Skye stared resolutely at the monitors showing Grant still unconscious on Vault D’s cot. Trip, Fitz and she had taken him down there several hours ago, and Simmons hadadministered medical care to his cut and battered body before all four of them had left.
Skye had wanted to stay with him, if only so he was not alone when he woke up, but she had decided that would be suspicious to the others. If she wanted to help him escape later, it was best not to draw attention now. Not to mention that if she were in the vault with him, she could not keep at eye on what was going on with Coulson, Bobbi and the rest. So Skye had taken to watching the motionless prisoner in the director’s office instead.
Skye slumped in the chair and tried not to let her exhaustion distract her from her vigilance. The day would have taken a toll regardless, but with the back-to-back missions and lack of sleep, Skye felt drained. She refused to go though.
A part of Skye was worried that if she just left for even an hour to take a nap, she would return to find Grant grievously injured from another round of torture. There was also the concern that Skye would miss whatever Bobbi was going to report. Skye wanted to trust that Coulson would not purposely leave her out again, but she knew she could not after what happened.
Two hours ago, Bobbi had approached her in Coulson’s office and asked her to hack into the video logs of a juvenile prison in Plymouth, Massachusetts for a specific day sixteen years ago and then just left the room again, leaving Skye to think on the implications of that request. Skye would have offered to help Bobbi if not for the fact that she would have to leave her post to do so.
So Skye was stuck in Coulson’s office avoiding conversation with the man himself while people milled in and out of the room, and she wondered what information Bobbi was finding- and why Bobbi was bothering at all. As far as Skye could tell, the only people who actually cared about Grant were Fitzsimmons and Skye herself, so she assumed any information Bobbi was looking up was so SHIELD could use it against Grant.
Skye tried to calm herself, to focus beyond the bitterness that threatened to consume her, but it was impossible. Maybe it was her fault. She knew that Grant was an enemy of SHIELD from their first interaction and that nothing good could come from getting closer to him.
Skye had thought she learned her lesson years ago about becoming attached to things she could never have, but Grant had waltzed into her life and caused Skye to forget all the reasons why she kept a careful distance.
When Bobbi finally reentered the room with a folder tucked into her side, Skye was not the only one who perked up. Hunter, Trip, Simmons, Coulson and May were all in the room and looked up attentively with the new arrival. Fitz had passed out while waiting in his uncomfortable position leaning against Skye’s chair, so Skye nudged him with her foot and startled him out of his sleep. Skye could hardly blame him, they had been up for well over a day at this point.
Bobbi took in the audience without betraying any emotion and faced Coulson. “Sir, maybe it would be better if we cleared out the room first.”
“What the hell?” Hunter demanded before Coulson could consider the proposal. “Did you people learn nothing about keeping secrets?”
“You’re a secret agent now,” Bobbi hissed. “Secrets are part of the job.”
Rather than allow them to get distracted by an ex-marital spat, Skye cut in defiantly, “I’m not leaving.”
Coulson’s eyes met hers before he tiredly nodded his head without argument. It pained Skye to see him seemingly so defeated, but the rage still bubbling within her prevented her from doing anything to fix it. Looking at him now, knowing what he had done behind her back, it felt like Skye was staring at a stranger with familiar features.
“I’m not either,” Fitz said.
“And you’d be foolish to send us away,” Simmons added sternly. “We have information that could supplement any report on Ward.”
“I thought you already told us everything,” May said with a light frown.
“We told you the basics,” Fitz confirmed. “But the details that we considered unimportant-“
“-Could perhaps have relevance here,” Simmons continued.
“We won’t know if you make us leave,” Fitz concluded.
Coulson rubbed his temples and blinked heavily. “Fine. You three can stay.”
When the director turned his attention to Hunter and Trip, Hunter made a show of getting comfortable in his seat while Trip leaned back against the wall with raised brows.
“Hey,” Trip said while raising his hands in a helpless gesture of what-can-you-do, “Hunter’s got a point. It’s best to just get this all out in the open.”
Coulson did not even bother to try with May. He sighed to himself and faced forward. “Go ahead, Agent Morse.”
Bobbi pursed her lips. “Sir, the intel I’ve collected is,” she searched for the word, “Delicate, and I don’t want to be interrupted every other sentence.”
“Anyone speaks, and they’re gone,” Coulson ordered the room before turning back to Bobbi. “There you go. Proceed.” He waved a hand towards her to indicate she should begin.
Bobbi shed any apprehension and became the consummate professional Skye knew her to be. “Grant Douglas Ward was born in Massachusetts to a well-known political family with two brothers- one older and one younger- and a sister. His early life seems relatively uneventful. The only notable occurrence was a teacher in his elementary school, a Ms. Sarah Warner, who claimed that she saw unusual bruising and evidence of abuse on him. Not long afterwards, she was fired from her job and moved out of state.
“Ward’s early teachers describe him as ‘quiet’, ‘skittish’, ‘shy’ but overall bright and enjoyable. Reports take a sharp turn when he turned twelve.” Bobbi played with the electronic tablet and a news report appears. “Coincidentally, that’s the same time a tragic death hit the Ward family. The youngest brother, Thomas Ward, drowned in the family’s summer home well.”
At the word “well”, Bobbi glanced significantly at Coulson, and Skye flashed back to just hours ago as Grant muttered about a well under the influence of the memory machine. She took a deep steadying breath.
“The circumstances involving Thomas’ death were unusual,” Bobbi resumed her report. “Grant Ward was found hysterically trying to extend a rope to his drowning brother to no avail, but there were questions of why he did not try to get outside help. His older brother, Senator Christian Ward, was the one to retrieve the parents and call for help in the end.
“After that, Grant Ward’s teachers reported that he was ‘unmanageable’, ‘filled with rage’ and ‘rude’. He also repeatedly got into fights and caused all sorts of trouble. The only reasons he wasn’t expelled was his family’s reputation and the fact that he picked the fights with people who tended to be far bigger and older than him and ended up the more injured party. It was viewed as a cry for attention and mental problems rather than a desire to hurt other people.
“Nonetheless, at age fourteen, he was sent to military school in Tennessee, presumably because the Wards did not know how to deal with his behavior. He was there for about a year. His social interactions improved minutely, and he no longer initiated conflicts. The teaching staff made note of his considerable anger issues but otherwise praised his performance. While not a model student by any means, Ward had undeniable natural talent in many areas.
“One night, a fifteen year old Ward snuck out of the facility, stole a car and drove home without warning. Upon arriving, he set fire to his childhood house, and the entire building burned down. At the time, Christian Ward was the only one inside, but he was able to escape without injury.”
Bobbi stopped to take a breath, and Skye took a moment to ingest all the information. Skye supposed that explained how Grant ended up in juvie.
A quick glance of the room told Skye that the only people seemingly unaffected by the story were Coulson and May, it almost seemed like the two of them had suspected at least part of it.
“But this is where it actually gets interesting- for us at least,” Bobbi said. “Grant Ward was arrested and taken to a juvenile facility in Plymouth, Mass. But he was only there for five days. During that time, the only notable events were the reoccurring fights that Ward got into. Once again, they were usually stronger and older opponents, but this time it appeared that Ward wasn’t the one instigating the conflicts.
“On the fifth day of his incarceration, Ward got his only visitor,” Bobbi said. She pressed a few buttons and the video that Bobbi had asked Skye for appeared on screen. “They attempted to cover it up, but luckily Skye was able to find the video feed of that day. We don’t have much from Ward because he rarely faces the camera, but the lip reading program picks up the important information.”
Bobbi played the video depicting a older man with a coffee cup watching predatorily as a teenage boy was led inside in full red, prison jumpsuit attire. Trip, Hunter, Coulson and May tensed at the scene, and Skye quickly learned why when the older man introduced himself.
Numbly, Skye watched John Garrett insert himself into Grant’s life by playing on his fears and wants and blatantly manipulating him. All she wanted was for the young Grant to tell the man to fuck off, but she knew how it would all play out. It was all in the past.
After Garrett dragged the visibly scared Grant from the prison with a companionable arm draped around his shoulders, Bobbi turned off the feed. “They disappeared after that. Garrett returned to SHIELD two weeks later, and the next time Grant Ward’s image appeared in front of a camera or monitoring device was over five years later, just days before he entered the academy.”
“Where was he?” Coulson asked. “Some secret Hydra facility?”
“I think it was much simpler than that,” Bobbi said. “For the next five years that Ward is unaccounted for, Garrett routinely leaves SHIELD for weeks or even months at a time on an ongoing mission entitled ‘Project Janus’.”
“I remember that,” Coulson said thoughtfully. “I didn’t have the clearance to hear about the details, but Garrett was often working on it when not on missions with me.”
“Further investigation indicates that no such mission existed,” Bobbi said, “Which of course begs the question as to where Garrett was during those periods of time. By tracking his movements, it seems that he was visiting Wyoming during those absences, but like Ward, he doesn’t appear on any radar during his disappearances.”
“Wyoming?” Skye blurted out before she could stop herself. She looked to Fitz and Simmons to see if they made the connection she had. Simmons appeared deeply uncomfortable at all the information, and Fitz was sporting the same dumbstruck look Skye was sure she had on her face. It was ages ago, but Skye could still remember the confusion at Grant’s dark humor and ability to recognize the state they were in by looking at a couple of trees after escaping AIM.
Bobbi did not give them a chance to say anything else. “Given the information collected from Ward by the memory machine, his early issues regarding communication in the academy as well as obvious conclusions like the fact that he must have been away from any kind of technology that could track or monitor him, it seems that Ward was living alone in the wilderness of Wyoming all those years.”
“What?” Fitz demanded, disbelief coloring his expression. “Why?”
“Isolation is a common method of brainwashing, conditioning and abusing susceptible targets for cults,” Bobbi answered emotionlessly. “If you want to remold someone into a specific image, cutting them off from the rest of the world is the best way to do so. That way they don’t notice the radical changes they’re undergoing. It leaves them vulnerable for manipulation as well. It’s also extremely psychologically damaging, particularly in adolescents. And what better way to isolate someone than to take them to the middle of nowhere without any contact with another human besides the manipulator himself?”
“That’s insane!” Simmons exclaimed.
“It’s not as uncommon as you’d assume,” Hunter said seriously. “When I was with the SAS, I’d occasionally come across people who had been recruited at a young age to be shaped into soldiers. That way their morality and loyalty and even personality had not been cemented yet, leaving them open to outside influences.”
“Targets of such manipulation are also usually child abuse victims whose views of acceptable, normal treatment of others have been warped due to the trauma,” Bobbi said. “It stunts emotional growth significantly in many victims.
“Garrett had obviously done his research on Ward before meeting him as evidenced by the video,” she continued. “He already knew of the abuse and the indications that Ward would make a good agent from his military school’s reports. Garrett probably knew that no one would be bothered if he disappeared either. Ward’s family and the police never even reported him missing. He was the perfect target.”
May scowled. “He never should have left with Garrett.”
“He was a teenager, alone and terrified!” Fitz protested.
“The choices people make when they’re younger can impact their entire life, to pretend otherwise is naïve,” May retorted. “And Ward was hardly an innocent. He ran away from prison for a crime he committed.”
Skye balled her hands into fists. May could be unforgiving, and she very clearly did not like Ward anyway. “The circumstances were not normal-“
“Enough!” Coulson interrupted as he stood up.
Skye was not planning on letting that go, but Fitz tapped Skye’s leg to grab her attention. “Look,” he said as he pointed to the screens showing the inside of Vault D.
The room was distracted from the argument by the image of Ward waking up from his drug-induced sleep on the monitors.
Skye leaned forward and watched as Ward opened his eyes and stared blankly at the ceiling. Slowly, he rose into a sitting position and scanned the room. When his eyes fell on the sandwich Simmons made him, they stopped. He made no move to go to the tray though Skye knew he must have been starving.
Simmons made a disheartened noise beside Skye at Grant’s obvious disinterest.
Instead, Grant tore his eyes away to stare impassively down at his injured body. There was a lifelessness in his movements now that pained her.
As Skye looked on, he visibly cringed at nothing at all and just stared into space. Several moments passed without him doing anything at all. Skye wanted to shake him out of it. She wanted to yell at him. She wanted to kiss him. She wanted to cry. She wanted things to return to the way they were before she knew his name, before SHIELD had taken him.
Skye wondered if she would ever get another perfect night with him. She longed for the simplicity of their stolen moments in the hotel.
Grant must have forced himself to press on because his glazed eyes focused again, and he stood up. Determinedly, Grant stripped off his shirt and began to do exercises in the small space he had to work with.
It felt weird to watch him with the whole team, like they were intruding on his privacy.
The discomfort only increased when Hunter leaned in to remark to Skye after Grant was topless, “So that’s why you slept with him, huh?”
Skye whirled around to glare at the other agent and heard Coulson audibly sigh in exasperation.
“Hunter, try to keep your comments to yourself,” Coulson said. “Agent Morse, what are your conclusions of your report?”
Bobbi turned her gaze away from the screens and commanded the room’s attention once more. She handed Coulson the folder she had been holding.
“Given not just what we know now about his history but also Skye, Fitz and Simmons’ experiences with Ward, it’s apparent that his loyalties are conditioned due to his unusual past with Garrett, which is useful for us in terms of interrogating him,” Bobbi said.
There it was. Skye had been waiting to see why Bobbi and the rest cared. Part of her had secretly hoped that she was wrong though and the others would stop trying to play an angle with Grant.
The day felt like a dream, she could not believe that everything had come to this.
“How so?” May asked.
“Ward’s obviously unstable, between growing up in an abusive household and complete social isolation as a teenager. That’s an easy way to get under his skin to work him, but I was also thinking about how this means his loyalties aren’t even to Hydra.”
“Why do you say that?” Coulson said.
“Garrett conditioned his loyalty to him, so Ward likely feels little to no attachment to Hydra itself, which is why he turned on Scarlotti for Skye and risked Hydra agendas for her and Fitzsimmons,” Bobbi said. “But more importantly, all this raises a bigger question about Garrett.”
“What kind of sick person does this to a kid?” Trip muttered.
Skye looked at him almost surprised to see someone besides Fitzsimmons reflecting her thoughts.
“No,” Simmons said. Her eyes lit up like they did when she solved a problem. “The question is why did Garrett do all of this?”
“Because he’s evil?” Hunter guessed sarcastically.
“Well, yes, I suppose so,” Simmons conceded, “But what I mean is why did Garrett go to so much trouble. It’s a lot of work. He meticulously researched Ward beforehand, fabricated a fake mission that risked his cover as a double agent and dedicated years to training Ward.”
Something was nagging the back of Skye’s mind, but it was hard to focus when so much was going on.
“He probably saw it as worth the effort,” Trip said. “I mean look at Ward now, the guy’s a machine.”
Skye could not help but think of when Trip had said that before, back when Skye was about to go after Dr. Streiten. May had disagreed and said that Ward was a weapon, not a machine. Given all that she knew now, the memory made Skye’s heart constrict.
“Yes, but Garrett would not have known that at the time,” Bobbi argued.
“Ward could have been driven mad from the isolation and even taken his life. He could failed to become the operative Garrett envisioned,” Simmons said. “Garrett went to all that effort to find a susceptible target, break down his mental defenses to make him perfectly loyal and train him extensively for half a decade all because he wanted a mindless, obedient soldier?”
“Someone who prioritized Garrett and not Hydra or any other organization,” Bobbi agreed. “Someone who would devote their entire life to him.”
Their words reminded Skye of all the conversations she had with Grant where he professed his dedication to Garrett, the person he “owed everything” to. Skye bit her lip so hard it bled. She had never met John Garrett, but she loathed him so much that she tasted bile in the back of her throat.
“Sounds just like the narcissist,” Coulson said.
“Yes, but why? What purpose was so important to do so?” Simmons said.
“Because he needed Grant,” Skye thought aloud. The answer was just out of her reach, like something she forgot, knew she forgot but was struggling to remember what exactly it was. “He needed someone to do his dirty work for him.”
“Garrett’s always been competent,” Trip said. “He’s many things, but the guy isn’t lazy. He wouldn’t do all this just so he could kick back while someone did his job for him.”
“Now he is,” Coulson disagreed. “He hasn’t been out in the field in months, preferring to send Ward out for him instead.”
“Which is strange for him-” May began.
Skye did not let her finish. Coulson’s words unlocked the epiphany that had been teasing her. “That’s it,” she said breathlessly. Abruptly, the nagging thought in the back of her mind became concrete, and everything fit together perfectly. She knew she was right the moment she thought it.
She spun around to face Coulson for the first time in hours, “Did anything weird happen to Garrett before Grant was taken? Anything on Garrett’s file?”
Skye did not wait for Coulson or anyone else to answer. She grabbed the tablet right out of Bobbi’s hand. Her fingers flew as she searched for the confirmation.
“1990,” Skye read to herself, “John Garrett injured on a mission in Sarajevo… Injury severe… MedEvac could not assist…” Skye looked up to Coulson and repeated, “That’s it.”
“What’s it?” Coulson asked.
“In all the time I’ve known Grant, he never tried to ask for intel - except once,” Skye said with more energy than she had all day, almost giddy at putting the pieces together. “After the Rodchenko mission, Grant begged me to tell him what was in the GH formula, said he ‘needed it’. He was so insistent that I worried that he was asking for himself, but he denied it when I asked.”
“That was the only question that Ward asked when we were kidnapped,” Fitz added. “All he wanted to know was what was in GH-325.”
“Grant was there at Dr. Streiten’s office, and he was there at the Side Door,” Skye said seriously. “He told me he doesn’t want the information for Hydra or the Centipede soldiers, but that he needs it anyway. There’s one reason why someone would need the GH formula.”
Coulson’s stricken face told Skye that he had figured it out, too. It all made sense from Garrett’s need to train his own personal weapon from a young age to his suspicious absence from the field.
“But Grant’s not the one that’s dying-“ Skye said slowly.
“Garrett is,” Coulson finished. He leaned back in his chair heavily seemingly taken aback at the discovery.
There was muttering of confusion and surprise all around them, but Skye barely noticed as she reeled from her realization.
“If Garrett is dying,” Bobbi began, “Then it would make sense that he would program a loyal right hand man the way he did. That way he has someone who would move heaven and earth to keep him alive when Garrett’s health deteriorated too much for him to be in the field himself.”
“Skye’s right,” Simmons said. “It fits perfectly with Garrett’s actions and Ward’s choices.”
Skye could not help but think of much it fit perfectly with everything she knew of Grant, too. He dedicated most of his life, worked for multiple organizations that he did not care for, because he wanted to save someone who he felt he indebted to. Not just that, Skye could tell that Grant genuinely cared for Garrett, which made the whole thing even more upsetting.
If Garrett were someone actually worth protecting and if Grant had not done so many terrible things in service of him, it could actually be considered noble in a strange way. It made Skye wonder what Coulson thought when he threw away all the rules and even got the two Guest House guards killed to get the GH formula to save her when she was shot. Did Coulson see it as all worth it as long as Skye lived? Was that how Grant saw his actions for Garrett, necessary to save the life of someone he loved?
Grant had no one in his life besides Garrett before he met her. He admitted to having no friends and his family were obviously awful. Skye could not decide if it was horrifically selfish of Grant or remarkably selfless. She supposed it was both in some ways because everything he did was for someone else but who was he to decide all these people deserved to die or suffer to save one, very evil man that mattered to him?
Between Garrett’s abusive manipulations and Grant’s complicated past, had Grant just become someone who thought that any cost was acceptable as long as he could save the person he cared about most?
Not any cost, Skye realized. Grant had been visibly disturbed at the idea of sacrificing Skye, which was why he had not told anyone she had the GH formula in her she supposed. With what she knew of why he wanted the formula, Skye was shocked by the implications of him protecting her this way.
The conversation had turned its focus to how SHIELD could use this to get intel from Grant and what the course of action against Garrett should be in light of the discovery.
Skye did not wait. She strode out of the room without paying any attention to the people calling after her.
When Grant awoke, he did not even bother pretending to still be unconscious. He lethargically opened his eyes and stared blankly up at the ceiling uncaring of the SHIELD agents undoubtedly watching him.
He had a splitting headache that almost succeeded in distracting him from the dark thoughts swirling around his battered brain. His body ached all over, and it especially burned where the restraints had held him to the memory machine. Grant mentally took stock of his injuries and decided that they were inconsequential.
When he finally hefted himself up off the cell’s cot, he examined his raw skin directly and found that someone had actually taken the time to put ointment on it to soothe the wounds. How nice of them, Grant thought bitterly.
His eyes scanned the cell and found it to be just like it was before he was drugged and hauled into the memory machine to experience the worst times of his life over and over again. The only thing that had changed was that there was a tray of food placed on the ground by the energy barrier. So he could eat like a dog begging for scraps on the floor, of course.
A part of Grant knew that he was seeing everything through the lens of his resentment. The food on the tray looked far better than anything he would imagine for a prisoner’s fare. It was a sandwich of what appeared to be fresh ingredients, meat and even some condiments, but Grant turned away. If he had the energy to scowl, he might have.
What, did they decide that stick option in the “carrot and stick” approach failed and now were resorting to the carrot? Maybe SHIELD expected he would be so disoriented from the memory machine that he would just forget they were the assholes who put him in it in the first place.
Even without his loyalty to John, he could not imagine helping them in any way. If John were to die, Grant would rather live and die in the cell than tell them anything just out of spite.
Grant stared down at his legs stretched out before him and realized with a start that he was absentmindedly rubbing his thigh again. He ripped his hand away at once and bit back a snarl. He had thought that Kara was mistaken, but it seemed he really had picked up a nervous habit. Fantastic.
“Grant, please help me!”
Grant flinched before he could stop himself. Thomas’ voice seemed to echo in the room to remind him of his weaknesses.
Grant almost laughed, it was true now more than ever. It was his weaknesses that had gotten him into this mess. Everything had changed since the day he met Skye, even if he had not truly realized how much then. Morse and the Cavalry had gotten him off his guard and alone because he allowed Skye to get so far under his skin. As much as he had not cared for Scarlotti, Grant knew his combat skills could have helped get him out of the fight. Of course, Grant would never have been banging his head against a wall with no sense of self-preservation had he not been reeling from his revelations about Skye.
Grant mustered a tiny, bitter smile. He always knew she would be the death of him.
The thought served to startle Grant out of his defeatist thoughts. Grant was a survivor, and John needed him. None of that had changed since he met Skye, and he had to focus on what mattered: getting out of the cell, so he could get back to John.
Grant breathed in and out deeply and concentrated on rhythmically rotating the joint in one of his thumbs to keep it loose. After a few minutes of that, he yanked off his shirt and began doing exercises in the cell. He ignored his body’s aching and soon enough, he was able to push all the pain to the back of his mind.
When he finished his last pushup and donned his shirt again, Grant contemplated eating the sandwich. He stared at it for a second but made no move towards it. The thought of food caused nausea to crawl up the back of his throat. He left it untouched.
Unfortunately, there was nothing to keep him occupied but his thoughts in the cell. Bu it was not an unfamiliar situation for Grant given that he had spent five years mostly alone in the wilderness. For the first time in a while, Grant thought of Buddy, and his chest felt tight before he focused his thoughts elsewhere.
Unbidden, his mind returned to the memory machine. He tried to remember what exactly had happened and what he had said, but it was like trying to hold sand, every time he thought he recalled something, it slipped out of his grip just as quickly.
Had Skye been there or had his drowning mind just conjured the image of her to comfort him? He hoped that was just his imagination because the humiliation of Coulson and his underlings witnessing his breakdown stung enough already, but if Skye had seen him so pitiful and helpless…
Grant redirected his contemplations to the important parts. He knew that SHIELD did not get any intel from him on John and his health, which was what really mattered. Grant hoped that none of his memories had been vocalized, but he could not be certain. The idea of SHIELD wrestling his worst memories and his past from him left a bad taste in Grant’s mouth, but he tried to remind himself that it did not matter. The past was over, and he was not that scared kid anymore.
And why should it even bother him if Skye saw him while under the influence of the memory machine? He needed to stop putting so much weight into what she thought of him because the fact was she had proven time and time again that she was firmly loyal to SHIELD and Phil Coulson- the people who had imprisoned him and sent him on a much unwanted trip down memory lane.
To Grant, the lines of allegiance that separated them had never been clearer. Skye was likely somewhere in the base walking free and chatting with the people who had tortured and abducted him while Grant was sitting in the dark of his cell nursing his wounds alone.
She was probably just a floor or two above him, but the distance between them was insurmountable in more ways than one.
Grant looked up cautiously as the cell’s energy barrier turned transparent once more only to be faced with the object of his thoughts. His chest tightened as he stared at Skye, her hair falling out of a loose ponytail and framing her striking eyes.