AN: Back when I first started writing fanfiction, a long time ago, I wrote a lot of song fics; they were all quite bad, and I haven't done one since. But then a month or so ago I was listening to Keane and it occurred to me that Sovereign Light Cafe has some lyrics that are quite well suited to Fitzsimmons, so I decided to try writing a song fic again—to see if I can do any better than I used to. I think I succeeded at that goal, at least, but we'll see what you guys think.
I was nearly done with the story when I saw a deleted scene from season 1 that contradicts a lot of the backstory I invented for the science babies. I thought about rewriting, and then I decided: for whatever reason they didn't include that scene in the final broadcast, and I'm of the opinion that all you need to consider as canon is what has actually been broadcast or published. So I didn't change it after all.
Fitz is not suicidal in this, but he's occasionally in a bad place. Also, I employ some non-linear storytelling. If you find either of those off-putting, consider yourself warned.
. . . . . .
Sovereign Light Café
. . . . . .
She's playing music in the lab.
A smile ghosts over his face as he watches her. It's been a long time since she played music—it's not professional, she'd say, and anyway SHIELD frowned on it. But with SHIELD's near-destruction came a loosening of rules, and now, for the first time since they were in school, she's tapping her foot along to her favorite silly pop music as she fiddles with the knobs on her microscope.
"Someone as smart as you should have better taste in music," he tells her as he drops his textbooks on the lab table.
She looks up from her computer and grins. "I have great taste in music, thank you very much. You just don't like any band that didn't come out of Scotland in the 1980s."
"Really? Prove me wrong. Name one band you like that doesn't fit those criteria."
He hesitates, and her lips curl into a smile because she already knows she's right. "Wait," he says, snapping his fingers as he tries to remember details, "that show you dragged me to last summer. They weren't awful."
She laughs. "Not awful? I think you're rather proving my point, Fitz." She returns her attention to her computer. "If you don't like my music," she says archly, "you're welcome to find another lab to work in." But she's still smiling because she knows he'll stay—because they have to finish the project for Dr. Weaver's class by Tuesday, and because no matter how much he complains, they both know he'll always choose to stay near her.
"I suppose I can put up with it," he says, smiling too.
"Did you need something, Fitz?" Jemma's voice breaks into his thoughts where he stands in the doorway. There's what he thinks is meant to be a reassuring smile on her face, but her voice is hesitant and her smile doesn't reach her eyes.
"No," he says, and turns away. "Sorry to bother you."
. . . . . .
I'm going back to a time when we owned this town
Down Powdermill Lane and the Battle grounds
We were friends and lovers and clueless clowns
"How've you been, Fitz? I feel like I haven't talked to you for a while." Coulson's smile is as warm as ever, but he's just the tiniest bit distant, like he's trying to have this conversation and think about other things at the same time. Fitz doesn't take it personally, though; Coulson has been like that pretty often ever since he took over a very broken SHIELD and started dedicating all his time and energy to keeping it afloat.
"You've been . . . busy, sir." Fitz manages to make the sentence come out almost smoothly. He's learned that when he practices his words in his head first, it sometimes helps the delivery. And if the team is ever going to trust him with anything big again, he needs to convince them that he's all right.
"That's true," Coulson agrees easily, but there's something pained behind his eyes. "Dealing with the fallout from San Juan has been . . . time-consuming, to say the least."
"Yes, sir." Fitz hesitates. "How's Skye?" Short sentences, that's the other key to faking it.
"Actually, that's why I called you in," says Coulson. "I know you've been covering Mack's work while he's still recovering, but I'd like to give you a new part-time assignment as well, to assist Simmons while she researches Skye's condition. I'm aware you elected to leave the lab, but we could really use you back there, at least for a little while."
Fitz stiffens. But he's got a genuine reason, not just the unbearable discomfort of being around Jemma these days. "I don't know what—good I'd be, sir. I'm engineering, Skye's problem is . . . is—"
"Biology," the girl smiles. And it's such a warm (and let's be honest, attractive) smile that he wants to say yes, but he doesn't think it's a good idea.
"Thanks for the offer," he says, "but I'd rather work with another engineer. It's easier."
"No, that's why it's perfect," she says. "You don't need another engineer, you're already brilliant at engineering." (He feels heat rush to his face.) "I'd bring a new perspective. We'd complement each other. With us working together we could absolutely win this competition."
She's got a point. And it's tempting—this is just a fun competition to help the new students get to know each other at orientation, but whoever wins will certainly catch the eye of the professors. It'll give them a leg up in the coming school year.
"Besides," she says, "I don't want to partner with anyone else; I'm tired of the other students giving me grief about being so much younger than them. You're the only person in this entire place who's my age."
Ah, so his suspicions were right; this is the school's other teenaged genius he's heard so much about. Well, she makes a lot of compelling arguments. "All right, sure, let's be partners."
That bright grin is back, and she puts out her hand to shake. "Simmons."
"Biological, I know," finishes Coulson, and Fitz winces as he's pulled back out of his thoughts. He knows the director means well, but he is really tired of people trying to finish his sentences. "And we have our best biologists on it. But Simmons could use an extra pair of hands, and pairing the two of you together has always seemed to bring out the best results in both of you."
Fitz can't help grimacing.
"And anyway, part of the task is interacting with Skye, and with her new—" Coulson gestures vaguely— "it's best if it's people she knows well, who don't stress her out at all. Right now that's you and Simmons."
Fitz wants nothing more than to say no. His and Jemma's friendship is ruined, maybe forever (to say nothing of the fact that despite everything, he still loves her, and watching her actively ignore that fact breaks his heart on a daily basis), and anyway he left the lab, telling her that it's best if he doesn't work with her anymore. But he's also trying to prove himself as a member of the new SHIELD, to let Coulson and the others know that he's damaged but not destroyed. And he's not going to convince anyone of his utility if he refuses assignments because his feelings are hurt.
"And," Coulson says with a twinkle in his eye, "I'd like you to start designing a training room where Skye can practice controlling her powers. You know, earthquake-proof it. You'll need access to the research on Skye for that."
Now that is an interesting engineering problem—immediately Fitz's mind starts sorting through possibilities—and more than that, it's the first big project he's been entrusted with in a while. "That'd be . . . great," he says enthusiastically, and Coulson smiles as though he expected this response.
And Fitz firmly tells himself that for such a great opportunity, he can be okay with being near Jemma again.
. . . . . .
I didn't know I was finding out how I'd be torn from you
When we talked about things we were gonna do
We were wide-eyed dreamers and wiser too
Jemma is exquisitely polite as she shows Fitz around the lab, and it's driving him out of his head; she doesn't need to be so careful. But even before his brain damage, he wouldn't have known how to articulate "It bothers me that you're being nice" without coming across as a jerk, so he doesn't say anything.
"Ah, good timing," she says as the door slides open and a white-haired woman walks in. "This is Dr. Adarkwa. She has some experience with xenobiology so she's been helping me out."
"You must be Leopold Fitz," Dr. Adarkwa says. She has a musical accent and a forthright manner that Fitz rather likes. "Several years ago Dr. Ko sent me a paper you wrote in his biorobotics class, because it dovetailed with something I was working on. We were both very impressed."
It's the first time in a long time that anyone has complimented Fitz, and he's trying hard not to grin foolishly (as is unsurprising for someone who grew up thinking that the only good thing about him was his brain, he thrives on compliments like that one). And Jemma has a small smile on her face as well. Maybe she's pleased he's being complimented?
Or maybe she isn't, because the next thing he knows, she has opened her mouth and ruined the moment. "Yes," she grins, "he was one of the best."
The smile falls from his face immediately. "Was?" he repeats. Jemma's expression quickly falls as well, but the thing is that she's right—he's not what he used to be. "Limitless potential," as one of his professors once said, now destroyed by Grant Ward and Hydra and an unexpected visit to the ocean floor.
"Go out in the field?" he demands, the quadcopter he's been fiddling with immediately forgotten. "Me? That would be extremely dangerous. I am not exactly field agent material, Simmons, and neither are you. If you recall, we both failed our field tests."
"We wouldn't be field agents," she corrects. "After how terribly I did at the shooting range, I don't think they'd let me near any action. At least you hit your target twice."
They share a grin.
"We'd just be part of a mobile team. The field agents would take care of the action, and we'd do what we do now, only on a plane."
"Is that supposed to be fun? Living on a plane?"
"We'd get to see the world," she presses on, undeterred. "We'd finally get to go to all those places we've talked about visiting. For free!"
The truth is, she cares more about traveling than he does. He just went along with it when she'd talk about it because he could never bear to disappoint her. But the other truth is that he probably would have traveled with her, if she'd pushed enough; he doesn't care if he ever sees Thailand, but he'd happily go there with her because if anything could make world travel fun, it'd be being with his best friend. And now they have a chance. Maybe she has a point.
"Still, it's crazy," he says. He's going to do his due diligence in poking holes in the plan, but deep down, he might be willing to be convinced. "It could be dangerous. Being out in the action—there's no guarantee that we won't get caught up in it. We could get hurt, or killed. Then what good will your pile of university degrees do you?"
"Please, Fitz," she says, grabbing his hands, and he knows he's in trouble when she takes on that pleading tone because he's never been able to say no to it. "It's perfect. They need an engineer and biochemist—it's like it was tailor-made for us. And the team leader assured me that we won't see action. I promise, we won't get hurt. Plus then we know we'll be assigned together, at least for a few more years."
She gives him her best puppy dog face. No one can say no that face, and Leo Fitz is certainly no different. "Fine," he says. "But it'd better be fun, and I'd better not get shot at."
"I promise, you won't get hurt."
"Fitz, that's not what I meant," Jemma says earnestly. "I just—I meant, back when you were in school, you were one of the best students. Because we were talking about a student paper. That was all I meant."
Most days he doesn't blame Jemma for what happened to him; after all, he's an adult, capable of making his own decisions, and he agreed to join Coulson's team. But it's hard to remain so zen about it at times like this, when he's reminded that he joined this team for Jemma and joining it is what made him lose her in the end (her along with everything else that's ever mattered to him). So he decides it's better not to respond right now; he'll say something he regrets, and he'll probably stutter and make an idiot of himself as he says it. "Well," and he can hear how strained he sounds. "I think it's lunch time."
And he stalks out of the room, but he doesn't go to lunch. Instead he goes to his bunk, lays down on his bed, and stares at the ceiling for a long, long time.
. . . . . .
We'd go down to the rides on East Parade,
By the lights of the Palace Arcade
And watch night coming down on the Sovereign Light Café
Mack is currently residing in the long-term stay section of the medical wing: he no longer needs constant medical attention, but it will be weeks yet before he's back on his feet. Whatever possessed him down in that underground city prevented him from feeling pain, kept him on his feet long after he should have collapsed, but it didn't keep his body from sustaining damage from the fighting and the falling and everything else that happened down there. He'll be fine, the doctors say, but at the moment he is a patchwork of bandages and bruises and IVs and casts. He's been awake and talking throughout, though, which Fitz appreciates; he's the only person on the base that Fitz can talk to without getting tired out from trying so hard to appear normal.
"Hey, man," Mack says when Fitz enters the room and sits next to the bed. "How you been?" He speaks a little slower than normal, his voice just a little slurred—the result of the pain meds he's on.
Fitz shrugs. "All right."
"You been keeping my garage in order?"
"Yeah, but—" He cuts off, rubbing the back of his neck as he tries to figure out how to tell Mack that his beloved work area is going to be a little neglected for a while.
"Oh no," says Mack. "What is it? You broke my favorite coffee mug, didn't you? After I told you not to touch it?"
Fitz rolls his eyes and Mack laughs. "Actually," Fitz says, "I got . . . reassigned. Well, just for the afternoons."
Fitz takes a deep breath. "To the lab with . . . Jemma. To research Skye's . . . umm—Skye,'s uh . . ."
"Skye's transformation? Her condition?"
See, this is what he likes about Mack. Mack doesn't finish Fitz's sentences for him, as though Fitz were incapable of expressing himself; he makes suggestions, trying to be helpful, but then lets Fitz finish his own sentences. Unlike Jemma, who makes him feel like an invalid.
(The other thing he likes about him is that Mack didn't know him before the accident so he doesn't always feel like the man is watching him and comparing old, normal Fitz with new, broken Fitz—the way everyone else does. The way Jemma does.)
"Her condition, I was gonna say."
Mack is silent a moment, processing this. "How are you feeling about it?"
"Look, I can pretty much guess that you don't want to do this," says Mack. "But this could be really good for you two—could make you actually talk instead of tiptoeing around each other all the time. You two used to be best friends. Don't you want that back? Don't you miss that?"
"No," says Fitz, and it's more a knee-jerk reaction than anything. For years, that's been his instinctive response to when anyone invites him out to do anything social. It's not that he doesn't want to hang out with people, it's just that the few times he's tried it it's been so uncomfortable and unpleasant that it's easier now to just always say no. He doesn't know what to say to people, doesn't know how to make small talk about sports teams and movies and who's dating who, so he bores people by talking about engineering or he frightens them off with his gruffness or his intensity. So it's better to just say no and save himself some time and some discomfort.
"Come on," says Simmons. "I know you're not doing anything tonight, because our research papers are finally done with and you already told me you aren't starting your fluid mechanics project until Monday. And anyway I can see you've got The Prisoner cued up on your TV."
"Which is a great way to spend an evening," Fitz argues.
"Please come," she says. "There's free food. And we don't have to stay long; if you don't like it, we can come back and watch this."
He glances at his TV. "You like this show?"
She grins. "I am not a number," she quotes, "I am a free man!"
Fitz stares, and then his mouth curls into a smile. It's been two months since he met Jemma Simmons at orientation, and she has been surprising him ever since. He hasn't met a lot of gorgeous, social girls who he can relate to, but in addition to being one of the few people who can actually keep up in an academic conversation with him, Simmons also happens to love all the same things he does: Doctor Who, the old Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, the X-Files, the children's novels of Susan Cooper, and now apparently The Prisoner.
Still, it doesn't follow that he wants to go to the Fall Fling barbecue and dance party held at the Academy tonight. "Why don't you go without me?" he asks. Surely she has other people she could go with; he's seen her talk to people in their classes.
"I don't want to go alone," she says. She gives him a rueful smile. "I don't know if you know this, Fitz, but you're my only friend."
They've never referred to each other as friends before—they've always been lab partners or classmates or hallmates (she lives one floor above him)—and hearing it makes something warm and altogether wonderful bloom in his chest. "You're . . . you're my only friend too," he admits.
She gives him that blinding smile of hers. "Then, friend, will you please come to the Fall Fling with me?"
He sighs and laughs at the same time. "Fine," he says, turning the TV off, then adds, "Friend."
"Of course," Fitz mumbles, looking down at his hands in his lap. "Course I miss my—best friend. But I don't think we can . . . It's too late."
Mack sighs. "Fitz, will you take a piece of advice from a man who's spent his entire life leaving people he cares about behind?"
"Friendships are more fragile than we think," says Mack. "When you're young you think you'll be friends with someone forever, but the older you get, the more you'll see that it is surprisingly easy to drift away from people. You don't even have to do anything; you just have to . . . do nothing. And the next thing you know you haven't talked to this person in years and you don't even know what city they're living in anymore. And that's just life. That's just how it goes. But there are some people in your life, if you drift away from them, you will regret it forever. And especially since you guys aren't just drifting, you're pushing each other away because you have this weird thing between you. I promise you, if you let this ruin your friendship for good, you will wonder for the rest of your life how things got so bad, and why you let her go, and you'll wish you could do something about it but the longer you've been apart the harder it'll be to try and fix things."
Fitz sits in silence a long moment, processing this. "Speaking from experience?" he asks finally.
"Yes," says Mack firmly and clearly. "Don't make the same mistakes I made. Fix things with her while she's still here. Because someday one of you will leave SHIELD or Coulson will assign one of you to Singapore or something, and then . . ."
Fitz looks down at his hands folded in his lap. The bad arm, the one he has trouble controlling now, is trembling; it does that sometimes when he's stressed. He forces himself to breathe evenly and relax the muscles in his arms; that helps. "I'll think about it," he tells Mack.
"Think fast," says Mack. "You two won't be in the lab together forever."
. . . . . .
I'm begging you for some sign, but you've still got nothing to say
Don't turn your back on me, don't walk away
I'm a better man now than I was that day.
Mack's words become a mantra that he repeats to himself for the next few days: If you drift away from her, you will regret it forever. Fix things with her while she's still here. The trouble is, he has no idea how to go about this. Their whole friendship has always been Jemma's doing: Jemma approaching him at orientation, Jemma inviting him out to concerts and movies, Jemma appearing at his door with an armful of textbooks and biscuits for study night, Jemma dragging him onto Coulson's team. He's not good at initiating friendships. In fact he's not good at friendships at all; his lifelong list consists of Jemma, Mack, and a few nerds and outcasts in primary school, before the teachers discovered he was a genius and whisked him off to a lifetime of special schools and programs. And Skye, he supposes, although, as with Jemma and Mack, that was none of his doing.
And if he's still not entirely sure how he ended up friends with Jemma in the first place, how in the world is he supposed to rekindle that friendship? More to the point, how is he supposed to know whether she wants that friendship rekindled? He used to know everything she was thinking before she realized she was thinking it, but they've been out of sync since he woke up from his coma. Sometimes she'll say something in a certain tone, or he'll catch her looking at him from across the room like she wants something from him but doesn't know how to ask for it, and he'll think maybe she wants their old friendship back. But then so much of the time she's polite and professional and a bit distant, like she'd be with any other agent. He doesn't know which version of her is real and which version is the result of his imagination or misinterpretation.
Case in point: his first few days in the lab. He sees her at breakfast on his first day, and she pauses in front of him on her way out of the room. "You're coming to the lab today, right?" she asks.
She hesitates, then gives him a small smile. "Good."
Now what does that mean? The question plagues him all morning, but he doesn't get to find out because when he arrives in the lab at one o'clock, she goes back to being Professional Simmons: she gives him his login info for the lab computers, shows him where her research notes and files are stored, and then says "I'll let you familiarize yourself with our work so far" and disappears into a far corner of the lab, not one more word said to him. And even that is more interaction than they have on the second day, when she doesn't talk to him even once, tucking herself away in a corner of the lab and spending the whole day peering at microscopes and computer screens.
By the third day he's tired of this, and hurt—does she hate having him in the lab so much that she refuses to even talk to him while he's here?—and also he's finished poring over every word and chart and graph of her research and is now officially bored. He's in the process of deciding how to approach her about their next step (which he has some opinions about; Jemma's doing brilliant work and he has a few ideas about directions to take her experiments in) when Dr. Adarkwa steps in.
"Ah, finished reading?" she asks Fitz. "Good, come help me with these samples. My eyes aren't as good as they used to be."
He feels Jemma's eyes on him as he follows Dr. Adarkwa to a lab counter where she has a number of test tubes waiting, along with a pipette and a vial of a dark substance. What she wants is simple: 50 microliters to each tube. It's a easy task—beginning chemistry class stuff—but he unconsciously flexes his bad hand. "You sure you want my help?" he asks her, wondering how much she knows about his accident.
Apparently she knows a lot. "I'm confident you can do it," she says. "Coulson has told me about the incredible strides you've made since your coma."
And he smiles. The old him would have found it an insultingly easy assignment, but the new him is simply glad to be asked. And he's glad to help Dr. Adarkwa.
They've both just finished putting on gloves when Dr. Adarkwa's phone beeps. She glances at it, then smiles apologetically at Fitz. "You finish this," she says. "I'll be right back." And she hurries outside the lab.
Fitz starts the process—attaching a tip to the pipette, setting the volume measurement, inserting the tip into the liquid—and very quickly falls into a rhythm. It's been a long time since he's done simple lab work like this, and it feels comforting, like reading a book he loved as a child. It's slow going, because he doesn't trust his bad hand for much, but he's enjoying himself nonetheless.
After filling his first few test tubes, he hears movement behind him, and then soft footsteps approaching. It's got to be Jemma—no one else in there—probably walking past him to the door; he ignores her and focuses on what he's doing. But she's not going past him to the door, she's pausing next to him. He dares a glance upward and sees that she's watching him with a slight smile on her face.
He looks away. "Can I—help you?" he asks finally, when she doesn't move.
"No, I was just—I'd been going to get a drink, but I wanted to say, don't worry, we won't just make you fill test tubes while you're in here."
The ghost of a smile touches his face. "I don't mind." He doesn't say anything else, and neither does she, but she also doesn't move, either. She just stands there, watching, as he goes back to his pipette, and it very quickly starts to make him nervous. What is she doing? Is she observing him to decide whether she'll be able to trust him with serious work some day? Is she thinking about what a fall from grace he's had—from making earth-changing discoveries to doing entry-level lab assistant work in a single year? I'm better than you think I am, he wants to tell her. I'm not the tragic lost cause you keep assuming I must be.
His bad hand starts to shake as his whole spine tenses up, anxious and stressed under her scrutiny. And then—this only happens when he's quite worked up, and he hates it most of all—his good hand joins in as well, leaving him useless. He's in the process of trying to think of a way to tell her to go away without being rude when his trembling hand contacts the vial and knocks it from the table. He winces and closes his eyes and waits for the crash.
"Oh, Fitz!" Simmons sounds angry and exasperated. "Two weeks of work!"
He looks down at the mess of glass in the sink and grimaces. They'll have to start their project over and it's all his fault for not paying attention. But he can't say that; he's always had a stubborn streak a mile wide. "Well, maybe you should have been in here helping me instead of swanning around campus."
"They needed another student for the visit! You know that!"
"It was that important that you go play tour guide to some muckity muck?"
"It was Alexander Pierce!" She is clearly well and thoroughly annoyed by now. "He's a legend."
"So that was reason enough to abandon me?"
"You're plenty old enough to keep yourself from breaking things when I'm not around to babysit you," she snaps. "And don't try to pretend that this is somehow my fault. You screwed up. This was all you. You've ruined our final project and if I get my first bad grade because of you—"
"Yes, I get it, I'm a screw up!" he shouts. "You win. Do you feel better that you've made me say that?"
She stares at him, and then she walks wordlessly out of the room. He stares down into the sink, at the broken glass and the two weeks of wasted work, and his anger drains away and he immediately regrets what he's done. He's never had a fight with a friend before—never had a friend long enough to fight with them—and he has no idea what happens now. Do they stop being friends? He can't lose Simmons. She's made this last year bearable—no, she's made it wonderful. If she's what having a best friend is like, then he can't believe he waited until he was 17 to try it out.
Spurred on by the fear that this fight will damage something beyond repair, he jogs to the door, eager to catch her. But it opens before he reaches it, and there she is, looking guilty. They stare at each other a long moment, then both speak at the same time. "I'm sorry."
"You've got nothing to be sorry for," he says quickly. "You were right, I wasn't paying attention."
"Of course I was right," she says in that forthright manner that simultaneously annoys and amuses him. "But I didn't have to be so rude about it."
Hesitantly he smiles, and she smiles back.
"Oh, Fitz!" The vial crashes to the floor, spilling its contents across the tile. Jemma's in motion before he has a chance to blink, grabbing the spill kit from the closet and hurrying back to sprinkle absorbent over the liquid. He wouldn't have done any good anyway, even if he had reached the spill kit in time, because his humiliation has made his hands shake worse than ever and he doesn't think he could control them right now to save his life. "You've got to be careful," she scolds, as though he's a child and doesn't realize how dangerous chemicals can be. "SHIELD's operating on a very tight budget and our supplies are limited; we'll have to order more in, though I don't know where we'll get the budget for it. And this could set Dr. Adarkwa back days on her experiment."
"I get it!" he snaps. He does get it. He's screwed up yet again, Fitz the fallen genius with the broken mind and the shaking hands. Fitz the former golden boy who now can't even finish the simplest of tasks. He's set back their research, and he's inconvenienced Dr. Adarkwa, and he's embarrassed himself in front of Jemma yet again; they've already stopped being friends, and now he's proven to her that he's not even useful as a lab partner. And he's tired of being embarrassed, tired of being a useless invalid surrounded by reminders of what he could have been, and the thought crosses his mind—brief, but still there—that if this is what she was bringing him back to, maybe Jemma should have left him in that pod.
And with all this emotion coursing through him, he can't help opening his mouth and choking out, "You don't have to—if you hadn't been—lurking over here . . . why can't you—do your, your own work and just—leave me alone!"
His words hang in the air between them as she grows still. Then she slowly straightens up from where she's been crouched over the spill, and he sees that her eyes are suspiciously bright. Has he made her cry? Part of him wants to apologize, and part of him wonders if there's any point in doing that, but all of him knows that if he tried right now, he'd never get the words out.
She swallows a hard a few times, then lifts her chin. "Can you finish cleaning this?" she asks quietly, and her voice is mostly steady.
He nods mutely, and she leaves the room quickly.
He doesn't turn to watch her go, but when he hears the door shut behind her, he hangs his head. He's been trying to figure out a way to convince her that he's a better man than she currently takes him for. But right now he's not sure that's true.
. . . . . .
Let's go down to the rides on East Parade,
By the lights of the Palace Arcade
And watch night coming down on the Sovereign Light Café
There's a spot on the top floor of the base where Coulson has established a memorial to fallen agents. Of course, that just means agents of the new SHIELD; if they tried to make a memorial for those who fell during the Hydra uprising, there wouldn't be enough wall space in the whole base. So this one just has two pictures: Isabella Hartley and Trip. Looking at Trip's smiling face up on that wall still feels like a punch in the gut to Fitz; Hartley was a stranger, but Trip was a friend, a vibrant young man with a lifetime ahead of him. It makes the whole hallway feel melancholy, but Fitz still comes up here often: everyone avoids this area, perhaps all feeling that same sense of sorrow (with SHIELD so small, the loss of one of their own feels especially huge) so it's one of the few places he can be sure to be alone.
And he needs to be alone right now, to sort through his jumbled feelings. It's been a day since he and Jemma fought in the lab. She didn't come back yesterday after leaving him standing over the spill, and while she did come back in today, she didn't speak to him or even look at him; instead she squirreled herself away in her corner and he worked with Dr. Adarkwa. He's been hurt and embarrassed and angry and apologetic all day. And it wasn't until Jemma had finished up her work day and gone to dinner that it had suddenly occurred to him, out of nowhere, that she'd asked him to finish cleaning up the chemical spill. It was only so she could get away from him sooner, but still, it means that either she wasn't thinking at all or that she trusted him and his shaky hands and his mind like a sieve to correctly deal with a potential hazard. Maybe she doesn't think he's completely useless.
The thought lingered at the back of his mind all through dinner until he couldn't stand it anymore, so he came up here to the memorial hall to think. But really he's not thinking much; he's just staring at Trip's picture.
"If you stare at them long enough, do they ever stare back?"
Fitz jumps and turns to see Bobbi Morse standing nearby. "Sorry," she smiles. "Didn't mean to scare you. I just wanted to stretch my legs and ended up here. Never seen this place before."
Fitz gestures at the pictures. "Memorial," he says.
"I see," says Bobbi, taking a seat next to Fitz without asking his permission (truth be told, he likes that about Bobbi; she just does what she wants to do). "What are you doing up here?"
He shrugs. "Need a place . . . to think."
She nods her understanding. They sit quietly together a few moments, staring across the hallway at the two pictures bathed in the light from the setting sun. "Izzy was a good friend of mine," Bobbi says after a while. "You always know what you risk by joining SHIELD, but that never makes it easier to lose a friend."
"Trip was—the first friend I lost."
Bobbi hesitates, then says gently, not looking at him, "I think you've lost more than that."
Fitz looks down.
"The first person I lost was Lance," she says. "He said I kept too many secrets. I told him that's what happens when you marry a spy. He said that maybe he shouldn't have married a spy, then."
Fitz wonders how he came to be chatting so openly, one on one, with the Bobbi Morse. "I'm sorry."
She shrugs. "He's back in my life now. And before that . . . it's the job. I knew the risks when I joined. And I was okay with them because I believed—I believe—in what SHIELD's trying to do."
He hesitates, practicing his sentence a few times before speaking. "Why are you telling me this?"
And Bobbi smiles that smile that has half the base half in love with her. "You've lost a lot too. And I admire the way you've carried on. I always admire strength. I wanted to let you know that the things you lose—it gets better, eventually."
If Fitz were braver, and if he had full control of his verbal faculties, he would have pressed her on this. He knows that she's close to Jemma, and he could have asked if his former best friend has ever mentioned him and whether Bobbi knows how Jemma feels about him right now. But this is the actual Mockingbird, not to mention a tall beautiful woman he doesn't know that well, and he's not brave enough to bring it up.
Eventually Bobbi says, nodding at the wall, "He was a good guy."
"You bet I am," Trip laughs, and lays down his hand: full house.
Skye groans and flops back on the hotel bed, and Simmons drops her cards to the bed with a sigh, and Trip chuckles again. "I've been telling you all along I was going to win this hand."
"I thought it was some kind of double bluff," says Skye. "You have a crappy hand, but you tell us you have a good hand . . ."
Skye's really just a terrible poker player, but Fitz doesn't comment. This rare moment of happiness between the four of them feels so delicate, like the tiniest thing could pop the bubble around them and remind them that they're on the run from Hydra and the government, that Ward and Garrett have betrayed them all, that they're living out of hotels and praying that Coulson figures out what to do next. The last thing he wants to do is be the one who drags the mood down.
Trip is raking the pot toward himself. "$4.25 in quarters. Not bad. It could be even more if you'd stop folding, Fitz."
Fitz shrugs. "Sorry. Scottish. Famously stingy, us."
"Oh my goodness, yes," says Simmons. "There was this time at the Academy where Fitz didn't want to pay for the laundromat . . ." And she's off telling the story—one of her favorites about Fitz, one she's told a hundred times before—and the bubble feels less fragile for a moment. This is so normal, hanging out with Simmons, listening to her tell some funny story, her voice taking on its old enthusiasm. For that brief moment, he doesn't feel like the world is about to fall apart around him. It's just a game of cards with friends and the girl he loves.
Trip gets up then and disappears outside for a minute. When he returns, they see that he's used his winnings to buy them all crisps from the vending machine. "Thought y'all could use some snacks."
And there it is, that smile that Simmons has been giving Trip occasionally lately, the one that Fitz always notices because it always makes him feel slightly sick to his stomach. "So generous of you," she says to Trip. Trip flashes his perfect smile back at her. And the bubble feels fragile again.
"He was a good guy," Fitz agrees, but he feels uncomfortable saying it. He's been uncomfortable with any mention of Trip since his death, because when he hears that name he always feels crushing guilt over the fact that he used to wish Trip wasn't part of their team anymore, so he'd stop flirting with Jemma. Of course Fitz didn't mean for a moment that he ever wished actual harm to the man, and even if he did, it's not like he can control events just with his feelings, but still, he feels guilty (after all, if there's anything he's learned recently it's that negative feelings aren't often rational).
Beside him Bobbi nods silently, and Fitz fights back a sigh. Trip didn't deserve to die, but there's been a lot of things happening lately that people didn't deserve. Fitz looks at the sunlight fading slowly over his friend's picture and thinks that maybe he needs to find a new place to think.
. . . . . .
Let's go down to the bandstand on the pier
Watch the drunks and the lovers appear
To take turns as the stars of the Sovereign Light Café
A few days later, he talks to Skye for the first time since San Juan. Well, he saw her just after she came up out of that city, and talked briefly to her then, but this is the first time he's really sat down with her. She's been kept in isolation for the two weeks since then, at whose insistence he doesn't know—although he wouldn't be surprised to find out it was her own. From what he's heard, she isn't coping well with what happened.
When he arrived at the lab today, Jemma told him, as painfully polite as ever, that he ought to go talk to Skye, tell her about his plan to build her a room to practice in, and that she'd follow later to take Skye's vitals and draw some more blood. She's been even more distant than she used to be since he yelled at her, and he's kicking himself because he didn't mean it, he doesn't want her to leave him alone, but he can't find the words to tell her that.
Skye's been staying in an isolated bunk over by the storage rooms, clearly wanting to be as far away from other people as possible. According to Jemma, she hasn't come out much in the last two weeks, waiting for the science division to give her some answers before she's willing to leave the room and endanger other people. So Fitz doesn't know if it's just because she's lonely or bored, but when she sees him at her door, her somber face breaks into a smile a mile wide.
It feels like it's been forever and automatically he steps forward to hug her—he would have been afraid to do that back when they lived on the plane, but surviving the Hydra uprising together changed things between all of them—and she steps backward. "I wish I could hug you, Fitz," she says apologetically. "I wish I could touch anyone. But just in case, I don't want to until we know what's going on."
He nods in understanding and enters the room. It's a double, with a bed on either wall. He sits on the unused one while she sits on the one that is obviously hers, from the personal effects around it. It's messy and unmade, and her hair is a wild tangle, and as he looks closer at her bleary eyes he realizes he's woken her up. "Were you . . . napping?"
She nods and gestures at her laptop. "Up late last night. I've been reading everything I can about earthquakes and seismic waves and stuff. I was up until . . . late." She smiles again, and it's a little like how she used to smile. "So why are you here?" she asks.
He's rehearsed this speech all the way over here so he can give it with a minimum of stuttering. "Coulson assigned me to build . . . build an earthquake-proof room where you—can test out your new ability."
A smile ghosts across her face. "Sounds like Coulson. He acts like this is making me some kind of superhero."
"You don't—want to be?"
She shrugs, a small, tired movement. "I do want to learn to control my . . . whatever this is, so I'm not such a danger. And I guess if doing that turned into a way to help SHIELD, I'd be happy with that. I just . . . it's been hard to feel enthusiastic about much lately. You know, with Trip. Seeing my father. Finding out I'm some kind of non-human. And I'm tired of being in this room alone." Her words are interrupted by the biggest yawn Fitz has ever seen.
"I should leave. Let you . . . go back to your nap."
"No," she says quickly. "It's good to see a friendly face." But she's fading even as she says it; he can see her body trying to sink back into the soft blankets against her will.
"You look—how about I . . . I stay until you fall back to sleep."
She smiles. "Thank you, Fitz," she says, and settles back into her bed.
Fitz fluffs up the pillow (a lot of good it does him—SHIELD is not famous for their comfortable bedding) and leans back against the headboard. Truth be told, he's tired too, and the silence in the room, punctuated only by Skye's breathing, is soothing, lulling him into that half-dreamy state before sleep. Skye turns her head to smile at him, and he smiles sleepily back.
After a while, Skye's voice fills the air. "I should have asked you, how have you been?"
He shrugs. "Same as always. Worried about . . . pretty much everything. Trying to remember things. Can't open pickle jars." That was, for him, a very well delivered string of sentences. It's because he's so relaxed, and because Skye is fairly non-threatening. She's never exacerbated his problems the way Jemma and May and sometimes Coulson do.
Skye snickers softly at the pickle jar line. "You seeing Simmons much these days?"
He swallows hard, then nods. "Working with her on—researching you. Coulson assigned me."
Skye appears to consider this, then asks carefully, "You two . . . okay?"
No, not remotely. He doesn't know how to say this, but fortunately, Skye seems to interpret his silence correctly. "I'm sorry."
"She either ignores me or gets upset with me or . . . fusses like a, like I'm a child. And she wants me to be the old . . . the old me, so badly. And I'm not. I never will be. So she always seems disappointed."
He's been studiously avoiding Skye's eyes while he says this, but now he glances over and sees that she's staring at him, her expression pained. "Fitz, I'm sorry."
He nods, and they sit together in silence until Skye's eyes flutter closed, and his own eyes feel heavy. He's just going to rest them, just for a second—
"Oh, Fitz," says Simmons fondly. "How long have you been sleeping here?"
Fitz wakes up with a start, and gingerly pushes himself up off the lab table. "What time is it?" he asks, rubbing his face.
"Morning," she chuckles.
"Oh," he says. "Then, a while."
"I figured." She gestures at him with the bag in her hand. "I brought tea. And a bit of breakfast."
His stomach chooses that moment to growl loudly. "Simmons, you are my absolute favorite person in the world," he says fervently. And then he freezes. He's never said something quite that overtly affectionate to her before; they've only been calling each other "friends" for a matter of months now.
The thing is, it's true, though. After his mum (and mums don't count when making rankings like this, because of course they're always number one), Jemma Simmons is his favorite person, the only person whose face he's ever interested in seeing when there's a knock on his door, the first person he thinks of when he needs to talk, his only friend. He worries, though, that saying that aloud is coming on too strong, and he'll scare her away.
When he looks at her, she just looks pleased with herself. "I know," she smiles, and begins sorting through the bag, handing him a napkin and a cup and a muffin.
Fitz tears into his muffin immediately; now that he thinks of it, he forgot to eat dinner last night, so excited was he about his breakthrough on his bullet design. He downs the whole thing in seconds, then hears Simmons scoff.
"You have absolutely appalling table manners," she tells him with a grin.
He wipes the crumbs from his face self-consciously.
She chuckles and reaches out to ruffle his hair affectionately. "Leopold Fitz, you are my favorite person in the world too."
Fitz is woken slowly from his dream by the sound of voices. At some point in his nap he slid down from his seated position and curled up on the bed, facing the wall, and now he's too comfortable to move, so he stays where he is, eyes still closed. All of this means that his companions don't realize he's awake and they keep talking, and without meaning to he finds himself eavesdropping.
"I asked him to stay," Skye is saying. "I was just seriously sick of being alone. And we were both really tired."
"I can see that." It's Jemma.
"Don't be mad at him," Skye says.
When Jemma speaks, she sounds surprised. "Why would I be mad at him?"
"I don't know," says Skye. "From what he's said, you've been upset with him a lot lately."
Fitz winces, wishing Skye hadn't said that . . . but also a little glad she did. He wishes he could see Jemma's face right now. "Right arm," she says, and he supposes she's drawing Skye's blood. There's silence for so long after that that he thinks maybe she's not going to reply to Skye's comment, but after a while she says, "He spilled chemicals in the lab the other day. I didn't mean for it to sound like I was scolding him, but I think it did anyway." She sighs. "I don't know what to do about him anymore. Everything I do or say is wrong. If I try to give him space, he's angry. If I try to stay close, he's angry. I don't know what he wants from me."
Skye's answer is prompt. "He wants his best friend back. Take it from someone who now knows what it's like to be treated like she's made of glass: it sucks. All I want is for people to treat me like a person again. I'm pretty sure Fitz feels the same way."
"I do treat him like a person!" Jemma says indignantly.
"Like the person he is now or the person you wish he still was?"
Fitz waits on tenterhooks for the answer, but Jemma is silent. After a few seconds, her phone beeps. "I'm needed. I'll be back to finish later." There's the sound of her putting things in her bag, and then she says quietly. "I'll think about what you said. About Fitz." Then the door opens and closes and Jemma is gone.
Fitz lays there, still holding perfectly still, wondering how long he has to keep up this charade of being asleep, wondering if Jemma really will think about what Skye said.
"You're can stop pretending you're asleep," says Skye.
Fitz jumps, then turns to look at her. "How did you—"
She shrugs. "Your breathing pattern changed. This—thing—" she gestures at herself— "makes me more aware of sounds and vibrations."
"Guess I'd better—not try to fool you in the future," he chuckles. The he pauses. "Wait, if you knew—then that whole . . . that whole . . ."
"Yep," Skye says with a wry smile. "That whole conversation was for your benefit."
He squirms uncomfortably. "Why?"
Skye's smile turns a little sad. "I'm rooting for you two. You guys used to practically be the same person. If you can't work out your problems and be friends again, there's no hope for anyone in the world to be happy." A hint of mirth dances across her face. "And it would really make me happy if the two of you . . . you know." She winks.
He sits up on the bed, rubbing the back of his neck. "It's complicated."
Something flashes across Skye's face, something dark and sad. "Everything's complicated," she says, her voice sharper than before. "Fitz, look at me. I'm a monster. I'm afraid to touch anyone, and I'm living in this little corner of this base, and I've never felt so alone in my life—which is saying something, considering I used to live in a van. The last guy who meant anything to me turned out to be a psycho killer Nazi. Miles betrayed me. My father is a complete whack job and a homicidal maniac. So forgive me if you and Simmons' communication problems don't seem quite as impossible to me as they do to you." She fixes him with a look. "Think about all the people in the world who are separated forever from the people they love, and then go do something about the fact that you're not one of them."
Fitz's face burns. "Jemma . . . Jemma doesn't love me."
Skye shrugs. "I don't know how she feels about you. But I am certain that she wants to be friends again. Start there."
Fitz sits in silence a long few moments, staring down at his hands. "I'll think about it," he hedges.
Skye makes an exasperated sound and throws a pillow at his head.
. . . . . .
I wheel my bike off the train,
Up the North Trade Road
And look for you on Marley Lane
In every building, in every street sign
Oh, why did we ever go
So far from home?
But he wasn't lying. He does think about it, often, for the next two days. It's a weekend so he doesn't see Jemma at all; he's not technically required to go into the lab on the weekend, so he hangs out in Mack's garage. He'd like to visit Mack, or Skye, but he has a feeling that both of them would insist that he work on the Jemma situation, and he prefers to avoid those conversations.
He can't avoid thinking about those conversations, though, and he especially can't avoid thinking about what Jemma said to Skye: Everything I do or say is wrong. If I try to give him space, he's angry. If I try to stay close, he's angry. I don't know what he wants from me. At first he scoffs at those words; he's been perfectly reasonable this whole time, he feels, and it's her who's been difficult: changeable, high strung, giving up on him way too easily.
But then Sunday comes. That Sunday is a special day: it's Fitz's mum's birthday. And for the first time since before he can remember, he has no contact with her at all that day: no visit, no gift sent, not even a phone call, because as far as she's aware he's missing and presumed dead and he's not allowed to disabuse her of that notion. And that reminder of his separation from her creeps in on his mind all day, and it wakes up other thoughts that he usually ignores—that he has maybe three friends in the world and one's avoiding him and two are medically incapacitated, and that he gave up his life for an organization that no longer has a use for him—and these combine to form a dark sadness that grows bigger and bigger in his chest until he's sitting on his bed almost gasping for air because he's never felt so alone in his whole life. He leans his head back against the wall and wonders why he doesn't just leave SHIELD . . . but he can't. He has nowhere to go, no way to get a job, no family and friends who don't think he's dead, and Hydra will find him if he uses his real name or has contact with anyone in his old life. He is entirely alone.
And in that moment of absolute darkness, he turns his head and sees a picture on his dresser, nearly covered up by the piles of clutter there but still holding pride of place in the center, of him and Jemma—back in better days, of course, smiling and laughing with their arms around each others' waists. And he stops, and he stares, and then he starts thinking. He thinks of what Jemma said, that he acts like everything she does is wrong. He imagines things from her side: she tries to show concern for him, and he snaps at her. She tries to avoid showing concern for him, and he gets hurt and sulky. She tries to finish his sentences like she used to, and he tells her off.
She's right, he's been awful.
She's been awful too, in a lot of ways; she keeps refusing to admit that anything has changed and has not been particularly understanding of his new reality. But it's not just her that's the problem, he can see that now. And maybe, if he tells her that . . .
He sits on his bed another twenty minutes, building up his courage, practicing what he wants to say. And then he gets up off his bed and sets off into the base to look for her.
But she's not in her bunk, and she's not in the lab, and she's not in the mess hall. She's not even in Skye's bunk, and by the time he's ascertained this, he's starting to get nervous. He's made himself so certain that he needs to talk to her, and he's prepared himself for it, but now he can feel his courage slipping away by the second. He doesn't want to wait; he wants to do this now, while he's still brave, while he still knows what to say . . . he breaks into a run. She's not in Coulson's office. She's not in the garage. She's still not in her lab. She's not in the gym. He's growing tired but he doesn't slow because as his courage slips away his sudden burst of hope slips away too, and it's like she's slipping away . . .
"Jemma! Jemma, no!" He can't get the stupid door open because his hands are shaking and he doesn't dare take his eyes off the figure by the cargo door, terrified that if he looks away it'll be the last time he ever sees her.
But it doesn't matter. She looks back at him, her eyes red-rimmed from more than just the virus, her figure silhouetted against the bright light outside, and though it's hard to tell from this distance he thinks she gives him just the tiniest shaky smile. And then she falls.
Finally the door opens and he grabs the antiserum and rushes out to find a parachute, barely able to hear anything over the rushing of the wind outside and the voice in his head that keeps repeating No, no, no, no . . . He has no idea how jump out of a plane or operate a parachute and a tiny part of him is pointing out that there's a good chance he'll die if he goes after her. But the rest of him is ignoring that tiny part. Because Jemma Simmons is his best friend in the world, and it's far better to risk both of them dying than to stand here uselessly, salvation in his hand, while the most important person in his life dies alone and frightened somewhere in a vast blue ocean.
But it turns out he doesn't have to find out whether he can skydive because Grant Ward appears out of nowhere and jumps without putting his parachute on like the super spy he is. And Fitz is left behind to wait, to worry, to wonder if he's lost her, and Ward too. He paces endlessly, badgering the others constantly until the tracking beacon in the parachute pack is activated and Coulson makes arrangements to have them picked up. When they receive radio confirmation that both their comrades are all right, he sits hard on the nearest chair, his legs having given out.
But it's not until they're sitting side by side in his bunk that he finally relaxes. Simmons is safe, and she isn't upset with him for not coming after her or not realizing quicker than the antiserum had worked. In fact she says he's a hero, that he gave her hope when she'd lost it herself. He wants to tell her that he's glad he had the chance to be her support because she's done it for him a thousand times. He wants to tell her that he would gladly have risked death if doing so meant she had a chance at life. But he can't find the words.
And then she kisses his cheek. It's a simple, affectionate gesture, one she's given him before, but somehow this one feels different. Somehow he finds himself completely distracted by the memory of it, for hours and days after. And it's not long before he realizes that he has a new secret he wishes he had the words to tell her.
The flash of memory spurs him on, keeps running through the fatigue, and makes him wonder how things got so bad. He once nearly threw himself out of a plane for her; she once did throw herself out of a plane to save him and the rest of the team. Surely talking to each other is easier than dying for each other.
The third time he checks the lab, she's just leaving it.
"Ah, Fitz, there you are," she says cordially and a bit hesitantly. "I've been looking for you."
He blinks in surprise. "Me too. Guess we kept—missing each other."
"You were looking for me? Why?"
But he can't speak now; he's winded and his hands are shaking terribly from the strain and he's so surprised and flustered to see her that he's entirely forgotten his speech. He shakes his head. "You first," he says, and tries to slow his loud, gasping breaths.
She looks at him a bit curiously—he does look like he's just run a footrace, which is definitely not normal behavior for him—but then seems to acquiesce. "Well, I wanted to . . . talk to you. See how you're doing. Since . . . you're missing your mum's birthday."
She remembered. She remembered, and she worried about him. Fitz stares at her, and then he finds himself smiling—just the tiniest turning up of the corners of his mouth. She smiles cautiously back.
"I—" he says, and then is cut off by a fit of coughing, his throat brick dry from all that running.
"Water?" Jemma asks hesitantly when the coughing doesn't abate.
In response, he strides quickly to the water cooler down the hall, Jemma trailing slowly after him like a parade balloon. He's got to get his coughing under control before she goes back into fussing mode, or just gets tired of waiting and leaves. But in his haste, he knocks the stack of plastic cups off the top of the tank when he tries to remove one.
"Oh dear!" Jemma's immediate reaction is to start picking up the spilled cups, but then she stops. "Sorry," she says. "I don't mean to—I'm not upset with you—I'm just trying—" She drops the cups she's already picked up and backs away, her face the perfect picture of embarrassment and discomfort. And for the first time in a long time he feels like he's seeing the Jemma he knows and loves, not the professional mask she's been wearing since she came back from Hydra.
He quickly gets some water and downs it quickly. "It's all right," he says when the coughing has stopped, and kneels down to start picking up the cups. She kneels too, and in silence they clean up his mess. But he's going slow, forced to work one-handed by the fact that his right hand is still shaking like a leaf. He doesn't think much of it—this happens all the time—but he can see Jemma shooting looks at where he's got it pressed up against his chest to try to slow the shaking. Eventually her cup gathering slows, and then stops, and as he watches her curiously, she closes her eyes but can't stop the tears from leaking out from under her eyelids.
"Jemma?" he asks hesitantly.
She opens her eyes, but this means she's now crying in earnest. "I'm sorry, Fitz."
"I should be . . . be apologizing," he says. "I knocked them—"
"No," she says emphatically. "I'm sorry . . ." She reaches out as though to touch his bad hand, then stops herself. "I'm sorry about . . . this." She hesitates, her hands clenched tightly in her lap, and Fitz takes a moment to hope no one comes down the hall to ask why they're kneeling together on the floor. "It's my fault. All of this. Everything you've been through."
There is silence a long moment while Fitz blinks a few times. "What? Jemma, it's Ward's fault. No one else's." He's so surprised that he doesn't notice that he's just spoken much more easily to her than normal.
She gives a shaky laugh. "Yes, I know but—if only I'd been a better swimmer. Or I'd come up with some way to share the oxygen . . ." She wipes a few tears from her face. "You have no idea how much time I've spent since then going over everything I could have done differently. If I'd thought of a better place to hide than the pod, or if I'd gotten you up to the surface faster—"
He's been staring at her in shock, but at that he shakes his head. "The only reason I'm—alive at all is that you're such—such a good swimmer."
She gives him a sad, fond smile. "I know. But then I think . . . none of this ever would have happened to you if I hadn't insisted that you join Coulson's team. You're suffering now—you might suffer forever—because I just had to see the world and I had to drag you with me. I promised you wouldn't get hurt, and I broke that promise. It's my fault you're like this and the only thing in the world I care about doing is making it better but I don't know how." By the time she finishes her sentence, the tears have started again. He wishes he had a handkerchief to offer.
"I tried to be supportive, and then when it seemed like my being around just makes you worse I left so you could get better on your own, but I felt terrible for abandoning you, and, well, I get the feeling you rather agreed it was terrible of me, but now that I'm back I don't know what to do. I don't know how to be here for you. I don't know how to fix this." Her hands are no longer sufficient, apparently, because she's started wiping her tears with her sleeves instead.
Fitz stares at her, carefully choosing his words—not just because it helps him speak clearer, but because he thinks this moment could change everything between them. It could change both their lives. Then he says, "I don't want you . . . to fix this."
She looks up, surprised.
"I know I'm—I'm broken. And I'm getting better . . . slowly. But it's not—not your job to fix me. All I want from you is . . . is to be my friend. And that means not trying to . . . make me like I used to be. I just want you—to be okay with—who I am now."
She stares, tears dripping from her chin.
And he thinks, I've come this far, might as well keep going, and he gives her a shy smile and a shrug. "I miss you," he says.
Jemma breaks into a shaky, tear-filled version of that old affectionate smile she used to give him, one he hasn't seen in months. "I miss you too."
Fitz hesitates, not knowing what to do next, but Jemma takes control: she moves a little closer to him, looks up into his face as though asking permission, then winds her arms around his neck. He quickly puts his around her waist, wondering all the while if she can feel his bad hand shaking. But he doesn't try to hide it. It's who he is now, and if they're going to be friends, she needs to be okay with it.
"I can do that," she says into his shoulder. "I can be friends with who you are now."
He's missed this so much, getting to hold her, even if her tears are soaking his shirt. "It's okay, Jemma," he says when he feels her grip the material of his shirt ever more tightly, pulling it across his shoulders with the force of her shaky embrace. "We're okay."
. . . . . .
Well, you got nothing to hide, you can't change who you really are,
You can get a big house and a faster car
You can run away, boy, but you won't go far.
Things don't automatically get better between them after that. She's still sometimes thoughtless and impatient; he's still sometimes too quick to assume the worst of her. But the difference is that now they're communicating. If she demands something of him that he's currently physically incapable of giving, he only has to give her a certain look for her to apologize and change her behavior. If he get frustrated with her for something he only thinks she's doing, all she has to do is say his name in a certain way and he remembers to put himself in her shoes and quit assuming she intends to hurt him. And after a rough start, they find themselves getting along again, mostly.
And it's changing both their personal and their professional lives. They can talk better now that she's no longer jumping in to finish his sentences; they can collaborate better now that he no longer assumes that any time she watches him over his shoulder, it's because she doesn't trust him to do the job right. They're nothing like as close as they used to be, but it's improvement.
And other people have noticed. Mack is thrilled that his little buddy has his friend back—as thrilled as he can be through the pain meds; Skye is smug because her advice helped—as smug as she ever lets herself be about anything anymore. Dr. Adarkwa and Coulson both seem quite pleased to see them working well together again, and even May smiles when she walks in on them working on the quinjet together. Well, she looks less serious than usual, anyway.
It's a few weeks after their conversation by the water cooler that they first start socializing outside work hours again. At first it's always in the presence of other people—mostly watching The Prisoner with Skye, who's bored enough that she's willing to put up with "your weird old British show." But after a while, sometimes it's just the two of them, watching movies, playing games. Once they even have a lengthy conversation about Twin Peaks—or at least, it goes for a whole forty-five minutes, which is nothing compared to when they were in school and would talk until morning about scientific inaccuracies in popular sci-fi films, but which is a big deal for them now considering that they've barely spoken in the last nine months and that one of them has a great deal of trouble speaking at all.
Six weeks after they finally reconciled, Fitz is going to his bunk late at night after a long visit with Mack when he hears a sound coming from Jemma's bunk as he passes—a sort of teary and incoherent talking that makes him suspect she's having a nightmare. A year ago, he wouldn't have hesitated before barging in there; six months ago, he would have just kept walking. But tonight he hesitates, and then he knocks on the door. The crying doesn't stop, and she gives no indication of having heard him. After a moment of thought, he tries the door and, finding it unlocked, walks in.
"Jemma!" he calls, turning on the light.
Jemma, knotted in her bedsheets with her hair tangled, wakes up with a gasp. She sits up and looks around the room wildly a moment, and then her eyes fall on Fitz and she relaxes. "Fitz, sorry, I was having a nightmare."
"About what?" he asks hesitantly.
She gives him a tired, sad smile. "Guess."
An image flashes before his eyes, of Jemma bathed in blue light talking about the first law of thermodynamics, and his hands clench into fists. "Are you—all right now?"
She shrugs. "As all right as I'm going to be."
"All right, well . . . good night," he says, and turns off the light.
He steps closer to the bed, to see her better in the dim light from her alarm clock.
"Stay with me? Just until I fall asleep?" It's not an unusual request for her; when they were in the Academy, she used to love to watch scary movies but was bad at estimating how much horror she could actually handle, and on more than one occasion she made him sit on her bed with her until she fell asleep. But things have changed a lot since then, and he doesn't think she'd be asking this if she weren't half asleep. But then, aren't they trying to mend bridges right now? So, slowly, he sits on her bed, leaning back against the headboard. She immediately cuddles into his side—more things she probably wouldn't do if she weren't half asleep—and lays her head on his shoulder.
"Seriously? You just sat there on her bed, all night?"
Fitz shrugs. "Seriously."
Alan shakes his head. "I don't understand you," he says. "You spend all day every day with the hottest, smartest girl in the school, and it's never even crossed your mind to . . . you know, do something more than just study?"
It's not entirely accurate to say that it's never crossed Fitz's mind. But he knows that a girl as gorgeous and brilliant as Simmons would never go for him, so to try something would just ruin their friendship, and that's something he wouldn't do for anything. So Fitz shrugs again. "We're friends. You ever just been friends with a girl? You should try it. It's nice."
Alan considers this a moment. "So if you're not going for her, can I?"
Fitz snorts. "Good luck. You've seen the guys she dates. I don't think you're really her type."
"Neither are you," Alan retorts.
"Oh, I know that," says Fitz. "Why do you think we're just friends? And you should probably accept that's the best you'll ever get from her, too."
Alan examines him a long moment, then shakes his head. "Someday, Fitz, you're going to realize that she's the most amazing girl you know. And then you're not going to be so dismissive when I suggest dating her."
Fitz chuckles. "The phrase 'just friends' really means nothing to you, doesn't it?"
Just friends, Fitz thinks wryly. It was true then, but it turns out Alan was right in a way. Fitz has always known that Jemma's the most amazing girl he knows; it's just only been in the last year that the feeling took a romantic turn. And he's not so dismissive of the thought of them dating. Unfortunately, she still is.
And he's okay with that, he really is. It was always a crazy thought, to think that she might go for him, and he'd much rather have her friendship than nothing at all. So he can ignore his feelings for her . . . mostly. Except for times when she squeezes his shoulders or hugs him in celebration of some breakthrough (a habit she's recently picked up again, to his everlasting happiness). Except for when she grabs his hand when he's especially shaky, which she's been doing a lot lately and which is torture every time. Except for right now, when she's reclining sleepily in his arms and if he weren't so afraid of how much it'll hurt to come back to reality, he'd let himself imagine that this is more than a friend comforting a friend after a nightmare.
But he can't. He's been hurt too much already, and he can't do this, and he abruptly stands up.
"Whoa," says Jemma as she falls back on the bed.
"Sorry!" says Fitz. "Thought you were . . . already asleep."
"Nearly," she stretches. "You in such a hurry to get out of here that you dumped me off your shoulder like that?"
Fitz fidgets nervously and says nothing.
She stretches, then gets out of bed and reaches over his shoulder to turn on the light. "I'm wide awake now," she says. "Want to watch something on my laptop?"
He does, really. But that means sitting back on her bed, and it means Jemma laying her head on his shoulder and brushing his arm with hers, and it means Fitz spending the next hour with a dull ache in his chest that comes with knowing that she's never been closer or farther away than she is right now. He can't go through that, not right now, not while his feelings are still so out of control.
"I can't do this, Jemma." He speaks more abruptly than he meant to.
"That's all right," says Jemma. "You probably ought to get to bed anyway."
"No, I mean I can't—do this," Fitz says, gesturing between them. "I'm sorry. I—I hate myself for saying this and for . . . being one of those guys who can't . . . can't just be friends with a girl." She looks surprised and hurt, and he pushes on, "I still want to be your friend. Of course. Of course I do. I'm so happy that we're . . . that we've been getting on so well. But Jemma—" and he looks, embarrassed, up at the corner of the ceiling so he doesn't have to look in her eyes, but he really needs to say this— "I'm still in love with you. And I'm—trying to stop. I really am. But until then, I need you—to stop touching me all the time. I'm sorry. I'm sorry to even ask. But I'm . . . never going to . . . to get over you if you're—touching me all the time."
She is silent, and he dares a glance down at her. She looks shocked and a little embarrassed. "Sorry," he says again. "I should . . . go."
And he ducks out of her bunk and hurries to his, hoping against hope that he hasn't just ruined their friendship again.
. . . . .
Let's go down to the rides on East Parade,
By the lights of the palace arcade
And watch night coming down on the Sovereign Light Café
It turns out that he hasn't ruined their friendship, per se, but he has changed it. They take a small step backward after that night, because Jemma is quite embarrassed for the next few days and then even when she stops being embarrassed she carefully keeps herself physically distant from him and that results in her also keeping herself just a bit personally distant from him. But it turns out he was right: the lack of physical contact makes it easier to work on getting over her. After a week of her keeping a bit of distance, he finally reaches a point where he believes it might be possible, some time in the future, to get over his feelings for her. The distant future, but still, it's a light at the end of the tunnel.
But even with that little setback, this is the happiest Fitz has been since waking up from his coma: he and Jemma are friends again and work together every day; he gets to see Skye often; Mack's pain meds have been dialed back and the doctors think he'll be back on his feet in a few weeks; and Fitz is making great strides in creating the earthquake-proof testing facilities Coulson asked for. So he's surprised and a little sorry when Coulson informs him that he's sending him to Japan for three weeks.
"Japan?" Fitz is baffled.
"Tokyo," Coulson confirms. "I've got a contact there, a scientist who works for a research and design firm that creates earthquake-resistant architecture. He's . . . a little dialed in to what we do here, and very discreet. His help could be invaluable for finishing up this project for Skye. May will be with you for the first week; since she's the one who's got to figure out how to train Skye, we thought she ought to know a little about earthquakes first. You leave in the morning."
A week with May in Japan. Sounds . . . unique. But it also sounds like an excellent opportunity to increase his knowledge in a field he was only somewhat familiar with even before his neurological damage. So Fitz agrees.
Mack and Skye both think the trip sounds like fun, which Fitz finds encouraging. It's only Jemma's response that makes him a little sad to leave.
"Three weeks?" she repeats, sounding surprised. "That's . . . so long."
"Not long at all," he says, shouldering his backpack. The plane leaves in an hour; he didn't tell Jemma about it until just now because it feels like something that could shake things up between them, and he's not ready for that just yet. "I'll be back in . . . I'll be back soon. And we can—e-mail. Or call."
She looks at the backpack and smiles a little. "This feels familiar," she says. "If I'd known, I could have made you a sandwich."
He grins at the memory. "Prosciutto and buffalo—buffalo mozzarella and—"
"Just a hint of pesto aioli." It's the first time in a long time that she's finished his sentence and it hasn't bothered him.
He wants to hug her goodbye then, but after their conversation about touching, he knows he can't without sending mixed signals. So he simply says goodbye, and it feels absurdly unsatisfying. Still, nothing to do for it now, nothing but stand there awkwardly while she gives him a look he can't decipher.
"Are you sure you'll be all right traveling on your own for so long?" Simmons asks, and it's a mix of her usual teasing and a bit of actual concern.
"I'll be fine," Fitz assures her. "Dr. Ko arranged for someone he knows to meet me at the airport, and they're going to take me right to the conference center."
"That's good," she says. "I know how terrible you are at navigating airports and subways."
"Terrible?" he repeats in mock outrage. "I've been flying back and forth across the ocean for Christmas and summer holidays for ages now, thank you very much."
"With me," she points out with a grin. "When was the last time you went anywhere without me?"
Fitz blinks, surprised, and then his expression turns thoughtful. She's right, he hasn't gone anywhere without her since they met; even that first year, when they were only just becoming friends by the time Christmas rolled around, they still booked their flights as far as Heathrow together because then they wouldn't have to sit next to strangers. And Simmons smirks because she knows she's right.
"All the more reason for me to go this conference," Fitz says. "I've got to learn to be without you sometime."
And Simmons reaches out and fiddles with the zipper pull on the suitcase he's got open on his bed, her expression suddenly a bit shy. "Just don't get too used to it, all right?"
And it still amazes Fitz, after all these years, to know that Jemma Simmons wants him in her life just as much as he wants her in his. He smiles and leans down to drop a kiss on the top of her head. "Never," he promises.
Tokyo, as it turns out, is fascinating. Incredible modern architecture, a breathtakingly sophisticated train system, electronics stores like nothing he's ever seen . . . he can't believe he waited this long to come here. He's always been skeptical of Jemma's need to see the world, but it occurs to him now that he might have been missing out. And his time spent with Dr. Sugihara is incredibly illuminating. The man is an absolute genius, and just observing him and his team is blowing Fitz's mind; when he gets back to SHIELD, his room for Skye is going to be groundbreaking. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
And as it also turns out, May loves Tokyo, having apparently spent a long time here on a mission once. Fitz had fully intended to spend each evening after leaving Sugihara's office in his hotel room, but for the week that she's there, May drags him out on the town each night (well, to be precise, she knocks on his door each night at 6:00, raises one deadly eyebrow and says flatly, "Are you coming with me?"). They eat incredible and sometimes terrifying food, they drink in futuristic-looking bars, and they walk through bustling markets, and if you'd told Fitz a year ago that he'd be doing the tourist thing with the Cavalry, he'd never have believed you but here they are.
(They talk little during these outings—which suits Fitz just fine—and he gets the sense that she's dragging him out of his hotel room for his sake, not hers. He wonders if Coulson warned her not to get too lost in his own head while he's away, or if May chose to do this of her own volition. Either way, it might have annoyed him if it was anyone but May; he hates feeling like he's a project. But you don't question it when the Cavalry asks if you want to go get sushi.)
May goes home after the first week, bidding him goodbye with a rare smile. Once she's gone, he finds he's now comfortable enough with the city that he continues to go out in the evenings. He doesn't speak Japanese, of course, and while it's never hard to find someone who speaks English, he doesn't speak English that well anymore either. So he mostly frequents restaurants with picture menus or plastic replicas of their food in the front window, and he finds places to sit and admire the buildings and the bridges, and he rides the trains in circles for hours. And he spends three whole evenings at the biggest electronics store he's ever seen, feeling like he's found his own personal Disneyland. And this store has lounge areas and restaurants, so on his third evening visiting it, he brings his laptop and finds a spot to settle in and check his e-mail—all through SHIELD's highly protected system, of course.
One from Coulson responding to Fitz's last status report; one from Skye asking him to bring her back one of those waving cat statues; and one from Jemma. They've e-mailed each other a handful of times since he arrived; the time difference makes calling difficult, and anyway he has no idea what he'd say—he doesn't know if they're back to the calling-each-other-just-to-shoot-the-breeze stage of their friendship. And e-mailing is better; he doesn't stumble over his words in an e-mail. But they haven't e-mailed often; it's hard for him to type much, not to mention his timidity about their relationship has pulled him into a spiral of slow responses: he e-mails her, it takes her a day and a half to respond. He doesn't want to look too eager, so he waits two days to write back. She in turn doesn't respond for three days. He slows his response time down to four.
He knows perfectly well how ridiculous it is, but he can't help himself; the last thing he wants is for her to guess at the truth: that he's sitting in Tokyo and missing her. That as much as he loves it here, every time he sees tourists walk by hand in hand—why are all the tourists couples? he wants to demand—he's sorry because all he can think is how much he'd love for that to be them. He thinks how much fun they'd have exploring shops and restaurants and side streets; he imagines them asking a passerby to snap their picture in front of some ancient palace or shrine, and winding their arms around each other's waists, and having that photo to remember forever that they were happy together in Tokyo. He remembers quite well that Japan was on her list of places she always wanted to visit, and now he's wishing he'd agreed to travel with her years ago, before they ever joined Coulson's team or heard Ward's name. Maybe things would be different between them now. Maybe they'd have pictures together all over the world.
But he doesn't type any of those things in his e-mail to Jemma. Instead he types,
I'm glad you got the leaky sink in your bunk fixed. I'm sitting in a big electronics store, eating noodles and answering e-mail. It's a fun place.
And then he stares at what he's written for a long time. How stupid. How meaningless. Why can't he tell her any old thought that passes through his head, like he used to? This e-mail is so bland and impersonal that it could be from anyone, to anyone. With a sigh, he deletes the draft and logs out. He's going to be back at the base in four days anyway.
. . . . . .
Let's go down to the bandstand on the pier
Watch the drunks and the lovers appear
To take turns as the stars of the Sovereign Light Café
He takes a commercial flight home; SHIELD couldn't spare the manpower or the jet to send someone on a twelve-hour flight just to pick him up. But Coulson pulled some strings and got him moved to first class, so it's not so bad. He's picked up at the airport by Bobbi Morse and, to his surprise and delight, Mack, who has apparently been officially discharged from the hospital. The mechanic drops a friendly arm around his shoulders, and Bobbi smiles at him as she gets his luggage, and he thinks something that he hasn't thought about SHIELD in a long time: it's nice to be home.
They ask him all about Tokyo on the way home, and he manages not to stutter too much through the answers, and Bobbi reminisces about the time she spent in Japan undercover, and Mack catches him up on all the goings on at the base (in summary: Skye hasn't broken anything lately, but Lance has, and that's why they can't have nice things). He doesn't mention Jemma, though, and Fitz bites his tongue to stop himself from asking the question that's on the tip of it: why didn't she come to meet him?
His hurt only lasts until they get to the base, however; when he arrives he discovers that she and the rest of the science team have been holed up all day in a meeting with Coulson and a former SHIELD scientist they're trying to re-recruit. Mollified, he goes to his room and unpacks, then visits Skye to give her the waving cat statue. And it's after that, as he's going to the mess hall to grab something to eat, that he sees Jemma, whose meeting in on a break.
She's got her back to him, filling a glass with water, which gives him time to check that his sweater is straight and his hair is mostly tamed. Then he speaks. "Hello, Jemma."
"Fitz!" She whirls around, grinning, and takes a step forward as though to hug him. But then she catches herself, looking a bit shame-faced, and he hates himself for ever asking her not to touch him. "You're back. I knew it was supposed to be some time this weekend but I wasn't quite sure when."
He blinks. How could she not have known? "Bobbi and Mack knew. They picked me up."
"Because Coulson sent them," she points out. "He didn't send me. And you never answered my last e-mail, asking when your flight was." She gives him a little smile. "In fact you're rather terrible at answering e-mails."
Six-months-ago Fitz would have lashed out at that. But he chooses not to be six-months-ago Fitz. He chooses instead to chuckle and say, "So are you."
"That is rather true," she concedes. "I want to hear all about your trip, but I have to be back in that meeting. We'll talk later?"
He is surprised and gratified at that. "Definitely."
She hesitates then, and there's something in her expression he can't name—something soft but uncertain. She opens her mouth and nothing comes out, and he waits on tenterhooks, wondering what exactly it is she wants to say.
But after a moment she shakes her head. "Good to see you," she says simply, and walks past him toward the door.
He can't leave it like that, though, not when he's so glad to see her that his chest almost aches with it, not when part of him is loudly pointing out that even with his moratorium on touching, surely he could get away with hugging her hello after being out of the country for three weeks. So he grabs her wrist as she passes, slowing her to a halt. She looks at him curiously.
"It's . . . just . . . I missed you," he explains awkwardly.
She seems to melt, just a little. "I missed you too," she confesses. They stand together in silence another moment until Fitz thinks Might as well and hugs her. She stands stock-still for a second, shocked, then returns the embrace with equal force.
"I am glad you're back," she whispers into his shoulder, and this is probably destroying any strides he made in getting over her but it's so nice to touch her again that he can't make himself care.
Then she's pulling away and there's that strange look is in her eyes again, that vulnerable, hesitant expression. Once again, she makes as though to speak. Then she shakes her head and leaves. "I'll talk to you soon," she promises over her shoulder.
And so she does, that night after dinner, after the meeting is over and the scientist is gone and Fitz is in the garage with Mack, replacing a filter in one of the SUVs. Fitz is half-buried under the hood, so he doesn't realize they have a guest until Mack elbows him in the ribs. He looks up at his friend reproachfully—the man sometimes forgets that he's twice everyone else's size and these "little" gestures of his can surprisingly painful—and sees Mack looking at the door. He quickly stands up and sees Jemma standing there, fiddling nervously with her hands. She's changed her hair and her clothes from this afternoon; he couldn't begin to explain what the difference is, as fashion is really not his thing, but he's certain something has changed.
"Hi," she says. "Can we talk?"
Fitz glances at Mack, who's doing a bad job of hiding his amusement, and then he doesn't know who he's trying to protect when he says, "Yeah, you wanted to hear—about my trip, right?" No sense in Mack getting all nudge-nudge wink-wink over something that innocuous. "Let me wash my hands first. Mack, can you—with the—"
"Filter?" Mack guesses. Fitz nods. "Sure, I can finish up."
A few minutes later, Fitz and Simmons are seated in the lab; there are few places they can be sure to avoid interruptions, but the lab in the evening is one of them. Anyway, it's fitting; most of their interactions have taken place in various labs. "So, Tokyo," Fitz says before Jemma can speak. "Really cool place."
Jemma looks surprised. "You really liked it that much?
"Sure," says Fitz, and then he's off talking, stumbling some but mostly getting through it—and saying much more than he thought he had in him. It's partly because he genuinely has a lot to say about Tokyo, but it's partly because he's mildly uncomfortable right now and is talking to cover it. He's uncomfortable because he's always just the tiniest bit uncomfortable around Jemma these days, even with their new commitment to their friendship, and he's uncomfortable because she looks uncommonly pretty tonight, and he's uncomfortable because her looking so pretty reminds him that he's spent the last three weeks imagining the two of them on a romantic getaway to Japan, which is definitely not in keeping with his promise that he's trying to get over her.
Jemma listens to it all with a smile, asking questions in the right places and looking pleased when he tells her he bought her a souvenir but it's back in his bunk, does she want him to go get it?
"Not just now," she says, and suddenly she's fiddling with her hands again. Is she nervous? What in the world does she have to be nervous about? "Can we—can we talk?"
It's been a long time since he saw someone else stuttering instead of him. Baffled, he points out, "We are talking."
"I mean . . ." She takes a deep breath and looks down at her hands. "Can we talk about what you said to me in the pod?"
No. No no no no, is all he can think, because things have been going well lately and the last thing he wants or needs is to bring that up again and force him to relive the most terrifying ordeal and heartbreaking rejection of his life, all rolled into one traumatic memory. "Do we have to?" he says weakly.
"No," she says, like it's the most absurd thing she's ever heard. "No, I'm not leaving you here, that's ridiculous. We need a new plan."
But he shakes his head. "We're not discussing it, okay? You're taking it. End of story." He hesitates, a bit embarrassed. "I couldn't live if you didn't."
But she retorts immediately, "I feel the same way. There has to be another way."
"Jemma—" he starts. She doesn't understand. She doesn't know that he could never live with himself if his living meant her dying. Besides, she jumped out of a plane. It's his turn to die for her.
She sounds irritated when she interrupts him, the way she does when she thinks he's being illogical. "Why would you make me do this?" she demands. "You're my best friend in the whole world."
He'd thought this next part would be hard. Not the actual decision to die—he made that decision some time ago, as they were figuring out how to blow out the window and he realized there was only enough oxygen for one person, as he thought of his broken arm and how she'd always been a good swimmer, as he looked at her beautiful beloved face and knew he didn't want to live if it meant her dying. But to tell her what he's going to say next—that's what seemed impossible; after all, he's been hiding this for months. But he knows he's going to tell her; it's inevitable, like his death. What he's not entirely sure of is how much of his motivation for telling her is convince her to accept his sacrifice and live (he knows how stubborn she can be) and how much is a selfish need to say it once before he dies. He knows that she'll live with this moment for the rest of her life, but he hopes she won't begrudge him this one thing. After all, he's never said it before, never loved someone before, and it makes the sacrifice worth it. It makes his death beautiful, just as his death makes his confession beautiful. It's what's giving him the strength to die. Surely she won't begrudge him that.
To his surprise, though, it's not difficult to say. Embarrassing, yes. But no words have ever felt more right coming out of his mouth. "Yeah, you're more than that, Jemma. But I couldn't find the courage to tell you. So please, let me show you."
And she finally understands, and she chokes out a No, and she cries and covers his face with kisses, and that's beautiful too. It doesn't stop him being afraid, but it gives him the strength to smile at her, shakily, and press the button.
There's a flash, a sound like thunder, the feeling of a hundred punches to the stomach. Then everything goes dark.
"I think we've been avoiding it long enough," she says. "Look, Fitz, what you said to me—I didn't expect it. I never even suspected you felt that way. And I'd never felt that way about you. You were my best friend. You are my best friend."
As much as he hates this conversation, that little moment, that confirmation that he's back on that pedestal in her heart, might make it all worth it.
She's looking at him earnestly. "So when you told me I was . . . more, to you, I was shocked. And I barely had time to process it. You were proposing that I let you die and our feelings for each other seemed like the absolute last thing I had time to worry about. And then when you survived, all I could think about was whether you'd ever wake up. I didn't let myself think about anything more because . . ."
She looks down, overcome with emotion, and Fitz stares at the top of her head. Where is this conversation going?
When she continues, she keeps her gaze fixed on her knees. "I didn't return your feelings," she admits. "But I knew, watching you in that hospital bed, that I couldn't stand the thought of living without you. Whatever that meant for us. So I waited and I hoped against hope that you'd wake up and we'd have time to . . . figure this all out."
His bad hand is starting to tremble; this anxiety is not good for it.
She looks up at him then, and her eyes are too bright. "And then you woke up and . . . it didn't matter. You were so stiff and defensive and uncomfortable around me. What did it matter if you used to be in love with me? You couldn't stand to be near me now."
He blinks. "I did not ever—" he begins indignantly.
"My turn to talk," she reminds him. "I know now that you were defensive because I was pushing you so hard to go back to . . . what I thought of as normal. But I didn't understand that at the time; I didn't think I was doing anything wrong. I just thought you were mad at me for not getting you to the surface faster, or not telling you I loved you back—"
(It's the first time either of them has used the word "love" to describe what he said to her, and his face burns with embarrassment. She doesn't notice.)
"—and neither of those seemed to be something I could fix. I was out of ideas, so I accepted the Hydra assignment and I left. I thought maybe you would have forgiven me by the time I got back."
He forgets that she doesn't want him interrupting. "I was never mad at you," he says fervently. "Not until you actually left. I could live with you not loving me back, as long as you were still my friend."
A tear rolls down her cheek. "I see that now," she nods quietly. "I wish I would have talked to you. But I didn't know how to cope with you injured, and I didn't know how to talk without upsetting you, and I was so sure that leaving was the right thing. And then when I came back from Hydra, it was like you'd created this new life, and I didn't know how to be part of it. You had Mack, and you were working in the garage, and you were so stiff around me. I'd try to act like nothing had changed, and you'd claim I was suffocating you. I'd try to treat you like any other agent, and I could see how hurt you were. I didn't know what to do. I'd never stopped to consider that my own actions might have been adding to the problem . . . until recently."
So is this conversation just confirming that they were both being difficult but now they're friends again? Fitz decides that must be the case, and responds accordingly. "Well, we . . . worked it out now, right? We are friends now, right?"
She nods, but she's still teary-eyed and staring down at her hands, which she is anxiously twisting into knots.
"Is something else wrong?" he asks hesitantly.
She nods, still not looking at him. "It's . . . it's what you said down in that pod."
Come on, do they really need to rehash it again?
"I never thought about you that way, Fitz," she says. "But once you brought it up, I . . . started. Started considering it, I mean," she quickly corrects herself. "Wondering why we'd never dated. Wondering what it would be like. But it didn't seem to matter, because we were barely speaking to each other; no sense worrying about anything more than that. And then we finally became friends again, and that was all that mattered for a little while." She hesitates, then gives him a teary smile. "It's been so good to be friends again."
He agrees, but he'd really like her to get to her point because he is freaking out a little right now. Is she suggesting what it sounds like she might be suggesting?
"And then you asking me not to touch you . . . hurt. And I was trying to figure out why. And then you left, and you were gone for weeks, and . . . suddenly I knew why." She pauses and looks up at him, shyly, and is it possible to die from your heart pounding itself right out of your chest? Because he thinks that might happen.
Jemma fidgets a moment, and then she reaches out and takes his bad hand in both of hers. It's shaking. She doesn't seem to care. "I'm not saying I'm in love with you, because I'm not. But it occurs to me for the first time that I could be, because the way I feel about you is . . . not how I used to feel. Not how I feel about people who are just my friends."
He swallows hard. "Are you sure about this?" he asks. "Because I—I don't think I'll survive it if you decide . . . if you change your mind."
She hesitates, looking down at their joined hands. Then she looks up in his eyes with an expression he's never seen—some of the vulnerability from earlier today, combined with a sort of determination. "I'm sure that I can't imagine my life without you," she says steadily. "And I'm sure that you are more to me than just my best friend. I can't promise more than that, so I'll understand if you tell me to leave you alone. But here's what this all boils down to, Fitz: I like you. By which I mean, I like you. Maybe not as much as you like me, but enough that the thought of us going back to the way we were before you left for Japan . . . hurts my heart."
He looks down at their joined hands as well, and cautiously, ever so slowly, lifts his good hand to run his thumb along her knuckles. He almost doesn't dare speak, afraid that he'll shatter whatever illusion this must be. "So what now?" he asks hesitantly.
She looks up at him and smiles. "Well," she says, "maybe we make some hot chocolate? Watch a movie?" It's simple—first date sort of stuff. He finds that he can live with that.
. . . . . .
She holds his hand that night, all through the movie.
Three days later, Mack walks in on them microwaving popcorn, and Jemma looks startled but doesn't let go of Fitz's hand. Mack smiles.
Five days after that she kisses him in the lab, right next to the fridge where she keeps specimens, and he'd like to tell her it's unsanitary but that would require that he stop kissing her so he decides to let it slide.
A week after that Skye looks back and forth between the two of them, her eyes narrowed in suspicion, and asks, "Are you two a thing all of a sudden?"
Jemma looks at Fitz, thoughtful. Fitz looks at Jemma, a little scared but very interested to hear how she responds. They haven't spoken of it yet; in fact, since that conversation in the lab, they haven't spoken of anything along those lines. They basically do the things they've always done, except now she finds constant excuses to touch him and he works up his courage every so often and kisses her.
So when Jemma says with a smile, "Yes, I suppose we're a thing," he lets out a breath he didn't know he was holding, and Skye must see how far his shoulders fall because she laughs and that makes Jemma laugh and that makes Fitz laugh.
He stops thinking about leaving SHIELD after that.
Sha la la la la la la dee lay, yeah,
I'm going where the people know my name
. . . . . .