Between the Devil and Me
by Sammie

DISCLAIMER: Doesn't belong to me.


SUMMARY: Who really falls and who really catches - it's a blurred line. Ward POV, after "The Well."

- thought Ward recovered rather a bit quickly for my tastes.

- I don't especially like song FF because they're often all song and no FF - i.e., if the song's lyrics were removed, the story wouldn't make any sense. The first song FF I ever liked provided the song title and lyrics for this one. ("Between the Devil and Me" by C7, story id: 5725746).

THANK YOU to everybody who took the time to read and to review "Filius". It's always good to get feedback, so thank you! As for the questions - that story is complete as is. There will be no updates.

There's two roads you can take
One way is right and one is wrong
The flesh is weak but love is strong
And she's all I see
Between the devil and me

- Alan Jackson, "Between the Devil and Me"

Every day since he touched that thing, Ward has cursed Elliot Randolph and his stupid staff. He wished Thor would pound the guy with his hammer. Wouldn't necessarily fix his problem, but would certainly make him feel better. Perhaps, the agent thought, he could get the Son of Coul to put in a call for him. Favor from an old friend and all that.

He became different. The rage would bubble to the surface more often now; his patience, never good to begin with, got worse. Underlying it was the hate, which he had first felt when he touched the staff; in the following days, however, there came to the fore an added element of desperation, helplessness - a feeling of fighting an overwhelming, unending wave. And oddly, that feeling of desperate fear became an even stronger basis for anger than his hate.

He could see FitzSimmons and Skye on tiptoe around him, in ways they hadn't before, and in ways they still aren't around May. (Well, they'd all been a little terrified of May, and it seemed they still were.) Fitz was especially quiet, and Ward knew it was because of his comments about having to bear all the burdens of protecting the team.

In the deep recesses of his mind, he knew he harbored a deep respect for the engineer, and for the other man's bravery and loyalty. Still, it would be trite to say things like "I wasn't really thinking when I said that in anger," because quite often people were thinking exactly what they said and intended to say it. No, he has discovered, things said in anger are often a deliberate attempt on the part of the angry person to wound, and to wound badly. It's been said that the things which come out of a man's mouth are what make him unclean, not what goes in, and he knew in his own case, he purposely and deliberately said what he said because he knew it would hurt Fitz most - a bigger comment about the state of his own heart than about anything else. Why else would he mention having to save Simmons?

He did the same thing to Skye, twisting the knife in the one thing he knew kept their relationship tenuous: her talking and giving away secrets, whether on the Rising Tide website or even just to her boyfriend. He knew that particular comment would wound her most since she was trying so hard to win back their trust. The last few days, he hadn't been able to control the harsh comments coming from him, directed at Fitz and Skye. Worse, he feared, perhaps he hadn't WANTED to control himself. That was a far scarier prospect.

At this point, he hadn't said anything to Simmons other than to get her to be quiet and fix his problem. Still, first time for everything: she kept this up, he groused as he paused in his bag-punching to glare at the doors to the lab, and he just might not be able to keep this rage under.

Elliot Randolph the Asgardian berserker and professor was on the plane; Coulson gave him a gracious chance to fly on the bus to his next destination, to Oregon, where he'd start his new life. He had jumped at the chance, and now it was quite apparent why: he'd been flirting shamelessly with Simmons since the minute he stepped on board. Ward swore if he heard the words "lovely English rose" out of Randolph's mouth again he was going to show the guy some pretty sharp thorns. This was exactly why the specialist had been avoiding Randolph as much as possible - which meant spending a great deal of time in the cockpit with May.

Simmons, he thought irritably, had been eating it all up. She had been using the chance to investigate. She'd already drawn the Asgardian's blood during the physical and had been running tests. He couldn't believe she would put up with Randolph's crap just for curiosity.

He heard Skye and Fitz laughing uproariously and looked up to see the blasted Asgardian finally gone. Simmons' pale complexion (English rose, indeed) was flushed, and the soft curls in her hair were bouncing with nervous indignation. Skye had a mischievous look on her face, and was twirling one of her locks of hair around her finger. She affected a really exaggerated, shy innocence and a fake posh English accent. "I like men about my height," she was saying, batting her eyelashes, "but heavier than me."

"That's not how I sounded!" Jemma's face was pink with embarrassment.

Fitz nearly fell off his stool laughing.

"Mr. Professor Randolph sir," Skye continued with her imitation, "You certainly have a gorgeous...head!" She gave Simmons a look and reverted to her normal voice and accent. "Your taste in men sucks. Sitwell? Randolph? Seriously?" Behind her, Fitz had to prop himself up on his lab table before he slipped to the floor.

"My taste in - ! I don't fancy either!" Simmons exclaimed.

They suddenly noticed him watching them and fell silent, even Fitz quieting. Skye quickly filled the uncomfortable void with a conspiratorial, "Jemma's managed to attract her second wonky admirer in as many weeks, and this one's an Asgardian lover who 'hasn't seen something that beautiful in a thousand years,'" she mimicked.

For some reason Skye's comment irritated him even more, and he lashed out: "Would've thought you already learned your lesson about touching alien things," he sniped at the biochemist. "You know what they say about the twice fooled."

The merry mood died instantly. Simmons didn't say anything, just gave him a quick glance and went back to work. Skye just gaped, stunned into silence.

Well, so much for self-control. First time for everything, said the angry side of him. Somewhere inside, the real Grant Ward shook his head disapprovingly. He barked at Fitz, "Did you fix it?" The engineer pointed at the corner of the table.

The agent grabbed his ear-comm off the lab table and blew his way out of the lab, headed upstairs to the showers. May heard him and he saw her look over at him from the debriefing room, frowning.

He'd barely gotten out of his room with his shower things when Fitz stepped in front of him. The smaller man blocked his way, a steely look on his face. "What."

"That was completely unnecessary." His accent thickened in his anger.

"You'll have to be more specific."

"What you said to Simmons. Completely unnecessary." The shorter man, Ward had come to realize, had unlimited reserves of bravery and iron will stored up for just the moments when he needed to defend those he cared about. Apparently this was such a moment. Fitz was having none of his attitude. "I'll 'cut you a break', as Skye calls it, but you leave Simmons alone. Part of the reason she's been letting Randolph flirt with her, and asking Coulson to keep him on board, is so she can gather information and try to figure out how to fix you," the younger man spat the last word, as though Ward were hardly a worthy recipient of Simmons' efforts. "So show a little gratitude."

He stomped off before Ward could answer.

Three weeks later, he still felt flashes of...rage, hate, whatever. He wondered if May still did, but she refused to talk about it, even to him. Even if both were Level 7, they were not the same - she was the CAVALRY, a legend. Whatever she kept quiet was her business, and he didn't feel comfortable pressing any more than he already had. She never actually told him anything the night they'd finished off that Norwegian hate group.

He suspected that Coulson knew a great deal, but obviously the agent was treating May's secrets like Level 8 classified information.

During the day, he finally managed to get his thoughts and his words under control. His relationship with Skye and FitzSimmons slowly returned to some semblance of normal. At night, however, his unconscious mind still went wild and his nightmares continued, a few nights out of a week. The problem was that the bad nights were enough to ruin him for the next couple days. When he felt like he was finally climbing out of the hole, he'd get shoved right back down, and it was becoming more exhausting than ever to try to pull himself back out.

He went again to May. He came away again from it as he did the first time: temporarily 'fixed'. A little less tense. A little like a sedative, perhaps.

He could still do his job, and he began to tell himself that his anger was making him stronger and sharper and less connected to others emotionally, which made him more logical, which was all better for the job, wasn't it? He was better, wasn't he?

He wasn't. He learned it the day Simmons took another fall.

Fitz had been berating her for something the entire car trip to their newest field assignment, and as he found Fitz's Scottish brogue harder to understand than Simmons' English accent, it wasn't that hard to tune out the content of the argument. Still, the jabber of their voices drove him nuts, and after half an hour, he snapped at both of them to be quiet. They obliged, but his mood had already soured.

Within a couple minutes of arriving at the field, she was up on a utility pole - more like a utility structure, one of those high-gain jungle gym types. The damage done to the area - a huge half-mile crater-like hole, with trees flung like matchsticks around the near pristine structure - had made it impossible to get any truck in to lift her mechanically up where she needed to be. She had put on gloves and started to climb (much to Fitz's horror), buoyed only by a pulley and a rappelling harness. Her feet were firmly locked on the different steps, and she was swabbing a liquid on part of the metal frame. It was then she suddenly wavered, falling slightly backwards as though she'd fallen asleep for a second. She grabbed at the frame but missed.

It didn't register with him immediately what was happening.

If it weren't for Skye, who had offered to mind the rappelling rope, Simmons would be in a worse state. The alert hacker had managed to yank back the rope when her friend had just fallen a couple feet. He didn't know what sort of injuries she'd have if she'd fallen more. As of right now, the sudden jerk was enough for the harness to give Simmons bruises on her torso, and she had bruises from where she'd hit her head on the metal structure.

When Skye and Coulson had finally gotten the biochemist safely to the ground, she was shaking so hard she could barely speak. Her hands trembled so much she had trouble getting the samples into the separate pouches in her bag; it amazed him she hadn't even dropped them. Fitz - who hated heights, germs, and being in the field in general - nodded at Skye and then silently strapped on the harness. He shouldered a bag with a fresh set of test tubes and swabs and started climbing up the frame.

Ward started to reach for Simmons - "Jemma" - but it was like she didn't realize he was even there, much less have heard her name. May had a firm grip on her shoulders and, with a guiding arm, pulled her towards the van. She gave him a frown and a concerned look.

He turned from the utility pole, running a hand over his face and through his hair, willing his heart to stop pounding out of his chest. That moment of free fall had jolted him; it had felt like a being hit by a bolt of electricity and having one's heart stop. He had promised her, had promised to catch her, and more than that, he had promised himself for her. He was losing his edge. This had just degenerated into the very, very bad.

He went to find Simmons that night and found her asleep at the lab table. The whoosh of the lab door caused her to jerk awake, and there was the imprint of her watch on her face. The old Grant would have found it amusingly adorable; it disturbed him that right now he was having no reaction to it.

"I want to apologize for today."

She blinked blearily at him. "Apologize?"

"For today."

"For today?" she looked confused.

He was about to make a cutting retort about an echo in the room but bit his tongue. "For not catching you."

She looked puzzled a moment, then it seemed to register, and she blew it off with her typical, unconsciously charming smile. "Oh, that was me. I just lost my footing, that's all. And you're not obligated to catch me whenever I do something silly," she said, and soon she was talking talking talking, trying to fill that uncomfortable void.

He took a deep breath and tried to will his voice not to sound desperate. "I...Have you found something to" He needed something soon, before he made another huge mistake like today.

She fell silent instantly, staring at him for a moment, then busied herself with everything except answering his question: pulling her mussed hair back into a cleaner ponytail, wiping her lab classes, checking her watch, arranging the petri dishes on the table into neat rows. She talked, but all he heard was different variations of 'no'.

"You haven't."

She looked up at him now, apologetic and sorrowful and broken. "I've tested everything," she said quietly, almost desperately. "I've examined everything. I don't know how."

He stared at her, and he could feel his heart constricting. Jemma Simmons and 'don't know' didn't go together. "But the Chitauri - "

"I knew what needed to be done, then," she corrected. "I knew I needed antigens or antibodies from which to build the anti-serum; I just didn't know from where to get them. But - here - I drew blood from Professor Randolph and from May, besides from you, and I've compared all the samples we have at SHIELD from the Asgardians, and - " she took a deep breath. "There's absolutely no change in your blood from before after it."

"You said it was biochemical!" His voice rose a notch.

"Certain hormone levels have risen, certainly," she said quietly. "You're in a more permanent state of fight, but the only solution to that - "

" - is a sedative." He took a deep breath, trying to quell - is it even anger? Or now desperation, and anger borne more from desperation than from hate?

"I'm sorry," she whispered, her eyes glued to the tabletop. "I tried everything."

He started to leave, then stopped at the door as everything suddenly clicked into place. "Your fall today," he said, almost choking on it. "You were too exhausted - looking for something to fix me. That's why Fitz was so angry with you on the ride over."

She said nothing, but the guilty way her eyes flickered about (though never to him) confirmed it.

He could feel things crashing down around his ears. He couldn't protect her, he couldn't catch her when she fell, she couldn't fix his problem, and now she was suffering because she had been trying too hard to help him. He felt like he was hitting rock bottom. "You've done all you can," he said, more curtly than intended; he could feel his hope winking out, that small, flickering possibility of ending his torment. "Don't stress yourself over it any more."

He avoided her after that. If he couldn't protect her from everything else, he could at least protect her from himself.

A few weeks later, after an especially bad incident involving him that got Maria Hill yelling at Coulson, he sought May out for the third time.

This time, however, she turned him down. Before he could even say anything, she stopped him, sat him down in the chair across from her, looked him straight in the face and with that stern but not-reprimanding voice, said bluntly, "You're seeking absolution. I can't give you that."

He was completely taken aback. "What?"

"You're seeking something I can't give." She didn't elaborate.

"But - "

She shook her head and gave him the same implacable expression. "You want to learn control. That I've taught you. But you're seeking more than that. I'm incapable of providing you what you're seeking."

Melinda May. The Cavalry. Incapable. The words didn't mix.

He just stared at her, stunned, for a full two minutes. She didn't break her gaze, looking straight back at him, waiting for him to process what she's said.

"Where - " he swallowed hard. "Where else am I to go?" he asked, and cursed himself for his voice sounding hoarser, raspier than he intended.

Her expression didn't change, but her voice softened. "That you have to find for yourself," she said quietly. "I'm sorry I can't help you any more than this."

{ }

As he mulled it over the following days, he found more desperation than anger. He wanted to be angry, but he couldn't be. He came to a realization of how damaged May was. The initial and temporary attraction of somebody who knew what he was going through wasn't enough to sustain him. One dead car battery couldn't be used to jump-start another dead one, he supposed.

For a week he couldn't do anything but focus on himself, pitying himself (then hating himself for doing it), grasping at anything that comes his way. When they spent an overnight in Dresden, he sought companionship, then never managed to get out of the bar, feeling it safer to be an angry drunk in a corner of the bar than be with somebody.

He turned back to look back at May, but this time from afar. The first thing he noticed instantly was how close May and Coulson were. Quietly, anyhow - nearly unnoticeable except to the well-trained spy watching their exchanges. Coulson had always been a good boss: caring enough without losing his edge. Now Ward noticed something more - private chats in Coulson's office; a small touch here, a sidelong look there. Opening a door for her, a guiding hand hovering at the small of her back as she walked through, although never touching her; standing with his arms crossed, but leaning slightly towards her as she spoke. Always so quietly subtle that the person not watching for it would miss it - just as he has missed it these last couple weeks since their team first formed.

It would make sense, he realized, and kicked himself for not seeing it before. May was, by all accounts, the stronger, faster, more dangerous agent, but Coulson was the more stable one, the anchor in that relationship - even after he may or may not have died before the Battle of New York. The older man's ability to be vulnerable, his willingness to show his weaknesses, his readiness to rely on others when he needed to - that all took a stronger character than Ward felt he himself had. Coulson may not have been able to grant absolution, but he provided for May the second best thing, and she clung to it like a life preserver.

It suddenly clicked with him: the rumors that the Cavalry had requested reassignment started right after the Battle of New York. She was about to be moved to Level 8, to be assigned her own team. All of the Level 5's and Level 6's were jostling for a position on it. And the request had come in - reassignment to administration. Everybody had dismissed the request as a silly rumor; why would the Cavalry leave the field to push papers? Her permanent reassignment just two months after the Battle of New York had sent shockwaves through most of the Level 6 specialists. Phil Coulson dead and Melinda May reassigned? Why did any of the rest of them even bother, then?

Still, since handling the staff and the torment he'd been through since, he understood exactly why May had done it.

He realized now that she would come out of her self-imposed exile for nobody else; only Coulson could be the one to lure her out of that office. And only seeing Coulson in danger, only seeing him needing her, would lure the emotionless Cavalry back into the field - all within the space of a few weeks.

Did Coulson even realize how much he meant to May, or did he blame himself for her current state? Did he believe he relied on her a great deal more than she did on him? Did he even understand how significant a role he played in keeping her alive? Did he see just what others saw - that he relied on her heavily, taking more from her than she got from him? Or did the older man even realize the depth of how much May relied on him?

Ward finally felt that he understood May, in a way he hadn't before. Rather, he understood Coulson and May, with a deeper respect for the both of them. And he derived a small bit of joy from knowing that she had somebody, somebody who could provide for Melinda May what Grant Ward couldn't.

Still, as revealing as his epiphany was, this newfound knowledge didn't solve his problems. It made him feel more alone than ever.

{ }

Skye offered again to listen, and seriously, he liked her and her dry wit, but every time he thought about talking to her he was drawn up short. Something held him back - perhaps it was her sarcasm - perhaps - he didn't know. He doubted somebody like Skye granted absolution, or whatever it is May said he was seeking; in addition, as friendly as she could be, he needed something else, not just a friendly ear. Perhaps that was the problem. He didn't know himself what he was looking for.

He refused to go to Coulson, although the agent had been shooting him concerned looks and asking after him. He was fortunate enough May hadn't pulled him from the field, given his issues; they both were Level 7, but she had far more time in rank than he. If he went to Coulson with his problems, and it was all over; the paranoid part of him told him that if Coulson knew how unstable he was, he'd be out on his rear, left standing in front of the Hub - and for the first time since joining this flying circus, Ward wanted to stay.

He got so desperate he almost went to Fitz, but that thought was born out of desperation, in a nightmare that nearly had him waking screaming (certainly screaming in the dream). Still, despite his newfound rapport with Fitz (especially after he apologized for his enraged rant), they didn't have that type of relationship. And the pessimistic, adventure-hating Fitz was not somebody who could anchor him the way Coulson did May.

He lumped Simmons into the same category; while she and her longtime friend differed much in personality, he was her protector, not vice versa. She was too fragile, too pure; he was here to protect that, not sully it.

So he went it alone. After all, that was what he'd always done.

After two months, his nightmares began morphing from mere torturous memories to unconscious fears. His brother, eating a forbidden piece of cake, his brother in the well, his brother hanging off a window ledge. Soon they become his brother, hanging from a helicopter and slipping off; his brother, falling out of the cargo hold of the bus; his brother, his arms flailing wildly as he fell below him through the blue skies; his brother, suddenly jerking as an electrical discharge yanked his body towards the air; long, slim fingers, reaching towards his outstretched hand, and him making a grab and getting only cloud.

He couldn't take more of this. He didn't know if he could take a few more weeks, much less a few more decades of it.

{ }

One night he dreamt he looked down the well, and instead of the regular dream, he saw Simmons' white face at the bottom of the well, electricity flashing around her - and he was already too late.

He had become so desperate for dreamless nights of dead rest that he was now willing to take the sedative.

He tried several times to go and talk to Simmons, but each time he was down there, Fitz was, too, and he was not up for dealing with the engineer yet. He got his chance after they hit an electrical storm: it fried the circuit board and May barely wrangled the bus through to get it on the ground. The damage was extensive, so Coulson dragged Skye and Fitz off to take a look at a new computer system and rewiring for the bus, and May was too busy trying to figure out what went wrong in the cockpit to pay attention to him.

He sneaked down to the cargo hold and found Simmons fussing over her lab. In trying to get the bus safely to the ground, there was a bump so large that several of Simmons' specimens from an experiment got cross-contaminated, and she was still trying to salvage what she could. He watched her discreetly from the stairwell for a good five minutes as she murmured to herself, puttering around the lab. It had a strange calming effect on him; now if he could just get her to bottle that and inject him with it, he'd be golden.

He descended the stairs and towards the lab. The doors slid open, announcing his presence, and it pained him that she jumped when she saw him. This time she had learned her lesson: she looked startled but said nothing. That did not make him feel good.

He waved her on to finish what she was doing, but the tension in the room was so ripe it apparently had already broken her concentration. She finished up a rather mundane task and then promptly turned to him with a smile that didn't reach her eyes.

"I broke your concentration," he said apologetically.

"Oh, I can finish that later," she replied with a small smile and laugh, albeit a slightly tense one. "What can I do for you?"

He told her of the rage, and he finally told her what Randolph said about how long the effects would run. He asked for a nighttime sedative, just like she had first thought of using when this whole mess started.

She hesitated, this time. Apparently the "decades long" effects of the staff had not been something Randolph mentioned to her (of COURSE he didn't), and the whole thing was stopping her short - he could sense it. He could feel the impatient rage building inside.

Very quietly, very sadly, Simmons said she didn't have a drug that could fix a decades-long problem.

He stomped out of the lab, leaving a very somber biochemist behind him.

He was back down in the lab three days later - or, make it three nights. He was so desperate for peace he'd take the sedative, and if Simmons wouldn't do it, he'd sneak to the lab to inject himself with it.

His mental state had become precarious enough for him to consider taking double, triple, quadruple the dose (in his less sane moments). After all, his team had the Cavalry on board; they wouldn't need him. And they could find a better replacement, a specialist less emotionally compromised than he; somebody stronger than he was. He was well aware now that what passed for strength was not strength, and that he was clearly not strong enough to deal with the effects of that staff.

They'd been up for nearly 48 hours on this last case, and when they had finally all stumbled off to bed, he alone hadn't been able to get rest. The nightmares exhausted him so much it didn't immediately occur to him that there was, right now, a small light on in the lab. He was looking for people and didn't see any movement, and his brain wasn't turning fast enough to remember that FitzSimmons never left anything turned on in the lab unless they were working on some overnight project.

She was asleep on the floor in a sleeping bag. He nearly tripped over her, causing her to jerk awake with a horrified squeak until she saw it was him.

He didn't even bother to ask her what she was doing. He needed a sedative, quickly, he said - short, instructional. She swallowed, and he could tell she really didn't like the idea. He refused to budge, so she pursed her lips and guided him over to a chair to sit down. She was still a little sleepy and not fully awake, but that was not enough of a deterrent for him to wait for her to wake completely and to steady her hand. She filled the hypodermic needle and pulled up a stool next to him.

She stopped, tapping the needle with her finger for longer than necessary, looking at him with worry and concern in her big hazel eyes.

He was curt with her - when was she going to inject him? Her eyes flickered to the needle and then to him, and then she suddenly asked, in a soft, pleading voice, what was wrong.

He stared at her incredulously. Like he'd tell her. He was her protector; he made the world right for her. He saved her from demons, including those inside of him. He clamped his mouth shut.

Instead of backing off, she set the needle down and reached for his hands, taking one each of his larger hands in one each of her own smaller ones. Her grip was warm, firm. She just kept looking at him with those big, pleading eyes, and then one single word, breathed out, full of pain and worry: "Please."

He stared right back at her for a full minute, giving her a hard, implacable look. She didn't break her gaze. And suddenly - he couldn't tell if it was his exhaustion or what - he just started talking, and it was like he couldn't stop.

It all came out: all he was feeling and remembering. He found himself spilling his guts to her about his childhood - the well, the cake, the ledge - everything about both his brothers. His hatred. His anger. His desperation. There was a small part of him shouting and waving its arms, warning him to stop, but his mouth just kept moving of its own accord. That same sane part of him wondered if she pumped a liquid truth serum into his room (perhaps she invented one, since SHIELD officially didn't have one), because this was a Level 15 type of super oversharing he didn't want to do.

His traitorous mouth kept moving: the first person he killed, the first person he couldn't save, the teammates he lost.

He couldn't look at her, and so he focused on the hands clasped in his lap: her fingers, long, slim; nails cut neatly but without polish - a scholar's hands, smooth but practical, without adornment. Her hands gripped his tightly, not letting go.

When he finally finished, she sat completely still, silent. He was afraid to look at her; no doubt she was thinking he was a psychotic monster. She seemed to have such a normal family, parents who loved her and still called to check on her, siblings who adored her, and he - he had his nightmares. For a moment, he questioned whether or not he should look at her face, oddly unwilling to see the condemnation and horror he knew would be there.

She breathed out audibly, and before he could catch himself, he looked up at her. He was entirely unprepared for what he saw. Her large eyes were filled with compassion, tears threatening to spill, her smile gentle and hurting. He was about to try to extend comfort when she reached her arms to him and pulled him towards her; he stiffened in surprise, but she persisted, and this was ridiculous he was Grant Ward but her arms were so gentle and her neck was so soft where his face was buried and he was so exhausted as he rested his head on her shoulder and she was stroking hishair and she was whispering something comforting in his ear and wasn't it weird that socially awkward Simmons still knew what to say and he didn't believe he'd ever been comforted like this his whole life.

He willed himself not to cry, but she did, silent tears of suffering for him; he felt one hit his cheek, and the brush of her long fingers against his face, taking it away.

He had no idea how long he just sat there in that chair in her lab, his one arm resting on her lap as she cradled him in her arms. It was not an entirely comfortable position for him - he was nearly a foot taller - but he was so afraid if he budged she'd pull her arms away and if that happened, he didn't believe he'd make it out of the lab without shattering.

He had completely misjudged her, he realized. Her fears of falling, her nervousness after her illness - she merely wore her emotions on her sleeve. She was strong enough not to care how others saw her, so she didn't hide herself from them. She was strong enough to express her vulnerability, strong enough to understand her weaknesses were not who she was and could be. She was strong enough not to need to prove herself to anybody. She was strong enough to know who she was, and that her worth didn't come from what she looked or didn't look like and from whether people liked or didn't like her and even from what she could or couldn't do, but from who she was. He had completely underestimated her.

For the first time in the weeks since he touched that staff, he let himself fall.

When she finally, gently, pushed him back up into a seating position, looking out at him from under those lashes, giving him her bright smile, full of compassion and hope and strength and courage, and he felt his facade break into a million pieces. He swallowed, and he felt that desperate childhood fear and emotion and hatred and self-recrimination come out. He didn't like being vulnerable, but now for the first time in perhaps his whole life he finally felt safe enough to be weak - that while he was here, with her, she would hold up his world until he could function in it again. She could - and would - catch him.

She cupped his cheek in her right hand, her thumb gently stroking back and forth. He couldn't look at her for that moment, dropping his head down to avoid her gaze. He sensed her moving but didn't realize what she was doing until he felt her soft lips against his temple.

He was pretty sure now that this - this - was what May meant.

In the ensuing weeks, he came to rely heavily on her. When he thought about it, he wondered how it was that so often she just happened to be available to him to lean on.

The first time was just two weeks after their late-night meeting in the lab. He'd found her reading in the living area, despite the late hour. She'd simply looked up to see him standing there uncertainly and moved over to give him some room to sit down. Once he'd sat, she leaned against him, tucking her feet underneath her, and did nothing but hold his hand; they'd fallen asleep on the couch, and he'd had a dreamless, restful sleep. He'd awakened to find her burrowed against him, both of them covered with a huge blue and white quilt that came from who knew where.

The second time was a month after that. They were overnight in western China, in a middle-of-the-line hotel near Erhai in Yunnan. He found his feet headed for her door almost instinctively. It was way too early in the morning, but she pulled on her street clothes anyhow and made him change, then pulled him by the hand out onto the rooftop of the hotel. It was chilly but not brutal, and she ran around like a small child, her cheeks pink from the soft cold, and he laughed at her. As the sun came up, the rays danced across her upturned face, making it glow golden; her eyes shone with delight. She watched with rapt attention as the sun rose over the mountains and cast its light onto the water; with that same concentration, he watched her.

By the time they returned for breakfast, they were wide awake and flush with energy, so much so Skye and Fitz grumbled at them. May merely raised an amused - even approving? - eyebrow at the scene but said nothing.

During the day he started spending more time with her, and he found her cheerful energy to have a calming effect on both his days and his nights. In the same way a bad night could set him back a week, a couple hours with her set him on the right track for the next few days. He knew he was getting better when Skye started making fun of him again to his face, clearly sensing that it was once more safe to do so.

The third time was almost three months later, after a disastrous extraction. He tried not to bother Jemma, knowing that she'd had a rough week herself. He went by himself down to the cargo hold and pulled out the punching bag to work off his energy, and for the first time since he touched the staff months ago, this actually was helping him. When she went to the bathroom, she heard him downstairs, and came down to find him. They sat on the stairwell, talking quietly at first, and then not talking. She fell asleep against his arm, and he took her back up to her bunk before hitting the showers, feeling more refreshed and sane than he had in a long time.

He got the niggling sense that he was falling again - but an entirely different fall, one that he didn't know if he should stop or if he wanted to stop, one that he wasn't sure he wanted to be saved from. If he were to fall for anything, she made the perfect 'anything'.

{ }

The fourth time he went to look for her was the most memorable. She and Fitz had been gone from the bus for a month, circumstances which had not been great on any of the rest of the team. That month had not gone well. Coulson was inscrutable, as was May, but both were quieter. Just to feel closer to the the two absent agents, Skye had started taking her laptop down to their abandoned lab to do her work. They put up with the cycle of temporary labrats cycling through. Most didn't stay more than a few days. One super arrogant one only lasted eight hours; once they'd realized what a disaster he was, Skye had purposely contradicted him at every turn (much to Ward's amusement), and he'd left in a huff.

The specialist had been a little panicked when he realized Fury had called FitzSimmons back to the Hub for a temporary assignment. He worried about their safety (stupid, given they were at the Hub), and then he worried about himself: what would happen if he fell apart and she wasn't there to sweep up the pieces? He had found, though, that his time with her had made him stronger, that he could endure perfectly fine that month. His nightmares were fewer, and he could now sustain himself through them. The rage had lessened.

He still missed her terribly, though, to the point of distraction.

The day before FitzSimmons came home, Skye decorated their space with hidden confetti cannons which would release when they entered the lab. Coulson just looked amused, and May hid a smile, and he just laughed, all of them knowing both scientists would freak out when they saw the tiny bits of paper all over their pristine lab. (Fitz had been aghast, stunned into horrified silence, his mouth agape as the paper dots fluttered down all around him. Two dots landed on the bottom lip of his open mouth.) There had been, perhaps, a little too much champagne imbibed at the welcome-back party, and everybody had headed off to bed early, happy at their reunion.

He'd found Simmons back in the lab, sweeping colored dots from a shelf, and proceeded to help her finish cleaning the lab. She told him about her month, and he told her about his. When they finished, they sat together near the lab table, just chatting about everything and nothing; he just drank in the sight of her, back in her lab, sitting near him, as it should have been.

A noise at the top of the stairs caused them both to jump, and suddenly a mumbling Fitz came into view. The specialist turned to Jemma in puzzlement, but she just had a mischievous look on her face. She shushed him and quickly switched off the lights, then pulled him down to sit on the floor, hidden behind the lab table so the engineer couldn't see them. They then watched from around the corners of the lab table as Fitz mumbled to himself, navigating the stairs rather expertly. He patted the hood of the black SUV and mumbled something comforting. Ward, baffled, looked at Jemma, whose eyes just danced in merriment.

Then, as both watched with their mouths agape and eyes wide, Fitz climbed into the passenger's side of Lola and reached out his hands for the (nonexistent) wheel, as if he were driving. Jemma nearly broke their cover by bursting into laughter; he clamped a hand over her mouth, dragging her back behind the lab table. He couldn't resist, however, and used her phone to snap a photo of Fitz in Lola. For blackmail, of course.

The two of them sat on the floor, trying to contain their amusement; Jemma explained in a whisper how Fitz often sleepwalked during a change in environment, and had done so the month they were gone, ending up in the randomest places around the Hub dormitories. It has been a betting game, even, set up by a set of rogue trainees: "Where will Fitz end up today?" Ward just grinned at her, amused by the story but even more entranced by the merriment dancing in her eyes. He tucked a loose lock of hair behind her ear and then pulled her into his side. They fell asleep sitting on the floor of the lab, and he awakened in the morning to find that Fitz had left and that his - their - mysterious benefactor had once again tucked them in under that same big, warm quilt, so their hands and fronts are warm while their bums were a little cold from the floor.

Two days later, they were in the debriefing room as Coulson turned on the huge table computer. The first image to come up was a gigantic photo of Fitz asleep in the passenger's seat of Lola; it spanned the entire length of the wall-sized screen. Everybody stared in shock for a full moment, before Coulson slowly turned to look at Fitz with an evil eye and pursed lips. Fitz started running even as the rest of them laughed themselves sick.

Fitz was sure Skye had done it, but she denied all responsibility. Ward shook his head: that photo was certainly not the right angle and lighting for the one he and Jemma took, either.

{ }

The fifth time, he woke from a nightmare, and he didn't even stop to think but went straight to her bunk and rapped quietly. He almost regretted it when he saw her tired face, but she looked up at him blearily, then quickly pulled him inside.

They sat on her bed, backs against the wall. She nodded off quickly, and he was upset with himself for waking her. Almost as if she sensed this, she dropped her head sleepily against his shoulder. He wrapped an arm around her, and soon he was in a blissfully dreamless and peaceful sleep.

In the morning, he didn't have the sense to check carefully to make sure nobody was watching before he walked out and nearly smack dab into Melinda May. She said nothing but held up her hands, left on top, right on the bottom. Sandwiched between them: the now familiar quilt.

His face went red, and she just gave him an amused look before heading off.

Four years later - too short a time, Ward thought grumpily - things came full circle, and they happened to run into (too bad it wasn't 'over,' Ward groused) Randolph.

He and Skye were in the field when he appeared. The latter welcomed him with cheerful surprise; the former glared and glared. Ward avoided him as much as possible, just so he wouldn't give in to his desire to wring the man's neck for bringing that blasted staff to Earth in the first place. Skye was happy to be the main liasion anyhow, so Ward let her.

Then, at Skye's prompting, Coulson agreed to bring Mr. Berserker (or just Berserk) Lovesick Stone Mason back to the bus to ask him if he had had any role in the circumstances which had brought them out here in the first place. Ward wanted to bang his head against a wall, but it was Coulson's decision, so he said nothing as he simply waved the man towards the SUV.

The drive was a long one, and he was stuck driving the Asgardian while a smirking hacker sat in the backseat, offering comments she had to know were driving him nuts. He willed the drive to be silent; it was, for half the trip. The minute he let his guard down the Asgardian started yapping. Ward took a deep breath and called upon all his reserves of May-taught self-control.

"Looks like it didn't take 30 years for most of your rage to dissipate," the man finally said curiously, bringing up the bloated elephant in the room.

Ward gave him a look that would freeze hell and had made Level 6 specialists cry. Unfortunately, it didn't deter his passenger.

"Good! Good!" The Asgardian said brightly, as though he'd been part of the solution, rather than part of the whole blasted problem.

"Key word being 'most,' not 'all,'" Ward then retorted sharply, giving the professor a good case in point. From the back he heard a snicker.

"Well, it's wonderful you're mostly recovered," the other man replied cheerfully, completely undeterred.

"No thanks to you," Ward intoned.

The dude didn't know when to stop and kept talking. Ward tuned him out; he was sure that if he were actually paying attention - and if he had Thor's hammer - he'd be repeatedly pounding the guy in the passenger's seat.

"...due to that?"


"Your rage issues. Partly fixed by that?" The Asgardian indicated the simple gold band on Ward's ring finger.

In the backseat, Skye fell over laughing.

Ward glared and immediately yanked his left hand off the steering wheel and tried very hard to remember that no, he should not do every idea that popped into his head, as appealing as Asgardian whack-a-mole sounded. "None of your business."

When they got to the bus, the equipment and samples were hauled off to the lab, and he could hear the two scientists' squabbling before they came into view. To him it was a far more welcome sound now than when he first met them. Well, and to him it was a far more welcome sound than Randolph's voice.

It completely rubbed him the wrong way when Randolph perked up, clearly delighted by the chance to see that "lovely English rose" again, and good night, the guy used that term. AGAIN. Ward resisted the urge to retort. (Man, these self-control lessons from May really worked.)

The direction of his thinking changed when he heard Fitz's indignant voice: "You know he's going to kill me if he sees you working on alien goo out here - he'll toss me out the cargo bay doors. And he certainly won't jump out of the hold for me."

"Don't be so melodramatic!" Jemma's irritated voice. "I'm not going to get infected! I'm not dead! Or unhealthy!"

"And it's not just Ward! I can't believe Coulson even let you into this lab, given this case! Do you know how much infectious stuff is in the lab?!"

"THERE'S NOTHING TO FEAR IN HERE!" she roared (if somebody as small as Jemma could roar).

"Don't say I didn't warn you. The minute he sees you down here, without protective - " Fitz began before seeing Randolph. "Professor Randolph!"

In the next moment, Ward decided everything was worth it - all the irritation he'd endured, and all the patience he'd exerted in order not to kill Randolph who was currently getting too close to the "lovely English rose": Jemma turned around quickly, nearly bumping into the Asgardian with her distended belly. The momentary shock on his face - priceless. Well worth all Ward's pain and irritation. If he could get a still photo of it, he'd even count touching the staff to be a fit price to see Randolph's comeuppance.

OK, perhaps not.

The Asgardian stood gaping for a full second, even as Jemma blushed. Still, after recovering from his surprise, Randolph was warm and gracious, the shock replaced by hearty congratulations and good-natured, merry disappointment. He courteously bowed over her hand and gave it a gallant kiss. (Ward groused about that one.)

Fitz escorted the professor up to his room on the bus. Ward entered the lab to a warm, welcoming smile, dropping off a box of soil samples on the lab table. "Personal delivery."

"Ooh." She brightened even more at that, her eyes shining with curiosity.

She started reaching her hands into the box, but he caught them and pulled them out, feeling the diamond from her engagement ring and the soft gold band of her wedding ring underneath his hand. "You promised."

"Grant!" she huffed in indignation. "It takes so long to get all of this into the vacuum chamber, even if it does eliminate any possibility of infection. There's nothing wrong with this. If I can just - " At his glare, she pouted. "I don't tell you how to do your job."

"No, you just get May and Coulson to do it. At least I tell you to your face." She gave him an exasperated look, head tilted slightly to the side, eyes with a full-on glare. "OK, after I ask Fitz," he conceded unwillingly.

(Ward silently gave thanks for Fitz for being, quite frankly, a well-informed germophobe who cared about Jemma. He couldn't count how many times Fitz had informed him of things he could do to make sure Jemma didn't get infected from something alien during her pregnancy. They were a pretty good tag team, he and Fitz - much to Jemma's chagrin.)

"Telltale," she grumbled for the millionth time about her oldest friend. She started to pick up the box, and he stepped in and took it from her. "I'm not an invalid!"

"No, but your back hurts now just carrying the extra twenty pounds of baby in front. I'm not going to add another twenty. You might tip over," he deadpanned.

She made a face, unamused. They headed over to the vacuum chamber Fitz had designed and then built with Ward, where she could work with all her samples with her entire body encased, to prevent any more infections. She gave him instructions on where to put the box and where to put the samples.

He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye; when she thought he wasn't looking, she put a hand to her lower back, leaning backwards and wincing slightly. Her smaller frame was making the pregnancy hard on her back, and unfortunately there was not much he could do for her. He came out of the vacuum chamber, stripping off his gloves, and wrapped his arms around her and pulled her forward into his chest, massaging her lower back, getting a soft sigh of relief from her.

"'s all your fault, you know," came her muffled voice.

He grinned but said nothing. (He learned that lesson the hard way. The first time she complained because of some side effects of the pregnancy, they were at her parents' house, and he made the idiotic mistake of blurting, "You were a pretty willing participant in all this" without knowing her dad was behind him. He returned to the bus with a shiner, which Fitz and Skye have never let him forget - especially after Fitz told Skye Jemma's father was no taller than Coulson.)

When he finally pulled back, she smiled up at him. He gave only a small smile back, his mind awhirl. It has been almost four years - four years since he lost himself, not so much in his rage itself but in his fear of what he'd do when enraged. Four years since May pushed him out of the nest, four years since he tried to go it alone, four years he first came to her. Four years of becoming a better person, a slow process of growth done in the safety of her arms. He could almost forgive Randolph for all the trouble the idiot had brought here. Ward was so grateful he could burst, thankful for the providential decisions which sent him to this team, even against his will.

She was looking up at him with sympathy. "Terribly bad, was it?" she said, more in confirmation than as a question, her nose wrinkling in that adorable way of hers, her hand coming to rest on his arm comfortingly. "Seeing Professor Randolph brought up all those bad memories?"

He snapped out of his thoughts, then looked at her, complete baffled. "What makes you think I'm upset right now?" When her forehead suddenly smoothed out and her eyes widened guiltily and she quickly busied herself with brushing dirt off of his jacket, he suddenly got it. He asked incredulously, "You think this is my 'I'm upset' face?"

"What?" she bluffed (very badly). "No, of course not." She quickly started heading back to the lab as fast - well, as slow - as she could waddle.

He caught her wrist (see what he meant about slow?), pulling her back to him with an amusedly curious look on his face. "You thought I was falling into the whole rage thing again," he said, and when she continued to stare straight ahead of her - which meant eye contact somewhere near the victinity of his chest and shoulders, not his face - he ducked his head down so he could look up into her face. He could barely keep the amused astonishment out of voice. "I'm right, aren't I?"

She got an "uh-oh" look on her face, the cute, sheepish look on her face when she was about to admit to something embarrassing. "Um...I...I can't really tell just looking at you," she admitted with a wince, making a hand gesture towards his expression. "You always are looking at, half-frown. Whether you're mad or sad or happy or comforting or...what."

He gaped at her. "Four years and you can't tell my facial expressions?!"

"I'm not really good at reading people," she admitted the obvious, the obvious that everybody on the team (heck, everybody at SHIELD) had always known about her. "I normally can't tell unless it's really obvious by the way you're acting or you tell me." She gritted her teeth in a sheepish wince as she looked up at him.

He stared at her, still gaping, then suddenly burst out in laughter. He cupped her face in his hands, then bent forward to kiss her. He stopped suddenly, inches from her lips, overwhelmed by the depth of his feelings for this quirky, compassionate, and apparently clueless woman. He swallowed and silently thanked God for the millionth time for her, then pecked her gently on the lips. "I have to go make sure our Asgardian isn't doing anything he shouldn't, then I'll be back down."

She noded as he turned and headed around the corner towards the stairwell going up into the main body of the plane. She started to reach for a sealed sample on Fitz's lab desk when he shouted from the stairwell, all without looking back, "HEY!"

She made a face at the still closed door and turned back to her lab.

{ }

Ward headed up the stairs into the main floor, nodding at Fitz, going in the opposite direction. The specialist went over to the Asgardian's assigned room and found it empty; irritated, he turned around, looking around him. As he headed towards the briefing room, he was greeted by a familiar, albeit exasperating, voice, which pulled him up in his tracks.

"Can't fault your exquisite taste in women," the Asgardian intoned.

Thor's hammer looked so good right now.

The flames are spreadin' everywhere
But through the smoke
I see her there
She's all I see
Between the devil and me