A couple of notes before we begin: First of all, I have to thank you guys. I've had more support writing this piece than any other I've written. So many of you have favorited, followed, and reviewed both this story and me as an author, and I'm grateful to each and every one of you. Second, here is the obligatory background information that I oh-so-helpfully provide at the beginning of every story I write: Toradol (ketorolac tromethamine) is a non-narcotic painkiller and member of the NSAID class of drugs. The deltoid is a muscle on the upper arm and part of the shoulder. Neurogenesis is the creation of new neurons from stem cells. It has been known to occur in mice and other small mammals.
Third, uh, May worked her way in here while I wasn't looking. Hope you don't mind.
A huge ball of fire lit up the night as former SHIELD agent Grant Ward hit the ground running, feet pounding the concrete as he raced across the open stretch of ground towards the fence of the Q-Tech compound. Hearing the sound of klaxons blaring in the distance, he put his head down and ran faster. Only a thousand yards between him and safety. His shoulder ached, and he dreaded the thought of having to scale the twelve-foot fence that surrounded the compound. At least he had thick utility gloves to protect his hands from the barbwire this time.
He felt a pang of nostalgia for his days as a SHIELD operative, when an extraction team would be standing by to pick him up. No rappelling down buildings or scaling of walls involved. Those were the good old days. Now, if he wanted to blow up a biotech lab, he was all on his own. Stealing the blasting equipment had been relatively easy, since the word "security" seemed to have fallen out of the local military base's vocabulary. Figuring out where to put the charges in order to destroy everything had been more of a challenge; he was no explosives expert and his mission briefings used to come with instructions about that sort of thing. He'd eventually had to Google it. Then, there had been gaining entry into the compound. Feeling rather silly, he'd used a pair of bolt cutters purchased at Ace Hardware for $11.99. Getting past the guards and laying the charges had only called for good old-fashioned stealth, which required neither theft nor purchase. And now, now was the hardest and most dangerous part of the mission: the escape.
As if to drive the point home, a burst of machine gun fire cut through the darkness. Looking over his shoulder, Ward saw a muzzle flash repeatedly like a strobe light from up on the roof. But it wasn't aimed at him. Briefly, he wondered why, then decided not to question his luck and kept on running.
But the distraction had cost him dearly, and a stray tangle of jumper cables wrapped itself around his ankle. Stumbling, he fell to the ground, barely catching himself with his hands and skinning his cheek on the oily asphalt. Momentarily stunned, he swallowed a curse and staggered to his feet, then abruptly dropped down again as he heard a bullet whine past his ear. Of course, being face down on the slick, stained concrete wasn't going to do him much good if they were firing from the roof. He didn't bother to swallow the next curse that came to mind.
And then there was a hand grabbing him by the scruff of the neck and trying to haul him to his feet.
"Come on! Get up!" an impatient voice yelled. "I am not going to carry you!"
"Skye?" he asked, looking up disbelievingly. His former teammate was dressed all in black, an icer in one hand, his shirt in her other. Her face was smudged with grime and she smelled like blasting powder. Apparently he wasn't the only one who'd decided to blow up Q-Tech that evening.
"Yes. You hurt?"
"Then let's go, unless you have a burning desire to become Swiss cheese!" She gave his shirt another yank as more machine gun fire erupted from the roof.
Pulling himself to his feet, he gestured to the perimeter of the compound. "I cut a hole in the fence at the north end, but we're completely cut off. We'll have to climb."
She shook her head. "You go ahead. I have to go back for May; she's not answering her radio."
"I'll come with you, then," he said. "You could use backup."
Skye looked like she was about to argue, but the asphalt beside them erupted into a cloud of sparks and stone fragments, and so she turned back towards the still-smoking building and took off at a brisk clip, keeping her head down and running in a zigzag pattern to confuse anyone shooting at them.
"Do you have her last known location?" he called, zigzagging across the concrete beside her.
"She was supposed to be setting charges at the base of the lab, and I lost contact when your explosives went off. Nice timing, by the way. I was heading over to get her when I saw you go down. Thought you might be hurt."
It was incredibly brave of her, he realized, as another hail of machine gun fire cut through the ground behind them. There were people he'd worked with during his time in SHIELD who would have just cut their losses and split, leaving him and May to fend for themselves. People could brag about loyalty and never leaving anyone behind, but when the chips were down, more often than not they would choose to save their own skins.
Maybe this new SHIELD had promise after all. With people like Skye at the helm, he would definitely put money on it.
They reached the eastern wall of the main building and pressed themselves up against it, breathing hard. A few more bursts of machine gun fire rang through the air, then went silent. Skye looked over at him and nodded, then gestured to the remains of the lab facility that lay about fifty yards to the left. It was all open ground, and there were countless piles of smoking, smoldering debris and rubble that could trip them, but it was doable. He nodded back at her. He was in.
They began running towards the remains of the lab at a rapid jog, eyes on the ground in front of them to avoid tripping. Burning chunks of debris cast ghostly light across the ground, and the air smelled like chemicals and burning rubber. Ward coughed a few times, then pulled his shirt over his nose and mouth. It didn't help much, but it was a psychological comfort, like the five-second rule. He could see Skye doing the same as she nimbly leaped over a chunk of concrete with twisted steel rods sticking out of it. The debris was becoming thicker as they drew closer to ground zero for the explosion.
"May?" Skye yelled, her voice hoarse and choked. "May, if you can hear us, sing out!"
There was only the crackle of the fires and the distant sound of shouting. A hot, sick feeling settled right below Ward's diaphragm as he realized that May might not have survived. And if she hadn't, it would be his fault. If his explosives hadn't gone off before hers and Skye's, she wouldn't have been hurt.
He let out a sigh of relief as he heard a faint but present yell coming from a few yards in front of them He couldn't make out the words, but it was definitely May's voice.
"Skye! Up ahead!" he called to her.
"I hear it," she responded, scrambling up a mountain of twisted concrete with catlike agility. "May! It's Skye! Keep talking."
He could dimly see her outline now, a human-shaped shadow silhouetted against the dim, smoky sky. Skye reached her first, and was kneeling down beside her when Ward came into view. May was lying on her side on top of a block of concrete, clutching her shoulder. Her face had that pinched look that meant she was in pain and trying very hard not to show it. Her hair was a mess and her face smudged with soot and powder residue. A thick stream of blood ran down the side of her face from a cut near her scalp, and there were numerous small lacerations and burns all over her body.
The last time he'd seen her, the day before they threw him in prison, she had stood on the sidelines, watching him from a distance, her cold, silent glare slicing through his chest like the circular saw he'd tried to use to cut off her face. He'd wanted to apologize, to say something, to tell her … he didn't know what. But it didn't matter, because she'd all but crushed his larynx, and it hurt so much he could barely swallow, much less speak.
Everyone had been hurt by his betrayal, but May had been hit especially hard. It was so hard for her to trust people, and while she hadn't been close to him the same way she was with Coulson, they'd run their fair share of missions, and spent time together off-duty, bonding over glasses of whiskey. She'd come to regard him as a friend, a title she so rarely bestowed upon anyone, and he'd thrown it all back in her face.
When May saw him, her face resolved into an expression of dark, icy hatred.
"What is he doing here?" she spat, her voice dripping venom.
"Relax; he's on our side," Skye assured her, pulling gauze out of her pocket and pressing it to the other agent's shoulder. "Remember I told you I met him in the ER last year when you had malaria?"
"I don't care what kind of fences you've mended," May growled, pushing herself up into a sitting position despite Skye's protests. "He almost killed Fitzsimmons. He took you hostage. He betrayed us all. He'll never be on our side."
"Well, he is. He came back with me to get you, didn't he?" Skye insisted.
"Look, you may be some starry-eyed idealist who thinks that everyone's heart is pure, but in a little place called reality—"
"Can we just shelve the whole he-betrayed-us thing until we're out of here? We have bigger fish to fry! Bigger fish with huge machine guns shooting at us."
May reluctantly agreed, then shot Ward the Death Glare, warning him that she would unleash unspeakable terrors on him if he proved anything less than reliable. He nodded to show he understood.
"Okay, somehow I doubt we'll be climbing any walls, so let's see if we can make it to that hole you cut in the fence," said Skye. Then, to May, "Can you walk?"
"Yeah," May said, staggering to her feet, leaning heavily on Skye. Instinctively, Ward moved in to help her, but stopped himself. The Death Glare was so powerful he could almost feel it on his skin.
They headed north, towards the section of the fence where Ward had cut a hole in the barbed wire. It was slow going; May was more injured than she let on, and despite her stubbornness, the physical body could only be pushed so far. Ward brought up the rear, keeping a careful eye out for any Q-Tech security guards who might have spotted them. The machine guns had been silent for some time, but he had no doubt they would start up again the moment they spotted the trio of agents. Moving became easier once they had mostly cleared the debris field, and Ward could see the northern fence up ahead, burning debris casting faint light on the barbed wire.
Fear shot through him when he saw a searchlight beam split the darkness ahead of them.
"I see it. Come on!"
They quickened their pace, but another beam swept the ground behind them, then came back for another pass, closer this time. The next beam flew directly over them, and Ward threw up a hand to cover his eyes as the blinding light swept across them.
"They've spotted us," May called, voice tight with pain. "We'll cover as much ground as we can before they come after us."
They moved even faster, with Skye practically carrying May. The smoke grew thinner, and it became easier to breathe, but they still weren't going fast enough. The searchlight swept over them again; the afterimage blinded him momentarily and he almost tripped. He could hear shouts behind them, and the clicks of gun safeties being removed.
The fence was just up ahead, maybe a hundred feet. Maybe, just maybe, they could make it, if only they moved just a little faster …
His hopes were dashed when a glance over his shoulder revealed a group of six men in full body armor carrying semi-automatics running towards them. There was no way out; even if they made it through the fence, the men would just follow them into the woods.
Skye must have seen them too, because she stopped and turned around just as they reached the hole in the barbed wire. "Take May," she ordered Ward. "Go to the rendezvous point; the bus'll pick you up. I'll buy you time." She pulled her icer out of her belt. "Go!" Not giving him time to object, she turned and ran towards the approaching soldiers.
"Skye, no!" he called after her. "It's suicide."
Looking back over her shoulder, she shot him a wicked grin. "Not if I don't die!"
He wanted to protest, but she was already gone. Swallowing the bile rising in his throat, he looped an arm under May's shoulders, feeling her shudder at his touch. Together, they climbed through the fence, Ward wincing as a piece of wire snagged his clothing, and melted into the woods surrounding the compound. The trees were dense and there was no light to guide them save for the full moon that hung in the sky. Several times he almost tripped, but managed to keep his footing.
"Where's the rendezvous?" he asked, daring to speak to May directly for the first time since they'd seen each other.
"Cave up ahead," she gasped. "Just keep going straight; we'll practically trip over it."
The way to the cave was long and arduous. The woods were pitch-black, and while Ward had a keychain flashlight stashed in his boot, he didn't want to risk alerting anyone to their presence. Branches and vines kept slapping his face and grabbing his legs, and May seemed to grow heavier with every step. Halfway there, the adrenaline started wearing off, and the injuries he'd acquired began making themselves known. The scrape on his cheek stung, his shoulder ached even worse than before, and his ankle throbbed from when he'd tripped. His fingers were beginning to grow numb with nighttime cold, and the adrenaline withdrawal was sapping his strength.
A palpable feeling of relief washed over him when he spotted the cave, a small hollow in the side of a hill disguised by a tall birch tree. Between that and the darkness, Ward almost missed it, and he was confident that no one else would see it either. He ducked inside, setting May down gently on a flat stretch of dirt. Sighing, Ward leaned back against the cave wall and pulled the keychain light out of his boot. It flickered dimly, illuminating the small, dark cavern they were in. May looked even worse now that he could see her clearly; her face was white and covered in a sheen of sweat, and her teeth were gritted against the pain. He glanced down at her shoulder and saw a large patch of torn-up flesh that was bleeding sluggishly into her jacket.
"You okay?" he asked her. It was a pointless question; of course she wasn't.
"Fine," she snapped.
"Your shoulder looks pretty bad."
"I'll live," she grunted, from between clenched teeth.
"Can I take a look at it? I won't hurt you; I promise."
"As if your promises mean anything."
She was right. And he realized he wasn't going to get anywhere with her. When he'd met Skye in the ER, she'd listened to him, given him a chance to talk, driven perhaps by the idealistic notion that there was still some good left in him, that the man she'd thought she'd known was in some way real. May was different. Driven, single-minded, and vengeful. Skye had been willing to listen. He doubted May would afford him that courtesy.
He was right. Visibly choking back a scream, May propped herself up against the cave wall and, with her uninjured arm, drew a small dagger out of her boot. "If she dies, you die."
Ward nodded. It was only fair. He should have been the one to stay behind, to give his life in repentance. Not her. She was so young and pure; it was too soon for her to die, while he was living on borrowed time. The thought of her being killed out there in that lonely concrete lot made him sick to his gut, and May's knife in his throat would be almost welcome if that were the case. But her words, glib and flippant, echoed in his mind. Not if I don't die. The same words he'd said to her when they retook the Hub. Drawing his knees up to his chest and taking a deep breath in through his nose to quell the rising nausea, he wished, more than anything else, for her to make it out alive. Because, he realized, she could do it. It had been over two years since they had taken on the young, hip hacktivist from the Rising Tide who couldn't tell the safety release from the magazine release. She was top level at sparring; he'd witnessed that for himself, and the easy, seemingly effortless way she scrambled over those piles of rubble to reach her new SO spoke of strength and agility.
And, more than anything else, she had what he didn't. A reason to live. She had the new SHIELD, and her team, and people to go home to. Sometimes the deciding factor in a fight was who was more determined, not who was more skillful.
The small whimper that escaped May's lips drew his thoughts back to their present situation. If possible, she looked worse than before, and the wound on her arm was leaking blood more freely now.
"Shut up," she snapped, then clenched her jaw shut.
"I think you're going into shock or something."
She was shaking now, and he didn't like the gray color of her skin. Rising halfway to his feet, he pawed at the pile of leaves and twigs at the back of the cave. Occasionally, SHIELD operatives would stash a first aid kit at their rendezvous point, in case a specialist were injured on a mission and needed medical attention before the extraction team could pick them up. Sure enough, his hand brushed plastic, and he pulled out a white box with a red cross on it. Paydirt. Opening it, he went straight for the painkillers. Toradol, not morphine, since the last thing a person behind enemy lines wanted to do was dull their reflexes and cloud their mind. Pulling the cap off with his teeth, he approached May cautiously. She reached out and grabbed his wrist in a grip that was surprisingly strong.
"Don't you dare."
"Relax; it's Toradol," he assured her, showing her the label. "It'll help with the pain."
She narrowed her eyes at him, but pain and desperation won over any doubts she may have had. He injected her, and she sighed in relief as the drug flooded her system. Carefully, making sure his hands were visible the whole time, he pulled out a pair of trauma shears. "I'm just going to cut away your jacket and get a better look at your shoulder, okay?"
Reluctantly, May nodded. Flashlight in his teeth, he cut off the sleeve of her jacket and began to treat the wound. May watched him like a sniper the whole time, hand gripping her knife, ready to strike if he made a wrong move. He moved slowly and carefully, narrating each step to her so she knew what to expect. The wound wasn't so bad once he'd cleaned away all the blood. No major arteries were damaged, although there were some metal fragments lodged deep in her deltoid muscle. He didn't want to take them out, since it would probably cause more bleeding, so he just disinfected the wound and put a sterile dressing on it, tacking it down firmly with medical tape. When that was done, he closed the first aid kit and sat back down, pleased with the job he'd done.
After a minute, May spoke, so quietly he thought for a moment he'd misheard. "Thank you."
A ghost of a smile crossed his face.
They sat in silence a little while, until May said, "Skye told me what you've been doing lately. Running missions on your own."
He looked up, surprised that she'd been the one to initiate the conversation. He'd expected her to maintain the awkward silence as long as possible, letting him stew in his own guilt. "It pays the bills," he said lamely. "Only, not really. I had a job as a janitor for a while. That, uh, paid the bills."
May expertly arched an eyebrow, and he was reminded of the ER nurse the first night he'd met Skye.
"I was up in this small town in Massachusetts chasing an Index Asset with minor mind-control abilities. After that was done, I decided to stay on as a janitor at the middle school, just to decompress for a while," he explained.
"How'd that work out for you?"
"Actually, not that bad. I mean, cleaning up vomit has its ups and downs. But it was a nice change of pace. And I met this boy named Ryan, a seventh grader, real nice kid. Some eighth graders were giving him a hard time, and I let him hang out in my mop closet when it got bad. Taught him a few self-defense moves, too."
"Sounds nice. Why'd you leave?"
He shrugged. "It was the end of the school year, and Ryan was doing pretty well standing up for himself, so I figured I shouldn't stay in one place too long. I am a wanted fugitive, after all."
"That you are."
They were silent for another minute, until he said, "I know this means nothing to you, but I've been wanting to say it since the fall. I'm sorry for everything I did. I'm sorry I lied to you. I'm sorry I used you. I'm sorry I almost killed Fitzsimmons, and I'm sorry I tried to saw your face off. I-I'm sorry."
"You're right," she said, a note of bitterness in her voice. "It means nothing."
"Skye might have forgiven you, but I never will."
He gave a sharp, humorless laugh. "Skye hasn't forgiven me. And she hasn't forgotten what I've done, either. She's just willing to give me another chance. She knows I'm not the same Ward who betrayed you—"
"You'll always be the same," she snapped, cutting him off. "People don't change."
"You're right," he admitted. "They don't. But maybe this is who I was all along. Not that that's any excuse," he added quickly, sensing her objection, "but I can do better. I can be a good person."
"Right," she huffed. "A good person doesn't throw two scientists into the ocean because he doesn't even have the guts to see their faces when he kills them."
Guilt stabbed him in the chest, but he pushed it aside. It wasn't of any use to him. He took a deep breath, searching for the right words. "When I was in prison, I spent a lot of time in solitary, and all you can do in there is think. So I thought. I thought a lot, and I haven't really stopped thinking since, and this is what I've figured out. First of all, none of this is an excuse. There's no excuse for what I did. But there is a reason, and it's not that I'm a bad person. It's that I'm weak." He all but choked on the word. "John Garrett warped my mind so badly that I didn't know which way was up, and I let him, because I was fifteen and vulnerable and came from a bad situation. He kept me isolated for years, used all the classic mind control techniques. And my parents, my brother, they didn't exactly help either. They all turned me into something I'm not. I was a product of their mistreatment. A monster." He bit his lip and blinked a few times in the dim light.
"Go on," said May, her tone deadpan. "I want to hear the rest of this."
"Okay." He nodded, collected himself, and continued. "I'm not under their control anymore, which begs the question, who am I? Who's the real Grant Ward? And I've been figuring that out ever since. And you know what? I kind of like him. And so does Skye, I guess. And I know, I know that nothing I ever say or do will bring Hand or anyone else back from the dead, or fix Fitz's brain, or undo any of the damage I've done. But I'm trying to let that go, because that's what you do with the past. You learn from it, and move on."
May was quiet for a moment, considering these words. "And what have you learned?" she asked.
The words came so naturally to him that he didn't even stop to think before he spoke. "I've learned that I need to think for myself, that I can't let anyone else tell me what matters and what doesn't. I'm my own person, and I have a right to make my own decisions. And I've learned that it's okay to care about people, and compassion isn't weakness. I've learned to accept responsibility for my actions, and that while other people might play a part in what I do and what I am, ultimately, the decision and the consequences are mine."
He could have sworn there was a glint of approval in May's eye.
Just then, there was a rustling sound outside the cave, and a figure appeared at the entranceway. Ward moved forward into a crouch, and May tightened her grip on the knife, but there was nothing to fear.
"Sorry it took me so long," Skye said, ducking into the cave and pushing her hair out of her face. "My flashlight broke and I got really, really lost. Hey, are those granola bars we stashed in here this morning still there, or did you guys eat them all?"
A smile spread across Ward's face as relief flooded his system. Skye was safe, uninjured, and alive.
"You hurt?" May asked, looking at her protégé with concern.
"Couple bruises," the young agent reported. "Those guys didn't know nuthin'. But I'm gonna feel it in the morning, that's for sure. Now, can I please have a granola bar? I'm starving."
May fished the box of granola bars out of the same leaf pile where Ward had found the first aid kit, and they each had one. Apparently Skye's brush with death hadn't made her any less talkative, and between bites she told Ward everything that had been going on with SHIELD-take-two.
Apparently Simmons's neurogenesis treatments were working, and Fitz was doing much better. "Stopped needing to use sign language just when I was getting good at it," she groused. Their makeshift Academy had grown rapidly, and now there were over a hundred students. Skye still taught computer classes twice a week, and May had finally caved and was teaching hand-to-hand on Saturdays, while Fitz held workshops on holographic engineering. Simmons didn't teach; instead, she commanded her own field team. The thought of the fragile young biochemist working in the field seemed counterintuitive to Ward, but then, it had been well over a year since he'd seen her last. She'd come a long way.
After Skye was done talking about the new SHIELD, Ward filled her and May in on his life. He told them about various missions he'd run, and even threw in a humorous anecdote about a foul-mouthed drug dealer he apprehended, who had then tried to escape by feigning an epileptic seizure, poorly. Then he told them about Ryan, the kid he'd befriended during his time as a janitor in the middle of Nowhere, Massachusetts.
"Last day of school, Parker, this eighth grader who I swear is the spawn of Satan comes up to him and starts in with the usual insults, and Ryan just stood up, threw his shoulders back, and yelled, 'Leave me alone!' as loudly as he could. And the look on Parker's face was just precious. He'd never had anyone stand up to him before. I don't think I've ever been prouder."
"Good for you," said May.
"Good for him," Ward corrected. "Takes a lot of courage to do something like that."
Skye broke out another round of granola bars, and they were all munching happily when Ward heard the faint hum of a jet engine overhead. This was his cue to leave. Skye and May were going back to their world, a world full of hope and promise and family, and there was no place for him there. He wished—
He didn't wish anything. His life hadn't turned out the way he'd wanted it to, but there was nothing he could do about it now. It was like he'd told May: you don't cling to the past. You learn from it, and then move on.
As the two SHIELD agents rose to their feet and started towards the entrance of the cave, May lingered a moment. "Hey. Thanks for patching me up."
"And …" She shifted awkwardly. "Once all this Q-Tech stuff blows over and we all have a second to breathe …"
"You want to get drinks or something?"
Author's note: A five hundred word oneshot that's turned into a fifteen thousand word three-shot. First there was Fireflies, which ended up being 11k. Now this. I am physically incapable of writing anything short, aren't I?
I'm afraid this is the final chapter, so please don't bug me to write more. I know that you guys would probably love it if I continued this until the Internet overloaded, but a) I want to watch season 2, b) you have to end it somewhere, and c) the Internet would probably not appreciate being overloaded by my fan fiction. Fear not; there will be other stories, both fanfic and original stories over on FictionPress.
And, as I mentioned before, I have to admit I was blown away by the amount of feedback this received, in follows, favorites, traffic, and reviews. When I wrote my first fan fiction serial (Shatter), I had to threaten not to continue if people didn't start reviewing, and the feedback I did get was generally unhelpful. This … this blows my mind. Thank you all. Thank you all so, so much for your help, especially icewitch73 and astridv for leaving great reviews that gave me insight into my writing style and guidance for future chapters.