Fitz traces the grain of the table with his fingernail, trying to think of some neutral topic of conversation. Everything in his head is too big, too loaded, too much.
Everything had seemed so promising. Right after Skye and Mack left to take care of Coulson and the other TAHITI patients, he and Simmons had turned to each other and asked “Tea?” in unison. They'd grinned at each other, and, for a second, she'd looked like Jemma again, all eye-contact and no discomfort.
He thinks if he had a video camera, he would be able to isolate the exact frame when she remembered, because her face just fell, right before she forced it back under control – the perfect example of a stiff upper lip. Suddenly she was all forced jollity, her voice just a smidgen too high as she turned to lead the way to the kitchen.
So now, here they are, facing each other over a teapot, and heading into their third minute of oppressive silence.
Jemma keeps stirring her tea every ten seconds or so, even though she doesn't take sugar. Like she can't help herself.
“I hope Skye's okay,” she says, so suddenly that he only just manages not to jump.
He keeps looking at the table, because he knows what he'll see if he looks at her, and he's tired of the reminders of what he's lost. “She'll be fine. She's a badass field agent now,” he reminds her. “And she has Mack there for backup if she needs him.”
“Yes, well what?” he asks. And this time he does look up, because he knows he didn't mistake that tone, but needs to see if her face matches. It does – lips pursed and an expression of mingled defiance and condescension in her eyes. She looked the same way the first time they argued over bench-space in the lab at the Academy. (And okay, yes, she was right that time, he was using more than his share. By 7 millimetres, as it turned out when she finally forced him to measure it.) But he doesn't know what she thinks she's right about this time.
“Nothing really,” she says airily, and he just knows he's not going to like whatever comes next.
“It's just that Coulson would have had a much smaller head start if it weren't for Mack wasting his time playing video games instead of watching the Vault feed.”
He can feel himself gaping. Normally he'd be blaming the aphasia, but he's pretty sure that this time he's just the regular kind of speechless.
Jemma doesn't seem to notice, because she just carries right on. “And, really, how well do any of us know him, anyway?”
“Knowing someone doesn't guarantee anything.” He's quite proud of getting that sentence out without a single stutter or pause.
“Ward wasn't--” she starts, before he cuts her off.
“I wasn't talking about Ward.” Her face kind of crumples at his words, and he's less proud of himself now, because angry though he is with her in this moment (all the time), hurting her makes his stomach clench with guilt.
It's enough to remind him to take a moment. He closes his eyes and just breathes, letting go of the first thought that comes into his mind, the first thought that always comes into his mind
You left me.
And the second
And it was my own stupid fault.
When Fitz opens his eyes, Jemma's staring fixedly at her tea, although at least she's stopped bloody stirring it. The weight of things unsaid is suddenly too much to bear, so he retreats, and goes looking for biscuits.
The Custard Creams his Mum sent him last week are still where he hid them under the sink. Two things he's learned about Hunter in their short time working together:
1. He will steal any biscuits left in plain sight (or in a cupboard, or in a tub with a label stating they belong to Fitz). Unless they're Garibaldis. Fitz wishes he would steal those.
2. He never does the dishes, so has probably never looked under a sink in his life.
He busies himself putting a few on a plate, and decides to start small. “Mack's a good person, and he's my friend. You should give him a chance.”
She gives a mirthless laugh and mumbles something he doesn't quite catch. He carries the plate of biscuits back to the table and sits down again before asking, “What did you say?”
“I said,” she lifts her chin as if in defiance, “that you might try telling him the same thing about me.”
He offers her a biscuit and asks, genuinely confused, “What's that supposed to mean?” She waves the plate away, so he shrugs, takes a biscuit himself, and pops the whole thing in his mouth.
“Just that he made it quite clear how little he thought of me, when I went speak to him just after I got back. I wanted to thank him for helping you while I was away, and for being your friend.”
Fitz is rather glad he has his mouth full, because it gives him a moment to collect himself. He swallows hard, a sharp, unchewed corner scraping painfully down his throat.
“Because being my friend is such an imposition?” And over the sound of the blood rushing in his ears, over the sound of his pain and anger, there's a tiny triumphant voice. You were right, it says, she did leave because of you.
Jemma starts to protest, but he stops her with a wave of his hand, deliberately raising his voice to drown out whatever justification she's about to attempt. “No, really. If it's such a bloody chore to be my friend now, I'm surprised you're even talking to me.” He knows he's being unreasonable, but he can't seem to stop himself. The hurt that's been festering inside him all the months she's been gone, the paralysing fear he felt once he knew where she was and that she was in danger; it's all suddenly pouring out and he can't believe that less than ten minutes ago all they wanted was a cup of tea.
“Fitz, you know that's not what I meant.” She reaches across the table and places her hand over his. “I hate this – the way things are. I just want to fix us.”
“Do you? Or do you just want to fix me?” His voice sounds harsh, even to his own ears.
Jemma looks down, but doesn't reply, which, Fitz thinks, is probably answer enough. So he carries on, “You know one of the best things about Mack? He doesn't look at me like I'm broken. He wants me to get better for me, not because he can't deal with who I am now.” Deciding that he needs to stop now, before he makes this even worse than it already is, he gets up to leave.
The scraping of his chair startles her into raising her head, and one look at her face deflates his anger. There are tears streaming from her eyes, and he doesn't think he's ever seen her look more devastated, even when Skye was dying in front of their eyes. In an instant, she's Jemma again and before he's even aware of moving, he's by her side, gently pulling her out of her seat and into a hug.
It's like coming home.
They stand there long enough for her tears to soak through his cardigan and shirt to his skin – a cold, tangible reminder of the hurt he's caused – before he finds himself able to talk again. “You're my best friend, Jemma, and I've missed that, I've missed you more than...” he chokes back a sob of his own, “But I can't do this right now. If I try, I'm just going to say something that buggers it up completely.”
He feels Jemma nod against his shoulder, “Okay,” she says, and steps back. Before he can say any more, she's gone, and Fitz is alone again with cold tea and abandoned biscuits.