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please don't say you love me

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Jemma Simmons is eighteen years old when she meets Grant Ward. He's twenty-one and a tall, dark, and handsome mystery she's enthralled by. She's in her second year at The Academy and she's eager to make friends other than Fitz so when a group of fellow scientists invite her out, she decides to join them. Fake I.D. in hand, she's feeling less dangerous than she did when she accepted the invitation as she nurses her drink. She'd ordered whatever the other girls were drinking but she can't take a sip without wincing so she's just sitting at the bar, smiling and watching her friends shimmy playfully on the dance floor.

Just as soon as she's decided to hop off her bar stool and join her friends on the dance floor, she manages to bump into a very tall, very solid wall of mass and drop her drink. When the cold liquid hits the floor and splashes on her, she jumps and trips a little in her heels, belatedly realizing the wall was actually a man holding her up. Pushing her glasses up (they were an integral part of her cover but they kept slipping down and she was about ready to throw them in the nearest trash bin), she muttered a quick apology.

"You sure you weren't looking for a reason to get rid of that drink?" he asked, amusement clear in his eyes. His gorgeous eyes. She chuckles nervously as she realizes she’s been silent a moment too long. Before she can deny it, he gives her a small smile.

“I really am sorry, though,” she apologizes, wrinkling her nose at the liquid on the ground.

“Maybe now I can buy you a replacement - maybe even something you even like,” he says, giving her a half smile that Jemma’s pretty sure has her turning into a puddle.

“I’m not actually sure what I like,” she says, smiling shyly. “That was only my second time drinking.” She’s not quite sure what has her admitting it but looking up at him, she doesn’t see any judgement, just more amusement. She smiles more broadly back at him; she has a feeling he probably doesn’t smile that much from the way he’s continually only smiling with one side of his mouth and the fact that he’s giving her a full one makes her stomach flop.

“Ah, well that explains it,” he says, turning towards the bar. He shares a few quick words with the bartender and hands her a drink that looks less intimidating than the dark amber liquid she’d been sipping before. A sip confirms that it’s sweet and a little tart but more her taste and she hums her appreciation as she takes another sip.

“This is much better, thank you,” she says. She aims for flirtatious, the way she’s seen her colleagues do it since she was young, but she feels like she looks more like she has something in her eye than she’s batting her eyelashes.

Instead, he looks to be fighting off a laugh before he gives up and smiles. Leaning his back against the bar, he nods his head in her friends’ direction. “Looks like our friends are getting along.” Jemma looks over her shoulder and smiles at the sight. Lauren, the girl whose birthday they were celebrating, was currently being jokingly twirled around on the bar’s makeshift dance floor by what she assumed was the man’s friend.

They spend the night alternating between leaning against the bar watching their friends and being pulled into the mini dance party, small talk flowing between them easily. Jemma’s three drinks in, feeling happily buzzed for the first time in her life, and its this feeling that has her slipping a bar napkin in his hand before being pulled away by her friends.

———

For her 21st birthday, Jemma plans on doing the traditional American thing: cheap tequila with her best friends by her side. Of course, Lauren refuses to let her (and, by proxy, Fitz) plan anything for fear of their night turning into a bad sci-fi movie marathon so they end up at one of the posh new bars downtown. They enjoy the time together, sharing stories of their respective jobs and reveling in the little time they now get to spend together. They’re joined shortly thereafter by Lauren’s boyfriend - the same guy who’d picked Lauren up on her own birthday almost four years ago - and his friend. Jemma’s breath catches in her throat.

A couple months after Lauren and Trip began seeing each other, Jemma found out that Trip was also in the Academy - for Operations. Though SciOps and Operations usually had tense relations, Jemma was pleasantly surprised by Trip; he was unlike anything they’d heard about. Calm, cool, and always in a good mood, Jemma adored the man and the way he adored one of her closest friends. She’d also found out that the handsome stranger she’d spoken with that night was also an Operations student, but he’d been on his way to graduating - top of his class, apparently - and about to be assigned to an elite strike team.

“Jemma! Happy birthday, babe,” Trip says, giving her a hug.

“Thanks, Trip,” she says, beaming back up at him. “How was…where did you go again, exactly?”

Trip laughs and shakes his head. “Since it’s above your clearance level, let’s just say I had a nice, moderately relaxing trip to the midwest.” Lauren tuts disapprovingly as she glares pointedly at the butterfly bandage on his eyebrow. “Oh, and I hope you don’t mind, but I brought along a buddy. You two know each other, right?”

Jemma finally manages to make eye contact with her handsome stranger. “Yes, hello. How are you?”

He gives her a small smile. “I’m good. Sorry to crash, didn’t realize it was a birthday celebration…Trip just said it was dinner with some old Academy buddies.”

She tries not to let her smile diminish at his apparent disapproval of being here. “It’s absolutely fine. The more the merrier, right?”

“Yes and since we’re here to celebrate you, Jemma, let’s get this started. I’ll be nice - unlike the way you were on my own twenty-first - and start you off with a classic: tequila,” Fitz announced from her side, giving her a cheeky smile. “Cheers!”

Jemma shook her head but threw the shot back and decided to ignore the sinking feeling in her stomach at the idea of tall, dark, and handsome not wanting to be here. She was determined to celebrate her birthday in the best way possible: in the company of friends she loved.

Of course, three hours later, the group is nothing more than a giggling mess (except for Trip’s friend, of course, who spends the night practically nursing a whisky on the rocks) and she’s feeling extra happy tonight as she throws her arms around the neck of her favorite people as she bids them farewell. Fitz is pulling up a taxi for the two of them to head back to their apartment and she’s left staring awkwardly at Ward (she still wasn’t quite sure if that was his first or last name but it was much better than not knowing what to call him at all) before she decides to just do it. She’s surprised when his arms slip around her waist after half a second's hesitation and he breathes a “happy birthday, Jemma” into her ear. She pulls away, feeling oddly light and glances over her shoulder once more, biting her lip and waving when she notices him still staring after her.

Twenty-one was going to be a good year.

———

When Jemma is twenty-two, she runs into Ward again, still as unprepared as ever. She’s attending a conference in town (undercover? She’s not really sure because she’d planned on attending regardless but two days ago she was pulled into a briefing and given a rundown of why SHIELD needed her there) on biochemistry and while she’d usually enjoy mingling with her fellow colleagues, she was missing Fitz by her side dreadfully. They’d met at one of these things right before her eighteenth birthday and had been inseparable ever since (even if the first several months of their friendship was intense competition) so being here without him was frustrating her, even if she knew he wasn’t as happy to go out into the field as she was.

So, instead of talking with people who were too busy bragging about their research and their comfortable lives they got to live at their plush houses with their bustling families, Jemma sat at the bar and swirled her glass of complementary champagne, waiting for the agent that was supposed to be joining her. She didn’t really know anything about him other than the fact that he was one of the best specialists in the field right now and was there to help her extract some very sensitive information about a potentially deadly virus one of the speakers was “researching.” Taking a sip, she hummed happily as the bubbles tickled her throat and decided she could at least enjoy one conversation before she got stuck talking to a probably boring agent.

“Glad to see you’ve learned what you like.” Of course, the sound of the voice behind her - that voice - makes her choke slightly on her champagne but she tries to play it off as a cough; she’s happy when he gives her that damn half smile again that has her fluttering the same way it did when she was seventeen.

“You’re the specialist?” She scrunches up her nose immediately, wishing she’d been smoother. “Not that I’m bothered by it at all; Trip has told me so much about you and I was told that you were one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s best but -“

She stops when she becomes painfully aware of how close he’s gotten to her and she looks up from the spot on his chest she’d somehow become focused on to stare into those eyes. “Please stop talking,” he demands gently and she nods curtly.

“I’m sorry; I have a terrible brain-to-mouth filter sometimes,” she says, turning back to bar when he steps to her side.

“You just can’t be too careful, even here. Especially here,” he says, shrugging and placing an order with the bartender. She knows his drink is more for show than anything but she still playfully clinks her glass with his, taking a sip to make sure her mouth doesn’t spill out any more of her secrets.

“So…what’s the plan?”

He turns around to lean back on the bar and scoots a little closer to her, forcing Jemma to stare down into her drink so she doesn’t continue her habit of spilling them on him. “Obviously, we’re engaged,” he says, pointing at the glittering ring on her finger that was meant to explain the presence of a male that wasn’t Fitz or a scientist. “We’ll make the rounds for a little bit, thirty, maybe 45 minutes. Then, once we’ve shown face, we’re to sneak off and from there, the rest is above your clearance level.”

She looks up at him and frowns; she doesn’t mind not knowing the rest of the plan but she needs a little more to work with than the fact that they’re just engaged.

“Stop worrying,” he tells her, turning around and putting his hand on the small of her back. “Trip has already informed me of how terrible of a liar you are so just let me handle the backstory and I’ll let you handle the science talk.”

She wants to laugh but the fact that he talked with Trip about her coupled with his hand on her back and his breath on her shoulder is making breathing a little harder than she anticipated. Instead, she knocks back the glass of champagne, orders another, and snakes her hand through his elbow, determined to prove Trip wrong.

They spend the next 35 minutes talking with guests and Jemma’s surprised by how easily it comes to pretend to be with him. He keeps their story pretty close to their actual one and Jemma’s surprised every time by how much he remembers of their first encounter. The bar, the spilled drink, the friends that kept pushing them together. She’s flattered by how infatuated with her he sounds and she lets herself get comfortable with being with him.

Unfortunately, the time comes for them to slip off and she’s glad she can focus on something else than the champagne and his hand touching her everywhere. He swings by the bar and grabs a bottle of champagne, throwing a wink at her over his shoulder and they disappear down a hallway, his hand dangerously low on her back. When they’re out of sight, he hands her the bottle and she leans against a wall, cradling it while he plus out a key card to open the door. They slip into the room and he makes quick work of plugging something into a computer. Jemma leans against the door, halfway listening to make sure no one tries to barge in but mostly trying not to stare at Ward. He’s got a pair of glasses on that makes Jemma want to make a Superman joke but she’s just about to open her mouth when he shuts the computer and slides a thumb drive into his pants pocket and smiles up at her.

His hand makes it’s way back down to the small of her back and she never wished the champagne was open more than she does right now.

She’s proven wrong when he’s pushing her against the wall and pressing himself close thirty seconds later. She thinks she hears him mutter an apology but she doesn’t have time to dwell on it when his lips are on hers and his left hand is cupping her face while his right gingerly trails down her side, past her hip and hitches her leg up to situate himself against her a little better. The moment is broken when she hears a cough from her right and he (reluctantly? She can’t be sure but the little grunt he gives sounds too genuine to be part of his cover) pulls himself away just the slightest bit, smiling sheepishly up at the guards.

Jemma tries not to let the disappointment show when she realizes that this was just a ploy for him, a means to get them cover and give them a reason for being in this wing of the hotel but she’s always worn her heart on her sleeve and she’s pretty sure he didn’t become best of the best by not being able to read people. “I’m sorry -“

“Oh, stop,” she says, brushing off his apology as they head down the hallway. His arm is around her waist, holding her close in case the guards are following and she’s trying to keep her head on straight. “It’s not like it was a bad kiss.”

At that, he chuckles and Jemma counts it as a small victory. “No, that it was not.”

She feels a fierce blush creeping on to her cheeks so she just glances down at the floor and smiles. “So,” she says, eager to change the conversation now that they’ve finally made it to the lobby. “You know my name. Well, I’m sure you know more than my name since you probably had to be briefed on me before this mission but I don’t know anything about you other than the fact that you’re Trip’s silent and brooding best friend. I don’t even know your name!”

He glances at her thoughtfully, eyebrows crinkling and he’s shaking his head and chuckling again. “No, I suppose you don’t. Can you believe we’ve known each other for…what? Four years now?”

Jemma just quirks a brow. “I’m starting to think you don’t want me to know your name.”

He gives her a look that she can’t quite decipher because there’s definitely no way he’s eyeing her up and down like he wants her. “Grant. I’m Grant.”

“Grant Ward,” she repeats, humming contentedly. Simple but firm, much like him. “I like it; it suits you,” she says, and hopes her internal grimace at how terrible that sounded doesn’t make a visible appearance.

———

She throws herself from a plane when she’s twenty-five and she’s not quite sure but she’s pretty positive she’s never been more grateful for anyone than she’s ever been for Fitz’s never-wavering faith in her or Grant’s act-then-think policy when he jumps out after her. The minute she and Grant hit the icy water, she slips from his grasp but struggles to untangle herself from the ropes threatening to pull her further down. Miraculously, a second thing explodes from the backpack in Grant’s hands and she’s hoisting herself up onto a raft and pulling him in after.

He looks like he’s about to start yelling at her but she just throws herself at him, gripping his neck and crawling into his lap and shuddering into his neck. She’s so happy to be alive and she’s so grateful that the serum worked and she can’t believe that he jumped out after her and even though she can tell he’s stiff beneath her, she doesn’t let go. Eventually, he relaxes and wraps his arms around her so tight, whispering words that sound suspiciously like i’m glad you’re okay and don’t you ever do that to me again and i don’t know what i’d do but now is not the time for her silly crush to be rearing it’s ugly head so she just tightens her grip and waits for someone to come and save them.

When they finally make it back to the Bus, Jemma’s no longer shaking but Grant can’t help but notice the way that every small bump from turbulence makes her jump. He catches up to her on her way out of Fitz’s bunker and follows her to Coulson’s office (he’s not sure what the older man says because he’s too busy making sure a petite Brit doesn’t collapse in front of him) and trails behind her when they walk back to the kitchen.

He can’t help but want to cheer her up so he breaks his normally stoic character to mock the impression of him he caught her doing earlier and smiles when she laughs and corrects him. He wants to say he’s surprised at how she’s bouncing back but she’s always been such a fucking ray of sunshine since he met her almost eight years ago and he’s pretty positive he’d do anything to keep it that way.

So, he leads her to the bar and reaches behind it to pull out a bottle of whisky and laughs when she crinkles her nose the same way she did when she was eighteen and trying to fit in with her academy friends. He goes to grab a second bottle but her hand on his arm stops him and she just smiles sadly and shakes her head.

“I think some of the hard stuff would be better tonight,” she says. She’s so quiet and sounds so small that Grant feels himself crinkling his brow but he pours them two fingers each and she clinks her glass against his the way she did at that convention and throws it back in one quick motion. She crinkles her nose but she grabs the bottle, pours herself another glass and looks at him with a challenge in her eyes. “Don’t tell me you’ve gone weak on me, Ward.”

He laughs, thinking back to that first meeting when he’d mocked her for just going with what everyone else wanted instead of trying to create her own tastes. This is not the same girl but she’s staring at him with the same fire in her eyes and he can’t back down. “Is that a challenge, Simmons?”

“What, the great Grant Ward can jump out of a plane with no parachute but he can’t beat a Brit in a drinking contest?” She scoffs loudly and throws her second drink back with little effort. He shakes his head, throws his own back, and uses the gentle burn to clear his mind.

An hour later, the bottle’s gone and Simmons is leaning against the wall between their bunkers. She reaches out and places her hand on his arm and she’s so close but he knows better. He knows that getting involved with someone on this plane would lead to nothing but trouble but she’s turned around and is walking away and apparently he doesn’t know better because he’s reaching out himself, grabbing her wrist. She closes the distance, crashing her lips against his.

(He blames that same harsh burn when he’s got Simmons writhing underneath him, her fists clenching in his hair and her bedsheets. He blames the burn because this can never happen again and she’s too good for him so he memorizes the way her hair fans out in a sharp contrast of her pastel blue sheets and the way she bits her lip when she’s close, so close. He paints her with kisses down her skin, smooth and unscarred, unlike his own. He blames the burn when, after he’s followed her off the edge, they spend a while just kissing and whispering and laughing and feeling happier than he’s ever felt in his life.)

———

When Jemma Simmons turns 27, she’s not quite sure how things came crashing down so fast. Instead of spending her birthday vacationing in an Italian villa like she’d been dreaming of, she’s undercover at some fancy hotel in Spain, trying to be a distraction for some…henchman or something. In her defense, he’d been plying her with drinks and while Jemma knows drinking on the job is not okay, it’s hardly like Elsa feels the same way. After all, tomorrow marks the one year anniversary of her One True Love dying and she’s not exactly in the right state of mind.

So, when the (mildly handsome - oh bloody hell, did she have a type?) man she’s supposedly distracting asks her to grab another round for them at the bar, far be it from her to say no.

“A car crash? Couldn’t have been something more dramatic?” The voice in her ear isn’t nearly as familiar as the hand currently resting on the small of her (bare) back and she wishes she had easier access to her gun. Side stepping out of his reach, she looks over her shoulder to see if she’s being watched but they’re gratefully hidden in the small crowd.

Jemma,” a panicked voice rings in her ear. “Is that Ward?

“Although, I must say, while your stories haven’t necessarily gotten any less complicated, you certainly have gotten better undercover. I almost didn’t recognize you.” He grabs the extra drink Jemma ordered and casually takes a sip, leaning sideways against the bar.

Jemma!” Fitz almost screams. “Jemma, are you okay?

“What are you doing here?” She’s happy that she comes out as angry as she knows she should be, even if she feels her heart rate picking up in the warning signs of an incoming panic attack.

Simmons, if that’s Ward, you need to le-" Ward pulls the comm out of her ear smoothly and drops it in her still full glass.

“We’re here for what your date knows, same as you are. Only, we might be a little better at getting it than you are.” He smiles and it chills Jemma down to her very core. Turning slightly, she can see Agent 33 (without her May mask on, thank God) running a hand down the arm of the man Jemma had been sitting in the lap of earlier. She can also see Trip fighting the urge to come over to her defense and instantly feels safer knowing he's within shouting distance.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you,” he says, softer this time. He’s got a strand of her hair in his fingers and he’s looking at it distractedly. Jemma reaches up and tucks the strand behind her ear, her annoyance flaring up at the nickname being fueled by her heart cracking just a little with his false tenderness.

“Don’t call me that,” she spits out, taking a small step back. “You lost that right when you dumped me and Fitz out of a bloody plane.

His trance seems to break with that and the vitriol returns to his eyes. “Would you rather me have put a bullet through your heads? Because that’s what Garrett wanted me to do.”

“Since when has Grant Ward cared about what anybody else wants?” She knows her voice is getting dangerously high and her target is currently being fondled (and in public, really? Did she have no boundaries?) and taken away from her but the alcohol in her blood is fueling her rage.

He clenches his jaw and Jemma knows she’s getting to him too. She feels bad (and hates it). “Did you mean it?”

They both know what she’s talking about, even if she’s never told anyone else. The ring she’d found stashed in his drawers (along with the paper napkin she'd slipped him their first night meeting with her name and phone number on it) is still hiding at the bottom of one of hers.

“Yes.” One word is all it takes for Jemma to come crumbling down.

Unfortunately, Ward’s own mission of distracting Jemma seems to be done as he stoically turns from the bar and takes three steps forward before stopping and turning his head slightly.

“All of it. Happy birthday, Jem.”

Then he’s gone.