Jemma hears him, so faintly that she thinks it's another of her dreams.
Wherever she is, it is mostly absent of sound. Sometimes the wind blows, and though the whipping dust stings her eyes, the way it masks her footsteps on the gravelly earth is welcome.
But, despite all the running and terror, Jemma knows her own mind. She knows that one of the things that breaks her heart the most is that her memory of Fitz's brogue is imperfect, and fading fast. In the lucid dreams that wash over her like waves during the short naps she's trained herself to take, instead of sleeping for hours, he's been front and center. She's imagined him calling for her so many times, imagined the way his voice would break, the way it would feel to fall into him, to finally lean on him again.
Today, she's circled back to the spot she was dropped. She'd marked her path well enough, and never strays far. With the stars and moons of this planet burning a star chart into her brain, she can navigate. She knows she's not on earth, and that wormholes, if they exist, connect to locations. Or, at least, in theory. She'd never quite believed one could exist until she flew through one.
She sits down to rest, casting a rueful glance at the half-cave space where she first caught her bearings, so long ago. She has to be careful to sleep when her body tells her to. Severe sleep deficit will get her killed - that much she feels with certainty, deep in her bones. Twenty minutes later, when her eyes snap back open again, she sucks in a breath of this planet's air, which somehow lets her run faster and farther than she ever had on earth. Today, the air feels different. Charged. Swirling, and in a different way than it does before a dust storm. Like the very molecules that surround her are spinning into oblivion, each one that invades her lungs a tiny tornado.
That's when she hears him. "Jemaaaa!" THere's no way her memory would have corrected itself so perfectly, so suddenly. She takes a step forward, and the ricocheting atoms go faster. Another, and her heart speeds. Another, and she finally breaks into a run. She could close her eyes, and still know exactly where she's going.
If it's Fitz, she has to get to him, no matter that her lungs feel like they'll explode or her head may just snap clean off her neck, for all the buzz and fury of the space around her. If it's not Fitz, well, trying to get to him wouldn't be the worst way to die.
She's still Jemma. The smallest, quietest thought in the back of her mind still clucks at Fitz for screaming so loudly across an alien world. Silly man. So silly, and so very dear, for never giving up on her.
She's running, letting the confused, frantic energy pull her forward, but the next time she hears his voice it's so faint that her heart nearly shatters. Keep going, Jemma. He's not lost yet.
Around a collection of massive arching rock formations, she sees it. A frosty blue cloud that marks the spot she first arrived, sucking dirt and air and regurgitating it back in a furious cycle. She stops, gasping. Please. Please. If she steps too close, she'll be taken through. Her body wasn't torn apart the first time, but would it be now? Would she be taken somewhere else entirely? Did she even care anymore?
Of course she cared. She was a scientist. If she did manage to get home, knowledge of this realm could have unimaginably far-reaching implications. Not to mention that she wouldn't be surprised if, when a doctor finally worked her over on her return, they found her heart had been literally bleeding for Fitz.
Then, so faintly that it could have been all in her head, if not for that perfect, sweet, anguished brogue, he says it one more time. "Jemma. Where are you? Jemma, please come home."
Her hands tremble, her gut flips wildly. She takes one more step forward, ready to spring back. And then, an arm, ending in those hands she'd know anywhere, the fingers she'd imagined running smooth over her skin in so many of those lucid dreams, reaches through the smoky fog and scrabbles at the dirt, reaching for something it doesn't even know is there.
It could be a mirage. Another lucid dream, from which her awakening would be very rude indeed. But it could also be real.
And so she does the stupidest thing she's probably ever done - she reaches her arm forward, stretching her fingers for his, and jumps.
The sensation of skin brushing skin is the most heavenly thing she's experienced, until her whole body is jostled and compressed and torn and twisted all at once. She tries to scream, but her throat doesn't work. Nothing works. She can't move, and she's moving everywhere. She lets her eyelids close, for fear of losing her eyeballs, though it doesnt even matter now. Everything is so black.
She can't hear him anymore, anyway.
Finally, after six months of fighting, she lets the darkness take over.
The black swirls out just as it faded in - thickly, resignedly. She knows she should speak. Alien rock or no, she still remembers her English manners. But words are too basic and too complicated, all at the same time. She barely remembers them anymore, doesn't think she could string them together in a sentence if she tried. In the first days, she talked to herself. But that seemed silly, and dangerous. Her lips have long forgotten how to form words without hard work.
Words aren't what she needs, anyway. She needs touch, one she trusts, close and sure and safe.
But everyone stares at her. Hovers. She opens her mouth to say something, struggles to look them in the eye. But it is so bright and golden in this room, and she's seen nothing but dust and dark and cool blue for so long. Her mouth shuts again and finally her eyes drift open to land on that beautiful set of bright blue ones, pleading for something she can't articulate, can't grasp. She knows she can find whatever she needs there.
Slowly, letters come back to her, forming words in her brain, fighting to leave her mouth. "F-fi-Fitz," she manages, gasping at the sensation of words passing her lips. Exhaustion washes over her in deep, pulling waves, making every thought a multi-step process with too little energy to back it up. Her eyelids are lead curtains curving down over aching eyes. Her head lolls back, and she's almost surprised when a strong, warm arm supports it instead of a cool, jagged rock scraping her scalp.
"Jemma? Jemma, can you hear me?" There he is. That's how my name should always sound.
Someone straps a pressure cuff on her arm, glides a temple thermometer across her forehead, holds the cool metal disc of a stethoscope to her sternum. She knows her lungs are trying to get used to the lowered oxygen content - she feels sluggish, leaden, every part of her body disconnected from the other.
"Lay her down. Right here. She can't stand for decontamination, we'll have to bring it to her."
Fitz speaks again, stuttered and breathy. "Take samples. She'll want those. When...when she wakes up."
Maybe the corners of her lips tick up just a touch, or maybe she makes a lazy hum of approval. Whatever she does, it earns her a strong hand smoothed over her hair, hot lips pressed to her forehead. Gentle, gloved fingers scrape the inside of her cheek, gently tug hairs from her head, remove her blouse and a bloodied makeshift bandage from her knee. Someone tugs the boots from her sore feet and seals them in a containment device. The soft snick of its lock brings her relief. A needle slides into her arm and she senses the faint whoosh of blood filling three, four, five, six tubes. She frets that it won't be enough, and feels her brows tug together.
"Shhh. You'll have plenty to work with." Fitz's breath brushes her earlobe and at the moment the only thing she wants out of the rest of her life is to hear him pronounce words and whisper promises.
A portable decon tunnel curves over her body, and the stuffy enclosure causes her breathing to go rapid. The cloudy, dry puff of chemicals invades her nostrils, and she works hard to dredge up her memory of the ingredients in this special cocktail she helped develop, fortified with extra precautions to neutralize any manner of alien materials.
Is that what she is now? Alien? Is she a hazard, now?
Darkness washes over her again, and when fuzzy light finally creeps back in, the sensation of warm water tingles across her skin.
"Okay. Looks like she's back. You're gonna be okay, Simmons. I've got you."
Jemma manages to haul her lids open and smiles when her suspicion is confirmed - Agent May is washing her body with a large, soft sponge, and Bobbi is holding a towel over her breasts and her private area. She's never seen this room before, all white and spacious compared to the graphite cubes in the bus. It strikes her that this might not be real. She pushes the thought away. If it's a dream, it's a bloody good one, and she's going to hold onto this as long as she can.
Bobbi tuts. "I would have stitched this one up, but there's no helping it now. She's going to have some impressive scars."
"Yes," May says. "And you know as well as I do that the ones you can't see are so much worse."
Bobbi hums as she pats Jemma dry with a clean towel, then places two strong hands under her shoulder blades, lifting her enough that May can slide a soft cotton shirt over her head. THey do the same with her bottom half. Jemma's hair has already been washed, and Bobbi's long fingers slowly comb the last of the tangles out.
But then, the hands move, and the women walk to the door. Jemma gasps and makes a noise. In her mind, it has consonants, inflection, but she doesn't know if that's true. What is definitely true is the way her heart hammers against her sternum at the loss of human touch.
The monitors start a frantic litany of beeps. Bobbi probably set the alert level too low, and now her silly panic attack will have woken the whole base.
"Is she okay?" Fitz's roughened voice tears through the air, and her head turns to the door. Jemma's eyes open a bit easier now, and though she squints against the bright white of the room, she finds his eyes soon enough. They're rimmed in red, filled with tears. Just like hers were the last time she said goodbye to him.
And she thought that had been the most pain she could possibly be in.
He's here, one of his hands holding her still one, another smoothing over her forehead. He's here, those are his hands, so now she can relax. Her eyes close again, bringing down the violent white of the room just a little bit.
"Bobbi, did you give her one of the nanotech biorhythm sensors?"
"For now, she's just got the patch. We want to wait for the implant. Better safe than sorry." Jemma's mind whirled. They had a nanotech biorhythm sensor, that could be implanted? Her heart swelled with pride. She had pushed Fitz to help her with something like that, but he had argued the field needed weapons and probes more urgently. At least she hadn't totally disappeared during her absense. Her lips ticked up again.
"So you can monitor her remotely? And she's reading stable now?"
"Yes, Fitz, but we really should - "
"The light is bothering her. This bed is...narrow, and there's no way I'm standing like this until she wakes up. Could be hours."
Jemma manages two words, with eyes wide open, boring into his. "Don't leave me." She sighs as her eyes close again.
"I've got her, Fitz," Bobbi says, sidling up to the bed. "You need your rest. Go get a few hours, then you can come back. She'll be fine. There's no place safer than the Zephyr."
"If you think I'm leaving her side any time soon, you're mad, Bobbi. I know you know me well enough to know that."
"Well, I suppose, if you really want, we could roll another bed beside hers..."
"Right. No. I'm taking her to her bunk. Her things are there. That was the last place she felt safe, I reckon."
I felt safe wherever you were. Whenever you left, I was like a ship without sails - strong, sturdy, but unable to go anywhere.
Fitz's arms glide under her body, and though it's quite a silly thing to think about, she's grateful a thousand times over that the girls cleaned her up. Six months in an alien wasteland or not, intimacy of any kind was better when one smelled fresh and was not bleeding through her clothing.
"Fitz, don't be ridiculous. We'll wheel her."
Before Jemma knows it, she's being lowered onto the most heavenly bed, springy and soft. She's a bit surprised when her eyes drift open, painlessly this time, to the dim yellow light of her old bunk. It's not exactly the same, but everything in it is, all her belongings stocked there in perfect detail. She wonders briefly who took care of that, whether Fitz insisted on it and whether it was May who remembered the exact arrangement of her old room. Whether Skye cried, and whether Coulson comforted her.
She used to complain about this mattress, but now she never wants to leave. She's thin, thinner than a girl of her height should be, and her bones have been pressed against rock and dirt night after night. She's thin enough that she doesn't even take up half the small mattresses. She scoots toward the wall, and pours all her energy into reaching a hand up for Fitz.
"I'm here, Jems. Right here." Her fingers lock around his wrist, and tug. When he slides into bed beside her, her body pitches toward his, and his hands slide around her waist. They tremble through the thin cotton of her shirt. He is warm, and so solid, and safe and sure. He is exhausted. She feels his relief flooding her. She had pillowed her cheek against his chest, wondering if it had always been so firm, and she'd just missed it. But now she looks up at him.
"Don't leave me," she repeats.
"I won't," he swears, torrents of emotion flowing out of his words in deep, shaking rumbles. "Not until you tell me to."
Finally, Jemma stops fighting sleep.
Consciousness creeps over her slowly, cells activating and awakening one by one, dancing together in a complicated reboot, demanding that perception force itself into her synapses, and they agree to let her muscles move.
She runs through her catalog of lucid dreams in her mind, asking herself if she'd ever dreamed of her old sheets or the horrible unflattering light of her bunk or having shaved legs again. No, no, and no. And so, even though she's dreamed countless times of being able to cling to Fitz, to let him comfort her, to give her hope when she had none, she allows herself to believe that his sighing body beneath hers is real.
Jemma chances a gentle hand over his chest. Up and down. In and out. Fitz, flesh and bone, by her side. Safe, warm. Hadn't he vowed not to leave her?
She remembers the time she left him. She wonders whether he gave up hope of finding her. Whether he was the only one trying. She struggles to remember all the theories she'd had about that monolith before it had liquefied around her. What tests would she have run? Which would have been the last?
Fitz shudders awake with a gasp. jerking up for a fraction of a second before falling back down on the pillow. "Christ. It's real. You're here."
She nods, grinning for the first time since she left this world. She wants to say something, and she thinks she probably could, now, what with her synapses clicking into place and firing together at a truly inspirational speed. It's almost as if a good, solid sleep completely rewired her brain.
But every sentence that comes to mind - "I wondered the same thing," "I'm not going anywhere either," "Thank you for staying," "You are so precious to me it's agonizing," all sound like they came from one of the rom-coms Skye always made her watch. And she's so close to his skin, to the scruff on his jaw and the hint of aftershave left underneath, to the smell of his soap and a trace of sweat.
If she learned anything on that alien world, it was to act on instinct. And so she did, pushing her lips to the side of his throat and reveling the the low rumble that came from it, buzzing into her mouth. He craned his neck back then, eyebrows furrowed. "Jemma, I'm not here to -"
It was too much, his protest - half for fear that he didn't want to kiss her, and half for fear that he still thought she didn't want him. Either would feel like her heart was being torn out, and she'd had quite enough of that. She needs to feel, not talk - she needs to ground herself, not float herself in a bubble of words and speculation, anxiety and dredged-up misunderstandings.
So she moves her lips to his, firm but hesitant, giving him time to push away, if he wants. But, thank heavens, he kisses her back, and satisfaction blooms from her chest to warm her whole body. It was all worth it, she thought as she slid her hands under the hem of his shirt, thrilling at the expanse of his skin against hers. If it led to this, I'd do it all again.
Well, that's a bit dramatic. Even so, she'd been fighting so hard, so long, so desperately and completely against an enemy she couldn't even pretend to understand half the time. She'd thrown herself off planes and over grenades and through hostile buildings. She'd done it all for S.H.I.E.L.D., and somewhere along the way, she'd begun to listen to the stirrings of her heart. She'd begun to understand how deeply she loved Fitz - just as deep as her devotion to S.H.I.E.L.D. Maybe moreso.
After all that, she deserves this. And she's going to make it happen.
Her hands slide over his back. Bless May for manicuring her ragged, filthy nails. She'd wondered how they'd feel scraping against his skin. She hadn't planned on the noises they would elicit.
She pulls her mouth from his, sinks it into the curve between his neck and shoulder, darts her tongue out and sucks on it before moving farther down to nip at his collarbone. Fitz groans and his hands move, sure and strong, under the hem of her shirt, pushing it up until his fingertips dance over her shoulder blades.
He pulls back with a gasp. "Shit, Jems. I'm sorry. I didn't mean - it's just - I got a little caught up in -" he tilts his hips away from her, almost imperceptibly. She cups her hand around his ass, tugging him toward her, trying to tamp down the giddiness that bubbles up when she feels him hard against her thigh.
He groans, and she finds that she can say something else. "I need you." The words rush out, hot and solid.
His answering sigh, the way his body melts against hers, grounds her to this spot, makes her feel more unshakable than she ever did climbing mountains or digging for water. She is solid. Finally, she won't be moved from this spot, from this man.
They both want this, but they also both know they have time. At least the next few hours. They are slow but deliberate, gently uncovering skin and sliding tongues and testing and tasting, pressing fingers into muscle and tangling legs together.
It is almost too much, when they finally move together, gasping and awe-struck. Too much sensation, too much emotion, too transcendent to be real. They are stars colliding and creating a universe. They are atoms in a molecule, dancing a steady and unshakeable rhythm. They hold each other tighter and tighter until the pleasure overwhelms their bodies and bursts out in beastly noises muffled against each other's necks, and fall apart, exhausted, ankles still entwined.
Fitz can't keep his lips off her skin for long. He ghosts kisses along her eyelids, traces a gentle path over the curve of her hip and under the dip of her breast.
Before she falls asleep again, she manages one firm kiss, a sweep of her tongue along his bottom list, a declaration that fills the millimeter between their lips and this entire room and the Zephyr and the whole universe, probably. It's this one fact that held her up and held her together, that gave her hope when she had none. To keep it inside one second longer would be a betrayal of everything they've gone through, a blasphemy of every belief that she's fought for since she's known him.
"I love you."
He puffs a sigh into her hair, half contentment, half relief. He rocks her, bringing her soul closer to his one atom at a time, even though they were already pretty well tangled, even from across the universe. He says I love you with a hundred synonyms, and just as many tears. He makes promises and declarations and Jemma knows she'll never remember them all, but that's okay.
She won't have to, not tonight.