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Across the Board

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. . . . . .

Skye doesn't tell anyone what happened that night—not a word. She supposes that she's embarrassed, when she thinks about it. What she doesn't know is whether she's more embarrassed that she kissed him or at how she reacted. She replays that moment over and over again in her head—not the kisses themselves, she won't let herself do that, but the moment after, when she awkwardly left—and she sees again and again the look of resignation and pain on his face, and she hates herself for it and for kissing him in the first place. She knew all the reasons it wouldn't work (and there are many). She kissed him anyway.

He doesn't contact her, not with intel, not with personal messages. The intel isn't too unusual; he can't control when he picks up useful information, and it is sometimes months between his tips. But they used to contact each other with personal e-mails and funny dancing sushi texts several times a week. Not that she blames him, though; she hasn't contacted him either.

Days go by, then turn into weeks. Nothing.

It occurs to her eventually that maybe she overreacted. She acted like that kiss was the harbinger of something more, a future committed relationship, but she doesn't know for sure that's what he was thinking. Maybe he just likes being kissed. Maybe he'd have been perfectly happy to kiss her and then go back to their normal lives on either side of the world. Maybe she ruined their friendship for nothing.

She doesn't believe it, though, not really. The way he kissed her, the way he held her hand, how upset he was at the thought of her nearly dying for him—she wondered, all those years, how he really felt about her, but that seems so stupid to her now. He has feelings for her, obviously; she was blind not to have seen it. So it's a pretty reasonable guess that he was hoping that would not be their last kiss.

No, she's pretty sure she broke his heart. They're pretty good at doing that to each other.

One week turns into two, two turns into three. And still he doesn't contact her.

. . . . . .

Just shy of a month after Austria, she gets an e-mail from T1000, which she opens with an eagerness that makes her sad, when she thinks about it later. (She supposes they probably ought to stop using Hotmail, because even though that entire branch of Hydra is now out of commission, they did conclusively prove that it's not a very secure way to communicate. But she's not much in contact with him these days, so she hasn't yet had a chance to suggest it.) It's a tip, a single name, like he used to send back when this all started.

She works her magic and uncovers that the name belongs to a southeast Asian gun runner using Inhumans as muscle. She takes it to Coulson, who promptly puts her in charge of organizing a team to deal with the problem. And she's so busy doing this and then completing the mission that it's a week before she's sitting in front of her e-mail again, eyeing the Reply button.

Under normal circumstances, she sometimes responds to his intel emails and sometimes doesn't. But now . . . . she wants to and she doesn't want to. She wants her friend back, although she realizes that's a tall order, given what's happened between them. But she also wants to respect the distance he's set between them. And also she a little bit wants to kiss him again. More than a little bit, some days.

In the end, she simply writes, Thanks.

There's no response, and it bothers her. It bothers her so much more than she is willing to admit, because this is her own fault and if she'd just kept her mouth to herself, none of this would have happened and she'd still have Grant's friendship. (She's not sure when he became Grant in her head, instead of Ward, but it's been happening with increasing frequency lately. Certain parts of her memory of that painful encounter that night are a bit hazy, but she thinks she might have called him Grant to his face then.) And then sometimes it bothers her that she had to tell him no at all, that fate (or just the consequences of their actions) have positioned them such that they can't live on the same continent. Because maybe she would have been willing to . . . if only SHIELD had a field office anywhere near Australia . . . but she can't move to Australia right now and that's the end of it.

And as the days go by and still no response comes, she gets downright grouchy.

"Okay," says Bobbi one day in mid-November, pulling up a chair at the mess hall table where Skye is grumpily eating a very unsatisfactory broccoli soup. "You've got something on your mind. Let's talk."

Skye glances down. "Umm, the soup's not good today?"

"Not what I meant," she says. "You've been down since Austria." She hesitates. "If you're still . . . a little off-balance after being held captive, believe me, I get it. I've been there before."

And Skye feels a rush of gratitude to Bobbi for not immediately assuming it's a guy problem, given that she saw perfectly well that Skye was practically cuddling with Grant in that cell. Trouble is, it is a guy problem.

But there's also truth in what she said. "That did freak me out some," she admits. "I've . . . struggled a little. Being out of the base puts me on edge. Those Hydra agents got to me so easily. In Albany! It's such a nice town. It's hard not to feel like they could get me anywhere."

Bobbi gives her a sympathetic half-smile. "I know the feeling. And there's no shame in wanting to keep people with you when you go out for a while. In fact, if you ever need someone to come with you, I'm here for you."

Skye smiles her thanks, and they sit in silence a moment. Then Bobbi asks, tentatively, "Was that what's been on your mind?"

Skye hesitates, then shakes her head.

"Does it have to do with a certain someone that I saw you kissing at the Hydra base?"

Skye's head pops up in surprise, and she turns to give her friend a rueful look.

"Sorry," says Bobbi. "I was on patrol that night, and you guys were right out in front. Hard to miss."

Skye makes a noise that's half sigh, half chuckle.

"So you kissed him," says Bobbi carefully. "And from your reaction, you're not happy about this?"

"I . . . have mixed feelings," Skye admits. "But it won't work. So I told him that. And now he won't even talk to me."

Bobbi smiles. "Would you talk to you? If you were him?"

Skye can't help smiling at that. "Good point."

"So why won't it work? Is this about him being a mole and a traitor and a Hydra agent and killing Victoria Hand?"

"Well, when you say it like that, it definitely seems like it should only entirely about that." Skye is quiet a moment. "And that's part of it, definitely. I do wonder if forgiving him is enough to feel okay about . . . you know, being with him."

"I've been in relationships with worse starts," Bobbi shrugs.

"I don't doubt that," Skye laughs. "But it's not just that. Even if I wanted to start a relationship with him—and I'm not sure I do—he lives in Australia. My life is here. And he can't come back to the US because he's still technically a fugitive."

"Easy fix," Bobbi shrugs. "Save the president's life, then when he says 'If there's anything I can do for you' you ask for a pardon."

Skye laughs. "Solid advice, Bob. Has that worked in the past?"

Bobbi nods, looking perfectly serious. Knowing her, it might be true. "But also, Skye, seriously? That's your big concern? Three words for you: long-distance relationship." She pauses. "Or is 'long-distance' one word?"

"I've thought about it," admits Skye. "But . . . I mean, do those ever work? Long-term, I mean?"

"Worked for me and Lance, back in the day," Bobbi shrugs.

"Oh, did that work for you and your ex-husband?" Skye teases.

Bobbi grins and steals one of the crackers from Skye's tray. "Touché."

"And also, I'm not saying I do want to be with him," Skye goes on, and it's sort of true. That would be complicated, which has become her favorite word when talking about Ward.

Bobbi rolls her eyes. "Skye, did you like kissing him?"

Caught off guard, Skye says nothing, but her face apparently gives her away.

"That's what I thought. And you miss him now, right? Enough for people to notice how down you are?"

"People have noticed?" Skye says weakly.

"Everyone's noticed," confirms Bobbi. "So you like kissing him, but you also like just having him in your life. What more is there to say?"

And that, reflects Skye, is a reasonable question.

. . . . . .

Fitzsimmons' baby is born three weeks early, coming screaming into the world in late November. They name her Alice Elizabeth, after both their mothers, and Skye has never seen the two scientists look so happy and proud (which is saying something, given how pleased they usually are with their own cleverness).

Jemma gives birth on base, and when they start allowing visitors into the room, Skye is the first one in. She marvels at the infant, at the perfectly formed tiny fingernails, at the hummingbird thrum of her heartbeat. And she promises the new parents, "Any help you need with her, you just tell me."

A week and a half later she's regretting that a little. Fitzsimmons have taken her up on that offer, asking her to look after Alice for an afternoon so that they can try to get a nap. Skye has no idea how to take care of an infant, but she looked at Fitz and Jemma's exhausted faces and found herself agreeing. Now they're in the back of their little on-base house, sleeping like logs, while Skye is out in the living room, trying to keep the baby happy and fed and changed and quiet so she doesn't interrupt her parents' much-needed sleep.

"You're lucky you're so cute," she mutters more than once at the baby as she wraps up smelly diapers and fills bottles from bags of milk that Jemma has pumped—and Jemma had darn well better appreciate this, because Skye thinks of herself as having a strong stomach and she understands that breastfeeding is a normal part of having a baby, but it is still weirding her out a little to handle bags full of milk that came out of her friend's . . . well, anyways.

But when the baby is sleeping is Skye's arms, she admits to herself that this is pretty all right. The warm weight of the baby in her arms is actually rather nice. A few minutes after Alice falls asleep, she hears movement in the bedroom. Glancing at the clock, she sees it's 6; at least they got a few hours of sleep in.

"Oh, well done," Jemma smiles, coming into the front room and wiping the sleep from her eyes. "You got her to sleep." And she carefully takes the sleeping child from Skye's arms and takes her to the nursery.

Fitz comes in a moment later, yawning. "Wow, I needed that. You're a lifesaver, Skye."

"All in a day's work," she says modestly.

He smiles and flops down on the other couch, still looking sleepy. After a moment he asks unexpectedly, "You've told Ward about Alice, yeah?"

She blinks. "Come again?" This is the first time since Austria that Fitz or Jemma has mentioned his name to her.

"I was just thinking," he shrugs, "I told him Jemma was pregnant, it seems polite to tell him the baby was born. Plus, I don't know, maybe he'll send her a pet kangaroo as a present." He chuckles.

"I . . . haven't told him."

"Oh. Will you?" he asks. "I . . . I would like him to know."

And Skye grimaces. "We're not really on speaking terms right now."

Fitz is visibly surprised by that. "Seriously? What happened? Last time I saw you two you were, like, best friends."

She sighs. "Yeah, things have changed."

"Did you get in a fight?" Fitz asks.

"With whom?" Jemma says, coming back into the front room. She gives Skye a fond smile. "Are you picking fights again?"

Oh great, two people getting into her business. "No, we didn't get in a fight."

"With whom?" Jemma repeats, settling down onto the couch next to Fitz. His arm immediately goes around her.

"With Ward," supplies Fitz helpfully. "They're no longer on speaking terms."

Jemma, to Skye's surprise, looks annoyed. "Seriously? I'd finally come to terms with him. And now you aren't friends anymore?" She pauses. "Wait, did he finally kiss you?"

Skye blinks. "Finally?" she repeats.

"He obviously wanted to. The last few times I've seen him—which, admittedly, is only twice in the last five years—he's been so obviously smitten with you. You should have seen him when he brought you to me after you were shot: covered in your blood, gasping for breath because he'd just run all that way with you over his shoulder, and absolutely sick at the thought that you'd taken a bullet for him. It was . . . disgusting and romantic."

Skye covers her face with her hands.

"He did kiss you!" says Fitz.

"Which you're unhappy about, by the looks of it," Jemma observes. "Did he know this when he kissed you? Because if you weren't encouraging it at all, that's awfully forward of him—"

"I kissed him," Skye breaks in without meaning to. This isn't something she wants to talk about, but she's not going to sit there and let Fitzsimmons believe untrue things about Grant Ward. They give her identical surprised looks, and she admits, "Well, I guess he also kissed me a couple times. But only after I did it first."

They both stare back at her with identical looks of shock, and then Fitz breaks into a smile. "I knew it," he says, and Skye would like to contradict him there but he kind of did.

"So, you like him," says Jemma.

"No," says Skye with all the incredulity she can muster, a knee-jerk reaction to all those years spent thinking the absolute worst of the man. But then she hesitates, because suddenly passing through her mind like a newsreel is her and Grant's interactions of the last ten years: the e-mails. Working together to save Jemma, save Kara, save each other. That photo of them laughing together at the Italian restaurant. And, more quietly, she amends, "Maybe." And then she thinks of standing with him in front of that base, hand in hand, as they looked at the stars. She thinks of that kiss, which she knows perfectly well she initiated because she wanted to, and for no other reason. And she hangs her head. "Probably."

"I knew it," Fitz repeats, looking smug.

Jemma leans forward. "So why aren't you on speaking terms now? From what I saw of him in Austria, he seemed like he'd be absolutely fine with you kissing him."

Skye finds it's easier to talk if she looks at a spot on the wall above her friends' heads. "After we . . . kissed, I told him it wouldn't work between us. Then I left. We haven't talked since."

Fitzsimmons glance at each other. "He did do some terrible things," Jemma agrees carefully.

Skye groans and covers her face with her hands. "You have no idea how many times I've been over this in my head. I decided that I forgave him a long time ago. But 'I forgive you' and 'I want to date you' are very different ideas. Right? Aren't they? Sometimes I think that if I'm uncomfortable with the idea of dating him, then I'm lying to myself when I claim I forgave him. And then sometimes I think I'm crazy for even considering getting involved with the man who betrayed us all and helped destroy everything that mattered to me."

Fitz and Jemma exchange a look. Whatever mental version of rock paper scissors they're playing, Jemma apparently wins—or loses—because she's the one who answers."This is . . . an unusual situation, to say the least. I think everyone would handle it differently. I, for one, am not sure that I would go for it."

"I should hope not," Fitz grins. "You're already married."

"But . . ." Jemma hesitates, then appears to make up her mind. "He makes you happy. I've seen that. And I've seen that you've been a bit down lately, which I assume is related to the lack of one Grant Ward in your life?"

Has everyone noticed? How embarrassing.

Jemma takes a deep breath. "I think . . . I think you should go for it."

Skye is skeptical. "You think I should date the guy who gave your husband brain damage?"

"I'm trying to be supportive," says Jemma with an exaggerated scowl. "Don't make me change my mind."

"What she's saying," says Fitz, "is that things have changed since then. He's changed. So have you." He's quiet a moment. "I think you have a choice here. You can choose not to act on your feelings for him, and I don't think that would make you a terrible person. I think we have all, at one time or another, forgiven another person for hurting us, but still done things to protect ourselves from getting hurt by that person again."

Jemma nods while Skye considers.

"Or you could decide," he goes on, "to let the past stay in the past. To choose happiness, even if the source is unconventional."

Oh. It actually sounds very reasonable when he says it like that. It sounds . . . great.

"So," says Fitz, "what do you want?"

What does she want?

Grant Ward.

The answer comes to her so easily, so immediately, that she is dumbfounded. And it must show on her face, because Jemma reaches out and pats her knee. "I think it's time for you to go to Australia."

. . . . . .

When she's left Fitzsimmons, Skye goes to her bunk, where she paces for a few minutes. Then, looking for something to distract herself, she pulls out her laptop. She messes around for a few minutes until a thought occurs to her, and she pulls up her Hotmail account. A few clicks brings up her entire correspondence with Grant Ward, beginning with that first warning all those years ago about an anti-superhero militia that was considering making an example of the superhero known as Quake.

And she reads each e-mail. They start out infrequent and impersonal, but soon they start coming more often, and before long he is sending her links to Quake fan art and she is teasing him about his love of Kinder Eggs. And Skye is shocked at the sheer number of them—far more than she ever realized she was talking to him.

It takes her an hour to read them all. Some make her laugh, and some make her smile fondly, and one makes her chest constrict: the last personal e-mail he sent before Austria, a numbered list of reasons he prefers soccer to cricket. It's so silly, so endearing, so . . . him, to have such a logically laid out argument for such an inconsequential issue. And it makes her heart hurt to think that this funny little e-mail could be the last of its kind.

She stares at it a long time, until she finally admits something to herself, something that has been a long time coming: she prefers a world with him in it.

She prefers her world with him in it.

And why has she been fighting this for so long? She's in love with him. Of course she is.

And she stands to go inform Coulson that she needs personal leave to fly to Australia.

. . . . . .

Skye lands in Australia two midnights later, Sydney time, glad to be on solid ground. Coulson, who was quite supportive of her decision, pulled some strings to get her on a small charter flight carrying a chamber orchestra from Philadelphia to Sydney; it was infinitely preferable to flying commercial, but Skye's gotten used to SHIELD flights, where she can wander around and do whatever she wants, so that was a long twenty hours.

It's too late to do anything tonight, and anyway she's exhausted—didn't get much sleep on the flight—so she checks into a hotel for the night. She'd rather do this when she's refreshed and doesn't look like the living dead. The next morning, she sleeps late quite accidentally, then takes her time getting ready—no tactical black and ponytails for her today. Then she's got a long drive all the way across town to the outskirts of Sydney. So it's late morning by the time she pulls onto a row of massive beachfront properties.

Her phone is sitting on the passenger seat of her rental car, and she checks it three times to make sure she's looking at the correct wrought iron front gate (and hopes that her intel on Claud's address is accurate). She checked before leaving the Playground, and as far as she can tell, Claud is in Sydney and has no major engagements today. So she ought to be here. Which means Grant ought to be here. And the thought makes her swallow hard.

There's an intercom at the front gate, and Skye presses the call button and clears her throat.

"State your name, please," comes a calm voice Skye doesn't recognize.

"Skye," she responds as confidently as she can manage.

"Last name?"

"No last name." She thinks, not for the first time, that maybe she should have just adopted the name Johnson. "No last name" always makes her feel like she's pretending to be Madonna.


"I'm here to visit . . . Claud. I'm a friend." She doesn't know if being friends with Claud makes her more likely to get through the gate than being friends with Grant, but it's worth a try.

There's a long silence. "Please pull up to the house and park across from the garage," says the voice, and the gate swings open silently. Skye goes in and up the drive, gaping at the massive, modern white house as it comes into view, and parks where she's been instructed to. And she's in the process of climbing out (and wondering where to go next) when she hears footsteps hurrying toward her.

It's Claud, looking effortlessly gorgeous and smiling broadly. "You finally came!" she exclaims—what is it with her and weird greetings? It's not like this visit was expected—and throws her arms around Skye.

Skye grins and hugs her back. "Sorry to drop in unannounced," she says.

"No problem at all," says Claud, putting an arm around her shoulders and leading her toward the house. "You're here to talk to Grant, right?"

Skye blinks. "How did you . . ."

"Armand!" Claud calls out to a young man they pass in the doorway. "Lemonade and biscuits in the drawing room." She turns to Skye. "You like lemonade, right? Are you ready for lunch yet? I can order one."

"No, I'm good," laughs Skye. "But lemonade would be great."

They quickly find themselves in the drawing room, which is decorated, like everything else in the house (and Claud's life), in white. It's all low square couches and modern light fixtures, and Skye, looking around, thinks that it all looks exactly like Claud but that it's going to be stressful to eat in here, with the constant worry of messing up the white carpet and upholstery.

A familiar figure walks in then, carrying the lemonade and biscuit tray: Sophie, who apparently delivers Claud's food whether she's at home or in the plane. Her eyes light up on seeing Skye, and they exchange pleasantries for several moments while Sophie sets out the plates and pours the lemonade.

"So what brings you to Sydney?" Sophie asks.

"Actually," Skye says, trying to sound casual, "I needed to talk to Grant."

Sophie nods in understanding. "Oh, well, he should be home from his date pretty soon."

For a moment, Skye's heartbeat is suddenly incredibly loud in her ears. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Claud shoot Sophie a dirty look, and Sophie makes an apologetic face. "Oh, he's on a date right now?" Skye asks, trying to sound calm and unconcerned.

Sophie, shamefaced, scurries from the room.

"Very casual," Claud assures her. "Just brunch. More to get this woman to stop bothering him than anything, I'm sure."

Desperate for something to do, Skye sits down and takes a drink of lemonade. "I wasn't aware he was going on dates."

"It's a recent development. Just a few, over the last month. He still hasn't taken any of them out on a second date."

Skye nods, staring down at her glass. She was an idiot to come here. Did she really think that after she broke his heart like that, he'd be waiting for her with open arms? He's moved on, as well he should have. "Maybe coming here was a bad idea," she says, as much to herself as to her companion.

"Oh, no," says Claud. "You are absolutely not leaving." And to make her point, she snatches Skye's handbag off the floor and clutches it to her chest. "You are staying here until you've talked to Grant."

Skye blinks in surprise.

"Look," says Claud, with more heat in her voice than Skye's ever heard, "I don't know what happened to you two. All I know is that he came back from Austria so quiet and withdrawn that I thought at first that you'd died. And he wouldn't say a word about it except that you were fine, and he's been in a funk ever since, and I don't know what's wrong but I know it has to do with you. And you flew halfway around the world to see him, so obviously there was a reason. And you two are going to talk it out so that at the very least, my bodyguard stops being such a grouch."

Skye stares at her, at a loss for words.

"Sorry," says Claud, "that came off a little strong. Would you like any more lemonade?"

Skye hesitates, and then she starts to laugh. "Thank you," she says, holding out her glass for more. "You're right. I came all this way out here. I should see him, at the very least. I can . . . apologize." A simple apology is not what she's been hoping for here; a simple apology is not the reason she's been popping breath mints. But if that's all she can do, that's fine. She owes him that, at least, for how badly she reacted.

Silence falls over the room for a few moments while both women sip their drinks thoughtfully. Finally Claud asks, "This is unforgivably nosy of me, but . . . any chance you're going to tell me what happened?"

Skye is quiet, considering.

"You don't have to," Claud amends.

"No, it's fine," says Skye. "It's just that . . ." And then she launches into a very abbreviated version of what happened that night. "I didn't mean to hurt him," she insists. "It's just . . . I don't know how much you know about his time at SHIELD, but he . . . left on pretty bad terms with all of us."

Claud nods sagely. "He told me he stabbed you all in the back and most of the team still hasn't forgiven him."

Ah, so apparently she knows a fair bit. Although Skye would wager Grant hasn't told her everything. "They've actually all mostly forgiven him by now, or at least reached a point where they don't actively hate him anymore. But with all that history and bad blood between him and us . . . they're the only real family I've ever had, and . . ."

"It's complicated," Claud finishes with a look that says she understands quite well.

"Plus the distance thing. He can't come back to the US. I'm not going to quit SHIELD and move here. It's a problem."

At this Claud's face lights up for some reason. "But apparently you decided you were okay with all this," she points out with a smile. "If you'd needed to apologize, you could have called. You flew all this way because you were hoping that he'd fall into your arms and you'd ride off into the sunset together, correct?"

And Skye is 36 years old and she should be past this, but she blushes.

"Good," says Claud with so much emphasis it makes Skye jump. "I can't even tell you how long I've been waiting for this. Do you remember my brother Michael?"

Startled by the whiplash-inducing change in topic, Skye can only nod.

"Well," says Claud, "he'll finish school in the spring. And then he's going out into the world with so many things that make him a target: the family name, the family fortune, this crusade of his that is so admirable but is going to make some people so angry. And I worry about him; our dad is barely a part of our lives, so Michael's all I've got. So I've thought for a long time that I should give him the best protection I can."

Skye exclaims in understanding. "Grant."

"I'd been going to ask him to recommend someone good to hire for Michael. But then I got to know him more, and I heard about you. And he seemed to care about you so much, and I thought, if I asked him if he'd go work for Michael himself, he'd be just a few hours from you, in Canada. It would be perfect for him. So Montreal was a bit of a test. I wanted to see if Grant and Michael got on well—which they absolutely did—and I also wanted to see if there was any chance that you two might . . . rekindle things. And after seeing you two together, I was certain it was only a matter of time."

Skye stares at her a few moments, a smile stealing over her face. Grant in Montreal. Grant only an hour by plane or four hours by car away from her. Grant back in her backyard. Back in her life. Skye doesn't believe in fate, but if she did, she'd think this was it. And she's back to thinking that coming here was a brilliant idea. "Well," she says matter-of-factly, "I might be biased, but I think you should offer him the job."

She's never seen Claud look so pleased. "I think I just might."

They make small talk for another twenty minutes; Skye tells her about being held captive by Hydra—or as much as SHIELD civilian confidentiality policy allows her to tell—leaving out the fact that she's the superhero Quake, because that might be the worst-kept secret in SHIELD and Hydra, but she is still trying to protect that identity. Claud talks about her charity work and her travel and how Drew finally asked her out a few weeks ago. And she gives Skye permission to tell Grant about the Montreal job offer.

All told, Skye is quite happy and relaxed by the time a familiar dark-haired figure appears in the doorway.

"Skye," says Grant, looking absolutely dumbfounded, and suddenly all that relaxation is gone and she is a bundle of nerves again.

"Grant!" she says, standing up awkwardly. "Ward. Grant. Can I call you Grant?" Oh, this is a brilliant start.

"I suppose," he says slowly, looking at her suspiciously. He's dressed in a well-fitted gray suit—apparently he really got all dolled up for this date—and with his sharp haircut and that strangely attractive gray at his temples, he looks like he should be in an ad for high-end watches, and she is so glad she made an effort to look nice this morning. She used to try to look good all the time, but then she became a field agent and it was so much easier to do tactical black and ponytails all the time. It seems fitting that on this day, when she makes her first big decision in a long time that is for herself and not for SHIELD, she tries to reclaim her wardrobe a little as well.

Claud takes control of the situation. "Skye needs to talk to you," she says. "Use the study; you can close the door and no one will interrupt you."

Grant's jaw tightens at that; he doesn't seem entirely pleased to have her there. But he allows Claud to usher him and Skye across the hall and into the study. The door closes behind them, and they're alone.

"So," says Skye, "you look nice."

"Thank you," he says politely. "So do you." He could be talking to anyone. He could be talking to a stranger on the street, for all the distance he's putting into his face and his voice.

She hasn't really planned what she's going to say; she didn't want it to sound rehearsed. But now she's thinking that was a terrible idea because she has no idea how to start.

"So," she says conversationally, "you were out on a date."

"Yes." His face gives away nothing.

"And how was that?"

"It was nice."

'Nice,' she reflects, tells her absolutely zilch. 'Nice' could mean 'I'm too polite to say it was terrible' or 'I can't wait to see her again.' She clears her throat. "I didn't know you dated much." This is such a moronic conversation, but she's a little nervous about pouring out her heart to him if he's found someone new. She's still going to try—she hopes she's brave enough to still try, eventually—but it might change her approach.

"It's a new thing. I thought I'd try it out." His eyes are fixed on the wall over her right shoulder, and his face is carefully blank. "Except for a few awkward attempts with Kara, until last month I'd never been on a genuine date that wasn't part of a cover or a mission."

Seriously? Wow. Skye lived in an orphanage and a van and then dropped off the grid to become a spy and a superhero, and she still found time to grab some chicken parmesan with a cute guy every now and then. But then she thinks, when would he have been able to do that? At the time when other boys his age were starting to go on dates, he was fighting for his survival in the woods with only a dog for company. And then he was a SHIELD agent and a Hydra agent and a mole and a fugitive and finally world-travelling muscle for hire. So when would he have had time? It's really awfully selfish of her to feel hurt that he's finally, at 42, starting to have a social life.

"Oh," she says uselessly. "You think . . . you'll see her again?"

But apparently Ward has had enough of her questions about his dating life, because he brings his eyes to meet hers. When he speaks, his voice is controlled, carefully polite. It reminds her of how he sounded that time in Cannes. "Why are you here, Skye?"

A fair question. "I just . . . I needed to tell you something."

He's leaning against a desk, his expression nonchalant, but his posture is far too tense for as casual and uninterested as he's pretending to be. "Oh?"

She forces herself to stand up straight and meet his eyes, to let him see how sincere she is. "I wanted to tell you I'm sorry." That's not all she wants to tell him, but it's a place to start. She can begin there and try to suss out whether these dates he's been going on mean he's moved on.

He lets out a long breath, as though he's been holding it, and when he's done he somehow seems smaller. "Oh." He shakes his head. "You don't have to apologize," he says. "It's fine. I understand."

"It's not fine!" she insists. "Stop being so stoic about this. Be mad at me. I'm mad at me. I screwed everything up between us. And the last two months, never hearing from you has made me realize . . . I miss my friend."

A moment of silence, and then a sigh, and he looks down at the floor. "I'm sorry too," he says, and it's the first time today that he's sounded like himself. "I guess it's kind of selfish of me to claim we're friends but then to stop talking to you when . . . after what happened."

Wait, that's not really what she was getting at.

He goes on. "As though the only reason to talk to you was to try and get you to . . ."

"No, that's not what I'm—"

"No, I'm glad you said that," he says. "I needed to hear it."

"Grant!" she cuts in firmly. "I am not trying to give you a 'let's just be friends' speech."

He looks up in surprise. "What kind of speech were you trying to give me, then?"

And she looks at him, and she knows what kind of speech she wants to give him, and it's not an apology and it's not a suggestion that they just be friends. Suddenly she doesn't care that he got dressed up so nice to take some other woman to brunch; the history they have together, the way his vibrations have suddenly picked up and his pulse has started accelerating—he still feels something for her. She knows it. And that's more than enough encouragement for her to march across the room, grab his tie to pull his head down to her level, and kiss him.

It's short and he doesn't respond at all—too surprised, based on the look on his face. She steps back and takes a deep breath. "I'm trying to tell you that I panicked that night. And I'm panicking now, to be honest. But I've finally realized that this—" she gestures back and forth between the two of them— "is more important. I need to tell you that I'm . . . maybe kind of into you."

He stares at her a long moment, and then a ghost of a smile turns up the corner of his mouth. "Into me?"

"I mean I'm . . . maybe kind of in love with you."

The smile is getting bigger. "Maybe kind of?"

"Fine," she says, embarrassed but grinning. "I'm definitely in love with you. Is that what you wanted to hear?"

And suddenly there's that look on his face, that soft look of absolute adoration she's seen sent her way a few times before, and she was right: he hasn't moved on. "Yeah," he says quietly, "it is."

And the kiss that follows is by far the best of all the ones they've shared, because for the first time she's not anxious while she kisses him—she's not worried about Hydra, and she's not trying to trick him, and she's not filled with the sad conviction that this will never work, and she's not worried that he might have gotten over her. It's nothing but her and him and the absolute certainty that this is the first of many such kisses to come.

"I love you," he says, breaking the kiss and leaning his forehead against hers. "I've loved you since . . . probably since the day I met you, although I convinced myself I'd stopped after you shot me."

"I hope you're not going to bring that up every time we get into a fight," she grins.

"As long as you promise not to bring up Hydra," he says.

"Deal," she agrees, and kisses him again.

. . . . . .

"I'm sorry," Skye says a few minutes later. They've moved to the sofa in the study; she is curled up with her legs tucked to one side and her head on his shoulder, and he is holding her hand like he thinks it might break if he's not careful. "I didn't really get to finish my apology earlier. I'm sorry about how I acted after I kissed you in Austria. I panicked. I wasn't ready, and I wasn't sure I wanted this, and I didn't see a way to make it work, with us on different continents, and I just reacted so badly."

"I'm sorry I was so sulky afterwards," he responds. "I should probably apologize to Claud too. I just . . . I'd convinced myself not to hope a long time ago; you obviously liked me well enough, but it didn't seem possible that you'd ever get past everything enough to want to, you know, be with me. And then you kissed me, and for the first time in a long time I let myself believe that maybe . . . and then you told me it wouldn't work. And it was a hundred times worse than it had been before. Hope just makes it hurt more later."

"I'm sorry," she says again, turning to press her lips to his shoulder.

He shrugs. "Don't be. Maybe if you hadn't done that, and we hadn't had that time of not speaking to each other, you wouldn't have gotten to this point. And we wouldn't be sitting here now."

She lifts her head from his shoulder to look at him, surprised and thoughtful.

"We've been through some awful stuff," he says, not looking at her. "We've taken the longest, most winding road possible to get here. But if the end result is being here with you, like this, then I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth." He turns to meet her gaze. "I'm not happy with the path my life has taken. But I'm happy that this is where it led to."

That is downright poetic, and she feels her surprised expression turn into a smile.

He hesitates. "Are you happy?" he asks carefully. "With where this has led to?"

She's obviously going to have to work hard to make sure he really genuinely believes that she wants him and no other. For now, she says simply, "Yes. Me and you have a lot of baggage. But—" and she thinks of Fitz's words— "I'm choosing happiness, even if the source is unconventional."

His smile is blinding. "Am I happiness?" he asks as he leans in to kiss her.

"Yeah, you're happiness," she grins, and leans to meet him.

. . . . . .

"You have to go back to your base at some point, I assume," says Grant a few minutes later. They've gone back to cuddling on the sofa, her head on his shoulder.

"Soon," she confirms.

"So are we . . . is this . . . what are you . . ."

As much fun as it is to listen to him stutter, she decides to take pity on him. "What do we do about this, do you mean?" She lifts their joined hands.

"Yeah, are we . . . I mean, I assume you . . ."

He really is terrible at this. "I want to be with you," she says, and she can feel him relax. "But it's been a long time since me and you spent a lot of time together. I thought we could, you know, try this out casually at first. See each other on weekends or our days off. Get used to each other in this context."

"I like that idea," he says. "Would you . . . would you be coming out here? Or would we meet somewhere?"

"Actually, I needed to talk to you about that." She sits up so she can look at him; this conversation warrants some face-to-face time. "I was talking to Claud before you got here," she says. "And she was talking about her brother Michael."

"Michael?" he repeats, surprised.

"Yeah, she'd been wanting to find him someone really good for his personal security," she explains. "And when she found out that you and I were . . . whatever we were at the time, she thought of offering the position to you. She thought you might like only being a few hours from me. And she kind of shelved the idea after Austria, but she says the offer still stands." She hesitates. "I know it'd be sad to leave Claud and Drew and everyone behind, so if you decide to stay here, I would totally understand. I could come down and visit every few months, and we could see how it goes."

His expression is a mix of surprise and interest, and at her last statement, he takes her hands in his. "This has been a great job," he says. "And I'll always love these people. But I'd still see them if I was working for Claud's brother. And anyway, it's a job. This—" he lifts her hands and places a kiss on each one— "is so much more important."

It's feels like a weight has been lifted from her shoulders. "Canada, then," she says, wondering if you can smile so big that your face gets stuck that way. "And I'll come up on weekends, and holidays, and my days off, and we'll . . . try this out."

"Yeah," says Grant, "we'll try it out." His expression changes for a moment, takes on a look she can't quite name, and he opens his mouth as though to speak, then closes it again.

"What?" she asks.

"I just don't know how to . . . what do you do after you've suddenly gotten everything you ever wanted?"

She takes his hands and squeezes tight, to communicate without words that she is here with him and they're going to stay that way. "Be happy. That's what you do."

He grins. "All right, I'll give that a try."

"Me too," she says. "We'll try together."

. . . . . .