“Hey, what up?” Agent Phil Coulson glances up from the requisition form he’s reviewing to find Skye in his doorway, thumbs hooked in her belt-loops as she flashes him a friendly smile. “We’ve been looking for you; Fitz and Simmons have the cooler out, and we’re introducing Agent May to reality television.”
“What happened to ‘me time’?” Phil asks dryly, his pen still ticking down the list of items one by one.
“It’s been upgraded to ‘we time’,” the young hacktivist informs him, obviously pleased about the turn of events. “Wanna join us?”
“Maybe next time.” Phil feels her step closer as he notes another unusually large request for Nutella. He wonders if FitzSimmons are using it for experiments.
“Are you working?” Skye asks, a frown in her voice as she tucks a wave of long brown hair behind one ear.
“There was a slight back-up in paperwork while I was in Tahiti,” he admits. Better late than never, especially in this case.
“Do you want some help?”
The earnest question has Phil’s mouth quirking into a half-smile. “Thanks, but that won’t be necessary. We’ve had enough excitement these last few weeks; the teams deserves some down time. Just don’t blow anything up, and don’t jump out of the plane,” he’s compelled to remind her. Simmons and Ward took years off his life with that stunt, and he doesn’t have many to spare.
Skye huffs in amazement. “Can you believe she jumped without a chute? That was so wild!” Phil glances up, pinning the young woman with a pointed stare. “And dangerous,” she amends, quickly sobering. “Really, really dangerous.” Then, “Is that why you’re hiding in here?”
“I’m not hiding.” It sounds unconvincing, even to him, but Skye has already moved ahead, her brown eyes perusing the office walls.
“You know, this isn’t all that different from my van,” she considers. “You’re huddled in here, surrounded by all your things - it’s your safe place…” Phil leans back in his chair, watching with amusement as Skye moves from shelf to shelf, openly curious but careful not to touch any of the memorabilia. “It’s kind of sweet, actually; you really believe in this stuff, don’t you?” She shoots him a knowing look. “You must have had one of those picture perfect childhoods, everything all Leave it to Beaver suburban, where Dad goes to the office and Mom bakes apple pies on Sunday,” she teases. “I bet you even played sports,” she adds, gaze narrowing on him. “Not basketball,” she says with a playful smirk. “Baseball, maybe. Shortstop.”
“Catcher,” Phil surprises himself by volunteering. He shrugs. “I like to make the calls.”
“I bet there was even a dog named Lucky.”
“Is there a point to all this, Skye?”
“Not really; it’s just this stuff - it’s kind of like the James Bond Museum, all about the past. Maybe you should try collecting something new, something that says something about where you are now,” she suggests. “Something that doesn’t scream ‘Antiques Roadshow’,” he hears her mutter under her breath.
“I’ll consider it,” Phil replies, regarding her patiently in case any further revelations are forthcoming. Silence stretches between them, until Skye suddenly shifts on her feet.
“Oh, well,” she says with an awkward smile and a jaunty pump of her arm, and backs toward the door. “Guess I’ll just let you get back to work, then...” She turns to leave, only to glance back over her shoulder a moment later. “Craziest show on earth, right?” she asks Phil, and grins a little before bouncing out of sight.
Phil turns back to his requisition, shakes his head fondly as he hears her footsteps on the stairs, followed by the distant voices of his team from downstairs. “It certainly is.”
# # #
“Changing course.” Skye looks up from her dashboard hula girl toward the small speaker above her bunk. “Briefing in five,” Agent May announces from the cockpit. Skye gives Hula’s grass skirt one last stroke before returning her to the cubicle’s small shelf.
“It’s a little different than the van, I know, but you’ll get used to it. The view’s going to be much better up here,” Skye promises the tiny doll. “And the company is better, too. Or it will be, once they get to know us.”
Knuckles rap sharply against the outside of Skye’s bunk. “Briefing in two,” Ward reminds her. As if Skye might have already forgotten. At least he isn’t making his hate face anymore, like he did the week after the Miles fiasco. Ward still makes it clear he considers her and FitzSimmons the worst kind of babysitting job, but since the babysitter takes bullets and jumps out of planes for them, Skye figures that can be forgiven.
“On my way,” she calls after Ward, but tall, dark, and surly is already half-way to the command station, and who walks that fast? Skye hurries along behind him, sliding in between him and Simmons at the main console, where the rest of the team has already gathered. She watches as Coulson slips a tiny drive into his handheld device, lighting up the table in front of them.
“What are we looking at, Coulson?” Ward asks, peering at the various documents appearing on the console screen.
“What you’re seeing are the contents of over twenty-seven files recently hacked from various international government agencies, including SHIELD,” Coulson informs them. “The breach was traced to a warehouse in a Los Angeles commercial district; we’ll see what we can recover on the ground.”
“You can hardly read these they’re so redacted,” May observes.
“All of these documents pertain to female children processed by SHIELD in 1989,” Coulson says, causing Skye to glance up in surprise. Coulson knows how long she’s been looking for clues about her parents, but if there’s anything relevant to her search here, he’s too much of a professional to give it away.
Fitz glances at Simmons, who always seems equally ill-at-ease when outside the confines of the lab. “So you think this hacker is looking for someone.”
“We need more information before we can make those kinds of assumptions,” Coulson cautions, but the warning does little to stem the rush of giddy hope Skye feels when she recognizes the letterhead of Saint Anne’s Orphanage among the other documents. All these years looking for any leads on her parents, only to discover she might not be the only one looking? If Coulson wants information, she’s the girl – woman - to get it.
“Give me access and a couple hours, and I’ll have something for you,” Skye assures the man, clapping both palms against the edge of the console for emphasis. “When do I start?”
“You don’t,” Coulson says. “I’m going to need Fitz to pull the data from HQ; your loyalty is considered questionable at best and we need you not to draw attention to yourself.”
“Are you - seriously?” Skye asks, glancing at her teammates with disbelief. “I’m with you guys every minute, there’s no way I could be hacking from the inside. Besides, I’m even wearing your special jewelry,” she says, turning her wrist back and forth for Coulson’s benefit. “Do you really think it’s possible for me to break into the system and gather that much information without you knowing it?” Skye folds her arms over her chest. “I’m not that good.” Then, “Well, okay, I am that good, but I didn’t do this,” she persists, not missing the way Ward rolls his eyes. Skye appeals to Coulson. “You can’t ask me to stay out of this.”
“I’m not asking,” he replies. “We need to find out everything we can about these individuals, figure out what or who we’re looking for.”
“And what am I supposed to do while the rest of you are out saving the world?” Skye wants to know. “Just sit here looking pretty?” She’s about to say more, but May promptly dumps an eight-inch thick bound document into her arms. Skye glances up at the woman in surprise, but May’s face is as expressionless as always.
“Try that,” Coulson suggests. “The looking pretty is optional.”
Skye looks down at the monstrous thing. “‘Field Manual; Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division’. Perfect,” Skye remarks with a grim smile. “More reading.”
“We’ll be landing in two hours.” Coulson surveys the team. “I know that some of you might be excited about returning to Los Angeles, but I want to remind you that we’re on mission; leave is postponed until further notice.” The man must like what he sees, because he nods in approval. “See you on the tarmac.”
# # #
Phil watches as Skye heads for one of the lounge seats, settling herself into the cream leather with the gigantic manual nestled in her lap. She frowns as she begins to read, her mouth pursed in a pout. Unhappy, but doing as requested. It’s a step in the right direction. Satisfied, Phil glances around, suddenly aware that the rest of his team hasn’t dispersed.
“Is there something else?” he inquires mildly. May and Ward seem to know that’s a rhetorical, but Fitz and Simmons are much more literal.
“Sir,” Simmons begins apologetically, as though she suspects what she’s about to say might get her name written on a chalkboard somewhere and her recess privileges taken away. “I know Skye made a mistake with Miles - ”
“He manipulated her,” Fitz puts in, his brogue registering a fair amount of indignation over the matter.
“ - but she’s still one of us - it doesn’t feel right to exclude her,” Simmons remarks, her anxious gaze flitting to May and Ward before settling on Phil himself.
“I know it’s hard, but until we know more, we’re under the radar. Skye will set off more alarms than we can afford right now.” Phil glances between his two youngest agents and resists the urge to sigh. “I don’t expect you to understand, but I do expect you to follow orders. Is that clear?” Silence. “That’s not a rhetorical,” he explains.
“Yes - ”
“Absolutely, sir,” Simmons finishes.
“Then get your equipment ready,” Phil says, effectively dismissing the pair.
“This doesn’t seem like our kind of case,” May remarks in their wake, weighing the evidence with a critical eye.
“It isn’t; this one is personal.” The information earns Phil a sharp glance from May, but he’ll deal with that later. Ward is still frowning at the console, his attention captured by the document from Saint Anne’s, and Phil knows it’s only a matter of time before he puts the pieces together.
“Is that - ”
“Skye? Yes,” Coulson confirms. “I flagged her file so I’d be alerted if anyone tried to access it. It’s why I want to keep her behind lines,” he explains. “As far as SHIELD and the rest of the world know, this infant just vanished – Skye saw to that. If someone is looking for her, being off the grid might be her only protection.”
Ward frowns. “She thinks it might be her parents.”
“It’s not,” Phil replies. “There are a lot of reasons someone could want these files, but until we know more, I want you to stay close to her.”
The frown deepens. “How close?”
Phil folds his arms and waits for the inevitable protest. He’s read Ward’s file, he knows just how damaging Skye’s perceived betrayal was to the pair’s relationship. Hopefully this assignment will benefit both team members.
“It’s just - we’re on a plane, sir,” Ward’s compelled to report. “How much closer can we be?”
Phil finds unblinking silence a highly effective tool with junior agents; after a moment something like resignation washes over Ward’s face.
“Got it,” the specialist mutters, shouldering his way behind Phil and slipping from the command station, hopefully in search of Skye.
“You’re in deep,” May observes laconically, now that they’re alone.
“Someone once asked me, ‘is there any other way?’” Phil says with a small smile, leaning over the console again.
Her tiny mouth curls at the corners. “I don’t remember that working out well for either one of us.”
Phil shrugs. “It had its moments.” Several of which Phil recalls quite fondly.
“If you wanted something to love, we could have gotten you a puppy.”
“I can help her,” Phil says. He’s aware of May’s concerns, but Skye has a tremendous skill set, one they can put to good use. More importantly, she has the idealism and passion the organization really needs right now.
“If she wants to be helped,” May agrees.
“She does. She just needs some direction.”
“Skye’s looking for more than direction, Phil.” She must notice his brief surprise, because she gives him her most pointed stare. “You gave me the ‘dangers of emotional attachments’ talk, remember?”
Phil remembers. He also remembers being kind of a tool. “Skye’s been on her own a long time; no parents, no one to really look out for her. It’s natural for her to want to connect with others.”
“Who said I was talking about Skye?”
And okay, it’s true; five years ago Phil would have slapped the bracelet on Skye and sent her packing, and it all would have amounted to was a neatly summarized report. They both know it. “That forty seconds I was dead - ”
“It was eight,” May reminds him. “You’ve become a legend in your own mind.”
“As I was saying,” Phil continues, wondering why people keep harping on this. “That forty seconds I was dead was the longest forty seconds of my life - non-life?” he queries, fuzzy on the semantics. “It doesn’t matter, does it? It made me realize how much I still want to do.”
“That, I get,” May allows. “What I don’t understand is why you’d risk all that just to give this girl a second chance.”
“Because it’s not her second chance,” he replies, offering May a slight smile. “It’s mine.”
# # #
“Hey.” Agent Grant Ward slides effortlessly into the seat opposite his trainee. Skye’s still staring down at the book in her lap, her brow crinkled into a frown that would be cute, if Grant was the kind of agent who allowed himself to notice those kind of things. He isn’t.
“Hey, yourself,” Skye replies, before glancing in his direction. “Is this for real?” she asks, gesturing at the manual as if Grant might have missed it. “Look at this thing; isn’t there some chip or something SHIELD can put in my brain and upload to?”
“The information in that book could save your life or someone else’s,” Grant points out. Sometimes he wonders if Skye will ever completely master the discipline required for the job. She might be a genius on the keyboard, but she’s way too used to doing things her own way.
Skye arches a brow. “You think so?” She flips to a random page and reads the section title. “When am I ever going to be swallowed alive by a Niddhog?”
“It’s always sooner than you think.”
“Ha, ha; very funny,” Skye tells him, then frowns. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Do you need help?” Grant asks, attempting to refocus the conversation. He needs to keep this professional, treat it like a mission. Because whatever Coulson might say, none of that touchy-feely stuff is going to keep Skye alive when it counts.
“Are you offering to read me a story?” She slants him a coy look through her lashes.
“I’m offering to answer any questions you might have,” he replies.
“Fine,” she says, leaning forward in her seat as far as the manual allows, long hair spilling over her knees. “You’re my superior officer; can’t you get Coulson to let me in?”
“On the book,” Grant specifies sternly. “And no.”
“He listened to you the last time you asked him to trust me,” Skye persists.
“You mean the time just before you alerted an active suspect in a treason investigation?”
“It wasn’t treason, it was - ” Skye falters, sighs. “Yeah, I see your point.” She slumps in her seat a little, her fingers automatically moving to toy with her bracelet. Grant’s not sure she even knows she’s doing it.
“Is it really that bad?” he has to ask, more out of curiosity than anything else.
Skye’s brow furrows. “The treason?”
“The reading,” Grant responds, trying to tamp down on his exasperation. He wonders if Skye does this on purpose, just to make him crazy. “I thought you liked that sort of thing.”
“No, you like that sort of thing. I like movies.” She straightens in her chair, suddenly hopeful. “I don’t suppose there’s a film version of this with Collin Ferrell narrating?”
“Fine,” Skye says quickly, with a quick roll of her eyes before dropping her gaze to the manual. “All you had to say was no.”
Satisfied, Grant sinks lower in his chair, folding his arms behind his head and closing his eyes. “Wake me when we land.”
“Wait, you’re taking a nap?” Skye asks in disbelief.
“I’m combat, rookie.”
“I kind of hate you right now,” she mutters.
For the first time in days, Grant smiles.
# # #
“It looks like someone left in a hurry,” May says, stepping over the scattered debris littering the warehouse floor. As far as messes go, it’s hardly the worse Phil’s seen; they should be able to pick up some evidence here.
“Not too much of a hurry,” Ward observes, holding up a plastic bottle to the dusty light peering through the warehouse’s boarded windows.
“Oooh, bodily fluids,” Simmons exclaims with delight, jumping up to snatch the bottle from his hands. Ward stares at the bio-chemist, then shakes his head before moving forward to secure their perimeter.
“I want every inch of this place swept,” Phil says, glancing to where Skye is wandering through the rubble, occasionally aiming a half-hearted kick at some random piece of litter. He resists the urge to scold the carelessness. It would have kinder to leave the young woman on the plane, but given present circumstances, it isn’t an option. He’ll debrief Skye post-mission; for now, they’ve got work to do.
“Almost there, sir,” Fitz replies. “Ahh, there we go,” he says, as the quadcoptors rise in the dusty air. “Release the Kraken!” Phil’s brow furrows. “It’s not really a Kraken,” the young engineer is quick to reassure him. “It’s only the DWARVES; I’ve just always wanted to say that - oh, look at that!” he says, his enthusiastic features reflecting the pale glow of his tablet.
Phil frowns. “What is it?”
“Looks like fragments of some sort of chip.” Fitz squints. “I don’t recognize the tech.”
Phil doesn’t miss the way Skye pauses in his peripheral vision. “Think you can read it?”
“Won’t know until we put her back together,” Fitz says, still peering at the streaming data. “I might be able to use the coordinates to reconstruct the moment of demolition, but even if we manage to repair it, there’s no guarantee any data survived, or that we could break the encryption.”
“We won’t know until we try.”
# # #
“May, Ward. Come on in,” Phil pauses in his pacing and waves them into his office, a slight tilt of his head indicating Ward should shut the door. “I just spoke with a contact at the hub, and - ” The cell phone on his desk top rings briskly, and Phil glances down. He holds up a finger. “One moment please,” he requests, picking up the phone and flipping it open. “Coulson.”
“Agent Coulson, would you like to tell me why I’m getting calls from council in the middle of my beauty sleep?”
“Director Fury; a pleasure to hear from you, sir,” Phil replies amiably.
“The hell it is,” Fury’s voice blares from the cell, causing May and Ward to exchange worried glances. “Do you think I enjoy being summoned from my bed at three in morning?”
Phil glances quickly at his watch, unfazed by the man’s ranting. “We catch you in your pajamas?” he asks, because Phil couldn’t work with Barton for that many years and not pick up some bad habits.
“No, but I can put some on if that would make you more comfortable, Agent - you just let me know.”
Phil grimaces. “That won’t be necessary, sir.”
“I appreciate your flexibility. But then I understand you’re all about flexibility these days,” the director continues, apparently warming to the subject matter. “You’re one of the best agents we’ve ever had, and I’ll admit we were grieved by your near-loss, which is why I got you a plane and that shiny new car. I even let you pick the team, god damn it. But now you’ve brought a hacker for the Rising Tide on board, and suddenly there’s a security breach? One might think you were trying to take advantage of my good nature.”
“Sir, I can assure you - ”
“When you wanted to take Barton on, I knew it was going to be trouble, and what did I say?”
“Well, sir, you - ”
“I said it was your career on the line, but I said yes, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did, sir,” Phil agrees, holding up a hand to assure his agents all is well.
“And you know what pain in the ass he is.”
“I’m well-aware, sir,” Phil replies dryly, moving to take a seat behind his desk.
“And then you get some crazy-ass idea to bring in Romanov, and even you knew it was going to be trouble, and what did I say?”
“You called me an idiot.”
“Damn right I did. And yet you still brought her in, and I didn’t fire you,” Fury barks, as if this constitutes an extreme lack of judgment on his part. “Do you know the cost of settlements for injured reporters alone?”
“No, sir, I don’t, but - ”
“And now I’ve got to answer some very difficult questions from the council regarding SHIELD security,” Fury maintains. “They’re concerned we’ve been compromised.”
“Not by anyone on this team,” Phil reports firmly.
“Then by who?”
“We’re working on it, sir.”
“Work faster, Agent Coulson.” The line goes abruptly dead, and Phil flips the phone shut, glances up at Ward and May’s apprehensive faces. He shrugs. “Wrong number.”
May ignores the attempt at humor. “They’re worried about Skye.”
“For the wrong reasons,” Phil clarifies, leaning forward and clasping his hands together. “I want the two of you to collaborate with the task teams at SHIELD, keep me posted on their progress. The moment you hear anything on any one of these young women, I want to know.”
Ward folds his arms, considers. “I might have a contact or two overseas that could be of use to us, sir.”
“No one follows a paper trail like an administrator,” May adds, waiting for the go-ahead.
Phil nods at the office door. “Do it.”
# # #
Skye quickly drops her gaze to her field manual as May and Ward descend the stairs from Coulson’s office. She studies their faces from beneath her lashes, hoping to gage the mood. Unfortunately, Skye’s not sure May even has more than one expression, and Ward isn’t exactly Mr. Feelings himself. He at least notices her, though, lifting his chin in silent greeting as the pair file past her seat. All the better, Skye thinks, as she sees Coulson start downstairs. She’d just as well keep this on the down low.
Setting the manual aside, Skye unfolds from the leather chair. “So, what’s the haps?” she asks innocently, trailing Coulson into the kitchen.
“Skye,” Coulson warns, throwing her a backwards glance from over his shoulder.
She can’t help but feel a little affronted. “You don’t even know what I want.” Coulson simply raises his brows. “Okay, you know what I want,” she admits sheepishly, as the agent turns to open the cabinet. “But you know I can help with this; I’ll be in and out and SHIELD will never even know I’m there.”
“The orders from above were very clear,” Coulson says, retrieving his SHIELD coffee cup from the cupboard and setting it under the machine. His suit jacket looks slightly rumpled, and Skye wonders if he’s slept.
“So I’m excluded from everything?” Skye wants to know. What is she good for, anyway, if not for something like this? Something exactly like this...
Coulson punches a button, eliciting the familiar whir from the appliance. “You can follow the briefings; you just can’t participate.”
“Excluded,” she confirms glumly, watching the steaming liquid fill Coulson’s cup.
“Sometimes our actions have unpleasant consequences,” Coulson reminds her, with a brief nod to her tracking bracelet.
“Wow, that’s hurtful,” Skye mutters, and Coulson throws her a sharp glance. “And true,” she adds, because, okay, she admits she might deserve the punishment, but it doesn’t make it any easier to endure. “I was just thinking that this mission might turn up a lead on my parents,” she confides, glancing up at him hopefully.
Coulson sighs, but some of his irritation seems to wane. “Finding your parents isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight; it’s going to be a long road,” he reminds her.
“We don’t know that; the smallest thing could point me in the right direction,” Skye persists, because hey, she’s made it this far. “The truth is out there.”
A glimmer of amusement lights his tired eyes. “The X-FILES? A little before your time, wasn’t it?”
Skye stares at him with disbelief. “You’re kidding - it’s a classic,” she tells him.
“It’s late, Skye,” Coulson says, not unkindly. “Get some rest.”
“May and Ward are up,” she can’t help but point out. Very reasonably. So she’s not sure why she suddenly feels like some kid complaining about being sent to bed before the grown-up party. “So are you,” she mutters.
“We have work to do, and we’re used to it,” he tells her.
“But what if there’s - ”
“Bunk,” Coulson replies firmly. “At least five hours.” The agent actually points the way. Skye opens her mouth to argue, then promptly closes it. Once Coulson invokes the finger, that’s pretty much the end of the conversation. Her part of the conversation, anyway.
Skye sighs and heads for her cubicle. She pulls the door closed behind her and plops down on her bunk, her frustrated gaze immediately catching Hula’s. The dark eyes regard Skye solemnly.
“Don’t judge me,” Skye warns with a frown. “I was going to bed anyway,” she insists.
If there’s a hint of skepticism on the doll’s tiny face, it must be Skye’s imagination.
# # #
“What have you guys found?” Skye asks from her perch on the counter, legs swinging gently as she watches Fitz and Simmons navigate the equipment and each other with an almost extra-sensory perception. It’s freaky and kind of wonderful, all at the same time.
Simmons immediately lights up, a flush of color blooming under her perfect English skin. “Oh, it’s quite interesting, Skye - ”
“It’s bloody fantastic, is what it is,” Fitz puts in, still eye-deep in microscope.
“Completely unresponsive until Fitz accidentally spilled his tea,” Simmons enthuses.
“Because you were walking about with someone’s spleen,” Fitz is quick to point out, glancing up from his study with an accusatory expression.
Simmons winces. “He’s a tad squeamish about the organs,’ she confides to Skye, in what Skye guesses is supposed to be a whisper but actually isn’t.
“Excised organs,” Fitz clarifies for Skye’s benefit, straightening from his work. “Not the musical instrument.”
Skye nods, appropriately solemn. “Got it.”
“The data is actually self-assembling, but the electrical charge is catalyst-specific, and now it’s just a matter of identifying the translating solution,” Fitz tells her.
Skye’s brows draw together. “How are you going to do that?”
Simmons makes a face. “Well - ”
“We have no idea,” Fitz replies.
“It’s impossible to think with all that going on,” Simmons complains, with a sideways glance toward the open cargo doors, where their next month’s supplies are being delivered.
Fitz shakes his head, his blue eyes examining his tablet for the latest readings. “All that noise, and we still have to wait until Thursday for the Nutella,” he mutters.
“We’re lucky to have it all, Fitz,” Simmons reminds him. “I specifically recall Agent Coulson limiting purchases to a case a month.”
Huh. “Does Coulson seem – preoccupied to you?” Skye asks.
Simmons looks up from where she’s scrolling on her own tablet. “We’ve been informed the need for this data is extremely urgent.”
Fitz scoffs. “As if we wouldn’t have guessed. He’s got everyone who’s anyone working this mission – ow!” he exclaims, likely because Simmons has pinched him. “What?”
Simmons tilts her head toward Skye, smiling nervously.
Fitz’s eyes widen briefly. “Oh! I mean, of course I don’t mean everyone; that would be silly,” he rambles, nodding his head for emphasis. “It’s really only almost everyone, Skye,” he assures her. “Everyone but – well, there’s not really time to name them all, is there?”
“No,” Simmons denies, with an emphatic shake of her head.
Skye forces a smile, letting them off the hook. “Yeah, okay; I’m gonna get back to my reading,” she says, letting herself slide from the counter. After all, it’s not their fault Coulson isn’t budging on this nonparticipation thing.
Skye will just have to keep hoping he changes his mind.
# # #
It’s a lot like being grounded, Skye thinks, or what she’d always imagined being grounded would be like, if she’d ever had anyone to ground her. The air on the parked bus is tense, stifling. She hardly sees Coulson at all, and when she does, he’s on his phone, or closing his office doors for private meetings. FitzSimmons are practically living in the lab, and May hardly leaves the command station. Which leaves Skye with her gigantic field manual. Oddly enough, it’s Ward who keeps her from going insane, by keeping her busy with hand to hand sessions, and making frequent stops to drill her on worst-case scenarios.
“You can say it any way you want, I’m not drinking my own urine,” Skye says, making a face at the field manual.
“Purified urine,” Ward reminds her, leaning forward in his seat to clasp his hands together. “And you’ll drink it if you’re ever in the situation it becomes necessary. Unless you prefer violent seizures and multi-organ failure and being picked apart by birds to using SHIELD technology.”
“Well, aren’t you a ray of sunshine?” Skye drawls, used to her S.O.’s dire predictions of her untimely demise.
“My job is to train you to survive, not shower you with rainbows and gumdrops.”
Skye chuckles. “No danger of that,” she agrees, before glancing up at Ward. He’s got that face on again, the one Skye used to read as pissed but is beginning to recognize as just intense, sometimes even concerned. “You really can’t get enough of this stuff, can you?”
“It’s what I do.”
“It’s who you are,” Skye points out. Sometimes she wonders how much of a dick Ward’s older brother really was.
Ward shrugs. “If that’s what it takes. Being a field agent requires complete commitment.” His brows draw together. “You having second thoughts?”
Skye snorts. “Are you kidding?” she asks, shifting the manual and curling her legs beneath her in the leather seat. “This is like, the happiest I’ve ever been. What?”
“Here,” Ward attempts to confirm.
“Well, duh. Take a look around,” Skye tells him. “Technology up the wazoo. I mean, flying car?” she asks incredulously. “Who wouldn’t love that?” Ward doesn’t comment, but the tiniest of smiles quirks his lips. “And then there’s you,” Skye says, and Ward glances up. “I mean, you guys, all you guys. Coulson’s totally cool, and May’s a badass,” she muses. “Fitz and Simmons still won’t let me play with their toys and I don’t understand half of what they’re saying most the time, but they always try to include me.”
“No-one understands what FitzSimmons are saying.”
Skye smirks at his long-suffering tone, but the amusement doesn’t last long. She doesn’t just miss the work; she misses the team, too. “I just wish I could be part of this mission,” she says. “You know, be useful.”
“That there?” Ward says. “That’s your problem.”
“Do I want you to be more specific?” Skye asks.
“You need patience,” Ward insists. “Discipline. The manual is just another tool at your disposal,” Ward explains. “So use it; you got plenty of time, rookie,” he assures her, the words more comforting than they should be coming from a T-1000. “Now, give me five approved methods for the identification and processing of alien technology.”
# # #
The morning starts with a bang; or as it will be more aptly described in Phil’s report, a small explosion. He makes it down to the lab in record time, relieved to see Fitz working the extinguisher and Simmons and Skye crowded to the side, all without visible injury. Ward must have been down here training, because he’s retrieved another extinguisher and helps Fitz douse the remainder of the flames. The overhead sprinklers are still operational, and Phil activates his comm, careful to keep outside the range of the downpour.
“May, go ahead and shut down the sprinklers.” The rain comes to a stop. Phil glances at the dripping mess and scattered glass, and then his youngest agents, who seem more annoyed than concerned they just nearly blew themselves up. “Is everyone okay?”
“Yes, sir,” a drenched Simmons replies breathlessly, with a quick look for Skye
“Dandy,” Fitz grouses, shaking some water and a few shards of beaker from his sleeve.
“What happened?” Phil asks. He thinks he sounds rather calm.
“It was the fremo-fracto – yeah, never mind,” Skye says meekly, when Phil’s sharp gaze turns on her. Skye shouldn’t be in attendance for laboratory experiments until she’s been trained in the safety protocols, but Phil supposes that’s another conversation that will have to wait.
“I asked you if you wanted me to use the solution on the left, and you said right,” Fitz grits.
“Yes, as in ‘use the solution on the right’,” Simmons says, waving at the smoke.
“Do you not see how that’s a problem, Jemma?” Fitz demands. “We’re going to have to reset and begin again, and this time let’s try not to blow up the bloody lab, yeah?”
“Me? As if this is my fault?” Simmons asks indignantly. “You always do this, Fitz - ”
“Do what?” Fitz fires back, so that even Ward seems vaguely impressed by the display. “Make you behave recklessly? And I suppose I’m the one who made you jump out of a flying plane, too?”
“Enough,” Phil cuts in, with a disapproving tone designed to bring his agents back into line. “You need to be focused on the chip, not each other.” He allows his stare to linger on Fitz and Simmons until the scientists appear appropriately shamefaced. “Let’s clean it up and make this happen. Skye?” he asks, turning toward his youngest.
“Yeah?” she asks, almost hopefully.
“Find somewhere else to be; they can’t have any distractions,” Phil explains. Skye’s face falls, but she’s getting at better at recovery.
“Sure,” she agrees. “Besides, I think I could use a towel,” she adds, with a grimace at her wet clothes.
“Me, too,” Ward says, after a discreet glance from Phil. They trudge upstairs together, dripping the entire way.
“We’re sorry,” Simmons confides impulsively, when it’s just the three of them.
Fitz nods. “It won’t happen again.”
“The explosion or the bickering?” Phil asks, sighing when the answer isn’t immediately forthcoming. “Never mind. Just get back to work. And guys?”
Simmons raises her brows in inquiry. “Yes, sir?”
“Be careful?” he suggests pointedly.
“Absolutely,” Simmons vows, flashing him an apologetic smile. “Now, let’s see if we can pick up where we left off,” she says, nose wrinkling as she picks up her tablet and strolls toward the drier side of the lab, almost immediately reabsorbed in her task.
Fitz squints at a nearby display. “Don’t worry, sir; we’re very close to identifying the catalyst.”
“Fitz, there’s something else,” Phil says in a low voice, earning a curious glance from the sodden engineer. “I need you to access the settings on Skye’s bracelet; I want the security upgraded to O-9 and hourly alerts – this is for our eyes only,” Phil’s careful to specify. He doesn’t want to take a chance on notifying SHIELD of his suspicions just yet. “The first sign of unusual activity, I want to know.”
# # #
“Here.” Ward tosses a towel at Skye before getting one out of the closet himself, patting the worst of it from his shoulders and neck.
“Thanks,” Skye tells him with a shiver, rubbing herself down in a similar manner. She’s probably still going to want to change her pants, she realizes, but the rest of her seems okay. She gives her damp mass of hair a final squeeze, squeaking when more cold water runs down her shirt.
Ward actually looks amused. “Guess you got your shower today.”
Skye shoots him a sideways glance. “Call me crazy, but I like my showers warm. Hey,” she says, before he can close the closet door. “Give me a couple to run down for FitzSimmons; they probably haven’t even thought to dry off yet.”
“You’re not off the hook for training later,” Ward reminds her, handing her the SHIELD-crested bath sheets.
“I know, I know,” she assures him. “‘Discipline.’ ‘Commitment.’” Skye tucks the towels under her arm and makes her way back downstairs. Coulson is still here, talking to Fitz. It’s the man’s posture, something serious in his tone, that captures Skye’s attention and causes her to pause at the foot of the stairs.
“I need you to access the settings on Skye’s bracelet; I want the security upgraded to O-9 and hourly alerts – this is for our eyes only,” Coulson cautions. “The first sign of unusual activity, I want to know.”
Skye frowns. Why is Coulson tightening her security? ‘Your loyalty is questionable at best.’ She knows SHIELD doesn’t trust her, considers her a risk, but does Coulson doubt her, too? He’d been pretty mad when he found out about her deception, but he also had been willing to give her a second chance; even said he’d try to help her find her parents. Their occasional Scrabble games, the odd heart-to-heart; has he been suspecting her this entire time? The thought twists in her stomach and doesn’t go away.
Skye sets the towels outside the lab doors and leaves them to it.
# # #
“Skye. Your ten minutes is up.”
“What?” She glances up at Grant in confusion, her wrapped hands curled into fists. “Already?”
“About twenty minutes ago,” Grant tells her, still holding the bag and reluctantly concerned with his rookie’s sudden compliance. There’s been no complaints from Skye this afternoon; no pleading, no wisecracks that Grant is actually something she refers to as a life model decoy.
“Oh.” She uses her forearm to wipe the sweat from her forehead, cheeks flushed with effort. “What’s next?”
“A break,” Grant replies, releasing the bag and leaning over to grab a water from his duffle. He tosses it to Skye and nods at the mat. “Sit. Hydrate.”
“Yes, sir,” she says, dropping into place on the floor. “Have you heard anything?”
He doesn’t pretend to misunderstand. “No.”
“Would you tell me if you had?” she asks, catching Grant off-guard. Before he can reply, she grimaces and twists open her water. “Never mind, shouldn’t have asked.” Grant’s not used to seeing her so resigned. Not that he misses the mouthing off, exactly, but at least he knows how to deal with that. This new, compliant Skye makes him wonder if she’s the Life Model Decoy.
“Okay,” he says, clapping his hands and rubbing them together. “Time to change it up a little.”
“Sure. What do you have in mind? Sprints?” She glances up at him with an expression of dawning horror. “Please tell me it’s not the pull-ups again.”
Grant smothers a smirk at the more typical response, folds his arms. “Nope. I’m thinking R&R; we could both use an hour or two off.”
Skye peers at him suspiciously. “Okay, who are you and what have you done with Agent Ward?”
“I’m serious. You gave 110% today, so your choice,” he tells her.
“Really?” Skye’s eyes get a little of their sparkle back, and Grant suddenly gets why Coulson is always bending the rules for her.
“I think I can take it.”
# # #
He can’t take it. Grant’s brow furrows as he stares at Skye’s open laptop. “This movie makes no sense,” he tells Skye, dropping back to his elbows from his perch on the edge of her bunk. Maybe the film will be more tolerable at a distance.
Skye scoffs, her eyes still glued to the screen. “It makes perfect sense.” She’s lying on her stomach, chin cupped in her hands, absently swinging her legs behind her. “Boy meets girl, boy loves girl, but girl’s dating creepy phantom with some serious anger issues,” she recites with a little more enthusiasm than Grant thinks is healthy. “Oooooh, wait, here he comes!” Skye urges, and reaches for another rope of licorice.
Grant frowns. “The phantom?” He wonders if Coulson knows how much candy she has squirrelled away under her bunk. It certainly explains a lot of behavioral inconsistencies.
Same thing. “That’s not Paris.”
“Shhh!” She actually smacks his arm with the length of licorice. “Respect the monkey.”
Grant’s eyes narrow. “Really?” he asks, although he doesn’t interrupt any monkey scenes after that. He manages to keep his criticisms to himself; at least until what he hopes is the final act. “Okay; no. They’re underground – where did he find a horse?”
“He’s had a horse, Ward.”
“Do you know how sound carries in a catacomb? This guy deserves to die.” Which makes it all the more annoying later when it turns out the guy doesn’t. “And the girl goes with Raoul,” Grant observes with some irritation; he can’t believe he’s been sucked into this.
Skye shoots him a sideways glance. “Yeaaaah,” she drawls, as if that should have been a given.
“Because he’s good-looking and rich,” Grant says, leaning back against the wall.
“Because he’s not a homicidal maniac?” Skye points out, grinning when Grant scowls. “Aww, you felt sorry for the phantom, didn’t you?” she asks, pulling herself up into a sitting position.
“Not everyone’s a people person,” he reminds her.
“Yeah, I know,” Skye replies dryly.
Grant rolls his eyes, shoves up and off her bunk. His work here is done; at least for now.
“It’s so funny,” Skye muses.
Her tone has Grant glancing back over his shoulder. “What is?”
Skye shrugs. “Usually you’re all hard-ass, ‘I’m Specialist Grant Ward’,” she mimics. “But today was different; today you were a friend,” she says, dark eyes gazing up at him with sincerity. “Thank you.”
Grant flushes, looking away quickly. “Don’t forget to finish your reading.”
# # #
“I’m done with the run-around, Sitwell. I need to know the status of this investigation.” Phil’s lost track of time, although he’s pretty sure they’re in the wee hours of the morning. He’s been through every source on his electronic rolodex, some of them twice, and he still can’t get the answers he’s looking for. And Phil Coulson is past the days of getting the run-around. He gives the run-around, damn it.
“I’d like to help, Phil; you know I would,” Sitwell confides in low tones. “But you know how this works. No one knows more than they need to know.”
“As I’m sure HR doesn’t need to know who led that unfortunate rash of ass-copying at last year’s Christmas party,” Phil agrees, a thread of steel weaving its way through his amicable words.
There’s a heavy silence. Then, “I think I liked you better before you went to Tahiti,” Sitwell drawls.
“You and me both.”
“It doesn’t look good,” Sitwell reports. “We’ve identified six of the seven individuals, three have been moved to secure locations.”
Phil frowns. “And the other three?”
“All went missing last week.”
It’s not the news Phil had hoped for. Twenty minutes later, he steps out of his office and just manages to avoid flattening a turkey sandwich left outside his door. Skye. With a mixture of exasperation and fondness, he kneels and picks up the plate, carrying it with him downstairs. His stomach rumbles on the way down, hollow from hours of neglect. A sandwich certainly couldn’t hurt.
Phil sets the plate on the kitchen counter. He’s about to make coffee when he notices Skye sleeping in a nearby seat. Waiting for him, no doubt. Changing course, Phil retrieves a blanket from a lower cabinet and shakes it out, draping it over the young woman’s sleeping form. From beneath her tumble of hair, Skye mumbles something unintelligible before grabbing the soft microfleece and burrowing deeper into the seat. Phil smiles briefly. He doesn’t want to think about where Skye might be if she hadn’t decided to come aboard, to take a chance on SHIELD and on him. Phil’s seen firsthand what can happen to people who go missing, and death isn’t the worst of it.
Phil sighs and goes back to making his coffee. The women in question were taken for a very specific reason; they just need to figure out what it is.
# # #
Skye groans and stirs. Someone is shaking her shoulder, and who the hell shakes someone when they’re trying to sleep?
“Skye!” Ward’s voice cuts through the fog of slumber, and Skye tries to roll into a sitting position. It’s a bad idea, made pretty obvious when she rolls herself right onto the floor.
“What the - ” she mumbles, taking a bleary look at her surroundings before glaring up at Ward. He doesn’t look impressed.
“Come on; we let you sleep in, but there’s a briefing in ten.”
Skye blinks. “Sleep in? What time is it?”
“What?” Skye demands, gaze flying to the windows in a panic. Sure enough, the hangar is bathed in mellow, late morning light. “Shit!” she mutters, jumping to her feet. “Just let me change!”
“Nine minutes!” Ward calls after her, because that’s helpful. Skye attends to business, changes and brushes her teeth in eight, pretty much an all-time record. She’s pulling her hair into a half-hazard ponytail when she catches sight of Coulson leaving the kitchen.
He glances back at her, the lines around his eyes more pronounced than she remembers. “Not now, Skye,” he says, continuing on his way.
“Then when?” she wants to know, hurrying to catch up with him. “I waited for hours for you to come out of your office last night, and you never showed.” She hates the way it sounds like an accusation, but she’s never felt like such an outsider; not with him.
“How far along are you in the field manual?” he asks.
Skye scowls as they approach the Command station. “Still on the table of contents,” she lies. “Why won’t you talk to me?”
Coulson pauses just outside the room, his jaw unusually tense. “Look, I promise, when this is over, we’ll sit down and talk,” he says firmly. “But right now I have a job to do. And so do you.”
# # #
“Where are we on cracking that chip?” Phil asks, once his team is together. This particular mission has taken a toll on all of them, and he for one plans on having a drink when it’s over.
“Very close, sir,” Simmons assures him. “We’ve identified the catalyst and are in process of translating the data now.”
“Good; let me know the second you have something.” Phil glances over at May. “May, you want to show us our person of interest?”
May activates the console. “His name is Timothy Tinklemeyer; he’s a frequent poster on social media sites where people try to reconnect with lost relatives,” May explains, calling up the websites. “He claims his daughter was given up by his girlfriend in 1989.”
Skye frowns. “What do you mean, ‘claims’?”
“Both Tianna Woo and Shana Miller had accounts on these sites,” Simmons adds with a nervous glance in Skye’s direction, “and both of them interacted with Tinklemeyer.”
“Can you link him to the hacked files?” Phil wants to know, folding his arms as he gazes down at the recovered messages now displayed on console.
“HQ is working on it, sir,” Fitz replies.
Skye looks up from the display. “You know - ”
“Skye,” Phil cautions tersely, exasperation and a lack of sleep wearing his patience.
“Fine,” Skye mutters.
“What else do his postings say?” Ward wants to know, with an annoyed glance at Skye.
“Mostly the usual,” Fitz reports, scratching the back of his neck. “That he’s been looking for his daughter for years, that there’s never been a moment he hasn’t thought of her, that kind of thing.”
Ward’s gaze moves in Phil’s direction. “Sounds almost too good to be true,” he remarks.
“Or it is true,” Skye points out. “Is it so impossible to believe that someone would regret giving up their own child, that their feelings and circumstances could change?” She waves at the displayed messages. “Maybe he’s lonely, or sick. Why are you so ready to assume the worst?”
May raises a brow. “You think it’s coincidence that he’s approached at least two of the women on our list?”
“Sometimes people do the wrong thing for the right reasons,” Skye replies, “and even though something looks really bad and it might seem like you have ulterior motives, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, or that you can’t be trusted when it really matters...” Skye trails off, clears her throat. “I’m just saying; we don’t even know this guy.”
Phil looks around at his team. “Let’s change that, people. Let’s get a trace on this Tinklemeyer, find out where he is and bring him in.”
“Coulson,” Skye tries again, and Phil resists the urge to wipe a hand over his face. “Let me run some – one search,” she amends at his sharp glance, “and I promise I’ll find out who and where he is. SHIELD will never even know I’m there.”
“No.” The conversation is a waste of their time and resources.
“So you’re just going to let SHIELD dictate every last detail of what we do and how we do it?” she demands. “I thought your priority was the mission.”
“It is.” It’s supposed to be.
“Then why can’t I - ”
“Because I said so!” Phil snaps. It takes a moment for him to realize the command station has gone completely still. Fitz and Simmons are wide-eyed, and even Ward appears unsettled by the uncharacteristic outburst. May never blinks, but Phil thinks he sees a hint of satisfaction settle on her stoic features. He makes himself look at Skye, who’s staring at him with a mixture of surprise and hurt. “Skye - ”
She glances away from him and toward the other end of the plane, jerking her thumb in that general direction. “I’m just going to – go that way,” she mumbles, shouldering her way behind FitzSimmons and slipping from the glass-walled space. Phil watches as Ward grimly follows her.
May considers. “You know you just - ”
“I know,” Phil replies tightly, turning toward his two youngest agents. “FitzSimmons; I need the data on that chip. Now,” he insists, glancing meaningfully in the direction of the lab. The scientists leave quickly and without comment, their eyes trained safely on the floor. Phil turns back to the console, his hands coming to rest on its edge. “One word, May, and - ”
“You’ll turn this bus around?” she deadpans.
Sometimes he wishes she didn’t know him so well.
# # #
“Ow, geez, Ward, can you let go already?” Skye says, jerking from Ward’s grip on her ear and clapping a hand over the offended area. “What’s your problem?” Behind him, Fitz and Simmons hurry into the lab and promptly shut the glass doors. Skye can’t say she blames them.
Ward actually has the nerve to point a finger at her. “You want to be a SHIELD agent? You need to check your attitude.”
“So I’m not allowed to disagree?” she asks, hands moving to her hips.
“You don’t challenge a superior officer during a briefing,” Ward tells her, blatantly disapproving.
“Okay,” she concedes, wondering why Ward has suddenly reverted to his robot self. “Why are you giving me such a hard time?”
Ward folds his arms. “Because from the very beginning, Coulson’s had your back, and you’re acting like a brat.”
Skye gasps. “I am not!” Ward tilts his head smugly. “Argh!” She resists the urge to lob something at the man’s head, and who says she doesn’t have discipline? “You don’t know everything, Ward.”
He raises his brows. “I know that the baby in the Saint Anne’s record is you.”
Skye freezes. “How did you – Coulson,” she realizes, and shakes her head.
“Said nothing I didn’t already know,” Ward tells her. “It wasn’t hard to put together.”
“Then you know he’s keeping me from what might be my only chance to find out who I really am.”
Ward’s brows knit together. “He’s protecting you.”
Skye scoffs. “That’s SHIELD’s excuse for everything, isn’t it? Two months ago you didn’t even like him, and now you’re taking his side?” She doesn’t even mention that Coulson is more likely protecting SHIELD, and from her.
“It has nothing to do with like; we have different styles,” Ward counters sternly. “But he’s proven he can lead this team, and he deserves my respect. And yours”.
“Some things are more important than your precious chain of command, Ward. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve wondered about my parents and why they left me at that orphanage,” Skye tells him. “I’d brush my hair, and I’d wonder if my mother had hair like mine, or if I had my father’s eyes. Even if this isn’t my chance to know, it’s someone’s chance,” she insists. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to wake up every day, not knowing who you are?”
“No piece of paper is going to tell you that.”
Skye groans in frustration. “God, you’re just full of platitudes today, aren’t you? Look, let’s just agree to disagree; we’re not going to get anywhere, and I’ve got a ginormous tome to read...” She expects Ward to jump at the opportunity to avoid further drama, but he surprises her by lingering, his size thirteen boots seemingly nailed to the cargo hold floor. Skye’s brow furrows. “Is there something else?”
He shrugs. “No, I just thought you might want some company.”
Skye sighs. “Really, I’m not going to embarrass you, I’m going to sit down here and be a good little junior officer and do – whatever that includes - you don’t need to stand guard like some…” Something flickers on Ward’s face, something that on anyone else would be… “Oh my god,” Skye breathes.
“What?” Ward’s face is blank again; too blank.
Skye crosses her arms over her chest. “That is what you’re doing, isn’t it?” she asks, wondering how she could have missed the signs. “Standing guard?”
“Skye?” Ward takes a step toward her, frowning when she automatically steps back.
“Is that why you’re spending time with me? Did Coulson ask you to guard me?” she asks, and does everyone on the bus think she’s guilty?
“It’s just a precaution,” Ward promises.
Skye eyes him warily. “A precaution.”
“He was concerned.” When she doesn’t reply, Ward relents. “The evidence was leading back to you, and he didn’t want to take any chances.”
“That’s a lie!” Not to mention impossible. The evidence can’t lead to her because she didn’t do this. She takes a deep breath. “You lied to me,” she says, amazed at how calm she sounds when her life seems to be crumbling around her.
“I followed orders. It wasn’t anything personal,” he assures her.
Skye’s lips twist bitterly. “Got that, loud and clear.”
“Wait, are you mad at me?” Ward wants to know, sounding genuinely surprised.
“Wow, you really are more than just a pretty face,” she mutters, turning to hide her stinging eyes.
“Because I wasn’t able to share the real reason I was here?” She hears Ward snort. “That’s classic, coming from you. Skye?” he asks again, just as she climbs into the SUV and promptly locks it. “Skye, don’t be a child,” Ward scolds, slapping his palm against the tinted window.
Skye ignores him, slumping down against the dark leather and shutting her eyes. The tears leak out anyway, but at least there aren’t any witnesses.
“You’re being ridiculous,” Ward calls from the other side of the glass. “You can’t stay in there forever.” God, why doesn’t he just go away? Skye jerks off one of her boots and lowers the window. “Thank you,” Ward says. “Now, if you’ll just – ow!”
The boot bounces off Ward’s shoulder and to the floor, but Skye is already rolling the window up again. Screw discipline, anyway.
“Are you insane?” she hears him demand. Then, “Being without appropriate gear puts you at a serious tactical disadvantage!”
Skye thinks maybe she’s been at a disadvantage from the beginning.
# # #
“I blew my cover.”
The blunt pronouncement has Coulson glancing up from where he and May are standing in front of his desk. “Excuse me?” Grant wonders too late if he’s interrupted something. He closes Coulson’s office door behind him and joins his teammates.
“She made me,” he reports, taking a formal stance.
“Really?” Coulson sounds amused. “The agent with the espionage skills of a young Romanov?”
“You’re the one who said to treat her like a person,” Grant points out stiffly, embarrassed that Skye’s somehow managed to get under his skin. Again.
Coulson considers. “Mad?”
“She threw her shoe at me.”
The agent’s mouth curves slightly. “I’ll take care of it. Right now we have bigger problems.”
Grant frowns. “Sir?”
“Three of the women in question have gone missing,” Coulson tells him, gaze moving between Grant and May. No one mentions Chan Ho Yin, the last person they knew who went missing; no one has to. Watching someone spontaneously combust kind of has that effect on you.
“What have you found?” Grant asks. Facts first, then strategy.
“There’s no chatter, no official requests being processed by administration,” May replies. “Whatever actions are being taken, the orders are coming from the top.”
“Ward?” Coulson prompts.
“My contacts in Budapest and Taizz are reporting a massive reallocation of resources,” Grant reports, not liking the way this is shaping up. “It’s unusual, even for special ops.”
“But who are we protecting?” May wants to know.
“Ourselves.” Coulson’s brows knit together. “Whoever these guys are looking for, SHIELD doesn’t want her falling into the wrong hands.”
May frowns. “And if she already has?”
Coulson crosses his arms, glances at Grant. “Risk assessment is Agent Ward’s specialty.”
“Standard weapons recovery protocol would be in effect,” Grant replies grimly. “We’d have no choice but to eliminate the threat.”
# # #
Skye folds her arms over her knees, staring glumly down at the bracelet circling her wrist. Tagging her as suspect; just in case anyone thinks of forgetting what happened in Austin. Not that there’s any danger of that happening, she thinks with a sigh. Coulson and Ward obviously remember all too well. And maybe it was stupid to have expected any different, only what’s the point of choosing the bracelet over a jail cell, if she never has a chance of belonging anywhere?
The soft rap on the car door catches her by surprise, and she manages to wipe any tell-tale wetness from beneath her eyes before unlocking the vehicle. Coulson opens the door, sliding smoothly into the seat beside her and closing the door behind him.
“I thought I’d find you in here,” Coulson says, settling back against the seat and shooting her a sideways glance.
Skye shrugs, nodding at her bracelet. “It’s not like you really have to guess; I’m pretty sure this thing has GPS.”
“I think this belongs to you,” he says, sliding her boot toward her. She takes it, quietly shoving it back onto her foot.
“Thanks.” She doesn’t know what to say. She’d really thought Coulson had forgiven her for everything, thought he actually liked her. How is possible that she can be this old and still be making these kinds of mistakes?
“I know you’re angry.”
“Incredibly perceptive, as usual,” she drawls, staring at her knees again.
If he notices the sarcasm, he decides to ignore it. “I want to assure you that any leads on your parents will be followed.”
Right. “Just not by me.”
“There are reasons for that, Skye; do we need to discuss them again?”
“No, sir.” She’s not going to force him to lie to her face.
Coulson sighs, obviously relieved. “Good...” He offers her a faint smile. “I promise, we have our best people working on this.”
“That’s what I hear,” Skye replies, not quite cheerful. Coulson seems satisfied, though.
“This was a good talk,” Coulson says, reaching for the door handle. “Stay close, keep up with your reading. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“Not on your own, you won’t,” Skye mutters, after he’s closed the door and likely headed back to the command station. Until they kick her out, she’s still part of this team, and she’s done being sidelined. Especially when she’s perfectly capable of proving exactly where her loyalties lie. “Being a field agent requires complete commitment.” Skye might not have been ready to put the team first back in Austin, but she’s ready now; even if she has to bring Tinklemeyer in herself.
# # #
“Hello, Skye,” Simmons greets cheerfully, as Skye strolls into the lab. Her brown eyes widen in realization. “Oh, dear.”
“You can’t be seen in here,” Fitz confides under his breath.
Skye frowns. “What are you talking ab - ”
“Duck,” Fitz replies tersely.
“Where?” Skye asks, backing up in case Simmons has brought in another specimen to dissect.
“Not – duck,” Fitz whispers fiercely, with a meaningful look at the floor. Fortunately, Skye catches on just seconds before hearing the footsteps.
“Why, hello, Agent Ward,” says Simmons, looking a little pale, and god, Simmons is horrible at this.
“Hi,” Ward replies cautiously. “Have you seen Skye?” He sounds completely casual, too, like he hasn’t torn out Skye’s heart and stomped all over it with his giant, specialist-issue boots.
Simmons bleats a little laugh. “Oh; many times.”
“You know, I think she said something about going to her bunk to get some reading done, didn’t she, Jemma?” Fitz adds, glancing at Simmons either for confirmation or to make sure she hasn’t passed out.
“Well, we’re certainly not hiding her in here,” Simmons chirps brightly.
“Okay,” Ward replies, and Skye can tell he’s frowning. “Thanks.”
Several seconds pass, and Skye stays crouched in place; until Fitz finally heaves a sigh of relief. “That was nearly shambolic.”
Skye frowns as she finally stands up again. “What’s the big deal? Now I’m banned from the lab?”
Simmons looks pained. “You heard Sir; there aren’t to be any distractions – our entire focus is to be on recovering information from the chip.”
“How far along are you?” Skye asks, wondering how much time she has to enact her plans.
“Recalibrating the encryption key,” Fitz says. “Be easier if I weren’t so famished.”
“Yeah, when is that shipment of Nutella arriving, anyway?” Skye asks, surreptitiously reaching for Fitz’s tablet.
“The schedule said six on the dot,” Simmons replies absently.
“Are you sure?” Skye asks. She works quickly, her fingers intuitively navigating the screens and making the changes needed before she deftly replaces the equipment on the counter.
“If it’s on the schedule, then we’re sure,” Fitz assures her. “I’m streaming the data to you now, Jemma,” he reports, reaching and grabbing the tablet.
“I should just let you get back to it,” Skye says. “Have fun,” she sings under her breath, backing out through the lab doors. FitzSimmons are so caught up in their work it will probably be hours before they figure out she’s left. Just a few more things to do on her laptop, and she’ll be off-base in just under an hour.
# # #
Skye shuts her laptop and looks around her bunk, wonders if she’s forgotten anything. She doesn’t think so. With any luck, her plan will work; SHIELD will get its man and Skye will clear her name. Up on the shelf, Hula catches her eye, but Skye’s not in the mood for any of her guilt trips.
“Coulson told me to stay out of SHIELD, and I did,” Skye informs her in hushed tones. “He never said I couldn’t use the internet.” It’s a loophole. Unless you count that whole thing about not participating in the mission, but Skye’s over twenty-one – if she wants to go have a drink at a bar, she can. It’s still a free country, after all.
“Besides, I left a note, which was super responsible,” she adds, daring the doll to dispute it. The team will know exactly where she is; there just might be some slight informational delays. But if things go as planned, she’s going to need that time to make her spiel.
Skye takes a deep breath. “Now, let’s go see if our Nutella is here.”
# # #
He’s not coming. Skye takes another sip of her Coke and looks around the crowded bar. She’s both surprised and disappointed; everything about her postings should have attracted Tinklemeyer’s attention. Maybe her hunch was wrong, maybe the man isn’t in Los Angeles anymore, and this is going to be a major fail. Maybe –
Skye’s phone pings, and she checks it out. It’s an alert from one of the website accounts she created. There’s a new posting on the board; Tinklemeyer’s in town, about forty-five minutes away. Excited to meet. Skye deftly types out a reply, including her location and description, and PMs it to him. This could be it. She only hopes she can persuade the man that SHIELD can help him, just like they’re helping her
She tries to calm her nerves, has another sip of her Coke and tries to avoid being jostled by the crush of the bar’s patrons. Unwillingly, her thoughts return to Coulson and Ward, to the team, and she wonders if she should have bought herself a real drink, after all. She’s still considering the idea when someone stumbles into her, and her cold soda douses the front of her shirt.
“Oh, god,” the guy is babbling, “I’m so sorry, let me just - ” He’s got a napkin, in his distress failing to notice that he’s actually blotting Skye’s chest.
“Uh, personal space?” Skye points out, causing him to realize exactly what he’s doing a dry job on.
“Shit shit shit,” he mutters, blushing and dropping the napkin, and he’s kind of cute, really, with his short-cropped blonde hair and tailored shirt he’s unbuttoned at the neck. Late twenties, Skye has to guess, and very apologetic. “Sorry. Your date is going to kill me.”
“I think you can relax,” Skye says with a smile. “I’m not on a date; just meeting a friend.”
“Regardless, I’m sorry,” he replies, setting his beer on the counter and holding out his hand. “Matt,” he says in introduction.
Skye takes his hand and shakes it. “Skye.”
“I hope you’ll let me pay for your dry-cleaning, Skye; I’m usually not such a spaz,” he confides sheepishly.
Skye settles back against the bar. “It’s okay, really. It’s kind of the perfect ending to my crappy day.” Besides, after the number riding on the back of the delivery truck did on her hair, a little Coca-Cola hardly seems like a big deal.
The remark perks Matt’s interest. “You had a crappy day?” he asks.
“The crappiest,” Skye assures him.
“Really?” Skye nods. “That’s an awfully big claim,” Matt says. “I can’t let that go unchallenged. Let’s compare; if my day was worse than your day, you let me buy you a new drink.”
Skye smirks. “Okay, you’re on. But only because I’m thirsty and my friend isn’t here yet.”
“Of course,” he says, and gestures to give her the go ahead. “Ladies first.”
“Well,” she drawls, “I gave up my place for what I thought would be a total dream job, but my boss doesn’t trust me and froze me out of our latest project. All of which makes me so obviously unnecessary I’m sure they won’t even notice I’m gone,” Skye concludes wryly.
Matt smiles, resting one arm across the bar. “That’s really good - a perfect mix of frustration and pathos,” he decrees, taking another pull off his beer.
“Thank you,” Skye replies, with a mock bow of her head. “And you?”
Matt releases a deep breath. “I came home early from a business trip to surprise my girlfriend, and found her in our bed with the Fed-Ex delivery guy.”
Ick. “As in it absolutely, positively had to be there overnight? Skye makes a face.
“Know what the worst part is?” Matt asks. “He actually lost the package.”
Skye frowns. “What was in it?”
“Our engagement announcements.”
Skye holds up a finger for the bartender. “You win.”
# # #
Phil calls the briefing as soon as he gets word that FitzSimmons have been able to pull data from the chip. He strides into the command center, hopeful this will be the information that allows them to attain their objective.
“Okay, let’s hear it,” Phil invites his scientists, although at the moment they seem distracted.
“Where’s Skye?” Simmons is asking Ward, who frowns as he looks around the room.
“I thought she was hiding down in the lab with you.”
“We haven’t seen her since this afternoon,” Simmons says, with an uneasy look for Fitz.
Phil glances at May, who’s already accessing systems on the console. “May, is Skye on the plane?”
“No,” she replies flatly, and Phil just knows there’s entire worlds of ‘I told you so’ coming his way. Damn it, Skye. Next time Phil’s going to cuff her to her bunk. They’re on a mission, and he doesn’t have time to chase down a kid who’s run away from home.
“Oh, no.” Fitz looks pained, and all eyes swing to him.
“What?” Ward demands.
Fitz winces. “It’s just, the deliveries; she asked me about the schedule, I thought she was just peckish for Nutella - ”
“What about the alert?” Phil asks, but Fitz is already checking his tablet.
“She must have changed the settings, sir… There is a note,” he reports warily.
“Let’s see.” Fitz hands over the tablet, and Phil’s eyes narrow at the three-word message. ‘Bringing in Tinklemeyer.’ He passes the tablet back to Fitz. “Get on tracking and get me her position,” he orders, trying to figure out what Skye’s plan will be. “Simmons, now would be a good time to tell us what you found on that chip.”
“Yes, sir, of course,” she says, streaming the data to the console. “It appears to be a photograph from a newspaper, depicting a freak gas explosion in Montreal.”
Phil blinks, staring at the black and white photo now on-screen. “Did you say Montreal?”
“I’ve got the feed, sir,” Fitz puts in. “She’s not too far away.”
Phil glances at May and Ward. “Get us the coordinates.”
# # #
“What happened in Montreal?” Grant asks Coulson as they follow May and FitzSimmons to the cargo bay.
“In 1989 an infant designated as a possible gifted was removed from an impending blast site; they called her Subject X,” Coulson tells him.
“Tinklemeyer is looking for Skye.” Grant says it quietly; the last thing they need is to send FitzSimmons into a panic.
“He thinks she’s Subject X.”
“Is she?” Grant has to ask.
“Doesn’t matter,” Coulson replies. “Either way, she’s in danger.”
# # #
“So Groover had actually sent the Kansas City data, and I had to rerun all the damn reports,” Matt says.
“That’s so awful,” Skye sympathizes, keeping an eye out for men in their late forties, early fifties entering the bar. There’s not a single candidate, although it’s still a good fifteen minutes until Tinklemeyer is supposed to show up.
Matt glances at her distracted expression and chuckles. “It’s so boring.”
“No, it’s not,” Skye says quickly, but it’s such an obvious lie that she ends up chuckling herself. “Maybe a little boring,” she admits.
“Uh-huh,” Matt says, finishing off his beer. He chokes a bit at the end, coughs against the back of his hand.
Skye frowns. “Are you alright?”
Matt clears his throat again and look chagrined. “Sorry, must have gone down the wrong way.”
“Do you want some water? I’ll get you some water,” Skye says, putting a finger up for the bartender again.
He coughs again, wheezes. “Skye. I don’t want you to be s-scared, but I’m hav – having a reaction.”
“A – an allergic reaction?” Skye asks, eyes moving quickly over his face for any trace of humor. But Matt doesn’t wait for her to figure it out. He pushes off the bar, staggering toward a nearby side door. “Wait,” Skye urges, pulling out her phone as she catches up. “I’m calling an ambulance.”
“No – time,” Matt puffs, looking like he might curl in on himself at any moment. “Epi-pen in my – car,” he adds, pushing through some college kids and almost toppling into their table.
“Whoa,” Skye exclaims, catching him around the waist. “Okay, let me help you. Are you sure you know where you’re going?” she says, and geez, when this guy has a bad day, he has a bad day.
“Out – here,” Matt rasps, stumbling into the alley.
Skye pulls them to a halt, her gaze sweeping the dimly lit alley with increasing dismay. “Matt, there’s no cars out here; we’ve got to get you – hey!” she exclaims, as her arms are yanked behind her and her phone clatters to the ground. She finds herself wrested tight against a now upright Matt.
“Didn’t your parents ever teach you not to give out your location to people the internet?” he mocks, dragging her a few steps backward through loose gravel and broken glass. “Oh, wait, no parents, right?
“Didn’t need parents to teach me this,” Skye tells him, snapping her head back against his face. There’s a sharp crack and a howl, and Skye throws herself forward, breaking free of his grasp, only to be yanked back seconds later. The impact of their bodies knocks the wind out of her, and Matt’s forearm pins her throat with ease. It’s accompanied by the chill of metal resting against her cheek, and Skye stills, swallows.
“I wish you hadn’t done that,” Matt pants, his breath stirring the hair near her ear.
Something warm is trickling down Skye’s shoulder, something dark and probably gross, and her heart is pounding harder than she’ll ever be comfortable admitting. ‘Didn’t your parents ever teach you not to give out your location to people the internet?” he’d said. But Skye’s only given her location to one person. “You’re Tinklemeyer,” she croaks.
“You’re clever,” he tells her, easing the pressure on her throat.
“You’re a douche,” she replies, just before a flood light falls over them with blinding intensity.
“Are we interrupting something?” a familiar voice inquires, and Skye squints in that direction, a giddy sort of relief washing over her even as Tinklemeyer jerks her backward again, keeping the gun close to her temple.
“Hey, A.C,” she manages to get out, despite the increasing pressure on her throat.
“Having a nice evening?” Coulson asks, even as his gaze stays trained on his suspect.
“Just getting some fresh air,” Skye replies hoarsely. She can just make out Ward to the far right of Coulson, and the others won’t be far away.
“You’ll be breathing a lot easier in just a moment,” Coulson promises. “Agent Phil Coulson with SHIELD,” Coulson says, identifying himself. “Let the girl go.”
Tinklemeyer scoffs. “I don’t think so. Tell your agent behind me to back off.”
“She wouldn’t even if I did,” Coulson tells him, and now Skye knows where May is. “There’s no way out for you. Release the girl and surrender your weapon.”
The muzzle of the gun digs into Skye’s cheek. “I’ll kill her.”
Coulson’s unimpressed. “You’ll kill her anyway.”
“No, he won’t,” Skye blurts, hoping that some part of Matt exists in Tinklemeyer. She turns her head as much as she dares. “We just want to know who you’re looking for and why.”
“I’ll tell you when I take you to your parents,” Tinklemeyer replies grimly.
“That’s not going to happen,” Coulson warns.
Tinklemeyer huffs in derision. “You’re making a big mistake – you don’t have any idea what you’re dealing with,” he tells them. “She’s defective, an aberration. There’s a reason she was thrown away - ”
There’s a whoosh, then a whisper of blue vapor in Skye’s peripheral vision. Skye turns just as Tinklemeyer collapses to the ground behind her.
Coulson shrugs and lowers his weapon. “He talks too much.”
“Was that the Night-Night Gun?” Fitz wants to know, stepping out from behind the dumpsters.
“We’re not calling it that,” Ward reminds him.
A dark figure jumps from a fire escape alongside the alley and approaches, crouching over Tinklemeyer’s body. Skye blinks. “May?”
The woman glances up, unimpressed. “I missed Dancing with the Stars.”
“Thanks. I think I’m gonna sit down now,” Skye says, just as her knees start to go wobbly and there’s every chance she’s about to face-plant in the pavement.
“Skye,” Ward says, suddenly right there, his hands on her upper arms giving her an urgent shake. “Do not pass out.” Which will be hilarious later, considering how his shaking makes her head spin. Coulson must sense it, because he steps between them, his hands making quick record of her head, face, and throat before running over the rest of her.
“Skye, I need to know where the blood is coming from,” Coulson says, careful to keep a grip on her in case she decides to do something else undignified. He’s good like that.
“It’s not mine,” Skye tells him, growing steadier under the man’s calming influence. “I think I broke his nose.”
“Good,” Ward grunts from behind Coulson.
“What about witnesses?” Fitz asks, glancing over his shoulder at the five or six people starting to gather toward the end of the alley.
“There should be a clean-up crew here any minute,” Coulson says, still all-business, and Skye gets it, but she’s still kind of expecting him to say something, anything. She gazes up at him uncertainly.
“I know you didn’t want me to - ”
“Not now.” The brusque tone is a complete shut-down. “Agent Ward, take her to the car and have Simmons look at her throat; she’s going to have some bruising.”
It’s not until Skye’s sitting in the SUV with FitzSimmons bustling around that she finally gives into emotional and physical exhaustion, closing her eyes while Simmons gently prods at her injured neck.
“Cheer up, Skye,” Simmons says, undoubtedly trying to be encouraging. “It’s not so bad.”
“Jemma’s right; Tinklemeyer’s in custody. Wasn’t that what you wanted?” Fitz asks.
Skye doesn’t have an answer for him.
# # #
“Phil.” May’s voice sounds from the darkness. “We’re ready,” she says quietly, coming to stand beside him at the shadowed end of the alley.
“It could have ended much worse,” Phil supposes, well-aware of the interpretations and omissions his report is going to require. A short distance away, the clean-up crew dispenses a mundane cover story to a final curious bystander. “Everyone’s okay, Tinklemeyer’s on his way to the fridge – we even recovered another chip. With a little help from the clean-up crew, we might even be able to use this to our advantage,” Phil tells her.
May doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t have to. After all these years, she knows all his tells.
“It’s not what you think,” Phil says, still not looking at her. “I’m not having some middle-aged man’s crisis.” He gets the job done; that isn’t going to change.
“Can I tell you what I think?”
“I’ve never tried to stop you,” Phil says, shoving his hands into the pockets of his slacks.
May’s watching the site clear, traffic and pedestrian patterns seamlessly resuming. “We have to be focused; lives depend on it. Skye is a distraction,” May states flatly, the slight breeze picking up her dark hair. She’s unusually still, even for her. “But - ”
“What?” Phil asks. He’s never known May to hesitate.
“Distraction might be good for you.” Phil glances up in surprise, but it’s hard to make out May’s expression in the dim light. “You smile more,” May explains under her breath.
Phil raises a brow, the corners of his mouth quirking. “We’re talking about my smiles?” He’ll file that one away to address later.
May frowns. “You need to fix this,” she tells him.
“She’s already proven she’s willing to accept the consequences of her actions by putting on that bracelet; I doubt a note in her personnel file is going to have much of an impact,” Phil remarks wryly.
“You’re right; she doesn’t care about those things.” May regards him speculatively. “She cares about you.”
Phil sighs. “Melinda…”
“If she’s going to be an asset, you need to handle her like one,” May persists.
Phil turns to face her, eyes narrowing. “You mean take advantage of her vulnerabilities, manipulate her.” It’s standard protocol, but Skye’s far from the standard asset.
“Do you have a problem with that?”
“I’m walking a line here - ”
“A line you already crossed when you brought a hacker from The Rising Tide onto this team,” May points out.
Phil huffs softly, grimaces. “We both know I can be kind of a dick, but I’m surprised you think I’d be that cruel,” he tells her, starting to head back toward the bus. May’s hand catches his arm.
“I don’t,” she replies, her tone softer than few other than Phil ever hear it, and some of the tightness leaves Phil’s shoulders. “It’s only taking advantage if she really is just an asset to you,” she tells him. “What you need to ask yourself is: what do you do when she isn’t?”
# # #
“Tomorrow morning the body of a young woman will be found in an alley downtown. Police will identify her as a hacker for The Rising Tide,” Coulson is telling Skye, still scribbling in his file.
Skye frowns. “I thought you’d be mad, but don’t you think that’s taking it a little too far?”
The man’s gaze lifts to hers, cool and unamused. “It’s not a permanent fix, but it will buy us some time to sort this out,” he says, clicking off his fountain pen. “If you don’t do anything else to put yourself at risk,” he adds, blue eyes still scrutinizing her in a way that has Skye shifting in her chair. She usually likes visiting Coulson in his office, but tonight’s conversation? Not so much.
“Look, I’m sorry, it was a stupid thing to do, but I wasn’t going to go home with him,” Skye tries to explain. “I mean, I know after Miles it might look like – but he’s really the only one that - ” Oh god, she doesn’t know what she’s saying anymore, and the man’s expression has yet to change. “I’m not really that kind of girl,” Skye finishes lamely.
“Explanation unnecessary. I’m not your father, Skye.”
The words are like a splash of cold water. “Right,” she nods, eyes dropping quickly to her hands. Shouldn’t have needed that reminder. Silence follows, but Coulson’s eyes are still heavy on her too-thin skin.
“Although I can’t say you don’t tempt me to act like it,” the agent admits, causing Skye to glance up in surprise. “Did you understand the order to stay on the bus?”
“Yes, but what did you expect?” she demands, more than a little insulted. “You had Ward on me like a watchdog - you thought I was the hack.”
“I thought you were the target.”
“You – what?” Skye stares at him. “Paranoid much? Why would I be a target?” Coulson simply stares at her pointedly. “Okay, sure, now it seems obvious, but how was I supposed to know that?”
“You weren’t. You were supposed to follow orders.”
“I’m supposed to be part of the team,” Skye snaps, “but you completely shut me out. If you didn’t think I was the hack, then why ask Fitz to track my every move? Am I supposed to believe that’s just a coincidence?” she wants to know. “Ward even told me that your evidence was pointing to me, and that you didn’t want to take any - ” ‘Coulson’s had your back from the beginning… He’s protecting you.’ Skye’s stomach drops sickeningly. If that was true, then - “Shit,” Skye breathes. “I mean, shoot,” she amends quickly, glancing wide-eyed at Coulson.
“No, ‘shit’ is the appropriate response,” he assures her. “Do you have any idea how many protocols you broke tonight?”
“I thought - I wanted you to trust me.” And she gets the irony, she really does.
“If you want trust, you need to be willing to give it,” Coulson informs her. “I’ve made every resource available to ensure your success as a member of this team, but I’m afraid those efforts have been insufficient.”
And there it is. Skye swallows around the sudden lump in her throat, but nods. It’s not worse than any other time this has happened, but it hurts all the same. “I understand,” Skye tells him, trying to keep her voice steady as she pushes from her chair. “If you’ll just give me a few minutes to pack my stuff - ”
“Sit. Down.” Skye’s halfway to her feet when Coulson issues the order. She eyes him warily. He doesn’t look pissed, exactly, but his super-secret-agent-face isn’t all that comforting, either. Then again, she’s pretty sure it isn’t intended to be. Skye sits back down.
“As I was saying,” Coulson continues, leaning slightly forward in his chair and folding his hands together. “Those efforts have proven insufficient, partially due to tactical error.”
“Tactical - ” Skye’s brow furrows. “I don’t think - ”
“You will. Have you ever been accountable to anyone other than yourself?”
“Well, sure,” Skye replies, a little confused by the line of inquiry. “I mean, yeah, if you’re talking about – what are you talking about?” she has to ask.
The line of Coulson’s mouth softens almost imperceptibly. “In all your years at the orphanage and in foster care, did you ever find yourself in trouble?”
“Not really; I ran away a couple of times,” Skye offers warily.
“Nothing.” Skye shrugs. “It’d get dark and I’d get scared, and then I’d go home.”
“And then what happened?” Coulson asks.
“I’d go to bed,” Skye replies with a frown. “Usually no one even noticed I was gone.”
“I’m going to promise you something, Skye,” the agent says, his light gaze locked with hers, “and I always keep my promises.”
“O-kaaaay,” she cautiously agrees.
“That will never happen again.”
Skye folds her arms, trying not to read into the comment. Of course Coulson will notice she’s gone; SHIELD has a tracker on her. “Thanks, but I’m not really afraid of the dark anymore,” she lets him know.
A small smile twists Coulson’s lips. “Everyone’s afraid of something.”
“Even you?” Skye tries to tease, but it’s a weak attempt at best.
“Even me,” Coulson agrees easily. “I said I’d try to help you find your parents, and I meant it. But I won’t have you putting yourself or the team at risk,” he informs her, before nodding at her right wrist. “I thought that bracelet would be enough to discourage any impulsive behavior, but I think it lacks the personal element required.”
Skye sighs. “Fine, I get it, I was a bad girl. So go ahead and lay it on me; what’s it going to be this time? Bread and water? Being poked at with hot sticks?” she wants to know, fingers plucking nervously at the device locked around her wrist. “Give it to me straight, I can take it.”
“I’m glad to hear it. A spanking might seem a bit unorthodox, but considering recent events I think we can agree it’s a preferable alternative to official channels.”
“A – you want to spank me?” Skye sputters, on account of – well, that happening. “As in beat me at Scrabble kind of spank me?” she asks hopefully.
“Oh.” Skye winces.
Coulson frowns. “Are you concerned I might take advantage?”
“I’m concerned it will hurt,” she mutters, mostly to herself. Then, “And for you,” she rushes to explain. “You know, all that exertion; wouldn’t want to jeopardize that whole, fresh back from the dead mojo you’ve got going there.”
“I think I can manage,” the agent assures her, blue eyes crinkling suspiciously at the corners. “Unless you think I’ll need assistance - ”
“No!” Skye blurts, because okay, worst idea ever. “Just – I trust you,” she grumbles, a little resentful to find it’s true.
“Forgive me if I’m having a little trouble believing that.”
Skye grimaces. Yeah, she probably wouldn’t believe her either. “So how do we do this?” she asks, once more glancing down at her bracelet. Coulson’s offering her another chance – again – and she’s not about to refuse it just because her pride might suffer a few blows. Or several. She hears Coulson rise from his chair, feels him approach.
“Allow me,” he says, grasping the back of her chair, and Skye stands up, watching with trepidation as Coulson pulls the chair to a slightly more central location before hiking up his slacks and taking a seat himself. “I’m sorry this won’t be more comfortable, but limited space means we have to improvise… Skye?”
“This tends to work better when I can reach you.”
“Oh. Sure,” she says, managing a weak smile. She’s not a coward, after all; she can do this. She’s probably taken much worse just training with Ward. And if her palms are sweating by the time she reaches Coulson, it’s probably due to the office’s thermostat and definitely not because of some punishment they hand out to five year-olds. This close, it’s easy to see the muscle hidden beneath the agent’s neatly-pressed suit jacket, the capable hands, and Skye swallows, her pulse skittering into a gallop. But there’s no time to second guess it; in a single, fluid move Coulson tugs her wrist and topples her over his lap. Skye’s world tilts wildly, her hands automatically flying forward to keep her from tumbling face-first into the deck. Coulson catches her just in time, his arm wrapping around her waist, anchoring her to his thighs. Her dark hair is everywhere, in her eyes and face as she shifts slightly, trying to find some balance.
“I’ve got you,” Coulson reassures her, and Skye’s not sure whether that’s comforting or not. “Would you like me to hold your hand?”
Skye’s brows draw together. “No?” Does he think she’s scared? Well, okay, maybe she is scared, just a little, because she’s never done this before, and she can’t imagine why Coulson thinks it’s a good idea. It’s been a long time since she was a kid, after all, and a long time since she’s believed she’s anything but irreformable, so what makes Coulson so sure that this is going to do the trick? She kicks nervously at the floor with the toe of one boot, inhaling sharply when she feels Coulson raise his arm. “Wait!”
“Just - I’ve never been spanked before,” Skye confesses.
“I know.” Of course he would. “That’s why I’m going to make a suggestion.”
“What’s that?” she asks.
“Think about the behavior that put you in this predicament,” he advises, just before his palm cracks against the roundest curve of her ass.
“Ow! Shit,” Skye gasps, sucking in her breath as another blow lands, then another, stinging heat blossoming beneath the thin denim of her jeans. “This isn’t awkward…” she mutters, biting her lip as Coulson’s hand falls into a steady, even rhythm.
“I’m very disappointed, Skye,” Coulson informs her in a disapproving tone. Heat floods her cheeks, and Skye’s suddenly grateful for the swinging curtain of her hair. “Have I ever given you any reason not to trust me?”
“Well, you – no,” Skye has to admit. Coulson always keeps his word; he’s got a thing about stuff like that.
“Have I treated you less than fairly?”
“N-no,” Skye replies, ashamed that he feels he has to ask. If anything, Coulson’s treated her more than fairly. From the very beginning, he’s treated her with respect, believed in her. No wonder he’s disappointed.
“Has the team?” Skye’s throat tightens, and she squirms under Coulson’s arm, miserable. She wants to do this right, doesn’t want to cry; he isn’t even spanking her that hard. It makes the tears threatening all the more confusing. “Skye?” She can practically feel Coulson frown above her.
She shakes her head. “No,” she manages to say.
“Then why disregard an order and jeopardize the success of a mission?”
# # #
“How mad was Sir?” Simmons wants to know.
Grant shrugs. “Hard to say.”
“This is my fault,” Fitz says, brows knit together as he glances upward towards Coulson’s closed office door. They’re gathered at the base of the stairs, speaking in low tones. “I should have known when she asked about the deliveries she was planning something.”
“You can’t blame yourself, Fitz,” soothes Simmons, who Grant thinks looks a little harried herself at the moment. He folds his arms, impatiently listening to their various imagined crimes. “If I would have gone to see her earlier - ”
“She still would have found a way,” May interjects firmly, her intractable stare daring the young agents to differ.
“May’s right,” Grant has to agree, if only for his own sanity. “We all knew that nothing was going to stop her from - ” A muffled slap echoes from beyond the closed office door, and Grant and May glance at each other in surprise.
“Is that…” Fitz pales. As if in reply, there’s another slap, and some faint complaint distinctly Skye’s.
Simmons wrings her hands. “Oh, dear. What do we do?”
“We do nothing,” May says, with a meaningful look at Grant. “The best thing you can do for Skye right now is to give her some privacy.”
“She’s right, Jemma,” Fitz says unhappily, wincing at the sounds emanating from upstairs. “Never wanted much company after a smacking myself.”
“Don’t you have some new tech to evaluate?” Grant asks them, raising a brow.
“Oh, yes!” Simmons says, seizing the opportunity to avoid the uncomfortable situation. “Right away; come along, Fitz,” she adds, hurrying for the lab. Fitz follows so anxiously on her heels that for a moment Grant worries they’re both going to take a header. He waits until they’re out of earshot before turning back to May.
“Is this standard protocol?” he asks, jerking his chin in the direction of Coulson’s office.
May shrugs. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
# # #
“I asked you a question; why did you disregard orders?” Phil repeats, choosing to ignore Skye’s little gasps and whimpers and continuing to deliver carefully measured slaps to the seat of her jeans. The blows are fairly mild, but enough to accomplish the objective. His words are the real source of distress here; the lack of any real authority figure during her formative years makes Skye particularly sensitive to his admonitions. And he’s never been one to favor excess; especially with a woman.
“I don’t know!” Skye finally blurts unhappily, sounding on the verge of tears.
“That’s a child’s answer, Skye.”
A frustrated groan rises from the young woman’s bent head. “Because I was mad, okay?”
“Why?” He’s determined to have this out tonight; any misunderstandings end here.
“Because you ordered Ward to spend time with me, and I thought he wanted to,” she grits.
Ah. “Those things aren’t mutually exclusive,” Phil informs her. Ward’s not exactly an open book, but he can be read. Of all the team, Ward felt the most betrayed by what transpired in Austin, but he’s kept training Skye, and that in itself is telling.
“And I thought you - ”
“ - thought you were behind the hacking?” Phil finishes the reply. “I told you I didn’t.” He lands his next two swats to the sensitive under-curves of her backside, where he knows they’ll smart the most. Skye jerks in his grasp, dragging in a quavering breath.
“I didn’t believe you,” she says sorrowfully.
“You know why!” she snaps, and Phil knows they’ve come to the critical point of the interrogation.
“Humor me,” he tells her.
“Because I lied about Miles, okay? Ow, okay - I know!” she yelps, when Phil decides that’s worth a few more smacks. “I mess things up, that’s what I do - what I’ve always done,” she adds, suddenly sounding defeated. It doesn’t suit her.
“Then things are about to change.”
# # #
Grant doesn’t like the sound of this. Not that Skye isn’t the most frustrating, infuriating, stubborn person he’s ever met, because she is. But she’s also kind and brave and funny, and the tell-tale clap of Coulson’s palm and Skye’s muted cries are twisting his insides into knots. Skye is Grant’s junior officer, his responsibility, and yeah, she deserves one hell of a reprimand for going AWOL like that, but this can’t be right.
May must notice his frown, because she catches his arm before he even takes a step. “Don’t,” she warns, glancing upward. “She needs this, and so does he.”
“I think she’s been punished enough,” Grant says tightly.
“He’s not punishing her, Ward,” May tells him, still staring in the direction of Coulson’s office. “He’s giving her something she wants.”
Grant blinks, his hands moving to his hips. “You think she wants a spanking?”
May’s mouth curves wryly. “No.” Then, “She wants a family.”
# # #
Any ideas Skye had about enduring this with some semblance of dignity are long gone. “Ouch! Okaaay, I said I was sorry!” she’s quick to remind Coulson, trying desperately to twist in his grasp so that his hand can land somewhere, anywhere else. Not that it works. Coulson’s only response to her panicked struggles is to take a moment to tuck her more securely against his stomach before promptly continuing the awful punishment.
“Sorry you disobeyed an order, or sorry you’re suffering the consequences?” the agent inquires, still whacking away.
“They aren’t mutually exclusive!” Skye fires back frantically, and she could swear Coulson chuckles. “I get it, okay? I’ll be – ow – the best little agent ever – ah! I’ll do – oww – anything you say!” Without thinking, she throws her right hand behind her, hoping to gain even a moment of relief for her burning backside, but it’s quickly grasped and held to the side. God, how does Skye get herself into these messes? No matter how much she squirms and wriggles, Coulson’s palm just keeps landing on target, reminding her in the most unforgettable way possible how monumentally she’s screwed this up. But why wouldn’t she? Why should this be any different than any of the other times she’s tried to fit in? Maybe some people are supposed to be alone –
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Coulson snaps, jarring Skye from her self-pity. Did she say that out loud? She lifts her head to glance over her shoulder, but Coulson’s expression is too blurry to make out. “No one’s meant to be alone. Your being left at the orphanage wasn’t your fault,” he adds sternly, any hint of amusement gone. “Tinklemeyer was right, Skye. There’s a reason you were given up, there’s a reason I survived the attack on New York. There are reasons all of us are here, but they’re rarely the reasons we think they are,” he explains, tone softening as Skye drops her head toward the deck, hot tears spilling from her eyes and dripping onto Coulson’s immaculate floor covering.
She tries to choke back the sobs, she really does, but the effort only makes her chest hurt more. Everything is stinging heat and misery, and she doesn’t know how long it takes her to realize that Coulson has stopped, that the punishment is over.
# # #
“Okay?” May finally asks Grant, when things upstairs quiet down. There’s a few quietly-spoken words from what has to be Coulson, a faint snuffle from Skye.
“Yeah,” Grant replies, still frowning. In some weird way it makes sense; Skye not having parents, Coulson not having kids; but the responsibilities with this team extend beyond even Ward’s specialist training. “There are way too many kids on this bus.”
“Coulson has his reasons”.
“And I still have that frown on record,” Grant reminds her.
The remark seems to catch May by surprise. “You still think she’s a risk.”
“Yes,” Grant insists, just before he catches himself. “Not because she lied,” he says. “I’m over it. Mostly. The problem is her mindset, she’s way too open,” Grant says, airing his concern. “She says way too much, she gets way too attached to people and ideas. That’s the kind of thing that gets people hurt.”
“It’s also the kind of thing that heals them.” May shrugs. “Look, you said yourself she could be a good asset.”
“If I can keep her alive that long.”
“She did break his nose,” May remarks.
Grant huffs softly, a smile curling the edges his mouth. “I taught her that.”
“Sounds like something must be sticking,” she says, throwing him a sideways glance.
“Maybe,” he allows. Skye might not be combat material, but if she’s determined to be in the field, Grant will at least teach her enough to give her a shot at surviving. And hell, if he can teach a civilian hacker, he should definitely be able to get Fitz and Simmons to - Damn. Grant sighs tiredly, his hands moving to his hips. “Coulson has me exactly where he wants me, doesn’t he?”
May smirks and heads for the cockpit. “Never doubt it.”
# # #
“It’s okay; it’s over now,” Phil reassures, in case Skye hadn’t heard him the first time. Her tears have tapered into ragged, shaky breaths, and she sniffles, pushing up slightly on one arm. “Would you like to get up?” Phil asks.
Skye only nods, but it’s sufficient. Phil reaches for her arms, carefully drawing both of them to their feet. Skye immediately steps out of his space, her hands unconsciously moving to her backside in a childish gesture that makes the flesh under Phil’s scar ache dully.
“Skye?” She stands there a minute, her hair a tangled mess around her tear-stained face. She won’t look at him, and Phil has to wonder if he’s miscalculated. “It’s okay, Skye,” he says gently. There’s a way these things should be done, but he doesn’t want to spook her. She might need time to process what’s happened. “We don’t have to hug if you don’t want - ”
Phil doesn’t even finish before Skye thuds against his chest like dead weight, quickly burying her face against his tie. “Okay,” Phil says, his hand moving to cup the back of her head in spite of his surprise. “Okay.” And he’s not sure if he’s speaking to Skye or himself. “Just take your time,” he advises. She nods, hiccupping her way through another rush of tears and dampening the front of Phil’s freshly-laundered dress shirt. It’s been a long time, longer than he can remember, since he’s allowed himself this kind of close, physical contact, but if he’s a little stiff or out of practice, Skye doesn’t seems to notice.
“I didn’t mean - ” she mumbles, words muffled by his shoulder. “I thought you didn’t - ”
“You think too much,” Phil tells her. “That van isn’t your only safe place, Skye.”
Skye swallows and nods again, and Phil pats her back. She must have had a horrible week, followed by an equally horrible evening. But Simmons isn’t the only member of the team with remarkable resilience; it’s only a handful of minutes before Skye takes a shuddering breath, releasing the pin-striped lapels crumpled in her fists and once again stepping away.
She swipes at her eyes, glancing up at him with reproach. “That sucked,” she tells him.
Phil’s mouth curves slightly in response. He retrieves his handkerchief and presents it to her. “All part of the protocol.”
Skye blows her nose noisily before looking up again, brows raised. “SHIELD has protocol for spanking consultants?”
“Field Manual, Appendix One Hundred Seventeen G. Keep it,” he says, when Skye tries to return the soggy square of material. She glances at it and grimaces, slipping it stiffly into her pocket.
“I’m so sorry,” she says again, the earnest regret in the three words making her seem much younger than her twenty-four odd years.
Phil offers her a small smile. “I know.” It’s a simple reply, but the relief that washes over her face tells him it’s enough.
“I’ll finish the manual,” she promises.
“I never doubted you would.”
The statement gets a tentative smile out of her. Then, “Are we okay?”
“We will be,” he assures her.
Skye sighs. “I still have to meet with Ward,” she says.
“I think you’ll find him sympathetic to your plight,” Phil remarks, returning his guest chair into its position in front of his desk and biting back a smile when Skye takes a cautious step away from the inanimate object.
“He called me a brat.”
“Sounds like the two of you are bonding nicely.”
Skye rolls her tear-swollen eyes. “Am I dismissed now?”
“Of course,” Phil says, reaching to pick up a file from his ever-growing pile. “And Skye?” In his peripheral vision, Skye glances over her shoulder.
He takes a seat at his desk and picks up his pen. “It’d be unwise to assume that bracelet can’t restrict you to this plane.” There’s a long silence as Phil opens the file and begins going over a list of recently recovered Chitauri hardware.
Then, “You really were worried about me,” she says with wonder.
“It’s not my job to worry about you,” Phil reminds her. It’s his job to worry about missions, not the young agents under his command. Officially, anyway. Unofficially, he’s going to have to start coloring his hair.
“I know,” he hears Skye say from close by, just before she leans down and kisses him on the cheek. Phil clears his throat as the young woman once more makes to leave him to his work. He’d committed himself to this life years ago, can give that “dangers of emotional attachments” speech by heart. So there’s really no explanation for what he does next.
“Bingo,” he says quickly, as her hand reaches for the door.
Skye blinks. “What?”
Phil glances up, meets her questioning gaze. “The dog’s name. It wasn’t Lucky, it was Bingo.”
A slow grin spreads over her face. “I knew it!” she exclaims, unable to resist a fist pump as she lets herself out of the office.
Phil snorts softly, smiles to himself. “May was right,” he drawls, returning to his paperwork as he hears Skye’s footsteps on the nearby staircase. “Should have gotten the puppy.”
# # #
“You got a minute?”
“Ward – sir.” Skye scrambles to sit up in her bunk, wincing a bit as her weight shifts to her still-tender backside. She’d changed into her flannel boxers and old ‘The Truth is Out There’ tee as soon as she’d returned to her bunk, but the softer clothes aren’t much of a relief. Luckily, if Ward notices her discomfort or her puffy eyes, he doesn’t let on.
“At ease, rookie.” He’s leaning against the doorframe, seeming to consider his next course of action.
Skye sighs. “I know what you’re going to say.”
Ward frowns. “You do?”
“No, I just thought I’d feel more confident if I said that.”
“Do you?” He sounds genuinely curious.
“Theory’s a bust,” she admits.
“How’s your throat?” he asks, glancing at the area in question.
“Not nearly as bruised as my pride,” Skye replies ruefully, plucking at the pillow she’s pulled into her lap. “I really messed up; at this rate I’ll be geriatric before Coulson takes this thing off,” she says, with a slight frown for the tracking bracelet. She glances up at Ward. “I should have listened to you.”
“Next time you will,” he says meaningfully, and Skye nods her agreement. She owes him at least that much for his trouble. Ward stares at her a moment, then shifts in the small space, hesitates. “About what happened before - ”
“You were just following orders; I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions,” Skye concedes quickly.
Ward folds his arms. “You threw a shoe at me.”
“Yeah… Sorry about that.”
“Oh, you’ll make it up to me.”
“Can’t wait,” Skye replies, weakly enthusiastic. “Anyway, I guess I should thank you for watching my back this week; I’m sure there were a million other assignments you would have preferred.”
Ward frowns. “I’m not a friendly guy.”
“You - have other qualities,” Skye says, caught off-guard by the random confidence.
“And I don’t like a lot of sharing,” he warns.
“Okay,” Skye agrees, wondering when he’s going to tell her something she doesn’t already know.
“It doesn’t mean I don’t like the company,” he tell hers. “Once in a while and if the person isn’t a huge pain in the ass,” Ward’s quick to qualify.
The beginnings of a smile tug at Skye’s mouth. “Ward, are you trying to say you like hanging out with me?”
“No, I specifically didn’t say that.”
“But it’s what you meant.”
Ward huffs softly, but doesn’t deny it. Just studies her for a moment before offering a sympathetic quirk of his lips. “Sorry you didn’t find what you’re looking for.” He’s there another moment, lending his silent support, then walks off toward the kitchen. Skye slides down on her stomach, catching Hula’s watchful eye.
“Did you hear that?” Skye asks. “Everything might be alright. Well, almost everything,” Skye amends with a blush. Her ass feels like it’s been sunburned, but it seems a small price to pay for knowing she’s wanted, that she has people that care about her. Even if she is an idiot. “You don’t have to look so smug,” she tells the tiny doll. “You weren’t exactly coming up with any brilliant ideas.”
“Changing course.” May’s familiar refrain sounds from the speaker.
“Looks like we’re changing direction again,” Skye says, and peers at Hula with consideration. “But maybe it’s time. How would you feel about a better seat?”
# # #
Skye doesn’t see Coulson until right before the morning’s debrief, when he ends up walking beside her to the command station.
“Good morning.” His sideways glance is warm, even fond, and Skye offers him a shy smile.
“Morning,” she returns.
Coulson’s brows draw together thoughtfully. “Sleep okay?”
“All things considered,” Skye replies, more than happy to be vague on that account.
“You can try ibuprofen for any lingering tenderness,” the agent advises, smoothing down his tie as they approach the glass-walled room.
Skye feels her face get hot. “We are so not talking about my tenderness.”
“In your neck,” Coulson indicates, pausing outside the meeting area.
“My – right,” Skye splutters, then nods. “Thanks.”
Coulson smiles. He tilts his head toward the command station. “Craziest show on earth, right?” he asks. He doesn’t wait for her reply, just steps inside to join May and the others.
It only takes Skye a moment to follow him.
# # #
“The suspect is being held for interrogation,” Phil reports, pleased to see his team looking well-rested again. “If the new chip is responsive to the same decryption technique that FitzSimmons applied, HQ should be able to develop new leads on Tinklemeyer’s organization.”
“Have we learned anything?” Ward asks, ignoring a discreet nudge from Skye, who seems pleased by the news.
“Not very much,” Phil tells them, eyeing the on-screen photo of Tinklemeyer. “According to H.Q., Timothy Tinklemeyer doesn’t exist.”
“But that’s insane,” Fitz says. “Someone actually chose that name?”
“What about the women who went missing?” May asks.
“SHIELD will keep looking for them,” Phil replies.
“And the others?” Skye wants to know, her forehead furrowed. “The women taken into protective custody?”
“They have new identities, new lives now. Let’s hope they make the most of it.”
“All that destruction, and Tinklemeyer never did get Subject X,” Simmons muses.
“Neither did we.” Coulson shrugs at their surprise. “Subject X has a small cluster of moles over her heart. None of the young women in question are known to have that birthmark.”
“So Subject X is in the wind?” Skye asks, glancing among her teammates. She of all people knows what that kind of freedom is worth.
“For now,” Phil concedes. It’s time to move on, anyway.
The small smile that lights Skye’s face is a good start.
# # #
It’s late when the knock comes on his door, but Phil is awake; had expected her, really.
“Coulson,” May greets him, slowly moving into his space.
“May,” he replies, the dance both familiar and comforting as he continues writing his mission report.
“Can I come in?”
“I thought you already had.”
May frowns, staring down at him with concern. “I read the Montreal file at least a dozen times. There’s no mention of a birthmark.”
“I think you’re confused,” May tells him.
Phil glances up, meeting her eyes with a level gaze. “Read the file again, I’m sure you’ll find it,” he assures her. It doesn’t take long for realization, and then acceptance to tinge her expression. Phil knew she wouldn’t object, there was a time she probably would have done it herself.
“Well,” May says thoughtfully. “That should give them something to focus on; I wouldn’t be surprised if we heard something soon.”
“Not too soon, I hope,” Phil admits, catching a glimpse of green over the woman’s shoulder. He squints, recognizing the familiar dashboard doll tucked next to his pistols on the shelf. Part of his collection now. Part of him. “Something that doesn’t scream ‘Antiques Road Show’.” A half-smile touches his mouth. “She deserves the opportunity to make the right choices.”
This second time around, Phil thinks he might, too.