the slight rise and fall of her chest beneath his hand pulling him down into sleep not long afterward. He already knew that his nightmares wouldn't trouble him tonight, not with Jemma beside him. For the first time in nearly a year, Fitz felt able to fully relax and rest easy. It was the end of a part of their story, he thought, and tomorrow a new one began. The road ahead wouldn't be without its difficulties, but they would face it the way they always had before: together.
Older Jemma had been right. He had been given a second chance with her. Nearly losing her forever to the portal had put things in perspective for him, and the way forward was clear. Tomorrow was the beginning of the rest of their lives, and Fitz didn't plan on wasting a single second of it.
And here we are, finally at the end! Thank you all so much for reading and for all of your comments and support. I hope you've enjoyed the ride. I certainly enjoyed writing it! As always, huge thanks to my betas notapepper and StarryDreamer01 for all of their help. Without them, this story would be rubbish.