Author's note: I am so, so sorry. This was only meant to be about 2k words, but all of you who've read When the Fireflies Came know that I have this problem with length. Remember when my stories used to be 1k, 900, even 700 words? Those were the days. Okay, stuff you should know for this story: malaria is a mosquito-borne parasite endemic to sub-Saharan Africa among other places, and two drugs used to treat it are chloroquine and quinine. C-4 and Semtex are both military grade explosives. Smallpox is an incredibly deadly virus that is now extinct except in a few laboratories (as far as we know). BSL is British Sign Language. Hypoxic brain injuries can in fact cause speech difficulties, partial paralysis, and seizures. I think that's pretty much it, so without further ado, I give you Grant Ward and Skye in Real.
"Name?" the triage nurse asked him.
"Grant … Simmons," former SHIELD Agent Grant Ward told her. "Grant Simmons," he repeated, with a little more conviction.
The nurse, a stern, gaunt woman with iron-gray hair and pea-sized spectacles, raised an eyebrow. "Chief complaint?"
"I'm sorry; what's that?"
"What's wrong with you?" she asked with exaggerated patience.
Ward gave a short, humorless laugh. That question would take several hours to answer.
The nurse glared at him over her spectacles, reminding him of every villainous librarian he'd ever known. "Why are you at the ER tonight?" she asked. Demanded, really.
"I, um …" He hesitated, glancing at his shoulder, where an impressive cluster of shrapnel was embedded in the flesh. He was beginning to question the wisdom of coming here; a shrapnel wound probably wasn't the sort of injury—chief complaint—that the ER staff saw every day, and they were going to ask questions, questions he didn't have decent answers to.
"Do you have a foreign object lodged in your rectum?" the nurse inquired, sighing heavily.
"What? No!" he exclaimed. "Do people really come in here with … ? No, wait, don't answer that." He took a deep breath and told the first lie that came to mind. "I am here because a propane tank exploded and some of the shrapnel hit me in the shoulder." It was close enough to the truth, anyway.
"Let me see," the nurse ordered. Ward gingerly took off his jacket and showed her his shoulder. The metal fragments had torn straight through his shirt and into his skin, burying themselves deep inside the muscle tissue. The pain was down to a dull roar, and he'd certainly had worse, but it was still a gruesome sight. There was something about metal protruding from flesh that simply felt wrong on a fundamental level, causing the stomach to turn and the eyes to look away.
The triage nurse merely raised an eyebrow. Ward wondered where she'd acquired the level of eyebrow dexterity she was displaying that evening.
"Well, it isn't very crowded right now," she said. "We can take you back right now. Follow me, and the doctor will see you shortly."
The nurse lead him to a large open area behind the triage desk filled with cots and blue plastic chairs. Ward sat down heavily on one of the cots, exhaling deeply. It felt so good to be off his feet for the first time in almost twelve hours.
"Just wait here, and a doctor will see you as soon as possible, Mr. Simmons," the nurse informed him, pulling the curtain halfway shut around the bed and walking away, the click-click-clicking of her shoes echoing back to him over the muted din of hospital sounds.
Ward sighed heavily. What in the world had possessed him to use the young biochemist's name as an alias? He hadn't thought about his old team in a while, and it was just as well. Things had been difficult since the fall of SHIELD, and he didn't need distractions.
Escaping prison hadn't been too much trouble; between overcrowding and budget cuts, the penitentiary where he'd been incarcerated couldn't hold a chicken. No, the hard part had been deciding what to do after that. Once all the fuss had died down and they were no longer looking for him, he sat down in a diner, much like the one where he and Skye … he sat down in a diner, bought a double cheeseburger and a strawberry milkshake with a stolen credit card, and had a nice long think.
He thought about Garrett, and the awful things the man had ordered him to do, and that he'd done because he'd been too weak to resist the man's psychological manipulation. He thought about the team, and how they'd trusted him, made him feel included for the first time in his life. He thought about May and Coulson. He thought about Fitzsimmons, and how they'd begged him not to hurt them, young voices pleading, frantic hands pounding uselessly at the glass as the pod detached from the aircraft and plunged into the sea.
And he thought about Skye, the first woman who'd ever loved him.
And when he was done thinking about the past, he began thinking about the future. SHIELD was gone; Hydra was gone; Garrett was gone, and the team would never take him back, not after what he had done to them. Which begged the question, what now? A normal life was out of the question; he just couldn't see himself flipping burgers or going to the local community college. Plus there was the fact that he was a wanted fugitive. Sitting there in the diner, polishing off his cheeseburger, he realized that the only thing he really wanted to do was run missions, just like he had before the fall. Completing an operation successfully without losing anyone had been the one thing about his old life that felt right, made him feel like a real human being instead of what Garrett and his childhood had turned him into.
So he started doing missions. He stuck to the small stuff at first, drug traffickers and convenience-store robberies. Then he'd moved on to bigger targets, including a few rogue ex-SHIELD agents hoarding alien technology and a ring of arms smugglers. It wasn't easy. Though he'd often said otherwise, as a SHEILD agent he had never really worked alone. He'd had people who did recon, made sure he had equipment, dropped him off, picked him up, and took care of debriefing afterwards. Now, he had to pick the op, scout the area, secure the necessary supplies, execute the mission, extract himself, and do whatever cleanup was required, and he had to do it all on his own. It was strange; he'd never appreciated the value of a team until he was forced to work without one.
Nonetheless, he enjoyed it. It made him feel like he was finally doing something good, making up for all the crimes he'd committed. It was his redemption, his way to prove, if only to himself, that he could do better, that he wasn't all bad. That maybe underneath all the layers of manipulation and control and abuse and bad choices, there was something worth saving.
Sometimes he still thought about them, his old team. Caught a whiff of grapefruit that reminded him of Skye, or heard someone speaking Mandarin and thought of May. But that was complicated, and he'd never been one to dwell on complicated things.
So he did missions. And sometimes the missions went wrong. Sometimes he got hurt, like now, and with no medics to patch him up afterwards, he was forced to seek outside help or just treat the wounds himself. He could fix superficial injuries, minor lacerations, first- and second-degree burns, contusions. He even had a couple of suture kits he used to stitch himself up. But the shrapnel in his shoulder and back was so deeply embedded and in such an awkward position that he doubted he could take it out on his own. Besides, he was tired, and he hurt. He just wanted to let someone else do the work for once, so he'd gone to the emergency room.
He felt silly now, sitting on a cot surrounded by what could only be described as normal people. Beyond the curtain, he could see the desk clerk filing charts and viciously cracking his gum, probably trying to quit smoking for the benefit of his girlfriend—no, boyfriend, Ward amended, catching sight of the man's blonde highlights and subtle eyeliner. A kid with an animal bite was telling a nurse how a "shark the size of a dump truck on steroids" had mauled him, although going by the shape of the wound, it had most likely only been a very angry kitten. A large, beefy man was clutching a bloody dishtowel to his lacerated hand, a panicked look in his eyes. Two doctors who looked about ready to fall asleep on their feet high-fived each other before heading away, presumably going home to their families. A young couple walked towards the exit having a heated argument about a sexually transmitted disease, shepherded by a nurse who looked all too eager to see them gone.
Seeing these flashes of people's lives, he felt a flicker of envy. While he was fully aware that normalcy had always been out of the question for him, perhaps he could at least have been happy. He could have trained with May on the weekends, played Scrabble with Fitzsimmons … he could have been with Skye. But he'd burned that bridge the second he shot Thomas Nash. And he didn't know if, given the chance, he would've done it differently, because despite the man's faults he owed Garrett his life. But he also owed the team his life, many times over, and it had torn him apart to have to choose between them.
Quickly, he sent that train of thought to the deep, underground place where he kept any and all things related to the fall of SHIELD. Irritated by his lack of focus, he rubbed his hurt shoulder and cracked his neck. It wasn't the time to be getting nostalgic.
The smell of grapefruit made him look up, every sense on high alert. Then he spotted her, a slim, olive-skinned woman in a black jacket with her brown hair in a loose braid down her back. Skye. Quickly he ducked his head, afraid she'd seen him. Despite staying mostly on the right side of the law for almost a year, he was still a wanted fugitive, and he didn't feel like having to escape from prison a second time. Maybe she wouldn't notice him.
But as he watched out of the corner of his eye, she did a sweep of the room, dark brown eyes taking in every person, object, and exit, analyzing it, and committing it to memory. He couldn't help but feel a flicker of pride; he'd taught her that. But then her gaze fell on him, and her hand went to the bulge in her jacket where she no doubt carried some kind of firearm. Ward braced himself: it would either be a bullet or an icer, and either way it would hurt.
But the only thing he heard was her voice. "Ward?"
He looked up. She was standing at the edge of the curtain, facing him, one hand inside her jacket resting on her weapon just in case, but not making any overtly threatening moves.
He saw a slight movement under her jacket as she tightened her grip on the weapon, but she did not draw and she did not shoot.
"Icer or bullets?" he asked slowly.
"Icer," she replied, her voice carefully measured.
There was another long pause, and the tension between them was almost palpable. Ward sat perfectly still, afraid that any movement he made might set her off.
"Are you going to shoot me?" he asked. A fair question; he'd betrayed the team, taken her hostage, and almost killed Fitzsimmons.
"Still deciding," she answered, in the same measured tone. "Oh, by the way, hands where I can see them, no sudden movements, all that jazz."
They were silent for another minute or so, until Skye asked, "Why are you here?"
"Shrapnel wound," he told her, nodding slowly at his shoulder. "Didn't give myself enough time to clear the blast radius before the charges went off."
"Blowing up a kindergarten?" she asked derisively.
He shook his head, ignoring the barbed comment. "Biotech lab. They were trying to engineer a new strain of smallpox."
Recognition flickered on her face. "Wait a sec, Q-Tech? You were the one who blew up the Q-tech building?"
Ward nodded. "It took some doing, but once I found the holes in their security, it was relatively simple. And I hit the fire alarm before I set off the charges so there wouldn't be anyone in the building when it blew up," he added, a touch of pride in his voice. He'd taken a risk, pulling the alarm, and for no other reason than to spare the lives of a dozen or so bio-terrorists. It was something the old Ward, Garrett's Ward, would never have done.
"Good for you," Skye said with a touch of sarcasm. "I'm sure you feel real good about yourself."
He stayed silent; there was no good answer to that.
"You seriously blew up Q-Tech," she muttered, mostly to herself. "Those dudes have been a major pain in the ass since the fall. We've been fighting them on and off for months now, no success, and here you go, one guy with a brick or two of C-4—"
"Actually, it was Semtex," he corrected. "And it was twelve bricks."
"Whatever." She shook her head in bewilderment.
"So have you decided whether or not you're going to shoot me?" Ward inquired, careful to keep his hands visible and his posture non-threatening.
Ward remembered something. "Um, I've been meaning to ask about, well, about Fitz," he stammered awkwardly. "They told me he had brain damage, from, well, you know."
Skye's face hardened, and she pressed her lips together. "Yeah, he does. He gets these really bad seizures, and he has trouble with talking and understanding when other people talk. He and Simmons sometimes have to use BSL when it gets really bad. And he's got partial paralysis on his right side, too."
"I'm sorry," Ward whispered, face heating in shame.
"Yeah, you should be. So, while I'm debating whether or not to shoot you, how about you tell me what you've done since you escaped from prison?"
He started to shrug, then thought better of it. While not lethal, icers could be painful. "Missions," he told her. "Just like when I was with SHIELD, but now I'm on my own."
"Missions," she stated. "Riiight. What kind of missions?"
"Just … missions. Like blowing up biotech labs and tracking down fugitives and taking back stolen tech."
"Murdering cops? Double-crossing your allies?"
Frustrated, he shook his head. "No! I'm trying to do better. To … atone, for lack of a better word. For what I did to you guys."
Skye glared at him. "Like that's even possible. You're a monster."
"I am," he admitted. "Or at least, I have it in me. I've done horrible things, and there's no excuse for any of it. But that doesn't mean I have to keep being a monster. These missions, they're my way of trying to stop being a monster."
She didn't look convinced. "Let me ask you something, now that you're trying to do better. Was any of it real? Being my SO, saving Simmons, all those times you had our backs, was any of that real? And tell the truth for once in your life."
The remark stung, but he deserved it. He thought for a minute. It was a good question: how much of it had been real? That was one of the complicated things that he'd been trying desperately not to think about for the past few months.
"Some of it was," he said lamely. It was as good an answer as any. "And some of it wasn't. A lot of it wasn't, actually."
Skye took a cautious step closer. "When you kissed me in the supply closet, when we were at the Hub, was that real? Did you feel anything, or were you just manipulating me?"
A lump rose in Ward's throat, and his chest tightened. That moment with Skye had haunted him for a long, long time, a constant knife in his gut that would twist at inopportune moments. Hiding in the dark, with Hydra soldiers who didn't know his status as a sleeper swarming through the hallways, he'd known there was a chance he wouldn't make it out alive. And he didn't care. His life was rapidly reaching the point where he didn't know which way was up, and while he wouldn't have chosen death as an escape, he wouldn't have minded, either. Even if he did live, he'd have to betray her, possibly kill her, if Garrett ordered him to. He still had a naïve hope that she'd come join Hydra with him, but he doubted it. She was so pure, so driven, so loyal. He was going to lose her, one way or another.
So he had told her how he felt, one last confession before everything went to hell. And when their lips met, it made him feel something that he at first couldn't put a name to, he hadn't felt it in so long. Love. For the first time in far, far too long, Grant Ward had felt love.
But he couldn't describe all this to her, not with his mouth suddenly full of sawdust, so all he said was, "Yeah, that was real. It was the realest thing I'd done in a while."
The answer seemed to satisfy her, because she eased her hand halfway out of her jacket and took another step closer. "So what about now? Are you being "real"?"
"Real enough," he replied, then considered his next words carefully. "You remember when we first met, when you asked me if I'd ever killed anyone?"
She nodded. "And you said that you had, a few of them, but you didn't feel good afterwards, and your grandma doesn't know. What's your point?"
"That was real. I didn't feel good afterwards. I remember, after the first time, I went back to the hotel where we were staying and showered for a solid hour, because I kept feeling the guy's blood on my hands. The second time, it didn't feel as bad, and that scared me so much I got sick." He hesitated briefly. "John Garrett was with me on that op, and he yelled at me and told me I was weak. And the third time, I just sort of blocked everything out. But it still felt wrong. And I knew that wasn't who I am. I'm not a killer."
Skye snorted. "Not a killer? Oh, my god. You shot Agent Hand and her guards and those cops outside the diner and Thomas Nash in cold blood. How the hell are you not a killer?"
"Did May ever tell you the difference between a killer and a person who kills?" he asked, finally meeting her eyes.
"No, because there isn't one. A writer writes; a singer sings; a shoemaker shoe-makes, and a killer kills. It's that simple."
He ignored her and continued. "She told me just after the Berserker staff incident. It's something her SO said to her after her first kill shot. "Someone who kills takes a life, but a true killer enjoys it." By that definition, I'm not a killer. Sure, I've killed, but mostly because Garrett was pulling my strings." He paused and took a deep breath. This was the complicated part, the part he'd avoided thinking about for so long. "You asked me how much of it was real. Well, betraying you, killing all those people, trying to kill Fitzsimmons, that wasn't real. It wasn't the real Ward; it was the thing Garrett created."
"That doesn't make it okay," she stated flatly.
"No, it doesn't. What I did was wrong, and nothing can ever make it okay. But it does mean I might have it in me to do better."
"So do you?" she asked. Her hand slid all the way out of her jacket, something he would have advised against, but Skye had always been too trusting for her own good. "Is the real Ward any better than the one who almost killed Fitzsimmons?"
"I think so," he whispered, rubbing at temples. The antiseptic smell in the ER was giving him a headache, right behind his ears. Suddenly very uncomfortable, he changed the subject. "What've you guys been up to? Last I heard, Coulson was trying to rebuild SHIELD."
Skye regarded him suspiciously, then shrugged her shoulders and reached over to pull up one of the blue plastic chairs to sit on, evidently deciding that the question was aimed at making conversation rather than acquiring intel.. Ward could hardly believe she was being so trusting, after everything he'd done. It was equal parts sloppy and endearing.
"We're not exactly rebuilding SHIELD," she began, "more like building something better to replace it. We're not going to make the same mistakes we did the last time. Like, we've gotten rid of the security clearance levels thing. No more secrets. Remember when you and Fitz got sent out into the field without an extraction? That'll never happen now. If you go on a mission, you know everything about it. And if you're working on a project, you know everything about that. There's a little bit of compartmentalization, but it's mostly for the operatives in case they get captured. Other than that, we're pretty transparent."
"I wonder how long that'll last," Ward muttered. The words came out of his mouth before he could stop them.
"As long as I can hack a computer," Skye informed him. "Seriously, we're building something really cool. Right now I'm the head of our Cyber division, which currently consists of me, me, me, and the laptop I won in a bet."
"I remember that laptop," he remarked. "You hacked SHIELD with it."
"I've hacked a lot of things with it," she boasted. "Right now I'm working my way through Stark Industries' mainframe. Just for fun, you know."
A tiny ghost of a smile flickered on Ward's face. "Good luck getting past JARVIS. It's the most advanced artificial intelligence in the world."
"And I'm the most advanced non-artificial intelligence in the world."
"Yeah. Speaking of which, why are you here? You don't look hurt."
"It's actually May," Skye told him. "She has malaria, and they've got her upstairs in Medicine."
"How'd she get malaria?" he asked, concerned. "Did Q-Tech infect her?"
"Nope. She got it the old-fashioned way." Skye took a deep breath, and Ward sensed this was going to be a long story. "See, we had this mission a few weeks ago that took us all over sub-Saharan Africa, and it was hot, like the inside of an oven in Texas, only with bugs and poisonous snakes everywhere. So anyway, there are a whole bunch of weird-ass diseases you can get in sub-Saharan Africa, so Simmons made us get like eight shots and take eleven pills before we went there. And May didn't take hers, because she said germs are afraid of her or something, and good luck trying to get her to do anything she doesn't want to do. So now she has malaria."
"Is she going to be okay?"
Skye nodded. "Yeah; they're just keeping her here until her fever goes down. Got her on chlorine and cry-mine, or something like that."
"Do you want to go see her?" Ward asked. "I'll behave, I promise."
"It's fine," she assured him, leaning back in her chair. "She's pretty delirious from the fever, and she almost nailed me in the face because she thought I was Deathlok or something. AC's with her now, and he's doing a pretty good job keeping her calm."
"He sent me sent me to the cafeteria to get some food," Skye continued. "And it's really crowded, which makes no sense since it's oh-dark-thirty a.m., which is when normal people are supposed to be asleep, right? Anyway, I got stuck sitting next to the winner and still champion of oversharing. I mean, where exactly do people get the idea that I want to know every single detail of their last visit to their proctologist? So I got the hell out of there before I shot him or something, and I guess I ended up down in the ER."
"Are you going to tell Coulson I'm here?" Ward asked, fiddling nervously with the edge of the cot.
She shook her head. "Haven't decided. Oh, but I have decided not to shoot you."
"Good. That's good. Um, this might sound kind of weird, but would you tell May I hope she gets better soon? Or something like that? And tell Fitz and everyone else I'm sorry."
"Okay." She paused for a minute. "Was May real?"
He considered for a minute. "Sometimes. Training with her definitely was. It was nice to have a sparring partner I could really let loose on. I miss that," he added.
Skye's phone buzzed, and she reached inside her jacket pocket to retrieve it. "Fitzsimmons need me," she said, glancing at the screen. "I've got to go." She stood up, and Ward felt his heart ache as he saw her turn to leave.
"I love you," he said impulsively.
She turned around, startled. "What?"
He looked down, hesitating. He was treading on dangerous ground, but if he didn't tell her now, he'd never get the chance. Looking her straight in the eye, he said, "I love you. And I never really realized it until it was too late, but I do. I always have. And if I had a chance to do everything over again, I think I'd do it differently, because I know what you mean to me now."
"Grant…" she whispered. Her face softened, and she approached him cautiously. Mindful of the wound on his shoulder, she reached out and wrapped her arms around him, and he leaned his head into the hollow between her neck and shoulder. He felt her warm hand resting on his back with a gentleness he'd never felt before, and he didn't ever want the moment to end.
"Listen," she said, pulling away slightly but keeping one hand on his shoulder. "This … this doesn't have to be the last time we see each other. Keep "being real" and maybe I'll meet you again sometime."
"How will you find me?" he asked.
"Told you, I'm the most advanced non-artificial intelligence in the world," she replied with a grin.
"And the others, will you tell them?"
She considered for a moment. "How long before you're out of here, do you think?"
"About an hour and a half, tops," he answered. "They're not too busy tonight."
"Then the fact that we met here might slip my mind until then."
He reached out and hugged her again, and she let him, trusted him enough to let him be close to her. He felt her warmth against his skin, and let the gentle pressure of her arms soothe him. "Thank you," he whispered into her jacket.
And then she was gone, and he felt her absence acutely, an ache on his skin where her hands used to be. But he savored the memory of her, her smile, her voice, her smell, her touch.
A preternaturally tall doctor in mismatched scrubs came by with pliers and local anesthetic, and Ward tried not to wince as the shrapnel was wrenched unceremoniously from his shoulder. Once the injury had been properly disinfected and bandaged, he signed his discharge paperwork, promised the doctor to be more careful when lighting the grill, and stepped out the door into the cold October night. Hands in his pockets because he didn't have gloves, he gazed up at the clear night sky, an inky black expanse scattered with pinpricks of light. The autumn wind nipped at his ears and swirled around his legs, but he didn't feel the chill. He had other things on his mind.
"I am Grant Ward," he whispered to the night, a puff of fog escaping his mouth as he spoke. "The real Grant Ward."
Author's note: So, what did you think? I tried to strike a balance between Ward taking responsibility for his actions while realizing that he still has the potential to be a good person. I know this isn't a classic redemption piece, but honestly I can't see him ever rejoining the team. Still, I do believe in a redemption arc for Ward, and this has been my take on that. Thank you all for reading and putting up with my ridiculously long pieces. Please leave a little criticism if you have the time.