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Across the Board

Chapter Text

. . . . . .

"I often used to wonder about this day, you know? Whether, once the Great Game had been played out, the players would have the opportunity to shake hands across the board."

. . . . . .

The first time Skye hears from Ward, after shooting him, is fifteen months after he escaped custody.

It's not the first she's heard of Ward in that time; she and the rest of SHIELD have their ears to the ground, all the time, and they've caught rumblings of a deadly dark-haired man, occasionally seen in the company of a woman with a scarred face, whom Skye has positively identified as former SHIELD agent 33. But they never do anything about these reports; Ward hasn't caused any trouble that they're aware of—at least not since the time he kidnapped a prisoner from Air Force custody—and while his previous crimes are not forgiven, they've got bigger fish to fry.

So Ward stays at the edges of their periphery and they all go on with their lives—until the day that Skye gets something in her old Hotmail account. (She has much better ways of communicating online now, but she keeps this one active partly for sentimental reasons, as it was her very first e-mail account, and partly for practical reasons, such as the fact that it can be useful on occasion to have a harmless-looking e-mail address to give to strangers.) She gets a ping from the widget she created to alert her of communications on any of her many varied channels, and opens the inbox to see an e-mail from username T1000, subject: Heads up. She makes a face; trust Ward to remember her decoy e-mail address after all this time.

It doesn't take long to trace the e-mail back to where it was sent from, an Internet cafe in a Toronto mall, and she pulls up the security camera trained on the door of the establishment. The image is low-res, but there's a broad-shouldered man in a black T-shirt walking out the door just then, and as though on cue, he looks up at the security camera and gives it a jaunty salute before disappearing into a crowd.

Ugh, she hates that man. But still, after a careful scan for viruses or malware, she opens the e-mail, because she's learned over the years not to dismiss things out of hand. Not until she knows what they mean.

The e-mail is just a name: Edward Park.

She hesitates again, and then she looks up Edward Park, and at first glance he's simply a moderately successful businessman in Toronto, but Skye digs deeper and discovers his outspoken public support of the Superhero Registration act and a number of other worldwide legal attempts to identify and suppress gifted individuals, and then she digs deeper and discovers criminal activity and funding of unsavory organizations and ties to a militant group that is arming itself against "future superpowered oppression." And then, well and thoroughly alarmed, she gets into his e-mail and discovers that he and other members of this militia have been discussing the possibility of publicly assassinating a superhero, and third on the list of possible targets is the mysterious Quake, who has gotten more famous than she ever intended to because of cell phones and YouTube.

Skye stares at the screen, and then she goes to get Coulson. She wishes she didn't have to tell him where the tip came from, but she does; fortunately, Coulson doesn't comment. He just looks at her research on Park, and he agrees that something must be done. They can't attack this group for their anti-superhero views—that would just be fuel on the fire for Edward Park's side—but they arrange for the Toronto police to stumble across damning evidence of Park's other criminal activities and, through him, the militia's various crimes.

They all go to jail, and Skye is safe. And she spends weeks trying to avoid thinking about the fact that she's alive because of Grant Ward.

. . . . . .

After this, she pays even closer attention to what Ward is up to. The first thing she learns is that the woman he's been traveling with, Agent 33, has gotten a job as the personal security detail for an Australian billionaire living in Bangkok. The woman is still former SHIELD, and if she really has conquered her former Hydra brainwashing, they consider bringing her in, asking if she wants to return to SHIELD. But in the end they don't do it; by all accounts, 33 loves Thailand and is happy as a clam with her new position, and after everything the woman's been through, Coulson doesn't want to drag the woman back into the spy game. So he tells Skye to keep an eye on her, and she agrees and goes back to her computer and pulls up security footage of 33 dancing at a night club, not a care in the world, as though she doesn't bear the scars, physical and mental, of what Hydra did to her. Her time globetrotting with Ward seems to have changed her. It's as though . . . Skye's mouth quirks into a wry smile. It's as though Ward has rehabilitated her and released her back into the wild.

As for the man himself, he's been popping up occasionally, taking jobs for governments and businessmen and millionaires around the world. He's an expert at staying off the radar, of course, but Skye is an expert at getting people back on the radar, and anyway sometimes his bosses aren't as discreet as he is. So Skye catches sight of him often enough to track his movements. What he does is mostly above board; sometimes the people he chooses to work for aren't the most law-abiding, but the work he does for them tends to be just legal enough to keep SHIELD and other law enforcement agencies off his back.

In the months that follow after the Edward Park incident, Ward sends her two more tips: one about a Hydra operative who has discovered one of their safe houses and nearly figured out a way past their security, and another about a gifted individual that has contacted SHIELD, asking for help, but really intends to kill whoever is sent to find him. With that forewarning, they are able to take care of these two threats with little fuss and no loss of life on either side.

"I can't decide if I'm more glad or worried that Ward appears to be looking out for us," says Coulson after the second incident. He's tense, his pulse accelerated, and she can feel his heightened vibrations—or electric impulses, she's still not entirely sure what they are—which is just increasing her own anxiety. It's an unexpected side effect of her Inhuman powers.

"Ditto," says Skye flatly. She was the one who'd been assigned to go talk to that gifted individual, a man who can turn his whole body to metal, and she would have had to kill him or be killed if Ward hadn't warned them about him. "Why is he doing this?"

Coulson hesitates. "If you ever get the chance," he says after a moment, "you should ask."

Skye looks at him, then nods her understanding. Talking to Ward is the last thing she wants to do, but they need answers; they need to know if this is all part of some nefarious scheme he's setting up.

. . . . . .

She gets her chance three months later. They've just finished responding to another Ward tip, about a Hydra mole attempting to infiltrate SHIELD. Like most of his tips, it's one that they probably would have figured out without his help, but it's all so much faster and more efficient with his information. Skye is pacing in her computer lab, trying to work off the anxiety she always feels when they accept any help from that traitor, when there's a ping on her facial recognition program, the one that's constantly scouring news and surveillance sources for sightings of persons of interest.

This one is from a news website, reporting on the Cannes film festival. There's a photo of an oil baron sheikh and his supermodel wife, in attendance because they produced a film that's playing, and standing in the background is their bodyguard, a broad-shouldered man in a black suit. He's turned away from the camera so his face is in profile, but it's undoubtedly Grant Ward. Skye examines it a long time, frowning. A man who's as careful as Ward about avoiding surveillance cameras is not likely to slip up and allow the paparazzi to plaster his photo all over the Internet, so either he had a momentary lapse and didn't notice the photo being taken, or he wants to be found. The latter possibility is worrisome, but either way, they need answers. Besides, she can take care of herself.

Coulson agrees, and the next day Skye is flying to the France field office, then driving into Cannes. It's not hard to find Ward—the sheikh he's working for is pretty noticeable, and by mid-afternoon she has tracked her former SO down to a bakery and coffee shop on a side street near his hotel. She doesn't take the front door—she knows how he works, so she knows he'll be facing the front window, so she finds a back door and sneaks in. As she suspected, he's sitting with his back to the wall, facing the front window, reading a newspaper and sipping from a cup of something steaming. She backs into the shadows again and takes some time to prepare herself for the encounter. She wishes for a moment that she'd agreed to May's offer of assistance; after everything that's happened, confronting Ward alone makes her a bit nervous. But May was needed elsewhere, and anyway Skye knows that between her powers and her skills as an agent, she can handle anything Ward can throw at her. Advantage of being trained by the Cavalry.

And besides, all these tips he's given them, most of which are to protect her specifically, have convinced her that he doesn't mean her any harm. If he'd wanted her dead, as retaliation for shooting him, he could have just stayed quiet about the various attempts on her life in the last few years, and eventually one might have worked. With that in mind, she squares her shoulders, puts one hand on the ICER at her belt to reassure herself, and with as much confidence as she can muster, strolls into the cafe and seats herself down at his table.

Ward glances up at her over the top of his paper, then goes back to his reading. "Skye," he says by way of greeting, sounding calm and polite and almost bored, and she wants to smack him right then and there because darned if that isn't the coolest way to greet an enemy that she's seen in a long while. She hates when he's good at what he does.

And he's not just faking his calm; his pulse has picked up, but only the tiniest bit—not at all as strong as she'd have expected. "You don't seem very surprised to see me," she says to the back of his newspaper.

"I would have been more surprised if you hadn't shown up," he responds mildly. "I got myself on TMZ. If you'd missed that . . ." He shakes his head slowly and turns a page of the paper.

"Anything good in there?" she asks, starting to get annoyed that he's only half paying any attention to her.

"There never is," he says with a sigh, and finally folds up the paper and sets it on the table. "Are you hungry? They make the best pain au chocolat here."

"What?"

"Marie!" he calls to the girl at the counter, and she looks up at him with a flirty smile.

"Oui?"

"Un pain au chocolat, s'il vous plaît."

Marie looks pleased, and as she hurries with the order, Skye can sense her pulse accelerating and her breath getting fluttery in a way that clearly indicates that Ward's been frequenting the bakery this week and laying on the charm with the shop girl. Don't fall for it, she wants to tell the girl. Best case scenario, he's using you to get free food. Worst case scenario, he's here to burn everything you love to the ground.

The girl sets the pastry on the table in front of Ward, but once she's turned around he pushes it toward Skye. "On me," he says magnanimously, and Skye has the distinct feeling that she has entirely lost control of this conversation.

"Well," he says after a moment in which Skye scrambles for words, "go ahead, give it a try. I promise I didn't poison it or anything."

Part of her believes him, largely because she can't imagine he'd come up with such a labyrinthine plan as to spend eighteen months sending their team useful tips as a way to lure Skye to a bakery on the French Riviera and poison her with a pastry. But she still doesn't eat. "So you're saying you wanted to get yourself seen?"

"I'm saying I needed to talk to you, and bringing you here was easier than getting myself to the US. I'm not popular there right now." He's got that look on his face, blandly polite, that he uses when he doesn't care if you know that he's hiding something. Or at least Skye assumes the look still means that; after all, she hasn't seen him in person in three years.

"Why didn't you e-mail?" she asks. "I thought we were pen pals by now."

He shrugs and drinks from his coffee cup again. "This is something I needed to be face-to-face for."

Skye pulse quickens, but she's able to keep her sudden discomfort from showing on her face—another advantage of being trained by the Cavalry. Her hands are already in her lap, and her forearm rests against the ICER at her side. She takes a moment, drawing strength from the gun's presence and doing a quick headcount of how many civilians are currently in the bakery, should a fight break out. Then she says, sounding cool as you please, "Well, you've got my face. What did you want to talk about?"

Ward's whole body tenses then, giving off tight, buzzy vibrations. His polite smile drops, and for the first time in their encounter, Skye thinks she's seeing his honest feelings on his face. "SHIELD needs to leave Kara alone."

Skye blinks a few times, processing; this is not at all what she expected. "Kara?" But the name is sounding familiar, and she racks her brain for a moment and then remembers. "33, you mean?"

He looks annoyed. "She has a name," he says.

"I know," she says. "I get that." She pauses, unsure of how much to admit to, but Ward obviously already knows that they're aware of his connection to the other agent or he wouldn't have brought her up. So she decides to admit to the occasional surveillance, as a gesture of goodwill. "Kara was still in Bangkok, last I checked."

"Yes, and she's being followed."

"Not by us," says Skye. Ward looks skeptical. "I mean it," she insists. "Unless they're doing it without the knowledge of anyone at HQ. Coulson and May decided she'd been through enough and they're leaving her alone, unless she shows any signs of returning to Hydra." She hesitates. "Have you considered the possibility that her tail is Hydra?"

He shakes his head. "No one at Hydra knows about her anymore. She was Whitehall and Bakshi's project, and they're both out of the picture."

Skye shrugs. "According to Simmons, a lot of people knew about the brainwashing program. Apparently it was the worst-kept secret at Hydra."

Ward gives her a considering look for a few moments, and then in one fluid movement he throws a few Euros on the table and stands from his chair. "I need to make a call." And then, back in fully insincere mode, "Thanks for the visit, Skye, I really enjoyed it." And he strides out of the bakery.

Dumbfounded, Skye lets him take a few steps, and then she's scrambling out of her chair to follow. "Wait a second," she calls after him, not heeding the confused looks from the other patrons. "I'm not done talking to you."

She finally catches up with him in the street; he's striding quickly away from the bakery, and she's not willing to grab his arm to slow him down so instead she darts in front of him to cut him off. "I still have some questions for you, bud."

He comes to a stop, perhaps not daring to start a fight out here in public, and looks at her with a look of polite impatience and boredom. She wonders if this is his new shtick: when he was in deep cover at SHIELD, he was upright and earnest and bad with people; as Garrett's lackey, he was cocky and devil-may-care and suave; and now, three years on his own, he's brusque and offhand and just as polite as he needs to be to stay on the near side of professional. Maybe this is the real him, since as far as she knows he isn't performing for anyone right now. Or maybe this one's a lie as well. Maybe even he doesn't know what he's like anymore.

"You needed something, Skye?"

She puts her hands on her hips. "Take a wild guess."

He looks at her, and then he gives her a knowing smile and tucks his phone back into his pocket. "Come on, Ward," he says in what she thinks is supposed to be an imitation of her voice, "why is a Nazi terrorist helping SHIELD out?"

"That's basically it," she says.

He shrugs. "I like putting my underworld contacts to good use."

"Try again."

"I wanted to tell SHIELD thank you for locking me up and then trying to turn me over to sociopath brother."

"Come on."

"Quake is my favorite superhero."

"Do you want me to ICER your sorry butt and drag you back to HQ?"

Something in his expression twitches just then—is he fighting a smile? "Why is it so important to know? Can't you just accept it for what it is and move on?"

"When you're involved? No." Her mind flashes back to Garrett, to Christian, to Bakshi, to her father. "You don't do things altruistically. You've always got a scheme—you know, a long con. We need to know if our accepting your help forwards whatever your twisty little plan is."

"No scheme," he assures her, and he sounds like he's telling the truth. That's the trouble. He always sounds like he's telling the truth. His heartbeat hasn't changed, though.

So she tries a different tactic. "Why is it always me?" she insists.

"Is it?" he asks casually, but now his pulse is picking up, almost imperceptibly.

She takes a breath, and then asks the question that's been on her mind since the first tip appeared. "Are you still in love with me?"

To her surprise, his body vibrations barely change at all, and the look he's giving her is not one of embarrassment or longing, but rather of a sort of "Are you kidding me?" vibe, as though she's said something ridiculous. "Skye, you shot me four times and left me for dead. I'm not an idiot. I can take a hint."

That's a relief, she tells herself, and almost entirely means it. "Then why is it always me?" she repeats.

"Luck of the draw," he shrugs. "I've just uncovered more chatter about you than anyone else in SHIELD. You're famous, you know. That video of you stopping that runaway train has 3 million hits on YouTube."

Her mouth tightens. "Ward, you know what my powers are, right? You know I can sense when your heartbeat changes or you get tense or twitchy. I can always tell you're lying." The truth is, she can't. She can indeed sense all the things she just said, and maybe some day she'll be able to parlay that into being a human lie detector, but people are complicated and her powers are simple. She can tell when a pulse speeds up; what she can't tell is whether that's from a guilty conscience or just anxiety at being interrogated. The only time she can use her powers to detect lies is when she's spent a lot of time with the person, gathering sensory data on how their body changes when they're telling a lie versus when they're stressed or anxious. And she just doesn't have enough data on Ward.

But he doesn't know that. He hesitates, and she can see his uncertainty, so she pushes it. "You want me to tell your boss who you really are? Just answer the question, Ward, and I'll leave you alone."

He doesn't flinch or clench his jaw here; he's too good at his job for that. But he becomes more still, which she recognizes from back when he was her SO. "Fine," he says tightly. "I'm not an idiot and I'm not in love with you anymore, but that doesn't mean that I want you dead. So if in the course of my work, I come across information that could keep you from being dead, I pass it on. Despite everything, I still prefer a world with you in it." He hesitates, and then the tiniest smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. "So I guess I am an idiot."

And then he brushes past her and wanders down the street, leaving her standing alone and going over his words and his expression and his vibrations in her mind until she comes to a conclusion: she thinks he's telling the truth.

. . . . . .

Skye returns home the next morning and gives her report to Coulson the next afternoon. He seems to accept Ward's explanation and Skye's impression of its veracity, and he tells her to stay vigilant but that he feels better about the whole thing. That's been Skye's takeaway from all this as well, and she gives him a willing "Yes, sir."

And then the next day, he calls her into his office again. "Can you get a message to him?" he says without preamble.

"I guess," she says. "I can reply to his e-mails, although I don't know how often he checks that account."

Coulson nods. "I need you to tell him something."

After the meeting, she pulls up her old Hotmail address and types out a message to T1000, subject: about your question.

AC wants me to tell you that he's looked into it and it was no one from our group. If your friend overseas needs any help dealing with unwanted visitors, she knows how to contact us.

Skye clicks Send and doesn't let herself wonder when she'll get a reply. It's not that she's that eager to hear from him, it's that . . . she's curious. She wants to know why Kara's welfare is so important to him. She wants to know if he took her for a ride and this all really is part of some scheme. She wants to know if the tips will keep coming now that she's seen (and annoyed) him in person. She wants to know if he's really turned over a new leaf and become as legit as he was pretending in that bakery.

And all the while, she wonders—and this is not something an e-mail from Ward can help her answer—if it makes her a bad person to be slightly disappointed to know that Ward isn't in love with her anymore. Not that she wants him to be in love with her, and not that she even remotely returns the sentiment, but . . . the truth is, she'd been just the tiniest bit flattered. In a horrified, disgusted way, of course, but still . . . it had been a confidence boost to know she inspired such devotion in another person. But that's all over now, and she's almost entirely glad of it and only occasionally just the tiniest bit not.

The day after she sent the e-mail, she gets a response, a single word.

Thanks.

She imagines him sitting in some Internet cafe in France, swallowing his pride and grumbling to himself as he's forced to admit that SHIELD isn't all bad, and she smiles.

. . . . . .

Chapter Text

. . . . . .

Months pass, then years. SHIELD grows strong, recruits more agents, and starts to regain the trust of certain world governments. The work is slow-going but satisfying. After the fiasco with "real" SHIELD, Coulson's been making an effort to increase transparency in the organization, and the compromise that was reached between the two groups appears to be keeping everyone happy.

With Skye's influence and help, SHIELD works to find constructive, positive ways to reach out to people on the Index and help them come to terms with their powers. Usually it works but sometimes it doesn't; sometimes people's powers or their hearts are too destructive, and there is no possible positive outcome for them. These people are jailed as criminals or tucked away in safe havens, and on those days Skye cries herself to sleep in her bunk then washes off the tears to report for duty bright and cheerful the next morning.

They fight bigger threats as well. Hydra has nearly been driven off the North American continent, and governments around the world are fighting them as well, having finally understood the severity of the threat. Various other unsavory types, gifted or otherwise, come after them, but the agents of SHIELD, led by Skye and Coulson and May and Bobbi and Hunter, deal with these threats easily.

Tips still come in from T1000 every few months, and Skye has come to learn that they will always be accurate and helpful. She hasn't contacted him—hasn't even responded to any of his e-mails—since the message about Kara, though. (Kara, incidentally, was indeed being followed by Hydra; she dispatched her tail but had find a new position, in Dubai. She seems as happy there as she was in Bangkok.)

The five years since she transformed have been filled with memorable events, but she thinks nothing has been quite as joyfully memorable as what happens one warm May evening when the old team—the organization has grown so much that they now work in separate areas, but Skye will always think of these people as her team—is enjoying dinner together on top of one of their new base's buildings.

"We have an announcement," says Fitz, clinking his knife against his plastic mess hall cup to get everyone's attention. His pulse has picked up a little, but he seems more excited than anxious.

Everyone looks at him, but he just looks at Jemma. "We're getting married," she smiles, and Skye gasps out loud, her face the very picture of surprised delight.

Coulson and May don't look surprised, which makes sense; Fitzsimmons would have had to get special dispensation from the director in order to get engaged, and Coulson would undoubtedly have discussed it with May, who is co-director in all but name. But Coulson is giving one of his real smiles, not his "I don't want you to know what I'm thinking" smile, and there's a corner of May's mouth turning up in a tiny grin. Mack doesn't look surprised either—as Fitz's best friend after Jemma, he undoubtedly knew about this ages ago—but he's grinning broadly.

Bobbi and Hunter seem as surprised as Skye and extremely pleased; Bobbi throws her arms around Jemma, and Hunter claps a hand on Fitz's shoulder. Skye watches it all with a feeling in her heart like a balloon filling up with air. Who would have thought it? Five years ago, Fitzsimmons were barely even speaking to each other, fighting over whether Skye's earthquake powers made her a monster or not. They've clearly worked it out since then, and as Skye stands to hug them both, she can't help the tears in her eyes, because she remembers a time when she'd given up on the hope that those two would ever find happiness.

The wedding is to be simple but Bobbi and Skye both insist that Jemma at least get the whole white dress, black tux, bouquet of flowers, string quartet treatment, which Jemma grumbles about but Skye's pretty sure she secretly loves it. And Skye absolutely loves helping with what few details there are. She really does. And yet . . .

The impending marriage is a joyful occasion but still, as it draws closer, Skye finds herself just a bit melancholy. And it's not until another group dinner that she realizes why. Fitzsimmons have found each other again, and since their engagement they have grown even more sweetly sentimental than they were before—constantly holding hands or sitting so close together that Lance sometimes calls them the Siamese twins. Bobbi and Hunter have been going strong for a long time now, and although they've both tried to leave the other a time or two over the years since they got back together, this is still is the longest they've ever been in a stable relationship with each other. They're not as sappy as Fitzsimmons, but it's not hard to see that they adore each other—Bobbi sending soft smiles his way, Hunter finding any excuse to touch her. And Coulson and May . . . who knows? Skye sometimes wonders if they'll ever talk about what's between them, but even if they don't ever manage it in this lifetime, they seem perfectly happy to simply run this organization together, operating so much in tandem that it's almost comical sometimes.

And Skye? Well, Skye sits alone at these little shindigs. The only other unattached person there is Mack, and she likes him well enough but she probably knows him least of everyone here, so she doesn't get too cozy with him. So when they all get together to eat, she talks happily to all of them, but lately she can't help noticing that . . . well, that she sits alone.

But there's nothing to do for it; the secrets they keep at SHIELD make it difficult to cultivate friendships, let alone relationships, and Skye has even more secrets than usual. How would you explain to a date that you're the masked hero known as Quake? And the SHIELD ranks don't include anyone who really makes her tea kettle whistle. So she's stuck this way, as a lone SHIELD agent and superhero, and most of the time she doesn't mind, she really doesn't. It's just every now and then . . .

On the wedding day, Jemma and Fitz, both looking wonderful and radiating sunlight, are married by May ("Of course she's an ordained minister," says Skye with a laugh when they learn this fact. "Why wouldn't she be?"). Jemma is beaming, Fitz doesn't shake at all, tears are shed (a few by Skye, she'll admit), a bouquet is tossed (it nearly hits May in the face, but she neatly sidesteps it, and instead it lands in Hunter's lap) and then the new couple is climbing into the waiting car and heading off for the airport. They didn't expect to take a honeymoon, seeing as how their work with SHIELD could make them targets, but Coulson insisted on setting something up for them at what he insists is a secure resort in Bali—and on sending Lance along to stay at the same resort, just in case.

The wedding guests—who are all SHIELD agents, because Fitzsimmons still can't be in contact with their families—wave goodbye, and then they have a bit of a party themselves, and then they go back to work and everything goes back to normal . . . until the next morning, when there's a security breach.

"What is it?" Skye asks as she skids into the hangar, where Coulson and May are standing over something dark.

"Have a look," says Coulson.

Skye steps closer to the dark mass and sees that it's three men in tactical gear, all unconscious and a bit banged up, tied tightly together into one giant pile. Next to them, their weapons—knives and guns and clips—have been dumped unceremoniously into a pile. "Who do you think put them here?" Coulson asks May.

"More importantly," says May, her voice tight, "how did they get past our security? No alarms were tripped, no one caught on camera . . ."

One of the men groans and shifts just then, and the movement causes a paper in his front pocket to catch Skye's eye. She hesitates, then pulls the paper out and unfolds it. The note there is in a hand that she hasn't seen in six years.

A wedding gift, for Fitz and Simmons. I know they don't want to hear it, but I'm still sorry.

Wordlessly, she hands the note to Coulson. May reads it over his shoulder and her expression hardens. "I guess if it's him, I'm not surprised he got past our security. Come on, let's get these men into interrogation. I'd like to know why Ward thinks they'd make an appropriate wedding present for Fitzsimmons."

They send Bobbi in for the interrogation, and, true to form, she has a confession quite quickly. It's a tale as old as time: mad genius, trying to build an evil empire, needed Fitzsimmons' scientific expertise to build him weapons. His lackeys are not sure how Crittendon knew about Fitzsimmons' work, but he's been having them watch the base for a few weeks, waiting for the chance to grab them. But when they followed Fitzsimmons' car to the airport, they were attacked by a dark-haired man in a black shirt, and that's all they know.

Coulson, May and Skye all look at each other and sigh.

Under Bobbi's brand of persuasion, the men are soon singing like birds about their boss's operation, and Coulson mobilizes his agents and by midnight Crittendon is in SHIELD custody, his base of operations and all his gadgets and computer files seized—his supposedly impenetrable defenses having been no match for the seismic powers of Quake. Skye falls gratefully into bed, exhausted from a long day, but sleep is slow in coming. Her mind is going over the day's events, especially that note. Does he actually think "sorry" is going to cut it? And that whole "I know they don't want to hear it" . . . the familiarity of it rubs her the wrong way. All the next day, it haunts her as well; her mind keeps returning to it, like a tongue probing at a sore tooth. And finally, on the day after that, she makes up her mind.

She gets her hands on a burner phone, and then she composes an e-mail: to T1000, no subject, and the body of the e-mail is simply the burner phone's number. And then she waits.

The next afternoon, the burner phone rings.

"Took you long enough," she says by way of hello.

"I'm sorry," comes Ward's voice, and it's hard to tell on a cheap cell phone but he might sound faintly amused. "Not a lot of Internet access here in scenic Bali."

"Hold on." Skye heads down the corridor to the mess hall; she's learned over the years that it's a spot with good commercial cell coverage but no audio on the base's security surveillance equipment, and while they room is currently empty, it won't look odd for her to go there at this time of day. She's not exactly hiding this conversation, but . . . she sort of is. Once there, she grabs a bag of chips, to keep up the ruse, and then plops down at a table. "You followed them to the resort?"

"I'm keeping a respectful distance," he says. "This is their honeymoon, after all. And that British guy does seem capable of watching out for them. But, you know, I'm between jobs right now, so I thought I'd make myself useful."

"You expect another attack?"

"No, I'm sure you guys took care of Crittendon on your end. But you can never be too careful." He's using that fake-polite voice he did in Cannes, and it's kind of making her crazy.

So that's why she decides to stop easing into it, and just jump right into the real meat of her call. "Yeah, somebody might send them to slowly suffocate on the bottom of the ocean."

As she'd expected, that jars him out of his act, and when he next speaks he sounds flat, and maybe a bit weary. "I've already explained myself. And apologized. And saved them from being kidnapped yesterday, so you're welcome, by the way."

"Fitz is brain damaged," Skye says sharply. "He'll never completely recover. You think an apology is going to fix that? Or you jumping a couple thugs and leaving them on our doorstep like a . . . like a cat with a dead bird?"

He sounds thoughtful when he speaks again. "I didn't think of it that way, but you're right, that was kind of like a cat."

"You're insane. And you're dodging the question."

And now his voice is tight. "No, I don't think an apology is going to fix that. I understand that I can't make up for what I did to Fitz. But are you saying that because nothing I do will ever be enough, I shouldn't do anything at all?"

"You could go to jail for your crimes," she suggests.

"I saved their lives," he insists. She scoffs, loudly. "I know you don't want to hear it, but I did."

"By trying to kill them?"

"We were on a plane crawling with Garrett's men, all of whom would have shot those two in the head without a second thought. If he had sent one of those men after Fitzsimmons, they would be dead. But he sent me instead." There's a long pause, and when Ward speaks again, his voice is strange. "I'd say it was just dumb luck, but it wasn't; Garrett enjoyed forcing me to do things he knew I didn't want to." Another pause. "When he was training me, the only company I had for five years was this dog. He knew I loved that dog. So right before I entered the Academy, he told me to shoot it."

Skye blinks in surprise. She doesn't know if this story is true or not; they've never talked about his time with Garrett, and she's never heard much about it from Coulson, though she assumes the director has looked into it. "Did you?" she asks.

"No," he says flatly. "So Garrett hit me with the butt of his rifle and shot the dog anyway."

There's a long silence on the line while Skye processes this. If that's true, it's awful. If it's a story he made up to manipulate her, it's awful in a different way. And why is he telling her this? Is it to garner sympathy? Or does he just want her to understand his point of view? "I think we've gotten off-topic," she says finally. "You were trying to tell me that you saved Fitzsimmons' lives by dropping them to their deaths."

"I thought the pod would float," says Ward. "Or that there'd be enough oxygen for them to survive long enough to figure a way out. Which turned out to be true," he adds. "I gave them a chance. Anyone else on the plane would have killed them."

"You could have tried to defend them."

"Don't be stupid, Skye," he says, sounding irritated, and she can just imagine the look on his face right now. "I was hugely outnumbered and we were in very confined quarters; if I'd tried to put myself between Fitzsimmons and the other operatives on the plane, all three of us would have been killed on the spot. And if I'd told Garrett I wouldn't kill them, he would have taken it as a sign of weakness—" the way he bites off that word is strangely vitriolic, and she gets the sense that he has a hateful history with it— "and he would have . . . well, knowing the way Garrett operated, he would have had Fitzsimmons caught and brought to us, and he would have given me a gun and told them to shoot them right then and there, and if I'd refused that time he would have shot them himself and then beat the crap out of me. I thought through all the options. What I did was the only choice that didn't result in them on the floor of the Bus with a couple rounds in their brains."

Skye sits silently, her mind awhir, analyzing and question and wondering. It could be true, what he's saying. It could make sense, what he's saying. Doesn't change what happened to Fitz, though. Doesn't change the fact that Ward never should have followed Garrett in the first place.

"Trying to find holes in my story?" he guesses after a while.

"Something like that," she agrees.

"I never lie to you," he says. Then he pauses. "Okay, I guess I lied to you a few times in Cannes. Jokingly. But I meant what I told you, when I was in SHIELD custody: you'll only get the truth from me."

Hearing him repeat those words brings a rush of memories from that time. Ward in those prison clothes, his face scruffy. Ward explaining how he tried to kill himself. Ward promising he'd only ever tell her the truth, from this point out.

It occurs to her that right now he sounds like he did then. For the first few moments of this phone conversation, he had the same polite, bored, mocking tone that he did when she saw him in France, but since then he's sounded the same as he did down in Vault D. She wonders if this, not Polite Ward, is the real him: painfully earnest, a little unstable, desperate to be understood . . . then she shakes her head, half-trying to dislodge that thought from her mind. That could only be the case if he's telling the truth now, which she's by no means certain of.

"It matters to you?" she asks. "That Fitzsimmons know you're sorry?"

He's silent a long time. "Yeah," he says finally. "Will you tell them? I'd do it myself, but I don't want to interrupt their holiday. And they might shoot me."

Skye considers. "I'll think about it," she says. Then something occurs to her, and without thinking she says, "Hey, we've gone a long time without using the word 'Nazi.'"

"I'd noticed," he says. "And I appreciate it."

And now she feels like she's been too familiar, too friendly, so she decides it's time to end the call. "Look, I gotta go."

"All right," says Ward. There's silence, and Skye thinks she should hang up the phone but instead she keeps it next to her ear, to see if Ward is going to say anything else. He does: "Thanks for listening."

Listening? That wasn't what she intended to do. She didn't call him so she could be his therapist or his confessor. She's doesn't want him to think she's going to absolve him of his crimes. So instead of responding, she hangs up the phone. Then she heads back to her lab, trying to look as casual as possible as she eats her potato chips. No one has even noticed she was gone.

. . . . . .

She does tell Jemma about the note when she's back from her honeymoon, leaving out her phone conversation with Ward. Jemma's expression hardens and her pulse picks up. "Does he think this makes what he did to us okay?"

Skye considers this for a while, then says honestly, "I'm pretty sure he doesn't. But I think he feels like he needs to try to make amends anyway."

"He's a murderer," says Jemma.

"I know," says Skye. "But if he hadn't dropped you out of that plane, Garrett would have killed you in a way that made sure you were dead."

"It doesn't make it okay," Jemma insists.

"I know," says Skye, and something in her voice makes Jemma peer more closely at her.

"So what is it, then, if it's not okay?" she asks.

Skye shrugs. "Complicated."

. . . . . .

Chapter Text

. . . . . .

Eight months after the wedding, Bobbi is sent on a long undercover assignment to South Africa, which is necessary but casts a bit of a pall over the Playground; it's different without her larger-than-life personality, her ability to make you feel better (rather against your will, sometimes). And Hunter, of course, misses her terribly; he tries not to show it at first, but by the end of the first month, he's noticeably subdued, and by the end of the second month, he is downright gloomy.

At the end of the third month, Bobbi misses a scheduled check-in. As per protocol, Coulson does nothing about it; there's a good chance that she couldn't contact them because of her cover, and anyway she hasn't activated her emergency beacon yet. But then she misses another check-in, and Coulson starts to worry. He keeps it quiet at first, though; if Hunter hears, he'll descend on Johannesburg with guns blazing. In fact the only people who know are Coulson, May, and Skye, who only knows because she was filling in on comms duty for the first missed check-in.

And also the situation is delicate; the woman they're targeting is prominent, wealthy, and heavily connected to the government; if SHIELD makes an appearance, she'll know, and Bobbi's cover will be blown (if it's not already). So all Coulson feels comfortable doing is sending an agent currently in Mozambique down to discretely investigate.

Unfortunately, the agent finds nothing, and finally, six days after losing contact with Bobbi, Coulson decides to take action. He gathers May, Skye, and an extremely agitated Hunter to his office and starts going over what they know about Bobbi's assignment. Skye listens as best she can, but this is one situation where her powers are a definitely a hindrance; Hunter's heart is racing and he's physically shaking with his agitation and anxiety, and the resulting onslaught of vibrations is making it a little hard to concentrate.

"She'd gotten herself hired in their HR department," Coulson is saying, when he's unceremoniously interrupted by a beep from Skye's phone.

Embarrassed, she pulls it out to turn off the sound while everyone stares at her, but then with a jolt she notices what the alert was for. "E-mail," she says, looking up at Coulson. "From T1000." A tip coming right now? It can't be coincidence.

Maybe Coulson feels the same, because he tells her to read it.

The e-mail is brief: Morse is in trouble, followed by a phone number.

"What are you waiting for?" Hunter demands. "Call it!"

Coulson gives Skye a confirming nod, and she takes a deep breath and dials the number.

"Rookie," Ward greets her.

It sends her back nearly seven years and makes her feel surprisingly nostalgic, which is not something she wants to feel about Ward in front of everyone else, so defensively and acerbically she asks, "You couldn't just e-mail whatever you're about to say? Did you miss the sound of my voice that much?"

"Always," says Ward, and is he teasing her? She is so glad she didn't put this on speakerphone. Although, come to think of it, she probably should.

Setting her phone on the table and hitting the button, she slips back into professional mode. "Bobbi. What do you know?"

"Van Rooyen's men made her. They've got her heavily sedated in a holding cell under the mansion."

"But she's alive?" Hunter bursts out.

Ward doesn't respond right off, and Skye fancies that the silence has a feeling of surprise about it. "British guy," he says finally. "Didn't realize you were in on this conversation."

"Tell me how to find my wife," Hunter insists.

"Ex-wife," Coulson mutters to Skye. May rolls her eyes at them.

Ward gives them a detailed layout of the mansion, the guard station, where the guards are at this moment—

"Wait a second," says Skye. "Are you in Johannesburg right now?"

There's a moment of silence. "Kara asked me to come; she's stuck in Hong Kong right now, but she heard about Bobbi and was worried. Apparently they were friends back in SHIELD's glory days." Skye wonders, not for the first time, exactly what the relationship between Ward and Kara is. There are very few people she'd fly to South Africa for, but apparently Kara is one of those people to Ward. Not that it matters to Skye, of course.

"If you're down there now," Hunter demands, "why aren't you doing anything about it?"

"Have you seen Van Rooyen's fortress?" Ward asks. "I'm good, but I'm not that good. And I can't infiltrate it; her head of security knows my face. I'm burned here."

"Then we'll take care of it," says Coulson, speaking for the first time.

There's a long silence. "Coulson," says Ward finally, his voice strange. Then he clears his throat. "I'll be gone by the time you get here. I had to leave something important to come down here, and I need to get back to it."

"Understood," says Coulson. He hesitates. "Thank you, Ward."

Silence. Then: "Goodbye, sir."

That "sir" startles her, and she finds herself adding, "Bye," before ending the call.

"All right," says Coulson, "now we can make a plan."

Four days, several broken bones, and a lot of ICER rounds later, Bobbi is safely back at the Playground; according to Jemma, who finds it rather adorable, Hunter refuses to leave her bedside. When the debriefings are done and everyone is headed to bed for the night, Coulson stops Skye and calls her into his office.

"We couldn't have done that without Ward," he says.

"I know," she says, making a face. But it's not from the disgust she generally aims at Ward; it's more a "Isn't it crazy?" face. Because when did a Hydra traitor become so useful to SHIELD?

Coulson looks at her a long time. "Do you trust him?" he asks finally.

Skye considers this a while. "Every piece of info he's ever given us has been good," she says finally. "He's already proven that he can break in here if he wants, but he hasn't used that to do anything to us. And if this were some scheme, six years is a long time to wait for it to pay off. And—" she blushes a little— "we have no reason not to believe in his motives." She shrugs. "Yeah, I trust him. In this."

It's amazing to her, how little Coulson's vibrations give away about how he's feeling; she supposes he picked it up from years of being around May. But she doesn't need to read his vibrations to understand him; he's the closest thing to a father that she has, after all—more than Cal ever was. His hair has started to gray, the creases on his face are deepening, but no matter how much he changes, he will always be the most familiar face in her life. So she knows what he's going to say before he says it.

"I do, too." But she doesn't expect what follows: "If he hadn't had Internet access, or you hadn't, we could have lost valuable time getting to Bobbi."

"True," says Skye slowly.

"So I want you to set up a secure line where he can contact us directly," Coulson says.

She blinks. "You're sure?"

Coulson's look tells her everything she needs to know, so she agrees. This is really a job for the tech side of the organization—Skye still does hacking, and sometimes runs comms on ops, but the bulk of her time is now spent as a field operative—but it makes sense that Coulson would want to keep this secret. So the next morning she enlists Fitz's help in setting up the line (doesn't mention who it's for, though; Fitz has never quite forgiven Ward), then e-mails Ward with the number and a brief message.

A permanent line, in case you need to call us in the future. Now you won't have to wait for me to get your e-mail.

The response comes later that afternoon.

It's nice to be so highly thought of.

And for the first time since this whole thing started, she decides to send an e-mail that isn't strictly necessary and SHIELD-related.

Great, kid. Don't get cocky.

She wonders if he'll get the reference; after all, according to him he spent his childhood in an abusive home and then at least five years doing nothing but training with no one but a dog for company. Probably not a lot of time spent watching Star Wars.

And she wonders if, now that he's got a direct phone line to the base, he'll stop e-mailing her tips. It'd be nice, really—less work for her. And yet, the truth is that she enjoys dealing with them—his tips are usually terse and require a bit of analysis to understand what they mean and how they apply to SHIELD. She enjoys doing that, if she's honest. She enjoys solving the puzzle.

She doesn't have to wonder long: two weeks later he's e-mailing her again about a billionaire in Japan with a piece of Chitauri tech displayed in his private study. Apparently she's still the preferred point of contact for T1000.

She never does find out about Star Wars, though.

. . . . . .

The Grant Ward Hotline doesn't get used for the first eight months of its existence. And when it finally does get used, it's not in the form originally intended.

They're in Romania when it happens, attempting to neutralize a Hydra cell located there. The cell is rather bigger than originally expected, but luckily Coulson doesn't mess around where Hydra is involved and he has brought most of SHIELD along for the ride, leaving only a handful of operatives and science staff back at the Playground. So they're more than prepared.

Before they left, and on a whim, Skye routed calls on Ward's line to her computer station on the Bus; the calls will be less secure this way, but just in case Ward pulls off another miracle and once again comes up with intel for them on the job they're currently doing . . .

. . . which—and she's not even surprised at this point—he does. On the second day, while they're still in the information gathering phase so Skye is planted at her computer station on the Bus, her phone rings, and when she looks at it she sees it's coming from Ward's line.

"Skye," he says quickly before she can open with a sassy remark.

"That's me," she says agreeably. She hasn't been in the field in a few months, and finally being out of the base is considerably brightening her mood.

"You're here in Romania, right?"

"Here?" she repeats. "You're here too?" She chuckles. "Ward, do you just follow us around these days? Are you lying when you talk about these other jobs you have?"

"I got here well before you did," he says tightly. "The president hired me as a . . . private consultant, when he learned about his country's Hydra infestation last month." He's speaking quickly and his voice is a little hushed—trying to avoid being overheard?

"Why didn't he come to us for help?" Skye asks, all traces of laughter gone.

"He was outvoted by the Prime Minister and her ministries," says Ward. "She claimed there wasn't a problem. But it turns out . . ."

"She's Hydra?" Skye guesses.

"Good guess," says Ward. "This is bigger than I can handle myself. Have you got something you can take notes on?"

And he's off, naming names and locations and secrets, and she scrambles to get it all down. All the while she's distracted by his tone of voice, which is getting increasingly tight and hurried and hushed. He sounds . . . pained. He sounds like he is in physical pain.

Finally, when he's done with his info dump (and sounding exhausted), she asks, a little reluctantly, "Ward, are you . . . okay?"

"I'm fine," he snaps. "Talk to Coulson." And he ends the call.

Blinking in surprise at the abrupt goodbye, she finds Coulson and gives him her notes. Immediately he sends agents out to confirm the information and sends Skye back to her computer to dig into the Prime Minister. And that's where she's still sitting, two hours later, when Ward's line rings again.

"More info?" she says when she picks it up.

There's silence on the other end, and then, in a voice more weak and raspy than she's ever heard from him, "Skye."

"Ward?" she says. "What's going on? Why are you talking like that?"

Another pause. "I lied," he says, speaking slowly, as though every word pains him. "I promised I never would, but I did."

"You lied about your intel?" she demands, reaching out to be ready to page Coulson if he says yes.

But he doesn't. "I lied about being okay. I'm . . . not." He pauses, and in the silence that follows she vaguely notices that at some point she got to her feet. "I have no right to ask, but . . ."

He doesn't finish. He doesn't have to. "You want to know if we'll set up an extraction."

He says nothing but she can hear his breathing, labored and raspy. He sounds like he's in bad shape. He'd have to be, to be willing to ask SHIELD for help.

She hesitates; passing along a message that will save the life of Grant Douglas Ward, former Hydra agent and traitor and murderer, is not something she ever expected to do.

"Please," whispers Ward.

But then, she's not completely heartless, and he has saved her life a time or ten. She can at least pass the message along.

Coulson listens quietly to Skye's message and Ward's location, and then he nods. "Take Dhawan and Murphy. Be back by tonight. And tell Simmons to be ready for a possible patient."

Skye blinks. She's not necessarily against saving him, but she supposes she'd assumed that Coulson wouldn't be able to spare the manpower to form an extraction team; she supposes she'd thought extractions were only for SHIELD agents. "You want me on the team?"

He smiles. "Ward could use a familiar face."

"We're in the middle of a pretty big mission," she reminds him.

"But at this stage, we can spare you for a few hours." He shrugs. "It's not something I ever expected to have happen, but Ward's become one of our most valuable intelligence assets. It's in our best interest to keep him around."

He's got a point; Bobbi's alive because of him. They're all alive because of him. So she nods and asks, "And you're sure you want him brought back here?"

"We can keep him secure. Get going."

. . . . . .

Following Ward's instructions from earlier, Skye leads Dhawan and Murphy through the streets of Bucharest to where a stone building has mostly collapsed. It's roped off with caution tape, but there are no cops or emergency crews in sight. "This place was Hydra," she tells the other two. "Apparently the president had learned what it was and was about to search it, so the Hydra agents stationed here fled and blew it up this morning. Our target was gathering intel inside when the bomb when off."

The three lurk near the corner of the street, scoping out the situation. "Those two men," Murphy points subtly. "The way they stand—they're not civilians. They've been sent to guard the ruins."

Dhawan nods at the roof of the building across the street. "Gunman," she says.

"I think we need a back way in," Skye says. They duck around the corner and around a few side streets, and eventually find a narrow back alley guarded by a single Hydra agent. An ICER takes him out, and then they're scurrying to the heap of smoking rubble. The light is fading quickly, which is good for them to avoid being spotted but bad for finding Ward. Luckily, he'd told Skye he was in the northwest corner, and they make their way there, making sure the partly-standing front wall of the building is between them and the Hydra agents in the street.

At first glance there's nothing but a sea of fallen stone, broken wood, and twisted metal. So Skye kneels, places her hands on the rubble, and listens. Rushing water somewhere nearby, giving off quick, smooth vibrations; something dripping far below. And then, finally, so faint she nearly misses it, a heartbeat. "Here!" she hisses at the other two, clambering over to a toppled bookcase. Between the three of them, they get it shifted, and underneath it is Grant Ward, unconscious.

She sees immediately what happened; the bookshelf fell across several chunks of wall, making a little cave that hid him from detection by Hydra (or cops, where are the cops? Did the prime minister somehow keep them from responding?). But a stone—too big to move without help, or maybe even with help—fell on his legs, trapping him. And now he seems to be succumbing to blood loss; she can see it dripping from a large gash on his side and puddling beneath him. His cell phone is still in his hand, and it blows her mind to think that he made his first phone call, the one where he just spouted off vital intel and never mentioned his own predicament, while trapped under all the debris.

"Ward!" she whispers, crouching down next to him. This will be easier if he's awake; at least he can keep himself from crying out and alerting the guards out front.

He stirs, then blearily half-opens his eyes. His expression lightens when he sees her. "Skye," he smiles, and he's clearly barely coherent—as evidenced by his next statement: "You're beautiful, do you know that?"

She blushes and hopes Dhawan and Murphy didn't hear that. "We're going to move this rock, okay? Don't make any noise."

He nods, but Skye might have been overly optimistic, because even with the three of them, they can't budge the thing. A noise out on the street distracts them, and Dhawan sneaks out to see what's going on. "Reinforcements have arrived," she reports. "They're going to camp out on top of the rubble tonight to make sure no one comes looking for anything," because of course Dhawan speaks Romanian on top of all the other languages she knows.

Skye hunkers down to get a good look at the rock. She could shift it with a shock wave; there's an open space near Ward's feet that it could move to. That wouldn't be hard. But it's hard to be accurate with that kind of thing; the best she can hope for is to just sort of shove it off him, and there's a chance that doing so will break every bone in his ankles and feet.

A blood-stained hand comes up to rest on her arm. "Whatever you're thinking," Ward murmurs, "just do it. It's better than being captured by Hydra."

Skye stares at him, then nods. Murphy and Dhawan each take one of his arms, and Skye turns to the rock, raises one hand, and pushes. The air moves and pulses, there's pressure on her ear drums, and then the rock is rolling over Ward's feet. Ward hisses softly in pain, his eyes squeezed shut. Before the rock has even stopped moving, Dhawan and Murphy are pulling him up, tugging his arms over their shoulders and hurrying over the rubble and back into the alleyway. Skye covers their egress, ICER drawn and ready. But no one from out front notices them, not even when they slip out of the alley onto a side street and hurry to their waiting car.

Dhawan and Murphy pull Ward into the backseat with them, so Skye drives, forcing herself to go slow enough to avoid drawing attention. Her nerves are on high alert until she feels they're a safe distance away. Only then does she relax and, at a stop sign, glance in the rear view mirror to see Ward awake and looking at her with awe on his face.

"I've never seen you use your powers in person before," he says, obviously still a little out of it. "That was incredible."

Skye puts her eyes back on the road, but she can't help smiling.

. . . . . .

Late that night, after most of the agents who are staying on the Bus during this op are asleep, Skye slips down to the med area where Jemma put Ward. The biochemist is not particularly happy to have Ward as a patient, so it's a testimony to her professionalism and her regard for Coulson that she's obeying his orders and taking such good care of their . . . patient? prisoner?

Jemma is currently using Skye's computer station to video chat with Fitz—Skye wonders whether Jemma will tell her husband about her new patient—whom Coulson left in charge of the Playground. So Skye's alone down there, standing at the window and staring in at Ward, who is asleep or unconscious and covered with bandages and IVs and restraints (they might trust him for intel, but they're not letting him run free on the Bus). She remembers recovering in this very same room from a near-fatal gunshot wound; she remembers Ward leaning against the doorframe, telling her it was great to see her better, that she'd been brave. It feels like that happened a hundred years ago, like it happened in another lifetime.

Jemma has cleaned him of the blood and dust and grime he was layered in earlier, and now that he's clean, she notices what she didn't notice earlier: his hair is turning gray at his temples. The sight surprises her at first, but then she does the math in her head (wondering all the while why she still knows his birthday): he's 39 years old, so no real shock that he's going gray. The thought of him being 39 surprises her until she remembers that she's turning 34 this summer. How did that happen? Where did the time go? She's spent eight years—one-quarter of her life—at SHIELD; that's the longest she's ever been anywhere. Of those years, only one was spent with Grant Ward at her side, but his influence was indelible, inescapable, undeniable. Who she is as an agent is 50% May, 25% Coulson, and 15% her own unique perspective . . . but that still leaves 10% Grant Ward. Grant Ward, who lied to them all for months, who betrayed them for Garrett, who killed who knows how many SHIELD agents. She hates him for it, she really does. But just now, tired and thoughtful, smeared with his blood, remembering how helpless he looked there in the rubble of that building . . . she just can't muster the energy to hate him. The betrayal feels like it happened a hundred years ago, too.

"You did good work today."

Skye jumps a little, and Coulson smiles as he takes the spot next to her at the window. "Have I ever told you what a valuable member you are of our team? Not many people could hack, run an extraction mission, and move a rock with their mind on the same day."

Skye smiles. "Nice to be appreciated." She motions at Ward on the other side of the window. "Speaking of, I hope he appreciates what you did for him."

Coulson gives her an enigmatic smile. "I think he will."

She raises an eyebrow at him.

He just smiles again, then turns back to the window. "You know," he says, "when we had Ward down in the vaults, way back when, he said something once that really surprised me. He said I should trust him because he was still part of our team."

Skye blinks. "Was he delusional?"

"I think that was the exact word I used. But in retrospect, it makes sense that he'd cling to that."

Skye stares through the window at the figure in the bed. "Because of his family," she guesses. "Because of Garrett. Even though he was always a mole, always a traitor, our team was probably the only place in his life he ever belonged."

Coulson nods. "Which just makes what he did . . . more sad."

. . . . . .

Over the next three days, they plan and then execute their mission against Hydra. As usual, Ward's intel is a great help, and they're able to take down the cell with no loss of life on SHIELD's side; the prime minister is exposed and all surviving members of Hydra are caught and jailed.

All the while, Ward slowly recovers on the Bus, unconscious for the whole first two days. ("I'm keeping him sedated," Jemma admits to Skye. "It won't do him any harm, and I'd really rather not worry about him getting up while I'm left here with so little protection.") But on the evening of the third day, while most of the agents are out doing clean-up work at the Hydra bases, Skye returns to the Bus at twilight to find Ward awake and pulling out his IVs.

"You really shouldn't do that," Jemma calls at him from outside the room.

Clearly the intercom is on because he responds without looking up. "I'm fine, doctor. I'm alive, aren't I?" Free of the IVs, he pulls on a pair of scrubs bottoms, pulling them carefully over the brace on his foot. Then, standing, he peels the hospital gown off and stretches, his back to Skye. He always had scars on his back, but they've proliferated since she saw them last; some stretches of skin look like a Jackson Pollock painting.

Jemma looks up and sees her then. "Skye, tell Ward he should stay put until he's healed."

Ward glances back, and maybe it's Skye's imagination, but does he look almost embarrassed? Either way, he quickly pulls the scrubs top on before turning to face her. "Skye, tell Simmons I'm fine."

It startles her to hear him call her Simmons; no one's done that since . . . well, since Ward was part of the team. "How bad is he, still?"

Jemma looks pleased to have Skye's help. "Extensive bruising, a deep laceration that's going to require careful supervision, broken ankle, cracked ribs . . ."

"I've had worse," says Ward, grabbing the crutches from the corner. "Besides, this plane is leaving Romania in the morning, and I'm not going to be on it. I've told you, I'm not very popular in the US."

He hobbles out the door, and for all her protests earlier, Jemma makes no move to stop him; she'll probably be pleased to have him gone, really. But Skye worries a little, especially given that he has no shoes, no coat, no car, and appears to intend to limp away on crutches. "You should probably let us help you," she says.

"You want to help me?" he calls over his shoulder as he heads down the ramp. "Give me a ride back to my flat."

Skye looks at Jemma, who shrugs. Then she sighs and jogs to catch up with him. "Fine. Just because the thought of you going all the way home on crutches is ridiculous. Especially dressed like that."

He snorts.

She has no idea what to talk about once they're situated in the car, but fortunately Coulson calls right then with an update. She tells him she's driving Ward home, and he hesitates, then agrees that it's a good idea. The call lasts until she's parking in front of Ward's building, where she hops out of the car and walks around to Ward's side.

"I don't need your help," he says, a bit testily, as she opens the door.

She scoffs. "You really do, Super Spy." Then she freezes; she did not mean to use a nickname for him. That's just a little too chummy for her tastes.

Ward's definitely noticed; he's giving her a look out of the corner of her eye that makes her rather uncomfortable. So she tries to cover it up. "Come on, out of the car before you pop a stitch and bleed on the upholstery."

He obediently slides out of the car and balances on one foot as she hands him his crutches. And then, because it feels like the right thing to do, she walks him to the building's front door. Between that and the late hour, it feels like a doorstep scene, and if she were with someone else she would jokingly say, in a sickeningly sweet voice, "I had a really nice time tonight." But not with Ward. Still, it feels like the moment needs something, so she says, "Anyway, good job helping us fight Hydra, I guess. With information, not fighting, I mean. Since you were passed out the whole time."

"Tell Simmons not to sedate me so much next time."

"I don't think she wanted to deal with you," Skye confesses in a stage whisper.

"That's fair," he says, sounding suddenly tired. "The feeling was mutual."

Skye does a double-take. "What did she ever do to you?"

"Nothing. But try spending three days in close quarters with someone you threw out of a plane."

Skye gives an undignified snort at that. "I thought you did it to save her life."

"I did," says Ward. "But she doesn't believe me."

"You really haven't given her a lot of reasons to trust you, you know. You were a mole, you were a traitor, you were Hydra . . ."

She actually didn't mean it in an unkind way—yes, calling someone a traitor is not a kind thing to say, but somehow in her tired mind she meant for it to come out jokingly. But Ward definitely takes it in an unkind way; the streetlights are bright enough for her to see his expression harden. "How many times do I have to tell you? I was never really Hydra."

And suddenly she's annoyed. "You were definitely more Hydra than SHIELD," she points out.

"I was only ever loyal to Garrett."

And part of her is tired and wants to let the argument drop and just go back to the Bus and sleep. But part of her can't let it go; part of her is still that girl in that cafe, trying to make the man she'd once cared for understand how disgusted she was with him. "You say that as though it's an improvement. I don't know if you recall, but Garrett was a pretty screwed-up guy. He killed a lot of people, just to prolong his life a few more years. And it's not like he really inspired loyalty; remember when he had Mike stop your heart? And he did that even though you were, like, his stooge. Clearly he didn't care about you at all."

"You don't understand," Ward says tightly.

"I sure don't. How many SHIELD agents did you personally kill for John Garrett?"

"How many Hydra agents have you personally killed?" he shoots back. "In fact, let's be specific. How many did you kill today?"

Truthfully? Two. They try to use non-lethal force on ops like this, but sometimes things happen. Her silence apparently says it all, because he snorts. "And those were people with families. Those were probably people who didn't see what they were doing as bad; they probably genuinely bought the 'save the world from itself' garbage they feed the lower ranks in Hydra. So you killed people who were just trying to follow their consciences."

"Shut up, Ward," she says tightly, because she's already plenty haunted by the people she's killed, thank you very much.

"What does that make you? That makes you the villain in their story. So it's a little ridiculous for you to be so indignant that I'm the villain in yours."

"It's not the same thing," she insists, and is dismayed to find tears pricking at her eyes. "What SHIELD's doing is good. It's noble. Hydra is evil, no matter what propaganda they spew out."

"Some people would argue that good and bad are relative terms," he says—conveniently leaving out, she notices, whether he's one of those people.

"Then those people are wrong," she says. "Some things are inherently good, and some are inherently bad. Like controlling people with fear, or all the crap Garrett pulled to prolong his life. And you followed him." She's speaking faster now, warming to her subject. "I don't care how crappy your upbringing was, you knew right from wrong. I mean, the very fact that your brother did all this awful stuff to you and you tried to stop it, that means you knew it was wrong, but when Garrett started—"

"Oh, get off your high horse, Skye," Ward snaps, and she can't remember the last time she heard him this angry. "Let's do a little thought experiment, okay? You were a foster kid, right? You know what it's like to have a messed up family situation. Imagine that when you were fifteen, after years of never feeling like you had a home, never feeling secure, you met someone who took you in. Someone you liked, someone you admired, someone who made you feel like you were a part of something. Who was that family you loved—the Brodys? If the Brodys took you in like that, would you question it? Or would you just do anything you could to make them happy?"

She's silent.

"And now imagine that after you've been with them for a while, Mr. Brody tells you that his employers, who he's risked his life for day after day for who knows how long, sent him out on a dangerous assignment and then abandoned him and left him to die. Imagine that he asks you to help him survive, and help him stick it to the people whose fault it is that he's slowly dying. And all you have to do is pretend to be part of some organization you know almost nothing about, that you have no loyalty to. Would you question it? Or would you do it to make him happy?"

Skye folds her arms and turns away, feeling slightly sick. Across the darkened street a couple is getting into a car, and the man is watching her and Ward argue. She wonders what it would be like to be blissfully unaware of the constant battle between good and evil happening around you.

"John Garrett was not a good man. I see that now. And I don't condone the things I did under him. But I don't blame myself for following him—I was vulnerable and he knew just how to target me. I blame him. But I also blame SHIELD for not seeing that own of their own agents had gone so completely off the deep end. I blame SHIELD for not seeing that one of their own agents had kidnapped a 15-year-old boy and was grooming him to be his own personal attack dog."

She stares at him. The fight is all gone out of her and she's suddenly exhausted, so after a long few moments, she turns and, without really thinking it through, flops down onto a nearby bench. She honestly doesn't know if she'd rather that Ward comes over to her or just goes inside his building, but when he hesitantly maneuvers over to the bench, she slides over so he can sit next to her.

They sit side by side in silence for a long time, watching the cars drive by, their headlights streaks of light in the darkness. "I'm sorry," Ward says finally.

"I'm sorry too."

There's silence again. Then, after a long time, Skye speaks. "He really didn't let you talk to anyone else for five years?"

Beside her Ward shakes his head. "Sometimes I'd see hikers from a distance, but . . . he'd grabbed me out of juvie. We both knew that if I asked any of those people to take me back to civilization, I'd get sent back to juvie, where my brother had convinced them to try me as an adult, and where I'd be in even more trouble than I was before for escaping from custody. I was terrified of that."

Another silence. "Everything you did on the Bus was just calculated to earn our trust?"

"That was my job."

"Did you . . . ever regret betraying us?"

Ward gives a humorless laugh. "I regretted it as it was happening. I still felt like I was doing the right thing, but I was sorry I was hurting you all and that things couldn't go on the way they had been. The truth is, I was happy on Coulson's team—or as happy as you can be when you're planning to betray everyone. But I hoped that somehow you'd all understand. That somehow our bond as a team would mean you'd all see I was justified and forgive me. I . . . was an idiot." He pauses. "But then Garrett saw Fitz and Simmons spying on the plane and sent me to go get them, and that was the end of that."

"So you don't want our forgiveness anymore?"

"I've given up hoping I'll ever get it," he corrects her.

She says nothing, because there's nothing to say.

Another minute passes. "So if you blame SHIELD for all that stuff, why are you helping us?"

This time, he's the one who says nothing.

A few moments later, a chilly wind blows, and Skye shivers. Ward is still in scrubs and bare feet; he must be freezing. "I should get back," she tells him, and stands.

He stands as well, taking a little more time because he has to get his crutches situated. "Thanks for the ride."

That's such a common, normal thing to say that she laughs, because this conversation has been anything but normal. "Thanks for . . . your help." It occurs to her that she's never thanked him before. "With all your intel, I mean."

He's giving her a look of some kind, she can feel it, but she can't see it well enough in this dim light to interpret it. "Bye, Rookie."

"Bye, Robot." She sees him inside the building, and then she drives away into the darkness.

. . . . . .

Chapter Text

. . . . . .

A week after they return from Romania, Skye gets an e-mail from T1000. It's not intel, though; it's personal.

I never thanked you for coming to get me. So thank you.

She hits Reply.

Coulson made me, she writes, but then she hesitates, and then she deletes the draft and closes out of Hotmail.

For two days she doesn't reply, but she also doesn't stop thinking about it. He's being polite; she owes him a response. No, strike that; she wants to respond. Because he's being polite, and because . . . because—and this isn't as much of a shock as she'd expected—somewhere along the way, she stopped hating him. She wouldn't go so far as to say that she likes him, but her feelings for him are no longer simple hatred. They're complex, and they're not all negative. And that's the real reason that she agreed to be on his extraction team—not for Coulson, and not for Ward's intel. She did it because somewhere along the way, it started mattering to her again whether Grant Ward lives or dies.

So finally she sits down and types out a response.

You've saved my life often enough.

A day later he replies.

I just didn't want your YouTube fans to be disappointed.

She chuckles at that. It feels like the end of the conversation, like she could leave it here without seeming abrupt or curt. And she really intends to . . . until she's bored, two afternoons later, and she finds herself replying.

How are you doing? Jemma was pretty worried about that cut on your side going septic.

Fine, he replies the next day. I'm pretty good at patching up my own wounds. How are you all doing after your big battle against Hydra?

She barely notices the question, because his comment about patching up his own wounds reminds her of him casually saying once that Garrett would have beat the crap out of him if he'd refused to kill Fitzsimmons, and she wonders, quite against her will, if some of the wounds he's had to self-treat in his life were inflicted by John Garrett, his mentor, savior, kidnapper and curse.

We're fine. No casualties on our side. And Jemma's already discharged all the wounded.

He doesn't respond for a week after that, and she wonders if the conversation is over. Or maybe he had a job that took him away from any Internet connection? It appears to be the latter, because finally one afternoon she gets this message.

When did you start calling her Jemma?

She doesn't respond for a few days, partly because she's trying to remember precisely when, and partly because she doesn't want to appear eager to answer him, because that's the last thing she is. She's only e-mailing him because . . . she's been bored these last few weeks. Because he's trying to make polite conversation.

A long time ago. Fitz started, after a certain event involving a certain someone and a certain bottom of the ocean, and we eventually all picked it up. She calls him Leo sometimes now. I always thought it was fitting—new SHIELD, new lives, new names.

His response comes two days later.

So why no new name for you? You've got a lot to choose from.

She chuckles a little at that.

You mean Quake doesn't count? Or are you referring to Daisy? Daisy is my parents' name for me. It has nothing to do with who I am. I dropped that name when I decided not to be part of their world.

She hesitates a long time before sending that; it's the most personal information she's given him in many years. But in a strange way it's a comfort to talk about it, and in a strange way she knows he'll understand.

He responds not long after.

I was referring to Mary Sue Poots.

And she laughs out loud.

. . . . . .

Months pass. Things at SHIELD are better than they've ever been—at least, since everything fell apart all those years ago. Hydra is still a major threat, but the destruction of their Romania arm dealt them a very real blow, and the remaining European groups are currently licking their wounds. As far as they're aware, the last major Hydra installation has been driven out of the States, and for the first time, destroying Hydra seems like a real possibility in their lifetimes. At the very least, it's enough to make Skye feel secure, for the first time in a long time.

The rest of the team seems happy too, and SHIELD is expanding. In particular, they've added more people to the computer and comms teams, which means she has to explain to each one of them that if a certain handset rings, they are supposed to get her and under no circumstances answer it. They've also recruited more agent trainees, and Skye has her very own rookie to train, an eager young woman named, funnily enough, Lola.

And on top of it all, Skye has a strange new layer in her already-strange life: a pen-pal named Grant Ward. Oh, he's not a genuine pen-pal, of course, because that would be crazy, but they've continued to sporadically send each other conversational e-mails (sprinkled through with Ward's intel). They're always short, one or two sentences, and pretty impersonal—no more heart-to-hearts about his loyalty to Garrett, because she's not emotionally ready for another one. They're silly, inconsequential things; Ward sends her links to Quake fanpages; Skye sends photos of celebrities who, like him, only wear black (starting with Johnny Cash and ending with Batman). Ward sends her a photo of a sign that says "Welcome to the Isle of Skye"—a quick trace confirms that he is currently in Scotland and so apparently took the photo himself—and she sends him a photo she finds of a hospital sign that says "Maternity Ward" because that is a mental image that makes her snicker.

One evening she needs someone to vent to, but most everyone is already in bed for the night, so she flops gracelessly down in her computer chair and fires off an e-mail to T1000:

I'm not saying that dating is worse than a Hydra takeover, I'm just saying that it feels like it sometimes. That's all.

The catalyst for this statement is currently walking around somewhere on this very base, and Skye groans and wonders why she agreed to go out with another agent, especially one she knew is a bit of a Cassanova. But she knows why, really. It's because it was nice to be looked at as a woman by someone she isn't currently flirting with for an op. It's because she hasn't been on a real date in four years. It's because she hasn't been kissed since—well, best not to think about that. Rory was not happy with how the date ended—he pulled the old "How about we do this again some time?" and Skye politely but firmly turned him down because okay, maybe she should have demurely told him she's too busy for a relationship right now, but man, she is too old for these games and he is a grown man who should be able to deal with rejection—and now she has to see him at work and it's going to be awkward.

To her surprise, she gets a reply almost immediately; wherever Ward is, he's sitting at a computer right at this very moment.

I didn't know you were dating anyone.

What a weird statement. Is he saying he normally knows when she's dating someone? She sends him links to online wholesalers of black kevlar body armor; she doesn't tell him details about her personal life. He'd better not be stalking her. That'd be difficult, though; he's definitely currently in Cabo Verde.

I'm not. Especially after tonight.

His response comes swiftly.

Someone you need me to take care of for you? I'm pretty handy in a fight.

She laughs aloud at that.

I think I'll be okay, if it comes to a fight. Earthquake powers, remember.

Well, he replies, the offer still stands.

The odd thing about communicating via e-mail is that so many things are lost: facial expression, body language, tone of voice. A single sentence, written down, can have a thousand meanings based on how it's said, so it can be impossible to tell precisely what someone means in an e-mail. But it occurs to Skye that Ward's e-mails tonight, if read in just the right tone and with just the right expression and body language, would sound . . . protective. And maybe just a little jealous.

But she's probably wrong; that's far in the past for both of them. Because she shot him and left him to die, and he's not an idiot.

. . . . . .

Eleven months after Romania, Thanh bursts into the gym where Skye is making Lola lift weights and announces that there's a call on that line the comm techs are never supposed to answer. Skye follows him back, breaking into a jog after a few steps, because surely he wouldn't call if it wasn't important and she doesn't want him to give up and hang up before she gets there.

But she gets there in time. She almost answers the phone by saying his name, but Thahn and that other tech—Ada?—are both in the room watching her, and she doesn't want them getting curious about who she's talking to. There were so many betrayals at the time of the Hydra uprising that the story of Grant Ward has all but faded into gray, but still, there are people around who would remember him.

So instead she says, "Hello?"

"Kara's in trouble," Ward says without preamble. "She was working security in Vienna, and she called me two days ago to say that she ran into a Hydra agent who remembered her working under Whitehall, and she was worried that he'd remember she was part of the brainwashing program and try to grab her and reactivate her. I told her to get out of town but she wouldn't, and I haven't been able to get in contact with her since. I flew down here and checked her flat and she was definitely taken." He sounds worried. He sounds really worried.

"Do you know where she was taken to?"

"There's a major Hydra outpost in this city—crawling with agents, some of the best security I've ever seen. I can't do this alone." He sighs. "I'm trying to call up favors over here, but no one's available and I could really use some extra manpower. Could you ask Coulson . . . she was a SHIELD agent. If that still counts for anything . . ."

He sounds . . . almost frightened. She would have agreed to pass the message on to Coulson no matter what, but that fear is what makes her say reassuringly, "I'll go talk to him right now. Stay by your phone." He agrees and she hangs up.

Coulson is chatting with Bobbi and May. Skye explains the situation to him, but before he can respond, Bobbi says, "Kara? Kara Palamas?"

Skye nods.

Bobbi doesn't get flustered—she never gets flustered—but her muscles tense and her vibrations get tight and buzzy. "We've got to help, sir. I'd like to volunteer."

"Would you?" asks Coulson, surprised.

"Yes sir," she says in her best military fashion, emphasis on the "sir," and that's how Skye knows she's serious; Bobbi's always respectful, but she doesn't do obsequious and subordinate unless she's got a really good reason. "Kara was a good friend of mine once. I know she's not SHIELD anymore but she was a good agent for a long time—"

"Agent Morse," Coulson interrupts her mildly, "I was never going to say no. She was one of ours, and this is a good opportunity for us to get some more info on Hydra's Vienna headquarters. You and Hunter pick a team and get going. Take Skye with you; she's the original point of contact."

Skye blinks in surprise and wonders how she didn't realize until now that she's SHIELD's official Grant Ward liaison.

"Thank you sir," says Bobbi. She turns to Skye. "Wheels up in an hour."

Just over an hour later, a jet full of SHIELD agents is soaring toward Vienna. In addition to Bobbi, Hunter and Skye are a handful of field operatives, including Dhawan who was invited because her language skills include fluent German. There's also Ada, to run the back end and the comms, and Lola—the person, not the car. Skye was a little hesitant about bringing her rookie, but the girl needs more field experience, and anyway all she's going to do is help Rivera guard Ada.

When they land outside the city, on the expansive grounds of a mansion owned by a millionaire sympathetic to SHIELD and friendly with Coulson, Ward is waiting there to meet them. He seems very cool and collected—his vibrations only a little jumpy—and he smiles when he sees Skye, but she can hear the worry in his voice as he addresses them, telling them what he knows about the layout of the Hydra base. And he informs them that he heard chatter just a few hours ago confirming that that Hydra captured a prisoner yesterday.

Bobbi listens seriously and then orders everyone to get ready to move out. As the agents scatter, Skye sees Bobbi approach Ward. (At first Skye thinks that she's being surprisingly chill about the whole thing, but then she remembers that Bobbi never hated him like the original team did. She didn't know him before the uprising; he never personally betrayed her.) Bobbi puts a hand on his shoulder. "Kara was a friend of mine back in the day," she says. "And I promise you, we are going to do everything in our power to get her back."

It's a surprisingly sentimental speech, and Skye realizes with a jolt that Bobbi assumes that Ward and Kara are a couple, that his worry is that of a lover. And it does look that way. But—

But what, she doesn't even know.

Ada's got the van backed out of the jet, but the agents don't quite all fit in it, so Skye and Lola go with Ward in the dinged-up sedan he must have rented or stolen. "This car is kind of a beater," says Lola as they head down the winding road into the city, the van following close behind them. She's in the back seat so she leans forward and puts her head between Ward and Skye's seats. "Coulson's Lola—" the name she's given Coulson's car, to distinguish it from her own self— "is way nicer."

Skye is about to answer when Ward beats her to it. "This is exactly the kind of car you want for a job like this," he says, glancing over at her. "The best way to be invisible is to be forgettable—not memorably flashy, but not memorably trashy either."

"Nice rhyme. You should start incorporating that into your training sessions, boss."

"Boss?" repeats Ward, glancing over at Skye.

Oh yes, she never mentioned Lola to Ward, did she? "Ward, this is Lola. I'm her SO."

She expects him to comment on the fact that the girl has the same name as Coulson's beloved car, but instead he glances over at her with a sort of warm, affectionate look on his face. He's . . . proud of her. "You have your own rookie, Rookie?"

"Rookie?" Lola repeats. "Skye, who is this guy?"

Skye supposes she never did finish the introduction. "Lola, this is Ward. He . . . was my SO." She hesitates, then smiles. "I guess that sort of makes him your SHIELD grandpa."

Ward fights a smile at that.

"Wait," interjects Lola, "I thought May was your SO. Are you telling me I've been wrong this whole time and I'm not training-descended from the Melinda May?"

Skye's not sure she wants to get into this, not in front of Ward and, in a different way, not in front of Lola. But still, she responds, "Ward was my SO before May."

"Oh," says Lola. "Normally people only have one SO, right? Why'd you stop? And why isn't he in SHIELD anymore?"

"Nope," says Skye, shaking her head. "I am not tired or sad or drunk enough to tell you that story right now." She sees Ward shoot her a look from the corner of his eye.

"You realize that just makes it more intriguing," says Lola.

"Don't worry, I'll tell you when you're older."

Lola flops back in her seat, disappointed. Ward gives Skye that look again, and she resolutely ignores it and focuses on the road in front of them because they have a mission coming up and she will be distracted if she starts dissecting the many moods of Grant Ward.

. . . . . .

The Hydra base is a well-guarded office building on an average-looking street. The team has chosen a shabby but clean hotel a few blocks away as their base of operations. Dressed in civilian clothing, they check in at the front desk in several small groups; fortunately, they're near enough to several tourist destinations that a pile of foreigners all checking in on the same night doesn't raise any red flags. Night has fallen by then, so Bobbi and Hunter sneak out to plant bugs around the perimeter (brand-new, cutting edge, best in the world—made by Fitz, of course). Lola slips away to start coordinating with Rivera, leaving Skye and Ward together alone.

"You never told her about me?" Ward asks.

Skye hesitates, then says honestly, "It's not a story I like retelling."

Ward nods, the corner of his mouth quirked up in a joyless smile—resignation or disappointment or regret or all three. "Does she know your past at all?"

"She knows I was around for the Hydra uprising, but that's about it. All I've told her about my powers is that I was born with them. Which isn't exactly true."

He raises an eyebrow. "Keeping secrets from your rookie?" But his expression is self-deprecating; he clearly knows it's absurd for him to say that.

Still, it feels good to roll her eyes and say "Rich, coming from you." She pauses. "May didn't tell me much about herself either. Maybe it's an SO thing."

He shrugs. "Maybe it's a secret agent thing. We spend so much time hiding who we really are that we forget to turn that off when we're not on a mission."

"Profound," she says. "You're not really a secret agent now, though. Now you're more a . . . gun for hire."

"I'll take it," he says. "Makes me sound like a cowboy."

Skye rolls her eyes again.

He's quiet a moment, then asks, "You ever going to tell her that her SHIELD grandpa was a Nazi traitor?"

It's a test—he's asking her in order to gauge whether she still thinks he's a Nazi traitor, whether she still hates him, and for all that he asks the question casually, she can feel his pulse pick up as he waits for her answer. At moments like this, she's reminded of Coulson's story, about Ward-as-a-prisoner delusionally thinking he's still part of the team, still thinking that they will understand why he did what he did and welcome him back with open arms.

But she refuses to play that game, not least because she's not sure of the answer herself. So she shrugs. "Depends on how drunk I get around her."

Ward looks disappointed.

. . . . . .

Once the bugs are set, Ada and Dhawan camp out in the van they left parked down the street, scouring those listening devices for any single tiny scrap of intel. And the next morning, they catch a break—a prisoner is being transported that afternoon to a certain village outside the city, to the house of a higher-up in the organization, apparently. The prisoner is described as having a scarred face, meaning it's almost certainly Kara, and the SHIELD team immediately gets to planning. The weakest point of any secured transfer is always the moment the prisoner is being led to the vehicle, but they can't strike then; they can't get close enough. So they plan instead to strike on the road outside the city, where there will be fewer civilians and more space.

So at noon the van rolls out with most of the agents to set up at the designated spot. Lola goes with them this time, as she's meant to be guarding Ada, so this leaves Ward and Skye back at the hotel to make sure the transport van leaves and to follow it discretely and ensure that it's going where they think it is. This means hours in the hotel, just the two of them, together, alone, and Skye's fighting a grimace as they watch the other agents leave because she's not sure she's ready for another conversation about his checkered past.

But actually, that never comes up—it's like they've both aired all their grievances and dirty laundry and reached some kind of equilibrium. So instead they talk about normal things: good restaurants, their favorite guns, undercover ops they've both pulled in the last eight years. Well, maybe those are only normal conversation topics for people in their line of work.

Ward's gone even grayer at the temples—40 years old, she reminds herself, and can't believe it—and she finally brings it up. "What's with the hair?" she asks, gesturing. "I would have thought you'd dye it."

One of his hands darts up to touch the graying hair—self-consciously? she's not sure—but he answers confidently enough. "I decided to leave it. I don't do as much schmoozing and seducing as I did as an agent, but it still comes up occasionally, and the gray works. The older women who think a young man is always up to no good are more at ease, and a lot of younger women are surprisingly okay with the gray hair."

"Makes sense," says Skye. "It's that silver fox thing."

Ward ponders this. "Isn't a silver fox an attractive older man?" He looks down, but then glances up at her again—almost shyly? His pulse does seem to have picked up a little. "Do you think I'm attractive?"

Of course she does; she's not blind. He's got crow's feet now at the corners of his eyes, and the creases in his forehead have deepened. But he's still, as he always was, a stupidly good-looking man. Like, a comically, almost irritatingly good-looking man. "Eh, you're all right."

He looks down again.

A few minutes later, his watch beeps. He's up and moving before the alarm is finished going off. "It's time," he says. And he and Skye are on their way out the door.

It is indeed Kara they're transporting, and Skye and Ward follow the van (carefully, so as not to be spotted), all the way to the stretch of country road where the other agents lie in wait. The fighting that follows is fierce—Kara was heavily guarded—but Hydra was clearly not expecting this attack, and eventually all of them are ICERed. As soon as it's safe, Ward rushes to the van they had her in. Kara, cuffed hands and feet, had apparently worked her way close to the door of the van, because when he opens the door she tumbles out. He's grabbed keys from someone and quickly uncuffs her, and she throws her arms around him and holds on for dear life. He's holding on just as tight, his eyes squeezed shut, and Skye has to step away from them because their racing pulses and hummingbird-like vibrations are a little strong to deal with. And besides, this feels like an intimate moment, one she shouldn't intrude on. Looks like Bobbi was right about them being a couple.

Which is fine, obviously.

But no, on second thought, it's not fine, because the e-mails he sends her? They're not flirtatious—she does not flirt with him, thank you very much—but they are very friendly. That's not the sort of thing you do when you're involved with someone else. It's especially not something you do with a girl you once loved, when you're involved with someone else. So she rolls her eyes and goes to help secure the Hydra agents.

They load the men back into their van and Hunter drives it into a side lane until it's well hidden and leaves it there. Ideally they'd like to turn these men over to the government, but Austria is one of the European governments that doesn't recognize Hydra as a threat and therefore won't do anything about them. So the best they can do is get Kara out of the country, fast.

They drive the half-hour back to where the jet's parked; Kara goes with Ward and Skye doesn't want to interrupt their love fest, so she squeezes in the van with everyone else. They don't fit and it's too hot and she thinks this is about the most miserable car ride she's taken in a long time.

At the jet, they drive the van back aboard and start preparing for takeoff, and Bobbi and Skye head back outside. Kara's standing with Ward at the car, and as the two SHIELD agents approach, Ward looks at Bobbi. "Thank you," he says sincerely. "I couldn't have done this without you. Look after her, okay?"

Bobbi looks surprised. "You're not coming?"

"Not back your SHIELD base, no. Don't worry, I'll get out of here quick." He nods at the battered sedan.

"When those agents wake up, they'll be able to ID you," Bobbi reminds him. "You won't be safe in Austria. You won't be safe in a lot of places for a while."

"I'm going to India," he says. "No Hydra there."

"Be careful, Grant," Kara says earnestly, and he smiles softly at her. Geez, Skye's glad he's not coming with them, if this is the sap fest it'd be.

Finally he turns to Skye. "Thank you," he says. "And it was . . . really nice to see you again."

Oh good, he's not going to ignore her entirely, like he's been doing since they found Kara. She nods. "You too," she says, to be polite. He looks pleased, though, even with her grudgingly given statement. There's a restless movement about him, like he's about to do or say something else, but just then Bobbi's radio clicks on.

"Better go," says Hunter over the radio. "They're realizing right about now that their prisoner has disappeared in transit, and I would like to be well out of Vienna before they get all their ducks in a row."

"He's right. Goodbye, Ward," says Bobbi, and walks to the plane.

"Bye," says Kara, and hugs him tightly, then follows Bobbi.

Skye turns to follow them as well, but stops when he calls her name. She turns around. "Yeah?"

He looks hesitant, uncertain, and his vibrations are quick and anxious. He steps forward, doesn't seem to know what to do with his hands, and then ends up clapping her on the shoulder. "Thank you . . . for listening. For taking this seriously."

"Hey," she shrugs, "she used to be one of us." And then she's running onto the plane, hoping that none of her fellow agents saw the awkward shoulder touch. And wondering what that awkward shoulder touch meant.

. . . . . .

Back at the Playground, Kara goes to be checked out by Jemma while Bobbi, Hunter and Skye report to Coulson. The plan, he tells them, is for Kara to stay here for as long as she needs—to lay low. Skye has no problem with that; she's always felt oddly protective of Kara—probably from those early years where Skye was always tracking her because she was with Ward so often. And the very fact that Hydra had to brainwash her meant that she wouldn't turn to their side willingly; she's this messed up now because of her loyalty to SHIELD.

Skye unpacks and then catches up on some computer work, getting so absorbed in what she's doing that she misses dinner. Her internal clock is all messed up from her brief trip to Austria, but it definitely decides it's time to eat soon, so she makes her way down to the mess hall. She expects the place to be empty—it's not meal time—but to her surprise, she's not the only one who's had the idea of eating right now.

"Come have a seat, Skye," says Kara cheerfully.

She'd rather eat alone, honestly—she's not in the mood for people right now—but she also doesn't want to be a jerk. So she grabs a yogurt cup and goes to join Kara.

The former agent seems pretty calm, considering that 24 hours ago she was in Hydra custody and possibly about to go back under their brainwashing spell. Skye notices that the scar on her face is smaller and more subtle than it was the last time she saw her in person; plastic surgery, maybe.

"You never age, you know that?" says Kara. "You look the same as the first time I met you. Well, you know, the first time I fought you."

It's true, she does. Skye doesn't know if it's her Chinese heritage or her Inhuman heritage, but she's never found a gray hair or a wrinkle. Of course, she's only 34, so this might change drastically in time, but still, for the moment she's as fresh-faced as ever. (She's inclined to credit her Chinese heritage. After all, look at May, who's of Chinese descent—58 years old and only just reached the point where she looks to be in her late 30s. And anyway, Skye might be Jiaying's daughter, but as far as she knows, she didn't inherit her particular powers.)

All she says, though, is "Good genes, I guess," and tries not to think about those genes, about the complicated DNA that runs through her body and the complicated people who gave it to her.

Kara doesn't seem to notice her discomfort. "Grant told me that you're the one who went to Coulson and asked him about coming to get me," she smiles and takes a big bite of her sandwich.

Honesty forces Skye to respond, "It's no problem, but it was really mostly Bobbi. She insisted on coming after you."

"Still," says Kara, "thank you."

"If there's anyone you should be thanking," Skye says, "it's Ward. He got us involved in the first place."

Kara smiles fondly. "Grant is great, isn't he?"

Skye nods, not really wanting to have this conversation. But they've got to make small talk, and at least now she can satisfy her curiosity, so she asks, "How long have you guys been together?"

Kara blinks, surprised. "Together? Me and Grant? We're not."

"Oh," says Skye, her brows furrowing. "I just assumed—it seems like he drops everything and comes after you when you're in trouble. And you guys were really, like, touchy when he pulled you out of that van."

"Ah," says Kara. "Yeah, no. We're just friends." She hesitates. "We're . . . honestly we're the nearest thing to family either of us has. So we look out for each other. We talk all the time, we keep tabs on each other."

"Really," says Skye. "So you've never . . .?"

"We tried once," says Kara. "Maybe six months after you shot him and I pulled him out of San Juan. I was crazy about him—as much hero worship as it was actual romantic interest. And he . . . he was lonely, I think. Lonely enough to be willing to give it a try. He'd already told me that he was over you, because you shot him four times, and 'he wasn't insane.' So we tried, for about a week."

Part of Skye wants to drop this, because she doesn't care about Ward's romantic life, she really doesn't. The other part of Skye asks, "And it didn't work?"

Kara shrugs. "He was never into it like I was. And then I found out that I didn't like it that much. The way he'd taken care of me, tried to help me with the mask and figuring out who I was—he'd started to feel more like a big brother than a man, you know what I mean?"

Skye nods. She supposes she's always felt the same way about Fitz, or Hunter.

"After a week of this, we looked at each other and went, 'What are we doing?' We're so much happier as friends. After I figured that out, I took my first job without him, and after a while we split up for good. Easier that way—we wanted such different things from life at that point. I wanted to have fun and be happy; I figured I'd earned it. And he . . . he's restless. He's been trying to figure out who he is for a long time, and he tried all these different things to figure that out. It's only in the last couple years that it seems like he's found any peace."

Skye nods. "I'm . . . glad he's found some."

Kara smiles and takes a bite of her sandwich. "Me too. I've dated a lot since then—well, as much as you can with a face like mine—but Grant is just . . . alone. Alone and tragic. So I'm glad he's found things that fulfill him."

Skye is not going to respond, because Grant—no, Ward, that's what she meant—Ward's dating life is the last thing she cares about.

She opens her mouth to change the subject, and out comes, "Even if the two of you didn't work out."

Kara shakes her head, then glances up at Skye, and then looks very interested in her sandwich. "The truth is," she says, not looking at her, "as much as he tried to convince me that he was over you—as much as he tried to convince himself that he was over you—I don't think he ever really was."

Is he over me now? Don't say it. Is he still in love with me? Don't say it. It doesn't matter, and bringing it up will only make Kara suspect things that aren't and can't be true. Her sensible side wins out, and she says nothing. And she and Kara finish their meals in a companionable silence.

. . . . . .

Chapter Text

. . . . . .

Kara stays at the Playground for a month. She's recovered after a few days, but staying there gives her a chance to renew her friendship with Bobbi and to train in the SHIELD facilities, and after a few weeks she announces that she wants to rejoin SHIELD. Coulson is a little hesitant about that, given that she could theoretically be turned back to Hydra easily if someone knew how to trigger her brainwashing, but he's willing to give her a trial run and accordingly gives her a contract job as security for the fledgling field office in Japan. Kara is happy as a clam about this—Skye sees now, after a month on the same base as her, that "happy is a clam" is Kara's default setting. She suspects that it's a deliberate choice; from things Kara's said, she went through a pretty dark period after Whitehall's death, and now she's deliberately choosing to find reasons to be happy. And Skye's very happy to be happy for her.

Skye's certain that Kara will have mentioned this new development to Ward, but she decides to e-mail him about it anyway; she wants to know how he'll react to knowing his closest friend is now almost SHIELD. His feelings about the organization seem to vary wildly; he blames them for making Garrett a monster and then not realizing what they'd done, but he also does so much intel work for them that he might as well be an agent.

Ward's response to her e-mail is stoic.

I know. I've lost her to the Boy Scouts.

The thing is, Skye honestly can't tell if he's joking or not.

Kara amps up her training even more after getting the assignment, so Skye and Lola encounter her frequently in the gym. This thrills Kara to no end, as she decided somewhere along the way that she and Skye ought to be friends; at first Skye assumes it's because the former Agent 33 credits her with instigating the Vienna rescue mission. But then one day she overhears Kara talking to Bobbi. "I had no idea you and Skye were so close," Bobbi's saying conversationally.

"Yeah, I kind of latched onto her," Kara chuckles. "Because besides you, I don't really know anyone at this base. And Skye and I have a mutual friend."

She means Ward, Skye realizes with some surprise as Bobbi turns the conversation to another topic. Kara considers Skye a friend because she assumes Skye considers Ward a friend. Which makes her wonder: does she consider Ward a friend?

Well, obviously not in the way that she thinks of Fitz or Simmons as a friend. But the point is, whether or not she actively thinks of Ward as a friend, has he become one anyway? Has he snuck up on her that much? She tries to fall back on her old answer of "Well, she pulled him out of that building in Romania, so she supposes it matters to her whether he lives or dies," but it rings hollow. It feels less than sincere, because she knows that more than just whether he's alive, it matters to her whether he's safe. When they got back from Vienna, she tracked him down to make sure he made it to India in one piece, spurred on by the memory of him in the rubble of that building in Romania, telling her that anything she had to do to get him out of there was okay because it was better than going back to Hydra (she imagines that organization doesn't take too kindly to people pretending to ally themselves with it to further their own ends). So, yes, she worries about his safety, occasionally.

And yes, maybe she talks to him, via e-mail, more often than she does some people she genuinely considers friends—like Soledad, the comms tech who now works in the UAE field office. Or Lincoln, back from her Inhuman days, although in her defense things ended weirdly there so maybe it's not surprising that they don't contact each other much. The point is, yes, maybe she talks to Ward kind of a lot. Maybe she's just the tiniest bit pleased when she hears that e-mail notification on her phone, because it's always something interesting or funny.

And yes, maybe that combination of being worried about his well-being and being pleased to talk to him adds up to something resembling friendship.

The thought makes her grimace, but not much—not like it used to. Ever since Romania, his words have haunted her: he's the villain in her story, but she's the villain in someone else's. Maybe things aren't always black and white. And maybe if someone does the wrong thing but they genuinely believe it's the right thing, it's not as bad? She's not sure how much of that she believes; she's still certain that there is absolute good and evil in the world. But she's reminded of something that she's spent a long time learning: there is black and white in the world, but the average human is some shade of gray. Including her own self.

The point is, she thinks to herself as she walks away from Bobbi and Kara's conversation, her connection to Ward has evolved into something that is like friendship, but she doesn't have to hate herself for it, like she would have once. She can acknowledge that things are complicated, and that things change, and that moving on from hating Ward does not necessarily have to be a betrayal of her principles or of those she's lost.

Still, she doesn't think she'll tell him that any time soon. Or tell anyone else, for that matter.

Kara isn't flying out to Japan alone; Murphy, who helped Skye run the extraction for Ward last year, is also being assigned there. The night before they leave, Bobbi throws a little going away party for them; Skye goes because she likes Bobbi and she likes Murphy and she supposes she likes Kara, and anyway, there's not much else to do on the base at night. Clearly, the other SHIELD agents agree because most of the base is there, including Fitzsimmons, who took a little while to warm up to Kara because they associate her with Ward, but who like her well enough now. Drink flows, pretzels fly, and Hunter drunkenly proposes to Bobbi, which causes exactly zero stir at the party because he does that nearly every time he gets drunk.

As the evening wears on, Kara finds a quiet moment to grab Skye's arm and pull her aside. They have the obligatory "It's been nice to know you, let's keep in touch" conversation, and then Kara says, with her usual forthrightness, "Will you promise to do something for me?"

"I can try," says Skye, who doesn't believe in making promises before she knows what they are.

"Look after Grant."

Skye blinks a few times. "Uh . . . I don't see him any more often that you do."

"But you talk to him, and . . . well, he'll listen to you. Just remember that."

"Listen to me about what?"

She shrugs. "Anything."

Skye nods uncertainly, just to get this weird conversation to end, and Kara beams and heads back into the party. Skye pauses, then shakes her head, then follows.

The next morning Kara and Murphy leave, and a group gathers in the hangar to see them off. Skye gives Murphy a hearty handshake, and then she turns to Kara. "Have a safe flight," she says.

Kara smiles. "Remember what I said," she says, and then gives her a tight hug. Skye is surprised a moment, and then she shrugs and hugs back. Her friendship with Kara is weird, to say the least. But she doesn't have so many friends that she can afford to be picky. So she'll let this hug happen.

When the jet is halfway across the Pacific, Skye finds herself at her computer, bored, and opens her Hotmail.

She's officially on her way to Japan. I think she'll be happy there.

Maybe it's because of Kara's insistence that Skye "look after" Ward, but Skye finds herself imagining him, far off in India, reading about his only friend being back under the SHIELD umbrella; she imagines his shoulders slumping in a combination of resignation and relief. Resignation, that Kara has moved on to a place where he can't follow her. Relief, that she might find happiness there.

When his answer comes, though, he doesn't give any indication of his feelings on that subject.

Thanks.
. . . . . .

SHIELD is an international organization; Grant Ward is an international man of mystery. Both entities travel the world constantly. So perhaps it was inevitable that one day they would end up in the same place on the same day doing two different jobs.

"Amritsar?" Skye repeats. "In India?"

"You seem surprised," Coulson remarks mildly.

She thinks about making up a reason for her double-take, but she doesn't like lying to Coulson. "Ward is in Amritsar."

And that's why she considered lying: it's a little embarrassing to admit that she knows where Ward is at all times.

Skye knows where he is—that he did indeed go to India after the Vienna job, and has been there for the seven months since—because his e-mails to her occasionally contain pictures of funny signs or interesting foods he sees there. But she also knows this because she still practices tracking him down every so often; it's a good way to keep her skills in hacking surveillance equipment sharp. So she knows he's still in Amritsar.

"Well," says Coulson, "let's hope you don't need to enlist his help. This should be an easy job: contain the 084, bring it back."

Skye personally doesn't think that there is such a thing as an easy 084; she's speaking from a life of experience as a living 084. But she doesn't mention this to Coulson. And it's not like she isn't really excited for this mission; it's been a while since she got to go on a field assignment with Fitzsimmons, and it's been a while since she lead a team.

She thinks about e-mailing Ward, to tell him she'll be running a mission in the same town where he's currently the personal muscle for a billionaire pharmaceutical company CEO. But that feels weird—e-mail him and tell him what? "Just FYI, we'll be here," as though they need permission to operate in his town? "Hey, we'll be in the same city!" as though they're going to get together and do lunch? In the end, she decides it will be funnier, and less awkward, if she sends him a picture of herself in front of one of those food carts he loves—what are those things called, gol gappa?—with a caption saying she decided to take his recommendation on the food. Yes, that'll be a better way to do it. Plus by the time he opens the e-mail, she should be on her way back to America.

Her team consists of Fitzsimmons, who are excited to have a field assignment for the first time in months, and Dhawan, who is excited to return to her native Punjab and use her mother tongue for a mission, rather than one of the several dozen languages she seems to speak. Skye, who learned the skill from May, flies the small jet. She actually doesn't love being the pilot; she finds it stressful. But Coulson can't spare anyone else; there's been some trouble in Brazil, and he's had to dedicate a lot of resources to that. In fact, they're taking such a small jet because all the bigger, faster jets are already deployed in South America.

Still, four people should be plenty to bag and tag a small piece of unidentified tech in an orchard outside Amritsar. They'll park the jet, rent a car, grab the 084, and then on the way back to the airfield they'll stop long enough for Dhawan to soak it all in and for Skye to find some gol gappa. Or should she say "some gol gappas?" She's not sure.

But Skye, of all people, ought to know that things are rarely simple. It starts out easily enough; they land and stow the jet, Dhawan happily talking at length to the airfield manager in Punjabi even though he keeps trying to switch into English for Skye and Fitzsimmons' sake. They get the car and start making their way through town, while Jemma, who in some distant former life joined Coulson's team because she wanted to see the world, keeps forgetting to be professional and taking pictures of everything with her phone. Skye just laughs at her. It's never a bad thing to be mistaken for tourists when you're trying to stay under the radar, because what's more ignored by the average person than a tourist? And anyway, it's a lovely day, all blue skies and comfortable weather, and Fitz and Jemma have the back windows rolled down and Dhawan is singing softly along with the radio, and why not? This is the easiest, safest mission any of them have had in a while, and they've earned a bit of a break.

The 084 appears to be a communication device of some kind, because it's been broadcasting a signal strong enough for Fitz to find and isolate; something must have accidentally turned it on, somehow, because the signal wasn't there one day and then it was the next. Whatever it's broadcasting is no language or code known to any of SHIELD's databases, and Fitz quickly noticed that it showed strong similarities to communications used by Asgardians. All that only adds to the team's lack of urgency about the mission; the Asgardians are friendly, even if their enemies do sometimes show up to cause problems.

The orchard is twenty minutes out of town and is absolutely huge; they park on the north end and, standing there at the edge, can't see to any of its far edges. Unfortunately, Fitz can't pinpoint the origin of the signal with any more accuracy than a mile radius. So they split up—Skye and Dhawan on their own, and Fitz and Jemma together—and set out to look for it.

The trees are old and large, and Skye very quickly loses sight of her fellow agents. Fortunately they've all got earpieces in and can communicate instantly that way. And it's on said earpieces that Skye hears the first sign of trouble.

"There's someone else here," says Jemma suddenly.

"Workers?" asks Dhawan. "We are trespassing in someone's orchard, after all."

"No," says Fitz. "Three men in suits. Two of them look like hired muscle."

Skye immediately starts moving in the direction that Fitz and Jemma headed off in. Men in suits in an orchard where alien tech is hiding? Can't be a coincidence. "Have they seen you?"

"No, we're well hidden," says Jemma softly. "The boss has gray hair and an American accent. He's saying . . . they're looking for something. Do you think they picked up on the signal as well?"

"Seems likely," says Skye. "If you can get away without being seen, do it now. If not, stay put and hidden." She breaks into a slow jog; she can't go much faster than that because she has to dodge trees, and anyway she doesn't want the men to hear her coming.

Suddenly she hears a chilling sound: Jemma's gasp of surprise, followed by a voice—soft and muffled, since he's being picked up by Fitzsimmons' earpieces, but still understandable: "What have we here?"

Skye picks up her pace.

"Catherine Murray," says Jemma, slipping into her posh British tourist cover. "And my husband—" She suddenly lets out a squawk.

The squawk must have been precipitated by someone searching her person, because that voice says, clearly reading off her badge, "Jemma Fitz-Simmons, agent of SHIELD. I thought I smelled a rat."

Skye breaks into a run.

"I'm almost there," says Dhawan breathlessly in her ear; she must have been closer to Fitzsimmons to begin with.

"Get your hands off her!" yells Fitz, and then grunts as if in pain.

Dhawan must be in sight of them then, because she yells to Skye, "They're carrying them both to a black sedan parked on the road."

Skye picks up speed. And then, the simplest, most absurd, most terrible thing happens: she trips. Her foot catches on a fallen branch hidden by the long grass, and she goes down so hard that the wind's knocked right out of her. Gasping for breath, she struggles to her feet, but she's lost precious time. In her earpiece she can hear Dhawan grunting—fighting someone? From somewhere in front of her there's a gunshot, and Skye forces herself on.

Finally she sees Dhawan through the trees, one hand clamped over a wound on her arm, trying to catch her breath; her heart is pounding so hard it's almost distracting. Fitz lies at her feet, unconscious, bleeding from a gash on his forehead.

"Jemma?" Skye asks breathlessly.

As if in answer to her question, from somewhere nearby she hears the sound of a car peeling out and roaring away into the distance. Skye stares at Dhawan, wide-eyed, but before she can speak, that voice comes over her earpiece again, this time loud and clear. This man, whoever he is, has obviously found Jemma's earpiece and is speaking into it. "Hello, agents of SHIELD," he says cheerily. "What an exciting day this has been! I went out there looking for that Asgardian communicator, and surprise! I get my hands on this pretty young thing. I hope the Scottish man isn't too disappointed; he seemed a bit fond of her. But it's fitting, I think: SHIELD took away a woman I loved, and now I've taken a woman away from SHIELD. Turnabout is fair play."

Skye opens her mouth to say something—anything—to yell her guts out at this guy—but before she can he goes on. "Tell Director Fury that Morgan Converse says hello." There's a crunching sound and a screech of feedback, and then silence.

"He crushed the earpiece," says Dhawan unnecessarily. "And we're a mile from the car—no way to tail them."

Skye has two distinct thoughts: how did things go so catastrophically wrong so fast? And at least they're not alone in India. Then she pulls out her phone.

"Skye," Coulson answers.

"We've got trouble," says Skye, and quickly explains what happened while Dhawan kneels to check on Fitz.

Coulson's silent a moment, and Skye can hear the sound of him typing. "Morgan Converse," he says finally. "Yeah, this sounds familiar. Never met the guy, but Fury dealt with him. Telecom billionaire, became fascinated with aliens, started collecting everything he could. After the battle of New York, he got his hands on a Chitauri weapon. SHIELD went in to get it back and things went south; he started firing the weapon at our agents, but unfortunately, he hit his wife instead. Went crazy, blamed Fury, but he had to flee the country because the police wanted him in connection with his wife's death. We never located him again; he's been off our radar for a long time."

"Explains why he didn't know Fury hasn't been director in about a decade," mutters Skye. "So you've got nothing on him now?"

"Not a thing," says Coulson. "But we've got to assume he intends Jemma harm, as some sort of revenge, and we've got to assume he'll do it sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, most of our resources are tied up in Brazil, and our UAE and Japan field offices are dealing with their own crises right now. I'll start scrounging up what I can and fly out to India ASAP; it's time we took care of Morgan Converse for good. But best case scenario, we're all hours away. You've got to start responding now, with the people you've got with you." He hesitates. "Luckily, we've got a friend in Amritsar."

Which is what she's been thinking since things first went south. "I'll call him now. Send me everything you have on Converse."

She hangs up as Dhawan reports, "They hit him hard; I can't rouse him. I'm sorry I couldn't get Jemma too—"

The last thing Skye wants to do right now is be comforting; one of her best friends is in life-threatening danger, and it happened on her watch, and she might be an experienced field agent but she is still freaking out right now. But still, she remembers what she owes her team, as their leader, so she forces herself to sound calm as she assures Dhawan, "You did great. It's thanks to you that Converse doesn't have half of our team."

Normally she'd shoot off an e-mail to T1000 and wait for him to call her, but they don't have time today. All she can do is dial the last number he called her from and hope it's not a burner phone that he's long since gotten rid of.

The phone rings once, twice, three times, while Skye clenches her hand tightly and tries not to let Dhawan see her anxiety. Then a suspicious-sounding voice answers. "Who is this?"

"Ward," Skye breathes out in a rush, and is embarrassed at how relieved she is to hear his voice. "I am really glad you answered."

"Skye?" He sounds alert and worried. "What's wrong?"

"I need your help," she admits.

"Of course," he says immediately. "What do you need? Where are you?"

"Actually," she says, "I'm in Amritsar."

"Oh," he says, and she wonders if he's hurt she didn't tell him she was in his town.

"I need your help," she says again. Then she glances at Dhawan and Fitz, both bleeding. "And a place to lay low. And some medical attention."

"Are you hurt?" he demands.

"No, but the people with me are."

"Do you have a car? I'll text you my address right now."

And Skye hangs up, and for the first time since Jemma reported they had visitors, she feels some measure of relief.

. . . . . .

Ward lives in a posh-looking block of apartments surrounding a park area with trees and a pond; advantages of working for a billionaire, she supposes. He's vacated his parking spot in the underground parking garage so that they can park there, and when Skye pulls into the garage, she can see Ward waiting by the elevator, looking tense. Fitz, lying across the backseat with his head in Dhawan's lap, groans and shifts just then, and Skye says a silent prayer that her friend will forgive her for dragging him unconscious into the home of the man he still hates.

As soon as the car stops moving, Ward comes to the driver's side door and opens it. "You're okay?" he demands as Skye steps out.

"I am," she says. "No one else is."

Dhawan has opened her door and slid out, and she extends one bloodstained hand to Ward to shake. "Tani Dhawan," she says. "You probably don't remember me, but I was part of your extraction team in Romania."

Ward blinks in surprise, probably at Dhawan's insistence on politeness when she's obviously injured. "Grant Ward," he said. "I don't remember. But thanks."

"You'll have to help Skye carry him," she says, nodding toward the backseat. "I don't think I'll be much good with this arm."

Ward nods and moves toward the open door, and Skye can see the exact moment that he realizes who's lying back there, because his pulse spikes and then he glances back at her with a host of feelings playing across his face—discomfort, and regret, and worry, and maybe just the tiniest bit of pleasure at seeing his old friend. But then he's back to being all efficiency and confidence, as he grabs Fitz's shoulders and slides him out of the car. "Skye, grab his feet. Tani, hit floor twelve on the elevator."

Between the lot of them, they get Fitz wrangled into the elevator and then to apartment 1215 without being seen by any of Ward's neighbors. Ward takes Fitz into the back to lay him down, and Skye locks the door behind them with a feeling of relief; Jemma's still lost, but at least now she's got more on her side than two injured agents, one of whom is actually an engineer. At least she's got Ward, who probably learned this city like the back of his hand as soon as he moved here—Dhawan grew up a few hours from Amritsar and only visited the city a few times as a child, so she's only marginally useful in that capacity—and who was once one of the best specialists SHIELD had.

But she doesn't dwell on it long, because Dhawan is still trying to stanch the flow of blood from her arm with her jacket and is starting to look unsteady on her feet. "First aid kit!" she yells, and from the back Ward answers, "Next to the fridge!"

Of course Ward keeps a first aid kit where normal people would keep dishes; probably has a gun in the silverware drawer. In fact the whole place looks like Ward, by which she means the whole place doesn't look like anything. It came furnished, she'd wager, because it's tastefully and expensively filled with furniture that matches the walls and floors. But there is not a single personal effect in either the kitchen or the front room, unless you count the first aid kit she's currently carrying.

Dhawan strips off her jacket and Skye gets to work patching up her arm—the bullet just grazed her, fortunately, but it's bleeding heavily. When she's nearly done, Ward comes back. "I bandaged his head. He looks like he's close to waking up. So I left."

Dhawan looks curious at this; she doesn't know anything about Ward other than that he's, as Skye told her in Romania, an asset worth protecting. "He and Fitz have a history," Skye explains to her. Ward gives her a humorless half smile at that.

"So what's this all about?" he asks, seating himself on the chair across from the women.

Skye sighs. "Some guy with a vendetta against SHIELD." She hesitates. "He took Jemma."

Ward's face hardens, and he starts firing off questions about how it happened, where it happened, how much do they now about this guy. Between Dhawan and Skye they answer all his questions, and Skye is gratified at how seriously he's taking this. Add this to the list of things she thought she'd never say about Grant Ward, but contacting him was the right move, and she's glad he's here now.

"I've never heard of a Morgan Converse," he says when they're done.

"Give me a computer and I'll find him," Skye says grimly. Ward nods and leads her back to a small room that functions as an office, with a sleek desktop computer. "This secure?" she asks.

"As secure as I know how to make it," he says. It occurs to her then that this is probably where he e-mails her from, and despite everything, she smiles a little.

Dhawan has followed them, but she stops at the doorway. "I'll check on Fitz," she says. "If he's waking, it'd be good for him to see a friendly face. And . . . to hear about Jemma as gently as I can break it to him."

She leaves, and Skye seats herself at the computer (it's running the latest version of Windows, and he's still got it on the default wallpaper with only the programs that came pre-installed—like his life, his computer is spartan and bare). A quick search confirms that no one by the name Morgan Converse is living in Amritsar; clearly he's been living under a false name. So she turns her attention to traffic cameras on the road leading from the orchard back into the city.

Beside her Ward is leaning against the desk, making calls on cell phone, speaking a mixture of English and what she assumes is Punjabi. Wow, he's been here, what, seven months, and he's already learned that much of the language? He always was good with that kind of thing. He finishes a call and shakes his head at her. "No one I know has heard of anyone by that name."

Skye points at the computer screen, where a traffic camera has caught a picture of a black sedan. "If they went from the orchard back toward the city, this would be the right place and the right time." She can just barely make out plates, but she manages to learn that the car is registered to a Frank Harris. Frank Harris is quite easy to find online; he runs MarCom, a successful software company in town. Harris is rarely ever photographed, but Skye finally manages to track one down; he turns out to be a skinny white man with gray hair.

She quickly pulls out her phone and opens the file that Coulson sent her: definitely the same man. "It's him," she tells Ward—unnecessarily, because he's been watching over her shoulder.

"Frank Harris?" Ward repeats, and then is off making calls again.

Just then Skye's phone rings. "I'm in the air with six agents," Coulson reports. "Should be there around 2 am local time. I got a call before I left, though."

"Morgan Converse?" Skye guesses.

"Got it in one," Coulson replies. "He demanded to speak to Fury; didn't want to hear that Fury's no longer director and is pretty hard to reach these days. He said that unless Fury contacts the FBI and claims responsibility for Deborah Converse's death by midnight, he'll . . . well, I'll let you imagine the kinds of threats he made. He says he won't release Jemma until he gets a call from the head of the FBI, clearing him of the murder charges."

"He makes some steep demands," Skye mutters. "We think we found his alias: Frank Harris. We'll keep you posted on what we find out."

The call ends, and Skye goes back to her traffic cameras, using them to track the sedan through the city. It seems to have gone straight to MarCom's headquarters and has been parked there ever since; Jemma must be in that building, then.

Ward finishes another call. "Harris is an American expat who came here nine years ago with a pile of money and started MarCom. No family. He lives in a penthouse apartment in the MarCom building."

"The car went straight to that building," Skye says. "So we've got to assume Jemma's there."

"Then I've got bad news and good news," Ward says. "There's heavy security at that building; he keeps a pricey art collection on the floor just below his penthouse. However, he likes to throw parties at MarCom. Invites all the local glitterati for cocktail receptions to admire his latest artwork acquisitions."

Skye feels her spirits lift. "Please tell me there's one tonight."

Ward grins. "He just bought a Sher-Gil that he's showing off tonight at 8."

She smiles back. "Looks like we're going to a party, Robot."

His smile changes then, becomes sort of softer, and she feels like he's maybe going to say something else and she somehow can't look away and then suddenly someone is clearing their throat behind them. It's Fitz, finally awake, staring at Ward with murder in his eyes and radiating tight, nearly frantic vibrations at him.

Skye jumps guiltily, as though she's been caught doing something she shouldn't. "You're awake," she makes herself say cheerfully.

He nods but doesn't take his eyes off the man who nearly killed him. Skye follows his gaze and sees that the object of his anger has this strange look on his face, both ashamed and pleased, and she can just tell that he's about to do something moronic, like say "It's really good to see you" the way he did down in Vault D all those years ago—yes, she's seen that security camera footage, and it is painful. So she jumps in. "We know where Jemma is," she says.

Something in the clench of Fitz's jaw changes then, and he tears his eyes away from Ward to look at Skye.

"Morgan Converse is going by the name Frank Harris," she says. "He owns a software company in town called MarCom, and we're pretty sure he's got Jemma there. There's heavy security, but he's having a party there tonight. So me and Ward will—"

Fitz shakes his head. "Not—not Ward," he says. He got over his stammering years ago, but it resurfaces sometimes during times of great stress. "I'm not putting my wife's life in—in that man's hands."

Skye risks a glance over at that man and sees that his expression is stoic. But she can see in the set of his jaw that he's reacting negatively to Fitz's words. He's . . . hurt. Ugh, of course he is. Skye can't decide if it's more sweet or sad or annoying that Ward still cares so much more about the old team than he has any right to.

"We have to," she tells him. "We don't—"

But Fitz doesn't want to hear it; he turns on his heel and storms out. Ward half rises to follow him, but Skye puts a calming hand on his knee. "I'll go," she says, and doesn't realize until she's left the room what an intimate gesture that was.

But she's not embarrassed about it, not even about the fact that Dhawan saw it. Because she's too exhausted and worried to care. And because . . . because this afternoon, when Jemma was disappearing into the distance, Skye thought of calling Ward before she thought of calling Coulson. Because she's here in his home now and it feels like a refuge. Because if there's anything that she's realized about Ward today, it's that any insistence on her part on pretending that there isn't some kind of bond between them—a strange, somewhat accidental, often unwanted, but nonetheless genuine bond—is just ridiculous. She'd never admit it if she wasn't so tired and stressed, but if anyone in this world should be putting her hand on his knee to calm him down, it's her.

Fitz is pacing in the living room, and when he sees Skye he steps toward her and says imploringly, "Please don't let Ward do this."

"I'm sorry," she says softly. "It has to be him. Converse's men saw you and Dhawan, so neither of you can come to the party. No one from SHIELD will be here in time. And I'd really prefer to have backup on this."

"He tried to kill us," Fitz reminds her. "How am I supposed to trust that he's not going to hurt her now?"

"He won't," she says simply, and that gets his attention; he stops his fidgeting and looks at her more closely.

"You trust him?"

She doesn't even have to think about the answer. "Yeah. And I know it's hard to believe, but he doesn't want Jemma hurt anymore than you or I do."

Fitz glances at something behind her then, his expression hardening, and Skye knows Ward has entered the room. "She's right," he says quietly. "All I want right now is to get Jemma back safely to you."

"And what's in it for you?" says Fitz testily.

His expression and voice are steady when he answers. "Nothing. Except maybe some shred of self-respect."

Fitz hesitates, looking torn, and Skye says softly, "Think of Jemma—"

"I've been doing nothing but think of Jemma since this started!" he bursts out, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes. He stays that way a moment, silent and tense, and then drops his hands and looks at Ward. "I just want her back safe," he admits quietly. "You get her back, and I'll . . . try to hate you less."

And the sad thing is, Ward looks hopeful at that promise.

"Okay," says Skye, "so we're all on the same page here, right?"

Fitz nods.

"All right," she says. "Tonight we get Jemma back."

. . . . . .

Chapter Text

. . . . . .

Ward goes to scope out the MarCom building while Dhawan goes to buy some necessary items and Skye and Fitz work on the plan for tonight. Skye keeps a handful of mostly completed cover stories ready, to brush off in a time like this, and she goes through them and decides that their best option is Timothy and Madeline Ashmead, who specialize in designing high-end boutique hotels. Of course, she's not thrilled about posing as a married couple, but if they're going to show up at the party together, their covers should be in some kind of relationship. Then she adds pictures of herself and Ward, info about them being hired to explore possible sites for hotels in northern India, and evidence of them having spent the last three weeks in Amritsar. The chances of someone digging that deep are slim, but it's better to be safe than sorry. After that, a few keystrokes puts them on tonight's guest list, and they are good to go.

Fitz, meanwhile, has been examining plans and permits for the MarCom building on Ward's spare laptop, and he announces that it's most likely she'd be kept in the sublevels; the upper level rooms all have floor to ceiling windows, and it'd be hard to keep someone captive without that person being seen by party guests, employees or janitorial staff.

In an hour Ward and Dhawan return, Ward carrying several shopping bags and Dhawan bearing some kind of roasted chicken and flatbread that resembles what Skye's had in Indian restaurants but tastes a million times better—although that might be because they haven't eaten in what feels like ages. As Skye and Fitz stuff their faces, Dhawan pulls out a gorgeous gold and lace dress to show Skye, who dazedly hopes the dress doesn't get ripped or bled on tonight because she would love to keep this for later. She hurries to an empty room in the back—only realizing after she's inside that it's Ward's bedroom, but what does it matter, it might as well be a hotel room for how impersonal it is—and slips it on. It doesn't fit exactly right, gapping in odd places, but no one could tell just by looking at it. And no matter what the fit, she knows she looks good in it—an idea reinforced by the fact that when she leaves the bedroom and runs into Ward in the hall, he is genuinely speechless. "You look nice," he manages finally, and she grins and slips into the bathroom to do her hair.

It's been decided that they're going to take Ward's car. Fitz is clearly a little uncomfortable with this, but they don't have a choice; their rental car might have been seen by Converse's men at the orchard, and anyway the backseat is stained with Dhawan's blood, which Skye is really not looking forward to explaining to the rental agency. Once Ward is dressed in the tux he always keeps pressed and ready—which, goodness gracious, he looks good in, and Skye has to remind herself not to let her eyes linger on him for too long—and Skye's hair is done, and Dhawan has Ward's laptop under her arm, they set out to start the rescue mission.

Soon they are all piled in Ward's respectable-looking blue sedan (she remembers what he said to Lola: be forgettable by being not too flashy but not too trashy), heading for MarCom headquarters. Fitz, in the backseat, is a bundle of nerves; Skye is picking up on his fast heartbeat and his anxiously bouncing knee even over the rumble of the car engine. She's about to say something reassuring to him when Ward, in the driver seat, beats her to it. "We're going to get her back," he says, looking at Fitz in the rear view mirror.

Skye looks back at her friend and catches the look on his face—tight, irritated, and reluctantly grateful—and has to smother a smile.

Fitz takes advantage of the car ride to hand out some gear; luckily he always travels with his little bag of tricks. Earpieces for everyone, which he's going to monitor with Ward's laptop, and a button cam for Ward (Skye has no buttons to put it on)—if they're going to build a case against Converse, they'll need evidence of his having kidnapped Jemma. Most importantly, since they won't be able to take metal weapons into the party—Ward knows a guy who happened to know that Frank Harris makes party guests pass through a metal detector—a simple dendrotoxin grenade with a glass housing that passes for a bottle of perfume. It doesn't have the range or stopping power of the traditional grenade, but it'll be the only weapon they'll be able to get into the building. That's not to say that Skye and Ward aren't both pretty deadly weapons in their own right, but they might find the grenade useful.

It's best that the fake Ashmeads aren't seen to arrive at the party in Ward's car, because Fitz and Dhawan going to park nearby in that same car to run the back end of the op. So they take the car to a busy street corner and pull over. Skye crosses paths with Fitz as he gets out to get into the driver's seat, and she takes a moment to wrap her arms around him in a reassuring hug. "It's going to be okay," she reassures him. "We're going to get her back."

Fitz returns the hug tightly before leaving with Dhawan. As Ward starts scanning the street for taxis, he comments, "Didn't know you two were on a hugging basis."

"We've been through a lot together," she shrugs.

"You mean I've put you through a lot," he says quietly, and no, that's not what she means at all; that wasn't a dig at him. Because she and Fitz bonded the most when he stood by her when all of SHIELD was wary of her powers.

But that's more than she wants to explain. "Not everything is about you, Robot," she says with a wry smile, as a taxi pulls up in front of them.

Once they're in the taxi, there's no more opportunity to talk about Skye's past with Fitz, or her past with Ward, which she's rather glad of. Instead she asks something else that's been on her mind: "Did you have to work today?"

He glances over at her with an easy smile. "Don't worry about it."

"So you did."

"I told him I had a personal emergency," he says. "It was the first time in seven months I'd taken a personal day. So he can deal with it."

"Was he mad?" She doesn't feel bad about asking for his help, because come on, it's Jemma. But she'll feel a bit bad if he gets fired over it.

Apparently Ward picks up on that, because he suddenly leans across the back seat and takes her hand in his. "Don't worry," he says, and Skye can't help it: she flinches.

And he sees it, because she can see his jaw tightening as he releases her hand. But he still goes on steadily, "I'll be fine. I can miss a day of work. And even if I couldn't . . . this is more important."

The MarCom building is a gleaming glass and steel affair, seven stories tall and obviously much newer than the buildings around it. It's set back a bit from the road and surrounded by a tall, imposing fence. The guard at the gate finds the Ashmeads on his list and waves them through, and soon they are stepping out and into the building.

Skye swallows her embarrassment about earlier as she slips her arm through Ward's. He looks down at her with a slightly raised eyebrow, and she knows he's thinking about the same thing. But they can't be stiff about touching each other if they're meant to be a married couple, so Skye forces herself to go up on her toes and kiss him on the cheek, just to blast her way past any hangups she might have about touching him. It's been a long time since she was this close to his face, which she'd rather not think about right now.

Ward goes very still.

"You look very handsome tonight, Tim," she says as she pulls away.

There's the tiniest flicker of something. And then it's back to the mission, and she can actually see him cast off the last vestiges of Grant Ward as he becomes his cover. "Well, you are stunning as always, Maddie," he says, and Ward is a very good actor, but even so she thinks he means it.

There's a security checkpoint on the ground floor, including the expected metal detectors; fortunately their earpieces and the button cam contain such tiny amounts of metal as to not set them off, and the guard barely glances at the grenade. As they step onto the elevator, Fitz's voice crackles to life in their ears. "We're hacking the security system now."

Soon they're getting off the elevator into the sixth floor art gallery, where throngs of locals and expats are making small talk and largely ignoring the painting in question (Skye completely sympathizes; she doesn't much understand art). There's a photographer wandering around, and as discretely as possible, Ward steers them in the opposite direction, which conveniently happens to be toward the dance floor. Skye hates dancing, honestly, but it's a great way to scope out a room; you can turn slowly in a circle, looking over the entire perimeter of the room, and no one is any the wiser. So she lets herself be dragged onto the dance floor, where a jazz trio is playing "When I Fall In Love"; she lets Ward put his hands on her waist and makes herself slide hers up around his neck unhesitatingly, as though they are Tim and Maddie Ashmead, happily married for nine years, rather than what they really are: enemies who became colleagues who became friends who became more than friends, and then, after a stunning and heartrending betrayal, enemies who became uneasy allies who became . . . whatever they are now.

They move slowly around the floor, Skye feeling grateful that Ward is good at leading, because she has many talents but dancing is not one of them. "North window," she murmurs into his shoulder. "Definitely packing. And one by that doorway."

Ward leans down, as though to whisper a secret into her ear. "Two flanking the painting," he says softly. "Both armed. And I'm pretty sure the guy getting champagne is plainclothesing it tonight."

"Fitz, are you into their system yet?"

"Still working," says Fitz. "Just keep doing what you're doing."

What they're doing is dancing, unfortunately, and Skye forces herself not to sigh exasperatedly, because if she does Ward will get all sad like he did in the taxi when she flinched from his touch. But really, that was as much surprise as anything. Because having her arms around him now isn't freaking her out. He's been a rock through this whole thing, he really has, and she supposes that if she has to dance, he isn't the worst partner to have.

Plus he has super great shoulders.

The song is winding to a close when Fitz exclaims, "I'm in! Security feeds are coming up now."

Skye's about to respond when something catches her eye. "Converse," she says softly to Ward. "Heading this way. Looks like he's just mingling with his guests, but . . ."

"But let's don't become faces he remembers," Ward finishes. Then, unexpectedly, he leans down and kisses her on the cheek—does he think the fact that she did it to him means she thinks it should happen all the time? because she is not sure how she feels about that—then straightens and says in a normal-volume voice, "Thanks for the dance, honey." Then, tucking her hand that he still holds into the crook of his arm, he leads her casually away, at an angle from Converse's approach, to where an older woman with short hair and a British accent is loudly talking to an older man about how terrible the food is at this party. It's obnoxious, and Skye supposes that's exactly what Ward was counting on. And indeed, Converse elects to speak with other guests instead.

"But I'm not surprised," the woman is saying. "I've found the food in this country to be extremely lacking."

Ward turns to Skye then and gives her a subtle, mock-hurt look; she thinks of all the e-mails he's sent her about how much he loves the food here, and she fights back a smile.

"But who are you charming young people?" the woman asks.

"Tim Ashmead," says Ward smoothly. "And my wife, Madeline."

"How long have you been married?"

"Nine years," says Skye, and smiles simperingly up at Ward. "Nine wonderful years." His eyebrow twitches and she knows he's holding back a laugh.

"And how did you two meet?" the woman goes on.

Ward gives her a charming smile. "I pulled her out of the van she was living in," he says honestly, then pulls Skye away from the conversation to go pretend to look at the art.

Skye is still laughing at the look on the woman's face when they find themselves relatively alone amidst the art displays. "I've located Jemma, I think," says Fitz in her ear. "There's a room on sublevel B being guarded by two men—only activity on any of the sublevels—but I can't see what's inside."

"How do we get there?" Ward asks.

"There's a service staircase in the northeast corner of the building," Fitz says. "I'm working up a duplicated feed to give it right now. When I tell you to, go like you're headed to the bathrooms but just keep walking down that hallway."

"Got it," says Ward. He wanders off to look at a painting, and for the sake of her cover Skye goes with him, strolling up beside him and taking her hand in his.

He's very still for a moment, and then he squeezes her hand. "Enjoying the party, dearest?"

"Always," she lies, because actually the party is dull as spit. But Maddie Ashmead might like it.

The painting they're standing in front of is quite lovely: an old Dutch landscape, according to the plaque below, all rolling meadows and gnarled oak trees with a stormy sky above and a young couple walking below. It's calming, and Skye and Ward stand looking at it for a long time, hand in hand. In the long silence, she slowly becomes aware that Ward is running his thumb over her knuckles, and she is in the process of trying to decide why he's doing that and how she should respond when Fitz's voice comes on over their earpieces. "Go now."

The spell of the painting broken, they move toward the bathrooms, not too quickly, talking and laughing like the besotted couple they're meant to be. No one even notices them as they walk into the deserted hallway and past the bathroom doors. At the end of the hall they find the door to the stairway Fitz was talking about; unfortunately, it's locked.

"Wait, I can do this," says Fitz.

"Hurry," says Skye, keeping watch down the hall just in case. After a few moments, there's a click, but before she can turn around Ward grabs her arm and pulls her back into the stairway. "Whoa," she says, and then without thinking she jokes, "You that anxious to get me alone, babe?"

Ward makes a face at that. "Don't call me 'babe,'" he says as they start down the stairs.

She blinks. "Why? You've been calling me 'honey' all night."

"I don't mind the terms of endearment, dearest," he says. "But 'babe . . .'" He's silent for half a floor of stairs. "Did I ever tell you that me and Kara kind of . . ."

"Hooked up?" Skye finishes. "No, but Kara did. She's kind of a talker."

He looks sideways at her. "You guys talked about our dating history?"

She is enjoying how uncomfortable he seems. "Sure did."

He pauses, then clears his throat. "Anyway, we called each other . . . 'babe.' 'Baby.' So it's just weird hearing it come out of your mouth."

She processes this as they pass the third floor landing. "Are you . . . unhappy with how it ended?"

"What? No. It was a bad idea from the get go; we were both going into it for all the wrong reasons. It's just . . . I don't know, it's just . . ."

He trails off, and she waits expectantly for him to finish—which he never does, because Fitz suddenly groans loudly in their ears. "Can we not talk about Ward's romantic life right now? Even under the best circumstances I would not care, and these are not the best circumstances."

Skye wonders if she looks as embarrassed as Ward does right now.

"I was enjoying it," offers Dhawan.

"Maybe we should just stop talking," says Skye.

Ward seems to agree. "Fitz, how far?"

"Three floors, and then down a few hallways," Fitz answers. And then he adds, in a seductive voice, "Babe."

Dhawan and Skye both snicker.

They're getting close, though, and Skye and Ward both fall silent, communicating only with looks and nods, while Fitz guides them the last part of the way to the room where they hope Jemma is. Soon they're just around the corner from it; Skye can't see the guards, but she hears one of them cough. She digs the grenade out of her purse, looks at Ward who gives her a firm nod, then pushes the button and darts out just long enough to throw the grenade. There's a flash, then two thuds, and she peeks back around the corner to see that both guards are down.

One of the guards had keys on his belt, and Skye pulls them off and starts trying each one in the door. In the meantime, Ward strips them of their radios and their guns, just in case they wake sooner than expected. Finally one of the keys works, and the door opens to reveal a storage room with Jemma unconscious on the floor.

"Fitz," she smiles, "we've got her."

Fitz doesn't respond, but he lets out a loud and shaky breath.

Jemma doesn't wake when Skye shakes her, so Ward hands Skye the two guns and tosses the unconscious scientist over his shoulder. Dhawan guides them back out until they are standing on the first floor landing of the service staircase.

"All right," says Skye, "we're ready for you guys."

"On our way," says Dhawan. There's a stretch of silence, and then a popping sound—Fitz ICERing the gate guard, probably.

As they wait tensely for the next set of pops, Jemma finally stirs. "Skye?" she says blearily as she lifts her head. "What—" She seems to notice then that her face is in someone's lower back. "Who is this?"

Skye shushes her, and Jemma has the good sense to stay quiet.

There's three more ICER pops, and then Fitz is yelling "Come now!" Ward takes off running down the hall, Skye close behind him with both guns ready. They make it to the front without incident, though; the three guards manning the security checkpoint are all out, and the blue sedan is waiting at the door with the back door open. Ward all but tosses Jemma in, then climbs in after her, and Skye slips in behind him and slams the door. "Ward!" she hears Jemma say in shock. Before anyone else can speak, though, the car is accelerating, Dhawan not waiting for instructions before she tears out of there. No one seems to have noticed, though; no one is following.

The car is only just pulling away from the building when Fitz clambers over the center console to get into the back seat. There is not room for four adults back there, and Ward has to scoot over so far he's practically in Skye's lap. She barely notices, though; her eyes are on Fitz and Jemma, who are staring at each other like they've been apart for weeks, not hours.

"You came for me," says Jemma softly.

"Always," replies Fitz.

And then both scientists are crying and laughing and throwing their arms around each other and raining kisses down anywhere they can find a place to kiss. Dhawan glances back at them and grins, and Ward is giving them a half-smile. And Skye smiles too, and then, relieved and happy and exhausted, she finds herself, without meaning to, leaning her forehead against Ward's shoulder. He hesitates, and then he reaches over and squeezes her hand. She doesn't flinch away this time.

. . . . . .

Coulson is pleased to hear of Jemma's recovery. "I've been trying to get the president on the phone," he says. "She's an old friend of mine, and I'm pretty sure she'll agree to let us extradite. And now that we can add kidnapping to the list of charges . . ."

"We'll have the footage to you ASAP to use as evidence," Skye says, then finds herself yawning.

"You guys have been awake for ages now, haven't you?" asks Coulson. "You know what? We can do this without you. The four of you get some rest. I'll contact you in the morning."

Part of Skye would like to argue, but most of her is glad to agree and end the call.

Back at Ward's apartment, Fitz checks Jemma over for injury while Skye and Ward change out of their formal wear. By the time Skye comes back from the bathroom, Jemma is leaning sleepily against Fitz's arm. "I've been out for hours," she says. "I don't know why I'm still so exhausted."

"It's because we've been awake for 26 hours," says Dhawan, yawning. "Even a nap isn't going to fix that."

"You can sleep in my room," Ward offers—bravely, Skye thinks, because he has to have known that Fitzsimmons would both immediately send him suspicious looks. "There's no other beds in the apartment. But it's big enough for two and if anyone is going to share . . ."

After a moment, Jemma shrugs. "Fine," she says.

"Let's go," Fitz agrees.

Once Fitzsimmons are in the back, Skye opens Ward's laptop and starts sending the button cam footage to Coulson. Then, curious, she queues up the video. At the sound of the four of them talking in the car on the way to the party, Dhawan and Ward glance up and then float over to the couch, seating themselves on either side of her to watch. It's fascinating to watch herself in action, Skye thinks. After her first few months as a bona fide superhero, she made a strict rule for herself about not watching YouTube videos or news footage of herself; she'd learned that doing so is a quick way to lose self-confidence and start obsessing over stupid things like how she moves her arms when she walks. So watching herself infiltrate that party feels like a novel experience.

(Parts of the video are more uncomfortable than fascinating, namely any time she and Ward touch each other. When she kisses his cheek, when he kisses hers, when she flinches away from his hand . . . her face burns with embarrassment every time, and the idea that this might be watched by the actual president of actual India—not to mention her boss—is painful. She wishes she could've clipped those out, but then it would look like the tape was tampered with. For the safety of SHIELD agents everywhere that Converse could target in the future, she has to let everyone watch her kiss Grant Ward.)

"Well, that looks like pretty damning evidence," says Skye when the video ends. "Good job getting Converse's face on video."

"I do my best," says Ward.

At that moment Dhawan lets out a little sigh, and Skye glances over and realizes that her fellow agent has fallen asleep with her head tipped back on the back of the couch. Wordlessly she and Ward both stand, and Skye carefully maneuvers Dhawan so she's lying down across the couch. Ward disappears into the hallway and reappears with his arms full of blankets. One he spreads over Dhawan, and the other he hands to Skye. "Take the other couch."

"Where will you sleep?" asks Skye. The only other options are an armchair and the kitchen chairs.

"I'll be fine," says Ward, settling into the armchair. "I haven't been awake for as long as you. Anyway, I can sleep anywhere. Lived in the woods for five years, remember."

He does have a habit of bringing that up at the most unexpected times. "If you're willing to give up the couch, I'm not going to argue," Skye says, and stretches out luxuriously—this is a very comfortable couch. Ward leans over and turns off the overhead light, and as though the darkness was a cue to her body, she's suddenly exhausted, and she finds herself dozing off quickly. She has time for one thought—is Ward going to watch her sleep?—and one sentence: "Good night, Ward."

There's a long pause, and as she drops off to sleep, she hears him respond softly, almost reverently: "Good night, Skye."

. . . . . .

Some time later, murmuring voices ease her gently back into wakefulness. It's still night, based on the darkness pressing against her eyelids. She's about to open her eyes to see who she needs to chew out for waking her up when she hears her name spoken.

It's Dhawan speaking. "All that Skye ever said was that you were an asset worth protecting."

"I'm glad to be so highly thought of," says Ward wryly.

"But you're more than that, aren't you? You and Skye obviously know each other well. And Fitzsimmons know you but . . ."

"But they hate me?" he finishes.

"I was going to say they're cautious around you," says Dhawan. "But yes."

Ward is silent a long time. Then he says, "I used to be a SHIELD agent."

"Oh," says Dhawan, clearly surprised.

"Yeah," says Ward, and Skye can just picture the look on his face—the way he always beats himself up about that time. "We were a team, the four of us and May and Coulson. But I . . . chose to throw my lot in with someone else." He pauses. "I'm sugarcoating it; it was worse than that. I did a lot of stuff I hate myself for now. I hurt all of them. Physically, in Fitz's case."

From her tone, Dhawan appears to take this in stride. "I'd ask if I should be worried about being here now, but Skye obviously trusts you again."

Wow. It didn't occur to her until just now that she didn't think twice before falling asleep in the same room as Ward. Apparently when she told Fitz she trusts Ward, she really meant it.

Ward gives a humorless laugh. "I've spent a long time trying to make up for what I did. She and Coulson are the only ones willing to give me a second chance. And even that took years to happen."

Dhawan yawns noisily, and when she speaks again her voice is a little slower, a little more muffled. "So you regret it all now."

"Yeah," says Ward flatly. "I had everything I'd ever wanted and I threw it away because I trusted the wrong person."

"I'm sorry," says Dhawan. She yawns again and exhales it in a little sigh. "Sorry for waking you up," she says. "I'm going back to sleep."

"Good night, Tani," he says, and then Skye can hear him shifting around on his chair.

And Skye lays there in silence a long time before she can sleep again.

. . . . . .

The next time she opens her eyes, it's morning and her phone is ringing. It's Coulson, telling her that they got permission to extradite and have just now finished raiding MarCom and taking Converse into custody. And SHIELD has recovered the 084 they came to Amritsar to get, along with several other items of interest. "We're going to head back. Can you get your team back to the Playground?"

"I got them here, didn't I?" Skye asks, stifling a yawn. She's feeling the kind of tired that comes when you've slept too long—it's 9:20, which means she's been out for nearly twelve hours. The blanket that Dhawan used last night is folded neatly on the other couch, and neither she nor Ward is anywhere to be seen. From the sounds of it, though, one of her compatriots is using the shower.

"We'll see you back at base," says Coulson. He hesitates. "And tell Ward thank you, from me. I assume he's not going to hear that from Fitz or Simmons, so he might as well hear it from someone."

"I think that's probably true," says Skye. "I'll tell him." And she ends the call.

"Tell me what?" comes Fitz's voice from behind her, and she jumps in surprise. He and Jemma are standing at the doorway of the living room, both looking considerably rumpled from sleeping in their clothes.

"Not you," she tells him as they cross the room and flop down in the armchair, Jemma in Fitz's lap—they've always been touchy feely, so no surprise that they're even more so than usual now, after Jemma was kidnapped. "That was Coulson. They've got Converse in custody and are heading back to the US with him right now." She hesitates. "He wanted me to tell Ward thank you."

They both grimace at that.

"Hey," says Skye, "things might have gone worse if he hadn't been there last night. We owe him. I mean, we owe him our gratitude, at the very least."

"Doesn't change the fact that he's a killer," grumbles Fitz.

"Doesn't change the fact that he was a killer," says Skye. "You don't think it's possible for someone to turn their life around?"

Jemma raises an eyebrow. "I take it you do?"

Skye shrugs. "I am . . . more open to the possibility than I used to be."

Jemma considers this a long while. "I suppose . . ." she says finally. "I suppose that some people can and do change that drastically." She hesitates. "I suppose Natasha Romanoff wouldn't have been an Avenger if Fury hadn't believed she'd turned her back on her Red Room past."

"And the world probably would have ended without her in the Avengers," Skye agrees. "Several times."

"Yes, but she's proven herself by saving billions of lives," Fitz points out. "How many has Ward saved?"

Skye shrugs. "Yours," she says. "And mine."

Fitz falls silent, and in the pause that follows Skye realizes the shower is no longer running. She glances up and sees that Ward is standing in the hallway, a towel wrapped around his waist, and from the look on his face she's fairly certain that he's heard a lot of what's just been said. He sees her looking at him. There's a moment's pause, and then he gives her a tiny smile. She returns it.

. . . . . .

Dhawan returns soon after, bringing fried bread and a sort of chickpea stew for breakfast. "I've missed this so much," she tells them, and looks pleased when Ward is as excited as she is. She, Jemma and Fitz seat themselves at the table to eat, while Skye stays on her feet, scouring the apartment for any personal effects they may have left behind.

"Leaving so soon?" Ward asks her, coming up behind her in the office.

"Got to," she shrugs. "We've got a long flight ahead of us. And we didn't really come prepared to stay this long." She glances down at her black shirt, rumpled from being slept in. "I would seriously love to get into some clean clothes. And to brush my teeth."

"Sometimes you've got to sacrifice personal comfort for the mission, Rookie," he says, and watches her out of the corner of his eye, clearly waiting to see if she'll get the reference. And of course she does, and she smiles, a little sadly. It's been many years since he was her SO, since the days when he used to give her a variation on that exact statement every time she complained about something in her training, but for just a moment in her mind they're back on the Bus, Skye practicing her jabs on the punching bag while Ward tells her stories about operations he's carried out. How she admired him then, not just romantically—although there was a little of that too—but because he was the best since Romanoff and yet he was training her, little no-last-name orphan Skye. How happy she was to be part of something bigger than herself, something important. How short-lived those halcyon early days were, now more like a dimly remembered dream than a real memory.

She realizes her thoughts have become maudlin and gives herself a mental shake. "Well, this operation is over and I'm ready for a shower."

She gives the room a once over and turns to leave, but Ward is standing between her and the doorway, giving her one of those looks that he does sometimes, the kind that blinds her with its intensity and makes her want to look away. "I heard what you said about me earlier," he says. "To Fitz and Simmons. And I wanted to say . . . thanks."

No problem, she almost says, but that feels wrong, like it trivializes what is in truth a very complicated matter. Any time, she almost says, but that feels weird too, because maybe she should be able to promise that she'll always stand up for him but she doesn't know if she can do that yet; she's come to trust and even like him again, but that doesn't mean that everything that happened has been forgiven.

You're overthinking this, she tells herself. "Thank you. For your help with Jemma."

He nods—giving no indication of whether he noticed that Skye couldn't quite bring herself to accept his thanks—and leaves the room.

Her check complete, Skye goes to the kitchen table to eat her breakfast. Fitzsimmons and Dhawan are laughing and ribbing each other as they eat, and it makes Skye smile to hear her team happy and safe; she didn't lose anyone on this mission.

"It is not that spicy," Dhawan says.

"It is absolutely that spicy," retorts Fitz, who is peering suspiciously at his chickpeas. "I mean, it's nice, but I don't understand how your mouth is not on fire." Jemma nods her agreement.

"I've got to side with Dhawan," says Skye, grabbing a piece of bread. "It's not that spicy. You two are just too British."

Jemma looks indignant. "I'll have you know we have all sorts of spicy food back home."

"Tailored to British palates," Dhawan points out, and Skye laughs.

The floor creaks then, and they all look up to see Ward standing in the hallway, watching them eat; when he sees they've caught him watching, he looks embarrassed. It's an awkward moment; Skye wants to invite him over, but she also doesn't want to make Fitzsimmons uncomfortable.

Clearly Dhawan feels no such conflict. "Ward!" she calls. "You've hardly had any breakfast. Come eat."

And Skye immediately feels bad—she should have had the guts to call him over. So she includes him in the conversation as he makes his way over. "We need a tie-breaking vote. We say this isn't that spicy, but these two say it is." She nods at Fitzsimmons, and as she does, sees that they do indeed look a bit uncomfortable, not quite looking at Ward.

He's noticed their standoffishness, Skye can see in his face, but he answers conversationally. "I've got to side with you two. It's not that spicy." He glances over at Fitzsimmons. "Sorry, guys."

There's a long silence where Skye's afraid neither of them is going to answer, but then Jemma sort of squares her shoulders and looks right at Ward. "Then you're as crazy as these two," she says, her smile hesitant but her tone light. "It is absolutely that spicy."

Ward shrugs carefully. "You're too British," he says.

It's like a dam has broken open, because Fitz says "Well that's absurd" and Jemma says over him "You say British like it's a bad thing" and Skye says "I told you so" and Dhawan is laughing uproariously. And they all go back to their meal and it's all gloriously normal, and as Fitz and Jemma start bickering over which is the best UK brand of chutney, Ward glances over at Skye, just for a moment, and there's such happiness in his eyes that it makes her sad in response. He wasn't lying when he said Coulson's team was all he'd ever wanted. If it hadn't been for Garrett—

But there's no sense thinking of that now.

. . . . . .

Thirty minutes later they are standing at the door of Ward's apartment, and Skye is rehearsing what she's going to say to the rental company about the blood stains on the back seat of their rental car. Ward had been going to walk them down to their car, but Skye had pointed out that he probably needed to get ready to go to work at some point, and he'd agreed after a moment. Now, as they all crowd at the front door, Skye can't help but overhear all the goodbyes.

Dhawan's is warm and cordial. "It was very nice to meet you, Ward," she says. "Thank you for your help and for letting us into your home."

"Any time, Tani," he smiles back; he clearly grew fond of her in their day together.

Dhawan hesitates. "Dhawan," she corrects. "Not that it matters, because I may never see you again, but most people call me by my last name."

"Dhawan," Ward agrees. He smiles a little. "And I wouldn't count on never seeing me again." He shrugs. "Somehow I end up caught up in SHIELD's business more often than I mean to."

Now that is true.

Dhawan gives Ward a firm handshake, then heads down the hall and pushes the button for the elevator.

Fitz and Jemma approach Ward next, hesitantly. "We're . . . things aren't okay," Fitz says slowly. "But you may have saved Jemma's life, and we know what you did on the day of our wedding. So . . . thanks." And he puts out his hand to shake.

It's not much, but it's more than Skye had expected. Ward takes the offered hand and shakes it, his expression serious. "I know you won't take me up on this, but if you ever need anything . . ."

Fitz nods.

Ward hesitates as their hands drop to their sides. "And I know it probably doesn't make a difference anymore, but I am sorry. You have no idea how sorry."

There's an awkward silence after that, and then Jemma steps forward and shakes his hand. "Thank you," she says, and Skye's not sure if it's for the apology or the rescue or both. The elevator arrives on the floor then, and Fitz and Jemma run to catch it.

"Hey!" calls Skye, but they shrug and then the elevator leaves without her.

And now it's just Skye and Ward, and she has to admit, she's glad not to have an audience. "So . . . we make a good team."

He gives her a half-smile. "We always did."

"Thank you for your help," she tells him fervently. "I . . . I mean, I probably could have done that alone. But I'm glad I didn't have to."

"Any time," he tells her.

This is the point where he should probably go inside and shut the door. Or the point where she should probably walk away. Instead they both stand there in silence, and he seems as uncomfortable and fidgety as she does.

"Well," he says finally, "if you ever need me again, you know . . ."

"I'll let you know," she agrees. And saying so reminds her of calling him yesterday, of the relief that crashed through her when he answered. Ward, of all people, sounding like safety in her ears.

She can't help it then; she steps forward and throws her arms around him. He is still for a moment, and she can practically feel the surprise coming off him. Then he hugs her back.

He feels the same that he did back at Providence all those years ago, when she kissed him, when she found Koenig's blood behind his ear. The thought makes her step back quickly. "Bye," she says nervously, and rushes to the elevator, not letting herself look back or think about the look of pleased surprised on his face.

She's really glad she didn't have an audience for that.

. . . . . .

Chapter Text

. . . . . .

One week later, Skye loses Ward.

She's running a search on him, like she so often does, just to keep her skills sharp (and out of idle curiosity). One hour after starting, all her searches come up empty—an unexpected result, given that they knew exactly where to look for him. Frowning a little, she sits down to look manually, which should be much easier; after all, she knows his address and the name of his employer. Nothing again: as far as she can tell, the apartment she slept in last week has now been let to an elderly couple from Goa.

Now well and thoroughly confused, she spends another ten minutes at her computer, broadening her search to the whole planet. And then, coming up empty, she sends a quick e-mail to T1000: Call me.

Four hours later, as she's getting ready to go bed, he does.

"Skye?"

"Robot," she says, not even bothering to keep the smile out of her voice. But then she grimaces a little as something occurs to her that should have occurred to her before she emailed: what reason is she supposed to give for contacting him? I was worried about you? I was Internet stalking you and it baffled me that I wasn't successful? "Just wondering . . . how things were in Amritsar, with MarCom and everything," she finishes triumphantly. That's a reasonable thing to be wondering, right? "You know, what happened to the company after we left."

"Oh," says Ward. "Last I heard, taken over by the VP of engineering, who's apparently a good guy. And not inclined to kidnap SHIELD agents."

"Good to hear," Skye chuckles.

"I'm not in Amritsar anymore, though," he tells her.

Yes, well, she could have told him that. She switches over to a headset so that she can type, curious to see how quickly she can find his new hometown.

"Why?" she asks. "I thought you loved it there."

"I did," says Ward. "I just . . . took another employment opportunity."

Skye frowns. "Did that guy fire you?"

Ward's silence tells her everything.

"Did he fire you for taking that day off for us?"

"We . . . did part ways after that."

His voice sounds hesitant, and she presses, "Details, Robot."

He chuckles a little at that. "He left that afternoon for Beijing. I was supposed to go with him. He told me if I didn't go with him, I didn't need to bother showing up for work again."

She winces. "So you lied when I asked if it was okay with him."

When he answers, she can hear the shrug in his voice. "Yeah."

She bites her lip. "I'm sorry, Ward; I didn't mean to get you fired."

"I don't care about the job—especially not if it means saving Jemma. You know that, don't you, Skye? That I will happily drop anything to help you, or the rest of the team, if you ever need me to?"

In the surprised silence that follows, Skye wraps her arms around herself, smiling a little. "Yeah, I think I do know that now." She hesitates. "Thanks."

"Any time," he says, and she can hear the smile in his voice.

They sit in silence together a few moments.

"So where are you now?" Skye finally asks.

"Sydney," he responds.

"Australia," she says approvingly. "Great beaches."

"So I'm told. I only just arrived yesterday."

"What are you doing there?"

"Bodyguard," he says, and this time there's a different sort of smile to his voice. "This woman I met at a party a while ago; she offered me a job then, but I didn't need it. Luckily the offer still stood when I contacted her last week."

Skye feels her smile fade, just fractionally. "Really? Who is she?"

"Claudia Coren; she's one of these wealthy jetsetting types."

Skye's fingers are already flying over her keyboard, pulling up info on Claudia Coren, who is probably a middle-aged matronly type with a propensity for wearing pantsuits and pearls—

No, that is absolutely not what she looks like. Claudia Coren is a gorgeous blonde socialite, late 20s, who is apparently constantly being photographed at parties and on yachts like Princess freaking Diana, and who has stunning taste in clothes; Skye is immediately reminded that 90% of her closet is black tactical gear.

"Wow," she says, and her enthusiasm sounds unconvincing to her own ears. "That's pretty cool. What does she need a bodyguard for?"

"Her dad's a prominent figure—sort of a controversial international political figure. Made some enemies with some of his policy decisions. Claud's just being extra careful."

Oh good, he's on a nickname basis with her.

"Well, I hope you have a nice time going to parties and stuff," she says fulsomely.

He chuckles. "It will definitely be a lot of parties. But it's a lot more than that; I'm a little tired of working for people I don't respect. But with Claud, I really believe in what she's doing."

What she's doing? Skye pokes through a few more search results. Coren also does . . . hmm, looks like she has a charity that . . . Skye sits back, feeling like a jerk. Claudia Coren is not just a pretty girl with a rich daddy; she runs a major Australian non-profit that advocates for, works with, and provides resources to protect abused children. No wonder Ward was interested in working for her.

"I'm happy for you," she says, much more sincerely this time. "It's nice to do work that means something to you."

"And speaking of work, I've got to get to a meeting with her; I'd better go. It was really nice to talk to you, Skye." He hesitates. "You know, if you ever . . . you can call me any time. Anything you need. It's . . . always nice to hear your voice."

Skye smiles. "You too." She reaches out to hang up, but her hand hesitates.

There's a moment of silence. "Well," says Ward, "bye." And the call ends.

When Skye wakes up the next morning, she has an e-mail from T1000: an Australian cell phone number and the message, Any time.

And she smiles.

. . . . . .

She doesn't call him, though, doesn't do anything except set up a news alert for Claudia Coren, through which she eventually learns that the woman recently opened a shelter for women and children in crisis—her bodyguard was not photographed at the opening—and that she writes a very witty weekly opinion column for the Sydney Morning Herald. Skye reads it every week; it's really quite good.

Two months (or nine columns) later, Coulson sends Skye to the Japan field office for a month. The reason is a bittersweet one: Lola has finished her training and is being assigned to the Japan office as a full-fledged agent. The girl is thrilled with her new position, and excited to go to Japan, and Skye's excited for her to spread her wings. But on the other hand, the girl has been her shadow for eighteen months now, more constantly present in her life than even Coulson and Fitzsimmons, and it'll be strange to not have her around anymore.

Where Skye comes in to all of this is that Coulson is having her accompany Lola on her first month in Japan, partly to ease the transition, partly to do a final check that the girl is ready for a field agent position, and partly because Coulson has a sixth sense for when his agents are getting restless as well as an inclination to do something about it. Skye's been itching for a change of scenery for a while now, and this month in Japan fits the bill perfectly.

On a bright Wednesday morning, Skye and Lola land at the SHIELD base—called the Bento Box, in keeping with SHIELD's odd ideas about base naming—just outside Tokyo. They're met in the hangar by the six SHIELD personnel currently stationed there: Agent Sugihara, who heads up the base; her righthand man Agent Go; a comms tech and an engineer; and then of course Murphy and Kara, who are both delighted to see the newcomers. Murphy gives both Skye and Lola a hearty handshake and a heartfelt welcome, and Kara goes right ahead and hugs Skye, followed by a surprised Lola.

Sugihara leads them to their quarters, giving them a tour of the tiny base on the way, and Kara keeps up running commentary under her breath to Skye. Finally they end up in bunk area, having been given instructions to unpack and emerge at noon for lunch. Most of the agents scatter then, and Lola goes into her bunk to unpack, but Skye decides to first take advantage of Kara's obvious happiness at seeing her.

"Hey," she says, grabbing Kara's arm as she makes to leave, "remember how you asked me to keep an eye out for Ward?"

Kara nods, looking curious.

"Well, I have a favor to ask of you." Skye tilts her head toward Lola's room.

Kara breaks into a smile. "Of course I'll watch out for her."

Skye smiles back. "Thank you."

. . . . .

The Bento Box turns out to be a great place to be stationed; the small staff size means everyone's friends—it reminds Skye of the early days after Coulson started to rebuild SHIELD—and after hours they watch movies in the rec room and play cards; talking to the Japanese agents gives Skye and Lola a great chance to brush up on their language skills. And the proximity to Tokyo makes for some fun after-work outings.

Sugihara is an enthusiastic leader, and she happily joins in with their outings when she has time, which Skye likes; Coulson cares about all his agents, but he doesn't often have time to fraternize with them. Agent Go is more serious, which means he has a killer poker face and usually cleans them out when he plays with them.

The tiny science crew is equally fun, and of course hanging out with Murphy and Kara is great. Skye quickly comes to see that Murphy has a bit of a crush on Kara, which seems like an adorable pairing to her, so she approves. And she reflects that he's lucky that SHIELD's rules on the subject have changed; Bobbi and Lance told Coulson early on that he'd better change the organization's stance on open romantic relationships between agents or they'd both walk, and he, not wanting to lose two of his best agents, agreed. So she hopes Murphy makes a move.

And they run little missions all over Asia—lots of 084s, because alien artifacts are apparently wildly popular collectibles with Japanese and Chinese businessmen. These missions sometimes bring her close to the former site of Afterlife, and close to the little village where she was born, and she tries hard not to let the thought of it bring her down.

After all, she's here for Lola. Luckily, the girl takes to the Japan office like a duck to water, and Skye can see that her protege is going to be very happy here.

Toward the end of Skye's stay at the Bento Box, Kara invites her to lunch on the next shift they both have off. Skye's happy to agree, and when lunch rolls around they take Kara's car to a neighborhood on the edge of Tokyo, drive around for ten minutes looking for parking, and then walk into the cutest little ramen shop. The waitress seems to be expecting them, and she leads them to a table set for three. And standing by the table, with a look on his face like a dog that expects to be kicked, is Grant Ward.

"I told her not to surprise you," he says apologetically. "I said you'd probably want to know before you came—"

And she is surprised, and she doesn't love surprises. But she's in a good mood this morning, and anyway, as surprises go this is not a bad one.

"Ward," she laughs, and without quite meaning to steps forward to hug him, "it's fine."

And when he hugs her back, she can feel his muscles relax; he really thought she might not want to see him. Behind them, Kara looks pleased.

"So what are you doing here?" Skye asks as they all sit at the table.

"Claud's attending a fundraising gala—" it still sounds so weird to hear him call his employer by a nickname— "so we're in Tokyo for the week. But she's spending the day with friends, who have their own security, so she gave me today off."

Kara looks to be about to respond when her phone rings. Looking apologetic, she answers. "Hello? No, I'm out at lunch. No, today's my day off. It's been on the wall chart for weeks. Come on—" Silence for a few moments "Fine. I'll be there in 20."

"Sorry, guys," she says. "Just got called in—they need me for something. But you should stay, Skye—catch up with Grant. Grant, you can give her a ride back to base, right?" And before they can answer, she's gone.

"Subtle," Skye says drily to the spot where Kara was standing. The woman's a pretty good liar—she's SHIELD, after all—but getting a call just at that moment? Too convenient.

"This was probably her plan all along, wasn't it?" asks Ward.

"Probably," Skye agrees. "She really wants us to be friends." She hesitates, then says with a smile, "She asked me to look after you when she left the Playground."

When she looks back at Ward, he's put his menu down and has an uncertain look on his face. "So do you want to leave, or . . ."

And this is weird. She's worked with Ward multiple times over the years, and she talks with him often via e-mail and sometimes phone, but they haven't socialized since before . . . everything. And part of her wants to leave. But part of her is hungry, and they're already here, and anyway didn't she hug him when she walked in?

"No, let's eat," she says, and picks up her menu. And he gives her a tiny smile.

"So I hear Lola's being assigned to the Japan office," he says conversationally as he peruses his menu, and it makes her chuckle a little because the man was once one of SHIELD's greatest enemies and now he knows more about what's going on there than some agents.

"Yep, my little rookie's all grown up," Skye smiles. "I'm sending her off into the world to be a real SHIELD agent."

"It's nice you get to be there to send her off." He hesitates. "Like I should have been there for you, if I hadn't—"

"Nope," says Skye. "It's a sunny day, I'm about to eat some delicious ramen, and we are not dredging up sad stories from the past."

Ward, to her surprise, looks a little disappointed, but he acquiesces and they talk lightly and easily for the rest of the meal: her work at SHIELD, his work for Claud, how much he hates going to these galas because old women hit on him (he was right about the graying temples being attractive to the ladies).

She is surprised, as she so often seems to be these days, at how easily talk flows between them. It ought to be hard. They ought to be haunted by everything that happened between them, everything that he did. But somehow they never are.

The lunch goes so well that when they finish and he suggests that they walk for a while, she agrees readily. They head off down the street, and a few blocks later find a tiny piece of green space—little more than a bench with some grass and a tree. The bench is shaded—a welcome respite from the bright sun—and Skye sits down happily. Ward joins her at the other end, a careful and respectful distance away.

"I love this city," says Skye conversationally. "Don't think I could live here, though; too many people. I'd go crazy."

But Ward doesn't seem interested in debating the merits of living in Tokyo. He seems a little nervous, agitated—well, as nervous and agitated as his usual strong, silent, secret agent demeanor lets him show—and Skye gets the sense that he's working himself up to saying something big.

And he is. "Skye," he says evenly and quietly after a moment, "I know you don't want to talk about it; you've made that clear. But would it be all right if we did, just for a minute?"

It's like a cloud has gone across the sun. "Talk about what?" Skye says with a brightness she doesn't feel, fairly sure she already knows the answer to that question.

He gives her a look and she realizes she was right, she does already know the answer to that question.

"Do we have to?" she asks weakly.

"It's just . . ." He's not looking at her; maybe he can't make eye contact. "We've been doing this for years now. I send you tips. You send me funny pictures. We talk on the phone when we absolutely have to. We end up working together once a year." He hesitates, then smiles a little. "And honestly, that's so much more than I ever expected to get; if we just did this for the rest of our lives, I'd be happy. Well, happy enough. But then you do things like hug me, or have lunch with me, or worry about me, and I wonder . . . are we friends?"

Oh, that's an easier question than she was expecting. She's about to open her mouth to say Sure, she supposes that in a way they're friends, when he speaks again. "Have you forgiven me?"

And that's the impossible question. That's the question she doesn't want to answer.

"I mean, I know that's asking a lot. I know I've done terrible things. But everything I've done since then—helping SHIELD, helping you and Fitzsimmons—it's been to prove to you that I'm sorry. And to prove it to myself; I sleep better at night knowing I'm not the terrible person I was nine years ago. I just wish I knew . . . that you knew it too. All of you." And finally he looks up at her, hesitant, hopeful.

And Skye doesn't know what to say, and she's angry with him for bringing it up. This thing they have—it works because they don't talk about it. If she stops to examine it—that she's currently spending a sunny afternoon hanging out with the man who killed Victoria Hand and gave Fitz brain damage—things fall apart. Things have to fall apart.

She's silent for so long, unsure of what to say, that finally he nods, once, and stands. "I should probably get you back to the base," he says, not looking at her, and she hesitates, then reaches out and grabs his wrist.

"It's not . . ." she says, and he looks down at the hand she has on his wrist, and she suddenly feels uncomfortable and drops it. "Look, Ward, I don't . . . I can't look you in the eye and tell you that what you did back then is okay. Maybe if I was a more charitable person—but I guess I'm not."

"All right," he says, still not looking at her. "Thanks for being honest."

"I wasn't done," she says, slightly annoyed but with a half-smile on her face. "Look, I—nine years ago I found out that my SO, this guy I looked up to and that I had just kissed, had been lying to me since the day I met him. And he killed good SHIELD agents, lots of them. He worked for someone who had me shot. He helped destroy the first real family I'd ever had. And I hated that guy. Even now, years later . . . I'm not as angry as I was, but I still hate that guy a little."

Ward's jaw tightens, his gaze still determinedly away from her.

"But Ward, you're not that guy anymore."

And finally he looks at her, his eyebrows raised.

"I mean it. You've changed. Or maybe you're finally getting to be the person you would have been if your life hadn't been so messed up. And . . . " She shrugs. "I like the new you." She sighs and rubs her hands over her face, suddenly tired. "Is that the same thing as forgiveness? Maybe it is. If it is, I guess I forgive you. If it's not . . . it's all I've got right now."

He stands a few moments, his face unreadable, and then he gives her a smile, and she sees that he isn't unhappy with her answer, he's just trying to process it. "I'll take it," he says.

They drive back to the base in silence, and he parks a little distance from the entrance. She's not sure why until he comes to open her door, and it occurs to her that maybe he's being thoughtful and didn't want her to be recorded by the base cameras being driven home by a former enemy of SHIELD. He doesn't walk her to the door, presumably for the same reason. But he does, after a moment of hesitation, hug her.

She hugs him back, surprised, though really she started it by hugging him earlier. And anyway, she decides, she just told him she likes him. She just told him she maybe forgives him. It's not so crazy to hug someone you like. Even if that someone is Grant Ward.

(What might be crazy is realizing, while hugging Grant Ward, that you enjoy touching him a lot more than you probably should. What might be crazy is realizing that despite everything, you might still be just a little bit attracted to him. Crazy, but not surprising. After all, he's a good-looking guy.)

. . . . . .

Lola and Skye have a serious sparring session that afternoon; Skye's got some confusing feelings from lunch to sort out, and Lola just loves a good fight, which is one reason they recruited her.

"So what was the deal with your lunch?" Lola asks as they're toweling off and guzzling water.

"How do you mean?"

"I mean you said you were having lunch with Kara, but she comes back like a half-hour after leaving, without you, and takes a nap."

Trust Lola to notice. That's another reason they recruited her: she's got a good eye—she notices everything.

"So her getting called away was a fake," Skye chuckles. "Figured it was. She was basically trying to trick me into having lunch with someone."

"Blind date?" asks Lola.

Skye shakes her head. "A . . . former acquaintance she's decided to try to mend my relationship with."

"Ah," says Lola matter-of-factly. "Grant Ward."

Skye turns to stare at her rookie. "How do you figure that?"

Lola shrugs. "It's not hard. You obviously have a messy history with him, and he appears to be Kara's closest friend. Who else would it be?"

That's the final reason they recruited her: she's really good at reading people and making deductions.

"All right," Skye admits, "it was Grant Ward."

Lola sets her empty water bottle down and starts stretching. "Don't suppose you're tired or sad or drunk enough to tell me that story now?" she says hopefully.

And her instinctive response is to say no. But the thing is, she isn't drunk, but she is a little tired and sad. And she's confused. And Lola's leaving soon, and they won't have any more heart-to-hearts like this. To Skye's immense surprise, she wants to talk about it.

"You really want to know?" she asks.

Lola's face looks like she's just seen Christmas morning. "Yes, please," she says fervently.

Skye hesitates, and then she laughs and nods towards the mats. They sit down at the edge of where they were just sparring, and Skye brushes a strand of hair out of her sweaty face and thinks about how to begin.

"Grant Ward was my SO," she says finally, "and he was a Hydra mole."

Lola's eyes are round as saucers. "No way."

"Way," Skye confirms. And she launches into the story of how young Grant Ward snapped and tried to burn down the house of his abusive family, but was pulled out of juvie by John Garrett. How Garrett was actually using Ward as a pawn in his fight for his life and against SHIELD. How both men joined Hydra because the organization was useful to them, and how they rose up against SHIELD on that awful day so long ago.

A frown crosses Skye's face as she remembers that time. "Ward did . . . some awful stuff. Killed a bunch of agents. Kidnapped me, sort of, to get at some data I had." She pauses, remembering that Garrett almost killed Ward, his own protege, to get at that data. She remembers how she caved, giving up the encryption information to save the life of the man who'd betrayed them all. It's too much to explain, so she says nothing of it. Besides, she still can't quite explain to herself why she saved his life that day.

"And you know my friends Fitzsimmons, from the science department?"

Lola nods.

"Garrett and Ward captured them, and Garrett ordered Ward to kill them. But the thing is, as much as he believed in Garrett, he'd gotten really attached to our team. He says it's the closest to family he'd ever had. So he couldn't kill them, not directly, so instead he dropped the pod they were hiding in from a plane into the ocean, thinking they'd be able to figure a way out of it. And they did, but Fitz . . ."

"His brain injury," Lola finishes. She's quiet a long time. "I can see why you don't talk about this much. He did some pretty awful stuff. How are you two still . . . whatever you are?"

Skye chuckles mirthlessly. "It's . . . complicated." And then she explains about Ward escaping, about his guilt over what he'd done, about his tips to SHIELD and his help fighting Hydra and rescuing Jemma.

When the story is over, Lola leans back and whistles lowly. "When you say that you two have a complicated history . . ."

"I mean it," Skye finishes.

Lola sits a moment, looking thoughtful, and then asks, "So were you and Ward especially close before all this went down? I mean, it's just odd that Kara's so insistent on you reconciling with him, but not Fitz or May or anything."

And Skye hesitates, but it's been so therapeutic to tell the whole story, beginning to end, that she goes on. "Well, there's something that I left out," she admits, and lays back on the mats so she can look at the ceiling lights. "Me and Ward were . . . kind of a thing. Or at least we were dancing around being a thing."

Lola's shocked face appears in her line of vision. "No way. Your boyfriend was a Hydra mole?"

"He was not my boyfriend," Skye corrects firmly. "We just kissed. Like twice."

"You are blowing my mind, SO. So Kara's trying to . . . rekindle the flame?"

Skye sits up and sighs. "I don't know. Maybe. I've certainly never encouraged her matchmaking."

"So maybe she's not getting the idea from you." Lola considers, then says carefully, "Do you think it's possible that Ward's still in love with you? That that's the reason he's always helping SHIELD and reaching out to you?"

"I have . . . definitely considered the possibility."

"Whoa," says Lola, bouncing excitedly on her knees. "That would be like 15% cute and 85% messed up. What would you do if he did?"

Skye fixes her rookie with a firm look. "What could I possibly do? He gave one of my best friends brain damage. And even if we didn't have that history, we live on opposite sides of the world. And he's certainly not going to be welcomed back to SHIELD anytime soon."

"So you've thought through this," Lola observes, barely hiding a smirk.

"What?" Skye realizes what she's just said. "No, it's not even a possibility. It's not on the table."

"But if it were on the table?" Lola presses.

"It's not," says Skye firmly.

Lola's silent a moment. "But you still think he's hot, right? You will still admit that the dude's pretty hot for an old guy?"

"Hey," Skye laughs, "he's not that much older than me. So if he's an old guy . . ."

"You're dodging the question."

"Fine," says Skye. "He's hot."

Lola nods sagely. "I agree," she says, then stands and stretches. "This has been a very instructive day. Thank you for finally telling me the story. It is so much more juicy than I could have imagined."

"It doesn't leave this room," Skye tells her firmly, but Lola just laughs and goes to hit the showers. And when she's gone, Skye flops back on the mats and stares at the ceiling a long, long time.

. . . . . .

Chapter Text

. . . . . .

A month after returning from Japan, Skye is called into Director Coulson's office. She arrives to find Agent May there as well, and the women greet each other warmly; they don't work together nearly as much as they once did, but the bond of SO and trainee is one that is not easily forgotten. May looks older now than she did when she was training Skye—she still doesn't look her age, but she does look older than she did—but the facial expression, the stance, the clothing, they're all the same.

It was Coulson who called her, but it's May who starts off talking. "Thank you for stopping by, Skye. We needed to ask you: do you have a phone number for Grant Ward?"

Skye blinks a few times; she never thought she'd live to see the day May would try to contact Ward. "Why?"

"You know the manhunt I've been conducting, for Gary Adams?"

Skye nods.

"We've gotten new information that Adams used to be a crony of Garrett's back in the day. And since Ward was around a lot during the time, I need to ask him some questions."

"Would you like me to call?"

May shakes her head. "It'll be more efficient if I do it."

May is her former SO and a superior officer, and Skye is usually inclined to respond promptly to her every request. But today, she hesitates, just for a moment. Today she thinks, just for a moment, of Grant Ward receiving an unexpected phone call from Melinda May. May is not the person she used to be; she's still somber, with a serious case of resting angry face, but under her dour facade, she's much happier and more relaxed—it helps that she finally forgave herself for Bahrain, mostly. But Skye's not sure how May would be when dealing with Ward; she remembers quite well that when everything went down, the only person who hated Ward more than she did was May. Skye once shot Ward in the side and left him for dead, but May would have shot him in the head on the way out the door, just to be sure.

Skye takes a moment to prepare a response in her head, one to logically support her position. Then she says, "Can I ask him first if it's all right? You two aren't really on the best terms, and he might not be happy to know that contact information he gave to me personally is being spread around. He's a valuable intelligence asset—" she's quoting Coulson there— "and the last thing we want to do is alienate him." Luckily for her, Ward just last week gave them a tip about a powered individual running a drug cartel in Colombia, so his usefulness as an asset is fresh on everyone's mind.

May doesn't look pleased at that—Skye can feel her vibrations tense up—but Coulson, after examining Skye's face for a moment, nods. "You make a good point, Skye. Go e-mail him now."

Skye nods and goes to her computer, pulling up her Hotmail account with a smile. She'd worried, after their conversation in Tokyo, that Ward would be upset with her for not being able to unequivocally forgive him yet, or at least that things would become awkward between them. But if anything they've gotten closer; they e-mail each other more frequently, and she's convinced him to install this chat app on his phone that she uses exclusively to send him deliberately bad pictures of her meals and crazy animated emoticons of dancing sushi. It's the closest they've been since before the rise of Hydra. So she doesn't hesitate at all to write to him.

So here's an interesting one for you, she types. MM wants me to give her your phone number so she can call and ask about someone they're investigating who's an old buddy of your old boss. Is that okay with you?

The response comes only a few minutes later, and Skye does a quick calculation in her head and realizes that it's 5 am in Australia; either Ward gets up early or he's got some loud notification that wakes him when he gets e-mails.

All right, give her the number.

She reflects, as she sometimes does when they e-mail each other, on how little information an e-mail actually conveys. She wonders if those six words were typed in resignation, in trepidation, in anticipation, in anger . . .

But he said yes, so she scribbles down his cell number and takes it to May. Her SO accepts it with a nod of thanks and starts dialing, and Skye excuses herself.

Twenty minutes later, there's a bustle of activity, and Skye peeks down the hall to see May giving orders to a group of agents; clearly Ward gave them some useful information. So she slips down to the comms room and starts dialing.

Ward answers after one ring. "Rookie?" Clearly he's got caller ID.

"How was it?" she asks without preamble. "Because I'm imagining, like, super awkward and tense."

He chuckles a little. "It wasn't the most comfortable conversation I've ever had. But it was fine. May's too much of a professional to let old hurt feelings get in the way of a current investigation."

"Were there old hurt feelings? Do you think she's still mad at you?" Skye blurts, before it occurs to her that that's kind of a rude question.

"Not really," he says after a moment. "I mean, I don't think she's happy I'm helping SHIELD; she's a company woman, through and through, and the things I did to hurt SHIELD . . . those aren't things she takes lightly. But I think she's past the personal hurt. Which is impressive. She was pretty furious with me back then." He sounds resigned and a little sorry when he says it.

"I wasn't going to say anything, but . . . yeah, she was."

Ward gives a mirthless laugh. "When she found out she was sleeping with the enemy . . ." He hesitates. "I played her, and I suspect that's what made her the most angry. Partly because we'd been . . . close, but mostly because she's used to being in control of situations. I think she was pretty mad that I got the drop on her."

Skye's quiet a moment, remembering how she'd felt when she found out that Ward and May had been a thing. Bothered, is how she'd felt, although she'd played it off like it was no big deal. She'd liked Ward, and she'd been pretty sure he felt the same way. Which turned out to be a correct assumption.

"Well," she says after a pause, "I just wanted to call and see how it went. Make sure . . . things are fine."

"Because you were concerned about me or because you were concerned about making sure I'm still willing to help SHIELD?"

"Why can't it be both?" she jokes.

But then, after Ward chuckles and they both fall silent, she feels guilty about her answer. Because she knows it's not true. So after a moment, she admits, "Mostly the first one."

When he responds, there's something in his voice that she can't quite put her finger on. "Thank you."

They sit in silence a bit longer. "How's Claud?" Skye finally asks.

"Great," he says enthusiastically. "This is . . . a great job."

"You just like having a job that lets you hang out on a lot of yachts," she teases.

"I definitely don't mind that," he agrees. "But it's also . . . we went to one of her centers yesterday for her to spend some time volunteering. She made me read Dr. Seuss books to the kids."

"Now that is something I would love to have seen."

"I was terrible at it," he says resignedly. "But it was . . . really good, being there." He's silent a few moments, then he adds, "If there'd been a place like that around when I was a kid . . ."

He sounds so distant all of a sudden, and Skye's hand tightens reflexively on her knee. She wishes . . . but he's on the other side of the world. "It's nice that you can volunteer there now," she says, which seems wholly inadequate but she's not sure what else to say.

"Yeah," he agrees. "Yeah, it's been really good." As she casts her mind about for what to say next, he changes the subject. "How are things on base? How is . . . everybody?"

"Pretty good," says Skye. "Some paper Fitz wrote got referenced in a paper by some famous engineer he idolizes, and he hasn't shut up about it for like two weeks. Even Jemma's about ready to deck him. But as long as you don't mention thermodynamic something something in the lab, things are pretty good."

Ward laughs at that. "How about you?" he asks. "I heard on the news that in Costa Rica, there was a mysterious earthquake that helped the military get into some gun runner's compound." He puts on a "local news at 11" sort of voice. "Locals suspect the work of the superhero known as Quake."

"I really hate that they call me a superhero," she says. "It sounds like I'm running around in tights and a cape. But yes, SHIELD may have been . . . helping covertly. And Coulson may have thought that my abilities could be of some use."

"I would love to see you in action some time," he says. "I mean, I saw you move that rock off my leg in Romania. But, you know, something big."

"It's sort of tough to show off something big just for fun. You know, since it could cause a building to collapse. But next time we're in mortal peril together, I'll let you watch me knock some stuff down."

"You think there'll be a next time?"

"Given our line of work, and how often you end up involved in SHIELD business . . . yeah, I think there'll be a next time."

"Well—" he starts, but is interrupted by a beeping that Skye can faintly hear through the phone. "That's Claud," he says regretfully. "I've got to go. But Skye, it was really nice to hear from you. Thanks for being . . . concerned about me."

"Thanks for your help with Adams," says Skye. She hesitates. "And Ward, I'm really happy that you're so happy with this new job."

"Thanks," he says. And then, carefully, as though testing out how she'll react, he adds, "Talk to you later."

And knowing them, he probably will. So she agrees. "Sounds good."

Ten minutes after the call ends, Coulson appears. "You talk to Ward?" he asks, seating himself on the chair across from her.

"How did you know?" she asks suspiciously.

He gives her that mild smile of his. "Skye, I've known you for ten years now. You've gotten pretty easy to predict."

"You realize that sounds like a challenge, right?" she grins. "Now I've got to go do something crazy, like become a school teacher, just to keep you on your toes."

"You'd hate being a school teacher," he smiles. "Too much structure, not enough travel, and you find children to be cute but sticky."

Skye blinks at him. "Wow," she says after a moment. "Apparently I am easy to predict."

"So, Ward?"

"May was nice to him," Skye confirms. "Well, nice enough." She remembers what Ward just said, and finds herself repeating it to her boss. "Are you concerned because of him, or because you want to know if he's still on SHIELD's side?"

And here Coulson shows just how similar he and Skye are, because he responds, "A little of both."

Skye smiles at that. That could be the end of the conversation, but Coulson shows no signs of getting up from his chair. After a moment, curious, she finds herself asking, "Are you still mad at him?"

"That's an interesting question," says Coulson. He pauses, as though considering his words, and then goes on. "Victoria Hand was a a good agent. They were all good agents. The things he did—especially to Fitzsimmons—are hard to forgive."

"True," sighs Skye.

"But I've always felt," he goes on, "that a person's character isn't based on holding up a list of their crimes next to a list of their good deeds and seeing which is longer. It's about the direction they're taking their life in right now. It's about who and what they're trying to become. And Ward has been working, for a long time, to become a better person than he was. He seems to have really turned his life around. And that counts for a lot, in my book."

That's really not a bad way to think about it, she decides.

"So no," says Coulson, "I guess I'm not mad at him anymore. Are you?"

That's one Skye knows the answer to without thinking. "No, I'm not."

. . . . . .

On a bright May morning several months later, Skye gets an e-mail from T1000.

So guess what? I'm going to be in Canada next month. First time in North America in five years.

Welcome back, she responds. What's in Canada?

Claud's got friends and family in Montreal. It's a social visit.

Not coming down to the US of A? Skye types, fairly sure she knows the answer.

Claud doesn't have any reason to visit, and our fine country is not fond of me, Ward says. But Canada ought to be all right, as long as I use some creative identification.

As Skye ponders her response over the next few days, the thought unexpectedly occurs to her that the Playground's location, near Albany, New York, is quite close to the Canadian border; she could fly to Montreal in just a couple of hours. Less, probably, especially if she took one of the fast jets. She could just . . . stop by. Say hi. Ward would probably be thrilled to death; he's thrilled to death when she calls him, at least.

Of course it's a crazy idea, she can't use SHIELD resources just to pop up to Canada and say hi to a friend, and she's got important things to do. But still, the idea bounces around in her head for a day or two.

Before she's gotten around to responding to his last e-mail, she gets an unexpected call on the Grant Ward hotline. After a bit of small talk (that's a first—normally on these calls they just jump straight into whatever they're calling for), he admits that he's calling with a favor to ask of her.

"What kind of favor?"

"Claud's accepted an invitation to some charity gala while we're over there," he explains. "Trouble is, it's on the American side."

"Ah," says Skye. "And you're worried that your creative identification won't work here."

"I didn't make any international watch lists after I escaped federal custody," he says. "I don't think my escape was very widely publicized. So I've been fine outside the US. But I worry that going back in . . ."

"And you want me to . . .?"

"Claud needs a bodyguard for that night," he says. "Could we hire you? It's in upstate New York, less than an hour from your base. And we could pay you really well." And then he tells her a number that makes her jaw drop. She makes decent money as a SHIELD agent, especially given that her housing and meals are covered, but he's offering to pay her for a single evening what would normally take her months to earn.

"Wow," she says.

"I know SHIELD agents don't really do freelancing, so don't think of it like that. Think of it as doing me a colossal favor. That we'll pay you for." He hesitates. "I know it's a lot of ask. But there's no one I trust more."

A smile touches her face. "When is it?"

"The 6th," he responds.

She's got the 6th and 7th off, actually; she'd been going to spend them bumming around the base, but this would be more interesting, and better paying. And she'd finally get to meet the fabled Claudia Coren. She's still hesitant, but it's not like he hasn't done colossal favors for her in the past—he lost his job over one, after all. So she shrugs. "I've got to ask Coulson. We've got rules about taking paying outside gigs."

But Coulson, when she talks to him later, is fine with it—"It's always nice to be in the good graces of a billionaire philanthropist," he says with a smile—so on the afternoon of the 6th, she finds herself on the road to Belvedere Acres, the country estate of some gajillionaire doctor who apparently likes holding charity galas on his hobby farm. The day is warm, the scenery is beautiful, and Skye is feeling great about the whole thing; it's nice to be out on her own, not in a group, and she's excited to finally meet the elusive Claudia Coren (she's still debating whether it'd be weird to tell her that she loved her newspaper column last month about women in the media).

At 6:30 in the evening, she pulls into Belvedere Acres and is directed to the airstrip around the back—"The farm has an airstrip?" she asks in disbelief, certain she'll never understand rich people—where a handful of small private jets have landed. A helpful employee directs her to a sleek Cessna that's finishing its post-landing checks, and Skye parks her car, grabs her bag from the backseat, surreptitiously smooths down her hair, and approaches the plane.

The pilot is an unbearably cheerful bearded Brit, and after he shakes Skye's hand firmly and introduces himself as Drew, he pops his head into the plane and calls for Claud (apparently it's not just Ward who's on a nickname basis with her). And here she is, the woman herself, society darling Claudia Coren. She's intimidatingly tall and wearing a white dress and gold jewelry that set off her tan, and her hair is up in one of those deceptively casual updos that probably actually took hours to do. Skye promptly feels grubby and short, but it doesn't last: when Claudia sees Skye, her face lights up like a Christmas tree, and Skye can't help smiling in return.

"So you're her," she says with a warm smile, reaching out for Skye's hand.

That's an odd way to put it. "I'm Skye," she smiles back, and reaches out to shake the woman's hand. But Claudia doesn't shake her hand; she grasps it tightly, like they're best friends who haven't seen each other in ages.

"You don't know how long I've wanted to meet you," she says, and that's weird too, because they only offered her this job a couple weeks ago. Apparently Ward has discussed her before now? But then Claudia becomes more business-like. "Thank you for coming out here," she says. "I don't imagine we'll have any trouble tonight, at an event like this, but I always like to be prepared. Grant told you to bring a dress, right?"

In response Skye lifts her bag, and Claudia directs her into the plane's bathroom to change. She brought the gold lace dress she wore in Amritsar, and as she pulls it out, she is thankful once again that Dhawan has such good taste and that she got through that mission without damaging the dress; this is the perfect evening gown, especially after she got it tailored to fit just right. She puts it on and does her hair up—nothing like as nice as Claudia's, but years of being a SHIELD agent has taught her to do a passable updo on very short notice. And then, after strapping a couple guns in her usual spots, she leaves the bathroom . . . only to come face to face with Ward.

Not Ward, she corrects herself, but his image, pulled up on a screen at the front of the plane; Claudia, who's standing near it, obviously called him up back in Canada.

"Skye!" he says, sounding surprised.

"I thought he could give you a quick overview about tonight," Claudia says, smiling.

"Yeah," says Ward, sounding a bit stunned, and Skye suddenly remembers how he was struck speechless the first time he saw her in this dress. And she can't help herself: she blushes, just a little.

This is the opposite of professional, and the way that Claudia is just standing there, hiding a smile, makes her even more embarrassed. So Skye clears her throat. "Ward?" she says, firmly.

That kicks him into gear. "No entourage, so you're just guarding Claud tonight. Dinner, then drinks and Norah Jones in the garden. There should be a printout of the farm's layout on that seat just there."

Skye turns to get it, and when she turns back she catches the tail end of Ward giving Claudia the stink eye. Claudia just looks amused. And Skye is pretty sure she knows what Claudia is smiling about. Is everyone in Ward's life trying to set them up with each other?

Ward and Skye talk for a few moments longer, and then he gives her a professional-sounding farewell and turns the screen off. Skye wishes they had more time—more private time—to talk, and she wonders again if she could come up with a reason to go to Montreal.

Their host, Dr. Hale, has sent golf carts to ferry those guests who arrived by plane up to the main house, so Claudia hops in one and then scoots over to make room for Skye. "Thank you, Miss Coren," says Skye, climbing in next to her.

"Please, Skye, call me Claud. Everyone does." Pretty, smart, rich, and super nice. There was a time in her life when Skye would have been extremely jealous of a woman like this, but she likes to think she's matured since then.

"All right, Claud," Skye smiles back as the cart starts its journey to the house.

They make comfortable small talk until they reach the front, where a row of paparazzi has set up—even an hour into the countryside, celebrities aren't safe from scrutiny. Claud handles it like a champ, making sure to turn every question back to the charity in question—clean water for children in Africa—with grace and poise. Skye watches the crowd carefully from behind, while also avoiding any paparazzi cameras; she can't keep her Quake persona out of the limelight, but she's determined to keep her real persona private. And then they're through the cameras and into the gala.

And honestly, it's as lovely a night as Skye's had in a while. Being there as a bodyguard means she doesn't really get to party, but she gets the mini quiches and the shrimp, and she gets to enjoy the music and the beautiful garden, and she gets to rub shoulders with movie stars and musicians (while she tries hard not to freak out because Felicity actual Jones is here and she loves Felicity actual Jones). They're there for two hours before Claud finally takes a break from her circulating and her socializing—the woman appears to know absolutely everyone at the party—and takes a seat at a secluded table in the corner of the garden, a champagne flute in hand. Skye follows and takes up a position near the table, but Claud insists she take the other seat.

"You've been on your feet all night, Skye," she says with a gracious smile. "Take a break. Have a drink."

Skye's not going to drink alcohol on the job, but she does accept a fruit juice from a passing waiter. Claud leans back and sighs in contentment. "I love events like this," she says, "but sometimes it's good to take a break from them."

"This is beautiful," Skye agrees, and then a smile crosses her lips.

Claud sees it. "What's that smile for?"

Skye hesitates, then admits, "I was just thinking . . . I grew up in foster care. I never would have believed that some day I'd be attending parties with the Clooneys. Even if I'm only here because of you."

Claud smiles too. "So how did you go from foster care to SHIELD?" she asks, which is a bit of a personal story but the woman has a very reassuring, trustable face that makes Skye strangely willing to spill her guts.

So Skye tells her a very abbreviated version of the story of how Coulson pulled her from her van. Then, to make polite conversation, and since he's just about the only thing she and Claud have in common, she adds, "That's where I met Ward."

Claud nods, but then leans back and examines Skye curiously, as though she's a puzzle she's trying to solve. "It is you, right?" she asks finally. "You're Grant's . . ."

To her horror, Skye blushes, but she keeps her face calm. "Grant's what?" she asks evenly. "What do you mean?"

Claud looks at her a moment, then nods, as though she's made up her mind about something. "Grant doesn't say much about his past." She pauses. "Or his present, really. But I've pieced together some of it. And I think the big reason he doesn't date now is that he gave his heart away a long time ago, to someone who broke it." She leans forward. "That was you, wasn't it?"

Wow, this conversation got personal fast; Skye supposes the champagne on the table in front of Claud had something to do with that. She really shouldn't answer this; it's awfully forward of Claud to ask it of a near stranger. But on the other hand . . . she's curious to know what Grant—Ward, she means—has said about her.

But she has to tread carefully; she doesn't want to tell Claud that her bodyguard is former Hydra, in case Ward hasn't told her that already. So she admits, "We were sort of a thing, briefly. A long time ago. It ended when he left SHIELD, so I guess if any pain was caused, it was his doing. But I don't know if any hearts were really broken." Of course they were; she broke his, just like he broke hers. He adored her, but he betrayed her, and she shot him and left him to die. Which is another thing aspect of her life she couldn't have imagined, back when she was a kid in foster care.

Claud gives her a long, considering look. "But it is you?" she repeats.

And Skye hesitates, and then she shrugs. "Yeah, I guess it's me. I guess I'm Grant's . . .whatever."

Claud leans back, a knowing look in her eyes, but before Skye can ask what exactly he's said about her, Dr. Hale approaches and sweeps Claud off to talk to some senator. And that's the last chance they have to talk at the gala—from that point on it's all schmoozing and champagne and dancing while Skye stands at the perimeter, senses alert, seriously wishing it wouldn't be unprofessional of her to ask Felicity Jones for an autograph.

It's nearly midnight when Claud is finally done kissing the last cheek and shaking the last hand. She and Skye ride the golf cart back to the plane, Claud too busy composing a text on her phone to say much. But when they get out of the cart, the socialite, still a little tipsy, points a finger at Skye. "Skye!" she firmly. "It's midnight."

"Yes, it is," responds Skye.

"You can't drive home this late."

"Oh, it's not far," says Skye. "I'll be home by—"

"Come with us," Claud interrupts.

Skye blinks.

"Grant told me you told him you have tomorrow off. Come back to Montreal—we've got a spare room in our suite—and we'll take you around to the tourist spots tomorrow, and then Drew can fly you back here tomorrow night to pick up your car. It'd be fun to get to know you better, and I know Grant would love to see you."

And it's official, Skye will never understand the fabulously wealthy. She can't even imagine what it would be like to have so much money that sending your private pilot all over creation just so your bodyguard can hang out with an old friend isn't prohibitively expensive.

"That's really nice of you, Claud, but I couldn't do that."

"Why not?" she asks in a confident, reasonable voice that makes Skye think she must be awfully good at convincing people to do things—useful, when you have a charity you need to fundraise for. "It's only an hour-long flight. And you've got the time. It'll be fun."

It'll be crazy, is what she should say. And yet . . . Skye is tempted. She didn't get to take impromptu road trips in college with her roommates—no college, no roommates, and no money. She doesn't get to take off for a weekend with friends now—duty always calls. So part of her is tempted. Part of her would love to do something crazy and spontaneous, and fly to Montreal so she can surprise a friend.

And maybe it's that they're already standing at the plane, and maybe it's Claud's encouraging face, or maybe it's that deep down she knows that if Ward leaves North America and she doesn't get to see him, she's going to be sorry. Whatever the reason, she hesitates, and then she sighs, and then she says, "All right."

Claud claps delightedly, and thirty minutes later they are on their way to Montreal. She and Claud and Sophie, the plane's sole cabin crew, talk easily all the way there about places they've visited and what it's like to be a SHIELD agent and women in the media (Skye finally admits to Claud that she's been reading her columns, which amuses the woman to no end). At one point, ex-boyfriends come up, and Skye finds out that Claud was dumped a few months ago and is still smarting about it. "So I'm off dating right now," she declares. "Instead I amuse myself by meddling in other people's love lives."

That explains so much, Skye decides.

They land at Montreal in the wee small hours, and Ward is waiting there to meet them with the car. He wasn't even remotely expecting to see Skye, she can tell from his shocked face, and she suddenly feels overdressed and awkward.

"Claud's idea," she shrugs, and then they stand there awkwardly trying to figure out what to say next. Skye wishes Claud wasn't watching them and badly concealing her amusement. She wishes Ward would take that dumbfounded expression off his face. She wishes she wasn't still wearing that evening gown. Finally she says, more sharply than she intended, "Should we go?"

It turns out Ward is Claud's driver, as well as her bodyguard, so he slides into the front seat while the women climb into the back. Skye braces herself for another long stretch of Ward being awkward and Claud being too knowing, but maybe Claud decided she's done enough because she talks reasonably the whole way to the hotel about the gala and the work that the charity is doing while Ward nods and asks questions.

Skye wonders for a moment (and not for the first time) if perhaps the relationship between them is more than professional, but quickly discards that notion: just a few minutes of observation is enough to confirm that the two are clearly close and very fond of each other, but in a strictly platonic manner. Which is good.

Because it's messy to get involved with your employer, is what she means.

At the hotel, Claud gets Skye some pajamas and then heads off to bed, and then Skye and Ward are finally alone, standing outside the room that Skye's been given.

Ward speaks first. "Did she bully you into coming?" he asks. "She's great and she always means well, but she's so used to having good ideas and the resources to pull them off that sometimes she just won't take no for an answer."

"She definitely wouldn't take no for an answer," Skye laughs. "But no, she didn't bully me into coming. I . . . wanted to see you."

Ward doesn't respond at first. And then a slow smile spreads across his face, and it grows so bright that she almost can't look at it. It suddenly feels like a lot of responsibility, to be the cause of that smile.

So she feels behind herself for the doorknob. "Well," she says, "good night," and slips into her room and shuts the door.

Later, wearing borrowed pjs and lounging in a very comfortable bed, she thinks of Ward's smile, of the way he looked at her when she was wearing that dress. And a familiar question pops into her head: Are you still in love with me?

She never lets herself seriously consider the answer to that question, because it'd be so complicated if the answer was yes, and anyway she shot him four times and he's not an idiot. And yet, after all that's happened, she finally admits something to herself: she can't say whether he is, because love is so huge and she's not going to make that claim for another person, but she knows that if Grant Ward claimed to be indifferent to her, he'd be lying.

. . . . . .

In the morning Skye dresses in the clothes she wore yesterday and goes out to the main sitting area. Claud, Sophie, Drew and Ward are in the middle of some very deep conversation about lobsters, and Skye, watching them, thinks again something she thought last night: Claud's household staff are not just employees to her, they're friends as well. She wonders how on earth the woman looked at serious, taciturn Ward and decided he'd be a good addition to her little family.

Sophie has plans with a friend today, but Drew decides to tag along with them on their outing. So the four of them leave their hotel and walk down the street to a sweet little boulangerie for breakfast. There's someone waiting for them there, a tall young man with blonde hair, whom Claud greets with an enthusiastic hug.

"Oof," says the young man. "It's only been a day since you saw me last." But he's smiling, and Skye recognizes that smile. He's not as tan as Claud, and his accent is different—it sounds like a pretty standard Montreal accent to Skye's ear—but Skye would bet ten Canadian dollars that he's a relative.

"Skye!" Claud turns to her. "I'd like to introduce my baby brother, Michael."

Michael rolls his eyes. "Stop calling me your baby brother," he says, but his tone is good-natured; this is obviously an old joke between them.

"Michael is going to university out here," Claud explains to Skye. "He'll graduate from McGill next spring."

Skye raises her eyebrows, impressed. "That's a great school," she observes.

Michael smiles modestly while Claud ruffles his hair. "He's a smart cookie," she says proudly, and Michael looks embarrassed.

"And Michael," Claud goes on with her introductions, "this is Skye. She's a friend of Grant's."

"Very nice to meet you," Michael says warmly, and the delivery of it reminds Skye of Claud. Must run in the family.

The five of them sit down to a very comfortable, chatty breakfast. Skye learns from the conversation that Claud came out to visit Michael, their grandparents, and a number of old friends who still live in Montreal. "Our parents divorced when we were kids," Claud explains. "I was 12 and Michael was 6. After that we split our time between Montreal with Mum and Sydney with Dad."

"Claud took to Sydney more and decided to go to university there," Micheal adds. "But I stayed out here."

Skye supposes that might explain the discrepancy in accent and tan, though she's polite enough not to say that out loud. As the conversation goes on, she finds out that Michael is studying international relations, and that when he finishes school, he wants to start working with a family friend's non-profit organization that works to prevent sexual violence against women in third-world countries. Impressive, indeed.

She also finds out that he's much quieter and shyer than his sister, but that when he wants to, he can still use that innate persuasive confidence that she seems to have in spades—like a little Claud in embryo. Also, he seems to very much admire Ward, who he's clearly hung out with a few times before this morning—he keeps asking Ward to tell him about adventures and escapades he's had in the far corners of the world. Ward obliges, occasionally catching Skye's eye and grinning a little at the young man's exuberance. Skye does the math in her head and realizes that if Ward had started early, Michael's young enough to be his son. Now that is an odd thought.

When breakfast is done, they go outside to hail taxis. "Notre Dame Basilica," says Claud, which is the first that Skye's heard of their plans. "I hope that's all right," she tells Skye. "I like to go every time I'm in town, and I haven't been yet this trip."

It's unusual, certainly; Skye can't say that she's ever really visited a church on vacation. But then, she doesn't really do vacations in general; maybe this is normal. So she doesn't say anything.

When they arrive, she's immediately glad she agreed to it; the exterior of the building is beautiful, and the interior is even more so—vaulted ceilings and blue tile and ornate trim and statues of saints. This is far nicer than the chapel at St. Agnes, and she can't help gaping as their group walks around the whole inside perimeter of the building. Part of her, the part that remembers her Catholic orphanage upbringing, feels like she should pray or something, but honestly, it's been so long that she can't even remember how.

That's apparently not a problem for Claud and Michael, though; after they've made it most of the way around the church, Skye glances over and sees that they've stopped at a little side chapel and each has lit a candle. Then they stand solemnly, heads bowed, while Drew waits quietly nearby.

"They always light a candle for their mom and their older brother," Ward says in Skye's ear, making her jump. He puts his hand on her back and leads her to the nearest pew, where they sit side by side. "Beautiful, isn't it?"

Skye is more focused on the unexpected contact they just had, but she shakes herself out of it. "This is really cool," she admits. "I bet you see a lot of cool places, now that you work for Claud and she flies you around the world."

He smiles. "It's the first time I've had an employer who takes care of me like this."

Skye bites her tongue to avoid saying the first thing that pops into her mind—SHIELD would have taken care of you, if you'd given them the chance—because that would disturb the mood. Instead she says, "Claud seems really cool."

"She's great," Ward smiles. "Always looking out for me."

"And flying your friends to Canada just so you can hang out with them."

Ward says nothing, and after a moment, Skye glances up at him to see that he's looking surprised and happy, and she realizes she's never referred to them as friends before—at least not where he could hear it. "Are we?" he asks carefully. "Friends?"

She looks at him, and then she smiles. "Yeah, Robot. I'd say we are." And she leans over and playfully bumps him with her shoulder, and when she's done she just sort of . . . stays there. He's comfortable to lean on, and his body heat is welcome in the chilly expanse of the basilica. And isn't that what friends are for, to lean on? Bill Withers wrote a whole song about it, after all.

So she stays put and they fall into silence. A choir has been setting up near the organ—high school kids, by the look of it—and they start singing something wistful and quiet in a language she doesn't understand. Latin, probably, and despite not understanding the words she finds the music captivating. She leans her head back and looks at that beautiful ceiling up above and listens to Ward's steady breathing beside her and for a few moments it's just . . . lovely.

But Ward's vibrations have been changing since they sat down, and as distracted as she is, it's too much for her to ignore anymore: they're too fast. Is his heart racing because she's so close? Suddenly her thoughts from last night, which she'd all but forgotten in the light of day, come back in full force: are you still in love with me? And as she feels his pulse accelerating, as she watches him glance down at her hand that's brushing his leg, she thinks, He might be.

And that thought sends her rocketing to her feet. "I want to go take some pictures of the front," she says, and leaves. Because if he might still have feelings for her, cuddling with him isn't fair. It's letting him believe something that can't be true.

And as she walks out into the bright sunlight, a feeling hits her that she hasn't felt in a long time, not since before they stopped Garrett: she's a bit sorry it can't be true.

There was a period, after she learned the truth about Ward but before they took him into custody, when her anger at him was woven through with regret. Regret for the man Ward could have been; regret for how good they could have been together. And that's what she feels now. Because so much of that disguise he wore when they worked together was a lie, but some of it turned out to be true, in one way or another: he's a quiet, intelligent, competent, disciplined man who was scarred by his bad upbringing but who wants desperately to connect with people. That was true of the man he pretended to be, but it's true of the real Grant Ward as well. It was those basic personality traits, not the mask he wore at SHIELD, that she fell for the first time around. And as she stands there, blinking against the sun's brightness on the steps of the basilica, it occurs to her for the first time that she could fall for them again, if she chose not to think about the years of history and bad blood. And that terrifies her.

But she doesn't want him to realize that. So when the door opens a few moments later and Ward steps out, she's totally calm and collected, and she's got her phone out, snapping pictures of the front of the basilica. "Claud and Drew will be out in a minute," he says, and she can tell that he didn't notice her discomfort earlier.

"No rush," she smiles, and keeps snapping.

He watches her a moment, then holds out his hand for her phone. "You need a picture of you here," he says.

It's a reasonable idea, so she hands her phone to him and smiles, hoping that it looks sincere, while he snaps a picture. And he's in the process of handing it back when a passing middle-aged couple calls to them.

"Would you like us to take a picture of you together?" asks the woman, apparently assuming that they're a couple.

Ward and Skye both freeze. Part of Skye wants to say no, but part of her wants to wait and see how Ward will respond. Will he agree to it? Does he want a picture with her? They took a few pictures together back in their time on the bus, but Skye has long since deleted all the ones that were on her phone. She doesn't know about Ward, though. Maybe he still has a copy of them somewhere.

The man speaks up then, perhaps misinterpreting their reticence. "Don't be shy," he says, holding out his hand for the phone. "You want to remember being here together."

Ward is still. Then, slowly, not looking at Skye, he hands her phone to the couple. Two thoughts war for dominance in her head—He did want a picture of us and I hope that guy doesn't steal my phone—and then Ward is standing next to her and they both turn uncertainly to face the phone.

"Squish together," commands the man—American, from the looks of it, which might explain why he's so pushy—so Ward and Skye both lean in. Then Skye feels Ward's arm go around her waist, very uncertainly, and she kind of dislikes it but she also kind of . . . doesn't.

The man snaps the picture and the couple leaves. Skye pulls the picture up on her phone and can't help it: she laughs. "We look like teenagers at prom," she says, showing it to Ward. Because they do. They look like the most awkward, uncertain couple that have ever been forced to touch each other for a photograph.

Ward chuckles too, and for a moment the awkwardness she felt around him is dispelled.

But then he says "Can you send that to me?" and it's back.

Are you still in love with me?

. . . . . .

They spend quite a while at the cathedral, then poke around in some nearby shops. When lunchtime rolls around, Michael bids them all goodbye—he's got a meeting with his adviser to get to—and the rest troop into a little cafe for sandwiches and soup. There are no tables available so they sit at the counter, and to Skye's immense surprise, Ward doesn't sit next to her; he sits way on the other side of Drew. And she knows it's ridiculous but she feels a little irritated. She came all the way to Montreal for him, and he doesn't even sit by her? Maybe he's less taken with her than she thought.

He does quickly launch into a serious-looking conversation with Drew, so maybe it's just that he had something really important to say to the man. So instead Skye talks to Claudia about how lovely Montreal is, and how lovely the church they visited is, and eventually the conversation comes to that candles they lit in the church.

"My mum and my brother David," she explains. "They were killed in a car accident a couple miles from here a few years ago. I'd just graduated university in Australia and had come up here to visit the family, and David flew in from London to spend time with us."

"I'm so sorry," says Skye sincerely.

Claud gives her a sad smile. "It crushed me; I looked up to David so much. He'd just started university in Sydney when Mum and Dad divorced and Mum moved back here. Dad was always really busy with his political career, so whenever Michael and I went to Sydney to visit Dad, it was David who actually looked after us. Losing him and Mum at the same time was like losing both parents at once."

Skye nods. "Did Michael move down to Sydney full-time then?"

Claud shakes her head. "He was so close to starting university, and he'd already decided he wanted to go to McGill, so he stayed with our grandparents to finish school."

Skye is quiet a long moment. Growing up without parents was difficult—finding Cal and Jiaying only to quickly lose them again was difficult as well. But she thinks that growing up with these people you love and then losing them would be a whole different sort of hurt. "I'm really sorry for your loss," she says again, feeling like that sentiment is absolutely useless in a case like this. "Your mom and David sound like great people."

"They were." Claud hesitates, then smiles. "I think that's what first drew me to Grant: he reminds me of David. I think that's why Michael likes him so much too."

That explains a lot. "Grant seems to be pretty good at looking out for you."

Claud smiles. "He means a lot to me," she says. "So I'm glad he has you."

Skye raises her eyebrows.

"I mean I'm glad he has such a good friend," Claud chuckles. "You and Kara." She hesitates. "Although, you know, you could date him. He's single. And he's been single as long as I've known him."

Oh, what a coincidence, so has Skye.

"That's complicated," Skye says—understatement of the year—and wonders, not for the first time, how much Claud knows about Ward's past with SHIELD.

"Everything's complicated," shrugs Claud. "Sometimes if you wait for things to be perfect or easy or obvious, you wait forever. Sometimes you've just got to take a deep breath and jump in."

That's good advice; Skye likes that. But in this case . . . "This would be a pretty big jump."

Claud looks unconvinced, but Skye changes the subject. The woman can't begin to fathom how complicated this is.

When they've finished eating and are paying for their lunches, Claud gets a text that makes her grimace when she reads it.

"What is it?" asks Drew, looking quite concerned.

"Cowell," she says. "He thinks we need an emergency conference call, right now. Problem with the fundraiser next month, apparently."

"Do you need to go?" asks Skye.

Claud puts her phone away with a smile. "Of course not. You're a guest, and I'm not going to run off and abandon you. It can wait."

But that makes Skye feel terrible. Claud already spent the entire morning showing her around, on what is supposed to be a trip to visit family and friends, not to mention how much money she's forking out for this little impromptu getaway for Skye. "No, if you need to go, go right ahead. Maybe we could meet up again later."

"Are you sure?" asks Claud.

"Absolutely."

"I'll come with you back to the hotel," says Drew, and Skye works hard not to roll her eyes. Seriously? Is Claud's pilot now in on the matchmaking? But no, maybe she's wrong, because Drew in that moment shoots Claud a look that Skye knows very well; it's the look that Fitz gave Jemma constantly back before they started dating. Claud and Drew? Skye wouldn't have thought of it herself, but she thinks that sounds adorable. So if Drew just wants to make sure Claud gets back to the hotel all right, if he just wants to spend a little more time with her, Skye won't object to being left to wander Montreal with only Grant Ward for company, even if the thought does give her pause.

Claud and Drew agree with Ward to meet at some Italian restaurant they clearly all know well, and then they leave and Skye and Ward are alone. Together they wander out into the streets of old town Montreal, saying little, and Skye is at first as tense as a spring. Because of course it's just incredibly, stupidly pretty out there, all stone buildings and sidewalk cafes and Old World charm; just the kind of place you'd want to walk hand in hand with the person you love. And of course she's there with Grant Ward, who she's started to fear is currently with the person he loves.

But in time, as they continue their stroll, she relaxes. She's overreacting; she doesn't even know if Grant—Ward, she means Ward—is still in love with her. He was thoroughly dismissive of the idea last time she asked (although she supposes that was eight years ago), and nothing's changed—she still definitely once shot him and left him for dead. And she thinks it's a bit unfair of her to assume that Ward would only be helping SHIELD now if he had an ulterior motive, namely impressing her; she genuinely believes that he's a better man now than he was back then, and she genuinely believes that the things he's doing now, he's doing because he thinks they're the right thing to do. So to ascribe a more selfish motive to his actions feels unkind. And their friendship doesn't automatically mean he feels something more; he's better friends with Kara than he is with her, after all, and there's nothing going on there. So, no. She's not going to let her imagination get the better of her, and she's not going to run around seeing romantic interest when she's not sure it's really there.

As she relaxes she gets more talkative, and soon they're talking as easily as they ever did back in the day—silly, inconsequential things; funny things; even old inside jokes, when they pass a toy store with Battleship in the window and Ward points to it and asks if she wants a rematch. And Skye has the time of her life, dragging Ward into shops, getting a chance to use her rusty French with the shopkeepers, snapping pictures of the architecture. It's a glorious afternoon, warm but not hot, just cloudy enough to not be bright, and Skye hasn't spent an afternoon just having fun in she doesn't know how long.

At one point, looking for a bathroom and a place to sit for a while, they duck into the Science Centre, where they watch an IMAX movie about volcanoes and visit an exhibit where they interact with robots. Leaving the centre, they arrive at the Italian restaurant twenty minutes early, but they go ahead and get seated because Skye bought a postcard for Lola earlier that she wants to sit down and actually write while she's still in Montreal. So while Ward sits back and watches the crowd—they got a seat outside, which Skye just loves because it feels like something from a movie—she addresses the postcard to the Tokyo PO box that the Bento Box uses for non-SHIELD mail and, after a moment's thought, writes,

Lola,

Guess who I'm here with? I'll give you a hint: he's pretty hot for an old guy.

There, that ought to make the girl's head explode.

As she's affixing the stamp she purchased, Ward speaks up. "You want me to drop that in the mail for you? Since you're going to have to leave after dinner's done."

Oh, Ward is definitely not going to see what she just wrote to Lola. Skye casts her mind about, looking for an excuse to decline, and luckily she catches sight of a mail box down the block. "You know what?" she says. "I'll go drop this in that box right now, while we wait for the others." And she scurries away before Ward can catch a glimpse of it.

After she gets back, it's ten minutes—ten minutes of breezy, comfortable conversation—before Skye looks up, still laughing over something Ward just said, and sees Claud and Drew standing on the sidewalk, watching them with amused expressions. And she's in such a good mood that she doesn't even mind the thought that she can read clear as day across Claud's face: you guys are cute together.

. . . . . .

When dinner is over, they return to the hotel to pick up Skye's stuff, and then they all head to the airport together. (It still blows Skye's mind that Claud is sending her private jet on a two-hour round trip just to take her home, but the woman still insists it's a good idea and, as Ward said, she doesn't take no for an answer. Skye did manage, however, to put the kibosh on sending Sophie along just for the drinks service; that seemed too absurd.)

"Thanks for everything," Skye says to Claud when they've reached the airport. "This was really fun. It turns out I really needed a day off."

Claud responds with a hug. "If you ever need anything," she says. "Or if you're ever in Sydney. Look me up."

"Definitely," Skye agrees, and then Claud is moving a discreet distance away, to give Skye and Ward some privacy.

The trouble is, neither of them seems to know what to say. Finally Skye says, "Thanks for hanging out with me today. It was really good to see you."

He gives her a half smile. "It's always really good to see you," he says, and her stomach does a funny little flip at that.

Stupid traitor stomach, she thinks.

And she hesitates—are the others watching?—but whatever, it feels right. So she hugs him, and he hugs her . . . probably longer than is normal. Longer than is strictly necessary, definitely. But she finds that it's hard to let go, knowing that she might not see him again for months, or even longer. So the hug goes too long.

When they do break apart, he keeps hold of her arms. He hesitates, looking down at her hands, and his vibrations are tight and buzzy—he's . . . nervous? Yes, probably nervous, because apparently he's been working himself up to something: he suddenly leans forward and kisses her on the cheek. "Bye," he says quickly, not looking at her, and strides back to the car. Claud waves goodbye, and then they're driving away, and Skye is still rooted in place with surprise.

She's just getting settled into her seat on the plane when her phone dings: a text from Claud, which turns out to be a picture. Curious, Skye opens it: it's her and Ward at the Italian restaurant, apparently before they noticed that the other two had arrived. The former enemies are facing each other across the table; Skye's got her head thrown back and is laughing uproariously, and Ward is watching her with a smile on his face. It's . . . cute. They're cute together.

And Skye stares at the picture a long time, conflicted—was that kiss friendly or . . . more?—but eventually she finds herself smiling and saves it to her phone.

. . . . . .

Chapter Text

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Skye keeps both photos on her phone, and whenever she needs a pick-me-up, she pulls out the one in front of the basilica, because the identical expressions of discomfort on their faces never fail to make her laugh.

And then sometimes, when she's feeling a bit quiet, a bit nostalgic, she pulls out the one at the Italian restaurant, because the sight of both of them being so happy—so happy together—fascinates her, and she finds herself continually drawn to the picture like a moth is drawn to a flame.

And every now and then, when she's feeling low, and vulnerable, and lonely, she looks at the picture of the Italian restaurant and lets herself wonder; she lets herself imagine how good they could have been together. If John Garrett had been an honest man; if he had pulled young Grant Ward out of juvie not because he'd be a great asset against SHIELD, but because he'd be a great asset for SHIELD; if her SO had been the man he pretended to be . . . would they have albums full of pictures like this now? Would they have traveled the world together? Would she spend her days off with the man she loved, not just with a laptop and a punching bag?

And each time, she reminds herself that it's too late for that; John Garrett wasn't an honest man, and Grant Ward wasn't what he'd pretended to be, and she has still, in the ten years since, never met anyone she cares about the way she thought she cared about Ward. And then she turns off her phone and makes herself think of something else.

It never occurs to her what might happen if someone else sees those pictures, but unfortunately for her, that is exactly what happens. It's two months after Montreal, and she is spending the evening hanging out in Fitzsimmons' apartment. They call these bunks "apartments," despite being tiny and sparsely appointed—a bedroom, a small sitting area, and the tiniest kitchenette—because they're still much nicer than the dorm-style bunks the new recruits stay in.

They're lounging on the standard-issue sofas; Skye and Fitz are drinking beer, but Jemma is not because of a certain blessed event she and Fitz are expecting in about seven months. Everyone had been shocked at the announcement—neither scientist had ever expressed much interest in children, and it's really not the norm for SHIELD agents—but Jemma had just beamed and Fitz had joked, "We figured we owed it to the world. Think what a genius this kid will be! Probably cure cancer before it can walk."

(Skye, for her part, is thrilled beyond words for her friends—and excited to have a baby to fuss over that she can hand back to the parents should it start crying—but is a little sad to know that Fitzsimmons will be moving out of the apartment area, where they're her next-door neighbors, and into one of the few house-style dwellings on base. They're moving on, to a new part of their lives, and she can't follow them there. Well, figuratively speaking, she can't. Literally speaking, it's just a five-minute walk to their new place. But still.)

Fitz and Skye are talking about Doctor Who while Jemma plays with Skye's phone, and when the biochemist's expression suddenly darkens, Skye realizes what her friend has just found.

"When were you hanging out with Ward?" she asks. "In front of a church, no less?"

Skye grimaces; she really should have told them about this when it happened, but they'd been out of town that week and so didn't even notice her gone, and it was so easy to not bring it up again. Well, time for the truth now. "Last month," she says, keeping her voice light. "I was guarding his boss at this party, and she invited me to come up and stay with them and do a little sightseeing in Montreal."

Jemma stares at the phone a long while, then says tightly, "I knew you two were e-mailing, but I didn't know you were this close."

"I know you don't like him," Skye says. "And you don't have to like what he did to you. But he's such a different person than he used to be. And wasn't it you, Jemma, who said that if Fury hadn't believed people could change, Romanoff would never have become a SHIELD agent? Or an Avenger?"

Jemma's never been good at hiding her emotions, and Skye can see that her friend cannot understand. "Yes," says Jemma, "but after Romanoff joined SHIELD, I don't think that she went on holiday with the families of the people she assassinated when she was with the Red Room."

Skye is trying to think of a response to this when Jemma glances down at her watch. "I have an experiment running that needs to be recalibrated every twelve hours," she says primly. "I need to go do that now." And she gets up and leaves, leaving Skye's phone on the table.

"Does she really have an experiment running?" Skye asks when she's gone, not really expecting an answer.

And she doesn't get one; Fitz is too absorbed in picking up Skye's phone and looking at the offending picture. "You two both look really uncomfortable," he observes with a ghost of a smile.

"We were," she admits.

He's quiet a moment, unconsciously flexing his hand—the one that was worst affected by the brain damage—which he does sometimes when he's anxious. "I think she's more upset about what Ward did to me than I am," he says finally.

Skye says nothing.

"Do you remember when she went undercover at Hydra?"

"Pretty soon after the uprising, right?" she asks.

He nods, his gaze fixed on the coffee table. "I don't know if you remember, but I . . . struggled with having her gone. Started hallucinating, talking to people who weren't there."

"I remember," says Skye quietly. What a difficult time that had been, to watch him struggle and to know that the only person who could really help him was miles away and behind Hydra security.

"When she found out, she felt so guilty about leaving me and how it messed me up; still does, when she thinks about it. She promised me back then that she'd never abandon me again, that she'd always have my back. And she has, ever since . . . which is great, don't get me wrong. But it sometimes turns into her getting kind of overzealous in my defense; she gets really furious at people who hurt me, to make up for the time she was the one who hurt me. Do you remember when that woman at CalTech plagiarized my work last year? I was over it pretty fast, but I thought Jemma was going to strangle her."

His lips twist into a smile, and Skye chuckles at the memory; it had been a long time since she'd seen Jemma that worked up.

They fall silent, and after a few moments, Skye ventures, "So . . . you're not as angry as Jemma is?"

"At you? For this?" He gestures at her with her cell phone. "Course not. It's your life, and you're allowed to do what you want. At Ward, though? That's . . . hard to say. Although I can definitely say I'm not as angry at him as Jemma is." He pauses. "I obviously haven't spent near as much time with him as you lately, but I think you're right—he's a different person than he used to be. I know how much he helps us, and how many times he's saved all our lives. He definitely saved Jemma's. Also, you trust him; that's a big plus in his favor."

Skye smiles. "I do have excellent taste," she agrees.

"Plus," says Fitz, "my mum used to say, holding a grudge is like carrying a backpack full of rocks around. It doesn't hurt the person you're mad at, but it sure drags you down." He hesitates, then smiles, his voice gaining enthusiasm and volume. "And this is a new chapter of my life. I'm going to be a dad—can you imagine, Skye? Me, a dad! And I want to start fresh. I don't want to bring anything that drags me down into this new part of my life."

And Skye looks at her dear friend, her sweet awkward Fitz who once wished that Jemma hadn't brought him up from the bottom of the ocean and who now has everything he ever wanted, and she's so happy she thinks she might burst. She reaches out and grabs his hand. "And you're going to be the best dad," she tells him. "Your little girl—or boy—is going to be so lucky to have you."

Fitz grins back at her, and for a moment they leave the topic of Ward behind as they talk about the plans for the baby, how they're going to turn the second bedroom in their new quarters into a nursery and paint it yellow and green (more practical, Fitzsimmons has decided, because they can decorate despite deciding not to find out the sex of the baby before the birth, and anyway neither of them wants to enforce gender stereotypes on the child by putting her in a pink princess room or him in a blue sports room).

The good mood of the evening is restored, and Skye has just started wondering if she should go find Jemma when suddenly something Fitz said earlier pops into her head. "You know," she tells him, "your mom was right. About the backpack full of rocks. But in this case, I think your carrying that grudge does hurt him. Ward is so sorry about what he did to you guys, and I think it kills him that he thinks you guys hate him. If you ever come up in conversation, he gets all quiet and sad."

Fitz looks surprised, but then understanding fills his eyes. "That makes sense. That's why he keeps helping us—on our wedding day, and when Jemma was kidnapped . . ." He falls silent a long while. Then he hands her back her cell phone. "Call him," he commands.

She blinks. "What?"

"You have his number, right? Call him."

"Why?"

"New chapter of my life, right? And I don't want to carry these rocks; I don't want to be haunted by this for the rest of my life. And this is the perfect moment, while I've got my courage up and I'm a little bit drunk."

She stares at him.

"I mean it," he says. "Please." And she thinks, as she sometimes does, that Leopold Fitz is the bravest of them all.

So she dials Ward's number, doing the math in her head (a bit difficult, as she's a little bit drunk too) and realizing it's 9 in the morning there—shouldn't be a problem.

"Rookie," Ward answers, and she can hear the smile in his voice. "What a nice surprise."

"Do you have a minute?"

"For you, always. What can I do for you?"

"Actually," she says, glancing at Fitz for confirmation that he really wants to do this, "I've got someone here who wants to talk to you." And she sets the phone on the coffee table and sets it on speakerphone (a bit nosy, maybe, but she's got skin in this game).

"Hi, Ward," Fitz says tentatively.

There's silence. And then, in a carefully controlled voice, "Fitz."

"Uh, I just have something I wanted to tell you."

"Okay," says Ward, and Skye can hear from his voice that he expects to be chewed out. And small wonder; he and Fitz were uneasy allies when they last met, but no more than that.

Fitz takes a deep breath. "Jemma and I are going to have a baby."

There is another silence, and Skye pictures Ward looking dumbfounded. "Really?" he says, sounding surprised and pleased, and Skye wonders if he's more surprised that they're having a kid or that Fitz has personally called to tell him. "Wow, Fitz, congratulations. That's fantastic news."

"But that's not all I called to say," says Fitz; his voice sounds confident, but Skye can see that he's bouncing one leg anxiously. "I called to say, I know this couldn't have happened if you hadn't helped us save Jemma in Amritsar. Or stopped those guys on our wedding day—well, maybe Hunter would have handled them fine. I don't know. And when you were on the Bus with us, I know most of what you did was just to earn our trust, but I'm also pretty sure that you genuinely cared about us, and at least some of what you did to help us was, you know, sincere. The point is . . . thank you for everything you've done for us. And as for everything you've done to us . . . I'm putting it behind me." He's quiet a moment. "I guess I'm saying, I forgive you. And I hope . . . you can forgive yourself. Not that what you did is okay. But I'm moving on. It's best for all our happiness and sanity if we let it go and move on."

There's silence on the other end for so long that Skye starts to worry they've been disconnected and Fitz's beautiful speech was all for naught. Her friend glances at her, a questioning look in his eyes, and Skye asks carefully, "Ward?"

"I'm still here," Ward says, and there's a quaver in his voice that makes Skye's heart feel like a balloon filling up with air. "I—thank you, Fitz . . . thank you. I don't even know what to say—" And it's official: the T1000 is crying. Skye feels tears pricking at her own eyes, and Fitz has a small smile on his face—not happy, quite, but satisfied. Content.

Wordlessly she reaches out and grips Fitz's hand, and he squeezes back.

Skye can think of nothing else to say, and apparently Fitz feels the same way because he says, "Look, Ward, I've got to go. But . . . I hope things are going good for you, yeah?"

"Yeah," says Ward, his voice still not quite steady. "You too. I hope everything goes well, you know, with the baby and everything."

"And next time I see you," Fitz said, "let's be less weird about each other, all right?"

Ward and Skye both laugh. "Deal," says Ward.

"Bye, Ward," says Skye. "Talk to you soon."

She ends the call, and Fitz flops back on the sofa with a sigh.

"You all right?" Skye asks.

"That . . . wasn't easy," says Fitz. "But I feel much better. Like I've dropped a weight I've been carrying for so long. Like what happened to me doesn't own me anymore." He smiles at her. "Don't worry," he says. "I'll talk Jemma around soon, and then you won't have to hide it from us when you want to go see Ward again."

Skye smiles at him. "Thanks. But I really don't go see Ward very often."

"Really?" he asks skeptically.

"Really," she confirms, wondering where this is coming from.

"You mean you two aren't . . . a thing?" He seems genuinely surprised.

"Why does everyone think that?" she demands.

He shrugs. "You just kind of give off that impression, I guess. So you're just . . . friends? You just plan on e-mailing him back and forth until you both die of old age?"

Honestly, she hasn't thought that far ahead—although now that Fitz has mentioned it, she has to admit that it sounds kind of . . . hollow. "Something like that."

He shakes his head. "Yeah, that whole Ward thing is . . . complicated."

Skye lifts her beer. "I'll drink to that."

. . . . . .

And maybe things would have gone on without changing until they both died of old age, or maybe they wouldn't have. But Skye doesn't get to find out, because something happens that autumn that changes the course of her and Ward's lives forever.

It starts on a bright afternoon in October. Skye is off base; she'd gone to go check in on a family in town who'd had an unpleasant run-in with a powered individual a few weeks earlier, and then while she's out, she decides to grab lunch at her favorite El Salvadorean restaurant. And as she is leaving the restaurant and walking to her car, that's when everything goes downhill.

There's a popping noise and the sensation of something moving through the air near her, and then a bystander next to her falls to the ground. SHIELD agent mode kicks in, and Skye drops down and drags the man to shelter by her car, frantically checking all the while to see if he's still alive.

Yes, he is, just unconscious. And he's not bleeding; where the round hit him arm, she sees not a bullet hole but a dark substance spreading under the skin. She recognizes this condition: a tranq gun, it appears, like SHIELD's ICERs. What are the odds of a local criminal having such a weapon? Not good. Skye has a feeling that she's the actual target and this poor man was just caught in the crossfire—either he walked into the round's trajectory or her assailant isn't a great shot.

Based on the way she felt the bullet traveling through the air, the first shot came from across the street and to the left. Skye pulls her own ICER from her bag—can't wear a holster into a respectable restaurant—and starts scouting that area from behind the car. She sees a bit of movement on the roof of a building—can she make that shot?—

But it turns out her assailant isn't alone. There's another pop, this time from the other end of the street, and Skye feels a sharp thud of pain on her shoulder. Then everything goes black.

She awakes in absolute darkness with no idea where she is but with a sense that she has been out for a long time, based on how hungry she is. She is lying on a hard bed, or cot, and is there a pillow under her head? Well, that was polite of someone. Past the foot of the bed, a tiny red light flashes, and she supposes that her captors, whoever they are, have a night-vision camera trained on her. Other than that, there's only impenetrable darkness. Fortunately for her, she has another way of seeing, and she closes her eyes and starts to listen for vibrations.

Nothing, not even her own heartbeat.

Shocked, she sits up, and in doing so brushes her arms against her side and realizes there's something on them, something fastened around each arm from wrist to elbow—like a bracer an archer would wear, tight-fitting, made of what feels like carbon fiber and metal, and she can find no way to get them off. She's been fitted with something like this before; then, they were designed to block her powers. She reaches out hesitantly with those powers, trying to make something shake, but there is no response whatsoever. So yes, clearly these are designed to block her powers; with them on, she can't cause vibrations, and she can't sense them either. For ten years her vibration detection has been a sixth sense for her, and to lose it makes her feel more blind than this darkness does.

So no using her powers to escape this place. But at least now she knows one thing: whoever captured her (or them, is that man who got shot here?) knows who she is and what she's capable of and prepared accordingly before grabbing her. She was right in assuming that she was the actual target. At least, she thinks with an inward sigh, they left her her own clothes.

Well, nothing to do for it but start feeling her way around the place. She runs her hands over the bed to get a sense of its shape and size; it turns out to simply be a mattress on the ground—nothing she can break apart to make herself a weapon. There's a sheet over the mattress, and the pillow, but that's it.

And that's as far as she's gotten when she hears footsteps approaching her door, and then a window sliding open. Light streams in—not a lot, as it's a small window, but enough to make her wince; she's been in the dark for a long while. There's someone standing at the door, looking in that little window, but the light's coming from behind him so he's simply a silhouette. From that silhouette she gathers that he's a slight man, smooth hair, and he sort of bobs his head as he talks.

"Ah," he says, in a German accent. "You're awake, Miss Skye. Or should I say Quake?"

Responding that fast after she sat up? She was right, that red light is from a camera.

"I hope you're finding your accommodations pleasant. I do assure you we don't intend to keep you in the dark forever, literally or figuratively."

No, there's a lilt to his accent. Not Germany—Austria.

"You understand why we had to do something to stop you from causing any of your earthquakes, don't you? I hope you don't mind."

It's light, though; he speaks English quite well. Well educated, or has a lot of contact with native English speakers.

"Well?" he asks. "Are you going to say anything? It's quite rude to ignore your host like that."

It's good to keep him talking, so she responds, "I'm just sitting here wondering why my host won't show me his face." In the meantime she's looking around the room, seeing as much of it as possible in the light he's letting in. Small—maybe ten by ten feet—with concrete walls and floor. Bare except for that mattress. There's a light fixture on the ceiling; her captors are just choosing not to turn it on.

"Ah, you see, I am the head of a . . . secretive organization. It would not do to let my face be seen more than is necessary."

Secretive organization with an Austrian leader and enough technical resources to build the equivalent of an ICER? Clearly Hydra, that last Austrian branch that's been giving them so much trouble. And she assumes they're in Austria now; from how hungry she is, they've definitely had time to fly from the US to Austria, and anyway, if this man is so secretive, he probably wouldn't travel abroad often. He probably had her brought to him.

"This doesn't count as necessary?" she asks.

She wonders if she's in their office building in Vienna, that house in the mountains they were trying to take Kara to, or somewhere else entirely. She knows they have a secret base in the Alps, half buried in the mountains, and part of her favors that idea—she does have a sense of being deep underground. But part of her thinks she's making that up because the oppressive darkness is getting to her.

"I'm afraid not. And for the same reason, I can't give you my name, either."

She racks her brain, trying to remember the name of the head of Hydra in Austria. He's a very secretive man, she does remember that. Seuss? Sousa? . . . Seyss, that's what it was. Ernst Seyss. Hasn't been seen in public since Hydra rose from the ashes, but she remembers seeing an old picture of him: a slight man with smooth hair. She's suddenly very grateful that Coulson made them all study up on major Hydra leaders and outposts. This is all still conjecture, of course, but she thinks it's pretty good conjecture.

"I'm at a disadvantage here," says Skye. "I don't get your face or your name, but you seem to know mine."

"It's the way it has be, I'm afraid. I'm sorry we had to be so rude, dragging you in like this."

"Why did you shoot us? And where is he, that guy you shot?" she demands, letting a bit of anger and anxiety into her voice. It's good to let her captor think she's upset; it makes him think he has the upper hand in this conversation.

"An accident, dear. We left him where he was; I'm sure he recovered quickly. We really only wanted you."

She remembers what she thought earlier, after noticing the bracers: they planned for her. They wanted her, specifically. Enough to snatch her off a busy street. Enough that his people must have been following her, waiting for her to be off the base and alone.

"Why?" she demands, getting to her feet and clenching her hands into fists; let them think she's getting agitated. "What do you want with me? I'm nobody."

"On the contrary, Skye. You are special, and you are going to be very useful to us. Some of my previous colleagues felt that people like you should be studied, to find out how to replicate your powers, but that often ended . . . badly for the person being studied. I prefer to get some use out of you. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and all that."

He's referring to List and Strucker and Whitehall, she supposes. That's good; she won't be cut apart like her mother and some of the poor Inhumans.

"We are doing a great work here, and we would like you to help us. I'd offer you a chance to help us of your own free will, but I know you won't say yes and I wouldn't believe you if you did. Fortunately for us, we can make you . . . comply."

Compliance. Hydra. Ward said, what feels like an age ago, that Kara had seen a Hydra agent here in Austria who'd known Whitehall, and she feared they had a way to trigger her brainwashing. What if Whitehall's brainwashing program has spread to other Hydra cells? What if they've rebuilt it here in Austria? Or what if it wasn't Whitehall's pet project, but something that all of Hydra has had all along? She remembers something she heard a few years ago from Jemma, who is, after all the reading she's done of Peggy Carter's old notes and files, basically the world expert on the history of SHIELD and the SSR: way back in the 1940s, Carter arrested a Russian, a Dr. Pachenko or something, who was an expert at hypnotizing people into doing his bidding. After a few years in custody in the same holding area as Zola, he sort of just disappeared into the woodwork. Jemma, who is simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by the brainwashing idea, theorizes that he could have helped Zola build Hydra inside SHIELD, and maybe their earliest recruits were hypnotized, rather than true believers. Maybe brainwashing has been a part of Hydra from the very beginning. And now Seyss is planning on brainwashing her into using her powers for Hydra.

This is generally the moment a prisoner would say something absurd, some sort of You won't get away with this! threat. So she steps toward the window. "SHIELD's smart. They'll figure out you have me."

"I don't doubt it," says Seyss, and she can hear the pleasant smile in his voice, and it makes her want to punch him in the face a little. Does he think this refined-but-evil shtick is working? He sounds like a freaking Bond villain. And she doesn't mean that as a compliment. "But I'm actually counting on someone else to arrive first."

For the first time in the conversation, Skye is baffled. Who do they think will come for her? And then she realizes, and she feels a sinking in the pit of her stomach.

"We have told Mr. Grant Ward that we have you. We pretended, of course, that we were trying to make a trade—you for Kara Palamas, which he'll never agree to. He will come for you himself, and then we will use the same persuasion on him that we will use on you. We didn't realize he was still out there until we started watching you."

Still out there? Seyss just slipped up. He means they'd been looking for Ward before and hadn't found him. Were they interested in him because he was former Hydra? She remembers how much he'd hated the idea of being captured by Hydra, when they rescued him in Romania, and how it had made her wonder if he knew Hydra would not take kindly to defectors. Looks like they may have both been right.

"But his skill set will prove very useful to us. And then there's always the chance that Kara Palamas will come for him. You are the real prize, but they will be bonuses. Three, for the price of one—and two lost sheep brought back into the fold. And they will deliver themselves to us."

"You seem pretty sure Ward will come for me," she observes. How long have they been watching her? They probably know they had hung out together in Montreal, but that's something mere acquaintances do. There's a chance they don't know how close she and Ward actually are these days. Maybe she could . . .

"But of course we are!" Seyss sounds surprised. "Have you seen the e-mails he writes you? Have you heard the way he talks to you on the phone? That man is in love with you, my dear. He will come for you, have no doubt. And I have the feeling that you are rather fond of him yourself, yes?"

He steps away from the window then, chuckling, while Skye feels like she's been hit in the stomach. Hydra has been reading their e-mails? Listening in on their phone calls?

As though he's heard her thoughts, Seyss steps back to the window. "By the way, Miss Skye, Hotmail? Really? It never occurred to you how easy that would be for us to hack? It was the first thing we found when we started surveillance on you."

The window slides closed, and Skye's left in the dark, and for the first time since she woke up, she is afraid.

. . . . . .

Chapter Text

. . . . . .

Skye stands in the center of the pitch black room, hands still clenched into fists, for several long, quiet moments. Then she goes to the wall the door is on and begins methodically sliding her hands over it, checking every inch for a crack or a switch, anything. She doesn't think she'll be successful—Hydra's been quite careful so far—but it's what her captors, watching her on that camera, will expect her to do. And anyway giving her hands something repetitive and mindless to do always helps her think.

How did things go so badly, so fast? Maybe she shouldn't have gone out to lunch alone. But she wasn't doing anything against protocol, and really, if Hydra has been watching her and planning this for who knows how long, they would have found a time to grab her eventually, no matter what. They are determined to have Quake work for Hydra—and she has to agree with them: having her powers on their side could swing the balance in their favor. She still doesn't know how much she's capable of; she's never tested her limits, because it'd be nearly impossible to do so without hurting someone somewhere. She takes a moment to curse Quake's Internet fanbase, the YouTube videos and the websites and the forums that scour the news for unexplained events to attribute to her. Maybe if she'd never become famous, Hydra would never have had this idea.

(Nothing to the left of the door. She moves over to the right.)

She wonders how long she's been out, and whether SHIELD has figured out what happened to her yet. She'll have missed a 3:00 meeting with May, so they'll have noticed her missing. Will they find her car? Will they find witnesses? Will they find any useful security camera footage of what happened? Ada, the comms tech, is good at that kind of thing—not as good as Skye, but still, she ought to find something useful. But will they realize it's Hydra? Will her kidnappers have helpfully worn the Hydra logo on their chests?

(Nothing to the right of the door. She moves to the door itself.)

And Ward. He doesn't need to figure out where she is: he knows, courtesy of Seyss. But he won't come, right? Ward is good, one of the best, and where planning this kind of thing is concerned, he is incredibly smart. So he might think he can manage a solo infiltration. But surely he's smart enough to know that it's a suicide mission. The trouble is that they still, after years of surveillance, have no idea how many members this branch of Hydra has, so it's hard to say if a one-man infiltration team is a the worst idea ever or simply a normal-sized bad idea. It's the largest branch left in the world, they know that. And they wouldn't have invited Ward over if they didn't think they could more than handle him, if they didn't have the manpower to greet anything he throws at them with guns blazing.

(The door is rock solid and, as far as she can tell from knocking softly on it, absurdly thick. She is not knocking this thing down.)

Or maybe their plans for him are worse. How long does brainwashing take? She has a sudden horrible image of Ward arriving at the base, or one of her fellow SHIELD agents, only to see the very person they came here to save waiting to bring the mountain down on their heads. She's distracted from this thought quickly, however, as she wonders why they haven't started brainwashing her yet. Surely they'd want to start sooner rather than later. Maybe there's something they're waiting for. They haven't fed her, even though it's clearly been at least ten or twelve hours since they knocked her out; maybe the person breaks faster if you starve them first.

Or maybe Seyss is just sadistic and wants Ward to have to watch them brainwash her, or vice versa: punishment for Ward having eluded them all this time.

(Nothing around or on the door either, not even a handle; there's just the window, which she can't open from this side and which is too tiny to be very useful.)

Then she moves over to the next wall and starts searching there—surely even more futile than the previous wall, but again, something to do. Then she does the other two walls and the floor, leaving off the ceiling, which she can't reach. And then she goes over her arm bracers, trying to find a catch or something to open them, but this is absolutely futile as well. And as she performs these searches, she thinks again and again of SHIELD finding her, of Ward finding her, of how much she hates her YouTube videos, of why they haven't brainwashed her.

And it's only when she's flopped down on her mattress, tired and frustrated, that she lets herself think of what Seyss said at the end: "That man is in love with you." Lola thinks it. Kara thinks it. Claud thinks it. The entire Austrian arm of Hydra thinks it. (Which is humiliating, when she thinks about them all listening in on their conversations. Those phone lines were supposed to be secure, but few things are really secure to a clever and dedicated hacker. And of course the e-mail wasn't secure at all; she'd just figured that no one would think to try to spy on them—that no one would be interested in watching two boring adults make small talk and occasionally awkwardly flirt with each other.)

But she asked him once if he still had feelings for her, and he was completely dismissive of the idea.

But that was nearly a decade ago.

And she did think it, more than once, when they were together in Montreal. Maybe she should have trusted her gut. Maybe Seyss is right and he loves her.

She hopes he doesn't, for his sake. She hopes he doesn't let any personal feelings convince him to do something crazy, like take on a Hydra base alone and get himself killed. She hopes he stays safe and far away from here. Let SHIELD deal with it; they have the manpower. She hopes they have the manpower. She hopes a lot of things right now.

Unbidden, an image comes to her mind of Ward, brainwashed like Kara was: same face, same body, same movements, but a whole different person behind them. He'll have forgotten everything about himself—the people he loves, the places he hates, the things he believes, the good times he's managed to have over the last ten years, free of Garrett and his family. He'll have forgotten that he ever knew her, that when he speaks to her in person or over the phone, he always tells her that it was really good to talk to her again with such warmth that she blushes a little. And the thought of Ward's mind disappearing makes her sick to her stomach.

And as she sits there, trying not to imagine him brainwashed, she admits to herself that Seyss was right: she might be rather fond of Grant Ward.

. . . . .

After an hour of sitting on her mattress, Skye starts yelling and banging on the door. "Hey! Whoever's out there watching me! I gotta pee!" The oldest trick in the book, yes, but at least maybe it'll let her go outside her cell, which is starting to give her cabin fever. Also, she's actually got to go.

After several minutes of this, two stern-looking men come to the door in black uniforms with the Hydra logo on the chest; she was right, then, about the identity of her kidnappers. They chain her ankles and wrists together—that's going to make relieving herself complicated—and lead her down the hall, past five doors identical to hers (all on the same side of the hallway) to the door that ends the hall (115 feet from her door to the bathroom door). Inside is a primitive bathroom; three walls and the floor are made of concrete, but the back wall and the ceiling are hewn from rock. It's looking like she may be right about this being the Alps base, and she's way down in the mountain. The toilet is just a hole in the ground. The sink is a small basin with a tank of water suspended above it; she has to push a tube to get any water to come out. Nothing here to use as a weapon against the guards. And even if she had one, her chained hands and feet would make any attack and escape hard.

So with a sigh, she finishes and leaves the bathroom. The guards are waiting right outside and they walk her back to her room. Now that she's facing the other way down the hall, she can see that there are six more doors to cells, and then a spiral staircase at the end of the hall (she estimates 130 feet from her door to the staircase). And down by the staircase is the only door that's on the opposite side of the hall from her cell. A different sort of room, then? Perhaps it's where the guards sit.

The guards force her into her cell and unlock her chains, then leave and lock the door behind them. But at least she knows a few new things: she knows where the guards are. She knows where the exit is. She knows it's Hydra and which base she's in, probably. And most importantly, she's feeling less likely to go stir crazy from this endless darkness.

. . . . . .

Three hours after her bathroom break, Skye finally hears something through the silence. It's faint, but she'd swear she hears . . . gunfire. Is someone coming for her?

After a few minutes, the gunfire stops, and there's silence. Then, finally, footsteps approach her cell. She gets up and stands to the side of the door. Now that she knows where the exit is, she thinks that if they open the door, maybe she can fight her way out . . .

But that doesn't happen. The window opens. "Get away from the door or we shoot!" cries a heavily accented voice—not Seyss. So Skye backs up slowly. The door opens just far enough for someone to be shoved in—someone tall and broad-shouldered. Then the door slams shut again.

"We've brought you a visitor, Skye." That's Seyss this time. "I think you two will want to catch up, won't you? We'll leave you to it."

The window shuts again and the footsteps recede, and Skye and this new person are alone in the dark. "Who is that?" she demands, horribly certain she knows the answer to that question.

And she's right. "Rookie?"

"Ward!" she breathes, and stumbles toward him. Even without being able to see each other, they end up with her hands on his shoulders and his cupping her face. It's a bit intimate, and she's in the process of planning some joke to relieve the tension she suddenly feels when she notices he's tapping on one of her ears with his thumb. Oh, for Pete's sake, of course she knows Hydra might be listening! She's not stupid.

She doesn't think it'll be spilling any important secrets to hiss, "What the heck were you thinking? Didn't you realize them contacting you like that was a trap?"

"Yes, I realized," he says matter-of-factly. "But I had to try. I couldn't leave you here."

Skye's about to tell him what an idiotic idea that was when suddenly she pauses, and then she closes her mouth, thinking. Despite what she nearly said to him just now, he's not an idiot. In fact, where this kind of thing is concerned, he's one of the smartest people she knows. Surely he wouldn't come here without some kind of plan. Unfortunately, with Hydra possibly listening, he can't talk about any such plan, and she can't ask. All she can do is wait and trust and hope she's right.

So instead of scolding him, she does the other thing she's wanted to since he showed up: she pulls him into a hug. She doesn't care if Hydra sees; they've already figured out that she and Ward are . . . whatever they are. He unhesitatingly puts his arms around her, and they just stand there for ages, her leaning her cheek on his shoulder, him leaning his on the top of her head. The hugs they've had previously tended to be tinged with awkwardness, but this one is . . . nice. Nicer than she'd ever admit to out loud. Also, she seriously loves the smell of whatever laundry soap he uses.

After a long time, he leans down so his lips are touching her ear, and he whispers, so softly that she barely hears, "Trust me."

Is he referring to his plan? The plan she assumes he has? She hopes so. In answer, she grips him even tighter and says, in a normal-volume voice, "It was crazy of you to come . . . but I'm glad you did." And she means it.

Finally, finally, their grips loosen and they back away from each other, although they keep their hands on each other's waists.

Knowing he's that close, even if she can't see him through the dark, is sort of making her nervous. So, to break the silence and distract herself, she asks, "So they told you their plan for you?"

"To brainwash me?" he asks. "Yeah, they mentioned that." There's another silence, and then he asks, "I assume they did something to block your powers?"

In response, she lifts one of his hands from her waist and sets it on the bracer on her arm. She can feel him moving his hand up and down it, examining it like she did. "Not coming off?" he says finally.

"Not coming off," she agrees. Another silence. "So why do you think they put us in the same cell?"

Ward hesitates. "Seyss told me, when they brought me to see him—through a two-way mirror, of course, since that's guy's obsessed with secrecy—that if I cooperate, go into the brainwashing sessions willingly, they won't hurt you. I mean, they'll still brainwash you, they just won't physically hurt you. I assume they're planning on giving you the same offer. And I think Seyss is hoping that letting us spend time together will make us more willing to sacrifice to keep each other safe."

She sighs and finds herself taking his hand in hers. "So what do we do now?" she asks.

"We wait," he says, squeezing her fingers. "Maybe we'll figure a way out. Or maybe SHIELD will notice you're gone and come after you."

She nods, but what she really wants to do is demand What's the plan? She hates being in the dark, both literally and figuratively. But he's right, there's nothing to do but wait.

"Is there any place to sit?" he asks finally. "I'm feeling a little . . ."

"Are you okay?" she demands as she leads him over to the mattress. "Are you hurt?"

"I got a little battered," he admits. "But nothing serious."

She wishes there were lights so she could see how badly he's lying to her; knowing him and how he refuses to admit when he's injured, she fears it might be serious after all. But again, nothing to do about it. So instead she tugs him down on the mattress and sits with her back against the wall and her knees drawn up to her chest. He settles down near her, but not quite near enough; she scoots closer until they're actually touching, because in all this darkness he's what's anchoring her to reality. He hesitantly reaches out and takes her hand where it's resting against his leg, and she squeezes his hand in response. And then she figures, in for a penny, in for a pound, and she lays her head on his shoulder, and he lays his on top of hers. It's warmer this way, and it's more comfortable this way, and she tells herself that's why they're doing it but she knows that's not entirely true. She knows it's that she feels better when he's close.

And so Skye and Ward settle in to wait for whatever plan he may or may not have.

. . . . . .

Skye's gotten good, over the years, at judging the passage of time—a useful skill on an op—so she judges it's about an twenty minutes before she falls asleep. When she wakes up, apparently a fair amount of time has passed because she is quite a bit hungrier than she was, and she is cold. In fact, she thinks the shivering is probably what woke her up. The only part of her that's warm is the part that's pressed up against Ward's side. And noticing that is what finally makes her notice that Ward has taken the hand he was holding when she fell asleep and is rubbing it with both of his to keep it warm.

Reflexively, she flexes that hand a little, and Ward ceases what he's doing immediately. "Don't stop," she whispers, still groggy, and after a moment he continues.

"Give me your other hand," he commands, and she promptly does, turning to him a little so she can reach. He starts rubbing both of her hands. "You're really cold," he observes.

"I'd noticed," she shivers. "How are you not freezing?"

"I haven't been down here as long." She can feel him shrug.

She groans a little and turns to bury her face in his shoulder. Once she's done so, it occurs to her that this is a bit forward, but honestly, it's keeping her face warm so she doesn't move.

"We could wrap you in this sheet that's on the mattress," he suggests, but Skye suddenly remembers her suspicions earlier that the lack of food was meant to break her down and make her easier to brainwash. Maybe the cold is part of the same program. And the last thing she wants to do is something that really visibly lets her captors know how weak and vulnerable she's feeling.

So she shakes her head. "I'm all right," she lies.

Ward says nothing in reply, and they sit in silence a while. Finally, she murmurs against his shoulder, "Thanks for coming to get me."

"Hey," he says, "remember what I told you—anything you need, you just ask."

"I didn't even have to ask you about this one," she points out. "You just showed up."

"Well, Hydra was nice enough to ask on your behalf," he says, and she chuckles.

"I'm glad you're on my side," she says suddenly.

"I'm glad you trust me enough to know I'm on your side," he replies.

"I've trusted you for a long time," she says, which is something he should know by now—he's heard her say it a time or two—but she suddenly feels that it's important that he know it for sure.

"Thank you," he says, his voice suddenly much nearer her ear. He's turned toward her, she realizes from the way his breath is moving the hair on her forehead. And he's awfully close. He's, like, kissing close. Not that she plans on kissing him. Just, if she were, this is just about the best chance she's going to get, provided she trusts her aim in the dark.

Why is she thinking about this?

She's about to open her mouth and say something light-hearted, just to get her mind onto something else, when suddenly there's soft footsteps coming toward them in the hall. She springs to attention, and, based on the way he tenses, so does Ward. He releases her hands and gets quietly to his feet—it's cold without him—and then steps off the mattress. She follows suit. And they stand, waiting, for a long few moments, until suddenly the lights in the room come on.

It is painful and blinding, after all that time in the dark, and Skye throws her hands up to cover her eyes. Has the moment come? Is this how Seyss disorients them so they can't fight as he leads them to the brainwashing chamber?

The door opens, and Skye forces her eyes open just enough to see a Hydra guard come in. He opens the door wide, motioning at them, and Ward grabs Skye's hand and leads her out the door and down the hall to the guardroom at the base of the stairs. There is a second guard in there, standing over two more guards who are unconscious on the ground.

"Took you long enough," says Ward, who sounds in no way surprised.

The two conscious guards set down their guns. Skye notices the shorter one has a knapsack with him, and on the taller one's belt are . . . battle staves?

"Hey," says the taller guard in a familiar voice, "we had to fly across the ocean and then infiltrate a secret base. Cut us some slack." She lifts off her helmet to reveal blonde hair and a very welcome face. "Hi Skye. You doing all right?" She shoots a glance at Ward. "Did we interrupt anything? Because from the camera feed, you two looked kind of cozy. We can leave, if this is a bad time."

There's a smirk on her face, but the shorter guard sounds less amused when he speaks. "Can we save the teasing for later, Agent Morse?" he demands in a thick Glaswegian brogue. "We have a lot to do and I don't know when the whole force of Hydra is going to rain down on our heads and I promised my very pregnant wife that I wouldn't get killed today."

Fitz, of course, and as he removes the helmet and that familiar thick curly hair comes into view, Skye can't help it: she throws her arms around him. Because Fitz, who dislikes serious combat situations, has come to her rescue. Because Fitz is one of her best friends in the whole world, and he is here.

"Hi, Skye," he grins. He turns to Ward and gives him a small smile and a nod, which Ward returns. Then he turns his attention back to Skye. "So what have they done to inhibit your abilities?"

She lets him examine the bracers while, behind her, Bobbi stands at the door, listening, with her gun drawn. Ward starts divesting the unconscious guards of their weapons and hiding them in various spots around his own person; she can see now that she was right—he's pretty beat up, with a cut across his cheek and dried blood trailing down from his hairline, and a red shine around his left eye that is probably going to turn into a serious black eye. Nothing wrong with his mouth so apparently she could have kissed him, she thinks, and is so giddy with relief that she's not going to be brainwashed that she doesn't even remember to be embarrassed for thinking that.

"Ah," says Fitz, "Easy fix. I don't even need most of the stuff I brought." And he reaches into his knapsack and pulls out a handheld device with what she assumes is a saw blade at one end.

"You're going to saw my arm?" she asks flatly.

"It won't cut your skin," he promises. "It's like what doctors use to cut off casts for broken bones . . . except, you know, much stronger. Perfectly safe. It won't hurt you." He hesitates. "Well, I think not; I've never used a saw of this power on a person before. In the off-chance . . . you wouldn't mind, would you, if I accidentally cut your arm up a little?"

There's the Fitz she knows and loves. "If that's the alternative to getting brainwashed by Hydra, I'll take it."

Fitz nods and flips a switch, and with a quiet whine, the blade starts to move.

"How did you find us?" she asks Bobbi, mostly to distract herself from watching Fitz bring the blade close to the bracer on her left arm.

"Tracker," Bobbi says, nodding toward Ward, who's now keeping watch with her at the door.

Skye raises her eyebrows. "They didn't notice you wearing a tracker when they brought you in?"

He gestures at his left hip. "Subcutaneous," he says. "One of Fitz's, of course. And he did something . . . engineering-related to have it not show up on scans."

"Actually, it was quite simple," says Fitz, and Skye glances down to see that he's halfway through his first cut. "It all has to do with the mass of the metal components—"

Just then one of the unconscious guard's radios crackles to life. "Bericht," commands a stern-sounding voice.

Bobbi and Ward look at each other, and then Bobbi grabs the radio and hands in to Ward, who clicks it on. "Nichts zu berichten," he says. "Die Gefangene schlafen."

"Gut," says the voice, and the radio clicks off.

"Thanks," says Bobbi, taking the radio back and hooking it to her belt. "I can do German. I'm less good at being a German man." She fetches the other guard's radio and hooks it next to the first.

"First cut done," Fitz announces, and Skye looks down to see that he has cut through the bracer from top to bottom. But it's still too stiff to take off; he'll have to make a second cut and take the thing off in two pieces.

"So since we're apparently no longer worried about being listened in on, can someone tell me what's going on?" she asks.

"Rescue," says Fitz. "I thought that was obvious, Skye."

She rolls her eyes. "Anyone else have an answer?"

After a moment, Ward answers. "Hydra contact me yesterday and said they were cleaning up defectors, and they wanted Kara. Unless I gave her to them, they'd kill you. Sent me a picture of you unconscious on a plane to prove they had you. Obviously all a lie; if they could grab you, they could just as easily grab her. I figured it was a trap for the both of us—they wanted me to run at them. Not sure why they want me—retaliation because Garrett and I basically used them and tossed them aside? Or maybe they're just really in need of more manpower? So instead I called Coulson."

"Coulson was thrilled to death," says Bobbi. At Skye's startled look, she adds, "Not that you'd been taken. But that this is the chance he's been looking for to take down this arm of Hydra."

"Huh," says Skye, not following.

"Second cut done," Fitz announces, and the bracer comes off in two pieces. Skye gratefully moves her hand and arm around. Still no powers, with the second bracer still on, but at least her arm doesn't feel so constricted.

"The defenses here are unassailable," Bobbi points out. "No way we can fight in from the outside. Fitz and I barely managed to sneak in disguised as guards."

"But Seyss," Ward goes on, "just brought SHIELD's most powerful weapon right into the heart of his base."

"Well, most powerful person," points out Fitz. "I recently came up with a gun that—"

"Anyway," says Bobbi, "Ward let himself get captured to lead us to you; we figured they'd put you somewhat near each other. Although—" she smirks again— "we didn't expect it to be as near each other as we actually found you."

Is this going to be a thing? Skye hopes this is not going to be a thing.

"I told you," Fitz tells her under his breath, "you two kind of give off the impression that you're together."

Ward looks embarrassed, and quickly goes on. "And now Fitz is here to activate that weapon."

"And I am here to protect Fitz, and the rest of SHIELD is waiting a few miles away until we bring the defense system down from in here," says Bobbi. "Simple."

Skye thinks over this, then asks, "Why did you wait so long after Ward arrived to come down here?"

"We've only been in Austria for a couple hours," says Bobbi. "He got here way before we did."

"Third cut done," announces Fitz.

"I was in Egypt when I got the call," says Ward. "Jetted over to the UAE office and got the tracker from them. Claud let me take Drew and the jet; she was worried sick when she heard you were in trouble, Skye."

Skye smiles. "That's really sweet of her."

"Drew wanted to come help as well," he says with a smile. "But I sent him home when we got to Austria. I can't fault his enthusiasm but he's not exactly subtle or stealthy."

Skye laughs.

"And then Ward came here and just waltzed right in, instead of waiting for us." Bobbi's smile is teasing.

Ward looks embarrassed again. "I wanted her to know we were coming for her," he says.

Oh. That's . . . also really sweet. As is Ward's embarrassment. And it's kind of nice to hear him say "we" when referring to SHIELD. Not that he's an agent again, but he's . . . friendly with them, at least.

Just then, she notices something on the row of monitors on the wall: amidst all the empty cells, there is movement on one of the screens—a guard, coming down the stairs. Ward apparently notices it at the same time. "Morse," he says, sharply and too loud.

Fitz's hand jerks in surprise, and Skye winces as she waits for the saw to slice her arm. But nothing happens; the blade simply rests against her skin. Fitz, aghast, checks her arm but sees the lack of damage and a relieved smile comes across his face. "See?" he says. "Perfectly safe."

Skye rolls her eyes at him. Only then does she notice on the stairwell monitor that Bobbi is out there taking down the guard with a few well-placed hits. A moment later she appears back in the guard room. "Done yet?" she asks Fitz.

In that moment, the saw cuts through the last bit of the bracer, and Fitz carefully removes the two pieces. Immediately Skye's vibration sense comes flowing back to her, and for a moment it's as overwhelming as when Fitz turned on the lights in her cell. But quickly she's able to sort out all the different vibrations: Fitz's fluttering heart (apparently he's a lot more nervous than he lets on). Bobbi and Ward's steady pulses. Running water somewhere far below in the rock. And, most alarmingly, footsteps moving toward the stairs on the floor above.

"We're about to have company," she warns the others.

Bobbi looks pleased. "I take it Quake is back in the game?"

Skye grins in reply. Let those Hydra agents bring it on.

"Good," says Ward. "I've always wanted to see you in a real fight."

"Here's your chance," she says, taking the guard's gun that Ward is offering her. "Let's go."

. . . . . .

They move stealthily up three floors, following a device that Fitz carries with him—apparently it creates maps using radar? Skye doesn't really pay attention to his explanation, but she does listen when he tells her that the base has a main building and two wings, and they are in the basement levels of the east wing. On each floor, they search each cell and lab and room, locating all Hydra personnel. Where possible, they use ICERs; where impossible, Ward and Bobbi and Skye use hand-to-hand while Fitz follows after, injecting the incapacitated men with the same dose of dendrotoxin as is in the ICER rounds—it's important everyone stay unconscious and no one raise an alarm.

On the second floor they visit, they find an agent who is exactly Ward's build, and after he's unconscious, they steal his uniform and Ward changes into it. On the next floor they visit, they find a female agent for Skye. So when they reach the main floor of the east wing, which conveniently houses the defense system command center—Ward took note of its location when they brought him in—they look for all the world like four Hydra agents just out for an afternoon stroll.

No one accosts them as they enter the command center, and Skye quickly destroys the security cameras while Bobbi and Ward take care of the guards and technicians in there, piling the unconscious bodies in a supply closet to one side of the room. When they finish their tasks, they see Fitz looking regretfully at the rows of gleaming machines, which control cameras and laser grids and Skye doesn't even know what else. Shark tanks, maybe. "Such a waste," says Fitz, ever the engineer. "If I had time, I could disable these by hand, and then we'd be able to study them. Imagine what advances Hydra may have made in the last seventy years."

"No time," says Bobbi, who's securing the main door with heavy furniture. "It won't be long before someone notices the cameras are all out and comes knocking." She looks around at them. "Once the defense system goes down, they'll come running to this room. You guys ready to hold down the fort?"

They all nod, and Bobbi pulls a small radio from her uniform. "AC, this is Mockingbird. We are in position; it's in the east wing, just where the Cowardly Lion had guessed it would be."

"I've told you," Fitz says, "that is not my codename!" Skye just laughs; the name has stuck for years now, and it's not going to change any time soon.

Bobbi smirks at him, then turns back to her radio. "We are ready on your mark."

"You've got the target?" Coulson asks.

"Right here," Skye calls.

"Good," says Coulson, and there's no mistaking the relief in his voice. "Bring the defenses down now."

Bobbi nods at Skye, who turns a table on its side and motions to the others to duck behind it with her. "In case of flying debris," she explains. "This can get . . . dramatic."

When they're all safely hidden, she returns her attention to the machines and closes her eyes. These are much smaller and less dense than many things she's destroyed before. But this time, it's vital that the destruction be thorough, that every component be rattled apart. So she picks through the humming, getting a read on every machine: where it is, what's it currently doing. And then she raises her hands and pushes.

The whole room seems to explode. Bits of metal pepper the table, and she's glad she insisted on everyone taking cover. The hum that filled the room earlier vanishes, the lights flicker, and they begin to hear shouting out in the hallway. As Skye goes to draw her weapon, she notices Ward staring up at her with awe in his eyes.

"That," he says fervently, "was amazing."

She can't help the pleased smile that crosses her face, but just then they hear the first movement at the door, so they turn their attention to the fight that's about to commence. There will be time for awe and admiration later.

. . . . . .

Chapter Text

. . . . . .

The Hydra guards who manage to get past the blockaded door are still using tranq guns, to Skye's relief; the last thing she wants is for one of her friends to get killed trying to save her. Bobbi takes them out easily with four precise shots. In the silence that follows, Coulson's voice crackles over the radio. "Mockingbird, this is AC. We are past the exterior defenses and approaching the base itself. Hold your position until we are inside."

Ward, in the meantime, has darted out to shift the furniture back into place—if the Hydra agents have to deal with getting around and through the blockade, that gives the SHIELD agents extra time to pick them off—and then takes up residence behind a console to the side of the room, to give himself another angle to shoot from. Skye feels the thumping of approaching footsteps. "Here they come!" she calls, and sees Fitz tighten his grip on his ICER; the engineer usually doesn't join firefights, but they've learned it's good to keep him armed, just in case.

This group is much larger; only three or four guards actually fit in the doorway at any given time, but there are dozens more behind. And so many of them are shooting at any given time that the SHIELD agents can't really step out from their cover to fire back. Time to fight dirty, Skye decides, and sets her palms on the floor and pushes. The floor out in the hallway begins to shake and tilt, and the firing stops as the men there fight to keep their balance. Ward and Bobbi don't need to be told to take advantage of the distraction, and immediately dart out from behind their cover to start dropping the guards with deadly accuracy. These guys are lucky, Skye thinks to herself, that Coulson believes in using ICERs.

Soon there are no Hydra agents left standing, and the doorway is clogged with unconscious bodies. Coulson has been on Bobbi's radio for a while now, periodically asking her for a report, and she finally can answer it. "Our position is still secure, sir. They're throwing guards at us but we've handled them so far."

"Good," says Coulson, and Skye knows him so well that she can perfectly picture the look of satisfaction on his face when he adds, "We're in."

Clearly whoever's calling the shots has noticed that SHIELD is now in the base, because no more guards come to the command center; they must have all been sent to deal with SHIELD. "We should go help," says Skye.

Bobbi shakes her head. "I'm under orders to keep you here, safe." But Skye can see that she's conflicted—she wishes she were out there in the fight. Hunter's probably out there; Bobbi's probably thinking of him.

So Skye coaxes, "At least we could clear this floor. Between my powers and Fitz's mapping thing, we can figure out where everyone is and take them out. Act preemptively, to keep this position secure."

Fitz doesn't look entirely pleased, but Bobbi is convinced, and Ward nods his agreement. So the four of them move the furniture and the bodies blocking the door, then cautiously make their way out into the hallway.

A few minutes later, they're standing at the hallway that connects the east wing to the main building. "Well, that was anticlimactic," says Skye. On the whole floor there were only four techs, who were cowering in a computer lab and looking so terrified that Skye felt guilty ICERing them.

And Ward, who has clearly gotten into the spirit of the whole thing, says reasonably to Bobbi, "We could check the next floor up. Just to see."

Bobbi looks at him, and then at Skye, and then she grins. Fitz has been fiddling with the door mechanism and announces that he's pretty sure he can jam it so that Hydra can't get in from the main building.

"Do it," Bobbi says.

Thirty minutes later, the four of them are on the top floor, tired but pleased, and Bobbi pulls out her radio. "AC? East wing is cleared."

"The whole east wing?" Coulson demands. "I thought you were going to stay in the command center." There's a pause. "Good work, though."

To be fair, there had only been nine armed guards in all four floors; the rest were technicians and scientists. Still, it was good work, and Skye feels quite pleased with herself.

Coulson went on. "That explains why the door between the main building and the east wing is jammed, I suppose?"

"That was us," Bobbi confirms.

"Well, the main building is secured and Seyss is in custody; they're still working on the west wing, but it's basically all over. We could use you guys in clean up. Rendezvous at the door you jammed?"

This whole ordeal has taken less than 48 hours; it's been just over two days since Skye left the base to run her errands, and just over three days since she last saw Coulson (even when they're both on base, they don't see each other daily). All told, not long at all. So Skye is as surprised as anyone when, as the door to the main building opens to reveal Coulson standing there, tears come to her eyes and she runs forward to throw her arms around him. Cal might be her biological father, but Coulson is her father in every other way. And he came here to get her.

Clearly she's not the only one who's been anxious, because Coulson hugs her back just as tightly. "I was so worried," he admits quietly.

"Thank you for coming for me," she replies.

They step away, and Coulson's eyes fall on Ward. Without hesitation, he steps forward and extends his hand; after a moment of surprise, Ward takes it, and they shake. "Thank you, Ward," Coulson says. "You were an invaluable part of this operation. You helped us get Skye back and deliver Hydra a blow that I don't think they'll recover from." He hesitates, and then, in that voice he uses when he's considering and choosing each word carefully, he adds, "You're a good man, Ward."

Something flickers over Ward's face, and Skye reflects that in that imaginary world she likes to think about sometimes, the one where John Garrett didn't mess Ward up, maybe Coulson would be a father figure to Ward like he is to her.

Then it's back to business. Coulson commends Bobbi for her work and tells her that Hunter is heading up the clean up outside, and she thanks him and excuses herself to go find him. Then he smiles at Fitz and congratulates him on a job well done, and informs him that Jemma is in a quinjet, heading up the medical team. Fitz nods and then shakes Ward's hand as well, making Skye smile. Then he heads off in the direction that Bobbi just went.

Now it's just the three of them, and Skye is in the process of trying to think of something to say when there's a commotion down the hall, and a voice she recognizes is insisting that someone unhand him.

"Oh good," says Coulson. "I figured you'd want to see this, Skye."

The source of all the noise appears from a side hallway then: Seyss, handcuffed and flanked by two huge, armed SHIELD agents.

"Coulson!" he exclaims, coming to a stop. "You can't do this. You cannot extradite without the Austrian government's permission, and this they will never give you, as they do not recognize Hydra as a dangerous organization."

Coulson gives the man his mildest smile, the one that hides the most. "But how long will the Austrian government resist international pressure to finally label you as the terrorist organization you are?" He waves his tablet at Seyss. "Do you know what my techs have been doing while we've been cleaning up? They've been hacking into your system and retrieving documents, and I've been reading them. A lot of interesting stuff in here. How do you think Italy will react to your plans for Milan? And let's not even start on France and the UK."

Seyss is speechless, just for a moment. Then he blasts back, "And will you tell everyone those documents are stolen? Will you tell them you waltzed into a country where you have no jurisdiction and started blowing up buildings and arresting citizens?"

"Of course not." Coulson's face is a perfect picture of innocence. "Because that's not what happened. We stumbled across the documents when we came here to investigate the kidnapping of an American, a SHIELD agent—and a beloved Internet celebrity. A person that we know you kidnapped, by the way, because you sent a picture of her, unconscious and in your custody, to a former SHIELD agent and one of her closest friends." He pulls something up on his tablet. "A picture in which you conveniently allowed two men to be photographed in full Hydra uniform, complete with Hydra logo."

"You can't prove we sent that—"

"Of course we can," says Coulson. "Because that agent you kidnapped? She can do just about anything with computers. Including trace where that picture was sent from, no matter how good you think your computer techs are."

For the first time, Seyss looks concerned. "You still came in here with no jurisdiction and started destroying buildings—"

"You kidnapped a woman with known earthquake superpowers. You think anyone is going to be surprised that she started causing earthquakes in self-defense to get away from her captors? And we only entered the building when it became clear that our kidnapped agent was inside."

Seyss is losing his cool, his face contorting, and Skye is loving every second of watching him drop his smooth-talking villain shtick.

"Well," says Coulson, "I have a lot of calls to make to heads of state. Enjoy custody." He smiles, and the two agents holding Seyss's arms force him out of the room.

"Well, there's Seyss taken care of," Coulson tells the others.

"Yep," smiles Skye, still watching the former Hydra leader being lead away in cuffs.

Ward is quiet a moment. Finally he asks, "Am I? One of your closest friends, I mean?"

And Skye looks over at him, sweaty and tired and bleeding—this man who dropped everything and joined forces with an organization he once hated to save her from being swallowed up by Hydra. And she smiles, and she throws her arms around him. "Of course you are," she says, and he hugs her back tightly. After a moment she adds, "To be fair, I only have like six friends, so it's not super hard to be high on that list."

Coulson rolls his eyes at them both. "This is a serious mission. There's no time for being cute," he deadpans, but he's smiling.

Just then his radio crackles to life. "We're meeting unexpected resistance in the west wing," comes May's voice. "First sublevel. We're outnumbered. Send backup."

Skye and Ward look at each other. "I guess this isn't over yet," says Ward, pulling his gun.

Skye smiles at him.

"It's over for you," Coulson insists, looking at Skye. "I didn't fly around the world to rescue you, just to have you die in a shootout."

She shrugs. "Sorry, AC. Important agent stuff to do!" And she and Ward jog away toward the west wing, leaving an exasperated Coulson behind them.

"I don't know if May will be happy to see you," she points out as they run.

"I'm an extra gun," he shrugs. "She'll deal with it."

And indeed, when they find May and her team on the first sublevel, she barely rolls her eyes on seeing Ward, just directs him and Skye to back up some agents who are down the hall. The scene here is night and day different from the east wing; it's dark and claustrophobic, and much bigger than the east wing basement. The Hydra agents are using real guns; the smell of gunpowder is in the air and and the atmosphere is grim, and there are more Hydra agents in this hallway alone than there were in all top three floors of the east wing.

Still, with Skye and Ward's help, the little team finally gains the upper hand. They move slowly down the hallway under the command of Agent Rory Burton, and if they weren't currently dodging bullets in a dark hallway, Skye would have taken the time to ask Ward if he remembers that time she was complaining about a date she'd gone on with a SHIELD agent, because that date was with Agent Burton. Really not the time, though.

As they continue down the hallway, leaving the bodies of unconscious Hydra agents behind them, they come to a T-intersection. Rory motions them down the righthand turn—there's noise coming from that one—then motions for Skye and Ward to hang back and guard the intersection, to make sure no one's coming from the lefthand turn. This they do, taking cover behind a shelving unit and taking a moment to catch their breath.

"Looks like I taught you pretty well, rookie," he smiles.

"Sorry to break it to you," she says, "but this was mostly May."

He makes a face at her and opens his mouth to respond when they both hear a noise from down the lefthand hallway. They look at each other, and then, as one, stand from their crouched positions and start heading cautiously down the hall. The hall is dark and quiet, but lined with rooms—Hydra agents could be in any of them. There's a turn in the hallway, and when they reach it, they see that the new stretch is as empty as the old one. So Skye stops Ward as they stand in that corner in the hall and then listens with her powers—it's hard to tell when there are so many other vibrations going on from all around them—but yes, maybe—

A door bursts open behind them, filling the hall with Hydra agents who are blocking their escape back to the stairwell, and Skye realizes they've walked into a trap.

As one, Skye and Ward dive into the empty hallway so the turning in the hall blocks them from gunfire. Before the Hydra agents can run around the corner and find them, she puts her hand on the wall and closes her eyes. It's easy to cause destruction with her powers; it's harder to be precise, to wield them like a scalpel instead of an axe. So she puts all of her concentration into controlling what she's doing, trusting that Ward will protect her while she does. She sends out some little testing vibrations, trying to get the lay of the land and make sure that what she does isn't going to hurt the SHIELD agents in the other parts of the building, and then she pushes, praying that she's accurate because that one push drains her and she might not have the strength to try again. A piece of the ceiling above the Hydra agents cracks, then shifts, then falls, and the world goes silent for a moment.

She peeks around the corner to see that most of the Hydra agents are now buried under the rubble, but there's still a handful toward the back; clearly they dodged in time. She would smash them too but there's no ceiling above them anymore. Another push of her powers on the wall, and a piece of concrete slides toward where she stands in the elbow of the two hallways, large enough for her and Ward to shelter behind—and just in time, too, because the remaining Hydra agents are recovering from their surprise and lifting their guns. She ducks behind it and prepares for the fire fight to come.

But where is Ward?

Looking around anxiously, she sees that he's around the corner and down the hallway; some absurdly huge man has appeared from somewhere and is grappling with him. A few feet away lies Ward's gun, apparently knocked out of his hands and now sitting uselessly. Fortunately, the turn in the hallway shields him from the Hydra agents currently shooting at her. She'll leave him to fight the big guy and deal with these shooters who are currently blocking their way back to the stairs.

It's just like the training she used to run with May. Take cover. Shoot. Take cover. Shoot. She lets the familiarity of it comfort her, to block out the thought that has suddenly popped into her head: she hopes that Coulson did indeed not fly around the world to save her, only to have her die in a shootout.

She wishes she could use her powers against them, but an experimental push on the floor confirms what she'd suspected: she can't. She's exhausted, and she hasn't eaten in over a day. Using this gift drains her, and after using it multiple times over the last hour, she has nothing left to give it. If she had a half-hour to rest up, maybe, but at the moment she can't even make a pebble tremble. So she'll have to do this the old-fashioned way: shoot. Take cover. Shoot. Take cover.

And then something happens.

It feels like it occurs in slow motion, though later she'll think about it and realize it was only seconds. A door opens in the hallway where Ward and the big man still fight, and a second man walks out, wearing the uniform of the elite Hydra fighting squads. He doesn't notice Skye, apparently, because he turns his back to her, leaving it undefended. But she doesn't have a clear shot; there's an open door in the way.

Ward hasn't noticed him yet, preoccupied as he is with his assailant. The man lifts his gun, and he aims it at Ward. He is going to shoot Ward. At that distance, and with his training, he's not going to miss.

He's going to kill Ward.

And in Skye's mind, there is only one thought: she'll do anything to keep that from happening.

She lifts her gun. The only way to make this shot is to leave the cover of her concrete shield for a moment. But just for a moment—hopefully the Hydra agents she's currently dealing with can't react in time. She ducks out from her cover; she takes the shot. The man falls like a tree. There's the sound of a second gun firing, and a sudden searing pain in her side; she's not sure what kind of ammo they're using, but the round has pierced the protective armor in her borrowed Hydra uniform. She manages to get back behind her cover before she falls to the ground. Ward has noticed, because suddenly he is screaming her name and she has never heard him sound like this before.

Things get hazy there for a minute—the pain in her side is distracting, to say the least—but suddenly there's a gunshot and a huge thud; when she lifts her head, she sees the big man unmoving on the ground and Ward sprinting toward her. Apparently he managed to get his gun back. He dives behind the concrete block where she lays, and one hand goes to her bleeding side and another to her face and he's whispering her name. Or is he shouting it? It's hard to tell over the pounding in her side.

Suddenly there's a cacophony of ICER shots, the thud of bodies falling, and then her name being called. "Agent Skye? Are you back there?" Rory! The rest of the agents have apparently finished where they were and come back to save the day.

"Agent Burton," Ward yells, "Skye is down. Is the hallway clear?"

"Affirmative," Rory says, and Ward tucks his gun back into its holster, picks Skye up like her weight doesn't even register with him, and tosses her over his shoulder.

"I'm taking her to the med team," he says as he stands and faces the SHIELD agents. "I need cover."

"Ramirez," Rory barks, and Ward takes off running down the hall, back through where they came, up the stairs. There's a second set of footsteps beside them, but Skye can't see Ramirez or lift her head to look and see if it's someone she recognizes. So she's left to just hope that he or she is a good shot.

When they reach the safety of the main building, Ward barks at Ramirez, "Dismissed!" as though he's still a SHIELD specialist. The second set of footsteps fades into the distance, and that's the last thing Skye remembers for a while.

. . . . . .

She comes to when she hears Jemma's voice. "It looks worse than it is," she's saying, and Skye blinks blearily. She's on a bed on a quinjet, she's fairly sure; her Hydra uniform jacket has been removed, and the shirt she had on underneath is pulled up to uncover her bullet wound. She's laying on her side facing the wall, and there's an IV in her arm.

"The armor slowed the bullet down quite a bit," Jemma is explaining. "It bled heavily, but besides that there's very little major internal damage. No worse than a deep cut. Although she'll have quite the bruise."

"So she's going to be okay?" That's Ward speaking, and his voice is rough.

"Ward," Jemma, sounding surprisingly gentle—considering who she's talking to— "she's going to be just fine."

Skye blinks, trying to find the energy to tell them she's awake, but Jemma must have drugged her up good because she can't fight the feeling that it's much nicer to just lay here and doze. Something is happening on her side, although there's no pain there anymore; she supposes Jemma is stitching her up. So she lays there in silence until Jemma is done and she's feeling a little more in control of her faculties. Then she says, "Thanks, doctor."

"Skye!" Jemma sounds delighted, and with Ward's help, rolls her carefully onto her back. "How do you feel?"

"Not too bad, considering," she smiles. She looks up at her two friends, leaning over her bed: Jemma, cheerful and bright and very pregnant; Ward, looking worried and sporting a black eye, in addition to a dozen or so visible cuts and abrasions. She thinks about pointing out how nice it is that they're looking so chummy, but she doesn't want to spoil it by drawing attention to it.

Jemma hands her a granola bar. "You need to lay there a while and rest," she says, while Skye, who has suddenly remembered how ravenous she is, downs the bar in three bites. "I have other patients to check on, but I will be back."

She turns to go, then pauses to look at Ward. "I don't suppose I've said this yet," she says, "but thank you for bringing my best friend and my husband back safely."

Ward's expression lightens, and he nods at her, and she gives him a tiny smile and leaves.

There's a chair over against the wall, and Ward drags it over to Skye's side while she watches him. Like her, he's no longer wearing the jacket of his stolen Hydra uniform; she wonders if it was just too cumbersome, but then she notices that his hands and neck are stained with drying blood—her blood—and she wonders if he removed it because it was soaked.

That reminds her of the close call she just had. She looks up at the ceiling, breathing slowly to calm herself. That was the most danger she's been in in a very long while, but it turned out okay. Everyone's okay.

Ward, however, doesn't seem so Zen; his face is calm, but it's an act, because she can sense that he's trembling. "Please," he says slowly, "do not ever do anything like that again."

"You mean save your life?" she says sleepily. "I think the phrase you're looking for is 'Thanks Skye, you're the greatest.'"

"Skye," he says sharply, and suddenly his bloodstained hand is gripping hers. "You would not be doing me any favors if you got yourself killed to save me."

She shrugs as well as she can from her recumbent position. "Can't make any promises, Robot." The drugs Jemma gave her are kicking in again and darkness is calling to her, so she lets her eyes drift closed. A memory pops into her head, of something he said to her in Cannes some eight years ago, and she smiles a little. "I've decided I prefer a world with you in it."

Through the haze in her mind she feels his hand tighten around hers. She smiles again, and sleeps.

. . . . . .

The next time she wakes, she's alone. The drugs in her system have largely worn off; there's still not as much pain in her side as there should be, but her mind is fully hers again. The IV has been removed, which is nice; Jemma knows how much Skye hates being in the hospital, and has undoubtedly done what she can to get her out of here fast. There's a change of clothes on the chair—Jemma's spare clothes she keeps in her mission pack, by the looks of it, and Skye doesn't even mind the cardigan, because unlike the shirt she's currently wearing, the cardigan is not covered in blood. Lucky for her that she and Jemma are the same size. And lucky that Jemma never got around to changing out her spare clothes for maternity clothing. Probably assumed that as a pregnant woman, she'd never have to go out into the field.

Gingerly she sits up and removes the shirt she was wearing. Jemma, or one of the other medical staff, did a quick cleanup of her torso, but there are still smears of dried blood crisscrossing her stomach. There's a little blood on her hand too, and she wonders where it came from until she remembers that she fell asleep holding Ward's hand. Quite without meaning to, she finds herself smiling at the memory.

Moving carefully, she changes into the new clothes; fortunately the shirt is a button-up so she doesn't have to pull anything over her head. The flats, too, are far more Jemma's style than hers, but she has to admit, they're comfortable.

Just then the curtain around her area is pulled aside, and Jemma walks in. "Oh good!" she smiles. "You're awake." She ducks back out for a moment, then comes in with yogurt and another granola bar. "You'd better eat," she says.

"No complaints here," says Skye, digging into the yogurt. "How long have I been out?"

"Fourteen hours," says Jemma. "I knew you'd try to jump back into everything, but it was best you spent a little time immobile, to let your wound start healing."

"So you drugged me," Skye grins. "You know me well."

Jemma smiles back. "I prefer to say that I kept you sedated for medical reasons."

"So where is . . . everyone?"

Jemma's face says she knows exactly what Skye is carefully not asking. "Finishing up in the base. The Hydra agents have all been taken into custody, and now we're going through the base, cataloging everything we find. Coulson took all the evidence—the photo of you kidnapped, and all the incriminating Hydra documents—to the Austrian president, who agreed to allow Coulson to seize all the people and files and assets of this base, pending an emergency parliamentary vote to declare Hydra an international terrorist organization. Apparently their current president is extremely worried about maintaining good relations with the rest of the EU, and he doesn't want Coulson telling everyone that his country has been harboring an organization that has all sorts of nasty plans."

Skye grins. "Is Fitz in there going through the labs?" she guesses.

Jemma chuckles. "He's like a kid at Christmas," she says, then adds, "Ward is in there too. Helping."

Skye smiles. "Thank you," she says. She thinks about specifying—does she mean thank you for the information? the medical attention? the food and clothes? Jemma's kindness to Ward earlier? But then she realizes, she means thank you for all of it. So she leaves it at that.

Jemma apparently takes it as a thank you for being kind to Ward. "It still feels strange to me. But you're right; I think he's changed. And anyway you seem so fond of him these days; even Fitz has forgiven him. So for your sakes, I will try to learn to be okay with him."

When Jemma has continued on her rounds, Skye goes to the bathroom with the hygiene pack her friend has given her. She looks an absolute mess—dirty, streaked with blood, hair limp and greasy. She wishes she could shower, but she's pretty sure she can't get the bandage wet, and anyway the quinjet has a limited supply of water. So instead she gets a washcloth wet and wipes down her face, her neck, her arms, anywhere she can get at easily. She brushes her teeth—oh, she does love having clean teeth. And then she pulls the ponytail holder out of her hair and, using the comb in the hygiene pack, gets her hair up into a high bun, which she's learned is a good way to disguise when her hair is getting gross. Then, with a mildly dismayed sense that this is the best it's going to get, she heads out of the plane to see what's going on.

It's night now—she passes Dhawan who tells her it's 10:05 Austria time—and she stumbles a little over the rocks and plants as she makes her way to the command center that's been set up in the midst of all the SHIELD planes and vehicles. About a mile away, uphill, she sees the lights of the base. Apparently, with the rocky terrain, this is the closest they could get the jets.

Despite the late hour, Coulson and May are both awake and manning the command center, which is no surprise at all to Skye. Both embrace her, although May's hug is much shorter, seeing as how it's May.

"Good to see you up," says Coulson.

"Good to see we won," says Skye.

May smirks at that.

"We've nearly got the first plane load of seized equipment ready," says Coulson. "It'll be leaving soon, along with Jemma, you and the other injured agents."

"What?" demands Skye. "I want to stay here. I can help. I can . . . find hidden rooms. You know, if there are any."

"Skye," says Coulson mildly, "you got shot. I know you like to pretend that doesn't mean anything, but it does. You already ignored an order once today. Don't make me get all grouchy and pull rank on you."

"If she hadn't, we might have lost good men," May reminds him.

"Don't encourage her," he says. "Skye, please?"

And he is her boss, and anyway she'd never want to make him unhappy. "Fine," she sighs.

"Thank you," he smiles. "And now, I need to go up to the base. You want a ride? I assume you've got a goodbye you need to say."

Does he mean—

"And when you see Ward," May says, looking like the words are being pulled from her against her will, "tell him he did good work. From me."

Wow, that's quite a lot, coming from her. But she's too uncomfortable to do anything but nod. She follows Coulson to an SUV clearly borrowed from the base, and as they begin the drive up the hill, she fidgets a little, then says, "AC, I feel like you and May might be laboring under a misunderstanding about me and Ward. We're not . . . anything."

He glances over at her with a smile. "I know," he says. "I know you would tell me if you were. I just figured that you'd want to say thanks, after he dropped everything and rushed into the lion's den to protect you."

She feels like a teenager again when she finds herself blushing at that.

He's quiet a long time, and then, when they're nearly at the base, he adds, "But Skye, I want you to know, I trust you. And I trust your judgment. If there ever were anything more, as long as it didn't interfere with your work, and as long as you followed our civilian confidentiality policies, that would be fine."

It's official, she is red as a tomato.

"Thanks," she mutters as she gets out of the car.

He leads her into the base and to the second floor of the east wing, where Fitz is going through lab equipment and cataloging it while Ward and three SHIELD agents pack it into boxes.

"Skye!" the engineer says cheerfully when he sees her. "You won't believe the stuff we've been finding. And we've had a brilliant plan: you know how Jemma's really been wanting to go to Australia? Ward says we can stay in a guest house at the estate where he works. If Jemma's okay with it."

Two days ago she would have said that would be impossible to get Jemma to agree to, but now, who knows? And if anyone could convince Jemma to give Ward another chance, it would be Claud. "Sounds like a fun trip. Just pack your bug spray—I hear Australia has huge spiders."

"It's true," agrees one of the other agents, and Fitz looks dismayed.

"Can we borrow Ward for a moment?" asks Coulson. And Ward, who's been acting very occupied with the box he's packing, slowly looks up at them. He's cleaner now; he's out of his borrowed Hydra uniform and in a black t-shirt he looks rather good in. And when he catches Skye's eye, it does something funny to her breathing.

When all three of them are out in the hall, Coulson turns to Skye and hands her the keys. "Take the car back whenever you're ready," he says. "I'll find another way down." Then he turns to Ward and shakes his hand again. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to thank you enough," he says. "For what you did for Skye, and for SHIELD." He hesitates. "If you think you'd ever consider doing civilian contract work for SHIELD, let me know," he says. "Goodness knows you've proven your usefulness several times over."

Ward looks surprised but pleased. "Thank you, sir," he says. Coulson nods at them both, then disappears inside the lab, leaving them alone. "Good to see you up," Ward tells Skye. "What's this about?"

Skye nods toward the stairwell, indicating they should walk as they talk; even with the work lights on, it's a bit creepy in here. "I came to say goodbye," she explains. "Coulson's ordering me back to the States with the other injured agents."

"Oh," says Ward as they head down the stairs, slowly—Skye is getting winded easily, which she supposes is from the injury and the blood loss. "Soon?"

"Tonight," she confirms. "Any minute now. You think you're going to stay here long?"

He shrugs. "Not sure—Claud needs me back pretty soon for a big public appearance she's going to make, so I was figuring I'd have to leave soon. So if you're leaving tonight—" He cuts off, and she can't help smiling.

They pass into the main building and meander toward the front without speaking, Skye having a sudden desire to get outside. And it's beautiful, when they do: the lights from the base are low, so they get a great view of the stars above and the mountains glimmering faintly white below. It's mesmerizing, especially given that she's spent so much of the last couple of days in an underground jail cell and a hospital bed, and as she stares up at it, she reaches out without thinking and takes Ward's hand. The night is chilly, but she doesn't feel it with him so close.

"Thank you again," she says. "I don't think I could say it enough."

"I think you said it plenty when you took a bullet for me," he says, and his tone is light but his hand tightens around hers. "Which, so we're clear, you're never going to do again, right?"

"No promises." She looks up at him. "It's a life worth saving."

"It's not worth more than yours," he insists. "You do so much good in protecting people, and you have so many people who care about you—"

"Stop it," she breaks in. "Don't act like you matter less. You've done a lot of good too, over the last ten years. And you've got people who care about you. Kara, Claud, Drew—you think they want to lose you?" And to make her point, she wraps her arms around his waist—she can't lift her right arm any higher than that—and lays her head on his shoulder. "And me. You matter to me, Ward."

She doesn't have to have vibration-sensing powers to feel that his heartbeat is going crazy. But he's steady as he carefully puts his own arms around her. There it is, that smell she loves—she really must ask him the brand of his laundry detergent.

"Thank you," he says quietly. "You . . . matter to me."

Skye doesn't move; in fact she thinks she might stay there forever, given the choice. He's warm and steady and reassuring and . . . just him, which is exactly what she needs right now. In an hour she's going to get on a plane, and by tomorrow they will be on opposite sides of the world, but this moment—she is absolutely certain they are meant to spend it together.

And then something in the air changes, and almost without meaning to she pulls back and looks up at him. There's just enough light to make out his face; he's staring down at her with the softest, happiest look in his eyes. He really is absurdly tall, isn't he? If only he would . . . she lifts her good arm to hook around his neck and tug him down closer, and he, as though he'd been waiting for this cue, leans down readily. And she, not letting herself think of anything but the fact that right now, she really, really wants this, goes up on her toes and kisses him.

It's been ten years, but it turns out that kissing Grant Ward is like riding a bike: you never really forget. The way his hand comes to cup to her face, the way his hair feels under her fingers . . . ten years fall away, and it's just Skye and Grant standing under the stars—the feisty girl and the quiet man, both searching for something like family. Nothing has changed, really, in that regard.

Without meaning to she sighs contentedly, and she can feel him smile against her lips, and she feels like it could be a scene from a movie. Because the moment is perfect.

No, it isn't. What is she doing?

She breaks the kiss, although she can't bring herself to move far, so his breath is still mingling with hers. This isn't a good idea. It's one thing to forgive him, but to get involved with him romantically is another thing altogether. Isn't it? But either way, it doesn't matter: she's going back to the US soon, where he can't follow. He's going to Australia, where she could follow but doing so would require abandoning her adopted family and the organization she's dedicated her life to. There's no way to make that work. There's no compromise that's going to make it all okay. And it's not fair to give him false hope. It's not fair to give her heart false hope, either. This can't work.

"I've got to go," she says regretfully.

But even that can't wipe the look of bliss from his face. "Yeah, you probably do," he smiles. A thought crosses her mind: how long has he been hoping for this to happen?

Another thought follows it: how long has she?

"Just, the plane's going to leave, and anyway—" But she can't say it yet; she's not that noble and self-sacrificing. She's here in his arms, and it might be the last time ever, and she can't help taking just a moment to savor the feeling. And this time, it's him that kisses her. And that's awfully nice too.

"Look," she says when she's managed to force herself to stop kissing him this second time. "This was . . . really nice." She can't help smiling after she says that, and he takes advantage of the pause to kiss her again. And as his thumb starts stroking her cheek, she thinks, maybe none of the rest matters. Maybe she could forget it all, if it meant kissing him like this.

But . . . Bobbi and Hunter, who are like the older brother and sister she never had.

But Fitzsimmons, her best friends, who will have a new baby by Christmas—her niece or nephew.

But May and AC, more like parents to her than Jiaying and Cal ever were.

But the lives she's saved, the powered people who've avoided a lifetime of isolation and fear because she's helped them find balance and control.

She can't give that up to follow him to Australia. Maybe she and Ward never had a chance, because it won't work now, and the last time it looked like it was going to work, he turned out to be a liar and traitor. Maybe they were doomed from the start.

"I don't think," she says quietly, stepping back from his embrace, "that this is a good idea."

Slowly his face falls back into its normal stoic expression. What kills her is that he doesn't even look surprised. He was expecting this.

But that doesn't stop his lips from tightening. He's hurt, and she's the one who hurt him, and she hates herself right now.

"It's not that—you have to see that this won't work, right?" she pleads.

He says nothing, but the blankness on his face speaks volumes.

There's nothing more she can think to say that would make this any better. "I'm sorry, Grant," she whispers, and flees.

She runs to the SUV and drives back to the command center, biting her lip so hard that she draws blood. She passes May with a nod—she forgot to give Ward her message—and goes to the quinjet, which is preparing to take off. She checks in with the pilot and with Jemma, forcing a cheerful look on her face.

And it's only when the jet's wheels have left the ground, and she's comfortably ensconced in a private corner, that she lets herself cry.

. . . . . .

Chapter Text

. . . . . .

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.

"Business?"

"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."

. . . . . .

Chapter Text

. . . . . .

The director of SHIELD is older than she looks—56, to be precise, although to look at her you'd guess she was 40. She's never sure whether to credit her Chinese or her Inhuman heritage for that. Although when she looks at Melinda May, currently settled into a well-deserved retirement with former director Phil Coulson, she thinks it could definitely be the Chinese side.

SHIELD is flourishing. Skye's built it up carefully in the 8 years she's been director, remembering very well the admonishment Fury gave Coulson all those years ago: "Take your time, and do it right." With her work, and Coulson's excellent efforts before her, SHIELD is back to its former glory: not as big as it was, but it has again been accepted by all nations as the agency they can trust to protect the world against an alien invasion from another universe . . . or to protect one man against himself.

The science division, headed by Leo and Jemma Fitz-Simmons (though they still use their unmarried names when they publish), is once again the world leader in research and development of technology and life sciences. But under Fitzsimmons' watchful eye, and with the occasional intervention from Skye or Mack, the division focuses only on discoveries that will help the world. Alice Fitz-Simmons, the 20-year-old daughter of said division heads, recently finished her second PhD in biomedical engineering from the reestablished SHIELD Academy and returned to work at the Playground. Her parents had encouraged her to consider school and work outside SHIELD, but the girl had always smilingly refused. "My family's all here," she would say, looking around at Skye and the others. "Why would I leave?"

Mack is the the head of facilities; his second, more secretive duty is maintaining strict control on the alien artifacts SHIELD comes across. Unlike his predecessors, who secretly hoarded all the interesting tidbits they found, Mack is not a bit afraid to have something destroyed if it is too dangerous to keep around. Skye finds that rather comforting.

Bobbi Morse and Lance Hunter are the highest ranking agents in the organization, after Skye, and act as her right and left hands. She'd been a little embarrassed that Coulson named her director and not Bobbi—Bobbi has more experience and seniority—but Bobbi had just laughed when Skye expressed that thought. "I told Coulson years ago that I never want to be director. All that bureaucracy and red tape and kissing up to politicians . . . I'd much rather be out kicking butt." And so they do; it's more common to find them in the control room than the field these days—they're both experts at planning ops—but despite the fact that they're sixty years old now, they are both happy to get their hands dirty when required.

"People overlook you when you're old," says Bobbi, smiling. "It's turned out to be a tactical advantage." It helps that she can still take most people down with her battle staves.

"You should see her," grins Hunter. "Still as good as ever. And still as hot." The pair got remarried on the twentieth anniversary of their first wedding, and this time seem to show every indication of staying together. Skye certainly hopes they do. The last thing she wants is for her dream team of level 9 agents to split up.

They still don't have as many field offices as they did before the rise of Hydra, but those they have are doing well. The UAE office is headed by Murphy, but when someone needs to visit the Playground, he sends his right-hand woman—and romantic partner—Kara, who loves to have a reason to come visit. And the France office recently had a change in leadership; when the old head of the office retired, Skye deliberated a long while before assigning it to her old rookie Lola. She didn't want any accusations of favoritism to come of it, but so far none have been made and Lola seems to be doing a great job (and having the time of her life, as she always does).

Yes, Skye's professional life, her work for SHIELD, is going swimmingly. And as for Skye's personal life . . . well, it's going quite well too.

"Who's that?" asks a new recruit, Patrick, one day, looking across the training ground to see a broad-shouldered man with salt and pepper hair observing a group of trainees sparring with each other.

Patrick's SO, none other than Tani Dhawan, looks up to see who her trainee is looking at. And when she sees, she can't help smiling. "That's Grant," she explains. "He's sort of a consultant. You'll probably meet him soon."

"He's pretty beefy for an old guy," he observes.

"Old guy?" Dhawan repeats, jokingly scandalized. "He's not that much older than me!"

"Sorry," he says, looking embarrassed. "I didn't mean—"

"I'm teasing you," she says kindly. "But seriously, he is beefy. He's a really nice guy, but I'm glad I've never been on his bad side. He was one of the best agents this organization ever had. Best since Romanoff, they used to say."

"Best since—is that Ward?" Patrick demands. "I've heard of him. There's some whiz kid new specialist and I heard Agent Morse say she'd gotten the highest marks since Ward, and Ward had gotten the highest marks since Romanoff."

"That's the one," says Dhawan. She leans in close, a smile on her face. "So I'd suggest you don't call him old to his face."

"Definitely not," he replies.

Across the training ground, the director of SHIELD approaches the consultant and winds an arm around his waist. He immediately leans down and presses a kiss to her temple, and their contented smiles are visible to anyone who looks their direction.

"Whoa," says Patrick. "Clearly he's more than just a consultant."

"That's the important title," Dhawan says. "That's the one you should respect, because that's the position he's going to be operating in when he deals with you. But yes, he's also the director's husband."

"I didn't know so many of the high-ranking agents were married—the Fitz-Simmonses, Agent Morse and Agent Hunter, and now these two?"

"Oh yeah, all sorts of agents are married. You do have ask special permission of the director to get married. But—" and she casts a look across the field, at where Skye is laughing at something Grant said— "she's pretty in favor of the institution. She usually says yes."

Skye and Grant start walking toward them then; after that first warm greeting, they've gone to keeping a respectful, professional distance apart, although the way they look at each other spoils any chance that a person might look at them and think they're merely colleagues.

"Dhawan," Skye smiles when they get closer. "Good to see you. How was Santiago? Bobbi told me the retrieval was successful."

"Successful and boring," Dhawan smiles. "Which I don't mind. I find that the older I get, the more okay I am with boring."

"Ha!" Skye chuckles back, while Grant smiles next to her. "I know what you mean." She turns to Patrick. "Don't tell me. Patrick . . . Gagakuma, I believe?"

"I'm impressed you remember, Director," Patrick responds respectfully.

"I try to keep up on the recruits," says Skye. "And Dhawan's an old friend. Patrick, this is one of our consultants, Grant."

"Patrick was just commenting on how many of the high-ranking agents are married," says Dhawan conversationally.

"Right?" says Skye. "How did that happen? We didn't plan it."

"It helps that Coulson made that rule allowing it," says Dhawan.

"Thank Bobbi and Lance for that," says Skye. "I'm glad of it. I definitely benefited."

She certainly did benefit, although Dhawan isn't entirely sure how. The last she'd heard, Grant Ward couldn't enter the USA because of the indiscretions of his past. And then one day seventeen years ago, Skye appeared on base after a long weekend away, Grant in tow, and informed everyone that they'd gotten married; Coulson, looking completely unsurprised about the whole thing, assigned them one of the boxy little houses on the edge of the base, between the second and third security gates—standard procedure for a non-SHIELD spouse living on base. Grant's been doing contract work and consulting for SHIELD ever since. Skye will never explain how Grant is legally in America; the only clue that anyone has is that when Bobbi jokingly explains, "I'm telling you, you just save the president's life so he owes you a favor and then you can ask for whatever you want," Skye just nods sagely. And given that she is a bona fide superhero, it's probably possible.

Patrick's watch beeps then. "Comms rotation," he tells his SO.

"I'll walk you down there," says Dhawan. "Skye, Grant, good to see you."

"See you later, Tani," says Grant. He's the only one who calls her that—an old joke between them from a long time ago.

"Nice to meet you, sir," says Patrick to Grant. And then to Skye, "Good to see you, Director Johnson."

Once they're alone and there's no one watching, Skye slips her hand into Grant's. "I know it's been years, but it still sometimes surprises me to hear people call me Johnson," she says. She didn't take Grant's last name when she got married; he's not very fond of it and didn't want to pass it on to anyone else. And anyway, she might have gotten the government to stop pursuing Grant Ward, but it's still a name that might not engender confidence with some, both because of Grant and because of some of his family members. So he joked, when they wed, that rather than her taking his name, he could just drop his name and they could both take a new one. And since Poots was a terrible choice, they jokingly settled on the only last name that either of them had ever had that they didn't hate: Johnson.

(Neither of them took the name legally, because they didn't really marry legally: they both completely deleted their identities a long time ago, so getting a license from the government would have been difficult. So their wedding was really just a change of status in her SHIELD records, plus, just to make it feel more real, a visit to a small church in upstate New York with a kind and accommodating clergyman who knew just enough about SHIELD to know not to ask questions. But it felt like an important step to both of them, to be married: a sign to the world that they'd finally completed their lifelong searches to find a real family. So they still call it a wedding, and they still celebrate that day as their anniversary.)

And when she became director, she figured she'd need a last name—not very professional to be called Director Skye. So, remembering that she and Grant sometimes jokingly called each other Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, she took that as her last name.

"At least they're not calling you Mary Sue," he offers, and she bumps him playfully with her shoulder.

She was right, all those years ago: her world is better with him in it. And she was right when she supposed that in a world without Garrett, a world without Hydra—a world with her—things would be better for Grant. He's got purpose here at SHIELD. He's got a home—by far the longest he's ever lived in one place—with a chair they designate as his in its spot by the window, where he can sit and read nonfiction books about long-past wars while Skye teases him for having such a one-track mind.

He's got Bobbi and Hunter and Mack and Fitz and Jemma, all of whom fully accept him now, have done for years. They hang out, have dinner, run operations together, and—his particular favorite—watch action and superhero movies and criticize the fight scenes, the special effects, and the science. He's got Alice Fitz-Simmons, who was three years old when he came to live at the Playground and who, by virtue of his association with her beloved Aunt Skye, immediately started calling him Uncle Grant. He had stood stock-still that first time she did it, blinking a little faster than normal, and then promptly set out to spoil the child rotten and protect her at all costs. (He started teaching her self-defense at age 6 and firearms at 10, pointing out that her parents proved time and again that even scientists have to go out into the field sometimes, and as a result she is the only scientist in the whole base who is also certified as a field agent.)

He's got May—or at least, he got May to be cordial with him, to compliment him a few times, which is honestly as much as Hunter's ever gotten out of her as well so really Skye's calling that a win. He's got Coulson, who speaks to him every time he calls Skye, and whom he refers to in private as his fake-father-in-law. He's not quite as close to the man as Skye is—those two have a bond that even living a thousand miles apart can't weaken—but it's still by far the most positive parental relationship Grant's ever had. Skye still remembers bringing Grant to the Playground for the first time, after their wedding, and Coulson shaking his hand firmly and speaking sincerely. "I always say you can save someone from themselves. But in this case, you did a lot of the saving on your own."

And Grant had smiled. "But you gave me the reason. You gave me a place to belong. And now you're doing it again."

"I had to," Coulson had joked. "If I hadn't, Skye might have dropped this place into a giant sinkhole." But the levity couldn't hide the genuine emotion in both men's eyes.

And most of all, Grant has Skye. Some secret part of her had half-expected them to fall apart eventually—before Grant she didn't have a lot of luck with stable, long-term relationships—but he still looks at her like he did in Claud's study, like he did under the Austrian moonlight . . . like he did in that closet in the Hub, some thirty years ago. He still looks at her she makes the sun rise in the morning. And she's happy with that, because she looks at him pretty much the same way.

And she was right about another thing: in this new world they created when they finally put to rest the ghosts of their past, they do have an album full of photographs of them together around the world. It sits on the table in the front room of their base house, and she flips through it idly sometimes, from the two pictures in Montreal that started so much, through to the picture that the kindly old clergyman snapped of them in front of his church on their wedding day, past smiles and hugs and goofy faces in Honolulu and London and Cairo and Beijing, past pictures with the gang here on base and with Lola in France and Kara in the UAE, past pictures of Skye and Grant in the wedding party when Claud married Drew, all the way to the most recent picture in the book, of the Johnsons on a trip last year in Tahiti—a destination from which they sent Coulson a postcard bearing the message "It's a magical place." Coulson had not been amused.

But Skye finds that what she likes best are their days off, which they spend together reading in their little house, or sparring in the base gym, or going on drives through the countryside and stopping in little no-name towns for lunch. She didn't know how lonely she was until Grant Ward came into her life, and then after his betrayal she didn't know how much she'd missed him until they finally found each other again. And now she finds herself often thinking of his words one December day in Sydney, all those years ago: they took the most winding path possible to get here, but she's happy that this is where it lead to.

They chose happiness, even if the source was unconventional. And now they very much intend to live happily ever after.

. . . . . .

fin