In his dream, he wakes with Jemma by his bedside. Her hair is much shorter than last he'd seen it, but with the same soft curls he remembers. The next thing he realizes is that they are indoors in a room brighter than anything he's seen for months. Both her hands are clasped over his and when he opens his eyes, she smiles warmly at him and tells him, with a slight tremble in her voice, how good it is to see him awake. When he tries to speak to her however, nothing sounds from his mouth. He can feel his heart rate elevate and his breaths grow shorter. Then a nurse arrives and everything goes fuzzy.

When he dreams again, Jemma is once again there, in the same outfit with the same hair in the same bright room. Her hands are clasped over his like the last time and she's sitting so close to him he thinks he can count her eyelashes.

"Welcome back," she smiles meekly at him and it's then that he begins to wonder whether it's a dream or not. He's never had confluent dreams before, one that stretched on into another. He's never remembered another dream so vividly in a current one. This time he tries to look around, but every attempt to adjust his position yields as much as his useless attempts to ask her what's happening. He can't understand where he is or what is going on and why he can't even speak. Any attempt to do so results in his gaping wordlessly and stumbling over the wrong sounds. This isn't a dream; it has to be a nightmare.

"You're in England, Fitz. Back in Aldershot."

He tries desperately to recall his last memory before this hospital. All he remembers is Smyth's bullet-ridden corpse and an unconscious and gutshot Lance Hunter. Fitz looks down at his own arm then. There's a bandage around both his wrist and shoulder

"I know this is confusing," she says slowly.

Every time he tries to speak, all that comes out are meaningless incoherent sounds. Frustration and confusion quickly give way to panic. He doesn't understand how he'd gotten from Italy to here. He wants to know what happened, how he got here, how much time has passed. Mostly he wants to know about Hunter. He sucks in the air rapidly, his breaths getting shakier each minute. A nurse approaches and he can hear Jemma beg her not to put him under again. Unable to speak, he sits helplessly listening to Jemma plead for him.

"He's just confused! He doesn't know what's happening - please don't keep sedating him!"

Then everything is fuzzy again.

The third time he wakes it's dark and all the lights are off. First, he wonders how he is in a bed with fresh sheets and a building with four walls and a functional roof. Then, he wonders which bed Hunter is in.

It's only then that he notices the figure at the edge of the bed and other confusing memories start to cloud his brain.

Hunter isn't here.

Jemma is there and he is in England.

He tries desperately to shift his position in the bed but finds his left arm and leg don't work as well as the right one. Attempts to recall what happened fall short of explaining how he ended up here. He remembers a mission brief and being ambushed. Then he remembers Hunter's uniform soaked in blood.

Fighting against the weakness in his right side, he rolls his body to the left to try to rise from the bed, but only succeeds in making enough noise to make Jemma stir.

He knows that he should be delighted to see the woman whose picture he'd spent hours gazing at, whose letters had sometimes been the only thing that kept him from descending into madness in the mountains of Italy. For so long getting home to Jemma had been all that got him through each day.

He wants to smile at her, at the face that he'd tried to recall so hard those first few months before she'd graced him with her photo. But everything about this is wrong. He's lying useless in a hospital bed he can't even get up from. He can't speak and he has no way of even knowing if Hunter is in this hospital with him. Throwing his head back onto the pillow, he exhales loudly. Loud enough so Jemma wakes.

A small smile graces her face, a smile that momentarily makes him relax.

"I know you're confused." The pleasant sound of her voice as she edges closer to him masks the drastic understatement. When he desperately struggles to form coherent sounds, to ask the thousands of questions running through his brain, she motions to the medical cart next to him where he sees a pen and paper.

He has difficulty closing his fingers around the pen and his confused and frustrated attempts grow more desperate and frantic. She keeps smiling, though Fitz suspects that it is through tears, appearing not to know the cause of his helpless condition any more than he does.. She helps move the pen into his right hand and close his fingers around it. Even then the letters are poorly formed and uneven, looking much like a child who'd just learned to write.

HUNTER?

"Sergeant Hunter, yes," she nods uncertainly, recognizing the name but not the urgency of his question. Fitz just underlines the name again and looks to her imploringly, hoping she can figure out what he means. "Was he injured with you?" Fitz nods and draws a second line under his question. "I don't know where he is," she replies helplessly.

At the words, Fitz attempts to rise from the hospital bed again.

"No, please, just." She presses him back to the bed and he's embarrassed at how easy it is for her. He can't understand why his body won't listen to him. Unable to speak, he just looks to Jemma desperately, hoping he can convey just how important Lance Hunter is. That he's the reason Fitz made it through a mere week of combat nevertheless 124 days. "I'll try - I'll try to find out where he is. I promise."

He rests his head back on the pillow, closes his eyes, and tries to take in several large steadying breaths. Then he tries desperately to speak. It's a single syllable and should be painfully easy to say, but he can't make his mouth form the word. Each time he tries to say it, it comes out sounding like he has a mouth full of marbles. Fortunately, Jemma doesn't make him struggle any longer.

"I don't know exactly what happened," she answers for him. "The doctor just said your brain was without oxygen for a long time," she explains slowly. "You also had a large contusion to the head, quite a bit of shrapnel in your arm and shoulder and you were...shot in the leg twice." The list of injuries makes her voice tremble, but instead of trying to compose herself she just throws herself onto his chest. "Oh, Fitz!"

He can quickly feel her tears seep through the fabric on his chest. He's not sure what to do, She's resting on the one arm he can use effectively and he can't do much except place it across her back and give her a weak one-armed hug.

He's closed his eyes and dreamt of that last hug on the platform in Bletchley so many times. On some nights, when they got their hands on a store of Italian wine and he was able to get warm, he'd allowed himself to imagine what their reunion hug would be like. Any way he'd imagined it had been different than this. For one, he'd always been standing. He hadn't been an invalid in a hospital bed. He'd walk to her proudly in uniform with a Chevron on his sleeve and campaign ribbons on his chest. He'd be able to hug her properly, to grasp her tightly to him, the same way he'd gripped his rifle the last three months. He'd be able to tell her how much she had been the difference between life and death for him, how frequently the mere thought of her had managed to keep him sane.

Finally, she picks her head up off his chest and wipes her eyes with the heel of her hand, apologizing profusely for the outburst.

"I've been speaking extensively with your doctors." She clears her throat. "Doing my best to keep your mother informed."

He struggles to speak again at the revelation that she'd spoken to his mother, but she answers for him.

"I didn't know you'd given her my address." Fitz remembers putting it in a note to his mother months ago, around the time he'd penned his 'death letter'. "She notified me almost as soon as she got the telegram. It took several days obviously and I had a difficult time getting the time off. I've used nearly all my holiday to be here - "

He wrinkles his forehead in confusion and he's pleased when she seems to understand what he wants to know.

"Nine days. It's been nine days." His eyes widen and she explains further. "From what I can gather you went to a field hospital then to North Africa and then here."

Fitz frowns, knowing the voyage itself from North Africa to England takes at least a week.

"I'm not sure how you got here so quickly. Your mum thinks perhaps your father was responsible and got you on an air transport."

Fitz tries to process all the overwhelming information. He's not sure which is more groundbreaking, the fact that his father had pulled strings to rush him to a proper hospital or the fact that Jemma has not only met, but has apparently had numerous conversations with his mother.

"I know it's a lot," she speaks slowly, her voice still a whisper as he hears the men in the beds beside him rustle.

Nothing makes sense. What happened to Hunter, how he's in England and Hunter is not, how he's been asleep for nine days, why he can't properly use his left hand when the shrapnel injuries had been to his right arm, and most importantly why he can't speak.. Looking at Jemma in the dark, he wishes her presence could magically erase all those questions. For months, he'd thought she would be all he needed. But nothing about this feels right.

"You should go back to sleep." She moves her hand to his cheek, her thumb cupped gently beneath his jaw. His eyes close instinctively at the intimate touch. She'd never touched him like this before, not in such a soft and purposeful way.

She promises him she'll try to be there when he wakes up, but he sleeps into the next day and she's not there when he wakes. He's left instead with what he's been left with for years, a letter. The note is dripping with apologies nearly every other line. She explains how she'd already taken two days off to come see him and can't take a third, but she will come see him again the first chance she gets.

So he's left in the unfamiliar hospital, still not completely sure of anything, except that the next time Jemma sees him he will be better.


The hospital is a grim place.

He'd heard as much from soldiers in his platoon who had spent time in field hospitals, but he'd never properly understood it. Whether it's the eerie silences and cold clean corridors during the day or the shrieks and screams that come at night. There are some soldiers missing limbs and some who just think they are. Some are completely covered in bandages and have wounds Fitz can only guess and some whose injuries leave nothing to the imagination. The man in the bed to Fitz's right is missing almost his entire jaw and is fed through a stomach tube.

Despite the fact that the doctor orders Fitz to rest, assuring him that his speech and strength will eventually return on their own, he works tirelessly to improve. Speaking requires a great effort so he starts off by focusing on his hand strength. He works on his grip and extension, even his wrist movement so he can write better.

Writing takes an effort too. Forming the words on the paper gets easier, but coming up with the right ones still remains a challenge. He writes to his mum first. The note is short and full of questions, but he assures her he is okay. Then he writes to Jemma. The letter is short and simple too, not nearly as eloquent as the letters he'd written her over the years, but full of everything he'd wanted to ask her that night he'd scrawled Hunter's name on the paper. Each day he thinks of another question to write to her.

Her arrival three weeks later is a pleasant surprise. He is walking down the corridor, a cane supporting his weight on his weak side when she appears. The "J" sound he forms instinctively. He's practiced her name dozens of times, after all, so it doesn't take long after that before he says the entire first syllable. Then his mouth works through a variety of positions before he finally gets it.

"Jemma."

She beams at him. He's not sure whether it's the fact that he said her name or the fact that he's upright and walking. The last time she'd seen him he hadn't been able to even pick up a pen.

"I brought some lunch." She holds up a paper bag with a hopeful smile and proposes a picnic outside. She informs him she paid attention to all his many ramblings about the foods he missed most and has packed as many as she could. There's jam, almond biscuits and a thermos of tea, which she laughingly tells him ought to be better than the Compo tea he'd subsisted on for months. Her sunny persona in this miserable hospital reminds him how easily just seeing her handwriting on an envelope could lift his spirits. For a moment, he smiles widely, before mortification sets in and he realizes he's clad in little more than a bathrobe and the thin cotton pajamas issued by the hospital. "I brought you some clothes too." As if reading his mind she pulls another small parcel out of her bag then. "I wasn't sure - I didn't know whether you had other clothes - or even if you were allowed to wear them, but then I thought - it might be nice to go outside - and I wasn't sure what size you wear - you looked so thin - so I - I wasn't sure quite what to bring - " Her own nervous rambling somehow makes him forget to be nervous.

The hospital staff seem puzzled that they would want to picnic in Hampshire in February. Jemma is wrapped in numerous layers and shocked that all Fitz says he needs is the jumper she brought. She continually fusses that he at least needs a blanket.

"N-n-not...cold," he insists with a shrug of the shoulders.

"No, I suppose not where you've been," she muses. She tells him she's only just received his letters from November. He learns, as he expected, that very little of what he writes actually makes it through the censors.

There is so much he wants to ask and tell her. It seems a particularly cruel twist of fate that, after all this time, all he can do is stammer out one syllable at a time.

She talks enough for both of them, sharing all her favorite parts from the stack of letters she'd just received. Hearing her talk about the contents of the letter feels like listening to another life. Here, where he has a proper bed and three hot meals a day, it seems impossible that he'd ever been there and done those things.

She doesn't ever ask him directly about any of it, although her eyes linger when he adjusts the bandage on his wrist covering his shrapnel wounds and she can't help but ask about his leg.

He doesn't understand what she's even referring to until she motions to where he'd been shot through the calf twice. Truthfully, he'd nearly forgotten about the benign injury. It had gone clean through the muscle and somehow missed hitting any bone. It was, more an annoyance than anything else. If that had been all he would have been back on the line. Giving a dismissive wave of the hand he hopes she'll understand, he resumes drinking his tea, which in itself is still an effort.

She seems more eager to share what she's garnered through research about his injury than she is anything else. Unsurprisingly, she has a vastly different interpretation about his diagnosis than the military doctors.

"It's just that some parts of the brain consume more oxygen. So those parts of your brain would clearly be the first to shut down when you were deprived of that oxygen, which would mean they obviously suffered more damage, which would explain why they are failing."

His eyes flash at the last word and its implications.

"No, not failing - I just meant - you know, it's not - not working like it used to," she backtracks suddenly.

That's how the entire afternoon goes. He's wanted this for so many months. He's dreamt of her face, and fought so hard to remember the pleasant perfect sound of her voice. But none of this feels right. It's not just the fact that he is unable to communicate or turn most of his thoughts into words. It's the fact that, despite the best of intentions, Jemma clearly doesn't know how to be around him anymore. She stumbles over words and doesn't seem to know what to say.

She visits twice more in a two-month span. She brings crossword puzzles from the Telegraph that he can't finish and the pitiable way she looks at him sets his teeth on edge. The silences they'd never needed to fill before become uncomfortable. Jemma babbles awkwardly to say anything and seems frustrated by the long hesitations between his words. His own frustration spills over all too frequently. There is so much he wants to say, but it's like there is a frayed wire from his brain to his mouth and the signal can't get through.

The doctors make no attempt to guess his recovery time. He has no timetable for how long he'll be stuck in this hospital, how long his speech will be like this, or even if he'll ever be normal again. It's an infuriating existence. The nurses try to convey to him how lucky he is to be here and seem to be in no rush to get him out. That's what fuels the outbursts of anger that happen more and more. He lashes out at the mere implication that this is his life now and he simply needs to accept it.

He knows he is meant to do more. He lies in bed in this miserable hospital and all he can imagine is what's become of the HLI. It's nearly impossible to get news from the Italian front outside of Cassino. He still doesn't know if Hunter is alive or dead or where the HLI is. He wonders if they're still in the mountains, sending out useless patrols and crossing muddy canals, or whether they have finally been pulled off the line. All the while he does little but walk endless laps in this miserable hospital to improve his strength and stamina.

He talks to himself only because the nurses and doctors don't seem to understand that just because he has trouble speaking it doesn't mean he can't understand what they're saying. They treat him like a simpleton and keep him in a wing with other non-verbal soldiers who only make sounds when they are asleep and unaware.

That's why he explodes when Jemma tries to finish his sentence or assure him he's made good progress when she sees something as simple as his ability to tie his shoelace. They're more about his own inadequate progress than anything she has done, but he can tell they frighten her all the same. Sometimes he wants to apologize, but sometimes the anger feels good and the words come easier. Fighting with her is somehow better than the long sad silences and pitiable gestures.

He is walking down the long ground floor corridor, nearly a quarter of a kilometre from end to end, like he does every day, when the nurse approaches and tells him he has a visitor. Assuming it's Jemma or perhaps his mum, who had been to see him the previous week, he is entirely unprepared to see his father standing there in uniform.

"Corporal." His father's curt greeting is accompanied by a slight nod of the head.

Any progress Fitz has made in the last months vanishes as he fumbles uselessly for words.

He has a myriad of questions Jemma and his mum hadn't been able to answer. How he'd ended up back in England so quickly. How his mother had found out his status so quickly. What exactly his father had done to get him here in nine days, but he can't make any words sound. "They said it was brain damage," he remarks curtly at the sight of Fitz struggling to form a coherent sentence.

"Not damaged." He finally manages to speak defiantly, the fingers on his left-hand fluttering. He knows his father is correct though. He might not be damaged the same way the bloke next to him missing his jaw is, but he's certainly not whole either.

"Yes. Well. Good to see you upright." He slaps him on the back in, what is undoubtedly, the most fatherly action Fitz can ever recall. He's not sure what to say or do. "Was expecting an invalid."

"H-how - " he tries to stammer out the question he's wanted an answer to for months.

"Just a bit of luck is all. You were sent to a hospital in Bizerte and the Black Watch had been there since May. " The explanation clarifies little. Even if they'd been in the same city or the same camp, Fitz knows how unlikely the odds are that they would cross paths. So his father explains that he'd caught wind from a chaplain who told a colonel who told him that there was a Lance Corporal Fitz who'd just been unloaded from the last hospital ship. "I was able to send a telegram to your mother. Get you on a transport back home."

Unsure how to react to the news, Fitz just nods his head and tries to wrestle with the fact that it had taken almost dying in a war for his father to finally act like one.

Fitz is reminded of the last time he'd spoken to his father prior to this when he'd been shamed for not doing his part and sitting in a garage designing weapons.

"I'm sure you'll be back in the fight before you know it," he dismisses.

"C - can you...can you d - do that?" he stammers.

"Do what?"

"Get me...back?"

"You want to go back to a line unit?" He can hear the incredulousness in his father's voice. Fitz just nods his head to avoid having to speak again. "Can you even hold a rifle?"

"Can hold a f - f - fork." His curt reply, while not much of an affirmation about his ability to return to combat, seems to impress his father.

"Then I can get you to a line unit."

"HLI?" Fitz asks hopefully.

"They're still in the Mediterranean," his father scoffs and waves his hand dismissively. "We all know where the real fight is coming." The words should scare Fitz, but they don't. He isn't sure what it says about him that the thought of invading another continent is more pleasant to him than remaining in this hospital and enduring Jemma's pity. "Can't guarantee the unit, but it shouldn't be difficult. Territorials need men of experience. Jocks who have invaded a continent before." The emboldening words mark one of the first times his father has ever said anything that could be akin to pride before. He'd long imagined his father's reactions to hearing his son had nearly drowned in a canal. Laughter and contempt he'd expected. This he had not.

He's not sure what details his father had heard about his injury, but doesn't bother saying anything to clarify.

He can't carry on much of a conversation or answer any questions his father has about the fateful mission. Even if he could speak clearly, he's still trying to piece everything about that day together himself. He can't remember much beyond getting ambushed and trying to save Hunter.

The visit is a short one. Fitz isn't entirely sure why his father has come, but he's grateful that he has. The knowledge that he'll be out of this hospital soon makes every day slightly more tolerable.

When he breaks the news to Jemma, both of his visit with his father and his pending discharge, he's not sure how to interpret her reaction.

"How?" she demands. "How can you when you're not - you can't - you're - you haven't recovered!"

"I'm...fine," he dismisses curtly.

"You're not fine! You've hardly been here three months, you're still in recovery from a serious brain injury!"

"I'm fine," he repeats with less of a pause this time.

"You're functional. You're not fine."

Fitz bristles at the comment and straightens up.

"I can fight."

"Just because you can doesn't mean that you should!"

"I need to go back." He can tell the words alarm her, but she doesn't back down.

"No, you need to rest!"

"I'm not going to...get...better, Jemma" he stammers.

"You don't know that!"

"I do know that."

"You're still making progress. You - "

"No, I'm not!" There's more than a slight irritation in his voice. "This is me now and I - I'm not - I can't...I can't d-do what I did before." He motions to the half-finished crossword puzzle he'd attempted that morning that is still sitting on his bed.

"You need to be patient," Jemma maintains. "You're still in recovery. And you are making progress every day." The comment is the same one she makes every time she sees him, whether or not he's actually made any visible progress.

"Stop," he grits.

"Stop what?"

"Treating me like that."

"Like what?"

"Patronising me."

"Patronising you? I'm trying not to treat you any different - "

"I know but I am different!" He turns his hands inward and presses them to his chest. He's not sure whether he's speaking as the man who still needs to practice buttoning his shirt or the one who so desperately wants to go back to war.

She looks to be wondering the same thing because she purses her lips like she needs to hold her tongue and turns from him. Minutes pass and he's not sure what to do. She still has her back to him, but he can see her move her hand to her face several times.

"Please stay." She attempts to sound firm, but he can hear the obvious tremble in her voice. "Please stay and keep - "

"And keep what? Walking the corridor, writing my name, lying in a bloody bd? The war's not over, Jemma!"

"But it can be for you! Don't you see that?" She's crying now and makes no effort to hide it. "You deserve to be done, Fitz! You have given enough!"

"I can help."

"You do not have to keep proving yourself to him!" she finally cries knowingly.

He averts his eyes at the knowing reference to his father and repeats again that the war isn't over. She can't understand the guilt that feels like a tumor growing inside him each time he wakes up with a pillow under his head instead of his helmet. That he dreams about slit trenches and shell bursts and is haunted by the knowledge that Hunter's platoon, whatever is left of it and whoever is heading it now, is still out there slogging its way north through the mountains. "I have to go back."

"How?" Jemma's tears suddenly turn to anger. "What are you going to do, Fitz? You can barely button your shirt!" She motions to the buttons at the top of his blouse that he still struggles with. Fitz winces at the words that hint at his worst fear.

"So you think I'm useless?"

"I didn't say that."

"That I'm some kind of invalid? That I should just stay here, sit back, and let someone else fight for me? Some draftee who doesn't know what they're even doing?" he snaps furiously. It's the quickest and clearest he's spoken since the mission brief when it all went wrong months ago.

"I didn't say that."

"You didn't have to." He turns from her sharply.

"I just want you to heal," she pleads, reaching out for him.

"I can still fight." He flinches and withdraws from her.

"But if you just wait!."

"I'm not going to get better." The slow and certain manner he says the words silences her.

"So you're going back to Italy?" she finally asks after a long pause. Word of the messy Italian campaign is all over the news. The Americans pushing toward Rome. The horrific fighting in Monte Cassino.

"No, I'm not going to Italy."

She closes her eyes at the remark and he sees a tear slide down her cheek. He knows she knows what it means. The invasion of France is imminent. The Americans have been staged in England for years preparing for this. His old battalion has been waiting to return to France since the moment they left four years ago.

It's not the way he wants to leave things, but neither seem able to fill the silence.

He'll be gone in days and he doubts Jemma will be able to get the time to see him again. He doesn't know what they'd even talk about then. They've both said everything it seems.

"You'll be careful." When she finally speaks to him it is in carefully measured tones.

"I won't be careful, I'll get the job done." He doesn't mean to sound so angry, but careful would have meant not going back for Hunter, or pulling the radio off poor dead Smyth to save the rest of the unit. Careful might have kept him out of this hospital, but he knows it would have come with a cost he's not prepared to pay.

"Please come back." Her voice is only a whisper now. He knows he can't promise her he will. Not when he'd seen the sheer randomness of combat. What shell hits his hole and what doesn't. Which bullet hits an artery and which doesn't.

"I'll try."

He doesn't mean to make her cry and he hates that he can hear her sniffling against him when she hugs him. They've said goodbye so many times he should be used to this. This all feels so different though. He knows what is to come and what he has volunteered for.

"You don't have to do this," she whispers and she's so close he can feel her breath against his ear when she speaks. For the first time, he's suddenly hit with the reality of what he is giving up. But all it takes is the memory of Smyth and Hunter for him to straighten up and pull away.

"Yeah, I do."

There's a finality to this goodbye that feels markedly unfamiliar from every other time they've had to leave each other. She clearly doesn't want to let go of him and her fear is palpable in the way she clings to him. She doesn't tell him to stay safe or bother with any well-wishes that don't need to be said. There's nothing she can say that will protect him from what is to come and they both know it.

When they finally break apart, he wishes he hadn't seen her tear-stained face. He doesn't want to say goodbye like this.