Morning came too soon as all mornings do after the perfect night. Skye woke up gradually and spent the first twenty minutes after she did snuggling even closer to the warm body whose embrace she found herself in. Without opening her eyes, she smiled into Grant’s shoulder.
“Good morning,” his voice was soft as he breathed the words into Skye’s temple and rustled a couple strands of hair.
Skye blinked blearily and peeked up at him. “’Morning.” She absentmindedly started tracing the muscles on his bare chest. “What time is it?”
“Almost seven,” he replied.
Skye halted her hand’s movements and stared up at him aghast. “And why are we up so early when we don’t have to meet the others until nine?”
“I can’t sleep late,” he said. “I tried not to wake you.”
Skye snorted. She was a highly trained secret agent and had sensed his gaze on her before she was fully awake.
As if he read her thoughts on his face, Grant grinned. “Well, I thought I might have worn you out last night.”
Skye patted his chest with a smile of her own. “I’m a hard woman to keep up with, I know, but you’re going to have to try a lot harder to get there. Don’t worry, there’ll be plenty of time for you to try after this is all over.”
In response to her last comment, Grant’s grin did not falter, but his eyes tightened slightly, which worried Skye. Did he think that she would let the others lock him up after the mission?
Uneasiness unfurled inside her stomach. Skye reached out a hand to gently cup his cheek, “Hey…”
Grant did not let her say anything as he ducked his head down to press a soft kiss on her forehead. “We can talk after the mission,” he mumbled into her skin.
Skye did not like hearing her own words from last night used against her, but it was probably time to prepare for the day anyway. “Right,” she agreed as she pulled back to stare into his amber eyes. They were clear of any shadows, and Skye allowed herself to relax once more.
Grant stared at her with the same adoring look he favored her at the hotel, the one that made her think that she was the center of his world.
He leaned down and captured her lips fully in a searing kiss that left her breathless. But it done sweetly and unhurried, almost innocent if that word could ever be used to describe something Grant Ward did. He shifted until he was hovering over her while she looked up at him expectantly. She was not disappointed.
He peppered kisses to her cheeks and nose and the corner of her mouth down to neck and shoulder. He kept a light grip on her hip the whole time as he entangled his other hand in her hair.
For a brief second, Skye was sad because the happiness she felt in that moment was something so wonderful that she instinctively did not trust it could last. There was something dreadful that lurked behind perfect moments because it was hard to believe that you could ever be that happy again.
Skye banished those thoughts as she gripped Grant’s face to pull his mouth back to hers. He returned her enthusiasm at once, and soon Skye forgot all about her worries.
All too soon, Grant withdrew and gave her a look that was annoyingly serious to let Skye know that relaxation time was over.
“Why are you stopping? We still have hours,” Skye whined anyway.
“There’s something I want to do before we meet your team,” Grant said.
“Fine,” Skye agreed with a put upon sigh. She threw off the bed sheets and grabbed her mission clothes to put on. “Where are we headed?” She asked when she was done and turned to stare at him.
“The gym,” Grant said. There was a strange tone to his voice, as if he were holding in laughter.
“What is it? You got me up, now what are you waiting for?”
“Clothes, for starters,” Grant said with a smirk as he crossed his arms behind his head as if to emphasize his nakedness. “You threw out my prison outfit, remember?”
Right. Skye tore her gaze away from his body with great reluctance. “I can go ask Fitz for some,” she offered.
“Somehow I doubt we’re the same size,” Grant said dryly.
Yeah, but that was part of the appeal. Grant in Fitz’s dorky sweaters and plaid shirts stretching too tightly across his muscles would be something Skye would pay to see.
“I’ll figure something out,” she said as she went to the door, but when she opened it, Skye nearly tripped over the carefully folded clothes that lay before her. She reached down to examine them and found it was an all-black set of pants, shirt, boots and socks typically donned by specialists underneath armor. Skye held it up and saw they were about Grant’s size.
These were Trip’s clothes, Skye realized. He must have left them outside her door for Grant earlier, maybe even when they were showering last night. Skye returned to the room with a rush of unexpected warmth because even if Grant did not agree, Skye knew she had great friends.
“Here you go,” Skye declared cheerily as she threw the clothes sans boots to Grant.
He caught them easily. His brow furrowed while he stared down at the clothes before dressing himself quickly.
After the two of them were ready, Skye led him to the Playground’s- thankfully empty- gym. Grant surveyed the room with a detached professionalism. Skye watched as he took in all the details from the padded mats on the floor to the cameras perched in two of the ceiling’s corners.
Skye bounced lightly on the balls of her feet and jokingly raised her fists. “All right, are we going to spar? Because I think I might feel bad about kicking your ass before such an important mission. Might wreck your confidence.”
“My ego is fine, thank you,” he teased back, but he had now turned his contemplative gaze towards her. “I have a different type of sparring in mind though.”
Grant approached her and halted Skye’s bouncing with careful hands on both of her shoulders. He swiveled her around, so she was now facing Grant and the middle of the mat, Skye’s curiosity was piqued.
Skye cocked her head to the side, “Oh, yeah? What’s that?”
“I want you to use your powers on me,” he said.
That effectively ruined all of Skye’s lightheartedness.
“What?” Skye blurted out. Was he crazy? Well, Skye could actually think of a few people who would probably say yes to that…
“Come on, you’re not going to hurt me,” Grant said as he backed away. He held his hands up and beckoned her closer as if to dare Skye to give him her best shot.
Still, she hesitated. Uncertainty had slivered up her spine and taken root there, freezing any moves she could make.
“Did you forget what I did to Scarlotti’s bullet?” Skye said incredulously.
“That’s exactly what I want you to do here,” Grant replied. “Only try to manage the force of the blow. I’m going to attack you while you try to knock me off my feet, preferably into the air as well.”
“Um excuse me, but you haven’t really seen me in action,” Skye tried to sound confident and casual. “This is a terrible idea. I can cause 10.0 earthquakes and you saw what I did to the glass in our hotel room!”
He smirked cockily, which was an unfairly attractive and distracting expression, but it was actually his words that stole her breath.
“I didn’t say you couldn’t hurt me, just that you’re not going to,” Grant corrected. “I trust you won’t.”
Skye looked down at her hands before raising her eyes to him again. “I don’t know, Grant,” she tried again.
He did not give her another moment. She had not finished speaking before he was attacking her with enough force to knock the wind out of her when she failed to block a well-aimed kick to her chest.
“Asshole,” she wheezed as she darted back. “I’m trying not to hurt you.”
“Stop trying,” he said as he knocked her back again.
Well, now he was pissing her off. She threw a punch in retaliation that he easily dodged and even grabbed her arm to twist it behind her back and push her to the ground.
She glared up at him. “What the hell is your problem?”
“You’re still leading with your left shoulder,” Grant taunted with a tsk and tossed an arrogant smirk in her direction.
Skye was on her feet attacking him before he could continue being an obnoxious jackass. Strangely, this was the most intense fight they had ever engaged in. Skye could not help but reflect on just how much he had been holding back the couple times they fought before. It was almost frightening the viciousness of his attacks all while his expression remained empty, bored even.
Skye was on the defensive the entire fight. Fighting Grant seriously was very different than sparring with May or Bobbi. He had the experience and skill that they had but also a completely different approach and his height and weight were so unlike May especially.
Skye barely blocked a kick only to be faced with what was sure to be a brutal punch to the face. Unthinkingly, she threw up her hands to stop the fist and felt the familiar surge of power flow into her fingers.
Grant flew back fifteen feet through the air and landed with a heavy thud onto his back.
“Oh my god,” Skye screamed as she scrambled towards him. When she noticed he was awake and laughing roughly, Skye’s panic dwindled, which was replaced by rage. “What the hell were you thinking?” She demanded as she knelt by him.
Her heartbeat was pounding like crazy from the rush of emotions coupled with the fading adrenaline from the fight.
“That was good,” he said in lieu of answering her question. “Only took you seven minutes.”
“Are you serious right now? I could have killed you!”
“You didn’t,” Grant said unconcernedly. “You attacked me with just the amount of force I told you to.”
“By accident,” Skye protested. “None of that was intentional.”
“No, none of it was conscious,” Grant corrected as he raised himself into a sitting position. “You need to stop thinking of your powers as this separate entity. You don’t consciously fill your air with lungs, but you trust that you’ll breathe anyway. It’s natural.”
“None of this is natural,” Skye disagreed as she sat back on her heels.
“It is for you,” Grant said without missing a beat. “Think of it like muscle memory. Civilians can’t dissemble a rifle without thinking or instructions in under a minute, but I bet you can. Abilities that become second-nature to spies may seem unnatural to others, but they are fundamental tools of survival nonetheless, and survival is very natural.”
Grant stared at her seriously, but when he realized that she was not buying his comparison, he let out a frustrated sigh.
“Skye,” he spoke earnestly, “This is a part of you now. You should think of it like an untrained muscle that needs to be flexed in order to be useful. Once you train it, you can control it instead of letting it control you. You won’t even need to think about it first.
“There’s a lot that has become natural to me that isn’t natural by other people’s standards,” he continued. “I can’t sleep past 5:30 because of years of conditioning. I can control my ability to feel,” he paused and threw her a very pointed look, “Usually. I can become anyone or anything I want at the drop of a hat. This is all second nature to me now, and it’s a part of me whether or not I want it to be. It’s not something I ever would have thought to get, but I have the abilities now and it’s up to me to decide how to use it- now that I can control it.”
“That isn’t even remotely the same thing,” Skye argued.
Grant huffed. “It is if you stop telling yourself it isn’t. Your abilities are only so different and unnatural to you because you think of them that way and because the people around you treat them as such. Potential capabilities vary person to person and what’s normal to one person isn’t to another.”
Skye remained dubious but was willing to let him believe she agreed with him because truthfully the fact that Grant even thought they were comparable in this way made her feel better. Grant was a talented actor, yes, but she was fairly certain that he genuinely believed what he was saying.
So instead of protesting, Skye leaned forward and captured Grant’s lips with her own in a lingering, toe-curling kiss. She could not help but smile into his mouth. When she drew back, she leaned her forehead against his.
Her smile never faltered while she cheerfully told him, “But don’t ever pull that crap again.”
“It wouldn’t have been necessary if you just tried from the start,” Grant said. Skye was willing to let that go, but the idiot decided to add, “Now try to do it again, consciously this time.”
Skye somehow found herself repeating the exercise several more times before Grant was satisfied. And by satisfied, she meant crumpled on the floor after sailing through the air.
“You’re kind of crazy, do you know that?” Skye said flippantly as she straddled him on the mat.
Grant’s eyes were still closed, but he smirked up at her anyway.
Skye swooped down to kiss him because as dumb as it all was, he had somehow made her feel much better. Her supposed training had removed a huge burden from her shoulders because she felt something she had not felt in almost a year- she felt in control.
The curtain of her hair framed his face when she pulled back, and for a moment, she just stared at him with all the warmth in her. He had let her throw him around the room for the last hour because of what she had confessed to him last night. “Thank you.”
She helped him stand and turned away, but when she did, he immediately grabbed her around the waist and yanked her off her feet and into his chest. She let out a delighted gasp as he ducked his head to kiss her cheek.
Skye could not help but smile stupidly as he set her back on the ground. She felt like she was walking on air.
“Skye, Ward,” Coulson called clearly and shattered the moment.
Skye stumbled slightly when Grant abruptly released her and stepped back. She turned to stare at the entrance and saw Coulson, May and Fitz standing there observing them.
May’s disapproving stare required no words of translation, but Skye was struggling to read Coulson’s blank expression. How long had they been watching? The two of them did not look happy, but they also looked like they had a million other places in mind where they would rather be at the moment. Skye shifted uncomfortably. Grant’s fact may as well have been made of marble for all the emotion it showed.
On the other hand, Fitz possessed no such unease. He seemed rather immune to the sheer awkwardness that had enveloped the room.
“Ward!” He called good-naturedly as he stepped onto the mats to approach them.
Despite his cheeriness, Skye got the feeling that he was not as relaxed as he acted. The creases around his eyes were more pronounced, and there was a tightness in his face. The bags under his eyes made Skye wonder if he had slept at all the night before.
With a start, Skye realized he was probably mourning his friend, Simmons’ lab assistant. Had she only died yesterday? So much had happened so quickly.
“Fitz,” Grant greeted with a subdued nod while his eyes stayed fixed on Coulson. Gone was the lighthearted mood he had when he awoke, now Grant was taking in everyone and everything suspiciously. The tension in his shoulders made Skye wonder expecting an attack.
“Skye, we need to begin preparations in my office,” Coulson said. “Fitz is going to accompany Ward to the lab to finalize the monitoring contacts.” Coulson gave Grant a flat look, “Agent Tripplet will be there, too.”
Grant just scoffed, but the way his eyes cut to Skye hesitantly left her with the impression that he was uncertain about splitting up. Remembering the way he had clung to her since Garrett’s death. Skye worried he was not as composed as he wanted everyone to believe.
Grant reluctantly watched Skye disappear with the Cavalry and Phil Coulson. She likely did not realize that it marked he beginning of the end, but Grant was very aware and that knowledge threatened to wreck him.
Grant forced all of those thoughts away as he cleared his mind. He had a mission to concentrate on, and nothing else mattered.
So he just told Fitz, “Lead the way,” and followed the shorter man to his lab.
Trip had arrived a minute ago and scrutinized Grant as Fitz bustled around the room. There was a strange look on the other specialist’s face, and not for the first time, Grant noted that his hostility had decreased the most of the SHIELD agents other than Skye, Fitz and Simmons.
Fitz was proudly detailing his achievements with the contacts. It was now supposedly safe, which was a relief but hardly Grant’s biggest concern.
“Will it be detectable?” Grant demanded when Fitz paused to breathe.
“The purpose is to monitor you, so I ensured there was a potential tracking method,” Fitz began apologetically.
Grant could care less about that. As long as they were easily removed, it mattered little if SHIELD could track them.
“No, Fitz,” Grant cut in when Fitz opened his mouth. “Will Whitehall be able to tell I have them in?”
“Oh,” Fitz said. “No, definitely not. They’ll appear invisible to the human eye.”
“You’re sure?” Grant pushed. “Because if you’re wrong, Whitehall will have me tortured and brainwashed for weeks until I’m ‘happy to comply’.”
Grant had no intention of allowing Whitehall to do anything of the kind, but he wanted Fitz to realize how serious he was. It would also ruin his plans to be caught so soon. Grant did not like relying on others or unknown variables in missions, but he did not have much of a choice at the moment.
Fitz blinked bewildered before giving him a flat look. “I said it’ll be undetectable, and it will be.”
Grant nodded, accepting the answer. Fitz obviously believed what he was saying, and he was the smartest man Grant knew. If Grant was going to trust anyone’s judgment besides Skye and Jo-
Grant took an inconspicuous, deep breath and focused again.
“So here they are,” Fitz spoke as he proudly opened a case to reveal what appeared to be average contact lenses.
Fitz’s enthusiasm at his invention did little to conceal his obvious strain weighing on him. His smiles were shaky and his posture hunched. Given the events of the last few days and the stress Fitz had been under, Grant was unsurprised. He was a bit thrown by how it bothered him to see the scientist so weary though.
“Put them in now to get accustomed to them first, and I’ll activate them later at the meeting. I attempted to try them myself and researched online the best technique. After numerous attempts, I found that holding your eyelid while staring straight ahead to insert the lens,” he said while he mimed his instructions. “Now you’ll need a mirror-“
Grant ignored him and easily put the contacts in. He blinked twice to clear his vision and returned his gaze to Fitz, who appeared a little disappointed to see Grant disregard his advice.
“You’ve worn contacts before?” Fitz asked.
“No,” Grant said, and because he wanted to distract Fitz, he added teasingly, “How many times did you say you tried to put them in?”
Fitz spluttered, and Grant was pleased to see he had distracted Fitz from his worries at least momentarily.
Trip barked out a laugh at Fitz’s comically dismayed expression. Grant had forgotten he was there, and it unsettled him to realize how open he had been in front of Trip. He shut down his expression quickly.
“It’s a lot more difficult than it looks,” Fitz muttered before raising his voice to ask, “How do they feel? Are they impairing your vision in any way?”
“All good,” Grant said with a close-lipped smile.
“Let’s join the others then,” Fitz said. “It’s almost nine.”
Grant followed Fitz out of the lab with Trip trailing behind them. As they walked, Fitz was quiet, which reaffirmed Grant’s suspicions that something was wrong with him. Grant might have said something to take Fitz’s mind off of it or learn what was bothering him, but he did not want to do so in Trip’s presence.
Instead, he occupied himself by cataloguing the facility. He wanted to know the ins and outs of SHIELD HQ by the time he left, so he counted his footsteps, analyzed the rooms and memorized the security cameras’ whereabouts.
When they passed an empty room that did not seem to have much in the way of monitoring devices, Grant stopped abruptly.
Trip followed his lead but tensed minutely as his dark eyes keenly studied him.
“Ward?” Fitz called confusedly.
Grant’s attention was on Trip though. “Give us a moment, Fitz.”
Despite all the absurd trust Fitz had placed in him in the past, the engineer hesitated. He threw a questioning look to Trip as if to double check it was okay for him to leave.
Trip’s brow furrowed as he regarded Ward, but he nodded to Fitz. “We’ll meet you in briefing room.”
Fitz glanced between the two of them before giving a quick smile. “Just don’t take too long.”
When Fitz rounded the corner and disappeared down another hallway, Grant indicated with his head towards the room he saw. He walked into it without waiting for a response. Giving the other agent his back would likely alleviate the suspicions Trip had, and Grant wanted them in the position of his choice- one that did not have any cameras focused on the area. He suspected that SHIELD might be watching his movements, and he did not want this on camera just in case those watching jumped to the wrong conclusions.
“What is it, Ward?” Trip asked once they stopped.
“I need a favor,” Grant said bluntly. Trip was a good guy, so making this out to be something he was doing for Grant would probably go a long way in getting him to do what Grant was about to ask. Still, Grant was unsure of how to phrase what he was about to say.
“I hope you don’t expect me to agree before you tell me what it is you want,” Trip said when the silence stretched for a moment. There were traces of humor in the words as well, which was a good sign. Trip’s lack of hostility seemed genuine. Maybe his anger and disgust with Grant had faded slightly when he had killed J-
“I need you to hit me.”
Trip froze for a split second before balking. “Hang on, now- what?”
“When I go back to Hydra, it needs to look like I’ve been hurt significantly. Over a dozen Hydra agents are dead in addition to Garrett and Scarlotti. If I walk in with only a couple of visible injuries, it’s going to rouse Whitehall’s suspicions,” Grant explained shortly.
“So you want me to what? Beat the shit out of you?” Trip asked incredulously. He was staring at Grant like he was insane.
“You were fine drugging and torturing me two days ago,” Grant snapped.
Trip held up his hands defensively as if to claim innocence despite being the one to inject Grant with whatever drugs SHIELD gave him. “I did what I did because I thought it could save lives and do good. There’s nothing good about hurting someone for the sake of hurting someone.”
“Is preventing an explosive attack on a civilian population good enough for you?” Grant said coldly. “I won’t be able to infiltrate Hydra if Whitehall’s doubting me before I even open my mouth.”
“Why me?” Trip tried instead. “Why did you single me out for this?”
Because Skye would never do it, she had avoided hurting him even while they sparred earlier despite Grant’s attempts to provoke her. Because the Cavalry and Morse would probably take pleasure in hurting him given the chance. Because Hunter was an unknown element. Because Grant would never willingly put himself at Phil Coulson’s mercy after the memory machine.
“Because I need a specialist who knows how to punch,” Grant said simply. “And you’ll do it, but you won’t want to.”
Trip crossed his arm considering and was silent for several seconds before muttering, “This is messed up.”
Grant relaxed slightly, content that Trip would do it and that he had not miscalculated his choices.
Trip drew back his arm and sent a powerful right hook across Grant’s face. He could already feel the bruise forming. Grant spat out a little blood. “Again,” he ordered.
“Skye’s going to kill me,” Trip mumbled, but he hit Grant two more times before stopping.
Trip surveyed the damage he inflicted with a grimace as Grant wiped some blood off his mouth and rubbed his sore jaw.
“That’s it, man,” Trip declared. “You still have the bruises and cuts on your body from the restraints. It’s enough, if it was ever even necessary.”
Weirdly enough, Trip pulled his punches despite the fact that Grant asked him to hit him. Grant knew the other man hated him, but Trip did not look smug as he stared at him, only pained and uncomfortable.
Abruptly, Grant remembered when Hydra came out of the shadows over a year ago, and he and John had been planning their next moves. John had ordered him to infiltrate SHIELD in the chaos after they dismantled the Fridge. To sell the cover, John had beckoned him closer and rained blow after blow on him. His mentor had not pulled his punches then, Grant recalled, and he had smiled when he looked over the Grant’s bloody face.
Grant tasted bile in the back of his throat as he stared at the smudged blood on his hand from where he had wiped his mouth.
“Ward, are you okay?” Trip asked worriedly. “I didn’t think I hit you that hard.”
Grant blinked slowly. “It’s not that,” he said mindlessly. “You didn’t hit me hard at all. I was just thinking of a memory.”
That only made Trip more wary and concerned, likely reminded of the memory machine, but Grant hardly cared. He should never have said anything at all.
“Ward, about Garrett-“ Trip began.
“It’s past nine,” Grant spoke over him. This was not a conversation he would have with Skye, much less someone like Trip who had no idea what he was talking about. “The others are waiting for us.”
Trip sighed, “Fine, we don’t have to talk about Garrett, but you will listen to me about one thing.” Trip stepped closer to Grant and leveled him with a piercing gaze, “Skye and Fitzsimmons believe in you. They believe you aren’t leading us into a trap and that you’re not this irredeemable murderer. They’re good people, and if you’re manipulating them or if you let them down, I will take you out.”
Grant felt unsteady on his feet all of the sudden, but he forced a smirk onto his face. “You could try,” Grant said cockily as walked towards the exit. Without turning around, he added, “But that won’t be necessary.”
Grant waited for Trip to respond, but he never did. The other man simply brushed past him and down the hallway Fitz had taken. Grant quietly followed, trying to ignore the nauseous feeling that had taken root in the pit of his stomach.
Grant knew that he was not manipulating Skye, Fitz or Simmons in the way Trip implied, but he would probably let them down all the same. It was in Grant’s nature to disappoint people as his mother and John had always reminded him. Kara’s trusting face came to mind- yes, Grant was very good at disappointing people who believed in him.
Worse still, for all his efforts, Grant could not help but hear Skye’s words about John from the night before torturously echoing in his head.
“He didn’t care about you, Grant. You have to know that on some level.”
She was wrong though. John had cared about him, he had to have. If he had not, then Grant’s life for the last sixteen years had been pointlessly wasted and everything he had done to protect John and help him had been based on a lie, a lie Grant had told himself until he believed it, too.
All the blood on his hands and the lives he had shattered, if that had not been in service of saving the first and only person to care about Grant, then it was worthless. It may be worthless anyway since Grant never did save John. He had killed him instead.
No, John had cared about him. Grant was sure, but maybe he had not cared about Grant half as much as he had cared about himself, and he was gone now besides. Skye, too, did not care about him as much as she did her job, her friends and found family at SHIELD and the life she led before they had met. The devotion she felt for him was a spark compared to the inferno of his feelings for her.
There was no one in the world, living or dead, now or before, who truly loved Grant Ward.
He had burned his bridges at SHIELD long ago and was about to do the same with Hydra. It struck him then that he was completely and utterly alone in a way he had not been ever before because he was not a part of something anymore. There were no teams or mentors or organizations waiting in the wings for Grant to turn to when he felt directionless. There was no greater purpose to drive him forward. He could not go back, and there was no clear path ahead.
There was only him.