Actions

Work Header

you are the guide and the weight of her world

Chapter Text

He’s Hydra.

HYDRA.

It’s pretty much all Skye can think about in the blips of seconds that she can actually think when Ward’s mouth is insistent upon hers and his hands are everywhere and she’s tearing off his clothes like their lives depend on it.

He’s Hydra beats like a drum in her mind, whited out only by sensation too intense to put into words.

He’s Hydra

Months pass.

He’s Hydra.

And then she finds the two pink lines on the pregnancy test.

Oh shi–

*

Skye doesn’t tell her daughter that her father was (is?) a bad man. She doesn’t tell her that he was good once, or that he might have been able to have been saved if they had caught it soon enough. That makes his path to darkness seem innocuous, like a sickness and this – this is so much worse.

Instead she tells Lara that he’s not in the picture. That he was really never in the picture.

And then Skye loves her so fiercely that she puts everything she has into making sure that Lara never has to feel the ache of being unwanted.

Skye knows all about being unwanted.

*

It’s a random Thursday and they’re in Manhattan.

Skye had taken a few days off because Lara wanted to go shopping. It had been easy enough to finagle a few private showroom events and Lara knew her mom felt more at ease with the knowledge their exposure was limited.

There’s hundreds of people milling around Times Square and it’s the kind of crowd Lara loves best – despite knowing the potential security nightmare – because this is the kind of crowd a person could get lost in and never be found.

Except.

From a few steps behind her she hears someone ask, “Skye?”

And her mother goes immediately still. “Call Tony,” She tells her calmly.

Lara stares at her, confusion and curiosity written on her face. Calling Uncle Tony is not by any means unusual, but the unnatural stillness radiating from her mother – is. “Mo –”

Skye releases a quick burst of power, just enough to make Lara stumble over her footing and she doesn’t apologise. The determined set to her mother’s jaw, coupled with the slightly panicked look in her eyes has Lara reaching for her phone without further comment.

She probably would have been able to at least hit the panic button, if not for someone snatching it out of her hands.

The last thing she sees is her mother’s fury, barely contained by the clench of her fists and then something is tossed over her face and everything goes dark.

*

Lara wakes up slowly and things come back to her in spurts. She has to call on every bit of training not to panic and keep her breathing regulated. When she opens her eyes, she discovers they’re in some kind of industrial space and tied to chairs. 

There is a man sitting on the edge of a desk in front of them, with dark brown eyes that are oddly compelling, for some reason. She has the insane split sensation of wanting to spit in his face and also tell him everything he’d ever want to know. Lara has a terrifying half second to wonder if she’s been injected with truth serum before she realizes that he is talking to her.

“What’s your name?” He asks gently.

Okay, Lara thinks. That doesn’t seem too terrible.

She glances at her mother for confirmation and doesn’t say anything until Skye nods, just barely. He intercepts the look with a poorly concealed expression of triumph, turning his attention back to the younger girl expectantly.

“Lara,” she reveals, snarling at him. “Set me free of these stupid restraints and I’ll show you how well I can take names, too.”

The bastard actually has the gall to laugh. “Christ. She’s like the spitting image of you,” He remarks conversationally as he fondly glances at Skye.

“Most trainees tend to draw from their supervising officers,” Skye responds evenly. “I’ll give you whatever you want. Just let her go, Ward.” 

“And miss this golden opportunity to interact with your mini-me?” The man named Ward shakes his head. “No way.” 

*

Somewhere in the fifth hour of their detainment, Ward receives some files from a lackey and snatches them away, eagerly reading over the contents within. Lara has no idea why he’s so delighted about and doesn’t pay him much attention until about halfway through the paperwork, when he becomes devoid of movement and stares directly at her.

“What is your name?”

Being the recipient of the laser intensity that is his singular focus is enough to make her want to fidget restlessly.

She has no other option but to fall back on her sass. It’s always served her well in the past.

“Deja vu, old man?” Lara raises an eyebrow, ignoring the way her mother seems to choke suddenly. “We’ve already had this conversation today.”

“Humor me.” A smirk kicks up at the corner of his mouth. “Your full name, please.”

“Lara Johnson.”

“Skye,” Ward drawls inquiringly, turning to look at her. “Would you care to elaborate?”

“I would not,” Skye bites out by way of response.

Lara can’t figure out why her mother is allowing her expression to bleed so closely on the surface. Even she knows you’re never supposed to give the enemy an advantage, however small.

“Skye.” From the flat tone of his voice, it is clear that Ward is no longer asking. Something about that implication has a chill skating up Lara’s spine.

“Lara Elizabeth Rose Johnson,” her mother grudgingly admits.

Lara’s already staring at her in shock – partially because Skye had given up the information so freely – but mostly since this is the first she has ever been informed of her (second!) middle name.

Skye is leveling such a murderous look at Ward that Lara is privately impressed he hasn’t so much as flinched, absurdly grateful that neither of them have noticed her (not so minor) freakout. To be fair, her mother is a pretty intimidating woman and has felled lesser men with such a glare. 

Rose.” Ward bites his lip as if in deep concentration. “Would that be in honor of a beloved aunt, perhaps?”

This is making absolutely no sense.

“Let her go,” Skye all but growls, straining at her ties.

When they don’t budge in the slightest, Lara realizes that Ward knows what Skye is capable of and put dampeners on her wrists. If she keeps going that way, the only thing she’ll accomplish is hurting herself. And Lara can’t get them out of here on her own.

“Stop it,” She bursts out, drawing the attention away from her mother. “What is your problem, anyway?”

“You.” Ward strolls over to her, cutting the restraints at her ankles and wrists with a few economical snips. “Nice to meet you, Lara Rose.” There’s something deliberate in he way he keeps emphasizing her name, like he’s trying to tell her something.

But that can’t be right, because she’s never met him before in her entire life.

Besides. She doesn’t have an Aunt Rose.

Lara gets to her feet shakily, batting away his hands when he moves as if to help her regain her bearings. “I didn’t give you permission to call me that,” she grits out, pins and needles dancing painfully in her limbs from the lack of movement.

“Turns out I don’t need it,” Ward shoots back, folding his arms with a smugness that she doesn’t have to look at her mother to know she’s itching punch it off his face. “Seeing as how I’m your father, and all.”


[MIC DROP]

THE LARA VERSE THAT NEVER WAS, FRIENDS.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN, IF YOU WILL.

Chapter Text

As it turns out, there aren’t actually any helpful guidelines in a handbook for what to do when discovering your biological father is:

a) not dead

b) very likely working for the enemy slash actual facts is the enemy

c) standing in front of you after having not been around for the past seventeen or so years looking at you like you’re a puzzle he needs to figure out

So it can hardly be Lara’s fault that she doesn’t handle it with the kind of grace that one of her peers might have done and instead decides to completely disregard this new bombshell of information:

“Dream on, old man.”

Ward actually splutters.

Judging by the amused look on Skye’s face, it isn’t something that happens often, and she throws a wink to her daughter in thanks.

Not interested in whatever you have to say.” Lara decides to take shameless advantage of the fact that Ward appears to be a total loss and kneels at her mother’s chair. She makes quick work of the ties around Skye’s ankles and is about to start on the restraints around her hands when a loud BOOM echoes inside the facility and alarms begin to blare loudly.

“This is why I don’t do family reunions,” Skye pointedly mutters.

Lara totally loses her concentration at her mother’s words and determinedly does not think about the gravity behind that statement. The pause in task gives her a chance to see an expression of frustration and some other emotion she can’t identify flood Ward’s face before he starts bellowing for someone to get him some answers.

“This normally what happens with the security at your place?” Skye asks, momentarily drawing his annoyed glare away from the noisy corridor.

“Not usually,” he grumbles, shooting her a glare that morphs into a frown directed at his newly-discovered daughter. Ward seems caught between wanting to ask more questions and frustrated that they’ve been interrupted before anything really important can come to light.

Skye doesn’t like the way his attention is split. “I take it these aren’t your guys?”

“My guys are trained a hell of a lot better than this,” he retorts, snatching the phone from the desk and barking orders.

Lara doesn’t dare take her attention off the task in front of her until she feels Skye run a hand through her hair, tipping her chin up so they can lock eyes.

“He won’t hurt you, Lara.”

“Right. Because I’m supposedly his kid?” She scoffs, burying deep the feeling of being unclaimed for years. “C’mon, Mom. We both know that being a sperm donor has nothing to do with being a father.”

There is a frustrated noise from the father in question and Lara privately wonders if she should have spoken that last part a bit quieter. Meanwhile, the amused look on Skye’s face has long since faded as she watches alertly for any possible route of escape.

“I mean it.”

Lara loses the second to last series of knots again as her mother’s voice. It’s not the warm tones of mom that make her feel safe, but the measured calm of the woman who taught her when to hold and when to fold. The extra layer of steel in her tone means it’s one of those times that she’s going to insist on doing it her way and that means they both know she won’t like the results. 

“Let’s just focus on getting you out of here and then we can talk about your dubious judgement call leading up until this moment –”

Lara.” It is evident from her sharply bitten words that Skye is about to give her the sharp edge of her tongue for the rude comments, but Lara can’t really find it in her to care. Her head is spinning from the new information overload that has just come crashing down upon them and she feels like she’s trying to swim her way to the surface without much luck.

“If nothing else you can trust him to keep you safe until I find you. No matter what happens, you need to believe that.”

“Mom, please… stop.” This time she can’t squash the quaver in her voice and has to swallow twice before she can trust herself to speak again. “You aren’t going anywhere. Nothing is going to happen.”

“Sweetheart, we don’t have that much time right now. Promise me you’ll listen to him.”

There are footsteps getting closer and gunfire erupts in the hallway. Ward has his gun out and is cleanly picking off anyone who gets too close to the door. He turns as if to ask one of them for some help and is rewarded for his efforts with two sets of eyes glaring daggers his way. “Right.”

Lara whirls back to Skye, gesturing angrily at Ward.“How can you ask me that? I’ve never seen him before in my entire life and I’m pretty freaking sure we both know he’s the enemy.”

“Yes.” Skye isn’t looking at her but at Ward when she calmly replies, “But not to you. He was a good man once. He’ll keep you safe.”

“This is the stupidest thing I have ever heard,” she grumbles, ducking her head to avoid her mother’s you must listen to me because i am your mother look.

“Lara.” And it’s clear that Skye wants that promise and she wants it in blood.

She has no idea what this man has done to earn such trust from the woman she values more than anyone on the planet; no idea why she’s been told since birth that her father had died when he’s clearly standing right there, looking remarkably alive and well; no freaking idea why Skye seems hellbent on securing this oath from her – but if it puts her mother at ease long enough to get her head in the game, she’ll do it.

Fine,” Lara bites out, feeling equal parts betrayed, angry and terribly confused.

By now Lara has gotten one gauntlet free, which leaves Skye at half her usual strength but it’s enough to have her up and out of the chair on her own power. Skye closes her eyes for a moment, straining to make sense of the vibrations she feels under their feet and in the air and then –

No!” Skye yells, throwing her free hand out and pushing.

Lara has approximately two seconds to react before the burst of energy knocks her directly into Ward, who loses his gun when he finds himself with an armful of teenage daughter.

When Ward looks like he’s about to come to her and provide a distraction, Skye casts an agonized look at the folder containing Lara’s DNA results (and god knows what else) and shoves him back with another burst. “More important things to handle, Ward!”

A dozen men in black tactical gear with masks march in seconds later, heading directly for Skye. She’s caught between laying a barrier against any stray bullets where Lara (and, coincidentally, Ward) are crumpled on the ground and defending herself.

Lara can’t help but try to break free of his hold to help her mother. She’s walking a razor’s edge of doing something drastic, can feel the power all singing in her veins, begging to be released. She can’t do this without her mother. She can’t. It’s been them against the world since day one and this is not how things are going to work out.

Skye catches sight of her in that moment and shakes her head adamantly. When that doesn’t look like it’s going to make any difference, she pulls rank.

Robot!”

*

The name confuses everyone but the man for whom it was intended.

Ward takes one look at where Skye is struggling and the way she jerks her head at Lara and has a single moment of clarity – the bittersweet kind that feels like i am not a good man, skye – yes, you are and wants to lay into her for choosing the sacrifice play, for making him choose between them instead of being able to come up with a scenario that has all three of them walking out together.

He pushes Lara behind him and backs further into the room, giving the tactical team more room to maneuver an escape. Predictably, they take the opening and surround Skye with the intent to capture. He attempts to to return fire but he’s severely limited by the priority of keeping Lara safe and their utter lack of cover.

“Don’t forget rule number one!”

“But –” Lara can feel the desperate need to do something crawling up her spine even as bullet dance over their heads. She should be trying harder to keep this from happening, she should be in this fight defending her mother instead of stuck with the man half responsible for her DNA.

Don’t!” Skye calls out just as they throw a black hood over her head and slam another gauntlet around her free wrist. She thrashes blindly until one of the men fires a tranquilizer into her neck and they carry her away. The last man out tosses what appears to be a grenade back into the room.

Ward curses, throwing Lara over his shoulder and heads for the window.

“Are you insane?!” She yells, catching a glimpse of the two story drop at their feet.

He turns his head to look directly at her. Gone is the man with the questions and barely hidden curiosity. In his place is a cold-eyed man who looks like he’ll do anything to survive. “Do you want to live to see your mother again?”

Something lodges in her throat and she can’t form words. All her worst fears are coming to a head. Lara settles for nodding jerkily.

“Then do what I say. I’ll get us out of here.” He grunts, yanking a rope around her waist and knotting it around his shoulder tightly.

She notices, with some detachment, the speed with which he moves. He is very good. In a matter of seconds, he’s anchored them to a desk inside the room – which will drag but not be pulled out the window after them – and doesn’t miss a beat when as she keeps staring after the empty doorway where they had dragged Skye out.

He won’t hurt you. Promise me you’ll listen to him.

Other than orders issued from her not to interfere, those are among the last real words her mother said to her.

She struggles to get her breathing under control, flat out ignoring the way her heart seems to have leapt from her chest and lay shattered on the floor behind them. All she wants is to see her mother again. She can’t think beyond that.

So Lara closes her eyes and they jump –

– just in time for the explosion to come scorching over their heads as they drop to the ground.

She’s still at a loss when Ward takes her by the wrist, dragging her behind him. He doesn’t tell her where they’re going. She’s too busy reeling from the information overload of the past few hours and abduction of her mother instead of planning an escape to pretend there aren’t tears in her eyes. 

When he looks at her expectantly, Lara gestures vaguely. “Smoke from the fight. My eyes are sensitive.” The sarcasm in her tone is not hidden well and Ward doesn’t seem like he totally believes her but at least he doesn’t question her any further.

And as they head deeper into the city, getting lost in the alleys and back streets, Lara pretends like this is just another mission she’s running. She doesn’t want to let the man at her side – the man she refuses to call her father – know just how ripped up she is about losing her mother. It’s a weakness and she can’t afford to break down right now.

After about five blocks of silence where she’s trying to hold it together, she finally digs in her heels, forcing Ward to come to a stop.

Judging by the look on his face, it takes him a few beats to swallow the pissed off remark nearly headed her way. “Yes, Lara?”

It’s jarring, hearing her name come out of his mouth. This complete stranger, who apparently slept with her mother (total lapse in judgement, there) all those years ago and –

She abruptly curtails that line of thought and tries not to think about the fact that she’s about to flagrantly break the promise made to her mother. “So you can just let me go here. Anywhere, really. I’ll find my own way back home.”

Ward laughs.

He actually laughs.

Lara tells herself it would be a very bad idea to knee her biological father in the crotch.

She tells herself this at least seven times, until the urge has (mostly) passed. “I’m sorry, is something about all of this funny to you? Because that woman who just got captured? You know, the one you abducted first in the middle of Times Square, thinking you had some kind of bone to pick? She’s GONE.” She throws her arms out wildly, shaking loose his grip. “Thanks to you, my mother is gone.”

Her voice breaks on the last of it, rage and emotion taking her under as she sinks to her knees in the middle of the street. The sky rumbles threateningly in the distance but she can’t bring herself to care.

Ward stands motionless, unsure if he should attempt some form of comfort or defend the accusation laid at his feet. When he steps towards her, Lara raises her eyes in a mutinous glare, and he backs up with his hands in the air.

“Lara. Of course it’s not funny.” He doesn’t say anything further until she drags her eyes back to his face. There’s a barely leashed fury on his face that has her thinking maybe her mom wasn’t the only one responsible for her tendency to fly off the handle and her formidable temper. “But what’s hysterical? You thinking that you’re going home. You can’t go home. Odds are, there’s a team waiting for you to do just that. It’s only a matter of time before they come after you too.”

The brutal honesty of his assessment is like a slap in the face. The helplessness of the situation has her wanting to lash out at someone, anyone – even though she knows he’s right. It kills her that he’s right. What makes it even worse is that if it were anyone but her mother involved, she’d already be thinking along the same lines. It’s just that –

– it’s her mom.

It’s her mom, and she can’t think clearly when her mom is missing. 

Ward looks like he has about a million things he wants to say to her and winds up settling on: “Do you at least trust me to get you somewhere safe so you can rest for the night?”

Lara staggers to her feet, waving off his attempts to help. “Do I have any choice?”

The look on his face becomes shuttered and something about his body language seems to be more closed off than it was before. “No.”

She laughs, but it’s an ugly, broken sound. “Then I guess we have our answer.”

“I guess we do.” Ward sets off at a measured pace.

Lara keeps her gaze narrowed on the expanse of black leather where it’s drawn tightly between his shoulders and ignores everything else.

She will see her mother again. 

And when she does, they’re going to have a long ass discussion about this whole cluster of a situation.

Lord knows she deserves all of the answers.

Chapter Text

When Lara wakes up the next morning, she has that sickening disorientation of being in free fall before she remembers.

Situation report: Mom’s gone. There’s a tall guy who fights like Uncle Bucky, claiming to be my father. And I can’t go home.

The next few minutes are a bit touch and go as she struggles to keep her emotions level. Logically she knows that she can’t afford to lose control here – especially wherever here is. The best thing to do is to take stock of what she knows and work from there. She can do this. It’s just a mission. She’s not going to make it personal.

The room she’s in is clean, if somewhat sparsely furnished. There is a pile of clothes folded up on the dresser across the bed, which she gratefully changes into after a quick shower. She can’t find anything else to put on her feet besides the black cross trainers that are so new she can all but smell the cardboard box they came in.

“Okay, self. You’ve got two options.” Lara tugs on the laces, pulling them so tightly that her fingers turn white from the strain. The feeling of hopelessness comes up and tries to swallow her whole until she ruthlessly bats it down and can focus on her shoes. She’s not going to think about anything but getting some facts and figuring out how to find her mom. “You can sit here and cry about it… or you can get out there and start demanding some answers.”

She tries very hard to remain unnerved by the fact that everything she’s wearing just happens to be her exact size and walks out of the room without another look.

*

Having no idea where she is seems to be the theme of the morning, because she’s spent the last ten minutes wandering the halls, looking for signs of life – or at very least – a door that wasn’t locked.

She finally throws up her hands in frustration and glares at the camera mounted in the ceiling. “A little help, here?”

In response, the floodlight flashes twice over the door to her right and she sarcastically salutes her thanks at the camera. “Asshole. Glad one of us is having fun.” Lara pushes open the door to reveal a large gym with enough weights and mats to train an entire team of Avengers. Clearly whoever has ‘Eye in the Sky’ duty wants her to chill out before she gets her answers. Fine. She can roll with that.

“Okay,” She nods in approval. “Now you’re talking.”

*

Ward comes into the control room looking like a man who hasn’t slept in days. “What do we know?”

“Good morning to you, too, Boss.” There’s a young man sitting at the screens and watching the perimeter. Though his movements are almost lazy in nature, his dark eyes are alert and there’s a certain tension half coiled in his limbs.

“Ranger.” Ward lifts an eyebrow. “If I wanted sass this morning, I would have gone to see Lara first.”

“Assuming she’d talk to you,” Ranger scoffs, toggling the feed to put the live stream where Lara is currently beating the crap out of a punching bag. “Favors her left.”

“Must be a family thing,” Ward grumbles, pulling a battered looking file from within his jacket and placing it on the desk. He’d nearly lost his mind when Skye had glared at the folder pointedly before sacrificing herself to save them. Having a paper trail on Lara was a stupid, rookie mistake. He needed to get his head in the game. “I need you to make that disappear.”

“After everything I went through to track it down? Not gonna lie, that was some of the best work I’ve ever done.” Ranger pushes back from the desk, flipping through the papers idly. “Did you know she hates tomatoes?”

Now.” Ward keeps his eyes on the screen, clearly intent on soaking in as many details about Lara as possible.

“Touchy, touchy. Someone clearly woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” Ranger mumbles.

Onscreen, Lara was fighting like a physical manifestation of her whirling mess of emotions. There appeared to be no rhythm to her movements until something seemed to click, her features went stony and she was suddenly controlling her actions cleanly.

“When she gets focus down, she’s actually pretty good.”

Ward privately agreed. He’d seen Level Three Shield agents with far worse coordination. “What’d she do this morning?”

“Wandered the halls for a while. Found the gym. She’s been at it for the better part of an hour.”

“She needs a break.”

“You know, I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her yet, but I’m betting she’s not going to want to stop any time soon.”

“If she doesn’t, she’s going to wear herself out.” Ward counters, daring him to argue the point further.

“Look, I’m just saying that’s a seriously pissed off girl in there.” Ranger put his hands up defensively. “In my experience, it’s best to let them get it out and you can try to talk reason after.”

“I think I know how to handle my own daughter.” Ward left the room without further comment.

Ranger narrowed his eyes at his mentor’s retreating form before shaking his head and reaching for a bag of popcorn stashed in one of the drawers. “This is gonna be interesting.”

*

“Brought you something.”

Lara trips and pinwheels awkwardly as she tries to regain her footing. She should be embarrassed that he snuck up on her, but he’s like a damn ninja. It’s unlikely that anyone hears him coming unless he wants them to.

Ward is standing in the doorway to the gym with a bottle of water and some kind of protein bar.

“Thanks.” She shoves the hair away that keeps slipping into her face and takes the water from him.

“You should eat. Keep your strength up.”

Her irritation instantly flares to life. “You’re not my –” She pauses for a second, gritting her jaw. Too many ugly statements hang in the air until she finally says, “– SO.”

“You’re right. I’m not,” Ward acknowledges, his face carefully expressionless. “But I am running the mission to rescue your mom, and if you want to be part of that team, you’ll do what I say.”

She rolls her eyes. “So that’s how we’re going to treat this? Ignore the big giant elephant in the room?”

“Last I understood, I’m just a sperm donor, right?” He leans against the doorway as if he hasn’t a care in the world. The body language is at odds with the way his jaw seems to flex under the strain of speaking evenly.

Lara tries to focus on the satisfaction of getting a rise out of him instead of the shame of hearing her words thrown back in her face. “Whatever,” She snatches the bar from him and goes back to the punching bag.

For a few minutes there is nothing but the steady pounding of her fists against the bag and Lara assumes he’s left her in peace. Finally. She starts a series of cross-jabs and counts down the reps in her head.

“We’re going to debrief in two hours.”

Lara curses ripely, nearly losing her footing again. His eyebrows rise at her language but he doesn’t comment. In fact, if she didn’t know better, she’d almost swear he was smiling.

“We should know something concrete about the team that took your mom by then. I put my best guy on it.” Ward raps his knuckles against the doorway twice in lieu of bidding her goodbye and finally leaves.

Lara waits until he is well and truly gone for a good five minutes before she gives into the urge to rest her forehead against the heavybag in an attempt to stem the flood of hot tears behind her eyes.

This sucks.

*

“You keep dropping your right.”

It is a testament to Lara’s current state of what she likes to privately refer to as hot mess express that she doesn’t even flinch this time.

“You guys sure love to sneak up on people in this place.” She lifts her head to see the dark-haired guy sitting on the floor just inside the room. He waves cockily before returning his attention to the tablet on his lap.

“Sure. By all means, please come right in,” Lara sarcastically mutters. “What does a person have to do to get some peace around here?”

“You’d rather go back to ghosting through the halls?” He asks, scrolling through a feed on the left side of the screen.

Her eyes narrow. “You.”

“Me?” A smug grin curls on his face. It’s official: He is way more handsome than any nerd should rightfully be. 

She tries to shake off the frisson of awareness snaking through her system and ignore the fact that she feels woefully underdressed for this conversation in only a pair of tight workout leggings and a tank. “What’s your name and why the hell were you watching me like a creeper this morning?”

A) I take offense to the creeper statement – I’ve never creeped on anyone a day in my life –”

“– Doubtful,” Lara scoffs.

“– And B) we both know you’re an unknown variable to everyone here until you get your priorities in order. Also, C),” he leans in conspiratorially, “Don’t you think you were a little hard on your old man?”

Does everyone on the planet know who her father really is?

Lara stomps her foot in exasperation. “I need a name, nerd.”

“Oh,” he laughs richly, and casually unfolds to stand at well over six feet and some inches tall. His eyes dance with good humor as he finds the entire situation terribly amusing. “You think I’m a nerd. That’s cute.”

Her cheeks flush. “I already hate you.”

“No you don’t,” he counters, taking her firmly by the shoulders and planting her squarely in front of the heavybag.

Lara has a moment of internal panic that he did that so effortlessly and is forced to reevaulate the muscles he must be packing under the baggy hoodie. “I guess I could refer to you as ‘He Who Manhandles and Leads Girls Down Dark Hallways’,” she offers, wondering why she isn’t more freaked out by the way this strange guy has appointed himself in charge of correcting her form.

“Let’s try for a left cross before you uppercut. 20 reps.” He stands back to watch without further comment or instruction.

She refuses to give him the satisfaction of asking questions and ignores his suggestion to instead do an additional six minutes. When her arms are finally so tired that they feel like rubber bands, Lara sighs loudly and backs away from the bag. “Happy now, sensi?”

“Getting there, hurricane.” He tweaks her braid playfully. “C’mon. I’ll make you breakfast.”

“I don’t eat meals with strange dudes.” Lara unwraps her hands gingerly, wincing at the bloodied knuckles revealed by each layer peeled back.

“It’s Ranger,” he says by way of answer to her earlier question, whistling sharply at her hands. “Should have stopped when I told you to…”

Aughhh!” Lara shoves him more out of irritation more than anything else, and when he doesn’t even move, she grumbles, “Jesus. What are you made of, granite?”

Ranger winks and heads out of the room. “Hope you like pancakes.”

She does. They’re her favorite.

Lara scrubs her face in frustration and takes off running after him. “Stupid nerd jocks with their stupid cute face and stupid smile and –”

“– You know, I can hear you.” Ranger’s voice drifts from around the corner.

AUGHHH!”

Chapter Text

It turns out that Ranger is actually pretty adept in the kitchen.

Naturally, this pisses Lara off to no end.

He’s got a griddle out and is flipping pancakes like he was born with a spatula in his hand. Somehow, he’s managed to juggle making coffee, field incoming messages on his tablet and hold a conversation with her at the same time.  

She had sat at the counter for about five seconds before his efficiency began to make her feel like a lazy slug.

“You shouldn’t be this flawless,” Lara mutters under her breath while digging out plates and flatware. “You’re a nerd, you should be tripping over your own feet and spilling things everywhere and OOOF –”

“Nerd jock,” Ranger corrects loftily, smirking down at her from where she has currently faceplanted into his chest. “Comfy?”

“I think you broke my face,” She growls, ducking her head to try and hide the fierce blush on her cheeks. “What the hell are you packing under that stupid hoodie?” 

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” he drawls suggestively.

Her jaw drops open.

Ranger throws a rogue blueberry into her mouth with – of course – perfect aim and turns his attention back to the pancakes. He must take her gaping silence for a moment of weakness, because he goes in for the kill with his next question. “So what’s your story, morning glory – you gonna be pissed at your old man forever?”

“It’s really none of your business,” Lara stiffly responds, as the flavor of the berry turns to ash in her mouth. She does not want to discuss this with him – now, or ever.

“I’m just wondering, because he’s kind of a cool guy.”

“Spare me the E! True Hollywood story.” Her tone is dismissively flat and she can’t help wrapping her arms around her knees. It feels like it got about ten degrees colder in the room just talking about him.

“Okay,” Ranger agrees easily, plating a stack of pancakes and pushing them over to her with a nod. There are blueberries and pecans peeking out from between the fluffy golden edges and she’s practically drooling in hunger. “Hope you like them.”

He waits until she’s literally moaning in pleasure and halfway through before he casually mentions, “They’re your dad’s favorite.”

Lara chokes so unexpectedly that she actually has to push back from the counter and breathe through it before she glare at him properly. “I hate you.”

“No,” Ranger says calmly. “You really don’t.”

*

There is already a small group gathered in the debriefing room by the time they arrive. Lara feels horribly outnumbered as the both the youngest and only female occupant in the room but she’ll be damned if she lets on. She obstinately lifts her chin and takes a seat in the front row, without a buffer chair for Ranger to stay at her side.

“You’ve got guts, Hurricane,” he murmurs as he walks past, queuing up information to the large screen in front of them.

Everyone goes silent as Ward enters the room moments later and immediately turns to Ranger. “What do we know?”

Gone is the playful boy who cooked her breakfast. “She’s off the grid.” In his place is a confident man who clearly commands the respect of everyone in the room. “We have to assume there’s some kind of shielding or Inhuman involvement keeping her hidden because there’s literally no trace of her. And I’ve tried everything.”

Lara feels the sinking pit in her stomach expand uncomfortably and tries to focus on the words coming out of Ranger’s mouth instead of the way it makes her feel.

“Not long after you fled the extraction site, the building went up in flames. We sent in a team to see what could be recovered but the entire site had been turned to ash.”

“That sounds like your style, bro.” A new voice calls from the back of the room.

Lara pulls out of her disjointed memories from last night and frowns. She really needs to get more sleep, because now she’s pretty much hallucinating. Something about that voice reminds her of –

No. Stop daydreaming. No one knows you’re here. In fact everyone probably thinks you’re dead. …great. That’s a pleasant thought.

She sighs quietly and tunes back in time to see Ward roll his eyes and gesture for Ranger to continue.

He quickly runs down the remaining information – which honestly isn’t that much, to Lara’s palpable dismay – and the room is dismissed. Everyone seems to peel off to their assigned tasks and, for lack of anything more concrete to do, she gets shuffled out with the group into the hall. They disperse quickly enough and pretty soon she’s just standing in the middle of the corridor alone.

She’s starting to think her life is destined now to wander hallways until something better comes along when she hears voices drifting out from the briefing room.

“Look, I just need to borrow him for a few minutes and I swear I’ll give him right back.”

Lara’s head snaps up so fast she practically gets whiplash. She knows that voice.

“What could you possibly need Ranger for that you can’t discuss with me?” Though she can’t see him, Lara can tell that Ward seems intrigued by the prospect of having a new puzzle to solve.

“It’s not important.”

“It’s important enough if you need to borrow my master hacker.”

“I love it when you guys fight over me. Really makes a dude feel wanted.” Ranger’s dryly voiced amusement cuts through the tension as Lara tiptoes closer to the door.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Try me,” Ward suggests, in a tone that is really not a suggestion at all.

The other man makes a loud sound of frustration. “I really don’t have time for this right now.”

“Then just tell me who you need Ranger to find and –”

“– Who said I needed him to find a person?”

“Obviously it’s a girl…” Ward muses aloud. “I’ve never seen you this worked up about anyone else before, so she’s clearly important to you.” 

Grant.”

“And now you’re resorting to a first name basis, so I must be getting under your skin…”

Lara has fully abandoned the idea of stealth at this point and is now openly gaping at the two men engaged in a literal standoff in the center of the room.

Ranger sits on the desk, rolling his eyes. “You guys need to get a grip.”

Before Ward can needle his companion any further, she steps into the room and blurts, “Thomas?”

“Lara loo.” The familiar nickname slips out as Thomas immediately catches sight of her, heaving a full body sigh of relief. “Thank god you’re okay.”

Ranger scoots back just in time to avoid being trampled as Lara flat out runs into Thomas’s arms, clinging to him tightly. 

“I don’t understand,” she mumbles, refusing to let go of him. “How did you know where to find me?”

“Yes, do explain, brother of mine,” Ward says, forced pleasantness dripping from his voice. “How you kept such a secret all this time.”

“…Brother?” Lara steps back in confusion, frowning at him. “What is he talking about?”

Thomas looks aggrieved. “I can explain.”

She glances at the expression of cold fury on Ward’s face and the chagrin practically oozing from Thomas and starts putting the pieces together, one hand covering her mouth in disbelief. “Oh my god. You’re related?”

Lara doesn’t even realize she’s still backing away when she hits the desk where Ranger has slid forward and placed a protective hand on her shoulder.

“Lara, just give me a few minutes and I’ll tell you whatever you want to know. I’ve been worried sick that you weren’t answering your phone –”

“– it fell out of my pocket when we were running away,” she answers distractedly, eyes jumping between the man she’s known since she was a little girl and the man who rocked her world by declaring himself her father.

Despite the different in coloring – Thomas is lighter in features where Ward is darker and stubbled – there’s an undeniable similarity between the two men. Seeing them stand together is like a punch to the gut and she can feel the ache burst in her heart as more of the pieces fall into place.

“So when I stopped by the penthouse and found –”

Outside a heavy wind picks up, rattling through the drafty base.

Thomas pauses mid-explanation and glances at her sharply. “Lara.”

“I can’t believe this.” She shakes her head, incredulous. “How could you?”

The rain begins lashing at the windows angrily and Thomas glances outside uneasily. “You need to calm down.”

“Don’t you dare tell me to calm down!” She shouts in near perfect synchronization with the thunder that cracks loudly, startling everyone in the room.

The lights flicker briefly while she stands between her father and her uncle, trying to regulate her breathing as everything inside her is screaming to let go. There are a few tense moments where she feels like could cheerfully rip their heads off until she feels Ranger squeeze her shoulder tightly, drawing her back into the moment and providing the level calm she needs to process the information.

“I don’t suppose you knew about this,” Lara finally bites out, glancing with visible suspicion at Ward, who is standing with an unnatural stillness.

“Believe it or not,” Ward speaks very carefully, as if he is trying extremely hard to hang onto his temper and rapidly losing the fight, “This is all news to me. I had no idea that my brother harbored any knowledge of you or your mother.”

“Oh please,” Thomas scoffs, folding his arms. “Like you weren’t miserable for months after –” A dark look from Ward abruptly curtails his train of thought.

When the silence echoes louder than a scream in the room, and no one seems inclined to break it, Lara offers up a strangled laugh. “Screw you, Thomas. Or no, wait. I guess I should say Uncle Thomas, right?” She blinks against the tears that are stinging hotly in her eyes. “God. I can’t even look at you.”

Ranger puts an arm around her shoulder and guides her out of the room before she completely falls apart.

The tension in the room stretches uncomfortably without the flashpoint of Lara and her volatile emotions to act as a barometer.

“Well.” Thomas drags both hands down his face, looking every bit his age for the first time in years. “So that probably could have gone a little better.”

And Ward immediately punches him in the face.

Chapter Text

So, to say that the past twenty four hours have been kind of a blur, is somewhat of an understatement.

Lara feels like she’s still reeling from the knowledge of having a father and aching loss of her mother, only to be slammed with the stunning fact that the most important man in her life up until this point – Thomas – is actually, in fact, her biological uncle.

I need to sit down.

She slows to a stop, prompting Ranger to look at her in askance. “Lara?”

It’s weird. She’s never heard him say her name before.

“Earth to Hurricane Lara. You alive in there?”

Lara stares at him very seriously, curling her arms at the waist and hanging on tightly as if trying to literally hold herself together. She takes a deep breath and asks, “You’re not, like, secretly my brother or cousin of mine, are you?”

Ranger pauses and tilts his head to the side. “Well, actually…” She punches him hard in the arm and he laughs. “No, just kidding. We’re definitely not related.”

“Good. Because that would have been super awkward if we were,” Lara mumbles, starting to walk blindly ahead.

“Why? Why would it have been awkward?” Ranger sounds entirely too delighted by this turn in the conversation and she wishes it were as simple as being embarrassed that her verbal filter is, at this point, completely non-existent.

Unfortunately, she can already feel the tears stinging her eyes and throat growing tight so she can do nothing more than shake her head wordlessly and wait for him to lead her wherever it is that they’re going.

“So I’m guessing you’re not super thrilled right now,” Ranger says, offering his elbow for her to tuck her arm into.

“Yeah…” Lara forces back the building tears by sheer force of will. “Not so much.”

“I know something that might cheer you up.”

“I doubt it,” she sighs, feeling like her lungs are about to explode from the battering emotions she can’t seem to lock down inside her head.

“Come on.” He tugs her along until they are out of the main part of the building and well onto another wing that has Lara wondering just how large this place really is. “All things considered, it’s the length of about three city blocks. There’s a reason why I kept an eye on you this morning, and not just because what I said earlier about you needing to get your priorities in order.”

“Honestly my priorities right now include not punching my uncle in the face and to finish this day in one piece.”

“Pretty sure your dad’s taken care of that first part,” Ranger winced slightly, knowing just how hard his boss could hit after many years of training. “As for the second…” He lifts his watch to the keypad in front of the door until it beeps and lights up green, stepping back slightly to allow her to enter the room first.

Lara takes in the giant room and its blank white walls and enormous bed with some confusion. “Okay, I know we established that we weren’t related and all, but…”

He tosses her a roguish grin. “Relax, Hurricane. These are your rooms until we find your mom. Your dad wanted you to have your own space away from the offices and building main in case you needed a break.” He goes through a few files on the desk until he locates the paperwork he needs, pushing it into her unresponsive hands.

“I don’t…” She can’t seem to get her footing right now. It feels like she wants to throw up and scream and cry all at the same time.

Why is my father pretending like he knows anything about me?

“Before you get all mad,” Ranger says, correctly interpreting the annoyed look on her face, “He mentioned something about your mom needing to get away when things got overwhelming for her. I guess he figured you might feel the same.”

Lara visibly deflates. “Oh.”

“That top envelope has a credit card without a limit.” He smiles at the wide-eyed look on her face and nods approvingly. “Might as well put it to good use and stick it to your old man for missing the past 17 years of your life, right?”

Despite her best efforts to remain horrified at the suggestion, Lara can’t help the watery laugh that escapes. “Yeah.”

He ruffles her hair once, squeezing the back of her neck fleetingly. “Try to get some sleep.” On his way out the door, Ranger pulls a smartphone from his back pocket. “If you need anything, or you get hungry, let me know. I’m here for whatever, okay?” 

“Thanks.” Lara wants to protest his leaving – he’s the only thing that has made sense about the entire day – but knows better than to make a big deal of it. He’s probably only got about ten thousand things to do… including trying to track down Mom.

“Night, Lara loo.”

And he’s out the door before she can yell at him for using her uncle’s – dammit – nickname.  

*

Ranger doesn’t even have to make it back to the compound main before the sounds of Ward and Thomas reach his ears.

“What the ACTUAL HELL?”

A lamp shatters against the wall.

Not my face, okay?! Jesus, you need to calm the hell down.”

Don’t tell me to calm down.”

“Well, at least we know Lara comes by her temper honestly.”

There is another loud scuffle and then Thomas swears. “Would you pull it together?! I am trying to explain!”

“Yes, please tell me how it happened: did you just wait for me to conveniently slide out of the picture before moving in on Skye?”

Ranger actually pauses at the venom lacing his mentor’s tone and seriously considers detouring to the control room to watch behind the safety of  computer screens. Then he figures he probably owes it to Lara to makes sure her uncle and her father don’t kill each other.

“Screw you, Grant.”

“I mean you’ve always had it easy with women before, and being pregnant would have put her in a pretty vulnerable state, so did she just –”

Ranger enters the room just in time to see Thomas punch his older brother in the jaw.

“Do you really think that little of me? Of Skye?”

Ward gingerly tests his jawbone, grimacing in approval when he discovers nothing to be broken. “I didn’t know I even had a daughter until yesterday and now I find out that my brother has been keeping her a secret while being a part of her life all along. Excuse me for feeling a little betrayed right now.”

“Betrayed?” Thomas scoffs loudly. “You’re one to talk.”

“Oh shit,” Ranger mumbles under his breath, slinking over to the chair in the far side of the room, as it seems to be the only piece of furniture that survived the Ward brothers’ destructive wrath.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Like you’ve never betrayed anyone in your life. That’s rich, coming from you.”

“I have owned my mistakes, Thomas. I never claimed to be perfect.”

Thomas can’t help his jaw from dropping open. “You literally do not have a leg to stand on here, Grant-betrayal is my middle name I had a mission it wasn’t personal-Ward.”

Ranger is not ashamed to admit that he ducks to avoid the chair Ward throws at his brother even though it doesn’t come anywhere near him.

“Get your head out of your ass so I can explain,” Thomas shouts, “And stop throwing things at me!”

With what appears to be monumental effort, Ward takes a deep breath and glares at his brother. Ranger knows from experience that his mentor is silently counting to ten right now in about six different languages.

Thomas must recognize the same, because he puts his hands up defensively and steps closer. “Look. I can’t tell you everything –” at the murderous look in Ward’s eyes, he hurries on, “– Because it’s not my story to tell. You’ll have to wait until we get Skye back for that.”

“Pussy,” Ward grumbles, the fight starting to seep out of him.

“No way, man. Have you seen that woman when she’s pissed off? She can level buildings with her rage.”

Shit.” He pinches the bridge of his nose in contemplation. “Lara didn’t stand a chance with our tempers, huh?”

“Not so much,” Thomas agrees, gently placing a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “She’s an amazing kid. A hell of a lot like her stubborn old man. And smarter than both of us combined. You should be proud.”

“She pretty much wants nothing to do with me,” Ward admits, sighing heavily. “I can’t say I blame her.”

“Nah. You just gotta give her some time to warm up to you. She doesn’t trust easily.”

Ward considers his brother at length. “Yeah. Seemed pretty pissed at you.”

Thomas shrugs. “I know how to deal with her when she’s like this.” He nudges him gently. “You will too.” At the barely masked look of hope on Ward’s face, he rolls his eyes. “God, yes, I will tell you all about her. Can I at least get a steak for my face and a beer? I’m pretty sure you gave me a black eye.”

“You deserved it.” Ward cuffs him on the back of the head, nodding for Ranger to follow them.

“You guys are nuts,” Ranger mumbles, already pulling up the schematics for the kitchen and putting in an order for a large steak dinner. He adds the vodka as an afterthought, because he has a feeling it’s going to be a long night.

*

Taking a hot shower is almost enough to make her feel like an actual human again. Prior to hopping in, she had texted Ranger that she didn’t have any pajamas, resolutely telling herself that it absolutely wasn’t a big deal

People have to sleep and I’m not going to do that naked in a strange place, even if it is my own room this is a perfectly normal request I am definitely not being weird about this. No sir.

– Only to come out of the bathroom and discover a gigantic long sleeved tee-shirt and sweatpants on her bed. No note attached but she could tell from the softness of the fabric that these were well broken in and had to smile.

Once she’d got the pajamas on and snuggled into the comfy bed, Lara opened the laptop she found on the desk and prepared to to some serious damage with a limitless credit card. This was like the stuff dreams were made of. Besides,  Internet shopping had its perks; no lines, no annoying sales people to deal with, the joys of overnight shipping. Time flew by as she ordered enough basics and extras to keep herself generously clothed for at least three months, though she had absolutely no intention of staying for that long.

She almost had a change of heart about the black leather ankle boots that were well above even her mother’s limits and then figured at least they’d be good for putting through Thomas’s foot once they arrived.

When her eyes began to droop and not even the thought of couture could perk her up, Lara closed the laptop and curled an arm around her pillow, longing wistfully for her favorite stuffed animal from home. If there was ever a time I needed a little comfort… it would be now.

Still, she was determined not to think negatively and try to get a decent night’s sleep. She managed to send a quick message to Ranger: Put the credit card to good use. PS: I want to help out in the search for my mom.

And drifted off to sleep shortly after reading his reply: You got it… we’ll talk in the morning. sleep well, hurricane.

Chapter Text

There are clothes at her door when she wakes up the next morning, along with a message from Ranger with an interactive map on her phone to get her back to the building main. 

Lara gets dressed and feels a few more pieces of herself come sliding back together. While it’s true that there isn’t anything truly remarkable about the dark jeans or the leather jacket, she just feels better. More in control of herself, of the situation – as bizarre as that sounds.

Which is probably why she disregards the map and attempts to make it back without help and winds up hopelessly lost.

“This is terrible and I hate everyone,” Lara mutters, glancing around for any point of reference that won’t make her feel as though she’s still walking in circles.

Her phone rings.

“Hello?”

“You didn’t use the map.”

Lara rolls her eyes. “Do you have anything helpful to add to this conversation or are we just going to talk about how I’m slightly misplaced at the moment?”

Instead of answering, there is muffled shouted in the background and then Ranger starts cursing under his breath.

“…Ranger?”

“Right.” He sounds incredibly distracted, almost borderline impatient. Ranger gives somewhat garbled instructions to someone on the other end of the phone before answering her with a modicum of patience and a fraction more attention. “I reprogrammed the directions from where you are now… try to follow them this time. I promise there’s a nice surprise waiting at the end.”

The device chirps happily with the updated directions and she also notices something else. “Why is there suddenly an airhorn app on my phone?”

There is no mistaking the humor in his voice as he says, “You’re going to want to use that shortly.”

He hangs up in lieu of saying goodbye and she can’t even find it in her to be mad because she’s too curious about what kind of surprise awaits her.

The directions are pretty straightforward and she finds the kitchen without any trouble. There is a full pot of coffee on the counter and she sighs happily. “Bless you, mystery coffee maker.”

It isn’t until she hears a loud snore when reaching around for the creamer that she notices the two men slumped over the large table.

“Oh my god.” Lara whispers, staring in complete disbelief for a full thirty seconds before fumbling to get her phone out and queuing up the camera. She takes several incriminating shots of both Thomas and her father and the empty vodka bottle between them. “This is priceless.”

She figures her father must have some kind of sixth sense, because his breathing noticeably changes as he pries his eyes open to stare ahead blearily.

Meanwhile, Thomas is now snoring loud enough to wake the dead.

With stunning clarity, she remembers the app.

Airhorn. Thank you, Ranger.

HONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNK

It shouldn’t be possible for a sound that loud to come out of a phone so small – but it does, and it is – and watching Thomas jump out of his chair, only to fall to the ground in a tangle of limbs, is truly the highlight of her week. “Where ’s ‘fire?!”

Lara chuckles and queues up the marimba alarm, holding it as close to her uncle’s ear as she dares. He might be hungover, but he’s bigger than her and she doesn’t want to take any chances. “WHAT UP UNCLE THOMAS WHO LIED TO ME FOR THE PAST 17 YEARS OF MY LIFE.”

Thomas actually whimpers in pain.

“Do you regret your life choices?” Lara asks sweetly. “Sure hope making bad decisions like that ISN’T HEREDITARY.

The barest hints of a smirk can be seen on Ward’s face for a matter of seconds before giving way to a grimace.

“Cause I would hate to betray my entire family that way,” she continues, keeping her voice loud and making sure to walk loudly on the tile floor right by his head.

“ ‘M dying. ‘s how it ends.” Thomas thumps a hand on the floor twice for mercy.

Lara, of course, has no intention of giving any.

“Have a great morning THINKING ABOUT WHAT YOU DID WRONG.” Lara shouts directly at him.

He makes a feeble reach for her legs as she walks past and fails miserably.

Ward simply closes his eyes in pain. “Good job,” he whispers hoarsely as she flounces out of the room. 

There is a low groan and then Thomas rallies long enough to prop himself against the chair, arms around the seat as though it is the only thing keeping him upright. (It is.) “Yeah, so… She’s definitely yours.”

With some kind of superhuman strength, Ward manages to lift his head and smirk triumphantly at his brother.

*

Lara forgoes the map and follows the scurrying of people on the base to what appears to be Command Central. Ranger is in the middle of the room, directing two men on an assignment while another mans the surveillance screens and what appears to be a team of six analysts comb through a mass compilation of reports at a very large table.

As if sensing her presence, he looks up to find her standing in the doorway and dismisses the men before him. “You made it,” He greets warmly, gesturing for her to come in.

She does, peering around the room in barely masked awe. “What the heck is it you do again?”

“A little of everything, to be honest. Mostly I handle intelligence and mission control, but on days when the Boss is… out of commission,” he grins mischievously at her and then composes himself, “It’s my job to make sure things continue to run smoothly.” 

“So when I called you this morning and you were yelling at someone?” Lara inquires, running her fingers along the desk.

“Ah,” Ranger has the good sense to look slightly embarrassed. “Things had gotten a bit tense.”

“It’s fine,” She shrugs. “I just felt kind of sorry for the other guy.”

“Don’t be. He’s kind of an idiot.”

She can already tell from the fond exasperation in his tone that he isn’t really mad at the “idiot” in question and wonders why it is so much easier to talk to him than either of the other men in her life. “Did you mean it when you said I could help out looking for my mom? I don’t want to get in the way here.”

“There’s another report that needs to be verified,” he pulls a file from his desk and shuffles her to the chair by his side. “I can’t have the original agent go over it at the moment and we need to make sure all the details are preserved for later. The analyst team will be combing through it to look for any kind of hints they can find.”

Lara looks dubiously at the folder he’s pushed into her hands and then back at him. “This is going to help you find my mom?”

“Give it a shot, Lara loo.”

Don’t call me that,” She hisses, but they both know it lacks any true heat.

“You’re right,” Ranger sits down, pulling up several different windows and typing in a slew of commands. “Hurricane is a much better fit.”

“I hate you,” she grumbles, crossing her legs and opening the report.

“No you don’t,” Ranger automatically replies with a hint of a smile.

*

She’s about half a page in before she realises just who the “agent” is that the report belongs to.

Lara slaps the file on the table. “This is his debrief.”

Ranger looks up from the computer, gauges the level of her ire, and immediately dismisses the room. “Take ten, guys. Grab some food.”

“I can’t believe you gave me his debrief to proof.”

“You were the only other eyewitness,” he calmly explains. There is a quiet understanding in his eyes that matches the softness in his voice as he continues, “I thought you might find it… helpful to be the one calling out any inconsistencies found within the summary.” 

She struggles to bring her frustration in line. “By throwing it back in my face?”

“You wanted to help. Part of being able to do that includes working with everyone on the strike team. Like it or not, your father is the one leading it.”

“I don’t like it.”

“I know,” he chuckles, reaching out to squeeze her hand briefly. “But you’re going to have to face him again sooner than later and you can’t always blow an airhorn in his ear.”

“That was…” She can’t help but giggle at the memory. It transforms the expression on her face completely, brightening up her eyes and taking away the dark shadows of worry. “Priceless.”

Someone clears their throat firmly and they look to see none other than Ward himself – albeit slightly paler and moving slower than usual – as he pinches the bridge of his nose for strength. 

“You have the morning report for me?” Ward asks, very deliberately choosing not to comment on their closeness or the paperwork in her hands.

“Here ya go, Boss.” Ranger offers the file in question. “And might I just say that you’re looking a little… peaked? Rough night?”

Ranger,” Ward cautions, deadly serious. He is glaring with the kind of preternatural stillness that cobras have just before they strike.

“I’m just saying no one would blame you if you wanted to go back to bed.” The younger man shows no signs of backing down, grinning cheekily up at his mentor.

Lara has to clamp her lips together to keep from bursting into hysterical laughter. She’s not as successful as she hoped, though, because a few giggles make it through, drawing the attention of both men.

Ranger quickly winks and returns to his work while her father just watches her with an unreadable expression on his face.

“You doing okay with that?”

It takes Lara a second to realise he’s talking to her.

She nods slowly. “I’m probably not as fast as whoever usually reads through these.”

“That’s okay. Not everyone shoots from the hip like this one.” Ward jerks his chin at Ranger, who rolls his eyes good naturedly. “Take as long as you need.”

Something about the simple statement hangs heavy in the air between them and in the back of her mind, Lara knows she should probably do something about her face – but she can’t help like feeling as though what he’s saying encompasses so much more than the mission debrief in her hands.

“Okay,” she replies, her voice small. Lara can’t help the the sudden influx of tears that spring and has to drop her eyes down to her lap to keep them from falling.

What the hell is wrong with me? Pull yourself together, Lara Elizabeth. You’re stronger than this.

“Nice boots,” Ward casually tosses over his shoulder as he leaves.

Lara glances down at her awesome heeled boots and bites down hard on the smile that wants to appear.

He is super difficult to read. But maybe it’s starting to get a little easier.

In fact, if she didn’t know any better, she would have sworn he even cracked a smile on his way out.

*

Running through her father’s report for accuracy is far more difficult than she had originally thought.

He reports facts with enough detail to satisfy all the relevant questions and is the consummate professional in that he does not allow his feelings – whatever the hell they might be – to bleed through and muddle up the summary. He refers to the enemy tactical team with cool dispassion, noting their weapons, strike position and techniques used to subdue her mother. He even recounts their exit through the window and it sounds like he’s nothing more than an outside observer, rather than the man who physically threw her over his shoulder to haul her to safety.

Lara grits her teeth harder with each successive reading, mindful of the others in the room. The team had come back not long after her father had left and she is keenly aware of their presence, even if they aren’t looking directly at her. She feels like she’s trapped inside a fishbowl. She takes another controlled breath and focuses on the document in front of of her, but there is no denying the simple fact: it is starting to wear on her.

Ranger notices almost right away. “Hey. You should take a breather. Get some air. Go torture your uncle a little more, or something.”

“No, I’m almost done.” Lara disagrees, bravely attempting a smile that winds up looking more like a grimace. “I’m going to finish.”

“I don’t doubt it for a second,” he soothes, “But you’ve been at it for awhile and that isn’t the easiest of debriefs to remain objective with.”

“I’d just feel better if I could actually do something. I can’t fight this,” she lifts up the file, shaking it with visible irritation. “When I don’t even know what it is I’m fighting against. I can’t see it.”

“Lara.” Ranger folds his arms and stares her down. “C’mon. Walk it off.”

She can feel the energy thrumming wildly in her veins, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s right and that she needs an outlet sooner rather than later. Given the way he’s standing up and waiting to leave with her, it seems unlikely that he intends to leave her alone.

Well, you’ve already had a front row seat to most of my family drama, nerd jock. Let’s see if you can handle this too.

“Fine. Where’s the roof access?”

*

Ranger takes her up a dizzying flight of stairs, only stopping briefly to key access for her phone via his tablet so that she can come back on her own.

“Every access point is armed,” he explains, pushing open the storm door that opens to the roof. “If you try to exit without proper authorization, it’ll raise all kinds of alarms.” When she continues to stare at him, he adds, “You’re safe here, Lara. No one gets in or out without us knowing.”

“Who,” she licks her lips and takes a deep breath, trying to keep herself anchored in the moment. Control is licking hungrily at the base of her spine, begging for an outlet. “Who knows?”

Ranger takes in the strained expression on her features and comprehends what she needs without needing further prompting. “Your father. Me. Sometimes Thomas, if he’s on watchman duty.”

“So no one’s around to gawk at the freak, then?”

“You’re not a freak.”

He sounds like he’s ready to single-handedly take on whoever might be stumbling under that misapprehension and Lara wants to level the place to the ground because she’s done absolutely nothing to deserve that kind of support. 

“You don’t know that!” She yells, as twin bursts of gale force winds coming out of nowhere and ripping through the rooftop, sending leaves flying in their wake.

Despite the strength of the wind rushing by, Ranger holds steady, careful to keep his eyes locked on her. “Yes, I do. You have abilities, and that’s okay. It doesn’t make you less.”

Tears swim in her eyes and she can’t help but fall to her knees in despair for the second time in days.

Why is he saying this?

Only this time, Ranger is there to catch her before she hits the ground. “It makes you more.” 

Lara curls in on herself and cries quietly, finally loosing the forced hold she’d clamped on her emotions since the shock of Thomas hit her.

I’m not thinking about Mom. I can’t think about her right now. This is about Thomas lying to my face for years. This is about trust. This is about family. God. I don’t know how to do this.

“Well, you don’t have to do it alone,” Ranger reminds softly, and Lara realises she must have been thinking out loud again.

A steady rain drizzles over their heads, drenching them in a matter of seconds. Ranger shifts his grip to hold her more securely, bracing his back against the wall and tucking her face into his neck to shelter her from the rain.

“Hey, hey. It’s okay Lara,” he murmurs. “I’ve got you.”

And for the first time since she lost her mom, Lara feels like she might actually be safe.

Chapter Text

It eventually stops raining, though the sky remains gray and bleak. There is no hint of the earlier sunshine and even the clouds appear listless.

Ranger keeps silent as Lara pulls herself together and only offers his hand to help her up once she has taken a deep, fortifying breath.

“That’s kind of the tip of the iceberg, you know.”

He nods. “I figured.”

“I’m not supposed to… lose control.”

“But you need to be able to channel it somehow, right? Otherwise you’re just a pressure cooker of feelings.”

Lara blinks at him for several long moments. “How in the world have you already figured that out?”

Ranger grins ruefully. “You’re not going to love this answer… but believe it or not, your dad was the one who taught me about the importance of working through emotions.”

“That man is like a machine. Honestly until this morning, I was seriously unsure if he even had feelings.”

Harsh, Lara.”

“Well, I was.” She crosses her arms defensively. 

“They're there if you know what to look for. Anyway,” he tugs her hand reassuringly, nodding to the stairwell. “Ready to go back?”

“One last thing.” She wipes under her eyes to ensure there are no lingering effects from her earlier outburst. Another deep breath. “I want to be weapons trained. No more of this helpless Hurricane Lara crap.”

“Just so we’re clear? The last thing I would ever call you is helpless, but okay.” Ranger looks like he’s taking her request seriously, which is why she’s surprised when he continues, “However… you’re going to need to talk to your dad about that.”

What? If this is some kind of weird parental thing that you have –”

“– It’s not, actually –”

“– Because I really thought you were more evolved than that –”

“– aw, you think I’m evolved? That’s one of the nicest things you’ve ever said to me –”

“– but apparently you’re just as much of a caveman as the rest of the men in my life and –”

“– Lara.” Ranger cuts her off sharply, looking only mildly frustrated. “He’s the boss. Anyone who wants weapons training has to get signed off by him.”

“…Oh.”

“He’s also the best.” When she rolls her eyes, he slings an arm around her shoulder playfully. “You’re gonna have to talk to him anyway to get approval. Why not ask him to train you?”

“Please. You and I both know how busy he is,” Lara doesn’t bother quieting her voice despite how it echoes in the stairwell. There’s no one around and they weren’t followed to the roof. “It’s highly unlikely he’s going to change his entire schedule around just to suit me.”

“You might be surprised…” Ranger trails off, rearming the access points as they go.

“I won’t hold my breath.”

*

It turns out to be a good thing she doesn’t hold her breath.

Lara can’t help but gape at him. “You’ll really do it?”

Her father sets aside the papers to give her his full attention. “Absolutely. It’s not safe for you to be out there without a weapon and I’d feel much better knowing you were trained when we go into the field.”

“I think her disbelief stems not from the fact that you’re agreeing,” Thomas drawls from where he is propped against one of the gigantic bookcases lining the walls. “But because Skye was always dead against it.”

Ward’s focus sharpens considerably. “Is that true?”

Lara stiffly nods. “She said it wasn’t safe.”

“This coming from the girl who used to say ‘bang’ every time she pretended to pull the trigger,” he muttered quietly.

Thomas ambles further into the room, drawing the attention of father and daughter. “Lara, you know if your mom was here right now, she’d say no.”

It is one hundred percent the wrong thing to bring up, and has the positively disastrous effect of igniting Lara’s anger in three seconds flat.

“Yes, but she’s not here.” Lara clenches both of her fists and backs away from Thomas to stand by the desk, unconsciously aligning herself with Ward. “And you don’t get to weigh in on this. You’re not my father.” 

The accusation hangs like bloody murder, sucking the oxygen out of the room.

“You’re right, I’m not…” Thomas says slowly, and he is quite openly rocked by her vehemence and anger. He looks as if he can’t decide whether to throttle her or hug her. “But the one you have should know what he’s dealing with before he starts making promises we both know your mother would hate.”

Lara visibly flinches.

Thomas.” Ward all but growls, standing up in anger.

He throws his hands up defensively. “It’s cool. I can tell when I’m not wanted.”

Seconds after the door closes behind him, Lara can’t help but sag into the chair in defeat. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she whispers.

“I know.” Her father inhales sharply, noticeably hesitating before dropping into a crouch in front of her.

Ward keeps one hand on the arm of the chair she’s in, and the gesture doesn’t make her feel like he’s crowding her but more like he’s trying to protect her somehow. “Thomas talks a good game, he always has – but he’s a lover, not a fighter. Been that way since we were kids.”

Lara has never heard anything about this version of her uncle before and she is definitely curious to know more. Meanwhile her father is not looking at her with anything other than a weirdly comforting understanding, and somehow she finds herself telling him more. “I’m still so furious with him,” She admits. “I can’t believe he’s known this time and never said anything.”

He is quiet for a very long time. “Sometimes people have reasons for keeping secrets.” The look in his eye suggests that he is thinking about something else, maybe even from the past, and there’s something heartbreaking about the quickly masked devastation.

“Secrets are horrible,” Lara firmly disagrees, wanting to pull him back into the present for reasons she doesn’t care to examine.

Who put that look in your eyes? Who hurt you that way?

“Even if you’re trying to protect someone?”

“I –” She closes her mouth, swallowing the knee jerk retort.

There’s not a whole lot she knows about Grant Ward but he didn’t get to be the boss because he’s stupid – and whatever his work entails clearly involves a large portion of intelligence and superior decision making. In short – he wouldn’t be saying this if he didn’t think it were true.

“Is that why you think,” Lara has to swallow the lump in her throat before she can continue. “We didn’t know about… everything?”

How have we become allies in this? Is it because we were both kept in the dark by the people who were supposed to love us the most?

He nods slowly, as if recognising all the things she can’t bring herself to put into words. “Knowing what I do of your mom – and I’ll be the first to admit that that knowledge is a bit outdated at this point – it sounds like she had her reasons for hiding the truth. She always protected the people she cared about. You’re at the top of that list.” 

The entire thing makes her want to scream in frustration.

What Thomas knows, what her mom knows, what she knows, what her father knows… everyone knows something different. It’s like some bizarre kind of spy organization, the kind where everyone has different clearance levels.

“God. My head hurts.” Lara sighs tiredly.

“You could see if lunch is ready in the kitchen. Maybe take something for your head after eating.” Ward suggests, wincing as his knee cracks upon rising.

“Sounds like you need it more than me, old man,” Lara chides, almost fond.

(She doesn’t know it’s the first time she’s let her guard down around him.)

Ward goes momentarily still as he rounds the corner of his desk. He lifts an eyebrow in consideration as he returns to the paperwork he’d been reviewing prior to her arrival. “Well, I probably wouldn’t, except you’re so tiny that I had to sink down below sea level just to see you properly.”

When Lara doesn’t immediately respond, he glances up, worried.

But instead of looking mad or hurt, she’s biting her lip against a tiny smile.

Ward clears his throat because he feels the entire situation sliding rapidly out of hand. “We start your training tomorrow at five am.”

The smile drops off her face abruptly. “You’re kidding.”

“The most important hours of the day are the ones you fill before 12.”

“Is that like, from Sun Tzu or something?”

He chokes. “What?”

“I don’t know,” Lara shrugs restlessly, glancing around the large office. “Mom was always talking about her hardass SO and how he trained her to be the best field agent but he made her wake up at the crack of dawn and read old weird books.”

“The Art of War is a perfectly respectable –” Ward trails off rather defensively. Then he backpedals to address the rest of her statement. “She said he made her a good agent?”

“Try to keep up,” Lara reprimands, tapping her foot impatiently. “Not just good. Best ever.” 

“Well.” He clears his throat again, composure obviously ruffled for reasons she doesn’t understand.

She raises her eyebrow. “Do you need a cough drop or something?”

“Take a walk, Lara.” Her father glares at her halfheartedly. “If I don’t see you later, we’ll meet tomorrow morning in the gym. Five am. Don’t be late.”

“This is how it ends,” she calls dramatically over her shoulder, closing the door behind her.

Ward puts the papers back down and is shocked to find his hands aren’t quite steady. He takes a deep breath, steepling his fingers and staring out the window. “Skye. What were you thinking?” A new report pings its arrival on his laptop and he frowns at the continuing trend of extremely limited information. “And where are you?”

Chapter Text

Five am tastes like nausea.

Lara tells herself this because otherwise she would have to attribute it to the fact that she is training at some ungodly hour and – despite having actually done this before with Uncle Bucky and Aunt Nat – the stakes are considerably higher this time. She refuses to dwell upon that potentially alarming possibility.

She arrives at the gym to find her father and uncle sparring.

“Morning, Hurricane.” Ranger lifts his mug to her from where he is seated in his customary place on the floor.

Lara can’t tear her eyes away from them as she folds herself down next to him. “Give me that coffee if you want to live.”

He slides over a fresh mug which turns out to be doctored just the way she likes it. She sips appreciatively as the caffeine kicks in. “Creep.”

“Being observant is not creepy,” Ranger protests, leaning back against the wall and kicking his legs out comfortably.

In the center of the gym, the two brothers are now all out brawling in a barely leashed fight.

Ward is definitely more skilled than Thomas, clearly having to hold back much of the power behind his hits to keep from knocking the other man down. Thomas has a more unpredictable fighting style, instead preferring to mix it up without any kind of pattern and it is that lack of continuity behind his movements that allows him to get land a few solid punches.

Lara doesn’t understand why he would be fighting with her father, especially this early in the morning, when it obviously isn’t something he enjoys. “Why are they doing this?”

“Every operative has to train with your father at least once a month to stay cleared for active duty. Thomas and a few of the other higher ups meet a couple times a week.”

“He doesn’t look like he’s having a lot of fun.”

“Who, Thomas?” Ranger glances at Lara, who nods. “It’s his least favorite part of the job. He does it, though, out of respect.”

“Respect?”

“Your father can pretty much wipe the floor with everyone here and Thomas knows it. He keeps at it, not because he wants to beat him one day, but because he wants to get better and continue to prove that he’s got his back.”

There’s something heavy and pointed in that statement that she isn’t going to touch with a ten foot pole.

“Do you ever fight with him?”

The low grin on Ranger’s face indicates that to be so.

“Do you ever beat him?”

The grin widens. “Remember how I said that he can clean everyone’s clock?” At Lara’s exasperated look, he continues, “Let’s just say that I’m not everyone.”

She redirects her attention to where her father is moving almost too quickly for her to keep track and thinks about the kind of skill involved to give someone like that a run for their money. From the corner of her eye, she reappraises the lazy sprawl of limbs belonging to the boy next to her and remembers the strength behind the arms that had held her so tightly on the roof. 

Note to self: Cocky boys and lack of sleep are not the best of combinations. See about getting an espresso machine installed to remain at peak verbal sparring form.

“You actually weren’t wrong when you called me a nerd jock.” Ranger murmurs, appearing somewhat delighted at the low flush staining her cheeks.

Saving her from having to reply is a flurry of movement from the two brothers. Ranger frowns at a low punch that Thomas is forced to twist away from and calls out, “Off sides, Boss.”

Ward grins unrepentantly. “Just making sure you’re awake.”

“Trust me, we’re awake,” Lara grumbles sourly. “FYI: Binge watching Gossip Girl is not the thing to do when trying to take your mind off your troubles.”

“You know, I can definitely see the Blair Waldorf in you,” says Ranger.

“Well, I’m definitely not built like Serena Van Der Boobsen.”

There is a long beat of silence.

“I just said that out loud, didn’t I?” Lara puts her face in her hands.

Ranger is snickering too loudly to actually reply. 

“Lara, you’re up.” Ward calls over.

Thomas meets her eyes and offers a quiet, “Good morning.”

“Is it really?” She bites out by way of reply, and rolls her shoulders to loosen up the sudden tension from his greeting.

I didn’t know this was going to be a family power hour. Thanks for the heads up, Universe.

Ranger packs up and hands Thomas a fresh water bottle and towel. “See you guys later.”

Ward indicates that she should wrap up her hands and tips his head at the door where the two men have just exited. “What was that all about?”

“What was what all about?”

Lara.”

It’s pretty irritating that he can say her name with just the right touch of disappointment and it serves his purpose of making her feel about six inches tall.

“You guys can’t just expect me to pretend like nothing is wrong,” Lara flings her wrists up for inspection, unable to curb the attitude all but seeping from her pores. She has no idea why his face goes so carefully blank after doing so and wonders if she’d wrapped them improperly or something.

“No one’s asking you to pretend like nothing is wrong. Arms up,” Ward instructs, circling her form. “But if you want to be treated like an adult, you need to start acting like one.”

Her arms fall without meaning to. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Up,” He taps her on the elbow. “It means,” Ward lifts his chin, gesturing for her to begin striking at his palms, “When your uncle greets you, have the courtesy to reply in kind instead of biting his head off.”

“I don’t give a –”

Ward sweeps her legs out from under her and Lara falls flat on her back with the wind knocked out of her. It actually takes a second for her to start breathing again.

She’s glaring hard when he extends a hand to help her up, but wisely keeps quiet.

“Did I ever tell you about one of my trainees?”

“Given that you’ve never told me about any of your trainees,” Lara strikes three times in succession, not quite able to rein in her frustration at the non sequitur, “That would be a no.”

“Hmm.” He widens his stance for balance and keeps his palms level. Lara, who is actually familiar with this from her earlier training with Uncle Bucky, holds back a sigh and repositions her center of gravity so that she can start kicking instead.

“So, I had this trainee,” Ward says, “And she was… a bit problematic. Didn’t have a lot of focus, her emotions were all over the place, and no one really ever called her out on her… less than stellar work ethic.”

“Sounds like a real winner.” Lara has absolutely no idea why he’s telling her this.

“It took her a while to hit her stride, I’ll admit. She had unique way of looking at the world, which was pretty rare in our line of work. But what made her special was her ability to connect with everyone she met. It was amazing.”

She actually has to stop to roll her eyes. “You sound like you’re in love with her or something.”

“Or something,” Ward smoothly replies without missing a beat, nudging her towards the center of the mats so they can practice sparring. “The point is, she understood the value of people and their contribution to a team.”

“Okay, fine. But what does this have to do with –”

Ward feints left and sweeps Lara’s feet out from under her. Again.

When she moves to get up, he fixes her with a harsh glare. “Stay down.” He drags a chair over and sits in front of her. “You want to be pissed at me because of how I handled things with your mom, fine. That’s on me, and I accept it. But you don’t get to take it out on the man who watched over you and protected you for your entire life.”

Lara lifts her chin stubbornly. “He lied to me –”

Yes, he did. We live in a world where people lie to each other, and it’s terrible, but that’s the ugly truth of it. You know more than I do how much he loves you. Thomas would protect you with his life. I can’t have you jeopardizing everyone’s safety because you’re too pissed to talk to him.”

There is an almost unholy fury in Lara’s eyes but she is somehow locking down the anger that wants to leap out and crash into everything.

Her father nods smartly in approval at the way she’s keeping her emotions in check. “There will come a point when you will either commit to this or – walk away. I’m not saying you have to forgive him immediately. But I’m also not letting you walk out of here believing that he would do anything to intentionally hurt you.” Ward exhales long and hard, finally pulling Lara to her feet with enough strength that she actually bounces on her toes for a second. “So you’re gonna have to find your balance somewhere in the middle to make this work.”

Find your balance. Right. It’s totally a coincidence that Mom always used to say that.

“You good?” He asks hesitantly, in stark comparison to the way he was reprimanding her like a

Lara stumbles over her feet in realisation.

Like a child. He just schooled me like a damn kid. Fricking hell.

“Easy now.” Ward steadies her until she can stand without feeling so lightheaded.

“I’m fine,” she says, taking care to keep her voice even. Lara pastes a smile on her face. “I will, however, require pancakes for the travesty that is waking up this early and listening to your early morning ramblings.”

“Watch it, pipsqueak,” he almost jokingly admonishes, lightly tugging her ponytail on their way out the door.

And he doesn’t even realise it because I’m one of his “trainees” now.

“Yeah,” Lara lamely responds, barely managing around the lump in her throat.

There is not enough coffee in the world to protect me from this mess of emotions in my head right now.

“I’m inviting Thomas to join us.” He meets her eyes, daring her to make an issue out of it.

“Whatever Trevor.” She shrugs. “Just don’t blame me if something happens to go awry with his breakfast.”

“I’m sure you’re far too stealthy for that,” her father serenely replies. “But just to be sure, let’s jog to the kitchen. Maybe then you’ll be so tired that you’ll actually behave.”

Lara groans loudly and dramatically. “I will take special joy in puking on your feet.” 

Chapter Text

The problem with 5am wake up calls is that your body gets totally messed up.

For instance: It’s a little after midnight and Lara is starving. Literally starving, like, she could eat a horse.

“Stupid early morning training,” She flings the covers off and slides out of bed. She grabs her phone as an afterthought, though by now she knows her way well enough through the compound that she can make it to the kitchen without incident.

The lights are off when she arrives and it somehow seems rude to turn them on as it’s only a few more steps, so Lara skirts the island and is halfway there when the refrigerator door suddenly opens.

A pair of legs can be seen from below the stainless steel door – the kind with  glossy black nail polish on the toes.

Lara stiffens, backing up to the knife block.

“God, there’s never anything to eat in here. You guys are like garbage compactors,” complains said owner of legs.

“It’s not my fault you lurk around like a ghost and then expect us to keep the place stocked for your imminent return,” Ward responds from where he can barely be seen at the table, peeling an orange. “Don’t forget to clean up.” He exits out the side, not noticing where Lara is hiding behind the counter.

The fridge door closes and Lara flips the lights on full –

– revealing a brunette with beautiful eyes, clad only in a men’s buttondown shirt.

You’ve got to be fricking kidding me right now.

“Who the hell are you?” Lara is especially proud of the way her voice runs flat and cold, just like Aunt Nat taught her.

The brunette whirls around, knife gripped tightly in her hand. “Who the hell are you?”

“I asked you first.”

“I don’t answer to you.”

“Maybe you can answer this: Are you sleeping with Ward?”

She laughs. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Because you have no right to be doing that –”

“– and you have no right to be telling me what to do, little girl –”

“– I am his daughter, and I have every right –”

“– Ward doesn’t have a daughter. I would know.”

Lara steps fully under the lights, which serves the purpose of highlighting every inch of her features, all dark hair and high cheekbones and stormy hazel eyes. “Wanna bet?”

Ahem.”

They both whirl around to the man in question, leaning against the kitchen door, clad only in a pair of low slung pajama pants. “Problem?”

“So you ARE sleeping with her?! You’re cheating on my mother?!”

Ward splutters, “Cheating on your – Lara, what?!” as the other woman simultaneously goes sheet white. “Your MOTHER? Ward, what the hell.”

“Kara, I can explain,” He says heatedly, glaring at his daughter. “You’re out of line, Lara. Apologize, now.”

There is a loud belch as Thomas walks in, scratching his arm. “Sup, guys?”

“Oh nothing much, just meeting his,” Lara jerks her thumb angrily at her father, “Sexy sidekick between the sheets.”

Ward immediately starts choking on air.

Kara turns horrified eyes on her. “What the hell?”

“Sexy sidekick,” Thomas murmurs appreciatively, “I dig it.”

“I’m out of here,” Lara flashes a positively deadly look at both her father and Kara and storms out of the room.

“Well, then.” Thomas takes a seat at the island, looking at two of his favorite people. “Welcome to the doghouse.”

*

To say breakfast the next morning is somewhat of a tense affair is an understatement.

Lara (who had already skipped her morning training because of reasons) refuses to speak with anyone other than Ranger. 

Kara keeps flicking glances over at her, while Thomas blithely consumes his second helping of waffles. Ward presides at the table head, glaring at his daughter.

“Lara Rose, you owe both myself and Kara an apology.”

Lara sets down her fork so firmly that the tines bend ever so slightly. “It’s Lara Elizabeth, thank you for asking.”

“I’m not asking.”

“Well I am,” Ranger pushes slightly back in his chair to take in the table at large. “Because I have no idea what’s going on right now.”

“He’s sleeping with her,” Lara hisses, glaring in disgust at her father.

Ward pinches the bridge of his nose and counts to ten. “Even if I were sleeping with Kara – which I am not, by the way – it would be absolutely none of your business. I can’t believe I’m actually saying this right now, but I’m a grown up. I can sleep with whoever I want.” 

“Sure, okay.” Lara rolls her eyes, jerking back from the table to stand up. “I’m a grown up, too. You don’t mind if I take Ranger out for a spin later, right?”

Lara Elizabeth Rose.” The threat in Ward’s voice is lethal and his eyes have grown cold and flat.

“I would just like to reiterate for the record that I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.” Ranger helpfully supplies from where he is trying to sink lower in his seat.

“Don’t worry, I’ll sum it up for you: He doesn’t have to explain his decisions to me, and I don’t have to explain mine to him.” Lara storms out of the room for the second time in less than 12 hours.

“I am never having kids,” Kara and Thomas vehemently swear.

Ward is gripping the table hard enough that it actually buckles under his hand.

Ranger clears his throat. “So I’m just gonna…” He grabs his plates and drops them in the sink on his way out the door.

There is an awkward silence in the room.

“Clearly, you chose the better brother,” Thomas nudges Kara playfully.

“Boss.” She inhales sharply, tightly fisting a napkin in her hand. “Permission to punch him in the face?”

Ward rubs at his throbbing head, where a migraine is slowly building. “I was going to suggest stabbing him with a fork, but,” he waves distractedly, “By all means.”

“I’m just a bystander here,” Thomas protests, laughing as he dodges her wandering hands.

“Why do you insist on making things ten times more complicated than they have to be?”

“Hold up.” Thomas tilts his head, incredulous. “Might I remind you who was the one waltzing into the kitchen half naked last night? That would be the two of you. No one said you had to argue with her.”

“Sure, next time a stranger gets the drop on me, I’ll just let it go.” Kara sourly retorts.

“Babe.” He brushes a kiss to her forehead. “Now you’re just being dramatic.”

“I really don’t think you have a leg to stand on Thomas I believe in keeping secrets for decades and being way more of a flirt than is EVER NECESSARY Andrew Ward.”

“Kara. Honey. You work for my brother, who has literally betrayed everyone on the planet, including himself.”

“Can someone explain how I got dragged into this?” Ward lifts a hand wearily, glancing between Thomas and Kara.

“Because it’s a typical Ward trait to deflect.” Kara smartly replies, not tearing her eyes away from Thomas.

“I do not deflect,” protests Ward.

“Okay, Mr. I can’t talk about a certain ex-shield agent who I spent thousands of dollars and years of my life searching for because I might feel emotions so let me make it non personal again.”

“Shots fired,” Thomas mumbles, slinking down in his chair.

“Take it back.”

“No,” Kara scoffs, folding her arms. “Oh and by the way, she’s totally your kid. That little flair for dramatics? She gets that from you.”

“Well actually, she gets the dramatics from Skye too, but the cold fury and threatening thing, that’s definitely all you, bro.”

Ward drags his hands up and over his face. “Both of you, please. Leave.”

“Come along, my sexy sidekick,” Thomas waggles his eyebrows suggestively.

“They will never find your body,” Kara promises, sailing out the door.

*

Ranger finds Lara on the roof, sheltered against one of eaves and tucked into herself.

She resolutely does look up at his approach. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“That’s fine. I just thought I’d clear the air about that whole mess downstairs.”

“There’s nothing you can say to make it better.”

He nods in consideration. “That might be true, but you should know: Kara is your Uncle’s girlfriend. Not your father’s.”

“I saw the way they were last night.” Lara finally looks up, her expression miserable. “If he sent you up here to lie –”

“– I won’t ever lie to you, Lara.” Ranger is firm on this, sitting next to her and folding her cold hands into his larger ones. He gets one look at her eyes swimming with tears, and swears under his breath. “Kara came to work full time for your father long before he brought me in. She’s been around for a while, so they’re good friends who are understandably comfortable with each other – but that’s it. I promise.”

She sags against his shoulder tiredly. “I was starting to believe him. To trust him, you know? And then this. I was stupid to even hope that –”

“– Hope that what?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Lara shrugs restlessly. “You guys have a good thing here, and I’m glad. It seems nice. But the sooner I find my mom, the sooner I can go home. And maybe that’s for the best, honestly.”

Ranger glances out into the sky, where the morning light is bleeding away as the sun rises higher. “If that’s what will make you happy,” he squeezes her hand tightly, “Sure.”

She sniffs, wiping her eyes against her shoulder surreptitiously. “It’s not like there’s anything here for me.”

They are both quiet, thinking about the reasons for her to stay.

“Well, I don’t know about that,” Ranger drawls, giving her a sly grin. “I mean you promised to – what was it, again – take me for a spin? I’m warning you though: I’m a proper guy. I don’t just put out for anyone.”

“Shut up!” Lara gasps, whacking him on the arm. 

“Even if their eyes are a legalized weapon like yours.”

Lara promptly rolls her “weaponized” eyes. “Smooth, Prince Charming.”

“Flattery, though… That’ll get you at least to first base.”

“I hate you,” Lara grumbles, letting him tug her up and giving into the urge to lean into his side.

Ranger is freakishly warm like a human space heater. “No you don’t,” he tucks a loose strand of her hair away. “I’m the best friend you’ve got.”

“The sad part is how that’s actually true,” Lara voices her bewilderment as they leave the roof.

“…Hey!”

Chapter Text

Lara sticks close to Ranger for the rest of the day.

She has no idea where her father has slunk off to – probably nursing his injured pride somewhere – nor does she care what Thomas and his sexy sidekick are up to.

Not like it matters. Clearly he has better things to be doing with his time. …Yuck.

Working with the analyst team as they pore over details and proving her mettle by holding up even under their toughest line of questioning has earned her some credibility among the hive. There have been some lingering glances, a few curious gazes, but for now it seems as though no one really knows what her true connection to their boss really is. Which is probably why she finds it a welcome distraction from the emotional overload playing back in her head and  throws herself into it with such determination, fully committed to leaving no detail unexplored. 

Sooner I find mom, sooner I’m out of here. It was stupid to have wasted time “settling in” the past few days. This is not home and it never will be.

Just prior to when they’re about to call it quits for the day and bring the nightshift on, Ranger makes a somewhat strangled noise of distress. 

“What is it?” Lara is up, moving to see what he’s found in a matter of seconds.

He points to a few highlighted areas on the screen. “We’ve been searching the grid since your mom got abducted but without any kind of visible trace, it’s slow going. We’re now over a hundred miles out in every direction and this is the first time anything’s turned up. Looks like a weapons dump and possible temporary camp. And if that’s the case,” he pushes over to another set of screens, typing fast, “they couldn’t have gotten far.”

Ward rushes into the room in the time it takes Ranger to finish his explanation and pick up the phone to call to call upstairs. “What have you got?”

Lara doesn’t give the intel a second glance when she ducks out among the commotion.

“Ranger?” Ward prompts, demanding the focus from his best man.

Ranger frowns briefly at the door Lara has just disappeared through, not liking the uneasy feeling in his stomach and then proceeds to fill Ward in.

Lara probably just doesn’t want to be around her father right now. It’s fine. He’ll catch up with her later to make sure she’s doing okay.

*

They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Ranger is never more aware of this as when he is jerked out of a sound sleep as alarms blare loudly in his bedroom.

“What the…?”

He glances down at his tablet out of habit, nearly choking when he sees the CODE RED on the screen.

Then he’s scrambling into tactical gear and running for the stairs. Fear like he’s never known is flooding into his system.

There’s only one reason for a code red.

Lara is gone.

*

Ward, flanked by Thomas and Kara, is staring blankly ahead by the time he makes it to the office.

“I’m already running a trace on her phone and –”

Where is she.”

Ranger nearly lets loose the string of profanities on his tongue. “Like I said. I’m already tracking her, so she can’t have gotten far –”

“I think what we need to focus on right now,” Kara butts in, correctly sensing that the conversation is about to turn ugly very fast, “Is what we know. And –”

“You’ll have to excuse me for the moment,” Ward begins, dangerously calm, “as I am currently struggling to understand how she could have slipped away in the first place. Every exit in this building is covered.”

Ranger closes his eyes and prays for strength. “…Not every exit.”

*

Thomas, ever one to be counted on for the inappropriate reaction, crows loudly when they discover the grappling hook anchored on the edge of the roof. “And if we needed further proof that Lara was your daughter –”

“Permission to toss him over the side, Boss?” Kara sighs heavily, as if she can’t believe her own lapse in judgement by sleeping with Thomas.

“Please.”

The way Ward is grinding his teeth makes Ranger fear for his mentor’s next visit to the dentist.

“What I don’t get is how she knew how to rappel from the roof in the first place. No way Skye taught her that.” Kara can’t hide the slight hint of admiration in her voice. “Gutsy move.”

“That might have been me.” Ward pinches the bridge of his nose. “Except I wasn’t teaching her; honestly I thought she was borderline catatonic at the time. There were people trying to kill us and –”

“Always a valid excuse,” Thomas butts in, standing next to Ranger in an attempt to remain out of his girlfriend’s deadly reach. “Although probably not the smartest move on your part.”

“Will you shut up,” she hisses.

“What’s the plan, boss?” Ranger hands over his tablet, highlighting the three probably routes Lara could have taken to reach the drop site.

“I am furious with you right now,” Ward says, snatching the device from his hands.

“I know, sir.” Ranger squares his shoulders, taking his mentor’s anger head on.

“Oooh, he called him sir,” Thomas chuckles, ignoring the dark look both men toss his way.

“You actively compromised a mission and gave intel to a civilian –”

“– Uh, hold up. Not for anything, but she took the intel from me. I didn’t even know she was paying that much attention in the first place, given how upset she’s been all day.”

Slowly, Ward lifts his head from the data scrolling through the tablet to look at Ranger. “What exactly is that supposed to mean?”

“It means, maybe if you hadn’t been so damn hard her, she wouldn’t have felt like she had to leave!”

“Oh sweet lord,” Kara breathes, stepping backward cautiously.

“It’s going down for real.” Thomas casually positions himself between her and his brother, firmly ignoring the look of disbelief she grants him.

“She was finally starting to feel comfortable and then you and Kara had that whole mishap and now she feels like she doesn’t have a place here. Can you honestly blame her for running after her mom?”

Ward is visibly holding onto his temper by a thread. “First of all, she’s my daughter. That means she’snot just good, she’s better than whatever you think you gave her credit for. Second, she’s been trained by the only person who has ever gotten the drop on me – twice. Why do you think I made it a point to train you to be the best?” Before Ranger can even open his mouth to answer, Ward steamrolls, “So you wouldn’t make rookie mistakes like this.”

“Are you even listening to yourself right now? You’re hung up that she got the drop on you, or, I don’t know, even that she was good enough to extrapolate from the smallest bit of info where to go next – but the bottom line is, she left because you made her feel like she didn’t belong here. That you don’t want her.”

“Oh dear god.” Thomas actually covers his eyes, lifting his other hand to cover Kara’s as well. “This is how it ends.”

She shoves his hand away, running for the stairs as she shouts at the men. “I’m firing up the quinjet. You idiots better get your shit together because there’s a scared 17 year old girl out there about to walk into enemy territory.”

“This isn’t over,” Ward promises, looking at Ranger with thinly veiled fury.

“You can think whatever you want,” Ranger says, lifting his chin defiantly. “But don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re the only one who cares about her.”

It turns out to be a good thing Thomas is extremely familiar with pushing his older brother’s buttons.

…otherwise Ranger would have never made it off the roof alive.

*

Kara takes the lead of command as smoothly as she pilots the quinjet.

Once they’re in the air, she begins delivering objectives. “Ranger, you and Thomas take the east. I’ll stay central and monitor from the air. Ward –” Ward cuts his gaze to her impatiently, but remains broodingly silent. “– You’ve got the western perimeter. If you’re correct in thinking Skye trained her, you’re the best bet we have at locating her.”

No one says anything about how he’s also easily the one who has the most to lose if they can’t find Lara.

“Fine.”

Kara seems like she might be finished, but pauses on her way back to the cockpit, glancing between Ranger and Ward. “I don’t care what drove her out of the base, or what you think she might be feeling right now. I care about getting her back. So lock it all down and find her.”

“God, I am so hot for her right now,” Thomas says, shifting uncomfortably in his jumpseat.

*

Lara isn’t sure how long it’s been since she left the base but she does know one thing: She’s hopelessly lost.

“I am a strong, independent woman. I have a smartphone and am reasonably qualified in hand to hand.” She glances up at the sky but all that can be seen is a very not-reassuring inky blackness. There are no stars to guide her path tonight. “The Black Widow and The Winter Soldier trained me.”

When she stumbles over a tree root that looks vaguely familiar for the third time in as many minutes, she sinks to her heels. “I think I’m in over my head here.”

Find your balance, my ass. What the hell am I supposed to do now, Mom? The guy you slept with doesn’t actually want me in his life and I’m basically a loose cannon to be around now that you’re gone. If I ever needed your help before, I need it –

CRACK!

She whirls around, immediately dropping into a defensive stance. “Who’s there?”

There is a gasping noise that sounds like it wants to be a laugh when it grows up and then Ward is stepping into view. “You know, it probably would have been smarter to turn your phone off if you didn’t want to be found.”

Lara closes her eyes in shame. Dammit. This is why I’ll never be as good as Mom. Aloud she says, “Yeah, well… we can’t all be perfect like you.”

“I should ground you until next century,” Ward says tiredly, suddenly looking very old.

“For what?” She doesn’t attempt to keep the bitterness out of her voice. “We both know I’m nothing but another loose end for you to manage. Hell, you could probably have Thomas or Ranger babysit me until you fly off to get my mom.”

He flicks the safety back on his gun, rocking back on his heels. “Is that what you think?”

“It’s not like you’ve given me reason to think anything else,” Lara bites out through the tears that are beginning to fall. Overhead clouds begin to swirl together lazily. “Which is totally understandable. Nobody wants a monster in their lives.”

Rain breaks out in a matter of seconds, drenching them completely as it falls in heavy sheets.

“You think you’re a monster.” Despite the shocking cold from the pouring rain and sudden chill in the air, Ward stands there calmly like he hasn’t a care in the world.

Lara can’t understand why he isn’t taking her more seriously.

Thunder rumbles threateningly in the distance as she steps closer to him. “Didn’t you hear what I just said? You have no idea what I’m capable of.”

“Then show me.” He challenges.

*

They haven’t been tracking for more than fifteen minutes when Ranger comes to a stop. “Lara didn’t come this way.”

Thomas glances down at his watch to read the incoming message from Kara. “Yeah. But you know how Kara gets. She gave us the dead end because she wants Ward to be the one who finds Lara. She always wants the best for him. Life debt and all.”

Ranger closes his eyes and counts to ten. Silently. In every language he knows how. “You and your stupid Star Wars references. Can’t you for once take something seriously?”

The lazy glare Thomas gives him is every bit as dangerous as Ward’s palpable temper. “Lara is understandably pissed off, scared, and alone. Ten to one odds my brother will have found her by now. Which means that in about five minutes, she’s going to explode and we will have absolutely no doubts as to where she’s hiding.”

Ranger attempts to wrestle back the panic that had sprung up at the mention of Lara’s fear and focus on the dead certainty that is emanating from Thomas. “So you’re saying you’re not worried?”

“Oh, I’m worried,” Thomas corrects, turning around to head back to the quinjet. “But not for the reasons you think.”

As if in answer to his reply, the heavens open and rain comes down in torrents.

Ranger wonders what it says about his sanity that the sensation of being soaked to his underwear is actually a relief.

“I was afraid of that,” Thomas grumbles, trudging onward as the ground rapidly turns swampy. “Dammit, Lara. These are my favorite boots.”

Lightning flashes bright in the sky, arrowing down like a bullet just to their left.

Thomas swallows hard. “We’d better hurry.”

*

“Is that the best you can do?” Ward yells over the rain bucketing down.

“Are you some kind of masochist?” Lara screams, completely losing the reins on her frustration and flinching as lighting strikes just behind where they stand. The smell of smoked wood fills the air and she turns to see the tree has caught fire. “You should be terrified right now!”

“Lara.” Ward sounds fond but exhausted as he automatically steps between her and the flames, putting her well into the safe zone. “You haven’t the slightest idea what a monster is.” 

“Oh yeah?” She backs up, ignoring the wind whipping her hair around her face. “Like you do?”

“A monster,” Ward raises his voice evenly, “Is someone who abandons their entire family. He betrays the people he claims to love, turns his back on everything they’ve been through, puts them through hell itself expecting to find reconciliation someday.”

Lara hiccups tightly on a sob, and in answer, the rain seems to be coming down harder.

“He tosses his little brother down a well. He sends the closest thing he has to  adopted siblings plummeting into the ocean, hoping – just hoping – they’ll survive. He tells the woman he loves more than life itself that he won’t stop until he finishes what he set out to do and that nothing will change his mind.”

What the hell is is even talking about now? Lara has fully lost the thread of the conversation. She struggles to find any piece that could make sense in the puzzle of facts just laid at her feet.

“You threw Thomas in a well?”

“A monster,” Ward ignores her question, eyes never leaving her face. “Spends years agonizing over what he did wrong, wondering if he’ll ever get a chance to make it right, only to find that he’s managed to single-handedly crush the hope and feelings of one person he wanted to protect.”

Lara can barely see him through the rain mixed tears streaming down her face.

“You, Lara Elizabeth Rose Johnson…” Ward sighs, utterly drained as he sits on the nearest tree stump. “Are not a monster.”

When she just stares at him with both hands covering the hysterical sobs threatening to escape, he looks at her sadly. “You are my daughter. God help you.”

She loses the fight and openly begins crying, horrible, ugly sobs that wrack her entire body to the point where she can hardly breathe through the pain. The weather around them has whipped into a complete frenzy, full on thunderstorm and double digit gale force winds screaming through the trees.

Knowing he has pushed her to this point, Ward hangs his head in shame, visibly steeling for strength as he gets up and oh so carefully places a hand on her shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Lara. I  –”

He gets the wind knocked out of him when Lara launches herself tightly at his chest, overpowering him and knocking them both to the ground. Completely bewildered, Ward can do nothing but slowly bring his arms up around her in a loose embrace, only daring to tighten his hold as she burrows more tightly against him.

“I wanted to hate you,” she whispers, burying her face in his neck. “And you couldn’t even let me do that.”

Ward laughs brokenly, cupping the side of her head hesitantly, as if afraid she’s going to change her mind and lash out at him. “If it’s any consolation, I’m pretty sure you’re not the only one.”

“Shut up.” Lara orders, closing her eyes as the tightness in her chest finally eases. Slowly the rain begins to lessen, and the winds die down to the occasional breeze. “Monsters have to stick together.”

 

Chapter Text

Lara gradually stops shaking, though she continues leaning against her father without reservation. “Thanks for not, you know.” Ward lifts his eyebrow, and she continues, “…Freaking out.”

“Why would I do that?”

She gestures to the chaos around them, staring pointedly at the tree that is smouldering still from the extinguished flames. “Natural disaster, at your service.”

“Lara.” He cups her shoulder and squeezes tightly. “That doesn’t change who you are.”

You are my daughter.’ 

She nods briskly, not wanting to start crying again.

C’mon self, pull it together. Any second now you’re going to have company and

“You guys alive?” Thomas calls as he steps into the clearing, Ranger at his heels.

The emotions that flash across the younger man’s face pass too quickly for Lara to get an accurate read on them.

What the hell is that all about?

“We’re good.” 

“I beg to differ,” Ranger mutters.

She lifts her chin defiantly, standing up and stepping away from Ward. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Here we go,” Thomas sighs, tapping a quick message letting Kara know where to land.

“Let me break it down for you.”

“Oh, please do.” Lara sarcastically responds, folding her arms.

“You took data that I shared with you in confidence as a member of our team, trusting that you would be smart enough than to go off on a suicide mission by yourself –”

“– Excuse me? I’m not exactly green here, I have some training, you know –”

“– and somehow, by the grace of god, managed not to get yourself captured, or even worse –”

As if the universe has a dark sense of humor, a red dot lights up on Lara’s neck, shining like a beacon of death.

Ranger has approximately half a second to panic before Ward is lunging past –

GET DOWN!” He yells, tackling his daughter to the ground.

Lara tucks neatly under her father like she has done a thousand times before in training with Uncle Bucky and Aunt Nat, reacting solely on instinct and muscle memory than anything else.

Ranger whips around, releasing a spray of bullets into the trees where the sniper dot came from, nodding in grim satisfaction when he hears a telltale thud just beyond the shadows.

Thomas glances back at his brother but Ward just gestures him on, “Go. Find out who the hell that was.”

When Ward rolls to the side, Lara gets back to her feet, pointedly ignoring Ranger’s extended hand.

As if completely frustrated beyond words, Ranger throws his hands up in the air. “Case in fricking point. Do you even give a damn about how anyone else feels besides you?”

Lara recoils as if physically stricken, and it takes her a few seconds to find her voice. “Not that it’s any of your business, but yes, as a matter of fact, I do. More than you could imagine – which you might know, if you cared to listen for a second instead of yelling at me.”

“You’re so damn headstrong and reckless, it’s like you don’t even care that there are people who are dying to help you.”

“Some of us literally.” Ward grimaces, levering upwards gingerly with a hand to his side and staring in confusion as it comes away sticky with blood.

But the younger man is on a roll and shows no sign of stopping now. “Instead you’re just content to go off on your own like some lone –”

Ranger.” Ward barks.

“Not now, Boss. She needs to hear this.”

“I cannot believe you right now.” No one pays much attention as a swift cold front blows through the trees, ruffling past everyone’s faces. She is pissed.

“You’re so reckless, you could have been killed!  You’re not trained for this, Lara!”

She marches into his personal space and actually digs in her heels. “I am a literal human disaster. I think Idid okay.”

“You’re out of your mind if you think this was ‘okay.’ The only reason we even found you was because I’ve been keeping tabs on you this whole damn time.”

Lara goes pale with shock, then flushes dark as the anger hits her system in about a second flat. “You WHAT.”

Ranger.” Ward barks, his voice noticeably strained. “Walk it off. Now.”

Lara looks like she’s about to go for Ranger’s throat when Ward coughs pointedly.

“Lara. A little help, please?”

“I’m kind of in the middle of something here.”

“Sure, of course.” Ward says, movements a little jerky with shock. “Normally I wouldn’t interrupt this positively thrilling scene, but I’m kind of bleeding out right now.”

Oh my god!” Lara drops to her knees beside her father, hands moving everywhere as she tries to figure out what to do first.

“If you think this conversation is over,” Ranger continues, squatting down on Ward’s other side to help assess the damage.

“Shut up, Ranger!” She’s starting to shake with fear. “Oh my god, oh god, there’s so much blood.”

“Just keep pressure on it,” Ward calmly instructs, lifting his free hand to push the hair away from her face. The gesture is oddly tender given the stress of the moment.

“Don’t you dare die on me,” She sharply orders, visibly trembling, unconsciously leaning into the warmth of his hand.

“He’s got more lives than a cat,” Thomas drawls from where he is propped against the quinjet. “Moody as hell like one, too.”

“Thanks for the comparison,” Ward glares weakly, attempting to stand with Ranger’s assistance.

“Well, Lara’s not the only one who gets a little freaked out when a family member starts gushing blood.” Thomas meets them halfway, slinging an arm around his waist. 

“Could you not,” Lara snaps at her uncle as she ducks beneath his arm, struggling to keep pressure on the wound. “Oh god, it won’t stop bleeding, this isn’t working – can you please stop bleeding?” She pleads with her father.

“Yeah,” Ranger snorts, rolling his eyes. “It doesn’t work like that. You are so untrained.”

So not the time for this,” She snarls, trying to shove him but he dodges out of her reach, disappearing as Kara comes out to meet them and help Ward walk on board.

“We’ve really gotto stop meeting like this,” Kara deadpans, smirking at her boss. She hits the button for the gate, sealing them all safely inside.

Since Ranger has already run for the cockpit, they are up in the air smoothly before anyone can even get belted into their seats.

“I hate you all,” Ward mumbles just before blacking out.

Ooof.” Thomas just catches him in the nick of time so he doesn’t hit the ground. “Would it kill you to lay off the red meat? Heavy bastard.”

Lara doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so she might be doing a little of both as Kara tugs her down on the jumpseat.

“He’s gonna be okay,” Kara says, tightening the safety belt around the teen securely. “I promise.”

“I’m holding you to that.” Lara grips her hand tightly enough to cause Kara to blink back a wave of pain.

“You Wards always do,” she absently replies, running a reassuring hand down Lara’s hair. “It’s one of your better – and sometimes annoying – qualities. Tenacity.”

“Babe.” Thomas pouts exaggeratedly, as if he isn’t physically holding his older brother upright at the moment. “I thought you liked when I was –”

Enough, Thomas.” Kara sharply orders.

“At least someone’s getting some,” Lara mumbles under her breath, eyes beginning to droop from exhaustion of the day’s events. She’s out cold too quickly to see Thomas smile at her fondly as Kara pulls her a little closer.

*

Lara wakes up with a scream caught in her throat.

Easy,” Kara soothes, catching the younger girl before she can physically lunge from the bed.

“My –” She stumbles, unsure of what to call her father. “Is he –”

Kara smiles sympathetically. “He’s fine. The bullet went straight through and he should be fully recovered in a few weeks.”

“Thank god,” Lara slumps back against the pillows in relief. Her eyes start to fill with tears as the severity of the situation begins to sink in. “I didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt. I just wanted to find my mom.”

“Hey.” Kara waits until the younger girl has composed herself and is looking at her before she continues, “We know that. No one is mad at you.”

“I have a feeling Ranger is pretty mad at me,” Lara mutters darkly, dropping her gaze from the other woman’s knowing eyes. 

“Well, he kind of has good reason,” Thomas offers from where he sits on the other side of the bed.

“Oh yeah?” Lara challenges, using her arms to sit up firmly against the pillows to glare at him properly.

Kara and Thomas exchange a look before he sighs in frustration and nods, coming to stand behind his girlfriend’s chair. “Lara. Ranger gave you information in confidence. He trusted you. And after everything you’ve been through –”

“Sweet lord, where is the vodka?” Kara drops her head into her hands.

“You took that and ran with it. It really hurt him.”

“Wait a second, wait a second.” Lara shakes her head, trying to make sense of what she’s being told. “Are you saying Ranger was worried about me?”

Now she begins to understand.” Kara is desperately searching for a way to slip out of the room unnoticed.

Worried?” Thomas parrots, bracing his arms on the chair and leaning forward intently. “That boy was ready to walk into the pits of Hell for you. He took on your father. For you.”

“Oh god.” Her jaw falls open.

“Do you know how many people have successfully taken on your father? Allow me to enlighten you: None.”

Kara clears her throat firmly, turning back to shoot Thomas a dirty look. “What your uncle is clumsily trying to explain is this: Ranger has never argued with Ward before. Ever. It’s why their partnership is so strong; his loyalty and respect for your father is uncontested.”

“But I don’t understand,” Lara is staring blankly ahead, trying to add up the pieces of the puzzle she’s just been handed.

“It’s the difference between fighting for something and…” He exchanges another one of those unreadable glances with his girlfriend. “Someone.”

“God that sounds familiar.” Lara pushes the hair away from her face impatiently, mentally sorting through the day’s events. “Mom used to tell me all the time. I guess something like that happened to her old SO… he was never the same.”

Thomas lifts his eyebrows high. “Really.”

“Yeah. She said it’s a some kind of come to jesus moment for anyone who ever becomes a field agent. And once you cross that line, you can never come back.”

Thomas and Kara are both absolutely silent, hands gripping together tightly out of view.

“She’s not wrong,” Kara says slowly, seeming to recover first.

“I just don’t get it.” Lara shoves the covers away, hopping out of bed and restlessly searching for clothes.

Thomas obligingly covers his eyes to afford her some privacy but she’s already darted into the closet to change.

“Like why would he be worried about me?” Her voice is muffled on the other side of the door. “We haven’t even known each other that long.”

“Take it from someone who hasn’t known you that long,” Kara favors her with a indulgent look as she emerges from the closet. “You have a habit of growing on people. Fast.”

Despite the situation, Lara grins shyly. “Thanks.”

“Anytime,” Kara shrugs nonchalantly.

Lara approaches her uncle with noticeable trepidation. “I’m still a little mad at you.”

Thomas laughs softly. “You wouldn’t be Skye’s kid if you weren’t.”

Some of the strain begins to show on Lara’s face at the mention of her mom, but she bravely presses on. “Thanks for coming to get me today. I guess you’ve always been there when I really needed you.”

Thomas looks gobsmacked. Kara glances between him and the hopeful teen and rolls her eyes, sharply elbowing him.

Thomas grunts in pain.

“He means thanks,” Kara winks at the younger girl. “So. Where are you off to now?”

Lara takes a deep breath, as if fortifying herself for something big. “To go check on my dad.”

Both women ignore the muffled howl that escapes Thomas as he claps a hand over his mouth. “ m’fine,” he waves them on, squeezing his eyes tight against the sudden emotion that seems to be assaulting him. “Just go. Leave me here. I’ll make it back somehow.”

Kara rolls her eyes again. “We’ll walk with you,” She tells Lara, pulling Thomas behind her as they move into the hallway.

Lara heads for the stairs. “I’m sorry I was so angry before.”

“Okay, but are you really sorry, or am I just the only male in your life willing to talk to you right now?” Thomas expertly dodges Kara’s elbow this time.

“You know what,” Lara turns around to glare at him.

Thomas grins. “I’m serious. After what you put me through, I think it’s perfectly acceptable for me to ask.”

“After what I put you though?”

“Uncle Thomas,” she begins, whirling back around so that only Kara notices the way Thomas stumbles over his feet at her words. “You kept a secret from me for my entire life.”

“I had my reasons,” Thomas defends.

“Yeah right,” Kara snorts under her breath.

“Look, your parents…”

Yes?” Lara turns back around, curiosity shining bright in her eyes.

He sighs heavily. “It’s complicated.”

Kara looks heavenward. “Typical.”

That’s your reason for lying.” Lara is visibly not impressed.

“Frankly they deserve each other but they’re both stubborn as hell.”

“He’s not wrong,” Kara nods in agreement.

“And your mom practically had me sign a blood oath before you were even born. She’s kind of scary, you know.”

“I know,” Lara cracks a watery smile. “But I still think you should have told me. Or something.”

Help me,” Thomas pleads with Kara.

“Look.” Kara folds her arms, leaning against the wall. “What your parents feel about each other… it’s kind of a mess. A long time ago, they loved each other very much. Sometimes that just isn’t enough.”

“That…” While Lara is speechless and reeling, Thomas is groping for words. “Wasn’t actually very helpful. They’re not fricking Romeo and Juliet.”

“Might as well be,” Kara pointedly retorts. “And honestly, they do a lot of sacrificing everyone else in the process. How many times has Ward laid down his life for her safety? The only part that’s different is that no one has actually died.”

“I don’t want to talk about people sacrificing themselves for other people’s safety,” Thomas stiffly responds. “If you had any idea…”

“But I don’t, because you’ve never told me!”

“You know why I can’t,” He fires back angrily.

“I feel like we’ve gotten off track somehow,” Lara says to herself, watching the two adults yell at each other.

“You can, you just choose not to.”

“Kara, it’s not that simple.”

Kara pushes off the wall with enough anger that Lara actually backs away to stay out of the crossfire. “Nothing ever is with the Ward family. Everything is “complicated” and no one will ever understand. But how can anyone understand if you don’t even give them a chance?!”

“Kara,” Thomas says warningly.

Lara raises her hand. “Just wondering: is this about my parents or…?” When they both look at her, she shrugs. “I’m trying to keep track. It’s a little confusing.”

“This is about how all the men in this family are idiots,” Kara declares, shaking her head in frustration.

“No argument there,” Lara lifts her hand, bumping knuckles with Kara.

“I’ve made a terrible mistake,” Thomas announces dramatically, walking past them to continue heading to his brother’s room.

Lara giggles under her breath, darting a glance at Kara, who gives her a lopsided, if somewhat strained, smile. “I think it’s really great how you keep him in line,” she whispers.

This time it is Kara’s turn to momentarily lose her footing. “Yes, well. It’s a hard job, but god knows someone has to. With that ego he’d never get through the door if I didn’t cut it down to size.”

“If it’s my ego we’re discussing,” Thomas lazily turns around, delight evident in his tone. “I assure you, it is every bit deser – mmmfph.

“That’s enough of that,” Lara sniffs imperiously, clapping a hand over his mouth. “I said I forgave you. That doesn’t mean I want to hear about your sex life.”

Kara audibly chokes, stumbling into a side table and sending a ceramic vase flying to the ground, where it shatters into pieces. “Not unlike my sanity,” She whispers to it. When uncle and niece turn back to glance at her, she waves them on. “Just go. I’m fine.”

“Honestly,” Thomas shakes his head in disbelief. “She is so dramatic sometimes.” 

Chapter Text

Ward wakes up choking.

“Easy, Boss.” Ranger is watching him with the keen eyes that don’t miss a trick - a distinct contrast to the way he’s lazily sprawled in the oversized chair next to the bed.

Lara,” he wheezes, face gray with pain.

At the mention of her name, Ranger grits his teeth and has to count to ten before he can speak calmly. “She’s fine. Thomas and Kara are looking after her.”

Ward slumps back against the pillows, looking every bit his age. Despite the room being dimly light, his eyes are closed against the glare. “Report.” The younger man frowns darkly. “Ranger, I know you’re making a face right now. Just tell me the facts. I’m not dead.”

“Not for a lack of trying,” Ranger mutters, pulling up the information he’d broken a lot of rules to obtain.

“Heard that.”

He runs through the details - solo operative, origins unknown, tactical gear and weapons matching the same of the team that had abducted Skye - letting Ward occasionally ask a few questions.

“So were they after Lara or did they just get lucky?”

Ranger privately thinks that nothing about the past 12 hours can really be considered lucky but only responds, “We’re unsure of that, sir.”

“Am I correct in assuming he’s dead?”

“You taught me not to miss.”

The smirk on Ward’s face is brief but reassuring enough that Ranger begins  to lose some of the tension that’s been permanently coiled at the base of his spine since waking up to find Lara missing.

“Look, about earlier –”

The door bursts open, heralding a frantic Lara, who only has eyes for her father. “You’re okay.”

“Did you think we were lying to you?” Thomas grumbles from where he hangs back with Kara in the doorway.

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Lara tosses over her shoulder, making fast strides  to the bed. But when she gets there to find Ward stripped to the waist with gauze taped over the stitches in his side, she seems to lose her confidence.

Despite being more than a little out of it, Ward manages a soft smile for his daughter. “Hey.”

“You look better.” Lara’s face has gone pale, as if she is vividly reliving the moment. “I mean… than before. When you were, y’know. Shot.”

“Smooth.” Ranger ducks his head to hide a smile.

“I don’t remember asking you.” She levels him with a glare that is so much like her father, he actually chokes.

“I’m really glad you’re safe,” Lara tentatively reaches out, grabbing Ward’s hand.

Thomas makes sounds like a dying whale. Kara pinches the bridge of her nose and loops her arm through his elbow. “C’mon, playboy. Let’s give these two some time to catch up.”

“ ‘s beautiful,” he can be heard telling her as they exit the room.

Ranger clears his throat, drawing the twin gazes of Lara and Ward, both laser sharp in intensity. “I’ll keep looking. See what else I can turn up.”

“I can help, too.” Lara offers.

Like a gate sealing up a fortress, all expression clears from his face. “That won’t be necessary. Get some rest, Boss.”

Ranger leaves the room without further conversation, and his overly-pleasant civility has her stomach twisting uncomfortably.

Not knowing what to make of her unsettled feelings, she turns to Ward with a forced smile. “So I guess you’re off training duty for a few weeks.”

He watches her carefully, placid expression betraying nothing of the strained interaction between her and his best man. “Ranger will take over where we left off.”

“Oh, but I don’t think –”

“Lara.”

She pouts, flopping dramatically into the chair. “He’s such a grouch.”

“He’s a specialist,” Ward corrects gently. “It’s his job to factor in variables and choose the best course of action.” When she glances up at him, he continues, “You running headlong into an unknown situation? Not the best.”

Lara exhales noisily, sinking deeper into the chair. She bites her lip and stares at her hands for a long time, battling the tears filling her eyes. “I’m sorry.”

She likes that he doesn’t immediately let her off the hook or offer cliches. It feels more real somehow, like he’s treating her like an adult instead of a child that needs protecting.

“My rookie trainee did something like that once. Rushed straight into a trap.”

“What happened?”

Ward presses his lips together firmly, clearly not enjoying the memory. “She got very badly hurt. We didn’t think she was going to make it.”

“Did she?” Lara is beyond curious to know more about this girl that made such an impression.

He nods slowly, pushing up to lean against the pillows to consider her more thoroughly. “It cost her, though. Made her harder.”

“I bet she never did something that stupid again.” She picks at her cuticle, dejection evident in her body language.

“No,” Ward admits. “She did other stupid things, though.”

Lara looks up at him with incredulity. “She did?”

“Of course she did. Nobody’s perfect, Lara.”

“It’s just the way you talk about her…” She shrugs, as if it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. “Like she turned out to be superwoman or something.”

Ward hums briefly in acknowledgement. “She isn’t. You remind me a lot of her.”

“First time I’ve ever been compared to another woman,” Lara scoffs, drawing her knees underneath her and absently reaching for one of the blankets on the bed. “Mom always said I reminded her of my fath…” She trails off, wide-eyed and gaping as she stares at Ward.

He grins ruefully. “Did she now?”

“Well it’s just.” She gestures expansively between them. “Apparently I’m really stubborn –”

“– You don’t say.”

“– And I get this look when someone tells me I can’t do something; Thomas can probably vouch for that one, honestly, and something about how I have a hard time trusting people.”

“You probably get that from both of us,” Ward interjects, watching intently as Lara drapes the blanket over herself with quick, economical movements. 

“I overheard her talking to him in the kitchen once… I was supposed to be asleep, and she was telling him how worried she was that I wasn’t making friends with the kids at school.”

“Why would she think that?”  

Lara moves her shoulders restlessly, eyes downward. “It was always easier for me to be alone.” When he doesn’t feel compelled to fill the silence, she bites her lip. “That way I didn’t have to worry about hurting anyone.”

Lara,” Ward rasps, eyes suspiciously bright, patting the space next to him.

She doesn’t need further prompting. Lara is a scramble of limbs as she climbs into the bed and settles in next to him. He puts his arm around her, drawing her tightly against his uninjured side. “You know you don’t have to worry about that here, right?”

“You got hurt because of me.” They both ignore the hot burn of her tears as they drip onto his arm and hand.

“I got hurt because I jumped in front of a bullet meant for you, and I’d do it a hundred more times if it meant keeping you safe.”

“That’s so stupid.” She inhales sharply, trying to regain her composure.

“It’s what you do for the people you care about.” Ward is ready for her this time when she glances up at him, raising his eyebrows firmly. “You’re part of this family now. No takebacks.”

Lara crumples into a watery laugh.  “Hard to shake you guys, considering Thomas has been around since day one and Ranger’s tracking my every move.”

“I’ll talk to him about that,” Ward says. “No more solo missions though, okay? I promise you we are doing everything to find your mom and bring her back safe.”

“Okay.” Lara nods solemnly. At his arch look, she widens her eyes innocently. “What? I promise.”

There’s a nice moment of silence between them and then she says: “What are you going to do for weeks laid up in bed?”

Ward groans. “Don’t remind me.”

“You need like a boardgame or something.” She vaults off the bed, prowling the room for anything resembling a good way to pass the time.

“I’m pretty sure Thomas burned Monopoly last time we played.”

“He’s a sore loser. Always buys into the cheap properties because he doesn’t have the patience for the long game.” Lara is grinning brightly as she brings Battleship over. “Mom always beat me at this, but I’ve been practicing.”

“Well then. We should probably see if your hard work paid off.”

She doesn’t understand why his smile seems fractured when he gestures for her to set it up for them, but chalks it up to his being sore and not wanting to dwell on the fact he’s essentially bedridden for the foreseeable future.

She sets the board up quickly and makes the first move. “G4.”

Ward lets out a strained bark of laughter and shakes off the melancholy plaguing him as he throws himself into the game.

*

Ranger arrives in the gym the next morning to find Lara there, already working up a sweat at the heavybag.

“It’s four thirty in the morning,” He remarks mildly, unzipping his hoodie and tossing it to the ground.

Lara resolutely keeps her eyes on the bag. “Figured you’d be up early.”

“Your dad didn’t start you until five.”

“And somehow, you’re a lot harder on me than he is,” Lara sends a vicious cross-jab at the bag, impatiently shoving the hair away from her face. “So I knew you’d  try and weasel your way out of it by saying I didn’t show up.”

Ranger doesn’t know if he wants to throttle her for being right or laugh at having been so well sorted out. He decides discretion is the better part of valor and eyes her form critically. “You’re still favoring your left.”

Bite me,” Lara snarls, attacking the bag with renewed vigor.

“Not yet, but you’re making me want to,” He says to himself, flexing his jaw in frustration.

Ranger stretches his muscles, telling himself he isn’t offended when her eyes remain firmly focused ahead. When he’s had enough of the tension in the room, he plants himself on the other side of the bag, catching it easily and holding it steady.

Lara flicks him an irritated look. “Move.”

No. Take a break. We’re going to work on hand to hand. Your arms probably feel like they’re going to fall off.”

He knows she won’t give him the satisfaction of agreeing but is surprised that she actually listens to him, immediately stripping off her slightly bloodied handwraps.

“You should use gloves.”

“I’m fine.” Lara is perfectly stoic as she stands in front of him, waiting for instruction.

Clearly, he has his work cut out for him.

Ranger gestures for her to turn around, stepping in close to crowd her. “The worst happens. An enemy gets the drop on you. What do you do?”

“I tell him to back the hell up because he’s sending out myore mixed signals than a drunken lighthouse operator,” Lara grumbles, trying ignore the way her heartrate has suddenly leapt and remains beating like a hummingbird in the side of her throat.

Ranger looms over her and ignores the sweet caramel scent belonging uniquely to Lara. “Focus.”

“You’re too close!” She moves jerkily, easily telegraphing her intention to drive an elbow into his stomach.

“You’re untrained,” He counters, coming around to face her head on. “This is why I didn’t want you in the field.”

“That’s not your call to make!”

“It is now,” Ranger says, reminding them both of Ward’s decision. “So don’t push me.”

Lara scoffs. “Everybody thinks you’re this easy going guy, my dad’s second in command who can do no wrong - Perfect Ranger, like the son he never had, who never screws up –”

“– That’s what you think? That I never make mistakes? Because I feel like I’m making a pretty big one right now.”

“If they only knew the truth; that you can’t stand when someone goes off book and ignores your orders –” Lara parks herself right back into his personal space, punctuating her statements by jabbing him in the chest.

“– Watch what you say, Lara Elizabeth.” Ranger warns very softly, trapping her hand between both of his.

“Or what? You won’t let me help out anymore and now you can’t stand the thought of training me, so how much worse can it get? You pretty much hate me.”

Ranger looks like she slapped him. “Is that what you think?”

Lara glares at him through the tears in her eyes. “Prove me wrong,” She challenges, voice breaking with emotion.

He laughs darkly, shaking his head. “I’m not doing this with you.”

When he begins to walk away as if to leave the room, Lara growls under her breath and takes a running leap onto his shoulders.

“What the hell, Lara!”

She struggles for purchase, gripping his shoulders and wrapping her legs around his waist. “Or are you afraid of actually dropping the act and having to be real about what’s going on?”

Ranger comes to a dead stop. “You’re in over your head here.”

“Wouldn’t be the firsttime. At least I don’t track people like they’re animals in a cage.”

“Jesus, Lara!” He explodes, shaking her loose. He refuses to take pride in the way she lands lightly on her feet. “Do you have any idea how terrified I was, knowing that it was my information that put you in danger? Thank god I was tracking you! That guy would have killed you.”

“But he didn’t!”

“Because your father is fricking Superman!” Before she can jump in, he angrily continues, “I wasn’t fast enough and it nearly cost you your life.” Ranger is nearly shaking with repressed frustration and reliving the horrifying moment of seeing the scope on her throat, so he’s too caught up to see the satisfied smile bloom on her face.

“I know you’d never do anything to hurt me,” Lara counters softly, moving closer to him.

“I wish I had your faith.”

“Ranger.” Lara grips one of his hands between both of hers, waiting for him to look at her. “C’mon.”

He exhales long and loud, finally pulling her in for a hug so tight that she swears her back is about to come back into alignment. “Never scare me like that again, okay?”

Lara nods, feeling like the piece that has been off somehow just snapped into place. It feels right standing here in his arms. Like all the parts of her that were waiting to splinter off into a thousand pieces just settled down. Like she can breathe again. He holds quiet and steady, offering his calm strength that she gladly soaks in.

“We’re a team. I don’t want to do this,” Ranger absently kisses the crown of her head, “Without you.” 

Because she inexplicably feels the same way, it doesn’t make her panic to hear him say that. It only means she’s not crazy for trusting him with so much. The relief of it is almost unspeakable.

“Don’t shut me out.” Lara replies, holding her ground as she pulls back to glance up at him. “I can handle if you’re upset or mad, but please don’t shut me out.”

Ranger lets out an exhausted laugh. “Hurricane… I couldn’t even if I tried.”

Chapter Text

Ranger and Lara take their time walking to the control room after breakfast –-

 

(“You’re kidding, right? Peanut butter on a slice of toast is not breakfast, Lara.”

“I beg to differ. It’s got protein and I’m even going for the multi-grain bread just to keep from offending your delicate nutritional sensibilities.”

Sit down. Clearly your eating habits need some fine tuning.”)

 

-– only to find the room suspiciously empty. Even the analyst team is missing, their reports carelessly scattered on the table.

Something is not right.

Ranger immediately shoves Lara behind him against the wall.

Hey!” She protests around a literal mouthful of his shoulder but he’s already tuned her out, eyes scanning the room for threats.

“Did you stop for drive-through?”

The voice comes from deeper in the room, though he can’t see anyone yet.

James.” A cool female voice chides.

Lara stiffens in recognition.  

“Or maybe they found a closet somewhere to –”

At the stinging observation, Lara shoves past Ranger in delight, ignoring his anguished cry for her safety.

“Guys!” She is openly grinning in happiness. “I can’t believe you’re here!”

The Winter Soldier and Black Widow melt from the shadows and into the room, looking every bit as formidable and dangerous as the reports make them out to be.

Lara ruins the overall effect by flying into Bucky’s arms, laughing as he swings her up and around in a move clearly practiced over time.

Ranger can’t help but gape as Natasha winks at him and settles a hip against the desk.

“Sorry we weren’t able to get here sooner,” she says, smiling fondly at her niece. “We were a little tied up.”

“Saving the world and all. You know how it goes.” Bucky finally sets Lara down on the ground. She looks miniature next to his brute imposing strength, silver arm glinting threateningly under the dim lights of the control room.

“Um.” Ranger clears his throat, trying to gain some semblance of control over the situation.

“Your security is decent,” Natasha offers, almost by way of apology. “It held us off for a good thirty seconds.”

“Thank you?” He can’t seem to find any fraction of chill, and doesn’t even react when Lara giggles at him.

“Personally I’d prefer she was back at the Tower,” Bucky grumbles. “At least I could keep her safe there.”

“I’m right here, guys.” Lara reminds peevishly. She barely resists the urge to stamp her foot. “And I’m staying.”

“Are you?” The redhead inquires archly.

She flushes under her aunt’s steady gaze. “Yes.”

A disgusted noise rumbles from deep within Bucky’s chest. “Just as stubborn as her old lady.”

“And her old man,” Natasha counters, smiling enigmatically for reasons Ranger cannot seem to fathom.

“Where’s the fire?!” Thomas bursts into the room, Kara hot on his heels.

She winds up plowing directly into the back of him, as he’s stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of two of the world’s most deadly assassins standing protectively next to his niece. Lara openly beams up at them, still trying to reconcile the fact that they’re here, oblivious to the tension in the room.

Shit.” Thomas runs a hand down his face, stepping aside partially to allow Kara to dart in front of him. He takes no joy in the way she freezes in shock. “Ward is gonna be pissed.”

*

“Mind telling me what you’re doing here?” Ward looks every inch pissed and then some, glaring darkly at both Bucky and Natasha.

The group had reconvened in his bedroom, once Ranger had regained use of his voice and answered his mentor’s frantic messages (”Can someone please tell me what the hell is going on right now and why I can’t seem to raise a single person in this entire compound?”).

“Thought we’d help you find Skye,” Bucky drawls, leaning carelessly against the bedpost.

“I can assure you we have that well in hand.”

“Yeah, from what I can see, you’re definitely makin’ tons of progress there.” Bucky snorts, ignoring the way Ward clenches his fist in anger.

“We have new information.” Natasha silkily interjects, slipping between the two alpha males before the tension can escalate any further. “And a few other things to help.”

Ward is not stupid, nor does he want to crush out the happiness shining from his daughter’s eyes as she sees so many of her favorite people in one place. But he knows the reputation of the assassin team in front of him, and he knows there’s more to this than meets the eye. “What’s the catch?”

Thunder rumbles ominously in the distance.

Thomas shoots Lara a dirty look. “Not the time, Lara loo.”

“That wasn’t me,” She hisses, ready to lunge for him in outrage. Ranger calmly reaches for her, effortlessly keeping her anchored at his side.

Bucky and Ward both observe the move with frank but silent disapproval but the younger man does not back down, even going so far as to lift his chin in fractional defiance.

(And Bucky has to give him credit; the kid’s got guts and apparently enough intelligence to know where to draw the line.)

“That’s probably our last guest,” Natasha explains, giving the appearance of looking apologetic without actually meaning it. “He doesn’t really know how to do subtle.”

*

It is rare when anyone can overshadow the presence of two deadly Russian assassins, but Thor does so with a regal kindness and sunny disposition that should be at odds with his countenance, given his powers and the heavy presence of Mjolnir looped at his waist.

“Lara Skyedottir.” Thor dips his head to meet her eyes, tucking her palm until it disappears between his two large hands. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you. I understand we are of similar dispositions.”

“Um.” Lara struggles to wrap her head around the fact that the God of Thunder is including her in the same category as him. “I don’t know if I would… call it that, exactly?”

“And your bondmate, Ranger.” Thor reaches for his arm, clasping it in a warrior’s greeting that a dumbfounded Ranger somehow does not entirely botch. He nods at the two of them in satisfaction. “Yes. The Norns have matched you well.”

Silence echoes as the occupants of the room struggle to absorb the demi-god’s statement. The words bondmate and matched ricochet loudly. Had it come from anyone else, there would no doubt be heated protests but somehow it seems to carry a certain gravitas coming from Thor that no one knows how to argue with.

“We’re just… friends.” Lara hurries to explain, trying to appease the dangerous look on her father’s face and missing the way Ranger’s expression flares before shutting down entirely.

“But of course you are,” Thor says agreeably. “There is no finer way to embark upon your life-journey together.”

Lara is literally without words. Ward and Kara, usually unruffled when the world is falling down around them, look both panic-stricken and furious.

Not even Thomas, usually counted on for lightening up the moment with an inappropriately timed comment, has anything to say.

Natasha and Bucky exchange a look with Thor, who sheepishly winces. “Have I revealed more than I should?”

Ranger is still slack-jawed in shock. 

“Careful, kid. You’re catching flies,” Bucky reaches over, tapping the younger mans’ jaw.

“Now you see why I wanted you on the quinjet with us,” Natasha lightly punches Thor on the arm, who at least grins sheepishly down at her with twinkling blue eyes.

*

They split off after that, settling the Avengers in to guest rooms for the indeterminate length of their stay and leaving Ward to rest. Ranger doesn’t even both giving them a map of the compound or keying them access anywhere, as he knows how utterly pointless it would be.

He and Lara are up on the roof just staring at each other and intermittently bursting out in strained laughter at the absurdity of the day.

“Can you believe what he said? I mean, you and I –” Lara tries to laugh, but she can’t stop thinking about what Thor had proclaimed earlier. “We don’t believe in Norns or destiny…”

He would do anything to protect her, even if it meant allowing her to drift along in willful and deliberate confusion. So when Ranger smiles, he is almost entirely successful in hiding the longing in his voice. “We’re friends, but –”

“– This just crazy.” Lara is staring with her heart in her eyes, unconsciously walking closer to him. “Right? Tell me this is crazy, Ranger.”

At the sound of his name falling from her lips, Ranger loses some of his emotional armor. “I want to say yes, god Lara, this is insane, but…” He tucks a piece of hair carefully behind her ear. “You can’t tell me it doesn’t make a weird sort of sense.”

“Oh my god,” she breathes, letting her head fall forward into his chest. Something about the sound of his heart beating under her ear does the trick of calming her down by noticeable degrees. Ranger holds her close, running a hand soothingly up and down her back, allowing her to process the information. “My dad is going to kill you.”

“He wasn’t exactly thrilled with me when we left to rescue you.” Ranger winces. “Although this might explain why I got so up in his face about it.”

“I still can’t believe you did that,” Lara’s voice is muffled but she refuses to move from her position curled close to him. There is something right about being in his arms. “I’m sorry I missed it, although the way Thomas and Kara tell it, you were pretty impressive.”

“I can’t believe it either, given how I was scared out of my mind at the time. I basically lost my sanity when we found out you were gone.” He finally admits to her, combing through the tangled curls at the end of her hair. “There’s probably video of it somewhere.”

Despite the humor lacing his voice, there is no mistaking the tension and fast-growing emotions between the two of them.

Lara takes a deep breath, reluctantly stepping away from him with a pang of regret. “Ranger, I –”

“Listen.” His eyes are dark and steady and unnervingly certain. “Nothing has to change between us. Just because Thor says it’s one way doesn’t mean it has to be that way. This is about you and me. We’re a team, remember?”

She thinks of how they first met, and the way he constantly pushes her while at the same time making her feel safe. How he’s never been afraid of her or ashamed of her abilities. How he’s always had her back, how he willingly goes to the mat for her time after time, without expecting anything in return. How he is a good man, despite the lazy nonchalance and easy vibe he tries so hard to convey.

If there was ever anyone she would consider spending a future with, well. It certainly wouldn’t be with anyone less.

Lara gathers every shred of courage she has, feeling like her heart is going to beat clean out of her chest. “And if I wanted,” she bites her lip, watching as his eyes track the movement intently, “More than that?”

Ranger’s eyes slam closed and he groans painfully. “You’re killing me, Hurricane.”

“Hey.” Lara smiles up at him shyly when he finally opens his eyes. “This is about you and me, remember?”

Jesus.” Ranger exhales heavily, dropping a lingering kiss on her forehead. “Let’s just take it one step at a time, okay? You need to come with a warning label.”

She reaches up on her tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek. “FYI… I’m not exactly a patient girl.”

His eyes narrow into slits as he struggles to keep his breathing steady. “You’re not helping your case here.”

“Maybe I don’t want to.” Lara shrugs, eyes dancing mischievously as she backs away playfully.

“Poor bastard,” Ranger mutters to himself. “No wonder your old man fell for your mom. He never stood a chance.”

Strong hands clasp Lara about the shoulders and she tips her head back to see Thor smiling down at her widely. “Hello, little thunderer.” He greets Ranger with a nod. “Or do you prefer the moniker Hurricane?”

Lara flushes as she realizes just how much of their interaction Thor must have witnessed. “Um. Either is fine,” She stammers, looking to Ranger for guidance. He lifts his hands innocently, indicating that she is on her own here.

“That reminds me, I was remiss in speaking earlier.” Thor is contrite, and the genuine expression tugs at her heart, even as she has a sudden irrational fear that he going to take back his pronouncement regarding her and Ranger. “I should have asked if you preferred to be addressed as Lara Warddottir.”

Lara is struck mute for the second time in his presence.

Ranger seems to take pity on her. “That’s a bit of a new development, actually.”

Thor nods. “It can take time to get accustomed to our families,” his voice is sad when he continues, “sometimes even centuries.”

She shoots a panicked look at Ranger, who shrugs in confusion. ‘We don’t have centuries!’

“Enough of that. I did not mean to darken your time together with my personal memories.” Thor concludes somberly. “How are you adjusting to everything? I have heard the past few weeks have been somewhat of a shock for you.”

“Understatement of the year,” Lara responds. “I feel like everything just keeps spinning out of my reach and I can’t seem to get a handle on it.”

“And your gifts in,” Thor grins roguishly, “the skies?”

Lara rolls her eyes, but snickers quietly to show that she is not offended and can laugh at how absurd her life has become.

“What if she could control it?” Ranger, who has gotten past his initial state of being starstruck, takes to Thor the fastest of the three Avengers.

Thor is well pleased with his question. “It requires much effort and discipline, but yes. That is what I hope to achieve with guidance and practice.”

“Wait, so you’re saying I’m not just a loose cannon?” Lara is openly skeptical from where she sits on the roof ledge. “Because I’ve tried to hold it back and it doesn’t usually… end well.”

“Have you tried summoning your abilities of their own merit?” Thor inquires thoughtfully, setting Mjolnir down to regard her with arms folded in contemplation.

“Not purposely,” Lara shakes her head, swinging off the ledge and beginning to pace restlessly. “They always come out at the worst times, usually when I’m upset. It’s not exactly something I have fond memories of.”

Ranger appears to be processing her statement, eyes distant while he reflects.

“What’s going on in your head, Nerd jock?” Lara questions playfully, her voice noticeably not as lighthearted as it has been in times past.

“I was just thinking that every time you’ve used your abilities around us has been when you felt threatened, which would account for your inability to harness them. It’s a reactive course of action because you feel unsafe. But I wonder… if you were able to tap into them without thefear, it might be less chaotic. You could channel it, and maybe even with precision.”

When Lara just gapes at him, Thor clears his throat to recapture her attention “Your bondmate is wise beyond his years.” He notes the thread of fear running through her. “Do you trust me, little one?”

She spreads her hands helplessly. “I don’t think I have much of a choice.”

“But that is where you’re wrong,” Thor gently corrects, steering her to the roof edge. “Consider this the first lesson: You always have a choice.”

“It doesn’t feel that way,” Lara mutters.

“Then you must find out how to make it so.”

*

The sky darkens to black outside and rain suddenly comes down in torrents.

Ward flickers a glance to the window. “You sure she’ll be okay up there?”

“ ‘Course she will. Thor loves kids,” Bucky easily responds, sharpening one of the deadly knives on his person.

Natasha shoots him an exasperated look until he grudgingly exits the room. She redirects her attention to the scowling man in bed. “I’d never risk her life, Grant.”

At the sound of his given name, Ward looks up, startled. “I –”

“It might come as a surprise to you, but Skye had her reasons for wanting us in Lara’s life beyond security and fail-safe protocols. One of mine was to act as your proxy. She knew how you would want your daughter to be raised and trusted me to be your voice.”

His jaw drops open. “She… said that?”

“She didn’t have to.” Natasha shrugs a slim shoulder. “We’re specialists. I trained you. Of course it would be so.”

“That doesn’t exactly explain why she shut me out our daughter’s life all these years,” Ward snarls at her, slamming a fist into the mattress in frustration.

“Grant.” Natasha’s tone is sharp as she stands closer, leaning over him. “Where were you 17 years ago when your daughter was born?”

“Low blow, Nat.” He frowns, staring down at his hands.

Think, you idiot.” Her tone is affectionate, at odds with the steel command underlaying it. “Not literally. But what you were up to at the time. Your focus. Your life.” At his inward reflection of what his life had been nearly two decades prior, she nods slowly. “That was no place for your daughter.”

“I would have –”

Stop.” Natasha quells his excuse with a single look. “You were a one-man vengeance mission, making more enemies than Tony Stark managed in his first few weeks after becoming Iron Man.”

Ward rolls his eyes. “I think you’re exaggerating.”

“Lara would have been a target from the moment she was born, if not before.”

“But after, she could have contacted me. I got out, I got clean. I tried to find her. SHIELD doesn’t even have anything on her.” 

“You’re right. She walked away from the two most important things in her life.” Natasha states simply.

Ward frowns, struggling to make sense of the bombshell laid at his feet. “The two most impor –” He yelps loudly as she suddenly jabs him with a needle. “Dammit, Natasha!”

Natasha watches with no small amount of satisfaction as the drugs begin to take him under. “You deserved that for what you said to Maria.”

Because he is the best since her, but cannot fight what is coursing through his system, Ward only manages half a scowl before he begins snoring.

“Eye candy, my ass,” Natasha scoffs, fondly shaking her head and pulling the blanket up to tuck it under his shoulder neatly. “You’re a mess.”

*

Chapter Text

"This seat taken?”

 

Kara nearly jumps out of her skin to find Bucky watching her from the doorway.

“What is it about people and sneaking up on me in this kitchen,” She mutters, gesturing expansively for him to sit.

“Your boyfriend gonna get his boxers in a bunch if he sees us together?” Bucky reaches for an apple from the bowl on the counter and, producing a knife from thin air, begins peeling it expertly while he keeps his eyes on her.

“He’s not my keeper,” Kara snappishly retorts, heading to the fridge just to have something to do. The knowing look in his eyes makes her want to fidget. And she never fidgets. “I don’t answer to him.”

“Course you do.” Bucky munches around a mouthful of apple, sighing in contentment. “Same way I answer to Natalia about things. That’s love.”

The bowl in Kara’s hands abruptly slips free, shattering loudly on the floor.

Bucky frowns thoughtfully. “Unless, of course… you haven’t gotten around to telling the poor fool that you love him.” When Kara just stares at him, sheet white and visibly unnerved, he groans loudly. “Hell. Is everyone in this place emotionally retarded?”

*

Natasha slips into the gym to find Thomas stripped to the waist, currently beating the hell out of a punching bag.

“Nice to know some things remain consistent in this family.” She says to the room at large, removing her jacket so that she is otherwise unencumbered in a plain tank top as she approaches him.

“I’m not very good company right now,” Thomas warns, giving her the barest of glances. Despite the lack of clothing, he impressively doesn’t flinch under her thorough look. “Go save the world or something with your super powered boyfriend and leave the rest of us mortals in peace.”

“Ah.” Natasha lifts her eyebrows. “This is about Lara.”

No.” He rolls his eyes, changing direction to duck her sharp gaze. “This is about you guys and how you always drop in and expect the world to stop.”

She taps her lip contemplatively. “I was wondering if we’d ever talk about this misplaced raging insecurity you have.”

Thomas swears ripely, fist going wide and missing the bag entirely. He goes completely still, breathing carefully with visibly labored counts. “Excuse me?”

“I never knew if Lara got that from Skye or from you. Thanks for answering that lifelong question.”

Thomas lets loose a strangled laugh. “Anything to help.”

“C’mon.” Natasha steps backward onto the mat, gesturing invitingly at him. “Let’s go a few rounds.”

“I may not look smart, but even I know that you’d kill me before I tried to breathe.”

She smiles in warm approval. “Knew you were more than just a pretty face.”

“You think I’m pretty? Shucks. I’m flattered.” Thomas folds his arms, giving her a flat stare.

“Ease up, boy wonder. I’d never hurt Lara’s favorite uncle.”

While Thomas is trying to absorb the shock of that, Natasha lunges quickly, sweeping his legs out completely. Thomas falls flat on his back with the wind audibly knocked out of him.

While he struggles to remember how to breathe, she stands over him, smiling brilliantly.

He brokenly wheezes at her.

Natasha offers a hand, which he gingerly takes. She pulls him to his feet far more effortlessly than her size belies. “Let’s try this again.”

Thomas, resigned to his fate, glances heavenward. “Tell Kara I loved her.”

*

“Explain yourself,” Kara orders harshly, seeming to forget just who she demands answers from.

Bucky shrugs. “It’s not that hard. You guys have been in a – from what I can tell – monogamous relationship for the past what – thirteen, fourteen years? It’s obvious you’re in love with him, though I can’t imagine why a smart woman like yourself is killing time with such a punk.”

“He may be a punk,” Kara icily bites out, “But he is incredibly loyal and cares about his family more than a smug Russian assassin might ever hope to understand.”

The corner of his mouth lifts in a smirk. “That so?”

“It is,” she sidles closer, ignoring the warning bells going off in her head that are screaming ABORT MISSION ABORT MISSION NOW. “Just because he doesn’t swoop down from quinjets or look like he stepped out of the Forties doesn’t mean that he cares any less than you about Lara, or anyone else in this family.”

Bucky stands, looming over her with a satisfied grin. “Just wanted to make sure we were on the same page, darlin’.”

“I –” Kara comes back to herself with a shake, eyes wide as she finally processes the who and what of their discussion. Thomas will never let her live this down. (Ergo, he can never find out.)

“You’ve got guts.” He offers her his flesh and blood arm with the kind of roguish wink proving he is every bit the lady killer he once was back in the day. “Let’s  head to the gym and you can show me what else you got.”

She stares at his arm and then seems to think better of it, reaching below the counter for a bottle of fairly good vodka. “It’s five o’clock somewhere.”

“You’re one hell of a woman. Thomas better appreciate that.” Bucky accepts the shot glass with pleasure.

All this talk about Thomas and their relationship and her worth as a person is making her supremely uncomfortable.

This is why she likes things the way they are. No fuss, no complications.

“Worships the ground I walk on,” she responds dully, flippancy not quite making the grade as she tosses hers back with practiced ease. Kara blinks as she absorbs the rush of vodka flooding her system, then tucks her arm into his metal elbow and she leads them out the door. “Do your worst, Grandpa.”

“Only because you asked so nicely.” Bucky, who knows exactly what his partner has been up to, actually has to work at keeping his expression bland. “It’ll be like you never even saw it coming.”

*

Ranger is valiantly trying not to shiver in the pouring rain, while he watches Lara as she stands with her head back tipped to the sky, arms flung wide behind her. Under Thor’s careful guidance, she’s yelling something indiscernible due to the howling wind and water sheeting down. The demi god leans down to her ear, and Lara nods uncertainly, trepidation clearly writ across her face.

The next thing Ranger knows, Thor has swung Lara up onto his shoulder. Lara raises both arms above her head, trusting Thor to hold her steady and she reaches. Thunder rumbles in answer.

Thor shouts up to her and she nods, steely determination etched in the line of her jaw. She closes her eyes, reaching again –

– and this time, a bolt of lighting comes screaming down toward their heads.

It is only by Thor’s hearty laugh and the quickness with which Mjolnir flies into his hand, absorbing and diffusing the raw power of the lightning that keeps them all from being fried to pieces.

And when Thor sets her back down on her feet – Lara is laughing. Laughing.

“Thank god,” Ranger breathes, sagging back against the roof in blessed relief. He’d been so worried that she would take it badly; that she’d pull it all on herself and be upset that she could wield such power – and somehow she soared right past that straight onto unbridled glee.

He has a moment to laugh at their soggy turn of events and then she’s running into his arms, and he’s spinning her in circles, letting her delight shower them as the rain fades to a stop.

“Did you see that?” She’s practically vibrating with joy in his arms.

“Pretty impressive, Hurricane.” Ranger has to set her back down to keep her from overbalancing them both and falling to the ground.

“Thor!” Lara shouts, grinning widely. “How’d I do, Boss?”

He returns her smile tenfold. “You are a natural, though I expected nothing less.”

“How could you be so sure?”

He indicates for her to take a seat, and she boosts herself on the ledge next to him. “The elements do not choose those who are unworthy, Lara.”

“I haven’t done anything to be worthy,” She protests, looking to Ranger for guidance. “I’m just me.”

“But being you doesn’t make you less,” Ranger murmurs slowly, as if to himself.

“Aye.” Thor’s eyes gleam with pride.

“It makes you more.” Ranger and Lara whisper in unison.

The inspiration comes to him out of the clear blue. Ranger turns to Lara in excitement, dipping his head to watch her closely. “Remember when you first showed me what you could do? You were worried it was going scare me away.”

“As if I could be so fortunate,” Lara says, rolling her eyes.

Ranger ignores the halfhearted dig. “That’s what this is really about – you coming to grips with it all. Your mom, your dad – okay, that’s part of it. At the end of the day, though? This is about you, Lara.”

Thor clears his throat to catch their attention. “The only limits we have are the ones we put upon ourselves.”

Lara scoffs nervously. “Like I would put limits on myself.”

Ranger shakes his head. “But you do. Other than Thor, who else have you shown your abilities to and not feared the consequences?”

Her eyes grow bright with unshed tears. “Ranger, come on. We both know it’s not that simple. People could get hurt, I might not be able to control it –”

“– But you can, that’s what I’m telling you.” Off her skepticism, he opens his hands in a plea. “Lara. We really don’t know what else you can do because you won’t let yourself find out.”

Lara takes a deep breath. “Next you’ll be telling me I can lift Mjolnir.” She chuckles, imagining the scene. Her humor abruptly dies when she notices Thor  keeping silent as he watches her with curiosity and something else she can’t define. Lara throws her hands up in the air. “Oh come on. You can’t be serious.”

Ranger lifts his chin fractionally. “You scared?”

“More like wondering when you got knocked on your head and became delusional,” she mutters, walking closer to where Mjolnir rests on the ground. Just before her hands close over the handle, she sighs heavily. “This is absolutely ridiculous.”

Thor folds his arms, lounging against one of the support beams. “You may wish to brace yourself.”

Lara arches an eyebrow. “Because I’m going to pull a muscle trying to get it to move?”

Ranger meets her eyes, clearly reading the anxiety she’s feeling. “Just give it a try, Lara loo.”

“Recall how you called down lightning and made the skies sing,” the demi god counsels. 

This is crazy. Bondmates and magical hammers and hurricanes are not supposed to mix.

 

(“You may want to close your eyes,” Thor quietly advises Ranger.

“I’m not missing this.”)

 

Lara’s fingers curl around the handle – 

*

“Have you told Kara how you feel yet?”

Thomas snorts, just barely dodging the kick aimed for his ribs and twists out of reach. “You’re kidding, right?” When Natasha remains silent, indicating that she stands by her statement, he actually backs up a few steps, blatant disbelief etched on his face. “Kara Lynn Palamas, afraid of anything that feels a little too real and permanent? Runs if you start to get even a little speculative about the future? That Kara?“

Amusement gleams in Natasha’s clear eyes, though her expression remains blank. “This coming from the man who hates commitment.”

Stunned, he ducks the fist heading for his jaw a second too late. Thomas doesn’t even seem to register the pain as he moves closer to her, pointing a finger at his chest. “You think I’m the holdup here?”

“You’ve been dancing around the subject for years.” Natasha shrugs, easily lifting her leg up for a stretch that would be incredibly painful for the rest of the world.

“Okay,” Thomas strips off his hand wraps, throwing them to the ground with irritation. “Fine. Let’s play this game where you think you know enough about me to be making these wild accusations.”

“I’m just calling it like it see it,” She responds glibly, releasing the leg in favor of switching for the other. “You haven’t exactly made any moves.”

“Not that it’s any of your damn business, but I have a ring. I’ve actually had it for six years.”

“Then why isn’t she wearing it?”

He scrubs his face in frustration. “Because she’s –”

“– I’m what?”

Natasha takes advantage of his momentary distraction to knock him flat on his back. Again.

Groaning loudly, Thomas glances up from where he is sprawled on the ground to find Kara and Bucky standing in the doorway.

“This a private session or can anyone join in?” Bucky looks entirely too smug for someone who is supposed to have a poker face rivaling Natasha’s.

“Finish that thought. What, exactly, am I?” Kara sounds pissed.

Natasha’s quick glance assures him that he’s on his own, so Thomas staggers to his feet and sighs heavily. Probably if he hadn’t just gone a few rounds with the Black Widow, or if he wasn’t feeling so raw and ornery, he might have recovered with a bit more grace.

But no one ever said the Ward brothers were eloquent.

“…Chicken.”

I’m chicken?”

“A hundred and twelve percent, yes.”

Kara twists her hair up into a ponytail with a yank bordering on painful, though she doesn’t even notice as she tracks him to the center of the room, anger and intent in her movement. “I’m seriously going to enjoy watching you eat those words, pretty boy.”

Thomas clenches his jaw so tightly the veins in his neck stand out. “You know what? Screw it. Wait here.”

He jogs out of the room without waiting for a response, leaving Kara to stare incredulously at the two assassins.

“Can anyone explain?”

*

– and the heavens light up.

“Holy shit.” Lara blinks, dragging her free hand through her hair. She feels like she’s just gotten run over by a truck.

When Ranger can finally drag his hand away from his eyes, he squints to see Thor grinning wide and clapping. “She is as fierce as a Valkyrie!”

Lara is still gaping at the mighty weapon in her grip. “But…”

When it looks like her legs are about to give out, Ranger slides behind her, putting his hands on her shoulders. “No limits, remember?” She turns back to look at him, panic and confusion in her eyes. Small biting shocks prickle at his exposed hands and face, but he ignores it to focus on her. “Hey. I’ve got you.”

“The skies do not choose those who are unworthy, Lara.” Thor reminds, dipping his head in satisfaction as if giving her unspoken permission.

Lara takes a shaky breath and locks her knees into place, drawing strength from Ranger’s presence behind her. “Here goes nothing.”

Still in slight disbelief, she lifts the hammer to the sky and watches as the clouds swirl and darken threateningly. Thunder claps in the distance slowly until it echoes through the area, culminating in one loud boom.

Ranger drops his hands at the last possible second as lighting comes tearing out of the sky in answer to Lara’s command. Thor has the mind of a warrior and the reflexes to go with it, which turns out to be handy as he makes a mad grab for the young man, pushing him out of the way when Lara follows through with an arc of swing, sending raw power diving off the side of the building and into the forest beyond their line of sight.

Flames shoot up in response seconds later and Lara cries out in distress. “This is exactly what I was worried about!”

Ranger is still reeling from being thrown to safety by a demi god and is too busy coughing up gravel to respond other than sending a wordless thumbs up to indicate that he is okay. She wants to go over and personally check to be sure, but the fire is too close to be ignored and it licks guiltily at the back of her mind.

“Lara.” Thor says calmly, recapturing her attention. “Fix it.”

“Right.” She looks at the hammer in her hand and the resolute faith on his face. “Because I… know how to do that.”

Branches crackle and snap as trees begin to falter and burn under the intense heat.

As clearly as if he is speaking to her, she hears Thor’s voice in her head. The only limits we have are the ones we put upon ourselves.

Lara closes her eyes, unconsciously tipping her head to the sky.

She thinks of her life, and the many bizarre twists and turns that led her to this point. Of her mom, and how much she loves her, how strong she is and how she can’t wait to see her again. Of her dad, and how stubbornly he fought to prove that she wasn’t alone in the world and that she would always have a place with him. Of Thomas and Kara, and their incredible support and the way they didn’t even hesitate to find her or hide the truth when she needed it most.

Lastly she thinks of Ranger. She thinks of how he hasn’t left her side since she arrived; how he’s never let her down or made her go through anything alone; how he constantly pushes her to achieve more than she ever thought possible and how unflinchingly he steps to the plate to become whatever she needs, whenever she needs him. (And she does need him.)

And slowly… it begins to rain.

*

The unusual blinding shock of lighting doesn’t faze Bucky or Natasha when Kara glances at them for clarification. “Thor.” He explains laconically. Natasha shrugs in agreement.

Thomas isn’t even winded when he strolls back into the gym, minutes later. He cocks his head toward Natasha. “So you think I don’t take her seriously.” The intensity behind the look in his eyes when he stares at Kara makes her breath catch. “And you don’t think you’re afraid.” 

“Here.” The box he withdraws from his pocket can only be seen for a second before he flips back the lid and thrusts it at Kara. “Now who’s not taking it seriously?”

Kara gapes at the brilliant sparkle nestled inside the box. “What the hell is that?”

Thomas folds his arms stubbornly, refusing to back down. “Like you’ve never seen a ring before, sweetheart.”

“Let me see if I’ve got this right.” She grits her teeth and attempts to hang on to the fraying threads of her temper. “Your idea of a proposal is some kind of a… challenge?”

“You’re too scared to take me on, Palamas.”

She snatches the box from his hand. “You wanna bet?”

An exaggerated slow round of applause breaks their glaring match.

Bucky lowers his hands,  looking extremely pleased with the situation. “Still a punk, but he gets credit for having some game.”

Kara reflexively puts an arm out to halt Thomas from stalking closer to the super soldier. “No,” she firmly says, low enough that only he can hear.

“We’ll make breakfast in the morning to celebrate your engagement.” Natasha winks at them.

“I haven’t actually said yes,” Kara sharply bites out, ignoring Thomas’s exaggerated groan.

“Man goes through that, you should at least give him an answer,” Bucky chides, shaking his head in disapproval.

“I said anything because you’re both here watching like it’s a damn tennis match!”

Natasha doesn’t take offense to the other woman’s ire. “Someone had to observe the moment for posterity. Ward will be pissed that it wasn’t him.”

Thomas frowns thoughtfully. “It is pretty weird that we haven’t heard from him all day.” 

“He’s probably just resting,” Natasha innocently supplies on their way out the door. “Teenagers are exhausting and he is getting up there in years…”

“And we can’t all be blessed with perpetual youth,” Thomas grumbles sourly, glaring at the back of her head.

Kara rolls her eyes and elbows him sharply. “Please try to refrain from angering the actual facts Avengers or I’ll be a widow before I’m a bride.”

“So that’s a… yes?” He grins hopefully.

Kara feels her resolve weakening. “I’ll think about it.”

They’re only halfway down the hall when he pipes up, “You can definitely keep the ring. I had it made custom for you by this jeweler in Moscow and…”

Thomas Andrew Ward, professional manwhore extraordinaire had an engagement ring specifically made for her. How is this her life?

“Lord give me strength.” Kara closes her eyes briefly and fleetingly wishes she’d had more than one shot with Bucky in the kitchen earlier.

“Heads up,” comes a lazy drawl from the hallway ahead of them.

She opens her eyes to see a small flask hurtling through the air.

Kara snatches it before it can hit Thomas in the face. She unscrews the top and sniffs experimentally. Nothing. Then she tips it back, sipping slowly. Vodka.

“You’re all right, Barnes.” Kara calls as she screws the lid back on and chucks it back down the hall.

The faint clang of metal hitting metal sings as he closes his fingers around the flask and then – “Dammit, woman! You might as well have emptied the thing.”

Kara smirks, unrepentant. Then she turns to find Thomas watching her.

And maybe it’s the vodka, or the way he completely botched what is supposed to be the most romantic moment of her life – and the fact that his doing so is exactly who they are – nevermind that she totally would have bolted had he actually gotten down on one knee. (Enter more things she doesn’t want to dwell upon.)

So yeah, it’s probably the vodka that has her lifting a hand to his neck and dragging him down for a thorough kiss.

When he draws back breathing heavily, she winks up at him. “In case that wasn’t clear enough for you… yes.”

Thomas whoops with delight and tosses her over his shoulder like a sack of flour, ignoring her fists and demands to be put down.

Bucky casually tugs Natasha out of the way as Thomas tears past them crowing with excitement.

“Young love,” He sighs wistfully.

“One down…” Natasha smiles, tangling her fingers with his. “One to go.”

Bucky shakes his head regretfully. “And they’re going to be the tough ones, you know that, right?”

“You like a challenge.” She bites her lip coyly.

“After all these years with you? I’d have to.” Bucky drapes an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close. “So… Where are our rooms again?”

*

 

Chapter Text

 

Ward wakes up feeling like he got hit by a truck.

…Or a Russian assassin with a syringe, but he’s not bitter about it or anything.

There’s a note tied to his wrist with a jaunty red-stringed bow. so you’re finally awake… it’s about time. take a shower, slugabed. breakfast awaits.

“Dammit Natasha.” He swings his legs over the side of the bed, wincing slightly. Then he frowns, because there’s absolutely no way he should be able to maneuver right now. “What the hell did you stick me with?”

*

“I’m just saying you should have seen her expression when he all but tossed that ring in her face.” Bucky explains to Ranger and Lara, tossing a sly wink at Thomas. “Pretty sure he’s never been able to shut her up quite that fast before.”

“Actually there was this one time,” Thomas begins, smirking.

A sharp elbow driven into his side has the smirk sliding off his face as Kara glances serenely at the rest of the table. “More pancakes, anyone?”

“I’d like some,” Ward calls from where he stands just inside the door.

Thomas immediately chokes on his mimosa. Lara drops her fork in shock.

Ranger gapes for a moment before pushing back from his chair, and rushing to Ward’s side. “Boss.” He scans him critically, frowning. “Are you sure you should be up and about right now?”

“I hate to be the reminder of bad news,” Thomas comes to stand on his brother’s side, looking as if he wants to get him seated at the table sooner rather than later. “But you were just shot.”

Bucky reads an honest to god newspaper while sipping from a very large mug of coffee and doesn’t bother looking up at the commotion.

Ward glares at Natasha, who appears totally unruffled as she delicately pops raspberries into her mouth. “I don’t know whether to thank you or strangle you.”

“Gratitude is always preferable to bloodshed.” At Natasha’s arch look, Bucky amends, “We’re still eating, after all. Besides. She’d have to give you at least a ten second handicap from the way you’re gimping around.”

Judging by the look in his eyes, Ward is about to utter something terrible and sarcastic but he’s interrupted by the sudden shift of a chair to Lara’s right. She bites her lip, hope and something else in her eyes. “Saved you a seat. If you want.”

He can’t shake off Thomas and Ranger’s joint hovering fast enough. “I’d like that.”

She gives him a curious glance as he gingerly seats himself next to her. “Still hurts?”

“Wonder drugs don’t fix bullet holes,” Ward grumbles, accepting a cup of coffee from Kara gratefully. Then his gaze sharpens on her hand. “Something you want to share with the class?”

Kara flushes, automatically trying to pull off the ring. It doesn’t budge. “Thomas Andrew Ward,” She hisses, glaring at him, “did you put superglue on this thing?”

“Wait, is that why you had me research non-toxic adhesives?” Ranger looks up from where he is fixing a second plate of pancakes and eggs.

Thomas scoffs. “I’m not that crazy.”

“Your browser history indicates otherwise,” Ranger says, sliding the breakfast across to his boss. “Frankly I’m just glad to have that thing out of my sock drawer.”

Lara turns to her uncle with delighted eyes. “You’ve been hiding a ring in Ranger’s sock drawer?”

“As a precaution,” Thomas hastily explains, not liking the calculated look on Kara’s face. “I just didn’t want anything to happen before we were ready,” he says, trying to appease her.

“It’s about damn time,” Ward mutters. “Now I can finally give you the partnership agreement I had drafted up years ago.”

Kara’s jaw drops open. “…What.”

Ward shrugs. “Thomas won’t sign it until you’re both equal shares. Think of it as a wedding dowry.“

Bucky yelps with laughter from behind his newspaper.

“You are ruining my life.” Thomas glares at his brother, who only lifts his coffee mug in a mocking toast.

“Welcome to the family… officially.” Ward turns to Kara, genuine happiness breaking through the mood of the room. “Sorry I missed the proposal.”

“Don’t worry,” Natasha says, lips curled in a half smile. “We have video.”

“Sweet lord.” Thomas lowers his head to the table with an audible thunk, while Kara just brings a hand up to cover her eyes.

“I’ll make popcorn,” Ranger volunteers, looking intrigued. “There’s got to be a bootleg surveillance tape I can pull up from somewhere…”

"Greetings, friends!” Thor wanders into the kitchen, breaking out into a grin when he notices the breakfast spread on the table. He sets Mjolnir down directly in front of Lara, winking at her.

Wide eyed, Lara starts choking on her toast.

Ward glances at his daughter in bewilderment, patting her on the back gently. “You okay?”

She nods frantically, accepting the glass of juice Ranger pushes into her hand.

When no one else seems inclined to speak, Ward rolls his eyes. “It’s like pulling teeth in this family, I swear.” He shifts, turning to his second in command. “Report.”

Clearly relieved to be back into the swing of things, Ranger gives a quick rundown of the current events. He finishes with obvious reluctance, not thrilled that they don’t have anything more concrete. “The team we sent out said the trail got cold the further south they went. And we haven’t heard back from our other contacts.”

Skye’s absence lingers heavily in the room, this time feeling more pronounced than usual given the previous excitement of the impending engagement.

Natasha clears her throat, drawing the gaze of the table’s occupants. “We might have some information about that.”

Ward closes his eyes, visibly trying to remain calm. When he opens them to look at her, it is less homicidal and more generally pissed. (Which, given the recipient, is probably best for all parties involved.) “And you didn’t think it necessary to share this with us before because…?”

“You were laid up in bed with a hole in your side. Exactly what could you have contributed?” Natasha retorts, tossing another raspberry into her mouth.

Bucky lowers the corner of his newspaper, glancing sideways at her in admiration. “The man has been through the ringer. Maybe go a little easy on him.”

“I don’t need you to fight my battles for me.”

“Sit this one out, champ.” Bucky firmly advises Ward, finally setting down the paper for good. “We’ll sort it out in the control room in about ten minutes, all right?”

Agreement comes from around the table and they start to clean up, clearly pleased to have a plan.

Thomas goes to tackle the cooktop and bacon greased skillet, while Kara and Natasha set the counter and fridge back to rights. Ward desperately needs more coffee.

“We can finish training later, right?” Lara absently picks up Mjolnir, offering it to Thor. 

The entire room goes silent.

Ranger is trying – and failing miserably – to hide the pleased grin on his face. “Uh, Hurricane?”

Lara glances at him, then seems to realise the way everyone is staring at her in shock. Thor just stands there, beaming in delight. She opens her mouth but nothing comes out. 

Ward is, somehow, the first to recover. “What the actual hell?”

“I can explain,” Lara says, hurriedly thrusting the weapon at Thor, who has no choice but to grab it quickly before it falls to the ground. “It’s not as bad as it looks.”

“Really, Lara?” Ward pushes back from the table to stand up at his full height, struggling to understand. “Because it looks an awful lot like you can lift an ancient weapon that I’m pretty sure we both know your mom would have a fit about.”

“Actually I think she’d be okay with this one,” Thomas muses aloud, then puts his hands up in surrender when his brother glares at him darkly. “I mean – oh god this is terrible.”

“It’s not like I’m going to keep it or anything,” Lara pleads with her father to understand. Then her eyes grow huge and she looks to Thor for backup. “I’m not keeping it, right?”

“No, little one.” Thor comes to stand beside her, settling a giant hand on her shoulder and meeting Ward’s stress with a level calm. “Your daughter is incredibly powerful. Mjolnir allows herself to be used as a guide so that Lara may reach the full potential of her abilities.”

Ward shakes his head. “I don’t think it’s that simple. No one is supposed to be able to handle that thing but you.”

“And yet, she can.” Thor is clearly unruffled as he hangs Mjolnir at his waist. “You may want to consider that a daughter who is worthy would have had to come from a good man.” He gently propels Lara out of the room, nodding for Ranger to follow them.

“I go where she goes, sorry.” Ranger shrugs. “Bondmate stuff.”

The look on Ward’s face darkens considerably. “Ranger!”

“See you later boss!” He yells, jogging out of the kitchen.

Bucky claps a firm hand on Ward’s shoulder. “Bet that nap is lookin’ pretty good right now, huh?”

*

Ranger pilots the quinjet away from the base with ease, making sure to keep Kara notified of their flightplan. “Let us know if the Specialists’ Three come up with anything concrete you need me to flush out or track down.”

“You got it.” Kara’s face softens, peering beyond him to make sure Lara is otherwise engaged in a deep conversation with Thor. “Take care of our girl, okay? There’s precious cargo in your hands.”

“Much like both her aunts, Lara loo can handle herself.” Ranger leans back in his chair to flick a glance at the girl in question. “You know I’d never let anything happen to her.”

“Just be careful.” She admonishes, raising an eyebrow. “Don’t get cocky because you’re with a hurricane and a thunder god.”

“I think we’ll be okay.” Ranger says, brushing off her concern. “You’re the one stuck with the two brooding idiots.”

“Don’t remind me,” Kara groans. “Somehow I agreed to marry one of them.”

“And thank god for that. I was getting tired of dragging Thomas’s mopey ass out to the bar when you’d leave for an assignment and he’d pine away for you.”

Pine?” Kara folds her hands under her chin eagerly. “Tell me more about this pining you speak of.”

*

The sight of Ward out and about despite the rumors of his being shot just two days prior are enough to have the analyst and tech teams running for cover when he strolls into the room, flanked by Natasha and Bucky. Thomas and Kara bring up the rear, and the five of them take a seat around the large table.

“Skye’s been taken by a group that weaponizes Inhumans.”

Ward feels like the air has been punched from his lungs.

Rolling his eyes, Thomas reaches over and claps him on the back roughly to kickstart him into breathing again.

“How do we know this?”

Bucky and Natasha exchange a measured glance. “SHIELD lost one of their own in a bungled extraction by the same group. The asset they captured had a protective detail that was entirely wiped out in a matter of minutes.”

Ward drums his fingers on the table slowly. “SHIELD doesn’t know that Skye is even still around. Why are they willing to partner with us on this?” He runs the variables through his head, then goes completely still, pinning her with a unspoken warning. “Who is the asset?”

“Need to know,” Bucky says casually, diverting everyone’s attention with pictures of a burnt library and vicious massacre of agents across the grounds.

Kara closes her eyes briefly, looking away. Under the table, Thomas grabs her hand, squeezing tight until the color comes back into her face.

“SHIELD doesn’t know you’re involved,” Natasha finally reveals, watching the play of emotions on Ward’s face before he locks it down. “We’re going to keep it that way, as it best protects all parties involved.”

“Are you here for Skye or for SHIELD?”

“Don’t be an ass.” Natasha tenses so subtly that only Bucky notices, resting a hand on her thigh gently. She relaxes by degrees and he consciously matches his breathing pattern to hers in an attempt to calm them both down. 

Thomas whistles under his breath, throwing Kara a sideways plea for help. She rolls her eyes but keys a few commands into the laptop to project the pictures into the air so that everyone can keep eyes on them. “I’m no Ranger, but I think we should be able to muddle through.”

There is an uncomfortable silence in the room until Ward finally breaks it. “That’s a college library.” Before he can ask, Kara zooms in on the signs at the entrances. “That’s MIT.” The mix of accusation and confusion in his voice is a thing of beauty.

Natasha lays both of her hands flat on the table, an unconscious gesture for Bucky to stand down. “So it is.”

“Dammit, this isn’t a training exercise, Natasha! I’m not your rookie agent anymore.” Ward looks like he’s about to lunge across the table and throttle her.  “I need details if I’m going to help coordinate an extraction for more than one person.”

“Hey. We’re trying to rescue your rookie agent, remember?” Thomas butts in playfully, taking the heat off the deadly Avenger. “I’m sure the Superfriends are going to give us as much info as they possibly can.”

“You’ll excuse me if I don’t share that confidence,” Ward retorts. “I’ve been on the receiving end of Natasha’s version of need to know before.”

Natasha can’t help but smirk briefly in response, fully acknowledging the hit.

“Listen up.” Bucky pulls a deadly knife from somewhere on his person and starts cleaning it, all easy movement and grace, at complete odds with the tone of his voice. “This is your house, I get it. The woman you love has been captured – and believe it or not, I know a little something about that too.”

Thomas sucks in a breath at the other man’s words, gripping Kara’s hand crushingly tight until she smacks him with her free hand. Ward remains expressionless, but does not take his eyes off the lethal knife in the other man’s hand.

“It’s your team and your resources, so think of us as your backup players. You call the shots.” Bucky finally meets Ward’s eyes, and there is no mistaking the deadly intent and seriousness behind his stare. “But there are certain things we cannot tell you - and it has nothing do with you and everything to do with other people. You either square with that or we walk. Your call.”

There is a prolonged tense silence that has Kara itching for her gun, even as Natasha calmly cycles through information on her phone, feeding it to the main screen almost faster than anyone can keep track of. 

“The Grant Ward I knew could handle himself in a situation like this, but maybe times have changed,” Bucky goads lightly, looking amused.

“I am going to watch my brother die and inherit the family curse and I never wanted any part of this,” Thomas hisses to Kara, staring at her incredulously as she merely offers him her flask by way of consolation.

She shrugs. “It’s good stuff. I got it from them as an engagement gift this morning.”

“Traitor,” Thomas theatrically whispers, just before tipping back a healthy portion of vodka. Then he coughs loudly, blinking tears from his eyes.  “What the hell is THAT?”

Ward growls under his breath, shoving back from the table angrily and stalking out of the room.

Thomas sighs heavily. “Such a drama queen.”

Natasha rises as if to go after him, and Bucky shakes his head with a feral grin. “I’ll go.”

*

At Thor’s direction, Ranger sets the quinjet down in a open field.

They file out with Lara hanging back somewhat uncertainly. Her focus otherwise engaged, Ranger taps Thor on the shoulder, jerking his chin wordlessly toward her.

The demi god nods. “I will meet you when you are finished. Take your time. She is stronger than you think.”

Lara meanders down the ramp, sighing heavily when she notices Thor has departed ahead of them. “Sorry. Guess I’m not the best company right now.”

“What’s going on in that head of yours, Lara loo?” Ranger puts an arm around her shoulder, tugging her into a sideways hug.

“Everything is happening so fast. Dad is… healed, apparently.” She sags against him gratefully, blushing slightly when she continues, “I met you. Uncle Bucky and Aunt Nat are helping us. Now Thomas and Kara are engaged, which is great, don’t get me wrong.”

When she doesn’t expand further, he gently prods. “And you’re learning how to use your abilities and your mom’s not here.”

Lara face crumples, and she automatically moves into his arms when he brings his free hand up to guide her face against his chest. Storm clouds gather slow and thick above their heads and the sky grows dark with the promise of rain.

As she listens to his heart beating soundly beneath her ear, Lara feels her own breathing and heart rate settle down.

I just want everything to stop. Just for a second. I just want to catch my breath and feel like everything isn’t spinning wildly out of my control even though I know it totally is. I just want my mom. God, I want her to tell me everything is going to be okay.

Ranger smooths a hand through her hair, quietly letting her process. “Will you tell me about her?”

Lara draws back from him, slightly bewildered.

Have I really not ever spoken about Mom to him before?

He misinterprets her silence and the way she stiffens for offense taken. “You don’t have to, I just thought if you wanted to talk about it –”

“– No, it’s okay.  Of course I will.”

“I figured you were trying to protect your dad.”

Oh. Oh. …Dad. God, this is so complicated.

“I’ll make you a deal: will you tell me about him?”

Ranger smiles, kissing the top of her head. “Hurricane. I would have told you about him regardless. I’ve only been trying to since the day we met.”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” Lara says, hooking her arm through his elbow as they walk through the field. “But I’m kind of stubborn.”

“You?” Ranger stares at her in disbelief. “Stubborn? No.”

Listen.” Lara gives him a stern look.

“Hey, look.” He cuts her off before she can launch into a dramatic tirade, pointing above them. “Storm’s moving away.”

Lara begins laughing in slight astonishment as a glimmer of a rainbow cuts through dipping behind the clouds. “That’s all you.”

“No,” Ranger shakes his head, pulling her close again. “That’s you.”

*

Bucky tracks Ward to an empty room in the residence wing.

“Pouting?”

Furious, Ward spins around to face the other man. “I can’t even get a moment’s peace in my own house now. Is this how your precious Avengers work?”

“Don’t know.” Bucky shrugs. “They’re not my Avengers. They’re Steve’s, when he feels like it. Sometimes Tony’s. We’re the backup.”

“So you say.”

“You’re so compromised.” Bucky hitches a leg on the large bay window and levels the other man with a thorough look.

He grits his teeth so tightly his jaw actually aches. “You think I don’t know that?”

“I think you do know that. But instead of acknowledging it, and using it to your advantage, you’re letting it trip you up and allowing it to sabotage any one who tries to help.”

“Your help comes with strings.”

Bucky bursts out laughing. “Pal. Most help these days comes with strings. Ours are slightly more complicated than usual because of the players involved.”

Ward comes just shy of putting his fist through the wall. “This is ridiculous.”

Bucky walks over, lifting his metal arm toward the wall in askance. Ward shakes his head, expression turning downcast. He is about to enter full on brood.

“Ward.” The super soldier exhales loudly and wishes he’d let Natasha come kick his ass instead. “Do you love her?”

“It’s… complicated.”

“Bullshit.” Bucky shakes his head, starting to get irritated. “You either love her or you don’t.”

When staring at the other man offers him no recourse, Ward flexes his jaw for one long moment. “You know that I do.”

“So stop dicking around and let us help you find her.”

Despite himself, Ward lets out a strangled laugh. “That simple, huh?”

“Life is too difficult to make the simple complicated. She pissed you off, and she kept the mother of all secrets from you.” Bucky smirks briefly at his unintended pun. “But she’s the love of your life, right?”

“I mean…”

“Don’t be a punk.”

“Yes.” Ward would rather go through a multiple tooth extraction without novocaine than continue this conversation.

“Then go cry into a beer with your brother or whale on a punching bag. But get your head in the damn game and rescue your woman before your daughter doesn’t have a mother anymore.”

A beat of silence as he lets that process and then Ward blinks, lifting an eyebrow. “Have you considered spending less time with Natasha? Your pep talk needs work.”

Bucky grins. “She keeps me honest. Cheer up. She probably would have wiped the floor with you.”

Ward tips his head in consideration. “No, I know that. I just wonder if that might have been less painful.”

“When your head’s in your ass, it takes some tough love to pull it out.”

He doesn’t even pretend to not to laugh in bewilderment as the other man tugs him close for a quick hug.

“We’re gonna get her back.” Bucky says, steering them back to the building main. “You just gotta hold it together until then, okay?”

“And suddenly it’s as if I’m not a specialist with several decades’ worth of training… there’s a geriatric schooling me on how to live my life.” Ward muses aloud to the otherwise empty hall.

Watch it, kid.”

“Whatever you say, Grandpa.”

“You’re lucky Natalia is fond of your stupid ass or I’d take great pleasure in throwing you through that wall.”

“Please.” Ward stares at him quite seriously. “Have some respect for the art.”

“That picture is ugly as hell,” Bucky says, grimacing.

“…I was talking about my cheekbones.”

“How I long for the days when my biggest problem was running after a skinny punk who tried to take on every bully in Brooklyn…”

*

Chapter Text

The rainbow gradually fades, prompting Lara to glance up at Ranger. “That’s not promising.”

“Relax, Hurricane. It’s going to be fine.” He places a hand on the small of her back, guiding her over where Thor is patiently waiting for them.

“You have eased the ache in your heart?” Thor is watching carefully when she winces, almost unconsciously moving back against Ranger’s hand, as if seeking the kind of comfort only he can provide.

“It’s… complicated.”

“If you make it so.” Thor folds his arms (somewhat impressively, Lara is compelled to admit.) He looks, perhaps for the first time ever, forbiddingly serious. “You must make peace with all that unsettles you if you are to wield your abilities properly.”

“No pressure or anything,” Lara slumps fractionally, grateful when Ranger’s arm comes up around her shoulder.

“I think we’ve established that Lara’s emotions are linked to what she can do and that she knows the importance of keeping them channeled properly and not,” Ranger squeezes her shoulder tightly, causing her downcast eyes to jump back to his, “just locked down.”

Thor drops Mjolnir on the ground at the feet, in unspoken challenge. “What is it that troubles you?”

The sight of the ancient weapon and the havoc it wreaked on breakfast earlier that morning comes rushing back to her. Lara snorts inelegantly. “What doesn’t?” 

Ranger puts both hands on her shoulders, effectively blocking Thor from view. “Lara.”

When she glares halfheartedly at him, he can’t help biting his lip against the grin that wants to spread across his face. She doesn’t resist the urge to stamp her foot this time. “Not funny.”

“Kinda is. You’re literally sassing the god of thunder right now.” He raises an eyebrow. “I think if anyone knows about the importance of staying calm, it’s probably him.” 

Lara sighs heavily and reaches up on her tiptoes to peer around his shoulder and glance at Thor, who waves helpfully, reminding them of his presence. “How do you stay all zen master calm when your family is a runaway train of insanity and it kind of feels like the universe hates you?”

Ranger chokes, trying (and failing) to disguise his laughter. At her betrayed look, he clears his throat. “Sorry. Dust.”

Thor somehow manages to keep a straight face. (Probably all those centuries of diplomacy.) “We cannot choose our family. However, I can assure you that the universe does not hate you, and in fact, has great plans for you both.” 

It’s Ranger’s turn to look flustered. “Say what now?”

“You are bondmates.” The demi god is visibly amused. “Do you think so little of your talent in keeping Lara focused? Of understanding that which would block her from learning more and leaving her fears behind? For acting as an anchor as she learns the true depths of her skills?”

Thank god this is hardly the weirdest thing that’s happened in my life. Honestly it kind of makes sense, all things considered.

Lara looks positively gleeful as Ranger visibly gropes for words. “It wasn’t…”

“Your name means protector,” Thor gently explains, still entertained by the visible shell shock on the younger man’s face. “It is no mere accident that you were drawn to each other.” 

No sound escapes Ranger for a good half a minute.

Lara eventually loses the fight and a peal of laughter slips out. ”If you could see your face right now,” she gasps, slipping her hand into his reassuringly. “Priceless.”

Ranger comes back to his senses by degrees, still looking rather alarmed. Lara rolls her eyes, putting her hands on either side of his face until he is forced to look at her. “Hey. This is about you and me.”

“And that you are both protectors,” Thor helpfully adds.

Lara freezes slightly, eyes widening as she nods slowly, taking in the full weight of that declaration. “I can probably do this without you,” She says, her thumb absently caressing his jawline, “But it’s a hell of a lot easier when we’re a team.”

Ranger dips his forehead down to hers, looking wrecked and closing his eyes in defeat. “I’m all yours.” 

*

When Bucky and Ward return to the control room, the women are gone.

Thomas looks up from where he is doodling stick figures on a piece of paper and waves lazily. He slides the paper into his pocket before Ward can make sense of the suspicious looking drawn house and figures Thomas had scribbled. “Natasha was rolling her eyes after he left, then said something in Russian –” Bucky can’t help but smirk, throwing a pointed look at Ward, “– and she and Kara took off for parts unknown. They’re probably about to burn the place down.”

“Thomas.”

He shrugs restlessly, keen eyes moving over his brother. “Doesn’t look like he put more holes in you.”

“Have a little faith,” Ward says, glaring.

“No, that’s an accurate statement,” Bucky concedes, taking his seat again at the table. “Certainly not for a lack of wanting to, that’s for sure. But Natalia would have my head if I damaged her favorite.”

Ward chokes on the water bottle he’d been guzzling and even Thomas looks up with open delight. “You mean to tell me that my idiot brother is the Black Widow’s favorite?”

Bucky nods, pulling up the schematics of the destroyed campus library to search for clues.

“I don’t know if this should thrill me as much as it does, but I’m guessing it’s not entirely a good thing?” Thomas looks at his brother for confirmation.

“It’s not.” Ward pinches the bridge of his nose. “I’ll never have a moment’s rest.”

“Be glad I was able to bargain down the dosage in your medicine,” the super soldier informs, zooming in on the carnage for greater detail. “She wanted to give you the maximum strength.”

He turns slowly to look at Bucky. “You mean it could have been worse?”

“You should have seen what she jabbed Steve with after he got banged up last month. Maria looked like she didn’t know whether to thank her or kill her.”

Thomas scoots closer to the table, rubbing his hands together eagerly. “Captain America has a lady? Do tell.”

“Pal. Captain America doesn’t have squat. Steve Rogers, on the other hand….”

It is with a barely stifled sigh that Ward sends Kara a quick SOS, mumbling, “This is not what I signed up for.”

*

“If you would be seated,” Thor requests, nodding at Lara and Ranger. “I should like to test the strength of your bond.”

“Wait, this is like a real thing?” Lara asks, nose scrunched up in confusion. 

“Did you think I would give you the tools to succeed but not explain how to use them, little one?” He smiles benevolently. “Your bond will only continue to strengthen over time but it is always helpful to see where the baseline is.”

“The baseline of this is that it all seems a little crazy,” Ranger sings under his breath, effectively breaking the moment and prompting Lara to giggle.

She throws an apologetic look at Thor. “Sorry.”

Weirdly though, he isn’t mad. “This is exactly what I had hoped for.”

“That we would be sarcastic and joke our way through it?” Lara’s disbelief is echoed as her eyebrows skyrocket.

Ranger reaches for her hand, gripping tightly to reassure that he’s still with her on this.

Thor smiles enigmatically but does not answer her question. “When Jane and I first met she taught me many things. Despite my years older than her, I learned the value of accepting my emotions and channeling them into something concrete rather than allowing them to run roughly over everyone, disregarding how they felt.”

Lara relaxes slowly, remembering the satisfaction of using her feelings as a source to pull lightning from the sky rather than just seeing the results of wind and rain tearing through as she experienced great upheaval.

“Every relationship is unique. We are able to draw strength from them, some more than others. You must search through to find what makes yours so special. Only then will you be able to tap into the power between you.”

This time Ranger is the one sarcastically muttering, “No pressure.”

Lara unsuccessfully smothers a laugh. She bites her lip, trying to look appropriately sobered by this revelation. “It’s that simple?”

“Make peace with your heart, little hurricane.” Thor firmly advises. “You are strong on your own, but this partnership renders you near unstoppable. There is more at work here than you know.”

With that, Thor announces he will be back with dinner and lifts Mjolnir, taking off for parts unknown.

“I don’t know whether to thank Jane Foster or ask her if she’s lost her mind for allowing him to become an expert on the human condition,” Ranger dazedly mutters, staring into the now empty sky.

“My head hurts,” Lara says, falling backward onto the ground. She flings an arm over her eyes to block out the brightness of the sun. “I officially feel like we’re in over our heads.”

“Amen.” Ranger flops down beside her. “And it’s always just when I think I have the guy figured out…”

*

Kara lets the zen music wash over her, content to stretch until she feels the answering burn in her arms and legs. She holds position for an extra ten seconds before pulling up and breathing deeply.

“Nice,” Natasha compliments from where she is also stretching at the barre. She hadn’t made a sound upon entering the room, which is hardly surprising, given her reputation. “You didn’t strike me as a dancer.”

“Thomas has a weird thing for ballet.” She shrugs nonchalantly. “I went to a few performances with him and it just sort of stuck with me.”

“He gets that from Lara.” Natasha bends, twisting around in a move that should probably be impossible. “Who gets it from me.”

Kara lets out her breath in an exhaled whoosh. “Of course he does.”

“For what it’s worth, he hated keeping her from you,” the other woman offers, sliding into an arabesque, holding her leg aloft. “It was one of the hardest things I think he’s ever done.”

Kara feels her muscles bunch in irritation and drops to the floor to loosen them up all over again. “I never pressured him once when he would come back from wherever they were. But I won’t apologise for hating secrets.”

“In our line of work, sometimes secrets are the only thing keeping people alive.”

A fact which Kara knows all too well. She feels her frustration and anger softening by degrees.

Natasha lifts up onto her toes, effortlessly holding herself en pointe in a way that makes Kara more than a little envious. “Skye’s decision to keep Lara from Ward -- and, by extension, you -- is ultimately her own. But you should know that Thomas grew up because of it. And there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that he loves you very much.”

Kara packs up her things quietly, considering the other woman’s words carefully. She turns back from the door to find Natasha continuing to move through the positions at the barre, deadly grace and lethal strength evident in the way she arches lithely and drapes her limbs according to the strict discipline required of a lifelong student. This is not a woman who minces words or who says things untrue to the people she deems worthy of her respect.

It means something that she would share this with her.

“Thank you.”

Natasha nods fractionally, acknowledging the seriousness behind the simple gratitude. Then she takes off across the room in a series of leaping grand jetes and graceful movements that are better than any ballet performance Kara has ever witnessed.

Kara meets the other woman’s eyes with a smile upon her return and leaves the deadly assassin to her ballet in peace.

*

Lara can’t fall asleep.

It’s certainly not for a lack of trying that’s for sure.

“Stop thinking so loud.” Ranger’s voice cuts into her thoughts.

“Easy for you to say,” she retorts, curling her legs into her chest, wrapping her arms around them.

He exhales in measured counts, then the sounds of a sleeping bag being opened and kicked aside hit the air. The next thing she knows, he’s sitting beside her and it should be stupid, but she already feels about ten thousand times better.

I seriously need to get a grip .

“When I first started working for your dad, I would stay up all hours of the night hacking. He would get so mad.” Ranger chuckles, fondly remembering it.

“He does that a lot,” Lara sullenly replies, kicking a few pebbles near her feet. “Thought he was going to take my head off when I picked up Mjolnir this morning.”

“You know why, right?” When she shakes her head, he hauls her in close by the shoulders. “Because he loves you.”

She stiffens under his arm. “You can’t be serious.”

“Lara.” Ranger kisses her temple softly, trying to take the sting out of his words. “Haven’t you noticed how he takes care of everyone? There’s nothing he hates more than not being able to protect his family.” When she just stares at him in shock, he goads, “Kind of like this hurricane I know…”

“It’s not like that,” she says, protesting.

“Oh, so we’re not out in the woods in the middle of nowhere because you’re totally interested in learning how to use your abilities for good so that you can help rescue your mom?”

Crickets chirp mournfully, as if sensing the gravity of the conversation.

“…I hate you.” Lara finally says, elbowing him. It’s basically pointless though, as he doesn’t move or look even the slightest bit put out.

“No you don’t.” He pulls her closer, and she rests her head on his shoulder. “You and me, Lara loo. We’ve got this.”

‘This’ is terrifying. What Thor was saying before, how we’re supposedly more powerful or whatever as a team.”

“You doubt it?”

“No, I just…” She lets her head fall back against his arm, tilting her neck to look at him. “How do we even make that happen? It’s not like there’s a guidebook about it.”

“There probably is somewhere on Asgard,” Ranger says, tugging her to her feet. “But I have an idea.”

“You always do.” Lara says, allowing him to tow her a good distance away. “I don’t know how, but somehow you always know exactly what to do.”

“You know that’s only because it’s you, right?” His matter of fact tone has Lara stumbling badly. “Easy, hurricane.”

“What it is with people in my life and rudely dropping truth bombs like it’s no big deal?” Lara mutters, trying to will her heart rate to settle.

He stops abruptly, causing Lara to plow directly into his back. With infinite gentleness and reverence for the moment, Ranger turns, putting both hands on her shoulders. Keeping her steady, while everything else seems to fly around them wildly.

“We’ve danced around this before,” he tucks a rogue stand of hair behind her ear, eyes locked on hers. “But you have to know: You’re it for me. As long as you want me, I’m by your side.”

Lara has to close her eyes against the absolutely staggering wave of of emotion that swells in her heart at his words.

“And it has nothing to do with whatever the norns say, or what Thor believes is in store for us –”

“– oh, so you caught that too?” Her voice shakes as she valiantly tries to lighten the moment.

“– and everything to do with how I feel about you and how unbelievably proud I am of you for gritting your teeth and knuckling down and getting through this.” He takes a deep breath, cupping her cheek. “You knock me flat, Lara. And that’s the truth.”

It feels like her heart is going to beat clear out of her chest.

Despite all of this and the way it feels like everything has been chosen for them, he still finds a way to let her know that he’s choosing her regardless of the consequences. 

There is literally nothing she can think of to say to him; nothing that will encompass all the feelings she has, and the relief of being safe and understood after so many years of running from place to person to things, constantly searching for a haven in the midst of everything crumbling down.

There is only Ranger and the way she feels about him. She feels so much, it is almost painful.

Here goes nothing.

Lara surges up on her toes, throwing her arms around his neck.

And she kisses him.

*

Thomas already is in bed when Kara gets out of the shower after her workout with Natasha.

“So don’t let this go to your head or anything,” she says, slipping under the covers, “But you’re a good man, Thomas. I’m really proud of you.”

The tablet he’s reading falls out of his hands.

She powers down her phone and is about to turn off the lights when she realises he still hasn’t made a sound. Kara glances over to find Thomas motionless beside her. She rolls her eyes. “It’s going to your head, isn’t it?”

Thomas blinks owlishly at her.

“Go to sleep.” Kara heaves a particularly drawn out sigh of long suffering and flips the lights.

There is silence and then:

“Is this about your ring?”

"...What?”

“You want a bigger one? Is that what this is about?”

She scowls at him, and then, remembering he can’t see her, flips the lights back on full power. “No! For god’s sake, this thing is already huge enough as it is.”

It is quiet again in the bedroom and, deeming the matter settled, Kara turns the lights out again. 

She’s drifting off to sleep when she hears him whispering softly.

“...I’m a good man.”

“I will literally kick you out of this bed,” Kara growls, dragging the pillow over her head.

“Even you won’t kick a good man when he’s down,” Thomas grins into the darkness, reaching for her. “You’re such a softy, Palamas.”

“If you hadn’t superglued this ring to my finger, I swear to god,” She threatens, though it’s somewhat undermined by the way she nestles comfortably against his chest.

“It wouldn’t matter, you know why? Because I love you.” Thomas whoops gleefully when she goes still in his arms at his words. “Big bad specialist is afraid to talk about her feelings, oooooooh.”

Kara moves until she is straddling him, long hair curtaining them off from the rest of the world. “You wanna talk about feelings?”

“Hell yes.” He lifts a hand, threading it through her hair. “Do your worst.”

“I intend to,” She promises, leaning down to kiss him. “FYI... It’s probably going to take a while.”

Cocky to the very end, he smirks up at her, eyes sparkling wickedly. “I had my wheaties today. I can handle you.”

“We’ll just see about that, pretty boy.” 

*

With Lara’s lips against his, it takes a few seconds for his brain to kick back on. Unfortunately because she’s caught him totally off guard, they stumble as Ranger completely loses his balance, falling backward and taking Lara down with him.

He lands on his back, instinctively turning so that she isn’t crushed beneath him.

“Smooth,” Lara taunts, giggling at the cloud of dust that has sprung up around them.

Ranger stares up at her with wonder in his eyes before ducking his head and kissing her again. When she finally pulls away, gasping for air, he grins ruefully. “I wasn’t wrong when I said you knock me flat.”

She groans theatrically at his pun. “Oh my god, that was terrible.”

He shifts, bringing his knees up and planting his feet on the ground so that she can recline against his legs. “Terrible, huh?”

Lara can’t keep the shy smile off her face. “I mean, from what I’ve heard, as far as first kisses go --” Ranger’s grip tightens sharply on her waist, and she yelps loudly. “What the hell?”

“First kiss.” He echoes dumbly, making a conscious effort to loosen his hands.

She shrugs restlessly. “Don’t make a huge deal out of it. I just hadn’t really found anyone I wanted to do that with.” She lifts her eyes to his. The honesty shining brightly in their hazel depths is staggering. “And then I met you.”

Lara.” He groans, sounding pained. “You can’t just tell me something like that and expect me to pretend like it’s not a big deal.”

The casual smile drops from her face, easy happiness replaced by an intensity he has only ever seen mirrored on Ward when talking about the things that mattered most. “I’m in this. With you, I mean. So Thor can tell the Universe to settle down or whatever because we’re doing this on our own terms but...” Her voice is steady and sure as she finishes, “I choose you.”

Ranger crushes her against his chest in a strong embrace, holding her close enough that she can feel his heart pounding under her ear like the fast thunder of a thoroughbred after a winning race. He puts his lips to her forehead and she gets a snapshot of emotion --

blessed fevered relief, oh thank god; the kind of security that sinks you under with its roots and strength, the type you need to move mountains; and above all, the budding power that glows from behind closed eyelids, with the certainty that nothing will stand in their way and

-- She pulls back from him, jaw dropped in awe. “Was that you or me?”

Ranger looks like he’s gone a round or two with an literal hurricane. “I think...” He takes a deep breath, reaching for her hesitantly. She goes into his arms without question. “It might have been both of us.”

A loud snore cuts through the night, effectively shattering the moment. They freeze suddenly, panic stricken and unsure of what to do next. There is one more ear-splitting snore and then, Thor relapses into quiet slumber again.

Lara shakes from within the circle of his arms and he grows worried, until she tips her face up to reveal laughter that escapes from her in fits and bursts. The tension melts away into the night but she can’t seem to stop giggling.

“I really thought he was going to bring the forest down on our heads,” Ranger admits, looking relieved.

“Nah,” Lara says, getting to her feet. She offers him a hand, tugging him up. “That’s what you have me for.”

Thor loudly snores again, this time Lara backing into Ranger from the jarring volume. She stares at him with wide eyes. “How do you think Jane sleeps at night?”

He shrugs, considering. “Earplugs.”

Lara dissolves into laughter again, all but collapsing against his side as he grins down at her.

You are so good for me. I’m definitely not thrilled about what happened to mom but god am I glad it led me to you.

Ranger squeezes her hand reassuringly. “Same goes, Hurricane.” When she looks at him in slight alarm, he winces slightly. “I’m think we bulldozed past whatever thing was holding us back before. I read you pretty loud and clear.”

She inhales shakily, trying to juggle this new bit of information to the rapidly building tower of knowledge threatening to overwhelm on a daily basis. Lara discards several possible responses before settling on: “I should kiss you more often.”  

This time she is quick enough to let go of his hand just before he stumbles so that she doesn’t fall down with him.

*

Ward is on his way back to his room when he sees the lights on in the kitchen. He detours, intending to close it down for the night when he finds Bucky and Natasha sharing a bottle of wine.

They look up immediately at the sound of his approach, instinctively coming to attention until they fully register his presence. “Sorry,” he says, apologising clumsily. For some reason, it feels like he’s interrupting a moment. 

“It’s fine.” Bucky slides a empty glass across the counter. “Got room for one more.”

Natasha is silent, her gaze measuring as she waits for him to decide whether or not he will accept the invitation.

He takes a deep breath and takes the seat across from them. Bucky pours him a generous portion of merlot, and Ward has to smile privately at the label. “I see you discovered the wine cellars.”

“If it’s worth knowing about -- we do.” Bucky is not even remotely apologetic.

Natasha seems content to remain on the outside of the conversation as the two men argue the merits of vintages until her phone chirps once with a message. Her eyes widen slightly as the information scrolls down the screen.

“Stark?” Bucky murmurs, slipping a hand on her leg and squeezing gently.

Ward grimaces. It’s a lot like watching his parents be affectionate with each other. So uncalled for.

“Tony has been working on this for the past two days.” Natasha smirks, catching the look of disgust on Ward’s face. Her next words wipe the look away completely. “He thinks he’s located the facility where Skye is being held. When Thor comes back with the kids tomorrow, we’ll leave after sundown to check it out.”

While he is scrambling to recover, Bucky casually adds, “Just think: Had we brought Stark along, you’d never have a moment’s peace. Loves to spoil your daughter."

“He knows about her too?” Ward is aghast. “I will never live this down. The man is insufferable.”

“You’re not wrong,” Bucky raises his glass in agreement.

“You should get a decent night’s sleep,” Natasha advises, completely brushing aside the men and their over the top reactions. “There are no guarantees, and tomorrow is going to be a long day.” 

“...You’re sending me to bed?” Ward stares at her in disbelief.

“Would you prefer I seduce him in front of you?” Natasha coolly inquires, sliding out of her seat and into Bucky’s lap.

Ward is out of the kitchen like a rocket. “I can’t believe you two!” He’s out of sight within seconds.

Bucky smiles against her lips. “Gets ‘em every time."

 

Chapter Text

The next morning Natasha finds Ward in the kitchen, staring out the window blankly.

“You’re worried.” She moves around the kitchen like she’s been there for years, pulling out the ingredients for pancakes. Ward looks at her without any kind of recognition and she sighs, firmly pushing him over to one of the bar stools. “Sit.”

He does, preferring to look into his mug of coffee like it holds the secrets of the universe.

She mixes the batter with a firm hand, adding more components with every couple of strokes. “Lara is a brave girl, and we will all be there with you. I’m not the type to make promises but you know that we won’t let anything happen to her.”

Ward just slumps lower in his seat and Natasha eyes him critically as she adjusts the flame under the skillet. “This is about Skye.”

“Course it is,” Bucky chimes in as he enters the kitchen, taking the seat next to Ward. He swipes the coffee and drains it in a few gulps, pushing it back to Natasha with a winning smile. She pours more, then offers a fresh mug to Ward, doctored exactly the way he prefers.

“Thanks,” Ward says, gratefully closing his hand around the coffee. He drinks quietly and Bucky is more than halfway through his third helping of pancakes when Ward speaks up again. “You realise this could go all go sideways very fast.”

“That’s the nature of our life, punk.” Bucky nods, shaking his head when she offers more. Natasha pushes the pancakes in front of Ward with a sharp look. He rolls his eyes and dutifully begins eating.

“Doesn’t mean we’re gonna let you rescue anyone without having as many variables covered as possible.” Bucky pulls up the latest plans on a nearby tablet, shoving it under Ward’s elbow. “Study those. I think you’ll like what we came up with.”

Ward skims through the details with an alertness that tells Natasha he’s got his head back in the game. She exchanges a look with Bucky. “There’s something else.”

Ward closes his eyes and counts to ten. “If you’re about to tell me that I have a son hidden out there, too --”

Her throaty laughter surprises him out of his moody funk. “No. It’s about Lara.”

“God.” He pinches the bridge of his nose. “What now?”

*

Lara wakes up to find a steaming mug of coffee within reach. There’s a note propped up against the side.

thor made breakfast. come get me when you’re ready. -r.

She rubs the sleep from her eyes with a groan. “Remind me never to go camping again.”

“Rise and shine, Hurricane.” Ranger pokes his head into view. “How ya doing?”

Lara peeks at him between her fingers. “I need to brush my teeth and a metric ton of that coffee. Please tell me we aren’t eating anything weird for breakfast.”

“Lara.” Ranger easily snares one of her hands, tangling their fingers together.

Trust me.

She closes her eyes, bringing their joined hands up to her temple. “You know that I do.”

He places a mini kit with a toothbrush and paste inside. “Gonna have to share.”

“I’m an only child,” Lara gives him a sideways glare. “I hate sharing.”

“Make an exception,” Ranger helpfully suggests with a grin. “Promise I don’t have cooties.”

“Ugh.” She grumbles, rolling from bed and ducking under his arm with the travel kit in hand. “Give me five minutes.”

Lara exits the quinjet after having cleaned herself up to find Ranger leaning against the liftgate. Something about the way he stands there, steady and sure and waiting for her, has her stumbling over her feet.

“Whoa, easy.” Ranger’s at her side in seconds, steadying her easily. He tilts his head in surprise, glancing at her speculatively. He pauses, keeping a hand at her waist.

“What are you doing?” Lara looks impatiently

“Hey.” He smiles down at her, tucking the hair behind her ear. “Let’s try this again.”

“What the mmmpf--” The rest of Lara’s response is muffled under Ranger’s mouth as he lowers his head and kisses her softly. When he pulls away, Lara is completely dazed and at a loss for words.

“Um.” She blinks.

“Mmm. Minty fresh.” Ranger ducks back in for another teasing kiss. “Let’s get breakfast.”

“Sure.” Lara blinks again, this time more slowly. “Okay.”

He can’t hide the grin on his face as he takes her hand and they begin walking.

“Ah,” Thor gives them an approving nod on their approach. “You have handfasted.”

There is something about the weight of his statement that has Ranger dropping Lara’s hand like it is on fire. “What? No. What?”

Somewhat rather more in possession of her mental faculties, she glances at him sideways. “Having second thoughts there?” He throws her a pleading glance and Lara takes pity on him, focusing her attention on the demi god. “No handfasting, Thor. Just a good old fashioned heart-to-heart.”

Thor takes in their close proximity and the newfound ease between them with a smile. “Yes. It has benefited you both greatly.”

Lara thinks about the late night stories they had swapped about her parents (she had no idea her father was so dramatic) with a smile.

“I have received word that we are to rescue your mother after dusk.” Thor silently observes as Lara reels her emotions back in tightly. “There are a few more things I would ask you to learn before we head back.”

I want to go now. I want Mom back more than anything and I want her safe and I want --

The reassuring weight of Ranger’s arm around her shoulders settles moments later. She leans into him almost unconsciously, relaxing slowly by degrees. 

Ranger squeezes her gently, drawing her gaze. He raises an eyebrow as if asking, Okay?

She nods, taking a deep breath and pulling strength from his calm presence at her side. “Okay, big guy. Lay it on me.”

“Well done,” Thor offers to Ranger. “You've found a way to anchor.”

“When your hurricane keeps surprising you,” Ranger smiles wryly, kissing Lara’s forehead, “You learn pretty quickly that you’d better plant roots and hang on.”

“Indeed.” And Thor’s eyes gleam proudly. “Now we train on an idea my Jane believes will work for you.”

Lara frowns. “Isn’t she like, a brilliant physicist? Ripping holes into the laws of space and time?” Her eyes grow wide. “Wait, no. Please don’t tell me I can do that.”

“No, little Hurricane.” Thor seems to take her panic in stride. “But we are going to work on your precision.”

Ranger’s eyes grow distant as he processes Thor’s statement. “You mean like a kind of targeting system?”

“Exactly that, yes.”

Lara shrinks back slightly. “Uh, guys? Would this be an appropriate time to tell you that I have a terrible habit of getting lost? And that I can’t really read a map.”

Special,” Ranger teases, briefly tickling from where his hand has slid to her waist.

She glares, batting his hand aside. “No, really. I’m terrible with directions.”

Thor glances speculatively at Ranger, who seems to pick up the thread with ease.

“Yeah. Objectively speaking, I’d have to say that you’re pretty awful.” Ranger grins widely at the furious look on her face. “But I’m not.”

*

Their training is intense; somehow equal parts exhausting and invigorating.

Ranger flies them back to base in somewhat of a daze while Lara drowsily rests curled on the bench with Thor’s cape draped over her. She wakes up when they land on the roof.

They make good time back to the compound, arriving well after lunch and head straight for the control room, where Ranger had been informed the team is waiting for them.

Natasha and Bucky greet them with warm smiles, and Thomas lifts a hand from where he leans over Kara’s shoulder, peering intently at the quinjet schematics. She makes a note, glancing up briefly to smile in greeting at them, and then yanks sharply on his ear to get him to focus.

Thomas howls in protest and redirects his attention, making frantic notes on the page next to them.

Meanwhile Ward is glaring at a large box on the conference table as if it has somehow physically offended him.

My dad is so weird.

“We have something for you.” Natasha surprises her by pushing the large box firmly towards Lara. It slides across the table easily despite the obvious weight inside. When she reaches as if to open it, Bucky interrupts, “Wait.” He fishes a small device from his pocket, tossing it to her. “Play that first.”

Lara grins down at the StarkTech microplayer in her hand, pressing her thumb against the drive to activate the message.

“Hey Princess.” Tony Stark’s voice fills the room. “Just so we’re absolutely clear, I am in no way endorsing this thing where you run off and try to save the world. So don’t get any ideas.”

Lara giggles at the obvious exasperation in his voice, meeting Natasha’s eyes with a grin.

“But in what universe did you really think I’d let you go out into the field unprotected, much less looking anything less than the rockstar you are? PS: Pepper picked out the boots.” The box opens of its own accord, revealing a tactical suit that would make grown men cry at its beauty and a terrifying pair of boots both lethal and functional. “PSS: I’m kicking your mom’s ass for ditching the tracker I put on her.”

“Mom’s going to kick her own ass for ditching that tracker,” Lara distractedly murmurs, reverently gliding her hands across the black kevlar and leather garment. She fixes her attention on Natasha and Bucky. “Thank you.”

Ward grits his teeth, looking like he wants to murder someone. It is obvious he is displeased but unclear what, specifically, will take the brunt of his anger. “She ditched a tracker Stark put on her?” Before Lara can pipe up in response, he slams a fist down on the table, rattling the contents of her suit and causing her to jump in surprise. “I have half a mind to kick everyone’s ass right now -- primarily hers, for being so stupid and reckless.”

“Gosh this all sounds so familiar,” Ranger drawls laconically, breaking the painful tension in the room.

“Shut up,” Lara and Ward chorus.

He merely offers up a shit-eating grin in response. “I just can’t imagine where she might have picked up that troubling habit.”

Ranger.” Ward grits out by way of warning.

“What is that even supposed to mean?” Lara peevishly asks, glancing at Ranger and then her father.

“Dear god.” Thomas says, dropping his head onto Kara’s shoulder.

She reaches up, patting his neck comfortingly. “Buck up, cowboy.”

“Think of it like a puzzle you’re putting together.” Ranger winks. “You just need a few more pieces. You’ll see.”

Lara frowns at him. “Why does it feel like everyone knows what’s going on but me?” 

“It’s a terrible way to go through life, isn’t it?” Ward pointedly glares at Thomas, then turns his gaze to an unruffled Natasha and Bucky. The other man has the audacity to smirk as he puts an arm around the redhead’s shoulder. Ward shudders briefly and redirects his attention to the rest of the room.

“If you would just tell me, then maybe I could understand, and we wouldn’t be talking in circles right now.” She stomps her foot, yanking the tac suit closer and pouting with extreme displeasure. “This is so unfair.”

“Life’s not fair,” Ward chuckles bitterly, flinging himself into the chair at the head of the table.

The room is quiet as everyone absorbs the alarming resemblance between Lara and Ward in their sulking mood. Natasha bites down on the grin that wants to escape, while Bucky has no such compunction and smirks broadly.

“At least we know you come by your dramatics honestly,” Kara mutters to Thomas, who lifts his head in outrage. “How is this always my fault?”

“Drama queen,” Ranger sings under his breath.

Lara lifts her head, looking between Thomas and her father. “You know, this actually makes a lot of sense. Doesn’t bode well for later, but it makes sense.”

“It’ll be fine.” Ranger slides into the seat beside her. “Everyone’s just a little wound up right now.”

“Understatement of the year. You can’t tell, but he’s about seconds away from losing his chill completely. It’s the effect Skye has on him.” Kara loftily informs, much to Lara’s evident delight.

“I am not,” Ward hisses. “I am the definition of calm right now.”

“One hundred and twelve percent untrue,” Thomas contradicts in an openly bored tone.

When it looks like Ward is about to lunge for Thomas’s throat, Natasha slides in between the two brothers. “Children. Don’t we have a rescue mission to mount?”

Favorite,” Bucky mumbles in derision, shaking his head.

“Whatever.” Ward grumbles, shooting a dirty look at the older man, then his brother.

“I thought I was your favorite.” Lara complains, glancing back at Natasha for reassurance.

Natasha comes around the table to envelop her in a warm hug. “You are, malyshka.”

When Ward continues to pout in earnest, Thomas whistles under his breath. “Wow, your face looks super weird right now. Please go back to brooding. This is making me uncomfortable.”

“He needs to express his emotions.” Natasha reprimands sharply. “Let him have this, Thomas.”

“Jesus. That’s...” Thomas turns to Kara for backup. “Did she just mom me? I think she did.”

“This is what happens when you shoot from the hip like a moron.” She offers no sympathy, returning her attention to the quinjet schematics.

“...You’re so kind.”

“What?” Kara shrugs. “Everyone else is right, you’re wrong. It’s okay, I still love you.” The last part comes out sounding slightly strained, as she speaks with some difficulty.

Thomas cracks a grin. “And I love that we’ve reached the point in our relationship where you can say that and almost look like you’re not choking on it.”

“I will cut you,” Kara warns, looking decidedly angry.

“You know, when you get all homicidal it actually turns me on.” He leans back in his seat cockily, widening his legs suggestively.

“Godspeed, Kara.” Ranger says around a laugh, saluting her. Kara drags her hands up to cover her face, mumbling something under her breath sounding suspiciously like stupid ward family and emotional duress. “It must run in the family.”

“I will slay you where you stand,” Ward promises in a low, deadly tone.

“Actually you won’t,” Lara interjects, getting to her feet and coming in front of Ranger defensively. It’s more than a little humorous, considering he’s almost a foot taller than her and she’s currently wearing flats, which means she doesn’t even come up to his shoulder.

“Is that a challenge? Because I can shoot the legs off a flea from five hundred yards... away as long as it’s not windy.”

Lara gapes at her father. “Are you... calling me a flea?”

He looks down at his hands. “It was a joke.”

“Oh my god,” Thomas loses the fight to remain composed, falling out of his chair in hysterical laughter. “Oh god. Help him.”

“I have been waiting my entire life for this,” Ranger gleefully rubs his hands together.

Hey.” Lara slants him a look.

“I mean, after finding you, of course.” He quickly reassures. “It’s just, I’d heard stories about this, that he was the king of really bad jokes. I thought it was some kind of urban myth.”

“I know how to laugh,” Ward retorts in an injured voice.

“Like I said. Urban myth.”

“I like this,” Lara says, leaning into his shoulder comfortably.

Ward narrows his gaze to where she’s slouched against Ranger. “What’s going on here? Has anyone addressed this yet?”

“It’s really not that big a deal,” Lara mumbles in embarrassment, sinking lower as if trying to actually hide from his searing gaze.

“I assure you, this is perfectly normal,” Thor proclaims from his seat at the other end of the table. “They have not even hand-fasted yet. I inquired.”

Ward’s jaw drops open.

“Oh god,” Lara drags her hands up to cover the flaming blush that ignites her cheeks, and Ranger kicks out the chair next to him for her to drop down into.

“When you say hand fasted...” Thomas’s voice is strained, like he can’t get enough air into his lungs. 

“It is customary for bondmates to handfast as a symbol of their commitment together.” Thor frowns, trying put the concept into Midgardian terms. “I believe it is referred to as a betrothal here.”

Ward chokes.

Thomas’s jaw drops open.

“Sweet lord,” Kara closes her eyes and prays for strength. Then she opens them, smacking Ranger on the back of the head. “You didn’t even get her a ring? We raised you better than that!”

“This is all NEWS TO ME,” Ranger insists loudly, batting her hands away.

“No one,” Ward begins, struggling to breathe calmly. “And I mean no one, is getting married.”

“I mean... some of us are getting married,” Kara smirks, winking at Thomas secretively. He throws her a set of finger guns. She rolls her eyes, but doesn’t hide the happy curve of her lips.

“Chill, old man,” Lara pushes back from the table with an indulgent smile. “I haven’t even taken him for a spin yet.”

Bucky cannot muffle the bark of laughter from behind his hand and even Natasha seems to be flirting with the semblance of a smile as she pores over the building schematics.

“You did not just say that.” Ward glares at her.

“This is how it ends,” Thomas says, staring in awe at the anger simmering between his niece and his brother. “We’ll never rescue Skye because she won’t have a family left to come back to.”

“Ranger, I’d advise you move that chair to the opposite side of the room before you find it somewhere on your person you won’t enjoy,” Ward threatens.

Ranger counts to five, pulling Lara behind him protectively. “Remember that thing Thor taught us to do in times of peril?”

Lara glances at him in bewilderment. “Do you really think now is an appropriate time for that?”

“To be honest, I think I’m seconds away from being murdered,” he calmly explains, “And this might be my best bet so I can remain among the living.”

Okay,” Lara doubtfully agrees, “But for the record, I think this is a mistake.”

“Perhaps you should have considered that before waving the equivalent of a conversational red flag in front of your father.” His voice pitches up at the end as he notes the way Ward is reclining to more easily reach for his favorite knife.

Lara’s eyes narrow deviously as she thinks of another way to defuse the situation. “You know, Mom wouldn’t be making such a big deal out of this.”

“Your mother has demonstrated some questionable judgement in the past,” Ward fires back, seeing right through his daughter’s attempts to cut the tension.

“I’ll say,” she mumbles sarcastically. Lara rolls her eyes, turning back to Ranger. “You know he’d never do anything to you.”

“I actually don’t know that, thank you very much.”

She folds her arms resolutely. “Please. You’ve been with him forever, long before I came along. You’ll be here after I’m gone.”

“You’re not...” Ranger swallows audibly, trying to regain the conversation over the panic clawing at his throat. The idea of her leaving is somehow unbearable. “Going anywhere, though. Right?” Before Lara can defend herself, he rushes on, “If you wanted to go somewhere, that’d be cool. I could come with you or visit, or something.”

“If I go, you go,” Lara firmly reassures, reaching for his hand and squeezing tightly. “End of story.”

Ward pinches the bridge of his nose in an attempt to stem the building frustration. “I’m not really comfortable with the way this conversation is heading.”

“I --” Lara whirls around to face him, eyes flaring with displeasure.

Enough.” He snaps. “Stop. No one is going anywhere. You’re both here to stay. End of discussion.”

“You could have at least asked.” Lara sniffs disdainfully. “It’s not like I’m incapable of making my own decisions. I think I’ve done okay so far, and we’ve come a long way from where we started  --”

Ranger slips his free hand over her mouth, smiling broadly. “Great idea, boss. We’d love to stay.”

“Have you ever seen such a dysfunctional group?” Thomas asks, elbowing Kara. “Small blessing that we make this look good.”

She snorts. “Just wait until Skye gets back. She’s going to bring this to a whole new level.”

“I honestly don’t know if we have the insurance to cover the damage they’re going to do.”

Ranger cautiously removes his hand from Lara’s mouth. “I mean, I just reupped all our premiums. Seemed wise.”

“You’re a good man, Ranger.”

Lara rolls her eyes, stepping away from him with a huff. “Clearly you have no idea what my mother is capable of.”

“She’s right. Goodbye, beautiful home.” Thomas glances around the room mournfully. “Not even insurance can save us from that impending catastrophe.”

Three is silence and then:

“The base isn’t equipped to handle that kind of backlash.” Kara frowns thoughtfully.

“Screw the base, babe. I’m worried about the eastern seaboard. It’s gonna be leveled before my brother manages to get a single word out.”

Lara claps a hand over her mouth at her uncle’s over the top theatrics, flashing a grateful smile at Ranger. This is exactly what she needed to calm down after the excitement of the day, and somehow he knew it.

Ranger winks at her. “I’ve heard stories, but she sounds pretty cool to me.”

“If you think he’s scary,” Kara lifts her eyebrows significantly where Ward is sitting at the end of the table, head in his hands as if in extreme pain. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”

Lara snorts. “Yeah, there’s like this crazy rumor she’s some kind of alien princess or something.”

Silence.

Ward lifts his head bleakly. “I thought Afterlife had been destroyed.”

This time, Lara is frowning. “What’s Afterlife?”

He widens his eyes in barely concealed panic. “Nothing.”

*

They break around dinner, and Kara asks Lara to come back to the apartment  she shares with Thomas.

It looks nothing like her father’s rooms, or even the suite of rooms she has. It’s all high ceilings and bright colors, with warm mahogany furniture and comfortable textures.

In short, it looks like a house that got shoe-horned into the space. A house that belongs somewhere else. One would never know it was nestled inside the compound.

“I have a thing for... space.” Kara sheepishly explains, off Lara’s wide-eyed stare. “Your uncle was kind enough to indulge me.”

Lara trails her fingers along a beautifully inlaid bookcase. “Thomas did this?”

There’s a strained pause and a light flush as Kara slowly answers, “He’s good with his hands.”

Gross.” The teenager complains, but her smile is fond.

“Anyway. I have something for you.” Kara clears her throat. “You don’t have to keep it or anything, but I thought you might want this.” She digs through the chest of drawers until she locates the item in triumph. In her hand is a black something with fasteners that Lara doesn’t quite recognise.

Kara observes her confusion and reveals the item to be a leather accessory of some kind with attached hood. “It was your mother’s. She wore it a long time ago.”

Lara blinks, reaching for the cowl with an awed sort of detachment. “How did you...”

The other woman grimaces slightly. “That’s not important.” At Lara’s knowing look, Kara shrugs casually. “It’ll look nice with that fancy suit your other super aunt and uncles cooked up for you. Figured you could have this as a gift from Thomas and I.”

Kara grows noticeably uncomfortable by the prolonged silence and damp eyed looks that Lara keeps throwing her way -- that is, when she can take her eyes off the cowl, which is proving to be increasingly difficult.

“I love it,” Lara finally announces, throwing herself at the other woman.

Ooof.” Kara struggles to keep her footing, the wind totally knocked out of her. Lara squeezes tightly, mindless of the way the cowl is crushed between them. “Guess it’s true. Hurricanes pack quite a punch,” she murmurs, carding a hand through her niece’s hair.

The sound of the door opening wider draws her eyes and she looks up to find Thomas standing in the doorway, watching them. His eyes shine with pride and the emotion she is no longer scared to identify as love (after all this time, she finally recognises it for what it is) and she lifts her chin in invitation for him to join them. He shakes his head, slipping away quietly with a genuine smile and Kara is pleased to see that his shoulders no longer slump under an invisible weight these days.

God, what a family.

“You should probably talk to you dad at some point before we leave tonight.”

Lara bites her lip, recalling the scene from earlier that afternoon. “Come with me?”

Kara chuckles. “I’ll walk you there, Lara loo. But then you’re on your own.”

The teen sighs dramatically. “He’s gonna kill me.”

*

Her knock on the door is met with a muffled command to enter. Lara throws an uneasy glance at her aunt, but Kara just nods reassuringly. “It’s okay.”

They enter the room to find the lights blazing and various weapons spread across the desk. Ward has a holster strapped on and is clad in black tactical gear, not unlike the uniform she’s seen Bucky wear when he suited up for Avengers business. Other than the day they met, she hasn’t seen this side of her father and it’s slightly jarring. Lara unthinkingly steps back, bumping into Kara, as she takes in just how dangerous and lethal he really is.

Ward’s gaze lands on the cowl around Lara’s neck immediately. “I thought you said you burned that thing.” He remarks, voice deceptively mild.

Kara refuses to react in kind, lifting her shoulders in an innocent shrug. “I lied.”

He glares at her, but they both know he isn’t really mad. “Get out of here. Lord only know what Thomas has gotten into now.”

“Idiocy tends to run in the family,” Kara lightly retorts, and there is something in the air behind her statement has such a charge it has Lara’s head snapping up curiously.

“Thank you,” Ward finally manages, voice soft and humble. Kara gives him a half smile which conveys much more than any combination of words ever could.

Lara orders herself not to fidget under her father’s straightforward inspection.

“Suit fits well,” Ward finally says, dropping his gaze to the disassembled gun on the desk. He puts it back together fluidly, with the kind of practiced movements that tell her he’s done this many times before. When she doesn’t respond, her eyes glued to the weapon in his hands, he sighs heavily. “Lara.”

She comes to attention with a jolt. “Yeah?”

He raises an amused eyebrow. “I’m not mad at you.”

“Could have fooled me,” She grumbles, tension visibly draining at his words.

“It’s my job to worry about you. That means I have the right to challenge anything that I deem a potential threat to you.” His tone is firm, but not unkind.

“I thought Ranger was your best man.”

“He is.” Ward agrees easily, taking the wind out of her sails. “That doesn’t automatically make him good enough for my only daughter.”

Her jaw drops open. “But --”

Lara. Did you really think we were going to leave without confronting the elephant in the room?”

“I was kind of hoping to avoid it,” she sulks, throwing herself onto the couch.

Ward pushes the gun and its parts aside, coming around to sit on the edge of the desk. “Sometimes when you’re charging into high risk situations and emotions are involved, things can get... messy.” Now it is Lara’s turn to raise her eyebrows pointedly. “Just... don’t wind up in a storage closet with him somewhere, okay?”

Her eyebrows merge together in confusion. “Are you feeling all right?”

“Look. Your aunts and uncles are there to help, and we’re all going in for the same goal: to get your mom back. But that doesn’t give you license to do anything stupid.” When she lifts her chin at him stubbornly as if to protest, he sets his jaw. “Lara.”

“Fine.” She huffs, knowing exactly what he wants from her. “I promise not to do anything stupid.”

Ward squints at her suspiciously. “Are you crossing your toes right now?”

Lara flushes slightly. “...No.”

He has to make her understand the severity of this; has to somehow drum into her that the stakes so higher than just rescuing Skye. “I need you to swear to me that you’ll do what I say. Even if you don’t want to. Even if it doesn’t make sense to you at the time.” Ward shrugs, folding his arms as if it is of little consequence. “Otherwise, there’s always the option to lock you up here and then we don’t even have to worry about --”

“-- I promise.” She spits, glaring at him mutinously.

Watching the emotions dance across her face, Ward has never been so sharply reminded of the day they’d first met. “Some things never change,” he mumbles under his breath. He shouldn’t be comforted by that, but there’s something incredibly reassuring that she’s still the same Lara with all that fire, underneath the heaviness of what she’s lost and learned over her time spent in his care. If nothing else, he knows Skye will accept that.

Clad in her new gear, Lara paces the length of the room restlessly. She looks like a dark avenging kind of angel, and the wind outside is howling restless in answer to her emotional distress. She’s going to wear a serious path in the carpet if she doesn’t stop. Before Ward can attempt to put her at ease, she blurts, “Mom was right, you know.”

He leans back against the bedpost, absorbing that statement. “Your mother tends to be right about a lot of things, though I can’t guarantee I won’t deny it if you tell her I said that.”

It does the trick of generating a conspiratorial -- if somewhat brief --  smile on Lara’s face. “She said you were a good man.”

It’s like the air has been punched from his lungs.

Ward looks at his daughter; this hurricane of a girl, with his temperament and her mother’s brutal determination and the faith that she has in him and it staggers him. How in the world had he wound up so lucky? Certainly he’d never done anything to deserve this.

“Also... I wanted to thank you for keeping your promise.” At his puzzled look, Lara clarifies, “Keeping me safe.”

From somewhere (god only knows where) he finds the strength to say, “No matter what happens today, you’re part of this family. That will never change.” Ward gathers his composure long enough to stare at her very seriously, wanting her to understand the gravity behind his words. “I will always keep you safe.”

Lara launches herself at him in a fierce hug, catching him off guard (again, as always) and nearly crushing his throat in the process. Ward recovers nicely, gently tugging her down so that he can breathe a little easier (though it doesn’t explain why he’s got this unbearable tightness in his chest), cradling her head against his shoulder. “It might be too soon for this but,” he clears his throat gruffly, “I love you.”

He’s met with dead silence.

Eyes wide and glassy with emotion, Lara pulls away and opens her trembling mouth to reply, but the moment is lost as Natasha pokes her head through the door. “Wheels up in five.”

She glances at her father with overly bright eyes and ducks against him once more for a last minute hug, stealing the air from his lungs. “See you out there.” Then she takes a deep breath, squares her shoulders and walks out of the room.

Ward stares after her. “Just like her mother.”

*

When they’re about halfway there, Ranger drops the bomb.

“I don’t think Lara should use her abilities. At all.”

Thor gives Ranger a proud look, while the rest of the room -- including Lara herself -- gapes at him in confusion.

“Can I talk to you for a second,” Lara hisses, shooting him a dark look.

“Hear me out.” He puts his hands up, pleading for everyone to give him a chance. “We’re going to a facility where they are essentially hoarding Inhumans. They knew exactly who your mom was when they took her.” Ranger dips his head low to meet Lara’s furious gaze head on and raises his eyebrows significantly. “Sorry, but I’m not willing to lose you too.”

A broken wheeze escapes Ward until Bucky thumps him on the back companionably. “He’s fine.” The super soldier reports. “Just had to kickstart his breathing again.”

Kara rolls her eyes. “This family, I swear.”

Natasha passes over her vodka flask wordlessly, which Kara accepts with gratitude. She takes a measured sip and tosses it into Bucky’s open palm. He winks devilishly, eliciting a growl from Thomas and Kara rolls her eyes, heading back to the cockpit.

“As much as it pains me to admit this...” Ward begins, a pinched look on his face despite having apparently regained control over the use of his lungs. “Ranger is right.”

Lara stares at him in a combination of betrayal and shock.

“I’m sorry.” Ranger blinks. “Could you repeat that?”

Ward throws him an exasperated glare. “We need to go in and retain the element of surprise as long as possible.” He gives Lara an apologetic look. “Sorry sweetheart, but subtle isn’t exactly in your skillset.”

She gasps, stamping her foot in outrage. When Ranger does not come to her defense, instead remaining silent and thereby signaling his agreement with her father, she presses her lips together in fury. “I am so offended right now,” Lara announces to the quinjet at large, flouncing off to the cockpit.

Ranger exhales loudly, tipping his head back to rub his eyes with both palms.

“Ranger.” Ward waits for his protege to look at him. “Thank you.”

This time it is Ranger who has difficulty breathing. Thomas comes up behind him, goodnaturedly thumping him on the back. “If you kill him by accident, Lara will still be pissed at you.” He mildly warns.

Ward just smirks in response, pulling weapons off his body until they amass a large armory on the table. 

Natasha mutters a few uncomplimentary words under her breath that causes Bucky to glance at her with wounded eyes until she proves her point but chuffing Ward on the back of the head on her way to the cockpit.

“What was that?” Thomas demands. “What did she just say?”

Ranger ducks his head to hide a smile and is privately thankful he finished learning Russian. “Loosely translated... something about testosterone. I’m sure you can fill in the rest.”

*

The plan is fairly straightforward, but then -- plans backed by the Winter Soldier and the Black Widow often are.

Ward runs through the specifics one last time. “Thomas, Kara; you’re transport. Thor, on standby just in case anything goes wrong. Natasha and Bucky will be entrances and exits - get us in and get us out.” He looks at where Ranger and Lara are standing closely together.

There is no denying the sharp awareness to her features, the way she stands brave and ready. That she gets something very real from being at his side. And Ward can read the writing on the wall as far as his protege is concerned because he knows that look. He’s used to seeing it in the mirror.

Ranger is in love with her.

He’ll guard her with his life, with everything he’s got. There is no better protector he could have asked for.

“Lara. Ranger.” They look at him as one. “You’re with me. Let’s go.”

*

Bucky clears them a path with the kind of smile that tells everyone just how thrilled he is to be back in his element. Natasha moves in and out of shadows like a lover’s caress, proving that she’s every bit as home among them as she’s always been.

Ranger has taken care of the electronics because, well, that’s what Ranger does. And he does it very well; to the point where their tracks are covered with the kind of finesse that not even the Avengers worry about being seen by a camera.

Just before they’re about to split ways, Bucky claps a hand on Ward’s shoulder. “Go get your girl.”

Lara and Ranger are waiting for him to join them, impatience barely kept in check. Ward nods briefly, all business now. “I intend to.”

“Go easy on her.” Natasha intercepts him just before he gets to them. “Judging from the tapes, this has been a hell of an ordeal. On top of everything else, she’s lived with secrets and carried them on her own all this time.”

Ward trusts her enough to let her see the emotion simmering behind his eyes. “This is much bigger than Lara.”

“It’s about you both,” Natasha agrees quietly. “Don’t scare her off before she can talk to you.” She steps out of his way with a final reassuring squeeze to his shoulder.

It’s a dizzying sweep of turns and corridors until they get to the last sealed off gate.

Ranger pauses significantly. “She should be right beyond those doors.”

Lara is about tear down the barrier with her bare hands. Ward puts a hand out lightly. “Hold on. I go first.” When it looks like she is about to argue, he lifts his chin. “Problem, Lara? I can have Ranger take you back.”

She flexes her jaw in anger. “Can we just go?”

Ward looks to Ranger, who steps closer to Lara. “

There’s a loud crash and some muffled shouts. Ward attaches the small detonator, which busts through the doors in seconds. There’s a lot of smoke still clearing as finally they enter into the hallway in with a bit of shock.

Two figures come towards them with a noticeably labored gait.

“So much for a rescue,” Ranger mutters, taking note of the way Skye limps along with the aid of a tiny blonde at her side. Then he squints, getting a closer look. “Mad Science? What are you doing here?”

The blonde, cradling one hand to her chest while the other grips a gun as though her life depends on it, stumbles in astonishment. “Ranger?” She’s openly gaping, frantic eyes switching back from Ward to Ranger and Lara.

Ward pauses, unsure of the newest variable in the rescue and if she can be trusted. That Ranger knows her is a point her favor, although there’s something about her features that rings weirdly familiar and has unease curling in his gut.

Mom.” Lara stops in her tracks, words garbled due to the emotion clogging  her throat. Ranger automatically steps behind her, wordlessly offering support.

Skye, though weary and battered, raises a weak hand to her daughter. “Sweetheart.” She wobbles dangerously and is only righted by the gritted determination of the young girl at her side. “Thanks, Emmy.”

Then she catches sight of the stony look on Ward’s face from where he stands behind them. A lifetime’s worth of emotions pass between them and she opens her mouth as if to explain. “I --”

A door slams loud enough to echo through the hall followed by footsteps that sound alarmingly close. Two operatives come round the corner with weapons aimed to kill. Thankfully Ward is fast enough to react in time, taking them out with expertly aimed shots.

No one else follows in the firefight but somewhere in the confusion, Emmy has panicked and instinctively returned fire with the gun still clutched in her hand.

Only Lara sees the bullet’s trajectory for what it is. “Dad, NO!” She breaks free of Ranger’s grip, knocking her father to the ground and flinching as something burns like fire along her arm.

They fall down in a tangle of limbs, and she hisses sharply as the pain ratchets higher. Ward lifts his hand from where it is protectively curled around her shoulder, staring at the blood staining his palm in shock. “Lara?”

Ranger goes white, dropping to his knees beside them. “Lara.”

The ground rumbles beneath their feet threateningly as Skye processes the scene. “Lara.”

“Oh dear.” Emmy whispers, sagging in horrified defeat.

So much for the element of surprise.

Chapter Text

As it turns out, there aren’t actually any helpful guidelines in a handbook for what to do when you’ve just been shot and the following thoughts are currently vying for your attention:

 

a) there is a bullet wound bleeding out at an alarming rate on your arm

b) your father is about willing to murder you for saving his life

c) said bullet wound is a consequence of some random blonde fluffball who freaking rabbited and tried to SHOOT HIM (?!?!?!)

d) your sort of but not really boyfriend/bondmate/future whatever knows her well enough to have nicknamed her (what the actual eff??)

e) your mother looks as if she is going to simultaneously level the entire place and pass out for the next year.

 

Lara can hardly make sense for the spiraling tangents her mind keeps diving off into. “What –”

Ward gently pulls her closer. “Don’t try to talk –”

“Dad.” She grits her teeth, summoning up a weak smile. “Sorry I broke my promise.”

“We’ll talk about that later,” He threatens, voice wavering dangerously.

“Wasn’t going to let you die after it took us this long to get here.” Lara grunts weakly, trying to shift into a less agonising position. “Besides, it’s just a scr –”

“– Don’t.” Skye viciously orders, glaring at them murderously. “If you finish that sentence, I swear I will kill you both myself.”

“Okay, then.” Ranger clears his throat mildly. “So, in case anyone hasn’t noticed… we’re in a bit of a cluster at the moment.”

WE’VE FRICKING NOTICED,” Thomas screams over the comms. “WHAT THE ACTUAL HELL IS GOING ON? IS EVERYONE ALIVE?

Ward rips the comm from his ear with a savage yell, flinging it on the ground and it goes skittering across the floor several feet.

“Real mature,” Skye mutters, unable to take her eyes off the blood seeping from under his hand, where it is clamped tightly around Lara’s upper arm.

Sorry. I guess it’s not so easy for me to just shut off my emotions and walk away,” Ward snarls, refusing to look at her.

Shit.” Ranger brings a hand up to cover his mouth, briefly glancing heavenward for strength.

“Um.” Emmy tiptoes a bit closer, hesitance and guilt etched into her features. “Not to be the bearer of terrible news, but,” she gulps, bravely summoning her courage. “We should probably get out of here. Sooner, rather than later… as it were.”

“No kidding,” Lara grumbles sourly, rolling her shoulder as best she can to get closer to Ranger. Once their eyes lock, she wraps her free hand around his wrist.

I don’t know who SHE is or what’s going on right now but I’m about seconds away from losing control and lighting this place up.

His eyes widen in alarm but before he can speak, Skye is struggling to hold her arm level. She releases a pulse of energy that goes wide, but does the trick of sealing off the other end of the corridor.

“Brilliant,” Ward says, sarcasm dripping from his tone. “Now you want to bury us alive, sweetheart? I thought you tried that once. Didn’t work out so well.”

From over the comms, Kara can be heard cursing viciously while Thomas yells obscenities at his brother.

The thinly veiled reference clearly hits home with Skye, judging by the flinch she cannot hide and the way her face goes white with pain. She is clearly hanging on to her temper by a thread. “Clear us a path.” The flat demand lacks all warmth and is clearly foreign to both Lara and Emmy, by the way they shrink away from her.

Skye’s expression shutters carefully, then goes blank. “Or are you not the Agent Ward I remember?”

Without dignifying her with a response, Ward shifts Lara into Ranger’s waiting arms as gently as possible. “Nothing touches her.”

“On my life,” Ranger swears. “Nothing.”

Ward exchanges one final look with his protege before flicking his eyes to Skye. “Any particular path you had in mind, or am I a free man on this one?”

“Guess that depends on who signs your paychecks these days.” Skye doesn’t even bother checking the blast that shoves him against the wall as she shrugs restlessly. Ward stumbles badly, limbs flailing.

Skye flutters her eyelashes in faux innocence. No one would ever suspect that she’d been systematically tortured, beaten down and stripped of her defenses. “But gosh I suppose… whatever you think is best.” Her saccharine smile is more like a baring of fangs.

There is an unreadable glitter in his eyes as Ward favors her with a dark glare. Well recognising the violence thrumming through his mentor’s veins, Ranger cups a hand to Lara’s cheek. “Eyes on me, Hurricane.”

Lara has already begun succumbing to the early stages of shock and doesn’t put up a fight. Emmy drops to her knees and awkwardly fashions a makeshift tourniquet from her sleeve, fitting it tightly around the other girl’s arm under Ranger’s watchful eyes.

With shaking legs, Skye makes her way over to the abandoned comm, gingerly fitting it into her ear. “We’re gonna need an exit route.”

That’s handy,” Bucky responds so cheerfully that she could weep. “Judging from the sounds of the massacre two floors below us, your soldier boy is leaving a fantastic trail of breadcrumbs so that we can find you.”

Skye doesn’t fight it as her legs give out in relief and she slides down to the ground. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to hear your stupid voice in my entire life.”

Hey!” Thomas cries in mock outrage.

“Yours too,” She soothes, exhaustion licking at the edges of her consciousness.

“Easy there,” Emmy chirps, trying to keep the worry out of her tone. “Wouldn’t do to go through all this trouble and have you passing out on us, now would it?”

“You think I have a concussion, Imogene?” Skye asks, noticeably softening her voice for the younger girl.

“I think I really wish I hadn’t told you my full name,” Emmy grumbles, determinedly ignoring the way the older woman’s face begins to leech color as the adrenaline slowly fades. “Skye.”

Skye’s eyes snap open obediently. Seconds later, she chuckles. “Just like your mother.”

The emotional moment shared between the two is shattered by a muffled shouting that is cut off with gurgled protest. Emmy flinches, but does not take her wide blue eyes off Skye’s face.

There is a thunderous echoing of gunfire followed by an unearthly silence. A bloodied and defiant Ward comes back into view, this time flanked by Natasha and Bucky.

Though her features barely change, Natasha is at Skye’s side within seconds.

“Wow. That bad, huh?” Skye questions, words beginning to slur around the edges.

“Let’s get you out of here,” Natasha says by way of response, helping Skye to her feet.

When Bucky goes to take Lara from Ranger’s arms, the younger man backs away protectively, all but snarling. The assassin puts his hands up in surrender. “Hey, easy pal.”

Ward steps between them, eyes scanning until he locates Emmy struggling to keep up with Natasha’s clipped pace. “She looks disturbingly familiar.” He glances at Ranger. “You know her.”

“It’s… complicated.” Ranger sighs heavily. “And a long story I’d prefer not to tell while we’re in enemy camp.”

“He’s got a point.” Bucky places a detonator on the floor. It blinks slowly, keeping time with the several others he had set up as they walk down the hall.

“This isn’t over,” Ward promises darkly – as if they hadn’t just escaped with their lives; as if he hadn’t just participated in a bloodbath; as if he wasn’t holding onto his temper with the barest of threads.

“Never is,” Bucky responds, his easy acquiescence suggesting explanations are not forthcoming.

Up ahead, Natasha can’t muffle her surprise as Skye goes down, legs failing completely. Ward is there in seconds, swinging her up into his arms.

“I can walk out on my own,” Skye protests, batting at his hands weakly.

“Skye,” Ward tells her with faux cheer, “Shut up.”

“Welcome to the family,” Lara whispers to Ranger, and then passes out.

*

The quinjet is waiting for them out front with Thor standing guard. By his rumpled appearance, he has also clearly gone a few rounds with the enemy teams. His eyes are somber as he takes in the battered state of their group, hastening them aboard.

Thomas runs down the ramp, eyes darting from the newest addition of Emmy to the blood staining his brother’s hands and the familiar woman cradled in his arms. “You guys certainly don’t do things by halves,” he says, clapping Ward on the back roughly.

Skye’s eyes flutter open slowly. “Hey.” Her gaze sharpens as it locks on where Kara is standing just inside the cockpit, arms folded tightly.

“We need medical supplies,” Emmy pipes up, glancing around for a familiar face. There isn’t one, of course, but she presses on. “Lara has been shot.”

Thomas goes still. “What.”

She attempts a tremulous smile. “I can help get her stable until we reach your home?”

Natasha slips into the cockpit, getting them airborne with Bucky’s assistance as Kara steps forward with authority. “What do you need?”

Emmy begins listing supplies, voice trailing off every so often when she notices the way Ranger holds Lara close, as if if trying to pull her inside of his own body for protection.

Kara moves briskly about the cabin, setting out the requested items for easy access. “What else?”

The young girl blinks in disorientation, trying to get her wits about her. Thomas frowns, looking closer at the way she’s cradling her hand against her torso. “You’re hurt.”

Kara’s eyes flare wide in distress. “Why didn’t you say something sooner?” She guides a firm arm around the teen’s shoulders, settling her down in the jumpseat. “Can’t help anyone if you’re dead on your feet.”

The familiar saying punches the remaining air out of Emmy’s lungs. “My aunt… Bobbi says that.”

Kara goes still, then very deliberately takes in the features arranging Emmy’s bone structure, her very proper British accent, and the sheer determination that kept her doggedly upright despite the shock of her circumstances. “Of course. You’re a Fitzsimmons.”

Ward curses low under his breath, drawing Emmy’s anxious gaze. There is something dark and pained in his eyes that she can’t figure out.

“Thomas. Get me that cheeseburger you think I don’t know you have stashed in the galley.” At his pained dismay, Kara lifts an eyebrow. “Or would you prefer I locate it myself?”

Thomas grumbles but does as he’s asked, shoving the slightly cold but greasily delicious burger into Emmy’s hands without further prompting. She stares at it dumbly, as if her brain simply cannot compute the sequence of events.

“Mad Science,” Ranger calls from across the quinjet. “Eat it.”

Emmy scowls at him in displeasure. “You certainly don’t need to order me like some minion!”

He offers a bleak smile distinctly at odds with the stress weighing him down. “I’m not going to be the one explaining to your parents that we staged this elaborate rescue and you were done in by starvation. Seems like a crummy way to go.”

The quinjet drops with the kind of pull that swoops down low in the stomach. Seatbelts are hastily fastened and there is a frustrated series of shouts from the cockpit.

Skye,” Thomas says warningly. “Not the time.”

“That isn’t me.” Skye glares at him, turning her gaze to Ward, where he’s standing guard over Lara with Ranger at his side.

The distress emanating from the younger man is palpable while Lara’s face is crumpled. “– Sorry.” She barely manages to get out, breath hissing through her teeth in pain.

“It’s okay,” Ranger soothes, reaching for her hand and gripping tight.

I’m here. I’ve got you.

Lara’s eyes flit over to where Emmy devours the cheeseburger with barely restrained pleasure and she takes in the way Skye’s exhausted but watchful gaze never strays too far from her.

Literal blonde fluffball and she’s got everyone worried about her. She’s like a damn kitten.

“Hey.” Ranger tips her chin toward him firmly. “We’re worried about you, Miss Bullet-Jumper.”

She likes the new nickname almost as much as she likes the stray they picked up when rescuing her mother – which is to say – not at all. “You forgot to mention how fun it is.”

“Lara.” Ward’s voice is strained. “Can you not.”

Ranger makes a dramatic face at his outburst and she has to bite her lip against the smile that wants to break free despite the severity of the situation.

There are a few more harrowing moments as the quinjet finally levels out until Natasha’s calm voice comes over the speakers. “ETA thirteen minutes.”

*

Lara has dozed off again by the time they reach home and as a result, the landing is smooth and uneventful. They file off slowly, aches and pains beginning to manifest as the adrenaline begins to fade and the hurt sets in.

Thor sticks close to Ranger, allowing Thomas and Kara to rush past him with Emmy hustled between them.

Set apart from the rest of the group, Ranger voices the concern that has been prickling at the back of his mind since their escape. “You think that was too easy.”

“There is more than meets the eye, I fear.” Thor says, nodding grimly. “I’ll be back after I consult with Heimdall.” 

Ranger sweeps his eyes over to where Skye and Ward are engaged in a brutal glare-off and whistles under his breath. “Don’t suppose you’d want to take us with you?”

Thor is still willing to accept the getaway as a victory and has the warrior’s perspective that allows him to amused by Ranger’s request. He bids them goodbye, clasping Ranger firmly by the arm. “You are strongest when you’re together. Stay with her.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Ranger promises, cradling Lara in his arms securely.

The demi god seems pleased with the vow, nodding in approval. He takes off to the skies, presumably to bid Jane goodbye before leaving via the Bifrost.

On the left, Ward completely ignores Skye’s heated protests as he scoops her up again, striding off the quinjet for points unknown. 

“She needs rest.” Natasha indicates for Ranger to carry Lara to her suite. “I’ll be up soon with some medicine.” Bucky follows after her, and the two disappear into the base silently.

Ranger glances around at the empty roof, then down at the girl in his arms. “Right back where we started, Lara loo.” He sighs heavily. “And this thing where you’re hurt and don’t talk back? I hate it.”

Lara stirs restlessly until he brushes his lips over her forehead, mindful of the bandage Emmy had wrapped around her arm. “It’s too quiet without you.”

He makes his way inside, lifting his wrist at the nearest keypad as it registers his ID and all the doors become unlocked for his arrival.

Everything else aside… it was good to be home.

*

The message from Natasha told him to be in Lara’s room in an hour.

That was fine with him, because he had some choice words for the seething woman in his arms.

“Put me down this instant or I’ll snap your neck.”

“Do it and you’ll go tumbling to the ground. You used to be smarter than that.” Ward retorts, ducking inside the nearest doorway. He flips the lights, which are slow to flicker on, probably a sign that the dark room has not been occupied for some time. The furniture is all draped over it with heavy sheets, and the colors in the walls and curtains are dark greens and browns.

“What the hell is this?” Skye all but somersaults free of his arms onto the chaise lounge beside them.

“A room,” Ward answers in cool, measured tones.

“I can see that.” She rolls her eyes. “Why am I here?”

“Because you’re going to need somewhere to recover from whatever torture they subjected you to back there until I can get a debrief out of you.”

“I’ll write you one here and now if it means walking out tonight.” Skye fumbles with the gauntlet still shackled around her wrist, struggling to remove it. In another life, he would have helped her. But not this one. Not now. “Why this room?”

Because of course she’d pick up on the fact that he didn’t want to reveal the true answer to her question. He has absolutely no intention of telling her that  this room has been prepared for her since they moved into the base nearly ten years ago, in the hopes that maybe someday she’d pop back into his life.

Now she has, and there’s so much more along with it and he just… He doesn’t have it in him to go this round with her. The day has been a nightmare from start to finish.

All of the sudden, Ward is unaccountably weary. He’s tired of this constant fight to get people to understand that his motives aren’t all bad. First Lara, now Skye. When will he ever learn? Clearly, he’s just not enough.

“Skye. The girl we brought in with you – who I’m not supposed to know about, by the way – needs at least two days’ rest. And Lara is recovering from a bullet wound.” He notes the distress in her eyes, and maybe it’s a deluded belief that he’s got the upper hand that has him adding, “You’re not going anywhere.”

It is the complete wrong thing to say.

Panic has her spine stiffening. “I’ll take those girls and run so far you’ll never find us.”

Dammit, Skye!” Ward scrubs a hand down his face, visibly trying to rein in his temper. “Would it kill you to just be reasonable for a second?“

Knock knock,” Thomas chimes from the doorway, a tray with soup and crackers in his hands. He sets it down on the table and stares down at Skye. “Giving him a run for his money?”

“Someone has to,” Skye grumbles, features just shy of a pout. She consumes the soup without protest, color slowly coming back into her cheeks.

“I’m glad you’re okay, and that you’re finally safe.” He leans down, giving her an all too-brief embrace. “Get some rest. We’ll talk in the morning.” Thomas gives his brother a pleading glance on his way out, muttering, “Try not to blow this completely.”

For a moment, there is no noise save for her sipping the last of the soup and Ward’s restless pacing.

“Look, I’ll tell you what I know, but honestly, it’s all a bit of a blur.” She looks relieved as she says it and he wants to throttle her.

It’s like training in the cargo hold all over again.

She’s playing dumb in hopes that he’ll back off. Allow your enemy to underestimate you – he taught her that, for gods’ sake.

“Give it time. I’ve a feeling it’ll come back to you. We both know you’re tougher than you look.” He jeers, slipping his hands into his pockets.

“If this is about Lara –” Skye begins, voice raising in outrage.

“– Oh, come off it,” Ward scoffs. “This is about you and me. You walked away.”

“I had no choice.” She’s struggling to push off the cushions, clearly hating the disadvantage of being in a weakened state. “You were on a one way trip to hell.”

“Not always.” And Ward wants to crow with triumph as he finally throws that into the ring; yes, he’d been a mess and yes, he had no right to be a father at that point in his life – but eventually he’d made something of himself and gotten straightened out and she still hadn’t told him.

For once, Skye has nothing to say. Twin streaks of emotion stain high on her cheeks and she has trouble meeting his eyes.

More pieces begin to fall into place and he hums thoughtfully. “Or are there other life-changing secrets that you’ve kept from me?”

His phone rings, shattering the moment.

It’s Natasha.

“Fifteen minutes. You both need to be here.”

“Fine.” He barks out his agreement roughly, turning to Skye. “Natasha wants us in Lara’s room.”

It’s such a typical parental thing it nearly takes his breath away.

“Of course.” Skye is hardly fazed. She starts picking at the exposed threads on her pants. “I’d really like to shower. If we have time, I mean.”

Ward takes a deep breath. “Okay.” He tries not to dwell on the fact that she deliberately did not answer his question and wonders what the hell she could be hiding now.

*

There are black clothes folded on the bed for her when she comes out of the bathroom. They fit perfectly (disturbingly enough), as do the buttery soft black leather trainers she puts on her feet.

Ward is waiting for her just outside the door and does not engage in further conversation as they walk up two flights of stairs and down a long hallway.

A set of double doors flank Lara’s room, and he pushes them open wide, giving Skye the impression of a bright airy space punctuated with vibrant pops of color and light until her eyes fall upon a suspiciously familiar looking pair of boots she’d all but forbidden her daughter from buying.

The young man who had carried Lara out to safety is dozing in the chair next to the bed, Lara’s hand clutched tightly in his.

“They were like that when I got here,” Natasha dryly informs Skye and Ward as they walk in.

Skye frowns. “Who is this guy?”

“It’s a long story.” Ward rubs the back of his neck, trying to offset the tension rapidly building there. At this rate, he’ll have a migraine come sunrise.

“Does he at least have a name?” She looks doubtfully at his scruffy appearance and wrinkled tac gear. “Has he left her side at all?”

Ward leans against the bedpost, eyes fixed on where their daughter rests, looking far too small among the sheets and pillows. “Ranger.” A wry smile curves his lips. “No last name.”

Skye chokes.

He ducks his head to hide the growing smile from her. “Had a similar reaction the first time we met.”

“He also hasn’t left.” Natasha informs them, turning her attention to Skye. “Ranger is many things, but one thing you cannot accuse him of is not being devoted to your daughter. He’s in love with her.”

The news seems to throw Skye for a hell of a loop. She fumbles for the chair behind her, sinking into it gratefully. “My baby is in love with some… stranger?”

“Hardly,” Ranger croaks, rubbing at his eyes with his free hand. “Boss, tell her I’m not a stranger, will you?”

“He works for you?” Her surprise is reaching uncomfortable levels of disbelief.

“Would you prefer he was a hired thug I brought in for an extraction?” Ward goads, ignoring the squawk of outrage from his protege. 

“So this is all very fascinating, but we don’t have much time.” Natasha has the syringe prepped and ready to go.

Finally Skye can be seen adding up the questionable looking medicine in the other woman’s hand as well as the insistence that she be there. “Just a second. If you think I’m going to allow you to shoot my daughter up with some wonder drug –” Skye begins, looking angry.

“She’ll heal faster.” Natasha waits patiently as the seconds tick by, until the other woman finally nods in consent.

Ward looks up from his thoughts to see Natasha staring at him expectantly.  She gestures her free hand at the syringe. His eyebrows draw together. “What’s the hold up? Skye already said okay.”

Natasha tips her head in curiosity. “Are you?”

The enormity of what she’s asking – the first decision he’s ever been able to make in Lara’s entire life, one that holds the authority to countermand, or at least delay what Skye has already decided – sinks in.

“She won’t be in pain anymore,” Natasha explains rather unnecessarily.

Ward is grateful for the extra moments that allow him to collect his thoughts. Skye is watching with her heart in her eyes, fear and concern for their daughter shining like a beacon. He can read her like a book – and that she fears he will allow this conflict between them to act as a roadblock to their daughter’s recovery stabs him to quick.

He smirks, lips twisting cruelly. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. I’m not monster all  the time.” Ward nods at Natasha. “Do it.”

He leaves the room with the weight of Skye’s gaze on his back and tells himself that he doesn’t care.

The only thing that matters now is Lara getting better.

*

Chapter Text

 

image

| every single lara au headcanon UNDER THE SUN | | lara au meta |

*

Skye ignores Natasha’s attempts to placate her and rushes blindly out of the room.

She traces her steps back to where she thinks the room she was in before but winds up terribly disoriented. To add insult to injury, her ribs are still sore and it feels like there’s a metric ton of water sloshing around in her lungs, causing her legs to tremble unsteadily as the day’s events set in.

It’s this final nail in the coffin that has a sob escaping from her like a pained animal as she collapses to the ground.

Someone clears their throat loudly.

Skye closes her eyes and hopes for the world to swallow her whole. The last thing she needs is for Ward to see her like this.

“Your wolf impression needs some work,” Thomas dryly informs, tugging her up into his arms.

Skye takes a huge gulping breath and tries not to cry hysterically. She’s withstood torture for days. She can get a grip on her emotions.

“Lara’s going to be okay?”

She nods, breathing in measured counts and using the familiar Thomas blend of cedar and woodsmoke to ground her in the moment.

“So…” Thomas runs a hand over her back soothingly. “Wanna tell me what that was all about?”

“Not really,” Skye brings her hands up between them to wipe the errant tears from her face. “But I also know you’re not going to leave me alone until I do, so…”

“You’ve gotten smarter in your old age,” he muses aloud, easily dodging her outraged hands.

The moment breaks tension until she laughs brokenly, raising emotionally bruised eyes to him. 

“C’mon, pal.” Thomas slings an arm around her shoulder, guiding them down the hall in the opposite direction. “What has my idiot brother done now?”

*

Ward makes it to the safety of his office before he lets his temper fly.

He pushes everything off the desk with a loud roar; all the books and electronics go crashing to the ground. The glass water pitcher shatters, leaking across reports and Ranger’s latest intel about the group that had been holding Skye – and the missing SHIELD asset who he now knows about – Emmy.

Just as he is about to reach for something else to destroy, Kara pipes up: “You done yet, or should I come back when the temper tantrum passes?”

He wheels around to face her, murderously angry with fire snapping in his eyes. “You have ten seconds to get out.”

“Wrong answer.” Kara smirks, leaning back comfortably in her chair. She idly drums the fingers of her hand on the armrest. “I take it things didn’t go well with Skye.”

“We are not discussing this.” He struggles to get his breathing under control. “Ever.”

Still the wrong answer.” Kara says, leaning forward to rest her arms on her legs. “What the actual hell was that?”

Ward reaches with unsteady hands for the bottle of vodka under the modest wet bar Thomas had installed as a joke –

 

(“I’m trying to work here, Thomas. Novel concept that you might want to look into one of these days.”

“I’m not even going to be offended by that right now because I’ve just had the BEST idea: A BAR.”

“That is a terrible idea.”

“Oh c’mon! All this work drives people to drink. You’ll thank me one day.”)

 

– and takes a healthy swig. “Are we talking about the part where my daughter got shot, or the part where the stray we picked up happens to belong to the people I dropped into the ocean?”

Kara doesn’t back down from the bitter recrimination in his voice, standing up to cross the room slowly. “We’re talking about you throwing up some bitter ass history in Skye’s face on an open comm. You were out of line and you know it.”

He goes dangerously still. “The only person who is out of line right now is you.”

When Ward lowers his shoulder as if getting ready to fight, Kara rolls her eyes. “Shut up and sit down, you ass. I wasn’t scared of you then and I’m sure as hell not scared of you now.”

The blatant reminder of their past has a sobering effect, as she’d intended.

They stand there locked into a staring match for an indeterminate period of time until he finally gives, sighing heavily and setting the bottle down on the counter. “She thinks I’m a monster.”

“We both know that’s not true.” Kara’s voice is firm, and reassuring in its steadiness.

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Oh really?” She walks to him slowly, “It doesn’t matter that you’ve built a life without Skye, shedding the parts that were unhealthy? It doesn’t matter that you’ve changed people’s lives for the better?” She punctuates her statements with a few well-placed shoves until he winds up falling into the other chair.

Ward opens his mouth to retort, but Kara is relentless. “– That you’ve managed to salvage a relationship with a daughter you never knew and to the point where she’s calling you ‘Dad’?” At his stunned expression, Kara smirks knowingly. “Yeah. We heard that.”

“It’s not that simple.”

Don’t.” Her eyes are bright and fierce. “Don’t you dare tell me it’s complicated. I am so freaking sick and tired of hearing that excuse from the men in this family.”

At his slightly chastened expression, Kara acknowledges, “Complicated was seventeen years ago when she first walked away and you didn’t know why. When you found out that you had a daughter with your fire and drive and had to take care of her without so much as a heads’ up. When said daughter was then revealed to be mythically bonded to your second in command.”

Ward makes a face of extreme displeasure. “Can we not?”

“You lashing out at Skye, after she’d been tortured for who knows how long with god knows what?” Kara isn’t just angry, she’s furious. “That’s not complicated. That’s bullshit.”

He closes his eyes in defeat, now seeing the parallels in the situation. “Kara, I –”

“You’ve worked so hard to get to where you are and now you’re willing to let it all slide because you can’t get your temper under control?” She scoffs in derision. “The Ward I know is better than that.”

Having delivered the figurative killing blow, Kara walks to the bar and pours herself a vodka on the rocks. She sips it slowly with her back to him, visibly getting her emotions back in line. When she turns to face him, her features are calmer. “So. What are you going to do about it?”

“God.” Ward laughs brokenly. “You don’t quit.”

She’s quiet for a moment, coming around to sit on the arm of the chair. She waits until he relaxes enough to where she can put slide down to rest her head on his shoulder. “You trained me not to.”

“I knew that would come back to haunt me,” Ward says, sighing.

*

With the help of Thomas, they make it back to her room in record time. Something about the high ceilings and dark soothing colors puts her slightly more at ease, though she’ll be damned if she ever admits it.

“So I assume this is about more than just the potshots you took at each other in that hellhole?”

Skye ruefully smiles. “Heard that, huh?”

He gives her a very specific look; the famous but rare Thomas equivalent of cut the bullshit please

She finds herself telling him about the scene in Lara’s room, with Natasha and the medicine.

“You should have seen his face.” Skye shakes her head mournfully. “Like he thought I was going to take her away from him or something.”

Thomas raises an eyebrow.

Skye rolls her eyes. “Low blow.”

“I want it noted for the record that I’m taking the moral high road here.”

“It wasn’t that at all,” She insists, jumping up from the couch and pacing as she tries to get the conversation back on track. “God, do you know how many late nights I stayed up worrying about the way she coughed or if her breathing sounded funny or if she was making friends in school?”

“You know that I do.” He says quietly.

But Skye is in her own world of regret and doesn’t hear him. “And to have just had him there once – I would have given anything. Anything to know that I wasn’t making the decisions all on my own, that there was someone to help shoulder the weight of raising her. That if I made a mistake, we could come back from it together instead of doing it all alone.”

Thomas doesn’t interrupt this time. She’s holding herself together by a thread, and this meltdown is about seventeen years overdue.

“All this time, and I’ve had to live with the burden of wondering if I made the right decision.”

His eyes grow wide at the admission; while he’d often felt that Skye should have told Ward sooner about Lara, he’s always been careful not to bring it up, and Skye is not one to admit to the entire thing as a mistake on anything but the most superficial of levels.

“And he thinks I see him a monster.” Skye finishes bitterly, shaking her head. “It’s like he doesn’t know me at all.”

As gently as he can, Thomas asks, “Exactly whose fault is that?”

Thomas.” She glares at him, but it’s halfhearted at best. “It’s not that simple. You know better than I do what he was like back then.”

They’re both lost in their memories of the past, quiet in reflection until Skye yawns hugely. “God. I need to sleep.”

The conversation is far from over, but it isn’t unusual for them to pick up half-threads and continue them at a later date – and this will be no different.

Thomas ruffles her hair affectionately. “Get some rest, super star.”

When he’s halfway out the door, she calls his name.

“Thanks.” Her eyes are soft. “I know I haven’t said it nearly enough, but –”

“– Skye.” Thomas lifts his chin, gesturing for her to get into bed, not unlike the way he’d do with Lara when she would try to fight her bedtime. “Go to sleep.”

*

Ward finds himself alone in the kitchen because he stupidly wants to delay this apology to Skye as long as he possibly can.

It’s not as if she’s going anywhere. He has time for a snack.

His stomach turns over slightly at the thought of eating anything. He’s so focused on trying to keep his equilibrium that he almost doesn’t notice the sound of slightly muffled breathing in the room.

In the reflection of the toaster, Emmy is staring back at him with wide eyes.

He forces himself to consciously relax his body language, and keep his hands visible as he turns around to face her. “Emmy, right?” He asks, as if he doesn’t already know. As if he can’t see Jemma Simmons in her bone structure and Leo Fitz in the shape of her bright blue eyes.

He wonders what people see when they look at Lara – if they see Skye because that’s all they’ve ever known – or if there are some parts of her that belong solely to him.

Emmy nods, and the way she bravely keeps eye contact with him despite the fact that she’s shaking like a like a leaf – probably from the adrenaline crash as much as genuine fear of him – reminds him of Simmons. He unconsciously smiles, and she relaxes ever so slightly.

“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” He can’t help the slight tone of admonishment because there’s something about the girl that tugs at his protective instincts. With a sinking insight, he understands exactly why Skye had looked so adamant about keeping her close and how she’d gotten so beaten up in the process.

“I was hungry,” says Emmy, picking idly at the sticker on the apple by her hand.

It’s the least innocuous of excuses, and he certainly isn’t going to press her own it – though they both know she’s probably likely to suffer from nightmares, and sleeping in a bed that isn’t her own and being separated from her parents can’t be easy. She hasn’t complained yet, at least not to his knowledge. She’s making the best of it.

Gets that from her mother.

“I can…” It takes him a moment to speak through the lump in his throat. “Would you like a sandwich?”

Emmy nods.

“Peanut butter and jelly okay?” Before she can answer, he continues, “You’re probably used to something a bit more extravagant but I’m all out of baguettes and –” He stops speaking abruptly.

“– Pesto Aioli?” She shrugs, drawing her knees up high so that she can wrap her arms around them. “It’s okay. I expect there will be a lot of them in my future when I get back.”

Something about the quaver in her voice tips him off. “Has anyone…” He keeps his eyes on hers, pulling out his phone and setting it down on the counter slowly. “Have you been in touch with your parents?”

Emmy goes completely still, staring at the phone with barely disguised hunger. Then she glances back up at Ward. “If this is some kind of trap, or –”

He smirks bitterly. “No trap, kiddo. Just an offer. No strings attached.”

“Agent Romanov said it would be better if we waited until to make contact tomorrow… something about protocol and clearance levels.”

His lips curl in a half grin. “Screw protocol.” At her horrified look, he relents, “At least send them a message or something.”

She lasts for a full thirty seconds before grabbing the phone like she’s afraid he’ll take it away from her. Once in her hands, she’s stumped.

Ward reads the dilemma clearly on her face. “There’s an app on the bottom that Ranger designed. If you send a message, it’ll scramble the incoming and outgoing numbers.”

Relief seeps from her like a sunrise, stripping the worry from her shuttered features and transforming her. It gives him a glimpse into what she must look like when she’s happy – and damn if it doesn’t kill him slightly when he sees Fitz in the curve of her grin as she types out her clever reply.

When she hands the phone back, she is still smiling brightly as she meets his eyes. Emmy tips her head to the side curiously and the smile begins to fade. “Is Lara…”

With a start, Ward realises that no one has given her an update in the shuffle of madness that had descended since their return. “She’s fine. Natasha had some… medicine that should have Lara up to speed in a day or two.”

Her brows lift. “That is quite impressive.”

“When it comes to Natasha, I’ve learned it’s better not to ask.” He shrugs, grabbing the forgotten apple at her elbow and biting into it.

Emmy is silent while she chews her sandwich. She wipes her mouth with a napkin and seems to be drawing up her courage to speak.

Ward gives her his complete attention. 

“I’m really sorry about the whole,” she waves her hand vaguely, “Bullet mishap. I didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt.”

“Sometimes you make bad choices for right reasons,” he sighs, and his gaze goes distant as the painful ache of nostalgia sets in. “But at the end of the day, they’re still bad choices and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Emmy frowns, not liking the look of recrimination on his face. “Sir?”

Ward refocuses back into the present, staring at her blankly. “You were protecting Skye and doing what you thought was right. No one blames you, Emmy. It was an accident.”

“You’ve had a few of those in your life, then?”

She is too innocently curious to let it go – and Ward finds that he just can’t stay mad at this blonde kitten of a stray they’d collected. “Yeah.” He nods, trying to clear the emotion steeped in his throat. “You could say that.”

*

Ward doesn’t want to dwell on the firm discussion he’d had with Emmy about staying in her room for the rest of the night to get some sleep because it felt disturbingly parental and he has an alarming lack of experience in situations of that caliber.

While it had eaten up a nice chunk of time, he still had an apology to make. And so he finds himself back in the wing of the base where Skye’s room is located for the second time in less than six hours.

He’s just about to knock on the half-opened door when Skye’s muffled voice can just barely be heard.

“No, I swear. I’m fine.” She’s silent for a few moments, listening to whoever is on the other end of the call. “Yeah, okay. …I love you too.”

Ward is staggered.

Who the actual HELL was that?

In his confusion, he bumps into a nearby end table, sending a vase tumbling to the ground. It shatters loudly, echoing in the hallway.

Footsteps from inside the room come closer and he realises, with dawning horror, that Skye is about to discover him lurking outside like a creeper. That is not the kind of impression he wants to give.

“Shit.” He’s scrambling to regain some sort of sanity and has the presence of mind to duck into a nearby room, locking the door behind him. Clearly he can’t go down the hallway now.

Ward groans. He used to be stealth.

The doorknob rattles loudly, startling him out of his wits. He glares at the door as if he can see through it, knowing Skye is on the other side and willing her to go away.

Minutes pass like hours until he finally feels it’s safe to slip out and head for the control room.

What the HELL?

*

Thomas is trying to make sense of the instructions Ranger left on the desk but it isn’t going well.

What in god’s name was a systems report and why did they need to run it twice a day?

Saving him from struggling through a slew of data is a message from Ward.

[ Were you on the phone with Skye just now? ]

He pinches the bridge of his nose, trying to stem the frustration that flares up at the non sequitur. “My brother is a moron.”

[ No. I helped her back to her room and left because she needed to sleep. ]

Ward’s response comes back lightning fast. [ Are you absolutely sure? ]

“Am I sure that I wasn’t on the phone with her?” Thomas incredulously repeats to the empty room, shoving away from the desk in exasperation. 

Seconds later, Ward comes barreling into the room. “Tell me the truth.”

“I am!” His jaw drops open. “What the hell is going on with you?”

“She just told someone on the phone that she loved them, and if it’s not you, and Lara’s still out cold…” Ward trails off threateningly.

Thomas blinks. “Let me get this straight. You’re freaking out over a… phone call?”

“You didn’t hear her, Thomas. She was doing that thing with her voice where she’s fond of whoever is on the other line.”

“And you would know this… because?”

Ward looks at him steadily, not missing a beat. “Because it used to be me.”

With a barely muffled howl of frustration, Thomas drops his head into his hands. “You are literally five years old right now.”

“I know her.” Ward insists.

When Thomas just stares at him blankly, Ward throws up his hand in irritation. “Clearly I have to do everything myself.”

“Godspeed.” Thomas carelessly salutes as he exits.

He waits a full two minutes before calling Skye.

“Miss me already?” She sounds a too little wired for someone who was just begging off to go to sleep.

And maybe that’s why his voice comes out a shade shy of accusing. “Who were you just on the phone with?”

Skye, thankfully, is used to his weirdness and doesn’t take offense. “That was you lurking outside my room creepily?”

“No. C’mon Skye, focus. Who was on the phone?”

Her voice is amused. “Why is this such an urgent need to know?”

“Ward is having a literal meltdown right now.”

“…Oh god.”

Not helping,” Thomas grits out.

“I can’t tell you.”

“That isn’t comforting in the slightest, Skye.”

“Gotta go!” She chirps, a hint of laughter in her voice.

Ward comes back in just seconds after Thomas has slipped the phone back into his pocket. “If it’s not you, who is it? We’re all here, so it’s not like she called Bucky or Natasha.” His expression shifts into one of horror. “What if it was Stark?”

Thomas shakes his head impatiently. “They don’t talk to each other like that. Skye’s more likely to insult him six ways to Sunday before admitting that she cares about him. Their relationship is weird.”

“Okay.” Ward seems somewhat relieved by this information. “Is Ranger still with Lara?”

“Do you think I’m manning the control room for fun?” Thomas archly replies.

“Because we could probably have him trace the call and –”

“– Whoa.” At this, Thomas actually gets out of his seat to rest his hands on Ward’s shoulders. “I think you need to turn around and go straight to bed because the words coming out of your mouth right now are straight up batshit crazy.”

“She said ‘I love you,’” Ward’s voice is just shy of pleading.

“Yes, okay, I got that.” He agrees, careful to keep his voice pitched in a soothing low tone. “But you’re about seconds away from asking Ranger to hack her phone – this is Skye, remember? If she doesn’t want you tracing a phone call, you’re not going to be able to. You’ll just piss her off.”

At that sobering reminder, the fight leaves Ward’s body.

“We both know you’ve done a fine job of that lately.”

Ward glares. “Yes, thanks for that helpful reminder.”

“Whatever happened to giving her a chance to explain? Hearing her side of the story? I could have sworn Natasha coached you through it.” Thomas is careful to keep his tone light despite the fact they both know the question is anything but. 

“You’ve seen her when she’s in a mood.” Ward shrugs restlessly.

“Wait.” Thomas puts his hand up. “You’re going to accuse Skye of being… moody? You, of all people?”

He scowls darkly. “She wasn’t exactly being forthcoming with details at the time!”

“That’s it.” Thomas pushes away from the desk and begins walking away.

“Where are you going?” Ward is completely thrown off by the abrupt dismissal.

“I’m done,” he calls, over his shoulder. “I’ve had all I can stand of you both for one day. Make me pancakes in the morning and I’ll think about maybe not disowning your sorry ass on account of raging stupidity.”

“Thomas!”

And Thomas gives him the finger just before sailing around the corner.

*

Kara doesn’t come back for hours.

Thomas would ordinarily be more worried about it, but he’d been neck deep in Skye’s maelstrom of emotions that he honestly hadn’t noticed until now. Just as he’s about to send out an APB and ask Ranger for help locating his wayward fiancee, the woman in question slips into the apartment.

She’s holding herself stiffly, like she went a few too many rounds training with the new recruits and forgot to put on arnica cream – but her knuckles aren’t bruised and her hands don’t dangle with barely repressed energy the way she’s prone to do after a long day of training.

It’s when she lifts her eyes to meet his gaze that has Thomas sliding out of bed to meet her halfway across the room. He pulls her into his arms and she goes without protest – another sign that something is terribly wrong.

“What is it?” He cups her face, bending low to kiss her, immeasurably relieved when she responds right away.

Kara lifts her hands to hang onto his wrists, keeping him fixed in place. “They’re so damaged.” Where she probably would have laughed, she just closes her eyes, resting her head against his chest. “I really thought they might have a crack at it this time, but…” Her broken laugh of disbelief is anything but humorous. “They make us look normal.” 

Thomas sighs heavily. “She still loves him.”

Kara shakes her head slowly. “It’s not enough anymore.” Her eyes are damp when she looks at him. “And this isn’t just about them.”

The unspoken weight of Lara hangs heavily in the room.

“Yeah.” He nods unsteadily, running a hand through his hair. “It never was.”

Kara squeezes his arm reassuringly and then disappears into the bathroom, leaving Thomas alone with his thoughts.

For the first time since she’d gotten hurt, Thomas is glad Lara’s out cold and not around to witness the cluster that is her parents interacting.

This is a trainwreck.

*

 

Chapter Text

Ranger can’t remember what proper sleep actually feels like, but it’s worth every moment of discomfort (including the terrible crimp in his neck and the gritty feeling behind his eyelids) when Lara finally stirs.

She groans, tucking her face into the pillow. “Please tell me you haven’t been watching me sleep.”

Ranger decides that discretion is the better part of valor and wisely remains silent.

With her face still hidden, she whimpers pitifully. “I need ten gallons of coffee --”

“-- yeah, that’s not happening for a while --”

“-- and a brush and an entire tube of toothpaste --”

“-- the bedhead look isn’t as bad as you think --”

“-- and GOD my arm is killing me.” She slumps back against the pillows in defeat.

“Lara.”

Finally she turns to face him. Rumpled hair, sleepy hazel eyes, face devoid of all makeup save the natural pink her cheeks from his thorough observation and she’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.

Ranger leans forward, cupping her cheek in his palm. “Thank god you’re okay.”

Lara closes her eyes, leaning into his touch. “Turns out hurricanes aren’t bulletproof.”

“Don’t even joke about it.”

“I should tell your parents you’re awake.”

Her free hand shoots out and grabs his wrist. “Don’t.” At his raised eyebrows, she amends, “At least not yet. I just need a few minutes without all of that.”  

“Okay, but we both know I can’t keep them away for long.”

“Tell me about Emmy.”

Ranger doesn’t bother hiding the amusement on his face. “You’re more like your old man than you’d think. I just finished sending off a report on her.”

“You called her ‘Mad Science’. We both know you have a habit of nicknaming girls who you’re... close to.”

“Stop. She’s like my kid sister.”

“Still...” Lara trails off suggestively, and he knows that she wants more details.

He sighs heavily. “I know Emmy because I was looking for your Mom.”

“Wait.” Lara frowns in confusion. “You’ve been doing that for Dad and... he’s never seen Emmy before.”

Ranger shakes his head. “I was looking for Skye long before I started working for your dad. We met because I got sloppy -- and he caught me.”

Lara brings her hands up to her face and covers her eyes, peering out from between her fingers. “Okay. I’m confused.”

“This would be so much easier if you’d just read the report...” Ranger trails off, avoiding her gaze.

Lara’s eyes are serious when she reaches for his hand. “I don’t want a report. Tell me how you know her.”

So Ranger tells her about Emmy. About her parents, Jemma Simmons and Leopold Fitz. How they’d taken an interest in him when no one else noticed. And that his quest to find Skye began when he realised how much they missed her.  

*

Emmy is already set up in the kitchen come morning when Ward walks in.

“Morning.” He calls softly, not wanting to startle her from the crossword she’s absorbed in.

She nods absently, continuing to work at the puzzle.

“You’re up early.” He takes out the ingredients for pancakes, intending to make good on his promise to Thomas. “You look rested.”

“Agent Romanov gave me a small pill that I was supposed to take before falling asleep last night.” At the memory, her eyes grow wide and indignant. “If I’d known it could fix a broken finger, I would have seen that Skye had gotten it instead.”

Ward goes still. It takes everything he has to casually ask, “Skye was hurt?”

Emmy huffs in frustration, looking like a miniature exasperated Jemma Simmons. “That’s putting it mildly. By the time they locked us in together, she had been waterboarded and beaten - her ribs are going to look a fright for weeks - not to mention the damage she suffered from those crude gauntlets and --”

The glass mixing dish slips out of his hands and shatters loudly on the floor, startling Emmy into silence.

She takes note of the way his shoulders are bunched tightly from where he grips the counter for support and swallows bravely. “I guess she hasn’t, um. Mentioned this to you?”

“No.” His voice is jagged with barely leashed guilt and anger.

Saving Emmy from having to fumble for a reply is Kara’s entrance as she takes in the scene with a practiced eye.

Somebody clearly didn’t have their coffee this morning,” Kara sarcastically declares, going into the cupboard for a dustpan and broom. She doesn’t say anything else on the subject, nor does she seem to take it personally when Ward leaves without further comment.

Once the glass shards have been collected and it’s safe to walk again, Kara turns to Emmy. “C’mon. I have to go see a man about some pancakes.”

Emmy’s eyebrows draw together in confusion. “But we don’t have any pancakes.”

“I know.” Kara shakes her head. “He’s going to be absolutely terrible about it, too.”

*

Before Skye opens her eyes she’s aware of another heartbeat in the room. Ward.

It should do more than just piss her off that he’s here, and that he managed to sneak in without her notice. She hasn’t let her guard slip like that in years. She’s not going to dwell upon what it means that it’s Ward, of all people, who didn’t set off every danger alert in her body. Especially since it feels like she’s been running at maximum threat level for the past eighteen years.

“You know, some people might consider this a flagrant violation of privacy and boundaries.” When he doesn’t reply, she cracks a lid to spy him sitting on the couch with his face averted. She reaches deeper, and the cadence of the way his heart beats is a lot like that time she had a close call after the bullet caught her on the arm.

Clearly, the symmetry between her actions and their daughter’s is hitting him hard.

“Look, about Lara --”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were hurt.” Every word is punctuated with the kind of terrible measuredness that indicates just how much of a struggle it is for him to remain calm.

He’s still pulling that high handed attitude of Ward knows best and she wants to punch him in his perfect teeth. Skye instead grits her teeth and allows herself a momentary flash of irritation at his righteous indignation. “We were kind of worried about other things at the time. I heal fast. It wasn’t that big of a deal.”

Skye’s going to chalk it up to her lingering grogginess that allows him to get the drop on her.

He’s at her side throwing back the covers and lifting her shirt dangerously high to reveal a mottled set of blackened bruises painting her ribs like a Van Gogh gone wrong. “Not that big a deal?”

Boundaries,” Skye hisses, yanking the shirt back down and pushing him away with just enough force to remind them both what she’s capable of when feeling truly threatened.

Bullshit. I used to know if your breathing changed in the middle of the night,” Ward retorts, looming over her. “You’re hurt and you’re at my house -- that doesn’t fly.”

Honestly she can’t remember the last time someone worried about her who actually had the ability to raise hell the way she needed them to in order to feel truly safe. It should be terrible that this is what makes her feel better, but she can’t exactly pretend it isn’t true. Not even Bucky and Nat on their best days fill her with this kind of security.

While Skye is lost in her thoughts, Ward has misinterpreted her silence as a reluctance to cooperate. “Look. We’ve got a couple things to tackle here.” Ward pinches the bridge of his noise, trying to gather his thoughts and the wave of nostalgia that hits her is almost unbearable. “Can we just... declare a truce? Lara aside, Thomas and Kara are going to be downright insufferable if we don’t.”

She feels the beginnings of a smile forming. “He demanded pancakes, didn’t he?”

“Yes!” Ward throws his hand out in the space between them, almost like Thomas is physically present and needs to be clipped on the shoulder for his actions. “Like I don’t have about a thousand other things to do right now and --” He trails off at the faint smile on her face. “Why is this so funny?”

Skye draws the blankets in closer, unable to hide a wince as she readjusts to sit more comfortably against the bed. “He used to do the same thing to me when I had him cancel on Kara or you... because I needed him around.” For Lara, is the unspoken rest of the sentence.

“He was there the whole time, wasn’t he?” Ward’s voice is slightly filled with curious wonder and, somehow, not a hint of jealousy so much as bemusement as he tries to reconcile his somewhat irresponsible brother with the type of rock that Skye and Lara had obviously needed in their lives.

She nods, her eyes filling with an unwanted emotion she refuses to name or give heed to. “He was great.” When Ward looks away, jaw flexing with strain, she wants to rage at the injustice of it all. “Ward.”

There is simply no identifying the feelings that scatter across his features and bleed from his eyes before he locks them down with a single blink.

She needs him to understand this, maybe more than anything she’s ever tried to convey to him before. “He wasn’t you.”

Ward gets up and walks away from her, taking a path to the huge row of floor to ceiling windows lining the far wall of the room. He doesn’t have the same caged energy he did when she first woke up, but Skye can’t help but feel responsible for the way he stands like he’s buried under all the burdens she’s been carrying since Lara was born.

This isn’t what she wanted.

She clears her throat awkwardly. “So was I tripped out in pain or did I hear Lara call you ‘Dad’?”

“Probably hallucinated it.” He’s moody now; self-flagellation level an all time high at a level eleventeen.

Drama queen. She rolls her eyes, throwing back the covers and padding over to the wardrobe. Out of her peripheral vision, she can see the way he tenses and catches the instinctive move to turn around when she gets an idea.

Skye is sore from the extraction and the bruises look worse than they actually are, but she wasn’t lying about healing fast and she wants to check on Lara. Without any fanfare, she judges the bank of windows and strategically positions herself as she shucks her pajamas and shimmies into a fresh pair of black fitted cargo pants and long sleeved tee.

Ward has gone absolutely still.

She smirks. Still got it

“Should I be creeped out by the fact that you stocked all the right size clothes for me, or just thankful that your whiz kid can apparently size me up off a grainy video camera?”

“Ranger is very good at his job, but that particular fact,” Ward drawls, turning around slowly, eyes raking over her appearance and thoroughly covering every inch to the point she wonders if he can see the black lace bra and underwear she’s paired beneath. “Was all me.”

Skye tips her head in acknowledgement, refusing to be intimidated. “Touche.”

Ward looks like he intends to take the conversation further, but he catches sight of a faint redness around her throat and wrists. He clenches his fists for a second and then seems to count to ten silently. “Emmy.”

“Emmy,” Skye repeats, unsure of where he intends to steer the conversation.

“What can you tell me about her?”

She raises an eyebrow. “Like Ranger hasn’t sent you a profile on the poor kid already?”

“Skye.” Ward exhales slowly, gripping the back of the couch tightly. “I’d like to hear it from you. Please.”

“Well. Since you said please,” she gestures widely for him to take a seat. “By all means. You’ve obviously figured out who her parents are.”

His voice is slightly awed. “Fitzsimmons had a kid. Seems crazy.”

Skye nods. “Can’t believe they finally did it.”

Ward makes a sour face. “Skye.”

“Okay, I didn’t mean it like that,” She protests laughingly. “But come to think of it...”

*

After the information dump about Emmy, Lara feels the beginnings of a headache coming on.

Before she can think to ask, Ranger is already pushing a glass of water and three white pills into her hand. “You get the same worry lines as your dad,” he quietly offers, tracing her forehead gently until she consciously makes the effort to relax. “What else?”

“I’d like to clean up, for one.” She tips back the pills smoothly and drains the water in a few gulps.

“Not something I should help you with,” he replies in amusement, delighted as her face reddens predictably.

“Shut up and help me out of this bed, you idiot. I can take it from there.” Lara grumbles when he ignores her suggestion and instead picks her up, carrying her into the bathroom.

He sets her on the ledge of the massive tub, turning on the taps until the water runs nice and hot. “You probably won’t have the strength for a shower.”

She glances at the rising water and then back at his face. “So, are you sticking around, or...?”

Ranger laughs. “I’ll be outside when you’re done.”

Thankfully there’s a big robe on the back of the door that she slips on after cleaning up which keeps her decent when Ranger comes back in to carry her out. “I can walk, you know.”

“I just don’t want you to overdo it.” He bites his lip to keep from smiling at the pout forming on her face, and slips a black drawstring pouch into her hands. “C’mon. Open it.”

Lara half smiles in confusion, pulling the strings to loosen the pouch and tipping the contents into her palm. It’s a delicate necklace with a white lightning bolt hanging from the end. She peers closer and the brilliance resolves itself into a bunch of scattered diamonds floating suspended between glass. “Ranger.”

He shrugs carelessly. “I just thought you might want something to remember how incredible this entire journey has been.” Then he nudges her playfully, “And you know, meeting me... your dreamy partner.”

She laughs, throwing her arms around his neck. “I love it. Thank you.”

Ranger helps her fasten it securely and carefully turns around, covering his eyes as she slips into clean clothes.

“Okay, I’m decent.” From where it sits on top of her dark shirt, the necklace sparkles brightly, almost a match for the happy smile on Lara’s face.

“You were decent before,” he says, laughing as she punches him on the arm. Ranger sobers up. “Your parents are on their way up.”

“Something is seriously wrong with them.” Lara twists the necklace slowly, trying to put her finger on what strikes her as being so off between them.

“I think it’s probably a lot more accurate to say that there’s just... a lot of history between them. There’s no doubt that they love you, and at least in that they’re in complete agreement.”

Lara thinks about the gritty strange tension of the extraction. “They said terrible things to each other.” Her eyes grow distant as she recalls the hazy experience on the quinjet and her parents’ interaction. “He holds himself back with her, like he’s afraid she’s going to walk away or something.”

“Well.” Ranger clears his throat awkwardly. “That’s probably because she did before.”

Her face goes white with shock.

There is no time for him to explain it any further, because seconds later the doors open wide, heralding the arrival of Skye and Ward.

Ranger gets to his feet and steps away so that Skye can embrace Lara without obstruction, gravitating over to Ward, who is just standing back and watching the two of them together.

“Anything specific you want me to work on?” He asks quietly, regretting that he has to tear his mentor’s attention away.

“No,” Ward shakes his head as if to clear it. “See what you can find on the records we scrubbed, check for any kind of IDs or familiar faces. I want to know who they are.” He waits until Ranger is almost out the door when he calls him back.

“Yeah?” Ranger lingers, patiently waiting for instructions. He looks wiped out.

“Get some rest.” When he nods sleepily, Ward gruffly adds, “Thank you.”

It’s a testimony to Ranger’s exhaustion that he can only lift a hand in acknowledgement before closing the doors on the reunited family.

*

Emmy practically has to trot to keep up with Kara’s brisk pace as they traverse the length of the base until they reach her door.

“Hope you’re not naked,” Kara calls into the seemingly empty apartment, “Cause I’ve got a minor with me.”

“Not my style,” Thomas comes around the corner, thankfully clothed. “Hey kiddo.”

Emmy wants to bristle at the familiarity of the term, as she’d only allowed Skye to refer to her that way, but then she notices how Kara seems to finally relax upon reaching his side, accepting a kiss and her fascination is piqued. Emmy gathers they aren’t the type for much casual public affection, a fact confirmed when Thomas mischievously attempts to deepen the kiss and Kara shoves him away in protest.

“I don’t see pancakes in your hands.”

Kara pulls a face, looking at Emmy in commiseration as if to say I told you so. “Your brother had a rough morning.”

“My brother’s had a rough couple of weeks, but those pancakes are a sacred thing,” Thomas argues. “And he promised.”

“Did he, now?” Kara’s incredulity is palpable.

“...No.” He pouts. “But it was very seriously implied that if he wanted to stay in my good graces, pancakes need to be made.”

“I might be why he didn’t.” Emmy offers quietly.

Thomas refocuses on her. “I’m sure you’re terrifying, but he’s faced worse.”

The flippant dismissal is both off-putting and comforting, oddly reminiscent of her Uncle Lance. “I mentioned something about Skye’s injuries --”

Kara hisses sharply. “That would do it.”

Thomas looks between them, at a loss. “What am I missing here?”

“Nothing that can’t wait a few minutes." She runs a hand through his hair, dragging him back for a quick peck on the lips. “I need to check with Natasha on a few things. Be nice.”

Emmy and Thomas stare at each other in silence for a few moments. She’s not quite sure what to make of him, other than the fact that he gave her his food yesterday, which reminds her that she hasn’t properly thanked him. Her mother would be horrified. “Thanks for the burger.”

He brushes it off easily. “If your family’s anything like mine, you’re constantly scrambling for food. Pack snacks and pack many. That’s the best advice I can give you.”

She wants to tell him about her father’s endless appetite, that everyone in their family gets together for snacks and movies when things are getting a little too tense and they need to take the edge off (something this family could sorely benefit from, to be honest) -- wants to tell him anything that can give them a little more of a common ground, but she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to say and what she isn’t.

Kara comes back with a grim look on her face and a file that she hands over to him.

“Jesus.” Thomas flips through the images within the file, cursing low under his breath. “No wonder he freaked.” He passes the file back and Kara immediately puts it through an industrial sized shredder. “And the Hurricane? How’s she?”

(Emmy privately wonders what it says about their compulsive need for privacy that would have that kind of equipment in their home and decides she’s better off not knowing.)

Kara casts a glance outside, where the skies seem to be quiet but a dismal shade of gray. “Holding steady, so far.”

“Let’s hope it stays that way. I don’t know that they can survive much else at this point.”

Emmy’s stomach growls impossibly loud.

Thomas grins widely. “Well. The lady has spoken. Let’s have some brunch, shall we?”

Kara tips her head at the teen. “What do you say, Emmy? Can you bear to spend more time with us?”

It’s not like there’s anywhere else for her to go. She nods, smiling back. “I’d like to throw in my vote for mimosas.”

“Nice try but you’re underage.” Thomas protests, sweeping into the attached large kitchen. 

“It has been an awfully rough couple of days,” Emmy bats her eyelashes pitifully, ignoring Kara’s stifled laugh.

“Your parents must have their hands full with you,” Thomas says, resolutely turning away. “And stop doing that! I’m not giving you any alcohol.”

She sniffs disdainfully. “As a scientist, I feel it’s only fair to inform you that I work with alcohol all day in the lab.”

“Then go drink your vodka out of a beaker, kid.” He cracks an alarming number of eggs in practiced succession into a large frypan. “But you’re not getting it from me.”

She boosts herself onto the nearby stool with a huff.

“It was worth a shot,” Kara winks. “He gets oddly responsible sometimes. You just have to roll with it.”

“I can hear you,” Thomas primly reprimands, putting four slices of multigrain bread into the toaster.

“Really?” Kara folds her arms, undeterred. “Then allow me to take the opportunity to let you know how thrilled I am that your hearing hasn’t started to go.”

They bicker playfully and Emmy feels her worry slowly drain away. This almost feels like a scene she could have lifted from home.

*

They’ve been making small talk for almost an hour.

It should probably be more awkward than it is -- are there are definitely a few rough patches -- but for the most part, Lara is filling Skye in on what she’s missed while in captivity as Ward chimes in every now and then, correcting a detail or two.

Skye almost hates that she has to break up the easy conversation, but now that Nat’s miracle rug has indeed healed Lara, they need to be thinking about an exit plan. “So I’ll take Emmy back, probably tomorrow. Nat and Bucky will run point but... I need to make sure she gets back to them safely.”

Ward doesn’t offer a counterargument to her announcement, nor does he seem fazed by her insistence that she needs visual confirmation of the exchange. He knows her trust in the assassin duo is absolute, but he also knows what shared experiences do to a person -- and then of course, there is the not so small matter of Emmy’s parents being who they are.

“After I come back, I’ll get Lara and we’ll take off.”

Now he looks stricken. “What do you mean take off?”

“I mean, we’ll be going back home.”

Before Skye can make sense of it, Lara is struggling to her feet to stand next to her father, looking like a mirror image of him when he would get that mulish look on his face during early morning training sessions. “No. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Lara --” Skye turns to her, trying to diffuse the nervous energy she can feel radiating off her daughter. Where is this rebelliousness coming from?

“You told me that I was part of this family. You said there was a place here for me,” Lara demands of Ward, chin up in defiance. “Were you lying?”

If Ward had looked stricken before, now he looks absolutely stunned. “...No, of course not, but --”

“Then I’m staying here.”

Skye rolls her eyes. “It’s not that simple. You can come back to visit and we’ll work out some kind of system, but --”

“I’m staying.” And the young woman standing in front of her is both familiar and a total stranger. There is hardly a trace of the innocent girl she left in Ward’s care. She’s tougher and a force to be reckoned with in her own right. “You honestly expect me to come back to our life like nothing has changed? Why should I? I’m not the one who walked out on this family all those years ago.”

Skye feels the air in her lungs evaporate. How does she know about that?

Lara.” Ward’s reproof is like a whip, crackling sharp and tight in the air. “You’re out of line. Apologise to your mother.”

She laughs, but it’s an ugly bitter sound. “No, Dad. I’m not going to pretend like this never happened, like I don’t belong here.” Her eyes are wet but resolute when she looks back at Skye. “This is my home.”

The gravity of what she’s saying -- that she would essentially turn her back on their life together in favor of choosing an indeterminate future with her father, after everything they’ve been through -- actually pulses with hurt underneath her ribs. It’s breaking her heart to see Lara making this decision; and somehow there’s a small part of Skye that is proud of her daughter for sticking up for him and standing at his side. For being able to do what she couldn’t. Even though she knows her reasons for doing so were so much more complicated than this simple choice set before her daughter.

Skye favors her with one last look and heads for the door. “We’ll talk about it when I get back.”

“Mom.” Lara has folded her arms resolutely, and does not seem like she plans on budging in the slightest. “I don’t know what’s going on with you guys or what happened all those years ago, but I’m not leaving him.”

At last, Ward finally rediscovers his voice. “Lara, I think we should talk about this more before making any decisions.”

“Why?” She shrugs flippantly. “So you can just put me between you like everyone else?”

Lara.” Skye glares at her in warning.

“Then fine, I don’t care: put me in the middle. At least I have the decency to call this what it is, instead of dancing around the damn elephant in the room.” She shoots them both a fulminating look and pushes past Skye to rush out the door.

“What just happened?” Skye looks dazed, and actually has to reach for the bedpost to support the watery feeling in her limbs.

“Hurricane Lara.” Ward sighs under his breath. The wind howls restlessly outside, and the sky darkens ominously. Seconds later, torrential rain is lashing at the windows. “You really want to take off in that?”

“She can’t just... do that every time we have a disagreement.”

“Oh, I assure you,” Ward seems to be fighting a grin. “She can.”

“For god’s sake.” She shoves past him, slamming the door loudly.

*

Ranger finds Lara on the roof.

The rain is pouring down in sheets but she doesn’t seem to notice. She stands at the edge, hands cupped around her elbows as she shakes and wavers in the storm.

“Hey.” He comes up behind her slowly, careful not to startle her. It’s not like he wants a thunderbolt to the face. “What’s going on?”

“Mom wants to leave.” She doesn’t look at him. The emotions warring across her face are match for the turmoil that hits him when he places a firm hand on her waist, pulling gently until she’s sheltered against his chest.

can’t leave i can’t walk away from him i’m not like her i’ve been waiting my entire life to find somewhere i belong and now this and its all going away and it hurts it hurt it HURTS

Without meaning to his grip tightens sharply, pulling them both back into the present.

“I’m sorry.” Lara inhales sharply, and the pain stinging his senses abates as she buries her face into his shoulder.

“Did you tell her you’d prefer to stay?” He absently lifts a hand to smooth through the tangles in her hair.

Her laughter is a strangled thing that tears at every one of his protective instincts. “Let’s just say I made my opinion clear.”

Ranger chuckles, wrapping both arms around her and tugging her close. “Of course you did. You’ve got the subtlety of a battering ram.”

They stand there for a few minutes until Lara’s heartbeat gradually settles into a calmer rhythm.

The sound of the roof door opening shatters the moment.

Emmy is peering at them from just inside the doorway. “Sorry. I just -- I followed Ranger because I thought... you might need help.”

Something about the girl raises her defenses. “I definitely don’t need your help,” Lara savagely replies, glaring as if she can physically will her to disappear.

Ranger squeezes her arm gently, raising an eyebrow. Easy now. She’s just a kid.

She tries to take it down a notch. “What do you want?” And fails.

Emmy mostly hides the flinch from her harsh demand, stepping tentatively closer. “Your mom... she’s okay?”

Ranger makes an abrupt slashing motion at his throat, but it’s too late. Lara rolls her eyes, turning away and into the wind as it whips up through the trees. “She’s fine. She’s great, even. Never better.” She curls one hand into a fist tightly and the gusts pick up in earnest.

Emmy watches in fascination as the storm rapidly deteriorates around them. “Wait. Are you doing this?” Her awe is clearly apparent as she pays no heed to Lara’s growing frustration and is at this point, blatantly ignoring Ranger’s wide eyed plea to cease and desist.

“You see any other hurricanes wreaking havoc up here?”

“So that’s why they call you that. Incredible.” The younger teen steps closer in spite of the situation, trying to find common ground for maintaining the conversation. “I’m glad to hear it. About your mom, I mean.”

“She’s not a damn saint, okay?!” Lara’s barely holding back a furious sheen of tears, visibly struggling to keep both the storm and her emotions at bay. “She’s a horrible person who rips families apart and --” Her voice breaks as she drops to her knees, choking on a sob.

Emmy startles, instinctively reaching to comfort her when Lara glares at her through dark eyes. “She wrecked your family too, so you might as well stop thinking that she’s going to reunite with them and it’ll be sunshine and rainbows.”

Ranger moves to put himself between the two girls but Emmy ducks under his arm, dropping into a crouch beside Lara. She roots for Lara’s hand blindly, gripping it tight. “Listen. When we were locked up, you were the reason she never stopped fighting. I might be out of line for saying that, but I thought you should know.”

Lara doesn’t answer, just stares down at the way their hands are clutched together tightly, which Emmy takes as a sign to proceed. “And honestly, in another world we’d be cousins. Maybe we can’t have that but I’d really like to see if we can be friends.”

Why are you doing this?” Lara can’t hide the bewilderment in her voice.

Emmy screws up her determination, fixing Lara with a steady gaze. “My uncle Lance says it doesn’t matter how royally you bugger up your life, because family will always love you. That’s what this is all about: Family. So whatever you’ve done to stand up for that, well. I think it’s brave. Even if Skye is kind of my hero.” She bites her lip, wincing. “Sorry. Not going to lie about that.”

With a defeated sigh, Lara sits back against the ledge. “You shouldn’t. Up until a few weeks ago, she was mine too.”

Ranger looks from behind the hand covering his eyes. “Is it safe to come out now?”

“Yeah.” Lara meets his eyes, clearly reading the concern shining through. She shifts her gaze to look at Emmy, who is watching her with an actual beaming smile of encouragement. It’s impossible to stay mad at her. “We’re going to hang up here for a little while, if that’s okay.”

Emmy brightens considerably. “Will you show me how you caused the storm before and what it means when the wind picked up, like how do you --”

“-- Whoa, easy.” Ranger bends down to kiss Lara goodbye. “Take care of her,” he instructs Emmy, who nods solemnly.

“I’m right here,” Lara grumbles in irritation. “I think I can handle myself.”

He leaves to the sound off Emmy peppering Lara with questions about her abilities and smiles to himself. Maybe something good will come out of this mess after all.

*

It’s been two hours, and Skye still wants to tear something apart.

She’s intending to go a few rounds with whatever equipment Ward has outfitted and blow off steam when she walks into the gym, only to be in use by his protege.

Ranger is currently beating the hell out of a punching bag, movements fast and lethal. Judging by the damp patches on his shirt, he’s been at it for a while, though he shows no sign of stopping.

“Jeez.” Skye leans against the mirror and watches the ruthless economy of his strikes. “No wonder she fell for you.”

He tenses at her words, letting a few more punches fly before turning to face her. “I spent nearly half my life looking for you.” Ranger turns, his face carefully blank. “You’re everything he said you were and somehow exactly what I pictured Lara’s mother to be.”

Skye doesn’t like the placid calm underlying his words. It reminds her too much of Ward, and how he’d get before delivering the killing blow. “I’m just a person like everyone else, so you can knock me off that pedestal any time, buddy.”

“There’s just one thing I can’t figure out.” He turns to the heavyweight bag, presenting her with his back. “If you know people the way Ward seems to think you do, or at least, did -- I can’t understand why you won’t respect Lara’s choice here.”

Skye actually has to blink and clamp down hard on the reflexive energy that wants to leap out and knock him off his feet. “I respect that my daughter has feelings for you and that you’re obviously irreplaceable to Ward. I can even grasp that you were an integral part of rescuing me -- and these are the only reasons you aren’t gasping for air right now.”

Ranger shrugs. “I’m just stating the facts. What Lara needs now more than anything is for you to support her. Even if it breaks your heart.”

So say that some kid who talks and reacts like a mini Ward is telling her about her own daughter infuriates her would be an understatement.

She scoffs. “Oh, the way you’re prepared to? I might be injured but I’m not blind. I know you spent all night with her.”

He acknowledges the hit with a slight flex of his jaw. “If she walked away to stay with you, I would send her with my blessing. And it would gut me. But that’s what you do for the people you love.”

Skye tastes blood before she realises that she’s literally bitten her tongue to keep from blasting him. He has no idea what she’s sacrificed. “You know nothing about my life and the choices I’ve made.”

He lifts his chin, taking the accusation in stride. “I know what Fitz and Jemma looked like when I first met them, that it took years for them to recover from your absence. And they never gave up hope that you’d come back one day. I don’t know what Ward was like after you walked away; Thomas and Kara have only told me stories. But I know what he’s like on his worst days, when he’s remembering your life together. And still he never stopped looking for you.”

While Skye is struggling to absorb this, Ranger plows on. “I know what it’s like to be out on your own and have to make something of yourself without anyone supporting you.” His eyes are bright with anger, having made it personal between the two of them. “I know what it’s like to want someone to believe in you and finding a home at last. And maybe you’re right about me not understanding your choices... because I can’t fathom why you’d walk away.”

Her eyes are shiny with with tears as she takes in the apparent revelation that their beginnings are more similar than she’d originally thought. She never expected Ward to adopt another person into his life who had been as lost and parentless the way they had been. That Ranger has experienced it firsthand gives him a unique perspective despite his younger age, and she not longer finds it as simple to write him off as a handsome face.

Ranger softens his voice, as if pleading for her to listen. “You did an amazing job raising this literal hurricane of a girl. You taught her how vital it is to be compassionate. To fight for what she knows is right. To love.” He steps back, gesturing for her to take a swing at him, knowing his next words will probably demand it. “And now you’d condemn her for being exactly who you made her.”

And just like that, he pulls the rug out from under her.

Skye somehow manages refrains from obliterating his stupidly perfect jaw, but it’s a very near thing. She’s absolutely speechless as he continues to stare at her in contemplation.

“Look. I get the impression you underestimate how much I love your daughter.” Ranger concludes, stripping off his hand wraps to reveal slightly bloodied knuckles. He meticulously folds the wraps into neat bundles to be laundered, tucking them into his pocket. His eyes are steady and his voice unwavering as he calmly finishes, “You shouldn’t.”

Skye watches him until he’s disappeared from view and thinks seriously about what he’s said. She hadn’t pegged Ranger for a fighter, though he’d obviously have to be able to hold his own against Ward and Lara if he had managed to get so close to them.

Minutes pass and then she sighs, rolling her eyes. “You can come out now.”

Bucky and Natasha melt from the shadows. Bucky looks miffed. “We didn’t make a sound. How did you –”

“If it makes a vibration, I hear it.” Skye replies, with the long-suffering boredom of one who has explained the subject many times before. “Sorry you haven’t figured out a way to muffle your heartbeat.”

“Just wait,” Bucky promises. Then he looks speculatively at the doorway Ranger had exited through. “To be honest, I thought we’d have to come out sooner. I’m surprised you didn’t clock the kid.”  

“She wouldn’t,” Natasha murmurs speculatively, eyes on Skye. “That was a test.” The two women exchange a significant look. He’ll protect her.

“Yeah,” Skye snorts, stripping off her tee shirt to reveal a fitted sports tank underneath. She assumes a fighting position in front of Natasha and Bucky, slightly gratified when they fall into the defensive stance across from her. “Of my self control.”

“Gets under your skin.” Bucky gestures for her to take the first strike.

“Wonder where he gets that from...” Natasha trails off in speculation.

And with a snarl, Skye attacks.

*

Dinner is a tense affair.

The conversation is hushed and eager between Ranger, Lara and Emmy. Bucky and Natasha have more of their silent interactions that no one really liked to dwell upon. And Thomas and Kara are keeping quietly to their end of the table, exchanging furtive glances at her and Ward every so often.

“If you don’t stop looking at us I’m going to tell everyone about the day Thomas bought that ring and how we almost got thrown in jail because of it.”

Natasha hides a smile behind her napkin.

“Skye.” Thomas looks horrified.

She shrugs. “Cut it out.”

Kara is speculative. “Say I ceased with the sneaky glances but still wanted to know that story?”

Skye grins. “Consider it your official engagement present.”

“Wonderful.” Kara settles back into her chair with a smug grin of her own, blatantly ignoring Thomas’s howled protests.

“It’s nice to know you’re not splitting everyone up,” Lara sarcastically observes, reaching for her water with an obviously faked calm.

Lara.” Ward threatens. “Enough.”

Ranger slips his hand over Lara’s reassuringly. “I’d find you.”

And it’s the eerily similar wording of the casual promise; his utter conviction and unshakable belief is what ultimately does it. She’s been scrubbed raw by this day. And she’s done.

Skye is so tired of it all, so sick of pretending like everything is okay, like she hasn’t been carrying the world’s heaviest burdens for Lara’s entire life.

Please.” She shoves back from the table, and the water glasses begin to rattle ominously. “The only reason you found us is because I planted the intel right in your path.”

There is a dead silence in the room.

“Shit.” Suspicions finally confirmed, Thomas closes his eyes and begins to sink down in his chair.

“Dear lord.” Kara remarks softly as she watches the impending explosion.

Lara and Ward have identical expressions of outrage.

Dammit Skye!”

“Mom, what the hell?!”

“I had my reasons.” Skye flattens her palms on the table, ruthlessly pulling in her emotions.

“That we don’t know about because you refuse to tell us!” Ward yells, standing up at the other end of the table, nearly upsetting the dishes entirely.

Maybe it’s the weight of the day and the emotional toll of the past few weeks that have her control slipping as she reflexively glances at her daughter.

Lara frowns until the pieces begin to fall into place, and her eyes grow wide with horror. “No.”

“Lara --” Ward begins in a low tone, attempting to soothe her.

“It’s not that simple,” Skye starts, face pinched tight with worry as she tries to gauge whether or not Lara will run. The last thing she needs right now is Lara thinking this is all her fault.

“How could you?” Lara is openly crying as she shoves back from the table and bolts from the room.

Ranger calmly folds his napkin beside his plate. “Mad Science, will you take my dishes to the sink?”

Eyes the size of saucers, Emmy agrees. He ruffles her hair affectionately, the light movement betraying none of his anger. “Thanks.”

With both Ranger and Lara finally gone from the room, Ward slowly sinks back into his seat. He lifts his eyes to Skye with the kind of weariness she hasn’t seen in over two decades, in another lifetime when things were so much worse -- and somehow easier. “I think you should take Emmy back first thing in the morning and allow Lara some time to cool off.”

“I’m happy to stay,”  Emmy pipes up, trying to make herself as inconspicuous a variable as possible. These people are so broken and damaged -- she doesn’t understand; it’s nothing like home, where everything is a loud argument that resolves itself in laughter or at least a friendly spar.

Imogene.” And his voice is firm, brooking no disagreement. 

She lifts her chin in the same vein as Simmons would when being told to make an impossible choice. He shouldn’t be comforted by that, but in a weird way, he is. And it reminds him of his own situation, which he would prefer not to dwell upon at the moment.

“Your parents are going to be worried sick.” The statement has him visibly struggle to maintain composure. “Skye will accompany Natasha and Bucky and take you to the meeting point. The rest of us will stay here and work on figuring out who did this.”

Skye looks like she wants to fight, but she doesn’t know who or what. She abruptly pushes away, chair skittering backward and items rattling in her wake as she leaves.

Tense moments pass.

Ward deliberately refuses to make eye contact with anyone on his way out. Thomas attempts to catch up, but Kara yanks on his arm tightly, shaking her head. “Let him go.”

“So.” Bucky casts an inquiring glance at Natasha. “Your turn or mine?”

*

Chapter Text


| every single lara au headcanon UNDER THE SUN | | lara au meta |

*

Lara knows everyone will be searching for her either on the roof or her room so it leaves her floundering a bit as she navigates the halls. She’s just about ready to admit that she’s wandering aimlessly when –

“You really are terrible with directions.” Ranger says, startling her out of her thoughts.

She finds him leaning on the wall opposite, sympathy etched on his face. “You found me.”

“Wasn’t that hard.”

“All you have to do is follow the trail of destruction in my wake,” Lara mutters, slowly walking over to him.

“No.” Ranger firmly disagrees. “Just had to follow this,” he lays a hand over his heart. “In fact, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but… you’ve kind of taken up permanent residence there these days.”

The tension slowly drains from her defensive posture until she can rest against him, secure in the knowledge that he’ll protect her from prying eyes and half-assed explanations. “I’d say welcome to the family, but you’ve had a pretty killer front row seat for so much of my dysfunctional relatives that this is probably not the worst thing you’ve seen.”

Ranger is quiet as he contemplates Ward’s darkest days and what he’d heard from Thomas and Kara about his boss before they’d met. “It’s not.” He slips an arm around her shoulders, propelling them into a slow walk. “Although it explains why I could never find anything on her.”

“And everyone thought my dad was the control freak,” Lara mumbles, leaning her head against his arm.

“I still don’t think we know everything.” Ranger is turning over the facts in his head, trying to make sense of what he knows to be true with what he’s learned in the past few days from Skye herself. “I mean, your dad never stopped looking for her, so she had to know he was out there. She’s been sitting on this for years. Why now?”

“Hell if I know,” Lara shrugs, her expression morose. “The more I find out, the less I understand her. And I’m really starting to resent her decisions.”

“I just wonder what led to this. If she’s as cagey as your dad, it doesn’t add up.”

There is a rustle of movement from down the hall and Lara panics, looking for a place to hide.

“Lara, what the –” Ranger splutters, taken by surprise as she drags him into a nearby closet.

Shhh!” She hisses, tugging the door shut behind them.

Natasha and Bucky come strolling around the corner.

“I’ve got Ward.” He grins.

“Try to look appropriately sober,” she chides reprovingly. “Skye would see through that in a second.”

“Ah. But that’s why you’re going to her and I’m going to offer to punch away your precious favorite’s feelings.”

They share a pointed look at the closet door as they pass by.

When they reach the end of the hall, Bucky tugs her close for a quick kiss. “Think we should let them know we saw them?”

Natasha smirks. “You ask me that like you aren’t going to give Ward hell that you saw his daughter tug her boyfriend into a storage closet.”

He laughs cheerfully as they part ways.

*

“Come in.” Skye knows by the brisk knock who is on the other side.

Natasha steps inside, closing the door behind her. “Nice place. Suits you.”

“I had nothing to do with it,” Skye defensively replies, packing a few more items into a small bag.

“Of course not,” Natasha easily agrees. “This has Ward written all over it.”

The shampoo bottle falls out of Skye’s limp hands and rolls to the ground without interference. “Nat.”

She shrugs. “It’s fairly obvious.” She casts a curious look around the room. “Extra high ceilings, an entire wall of windows so you wouldn’t feel caged in… separate from the rest of the house so you’d have the privacy you crave. Say what you want about him, but he certainly has you pegged.”

“I hate you.” Skye sighs loudly, flopping back onto the bed with a hand covering her eyes.

“You don’t,” Natasha counters, following her example to sit beside her. Without any prompting, she begins combing her fingers through Skye’s hair, deftly twisting until the makings of a french braid develop from her efforts. “I remember this from when you were pregnant with Lara.”

“Mmmm.” Skye agrees drowsily, eyes drifting shut. “You took such good care of me.”

“I was only one part of Operation Hurricane,” she reminds, tying off the brain with an elastic. “The others were equally important.” When she is certain of Skye’s relaxed nature due to the utter lack of tension running through her veins, Natasha gently asks, “Why haven’t you told him the truth yet?”

Skye goes still. The vase on her nightstand wobbles alarmingly before finally settling back down. After another few moments, she exhales in measured counts. “Hasn’t been the right time. Right now, we’re in a truce of sorts. It’s be nice. …I don’t want to ruin that.”

“Do you really think the truce will hold when he finds out?”

She shrugs, abandoning all hopes of actually remaining relaxed. “Probably not. I guess there’s a part of me that hopes I won’t have to tell him.”

Skye.”

“It’s all so crazy, Natasha. I hate that this is what our life has come to. Lara deserves to be a normal girl.”

A smile curves upward on the assassin’s face. “With you both for parents… Lara was never going to be normal. You must know that by now.”

“You know what I mean,” Skye weakly protests.

“Normal is overrated,” Natasha counters, sliding off the bed and taking up where Skye had left off with packing. “You’d be bored within a week.”

“You don’t know that.”

“So that isn’t why you finally got tired of running and left the information trail for Ranger to find you?” Though her attention is on a pair of black pants and spare sweater, Natasha’s question lances Skye’s attention effortlessly.

“…Maybe.” Skye sullenly admits, bearing a strong resemblance to a certain hurricane when faced with something that needed doing even when every bone in her body shouted reluctance otherwise.

*

Ward doesn’t even look surprised when Bucky walks into his office. “Did you draw the short straw this time?”

“Nah. Just figured you had better alcohol.”

Ward gestures widely at the wet bar. “Help yourself.”

“Don’t mind if I do.” Bucky whistles upon discovering some of the labels stocked beneath the bar. “I don’t care what they say about you, Ward… you’re all right.”

“Glad to know your opinion of me has finally improved,” he drawls sarcastically, nursing the snifter of brandy in his hand. “Though I can’t say I would have been heartbroken to learn otherwise.”

Bucky has to turn his back on the other man to keep from chuckling at his dramatics. Family drama has loosened Ward up considerably and he almost regrets that they have to take Emmy home in the morning because it means he will no longer have a front row seat to the fireworks that are sure to come. But he might as well end things on a high note. “By the way… you know anything about your daughter sneakin’ off with her boyfriend to make time in a storage closet?”

Much to Bucky’s delight, Ward’s face darkens and he lets loose a string of expletives. “She promised not to do that!”

“If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years…” He shrugs unrepentantly, “It’s that you can’t bank on love.”

Not helping.” Ward retorts through gritted teeth.

“All sorts of things happen in closets these days…” he muses aloud. “I sure would hate to know what the kids are into now.”

When the other man takes off swearing and bolts from the room, Bucky allows himself a nice long chuckle. Then he grabs the bottle of vodka and gives it a wink. “So glad we could have this time together, sweetheart. I know a redhead who’s gonna be just wild about you.”

*

After two minutes have passed in complete silence – she knows, because she’s counted every painstaking second – Lara can’t take it anymore. “Okay, we can definitely go now.”

“Go?” Ranger sounds decidedly amused and it’s hard for her to keep calm without being able to see him in the dark. His hands land on her hips, startling her into backing against the (very close) wall and hitting her head.

“You are literally the opposite of stealth,” He whispers, voice coming closer. 

She still can’t totally place him without being able to visualise where exactly he is. “You aren’t exactly helping right noMMPF– ”

He waits until she’s basically clutching his arms to remain upright before opening the door and letting the light stream in.

Lara squints in pain, ducking her head against his shoulder. “You’re such a jerk.”

Ranger laughs, drawing her face close for another lingering kiss. “You’d be so bored without me.”

“But at least I wouldn’t be dying of mortal embarrassment,” she grumbles.

*

Neither Lara nor Ranger come to say goodbye the following morning.

Ward stands on the roof, talking to Natasha when Emmy shows up. He hands her an envelope that appears to be stuffed quite full and clears his throat. “That’s for you. There are some things from Ranger inside and Lara mentioned she slipped a note in for you as well.”

It feels bulky in her hands, and she’s struggling to keep it from slipping as she weighs the pros and cons in her mind. “Oh rubbish,” Emmy concludes, throwing her arms around his waist.

He makes a startled noise before gingerly folding his arms around her in return. “Please be very careful,” Ward gently instructs, “There’s only one Imogene Fitzsimmons and I’ve grown pretty fond of her.”

“I’m –” Emmy can’t breathe for the lump in her throat.

Ward hands over a small handle bag with a dumb smiley face drawn on the side. “From Thomas and Kara. They thought you might get hungry.”

Before she can respond, the roof door blows open.

“I’m here,” Skye breathlessly announces. “Sorry I’m late. Thought I would try to say goodbye to Lara, but.” She shrugs, trying to mask the hurt. “Guess she’s still sleeping.”

“Goodbye, Emmy.” Ward nods gently, indicating for her to follow Natasha and Bucky aboard.

She waves, not trusting her voice, and juggles her things until Bucky appears to help settle her in.

“See you when I get back.” Skye offers, somewhat awkwardly from where she stands at the bottom of the ramp.

“I’ll be here.” Ward promises.

They definitely don’t talk about how this is the first goodbye they’ve had in almost twenty years.

But he also doesn’t move from where he’s standing as she walks deeper into the quinjet – or how she can’t tear her eyes away from him as the gate closes, sealing her off inside.

And When she looks out the window, he’s still standing there, watching her fly away.

*

While Bucky charts a course for New York, Natasha comes into the galley and stares at Emmy with an alarming stillness.

Emmy glances nervously at her. “Yes?”

It almost looks like Natasha regrets what she’s about to say, but that wold be impossible – she’s the Black Widow and this is hardly the worst thing she’s ever done.

“Emmy, we need to talk about what you’re going to say when you get back to your parents.”

The teen frowns in confusion. “I’m going to throw my arms around them and tell them how happy I am to see them and –”

“– That your Aunt Skye is alive?” Natasha finishes dryly, shooting Skye a knowing look.

Skye looks like she wants to get up and leave more than anything but she remains seated across the table quietly.

Emmy looks at her for backup. “Am I… not supposed to say that?”

Natasha shakes her head. “No one in your family holds the clearance level necessary for you to talk about Skye, Ward, or Ranger.” When Emmy opens her mouth to interrupt, she adds, “And you definitely can’t mention Lara.”

“But…”

Skye clears her throat, gently drawing Emmy’s attention. “There are reasons for this, kiddo. I hate to put this on you, but people will get badly hurt if you talk. Trust me. You have to keep this a secret.”

“Like you have all these years.” Emmy concludes, her voice quavering slightly. “Isn’t it terrible? Don’t you get lonely?”

“It is.” Skye does her the courtesy of not pretending to lie. “And I do. But it keeps Lara safe, and it keeps me alive. So I don’t have a choice.”

“Look if this is about The Index, that’s been dissolved. Mum wouldn’t hear of it after you left and –”

Imogene.” And it’s not Aunt Skye sitting in front of her anymore, it’s the tough woman who get them out of that horrible prison and endured terrible things and how could she not do anything this woman asked?

“Right.” Emmy nods briskly to keep the tears from falling. “Of course. Lives are at stake. I understand.”

Natasha and Skye exchange some kind of unreadable look before the assassin leaves to slip back into the cockpit.

Emmy is largely unresponsive when Skye gets up to sit beside her, singularly focused on trying not to cry.

“Hey.” Skye nudges her, pulling her close. “I know how much this sucks.”

“Do you?” She retorts in frustration. “Because you’re asking me to lie to the people I love most about –” Her voice fades abruptly as she realises, taking in the sad look on her aunt’s face.

“Yeah.” Skye kisses her forehead gently, thumbing aside the tears that are escaping despite Emmy’s best efforts to keep it together. “I know a thing or two about that.”

“What a bloody nightmare,” Emmy says, tucking herself into Skye’s arms and squeezing her tight. “Your life is a mess.”

“Tell me about it.”

The flight isn’t much longer but Natasha and Bucky give them privacy for their last few minutes together. He lands on the roof and heads out first, ruffling Emmy’s hair as he walks past and imparting to Skye a knowing look.

Natasha squeezes her arm and kisses her cheek. “Tell him.”

“I know.” Skye rolls her eyes. “I will, I promise.”

“Soon.” The redhead instructs, then goes to wait at the bottom of the gate for Emmy to say goodbye.

“Thank you for –” Emmy bravely starts, and Skye snorts.

“Get over here.” Skye is braced and ready as Emmy flings strong arms around her neck, squeezing tight. There are tears falling under the collar of her shirt. “Be brave, kiddo. I love you.”

“Love you too,” Emmy swallows thickly.

“Time to go.” She cups her niece’s face with both hands and presses three noisy kisses – forehead and one to each cheek – to take the sting out of it. “See ya around, Emmylou.”

Because Emmy doesn’t seem like she’ll be able to pry herself away, Skye guides her down and physically hands her off to Natasha, hating every second of it. They are on a strict timetable and they can’t exactly monitor everything SHIELD might wish to pry into when being given back one of their most important people. The less time spent in the vicinity of her former family, the better. She can’t risk getting caught.

The exchange is made on the sundeck at Avengers Tower.

Skye watches through a live video feed from the quinjet’s exterior cameras as Emmy runs full tilt into her parents’ arms.

Jemma is crying, one of her arms in a sling while Fitz shouts with joy, swinging his daughter up into the air triumphantly. There are tears and it looks like more of their team beginning to approach the ecstatic reunited family when Skye cuts the feed.

She pulls out her phone and cycles through her most recent picture of Lara.

And if she cries when she puts the quinjet into autopilot because she can’t see through the tears blurring her eyes, well.

No one needs to know.

*

Ward is waiting on the roof when she lands.

It shouldn’t make her feel better that he’s there – and it’s totally stupid – but it does.

It’s been a few hours after all, and it wasn’t like she had told him when she was expected back. It’s his quinjet though, and she imagines Ranger has it outfitted with some kind of tracking, so it’s hardly a complete surprise.

“Hey.” She wonders if he can see the sadness and frustration etched on her face as she walks down the ramp to meet him. Wonders if he knows just how badly she needs to laugh so that she doesn’t start crying instead.

“How did it go?” He reaches for the bag in her hand, hoisting it over his shoulder before she can even think of protesting. The movement feels achingly nostalgic, as it is part of a dance they’d done for so long when working together back in the day.

“About as well as I thought.” Skye steps through the door as he holds it open. She doesn’t know what’s safe to talk about that won’t have her crying hysterically. “They looked old, Ward. I’ve…” She shakes her head. “I guess I thought they’d be young science nerds forever.”

“Skye,” and his voice is fond, even as it pokes fun at her dramatics, “We’re all kind of old. We have kids now.”

“Tell me about it,” Skye groans, following him as they make their way into the kitchen. “Speaking of…” 

Ward pulls out a stool for her with an expectant glance and begins making her an omelet. “Lara’s okay.”

“She was pissed when I left. Wouldn’t say goodbye.”

“Can you blame her?”

She glances down at her hands, avoiding his knowing gaze. “Why aren’t you prying right now? Shouldn’t you be demanding to know why I let Ranger find us?”

“In my vast experience with you,” he cracks two eggs into the skillet, whisking them briskly before turning the flame to medium, “You’re not a fan of revealing your plans until you deem fit. Prying gets me nowhere.”

She gapes at him. “Who are you and what have you done with Grant Ward?”

“I’ve been here the whole time.” Ward flashes her a tight smile. “Just needed to pull my head out of my ass long enough to think clearly.”

She watches as the eggs begin to scramble. “Put some cheese in there, will you? And maybe some –”

“– Salsa, yes. I remember.”

Skye props her chin in her hands, shamelessly taking advantage of the way she can categorise the differences between the man she used to live with and the one making her food. He moves the same, talks the same, mostly looks the same – but there’s something different about him that she can’t put her finger on.

Her phone lights up and she ignores it, dismissing the call immediately.

“Do you need to take that?” Ward glances at her expectantly, looking almost poised to leave if necessary.

Skye shakes her head, wanting him to stay, not ready yet to lose the peace of this moment between them. She chalks it up to nostalgia that has her casually admitting, “Everyone I need to talk to is here.” While he is trying to absorb the gravity behind that statement, she shrugs, “You somehow managed to get us all under one roof. That’s pretty impressive.”

“Well,” he clears his throat around the lump that has developed. “I am hard to replace.”

Ward is almost not quick enough to duck the wet napkin she tosses at his face.

*

Lara hates going to bed hungry.

Normally she’d just suck it up considering dinner last night had been the phenomenal disaster that it was – and today had been one of the worst days in a long time – so frankly, she just wanted a pint of ice cream to herself.

When she’s about to cross the threshold she hears it.

Her parents are laughing.

“What the hell?” Lara tiptoes closer to the doorway to see them sitting at the counter, a bottle of wine opened and, judging by the two glasses in front of them, well on its way to being finished.

“She looks exactly like you when you’d stumble out of bed on the Bus and come down for training.”

Skye splutters. “That’s because you believe in training at the ungodly hours before the sun rises! What kind of SO enforces that?”

“The kind that make the best field agents.” Ward is more than a little smug with his response as he tops off her wine.

Skye takes a long sip and an even deeper breath. “She told you about that.”

“She did.” He’s smirking at her without shame or remorse. It is a rare occasion these days when he can visibly unnerve her and it’s obvious he is taking this one all the way to the bank.

Skye hums tunelessly under her breath, clearly stalling for time. “So I guess you told her how you had your work cut out for you when you first took me on?”

The smirk fades from his expression, leaving nothing but raw sincerity and belief. “I told her how my rookie agent –” and he’s obviously too far gone to notice the way her hand tightens reflexively at the possessive term, “– had a unique way of looking at the world and that she connected with everyone she met. Still does, by the way.”

 

(Out in the hall, Lara is one hundred and twelve percent losing her freaking mind.

He’s the overbearing SO? She’s the rookie trainee?”

She’s talking to no one but she doesn’t care. Her mind is in overload.)

 

There are tears shimming in her Skye’s eyes. “I’m not superwoman, Ward.”

He sets down his glass with a distinct click, settling his hand over hers and squeezing it reassuringly. “I never wanted you to be.”

Skye ducks her head, looking anywhere but him as she struggles to keep the emotions locked down.

But he’s not having it. “Skye.” Ward lifts her chin, forcing her to meet his eyes. “You are more than enough. You always have been.”

She reaches up, keeping his hand anchored in place, something bright like hope dawning across her features. Ward lifts his chin fractionally, almost like he’s asking if she’s okay with this and –

– an utterly gobsmacked Lara stumbles into the end table in the hallway, shattering the moment.

“What was that?” Skye asks, shoving him away.

Ward drops his hands immediately, though he’s almost not successful in stifling a groan of frustration. “Probably just Thomas skulking around looking for a snack.”

“Did you really let Lara think that you were sleeping with Kara?” Skye mischievously inquires, tapping her feet restlessly in a rare display of nervous energy.

It’s clear that she’s not going to address the near kiss and is going so far to completely ignore it in her attempts to pretend like the moment never happen.

“We’re not finished here, so stop trying to change the subject.” Ward points at her.

“Where are you going?” She laughingly calls as he backs away from the counter.

“To go find out who the hell is cramping my game,” he mutters, poking his head in the apparently empty hallway.

Lara remains totally still, flattened against the corner just out of sight.

He lingers just enough to have her nearly passing out from nerves. The last thing she wants is for him to find her. Finally Ward seems satisfied with the lack of activity in the hall and he slinks back into the kitchen. 

I can’t believe this. I can’t believe they were happy all those years ago and then I came along and ruined everything.

Lara feels like the walls are closing in on her. She makes it back to her room before the floodgates open.

I am the worst thing that ever happened to them.

*

When her alarm goes off at two in the morning, Lara wants to die.

She hasn’t slept at all, instead just spent the entire time staring at the ceiling, wondering how she was going to make it right.

So if Mom and Dad split up because of me… and clearly they’re still in love with each other… maybe I just need to get away from here for a little while and give them some time to figure it out.

Much to her eternal dismay, she can’t code worth a damn. She’d tried to pick it up from her mother, but it just looked like a bunch of squiggle and numbers and made literally no sense.

But she has a super attractive boyfriend who more than knows his way around a computer… and she knows exactly where he keeps the spare keys. Anything programmed to Ranger’s ID is bound to grant her all sorts of access.

Lara pulls on her tac suit and sends a mental prayer to Tony for designing it with so many pockets. She’ll just swipe the key from the Control Room and be in New York just after dawn.

Piece of cake.

*

Ward opens his door the following morning, only to find Skye standing on the opposite side, looking like she was about to knock. “Hello.”

She flushes. “Hi.”

He gives her a curious look. “Everything okay?”

“I was just wondering if you’d seen Lara yet this morning. She left a note that she was going to make breakfast with you and that I could join you guys.” Skye’s expression is hopeful and guarded. “Given how things transpired with us last, I thought I’d take her up on the offer.”

Ward is somewhat puzzled. “Not that I’d ever turn down breakfast with my daughter, but Lara knows that Thursday mornings are nearly impossible because we’re going through mission reviews from the rest of the base. She usually drops off a protein bar after she eats with Thomas and Kara.”

The knowledge that Lara has a very distinct routine here throws Skye for a bit of a loop. “Right. Okay.”

“Have you tried her phone?” When Skye pins him with a sour look, he bites down on the smile that wants to appear. “I’m just saying it’s a large compound. She could be anywhere.”

“Who’s fault is that?” She mutters sourly, falling into step beside him.

The Control Room is a busy hive of activity when they arrive, and Skye is forced to step aside as several people vie for his attention. It’s almost irritating the way no one takes notice of her.

“Boss, you didn’t want the quinjet serviced today?” One of the mechanics strolls in, handing over a folder with schematics inside.

Ward skims through the paperwork, signing off where necessary. “Of course I wanted it serviced today. Why wouldn’t I?”

The other man shrugs. “It’s not in the hanger. Thought you changed your mind.”

Goosebumps rise on the back of her neck and Skye stops what she’s doing to address the other man. “The quinjet isn’t… in the hanger.”

“Nope.” He answers cheerfully, oblivious to the impending sense of doom about to blanket the room.

Her eyes meet Ward’s with fair share of panic.

“Everybody out,” Ward suddenly barks, dismissing the room. When they stare at him, slightly dumbfounded, he tilts his head. “Did I stutter?”

With the exception of Skye, the entire room vacates in a flash.

“Skye…”

“On it.” She grouses, having already hacked her way into his computers. “She only left about an hour ago.” She toggles open a second window, showcasing a seriously rough departure.

Ouch.” Ward can’t stifle a wince as he notes the way the quinjet’s wings scratch the support beams on the way out of the hanger. “Gonna have to work on that.”

“Looks like she’s charted a course to…” Skye curses under her breath and opens a video screen that she tosses on the large monitor in the center of the room.

“Uh, hello?” Tony Stark peers back at them. “Glad to see you’re back among the living Skye – by the way thanks for not stopping in to say hello yesterday – but can you explain why you’re disturbing my beauty sleep?”

“Shut up.” She glares at him halfheartedly. “We both know you haven’t gone to bed yet. In fact, judging from the grease in your hair, I’d bet money that you’re on day three of a Science! Bender. Points if I’m right.”

He grumbles in frustration and rolls his eyes. “I’ll have you know that it takes effort to get it looking like this.”

“Take a shower,” Skye retorts sarcastically. “Pepper can’t be attracted to that.”

Anyway,” Tony bares his teeth in a false grin. “Is there a reason for this harassment or were you just looking to nag me about my personal hygiene?”

Skye, suddenly mindful of the way Ward is glaring daggers at her from outside the camera view, clears her throat. “I just need to talk to Lara.”

Tony frowns. “…Okay?”

His clueless response is too much for Ward. “C’mon, Stark. Where have you stashed my daughter?”

The billionaire’s lips twist into a smirk. “So she finally got around to telling you.”

Tony,” Skye hisses sharply.

Where. Is. She?” Ward is practically grinding his molars into dust.

“Wish I knew, Cheekbones. Your guess is as good as mine.”

Ward clamps his lips together so tightly they flare white around the edges.

Skye takes a deep breath and offers a winning smile. “Look, if you’re trying to get the Uncle of the Year award –”

“– Uh, yeah, I’ve already got that one sewed up. Tac suit, remember?”

A sinking feeling begins to grow in the pit of her stomach. Skye turns to Ward. “Is her suit still in –” Already two steps ahead of her and searching the manifests, he shakes his head no. She slams her eyes shut.

“So she’s gone.” Tony goes uncharacteristically serious, running scenarios through his laser-sharp mind against what they haven’t told him. He comes up with the answer startlingly quick. “Why don’t you tell me why you’re hellbent on thinking she’s here?”

“According to the log from the quinjet, she set a course for Avengers Tower.”

He looks at her shrewdly. “And the hurricane still can’t hack her way around a flight plan, right?” Skye groans. “Right.”

Ward goes completely still. Skye glances at him in alarm. “What is it?”

Lara can’t code, but…”

There is a loud commotion at the doors and then –

Where is she? I’m going to throttle her.” Ranger bursts into the room. 

“Ah.” Skye nods. “You think she had help.”

Ward judges the level of ire emanating from his protege. “Of a sort.”

“Okay, so do you guys have this well in hand or should I be alarmed that some kid who looks like he could be Thor’s little brother is making threats against my niece?” Tony’s fingers are dancing over the keys as he sorts through traffic cameras and facial recognition programs designed to track even the most slippery of people.

“I can’t believe she took my keys!” Ranger is livid. “Clearly, she hasn’t learned her lesson from last time.”

“Does Lara have a habit of stealing your things?” Skye drawls, intrigued despite the situation.

“She gets that from you,” Ward mutters, slanting a dark look at her.

“Right, because you didn’t teach me everything I know about pick-pocketing,” Ranger sarcastically bites out.

“Oooh, burn,” Skye crows, letting her hair cover the smile blooming on her face. She’d never admit it but anyone who can sass Ward as well as she can is someone she wants in her corner.

“Now I know where Thomas gets it from,” Ranger flings himself into the chair at his desk, scrambling to track the quinjet. He locates it within moments, and then frowns darkly. “It’s landed just outside the city limits.”

“She never made it here.” Tony confirms, stepping out the camera range and shouting for Friday to prep his suit.

“Tony, you don’t have to –”

“Skye. Shut up.” He lets the suit envelop him until only the faceplate remains up. “I’ll let you know what I find.” With that, Iron Man severs the connection and the screen goes blank.

Dammit!” Ranger scrubs a hand down his face. “She couldn’t stay put for a day.” Then he turns angry eyes on them. “You two need to get your act together and stop putting her in the middle.”

Ranger,” Ward says in a low warning.

Skye keeps her eyes glued to the screen as if she can physically will Tony to answer them with news. “He’s not wrong,” she agrees distractedly. “But first we need to have a long conversation about how this family is going to function. Lara can’t just take off because we haven’t worked out a custody arrangement.”

Ward chokes. “Custody arrangement?”

Skye waves her hand vaguely. “You know what I mean.”

“Actually I don’t,” he strongly disagrees. “Why don’t you try explaining it to me.”

“Hey lovebirds, break it up.” Iron Man overrides the controls and commands every monitor in the room even as Ranger frantically tries to contain his presence to the central screens. “She’s gone.”

*

Her head hurts like a bitch.

Lara squints and automatically shifts to rub her eyes, only to find her hands are bound behind her back. Panic claws at her throat and dances up her spine.

Deep breaths. Come on.

The slightest rumble of thunder in the distance is both reassuring and worrisome. She can’t afford to let them know what she can do, which means she needs to lock down her fear and fast.

Ranger is going to kill me.

The last thing she remembers is being shot down by two other jets before a weird looking canister had been fired into the cockpit.

…And knocked me out. I am really beginning to hate getting kidnapped.

The fact that she knows it’s not going to be her father on the other end is enough to have the panic surging to the fore.

Find your balance find your balance find your BALANCE

Lara takes a deep, shuddering breath and deliberately changes her focus to cataloging whatever details she can about her current situation. She just has to stay in one piece until help arrives. 

Mom is going to be seriously pissed about that note, too. Crap.

*

“Skye.” Ward prompts, firmly pulling her out of her thoughts. “What exactly are we dealing with here?”

There is no trace of the man she spent time with in the kitchen last night, telling her that she was enough. In his place is the locked down specialist who is so very lethal and exceptional at his job. In his place is a weapon.

Her eyes land on Ranger, and the naked fear and barely leashed fury in his gaze. He is in love with her daughter. She can’t ignore it anymore.

“There are people who… would love to get their hands on Lara.”

“Why.” Ranger’s voice is flint hard and dangerous. “Because she’s yours or because she’s his?”

“Both,” Skye answers without hesitation. “Ward made a lot of enemies back in the day,” the man in question grimaces but does not disagree, “And we didn’t lead the quietest of lives before I walked away.”

It’s the first time Skye has openly referenced her decision to leave him and thus, a clear reminder of just how bad things are right now that she’s willing to drop any pretense of keeping her actions a secret.

“I still don’t understand… there’s no record of Lara having abilities. I scrubbed the net for anything about it – teacher’s records, newspaper clippings, eyewitness accounts – you kept it quiet all these years. What changed?”

Skye takes a moment to admire his dedication even as she bristles at her judgment being questioned. “They found me. It was a matter of time before they discovered I had a daughter.” At Ranger’s suspicious look, she steps closer defensively. “Look, I’m good but even I’m not perfect.”

“And yet somehow you managed to keep her off the grid all these years…” Ward muses aloud, finally adding his opinion to the table.

“Because Tony Stark developed an algorithm to keep her invisible, okay? I had to take everything I had ever learned from you, and what I knew to keep us safe. We haven’t stopped running for years. Is that what you want to know?”

“It’s more than I knew before,” Ward challenges, putting himself directly in her path until he is essentially looming over her. “You’re still parceling out pieces of information like we’ve got clearance levels to consider – but newsflash, sweetheart: I’m her father. I have every right to know whatever it is that’s been keeping you a ghost after all this time.”

Her eyes fill with angry tears. “You think that was easy for me? That I didn’t regret that decision every day?”

“Then why did you stay away?” He thunders, throwing his hands out angrily. “You waited until now to drop in? Couldn’t have done it before?”

“Because I’m terrified, you stupid ass!” The ground rumbles under their feet, knocking Ranger to the side while Skye and Ward remain steady, eyes locked in direct contact. “The people who want Lara are relentless and they weaponise Inhumans. Do you have any idea what they’ll do to her? Do you understand why it’s been so important that I’ve kept her abilities quiet, even from herself?”

Books fly off the shelf and aim directly for Ward’s head, but he knocks them aside easily. “Cute trick. Keep talking.”

“Jesus, Ward! It’s not a trick!” Skye explodes. “I left her in your care and Thomas tells me you’re teaching her how to use a gun and Thor is training her to channel her power and everything I’ve fought for to keep her safe and hidden all of our lives has been singlehandedly dismantled and turned to ruins.”

“You didn’t exactly leave me a set of instructions,” He sarcastically retorts. “We did the best we could!”

“You think I don’t know that?” Skye takes a heaving breath, trying like hell to get her composure back. The anger between them isn’t solving anything and she valiantly tries to regain the thread of the conversation. “Look. When I was captured, they were trying to force me to lead an Inhuman army.”

More of the pieces fall into place for Ward as he weighs it against the rumors still whispered about in the espionage community.

Ranger frowns. “How could they manage to get a bunch of Inhumans to mount a defense of this caliber? Why would they be willing to attack like weapons for hire?”

“Not all Inhumans are pleased with the way things of things in the world. Some of them want change.”

“Afterlife.” Ward interjects firmly, stealing the air from her lungs. “It’s still around, isn’t it?”

She nods unsteadily. “Yes.”

Ranger’s eyes flit between Skye and Ward. “What’s an Afterlife?”

Ward ignores him, focusing solely on Skye. “And they aren’t part of this?” Before she can answer, he barrels on. “So let me see if I’ve got this straight: there’s a war among the Inhumans… and our daughter is smack dab in the middle of it.”

“No!” Skye’s eyes are wild, and her movements frantic with anxiety. “That’s not what’s happening right now.”

Yet.” Ward doesn’t back down. “If these rebels are as fanatical as you’re leading us to believe… Small wonder you kept her hidden away.”

“Can someone please tell me what the hell is going on?” Thomas bellows, from where he stands looking furious. “Because the most I can figure is that Lara is gone - again - and we’re just standing here, slinging accusations at each other.”

Kara puts a hand on his arm, trying to lend some of the calm that she desperately doesn’t feel. “Easy, playboy.”

“In yet another shocking development, Skye has been keeping secrets,” Ward snidely informs Thomas and Kara by way of greeting. “Turns out she’s got a few more tricks up her sleeve after all.” 

“Can we please just get to Lara?” Skye pleads, trying to pitch her voice over his.

“Brilliant idea! But thanks to your inability to share with the class – not to mention your outright refusal to complete a proper debrief – we haven’t the faintest idea where to start!”

“Not true. I have something.” Ranger is hanging onto his temper by a thread. Once certain that all eyes are on him and collective emotions being held in check, he explains. “Lara’s necklace has some… unique features. If she’s still wearing it, I can find her.”

Skye sags into the nearest chair gratefully. “I can help narrow it down if –”

“– I think you’ve done enough.” Ward cuts in, glaring at her.

“Actually…” Ranger clears his throat. “That would be great.” When his mentor shoots him a look of betrayal, he shrugs. “She’s the best. I’d be stupid to try and sift through all of this on my own.”

Twenty minutes later, they have lock on location and a plan to infiltrate.

Kara is on the roof, already firing up the helicopter and having taken Thomas with her to run through the pre-flight checklist so that they can depart without delay.

Ranger collects the last of the raw data and diverts all the additional info to his tablet. He doesn’t even look at them as he runs out the door, so complete is his worry for Lara.

On their way out the door, Ward pulls Skye to the side. “There’s more to this that you haven’t told me.”

She yanks free of his grip, pulling away with a rough jerk of her arm. “You’re out of your mind.”

“Don’t lie to me, Skye. You think I don’t know every single one of your tells?”

That he’s able to read her this well despite it all has panic streaking through her veins. “I’m worried about our daughter! Excuse me if I can’t keep it all perfectly compartmentalized!”

“No.” Ward shakes his head. “You’re holding something back. I want to know what it is. You have until Lara’s home safe to figure out how you want to reveal it.”

Skye doesn’t feel bad when he nearly takes a header into the wall. She just sniffs unconcernedly as she stroll past. “Come on, slow poke.”

*

 

Chapter Text

 


image

(art by des.)

| every single lara au headcanon UNDER THE SUN | thomaskara first meeting (lara au prequel) | lara au meta |

*

In the end, it’s Thomas who breaks the brittle silence in the chopper.

“When we get Lara back, I’m going to lock her in her room for a month and disable any access she has to the outside world.”

“Sounds a lot like solitary confinement,” Skye casually remarks, looking out the window. Only the white-knuckled grip she has on the armrest betrays how much it is costing to keep her voice airy and unaffected. The unsaid words, you know, where I was before you rescued me hang ugly and broken in the air.

“Thomas.” Kara spares a few seconds from her unwavering task of getting them to the drop site in one piece to slant him a look.

“Sorry.” He apologises to the rest of the helo’s occupants. “I’m just.” It is a rare moment to see Thomas Andrew Ward at a loss for words, but this is definitely it. “It’s Lara,” he adds, rather unnecessarily.

Ranger grips his arm in a reassuring, if all too brief, squeeze. “We know.”

Ward says nothing.

*

About twenty minutes before they reach the compound, AC/DC blares loudly in the cockpit, startling everyone and nearly jerking the chopper far off course.

Ward curses under his breath and shoots an angry glare out the window, where Iron Man can be seen flying guard.

“Hey kids.”

Because of course he’s managed to override all communications and electronics nearby for his own purposes.

Ranger has half second to mourn the loss of his security protocols before Iron Man continues.

“Bit of a situation here.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Ward grumbles, looking about ready to take his gun and practice shooting targets at wherever he can land them on the red and gold titanium alloy suit.

Skye has been around Tony long enough to know that he wouldn’t stall a mission unless it were important. She reads between the lines of what she can see on the tablet that Ranger has been updating with schematics and data for the past hour and turns grim. “How bad is it?”

“Force field designed to take anything down within a half mile radius. Nothing electronic can touch it. Some other kind of shielding, but I can’t get a read on it –”

“Inhumans,” she murmurs, absently reaching to cradle her ribs (and causing Ward to wonder what, exactly, she had been subjected to while in captivity).

“Along with a few other surprises, from what I can tell.”

Kara suspends the helo in the air, waiting for direction. She doesn’t want to stop by any means, but if they’re all going to be fried before they knock on the front door, it won’t amount to any sort of rescue mission at all.

Ward looks to Ranger, who fumbles slightly before confirming, “He’s right. The same lack of readout we were getting before we went in to get Skye.”

At her name, Skye shudders, as if remembering all too clearly the horrors she’d been put through and meets Ward’s eyes in a silent plea.

“Put the chopper down,” he orders Kara, hating every second that delays them from reaching his daughter.

“Good choice.” Iron Man says, sending what looks like a… bird from somewhere in the suit. It crash lands a few hundred feet from where they currently hover, exploding on impact and frying up rather spectacularly, given the circumstances. 

“Shit.” Thomas quietly says.

This is a little more complicated than they’d thought.

*

Iron Man has peeled off, announcing that he’ll take care of the force field and buy them enough time to get in without it looking like nothing but a routine glitch. The downside is, he’s too well known and puts off too much energy (no, he actually does, Ranger tested it on his tablet) to go much further on the rescue.

 

“Keep your damn tracker on,” Tony grouses at Skye, face plate up as they bicker about making sure her watch is properly synchronised to his.

“Don’t be such a creep about it.”

“Don’t get yourself abducted and maybe I won’t have to.” He punctuates this last bit with a glare.

Whatever it is that she sees in his eyes has Skye drop the argument without further contest. He puts a gauntleted hand to her cheek. “Bring back our girl.”

“You bet.” She refuses to let the moisture in her eyes spill over, and turns aside so he can take off with a clear path.

 

Which brings them to the current dropsite; a few miles out from the side entrance they’re looking to compromise and use to get in. The only thing left is figuring out who is going where. Judging by the heated tone of the argument between the two Ward brothers, it is not going smoothly…

 

“I’m going in with you.”

“No,” Ward makes a final check of his gun and packs the last of the ammunition in his pockets, “You’re not.”

“So help me, you thickheaded son of bitch –”

“I’m instating the Rose Protocol.”

Kara drops her binoculars in open shock. Skye actually loses her footing temporarily.

And Ranger drags both hands down his face, muttering something that sounds a lot like “overly dramatic” and “blatant disregard for normal conversation” under his breath.

Thomas looks like he wants to strangle his older brother with his bare hands. “You selfish asshole.”

“I may be a selfish asshole,” Ward doesn’t deny the accusation, “But if something happens, Lara’s gonna need someone to come back to.”

The ground rumbles slightly beneath their feet and Skye has to turn around to regain her composure. 

“Thomas.” Ward places both hands on his little brother’s shoulders, despite the fact that he’s an inch shorter than he probably needs to be to impress the severity of the situation upon him. “You are my brother. You and Kara are my partners. There is no one I trust more to take care of… everything in my absence.”

It’s all Thomas can do to not throw off the hands on his shoulders. “I hate you a little for this. And I’m not kidding.”

Despite everything that has happened – their parents, the Well, the torment they suffered because of Christian and the shared horrors they’d seen in that godforsaken house before Ward had finally set it on fire – there is no doubt that the bond between the two men runs deep.

“That’s fine.” The bitter smirk that twists up on Ward’s face is more of a slash of dark humor than a recognisable expression. “As long as you’re alive.”

He walks off without saying goodbye to Kara, or providing further explanation to the group. Ranger looks torn between wanting to smooth things over and following his mentor, so it’s Skye who finally breaks the tense air between them. “Go,” she nods, “I’ll catch up with you in a minute.”

Ranger’s footsteps fade out quickly. Thomas stands with his back to the two women, tension weighing heavily on his shoulders.

Kara exhales shakily. “I always thought the worst of it was after you left.”

Skye absorbs the statement without judgement or trying to refute it, closing her eyes briefly in acknowledgement. She keeps her eyes on Thomas, though her reply is directed at Kara, “That was all aftermath. You never saw what it was like when we were together. How fiercely he protected us. So trust me when I say that there are parts of him that he hasn’t let you see.”

“I’ve seen him at his lowest,” Kara is quick to fire back, some of the fire coming to life in her eyes again.

“No,” Skye shakes her head. “You haven’t. Because it wasn’t his daughter at stake.” 

“It was you,” Thomas quietly accuses, turning back to her with a shattered expression.

“Yeah.” Skye laughs brokenly. “But he got over me.”

In a move surprising both of them, Skye drags Thomas and Kara close for a bruisingly strong hug. Her eyes are dark with the demons she’s had locked up for years; the terrible things she’s been able to file away that she had done in the name of brutal love and Hydra with Ward at her side.

When she pulls away, there is a bleakness and kind of defeat that neither of them have ever seen in her eyes.

“I can promise you this… he won’t get over her.”

Skye offers up a wave so careless they might have well missed it, and disappears after Ward and Ranger.

“Oh god.” Kara slumps against the tree at her back, reaching blindly for Thomas’s hand. “We could lose him all over again.”

Thomas exhales long and slow, carefully pulling her into his arms. “Then we’d better hope like hell they can pull this off.”

“And stay alive.”

He grunts. “I’m gonna kill him for that.”

“He always did have a gallows sort of humor.” Kara muses, closing her eyes and trying to summon up the strength to face this head on. “Remind me about the Rose Protocol again? That’s not the one where –”

“– Everything defaults to me and I assume total responsibility for all of his assets, debts, staff and emotions?” She raises an eyebrow, and Thomas backpedals, “Okay, maybe not the last part. But yeah. That’s the one.”

“Oh, well. No pressure then.” Kara remarks, dryly.

*

Ranger has been marching behind Ward and in front of Skye for the past thirteen and a half minutes in complete silence and he’s had enough.

He digs his heels in suddenly, nearly causing Skye to slam into the back of him. When she would have blistered his ears with her irritation, he lifts a hand in a plea for peace and she must see something that has her backing down. 

Ward doesn’t even stop for a full ten seconds until he finally realises that they aren’t behind him. “What?”

“We’re not doing this.” Ranger folds his arms, leaning against the nearest tree comfortably, as if he has all the time in the world.

“Oh?” Ward smiles brightly, in truly sinister parody of his usual humor. “Because last time I checked, we were trying to rescue my daughter –”

“– Our daughter,” Skye sharply interjects.

“– From the kinds of psychopaths who want her to potentially lead an Inhuman army since they decided that her mother wasn’t good enough for the job.”

Skye unlocks her jaw as though he had just physically punched her, but doesn’t refute the accusation laid at her feet.

“That,” Ranger points, “right there.”

Ward rolls his eyes. “Spare me the melodrama, Ranger.”

“You’re one to talk,” and there is absolutely no question that he’s spent his formidable years training under the man he now openly taunts, “Boss.”

There is exactly four seconds of strained silence before Ward lunges at Ranger with intent.

Skye has just enough time to scramble out of the way and throw her hands up in the air before she sends out dual blasts of energy, separating the two men. “Enough.” They wind up plastered several feet in the air, limbs just shy of painfully curved back against the nearest trees.

Ranger grins cheekily, licking at the blood that drips from the corner of his mouth where Ward had gotten a lucky punch.

“Are both of you out of your mind?” She stalks forward until she in standing equidistant between them.

“Are you?” Ranger tosses back, watching carefully as she fights to maintain control over her sudden flare of anger.

Even Ward is somewhat confused at this point. “…Do you have a death wish? She can rip your spine from under your skin without ever touching you.”

The imagery is not without some merit, causing the younger man to swallow back his fear before proceeding. Then he thinks of Lara and how the only outcome he is willing to accept is the one where she’s back safe and sound and nobody dies.

But first he has to deal with the two biggest obstacles to that happening.

“We’re marching in there and the two of you can’t get your shit together long enough to come up with a decent plan because you’re so wrapped up in your past to acknowledge that you might just have a future!”

Ranger and Ward both slide to the ground unceremoniously as Skye’s fists go lax in shock while she gapes at him.

Explain.” And her voice seems to echo around him tenfold, causing even Ward to grimace from where he stands behind her back.

“Lara loves both of you. There’s no way she doesn’t know what’s going on at this point and yet we haven’t heard of any freak weather outbreaks. She’s trusting us to bring her home.”

Ward grunts softly to acknowledge that he’s listening (if only just barely), but Skye looks far from convinced. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

“We’re going into this almost entirely dark. I’m not sure about you, but I’d like to be able to trust that the people I’m with have my back.”

“Ranger, of course we have –”

“– Not done yet.” His voice is steely with determination. “Because you,” he jerks his chin at Ward, “Seem to think the best way to handle this is to become the person you were before Lara ever existed.” Then he looks at Skye. “And you’re blindly following his lead.”

Like Strike Team Delta for Hydra all over again.

“If you have point, I’d suggest you make it.” Ward’s tone is icy with threat.

“That is the point. I don’t know those people. I only know that you won’t live to help her if you fall back into who you were before your daughter was born. This only works if you can both take who you’ve become and find your balance to work together to save her.”

Skye and Ward can only gape at Ranger and the epic truths he’s just dropped on them.

“Oh, and stop acting like your death is a foregone conclusion, okay?” He dusts his jacket off, the sharp movement betraying just how furious he actually is beneath all that lazy observation and charm. “Because that’s just bullshit. Face your problems and the facts; you have a daughter and you love her. You might actually love each other.”

At this, Skye lunges for Ranger and it is only Ward’s quick reflexes that save his protege’s life.

“I love her too.” Ranger looks at them very seriously. “And we want the chance to have what you lost. So figure it out.”

*

The next time she wakes up, Lara becomes aware of a few things:

 

a) this has officially become the worst day of her entire life

b) she’s got absolutely no idea where she is

c) something about this place gives her the serious creeps (and not just because she’s got one arm chained to the wall)

d) she is really sick and tired of people kidnapping her.


Other than some faint voices in the hall, there isn’t much going on. She strains, closing her eyes and trying to pick up on what they’re saying but it honestly makes no sense.

“…the one who can bring war.”

“We don’t know it’s her, though.”

“That’s what the testing is for, you idiot. After the cluster with the last one, they aren’t taking any more chances.”

…who are they talking about? And why do they need her if they’re planning to start… a war?

*


As promised, Iron Man disrupts the energy field just long enough for the three of them to gain entry to the main site. Even though he knows that Iron Man is far from an amateur, Ranger can’t help but feel slightly reassured when Ward throws a crumpled up wrapper against where the barrier should be and it falls harmlessly to the other side, rather than incinerating on the spot.

Ward shrugs unapologetically. “Just like Malta.”

“Shouldn’t I be wearing a pink dress for that?” Skye rolls her eyes to try and hide the fondness in her voice.

“Uh, guys?” Ranger is totally lost. “Is this some kind of code, or…?”

“It’s called history,” Ward corrects, once again taking position at the front of the team. He looks back at her in askance and Skye nods, closing her eyes slowly.

When she reopens them, there is a sharp awareness in them that makes Ward smile.

“Two on the right, half a dozen down the hall and four men guarding the main gate.”

Ranger’s jaw drops open and he glances down at his tablet. “But that’s… none of it is even registering on…”

She shrugs. “Inhuman.”

“How do you want to play this?”

And it’s like Ranger might not even be there, so complete is Ward’s attention on Skye and Skye’s attention on Ward.

“Barcelona.”

He scowls. “No way. I’m never –”

“Kidding.” She grins up at him, cheekily. The amusement smooths out into an expression far more somber. “You know I can just…”

“Save your strength.” Ward doesn’t even let her finish the thought. “There’s always…”

“No way!” Skye’s jaw drops indignantly. “You are not going out there and taking them all on by yourself!”

Ranger blinks. “Is there a reader’s guide for the rest of us who don’t speak your freaky shorthand?”

There are footsteps coming and the sound has Ward reaching for his gun even as Ranger begins rolling his eyes.

“Element of surprise, anyone?” He sarcastically reminds, quickly shoving his mentor backward.

“Can I help you?” Ward archly inquires, beginning to dig in his heels and ignoring Skye’s quick burst of laughter.

“There should be some kind of a closet…” Ranger scans the hall, eyes lighting up on the door to their left. “Here.” He pulls open the door in triumph and gestures for Ward and Skye to hurry inside.

“No way all three of us fit in here,” Ward grouses, stepping in further so that he can accommodate Skye as she gingerly scoots around him.

“You’re absolutely right.” Ranger agrees. He winks roguishly. “See you in ten minutes.”

Ward’s outraged squawk of protest is muffled as the door slams shut on them. “I can’t believe he just did that!” 

Skye looks up from where she is setting the timer on her watch. “Believe it. Sneaky punk ass kid. No idea where he would have gotten that from.”

“If you’re implying that I had something to do with –”

“– Implying? Here I thought I was saying flat out –”

“– Because I’ll have you know that I would never –”

“– Oh, please. Like this isn’t all very memory lane of you right now –”

“– You think I put him up to that –”

“– I absolutely think you – mmpph –”

Skye goes completely still as Ward puts his hand up against her mouth, preventing any further argument from developing. She nips sharply at his palm.

“Skye,” he murmurs warningly. “Don’t.”

She waits until his hand slips far enough that she can cheekily retort, “Next thing you know, you’ll be offering me a drink for when we get out of here.”

His voice is low with amusement. “I think we’re a little beyond that at this point, don’t you?”

Their current situation seems to come crashing down upon her like a ton of bricks and in that moment, she is vividly reminded of how intimately she is acquainted with every inch of his body.

“Just.” Skye takes a deep breath. “Give me a second, okay?”

“Skye.”

Her eyes are wide and flaring with panic that can’t be concealed this closely – and he can read her well enough to know that it’s not entirely all about Lara.

“Hey. Just because nostalgia and my punk ass protege locked us in a closet, doesn’t mean that anything has to happen here.”

“It’s not that.” She closes her eyes and the shelf contents begin to rattle slightly. When she opens them again, there is a rueful expression that matches the slight reddening on her cheeks. “You unsettle me. I need a minute to make sure I don’t bring this place down around our heads.”

This isn’t trying to find the Clairvoyant. There is no Hydra behind that door. They are in a fight for their life, trying to bring back their daughter.

But if he doesn’t take the leap now, something will come along and ruin their moment all over again. He’s tired of pretending like he doesn’t want her; a point that seems especially moot, given how close they were less than 24 hours ago in the kitchen.

And so there is only one correct answer here.

“I trust you,” Ward murmurs, pulling her up to meet his lips.

*

Lara is dragged out of the cell without any kind of warning.

Every bone in her body is screaming to fight but the rational part of her (that sounds an awful lot like Ranger) is telling her to stand down and get a handle on what’s actually going on first.

They toss her into a room that looks like it was just hosed down by a tidal wave, despite there being no sign of water in sight. Then her gaze lands on a thin girl huddled in the corner, wracked with shaking limbs and eerily pale limbs.

Since her hands and legs are free, Lara makes her way over to the other girl very cautiously. When she gets a few paces away, she stops and crouches down so that they are at a somewhat even level. “Hey. Are you okay?”

The blonde shivers even harder and ducks her head beneath her arms.

“Look, I know this is all pretty terrible and I –”

“– Get away from me,” she whispers, her voice hoarse as though she’s been screaming for hours. “Just – run.”

Something about the heavy guilt that had flashed in her eyes before she ducked from view has Lara reconsidering her offer to help.

A loud horn echoes into the cell. “Assume your stance.

Lara cranes her neck around to stare at the speaker box in the corner. “Assume what stance? What are you talking about?”

“Please don’t fight it too much,” the other girl pleads quietly, behind the curtain of her wet hair, slowly getting up and backing herself into the farthest corner of the cell. “You seem nice and even though they don’t like it, I promise to make it fast.”

Lara finds her gaze drawn to where the girl’s limbs are slowly dissolving into a puddle of water and suddenly realises, with dawning horror, what is going on.

‘That’s what the testing is for.’

“Oh god.” Lara scrambles to her feet, backing up until she feels the wall hit her spine.

Last time they had entered enemy territory, Ranger hadn’t wanted her to use her abilities. Looking back, it made total sense. She isn’t sure that logic currently holds in the present situation because, well. Her life is at stake.

There are no windows here. There’s no way she can summon any kind of wind or lightning or thunder to even buy herself some time. She’s trapped, and there’s officially no way out.

The horn blasts again.

Begin.”

 

Chapter Text

| every single lara au headcanon UNDER THE SUN | thomaskara first meeting (lara au prequel) | lara au meta |

 

a few things you may want to have prepared before this chapter begins:

  • TIME. like, i cannot stress this enough. this is NOT the chapter to skim over or fly through, because there is a LOT happening and not just because it’s 10 12 14 16 18k long.
  • a box of tissues
  • way down we go by kaleo (this will be especially important during a very SPECIFIC scene)
  • also 2 heads by coleman hell (because, well. i’ll explain later.)
  • enough time to read the meta afterwards (which is part of the reason why this update took so long)
  • ZERO interference due to the absolute emotional roller coaster you’re about to go on
  • the art that nikki aka @halsteadsass made just for this chapter. it is... everything.

 


image

 

 

 


image

 

 

 


 

 

*

Sometimes, after a really bad week where she hadn’t slept and life had pretty much kicked her ass, Skye would dream.

In vivid color.

And this is what she’d experience --

 

Hands streaking across her body like they had every right to be there; legs nudging hers apart until she lay exactly arranged the way he preferred; fingertips gliding over her cheekbones before they exerted pressure, tilting her head back into the correct position before he descended, capturing her mouth in a kiss that she could find in oblivion, even if she were deaf, dumb and blind.

He’d hold her in place, hold her steady, until all the missing pieces that had flung across the universe and scattered to the winds during the years that they were apart came flying back into place.

Until she felt like she’d finally returned home.

 

-- Ward kissing her in the storage closet at the present moment in time isn’t anything like that.

It’s better.

*

Lara’s got about a half a second to process any rational though of escape until the girl in front of her finishes liquefying before her very eyes.

“Shit.” Suspicions one hundred and twelve percent confirmed, and she’s got exactly zero options right now. Even the floor is made out of some kind of dull rubber synthetic lacking any kind of seam or fastening and --

-- there’s water lapping at her ankles.

Lara looks down with dawning horror as the water rises to her knees, then her stomach, chilling its way up her ribs and then --

-- stops somewhere just shy of her collarbone.

Somehow (and she’s totally not sure how this works with the whole Inhuman physiology), the girl’s head rematerialises, showcasing awe across her features. Water forms around the glass lightning-bolt of her locket, the one that Ranger had given her days earlier. The tiny diamonds inside twinkle and spark as they catch the dim light in the room.

“You’re the one,” she tells her, in a reverent tone. “You can fix this.”

“Um.” Lara swallows, visibly trying not to shiver from the cold that is currently surrounding her lower extremities and making it extremely hard to focus. “I don’t know what that means?”

The water surges without warning, and Lara is submerged up to her neck. She tries hard not to panic, but it is very near thing. “Do you think we could maybe talk about this, or --?”

“Listen,” her opponent whispers, and somehow her voice comes from everywhere at once. “Only one of us can win. It has to be you.”

“No.” Lara vehemently shakes her head. “No, I won’t let you do this. There has to be another way!”

“That’s good, now it looks real. Hopefully it will buy you enough time before the next one comes in.” The blonde offers up a weak smile. “My name is Cassie. Tell my parents I said goodbye.”

“I don’t know what you’re talki --” Lara’s reply is cut off as the water rises up and over her mouth, so that only her nose remains free and she’s forced to close her lips out of self-preservation.

“I don’t want to keep doing this. Thank you for being kind. Now take a deep breath.”

Cassie disappears entirely and Lara barely has enough time to follow the instructions before she’s totally covered in water, flailing limbs wildly, trying to fight back just enough to prove that she desperately wants to live and sees black spots before her eyes when suddenly --

-- it’s over.

The water evaporates, reforming to reveal the twisted and broken figure of Cassie, motionless on the floor.

Lara coughs and coughs until her lungs are raw, gratefully breathing in fresh oxygen. When she can finally stand it, she drags herself over to where Cassie is laying, and with trembling fingers, attempts to check the other girl for a pulse.

There isn’t one.

Cassie is dead.

*

There’s a very small, rational part of her brain that’s screaming ABORT MISSION ABORT RIGHT THE HELL NOW which is being drowned out by the sheer contentment she feels, being in his arms again.

Those nights when Lara would cry and she’d feel like the worst mother in the world for somehow not being enough to make it stop; all those stupid choices she second-guessed and hated herself for taking any kind of risk and exposing her daughter to the kind of hurts that she couldn’t protect her from; the times when she just wished someone else had been there to help shoulder the equal parts rewarding and utterly exhausting burden of parenting --

-- it all boils down to this moment.

It led to this moment.

Honestly, she’s having a hard time remembering her own name at present, much less all the reasons that she shouldn’t be doing this right now.

She tells the rational voice in her head to shut up and lets sensation take the wheel.

Skye takes a second to readjust her grip on Ward’s shoulder, curling herself around him even tighter. She feels his smirk of satisfaction curve around her mouth and bites his lower lip playfully. “Shut up.”

“I waited almost twenty years for this,” Ward obligingly gives her a boost, dumping her on the closest shelf so that she doesn’t have to strain on her toes to reach any longer. “And I’ll be damned if you take that away from me.”

“I let you find me,” Skye reminds under her breath, between kisses.

He makes a brief noise of disagreement, framing her jaw with both of his hands and holding her in place. “You missed me.”

“I --”

So of course he would spend the next half minute full on devouring her lips and neck, trying to derail her train of thought completely.

“Pretty sure we’re long past the part where you can deny how much you want this and win,” Ward draws away long enough to admonish her.

Ass.” Skye mutters, spearing her fingers into his hair and pulling him back to her.

“C’mon, Skye. Admit it.”

“No idea,” she breathes, slipping her heads beneath his tac vest and feeling the muscles clench under her touch gratifyingly, “What you’re talking about.” When he gasps into her mouth as her fingers skate up his ribs, she smirks. “You should really get that faulty memory of yours checked. Can’t be too careful in your age these days...”

“It’s going to be my absolute pleasure to watch you regret saying that.”

The confident phrasing of how that is a foregone conclusion does the trick of dumping a figurative bucket of cold water on Skye’s head. It’s exactly how he was, all those years ago. Down to the arrogant last breath; never backing down, never giving her an inch. As if all the time in between has just evaporated into thin air and they’re picking up right where they left off.

She’s not ready just yet to go all the way down this road with him again.

Ward, who is still disgustingly attuned to her every movement, pulls back immediately, eyes searching deep. “Skye? What’s wrong?”

“Ranger’s coming back in less than five minutes.” She tries to play it off like it’s no big deal -- like she doesn’t have her legs wrapped around his waist and every cell in her body isn’t lighting up in glorious symphony at the mere feeling of being close to him again. “We should probably get our heads back in the game.”

“No.” He drops his hands from her face, bracing them on either side of her body, effectively caging her in.

(And why does this aggressive gesture make her feel safer?)

“What’s going on?”

“I’m just thinking about Lara and what we need to do to get out of here and --”

“That’s not it. You went from being a willing participant in this and then you just froze up on me.”

“Well excuse me if I’m not rock hard and ready to go when we have other  priorities at the moment!”

She’s simultaneously irritated and relieved that he doesn’t rise to the insult and can instead see through her bravado with the same laser intensity that made had always him so dangerous in the field.

“You’re scared.”

Yes, about our daughter!”

“No.” Ward traps both of her hands beneath his, preventing her from taking a swing at him. “You’re scared about us. You think we’re moving too fast.”

He doesn’t take his eyes away from her and it takes everything she’s got not to break the contact first.

“You’re reading too much into things.”

“If you think,” Ward steps into her personal space, nuzzling her nape gently, “That I’m going to let you go back out there with this unresolved...”

“If you think that you can stop me,” She begins, recognising the defensive lilt to her voice and cursing herself for being so easily riled.

“-- Hey.” Ward gives her hand, which is somehow still tangled with his, a gentle squeeze. “Don’t shut me out now. Not when we’ve come this far.”

The crushing weight of all her decisions from the past twenty years suddenly sits on her chest like an elephant, making it difficult to breathe. She wants to throttle him a little, that he’s so willing to overlook that and forgive her when they’re about to walk out that door and right into another huge, potentially life changing fight for their very lives and might lose their chance at this all over again before it begins.

“I just don’t think it’s a good time to start this right now, that’s all.”

“Skye.” His voice is fond. “There’s never a good time to start things like this.”

The nostalgia is so bittersweet in this moment that it’s actually choking her a little. And not in the fun way. She glares at him sharply, wanting to murder him for his choice of words.

Ward, once again correctly sensing that she needs to be drawn out of this mood before it can spiral much further, keeps his expression fully open, allowing her to see the hope and awe on his face. “I missed this. Remember when we kicked ass as a team on the regular and nothing got in our way?”

“Remember how that ended for us?” Skye sharply reminds, full on terrified at the ease with which he wants to fall back into their old patterns. She doesn’t really think that’s the wisest choice here, given the slim odds of survival at present.

“C’mon, Skye.” He grins, unable to keep the joy from brimming up, despite the terrible circumstances. It makes him look about ten years younger. (She still wants to strangle him.) “We’ve got this. The universe isn’t cruel enough to separate us twice.”

The lights flicker twice and then go out completely.

“I wouldn’t,” Skye dryly comments, in the now-pitch black storage closet, “Presume to bet on the universe.”

His watch beeps twice. “I would.”

The doorknob rattles without any warning and they fling themselves apart, taking up a defensive stance.

*

Ranger yanks open the door, a small penlight in his hand. “Took care of those guards and hid the bodies in the...” He trails off, eyeing them with no small amount of suspicion. “What the hell were you guys up to?”

“Covert affairs,” Ward blithely replies, walking out of the closet without a backward glance.

Ranger aims the small light at Skye, who has hand to her head, deeply pained. “How could he possibly have a Dad sense of humor? He only just found out he was a dad, like, months ago.”

“You know his jokes were terrible long before Lara, right?”

The arched look she aims his way does the trick of reminding him about all the years they’d spent together before he came onto the scene. “I was hoping they’d have gotten better with time.”

Ranger winces, “Not so much.”

Ward taps his foot impatiently, waiting for them to catch up. Ranger gestures for them to take the next set of stairs downward, which lets them into a small alcove where they can figure out a plan.

“Lights’ll come back on in another minute or so. We’re gonna need to move quick to get to Lara before they do.”

“You figured out where she’s being held?”

“There’s a training room that just had a huge surge of activity, resulting in the lights being blown out.”

Ward frowns. “I thought that was you.”

“I wish.” The younger man sighs, somewhat wistful. “I didn’t have enough time to get much more than the building schematics before it did.”

“How can you be sure that’s where she is? I’m not getting anything.” Skye frowns, glancing warily down the now empty corridor.

Ranger offers a quick shrug. “Bondmate.” Ward lifts an eyebrow and he relents, sheepishly adding, “Her necklace. There was a quick burst of... feeling from it and I --”

“It’s okay.” Skye interrupts. “You don’t have to explain.”

Ward gives her an incredulous look. “I kind of think he does?”

“Which way to Lara?” She asks, completely ignoring his growl of frustration.

Ranger looks grim. “There’s a bit of dungeon situation?”

Ward curses under his breath. “Tell me they’re calling it Vault D and I swear I’m going personally to set the place on fire.”

He closes his mouth. “I won’t tell you that, then.”

Skye exhales noisily, taking point. “Is there anyone out there with an original idea these days?”

Ward mutters obscenities beneath his breath, leaving Ranger to try and decipher about every fifth word from where he is currently situated in between them. (When they get Lara back, he’s definitely going to tell her how weird this entire experience has been.)

(Her childhood would have been wild.)

“I’m really glad you guys worked out your differences?” He eventually offers, warily glancing back at his mentor.

“Keep. Walking.” Ward all but growls.

“He gets cranky when he has to relive certain experiences in his life,” Skye whispers to Ranger conspiratorially. “Makes him irritated when the villains lack imagination.”

Skye,” Ward trails off warningly.

She winks at Ranger, ducking to the side and knocking out two guards about to walk around the corner. “See?”

“First one to take down a dozen men gets dinner of their choice made by the loser.” Ward slides up, putting a protective arm in front of Ranger and holding him back while he shoots down another two men across the hall.

“Uh, guys?” He’s borderline offended by the arm across his chest -- a move apparently more instinctive than competitive, judging by the way she doesn’t so much as bat an eye at it.

“You’re on,” Skye sticks out her hand for Ward to shake. “And I want huevos.”

“You always want huevos.”

She sniffs, sending a free hand at the upper level where there is a cluster of men with guns, looking like they’re about to take aim. They tumble to the ground in a mess of shouts and pained outcries. “At least I have taste, he who always chooses pancakes.”

“I am literally in hell,” Ranger mutters to himself, stepping out from behind Ward and neatly picking off an easy dozen men in stealth mode as they enter the landing just prior to the vault. 

The sudden lack of enemy fire is very gratifying, although nowhere near as gratifying as the silence from his companions.

Skye and Ward stare at him, dumbfounded.

“I like pizza,” he informs them, squatting down next to the vault’s biometric lock. “I’m going to need a few minutes here, and maybe a distraction if it takes longer than that.”

“I can help with the minutes,” Skye announces, dropping beside him.

It should be overwhelming with another set of hands overwriting code and rewiring the door, but somehow she manages to be exactly where he isn’t, and somehow it works out beautifully.

“I love distractions,” Ward says, looking around for supplies. “Particularly the kind that explode.”

*

When the door opens again, she wants to cry.

How many of these battles is she going to be required to fight?

She doesn’t have the heart to kill someone else just for trying to survive and she can’t use her abilities and she never dreamed about wanting to be back in that godforsaken cell but this is definitely the worse of the two options.

In walks a tall blonde man in a black suit and the kind of blue eyes that burn. She doesn’t even want to speculate what he can do.

Lara lifts her head and sighs raggedly. “Who the hell are you?”

“David,” he offers simply, taking in the state of the room with a practiced look, noting Lara as the sole survivor. He lifts a hand and two men come in, carting away Cassie’s body. “So you couldn’t kill her.”

It pisses her off that he somehow saw through the performance and that he would speak so thoughtlessly of another human being.

“I’m not a monster,” Lara spits, baring her teeth in anger.

“Oh, but that’s where I think you’re wrong.” He takes the seat across from her, leaning back comfortably as though he hasn’t a care in the world. “Monsters destroy things, yes? Your existence had quite the effect on your parents’ relationship.”

And the hits just keep on coming.

The confidently uttered statement shocks her into stillness, allowing the guards who have come back an opening to restrain her to a chair. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.” She deliberately ignores the heavy weight of the chain around her body and keeps her eyes locked on David.

“Don’t I? There’s darkness in your family. Once your mother discovered she was pregnant, their relationship began to crack under the pressure.”

“I don’t believe you,” Lara grinds out, straining against the cuffs around her wrists and ankles.

“I thought that might be the case.” David nods slowly. “Which is why I’ve brought along a little video for you to view. This is from the last time they were together.” He aims the remote at the wall and a screen descends from the wall.

 

It’s Skye, wearing black jeans scuffed with dirt and a dark tee shirt. Her hair is shorter, and she looks so young. She is bound to a chair by her wrists and ankles -- not entirely unlike Lara’s current situation -- where Ward (with buzzed hair, not in a hint of gray threaded throughout, walking proud and tall) can be seen rushing to her side. He runs a hand absently over her knee and works on getting her out of the restraints.

The clip splits and suddenly --

Ward is thrown back from the force of four gunshots. He touches his stomach and draws a hand away in shock at the blood staining his fingers. Then he looks up and sees Skye, glaring at him with hatred in her eyes, still holding the gun. She turns her back without a second look and rushes from the room. He slumps against the wall, presumably left for dead

 

It takes a few moments for Lara to find her voice. “Anyone with a decent grasp on technology could have spliced that together.”

“Good point. Apparently I don’t have to tell the daughter of one of the best and most notorious hackers about the value and undeniable nature of time-stamped video --” Lara cuts her gaze back to the screen, where the date is printed in white numbers, just two years before she was born -- “But then, you’d likely prefer to ask them yourself.”

He rises from the chair and steps into the shadows with a grave expression. “I will be quite vexed if you tell them how you learned about this, Lara.”

“Right,” she scoffs, “because you’re about to let my parents waltz in here and not kill them on the spot.”

“My father always believed discovery required experimentation. There are other things I would have liked the opportunity to talk to him about, but it wasn’t in the cards for us. At any rate, my eyes are on something much bigger these days.” David offers a lazy wave as he disappears from the room. “Don’t say I never gave you anything.”

Lara has seconds to mull over that alarming statement and then her parents are rushing in.

*

Just the sight of her parents is enough to bring tears to her eyes. As it is, emotion lodges firmly in her chest, to the point where she can hardly speak.

“Mom!”

Skye rushes into the room, immediately wrapping her arms around Lara. “Sweetheart,” she croons, cupping her face between her hands. “You’re okay. It’s going to be okay. We’ll get you out of here in no time, I promise.”

There are so many things she wants to say, to ask, to demand to know -- but she only has eyes for her father and wants answers to the terrifying doubts that David planted into her head. She wants to prove him wrong with such ferocity it scares her.

“Lift up your shirt,” she demands of her father, around the lump in her throat.

Skye looks up from her current task of freeing Lara’s ankles with some alarm. “Lara?”

“Dad.” Lara’s gaze is unwavering, locked on Ward. “Please.”

Her father must sense that she’s been through some messed up events and doesn’t immediately move to dismiss the bizarre request. Still, there’s a beat of hesitation before he answers. “Sweetheart, if this is about the shot I took when I was protecting you --”

“-- It’s not.”

Skye stops what she’s doing and goes unnaturally still. “Honey, don’t you think we should save this for another time?”

A chill runs down her spine. Lara’s gaze cuts to her mother in combination of fury and fear. “Did you shoot him? Four times, center mass to the chest?”

The fact that she is met with a raw silence from both her parents instead of an immediate denial is all the evidence she needs. Lara reaches out with her now freed hand and yanks up Ward’s shirt, baring for all to see four star-shaped scars, matching the shots she’d seen with devastating accuracy.

Lara stares at her mother with betrayal and begins to cry. “Oh god. He was right.”

*

Across the the world in the middle of the night, Rose Ward gets an urgent email.

She scans the brief contents with a low curse. And then she weeps.

*

Skye and Ward exchange an anxious look, not at all sure what to make of the fact that their daughter knows about one of the worst times in their relationship (that everyone is forbidden to speak of) or the whiplash of emotions ricocheting across her features.

Who was right?” Ward asks gently, crouching down on the other side of Lara, hand on her knee and oddly reminiscent of the gesture he’d made just prior to freeing Skye before she’d shot him.

The movement brings forth a fresh wave of emotion from Lara, who begins to cry openly. She can barely manage words around the trembling horror of her lips and cracked composure.

“I ruined your life!” Lara brokenly exclaims.

The sound that comes from Lara can only be described as broken and she falls into Skye’s arms without further protest. “I’m sorry,” her voice is muffled from where she’s wedged her cheek into the crook of Skye’s neck. “I’m so sorry.” 

“Lara, I don’t know where you got that idea, but --” Ward begins, only to be cut off before he can continue.

“-- This is all very touching,” someone says, breaking up the moment. “Some would disagree, but I really do have a soft spot for families being reunited.”

David stands at the entrance with an ironclad arm around Ranger’s neck and a gun to his temple.

“Ranger!”

Ward reaches for Lara just as she’s about to jump forward and yanks her back into place at his side.

“You were supposed to knock out the power grid,” He says conversationally, as if it is an everyday occurrence to see someone else holding the life of his protege in their hands.

“Got a little tied up,” says Ranger, all faux apology.

“Why are they joking around? Why aren’t they taking this seriously?” Lara hisses at her mother.

Skye offers a briefly reassuring squeeze to her hand and meets Ward’s eyes over their daughter’s head. Just as she is about to summon the energy to knock their unexpected guest off his feet, three more guards appear, with stupidly large guns that are trained on them in a way that prevents any kind of survival at such a short range. 

“A little warning would have been nice,” Ward manages through gritted teeth, furiously trying to come up with a new new escape plan.

“Didn’t feel them coming,” Skye sarcastically retorts, backing up slowly. 

Lara can’t take her eyes from Ranger. I’m so sorry, she mouths.

Not your fault, comes his voice comes reassuringly back into her head. I knew the risks going in.

*

They are marched up what seems like hundreds of stairs; Lara doesn’t even think of doing anything besides than putting one foot in front of the other and cooperating with the men currently leading them onward. If three of the most dangerous people she knows aren’t looking to escape on a stairwell, she knows that there is nothing she can do except make it worse. (And that is the last thing she wants to do right now.)

Still, she can’t help but feel relieved when they push through the armed doors marked Roof Access. Everyone would kill her if they knew, but she couldn’t be more thrilled.

Finally.  A forum she can actually bring something to the fight.

The guards line up and block the exits once more, snipers taking position with dizzying ease and ducking out of sight until it is impossible to remember just who has gone where, making it seem utterly impossible to fight back even with the slightest opportunity.

Stage set at last, so to speak, their host clasps his hands together in excitement.

“David Whitehall,” he announces with a sarcastic little bow.  smirk on his lips directed at Skye and Ward particularly. “May I just say, it is truly a pleasure to meet the infamous Strike Team Delta in the flesh after all these years.”

“Not sure if you’ve heard,” Ward drawls calmly, despite the current circumstances, “But we aren’t for hire anymore.”

“I rather think I can. It’s simply a matter of using that which you value most as currency,” Whitehall corrects. He gestures to Skye, who is watching him with a stricken expression. “I see you’ve put together exactly who I am. Not completely surprising, given that it was your father who killed mine.”

“Cal never got the chance,” Skye somehow manages around the fear that is visibly clouding her features. “Though it wasn’t for a lack of trying.”

“So you’re going to tell me that you didn’t view Phil Coulson as a father figure to you at the time?”

Lara is the only one thrown by the name drop. 

Whitehall forges on. “To be completely honest, we had huge plans you two. Then Skye had to run off and disappear... and I confess, my heart wasn’t in it when I found I didn’t have to deal with both of you.” He gives Ward an appraising look. “Well done after that trip to Paris, by the way. I really thought the biotoxin would have killed you for good.”

Skye doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but judging by the way Ward goes absolutely still, it isn’t a period of time he’s fond of.

Even so, he offers up an insincere smile without the slightest hesitation. “Guess I’m stubborn like that.” 

“I’ve got precious little on you.” Whitehall directs his next statement to Ranger, who is all coiled energy and barely leashed threat, “Other than the fact that no one wanted you as an infant so you bounced from foster home to foster home for a very long time before you ran into the Fitzsimmons and Director Coulson’s merry band of idiots.”

When Ranger doesn’t rise to the bait, Daniel offers the piece dè resistance: “It was a matter of providence, I suppose, that Ward got to you in that cabin first. We were waiting just outside the perimeter, about to bring you in as one of our newest recruits.”

This is an accusation Ranger cannot let go uncontested. “I would have never joined you.”

“I’d assumed as much, though it hardly matters. There are ways around that,” the other man shrugs, unconcerned.

Lara glances around at the faces of the people she loves and the way they all look like someone has taken a sledgehammer to their composure. They’re holding their own, but just barely. “What the hell kind of monster are you?” She finally asks, ignoring her father’s dark glare, recapturing Whitehall’s attention.

“The kind that recognises darkness and potential.” He folds his arms comfortably. “Unlike your mother, who has always known that you’re destined for something incredible and has been determined to hide it from everyone, for all these years.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Skye grits out, trying to lean forward to catch Lara’s eye and promptly getting yanked back for her troubles by the guard holding her captive. “He’s a lying sack of --” She’s cut off with a pained cry as the butt of the gun strikes her temple with enough force to draw blood.

Lara bites the inside of her cheek to keep from yelling out. The guard holding Ward has to lunge with effort to keep him down at the sight of blood trickling down the side of Skye’s face. 

Around them, the wind begins to swirl into formidable gusts.

“As your parents can no doubt attest,” Whitehall looks entirely too pleased with the current disaster of a situation, “people do terrible things in the name of love.” There is an eerily delighted pleasure on his face as he looks at her almost fondly. “And I believe you my dear, are the most terrible of them all.”

Like some over the top choreographed dance routine, the men simultaneously release the safeties on their guns, jabbing the business end directly at the base of everyone’s skull.

Ward stumbles forward slightly as he tries to resist and is shoved to the ground with a boot planted in between his shoulder blades to keep him in down.

The sky, which has been slowly darkening over the past few minutes, grows heavy with intent.

Only Skye and Ranger can meet her eyes. Lara knows she is seconds away from unraveling and giving Whitehall everything he wants.

With rapidly developing fear, she finally understands.

That is what this is about.

Not her parents; not any more. Not Ranger. Not even the fact that she shares the same genes are his beloved Strike Team Delta and Whitehall needs to use her as a bargaining chip. No.

The time for that has come and gone. He’s set the stage beautifully.

And now Whitehall wants to see what she can do.

Well. He’s about to find out.

Lara, no.” Skye’s voice is cracking with emotion and the steel-laced command that brooks absolutely no argument. “Rule number one.”

Ranger confidently meets her gaze, like nothing is wrong, like there isn’t a gun directly pointed to his head -- and the determination and strength she finds is everything.

Be more, Hurricane.

“Mom.” Lara offers a smile that’s gone jagged around the edges with fear. “No offense, but rule number one sucks.”

She closes her eyes and --

*

She wants to destroy everything.

Lara sinks deep into the parts of her heart that hurt the most;

the feeling of never quite fitting in, the grief she’d always felt for never having a father when so many of her peers always did; the aching betrayal of learning that the man she never knew existed was just as damaged as she was -- and that her mother had been the one to lie about it forever; the brutal loss of then seeing her mother wrenched away; the shock that thomas had known and been complicit in the lie for just as long; figuring out that her parents had been in love all those years ago followed by the sinking realisation that she had been personally responsible for ruining their happiness together. 

There is a restless, tireless energy prowling beneath her skin and it howls for release; promises to take away all of the emptiness and channel it into something so much bigger than all of this. It swears that she will never feel this helpless, ever again.

Lara reaches for it eagerly with the intent to put an end to everything --

she just wants it all to stop for just a freaking second

-- and feels the insistent pressure of something warm and safe.

It’s Ranger.

I’ve got you, Hurricane. Don’t shut me out. You want to do this? Let me be the gun.

She shakes her head, feeling like she’s suddenly moving in slow motion quicksand; like she can’t shake off the heavy responsibility and regret weighing down her actions now that he’s entered the picture.

At least let me show you the way. We both know you can probably do this without me... but it’s a hell of a lot easier when we’re a team. Trust me.

His rock solid strength blazes in like a firestorm; it’s so much lighter and bigger and she feels the icy worry taking up residence in her chest burn up until it has all but evaporated.

You know that I do.

With the addition of Ranger’s expertise, the men with weapons light up blood red like targets that she couldn’t miss in the darkest of night, swathed in crimson like the precious life they intend to take if she fails even in the slightest and she will not fail. It’s exactly what Thor taught them to do -- only this is no abandoned forest, in the middle of nowhere -- this is the life of everyone she loves, in the palm of her hand.

Now the cold fear swimming in her gut gives way to other memories;

being you don’t make you less

and --

you’re my daughter

and --

you have a habit of growing on people

and --

you’re part of this family

and --

this is about you and me. we’re a team.

and --

you always have a choice

and --

the only limits are the ones we put upon ourselves

and --

i will always keep you safe

and --

at the end of the day, this is about you

and --

it only makes you more .

 

She gathers it all up like a raging sea that refuses to be tamed; it takes everything she is (a real hurricane of a girl) to corral all that excruciating pain and not let it overwhelm her, the sometimes unbearable burden of love and fledgling hope that wants to badly to win in her heart and funnels it through all of her like the live wire voltage it is and commands for the skies to answer her call until lightning comes screaming down like it only has once before and yet somehow never has quite like this and --

-- the skies go blindingly white.

*

When she can finally reopen her eyes, the only people still breathing are her parents and Ranger.

Everyone else is dead.

There is a ripe stench of ozone and unmistakable shock of lightning in the air.

She killed them. All of them.

Lara feels all the oxygen backup in her lungs, dropping to knees that suddenly can’t hold her upright anymore.

The last thing she sees before it fades to black are Ranger’s worried eyes, dark and pained. She wants to tell him that it’s okay now, that the threat is over --

but she is just too damn tired to hang on any longer.

The only thing she can accept now is oblivion.

*

It takes a couple of minutes for Skye to come back.

Between the knock to the head and the temporary blindness induced by the epic show of Lara’s abilities -- not to mention the information overload that is  David Whitehall -- she thinks she may have blacked out temporarily.

But right now she’s fixated on the rise and fall on Lara’s chest.

Skye counts the breaths, reminding herself between each second that her daughter is alive and well. It’s a weird sort of deja vu from so many years ago, when she had been a newborn and it was just the two of them against the world. The loss of that moment aches deep in her chest. Just like her baby girl is no longer an infant any more, this experience and has irreversibly changed her life forever. Lara can never go back.

There are so many things she wants to lift her head to the sky and scream about; like how dare this be expected of her daughter and why couldn’t they have chosen anyone else and a thousand other hideous accusations she would demand answers for -- but now is not the time.

Skye drops her hands, which are shaking faintly, and puts them flat on the ground to try and hide the movement. She’s more than a little alarmed to discover they’re barely capable of holding her upright.

There are at least a hundred things she needs to tell Ward; how everything they’ve slowly come to understand as normal has just been turned and placed on its head; how Lara is now in so much more danger than she ever was before, how she is so sorry that they couldn’t -- that she couldn’t -- protect her from this.

But first they need to get the hell off of this roof.

*

Thomas searches desperately for any semblance of calm -- and fails miserably. He can’t help gaping in the distance. “Did you just...”

“...See the entire sky light up like the kind of special effects Hollywood only dreams about?” Kara wheezes, pushing herself up from the ground, where she’d fallen following the blinding show of light. “I’m going to hazard a wild guess here and say they found our Hurricane.” When Thomas doesn’t respond, she frowns. “Hey. I’m sure she’s fine. Just ping Ranger and see if it’s time for us to go in and help extract them or --”

“-- Everything’s down.” He interrupts, looking like it’s costing him extreme effort to not freak out. “And Lara has never been able to do anything like that before.”

Kara blindly reaches for his hand, clutching tight. She takes a few deep breaths. “Okay.” She nods, decisively, the beginnings of a plan starting to form. “I say we go in and --”

“-- We can’t.” Thomas looks torn between strangling the nearest available person (her) and ready to scream in frustration without ceasing. “Rose Protocol, remember?”

She curses savagely. “Who the hell thought that was a good idea?”

“My ass of an older brother who was paranoid we’d all die at the same and went to great lengths to prevent that from happening.” His voice is oddly detached, though she can hear traces of anger stirring beneath it.

“Okay fine,” Kara reaches for her spare gun and tucks it in the back of her waistband, “I’ll go and --”

“No.” His hand clamps down on her wrist with bruising strength. Fear and fury burn in his eyes like twin fires.

She tries being reasonable. (Someone has to keep a level head.) “Thomas, I’m a grown woman. I can wipe the floor with you on my worst day. I’m trained for this.”

“You’ll have to excuse me,” He begins with strained pleasantness, still gripping her tightly, “If I’m not willing to lose you, too.”

“You’re not going to lose me.”

“For all I know, my brother could be dead. I promised him that I would honor his wishes. You aren’t going anywhere I can’t see you. Right now, that means we’re staying put.”

“For god’s sake, Thomas, I don’t give a damn about the protocol right now!”

“I am so sick and tired of this family and their godforsaken blood oaths,” he mutters so faintly that she can barely hear.

“You and me both,” she snorts, more than a little annoyed with his stubborn attitude. It’s totally the wrong thing to throw in his face at the moment, but she can’t bring herself to care. Everything about this situation is violently off balance.

But Thomas will not be moved on this. “Let me tell you a little something about my niece and what she can do.”

Kara is still pissed and can feel herself immediately taking offense at his imperious tone. “Oh, so she’s your niece now?”

“Point.” His jaw flexes hard with the effort of keeping his temper. “Our niece doesn’t know what her limits are yet because Skye essentially forbid her from ever using her abilities. Anything weather-related was always involuntary. A reaction to something else that bothered her.”

The fight goes out of her as his meaning sinks in. “You’re saying what just happened wasn’t defensive.”

“I’m saying,” Thomas brings a hand up to cover his face, trying like hell to keep his voice level and hands from shaking, “That she’s never done anything like that before. That our communications are down. And lastly, that I promised my stupid ass brother -- that no matter what happened -- I’d make sure Lara has something to come home to.”

Kara exhales so deeply she almost gets lightheaded. He’s right. It kills her to admit it. But he’s absolutely right. She officially hates the Rose Protocol with a passion. “We’re staying.”

“We’re staying,” he confirms, wrapping an arm around her shoulder and pulling her close. “And in case you weren’t absolutely sure: this is killing me.”

She slides her arms around his waist and holds tight. “I’m probably going to murder your brother for doing this to us.”

“I’ll help you.” Thomas grimly promises.

*

Ward gets to his feet unsteadily and glances around, unable to keep the muted shock from his face at the charred human remains of their captors. “Lara,” he rasps, looking to Ranger. 

“She’s okay,” Ranger answers, not taking his eyes off the girl in his arms. “She’s okay.”

Skye allows Ward to help her up and they walk over to Ranger as one. He gives her a look that Ranger can’t decipher.

“She needs medical attention.” He pleads, desperately trying to maintain any semblance of calm.

Ward nods slowly. “Then we need to clear you a path.”

Even worried out of his mind as he is for the girl he loves currently passed out in his arms, Ranger knows what that means. “I can --”

“-- You can’t, actually.” Skye speaks up, dropping her now-useless watch on the ground with a mirthless chuckle. “Hurricane Lara fried everyone’s electronics.”

He doesn’t really like the idea of splitting up flying blind but this new complication also means that their ability to communicate with Thomas and Kara has been compromised. They can’t call for backup this time. They’re out of options.

“Good.” Ward smiles grimly. “They’ll never see us coming.”

There is something almost tender about the way they check each other for injury and intensely personal about the quick shuffle of remaining ammunition. Ward brushes his thumb over the cut at her temple gently and Skye reaches up briefly to hold his hand in place. “I’m fine.”

Feeling like somewhat of a voyeur, Ranger awkwardly clears his throat. “So I’ll just... stay up here and wait for your signal?”

It does the trick of drawing their attention, though he doubts they’re really seeing him, given the violence that seems to hum beneath their skin. Small particles of debris vibrate and swirl around Skye’s feet and she doesn’t even notice.

“No one touches her,” commands Ward, giving him one last searching look.

Even given everything that just occurred, Ranger knows the significance of this passing of the torch and has to swallow visibly at the trust his mentor is literally putting into his hands. “I’ll guard her with my life.”

“Good.” Skye is waiting impatiently at the door for him to catch up. “We’re going to find Whitehall.”

Only then does Ranger realise that David Whitehall wasn’t among those he targeted for Lara. That for some reason, he simply couldn’t get a read on the other man.

Which can only mean one thing.

He’s inhuman.

*

The sound of jet thrusters kicking in are what alert them to the fact that they aren’t going to be alone much longer. Kara has just enough time to direct Thomas back to their hiding places when a Quinjet comes into view.

It lands without any fanfare and the ramp comes down not long after. Bucky and Natasha walk out, trailed by a strangely clunking Iron Man.

“Worse than an EMP,” Tony complains, shucking his helmet and flinging two gauntlets back inside. “Can’t believe it.”

Natasha shoots him an irritated look. “Focus.”

It is with great relief that Kara emerges from behind the chopper, walking toward Bucky. “Thank god.”

He’s amused. “Bucky works just fine, doll. Or Barnes, if you’re feeling kind of formal.”

“Stop hitting on my fiancee,” Thomas calls out, coming into view and slipping a possessive arm around her waist. Kara rolls her eyes but leans into his side comfortably.

Bucky looks like he wants to argue, but lets it slide after a shared look with Natasha.

“Okay, so good news/bad news,” Tony pulls off his left boot. “We got the heat signatures from our people on the roof just before Hurricane Lara knocked out the power and nearly killed me.”

“Stop being so dramatic,” Natasha calmly interjects.

“Never. I literally was plummeting to my death.”

“And yet, here you are,” Bucky grumbles, sharpening his knife in a desperate attempt to tune his companion out.

Tony may not be the Star Spangled Man with a Plan, but he is a tactical genius in his own right and has the plan nailed down. “The Spysassins are going to march in there and drag our kids out and then we’re getting the hell out of here. I, for one, would love a drink.”

“Stay sober,” Natasha advises instead, finishing her last scan of readouts from the chopper before the communications had gone down. “We’re probably going to need you to fly home.”

“I feel so used.” Tony complains, flinging the back of his hand to his forehead. “They only want me for what they can get from me.”

Bucky snorts, following after Natasha.

“Bring them back in one piece.” Thomas orders, meeting her eyes without flinching.

The Black Widow and Winter Soldier nod in deference to his command, and slip into the trees without further comment.

“So this whole Rose Protocol thing,” Tony begins conversationally, still manually removing the rest of the Iron Man armor, “Just how badly do you want to stick it to your idiot of an older brother for trapping you right now? I mean, besides than the coolness factor of being able to direct Mother Russia on a pretty lethal extraction mission.”

Kara glances heavenward. “This was a terrible idea.”

*

When they reach the landing, Skye recoils instantly.

The walls are literally red with blood.

Ward immediately shoves her behind him, pulling out his gun. “Who the hell did this?”

Skye has only once before seen this kind of carnage. “What are the odds of Whitehall being able to recreate Cal’s monster serum?”

“You think he’s capable of this?”

“I don’t know of a single Inhuman with this kind of power.” She eyes their surroundings with measured caution and disgust. There isn’t a single heartbeat that she can detect. It doesn’t matter how far she reaches.

“So he’s pissed that his men didn’t survive Lara?”

“No,” Skye shakes her head, looking at the grotesque angle of limbs and two men who had their necks viciously broken in a fit of rage. “Those men were expendable to him. He wanted to know what Lara was capable of.”

Ward puts an arm around her waist, firmly steering her to a less murderous section of the hallway. “Now he knows. What drives him to this kind of rage?”

“That she’s more powerful than he gave her credit for,” Skye tells him, still faintly horrified by the scene in behind them. “She’s stronger than I gave her credit for, honestly. And he couldn’t walk out of here with her.”

Ward scrubs a hand down his face in frustration. “I would have much preferred if we could have shot some idiot people and then you did your thing and stopped a few heartbeats.” Skye shoots him a fond look. “Instead, we’re getting walloped by a bunch of really weird shit and everyone is already dead. Did I mention this place is making my skin crawl?”

“C’mon,” she sighs, casting another look at the wreckage. “Let’s get out of here.”

*

It’s a bloodbath. 

The Winter Soldier and Black Widow are by no means innocent, and have seen more than their fair share of brutal violence, but this? This is something else.

There’s a slight commotion that has Bucky twitching into a defensive position, when Skye and Ward suddenly appear, Ranger between them. The young man shows no sign of recognising the scene before him, so intensely watchful is his gaze on Lara’s face, close by from where he holds her in his arms.

She can tell from the relieved slump of his shoulders that Ward is clearly reassured to see them. Skye looks dazed, but still breathes a sigh of relief upon noticing them. Natasha lifts her wrist to speak directly into her comm. “All clear. We’re coming back.”

Is everyone okay?” Thomas is frantic with worry.

“Everyone’s fine. Have Tony set up the medbay for Lara. She’s going to need some basic first aid before we get back to base.”

“Done.”

Natasha gives Skye and Ward a final, searching look. They nod wearily, falling into position behind Ranger, still carrying Lara in his arms. He looks utterly exhausted but refuses to let anyone else touch her. Something about the fierce look in his eyes warns everyone else from even trying.

“Let’s get out of here,” Bucky announces, tossing a mega grenade over his shoulder.

A minute and a half later, when they’re well clear of the blast zone, the former Hydra compound explodes.

Lara twitches restlessly in her sleep. And some of the brittle tension finally begins to smooth away from Skye, Ward and Ranger.

The rest of the journey is made in silence.

*

The first thing Ward notices when they enter the clearing is Kara looking faintly apologetic. But before he can figure out just why she would be transmitting that emotion, a fist comes flying through the air and knocks him hard to the right.

He almost takes Skye down with him in the scuffle.

Thomas is shaking out his clenched hand, looking madder than a hornet.

Ward offers a rusty chuckle, raising his arms halfway in surrender with a weary sigh. “I just spent my day with a gun pointed at my head, so if you’re going to kill me, could you be quick about it?”

“You bastard,” his younger brother swears, throwing his arms around him tightly and nearly squeezing the life out of him.

Bruised ribs,” Ward chokes, going sheet white in pain. When Thomas doesn’t immediately let go, he looks to Skye with a plea in his eyes.

“All right, all right. Let the bastard breathe,” Skye says, stepping forward as if to come between them.

Thomas cuts his gaze to her. “Excuse me if I don’t especially give a damn right now.” 

Thomas.” She raises her eyebrows. “C’mon.”

“If you ever do something like that again,” he tells Ward, still bitterly furious.

“Not so fun being responsible for the lives of the people you love and having to make the best of some really shitty decisions, is it?” Ward smiles jaggedly. 

“God, I hate you,” Thomas puts his shoulder under Ward’s arm, assisting him  to the Quinjet.

“Yeah,” Ward sighs, gradually leaning into him. “I know.”

*

Kara meets Skye halfway while Natasha and Bucky walk like sentinels, flanking Ranger as he carries Lara on board and disappears for the medbay.

“How bad was it?”

Skye accepts the supportive arm that the other woman throws around her, unable to hide her limping gait any longer. “ ‘Bad’ is like the understatement of the year by so much.” 

“Jesus.” Kara lifts her chin, indicating they should walk to the small room next to where Lara is being hooked up to an IV drop. “You okay?”

Without warning, Skye feels her eyes well up with tears.

“Yeah, so,” Kara clears her throat, pulling Skye into an affectionate sideways hug, mindful of any potential unseen injuries. “Just forget I asked that stupid question.”

Skye offers a watery laugh, tipping her head on Kara’s shoulder. “Given what you’ve had to deal with over the past twenty years, I think you have a couple free passes up your sleeve.” She says, obliquely referring to Ward’s destructive spiral after her absence.

“He took care of me when I needed him most.” Kara squeezes her hand tightly, brushing aside her statement. “Besides. You had to deal with Thomas. He grew up because of you and Lara.”

“You saved the man I love at any cost.” Skye shrugs, tears falling freely. “So that our daughter could get to know how amazing he really was.”

Now Kara is choked up. “Let’s just call it even, okay?”

Skye laughs again, leaning back against the bulkhead. “Works for me.”

They sit together quietly for takeoff (Bucky must be at the controls) until Tony appears, knocking on the doorframe gently. “Thought you might want to see how she’s doing. Vitals are strong.”

With Kara’s help, Skye stands and walks into the cramped room next door. Once inside, Kara leaves them to their privacy.

Ranger’s there, gripping Lara’s free hand tightly, looking dead on his feet. She knows he isn’t going anywhere else until Ward pulls rank.

As if somehow reading her mind, Ward steps into the room. He takes care to remain in his protege’s line of vision, not wanting to startle him as he puts a hand on Ranger’s shoulder, squeezing tightly. “You did good.”

Ranger glances up at him with blank eyes.

Ward clears his throat. “Why don’t you see if you can clear your head a bit? Skye and I can take it from here.”

“Yeah.” Ranger nods, movements painstakingly slow and lacking all of his usual grace. “Okay.”

He looks back at Lara one last time and staggers out into the hall.

Ward looks torn between going after him, but exchanges some kind of unreadable look with Tony instead.

“I can stay with the girls,” he offers kindly, and for once, his words are stripped of any artifice.

Now Ward looks at Skye. “I have to talk to Kara.”

Her stomach bottoms out. It’s incredibly selfish to want to him to stay here with her -- Lara is going to be fine, and Kara, of all people, more than deserves to know about Whitehall’s son firsthand -- so she offers a quick smile. “You know where to find me.”

Ward gives her a look so intensely focused it’s like Tony isn’t even present. “I do.”

“Phew,” Tony makes a show of fanning himself after Ward’s departure, piercing through Skye’s emotional upheaval. “Cheekbones isn’t one for the faint of heart, is he?”

Skye snorts in humor before suddenly crumpling into tears.

He panics. “Okay, so this is not the right time to be making jokes,” he guides an arm around her, sitting them both at the bench by Lara’s bedside. “Which is why Pepper needs to be around 24/7, you guys think I’m kidding about that, but...”

“That woman deserves all the medals in the world for putting up with you and has more than earned her time spent apart.” Skye turns her head into his shoulder, half laughing, half sobbing. “By the way... thanks for coming to get us.”

Despite her somewhat flippant delivery, the mood shifts drastically and Tony sighs heavily, pressing a kiss to her forehead. “That’s what parents do.”

“Yeah,” she says, closing her eyes in a valiant attempt to stop the tears from falling. “Come hell or high water.”

She knows that he can hear the self-recrimination in her voice, which is confirmed when he gives her a solid hug and his tone slides into a slightly lecturing vein.

“Lara is gonna be fine, you know that right? Nothing a little wonder drug from a special Spider can’t fix, and time will heal the rest.”

Skye -- who is more than a little familiar with the experience of what used to be the painful Transition path for Inhumans -- sighs heavily and remains quiet. This is the one thing she couldn’t protect Lara from. She feels like such a failure.

“Hey. You’re a great mother,” Tony firmly tells her, demonstrating his disturbingly accurate sense of perception.

Skye hates that he can read her this well.

“I don’t feel like one,” she admits.

“And that’s why I know you’re one of the best.” He pulls her close. “No sense of false confidence here. Just humility and some good old fashioned doubt.”

“...You are probably the worst peptalk giver of all time.”

“But I’m right.” Tony shrugs, unapologetic. “And really, that’s what being a good parent is all about.”

“I think it’s about slightly more than that,” Skye begins, lifting her head from his shoulder. She wants to curse herself for rising to the bait so easily.

“Hey.” Tony holds her by the biceps firmly, his eyes sincere and warm. “She’s safe. You got her back. Everything is going to be okay.”

Skye lasts about two seconds before throwing her arms around him and burying her face in the crook of his neck.

Tony stiffens awkwardly before relaxing enough to put his arms around her.

She laughs. “I know you hate emotions,” she inhales, a deep and shuddering breath, “But you can’t just tell me exactly what I needed to hear and then skip out for the aftermath.”

“It’s worked so well for me in the past,” He grouses.

“Shut up,” Skye says, kissing his cheek and settling in close to his side.

Tony heaves a long suffering sigh and puts his arm back around her. “I really do hate emotions.”

“I know.”

*

“Kara.”

It’s his tone that has her glancing at him with no small amount of trepidation. “What’s up?”

Ward nods once at Natasha, who comes over and they take a seat on either side of her, flanking her escape.

“I have some... unsettling information. Part of me wants to wait until we’re back at the base but --”

“-- Just tell me,” Kara doesn’t know what’s put that particular look on his face but judging by the way her stomach just plummeted, it’s not going to be good. “Get it over with.”

“Whitehall had a son.”

And the bottom drops out.

Kara honestly doesn’t remember what happens after that, only knows that when she can process information again, Thomas is gripping her with arms that nearly crush her in half. Somehow Natasha is holding onto her hands so tightly that she’s distantly surprised to find the bones haven’t yet shattered.

Ward looks wrecked. “I’m so sorry.”

From somewhere deep inside, Kara manages a choked laugh. “Did you sleep with him and get pregnant?”

Thomas actually guffaws with humor until Natasha elbows him sharply.

“I --” He’s at a loss for words.

“Because unless you suddenly have a set of female parts below that belt,” Kara casts a dubious look at his waistline, “-- doubtful -- then I am genuinely curious as to how you could possibly think that this is even remotely your fault.”

Ward’s jaw drops.

“Right.” Kara nods decisively. “This one is not on you, idiot.”

Then she somehow manages to stand up on legs that do not wobble, and makes her way to the cockpit.

“I am so in love with that woman,” Thomas says, fervently.

Natasha gives him a contemplative look. “I can see why.”

*

Ward somehow makes his way back to the medbay to find Skye slumped against Tony.

The scene is more than a little bizarre, given how non-traditional their relationship is.

There is both caution and care in the engineer’s eyes when he rises to meet Ward at the door.

“We’re thirty minutes out.” Ward tells him, peering past to see both Skye and Lara are dozing. “What the hell did you say to her?”

“What the hell did you say to the babe with the legs engaged to your little brother?” Tony retorts.

He rolls his eyes. “What she needed to hear.”

Tony offers him a jaunty salute, sailing out the door. “So did I.”

Ward takes a few minutes to watch Skye and Lara breathing, somehow almost eerily in sync. He can’t help but wonder how much else Skye hasn’t told him just yet and finds himself not wanting to know at the moment. He doesn’t want anything to disturb this fragile new thing between them and yet -- there’s still a burden resting on her shoulders that is more than the formidable weight of motherhood.

He takes the empty seat beside her, somewhat gratified to find her body automatically shift closer to accommodate for the change in position due to his nearness. Her defenses were never down quite so much as they were when she was asleep. He used to wake up in the middle of the night to find her sprawled across his chest, tucked in as close as humanly possible, and fall back asleep knowing that all was right with the world.

Moments pass, and Skye begins to stir. She lifts her head to see him but doesn’t move away just yet.

“Hi.” He can’t resist smoothing the hair away from her face.

She leans her cheek further into his hand, closing her eyes. “Hi.”

Ward remains very still, focuses on keeping his breathing even and timed with hers, until Skye eventually falls back to sleep.

His lips curve with contentment.

Still got it.

*

“So.” Bucky says, taking the empty seat next to Ranger. “How was your day?”

And Ranger laughs. He laughs and laughs until it feels like he’s about to start crying (and he can’t remember the last time he did that). When he is somewhat composed, he manages to croak out, “Got anything left in that flask of yours?”

Which Bucky passes over without another word.

They sit in silence for a minute or two, until Ranger can feel the vodka taking effect and everything finally begins to slow the eff down.

And suddenly, without any apparent warning from his brain, he’s talking.

“That bastard said they were about to recruit me. Make me into one of their perfect little assassins and --” He breaks off, as if only just remembering who he’s talking to.

Except there’s nothing in the older man’s eyes but understanding and compassion. “And when you told him that you’d never be part of that, he said it didn’t matter. That they had other ways of making you comply.”

Ranger blinks, and distantly wonders if the vodka isn’t something like ten thousand proof alcohol because he’s having trouble stringing a logical thought together. “...Were you somehow on that roof?”

“Nope.” Bucky reclaims the flask, tipping back a healthy amount of vodka. “Hydra isn’t really the kind to change their spots, though. You’ve been with one psychotic maniac claiming to want control over the woman you love and everything you hold dear, you’ve been with them all.”

Ranger slumps against him, seemingly without much effort.

(What the hell was in this vodka?)

“There was a gun at the base of my head. I couldn’t do anything. And all I wanted was to tear him apart.”

Bucky slings a companionable arm around his shoulders, not at all concerned by their sudden close proximity. “From what I understand, you did quite a lot. Kept your gal safe, helped her do what needed doing so that she wasn’t alone.”

“Her life will never be the same.”

“No.” He agrees. “Probably a damn good thing she’s got you to help wade through the wreckage, though.”

Ranger closes his eyes. “You're not going to let me feel sorry for myself, are you?”

“You got the girl. Saved everyone’s asses. Walked away.” Bucky gives his hair an affectionate ruffle, like they’ve somehow become family and he’s razzing his kid brother after a bad day to try and raise his spirits. “Doesn’t get much better than that.”

It is quiet in the galley and then --

-- Ranger snores.

“Works every time,” Bucky grins to himself, finishing off what’s left in the flask.

“Jesus. What the hell are you drinking, Barnes?” Tony takes in the scene in seconds. “More importantly: Is there any left for me?”

The assassin reaches for the flask on his other side, offering it without reserve.

Tony sniffs experimentally, then whistles sharply. “Better sit down for this one.” He takes the seat on the other side of Ranger, propping the young man up between them. “Christ, he’s solid. What are they feeding him?”

“Not much heavier than Steve after he got knocked out by that mutant flu last year.”

“I’ve never seen Rogers high like that before.”

“Good times.” Tony leans his head back against the wall, closing his eyes. “Eighteen years ago when Skye first came to us, did you ever think we’d end up here?”

“Questioning your own mortality?”

“The closest thing I have to a granddaughter can now call down lighting from the sky without aid from an Asgardian weapon that used to only respond to Thor and -- sometimes -- Vision. Tell me you aren’t freaking out, just a little?”

“When you put it that way...” Bucky sips thoughtfully.

“I’ve had Friday all over this since it happened. Can’t make this one disappear.”

“Well,” the assassin kicks out his legs, stretching easily, “Maybe you’re not supposed to.”

Tony scoffs. “If this is some kind of all things happen for a reason BS --”

“-- Yeah, because I believe in that.” Bucky shoots him a dry look. “Lara has been living in the shadows her entire life. Skye’s had her on the move every coupla’ years. Maybe the hurricane wants to see what it’s like out in the sun.”

“...You’re so poetic. Does that do it for Natasha, or --?”

“Ask Pepper.” Bucky shrugs. “She seemed to like it.”

It’s a testament to how effective the vodka is that Tony only snorts at his comment.

There’s footsteps heralding the arrival of Natasha, who wanders in, holding her hand out for the flask expectantly. She shoots her lover a dirty look. “You know better than to give this to civilians.”

Tony begins to snore in unison with Ranger, until the galley is filled with their alternating snores like some kind of bizarre musical number.

“Nothing happened to Kara.”

“She’s practically superwoman.” Natasha scowls.

Bucky winks at her innocently. “At least they’re quiet.”

*

They make it back without further incident.

There are a few tricky moments where -- because all of Ranger’s tech got fried and won’t respond without his conscious biometrics AND they can’t reverse the Rose Protocol unless they’re back in command central -- Thomas has to take point on getting everyone back in the building (which is borderline hysterical, in a way that totally shouldn’t be funny and yet somehow is) but it is otherwise manageable.

“You want this one back in his room?” Bucky inquires from where he has Ranger hefted over his metal shoulder.

Ward shakes his head in delayed amusement. “Might as well. He’s of no use to me now.”

Ward.” Skye elbows him sharply, careful to keep her aim free of where Lara is currently cradled in his arms. “Be nice.”

“I thought you didn’t like my protege that much?” He silkily inquires, taking off for Lara’s rooms. 

Skye nods briefly at Kara and sends a heartfelt look to Thomas before hastening to keep up with her erstwhile partner. “Just because I thought he was an arrogant piece of --”

“-- watch it now, Lara would be upset if she heard you trash talking her... person.”

“-- muscle, doesn’t mean I hate him.” She keeps watching the comforting rise and fall of Lara’s breathing, wishing on everything that they could just stay like this for a sliver of eternity; the childhood that their daughter never got to have, both of her parents together, and her father carrying her to bed before they tucked her in for the night.

“How long do you think she’ll sleep?” Ward asks, cutting into her thoughts.

Skye shrugs, genuinely unsure. “When she was little and had tantrums or we got into a fight... it would take it out of her, to the point where she’d have to nap for a little while before she could keep going.”

“You fought with her?” He stands patiently as she opens the door to Lara’s room, and waits until she turns down the bed to set their daughter down gently.

“Right before you tracked us down we’d fought so bad that by the time Thomas brought her back home, she slept for 12 hours straight.” She slowly tugs off Lara’s boots, keeping an eye to make sure that the sleeping girl won’t wake up during the process. “It monsooned for two days after.”

“What was the fight about?” He gently removes the cowl that has somehow miraculously stayed around Lara’s neck throughout the events of the past day or so, handing it to Skye.

Skye stares at cowl for a good ten seconds before she can bring herself to take it from him. “She, ah... took something of mine and accidentally ripped it.” In a bizarre and perhaps universal sign of irony, there is a small tear under one of the clasps on the piece. “...Actually it wasn’t mine at all.” Skye stands up abruptly, needing some space from the close proximity of her former lover and their daughter.

“Skye?” Ward puts a gentle hand on her shoulder. “We don’t have to talk about it if it’s just going to make you upset.” 

She puts a hand through the cowl, slinging her arm through it, as was her custom from nearly two decades ago when it wasn’t actively in use. “It was your shirt.”

*

Ward stops dead in the process from where he is pulling the covers over Lara’s sleeping form. “My shirt?”

Skye nods, unshed tears shining brightly in her eyes. “Yeah. It was the only thing I took with me when I left.”

He’s absolutely floored, to say the least.

There are a couple ways he can play the situation -- and so many answers he still wants. But it has been a hell of a day, and Ward is feeling about as tired and battered as Skye looks, even with that bit of defiance still sparkling in her eyes.

“Well,” he drawls, calmly walking over to her, “It just so happens I have a few spares laying around that I could probably be persuaded to part with if it means keeping peace within this family.”

She laughs, but it is choked and watery from the tears that she hasn’t been entirely successful in repressing. When he puts an arm around her shoulders and tugs her close, she doesn’t fight him.

He really doesn’t want to get his hopes up, but with Skye continuing to open up, it’s finally starting to feel like they might have more than a snowball’s chance in hell of making this work.

They walk like that back to the command room in a content silence until Skye reaches up to give his hand a reassuring squeeze. “Good thing you’re generous like that.”

*

“So...” Thomas begins, deceptively casual as Kara emerges from the bathroom with her hair in a messy bun, clad in one of their dark, extra large towels.

Like he doesn’t know that she’s just taken a shower nearly an hour long, trying to scrub every trace of disgust and revulsion from her skin at the mere mention of Whitehall’s name.

She drops the towel, much to his delight, and begins pulling on one of his threadbare tee shirts and boxers. “So.”

“You wanna talk about it?” He runs a hand down her hair once she settles next to him in their bed.

“Nope.”

Thomas nods thoughtfully. “You want to go beat something up?”

“Maybe tomorrow.” Kara hums, closing her eyes.

“Anything I can do?”

She inhales sharply, breathing in deeply and snuggling close, which never fails to settle his heart down. “Make me breakfast in the morning.”

“Waffles?”

“Waffles,” Kara decisively confirms, sliding an arm around his chest and pulling herself closer. “Love you.”

“Love you.” Thomas echoes, turning out the light. “It’s okay if you’re not okay.”

She’s quiet for so long that he thinks she’s already fallen asleep. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time it had happened.

“I know. But it’s different now.”

He knows he should let it go, that she needs her rest and --

“I can hear you thinking,” Kara grumbles, reaching blindly for the light switch.

“Why is it different now?” Thomas blurts, unable to hold back.

The look she gives him is fond. “You really can’t figure it out?”

“Would I be asking if I did?”

“Calm down,” Kara soothes, rubbing his shoulder absently. “It’s different because I’m not alone any more. I’ve got a family again. More importantly, I’ve got you.”

Thomas’s jaw drops open.

“Try not to let it go to your head,” she advises, brushing a kiss over his lips. “Or else you’ll be up all night and I honestly do not have the energy to do anything about that right now.”

“...What about tomorrow morning?”

“Well,” Kara turns off the light again, sliding her leg very suggestively over his hip, “I guess that depends on how good those waffles are.”

*

Someone -- probably Natasha, easily the smartest person in the room at the moment -- made the genius decision to have food ready by the time they all settled into the control room.

It’s a good fifteen minutes where everyone is silently stuffing their faces with burritos or grilled cheese and slugging back water or energy drinks in full swing before anyone can even think of speaking.

“Do we need to get the rest of the team involved?” Everyone looks at Tony accusingly and he throws up his hands in surrender. “Hey! Don’t kill me, I’m just asking the question that nobody else wanted to.”

Skye rubs at her temple in exhaustion. She has a migraine building. “I’d really prefer not to. Otherwise it won’t be long before Coulson finds out and --”

“-- He’s going to find out eventually,” Ward mutters grumpily. “All those specialists poking around.”

“He won’t find out because of Emmy,” Skye is adamant on that, at least. “She knows how important it is to keep quiet.”

“No Avengers, then.” Natasha finishes. “At least, no Avengers actively pursuing any leads at this point. Steve’ll probably have a heart attack with this new Hydra angle.”

Bucky smirks. “Maybe we’d better have Maria close when we debrief him.” Skye groans in frustration and he gives her a reprimanding look. “You’ve got three Avengers involved already, sweetheart. Four, if you count Thor. Cap is gonna want to know what the hell happened today.”

“You have a problem with Captain America?” Ward asks curiously.

Natasha snickers under her breath.

“There may have been... an incident of some kind...” Skye haltingly explains.

“She got totally wasted one night and ran into him in the hallway at the Tower,” Natasha summarizes. “I’ll let you fill in the blanks.”

“Why was I not informed of this?” Tony demands. “Why did no one tell me about this? Traitors, all of you.”

Skye puts her head down on the table with a low moan. “I was having a rough moment, okay?!”

“More like a rough decade,” mutters Bucky, eyebrows raised high.

Ward is caught between looking weirdly jealous and also more than a little intrigued by this slip of hers. “How in the hell did you get drunk? You’re disgustingly responsible these days.”

“Okay first of all, those two Russian spysassin parents of yours got me hammered.”

“... parents?” Ward echoes, distantly horrified. “Of... mine?”

Tony rolls his eyes. “Try to keep up, Cheekbones. In the divorce, Natasha and Barnes got you and I got Skye. It’s really not that difficult.”

“Even though I literally never knew about this,” Ward slowly responds in disbelief.

Secondly,” Skye cuts in, clearly annoyed by the interruption, “They thought it would be hilarious to spin me around three times and then shove me out the door into the hallway just as Steve was coming through.”

This time, it’s Bucky who can’t hide his amusement. “ ‘was pretty hilarious, you have to admit.”

Tony is scrambling through his tablet, trying to track down footage of said event while Natasha inspects her fingernails critically. “You’ll never find it.” She holds out her hand, checking the polish that she’d selected on the way back to base. “Friday and I have an agreement.”

Despite her obvious humiliation and discomfort, Ward can’t help but wonder. “So what happened?”

Skye is attempting to become one with the table, so complete is her embarrassment, so Bucky takes pity on her and finishes the tale.

“Steve is still pretty inept around beautiful women, so he kind of just let Skye ramble on about his --” He cocks his head thoughtfully in her direction, “-- what was it again? Wonderfully proportionate mammouth-sized shoulders and perfect abs?”

“I hate you so much,” Skye mumbles, sliding down in her chair.

Her descent is halted when Ward casually reaches down, gripping her by the waist firmly and dragging her back up to eye level. “I also hate you,” She informs him sourly.

“Now Skye, that’s not what you were saying in that storage closet earlier...”

“Storage closet?” The engineer drops his tablet, attention suddenly diverted. “Did you take advantage of her virtue, Cheekbones?”

“Pretty sure the time has come and gone for that, old man,” mutters Bucky, throwing a sly wink at Natasha.

“More like she took advantage of mine,” Ward cheerfully reports, arm still around her waist, as if daring Skye to deny it.

Skye is flush with mortification but does not deny the statement. “Are we done here?”

Anyway, that’s the story.” Bucky favors them with a decidedly scrutinising look. “What’s the deal with you two? Did you bang in that storage closet or what?”

Tony spews water everywhere.

Natasha raises her eyebrows from where she is tucked safely out of the line of fire, seated on the arm of Bucky’s chair and clears her throat delicately. “What he means to say is that we’re happy you’ve reached an understanding.”

Ward is still gaping at Bucky in shock.

“Our family reunions are literally going to be hell,” Skye moans, laying her head back down on the table.

“Okay, when I said taking advantage of her virtue, I was totally kidding, but if this is a real thing, then I expect a dowry at least --”

“I truly hate you,” Ward mouths silently to Bucky, who is watching the proceedings with a smug grin.

“-- I mean, we’re probably going to have to fold in required appearances at the Tower, and Pepper will want to make sure you come up to scruff in a tux for next month’s gala since we’re obviously going forward with this thing where you’re publicly part of Skye’s family now and --”

“We survived Whitehall 2.0 for this,” she groans, closing her eyes against Tony’s endless chatter.

“We survived,” Ward grips her hand tightly. “But dear god, if I have to listen to much more of this, we may not.”

*

Lara feels quiet.

It makes total sense, she’s totally dreaming right now. Of course she’d feel quiet.

Nothing hurts here.

It’s just that it is almost uncomfortably quiet right now and she kind of wishes something would happen to liven it up a little.

“Hey there, Hurricane.” Ranger stands to her left, grinning expectantly.

She runs into his arms, closing her eyes happily when they fold around her tightly and he spins her in a full circle. “What are you even doing here?”

“Guess it’s a new way to make sure you’re alive and in one piece.”

“Even when we’re both knocked out cold and in totally separate wings of the house?” Lara slides back down to her toes, loving how real it feels in this moment between them.

“Thor said our bond would continue to strengthen.” Ranger shrugs, slinging an arm around her neck and gently leading them over to a soft bench. “You let me in on the roof, so...”

“Yeah,” Lara taps her feet restlessly.

She really doesn’t want to think about the roof right now.

“Okay.” Ranger agrees. “We don’t have to.”

That’s creepy.”

“It wasn’t creepy the first time it happened in that field!”

Lara rises up to her knees so that she can be eye level with him. “We were both fully conscious for that, and also, we had just kissed for the first time.”

He grins wolfishly. “Happy to oblige you on all counts there, Hurricane.”

“Settle down,” she swats an arm out, playfully restraining him.

She doesn’t want their dreamselves making out. It’s weird.

“I mean, it’s really not --”

“Are my parents okay?” Lara asks, desperate for a subject change.

“They seemed to be much better after I locked them in a closet.”

“You what?” She screeches, jaw open in shock.

“As much as I hate to admit it, Thomas might have been right on this one: They needed to jump each other.”

Gross.” Lara looks slightly ill. “Not something I want to think about.”

“The thing is, I think he had a point.” Ranger appears thoughtful, and she’s suddenly struck with an impression of her father watching her mother as they worked together in perfect harmony and the way Ward’s admiration had been laced with something more.

Lara frowns, trying to make sense of the images she’s getting from him. “They were like... a team?”

Strike Team Delta, or so Whitehall called them. When we wake up, I’m definitely going to do some research on that.”

“Let me know what you find,” Lara dully responds.

Ranger looks to her in concern, sensing the abrupt change in mood. “What’s wrong?”

She takes special care to shore up her mental walls, not wanting to let any bit of her fears seep out before she can make sense of them herself. “It’s nothing. I’m fine.”

“You’re lying through your teeth,” Ranger corrects, “And I’m only going letting you get away with it because it’s been a hell of a long day and we’re going to talk about it tomorrow.”

Lara nods silently, curling nearing to him. “Do me a favor?”

“Name it.”

“Just... hang onto me for a while.”

“Until we wake up,” he promises, kissing her forehead. “Not going anywhere.”

*

Lara wakes up feeling like she’s accumulated sixteen thousand tons of dirt on her body. “Ugh,” she complains, pushing up on arms that she is deeply thankful to find, actually hold her this time.

She slides gingerly from bed and moves with embarrassing slowness to the bathroom. Once there, she’s faced with the heart stopping choice between a bath or a shower. Physical limitations aside, she’s not exactly eagar to expose herself to water on any level. Cassie’s mournful face floats into her thoughts and she shivers violently.

“It’s just a shower. You can do some pretty... terrible things,” she tells herself sternly, swallowing hard. “People take showers ever day.”

She can feel Ranger, still sleeping in the back of her mind, start to rouse at her distress.

Lara takes a deep breath, closely knitting together her mental shields so that he can sleep without further disturbance. She turns the water up as hot as it can go and forces herself to get into the shower.

It takes a full five minutes before her entire body can unclench from fear and her throat to stop burning from the scream that’s still trapped inside. Once the worst of it has passed, she scrubs down every bit of dirt and grime from her body with hands that shake more with each pass.

After a brutal ten minutes have passed, she finally allows herself permission to get out.

Her legs shake from adrenaline and god knows what else as she drags herself back to bed and crawls into fresh pajamas. She’s too tired to strip the sheets from the bed, so she throws a heavy blanket down on the bed and climbs on top of it.

She’s out in a matter of seconds.

*

The smells of breakfast waft out into the hall.

Thomas and Kara have been silently eating waffles that they had brought along with them --

 

(“Long story,” Thomas says, shaking his head.

“Not too long,” Kara’s lips curve with deep satisfaction.)

 

-- and Ward had insisted on making pancakes while Skye whipped up a batch of coffee strong enough to wake up the dead.

“Where are the superfriends?” Thomas asks, pushing back from the table, full at last.

“The Avengers,” Skye stresses, delighted to see him twitch at the emphasis, “Left early this morning. They said they expect an invite to the wedding and have already ordered your engagement gift.”

Thomas moans, sliding down in the chair far enough to rest his chin on the table.

Kara reaches over to rub a knuckle against his cheek. “Cheer up. It’s probably like a lifetime supply of that fabulous vodka.”

Ward shakes his head. “You’d better hope that’s all it is.”

Eyes wide with horror, Thomas desperately tries to change the subject. “How’s Lara?” 

“She’s good. Nat administered a smaller dose of that wonder drug she had before they left and said her vitals will be totally back to normal by tomorrow.” Skye carries a huge bowl of berries over to the table, allowing Kara first choice.

“Is she up to visitors yet?” Kara scoops a heaping amount of fruit onto her plate, following it with a healthy squirt of whipped cream. She wiggles her eyebrows suggestively at her fiance.

“Have mercy, woman.” Thomas grumbles, looking exhausted.

She shrugs, popping a raspberry into her mouth.

“We’re going back to check on her in an hour or two,” Ward wisely refrains from commenting on the interlude between his younger brother and Kara. “We’ll keep you posted.”

The conversation comes to a halt as Ranger blearily stumbles into the kitchen, hair sticking up in half a million directions.

Skye takes pity on him, shoving a fresh cup of coffee into his hands and forcibly curling his fingers around it. He closes his eyes in silent gratitude and she grins affectionately, reaching up to ruffle his hair before nudging him into the closest chair.

Ward glances over at them, and she tips her head pointedly until he sets a plate of pancakes in front of his protege.

Ranger slumps over his food and eats slowly, eyes slitted halfway closed.

“You okay there, slugger?” Thomas pokes him in the arm repeatedly.

Ranger doesn’t even respond.

“Leave him alone,” Ward says in warning. “He’s entitled to have slow morning.”

“Afternoon is more like it.” Thomas folds his arms, studying the younger man with visible amusement and a quick glance at the clock. “Never thought I’d live to see the day you didn’t wake up with the sun and kick all of our asses without even trying.”

Ranger clears his throat, glancing wearily at Skye, who correctly interprets that he needs more coffee. He sips slowly, intent on completely ignoring Thomas as he finishes his second cup.

Just when Thomas thinks he’s safe, Ranger kicks lazily at the other man’s chair in such a way that somehow causes the entire chair to fall apart without warning.

Thomas is stunned from where he lies, surrounded by broken chair pieces on the floor.

“I can still kick your ass without trying,” Ranger mumbles, nodding politely to Kara, where her hand is clapped over her mouth in delighted shock.

Skye continues to scroll along her tablet calmly, handing it off to him at the last second before he leaves. “I caught you up on most of the reports from the past two days.”

When Ranger continues to stare at her in disbelief, Ward claps a hand on his protege’s shoulder. “Think of it as a backward apology for how grossly she misjudged you.”

“I can still make your heart stop beating from where I sit,” Skye promises sweetly.

“Nah,” Ward gives her a playful wink, “You restarted it a long time ago and it’s been going ever since. It’d be a shame for you to screw up all that history.”

The statement is loaded with enough that even Thomas doesn’t comment on it.

Still, Skye manages to hold his eye contact until the last second, when she turns her attention back to Ranger. “I added a few notes about Lara in there, too.”

“Thanks,” Ranger tells her, voice slightly hoarse with emotion.

“Thank you for being there for her. We couldn’t have survived yesterday without you.”

The effusive burst of thanks from Skye, of all people, is almost more than he can handle, judging by the wide eyed look he gives her. Ward takes pity on him, and nudges him to the door. “If you’re feeling up for it, I’d love a status report by 2pm.”

Ranger nods wordlessly, eyes still locked on the tablet before he can look at Skye. “She’s everything to me.”

“I get that now,” Skye nods in understanding. “And I couldn’t be prouder of you both.”

From where he is still sprawled on the floor, Thomas makes dying whale noises. “It’s just so beautiful.”

Ward shakes his head, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Get out of here while you still can,” he advises to a suspiciously glassy-eyed Ranger.

Ranger offers a two fingered salute and takes off for the control room.

Skye, Ward and Kara all turn to Thomas in annoyance. He lifts his arms, looking oddly like a turtle, given his current position. “I have had an extremely rough 24 hours,” Thomas begins, in his own defense.

“Poor baby,” Kara croons, standing over him.

He crosses his fingers in a defensive hex. “NO! You -- get away from me! You wore me out this morning!”

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Ward mumbles to Skye, deeply pained. “I am so uncomfortable right now.”

She laughs, tugging his arm. “C’mon. Let’s go see how our Hurricane is doing.”

*

The next time she wakes up, her parents are watching her.

Lara swallows down the reflexive scream that had bubbled up at the sensation of someone watching her. They love you. This isn’t bad. Get a grip.

“You guys couldn’t have at least woken me up to take a shower before you put me to bed?”

It does the trick of breaking the awkwardly tense silence.

Ward snickers. “Sweetheart, you sleep -- and I mean this in the most loving way possible -- like the dead. There was no waking you.”

“Ugh.” Lara rolls her eyes and flicks an annoyed glance at Skye. “What else did you tell him about me?”

Skye noticeably struggles to keep a straight face. “Lara, you’ve been here for several months. Did you really think your father wouldn’t pick up on some of your habits?”

She scowls. “I know you told him stuff. I just can’t prove it yet.”

“We’re your parents,” Ward pointedly reminds. “That’s kind of our job.”

At the sudden mention of his job, Lara sort of retreats back into the pillows, hugging her knees close. “I guess you had a couple of those before I came into the picture, huh?”

“If this is about who we were before you were born,” Skye begins carefully, taking precious effort to keep her voice calm.

“Whitehall said you worked for Hydra! That you were unstoppable. And then, the video and you shot Dad and --”

“Lara.” Ward’s commanding tone cuts through her watery spiel. “Whitehall is Hydra. He wants you to believe the worst.”

“So you’re saying the scars on your chest are a figment of my imagination?  Mom didn’t shoot you?”

Skye winces. “No.”

Lara glares at her mother, and then looks expectantly at Ward as if to say, Well?

“We did work for Hydra. It was an undercover assignment and we had no idea just how deep and twisted it would get.” He meets Skye’s gaze over Lara’s head and reads the regret and nostalgia in them clearly. “And yes. Your mother did shoot me.”

“At the time -- which, for the record, was way before we were working for Hydra -- he deserved it.” Skye defends, raising her eyebrows.

Lara gapes at both of them. “You two are so messed up.”

“Yes,” Ward agrees, latching onto her statement with a firm grip on both of her hands. “We were. But you have to consider that we definitely weren’t in the best part of our lives before you came along. I didn’t have any idea that your mother was pregnant when she left or I’d have fought tooth and nail to keep you around if I did.”

“And what you don’t know,” Skye slowly confesses, “Is that if he had, you would have become a bargaining chip between Hydra and SHIELD and any other powerful organisation that wanted to control us at the time. Which is why I ran, and couldn’t let anyone know the truth.”

“But you let Ranger find us.” Lara is still hazy on the motivation behind this, given her mother’s constantly shifting agenda.

Skye nods. “By then it was too late. Whitehall, though I didn’t know it was him at the time, had found us and I needed help keeping you safe. There was no one else I trusted with that other than your father. It was just a matter of making sure he got to you first.”

Just like like what had happened to Ranger. Her head is spinning as she tries to make sense of her life the past couple of months.

“I thought SHIELD were the good guys?” Lara asks, desperately trying to reconcile this new bit of information with what she’s learned from Whitehall and her own shadowy memories of the past and what she knows of her parents.

Ward sighs in evident frustration. “I’ll let your mother field that one.”

Skye favors him with a particularly scathing look. “If not for SHIELD, we would have never met, and Lara wouldn’t exist right now so I think you can be a little more respectful about --”

“-- What’s she’s trying to say is, we’re probably a little too good as a team. It would have been in SHIELD’s best interests to keep us on their good side, regardless of the cost.” Off Skye’s irritated scoff, he raises his eyebrows. “Am I wrong?”

“It’s complicated.” Skye finally settles with, huffing at him with irritation. “They’re not all bad in SHIELD and Emmy’s parents are still there --”

“-- Probably because Coulson will never let them leave the nest,” Ward mutters grumpily.

“-- Anyway,” Skye pointedly clears her throat. “I left because it was the only way I could keep you safe.”

Lara can hardly breathe around the lump in her throat. “So basically, you’d still be together if it wasn’t for me.”

Ward has to work hard to swallow down the bitter laugh that wants to escape. “That’s what had you running away?”

Lara opens her mouth to fire back at him but is cut off when Skye offers up a lopsided smile. “Oh, my baby girl. No.” She leans forward, cupping Lara’s face in her hands. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to us.”

Her laugh is a broken, shattered thing. “Yeah right.”

“Sweetheart, you didn’t ruin our life together,” Skye tenderly brushes away the tears on her daughter’s cheeks. “You saved it.”

Lara’s jaw drops open. “...What?”

“I’m not saying we’re going to get married or anything,” Skye hastily adds, missing the brief look of hurt on Ward’s face as she focuses on reassuring Lara. “But we’re alive. Our family is intact. That’s beyond anything I ever dared to hope for.”

When Lara glances at her father to see what he has to say on the matter, he lifts his hands briefly in surrender. “I didn’t think I even deserved a family, much less one complete with an amazing daughter who is way more impressive than I could have imagined.” Ward waits until he is certain that she is focused on him before adding, “And we have you to thank for that.”

It’s not an instant fix, but their words are a balm to all the raw, hurting places inside her. Still, Lara rolls her eyes, anxious to break the heavy mood in the room. “Guys I think we both know you provided the necessary DNA and... other stuff to make that happen.”

“You’re a force in your own right,” Skye leans back, eyeing her with no small amount of pride. “There isn’t anyone else I’ve ever seen who can so easily strike fear into your father’s heart.”

Ward closes his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Skye winks cheekily. “...Except for maybe me.”

“Okay, enough. Get out of here,” Lara complains loudly, though she is secretly delighted to see her parents getting along so much better.

“We love you so much.” Skye draws her close for a bone crushingly tight hug, the kind they haven’t had in what seems like forever. “You’re the best part of us. Never forget that.”

Lara’s eyes are watery when Ward leans down, enveloping them both in a quick embrace. “Get some rest,” he orders, voice gruff with emotion. “Your training is going to fall apart if you miss much more of it.”

Lara waits until they’ve pulled away and are walking away before she after them. “You’re treating me like I’m normal. Like nothing happened.”

Skye tenses, likely about to take umbrage with the statement, when Ward puts a restraining hand on her shoulder.

“We’re treating you like the person were always meant to be: our daughter.” Though he is calm, there is no mistaking the seriousness in his voice. “Because that’s exactly who you are.”

This time, Skye has to duck her head against the tears collecting in her eyes, so she doesn’t see the spark of pride enter Lara’s gaze as she smiles widely back at her father in unspeakable gratitude.

“Love you,” Ward winks playfully, before closing the door and trading a mock horrified look at having to deal with a slightly emotional Skye. “Rest.”

This time, the smile stays on her face for a good minute before sliding away as she falls back asleep.

*

Ranger waits until the little tickle in the back of his mind that he’s come to associate as Lara wakes up before making his way to her quarters. He doesn’t tell Ward or Skye where he’s going, takes care to make certain his work is finished for the night and logs off with a serious Do Not Disturb protocol set into place. Unless a nuke is headed for the base, all calls and messages will be held or forwarded to secondary parties until he can attend to it tomorrow.

Tonight is about Lara, and he knows that she’s been holding back with everyone else. 

He won’t let her hold back anymore.

He knocks twice before entering.

Lara is curled into the oversized armchair, sitting in front of a roaring fire. He doesn’t need to be next to her to see the shivers wracking her body and know she’s freezing.

“Hey.” Ranger waits at the threshold until she pulls free from whatever daze she’s in to acknowledge him with a strained smile to walk in and close the door behind him.

Lara closes her eyes when he cups her face in his hand, drawing her up for a brief kiss. “Hey.”

“How are you holding up?” He works on situating himself behind her on the chair, eventually getting so frustrated with the lack of maneuverability that he physically lifts her up and plops her back down on his lap with growl of frustration. “Damn chair is made for tiny smalls.”

When Lara doesn’t so much as crack a grin or rise to the bait, he pauses  carefully. “Sorry, Hurricane. Should have asked you before invading your space like that.”

His fear that his actions may have set her off are what pierce through her bizarre fugue state. She gives him a limp squeeze on the bicep and settles more thoroughly into his arms. “Never apologise for that. You always make me feel safe.”

It’s her wording that tips him off, confirming the suspicions he’s had since the incident on the roof.

“You think you’re dangerous,” Ranger says quietly, as if the statement is too jarring to voice in mixed company; like acknowledging it somehow makes it ten hundred times worse.

“I know I am.”

Ranger nods. He doesn’t say anything.

Lara can only handle the silence for about thirty seconds before she cracks. “What. C’mon, I know you’re dying to talk about this.”

“I agree with you.”

It is clearly the last thing she expected him to say.

“You... do?”

Ranger turns her bodily until she’s got her legs draped over his thighs and is essentially straddling him, so that he can maintain eye contact without interference.

“Um,” Lara laughs nervously at their new position, tensing slightly at his grip until he leans back in the chair with arms wide, allowing her to control the amount of weight she chooses to rest upon him. When she’s finally found a position that feels right -- lightly perched on him more than anything -- she nods fractionally.

For Ranger, despite the way their bodies are interlocked, this isn’t about anything sexual. He needs to be close to her, needs the tactile connection to be certain that she is about to hear him and really listen to what he has to say.

“You’re dangerous.” Ranger agrees. “So am I.” When she opens her mouth to protest, he raises an eyebrow until she glares stubbornly, and remains silent. “I would have burned that compound to the ground if it meant you were alive. Lit the place up like a firestorm, poured kerosene on their bodies and cheerfully watched them burn -- so long as you were safe.”

*

That he doesn’t raise his voice or allow any kind of emotion to bleed into his tone should be chilling -- except there’s a twisted and dark part of her that is shudderingly relieved to hear it.

(There has to be something seriously wrong with her.)

This is not a boy making idle threats.

This is the man her father trained to be every bit as lethal as he was over the years; patiently shaping razor sharp intelligence, meticulously learning the ins and outs of unerring threat assessment and, perhaps most importantly, how to destroy your enemy with the a minimal effort.

Ranger is a Specialist -- a term she vaguely remembers hearing from Kara, or maybe even Emmy, just before she left to go home -- and she’s never been more glad to know it in her life.

“Being dangerous isn’t your problem. We’re all dangerous, if provoked. And you were backed into the worst kind of corner.”

Lara can feel herself growing visibly tenser by the second, poised to spring away like they’re in a full blown brawl, despite the fact that no one has raised their voice or expressed a difference of opinion.

“So why don’t you tell me what you’re really afraid of.”

She’s off him in seconds, standing on wobbling limbs that threaten to buckle until she locks her knees into place, determined to hold her ground.

Though it probably kills him -- she knows he wants nothing more than to wrap her up in his arms and soothe her back into peace -- Ranger stays seated, leaning forward slightly to rest his elbows on his knees, hands dangling free as if to signal that he is no threat to her.

“You didn’t hear what Whitehall said to me,” Lara turns her back, staring at the flickering flames in the fireplace.

“No, I was a little busy knocking some heads together at the time,” he dryly admits, winking when she spins around to shoot him a glare.

The moment is temporarily lightened for it, and this time she stays facing him.

“He said there’s darkness in this family.” Her gaze is somber and her tone devoid of any hint of dramatics or fanfare. There’s a slight tremor to her hands until she folds her arms as if to hide the weakness from view, tucking them out of sight. “When I... killed those men on the roof, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make. Like you said -- I had no choice. It was them or us. Everyone I loved. No contest.”

Ranger doesn’t even flinch. “You’re scared because you think it should have bothered you more. And it doesn’t.”

“I just feel empty.” Lara ceases her pacing, horrified. “What kind of a monster does that make me?”

And Ranger doesn’t tell her that she isn’t a monster.

He doesn’t deny the claim or try to minimise her reaction in any way. He stands up, walking over to her slowly, and lets her come the final steps into his personal space. He waits until she’s stopped shaking, and can bury her face against his chest without any prompting.

“The kind,” he drops his head, kissing her temple, then her both of her eyes, where tears are slowly leaking out, until he finally leaves a lingering kiss on her lips. “Who protects the people she loves at any cost. The kind I am both proud and honored to be with.”

“But how --” Lara rears back, disbelief etched on her face.

“Do you really think that there’s anything you could do that I wouldn’t support or condone? Any action you could take where I wouldn’t be right there with you, fighting every damn step of the way?” Ranger laughs shortly, dropping his forehead to rest against hers. “Lara. You’re stuck with me. Bondmates for life, remember?”

And that’s all it takes to break the dam.

Lara collapses into his arms, crying so hard she can barely draw breath, shaking so badly that she nearly takes them both down until Ranger readjusts his grip and seats them on the floor with his back against the wall.

“It feels like I don’t know who I am any more,” she cries, and it’s like her heart is somehow disconnected from the rest of her but everything still hurts and it’s too loud and bright and so damn much.

“I know who you are. I love you,” he vows, tightening his arms around her protectively. “That means I will never let anything happen to you. You will always be safe with me.”

Her entire body goes limp with near-suffocating relief and Lara doesn’t even fight it when he carries her back to bed, only surfacing long enough to grab his arm when he moves to take the seat next to the bed.

“Lara?” He’s puzzled. “I’m right here.”

She shakes her head. With intense effort, she lowers the barriers on her mental shields, allowing her thoughts to flood him at last.

Hold onto me and don’t let go. I can’t lose all my pieces again. I’m so scared they’ll never come back.

Ranger takes a deep breath, looking into her eyes to make sure she’s okay with this.

“There’s no one else I trust to hold me together,” Lara quietly tells him, tugging him into bed next to her.

“Just to be clear,” he shifts, getting comfortable, “We’re sleeping. That’s it. You need to rest.”

Lara immediately swarms her limbs around him, sighing contentedly. “I’m a really intense snuggler,” she informs him. “Probably won’t have any control where my hands wander during the night.”

Ranger casts his eyes to the ceiling and mentally recites baseball statistics. “If your father kills me, you’re going to regret being handsy.”

“I would never regret being handsy with you.” She tucks her head into the crook of his neck, pressing a kiss to the underside of his jaw. “Hey. By the way?”

“Yeah?” He whispers, gradually relaxing into the bed.

“I love you too.” Her smile is brilliant.

And this time when she leans up to kiss him, Ranger tips his head to meet her.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

| every single lara au headcanon UNDER THE SUN | thomaskara first meeting (lara au prequel) | lara au meta |


image

 

(art by @direwolfees)

*

It’s official.

She’s been tossing around for the nearly an hour and she can’t sleep.

It has nothing to do with the bed being comfortable enough or the room being so damn perfect (never let it be said that Grant Ward does anything halfway), but every instinct in her body is calling for her to get up and move. To do something. To check on Lara.

Skye heaves her legs over the side, reaching for a long black robe that looks suspiciously similar to the one she had at their apartment when she and Ward worked for Hydra. She checks the label. The designer is the same.

“Interfering jackass,” she rolls her eyes, looping the belt around her waist securely. “Determined to make me relive history if he has to drag me, kicking and screaming.”

She thinks about going to Ward’s bedroom just to see if he’s still awake, to have someone to talk to, but that seems a little too forward, even considering the state of their current... non-relationship. 

She makes her way to the other wing, not realising that she is headed for her daughter’s room until she arrives, only to find that she’s not alone.

Ward is sitting in an armchair outside of Lara’s room, like a sentinel faithfully keeping watch. Somehow it makes total sense that they would both be in the same exact place after years of working so hard to ensure that it never happened.

(Somewhere, the Universe is laughing at her.)

“Thought I’d find you here.”

He lifts his head to look at her directly.

Skye watches the transformation in his eyes as it takes a couple seconds for her to fully register and for him to not just look through her like she’s a threat  needing containment. It makes sense, his being on high alert. He never liked to leave the things he cared about the most unprotected. If there was something he could do, some angle he could work or exit to defend -- he would do it, no questions asked, regardless of the cost to his personal health.

Of course it is no different now that it involves their daughter.

“Seemed like a good idea at the time.” His voice is strained, the way it used to get when he would second guess his every decision. 

“Ward.” Skye exhales slowly. “Stop.”

He frowns. “Stop what?”

“Stop thinking about all the ways today could have gone wrong and try to focus on the fact that we have her back safe and sound. She’s in one piece.”

Ward scowls darkly. “Did you suddenly develop the ability to read minds over the past few years?”

Skye’s lips quirk into a half smile. “Welcome to parenthood, dummy. That’s how this works.”

The half choked laugh that escapes him is one of the saddest things she’s ever heard. “...I’m never letting her out of the house again.” 

“I’ve heard that one before.” She tips her head back against the door, a tiny smile playing at her lips. “It’s usually followed by slammed doors and a sudden thunderstorm.”

“You can’t blame the girl for wanting to express herself,” Ward says, brushing aside the censure in her tone and utterly unable to keep the pride out of his.

Skye turns to look at him knowingly. “You say that now, but try being the one caught in the heart of Midtown during rush hour while stuck in a damn monsoon.”

The mental image that creates is all too clear.

“Ah.” 

Yeah.”

The silence between them grows comfortably and Skye feels her mind start to drift pleasantly. Apparently she feels comfortable enough to let down her guard because the next thing she knows, words are coming out of her mouth that she definitely didn’t authorize. “Thanks for the robe.”

“Remind me where I’ve seen that again?” Ward taps his lip contemplatively. “It’s the strangest thing.”

“Okay, moment over.” She rolls her eyes. “Get up, robot. You owe me a drink.”

The teasing expression clears from his face and gives way to something much more sincere and warm. “I guess I do, don’t I?” He lingers by the chair, clearly not wanting to leave Lara, even in sleep.

“C’mon. She’ll be fine.”

“Can you...” He lifts his eyebrows at the door expectantly. “You know.”

She rolls her eyes. “You’re being ridiculous.”

“It would make me feel better,” Ward quietly admits, and she can’t help but privately agree with him.

Skye glances at the closed doors, stumbling slightly when she detects two heartbeats inside. She narrows her gaze in concentration, easily picking up the rapid hummingbird-like beat that has been Lara’s ever since she was a baby. The second heartbeat is just seconds behind, but keeps steady pace right next to her.

Of course. Ranger.

Ward, of course, notices immediately. “What is it?” 

Dammit.

“Nothing!” She slips her hand into his, tangling their fingers together, smiling brightly. “I’m just thirsty.” He looks about ready to call her bluff when she tugs on his hand firmly. “Or are you afraid I’m going to drink you under the table?”

Ward scoffs. “I have several inches and more than a few pounds on you, Skye.”

“Ah, but I’ve been drinking with your Russian parents...” She says teasingly, walking backward to keep her eyes locked on him. “I’m tougher than I look.”

A speculative gleam enters his eye. “Care to make a wager on it?”

She smiles slowly, the satisfaction curling outward until it lights up her entire face. “Bring it on.”

*

When Ward brings her to his office and not his bedroom, she tells herself that she is relieved, and not even a little bit disappointed.

He stands just inside the door, as if trying to visualise what will give him the greater advantage in this situation and she shakes her head.

Same old Ward.

Skye lifts two fingers to the large armchair against the wall and hums with contentment as it vibrates gently over to where they stand. Off his smirking look, she rolls her eyes. “Shut up. It’s been a long day, I’m tired.”

“I still remember the first time you did that. You were so proud.”

“I was not.” Now she’s the one scowling as she hunts through the bar for a bottle of something strong. The vodka seems to have gone suspiciously missing -- thanks a lot, Bucky and Natasha -- so she’ll have to settle for tequila.

Skye deliberately ignores the mental warning bells that sound, trying to alert her that tequila is a terrible idea.

Ward snickers at her when she turns back around, presenting her with a shot glass. “You were so. There was a new skill in your wheelhouse to show off; one I hadn’t taught you. Couldn’t wait to see how I would react.”

“That is an outright lie, I was not ‘showing off’,” she sniffs disdainfully. The memory of that day comes shining through and she vividly recalls demonstrating her new abilities to him with pride. His jaw dropping open had been extremely gratifying and quipped response had made her heart sing with relief from the happiness of being instantly accepted. “But I guess you didn’t totally fail on that front.”

He grins softly, pouring a glass of amber liquor. “You were amazing with all of the,” he gestures expansively, imitating her movements and somehow carefully managing not to spill a drop. “But I’ve always been a sucker for the rookie trainee who couldn’t figure out how to shoot without saying ‘bang’ first.”

Skye swallows past the lump in her throat. “Careful there, Ward. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were trying to put the moves on me.”

A cocky smirk appears on his face. “Well, I realise I’m no Captain America, but it has been a bit of a dry spell for you, at least according to Bucky, and I --”

“-- Oh screw you --”

“-- wanted to offer myself as tribute.” He winks over the rim of his scotch.

“Whatever.” Skye settles herself back into the cushion, gesturing widely with her tiny shot glass of tequila. “I don’t know what the hell you’re so smug about. It’s not like you’re beating them off with a stick.”

The grin spreads obscenely across Ward’s face. “Have you been keeping tabs on me, Skye?”

“As if.”

“You know, I’d swear there’s a hint of jealousy in that tone.”

She scoffs disdainfully. “Clearly you’ve gone soft in your old age -- not only was I not even remotely jealous -- but someone had to make sure you didn’t die before you finally got around to meeting your daughter.”

The reminder, despite being said half jokingly, serves to break up the teasing moment between them.

Skye tilts her head back, downing her shot quickly to hide the emotion in her eyes. There are too many things bubbling to the surface right now and timing is running out. She has to tell him everything before it is too late.

Skye deliberately places the glass before him with a distinct click. “Another.”

Ward opens his mouth as if to argue.

“Now.”

And he tips out the tequila without further comment.

*

Kara is sorting through her mail from the past two weeks that had been collected by one of the higher level field agents on their way back home. There is more junk than she cares to acknowledge.

“So it says here that by now, we should have a headcount for the bridal party and also know what kind of flowers you want,” Thomas announces, semi-distractedly as he continues to read “How to Plan Your Wedding for Dummies.” Except he’d crossed out ‘Dummies’ and written Hotties instead.

“I don’t... particularly like flowers?” She tosses another piece of junk mail to the growing bin at the foot of the bed, lips quirking up when it clears the rim neatly.

“Don’t have you to hold something as you walk down the aisle though?” Thomas sounds fairly certain about this.

She puts a hand on his cheek, tilting his face to meet her with a brief kiss. “I’ll carry my gun.”

“Haha babe, very funny.”

Kara -- who is in the midst of systematically feeding the binned mail into the shredder -- shrugs briefly. “I wasn’t kidding.”

Thomas rolls his eyes sharply and makes several notes in the margin of the book. “Who’s your maid of honor?”

“Do we have to do this right now?”

“Would you rather focus on the insanity that was our life a few days ago?”

He’s never pushed her this hard to talk about something she didn’t want to.

(Who is she kidding? It’s Thomas. He wouldn’t know a boundary if it came and bit him in the ass. He’s usually waving at boundary lines while he streaks naked across them.)

God help her.

She narrows her eyes at him. “Is this some weird kind of holdover because you’re still in charge with the whole Rose Protocol thing?”

He swears loudly. “I have got to get my brother to change that back.”

Satisfied that he has been sufficiently distracted, Kara continues to destroy the rest of her mail.

“You could have that forwarded here, you know. Instead of having to pick it up every couple of weeks.”

She puts the last two envelopes into the shredder very deliberately. “And miss out on all the stress relief I get from watching my junk mail get pulverized? Nah.”

Thomas grins crookedly. “You’re a twisty one, Palamas. But I love that about you.”

He won’t come out and tell her she’s being ridiculous but she feels like maybe this is one of those things that he somehow might, possibly, be onto.

He’s going to be the death of her, she just knows it.

She really ought to thank him somehow for making her life simultaneously better and eleventeen billion times more exasperating.

“Hey Thomas,” Kara whispers, dropping onto the bed on all fours, delighted to watch as his eyes widen appreciatively. “I’m a sure bet. You don’t have to sweet talk me anymore.”

“Listen, just because you’re a little gun shy when it comes to minor life decisions,” Thomas reaches for her, easily tugging her upwards until he’s got her held snugly against him, “Because they seem to you like major declarations of love and that makes you seriously uncomfortable...”

Kara rolls her eyes and half-heartedly attempts to break free of his hold. “Whatever,” she scoffs.

“...Doesn’t mean that romance is dead.” He kisses her firmly. “I’m gonna sweet talk you as much as I want and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“Blergh,” she grumbles, tilting her face away so that he can’t kiss her again.

Thomas, ever the opportunist, seizes the moment to lavish affection on the side of her neck. “Face it, babe. You’re stuck with me and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Kara sighs gustily. “Well, I suppose if I have absolutely no recourse...” She turns her head to intercept the next kiss, lingering until they are both breathing a little heavier. “I guess you’ll have to make it worth my while.”

“Tell me who your maid of honor is...” He grins, whipping the shirt off his head and reaching for hers, “And I absolutely will.”

“You idiot,” she murmurs affectionately, sliding a hand into his hair. “I guess I should be glad that at least one of us is going to plan this wedding.”

“All you have to do is show up,” he promises, kissing his way down her torso.

“I suppose I can manage that.” Kara curls her free arm behind her head, content to watch him work.

“But for right now... I’d hold on to something if I were you.” Thomas wiggles his eyebrows suggestively.

And she knows that he isn’t going to push her this time.

Even though he’s right. Even though they’re getting married, for god’s sake, and she refuses to name who her maid of honor will be because that makes it so much more real. Which is ridiculous, because the last time she checked, she was an adult.

Kara heaves an internal sigh, hoping she doesn’t regret this and her expression softens ever so slightly. “I’ll get the mail changed over tomorrow.”

Thomas whoops loudly and pounces on her immediately.

*

A soft snore startles him awake.

Ward blames the scotch for allowing his guard to drop so much that he’d fallen asleep. How much had he had again?

When Skye doesn’t say anything, he looks over to find her half sprawled out of the chair, sliding ever so slowly to the floor. She’s just about completely down for the count.

“Lightweight,” he murmurs softly, carefully getting to his feet and valiantly trying to block out the way the room spins. He manages to stagger over to her, and gets her half in his arms when she rouses.

“Ward?” She presses her forehead into the curve of his neck. “What’s -- ?”

“Shhh.” Ward only has enough coordination to stagger over to the couch, and does his best to lay her out on it in a way that won’t have every muscle in her body screaming for pain come morning. “Go back to sleep.”

“ s’ Lara?” She mumbles, holding onto his arm tightly as he tries to back away.

“She’s fine. She’s asleep.” He’s got on arm braced on the top of the couch and the other pinned down by her shoulder. “You should do the same.”

“Stay.” Eyes still closed, Skye tugs him down with a surprising burst of strength.

Ooof.” It takes all of his coordination and considerable skill to make sure he lands on the side of her and not crushing her entirely.

Ward gingerly puts an arm around her, slightly gratified when she rolls closer, tucking her head under his chin. He’s just about nodded off again when Skye kicks without warning, knocking him off the couch.

From his new location on the floor, he stares up at the ceiling and blinks slowly. “I have done nothing in my life to ever deserve this.”

Skye snores again.

Ward flings an arm over his head in an attempt to drown out all noise and movement. “This is how it ends.”

*

Morning comes swiftly and without restraint.

There is a tiny but extremely violent marching band wreaking havoc in her head.

“Oh, god.” Skye feels like her skull is going to roll off her shoulders and shatter into ten thousand tiny pieces. “How much did we have?”

“I don’t know,” Ward groans from where he is still sprawled out on the floor. “But I’m definitely too damn old to be sleeping anywhere besides a bed.”

Skye goes completely still. “There’s a joke just waiting to be made right now but I want it noted that I am taking the high road.”

“You’re not taking the high road,” he gingerly gets to his feet, walking like a drunk man over to the stability and safety of his desk. “You’re just too hungover to make two braincells connect long enough for a joke to happen.”

Her eyes narrow into slits. “If the thought of opening those blinds didn’t make me want to puke right now, I’d shake them free from the windows and direct all that sunshine into your face.”

“You can’t even move.” Ward tosses back four ibuprofen and, because he is a far kinder person than she ever will be, gently rolls the bottle across the floor until she can reach it. “Just sit there quietly and wait for the drugs to kick in.”

“I want Natasha’s hangover pills,” Skye moans, flinging a hand over her eyes. “I’m too old for this.”

Amen.” Ward gently lays his head down on his desk. “No more drinking contests.”

“Truce,” she weakly agrees, wishing that the room would stop spinning.

*

Still half dozing, Lara rolls over and stretches, yelping when something sharp pokes her in the shoulder. It is not the strongly muscled forearm she’d been hoping for.

“You are not my boyfriend,” she glares at the offending piece of paper. She has to squint a few times to get her brain to wake up and make sense of the words scribbled on it.

 

hey hurricane.

sorry i had to leave before you woke up.

you were out like a light when i kissed you goodbye earlier and i figured it was best to make sure your father didn’t kill me when he saw me sneaking out of your room this morning -- so i’m headed to erase the cameras.

i’ll be tied up working on a pretty important project for most of the day, but you know how to find me if you need me.

also: kudos on surviving yesterday. today is a new day. you’re gonna make it through this one too, i promise. and to start, there’s coffee downstairs.

i love you.

-r.

ps: did you know you snore? it’s kind of cute.

pss: maybe reach out to emmy if you have a chance. might keep your mind off things. 

 

He is entirely too high-handed and well meaning for his own good and Lara kind of wants to hate him for his know-it-all attitude except there’s the pesky fact that she pretty much loves every bit of it (and him).

“Coffee.” She closes her eyes again, dreaming of the life-changing beverage. “If only I could teleport right now.”

*

"If we can get to the kitchen, someone will have definitely made coffee,” Ward lays out the objective as carefully as he can, considering that his eyes are still closed. “There are some ground rules in this house. We just have to make it there in one piece.”

Skye turns around, literally turning her face into the corner of the blessedly dark office. “That’s suicide.”

“Not if we don’t die,” Ward grimly promises, opening the door into the hall. “C’mon.”

She staggers out after him and decides that she probably should take point on this one, given how he keeps weaving dangerously instead of walking in a straight line.

They’re almost to the building main when they are intercepted.

“Well, well, well.” Thomas cackles gleefully. “Look what we have here.”

“It’s not what you think,” Skye manages to protest, shading a hand over her eyes in visible distress at the natural daylight streaming through the windows.

Kara carefully observes Ward to see if he will back up her claim, but he’s just blinking deliberately -- which Thomas takes as a confirmation, clapping his brother on the shoulder and whooping loudly. “Way to go!”

“I’m sorry in advance,” Skye mumbles to her, giving no further warning before she suddenly flings open her palm, causing Thomas to wobble alarmingly and ultimately fall to the ground in a tumble of limbs.

Kara stares at him for a minute, clearly putting the pieces together, then offers up the mug of coffee in her hands without a word.

“Oh god. Thank you.” Skye praises her fervently. “My firstborn is yours.”

“Pretty sure she’s already spoken for,” Kara wryly responds, flickering her gaze back to where Ward is still struggling to lean casually against the wall.

“Damn straight,” he offers a lazy salute, eyes closed as if in pain.

“Ah, well.” Skye hums in approval, sipping gratefully. She absently hands the coffee over to Ward, who takes it with extreme gratitude.

“It’s fine. I’ll take the next one.” Kara smiles brightly.

Ward instantly starts choking, reaching out blindly for Skye, only to connect with a still wobbling Thomas instead. They both go down.

Skye cracks one eye open to stare at the two brothers from where they are tangled in a heap on the ground. “No chill to be found.”

“Not even an ounce,” Kara agrees, linking arms with her. “So I’m thinking I hate the idea of flowers for the wedding. Is that crazy?”

Skye hums in approval, sipping gratefully. “Flowers are kind of overdone. Why don’t you just carry your gun?”

“That’s what I said!”

Thomas moans loudly as if suddenly dying. “Are you kidding me right now?” Ward elbows him as he awkwardly attempts to stand. “Sweet lord you weigh a fricking ton and you had more natural grace when you were a gangly teenager.”

“Whoops.” Ward deadpans, letting his hand accidentally smush up into his brother’s nose painfully.

“Get off of me,” he wheezes, rolling to the side. “God how can you still be this obnoxious when you’ve had enough liquor to stock a small bar?”

“So much liquor,” Ward agrees mournfully, finally managing to prop himself against the wall. “So much.”

“Anyway, I was looking at other options and...” Kara’s voice trails off as she rounds the corner with Skye, leaving the two brothers staring at each other in the hallway.

Ward slowly begins to follow.

“Are you just going to leave me like this?” Thomas groans, gingerly testing his limbs for additional damage.

“You were the one who thought it was smart to piss off a hungover Skye.” Ward reprimands, finally offering him a hand up.

You were the one just standing there all quiet and not denying any of it!”

“I have found,” Ward begins loftily, “When it comes to that woman, it’s best to let her decide what kind of path she wants to take.”

Thomas is silent for a full ten seconds before he busts out in hysterical laughter. “Who are you and what have you done to my brother? You never stopped looking for her.” He shakes his head, mumbling softly, “ ‘Let her decide what kind of path she wants to take,’ my ass.”

“I may be hungover but I can still kick your ass,” he warns, looking slightly more awake now that the coffee has begun to kick in.

“I’d like to see you try,” Thomas mumbles, just barely managing to sidestep the leg Ward sweeps out in a feeble attempt to trip him. “Jeez, you’re pathetic.” He claps a firm hand on his brother’s shoulder and steers him firmly down the hall.

They are almost to the kitchen when Ward stops abruptly, looking almost nervous.

“What?” Thomas glances at him expectantly. “I’m hungry, man. Breakfast calls.” Then he looks alarmed. “You’re not going to puke, are you? These shoes are new.”

“I’m not going to throw up.” Ward passes over the hipster shoes in question without comment and a look of distaste. “I was just thinking of asking Lara to take my name. If it’s okay with Skye, that is. It would mean a lot -- to both of us, I think.”

The hopeful excitement is practically radiating from the older man while he waits for Thomas’s approval.

“It’s about damn time.” Thomas clears his throat but his voice is still choked with feeling. Off his older brother’s quickly banked look of happiness, he boldy continues, “All those years ago, when you were busy self-destructing? This is what I hoped for you.”

He stares at his hands, attempting to regain his composure though he is rocked to the core by the revelation. “Thank you,” says Ward, hoarsely.  “I’ll never be able to thank you enough, but --”

“-- Make me pancakes and we’ll call it even.” When Ward’s face turns a decided shade of green, Thomas hastily amends, “You know what? On second thought, let’s save it for another time when you’re not feeling so wasted.”

*

Ranger leaves her another note by her coffee mug (the one that reads I woke up like this that he’d gotten her not long after her arrival) telling her to eat breakfast.

Lara can’t really think beyond the pit that keeps growing in her stomach when she thinks about what kind of power she now has at her disposal and, without his consuming presence to distract her, is less inclined to ingest anything for fear that it will simply come back up.

An incoming message chirps on her phone. [ EAT something, hurricane. ]

[ stop being such a creep and maybe i will. ] she writes back, a slight grin appearing on her face.

[ don’t think i won’t abandon this to make sure you’re eating. ]

Before she can ask him what he’s working on, she gets a quick impression of paperwork and open windows full of maps of... was that Italy? Something about her parents?

Then he shuts down the connection before she can see anything else. [ don’t spy, it’s impolite. ]

“Says the spy,” Lara snorts, grabbing an protein shake before he really does come to hunt her down.

She hears voices from down the hall and ducks into a side stairwell to avoid running into anyone. Lara takes in her new surroundings and sighs heavily. She has no idea where she is.

Her phone chirps again and it’s Ranger (of course), with a map and three highlighted routes (to the gym, her room, or the roof) from her current location.

[ You’re being impolite ] she sends back, knowing he’ll be able to sense the fond warmth associated with her feelings for him.

[ Just keeping an eye on my girl. ] He’s quick to respond before leaving her to her solitude.

He doesn’t crowd her -- just gives her enough space to keep her feeling safe without backing off. Somehow he knows exactly how much she can tolerate.

Lara brings her mental shields in close and heads for the roof. Maybe it’s time she checked in on Emmy to see if she’s finally settled back in at home. She could use a break from all this heavy crap rolling around in her mind and the younger girl is good for a distraction.

Her access codes are still active and she pushes through the heavy door with relief. It feels good to be outside again.

Because Ranger is somewhat of a technology god, her phone has the same upgraded programming as the rest of the Specialist team; she can send and receive calls with the kind of scrambling that the Pentagon couldn’t even crack. She scrolls through the coded phone list until she lands on Mad Science and presses send.

It takes a few rings before it connects and Lara belatedly wonders what time it is in Emmy’s neck of the woods, wherever that may be. Ranger could probably find out, that is, if he doesn’t know already.

“Oh my gosh,” Emmy’s voice is hushed and she sounds slightly out of breath. “Just give me one second...”

Something clatters loudly on the other end, followed by two more things that crash loudly to the ground.

Despite her lingering sadness, Lara feels the beginnings of a smile coming on. “This a bad time?”

“No!” Emmy inhales deeply, mumbling under her breath, “At least, it wouldn’t be if I didn’t live with a bunch of nosy spies.”

“I have a couple of those in my life,” Lara hitches a leg over the side of the roof, letting it dangle free. “Total pain in the ass.”

Warming to the topic now, the other girl ramps up her tempo. “Aunt Bobbi just keeps watching me with those eyes of hers and I swear she just knows something is up. Like, I’m obviously never going to say anything, but it would be nice to walk into dinner without feeling like I’m walking into an interrogation.” 

“So you’re saying that you’ve been acting like even more of a spaz than usual,” Lara surmises, feeling a laugh coming on.

“I most certainly have not!” Emmy is indignant.

“Riiight.”

And dammit, Ranger was right. It feels good to be teasing her like this.

“So there was a major meteorological disturbance around your area a few days ago...” Emmy sounds excited about the prospect and Lara can’t stifle the heavily exhausted sigh that slips out. “... or not?” There is no mistaking the sudden wariness in her tone.

“Yeah, so...” Lara trails off, closing her eyes and tipping her head back against the sloping roof.

She moves until she’s safely tucked against one of the eaves on the roof. How does she tell her young friend that she’s unable to sit in one place long enough to catch her breath unless she’s outside, without any kind of wall to hem her in? That when she closes her eyes, all she sees is the white hot flare of lightning before it struck the men and women who wanted to kill the people she loved most and she can’t shake the chill running through her blood because she knows she should be more remorseful but instead she is --  sickeningly, blessedly -- grateful.

“...Lara?” She sounds apologetic. “We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t --”

“-- That was me.”

Seconds of dead air fill the line until Lara becomes vaguely concerned that one of Ranger’s near-perfect pieces of technology actually may have failed. She pulls the phone away, noting the full signal strength and shrugs.

“The energy manifested from that was... only matched by the power of Thor. I measured it, so I would know.” Emmy swallows audibly. “You guys were like, training or something, right?”

“No.” Lara badly wants for the lump in her throat to disappear but it won’t. It just grows until she doesn’t think she can speak around it.

“Incredible,” Emmy whispers quietly.

Lara’s not sure if she’s meant to hear it but the awe and curiosity bleeding through Emmy’s voice makes her want to scream.

She is not a person who should be awed or looked up to. She is a mess. She is a live wire of destruction and she --

Lara blinks hard against the rain that is suddenly lashing against her face.

She’s using her abilities and she doesn’t even remember summoning them in the first place. This is bad.

“I gotta go,” she hoarsely says to Emmy, not sure if it’s just rain or tears mixed in with the wetness on her cheeks. “Be cool, Em.”

Lara terminates the call before the other girl can protest or make any excuses to drag it out further.

She has to get a grip.

*

Ward strolls into his office only to find it already occupied. Skye is curled up on the same couch where she’d fallen asleep last night, diligently intent on repairing the cowl in her hands.

“Didn’t realise we had an appointment.” He kicks back to lean against the bookcase. Rare are the moments when the woman in front of him remains in one place -- and rarer still are the times where she deigns to relax fully in his presence, even with their extended history.

Skye rolls her eyes, keeping focused on the needle as it slides in and out, pulling the leather taut once again. “Didn’t realise I needed one to get some peace and quiet in this place.”

He ducks his head, smiling privately that she felt comfortable enough to come back to his office when seeking sanctuary. A couple hundred rooms in the compound and she came here. “I remember when you used to take better care of that thing.”

“It’s hardly my fault your daughter inherited your destructive tendencies.”

“Oh, so she’s my daughter when she’s destructive with her gear?”

“Well, you do have a tendency to set things on fire.” The sharp look Skye aims in his direction is enough to make his throat dry.

He scoffs, recovering nicely. “You and I both know that I kept my tac gear in great shape. I still do.”

Skye mumbles something under her breath that sounds suspiciously like Amen.

“It’s about time you started taking better care of yours, though.”

With a heavy sigh, Skye tosses the cowl aside and gives him her full consideration. “You’re going to be annoying until you get what you want, so spit it out already.”

“If I’d known it was this easy to get your attention --”

“-- Ward,” Skye warns, eyebrow raised impatiently. The shelves rattle ominously.

He can’t think of any way to say it other than to just say it: “I want Lara to have my name.”

Skye’s jaw drops open.

“I mean --”

“Stop.” She clears her throat, holding a hand to forestall any further explanation. “It’s fine. I get it.” Somehow the words don’t match the bruised sadness in her eyes.

“Skye?” He can’t imagine why this would bother her so much other than the painful reminder of the identity she created to keep them safe. Shedding that should be cathartic for Lara, right?

Skye gives him a bright smile. “C’mon, Ward. It’s not like I was ever particularly attached to ‘Johnson.’ We both know I don’t have the fondest memories of Cal, and it was just common enough to make it difficult to track.”

Something doesn’t add up.

He’s a little out of practice but Ward can still read through the brittle forced cheer and hollowed out look on her face. “I don’t have to ask. She’s practically of age and --”

“-- No, you should.” She clears her throat. “Lara will be thrilled.”

He hmms noncommittally. From the desk, Ward engages the door and window locks, drawing Skye’s notice and watching as it changes from the bizarre melancholy he can’t figure out to the fiery temper he’s well used to.

Much better.

“What the hell?” She stands up, marching over to him. “If you really think that some pathetic lock is going to keep me in here, then --”

“Skye.” He gently puts both hands on her shoulders, holding her in place. The world seems to slow down around them. Ward looks at her expectantly, daring her to keep his gaze, slightly mollified when her chin tips up in response to his unspoken challenge.

“Why are you upset?” He keeps his voice low and calm, not wanting to spook her. Not this time. When she opens her mouth to blast him, he raises an eyebrow expectantly. “And don’t tell me it’s about the locks, because both we know that’s not true.”

She takes a deep breath, squaring her shoulders and forcing him to drop his grip. “I just thought this would turn out differently, that’s all.”

“You’re lying.”

Skye doesn’t even flinch at his verbal gauntlet, boldly keeping eye contact. “Believe it or not, I’m telling the truth right now.”

The intercom beeps loudly, signaling an incoming priority call.

After two subsequent beeps, Skye tilts her head at the phone. “Aren’t you going to get that?”

Ward shakes his head. “Not if it means you walk out of here upset.”

She exhales softly, a look of incredulity on her face. “Fatherhood has changed you.”

Skye....”

“You really are a good man.” She leans up on her toes, kissing him on the cheek softly. And despite their history and as physically close as they’ve been in times past -- somehow the gesture is heartbreakingly intimate. “Ask her. She’ll say yes.” Skye softly responds, before dropping down to her feet and walking to the door. She is quick to pick up the repaired cowl on the way out.

Ward disengages the locks before she turns the knob and stares after the closed door for several minutes. “You changed me.”

He drops into the chair behind his desk, sighing heavily and reaching for the morning report. He is in no mood for calls now. Something is not right.

*

Skye is on the way to her room when her phone rings. She contemplates ignoring it when the ringer abruptly switches over from the generic ring to ACDC’s Back in Black and she laughs, ducking into the closest unlocked room. “Thanks for hacking my replacement replacement phone, Tony.”

“Miss me?”

“Not a chance.”

“Then why does it sound like you’re crying?”

Skye automatically began to protest otherwise and then stopped dead in her tracks. “Are you watching the video feeds?”

“No, but that is an excellent idea!” Tony sounds delighted with the new project. “What kind of encryption do you think Ranger the wonderkid is running because I think --”

“-- Ward’s going to ask Lara to take his name.”

“... that you are not dealing with this well at all.” There is an extended pause. “You’re upset.”

“I’m not upset! Why does everyone keep saying that?”

Skye.” Tony sounds like he’s talking underwater, which probably means he stuck his head in the nearest machine to start fiddling around with it in an attempt to distance himself from how uncomfortable this conversation is making him. “I don’t do emotions but even I know that you’re upset.”

She slides down the back of the door until she hits the ground. “I just...”

“Wish it could be you.”

“What? No. No!”

“Skye, c’mon. When you were puking from the morning sickness and hopped up on pregnancy hormones, who did you want most?”

“...I’m not going to answer that.”

Cheekbones. I mean, we threw you at Captain America and you didn’t bite. ...Although Natasha was surprisingly good at managing to stay puke free while holding back your hair at the same time, which is, quite frankly, beyond me --”

“This conversation is over --”

“-- Look. If there was no Hydra and you’d never had to go on the run, you guys  would have shacked up somewhere, popped out a couple of kids, and died like, fifty years from now, old and happy.”

Skye presses the back of her hand to her mouth to keep the sob from escaping.

“But that isn’t what happened. You don’t have a perfect little nuclear family. You have a nuclear bomb.”

The mental picture, though brutal, is not without merit.

She blinks, tears suddenly gone. “...Your metaphors really need work.”

“Noted.” Tony takes the reprimand in stride. “But you know I’m right.”

“That doesn’t change the fact that we still have all this crap between us.”

He groans loudly. “Just put your damn heart on the line. Tell him how you feel, once and for all. It’s painfully obvious to the rest of us and something tells me you’re going to need him more than ever the next few months.”

The sobering remind of Lara’s newly awakened abilities hangs heavily between in the silence on the call, reminding Skye of the weighty decisions and compromises she’s had to make. “Yeah.”

“It’s time to suit up, sweetheart. Pretty safe bet he catches you, especially considering he never stopped looking for you after all these years. I mean, have I ever told you about the relentless programming alone I had to do, trying to keep him off your tail, not to mention how good he was at figuring out where you were going to be next...”

It’s probably wrong that is what cheers her up, but Ward crowding her always did have an opposite effect -- and this is no exception. "Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Tony clears his throat awkwardly to dispel any remaining emotion. “Now stop hiding in a storage room on the third floor in the east wing and --”

Tony.”

“Get out there.”

She grumbles. “Fine.”

“And tell Lara she’s not allowed to fly anything remotely close to a quinjet until she logs at least 200 hours with me or someone else who knows what the hell they’re doing.” He pauses, trying to soften the edict. “Also, I made some upgrades, so. There are a few surprises waiting for her in the training room.”

“You better not have given her the ability to make anything explode.”

“...I make no promises.”

Tony.”

“Sidebar, don’t think I forgot about this during the whole brouhaha with the Hurricane, but you removed your tracker, young lady.”

“Oh my god, Dad,” Skye playfully whines, getting to her feet with the tiniest of smiles.

“I left a spare kit with Cheekbones. You don’t activate it tonight and I’m coming back to personally make your lives hell.”

“We have things on the agenda, but I’ll see what I can --”

“-- Not kidding, Skye.” Tony’s voice is firm, without a trace of humor.

Sometimes being a parent means making the hard call. Even when it won’t win you any prizes.

“Okay,” She agrees, all teasing wiped from her voice. “I promise.”

“Good.” He coughs twice, awkwardly. “Now I have to go blow something up.”

Skye smiles as she makes her way back into the hall. Classic Tony Stark. Allergic to emotions to the bitter end. “Thanks for calling.” 

“Anytime.”

“And Tony?”

“Yeah?”

“Get out of Ranger’s network, please. The poor kid is barely sleeping as it is.”

“Noted.”

*

The rain doesn’t stop but Lara gradually becomes aware of something covering her head. She looks up to see Thomas huddled next to her, holding a golf umbrella over them to protect against the bulk of the elements.

Thomas notes the tears streaming down her face and pulls her into the curve of his free arm. “So I know having an umbrella in the middle of a thunderstorm isn’t the brightest idea,” he shouts a little to be heard over the storm, “But I have this niece who is pretty spectacular and it turns out I’m fairly certain she can save us from any stray bolts of lightning.”

Despite the bleakness of the situation, Lara snickers quietly. “Your niece is kind of a trainwreck,” she yells back.

“Yeah,” he agrees, “But you should see her parents.” His eyes widen dramatically, eliciting a smile from her. “It runs in the family.”

Slowly the rain begins to peter off around them, until it’s not coming down in veritable buckets any longer.

“The day you were born and they put you in my arms,” Thomas begins conversationally, “I knew I was in for the wildest ride of my life. Couldn’t wait.” When Lara only gapes at him blankly, he adds, “Okay, so I was also more than a little dizzy from seeing your mom give birth -- lots of blood and... other stuff,” he shudders expansively, “And to be fair, you were sort of wrinkly when you first came out, but --”

Lara elbows him sharply and Thomas breaks off, laughing. “The set of lungs on you, even then,” He whistles. “Damn, girl.”

The nostalgia eases some of the ache in her heart. Lara tucks her head into her uncle’s neck and closes her eyes to whisper, “Sometimes it feels I’m screaming at the top of my lungs and no one can hear me.”

I hear you.” He vows, squeezing her securely in response. “Ranger hears you, judging by the sheer volume of alerts that are blowing up my phone right now. I know that Kara and your parents definitely hear you.” He pauses to think and then adds, deeply scowling, “The Superfriends probably hear you too, since they’re all serumed up or whatever. But I’m not Natasha’s favorite so, I could be wrong about that.”

Lara burrows closer to him. “You’re my favorite.” Thomas hugs her tightly, and it gives her the strength to keep going. “Even before I knew you were my real uncle, part of me always hoped it was true.”

While she watches, Thomas pulls out his phone and replies to Ranger, to let him know everything is okay and that the situation on the roof is being addressed.

I’m a situation? She directs at him, borderline annoyed.

Biggest situation in my life, he sends back, unrepentant.

Ugh.

Lara pulls out of the mental conversation to find Thomas watching her with a faint smile.

“That day we stood in my brother’s office and you told me I wasn’t your father...” He trails off, whistling sharply. “You managed to break my heart and slap it back together at the same time. That’s how I knew you were going to make it. You’d taken a hell of a knock down and come back up swinging.”

Thomas gets up, pulling Lara into a tight embrace. “You’re a fighter, kiddo. Just like both of your parents.”

“And you,” Lara adds, throwing an arm around his waist. “Thanks for never giving up on me, even when I totally deserved it.”

Nah. You’re stuck with me, Hurricane.” Thomas ducks his head, kissing her temple gently. “Have I ever told you why I gave you that nickname?”

“I mean, I’m not complaining -- especially considering how fitting it is now -- but I’m guessing you didn’t know what I was going to be capable of as a kid.”

He grins wryly, tapping her on the nose playfully. “The cool thing about hurricanes is that you have to be pretty indestructible to survive them. And when your mom told me she was pregnant with you, I knew then that you’d need to be diamond hard to make it through all of this. To someday meet your dad and figure out a way to live with the choices both of your parents had made. I also knew how important it was to empower you into feeling that you could do anything. Because you can.”

Eyes dancing with triumph, Thomas continues, “Now, your Aunt Kara might deny it until her dying day but just this once? I wasn’t wrong.”

With a choked laugh that winds up strangled halfway through, Lara is wracked with another shuddering cry, falling into his arms. “No, you weren’t.”

Somehow the familiar comfort of being wrapped safely in his embrace post-emotional meltdown -- like so many times before, after she’d have a fight with her mom or things had gone terrible at school -- while the rain drizzles soothingly around them -- is like the life she used to have, before all of this crushing knowledge had been laid at her feet, colliding with the life she’s now living.

And for the first time, it doesn’t seem as insurmountable as it did when she woke up this morning.

*

Once calm from the meltdown on the roof, Lara wanders back to her room in a daze, desperately hoping for some downtime, only to discover Skye sitting in a chair outside the doors.

Had that chair always been there? Was she ever going to get a moment’s peace?

Her mother appears deep in thought, and Lara has to clear her throat gently so as not to startle her.  “Hi.”

“Oh, there you are.” Skye looks up, shaking her head as if to clear her mind. “I have something for you.”

Lara pastes a smile on her face, choosing not to state the somewhat obvious replying about finding her. “What’s up?”

Wordlessly, Skye presents the black cowl to her.

Lara pulls back, startled. “That’s yours.” She unlocks the doors to her room, needing some space from it all. She beelines for the bed, flopping backward onto the soft nest of pillows. 

Skye shakes her head, following her inside. “Not anymore.” She takes the seat beside Lara on the bed, pressing a smacking kiss to her forehead -- just the same way she would when Lara was little. “This belongs to you now.”

That cowl belongs to a strong woman who sacrificed everything to keep her safe and how had she repaid her? By breaking the one rule she was never supposed to.

“I think you’ve got the wrong girl.” Lara struggles to keep her voice even.

“Do I?” Skye leans backward, eyeing her critically. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing.” Lara shrugs. “Everything’s fine.”

Skye looks at her, as if measuring the truth in her statement. She’s quiet for a few moments and then, out of nowhere asks: “Did I ever tell you what happened after I met my father?”

Lara struggles with the abrupt subject change and desperately tries to remember the name she heard tossed around on the roof during Whitehall’s confrontation. “Coulson?”

Skye shakes her head, her gaze growing distant as she reflects on the past. “His name was Cal. I had been looking for him my entire life. And then when I finally found him... it ended badly. I killed one of my best friends.”

Lara pulls out of her own feelings long enough to recognise that this is not an exaggeration. Her eyes widen in alarm. “...Mom?”

“He was only trying to help, and had followed me down... anyway. The specifics don’t really matter. Wrong place, wrong time.” She shrugs, trying to shake it off. “And I didn’t have any control over what I was doing.”

Unlike you, comes the unspoken subtext.

“After the dust settled,” her lips twist sadly, perhaps at the choice of words, “It would have been so much easier to change my name and become someone else. The person Cal had always wanted me to be, maybe. Leave behind who I was.”

“You didn’t do that.” Lara isn’t sure if she’s asking or making a statement. She’s never heard about this much about her mother’s past before. Somehow Skye had always seemed like a full-grown superhero. It’s weird to think of her as troubled and unpredictable.

“I wanted to,” Skye admits. “It was so damn hard being me in the months that followed. Being that girl nearly destroyed me.”

“What happened?”

A slow smile comes to her face. “I ran into your father instead. The rest, as they say, is history.” 

Lara is stuck trying to sift through the still-clouded history of her parents’ relationship and not seem rude with her response, but it feels like she’s listening to the conversation from very far away and she can’t figure out how to come back to Earth without saying something that will hurt her mother or herself.

Was it worse to take the life of someone you loved -- one life? -- or the lives of dozens of people you didn’t know? How do you weigh that kind of loss?

She closes her eyes, curling her legs in close and laying her head on her knees. “Your friend. What was his name?”

Judging from the barely muffled emotion that leaks out when Skye answers, it’s still a very sore subject. “Trip. When he smiled, it lit up a stadium. He was incredible.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“I’m not telling you this because I want you to be upset. I’m telling you because you have a gift, sweetheart.” She cups her face, thumb rubbing smoothly over Lara’s cheek. “Don’t treat it like it’s a bad thing or else it will become a curse.”

It certainly feels that way

Lara nods evasively and closes her eyes.

“I love you, Lara. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to protect you.” Skye doesn’t push any further, just kisses her one last time on the forehead before walking out. “Get some rest.”

* * *

The nap she’d taken after the heavy conversation with her mother helps, but Lara doesn’t feel much like talking to anyone else. She’s kicking around the idea of suiting up to hit the gym when a message from her father comes in, requesting for her to meet him and her mother in his office after he finishes his conference call.

She sighs. Not exactly how she planned for this day to go and she still hasn’t seen Ranger once today.

It’s not that she can’t function without him -- and god, wouldn’t he be terrible if he ever found that out -- it’s more like everything is in extremes without him around to buffer the information overloading her at any given moment. And by information, she means feelings. And by feelings, she means regrets and the guilt she has for not feeling more guilty.

And now she has to --

Her phone rings.

“Hello?”

“Stop freaking out,” Ranger calmly instructs her. “It’s just a meeting with your dad. Now that he’s not hungover anymore, he’s in a much better mood.”

“Wait.” She’s almost laughing despite herself, “My dad was hungover? And I missed it?”

“Evidently,” he drawls, amusement coloring his tone, “Your parents spent the night in his office getting wasted --”

“-- Oh my god.” She claps a hand over her mouth.

“But for some reason the alcohol burned through your mom a little faster. She was fine by the time they’d finished brunch.”

Which explains how she was able to hold a fairly emotionally charged conversation about her dead best friend and not fall into a bajillion pieces.

“I have some theories about that --” He sounds super intrigued on the subject, “But I need to wrap up this last bit of intel before I can tell you about it.”

“What are you working on, anyway?” She leans against the wall, totally stalling and not even feeling remotely sorry about. “You’re being really weird about it.”

“It’s a surprise.” He doesn’t even try to tamp down his glee. “But I can promise that you’re going love it.”

“Well that certainly narrows it down,” she’s annoyed with his over the top reluctance to discuss it.

“I’ll swing by as soon as I’m done, I promise.” He soothes, “And then we can grab dinner if you want.”

“You’re obsessed with feeding me.” Lara complains, feeling slightly more in control of her emotions now that they’ve talked.

“You don’t eat well,” he protests, “And also: Have we ever gone on date?”

She stops dead in her tracks, considering. “...Does blowing up a Hydra compound count?”

He laughs. “Isn’t that more your parents’ thing?”

“True.”

“Chin up, Hurricane. It’s just your parents. They don’t bite...” He moves some papers in background, tapping out a few commands. “...Anyone but each other.”

Ranger!” She yells. “That’s disgusting!”

“But true,” he says, still laughing.

“Ugh, enough. I’m going.” Lara hangs up before he can fill her mind with any further disturbing mental images.

[ you know you love me. ]

[ against my better judgment. ] She writes, ducking into her father’s office.

The blinds aren’t fully drawn back and he looks somewhat more tired than usual.

“Rough night?” She asks, trying to keep the smile off her face.

“Hey sweetheart.” At the sight of her, Ward’s expressions softens.  “More like... an ill advised decision to let your mother to goad me into a drinking contest.”

“No way,” Lara presses a hand to her chest dramatically. “I thought you guys were supposed to be responsible?”

“We normally are,” Skye declares, sailing into the room. “It’s been kind of a week.” She settles herself on a couch, and Lara is fascinated to see a slight flush coloring her cheeks. “But then again, we all know your father has a very limited ability to say no to me.”

“That wasn’t what you were saying last night,” Ward murmurs in a soft tone meant only for Skye’s ears.

Still here,” Lara pipes up, gesturing wildly. “Innocent daughter, still here.”

Ward gives Skye one more emotionally charged look and then clears his throat, shifting gears. “About that,” he says, and Skye folds her arms at his unspoken signal.

“Why does it feel like you guys are about to gang up on me?” Lara asks, clearly wary.

“Because you’re too damn perceptive for your own good,” Skye mumbles to Ward, walking over to stand beside him and giving the impression of a thoroughly united front. 

“Guys?”

Ward fixes her with a decidedly stern look. “We need to address what happened.”

Her stomach bottoms out. The serious tone and expression on his face are a combination she has never encountered before. If this is about what happened on the roof, then --

“You don’t run away like that.” Ward states flatly. “Ever again.”

The bizarre relief that floods her system is directly at odds with the fact that she’s essentially getting in trouble for running away. Like a normal teenager. In fact, it’s so damn normal she’s about to start crying.

At the sight of the tears springing to her eyes, his resolve seems to waver. Skye casts him an look full of exasperation. “Amateur,” she grumbles.

Before Lara can explain, Skye is jumping in. “Look, honey. We’re not saying that things won’t be crazy or that we’re asking you to ignore your feelings --”

“-- Right,” Lara chokes out, strangely loving and hating the experience of her parents being in cahoots.

It’s official. She’s the weirdest teenager on the planet.

“But if you have a problem, you talk to us about it. Okay?” Ward is squeezing her shoulder reassuringly. “There’s nothing you could tell us that we couldn’t handle.”

“Lucky you,” Lara sarcastically retorts, swiping at the tears that have escaped.

“It’s going to be okay,” Skye promises. “We love you way too much for anything else to get in the way.” There is something dark and promising in her voice that has Ward’s head lifting slightly, eyes out of focus as he tries to assimilate her strangely commanding tone.

Lara is somewhat oblivious to the undercurrent passing between her parents, and totally misses the pointed look her father directs at her mother -- and the way Skye dodges his all too-perceptive gaze.

He coughs to change the subject. “There was something I wanted to ask you.”

She waves a hand, barely glancing up from staring at her knees. “Go for it.”

Ward glances at Skye, who nods encouragingly, and clears his throat. “I know it’s got a lot attached to it, but it would really mean a lot to me -- and I think to you, as well --”

Lara looks up with curious frown. Her father is stumbling over his words and he never flinches under pressure. For some reason, he looks... nervous.

What the hell?

“Dad. What are you talking about?”

“If it’s okay with you,” Ward dips his head to look at her directly, as if seeking permission, “I’d like for you to officially become a part of this family.” 


Everything freezes, just for a moment.

Even though it’s hardly an extraordinary or surprising request -- especially given the hell that they have all been through over the past few months -- Lara feels the gravity behind 
his question.

Everything she’d ever wanted when she was younger; a father who cared about her, who loved her enough to make sure she knew where she belonged, who fought hard to keep her by his side even when it wasn’t easy -- all those times she would curl up on her bed and cry because all the other kids in class had both parents at the outings and school functions and she’d only ever had one. The heartache that has weighed her down for for so many years tugs free and lifts away.

Mom?” She looks to her mother for confirmation, finding Skye white lipped and glassy eyed, but still signaling her blessing.

Totally bewildered, Lara turns back to her father, trying to make sense of his request. “You’re saying --”

“I want -- very much --” his voice has gone raspy with emotion, “For you to become Lara Elizabeth Rose Ward.”

Too many feelings to name bubble up into her throat, prickling tears in her eyes and piercing the thick wall of indifference that seems to have taken up residence since -- since everything happened on that rooftop two days ago.

She wants, desperately, to be his daughter in this way -- in every way, but especially this one -- yet she can’t get the words to come out. Somehow they’re locked deep in her throat. It’s like she doesn’t deserve this, not after what happened. She needs something to break the awkward silence in the room, to take that slowly fading hopeful look off her father’s face, because she can’t be the one responsible for making him look that way, she just can’t, and --

“So this is all very touching, but that actually won’t be necessary,” Ranger drawls as he enters the room, looking up from the folder in his hand. 


Thank god. ...Wait. What?

Ranger.” Ward clears his throat pointedly, glaring darkly. “Can this wait?”

“Nope.” The younger man cheerfully exclaims, looking entirely too pleased with himself.

“Read a room, pal,” Skye mutters under her breath, hastily swiping the stray tear from her cheek. “Also, it kind of is necessary, which is how I know you’re not looking at her birth certificate, because if you were -- you’d see that he’s not listed on it.” She flicks an apologetic glance at Ward. “I couldn’t take the risk.” 


“Of course.” He nods stiffly. 


Ranger’s mouth kicks up in amusement. “Doesn’t matter.”

“And why exactly --” Skye is growing visibly more irritated with him by the second, “-- is that?”

Lara frowns at him curiously, only able to perceive hints of unbridled glee. 


“Because you’re already married.”



 

...and B O O M goes the dynamite, my friends.

Chapter Text

| the prequel soundtrack | my lara au writing playlist | the other lara au soundtrack |

| every single lara au headcanon UNDER THE SUN | thomaskara first meeting (lara au prequel) | lara au meta |

 

 

 


image

 

 

 

 

(art by @direwolfees)

*

The building rumbles alarmingly beneath their feet. Ward actually stops breathing. Lara’s jaw is dropped wide open in shock.

What the HELL?” Skye and Ward simultaneously demand.

Ranger looks far too smug for someone who should fear their impending doom. “I have your marriage license.” He waves the folder as a reminder, though it really just has the effect of waving a red flag in front of a bull.

Skye snatches it away before Ward can ask. “Italy… yeah okay… We used the married cover all the time, no big deal.”

Lara is mutely freaking out, eyes darting between her parents in shock while Ranger takes the seat beside her on the couch, casually munching on popcorn. He tilts the box at her in question, but she’s too consumed with gaping to indulge.

Skye scans the rest of the contents quickly, finally turning to Ward in outrage. “You used our real names?!”

He’s busy reading over her shoulder and frowning at the date in memory, so it takes him a moment to catch up. “Wait a second. You’re pinning this on me?!”

“Sweet lord!” Skye explodes. “Since when do you use our real names on an op?”

“In case you don’t remember correctly, that was our last mission just days before you got shot,” Ward snarls, yanking up her sleeve to aggressively point out the scar on her arm. “You were hardly acting like yourself, so excuse me for being a little preoccupied at the time.”

“Where did you get this?” Skye harshly demands of Ranger, breathing heavily. “How did you get this?”

“I’m good with computers.” Ranger slings his arm around Lara comfortably. “Probably the best hacker there is now, considering what I found.”

Ward actually has to grab Skye to prevent her from lunging for Ranger’s throat.

“Skye, think.” Ward tips her chin up, forcibly narrowing her attention to zero in on his eyes. “It didn’t matter what names used. We blew up that chapel, remember?”

As one, they turn back to Ranger, who is the picture of innocence, already standing by with his hands in the air.

Explain.” Skye orders, the computer monitors flickering violently at her barely leashed command.

“So it turns out that chapel? They were pretty old school and had a serious vault —”

Ward groans audibly, throwing his hands up in the air dramatically.

“—Where they stored all records immediately after signing. They stayed there almost fifteen years until the owners’ descendants grew up and were enough to start the process of scanning the records into the cloud.” 

Skye is at a loss for words. Ward keeps looking down at the marriage license as if it is going to disappear into smoke.

Watching her parents get lost in their world of memories is almost too much for Lara to bear. “Let me get this straight. Does this mean that you guys have been married for almost twenty years?”

“It was actually just their nineteenth anniversary a few weeks ago, but...” The shit-eating grin on Ranger’s face is blinding. “Yes.”

“Oh my god.” Lara starts laughing because if she doesn’t, she’s hoenstly going to cry hysterically at the absurdity of it all. “I cannot believe this. My life is such a soap opera.”

“Well it’s not if they can have it annulled. I mean…” Ranger lifts his eyebrows at her pointedly. “There’s you. The physical manifestation of –”

“– OKAY, I think we’ve heard enough about that,” Ward cuts him off, clearing his throat loudly.

Skye is still mute, as she clearly does not know how to process the news.

Ranger presses a quick kiss to Lara’s temple, hopping up from his seat in a flash. “Meet me in the gym later for a surprise.”

“There will be no more surprises,” Ward yells, finally seeming to break out of his shock.

Skye distractedly puts a hand on his arm. “Not now, Ward. He owes her a date.”

Lara beams with happiness, darting up to kiss both her parents on the cheek. “I love you guys.”

After she leaves the room, Skye leans backward on the desk for support. “We... love you too.”

Ward makes a sound that can only be described as that of a dying whale. “Understatement,” comes his muffled reply. “But finding out you’ve been married for almost twenty years will do that to you.”

They slide down onto the floor in tandem, Skye leaning her head against his shoulder. He curves more closely around her in a move both natural and timeless. “Holy shit.”

Ward turns his head to meet her eyes and can’t help the smile that begins to grow into a low chuckle until they are both in full blown gales of laughter, sprawled out on the floor.

*

Kara is in the process of assisting Thomas with removing the shirt from over her head when Lara bursts into the room.

“They’re MARRIED.” She takes in the scene, physically recoiling. “Ugh, gross!”

Kara goes completely still. Thomas clears his throat rather pointedly. “Lara. Haven’t you heard about a particular concept called knocking on doors before you enter a room?”

She is equal parts squicked out and unrepentant. “You guys, come on.” She throws her hands up in the air. “MARRIED.”

By now, Kara has pulled her shirt back down and set herself mostly back to right. “Who, exactly, is married?” She fusses distractedly with her hair, trying to make it look less like they were just about to get down and more like, well, anything else.

Lara’s eyes gleam with unbridled glee. “My parents.”

Thomas reaches for the end table and misses by a mile, falling to the ground in shock.

Kara’s mouth drops open. “But...”

Saving Lara from having to explain further is Ranger’s sudden appearance at her side. He leans in, nuzzling her throat affectionately. “See? This is why I told you to wait before you barged into their room. Good thing I tracked you from the cameras...”

“Hands where I can see ‘em, Ranger.” Thomas growls, glaring hard at the younger man.

“Explain,” Kara sternly orders, pointing for them to go sit on the couch.

Ranger keeps his hands partially in view from where they rest on Lara’s waist, tugging her back with him to the couch.

Lara pretends to ignore the dark look on her uncle’s face and focuses instead on getting situated so that her boyfriend can tell fill them in without wasting any more time. This is becoming my favorite story.

I know. He squeezes the curve of her waist, eyes sparkling when he meets Thomas’s growl with a glimmer of defiance. Now let me tell it before your uncle kills me.

Lara laughs out loud and it has the effect of chasing away some of the dark shadows on her face.

Ranger smiles in satisfaction, warming to his audience. “Well it’s a funny story, but it all started back in a little village in Italy...”

*

Ward is in the middle of reviewing everyone’s reports for the week prior when Thomas comes flying through the doors, humming something loud and obnoxious.

He lifts his head slowly. “Thomas...”

“IF YOU LIKED IT THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE PUT A RING ON IT,” the younger brother wails, dancing out like a spaz until he finally comes to a stop in front of his desk. “Oh wait, that’s right. You already did.”

Ward sighs loudly, reaching for his phone to text Skye. [ they know. ]

“I can’t believe you’ve been married for nineteen years.” Thomas flops into the chair across from his desk. “I mean, on one hand, I totally can because splitting the two of you up was like the Universe’s biggest mistake --”

“-- I wouldn’t presume to bet on the Universe,” Ward mutters with feeling, wishing he were literally anywhere else.

“-- but the fact that after all this time you finally got what you always wanted!” He’s crowing loudly in triumph. “Do you know what that means?!”

Ward is more than alarmed by this over the top proclamation and wants nothing more than for his brother to leave him alone. He’s also feeling rather edgy, like Thomas is stupidly tempting fate right now. “What does it mean?”

“You’ve broken the family curse!”

Ward just blinks.

“C’mon, bro! Family curse. Blammo. OVER.” Thomas stands up, putting his hands on the back of the chair as if he cannot contain his excitement or all the restless energy prowling within. “We get to tell Rose that she can finally come home from wherever you shipped her off to.”

At the mention of their younger sister, Ward’s gaze sharpens considerably. “I don’t think it’s quite that simple.”

“Whatever, man. I’m inviting her to the wedding and you can’t stop me.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

“By the way, can you make a note to ask Ranger to reverse the Rose Protocol?”

Ward lifts his head, sensing an opening at last. “Will you leave me alone if I do?”

Thomas tries, he really does, to keep the guffaw in.

“Get out,” Ward grumbles, giving him the finger. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thanks ever so much,” Thomas replies with a bright grin, “I’ll be sure to come your way when I need marriage advice later.”

He is almost not quick enough to dodge the paperweight his brother tosses at his head. It thuds against the door loudly as Thomas exits, whistling Here Comes the Bride.

Three emails pop up on his screen and it’s almost consolation enough to know that Thomas is going to have to sort out the mess that the analysts are combing through right now until the Rose Protocol is reversed.

*

[ they know. ] Skye gets the message and groans. She hears footsteps and immediately begins looking for an escape route, only to be stuck as said person arrives.

“So I guess this means you can’t be my maid of honor now,” Kara announces as she sails into the kitchen.

“Oh god.” Skye puts her head down on the counter. “You heard.”

“Heard?” She cackles with humor. “Your daughter is doing everything but take out an Iron Man suit and write it in the sky for everyone to see.”

Skye softens at the mention of Lara. “I thought her head was going to explode when Ranger told us.”

“How did Ward take it?”

Skye raises an eyebrow. “You mean after I stopped blaming him for using our real names?”

“...He didn’t.”

Skye nods.

Kara holds a hand up to her mouth in extreme disbelief and then dissolves into hysterical laughter. “Oh my god, that is incredible.”

“Not quite the sentiments I had,” Skye mutters under her breath, “But I am well and truly stuck with the idiot now, so...”

Kara’s bent double at the waist, hardly able to catch her breath. “I just wanted to tell you that I’d settled on a bouquet of cacti for the wedding but this is so much better.”

The idea of a cactus bouquet is actually perfect for Kara and is an idea that Skye badly wants to explore, but she knows there is absolutely zero hope of that happening based on the delight on the other woman’s face. “I’m never going to live this down, am I?”

Kara slides up on the stool next to her, slinging an arm around Skye’s shoulders. “Not on your life, pal.”

*

When Lara arrives in the gym, she’s met with quite a spread. There’s a picnic laid down in the center of the room, candles burning low between the plates of her favorite cheeses and fruit. Despite every detail loudly proclaiming his involvement, Ranger is nowhere to be found.

She glares at the camera in the corner of the room, folding her arms. “It’s creepy to make me eat alone.”

Just grabbing one last thing, he sends back warmly, causing a happy spiral to flutter low in her stomach. You’re so impatient

I am not.

Lara huffs dramatically, folding her legs neatly beneath her and snatching a few pieces of chocolate.

“I saw that,” Ranger teasingly reprimands as he enters the room, flashing her a quick grin. There’s something she can’t quite make out tucked under his arm.

“You leave me unattended and I can’t be held responsible for what kind of trouble I get into.” She shrugs, popping another piece of chocolate into her mouth.

“That logic seems to have a few holes in it but we’ll bypass it for now because I have something for you.”

Lara raises an eyebrow in slight amusement. “You discovered that my parents have been secretly married for my entire life. I’m pretty sure you win best boyfriend of the year award for like, eternity.”

Ranger smirks, leaning down to kiss her casually. “Mmm. You ate the salted caramels.” Before she can answer, he ducks back down, kissing her more thoroughly. When she’s breathing a little heavier, he pulls away and puts a large tube into her hands.

She stares up at him, clearly struggling to switch gears. “...Thank you?”

He reaches for the tube, popping the cap off smoothly and shaking looks what resolves to be a set of blueprints once unfurled across her lap.

“What am I looking at here?”

Ranger takes a seat next to her, pulling her easily into the vee between his legs. He takes her hand, using it to point to a spot on the plans. “This is your bedroom. And this,” he gently drags Lara’s pointer finger up, up, up. “Is the roof. I’m working on getting external access for you independent of the existing passages within the building.” 

For the second time that day, Lara’s jaw drops open.

She knows Ranger isn’t afraid of her; of what she can do. He never has been.

But this? That he isn’t stopping her to trying to slow down the progress of her abilities or hold her back, in any way -- this is beyond what she could have imagined. To have the freedom to retreat to the roof whenever it got to be too much for her and be able to push her limits or test her abilities whenever she saw fit without having to run into anyone else -- it’s so much more than she deserves -- and it’s everything.

He’s everything.

“You never slow me down,” She manages through the lump of emotion in her throat. “You don’t hold back. And you never let me make excuses for who I am or apologise for what I can do.”

“Be pretty unreasonable to think that I even could,” he murmurs, carding a hand through her hair. “You’re a force of nature, sweetheart.”

“I’m your force of nature.” Lara declares, boldly situating herself in his lap. “No one else’s.”

Ranger keeps his hands planted firmly on her thighs, fingers slightly tensed as prepares to relay the last bit of information. “Before he left, Thor said that there were some things he had to check on. About us.” Ranger lifts a hand now, cupping her cheek gently. “He hasn’t come back yet but I think it’s going to be heavier than we expected. I reached out to Dr. Foster and she hasn’t heard from him in weeks.”

Lara groans, dropping her forehead against his shoulder. “Why can’t anything ever be easy?”

“Because you’d be bored.” He sounds amused, keeping one hand on her back, rubbing the length of her spine until she begins to visibly untense from the movement.

“Ugh.” She tucks her face into the crook of his neck, breathing more calmly as he continues to hold her close. “I hate you.”

“No, you don’t,” he retorts, laughing softly. “You love me.” 

“I do,” Lara turns her face up, meeting him for a deep kiss. “I really, really do.”

*

The control room is bustling hive of activity.

Ward’s team of analysts know how to find answers and review information better than any of their peers and it is no secret that they’re anxious to get the answers to their boss as quickly as possible.

Their boss, however, still happens to be his young brother.

Right now there are at two dozen people vying for his attention at the moment and it’s clear that all Thomas really wants to do is scream.

“Okay, listen up.” He claps his hands together, commanding the rest of the room into attention. “I will personally take care of your concerns and sign off on your existing reports, but I am only one person and you have got to let me breathe.”

A slow, mocking clap comes from the corner of the room where Skye slouched against the wall, smirking.

He concludes the conversation with a sharp glare and makes his way over to her.

“Nice job, Boss.” Her eyes are bright with humor.

“Certainly helped to have picked something up from you after all these years, Sis.” The unholy gleam in his eyes means that confrontation is unavoidable (it’s Thomas, of course they’re going to talk about this) so Skye does the entire room a favor by clamping a firm hand around his forearm and dragging him from the room.

They wind up down the hall in yet another abandoned room, and Thomas rubs his arm dramatically. “Listen, I know I’m hard to resist, but you’re a married woman now and I don’t think my brother is the type to share --”

Skye doesn’t even think about it. She just spreads her fingers wide and pushes with just enough force to send Thomas sailing back and crashing into a chest of drawers.

“Ouch.” He grumbles, staggering back to his feet. “What is it with the women in this family constantly doing me bodily harm?”

“You heal quick,” she retorts, unable to keep from steadying him as he finds his proper footing.

“So I hear congratulations are in order,” Thomas drawls, tugging her close to his side for a hug.

Laughing at his blase delivery, Skye closes her eyes momentarily. “Can you believe it?”

He halts their progress towards the door. “Well, I certainly can’t imagine my fool brother this disgustingly happy with anyone else.”

The sentiment behind the sarcasm has her eyes burning suspiciously. “Thanks, I think.”

“Hey.” Thomas squeezes her shoulders tightly, drawing her in for a quick kiss to the forehead. “You know you finally made it. Everything you did back then, all the sacrifices you made --”

She cuts him off mid sentence, uncomfortably aware of things she has yet to tell Ward. “Let’s not upset the natural order of things by calling out the Universe.”

“Oh, I already did that in Ward’s office before. The family curse is broken!”

Dammit Thomas.” Skye lets her head fall onto his shoulder. “You should know better than that by now.”

*

After they had managed to get rid of Thomas and shaken Kara off (both activities that required enormous amounts of skill and maneuvering), Ward asked she could meet him in his office. Being that she had already planned on going there at some point before the day’s end, it wasn’t much trouble to tell him know she was on her way.

Skye walks in to find Ward at his desk, staring out the window, clearly deep in thought. It’s been so long since she’s had the opportunity to simply drink the sight of him in -- her husband -- that she feels perfectly justified in leaning against the bookcase, content to simply observe him.

He’s still the same gorgeous man she’d fallen in love with all those years ago. Cheekbones high and chiseled prominently on his face, jaw perhaps a little sharper than she remembers -- probably from grinding his teeth against the frustration of dealing with a teenage daughter -- hair sprinkled with a bit of gray threading through the dark strands.

Skye observes as those whiskey gold eyes sharpen and warm once he realises she’s arrived.

“Hi.” His voice is soft with wonder, like he can’t believe she’s standing there; like he expects her to vanish at any moment.

“Hi.” She feels the yearning deep within her bones to cross to his side, tugging him out of the chair. She leads him over to the couch (that she is rapidly beginning to think is their couch) with an easy smile. She perches on the arm of the couch while he sits beside without protest.

He still has that awed look on his face and she feels herself flush under the heat of his gaze. She needs to say something to break the moment before they wind up doing something stupid like christening the damn couch. “I probably owe you like nineteen years’ worth of anniversary gifts.”

“Well.” Ward clears his throat, eyes fond. “You got me Lara, so. Think we can call it even.”

Now she’s the one feeling awed and more than a little overwhelmed by emotion. “Guess I don’t have to be sad anymore about her officially becoming a Ward and leaving me behind.”

Understanding dawns on Ward’s face. “Is that why you were so upset before?”

“Do you think I’m proud of the fact that I was irrationally jealous of our daughter and that she’d get your name and I wouldn’t?”

“Skye.”

“I didn’t say it made sense!” Skye protests, a half disgusted look on her face.

Ward tugs her forward until she’s forced to slide onto the cushions next to him or fall into his lap. The quicksilver grin on his face informs her exactly which choice he wants her to make and she laughs, allowing him to tangle their fingers together.

There’s a bottle of merlot within reach on the table along with assorted files of work that Ranger had dropped off earlier. He ignores all of it, giving her his complete attention. She’s forgotten how unnerving it can be to be the sole recipient of his considerable intelligence and laser sharp focus.

“So.” Ward pushes the bottle over to her expectantly, until Skye flicks her fingers at it, popping the cork free. He pours two very generous glasses of wine. “This stuff with Lara that we’ve been pretending to ignore... how bad is it, really?”

It should be eerie how easily he can read the stress in her body like fault lines in the ground as well as any seismologist, but if anything, it’s a relief to have it drawn out, now that the immediate threats have been neutralised for another day.

“I should be mad that you aren’t going to let this go,” Skye shakes her head, rubbing under her eyes tiredly. “It’ll be nice not to have to carry it alone anymore.”

With the exception of probably Natasha, no one else really knows everything.

“I’m not going anywhere.” He gives her hand a gentle squeeze. “Lay it on me.”

And this is it.

The moment of truth.

What she’s been hiding since before Lara was born.

The enormity of the moment, of being able to finally share this burden with the only person she had ever wanted to, for so many years -- it’s enough to make her throat close up and eyes fill with the absolution of it all.

“Start at the beginning,” Ward murmurs, accurately interpreting her hesitation. “We’ll figure it out.” 

She doesn’t even know where the beginning is. She casts about for any piece of information to expand on, and doesn’t even know what she’s planning to say until her gaze lands on the remains of Ward’s tactical gear on the far desk.

“I didn’t know Whitehall had a son.” She glances at him alertly, wanting to make sure he knows she’s telling the truth. “I guess it should have occurred to me that it was pretty insane we never met the man at the top, but honestly… I had my hands full with other things at the time.”

He grins wolfishly, this time taking no pains to remove the satisfied expression from his face. “You damn sure did.”

She rolls her eyes. “After I found out I was pregnant, I knew I had to leave. What Hydra could have done with our child as leverage... and I certainly didn’t trust SHIELD to be much better.” Off his smug look at the mention of their former employer, she smacks his arm. “Behave.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Ward innocently protests, chuckling. His animosity toward SHIELD is not exactly a secret but neither is it something Skye wants to waste time going over right now.

“There were only a of handful places I felt I could go. Even fewer people I could trust.”

Ward processes the information quickly, sorting it out against what he already knows. “Natasha and Bucky for protection. Tony, for the sheer technological support you’d need to keep yourselves off the grid. And Thomas.” He summarizes, nodding to indicate that he mostly understands the why and how of the people she’d reached out to.

“And the absolute last place I ever wanted to return; one you probably didn’t think about until recently.”

“Afterlife.”

Skye nods slowly. “It was the only location I could be certain that she would be safe. I knew,” and her voice grows hard with the memory of the dark time, “That they wouldn’t take her away from me after she’d been born; In fact, I had no doubt that every single person there would be committed to protecting her.”

“So everyone at Afterlife knows she’s alive?”

He’s assimilating the information more quickly than she’d hoped -- and god knows there are details she’s omitting in favor of telling him everything as quickly as possible -- but she has to set him straight on this particular fact.

“No.” She squeezes his hand, leaning forward, as if wanting to impress upon him how important the next part is. “But they know of her.”

Ward blinks. “Skye, that doesn’t make any sense.”

Her lips curve ruefully. “Whitehall wasn’t wrong. Lara is special, and not just because she’s our daughter.”

Ward is the best at what he does because he remembers things that most people would have discarded as irrelevant information in the past and dismissed it for good. But she almost see the moment he recalls what she’d said about Afterlife on their way to rescue Lara and when the fire comes into his eyes, she knows he’s remembering what she said about people wanting Lara to lead a hypothetical rebellion.

“Because she’s capable of starting an Inhuman war?” Ward sarcastically retorts, drawing away with no small amount of irritation, which she can understand. She knows that he wants Lara to be able to live the life she chooses, not one that’s been laid out for her before she was old enough to know how to choose in the first place. That's what has driven her all these years to make the choices she had.

“Or ending one.”

He scrubs a hand down his face. “You’re talking in riddles.”

Skye lets out a heavy sigh, trying to find a way to summarize centuries of her people’s history in a few sentences. “The Inhumans have this… thing. It’s a prophecy of sorts. They believe there’s one girl chosen to bring balance to their world.”

“And they think it’s Lara.” Ward flatly states.

“They used to think it was me.” Skye’s raw confession is met with silence. “But then that whole disaster happened with my Mom sucking the life out of people and my dad had to kill her... which led to my making choices that knocked me out of the running.”

With the stark reminder of the dangerous time spent together in their partnership before Lara was conceived, Ward doesn’t offer any soft words or issue denial at her statement. The time for this has passed and they settled Skye’s demons and restless worry about the issues with her parents so many years ago. There are many questions in his eyes warring with the desire to know the rest of the story, and she watches with no little wonder as he firmly banks them down to allow her more time to explain.

She leans back into the couch, grounding herself with the feeling of his arm curled tightly around her shoulders. “I thought I could keep her hidden away. That if she never used her abilities, she’d stay off the grid. That they wouldn’t even think about her; that the things set into motion long before she was born would never come true.”

“...Rule number one.” Comprehension dawns in his eyes -- and it’s the same as it’s always been, watching him figure out where the pieces go in the puzzle. It’s the same rapidfire connection thought process behind his eyes and how does this still turn her on?

Skye decisively clears her throat, nodding. “Exactly.”

There’s a marked silence while he processes that and weighs it against the actions of Lara’s life for the past six months or so.

Suddenly Ward groans, dragging his free hand down his face. “Except when Lara came here, all she did was hone her skills until she used them to save our lives.”

“Yep.”

“So they’re going to know exactly who she is.”

Skye’s pointed silence is answer enough.

“…Shit.” He drops the hand to stare at her directly. There is heavy remorse and grief in his eyes. “No wonder you were so pissed at me.”

Skye shrugs, dismissing the grievance without further issue. “It’s just... now there are things set into motion that even we can’t stop. People will go after her like nothing we’ve ever seen.”

“Well,” Ward inhales sharply, a determined look on his face, “Then we will just protect her.”

She smiles crookedly, feeling a rush of nostalgia-laced affection for him. Same old Ward. Ready to do whatever it took to defeat all of their problems, even if he had nothing other than sheer force of will at his disposal. “It’s not that simple.”

With Whitehall’s interference now, that has become more clear than ever. This is not a fight they can simply walk away from if they intend to keep any part of their family intact. The mental gymnastics of it all has a migraine building at the base of her neck.

“We’ll figure it out,” Ward insists, tugging her closer until she finally relents to meet his kiss. “I promise.”

Skye cups his cheek fondly, rubbing her thumb over his jaw. The familiar gesture fills her with comfort and has the added bonus of deeply soothing all the jagged parts of her that have remained achingly sharp over their years apart. “I missed this.”

“Glad you’re back.” Ward hoarsely replies, clearly content just to hold her.

And she is back. Finally.

She stays exactly where she is, savoring the moment and keeping herself firmly in the present. This is a gift, and one she doesn’t intend to take lightly.

Someone’s stomach -- they’re entwined so closely together right now it’s impossible to decipher who -- rumbles loudly, shattering the moment and causing her to laugh. “I’ll go grab something from the kitchen.”

Ward waits until she’s at the door before he calls out, “Yeah, wouldn’t want your husband to starve to death or anything.”

Her response is a silent raised middle finger.

“Hurry back!” He calls out after her, laughing. “Don’t think I failed to zero in on that ominous prophecy thing!”

*

Despite the high traffic it has seen today -- Ranger’s near-meltdown as he prepared for the picnic he and Lara were to share in the gym, Thomas and Kara’s usual taco Sunday dinner -- the kitchen is still, somehow, fully stocked. It reminds her of the days she used to spend at Avengers Tower, and how Tony would always complain that she was eating them out of house and home.

She discovers the remnants of a fruit and cheese platter half picked over and smiles to herself, knowing that Lara’s first “official date” had gone better than expected, especially once Ranger had sent her a quick shot of Lara’s blinding smile after revealing his blueprints.

Skye owes him so much, and finds herself a little staggered by how much she’s already come to care about Ranger. Perhaps even more annoying, Ward probably knows that she loves his protege, even if the thought of surrendering her title as the world’s best hacker -- despite being well and fully earned -- to Ranger, stings a little.

She makes a feast out of whatever she can get her hands on, sparing a fond glance back at the kitchen before she leaves. That particular room has seen so much (if Kara’s tale about how she and Lara had first met is anything to be believed) and she’s already envisioning a few touches -- some air plants and succulents, along with a StarkTech coffee machine -- to make it seem more like home. (Ward’ll probably have a fit when he sees the massive coffee maker arriving tomorrow, but that’s fine. She knows how to get around him.)

Skye’s got a tray in one hand and is concentrating so intently on not dropping any of the carefully sliced items on top that she doesn’t notice the other person’s sudden appearance in the hallway until she literally crashes into him.

“Lincoln!” She gasps, startling backward. “Jeez, you scared me. Listen, now is seriously not a good time. I have to finish telling Ward about the prophecy.”

“Skye,” he shakes his head, already reaching for her, “There is serious trouble with the Council because of what's happened. You really should have just answered the damn phone when he called.”

There is a brief shower of sparks as his powers build and then –

– they are gone.

 

 

 


 

BONUS: kara’s imagined cacti bouquet, and it's SAM (obviously, the kara authority) to whom i owe this idea.