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baby you're adorable (handle me with care)

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Jemma Simmons has made plenty of mistakes in her life. At the age of six, she lost her school-wide spelling bee when she stuttered and put an extra s in “aspergillum”. At the age of thirteen, she attempted to win the heart of Edward Henley by telling him all about his DNA structure. At the age of seventeen, she cut most of her hair off and dyed it pink in the aftermath of a breakup. At the age of twenty-two, she moved to New York for a low-paying job at a tiny magazine without knowing a soul there.

And at the age of twenty-seven, she sleeps with billionaire inventor Leo Fitz. It's undoubtedly her worst mistake yet.

She wakes up at 7:23am on sheets with an absurdly high thread count, a feeling of impending doom in the pit of her stomach, and the resolution to never drink tequila ever again. It was supposed to be a girls' night out with Daisy and Bobbi. Just the three of them, chips and guacamole, and an unholy amount of margaritas. Then Daisy had practically shoved her across the room in the direction of a guy with a sharply tailored suit and intensely blue eyes and loudly told him that he needed to buy Jemma a drink. He had and then she had bought him a drink and then they had started talking properly and then they had started kissing properly and then he had taken her home in a very expensive car and then—and now here she is. Awake in a bed the size of her room in the tiny Brooklyn apartment she shares with Daisy and wondering if she can sneak out before he wakes up.

He has an arm draped across her so she has to duck underneath it and wriggle across the bed on her stomach, feeling backward with one foot for the edge of the bed. It's extremely ungraceful. But if his bed was less massive, she wouldn't have this problem in the first place. It's all his fault, she decides as a headache takes up residence in her temples and she keeps on backing up across the bed. People who live in New York aren't supposed to have this much space. She finally lowers a foot to the (ridiculously plush) carpet and breathes a quiet sigh of relief.

Jemma hates the morning after. The hunting for her clothes around the room, the inevitable morning breath and smeared makeup, the awkward interaction when the guy either pretends to be asleep or offers her the water and hot sauce that are the sole contents of his fridge. If she leaves now, she can minimize the awkward. It's a scientifically proven fact.

Her clothes are neatly folded on an armchair in the living room and she blinks in surprise. He must have put them away before she fell asleep. Then she turns to look around his living room—she didn't get a good look at it last night, in the haze of tequila and kissing and her legs wrapped around his waist—and she has to work to keep her jaw from dropping in surprise. Leo Fitz's apartment doesn't look anything like what a billionaire's bachelor pad should look like. And it's amazing.

He has a view of Central Park from his windows so all she can see when she looks out is a sea of green. He has a sprawling kitchen with a bright red Dutch oven resting on one counter and a pile of worn cookbooks on the island and Star Trek magnets on his fridge. He has an overstuffed armchair positioned near the windows and the kind of couch meant for comfortably stretching out on. And he has built-in bookshelves wrapping all around his living room.

She's never been able to resist the chance to snoop through someone else's bookshelves. So she promises herself that she'll only be a few minutes and starts inspecting them at the A's. He has massive sword and sorcery fantasy novels and philosophical sci-fi and a surprising amount of murder mysteries and more Terry Pratchett books than she's ever seen in one place before.

“You're still here.”

She spins around, the paperback copy of Night Watch she'd been perusing falling from her hands, to see Leo Fitz standing in the doorway. He's wearing only a pair of plaid boxers, hair sticking straight up, and looking deliciously rumpled. She did that, she realizes with a little shock.

“Er, yes I am. Sorry. I meant to sneak out earlier but I got distracted by the books and then--” She trails off. There's nothing to do but muddle through the awkwardness. “Anyway. Hi.”

“The sneak out. A time-honored tradition. Right.” He nods a little and brings one hand up to tug on the back of his hair.

“I just thought that it was billionaire one-night stand etiquette. Leave before the paparazzi wake up and can get a shot of you.”

“Technically, my billionaire status depends on how the company stock is doing. And the paparazzi are much more interested in Tony Stark.” He laughs a little.

“Well, your Twitter is much better. I especially like the pictures of your cat. And his piratical adventures,” she says. A good forty percent of his twitter account is filled with pictures of his cat Graham, a fat tabby with one eye who sports an assortment of eyepatches, and accounts of Graham's adventures trying to get into the cabinets, find a prime place to sleep on top of Fitz's bookshelves, and establish dominion over all he surveys.

“He's probably lurking about somewhere. I bought him a rather absurd scratching post shaped like a pirate ship that he likes to sulk near whenever someone new comes here. Not that many new people come here. I mean, I have friends, of course. But not many, ah—”

“You're not what I expected,” she says plainly. “None of this is quite what I expected. I thought that billionaires' apartments were supposed to be all steel and glass and very expensive leather couches and sound systems.”

“Well, I'm rather terrible at being a billionaire. At least when it comes to all that Master of the Universe nonsense.”

“You have other talents.” Then she blushes, remembering last night, and then he's blushing too and—this is an excessive amount of blushing, she tells herself. If anything, it was much lovelier than it had any right to be, easy and soft and filled with laughter.

“Do you want to stay for breakfast? I have eggs and a waffle iron—not that we would put the eggs in the waffle iron but. Anyway. There's a few good places around the neighborhood if you wanted to go out,” he offers. “I seem to remember you demanding breakfast food last night.”

“That was drunk Jemma,” she explains. Drunk Jemma has a thing about pancakes and waffles and a way of loudly demanding them. “Sorry.”

“I did make a promise,” Fitz says. “And I try to be in the habit of keeping them.”

She wants to say yes. She very nearly does. And that's why she politely declines, grabs her shoes, and makes her exit as swiftly as possible.

 

Daisy cheers when she walks into their living room.

“Very stylish execution,” Daisy says. “And a creatively improvised night-to-day outfit. I give it 8.2 out of 10 on the walk of shame scale.”

“I think I'll give it an 8.5,” Bobbi says from the couch, long legs draped over one arm of it. “Did you see the town car that dropped her off?”

(It would have taken her three different trains and an hour and a half to get home. She hadn't protested too much when Fitz offered to get her a ride. She hadn't expected it to be a town car with a backseat that was more comfortable than her couch and an in-car mimosa bar.)

“So how was it?” Daisy asks. “Also, we have bagels.”

“And donuts,” Bobbi adds. “We saved a chocolate one for you.”

“I can't believe that you're awake.” Jemma blinks drowsily at them and wonders if she could just lay down on the carpet and close her eyes for a minute. You could have stayed, a traitorous voice says inside her head. Technically, she could have. Curled up next to Fitz in that enormous bed and even let him make her breakfast. But she has a strategy for these kinds of things, perfectly calculated to keep herself from getting hurt, and sticking to it is the best thing she could possibly do.

“We wanted to hear all about last night. And you always sneak out early—do you set an alarm?” Bobbi smirks at her.

“The alarm thing happened once!” Jemma protests and flops down on the carpet, twisting her head to try to see where the food is. “Why are the bagels all the way across the room?”

Daisy—sweet, wonderful Daisy—brings her a pretzel bagel and a container of scallion cream cheese. Jemma swipes halfheartedly at the bagel with one hand and then manages to pull herself up so she's leaning against the couch.

“It was fun,” she says. Then she stuffs half the bagel in her mouth so they can't ask her anything else.

Daisy gapes at her. “You can't leave it at that.”

“We need information,” Bobbi adds. “We need to Google him. And if he has a common name, I hope you got his middle name too.”

“I don't think he'll be hard to Google.” Jemma winces slightly. “So I didn't realize it until we were halfway to his apartment but the guy I went home with was Leo Fitz.”

“Like Fitz Industries Leo Fitz? Does he really have a hovercraft?” Daisy asks.

“Was he nice? Because if he wasn't, I can still kick his ass,” Bobbi says, narrowing her eyes.

“He was really nice,” Jemma says firmly. “And I didn't see if he had a hovercraft or not.”

She stuffs the other half of the bagel in her mouth.

“Did you think you're going to see him again?” Daisy fishes another doughnut out of the bakery box and passes it to her. “Like did he ask for your number or anything?”

“He did. But I didn't...” Jemma shrugs. What she did, when he asked just as she was getting into the car, was pretend not to hear him and make a swift, stammering exit. She's not looking for anything permanent right now—she thinks she probably shouldn't be looking for anything permanent for quite a while. When she's better, when she has her career and her life and her apartment together and she can promise herself that she won't make a mess of things again...then she'll be a dating fiend. She'll have a perfectly curated profile and a list of questions to ask on every first date and she'll (finally) know what she's doing.

“I think it's best if it's just a one-time thing. I'll probably never see him again anyway. I mean,” she says. “It was just a fluke that he was in that bar. I can't even imagine how we'd end up in the same place at the same time again.”

 

She sees him again exactly one week later, when her editor sends her to the opening night gala for the city ballet to work on a piece about Natasha Romanoff, the Russian prima ballerina who half of New York is already obsessed with. She's wearing a black dress borrowed from Bobbi's closet because nothing in her own was gala-appropriate and while on Bobbi it's a sleek midi-dress, on her it comes all the way down to the floor. (She's been trying very hard not to trip all night.) There's a too big notebook sticking out of her beaded clutch and her hair has already made several escape attempts from its updo. Fitz, on the other hand, is wearing a flawlessly tailored suit and looks utterly at ease as he talks to a cluster of gala attendees that hang on his every word, rapt.

Fitz spots her before she can make her escape and crosses the floor towards her, beaming. “Jemma!” he says. “You like the ballet?”

“I'm here for work actually.” She brandishes her notebook in the air like it can ward off any awkwardness. “But I do like the ballet. And you?”

“I, ah, I donate to the ballet each year. My mum always liked it, so we go whenever she comes to visit. It's my way of ensuring we always get good seats,” he says and laughs a little.

“That is a good strategy,” she says, nodding. She shifts a little on her unsteady heels and wonders what the odds of the earth opening up to swallow her whole are.

“It's actually good that I ran into you tonight. I've been thinking a lot about that night and I..I wanted to apologize to you. Asking you to stay the morning and then asking for your number...” Fitz swallows as his cheeks flush bright red. “I didn't mean to put any sort of pressure on you. And I'm very sorry if I did.”

“You didn't. I just—I had to get home. I'm not really dating at the moment anyway,” she adds.

“Right.” He stuffs his hands into his pockets and if she didn't know better, she would think that he's trying not to look disappointed. “I'd better let you get back to work then. I'll, er, look for the article when it's published.”

The funny thing is, she thinks he really will.

 

Later, after the gala is over, after she's gotten her quotes and done some surreptitious Googling to figure out just who the absurdly handsome blonde man with Natasha Romanoff is, she heads to her favorite late-night diner. It's just around the corner from the theater and before she summons up the will to head home in her impractical shoes, she wants a piece of pie. And maybe some curly fries too.

Fitz is sitting in a booth in the corner. He looks up when she walks in and half-waves at her, shrugging one shoulder and smiling sheepishly before he goes back to his dinner. Jemma pauses at the entrance to the diner, glancing down towards where his head is bent over a book. It's clear that he won't bother her. He probably doesn't even want her to bother him. She said that she wasn't interested and that was that. She could go to the other end of the diner and work her way through her notes as she eats. She probably should do that.

But there's something about seeing him here, something that feels very much like the little spark of electricity she felt when he first bent down to kiss her in that dark and noisy bar. A hint of recognition, the feeling that she's turned around to find something she's been waiting for all long. It's a possibility, nothing more, so slim as to be nearly invisible. But it's an insistent one, tugging her down the aisle towards him and when he looks up at her, wide-eyed and surprised and faintly hopeful, she thinks that maybe he feels it too.

“I thought I was the only one who knew about this place,” she says as she slides into the booth across from him.

“I always come here after the galas. I usually don't get much time to eat at those kinds of things and when I do, it's all olives and things on toothpicks,” he grumbles.

“I didn't get to eat at all,” she tells him sadly. “I spent the whole night running around trying to get quotes from people.”

He slides his plate of fries across the table to her immediately and she grabs a handful, snagging a bottle of barbecue sauce from a nearby table to dip them in.

“What kind of journalism do you do?” he asks.

“I write for Violette,” she says. “Mostly the website but I get a piece in the magazine every so often. I write for the self section, which means almost everything that doesn't fit into the other sections. In the last few weeks, I've written about how to organize your closet, rounded up twenty different weeknight dinner recipes, and tested five different sheet masks 'guaranteed to put the glow back in your skin'.”

“Do you like it?”

“Most of the time.” She pauses, grabbing another fry from his plate. “It's not exactly what I wanted to do or what I imagined I'd be doing but...I'm getting to be a better writer all the time. And sometimes they let me write the monthly book roundups, so I like that bit quite a lot.”

“I wanted to be a book critic,” she adds. “Still do, I guess.”

“How did you decide on that?”

“I always liked to read,” she says. “And I have a lot of opinions.”

It's her rehearsed answer, the one she pulls out at cocktail parties and housewarming parties, the one meant to fill up a minute or two of time before moving on to the next topic of conversation. But Fitz just looks at her, ready to listen, and she finds herself telling him more. About the way she read when she was younger, devouring books with a single-minded determination. About the way she reads now, paperbacks stuffed into her purse, reaching for a novel before she falls asleep at night and when she wakes up in the morning. About the way she wants to write about them and the things she thinks books tell you about the world they're written in.

He listens to every last word of it, eagerly nodding along at some points, asking her questions at others. And she remembers the way that he listened to her even in that noisy bar, laughing at her terrible Star Wars jokes and debating the finer points of the Force with her. The way that he made her feel like she was the only thing he wanted to pay attention to. Now, she drinks in that feeling again, letting a wave of warmth rise through her chest as his blue eyes settle on her.

“You must feel so lucky,” Jemma says. “To be able to do the thing that you always wanted to do.”

“Most of the time. Some of the time, I have to sign papers and manage people and give interviews. I give terrible interviews,” he admits cheerfully. “But when I'm messing about in my lab, trying to make something that I saw in my head real, I feel extremely lucky. It's...I don't quite know how to describe it but it's...”

He runs a hand through his curls, frowning.

“Like you can make the things you see and think in your head make sense to everyone else,” she says. “Like they exist outside in the world too.”

He nods slowly. That spark of electricity zips between them again.

Later she'll contend that she kissed him first. He'll argue otherwise. But either way, they're kissing, both standing half-up out of their seats to reach each other, and it's absolutely intoxicating. They only stop when the waitress arrives with the food and a disapproving glare in their direction, dropping back down to their respective sides of the booth. Her heart's humming rapidly in her chest and her cheeks are flushed pink. When she glances across the table at Fitz, he's even pinker.

They don't really talk about it after they pay the check and leave the diner together. She just reaches for his hand and when his car pulls around the corner, she gets into it with him.

 

“Will you let me get you pancakes this time?” he asks in the morning as he sleepily presses a kiss to the curve of her neck. She's stayed in his bed far past her designated sneaking out hour and she should really get up. But his bed is comfortable and he's warm and solid next to her and there's something peaceful about being with him here in the morning light.

“They have to have chocolate chips,” she mumbles. “And I want another set with bananas on top.”

“That can be arranged.”

He gets pancakes and eggs and a bag of still-warm cinnamon rolls delivered to his apartment and makes her tea from his massive tea cabinet. They sit close together in his kitchen and talk with their hands tangled together. He laughs at some more of her terrible nerdy jokes and she laughs at his stories of building inventions in his college dorm room and it's something. Something that she wants more of.

When she finally goes home, she leaves a piece of paper with her number on it on his kitchen counter.

 

“I don't know why I did it,” she tells Daisy over containers of Chinese food and scowls down at her dumplings as if they know the answer and are being deliberately withholding.

“Because you wanted to see him again.” Daisy shrugs. “It's not that complicated.”

“But should I want to see him again? He's just...things are very different for him than they are for me right now. And I'm not--I don't need to be Cinderella,” she says. “I've never wanted someone to sweep me off my feet. Just to meet them on equal ground.”

She buries her head in her hands and makes a muffled noise that sounds a little like the tortured squeal of a small woodland creature. These are not—these are not her kinds of problems. She honestly wasn't aware that these kinds of problems existed in the first place.

“So that's what you'll do. He'd be lucky to have you,” Daisy adds. “And Bobbi and I will wreak vengeance on him if he thinks otherwise.”

Jemma uncurls from her position of despair to beam at her and rest her head on Daisy's shoulder briefly before she goes back to the dumplings. She's come to understand that bloody threats are Bobbi and Daisy's way of expressing affection.

“Anyway,” Daisy asks a few minutes later, a grin sneaking across her face. “Did you find out if he has a hovercraft this time?”

They spend the rest of the night testing out candles and bath bombs for an article she's writing on how to make your space hygge. Daisy gives her mock-serious assessments of which candles smell most like a Nancy Myers movie and films the bath bombs dissolving on her phone again when the first time doesn't turn out colorful enough. They rewatch Gilmore Girls and make popcorn with elaborate seasoning blends and go out late at night in search of ice cream. When Bobbi finally gets back from her coffee date with Hunter, they tease her mercilessly until she throws popcorn at them. And when Fitz texts her the next day, asking if he can see her again, Bobbi and Daisy eagerly peer over her shoulder and try to dictate her reply.

 

The third time that they sleep together, he comes out to Brooklyn. She insists on it, even if he has a king-size bed the size of her bedroom and an entire floor of a building to himself and a doorman willing to bring him takeout at any hour of the day. She has a double bed and two roommates who have been waiting for the chance to grill him and the closest restaurant to her sells two dollar slices of questionable pizza. And she wants to meet him on equal ground.

“It's nice,” Fitz says when she shows him her apartment.

“You don't really mean that.” She narrows her eyes at him. “We found our couch on the sidewalk and none of our dishes match. Half of them are novelty superhero plates that were 75% off at Target.”

“It's actually always been my lifelong dream to eat Indian food off of Batman's face.” He smiles at her, looking like a light has been switched on inside him, and an entire menagerie of butterflies seem to have taken up residence in her stomach.

It's later that night, with him curled around her, that she realizes it. She likes him. Quite a lot. She likes the way he scowls when the characters in a movie do stupid things and the way he haphazardly dumps all the extra sauce from his chicken tikka masala onto his plate and the way he looks at her bookshelves with delight and the way he kisses her thoroughly. She likes him in a giddy, inexplicable way that gives her the kind of fluttering feeling she thought she'd left behind in high school and it's nice. Simply, overwhelmingly nice.

Later that day, after they've had breakfast tucked into a back booth at her favorite diner and gone to Fort Greene to browse the shelves at Greenlight Bookstore, after he sweetly kisses her goodbye at the subway station (“Because I'm still a man of the people, Jemma, and men of the people take the subway), he texts her about nothing. Pictures of a bakery window that he passes on his way home and questions about the rest of her day and breathless commentary on the book he's reading. A few hours later, a box of perfectly frosted eclairs from the bakery he passed arrives on her doorstep. She grins down at them like a madwoman.

It takes her a little while to realize that he's wooing her. Carefully, thoughtfully, and with a steady sense of purpose. He texts her to ask how her day is going and to make sure that she gets home safely at night. He sits through multiple period dramas and keeps all the characters straight. (She suspects that he has notes hidden on his phone.) He does research on new restaurants for them to try and new shows to watch on Netflix. He sends her cookies from Levain and delicate strawberry tarts from her favorite French bakery uptown and slices of babka from Breads and a massive bunch of sunflowers after she mentions how much she likes them. He treats her like everything she says is worth paying attention to, even when she's just rambling on about the soapy CW show she's watching with Bobbi and Daisy or complaining about subway closures. It's an entirely new experience and one that she thinks she could get used to.

 

The sixth time that they sleep together, some enterprising member of the paparazzi gets a photo of her leaving his apartment. They appear in the paper the next day, where she gets the delightful moniker of “mystery brunette” and some feverish speculation as to her possible identity. Luckily, all they really got was the back of her head but it sets off a spiral of anxiety and tension anyway that leaves her with a pounding headache and the urge to curl up in a ball underneath her blankets and never set foot in Manhattan again. She just...she doesn't want to become Fitz's accessory. Or anyone's really.

“They're never normally near my apartment,” Fitz says over the phone. “I'm really sorry, Jem. It'll all blow over in a few days—some reality star will get married or divorced or Elon Musk will start tweeting again and they'll stop paying attention to me. If you want, I can try bribing him to tweet something outrageous.”

He gets a weak laugh out of her with that one.

It doesn't blow over, exactly. Three days later, someone calls the front desk at Violette and asks if one of their writers is dating Leo Fitz. She goes online, which is really where she goes wrong in the first place, and finds—it's a fansite, she supposes. Tucked into a particular corner of the Internet is a circle of people who dissect Fitz's every move for fun. And one of these people (fitzy86, who she promptly wishes a fiery doom upon) spotted the book sticking out of her tote bag when she was leaving Fitz's apartment. The same book that she included in a round-up of summer beach reads on the site a week later. And from there, along with some extensive comparison of her hair in the paparazzi photo to the picture that accompanies all of her columns on the site and a successful deduction that her tote bag was a limited edition gifted to the staff of various women's magazines, including Violette, they figured out who she was and promptly started dissecting every bit of information they could find about her on the Internet. She thinks that Fitz's fans might have missed their true calling as private detectives.

Jemma's used to being critiqued on the Internet. Her articles are mostly innocuous but every so often a violent conflict springs up in the comment section and their beleaguered comment moderator has to make posts reminding everyone of the rules of engagement. But she can control what she writes. She can't control the bad lighting in her high school yearbook photo or the embarrassing memes friends tagged her in in college. And being judged for those things, having things that she didn't previously think twice about analyzed from every possible angle, is exhausting. She tells herself that it's only a small sub-section of strangers on the Internet. That it's not like she's really famous. But she can't help wondering if it'll become worse if she and Fitz make whatever they're doing official. If they ever figure out whatever it is they're doing.

“I'll just deny it if anyone else calls,” she tells Fitz, typing away on her laptop in bed with her phone pressed between her shoulder and ear. “I think it's mostly the people who are obsessed with you on Tumblr—did you know that there's someone who runs a blog about your patterned shirts? But maybe I shouldn't come over on Saturday after all, in case anyone's still lurking about.”

They were going to watch the first two seasons of Stranger Things before the third came out on his massive TV and order in Italian and walk over to Levain Bakery to get giant cookies. She was looking forward to it.

“It'll be fine. Look, Tony Stark owes me a favor. I'll get him to fly that ridiculous robot thing of this around Central Park if you want,” Fitz offers. “I haven't seen the press anywhere in days, anyway. I think they've probably gotten bored of me.”

“I just hate that someone else got to define it. Us,” she clarifies and shifts awkwardly from foot to foot. “Before we even had a chance to talk about it.”

“They didn't get to define it. We get to define it. Whenever we want to,” he says firmly. “But I get it if you, ah, don't want to come over. Or if you want to take a break. Not that I want to take a break, I mean, but if that's you want, then of course--”

“That's not what I want at all,” she interrupts. She does want Leo Fitz. Quite a lot. Just not all of the things that come along with him.

“I could get a disguise,” Jemma adds. “Baseball cap and sunglasses. I don't think I have the heart to make you watch Stranger Things by yourself when you're so terrified of the Demogorgon.”

“I like you a lot, Jemma Simmons,” he says and she can hear his smile through the phone.

“I like you too.”

She holds the phone to her ear for a few minutes after he hangs up, smiling at nothing and barely resisting the urge to hum something horribly cheesy under her breath. She likes him and he likes her. It's all going to be okay.

 

Unfortunately, someone (she bets that it's fitzy86, making a bid for immortality) leaks her name to the tabloids. There are people calling her work number and lurking around the Violette offices and asking her to comment on the record about her relationship status. She starts screening her calls before they come in and begs her boss to let her work from home for a few days.

“I can make a statement if you like,” Fitz says. “Ask them to leave you alone.”

“I don't think the tabloid press observes those kinds of niceties.” she says from his couch, where she has her legs stretched across one half and a paperback book balanced on her chest. She had to sneak in the back door to avoid the photographers camped out front but it's worth it to see Fitz, who's making goat-cheese stuffed chicken with orzo from one of his favorite cooking blogs and has promised her salted caramel brownies later. (He has about a hundred different recipes to try bookmarked at any given time and quizzes her about each dish after he makes it so he can rate it on a five-point scale. She thinks it's adorable.) He has a dish towel casually slung over one shoulder and he's awkwardly dancing around to the Supremes, shimmying his shoulders and occasionally punctuating things with a dramatic finger point, and seeing him sends a fluttery feeling through her entire body.

“I don't understand why people are so obsessed with my love life.” He scowls and stuffs the chicken with goat cheese more aggressively.

“You're one of business's most eligible bachelors under 35. Number eleven, in case you were wondering.” She found the list when she googled Fitz, after the first time that they slept together. It featured a photo of him wearing a nicely tailored suit and gazing out over the Manhattan Skyline with what was probably supposed to be a pensive expression. It looks more like he's accidentally bitten off a massive chunk of something and is trying to figure out how to politely get rid of it.

“I hate that list,” he informs her with a sigh. “People quoted it to me all the time when it first came out.”

“I think you were ranked criminally low.” Personally, she would have ranked him in the top five. At the very least.

“Really? Where would you have put me?”

“Fifth?” she teases. “But with solid top three potential if you put in the effort.”

“Oh, I'll put in the effort.” Fitz fixes her with a blue-eyed stare, his eyes skimming up and down her body, and she can't help shivering.

Later he does. Very thoroughly.

 

“We are going to come up with a paparazzi protection plan,” Bobbi declares. She's in Daisy and Jemma's living room and she's gotten a massive whiteboard from somewhere, which she's already covered with photos, cryptic scribbles, and a lot of red yarn. “I've already mapped out five different routes that you can use to get to and from work with minimal photo exposure and if you're willing to take the local and not the express, there might be one route where it'd be nearly impossible to get a photo of you. Next we're going to plan routes from work to Fitz's apartment and from Fitz's apartment to here.”

“I've also assembled some outfit ideas that will both make it a lot harder for them to recognize you but that wouldn't be terrible to be photographed in. It's a lot of black,” Daisy says. “My wardrobe made some heroic sacrifices for you.”

“You don't have to do all of this,” Jemma protests weakly as she sinks into the couch, letting her bag fall to the floor with an audible thunk. (Fitz asked her if she wanted to take leftovers home after she mentioned that the only things in her fridge were beer and sriracha.) She can't quite tell from this distance but it looks like Bobbi's already come up with a set of elaborate code names and gotten sneaky photos of all the paparazzi who are on the regular Fitz beat. “I mean, Fitz and I haven't even had the talk yet. I don't really know what we're doing.”

“Do you even need to have the talk?” Bobbi asks. “You guys are disgustingly domestic and adorable together.”

“We have to have some kind of a talk,” she says and tries to sound authoritative. Jemma's always believed firmly in the power of a good label. (She got a label maker for Christmas one year and labeled the entire pantry before her parents finally told her she could only use it for one shelf at a time.) True, sometimes she thinks that they understand what they are to each other without having to say it at all. But she's had understandings that she thought were unspoken before and they've always turned out to be nonexistent.

The thing is, Jemma Simmons has always been the kind of person who believes in doing things in their proper order. Sorting issues out one at a time so when the perfect person finally comes along, she'll be ready with a matching set of cutlery, an impressive job title, and the ability to say knowledgeable things during wine tastings. It's when she tries to skip ahead that things go wrong and her relationship with Fitz has jumped wildly backwards and forwards since the moment they met. And she wants very, very badly for this to go right.

“I want to be certain,” she adds. “That all of this is worth it in the end.”

She sweeps an arm around the room, taking in Bobbi's spy board and the clothes Daisy has scattered across the floor and the sweat on her face from sprinting out of the subway to avoid the photographers lurking outside her stop.

“If you get to ride in the hovercraft, it totally is,” Daisy puts in and moves over to wrap an arm around her shoulders and squeeze affectionately. “You seem happy, Jemma. In a different way than ever before.”

“I like him,” Bobbi says. “You should see the way that he looks at you when he thinks he's being sneaky about it. I can practically see the cartoon hearts coming out of his eyes.”

“He has really nice eyes,” she says, feeling the flush steal up her neck. And nice hands and a nice mouth and a nice...She flushes even deeper when she realizes that she's been staring off into space for the last five minutes.

Bobbi and Daisy smirk at her in unison. (They must have practiced that.)

“That look,” Daisy says. “That look on your face definitely means that he's worth it.”

All of it is, Jemma thinks All the complicated subway routes and disguises and paparazzi-dodging and snide mentions of her on Twitter. They're worth it.

It's not a grand realization. Fireworks don't go off in the background and she doesn't go running in the rain all the way across town to declare herself on his doorstep. It doesn't come to her all at once either. It keeps on hitting her throughout her days: when she's stirring milk into her tea in the morning and remembers how he dumps sugar into it in heaping spoonfuls; when she's researching a story at work and gets a text from him exclaiming over her articles; when she's curled up in bed with a book at night and misses the feel of him pressed up against her side. But it's steady and sure and it sends surges of happiness through her that are somehow unlike anything she's ever felt before.

 

A few weeks later, they're making dinner in his apartment. Cacio e pepe, with a luscious salad of peaches and goat cheese and garlic bread on the side. Well, if she's being strictly accurate about it, Fitz is making dinner while she eats bits of cheese and watches him work from the counter. Music is softly playing from the speakers in the kitchen, the cat has wound himself around her legs, purring, and it's cozily domestic and somehow effortless. She hops down from the counter and leans her head on Fitz's shoulder. He slides an arm around her waist and plants an absent-minded kiss on the side of her cheek.

“Would you teach me to cook?” she asks and leans in to steal another piece of cheese. “Every time I make pasta, it doesn't taste like anything. I usually just put jarred sauce on it and give up.”

Fitz shudders at the very mention of jarred sauce.

“What do you want to learn to cook?”

“Everything?” she shrugs. “Pasta, eggs, and maybe some basic meat dishes to start. Like those chicken fajitas you make with the pineapple salsa. And the garlic salmon too. And the pad thai you make sometimes. And cake.”

“That sounds like it'll take a while.” Fitz raises an eyebrow at her.

“I'm planning on sticking around for a while. As long as I possibly can, in fact,” she says it as casually as she can possibly manage, hoping he can hear everything else she means in her voice. That she's not very good at declarations but she wants to declare herself to him. That she likes him more than she's ever liked anyone else in her entire life. That she maybe more than likes him. That she's willing to take some things along with him if it means she gets him in the end.

“That's going to be a very, very long time then.” He's smiling, so broad that it nearly splits his face in half, and she knows that he understands her perfectly. (Maybe, if they're lucky, he always will.)

“Yes,” she says as she leans up to kiss him. “I think it will be.”

Jemma Simmons has made plenty of mistakes in her life. Doubtless she'll go on to make more. But she thinks that none of them will ever be as good as Leo Fitz.