The morning that Jemma Simmons left the Playground held a thick fog and a chill in the air.
She'd spent the past several days speaking privately with Coulson and May, when they could spare the time, discussing her options. At one point, she'd been set to travel to Ecuador, where a small network of S.H.I.E.L.D. supporters were holed up in a base, planning the logistics of Latin American recruitment. Another option had been a private lab in Sacramento owned by one of Coulson's connections in the civilian world- there, she could continue the projects she'd been working on in the Playground's labs, with greater resources and access to equipment. It had been the option she preferred.
Then suddenly, Hydra was on the table, and though Coulson initially seemed hesitant about her ability to go deep undercover, May's faith in her had convinced him. Jemma Simmons, Hydra double-agent went from an idea beyond her wildest nightmares to being written in neat penmanship under tomorrow's date in her planner, in villainous red ink and underlined twice.
She knew she'd have to either burn the calendar or leave it behind, but writing it down had made it feel more final, more solid, more true.
Now, the morning of her departure, as she folded her jumpers and slacks- mostly black and neutral tones, as seemed befitting of a Hydra agent- and placed them gently in the open suitcase on her bed, she thought that she couldn't have felt less solid if she'd tried.
She jumped, full of nerves, at a soft knock on her bunk's door. No one was supposed to know she was leaving, not yet.
"Simmons? It's May. May I come in?"
Jemma took a deep breath and acquiesced. May had been a comforting presence of late, accessible in a way she hadn't been before- before. She had stayed up late at night, training Jemma alongside Skye in hand-to-hand combat, how to properly shoot a gun, tactical maneuvers- things a field agent must know. Jemma wasn't sure if she felt ready, if it had been enough, but she supposed that didn't really matter at this point.
"We'll be leaving in 20," said May, shutting the door behind her and crossing her arms. "I'll be taking you to meet our contact, and he'll accompany you the rest of the way. We strongly believe we can trust him."
Jemma nodded and smoothed the top layer of clothing in her suitcase.
"You haven't mentioned anything to anyone, have you?" asked May.
"No. You told me not to," Jemma replied. Jemma Simmons had always done as she was told. "I do feel as though- I feel as though they deserve some sort of explanation." After a beat, "He deserves some sort of explanation."
May sighed, though her expression remained neutral. "And they'll get one. When they need it. This isn't the same organization anymore, Simmons. Things are serious, and there are very real trust concerns at play. The less information any one person has, the better."
"But won't they think I've… I don't want them to think I've just left. Just abandoned them. Will you at least tell them I'm on a mission of some kind?"
May stared at Jemma for a moment. Jemma thought she could see traces of sympathy in her eyes, but she couldn't be sure. She hadn't felt sure of much in weeks.
"We'll just have to see," May said finally. "All I can assure you is that when they need to know, when it is in their best interest to know, they'll know."
Jemma nodded, turning back to her case.
"Coulson and I both appreciate your discretion on this matter," May added. "And Jemma-"
Jemma continued to stare down into her suitcase for a moment, as if she could see her future in the soft grey knit pullover that laid on top, before turning around to meet May's eyes again.
"You're doing the right thing. For Fitz."
Before Jemma could reply, May opened the bunk door and slipped back out into hallway.
The right thing. Jemma hadn't been sure, when she'd requested to go on a mission, whether she'd been doing it for Fitz's sake or for her own. Perhaps both- after all, their well-being had been inextricably linked for a decade. Why should that stop now?
But Jemma dealt in facts, facts and figures and calculations and chemicals, and the facts told her that Fitz's mental condition had not improved over the past several weeks. If anything, there were more bad days than good. She had become his crutch, the answer to all his problems and the end of all his sentences, and she knew that the more she helped him fill in his blanks, the more she robbed him of the opportunity to get better on his own.
If she stayed, she'd never be able to stop helping him. He'd never be whole without her, and even at their most codependent, they'd always been whole people. She couldn't bear the idea that because he'd sacrificed himself for her, he'd never be whole again.
So she'd made her decision. Leave, with the knowledge and faith that everything Fitz needed to become whole again lay within him already.
And if the loneliness and danger she knew she was running towards served as a penance for being the one who survived unscathed, the one who retained full access to her genius, the one who after all this time still couldn't make heads or tails of her damned feelings when it came to her best friend in the world? Well, that was just another impetus for leaving.
She zipped her suitcase resolutely, taking one last look around the room that she hadn't had the time, nor the heart, to make hers in any way. And took hold of the handle and walked out the door.
The hallway that held their bunks was dim in the early hours of morning, the team still asleep, save for Jemma and May. Jemma knew that May would be waiting for her outside, and that she should go straight to her, to be absconded away to the unknown. It would be the easiest way, a quick, quiet, painless exit.
But nothing in Jemma's life had been free from pain lately.
A few more steps down the hallway, she vacillated between the hard way and the less hard way, between leaving things be and potentially making things worse. All the facts told her to just go.
She bit her lip, stopped in the middle of the hallway bathed in dim fluorescent light. She should just go. Go, go, and not look back. Orpheus had looked back and lost Eurydice forever. Lot's wife had looked back and turned to salt. But Jemma had grown up on stories of science and solutions, not fables and faith. She set her case gently on the floor beside Fitz's door, and turned the knob, slipping inside without knocking.
A ghost of a smile graced Jemma's face as her eyes adjusted to the dark of Fitz's bunk. He slept atop the covers, curled on his side, comfortable in blue plaid pajama pants and a worn old Academy jumper. She hated to wake him, as peaceful as he looked, but she'd come this far.
Jemma crouched by his bed and put her hand on his shoulder, then the side of his face. She brushed her fingers through the curls at his hairline, shorter now, somehow more grown-up and more boyish at once. "Fitz," she whispered.
He stirred immediately, a much lighter sleeper now than he had been just a few short months ago.
His blue eyes opened, blinked once, twice. "Jem- Jemma?" He moved to sit up, but she put her hand back on his shoulder, encouraging him to stay. This felt easier if they weren't on the same level.
"Fitz. Oh, Fitz." It was too bad she hadn't planned for this. She'd never been adept at impromptu speeches.
"What're you… um… what- what are you…" he trailed off.
"Don't fret. You haven't missed breakfast," she said lightly. His brow just furrowed.
"What, um. What, uh-" He gestured toward the watch on her wrist.
"What time is it? Nearly 4:30. Too early for man or beast, if you ask me," she answered. He shook his head, as if to clear it, to shake out the cobwebs, something he did quite often these days. She ached for how hard it must be for him. She had always known him to be so brilliantly focused and clear-headed.
"I… um. I don't… Do you… Are you…" Fitz spoke in stutters, starts and stops. It broke her heart each time she couldn't anticipate where his train of thought led. The damage to his brain hadn't just affected him; it had impacted their connection.
"Listen to me, Fitz," she began, her voice as firm as the hand still on his shoulder. "I know things are difficult right now. I know you're trying, so very hard. And I believe in you. I don't-" She broke off, her voice thick. "You're getting better every day, and I need you to know that I believe in you. How much I believe you can do it."
She tightened her grip on his shoulder, his blue eyes watching her carefully. She hoped he understood everything she couldn't say, wouldn't say.
"Everything's going to be just fine. You're going to be back to your old self before you know it. And I'll be- I promise I'll-" But she couldn't promise him anything. And more than that, she couldn't lie to him. She may have been staking her life on the prospect of lying to an international terrorist organization, but she knew that she could never, ever lie to the man in front of her.
Hot tears pricked at the back of her eyes, and she hoped that in the dim of the room, he couldn't spot them.
"You're almost there, Fitz. I know you are."
She took a deep breath and rose from the floor, setting a smile on her face as she looked down at him. He sat up in bed now, still looking at her like she was his lifeline, like he might not be okay without her. But she was certain- very nearly certain- that he would.
She backed toward the door, eyes not leaving his. Grasped the doorknob behind her, twisting it. "Goodnight, Fitz."
"Jemma- where… uh, where are you…"
The door snicked shut softly behind her.
There were exactly 278 steps from the hallway outside Fitz's bunk to the spot where May waited, sunglasses on in spite of the darkness, at the exit to the Playground. Each one made an effort to shatter Jemma's resolve. Each one failed.
"You're late," said May, before getting into the driver's seat of the waiting car.
"I hope not too late," Jemma said to herself, gripping her bag tightly.
With that, Jemma Simmons walked headfirst into the fog of the early morning, on her way to an uncertain future and determined not to look back. For now, anyway.