Written before 311.
Prompt: "comforting kisses pressed to tear-stained cheeks between whispered words of reassurance and concern."
Much thanks to theclaravoyant for beta reading!
The title is shamelessly ~inspired~ by Kate Bush's song of the same title.
She was doing it again. Hovering in the doorway, a thousand contradictory thoughts waging war in her head, undermining her resolve with each breath she took. It was maddening to watch. An awkward silence settled upon the lab as Jemma seemed to ponder whether she should step in or quietly retreat. As usual, Fitz was torn between the contradictory urges to shake her, console her and suggest they ran away together until it all died down. How could she look so alluring and world-weary at the same time?
Every time Fitz saw her –as often as she would allow– he had to remind himself not to inspect her too blatantly as he searched for signs her spirits were improving. Today, he couldn't help but notice that although the purple stain on her cheeks was almost completely faded, she looked as defeated and frazzled as ever.
He was not as good at reading her as he once had been. In a little under two years, they had both gone through major, transformative traumas. Her outcome was pretty good, all things considered. Her wonderful brain wouldn't remain crippled like his, at any rate. She was seeing a new therapist, a specialist in PTSD and anxiety disorders who came highly recommended. Coulson had personally promised Fitz he was the best there was.
Therapy hadn't done much for Fitz during his recovery, when he was stewing in resentment and turning every human interaction into a harsh - and laborious – battle of wits, but he sure hoped it would take on Jemma. At this point, he would readily bargain with any deity or alien entity to see her look her bright and happy self again for one day.
"Jemma," Fitz said cautiously, and instantly felt dumb for addressing her this way. She was not a wounded animal and it sure wasn't a brusque greeting that was most likely to scare her away.
"Hi, Fitz," she replied just as softly before clearing her throat. She didn't move from her spot by the door, neither in nor out, but managed to force a smile. It was frail and mostly pretend, but it was there, which he decided counted as a win.
Had it felt this way for Jemma, when he had been bed bound and frantic, hurling at the wall whatever his good hand could grab, incensed at his inability to string a five-word sentence together? She'd been so composed then, so steady, merely flinching at his most bitter retorts.
Perhaps it would be easier if she were angry. She hadn't deserved his wrath then, certainly not the way he did hers, and it might be soothing for her to properly, openly blame him for everything that happened. For all the pain he'd caused. There was nothing she could tell him he hadn't thought a thousand times before, anyway.
"Did you want to, uh…" Fitz gestured vaguely towards the space between them. "I– I could use you here," he finished lamely.
Jemma merely looked down, her chest heaving with increasingly labored breaths.
The unspoken rules were clear and none of the lab techs were dumb enough to point out that Jemma hadn't exactly been the most productive member of the science crew as of late. At this point, her co-director title was mostly honorific. Instead, they remained as silent and invisible as possible, darting worried glances in Fitz' direction, reminding him he might not be the easiest person to work for.
"I should go," she finally said, her voice strained and trembling. "I'm sorry."
Of-freaking-course, she was running scared, unable to look at him. He knew he was fooling himself, thinking she might one day forgive him for –everything, really. He should give her some space. Make himself scarce for a few days. It couldn't be easy for her to look at him and remember he'd basically set fire to her boyfriend.
There had to be something he could build to fix this. Something other than a time machine. He'd thought long and hard about time machines – had since he was 7, really – without figuring a sustainable way to design one. Then there was the very real problem of what he'd do with the hypothetical time machine. Would he be strong enough to send Jemma where she needed to be, minutes before she grabbed his hand, so she could rescue Will, too? Or would he be a selfish prick and kill that godawful timeline altogether, never allowing her near that stupid monolith ever again? Could he live with himself then? He didn't feel very chivalrous, nowadays.
Perhaps he should check up on her, just in case. If she wanted him away from her, she would tell him, right? He'd seen her having a panic attack before and those were no joke. She shouldn't be alone to deal with them.
Fitz shrugged his lab coat off and gestured vaguely towards the hallway, already on his way. The lab techs all nodded silently. They knew the drill.
The moment the door shut behind her, Jemma slid to the floor and focused on her breathing before the symptoms took over completely. She closed her eyes and set about slowly forcing the air down her throat, until her heartbeat finally resumed a normal rhythm.
Everything was getting worse. The episodes were becoming more frequent, her general anxiety was thicker than ever. Even the weaker gravity was troubling her anew; she didn't feel properly anchored to the ground anymore.
Although Agent Coulson had repeatedly assured Jemma she should take as long as she needed –implying kindly, if inaccurately, that she was irreplaceable– she couldn't bear feeling so useless and out of place in what used to be her happy space. The little research she'd had an active hand in since her return had all related to Maveth, and now that was over. She felt drained of both energy and ideas, with no project on her slate, which was a completely unknown and terrifying state.
She would never admit how deep it stung that the lab ran itself so well in her absence. Other than her filing and ordering system, which Fitz assured her he strictly enforced on a daily basis, it felt as though she'd never worked there at all.
Maybe she should leave. Acknowledge once and for all that there was no going back to her pre-Maveth life. The young and eager agents who'd earnestly taken over during her absence would no doubt be thrilled to see her hang up her lab coat for good.
And Fitz… How he still managed to look at this wreck she was now with such tenderness was beyond her. Maybe this was one of those instances when he needed to be saved, from himself and from her. From settling for a shell of a person. From suffering pointlessly over her, or risking his life for her, again and again. God, she was in love with him. Ridiculously so. How had she not realized that when it had still mattered?
Jemma knew to make hard decisions when they were called for. There was no doubt in her mind that leaving him that first time, when their relationship was veering toward toxic codependency, had been the right thing to do. The betrayal in his eyes haunted her to this day, but her departure had forced him out of his stubborn despondency, at long last. And yes, at the time, a part of her –a small, needy, shameful part of her– had wished for the plan to fail; had wanted him to need her above all else. But she was an intelligent, disciplined woman, who knew better than to follow her baser impulses.
It would be much harder this time, though. Of all the things she had learned about herself on Maveth, the most important one had become more defined with time. She now knew that Fitz was her favourite word, her favourite person and her favourite everything. She also knew that she could survive without him for weeks, months, maybe even a lifetime. It wouldn't be the happiest lifetime she may have hoped for, but it could be done.
She would learn to work with other people, although the teamwork would never be as rewarding as what they had once had. The chances she might meet another kindred were fairly slim and she was under no illusion regarding her prospects, especially considering her current state. But many people had made valuable scientific contributions without achieving greatness.
She would form new friendships someday: not as profound as theirs, but pleasant nonetheless. There might even be other, lesser loves for her to find someday. Not that she was anywhere near ready to consider that now. Not so soon after Will. It broke her heart that despite all their efforts, he'd never stood a chance. If anyone deserved the chance to live a second act, it was Will.
Leaving. Such an innocuous-sounding word to designate the simultaneous loss of the most important person in her life, her dream job and all her friends. Where would she even go? What could she possibly do with herself?
Her parents' home was the most plausible of her few options, but whenever she tried picturing herself back in Sheffield, piteously moving back into her childhood bedroom with its embarrassingly girly decor, her stomach clenched with horror. Between boarding school, the Academy and S.H.I.E.L.D., it had been so long since she'd last had a significant conversation with her parents, they probably had no idea who she was anymore. A week's vacation every other year wasn't enough to undo that; not when she spent so much energy sheltering them from the reality of her job and the dangers in her life. She worried they might not like the real Jemma Simmons very much.
But it would have to do, just for a little while, until she landed on her feet again. There had to be room for a formerly brilliant biochemist somewhere in the private sector. She wouldn't even mind starting as an underling.
Oh but what would her mother say if she ever found Jemma's makeshift knife under her frilly pillow? Some worlds were not meant to collide.
The moment the thought formed in her head, her chest started constricting again.
"Jemma?" Fitz' knock on the door was met with a suspicious silence. He had no doubt she was holing up in her room again, though. It wasn't just the lab that she'd deserted: she didn't engage in any other mission either. Coulson insisted she was getting better, but Fitz had yet to witness that firsthand.
He should probably give her the space she demanded and leave her be. He should–
"I'm coming in," he warned, and carefully opened the door to find Jemma sitting on her bed with her head bent, her breath coming out in gasps.
"What are you doing here, Fitz?" she managed between shallow breaths.
He crossed the room in a few strides and sat bluntly on the bed next to her, grabbing her hand.
"C'mon, Jemma. Inhale through your nose."
"I know what to do," she replied, shaking her hand free.
"I know you do, I just…" he let the sentence die, suddenly at a loss. Once more, he'd managed to instantly annoy her. He didn't even know how. At least her breathing was evening out.
"You're doing it again," she pointed out a little acidly. "Trying to fix me."
Well, someone has to.
"Not fix you," he mumbled. "Just help you."
"Yes, well," Jemma huffed. "Putting me on the spot in the lab? Barging in like this in my private quarters? Not helping."
"Nothing I do or say ever does," he grumbled.
"What is that supposed to mean?" Jemma asked, raising her voice.
This was escalating fast, he realized. He was faced with two options: retreating piteously or just having it out. On most days, he would choose the former, but he happened to be in a fouler mood than usual, and getting a rise out of her still beat getting nothing at all.
Screw it. Cards on the table, right?
"You know what? I think you should say it aloud. It might be cathartic, or something like that."
"What do you want me to say?" she asked, eyes wide.
"That Will died because of me. I promised I would bring him back to you and I failed. Spectacularly," he added with an unhappy chuckle.
"Don't you dare. Don't you dare pretend what happened was your fault."
"Come on, Jemma. You know that it was."
"Did you happen to secretly develop the ability to revive dead people when I was gone?" she snapped, temper flaring.
"You didn't talk to him, Jem. I did. He– he was still in there."
"It wasn't him. You know it."
"I could have–"
"You could have died!" Jemma burst out. "You could have been stranded on that stupid planet. It could have taken you! And for what? To chase a ghost that wasn't even yours to save? If you'd died there, Fitz, I swear–"
"–I would never have forgiven you," she near shouted. "Or myself," she added, her voice breaking.
"Jemma, look at me."
She turned to face him square on, staring back with an air of defiance that was belied by the tears rolling down her cheeks. He'd seen her cry more often in the past few weeks than he had in their ten years together and he wasn't sure how much more of that he could take. Without thinking, he bent his head and kissed her moist cheek, again and again.
"I'm here. I'm fine," he murmured against her skin. "It's gonna be okay. I promise"
He felt the press of her hand on his jaw, sensed her moving, but it wasn't until her mouth connected with his that he realized what she was doing.
As far as kisses went, this one was fairly unremarkable. It was nothing like the heated ones they'd shared in the lab, with him driven half mad by jealousy and desperation. This one was just a soft press of her lips to his, tentative and kind of awkward. Still, it was enough to raise his heartbeat and get his hopes up - only to see them shattered shortly, no doubt.
His hand went to cup the nape of her head and he allowed himself to enjoy one last second before he pulled away.
"Jemma. Jemma, stop."
"You're grieving. You're– confused."
"Not about that, I'm not," she whispered, angling her face closer again, until he stopped her.
"It's okay, Jemma. You don't have to pretend."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm not– You chose Will and that's okay. I've made my peace with that."
Any part she was willing to assign him, he would take. Friends, colleagues, lab-partners... He could make do with anything, as long as she remained a part of his life.
"I have done no such thing," she stated, sounding slightly indignant. Faced with his incredulous look, Jemma sighed loudly and sat up straight. "I chose not to leave him there alone to die. That's what I chose. I thought you understood."
But you loved him. "I don't know," he shrugged. He didn't know anything. He'd been disappointed so many times before, convinced that things were finally moving in the right direction when it was only wishful thinking on his part.
"Well, what do you want to know?"
Did I ever stand a chance? Should I settle for being second best? Isn't it time I moved on? Or are you ever gonna love me? All good questions, none of them he would ever dare to ask.
Fitz shook his head and rubbed the back of his head.
"Would you–" He cleared his throat. Why was his voice breaking like a teenage boy on the verge of tears? "Do you think–" Oh, God, that was even worse. He sighed heavily. "Look, I should probably go back."
How could the same woman make him both much sharper and hopelessly dense? There had to be a scientific explanation to this infuriating phenomenon.
"Come here," she said in a much calmer voice, as she receded on the bed, hauling him with her. She pulled and nudged until she was wrapped in his arms and silence fell in the room.
They went a long time without exchanging a word and Jemma was in no hurry to break the silence. She was rather enjoying the feel of Fitz' warmth against her and the weight of his arm wrapped around her body. It had been years since they'd lain like this. Back at the Academy, waking up next to him after a failed all-nighter, books and notes scattered around them, had not been an unusual occurrence.
Back then, most everyone had presumed they were together. When asked directly, Jemma would roll her eyes and correct the erroneous assumption while Fitz had mumbled some grumpy rebuttal. If the idea had crossed her mind, she had been too taken by their effortless partnership and that amazing brain of his to consider doing anything about it. Jemma liked to keep things simple, well sorted and compartmentalized.
Of course, since then, she'd had ample time to review their history, especially during their time apart. She'd had trouble justifying to herself all the time they had wasted not exploring every facet of their unique relationship.
She was toying with the idea of telling him how much she missed him. Not back on Maveth, but here and now. How she hoped that eventually, they would revisit their eleventh hour admissions, with the two of them on the same page this time. Even after everything, that felt so very dangerous to voice aloud. Why did they need to be on the verge of death to admit these things to each other?
"Don't you have to go?" she asked instead. "You've been here a while. Your minions must be worried."
"My minions?" With her head pressed to his chest, Jemma couldn't see his face, yet she all but heard his eyebrow raising.
"Yes, Fitz. Your minions, the whole lot of them. Where do they all come from, anyway? I've never seen that many people in the lab before."
"We had to bring in a lot of people to keep this thing running without you. Especially with me being… preoccupied."
"Preoccupied," Jemma repeated flatly. She chewed on her lips for a few moments before she dared to say, "Bobbi told me, you know."
First straightened slightly against her.
"Told you what, exactly?"
"That you tried punching me out of the monolith. Or was it punching your way in?"
He sighed and moved back a few inches so their eyes could meet.
"I'm not sure," he finally admitted, his fingers tracing random lines on the inside of her arm. "I guess it wasn't my finest hour as a genius."
"You could say that again."
"Hey, preparation never was my forte. That's why I have minions."
"This isn't funny, Fitz. Not even close."
"It's a little funny."
"I really wish you'd stop doing that."
"Punching things?" he asked with a forced smirk.
Jemma heaved a long, exaggerated sigh.
"Were you always this infuriating or is this a new development?"
"You'll be thankful someday. Not a lot going on to keep you entertained in countryside Perthshire."
"Oh! You, my friend, appear to be very confused," she scolded, earning an amused chuckle, at long last. Gathering her courage, she took hold of his hand and made a conscious effort to keep her eyes on his.
"I– I miss you," she said softly. There. That wasn't so hard. Fitz only frowned, obviously missing the point.
"I'm right here, Jemma."
"I miss us. What we should be," she amended, staring at him intently as she tried to convey all that she really meant. Please wait. Don't give up on me yet.
"So do I," he said, so softly and kindly, Jemma felt her heart expand. She was feeling lighter, already. In that moment, she was confident that sooner or later, they would be okay. It might not be tomorrow, but there was hope for them yet.
Perhaps foolishly, she was considering having another go at his lips when the spell was broken by a knock on the door.
"Erm, Doctor Fitz?" A young male voice called out from the other side. "I'm so very sorry to interrupt, sir, but we have a situation in the lab, and–"
"Yeah, yeah," Fitz shouted back, sounding grumpy as ever. "In a minute."
"They're afraid of you, aren't they?" Jemma whispered, amused.
Fitz huffed as he got to his feet.
"Well, apparently, I can sometimes be difficult," he stated with a theatrical eyeroll.
At that, Jemma let out her first genuine burst of laughter in ages, and immediately covered her mouth in surprise. Fitz stopped by the door and smiled warmly, his eyes melting with mirth.
"It's good to have you back, Simmons."