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it's changed from something comfortable to something else instead

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It really is Simmons standing in front of him, as simultaneously familiar and unrecognisable as the inside of his head. Her clothes are different, and she has more make up on than he's ever known her to wear before, but it's her hair that brings Fitz up short. Before the last time she had it cut, she agonised for a week over whether to get one inch or two trimmed off. He wonders who she bored to tears this time with talk of layers and bobs, and swallows a hard lump of sadness that it wasn't him.

 

“How've you been?” she asks, like it's nothing, like Fitz is just some acquaintance she hasn't seen for a while. As though that's not the most loaded question she could have asked, but simply a casual inquiry that she can make in front of a lab full of people – a platitude.

 

And all the words he's struggling to grasp, the ones that have been crowding the edges of his consciousness since she walked through the door, slip through his fingers because he doesn't even know where to start.

 

Alone.

 

That one lands front and centre, but hardly seems to fit the tone of the question.

 

Broken.

 

There's another.

 

Skye comes barrelling through the door and tackles Simmons with a hug before he can marshal the words to form a commonplace response.

 

She's peppering Simmons with questions, while he just stands there, feeling even more left out of this moment than he's become used to. The contrast couldn't be stronger between Skye's words and his lack of them; her enthusiasm a stark contrast to his reticence. Fitz just loses the stomach to deal with it all right now.

 

“I'm glad you're safe. I, uh, I have something I need to...” he manages to cut across Skye's torrent of words before trailing off, with a frustrated wave of his hand, and making for the door as fast as he can. Before it closes behind him he hears Skye asking if she interrupted something. He doesn't wait to hear Simmons reply. Too sure of Jemma's innate politeness to expect to hear anything but her assuring Skye that it was nothing important, and unwilling to hear himself dismissed as that.

 

The truth is that he doesn't have anything he needs to be doing. At least, nothing that isn't in the lab. He could go to his bunk, but that's the first place Jemma would come looking for him, and as much as he doesn't want to talk to her right now, the thought that she might not come looking is too much to bear.

 

So, instead, he wanders through the base, along corridors he's not sure he's ever seen before, until he finds an empty room. The mats on the floor suggest some sort of workout room, he thinks. It's definitely not a place where anyone's going to look for him.

 

He's hunched over his tablet working on the exercises his speech therapist gave him to try to help with the aphasia when May comes into the room. There's a flash of what he thinks is surprise on her face before she schools it back to its usual impassivity.

 

He envies her ability to wear a mask for the world – he has the melancholy suspicion that every feeling he has is plastered across his face for all to see. So he ducks his head to hide what he can, as he stands up and mumbles something about getting out of her way.

 

“You can stay,” May says suddenly, “if you want.” She shrugs and carries on, “I'm just going to be doing T'ai Chi, so I shouldn't make enough noise to disturb you.”

 

Just as though he has as much right to be there as she does; as if what he's doing actually matters. That loosens a tiny bit of the tension in his chest, “I won't mess up your... your Chi?” His hand flutters a little, as if to catch the word he doesn't think he's ever said out loud before.

 

She smirks at that, “It's handled worse,” so he sits back down again. After all, this is probably the closest he can get to being by himself without having to be alone.

 

He's been sitting there a while when a sudden movement catches his eye, and he finds himself unable to look away. May's hands and feet are moving with such sureness and grace that he could almost believe she were dancing, if it weren't for the fact that one move is clearly how she'd push a nose back into its skull, and another is designed to sweep an opponent's legs out and land him on his back.

 

She comes to rest, finally, standing with her eyes shut for a moment, and serenity seems to roll outwards from her until it covers him and calms the chaos inside his head. He's suddenly reminded of something his music teacher told him when he was a kid: that the silence after a performance is part of the music, and clapping too soon is as rude as not clapping at all.

 

Not that Fitz is going to clap, obviously, because that would be weird. He kind of wants to, though, and it must show on his face, because when May opens her eyes and looks at him, he would swear she looks like she's about to laugh.

 

Instead she beckons him with a lift of her chin, “Want to give it a try?” The invitation in her voice is so compelling that he's halfway to his feet before he realises it's a terrible idea.

 

“I, uh, I...” he stammers, takes a deep breath and tries again. “There's no way I could do that.”

 

She cocks her head to one side, “Well, not on your first time out, but then, you probably couldn't do long division the day you learnt to count either.” Taking the tablet from his hands, she turns to put it down out of reach of flailing limbs.

 

“T'ai Chi is about balance,” May begins, as she pulls him gently towards the mats in the middle of the room.

 

“I haven't been feeling all that balanced lately,” he counters, still looking for a way out of what he's sure is going to be a humiliating experience, mild panic creeping up the back of his neck.

 

“This could help with that,” Something in her tone makes him look at her, and the expression on her face – one of understanding, but not pity – calms him again.

 

“It's about balance, and it's about awareness. Be aware of your breathing,” she places her hand lightly on his abdomen, startling him. There's nothing particularly intimate about the touch, but it's been weeks since anyone touched him, and the warmth of her palm is comforting. “Breathe from here, not your chest. Don't pull the air in, open your lungs and it will find its own way in. Be aware of the air around you, and how it moves as you move. Raise your hands in front of you, and be aware of the air moving through your fingers. Breathe out as you lower your hands, and focus on the balance: in and out, up and down. Before your next breath, be aware of your stillness – movement can't exist without it.”

 

He's not sure if it's her voice, or the almost hypnotic rhythm of his own breath, but Fitz finds himself growing calmer than he can remember feeling in a long time. Since before Jemma left, before the pod.

 

Before Ward.

 

He gulps in a shuddering breath before he can stop himself. “I'm, I'm sorry. I started to, uh, I started to think about...” He's not sure how to finish that sentence, but he's almost certain he doesn't need to.

 

May puts a reassuring hand on his shoulder, much like Simmons would, “Hey, it's fine. T'ai Chi is a lot like meditation, and the goal isn't to stop thoughts popping into your head, it's to learn to let go of them as they do. It's hard, and it takes practice, but you can do it.”

 

Fitz isn't sure he shares her confidence about that, but being able to let go of his thoughts sounds very appealing, so he nods to signal that he's ready to get back to it.

 

An hour later, he's finally heading for his bunk – idly running his fingers across the red brick as he walks, and trying to be aware of the air moving through his fingers. It was fun, which was unexpected and, at this point, rather unfamiliar, but once he progressed to some of the moves it was also tiring and May wanted him to do it all over again tomorrow. “Patience and practice” she said. Apparently that was the key to everything. Along with a pile of other stuff that he would feel bad about not remembering if it weren't for the fact that he's sure he'll be hearing it all again.

 

He turns the last corner before his room, feeling more at ease than he has in a long time, and sees the light shining under the door, which is reassuring, in a way. Simmons did come looking for him, as he hoped she would but feared she wouldn't. He takes a couple of deep breaths, in and out, and savours the moment of stillness before opening the door, only to be brought up short by the sight of her, for the second time tonight. She's curled up asleep on his bed, which he wasn't expecting, her head on his pillow and her shoes neatly lined up on the floor. There are two cups of tea, cold and congealing, on his bedside table.

 

He moves closer to the bed, and the smell of her shampoo is so achingly familiar that he closes his eyes for a moment, just to soak it in. Standing like this, he can almost pretend that nothing has changed. When he opens them, his eyes are drawn to the tea tray. Where the bloody hell did she find Jaffa Cakes? Hunter, the thieving git, raided Fitz's biscuit stash last week, and all Fitz has left are the Garibaldis his Mum sent. The Jammy Dodgers were the first to go, which at least shows Hunter has some taste, if no conscience.

 

Fitz snags both biscuits, because he never has been able to stop at one Jaffa Cake, and retreats to sit on the floor with his back against the door. He's not quite ready to talk to Simmons yet, but when he is, he doesn't want another unexpected entrance interrupting them.

 

He watches her sleep for the length of time it takes to eat two Jaffa Cakes, and then feels a hand on his shoulder. He looks across to see Jemma, his Jemma, who still looks at him like he's whole, who didn't get her hair cut without telling him about it in tedious detail. The one who didn't leave.

 

“You should wake her up,” she says.

 

“Not yet. She looks so peaceful,” it reminds him of the last time he sat waiting for her to wake up. He shivers at the memory and rubs his arm.

 

“You need to talk to her.”

 

“I know.”

 

“I mean instead of to me. Why am I even still here?”

 

“If you don't know the answer to that, I don't see why you expect me to.”

 

“You said before that I was still here because you still missed her, but now she's here. Right in front of you, just like you wanted. All you have to do is talk to her.” She's using that reasoning tone that rarely fails to annoy him.

 

Silly Fitz.

 

“She's not, though, not really. I still miss my best friend, not the person who can barely stand to look at me. Not the one who left without even telling me why.” He hates that he sounds like a petulant child, even to himself.

 

“You know why she left, she was on an assignment.”

 

“Yes, but she didn't tell me. And don't start with the 'it had to be a secret' thing, because I'm not an idiot, and I understand that, and she didn't have to tell me where she was going or why. But she didn't even tell me that she was going. She just left.”

 

Fitz, that's not fair...” Jemma begins, but the word choice knocks him from frustration to burning resentment, and he cuts her off.

 

No, you're right. She didn't just leave. She lied to me, then she left.”

 

She probably didn't want you to worry about her. She probably thought it might affect your recovery.”

 

No. She didn't tell me because she wanted me to think exactly what I did think – that she left because of me. Because she didn't want to be around me. She doesn't feel the same way I do, and even if she did, I'm not me any more, and she couldn't handle it.” There's a small part of him that's embarrassed that he's having an argument with his own subconscious, but these thoughts have been festering inside for long enough that it feels good to get them out, no matter that it's just to himself.

 

Don't you think you owe her the chance to explain for herself? You've been friends a long time, and there may be more to her side of the story.”

 

I will, I just... not yet. I need a minute.”

 

Fitz?” He jumps, because this time the voice is coming from his bed. “Who are you talking to?”

 

There doesn't seem to be an easy way to answer that, so he settles for being defensive, “How, uh... how much did you hear?” he asks while frantically trying to replay the conversation in his head. How much did he say that he's not ready to say to her? How insane did he sound?

 

She sits up at that, “Enough, I think.” There's unmistakable hurt in her voice, and he feels a weight settle in his stomach at the thought that he's the cause. It turns into a knot as she sucks in a deep breath and he realises that just talking to him is something she needs to brace herself for. “I should go. It's late and today's been a long day.” She runs a hand through her hair, and avoids looking directly at him.

 

He notices for the first time how tired she seems, thinks about how unusual it is to find her asleep on his bed. “Are you okay? I mean, you're not, uh, hurt or brainwashed or anything?”

 

She gives him a small smile, still not making eye contact, as she puts on her shoes. “I'm fine. Hale and hearty. Fit as the proverbial fiddle, you might say.”

 

Her voice has that clipped, brittle quality it gets when she's nervous, or hurt, or making polite conversation with strangers. It makes his chest hurt that it's because of him, for one reason or another. “Jemma,” he starts.

 

“Fitz, it's fine. We'll talk tomorrow,” and before he can say anything more, she's gone and he's left with only the tea tray as proof that she was ever there.

 

“Well,” says her voice from behind him, “that was rather horrible. You should probably try not to talk to me when she's in the room.”