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Three owls, half a dozen insects, and a variety of mid-sized birds and mammals made up the dæmons of SHIELD Academy’s Fall 2003 orientation class for the Science and Technology Division, and Jemma Simmons couldn’t be more bored with the lot. Her lion dæmon, Caedmon, was stretched alongside her desk with his head on his paws, attempting to look as nonthreatening as possible. Although he was slimmer and more compact than true Saharan lions, he made an intimidating first impression nonetheless. Jemma’s own disinterest in her current peers aside, the two of them had agreed to try not to actively alienate anyone on the first day. Perhaps she’d be surprised, she thought to herself, smiling politely as she met the eyes of an older girl with a blue jay perched on her shoulder.

The problem was that Jemma had arrived at the lecture hall early, and having overheard most of the others’ conversations, she was thoroughly unimpressed. Even without having looked at their work, she could already tell that she was at least a year or two ahead of the others in her studies – none of them could possibly be as close to their second PhD as she – and much of their conversation was simply vapid. Despite her youth when compared to every other student, the prodigies around her seemed very immature. She’d awoken that day with a bright smile and hoping with every cell of her body that she’d finally find herself among peers to whom she could relate. So far, she hadn’t found one.

A fox and a hound gamboled down the stairs just a foot away from Caedmon, flinched in surprise when they caught his unwavering stare, and then sprinted back to their humans as fast as they could move. He turned his head towards Jemma, a distinctly wry expression hovering around his large, golden eyes. Sighing, she let her lips quirk up at the corner. As much as she loved her dæmon, him settling as such a large creature certainly had its drawbacks. Three years on, at least she’d managed to stop taking it personally when people avoided the two of them on sidewalks or in hallways.

Tapping a pencil against the crisp first page of her brand new notebook, she glanced up at the students still streaming through the door. To her surprise, within that group was a boy with curly, dirty blond hair who looked to be about her age – that is, at least three or four years younger than everyone else in the room. He was quite handsome, she noted as he shuffled closer, with a defined jaw and symmetrical features, although he was also rather skinny and pasty. 

“Caed,” she whispered, nudging his hind leg and nodding towards the front of the room.

At just that moment, the boy and his chimp dæmon both noticed the lion in the aisle, and their mouths dropped open in an amusingly similar expression. The boy glanced up, searching for the dæmon’s owner, and Jemma’s cheeks warmed instantly as she met his eyes, a clear, bright blue even in the dim lecture hall. Looking down as quickly as possible so that he wouldn’t think she’d been staring, she let her hair fall in a half-curtain over her face. Whether or not they might ever be friendly depended on how he reacted now, because there was no doubt as to whom the lion belonged – the other cadets had left her and Caedmon a wide berth.

“A lion dæmon,” came a distinctly Scottish female voice, barely audible under the crowd, and Jemma flicked her eyes up and then down again to ascertain that it did indeed belong to the boy’s chimp. Shifting so that she could keep them in her periphery, she couldn’t stop her smile at the way the chimp was tugging at his hand.

“Yeah, alright,” he muttered in response, shifting his rucksack higher on his shoulder and waiting for the group of stagnant students in front of him to move. 

“No,” his dæmon insisted excitedly, loudly enough that a few other students nearby turned their heads. “But a lion, Fitz –!”

“Yeah, I know,” he hissed down at her, a distinct flush working up his neck. “Shut up!” Finally able to edge around the crowd, he tugged at his dæmon’s hand, and she shifted mid-step into a capuchin, climbing smoothly onto his shoulder and twisting around to keep her gaze on Caedmon. 

Jemma couldn’t even attempt to disguise the shock on her face, and Caedmon lifted his head up from his paws to watch them find a seat. “Caed....”

“She’s not settled,” he finished for her, voice low enough that the others couldn’t hear. 

“But they can’t be –” 

“Younger than us, no.”

“How fascinating,” Jemma breathed, watching this Fitz slouch into a desk at the other end of their row. She wouldn’t know until later whether or not he was deserving of the PhD he must hold in order to have been accepted by the Academy, but his dæmon not having settled was certainly worth her attention.

 

------

 

The more Jemma heard Fitz speak, the more interesting she found him. Leopold Fitz was his full name, but every time the orientation director called him “Leo” he cringed, and since “Fitz” was what she’d heard his dæmon use, so would she. (In her head, at least, since they had yet to speak.) His dæmon’s name was Sarama, they were from Glasgow, and they’d just turned sixteen. A part of her thought about taking notes on him to refer back to later when she quizzed him (as congenially as possible) about why his dæmon hadn’t yet settled, but then she caught Caedmon giving her one of his looks and she resisted the urge.

Although the orientation program itself was stultifying, it did prove that Fitz was most certainly a genius – just like her. The program involved playing a sort of advanced science quiz, which was largely asinine and rarely enlightening. An icebreaker, the bespectacled agent at the whiteboard had called it, and Jemma bit back the urge to scoff. Fitz rarely volunteered to answer himself, but when he was called upon not only did he inevitably blow the question out of the water, he also did so in a matter-of-fact manner that she found infinitely appealing. In fact, she found herself raising her hand more and more often, just to make sure that her own intellectual prowess didn’t seem lacking when she went to talk to him later. A few times during the morning, she thought she felt someone’s eyes on her, but every time she glanced in that direction all she ever saw was Sarama grooming her tail (having at some point changed into a ring-tailed lemur) and Fitz writing furiously in his red-covered notebook. He barely looked up from the spiral-bound book, actually, even when he was being asked a question. 

At long last the program concluded, leaving everyone a few minutes of freedom before the scheduled lunchtime. Running her fingers through her hair and waiting for the press of students to pass, Jemma tried to think of what she should say to catch Fitz’s attention now. His dæmon had clearly been interested in Caedmon – maybe she should just have him start the conversation.

Satisfied that her appearance was up to snuff, she straightened her shoulders and settled a warm smile on her face to stop him. Then a flash of bright green plaid passed by her table, and before she could even open her mouth Fitz was already through the door, Sarama clinging to his neck and craning her head back around above the crowd.

“Faster than he looks,” Caedmon muttered, a distinct note of disappointment in his voice.

“I suppose....” Jemma sighed and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Oh well. Never mind, then.” 

As she bent over to retrieve her bag, however, she noticed a piece of lined paper had been tossed onto her desk. Not seeing anyone near enough now to have put it there, she unfolded it to reveal a short note written above a collection of equations.

From L. Fitz – These might help.

To her absolute indignation, he’d copied down and corrected a handful of the answers she’d given during the quiz.

“The nerve,” she breathed, a blush blooming on her cheeks as she held the note up to Cademon.

“He’s right,” he said simply, brow wrinkling as he worked through the suggested solutions. 

“That’s not the point!” Jemma let out a huff, shoved the note into her leather satchel, and stomped towards the door, with Caedmon padding closely behind. “He just – ugh! I gave some brilliant answers, too, you know –” 

“Yeah,” Caedmon replied unconcernedly, ducking his head in a rather doglike way when someone practically flattened themselves against the wall to avoid him. “But so did he. He’s definitely the smartest person here.” 

Fuming, Jemma folded her arms across her stomach. “Well, fine. I suppose we won’t be friends with them after all.”

Caedmon exhaled and shook his mane out. “Why not?”

“He clearly only wants to beat me because we’re both the youngest here,” she explained, holding open the door to the quad and letting the lion slink out first. “So if Leopold Fitz wants a rival, now he’s got one.”

A low groan echoed from Caedmon’s chest, startling a nearby girl and her beagle dæmon so badly that they almost tripped down the stairs. Jemma chose to ignore her dæmon's annoyance; the note had been written plainly enough. Only a fool would think that Fitz wanted to befriend her after that.

 

------

 

Jemma and Caedmon’s first two months at the Academy sped quickly by, and before long, the semester was halfway over. Aside from spending all her spare time working on completing her second doctorate, she put a considerable amount of energy into besting Fitz in every class they had together – which was three out of four. She only managed to do so eighty-eight percent of the time, according to her calculations and much to her chagrin, and even when she did he tended to wear this smug little grin that just drove her up the wall. Her dæmon insisted that it wasn’t smug, but she knew better; she could practically hear Fitz thinking up ways to beat her from across the room. When they weren’t actively competing, he continued to ignore her, normally keeping his head bowed and often scribbling in his notebook. (Whatever he was writing, it wasn’t class notes – she’d caught a glimpse on her way to the bathroom once, and although she hadn’t been able to decipher much, she could tell it wasn’t about the lecture.) 

Outside of class, Jemma found life at the Academy rather lonelier than she’d been expecting. Her misgivings about the intelligence and maturity of some of her classmates aside, she did want friends. As much as she loved Caedmon, he wasn’t quite enough for her in terms of companionship. Unfortunately, the other cadets continued to be leery of him, and that made it difficult to talk to almost anyone. Even her attempts to be doubly cheerful to make up for his intimidating appearance didn’t help. 

For his part, Caedmon continued to be generally disinterested in any of the other humans or dæmons on campus, as he always had been. Except, that is, for Sarama, and by extension Fitz.

This continued to confuse Jemma: Even if she was fairly certain that Fitz was the most intelligent person on campus (rivalry aside), she and Caedmon had been known to disagree about people before. So the fact that they both seemed to agree about the intrigue of the Scottish engineering student whose dæmon hadn’t settled was a little odd. And it was made even more so by the fact that Jemma was certain that Fitz hated her, and Caedmon was convinced that he didn’t.

One afternoon, Jemma was trying to look busy during their advanced coding seminar while she was really thinking up the best way to show Fitz up with her midterm exam score without looking like she was bragging. (It would be a fine line, but she had complete faith in her abilities if she gave herself enough time to prepare.) The class was supposed to be working on an exercise that she’d finished three days ago, and she was fairly certain that Fitz was also already done. He’d had his head bent over his usual red notebook for the past ten minutes, scribbling away and not looking in her direction once. Sarama, however, noticed Jemma’s gaze, blinking back at her out of a tamarind’s face. 

Flushing, Jemma looked down at her keyboard and hoped that the dæmon wouldn’t say anything to her human – the last thing she needed was for her rival to know that she’d been staring at him. Out of her peripheral vision, Jemma saw the monkey hop off the table, drawing Fitz’s gaze away from his notes. 

“You’re a lion,” the small, Scottish monkey breathed, and Jemma craned her head to see that Sarama was talking to Caedmon. Even though he was small for his breed, the lion still towered over the monkey while lying down, creating quite the unusual scene.

Sarama,” Fitz hissed, glancing fearfully up at Jemma and then back at his dæmon. “Get back –”

“That’s really amazing,” Sarama said, voice a little stronger as she ignored her human. “Always wanted to see one of them in the wild, y’know.”

To Jemma’s utter befuddlement, Caedmon smiled back at the monkey. He even remembered to use his new, non-threatening smile – the one where he carefully didn’t bare his teeth lest he frighten the person and dæmon to whom they were speaking. (Although they’d settled almost three years ago, remembering to be as un-leonine as possible did not come naturally to him.)

“You haven’t settled,” Caedmon said at last, voice rumbling quietly under the classroom’s hum of chatter. As he stretched one paw lazily in front of himself, Sarama eyes were drawn to the claws that flexed out of his fur. Instead of being frightened, though, she simply scooted closer.

Remembering his question, she just shrugged and continued to peer at his paw. “Not ready yet. Too many monkeys to try out.”

Caedmon chuckled, and then reached forward to gently bat at her tail. Her eyes flew up to his, but the moment she read the playful expression on his face she relaxed, flicking it out of his reach. Shuffling forward again, Sarama reached timidly forward to curl one small hand around a bared talon, face lighting up in pure joy as he let her examine it.

Jemma couldn’t believe her eyes, and judging by the near-fuchsia hue of Fitz’s face neither could he. Not only was Caedmon being actively friendly towards another dæmon – which was bizarre in and of itself – he was befriending the dæmon of Jemma’s sworn rival. Of all the dæmons he could have decided to be interested in, it had to be Fitz’s! The two of them clearly needed to have a talk about Caedmon’s priorities.

Evidently sensing her gaze, Fitz glanced up from their dæmons, blue eyes widening as they met hers. His mouth dropped open, and for a second Jemma thought he was actually going to speak to her... and then the bell rang, and the professor began reciting instructions for their homework.

In two seconds flat, Fitz dumped his notebook and pen in his knapsack, leapt out of his chair, and strode over to sweep Sarama off the ground and into his arms. As they stalled behind the students already crowding around the door, Jemma could just barely hear them.

“I cannot believe you,” Fitz said, voice unsteady as he bounced on his feet, looking for a way through the other cadets. 

“Oh c’mon,” Sarama groaned, clambering up to his shoulders and gripping onto his curls for balance. “It’s been weeks!”

“I’m not ready yet, alright, I just need to think of the right....” And then they were gone, having pushed through the other students and escaped into the hallway.

No longer preoccupied by Fitz’s clear distress, Jemma rounded on her own dæmon. “What the bloody hell was that, Caedmon?” 

Stretching up into a sitting position, he tilted his head in mock confusion. “I thought you wanted friends.”

Jemma let out a tsk of annoyance, grabbing her satchel and hugging it to her chest as they waited in the line to exit the computer lab. “Do we need to review the definition of ‘rivals,’ Caed? Rivals. And rivals do not become friends!”

“I don’t think that part’s in the dictionary,” he replied blithely, and she gave very serious thought to suggesting he sleep outside for the night.

 

------

 

“Fitz – Simmons!”

Jemma could barely contain her groan when their chemistry professor called out her new lab partner. The class had been preparing to separate into partners for a week, and she’d been worrying about who she’d get; of course, her luck had been predictably awful. A month had passed since her dæmon had turned traitor and befriended Fitz’s dæmon, and Fitz seemed no happier about it than Jemma herself. When she glanced over at him, she noticed the distinctive slump to his shoulders and clenched her jaw. Just because they had to work together didn’t mean they had to like each other – they just had to get along well enough that they bested everyone else in the class. Presumably he would at least understand that. 

As she gathered her things, Caedmon gave her a smug look from where he was already sitting next to Sarama, who was currently in the form of an orangutan. The two dæmons had begun spending most of their class time together, much to Jemma’s chagrin and Caedmon’s amusement. Apparently they didn’t talk much, since that would be considered disruptive, but that didn’t dissuade them from gravitating towards each other at every opportunity. 

Plastering a smile on her face, Jemma climbed into the high stool next to Fitz and laid her pile of books on the table. 

“Hi, Fitz,” she tried, noting that he was already busily jotting down ideas about the project for which they’d been partnered. He spared her a brief hum of acknowledgement, flicked his eyes up to hers, and then returned to scribbling his notes.

With a wry little tilt of her head, Jemma swiveled forward on her chair and flipped open her notebook. This was going to go well.

Chapter Text

In no universe would anyone think that Jemma’s partnership with Fitz was going well.

Throughout their first week working together, he’d managed to avoid speaking to her at all, communicating via notes and gestures. She felt like she was following him around whenever she approached him about their project outside of class, but since he continued to avoid her it was her only option. The most vexing thing about the whole situation was that he didn’t seem to have a problem with talking to anyone else. He would correct other students or answer the professor’s questions without pause, but the second she spoke to him he would practically recoil from her presence. If it weren’t for the fact that she saw him interact perfectly normally with other people on a regular basis, she might think he had a speech impediment. Jemma had no idea what she’d done to make him hate her so, but it was patently obvious that he couldn’t stand to be around his only rival in their cadet class.

“He doesn’t hate you,” Caedmon griped for the hundredth time, padding alongside her on the grassy quad.

Squinting in the late autumn sunset, Jemma hugged her notebooks closer to her chest. The hour wasn’t yet late enough for the light to be shielded by the Academy’s square, beige buildings. “You’re deluded, Caed, and I’m beginning to wonder –”

“Need I remind you that we’re the same person?” He gave her a pointed look and shook his light-scattered mane for emphasis. “Somewhere inside you agree with me –”

“Ugh!” She threw up her hands, nearly losing her books in the process. “I have an insane dæmon and a mute lab partner – I can’t believe I thought I’d feel more normal at the Academy....”

Loud jeering echoed from a mid-building passageway on the right, and she trailed off, slowing to see the commotion. At the other end of the path, thrown in deep shadows by the stark sunlight, she could just barely make out Fitz’s distinctive profile making a hasty retreat. A great ape loped by his side, shifting swiftly into a capuchin and clambering up around his neck to help speed up their escape.

Jemma eyed a group of three older cadets, from either spec-ops or communications, gathered in the distance between her and Fitz. A nearby building’s dark shadow made it hard to see, but she was able to determine that at least one had a bird dæmon, and the other two had medium-sized mammals.

“Holy fuck,” one goon cackled, slapping his friend on the back. One of the four-legged dæmons wound around his stocky legs, seeming unnaturally graceful next to someone of such lumbering size. “Sci-Tech cadets are so weird!”

“Nah man, they’re not all like that,” his friend answered, pushing his friend’s arm away and straightening his jacket. The way he stood, shoulders back and head tilted, made him seem somehow predatory, as if he was the leader. His bird dæmon was perched on his shoulder, unmoved by the others’ amusement. “Like, there’s something wrong with him, with his dæmon.” 

“I’ve never seen someone at the Academy who hasn’t settled,” the third one added, hands shoved passively in his pockets and voice laden with disgust. He was shorter than the other two, his dæmon pacing anxiously by his feet. “Never heard of one, either.”

“Maybe he, like....” Although Jemma could barely see them in the shade, she could see the stocky one make a quick wanking gesture by his crotch.

The other two stared at him in silence for a few seconds, and the one with the bird dæmon gave his head a brief shake. “He... jacks off? What the fuck, man?”

“No,” the first one said. “Like – if his shit works. ‘Cause like, dæmons settle at puberty, right? So maybe....” 

“Dude,” the one with the nervous dæmon groaned. “Please tell me you know that your dick isn’t connected to your dæmon settling.”

“I don’t fuckin’ know, man, I’ve never seen anyone older’n fourteen whose dæmon still shifts! It’s fuckin’ weird.”

“And he didn’t even say anything,” the leader mused, crossing his arms. “He just ran away. What a little bitch.”

A sonorous roar echoed through the passageway, and, her own heart pounding out of rage and pity, Jemma turned to see Caedmon striding towards the three bullies. His fur was standing on end, and she could see from the roll of his shoulders that all of his muscles were tensed. Before she could think clearly about what he was doing, her dæmon sped into a gallop, growling viciously as he closed in on his targets. The three cadets scrambled backwards, but the leader tripped and landed hard on his back, head cracking nastily against the hard, dry dirt. 

As Jemma realized what was happening, she screamed out: “Caed! No!” Ignoring her, her dæmon leapt forward so that he was looming over the fallen cadet. 

Puffs of dirt fanned up as his large paws landed on either side of the boy, carefully avoiding touching him but close enough that his heavy pants feathered the ends of his hair. The other two froze a few feet away, their dæmons at their feet and the bird dæmon hopping from foot to foot nearby, wings splayed wide in a move intended to be intimidating but only making him seem scared. Jemma had no idea what to do – she’d never heard of a dæmon attacking a person before when it wasn’t in self-defense (of themselves or their human). Caedmon stared long and hard at the cadet, never taking his eyes off the boy’s face. Stunned silence permeated the alleyway.

“Caedmon,” Jemma hissed, taking two hesitant steps forward. “Come back here.”

Another few tense seconds passed. Leaves skittered past her red Cons on the concrete. 

Finally, Caedmon let out a large huff and strode smoothly over the boy, giving the others a quick glare before trotting back to Jemma’s side. Frightened about being near these older, angry, and male cadets any longer, she dug her fingers into his mane and sped off down the path, hoping that they wouldn’t follow her to her dorm. 

Although Jemma was angry and shocked by her dæmon’s behavior, a very small part of her couldn’t help but feel that the bully had gotten exactly what he’d deserved.

 

------

 

It was nine in the morning, and Jemma was trying desperately not to cry. She’d been woken by a call from Dean Anne Weaver’s office, requesting her presence as soon as possible. Having sped over as soon as she could shower and dress, she was dismayed to learn that the cadet Caedmon had almost attacked the day before had reported her to the administration. Fortunately, Dean Weaver had been the one to recruit Jemma for SHIELD in the first place, so expulsion seemed unlikely. 

“I just don’t understand, Doctor Simmons,” Weaver sighed, scrutinizing her across the wide, mahogany expanse of her desk. “You’re such a level-headed girl for your age, and Caedmon has always seemed so docile.” Clasping her hands under her chin, the dean leaned forward as Jemma dropped her eyes. The dean’s dæmon, a great horned owl, tilted his head from his perch on the back of his human’s chair.

Dean Weaver was one of the youngest agents ever hired to the Academy’s administration, apparently having a knack for spotting the good and bad seeds for the science and technical divisions. As such, Jemma had been exceptionally eager to prove that Weaver’s faith in her abilities (and recruitment despite her own youth) was well deserved. She was distraught at having failed her mentor so utterly, and at something that wasn’t even academia related. Rule-breaking of any kind had always been abhorrent in her eyes, so to have disappointed someone that she so admired made her nauseous.

“You’re very lucky Heywood’s not pressing charges,” Weaver continued at last, reaching over to pick up her flip phone and glance at the read-out. “I’ll let you off with a warning this time – especially because I fear the infamy you’ve gained will be punishment enough. Keep your head down for a few days.” 

Nodding tearfully, Jemma unfolded herself from her chair and picked up her royal blue satchel. “Thank you Dean Weaver,” she whispered, voice somewhat hoarse from trying not to cry, and escaped without meeting the dean’s eyes. Padding beside his human, Caedmon’s head and tail drooped towards the ground; she knew she wouldn’t have to reprimand him again.

Their morning class passed without incident, and, although she was still smarting from having been called to the dean’s office, Jemma felt much better by the time lunch rolled around. Although she gave thought to the dean’s warning to lie low, she convinced herself to eat lunch in the cafeteria.

After all, she thought, squaring her shoulders and pushing open the fingerprint-stained front doors, Jemma Simmons doesn't hide.

Not five minutes passed before she regretted her decision. 

Caedmon kept close to her legs as they approached the line, trying to emulate a non-threatening, canine lope rather than his usual feline slink. An empty plate and a glass of orange juice slid along the smooth plastic of her tray, and she tried not to shrink from the eyes she could feel boring into her. Unable to stop herself, Jemma glanced up at the sound of nearby whispers, only to see a small gathering of students nearby staring at her in disgust. Her stomach twisted, and she decided abruptly that she wasn’t hungry anymore. 

Ducking her head, Jemma placed her tray on a nearby table and made her way to the cafeteria doors as evenly paced as possible. More whispers reached her ears, morphing into words. 

“Weirdo –”

“Serial killer –?”

“Expelled –”

“... We safe –?”

“Monster!” 

Caedmon flinched at that, and a nearby table of cadets skittered back in their chairs. 

“Get away from us, freak!”

Turning her head rapidly away from the jeering, Jemma’s tearful gaze landed on – of all people – Fitz, who was sitting by himself a few tables away. The last thing she needed right now was her bitter rival to see her being mocked, and she darted forward to the exit before he could open his mouth to speak.

“Piss off,” muttered a familiar Scottish brogue behind her, followed by the scraping of a chair against the olive-green linoleum. 

“Yeah,” echoed a matching, angry female accent, “pick on someone your own age.”

Jemma pushed frantically against the front door – which suddenly seemed much too heavy – only just getting it open wide enough that she could slip outside after Caedmon. The tears broke their dam, then, and she could barely get enough air to speed forward through the grass, hugging her arms tightly around her stomach.

“S-Simmons?”

She recognized Fitz’s voice, but she couldn’t bear to have him either taunt or pity her. Not now. Instead, she broke into a run, clenching her mouth shut to keep the sounds of her crying from echoing through the buildings.

Half an hour later, Jemma lay on the bed in her darkened dorm room, not having bothered to switch on a light before collapsing onto the neatly-made bed. 

“Why did you have to attack him, Caed?” Her voice was raw from crying, one arm wrapped tightly around her pillow.

Curled around her back, Caedmon exhaled, his breath blowing her hair up along the pillow. “Didn’t want Fitz and Sarama to feel like we do now.” He nuzzled against the back of her neck, wide nose wet and cold to the touch, and she sniffled. “No one deserves that.” 

A long silence stretched between them, and she sucked in a shaky breath. With an ungainly flip, she turned over on the bed to hug her dæmon tightly, burying her face in his mane.

“I know,” she mumbled, hiccupping around a mouthful of fur. “I know they don’t.”

As Jemma tried to force her breathing to even out, reciting the periodic table in her head, she thought back to the night before she'd left for the Academy. Her room had been hot and sticky, the window open wide to let in a breeze as she and Caedmon slept. She’d watched the stars from her bed and wondered how long it would take them to make friends, wondered if the cadets would be more understanding of her dæmon than the people at her old school. Now, squeezing her fingers into his fur, she wondered only if she could sleep the loneliness away.

 

------

 

Much to Jemma’s dismay, her first class the next day was chemistry, which meant that she’d have to face Fitz less than a day after her public humiliation. Less apprehensive than his human but more reticent than usual, Caedmon immediately curled up underneath their desk. His tail even wagged a bit as he dropped his chin onto his paws, since he was still trying to seem as doglike as possible to deflect further attention from himself. 

Fitz and Sarama arrived not long after they did, the dæmon currently in the form of some type of gibbon that Jemma didn’t recognize on the spot. (Perhaps a lar gibbon? She'd have to look it up later.) Not that she allowed herself to study Fitz’s dæmon, anyway, studiously keeping her head bent over her notebook as they waited for their tutor to arrive. She heard rather than saw Fitz settle into the lab stool next to hers, her whole body tense as she tried to anticipate what he’d deem an acceptable response to yesterday as her self-ordained rival. Most likely, and the best case scenario, was that he would continue to ignore her.

A couple of minutes after he took his seat, Fitz cleared his throat. “Lion manes change color.”

Blinking, Jemma looked up from her notebook to see her normally mute lab partner staring back at her. “Pardon?” 

Although his ears were slightly pink, he didn’t drop her gaze. “As they age. Lighter manes mean they’re younger – the hair darkens as they get older. So right now, your dæmon –” 

“Caedmon,” she added reflexively, and his eyes widened slightly.

“Right, um, Caedmon... his hair’s pretty light, yeah? But it’ll get darker. So if someone saw him without you, they could guess your age. Relatively speaking, anyway.” Without her truly realizing it, a smile crept across her face as he spoke. It was the first time since she’d arrived at the Academy that someone was talking about her dæmon as if him being a lion was interesting rather than worrisome. Fitz swallowed thickly, eyes darting down to his lap and then back up again. “Just – in case you didn’t know that.”

“I’ll keep it in mind if I ever want to use a fake ID at a bar, then,” she said, and his face lit up – only briefly, however, as he squinted and his head tilted slightly to the left.

“Well, it’s not actually that precise –”

“It was a joke, Fitz,” she interrupted, making sure to keep her soft smile in place, and a slight flush worked into his cheeks.

“I know.” His voice was a tad too defensive, which just amused her further. 

Jemma wasn’t sure what had spurred him to venture that piece of information, but she found that the tension in her muscles was now almost entirely absent. Talking about her dæmon with someone who didn’t seem to fear him was deeply refreshing – even if the conversation had been brief. After another moment, she dropped her eyes back to her notebook, wondering if this still meant they were rivals. 

“Did you know,” he started, and she couldn’t help the eagerness on her face as she met his gaze again. “That a lion’s roar can be heard from up to five miles away?” 

“Really?” Jemma had actually known about the mane coloring indicating age, but she’d never given much thought to the power of her dæmon’s vocals. This was in part because they’d both spent so much time trying to underplay Caedmon’s impressive stature since he’d settled, especially compared to Jemma’s minuteness.

“Yeah,” Fitz answered enthusiastically. “Fully grown adults can. It’s really impressive, considering the low timbre of their vocals.” 

“Does it have to do more with the terrain or the lion?”

A thoughtful crease appeared in his brow, his fingers tapping against the table. “Dunno, actually.”

“Caed,” Jemma said, leaning back so she could see under the high lab table, “what do you....” She was halted mid-sentence by the sight of Sarama sitting next to her dæmon, one simian hand resting lightly on Caedmon’s paw. As far as she could remember, aside from the brief moment weeks ago when he’d allowed Sarama to examine his claws, Jemma had never seen Caedmon touching another dæmon other than those of their parents before, let alone for a prolonged period of time. Now that she’d noticed, she realized that she’d felt a sliver of something new from her daemon a minute or so ago. That must have been the feedback from him touching someone else’s daemon for an extended period of time; something pleasant, but not distracting enough that it had caught her attention when she’d been talking to Fitz.

At her words, Caedmon lifted his head, large golden eyes meeting Jemma’s as both dæmons turned to her. “Um, I was just saying, what do you think about seeing how far your roar carries?”

“In an empty field, maybe,” he muttered, his expression turning rather dour as he tilted his head towards their easily frightened classmates. 

“Well, of course,” she said, somewhat waspishly. “We’ll just need to find a way to get out there.” 

“I, uh... I can drive...?” The expression on Fitz’s face was a sheepish attempt at nonchalance. “I’ve got a permit, and this guy on my hall has a car he said I could use... I mean, if I can get it working, it broke down on him last week, but cars are easy to fix if you can get the parts, so....” When she just continued to watch him, he blinked, shrugged, and dropped his gaze back to his notebook. “Might be easier to conduct the experiment with two people there, anyway.”

“That would be brilliant,” she breathed, trying to downplay her excitement as her mind began to spin in all kinds of directions for how to test the audial strength of Caedmon’s roar. “Thank you, Fitz.” 

Their tutor strode past them to the front of the classroom then, so Fitz just shrugged and turned towards the board. But while they were working on their assignment later, he actually spoke to her again rather than reverting to his sullen silences, and Jemma couldn’t have been more relieved. Not only was he not treating her as a pariah, as much of the Academy seemed determined to do at the moment, but he also seemed to be genuinely interested in her daemon rather than being terrified of him.

Something about Fitz’s manner towards her shifted from that day on. He was still quiet, and obviously knew that he was the smartest person there, but for whatever reason he’d decided that he didn’t hate her anymore. Jemma didn’t know what had changed his mind, but she was exceedingly grateful. She still had every intention of working her damnedest to beat him in all their classes, but she supposed she could do that just as well as his friend as she had done as his rival.

Chapter Text

Plucking the buttons to her coat undone, Jemma swung open the door to her dorm room and strode inside with a shiver. “Bloody hell, that was miserable – but productive!” Although Caedmon trotted in right behind her, she realized that her companion had not, and her brow furrowed as she turned. Fitz stood in the doorway, shifting from foot to sneakered foot with Sarama – currently in the form of a prairie vole – cupped in his hands. “Why are you just standing there?”

“I, um....”

“You won’t get my floor any wetter than I just have,” she pointed out, swinging her coat onto its rack and grabbing her warmest fleece. “And it’ll be far warmer if we share a blanket, anyway. We can watch Ark in Space, at last.”

His eyes lit up at that, Sarama eagerly nosing at his palm as he crossed the threshold and let the door shut. “Good plan,” he replied, toeing off his sneakers. Crouching down, he put his dæmon gingerly on the floor before shrugging off his coat and dumping it by his shoes.

Jemma watched as Sarama gave the room an once-over, stretching onto her hind legs and sniffing at the air. “Meet with your approval?”

“Oh yes,” the prairie vole answered, twitching her nose as she settled back onto all four paws. “I’m just not used to being in a room where I don’t have to climb over laundry –” 

“Hey!” Jemma stifled a laugh at the indignation at Fitz’s face, his hands having immediately migrated to his hips. “You could change into something with opposable thumbs and clean up, too, y’know.” 

“But what would I tease you about then?” Sarama deadpanned, black eyes twinkling at Caedmon’s huffed laughter.

The lion had already curled up by the radiator at the end of Jemma’s bed, and without further ado the vole insinuated herself within the circle of his paws and chest. Even though she and Fitz had been friends for no more than three weeks, their dæmons were already acting like they’d known each other for years. In fact, she didn’t think she’d ever seen Caedmon willingly curl up with any dæmons other than those of her parents, even before he’d settled on this form. She was still getting used to feeling the feedback from her daemon touching that of someone else, that pleasant sort of warmth from her head to her toes, and she wondered if it ever quite went away.

Blinking, Jemma turned from the dæmons to see that Fitz was also staring at them, an inscrutable expression on his face. There was something soft there, she thought, hovering at the corners of his eyes, although it was gone almost as soon as he caught her gaze.

“Oh, before I forget,” Jemma said, turning to Caedmon. “Dinner now or later?”

“Now, please,” he answered. With a large yawn, he lifted his head and shook out his mane, the long hair brushing against the top of the prairie vole’s head. As Jemma made her way over to the medium-sized fridge in the corner of the room, she saw Caedmon nuzzle at Sarama’s nose. “I’ll be right back,” he murmured, and she just sniffed affectionately up at him.

“Alright,” she answered, hunkering down as the lion stretched up onto his paws.

Jemma realized she was staring at them again instead of getting her dæmon his dinner, and she snapped around to open the fridge. They’d talked about it only a few nights ago, as she’d been trying unsuccessfully to sleep the night before a test. When she’d asked her dæmon why he acted the way he did around Fitz and Sarama, he’d just made a noncommittal sound.

“I dunno,” he’d said eventually, tone thoughtful. “I just like them.” Caedmon’s refusal to quantify his behavior was driving her up the wall – he was her own soul, after all. It should be easier for her to understand his feelings.

“What the hell are you doing?”

When Jemma turned back around, Fitz was staring at her hands with a mixture of nausea and horror. Just as she did once a day, she’d reached into the fridge for a fresh cut of meat, and she glanced down in confusion at the plastic-wrapped package. 

“Feeding Caedmon. When dæmons settle, they need more food –”

“I know that,” he snapped, eyes still fixated on the meat and lips curled in disgust. “But my mum’s skua only eats fish maybe once a week. That’s....”

“Oh, yes, Caed needs rather more than that. He’s so large, you see, and with us still growing he needs the extra nutrition. Besides,” she said, tossing the unwrapped steak to Caedmon and watching him catch it in his mouth, “it does lovely things for his coat.”

As the lion chomped happily on the raw meat, Fitz couldn’t seem to take his eyes off of what he clearly considered to be an especially gruesome sight. Suddenly, Jemma was struck with the realization that if Fitz truly was as disgusted by Caedmon’s eating habits as he seemed, he might decide he didn’t want to be their friend after all.

In the intervening three weeks since they’d become friends, Jemma had almost forgotten what it had been like to be rivals. Somehow, they were just as competitive when they’re working together as they were when working apart, but now it was far more exciting. Most of their class time was now spent with them one-upping each other under their breaths while the tutors droned away, and both of their marks had actually improved now that they were challenging each other in a way that the classes could not always achieve. Fitz put up exceedingly well with Jemma trailing after him around campus, constantly curious about his take on one subject or another. Sometimes they agreed to a T, but often he saw things she didn’t, and she was always impressed with the paths his mind saw that others missed. Much to her pleasure, she’d found that they had a whole host of interests in common, too, varying from watching the same old science fiction shows to preferring tea over coffee. Caedmon and Sarama took the change in their humans’ relationship in stride, their behavior having long since fitted that of two close friends.

The idea of alienating the most interesting person she’d ever met (and her only true friend on the continent) because of one careless mistake made Jemma feel abruptly ill, and she turned wide eyes to where Fitz was frozen in horror on her bed. He was still watching Caedmon, who had progressed to licking the back of one paw and using it to clean the blood off his muzzle.

“Don’t stare, Fitz,” Sarama sighed before Jemma could think of anything to say (other than ‘please don’t hate me again’). “It’s rude.” 

Glancing self-consciously at Jemma, Fitz dropped his eyes to his lap and scooted back against the dormitory wall. “Er, sorry. Just – never seen a lion eat before.”

“I’m sorry,” Jemma was able to eke out despite her nerves, twisting her fingers nervously together in front of her. “I should have warned....”

“Nah,” Fitz interrupted with a dismissive hand wave. “You do this all the time, s’my fault I didn’t think about it. Guess that’s why you have the fridge, too. Should’ve realized it wasn’t just for sodas.”

As she watched him tug her fleece blanket over his lap, clearly having no intention of going anywhere, an enormous weight lifted off Jemma’s shoulders. For the moment, at least, it didn’t seem that she had to worry about him changing his mind about being her friend.

“Yeah,” she answered, face brightening as she reached for her portable DVD player. “Caed’s why we were assigned this room, too – it’s large enough to fit him comfortably.”

Lifting the blanket so Jemma could scoot underneath and drape the other one around their shoulders, Fitz leaned over to catch Sarama’s eye. “Why couldn’t you’ve changed into something huge and threatening during the interview? We could’ve had a bigger room!”

“Bigger laundry basket, more like,” Sarama muttered, shifting over as Caedmon curled around her by the heater. Jemma laughed as Fitz let out a noise of indignation, and – not for the first time – she felt exceedingly grateful that they’d been partnered in chemistry lab.

 

------

 

The end of the semester and winter holidays passed with little incident, and Jemma was ecstatic to return to campus. Although she and Fitz had sent email after email during their two weeks apart, it simply hadn’t felt like enough. She had so many thoughts to share with him during their separation, from ideas about her or his current projects to concerns about the spring courses for which they’d both signed up. (What if it wasn’t enough? Should she take on another class to finish her requirements early? Would she be bored now that she wasn’t also working on the defense of her second PhD?) For a while she read each of his emails out loud to Caedmon, but each message grew longer than the last and she gave up when she realized she was spending almost as much time reading them aloud as she was writing her own lengthy responses. 

Their first day back at the Academy, Jemma dumped her belongings in her room and immediately sped with Caedmon to her lab. Technically, it wasn’t her lab – it was one of the many labs shared by Sci-Tech’s freshman class – but it had become her home away from her dorm room nonetheless. All the freshman labs were located in the basement of the laboratory building, and although they were brightly lit when in use they lacked windows, making them a much less pleasant workspace than the labs in the floors above. Along with a handful of other cadets, she and Fitz were conveniently both assigned to the third lab on the right down the hall from the staircase. Fortunately, it was one of the bigger rooms, so at least they were each allowed their own assigned desk.

Sophomores moved into labs that only needed to be shared by four scientists at a time, and the year after that each cadet would be allocated partnered laboratory space in the buildings dedicated to their respective fields. Although she hadn’t mentioned it yet, their friendship still too new, Jemma fervently hoped that Fitz would agree to work alongside her for the foreseeable future. Even in the mere half a semester that they’d been assigned to each other in chemistry, she had already decided that he was the best partner with whom she’d ever worked. When combined, their natural, individual intelligence was only magnified, having propelled them both to the top of the class in only those few weeks.

All of this whirred through Jemma’s head as she began to collect her and Caedmon’s lab safety gear that January afternoon. She’d had a few small projects incubating over the holidays, and she was eager to inspect their progress – as well as ascertain whether any of them had failed completely. Because of these projects’ delicate nature, however, Caedmon needed to be covered up to the best of their ability, and that necessitated a little more prep time than usual. 

“I just don’t think he would make sense,” Caedmon grumbled, sitting docilely while she pinned his mane down. “Giles isn’t anything like the Doctor.”

“But Anthony Head is marvelous,” Jemma mused, siphoning another bobby pin off of her sleeve. They’d read an article on the plane about the forthcoming reboot of their favorite, old science fiction show, and the casting speculations had occupied them for the past few hours. “And he wouldn’t be Giles, obviously –”

“So you read that article I sent you, then?” 

When Jemma whipped her head around, her eyes were drawn by the speeding brown form of some kind of macaque heading straight for her own dæmon. As Sarama accosted Caedmon, chittering excitedly, Fitz stood shyly in the door to the lab, tugging at the hem of his wrinkled, plaid button-down.

“Fitz!” Jemma hopped up from the lab bench and threw her arms around his neck. “I thought you weren’t coming until tomorrow!”

He stumbled a little against the force of her hug, reciprocating by patting her haltingly on the back. “Hey, Simmons.” After a few seconds, she realized that it was possible she’d never actually hugged Fitz before, and she pulled quickly away, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear as she went. “Ticket was one of those flexible ones, y’know, where they discount if you can change flights at the last second? Turned out they’d overbooked my actual flight, so, here we are, a day early.” Glancing at the pins on her sleeve, he gave her a wry grin. “Getting to work already?”

“Well,” she said, a flush rising to her cheeks, “you’re here, too, aren’t you?”

Fitz ducked his head and headed towards his assigned cubby. “Yeah, well, we’ve been here for a few hours already, you can’t have been back for more than one.”

“Oh,” she exclaimed, eager to find a way to move past her own workaholic tendencies, “and, yes, thank you for sending that article! I wish I’d seen it when it came out, it’s just so hard to keep up with that sort of thing over here.”

“Yeah,” he said with an emphatic nod, reaching for a lab coat. “I’m lucky Mum clipped it out for me, wasn’t hard to find the link when I looked.”

Jemma took a second to usher Caedmon back towards the bench so she could continue getting him dressed, glancing up at Fitz as she worked. “You don’t really want Anthony Head as the Doctor, do you?” 

Wrinkling his nose, Fitz shook his head and turned back towards her, crossing his arms as he leaned against the cubbies. “I like him and all, but he’s no Tom Baker, y’know?”

“Or Peter Davison,” Jemma added. Along with an emphatic eye-roll, Fitz let out an exaggerated sigh.

“Peter Davison isn’t Peter Davison anymore, either,” he deadpanned. “He’s older’n my mum now.”

“We just want the new Doctor to be a Scot,” Sarama said, weighing in from around Caedmon’s other side. “It’s about time.”

“As long as it’s someone I don’t know,” Fitz said, handing a pair of goggles over to Sarama. “That’s the important thing. But a Scot’d be nice.”

“You just want it to be you.” Finishing the last of Caedmon’s pins, Jemma gave Fitz a teasing grin as he strode past her to his workstation.

“Why do you think I’m working for the only agency in the world that actually has evidence of extraterrestrial life?”

Jemma laughed as she helped secure Caedmon’s custom lab coat. If she were being honest with herself, that was one of the reasons why she’d accepted the secretive SHIELD’s scholarship offer, too. “What are you working on?”

Tapping the power button on his computer’s monitor, Fitz shrugged. “Had a few ideas on the plane back, wanna get ‘em down and see if a couple might work for my Sci-Ops application.”

Jemma raised an impressed eyebrow as she took her place at the table next to his. (Although they hadn’t initially had adjacent workstations, once they’d begun working together in chemistry they were able to find someone to switch tables. In truth, it had been Jemma who had made the enquiry, feeling that it would be more sensible for her and Fitz to work nearby rather than to have to commute to each other across the crowded room of cadets. Since he’d only spoken to her via note anyway, at first, being nearby had been especially useful.) 

“Working on Sci-Ops already?”

Fitz gave her a wry glance. “Like you haven’t had yours plotted out for months.”

“I only have ideas, yet,” she sniffed, affronted by the know-it-all tone of his voice. “And I was going to say that I was impressed.”

“Oh. Well....” He trailed off. “I just really wanna get in, y’know? They say Sci-Tech cadets have the best chance in the world, it’s basically a feeder for Sci-Ops, but you don’t know, do you?”

“I completely agree –” 

“And,” he continued, words tumbling out as if he’d been just waiting to say all this to someone, “I think it’s the best place to do something good, y’know? SHIELD? I’ve got all these ideas, always have, but there’re so many ways they could be misused, or – or used to hurt people, or something, or if I went somewhere else they could contract me to build WMDs or whatever and I just....” Fitz trailed off, eyes wandering to where the dæmons were chatting up beneath the table. “My mum always told me to do something good with my brains. Said I had enough to help half the world if I put my mind to it. And I wanna do it at Sci-Ops.” When he met her gaze, a blush bloomed on his cheeks. “What?”

“Oh, no,” she said, turning quickly to her workstation and typing out her login. Jemma wasn’t sure what expression had been on her face that startled him so, but she’d just been floored at hearing someone else effectively speak her own thoughts about her life’s goals out loud. “I was just – I agree, that’s all.” She let a small smile tilt up her lips, flicking her eyes in his direction and then back. “That’s why I want to go to Sci-Ops, too.”

“Good,” came Sarama’s voice from under the table, and she scurried up one of the steel legs as a marmoset. “So we’ll go together then.” 

Jemma laughed, choosing to ignore the way Fitz’s whole face flushed decidedly pink at his dæmon’s words. “Sounds like we will be.”

They proceeded to work in silence for a few moments, with Jemma stealing amused glances in his direction. He whispered something harsh to his dæmon when she hopped over to his computer, to which she just waved a dismissive hand and then gamboled back in Jemma’s direction.

“What’re you doing tonight?” Sarama put herself directly between Jemma and the computer, blinking up with particularly fetching wide brown eyes.

Jemma looked over at Caedmon, who was peering at something in one of the glass door storage fridges. “Not sure. Possibly unpacking – probably collapsing into bed early.”

“Wanna play Warcraft?” The monkey’s voice was excited and hopeful, although Fitz’s slight noise of annoyance somewhat undercut his dæmon’s enthusiasm. “We haven’t had a good raid in ages.”

“Oh,” Jemma said, eyes lighting up at just the thought. “Yes, I’d love to!”

“More fun for you lot,” Caedmon groused, padding back over across the linoleum flooring. “I don’t have opposable thumbs.”

“I can play for you,” Sarama offered. The lion tilted his mouth in a half-smile and gave Jemma a nod. 

“Fitz?” Jemma turned to her friend, waiting for him to finish typing a sentence before continuing. “We could play in my room, if you’d like?” 

Turning in her direction, he gave her a small grin. “I’ll bring the spagbol? Unless you think you’ll fall asleep in it again.”

“That was one time! And it was next to the spagbol, not in it,” she muttered, poking her tongue through her lips.

Fitz made a drawn out “uh-huh,” and then ducked annoyingly quickly when she tossed a crumpled-up post-it note at him. (And then looked instinctively to the mostly empty hallway, to make sure she wouldn’t get reprimanded for throwing something in the lab.)

Chapter Text

“I cannot believe you –”

“You’re overreacting –”

“– would do that –”

“It was in its dish!”

“You put its liver next to my lunch!”

A small laugh burst out of Jemma’s throat unbidden, and she tried to swallow it down, covering her mouth with one hand. Fitz was practically steaming not a foot in front of her, hands propped high on his waist and face bright red.

“I’m sorry, Fitz, but....”

“I’m gonna have to go buy something else to eat now,” he moaned, staring sadly at the half-eaten sandwich he’d abandoned next to Jemma’s workstation. 

Well, the space in between their workstations, technically, but she had actually been using it to do work and not eat. Sighing at her friend’s flair for the dramatic, Jemma returned to examining the cat that she’d been in the middle of dissecting.

“Would you be happier if I offered to make you dinner in exchange?”

“Not unless you have it for him now,” Sarama said wryly. Currently in the form of a barn owl, she watched her human toss the rest of his sandwich into the trash with a petulant swish of his wrist. “He’ll whine until he’s fed.” 

“I will not,” Fitz muttered, reaching around his dæmon to grab his laptop.

“That sandwich was rubbish anyway,” Caedmon offered up from the floor, stopping mid-groom to weigh in. “Jemma’s are far better than the cafeteria’s.”

“Thank you.” Jemma smiled at her dæmon and reached down to scratch the top of his head. “I’ve only really got one and a half worked out yet, but I’ll go back to experimenting once I’ve got my mum’s kitchen to work in. Hand-mixing and a microwave don’t quite do it.”

Flapping her wings lightly and landing on the lamp above Jemma’s station, Sarama blinked down at her. “What d’you make?”

“Right now, I’ve just got this one aioli that I like. I’m working on a second, but I haven’t managed the right the ratio of basil to parmesan yet.” She gave Sarama a quick smile and reached for her tablet PC. It was a good thing that Sarama’s voice didn’t change every time she switched animals, because it was disconcerting enough that she’d been showing up as a different animal nearly every day for the past month. Although she hadn’t voiced this suspicion to Fitz, Jemma suspected that his dæmon might be getting ready to settle. But considering that Jemma hadn’t yet worked up the courage to ask him what he thought about Sarama’s reluctance to settle, it wasn’t high on her list of discussion topics.

“Oh, this blasted thing,” Jemma muttered, poking ineffectually at the screen with her stylus. It was a prototype of one of the most advanced tablet PCs in the world (a perk of attending SHIELD Academy), but even with its fancy swivel-screen the damned thing kept glitching. The screen simply wasn’t sensitive enough and it lagged, and when Jemma was working in the lab she wanted something that would function quickly so that she didn’t miss out on recording any data. 

“What is it?”

Jemma glanced up with relief at Fitz, who was watching her expectantly over the top of his own version of her laptop. Although she wasn’t certain yet whether she would focus on biology or chemistry (loosely speaking), he already knew that he wanted to continue studying engineering. Accordingly, he was significantly more adept at wielding technology than she was. 

“It won’t....” She let out a noise of frustration and shoved loose hair behind her ear. “It won’t let me select my spreadsheet! It’s right there, and I....” Looking up helplessly at him, she held out the computer and stylus. “Do you think you might....” 

“Come on,” he said with a grin, and she hopped over to his table. After a few seconds of poking at the screen, he flipped it around to reveal the keyboard and started typing rapidly. “Have you seriously not taken this to someone to have it modded?” 

“Um... no? Why should I, it’s brand –”

“Windows has no bloody idea what they’re doing,” he muttered, and she watched his fingers fly over the keys, revealing line upon speeding line of code in the terminal he’d opened. “Honestly, the hardware’s a sham, too, but SHIELD won’t give me access to the supplies I’d need to replace it. If they’d give me a higher clearance, I could have something worked up with touch-sensitive glass that’d be a thousand times better than this stuff, but....” Fitz trailed off, glancing up to give her a small smile. “Seems they don’t trust sixteen-year-olds with stuff that’d cost a few thousand dollars just to muck around with.”

“More fools they,” she returned, affectionately nudging his shoulder. A slight flush graced the back of his neck. 

The cat liver forgotten, Jemma dragged her stool over so she could watch Fitz fix whatever was wrong with the computer’s state-of-the-art software. Maybe she would make him a sandwich for dinner later, she mused, cataloguing the way his brows creased as he scrutinized the sprawling code. If nothing else, she could use him as a guinea pig for her newest version of that pesto aioli she’d been attempting to perfect.

 

------

 

Against her better judgment, Jemma let Fitz tug her over to a newly vacated billiards table in the Boiler Room. “You’ll see,” he assured her, sizing up two cues and handing her the shorter one, “it’s loads of fun, just geometry and vectors.” 

Squinting at him, Jemma narrowly avoided whacking Caedmon on the head with her cue. The lion flinched and slouched underneath the table, accompanied by Sarama, currently in the form of a lar gibbon. (She’d been alternating between the gibbon and an usual type of miniature, African deer all day.)

“And geometry’s fun, now, is it?”

“Says the girl who thinks animal innards are a laugh,” he shot back, hunting in the cue stand until he found the small square of chalk. She rolled her eyes and watched him hop around to each of the table’s holes in turn, collecting the game balls and tossing them onto the felted green.

After having just finished a grueling week of midterms, much of the freshman cadets had retreated to the Boiler Room nearly the second that classes were over. Fitz had been reluctant, but Jemma had insisted that he had to go with her; so, in a way, it was turnabout’s fair play now that he was convincing her to play this patently ridiculous game. Although she could understand the appeal intellectually, in practice she tended to rather not excel at anything involving coordination, and as such she generally avoided such things. No matter the game, she detested losing, and she suspected that she was about to lose rather spectacularly to her best friend.

“You know,” she said, deciding to give avoidance one last shot, “I think you were probably right about the Boiler Room tonight. Much too crowded. Want to go back to mine and watch something?”

The innocent little smile she gave him was only met with a skeptical eyebrow raise. “Isn’t Dan meeting you here at some point?”

“Oh,” she said, wrinkling her nose. She’d gone on three dates with this particular comm-ops cadet prior to the start of midterms, and hadn’t been especially eager to return to the budding relationship afterwards. Now that she thought about it, though, she may have mentioned him earlier to convince Fitz to come out with her. “I don’t expect so, actually.”

“Not going well then, that.” After hunting around the table, Fitz finally came up with the missing plastic triangle and proceeded to gather up the balls.

“I don’t know,” she said noncommittally. “I suppose I’ve just been very busy, that’s all.”

Fitz hummed, removing the thing that Jemma thought she remembered once having heard called a rack, and surveying his successful, rainbow-patterned triangle. “Alright, safe to say you don’t wanna break?”

Jemma stared back at him. “Break what?” 

His shoulders sagged. “That’s – what they call it when you... nevermind, I’ll go.”

In one swift motion, Fitz brought the pool cue up, sliding the thinner part of the wooden stick over the back of his thumb as he squinted to line up the shot. With a crack, he hit the cue ball into the assembled triangle, sending all of the colored ones zipping in every which way across the table. A neon green one teetered at the edge of a hole, and Fitz gave himself a satisfied nod, moving around the table to knock that and then one other in. 

“Don’t let him make you feel bad,” Sarama said, shifting into one of her favorite animals, a white-faced capuchin, and swinging herself up along the edge of the green felt. “We used to play at the billiards room a few streets down once a week.”

“What,” Jemma said, doing a minute double-take, “seriously?”

Watching his third attempt bounce off the corner of the aimed hole, Fitz sighed and straightened. “Self-preservation,” he mumbled, not meeting her gaze.

“Ah.” Although he offered no further details, she could guess the various ways that having something like this to offer any potential Glaswegian bullies would have been beneficial. 

“So, you gonna take your shot?”

Jemma withheld the urge to stick her tongue out at his smugness, and instead shuffled around to where the cue ball had landed. Bending over, she tried to mimic Fitz’s stance, laying her pool cue’s thinner edge along the back of her hand and attempting to see any geometrical angles that might provide her with a clear path to one of the pockets.

“Oooookay,” Fitz said, resting his cue against a nearby column and coming around behind her. “If you hold it like that, you’re gonna hit yourself in the face.”

“I am not,” she protested, but she let him adjust her hand anyway. 

“See how that creates a sort of groove? Keeps the cue steady.” Jemma nodded, looking around as he reached his other hand around her shoulder to change the cue’s angle. “And don’t jab. You just sorta –” He cut himself off, using her right hand to thrust the cue forward. “Control it. And you see these little dots? There?” She nodded again. “Use those as reference points for the ball’s trajectory.” 

“Yes, I think I can manage that,” she grumbled, mildly annoyed that he was being so serious about something so frivolous. “That all?” 

“Try not to stab my dæmon,” he deadpanned, grinning as Sarama edged around the table so that she wasn’t directly across from Jemma. Caedmon’s ears and mane inched up alongside the table to her right, just far enough that he could see what was happening while not providing too much of a target.

Exhaling slowly, Jemma tried to mimic the sharp movement Fitz had made with the cue, successfully managing to glance off the cue ball while not hitting herself or either dæmon. The white ball went rolling dejectedly off, only to bounce off the side of the felt. 

“That was a... first try,” Fitz said, as if he was half-heartedly trying to be comforting but was actually too busy calculating all of the ways he was going to trounce her.

“It’s like the bloody vacuum chamber all over again,” she sniffed, folding her arms with the cue propped up in one hand.

Fitz let out a bark of laughter, leaning on the table rather than stretching into his next shot. “You laughed harder than anyone!” 

“Only after! That body suit wasn’t exactly comfortable.” 

Trying to calm his laughter, Fitz reached for the half-full drink he had perched on a nearby high table. “Pranking’s inevitable, Simmons,” he said, followed by a dry, “I cannot believe you sneezed. And how’s that anything like this, anyway?”

“It would be much more bearable with another drink.”

Fitz made a cross between a chuckle and a snort, and waved her off. Before she went, she watched him line up and then knock three balls into the pockets.

“Go on,” he said, straightening with a cheeky grin. “I’ll just be over here, winning. Promise I won’t cheat.”

Jemma let out an indignant huff and spun on her heel, slipping through the crowd with Caedmon following closely behind. When he won, Fitz was going to be absolutely insufferable about it for at least a week, and she couldn’t wait to think up at least half a dozen ways to put him back in his place. Perhaps she’d challenge him to a few games of poker; her weakness at bluffing aside, she’d always been rather good at cards.

 

------

 

Another three months passed, and Jemma found that she could hardly remember what her and Caedmon’s life had been like without Fitz and Sarama in it. The four of them were inseparable, and the dæmons even more so. Neither she nor Fitz ever addressed the strikingly intimate behavior of their dæmons; if Fitz didn’t act surprised, Jemma decided, then it clearly wasn’t as unusual as she’d thought. 

Although Sarama continued to shift between animals, the periods between changes grew longer and longer. Jemma continued to note her behavior, both from a scientific standpoint and a personal one – Caedmon had once implied that Sarama wished she would settle, and Jemma felt badly for her. As useful as shifting may be, it must be wearing to be so outwardly different from all your peers. Above anything else, Jemma and Caedmon could understand that.

Even as Jemma had become fast friends with Fitz, she’d also formed a strong attachment to his dæmon, unusual though this may be. Dæmons did not typically befriend humans who weren’t related to them, but Jemma found that she was exceedingly fond of Sarama, albeit in a different way than she was of Fitz. Conversely, although Caedmon spent a lot of time talking to or curled up with Sarama, he spoke very little to Fitz, choosing instead to periodically sit near the boy and look on in what Jemma guessed was awed silence. Considering the fact that her dæmon had no problem talking about the various virtues of the young, engineering genius when they were alone, Caedmon’s reticence to actually speak to him was unusual. For his part, Fitz – apparently fascinated with the lion – often tried to make conversation with Caedmon, but didn’t quite seem to know how to keep it up. Sarama and Jemma never seemed to have any problems talking.

One day as they worked at their respective lab stations, Jemma watched Sarama crawl over to Fitz’s workspace. Jemma had taken to recording how long his dæmon stayed one animal – the record so far was four days in a row as a sandhill crane – under the theory that Sarama would gradually slow her changes until she settled. Today she was an unusual-looking lizard, and had been for a couple of days. A particularly tricky experiment going haywire meant that Jemma hadn’t had time to try to identify the species yet, but since she was at a good stopping place in her work this afternoon she decided to make note of any key physical features that might help her identify species, jotting them down in a notebook. 

The most unusual thing about the lizard was her short, rounded tail – it looked almost like the shape was supposed to mimic the head, and Jemma mused that such an evolution could be very effective for defending oneself against predators. Sarama was covered in sleek, dark green (nearly black) scales, with lighter yellow-green ones forming a rather pretty diamond pattern along her sides, and her body was between less than a foot in length. As she lay down next to one of Fitz’s plastic supply bins, her legs folded underneath her in a way that rather resembled that of a house cat folding in its front paws, and Jemma smiled.

Fitz glanced up at his dæmon and removed the metal tool he’d been holding in his mouth. “Hey, could you turn into a bird or monkey or something and go get me the blue gear box? Greeley put it on the top shelf again and I don’t fancy having to ask for a stepladder.”

Blinking her small, dark eyes, Sarama raised her head off the table. “I can’t.”

“Oh, c’mon,” Fitz groaned, tucking the thin tool behind his ear and reaching for another one. “Last time I had to get the key from the TA, he called me ‘shrimp’ for a week –”

“No,” she interrupted, stretching up on her front legs in what was almost a sitting position. “I mean I can’t.”

Caedmon moved onto his haunches next to Jemma, who was now unabashedly staring across the table at her friend and his dæmon. 

“What do you mean you can’t....” Fitz snapped out, trailing off as the answer came to him.

“I’ve settled,” Sarama whispered, giving her new body a small wiggle. “This is it.”

Rather than the excitement that Jemma would have expected, Fitz stared open-mouthed at his dæmon before letting out a loud, incredulous “What?!” The lizard nodded, a minute smile ticking up the edge of her reptilian mouth.

“Congratulations, Sarama,” Jemma said warmly, giving the dæmon a bright smile. Rather than say anything, Caedmon hefted himself up so that he was supporting his weight on his two front paws – one of which now was about the length of Sarama herself – on the lab table. Seeing him, Sarama pivoted around and lifted up as far as she could so that they could press their noses together.

The sight distracted Jemma from being pleased that Fitz’s dæmon had settled at last: Caedmon brushing his wide, soft nose against Sarama’s much smaller, scaly one. Were lions able to do so, she had the impression that he might even have purred. It was one of the most bizarre things Jemma had noticed her dæmon doing yet, and the past few months had been made of such moments. 

“You cannot have settled as – as that!” The almost squeaky anger to Fitz’s voice broke the peace that had settled over the dæmons, and Caedmon dropped away from the table. His paws made a loud thump as they hit the lab’s linoleum floor, and nearby lab equipment shook. 

“Fitz,” Jemma murmured, watching the way Sarama turned reluctantly back towards him.

“We had a deal,” he said to his dæmon, a pleading note entering his voice. “We had a deal that you’d stay a monkey!”

“I can’t help what I am,” Sarama snapped waspishly, “and neither can you.”

“You’re going to hurt her feelings.” When Fitz met Jemma’s gaze, she raised an eyebrow in admonishment.

“I’m more used to him than you are,” his dæmon muttered, hunkering down on the table’s metal surface.

“And I can’t hurt her feelings – she’s me, y’know.” He folded his arms in a show of defiance, and Jemma let out a loud tsk

“Oh, Fitz –!”

“I just can’t believe it!” Throwing his hands up, he paced alongside the table, ignoring the way Caedmon’s steady, golden gaze followed him to and fro. “We had extra years, even, to practice you being a monkey, and you turn into a bloody lizard!” 

Caedmon let out an indignant huff, glancing up at where Sarama slunk along the edge of the table. “What’s wrong with lizards?”

Ignoring the interruption, Fitz ranted on. “It isn’t even something soft and cuddly! Of all the bloody animals in the world, you had to choose something with scales!”

“Oh, if that’s all it is, you’ve always got me.” The other three stopped in their places and turned to stare at Caedmon, who just gave a brief, self-conscious shake of his mane. “What?”

Humans simply didn’t touch other peoples’ dæmons – not unless maybe they were married, and it was in private. That’s just how things were done. Jemma had never thought to question it until this very second, when her own dæmon had just offered himself as a sort of pillow to her best friend. In thinking back, she couldn’t ever remember anyone telling her why humans didn’t touch each others’ dæmons except in intimate settings. Her two PhDs had nothing to do with dæmons, and in none of her biology classes – advanced or not – did they ever discuss anything about them. If she had wanted to learn more about dæmons, that would have been an entirely different discipline. The most Jemma could remember was that in some asinine sex education class they’d been taught the importance of respecting the space of other peoples’ dæmons – and that was it. In fact, she was a little miffed with herself for never questioning it until now; she’d simply been too busy exploring the million other questions she had about life, the universe, and everything.

Fitz didn’t seem to know how to respond to the offer, but Caedmon just stared steadily back at him.

“Y’know I didn’t choose this form, anyway,” Sarama said at last, glancing between her human and Caedmon. That seemed to wake Fitz up, and he blinked over at his dæmon. 

“Well, why’d you change into that lizard yesterday, then?” 

She shrugged as much as her new form could, small shoulders lifting slightly under the dark, glossy scales. “Felt like it.”

Letting out an annoyed huff, Fitz threw up one hand and spun back towards his workstation. “Oh, you bloody felt like it...” he griped, voice fading into mutters that Jemma couldn’t hear as he grabbed for the tool he’d dropped. 

“I think it’s fantastic,” Jemma whispered to Sarama before moving towards the supply cabinets. The lizard ticked up the corner of her mouth and returned a small nod of thanks before slinking over to her human.

Although Jemma set about retrieving the gear box that Fitz seemed to have forgotten that he needed, she made sure to set the lizard’s physical traits firmly in her memory. She had never seen a lizard like that before, and her fingers were practically twitching to examine her. Since that would be quite taboo, in theory, Jemma would have to make do with researching the species online.

 

------

 

Later that night, curled up against Caedmon on her bed, Jemma scrolled through pages and pages of information on shingleback skinks. Although Sarama was clearly a variant of some kind, judging by her comparatively sleek figure, graceful limbs, and striking yellow scale pattern over nearly black ones, she was definitively a shingleback skink. (Determining whether or not she had a vivid blue tongue would have to wait until tomorrow.) 

“I wish I could examine her for just a minute,” Jemma murmured, shifting into a more comfortable position and leaning her head against Caedmon’s mane. He was reading along with her on the computer screen, chin resting on his paws. “That taboo seems so stupid now that I think about it.” Distracted, Caedmon just hummed his assent and nudged her hand to indicate that she should keep scrolling.

“I wonder exactly how blue is blue. Oh, and omnivores – Fitz won’t like that.” Jemma sighed, letting her eyes drift above her computer. “Do you think he’ll be alright?” Caedmon made a low, questioning huff, and nudged for her to scroll down again. “Fitz, I mean. With Sarama being a lizard.” 

“He’ll adjust,” Caedmon replied, tipping his head to nuzzle at Jemma’s hand. “We did.”

“Oh, I know,” she said, burrowing her face into her dæmon’s mane. “But he seemed so disappointed.” The source of her worry was eluding her; she wasn’t even sure how to describe it in words, except that she desperately wanted Fitz and to Sarama to be happy with themselves. To feel comfortable in their own skins, as it were, in a way that she still wasn’t quite. As much as Jemma loved her dæmon, sometimes she still wished that he’d settled as something that drew much less attention than his leonine form. 

With a yawn, Caedmon reached one paw forward to flip the laptop closed and then curled himself around Jemma so that they formed a pseudo-ying-yang symbol. “They’ll be alright.” 

She sighed again and let her eyes slip shut, as she’d been drooping for some time. In the end, she couldn’t force Fitz to be happy with the form his dæmon had taken, but if she had anything to do with it, Jemma would do her best to show him exactly how wonderful that form was.

Chapter Text

The next day, it only took Caedmon five minutes into their lab time to throw Jemma a smug “I-told-you-so” look. 

“And apparently single unit recordings from the auditory nerve show both spontaneous and nonspontaneous responses,” Fitz rambled excitedly, snapping on his black latex gloves. “The skink’s absolute sensitivity is quite high, according to the articles I found online last night, and is pretty close to human-like sensitivity. And I’ve been studying her scale pattern. It’s very interesting, ‘cause she’s obviously a color variant, and that's really rare....” 

Jemma hummed, giving him a fond nod and pointedly ignoring her dæmon’s expression, hindered by his safety goggles or no. Since they were working with transferable fluids today, they were all getting into full protective regalia. As usual, Caedmon’s mane was pinned back as best she could manage, and he was already strapped into his own, customized lab coat.

Remembering something mid-sentence, Fitz shoved his goggles onto his face and spun around, stumbling as he tried to keep Sarama from sliding off his shoulders. He had her tucked partway underneath the collar of his lab coat, her claws clutching the fabric and short tail curving as much around his neck as she could manage. Jemma suspected that, once they’d had some practice, this was probably where Sarama would end up most of the time. The thought of them running haphazardly around the lab like that brought a wide smile to her face.

“See,” Caedmon said at last, having sidled up to his human during Fitz and Sarama’s brief absence. “He’s adjusting.” 

“I know, I know,” she conceded, reaching down to flick gently at one of his ears. “He was just so upset about her not being a monkey. I rather like her as a Tiliqua rugosa.”

“She’s perfect,” he murmured, and she glanced down at her dæmon. He was staring at where Fitz and Sarama were bickering on the other side of the room – about which shoulder she preferred – with a soft, peaceful expression she was quite sure she’d never seen her dæmon wear before. At least, not as long as he’d been a lion.

 

------

 

As happy as Jemma was that Sarama had finally settled, she quickly began to envy the fact that Fitz was allowed to study her. He’d begun a list of practical ideas Sarama had inspired (so far it mostly consisted of various forms of body armor), as well as another of observations about her new physical form. The thing was that although Fitz was the smartest person at the Academy (in brains, she might be willing to concede, if not in marks), he was most decidedly not a biologist. Jemma knew that she’d be better at examining Sarama than he, and that she assuredly would be able to make observations that wouldn’t even occur to him. Besides, they both knew that they worked better together than apart.

Sarama, eager to prove the worth of her new body, was happy to put up with as much poking as Fitz wanted and as much staring and questioning as Jemma dared. At one point, she overheard Fitz grumble about how they had work to do, to which Caedmon responded only that Jemma would remember their existence eventually. 

But the touch barrier was driving Jemma insane. The more she thought about the reasons that humans weren’t allowed to touch other peoples’ dæmons, the more it seemed patently ridiculous. Fitz was her best friend in the world, and she would never do anything to harm Sarama – so why shouldn’t she ask politely to examine her? Just for a few minutes. Jemma knew that she should do that extra reading on dæmons and physical effects, but she’d never quite gotten around to it. Her work had her rather preoccupied – as did researching skinks (shinglebacks and otherwise, just for reference).

When the four of them were in the lab, late in the afternoon about one week after Sarama had settled, Jemma caught a glimpse of the lizard’s underbelly. She found herself reaching towards the dæmon without thinking about it, desperate to examine her scales more closely. Fortunately, she remembered her manners while her fingers were still quite a few centimeters away, and she glanced around for her best friend. Busy tinkering with something at the right-hand end of the table, Fitz looked up when she cleared her throat, squinting through his goggles.

“Um, Fitz,” she began, her voice rather higher-pitched than she would’ve liked. “Idon’tknowhowmuchthoughtyou’vegiventowhyit’ssociallyunacceptableforhumanstotouchotherpeople’sdæmons, but....”

“Er, not much,” he replied, sitting up straighter and shoving his goggles up onto his head. “Why?”

“Ithinkit’sarathersillysocialtabooandasIwouldverymuchliketobeabletoexamineSaramamorethoroughlyIwaswonderingifyou’dmindifIpickedherup. Just... a little.” 

Nonplussed, Fitz blinked over at Sarama and then back at Jemma. “But – people just... don’t do that? Yeah?”

“I don’t see why not!” Jemma could feel her cheeks heating up, and she determinedly refused to look at where she could see Caedmon ambling over in her peripheral vision. “For safety, of course, or for privacy, but – it’s just me, Fitz! And you know I would never do anything to hurt either of you.” She glanced from one to the other, trying to sound as little like she was pleading as possible. “It’s just... for science?” 

When he dropped his gaze again to make eye contact with Sarama, Jemma almost took it back that second, wondering if she’d gone too far. The jeers of their classmates the day after Caedmon’s attack and Weaver’s subsequent reprimand echoed in her head. 

“Alright,” Fitz said at last, and a breath whooshed out of her. “It’s fine with us.”

A wide smile broke across her face, and she turned to Sarama, who tilted up the corners of her mouth (as much as she could for a lizard). “Just make sure you support my hind legs – hate it when they dangle.”

“Of course,” Jemma assured her, and then stepped closer to the table. After a quick, surreptitious glance around the lab to make sure no other cadets were nearby – and ascertaining that Caedmon was now sitting only a couple feet away, paying rapt attention – she carefully picked up the lizard dæmon.

Something she’d never felt before coursed through her veins, spreading out from where her hands touched Fitz’s dæmon all the way to the tips of her toes. It was a wash of warmth, teetering on the edge of feeling like the most comforting, friendly hug, or a rush of something far more energizing and intimate. Jemma stumbled where she stood, nearly knocked over from surprise, and to her right Fitz let out a loud, hacking wheeze. 

Turning wide eyes to meet his overly round blue ones, Jemma’s lips parted, her fingers tightening instinctively around the lizard’s body to make sure she didn’t drop her. She should ask if she should put the dæmon down, Jemma knew that, but she was frozen, distracted from forming words by the reaction still thrumming through her body. After a second, Fitz just waved her on, clearing his throat and sitting down hard on his lab stool.

“S’fine, s’nothing,” he said gruffly, clearing his throat and hunching over his workstation.

“Okay?” Jemma whispered, making eye contact with Sarama, who just nodded her scaly head. 

“Fine,” she said, but her voice was just as hoarse as her human’s.

Jemma made a good show of studying Sarama’s underbelly, scales, and legs, but she couldn’t concentrate enough to give her a true examination. Her mind was torn between continuing to bask in whatever this fantastic side effect was, and being deeply, horrendously embarrassed at her naïveté. The ignorance of her actions was galling, and as an innate overachiever she was already well into berating herself for it. She’d had ages to research the effects of touching someone else’s dæmon, and having focused her two PhD’s on other areas of biology and chemistry was no excuse for not having bothered to look this up first. It was possibly the first time she’d done something so momentous without overanalyzing it from all angles, and of course she’d mucked it up.

Having concluded her hasty examination of Sarama, Jemma thanked her and returned to her own workstation, determined to pretend like nothing was wrong. But she could feel a gulf growing between her and Fitz, and sometimes she would swear she’d looked up just as he’d turned away. The awareness of her own idiocy grew and grew, until at last she couldn’t take it anymore and bid a hasty retreat – Caedmon in tow – to her room.

 

------

 

For the next three days, Jemma avoided Fitz, to Caedmon’s loudly voiced displeasure. To be fair, Jemma had a lot of work to complete, quite a bit of which she’d been neglecting in the excitement over Sarama settling. But her insistence upon that line of reasoning fell on deaf, fuzzy ears.

“I miss them,” he grumbled, tail swishing petulantly over the side of their bed.

Rolling her eyes, Jemma reached for her eraser and then swore as she knocked her second-favorite pen onto the floor in the process. Her dorm room desk was minute compared to the large table assigned to her in the cadet lab. Although she was a meticulous person by nature, Jemma did like to spread out over a workspace – and that was patently difficult to do in her room.

“Oh please, Caed,” she muttered, grabbing for the pen. “You can’t possibly. It hasn’t even been a week.” 

“I do,” he insisted, “and you do, too. Even if you’re too stubborn to admit it.”

“I don’t need to admit anything.” She knew her grousing was pointless; her dæmon was just as hardheaded as she. And a small voice in the back of her head knew he was right. 

At all hours of the day, she kept thinking of things that she wanted to tell or ask Fitz, and found herself stymied when she remembered that she was in hiding. The distance of one building and eight doorways was small and yet seemed insurmountable. Knowing that eventually she’d have to face him and admit that she’d been wrong made her mildly nauseous, which was perhaps the most bizarre thing of all. Being wrong was a regular part of her life as a scientist – sometimes, in fact, she had to be wrong in order to improve upon her experiments or research. So wanting to never be wrong in front of Fitz was not only silly, it was also virtually impossible.

“Do you regret it?” Her dæmon’s voice was low but curious, and she tilted her head to see him better.

“No,” she answered quietly. “But I think they might.”

“What if we let Fitz pet me? Make it even?”

Jemma gave a little twist to her mouth, tapping her eraser against the note-scribbled page, and then shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. I’m just busy, Caed, I told you.”

Genuinely busy or not, the next day a series of quick knocks interrupted her as she was working at her cramped desk. Upon opening the door, she was surprised to see Fitz standing across the threshold, looking like he wished he were anywhere else. His maroon rucksack was crumpled at his feet, as if he’d been standing there for some time, and he had one hand shoved into his trousers pocket. Sarama lifted her head from where she was stretched along his left shoulder, partially hidden underneath his shirt collar. 

“Oh,” Jemma said, unable to disguise the surprise written plainly on her face. “Hi, Fitz. Sarama.” Behind them, her bed gave a loud creak, and in a matter of seconds Caedmon joined them, looking immediately up to make eye contact with the lizard.

“You forgot your favorite pen in my room,” Fitz mumbled, sticking his right hand out, the aforementioned pen held in his fist. “Thought you might want it.” 

A vein of warmth darted through her chest at the fact that it was indeed her favorite pen, and that he’d known this. “Thank you,” she murmured, gently plucking it from his hand.

“Did we do something wrong?” Sarama’s voice was quieter than Jemma had ever heard her, and the difference was only emphasized by Fitz’s harshness when he snapped back at her.

“Shut up –”

“D’you wanna pretend it didn’t happen?” Fitz sucked in a large gulp of air at his dæmon’s question, his cheeks turning bright pink almost immediately. “With me and you –”

“Oh, no,” Jemma answered, hands reaching out instinctively and then halting awkwardly between them. “No, honestly, I’ve just been busy.” Guilt rushed through her for being so childish as to avoid her best friend just because she was embarrassed, and she gave them an encouraging smile. “Really, just busy, that’s all.” 

“See,” Fitz said petulantly, adding a pointed glance at his dæmon for effect, “I told you. Busy.”

Jemma wondered briefly if that argument had been what had brought them to her door, but she pushed the thought aside. “Do you want to come in? I’m working, but –?”

“Yeah?” There was no mistaking the lilt of hopefulness to Fitz’s voice, and her smile became more genuine.

“Yeah, as long as you don’t mind taking the floor or the bed. There’s barely enough desk space for me right now.”

Grabbing his rucksack, Fitz trotted straight into the room and toed off his trainers while she shut the door. “Not a problem, I’m just doing reading today anyway.”

As he reached up to let Sarama slide into his hands, Jemma squared her shoulders, determined to show them that she refused to be embarrassed by what they’d felt in the lab the other day. Reaching slowly towards where Fitz held his dæmon, she glanced up to meet his eyes. “May I...?”

“Oh,” Fitz breathed, clearly taken aback.

Jemma shied away, cringing at her own social ineptitude. (She was a nubile young prodigy with an above-average fashion sense; why did she never seem to know what to do around Fitz?) “Oh, no, I’m –”

“It’s not –”

“I didn’t know if –”

“You can touch her,” Fitz blurted out, both of them staring at each other in shock for a few seconds once the words hung between them. His cheeks now definitively pink, he raised his hands a few inches, and Sarama wiggled a little so that she was facing Jemma. “It’s, um, alright. With us.” 

“Oh.” She didn’t move, though, until he tried to give her what he clearly intended to be a welcoming smile. A sort of openness lingered around his expression, almost a vulnerable eagerness, that eased the rest of her concern. If Fitz weren’t comfortable with having her anywhere near his dæmon, he surely wouldn’t have sought her out in her room.

Making eye contact with Sarama first, Jemma gently took the lizard from her human. Having been more prepared for the rush of feeling this time, it was less potent and more familiar – a comfort, in a way, rather than a distraction. The contact was brief, just long enough for Jemma to rest Sarama on the floor next to Caedmon, who nuzzled down at her the second her claws met the carpet.

 

------

 

Their lives more or less returned to normal after that, with Jemma and Caedmon once again spending most of their non-class time with Fitz and Sarama in the lab. Despite Jemma’s best attempts at feigning the casualness with which she periodically helped transport Sarama from one lab table to another at her own or Fitz’s request, she also couldn’t quite help the growing curiosity about what it would feel like to have Fitz touch Caedmon. She refused to voice this to her dæmon, however, worried about what drastic measures he might take if given even accidental permission to seek out Fitz’s touch. In the end – perhaps unsurprisingly – Caedmon needed no encouragement to take matters into his own paws. 

Just over one week later, the four of them were ensconced in a marathon of The West Wing, the two humans sitting hip-to-hip on Jemma’s bed with the dæmons lounging on the carpeted floor. Sleepy after a long week, Jemma was mere centimeters away from being slumped on Fitz’s shoulder, only able to keep her eyes open thanks to the hilarity of one of her favorite episodes. There was movement from the floor, and after a few seconds Caedmon’s head popped up along the edge of the bed by her feet. Perched on the lion’s head, Sarama crawled daintily onto the mattress, and Jemma stifled a laugh. At some point, she’d have to tease Caedmon about volunteering as a lizard elevator.

Without a word or any indication to his thoughts, Caedmon jumped up onto the mattress beside Fitz, stretched out, and laid his head on the boy’s lap. Everyone froze.

Swallowing, Fitz turned wide eyes on Jemma, who just stared back at him for far too long, brain spinning in too many directions for her to land on one course of action. Eventually, she worked up the courage to nod, flicking her eyes at her dæmon. “You can. If you want to.”

Fitz’s mouth dropped open. “Oh. Right.” 

After shifting around so that he was sitting more comfortably under the weight of the lion’s head, he reached out with both hands. Letting them hover over Caedmon’s mane, Fitz glanced back at Jemma one more time, and she just gave him a smile that she hoped didn’t look as nervous as she felt. Then in one smooth motion, Fitz sunk his fingers into the lion’s fur.

The effect was instantaneous, this wash of something warm, foreign, and wonderful coursing through Jemma’s whole body, so much so that she couldn’t quite stifle the gasp that escaped her throat. Fitz twisted towards her, hands buried deep in her dæmon’s mane, hesitating until she gave him an encouraging nod. From where she was slouched against the wall behind her bed, she could see an unconscious smile tilt up his lips as he began to card his fingers through the fur. The memory of Caedmon offering to be Fitz’s stand-in for a cuddly dæmon popped into her head, and if she weren’t so wholly distracted by parsing out her own biological response she would have laughed. 

The feeling of having Fitz pet Caedmon was vastly different from when she’d held Sarama, magnified by at least ten times. How Fitz hadn’t collapsed in the lab was beyond her, because Jemma was fairly certain that her knees would have given way had she been standing. Her breathing was entirely too shallow, and she had to close her eyes briefly to try to center herself. The sensation zinging through her body was hovering right on the knife’s edge of pure comfort and arousal, and she could almost feel the passes Fitz made with his fingers through the lion’s mane, in the way that the feeling would crash over her in waves. Had it been like this for him, too?

The way it teetered along that line of something more exciting, something she’d only yet to experience with her own hands, confused her. She wanted nothing more from Fitz than the comfortable, platonic friendship they’d cultivated over the past six months or so.

That thought tipped the feeling back over the other side of that ephemeral line, into the kind of comfort that she felt when one or the other of her parents had picked Caedmon up before he’d settled, and she was able to relax. The strength of the feeling was still overwhelming, but she wasn’t on edge anymore from attempting to decipher it. Her eyelids fluttered open, taking in the focus on Fitz’s face as he petted the lion where Caedmon lounged across his lap. 

This must be what best friendship was supposed to be like, Jemma thought to herself, shifting her attention back to the episode playing on her laptop. Complete and mutual trust; and, perhaps, some amount of affection, too.

Fitz let one hand linger on Caedmon’s back through the rest of the episode, fingers shifting occasionally to burrow into his fur, and Jemma was barely able to concentrate. Her mind was far too occupied with cataloguing the full effects of having her best friend touch her dæmon for the first time.

 

------

 

Pulling her jacket more tightly closed, Jemma rapped her knuckles against Fitz’s dormitory door for the third time. She and Caedmon had needed to go a full five minutes further in the evening’s unusual cold snap to get to Fitz and Sarama’s dormitory. Not for the first time, she hoped that his application to be transferred to her building during the summer term – which began in less than a month – would be approved. Their lives would be so much easier if they didn’t have to commute to see each other. 

At last, Fitz yanked the door open, Blackpool Zoo t-shirt rumpled and the faintest of sheet-lines pressed into his cheek and chin. When he registered who was at his door, however, his expression brightened immediately. “Simmons! Didn’t think we’d see you tonight.”

“I’m sorry,” she started, talking over him, “did we wake you? I –”

“Oh, nah,” he answered, waving her off and stepping back to let her in. “Just trying to get comfortable on this bloody cot. Can’t find a good way to read that doesn’t put my back in knots. Hey, Caedmon.”

“Hullo.” The lion trotted past Fitz, bumping gently against his leg by way of greeting before continuing to where Sarama perched at the edge of the bed.

“Hi, Sarama,” Jemma said, giving the lizard a small wave. “Alright?” 

“Alright,” she agreed, shifting over so she could peer above the crumpled sheets. “Bit bored.”

Sighing, Jemma hung her coat and purse up on the back of the door, whose hooks were vacant. (Despite her best attempts at needling him about it, most of Fitz’s belongings continued to live primarily on his floor.) 

“Me too, honestly.” Fitz snickered, and she shot him a look. Although he hadn’t said anything to her either before or after the prior two dates she’d been on, she could tell that he didn’t exactly approve of her choice of companion. “He’s very nice.”

“Ouch,” Fitz said, plopping onto the bed that he’d just straightened.

Sitting down next to him, Jemma poked one finger into his arm. “What?”

“I know you better than that.”

She let out a small huff, leaning back against the pillow he handed her. “All I said was that he’s nice –”

“C’mon, Simmons,” he said with an exaggerated eyeroll. “You have two kinds of ‘nice.’ One’s where you’re practically levitating –” 

“Oh really –”

“With excitement but you don’t wanna show it –”

Ugh –”

“And the other one means that you’d rather fail a class than do something again.” Fitz stared steadily at her, eyebrows raised in that infuriating expression he made whenever he knew he was right (which was annoyingly often).

“He is nice,” she insisted, turning her gaze to the mottled-eggshell ceiling. “But....”

“Fourth highest ranked in class isn’t smart enough for you, eh?” Without looking at Fitz, Jemma swatted at his leg, which he was too slow to dodge.

“No! That’s not... he’s too nice.” She paused, trying to explain the extreme annoyance she’d felt all evening that had prompted her to seek out her best friend rather than just going to bed. “He just... agrees with everything I say. It’s weird.”

In her peripheral vision, she could see Fitz shrug. “Maybe he just thinks you’re right.” 

“All the time?” Jemma wrinkled her nose and tilted her head to meet Fitz’s gaze. “It's disconcerting.”

“And his dæmon’s an idiot.”

“Caedmon!” 

The lion had shoved a small pile of laundry over (underscoring the reason that the four of them spent most of their free time in either the lab or Jemma’s room) to make space for himself next to the bed. In response to his human’s reprimand, he just shrugged and glanced over at Sarama, who was angled towards him on the bedframe. “Most oryctolagus cuniculus aren’t exactly scintillating –” 

“You’re just being a snob because the species’ colloquial name has the word ‘common’ in it,” Jemma retorted, although she privately agreed that the dæmon had seemed rather dull. Out of politeness, she had, naturally, not attempted to engage the rabbit in conversation, so she would have to take Caedmon’s word for it. Even if she didn’t quite believe him. 

When she turned to Fitz, he quickly schooled his expression from a shit-eating grin to a neutral one. “So, you gonna see him again next weekend?”

Attempting to downplay her own cringe, Jemma shook her head. “I think not. No fourth date for Milton.”

“Fantastic,” Fitz said, shifting around so he was lying on his side facing her. “He’s a twat.”

“Fitz!” 

“And his head’s shaped like a cabbage.” 

A giggle burst out of her unbidden, and she slapped her hand over her mouth to muffle the sound.

“More like a Brussels sprout,” Caedmon added, earning him an approving grin from Fitz.

“Well spotted, mate, thanks.”

“At least he was a good kisser,” Jemma mumbled into Fitz’s pillow, and at that Sarama let out an emphatic groan from the end of the bed. 

“Oi, please, can we not? I’ve just had my crickets.”

“What’ve you been doing tonight?” Jemma rather thought it was time to change the subject, particularly because she hadn’t actually even broken the news to Milton yet, and it seemed in poor taste to mock him when they were technically still dating. (After she’d screwed up the courage to do that, she felt she could safely deride him to her heart’s content.)

Fitz groaned and flopped onto his back. “Trying to see if I can get rid of the lag on the bloody SHIELD software. Nothing I try works.”

“Been rubber duck debugging?”

“Well, more like lizard debugging,” he deadpanned, nodding in Sarama’s direction, “but yeah.” 

“Not that he listens when I try to help,” his dæmon muttered, and Jemma gave her a sympathetic smile.

“We’re the same person,” he pointed out, throwing her a wry look. “I’ve already thought of your suggestions.”

Shifting herself up onto one elbow, Jemma gave the two of them a wry look. (She would swear they’d never bickered this much before Sarama settled.) “Can I help?”

“Would you?” Fitz reached around for the cumbersome laptop sitting at the head of his bed. “I could really use your thoughts.” 

“I’m no programmer,” she said, both of them adjusting themselves so they were sitting properly up against the wall, “but I’m happy to be your rubber duck.” She wrinkled her nose, and then elbowed him when he chortled at her phrasing. “You know what I mean.”

“You’re smarter than most of the programmers in Sci-Tech anyway,” he muttered, pulling up the terminal in which he’d been working. A little vein of pride wormed its way into Jemma’s chest, and she couldn’t help the smug grin that spread across her face as Fitz began to explain what had him stymied.

Chapter Text

The last week of Jemma’s first year at SHIELD Academy flew by, and before she knew it she was helping Fitz cart his belongings from his old room to a new one – a single exactly next door to hers. His fortuitous new living arrangement was just the start of what turned out to be one of Jemma’s best ever summers.

First of all, no one made her take a real break; the two of them stayed on campus through the holidays to continue their independent research projects as well as get ahead on a couple less exciting classes. (Both of them agreed it would be simpler to just finish their second semester of holographic engineering, for example, before they dove into more complicated requirements.)

Secondly, she and Fitz spent nearly every waking moment together – and, since she occasionally fell asleep on top of him when they read on the grassy quad, a few non-waking moments, too. Never before had she and Caedmon so happily spent this much time with anyone else other than their parents. To their surprise, Fitz and Sarama never bored them, although they all bickered virtually constantly. When Caedmon pointed this out one night, Jemma just sniffed and said the arguing kept her on her toes. 

Campus itself was not exactly empty, since many older cadets stayed at the Academy to continue their R&D even when the school itself was not in session, but it was still more peaceful than usual. The two best friends used this time to get used to not only being around each other constantly, but also petting or holding each others’ dæmons nearly as often as their own. It was freeing to not have to worry as much about what the other cadets would think or say. Within a matter of weeks, Jemma was carting Sarama around their lab as if they’d always done so, and Fitz happily took advantage of having a soft, cuddly dæmon whose ears he could scratch when the mood struck him. (The fact that Caedmon was the opposite of cuddly with virtually every human being other than Fitz was not something he and Jemma discussed.)

When school began again, however, the habits of touching each others’ dæmons had become so ingrained that neither of them thought to hide it from the other cadets, and people began to notice. For the most part, Jemma was able to hold her head high and ignore the whispers, but something almost like foreboding settled into the pit of her stomach. In some ways, the rumors and staring felt an awful lot like the weeks after Caedmon’s attack of the boy with the bird dæmon. At least this time, she supposed, she had someone by her side to weather the oncoming storm.

 

------

 

“I cannot believe you got us called into Dean Weaver’s office.”

“You’re the one who won’t listen to sense –”

“My phone is perfectly fine as it is, Fitz –”

“It’s ancient!”

“It’s only three years old –”

“Which is ancient –”

“And it’s still one of the most popular mobiles on the market –” 

“The games aren’t bad, but the battery –”

“Oh, the bloody battery again –”

“Holds a quarter of the charge –” 

“I forgot to charge it one time!”

“That it should!”

Jemma opened her mouth to strike back with a cutting retort, but she realized that they were effectively shouting at each other in the Dean’s office and such actions might actually earn them an even worse reprimand. So she shut her mouth, crossed her arms, and turned towards the Dean’s empty desk. And the day had been going so well, too. But then Fitz had gotten it into his head during their toxicology lecture that he should upgrade the battery of Jemma’s Nokia 3310, and had refused to stop pestering her about it.

Note after note found its way across the table, until she’d had a tiny pile raising up the corner of her notebook. Of course, the first note that she slid back in response was the one confiscated by their tutor, and he’d sent them straight to Dean Weaver. (Fitz was convinced this particular professor had it in for him because he was an engineer, preposterous as that may be. To Jemma’s dismay, Caedmon had agreed with him. Engineers didn’t typically take classes like toxicology, but Fitz was no typical engineer.)

The four of them had plodded towards the Dean’s office in silence (at least, three of them did – Sarama let her head hang dejectedly over Fitz’s shoulder where she was hitching a ride), but once faced yet again with the disapproval of her superior Jemma had begun to scold Fitz for his pigheadedness. 

“I don’t want you breaking my phone, Fitz.” Feeling the way the brick-shaped mobile sat in her pocket – dependably solid, unbreakable, and covered with a lovely translucent blue case – she frowned further. “I like my phone.”

“Have I ever steered you wrong when it came to tech?” Jemma pinned him with a look, and he rolled his eyes. “Other than that wee mishap with the oscillator.”

“Those are made in precision facilities for a reason,” she muttered, unable to entirely sublimate the small smile elicited by that particular memory. 

Seeing that he was finally making headway, Fitz turned towards her in the black plastic-and-cloth desk chair, hands gesturing as he spoke. “The fix is right simple,” he assured her, blue eyes earnest and bright, “and I don’t even need your actual mobile, just the battery. Nine hundred milliampere hours is pitiful compared to what SHIELD’s already got in its newest comms, so all I need to do is manufacture something that will fit –”

“Into the phone,” Jemma finished for him. Glancing down between them, she met Caedmon’s gaze. The lion only gave her a small shrug in response, as if saying that he’d known Fitz was right all along. (The amount that her own dæmon agreed with someone other than herself really was absurd, she thought briefly.) With a long sigh, Jemma turned back to the dean’s desk with an unsubtle flounce. “Fine.”

“Yes!” Fitz exclaimed, making a brief fist pump in the air and then bumping one knuckle affectionately against Sarama’s front claw. Stretched along the edge of the desk, the lizard shook her head in an unmistakable show of excitement and then glanced shyly over at Jemma. 

“You really don’t mind?”

“No,” Jemma said, affecting an air of long suffering. “He’ll just have to buy me a new phone – the exact same model – if he mucks it up.”

“I won’t,” he assured her, swiping one hand emphatically through the air, “promise.”

“Agents FitzSimmons,” came Dean Weaver’s voice from the doorway, and they both scrambled to their feet. Her great horned owl dæmon flew in over her shoulder, landing gracefully on the back of her leather desk chair, and Jemma tried to remember if there had been an “and” in between her and Fitz’s names. “I’m surprised to see you both in my office this time.”

Fitz frowned. “This time...?” Not meeting her best friend’s questioning gaze, Jemma turned as Dean Weaver made her way to her desk chair. 

“I’m not sure I have much to say, quite frankly,” she said, sitting primly down and flipping open her laptop. (A much sharper model than the ones given to the students, Jemma noted.) “Professor Huxley wants assurances from you both that you won’t disrupt his class again, which I’m sure I can give him.” They both nodded emphatically when she glanced up, sliding on a pair of glasses. “Good.” There was an awkward pause as she made a few keystrokes. “One other thing. SHIELD does not expect its cadets to refrain from fraternization at this age, but it does require absolute dedication to your studies and to the agency. Can I expect that this won’t be a problem?” 

Jemma’s cheeks reddened as she nodded again, although when Fitz made no movement beside her she realized she’d have to speak up for them both. “Yes, Dean Weaver.”

“You may go.” 

The look Fitz gave Jemma as she shuffled around her chair was one of complete confusion, and she bit back a sigh as she tugged on his sleeve to get him to follow her out the door. He reached around to grab Sarama and trotted after her, muttering a goodbye of some sort to the Dean as he went.

Once they were outside the administration building, Jemma snuck a look at her best friend, whose brows were furrowed in concentration. “Was she asking if we were dating?” he said at last, and she dropped her eyes to her favorite red Cons.

“Hard to say,” she lied, shooting Caedmon a wary look.

“Weird,” Fitz muttered, giving his head an emphatic shake. The tone of his voice suggested that he had something else on his mind, however, and shortly he slid his eyes over to her. “So, what d’you wanna do now? Reckon we missed the rest of toxicology.” 

“The lab?”

“Sure.” His voice was too casual, and sure enough the other shoe dropped momentarily. “D’you need your phone for anything?”

“Ugh, Fitz,” she groaned, rolling her eyes. “Yes, you can have my phone. But I want it back before History of SHIELD this afternoon, okay?”

“Not a problem,” he answered with a grin, doing a little hop as he turned to hold out his hand for her Nokia. The laboratory building loomed before them, and she let out a low huff as she pulled the mobile from her pocket. If Fitz broke her phone, she was going to be really peeved.

 

------

 

“This was a terrible idea.” Fitz stared balefully past Jemma at the lake, currently filled with ice-skating cadets from all three of SHIELD Academy’s divisions.

Ice-skating had always been one of Jemma’s favorite winter activities, and it also happened to be the only physical sport that didn’t usually end up with her injuring or humiliating herself in some way. (She did both of the above while just walking, let alone attempting to be coordinated.) Being out at the Academy’s artificial lake under a muted sun and hazy blue sky felt like the first freedom she’d felt in months, not since the relative peace of summertime. Their third semester had been so jam-packed with research and work and learning that she’d barely had time to breathe, let alone take a day off. And, well, Fitz’s familiar griping made it feel rather like home.

“You’re being melodramatic,” she tossed over her shoulder, turning back to finishing the laces on her own pair of skates. “Everyone likes ice skating!” 

Even if she couldn’t see it, his return glare bored into the back of her head. “That is patently incorrect.”

“He over-enunciates when he’s nervous,” Sarama stage-whispered from the concrete bench next to Jemma, who chuckled quietly.

“Only sometimes,” he retorted, and then dropped petulantly onto the bench next to his dæmon.

A multicolored scarf was loosely wrapped around her lizard body to ward off at least some of the cold; shingleback skinks were desert natives, after all, and not used to the icy winters of North America. Caedmon’s form was not used to the cold, being native to the savannah, but with his fur at least he had some sort of protection. He’d also had many more years to get used to cold weather than Sarama. The scarf hindered her movement, however, so Fitz and Jemma had agreed to look into creating a more permanent solution to her problem. As this was Sarama’s first winter as a lizard, there was bound to be an adjustment period.

“Did you remember the knee guards?” Glancing over at Caedmon, Fitz nodded in response.

“See? We’ve taken precautions,” Jemma said, confidence absolute as she pushed herself up onto her skate’s blades. “I don’t expect you to do much your first time on the ice, anyway.”

A chilly gust of wind blew the end of Jemma’s cheery yellow scarf in front of her face, and she couldn’t help but smile as she tucked it back inside her gray peacoat. The semester had officially ended two days prior, with an exam that left both of them feeling particularly smug. (Many of their classmates had needed the full period, while Jemma and Fitz had both finished an hour early.) Their respective flights home to their families took off in about a day and a half, and that left them only today to celebrate together.

“I’m not worried,” he muttered in response. “Just seems boring.”

“Oh, no,” she breathed, eyes following a particularly graceful older woman circle through the center of the lake, dark hair twisting in the wind. A dark-skinned man sped up behind and grabbed her around the waist, their laughter echoing through the crowd. “Ice-skating is wonderful, Fitz, truly. It’s so freeing.” 

Fitz grumbled something inaudible behind her, and she sighed. “Now these will make it interesting,” he said with a triumphant little noise, and she twisted around to see him attach what looked like a small jet funnel to the back of one skate. “S’long as they work.” 

What is that?” Jemma exclaimed, turning jerkily around on the hard winter dirt. Snow banks lined the lake, but this entry point was so well-used by cadets and Academy faculty that the snow had long since disappeared.

“Skate booster,” Fitz answered airily, and her eyes narrowed.

“You borrowed those skates, if you break–” 

“I’ll buy Jeremy another pair, yeah, yeah.” He waved one hand dismissively in her direction, sticking out his leg to inspect his work. “I told him what I was gonna do anyway, he thought it’d be great.”

“That’s because he wants to see you fall on your arse.” Caedmon nudged Fitz’s knee, his forehead wrinkling in concern. “Be careful.”

“Don’t you start, too,” Fitz muttered, scrubbing the lion affectionately on the top of his head and then pushing himself up onto his feet. He almost immediately wobbled to the side, but Jemma was near enough that he could catch himself on her arm. “And, in theory, they’ll help me balance.”

Jemma gave him a dry look. “Jet propulsion will help your balance? What version of physics is that, exactly?”

“I said in theory,” he groused, begrudgingly allowing her to lead him to the edge of the ice.

“Okay, just...” she began, breaking off on a sigh. “Let me teach you the normal way at first, please? Then you can try your hare-brained scheme all you like.”

“Fine.”

“Fine,” she replied, glancing back at where Caedmon and Sarama waited together by the edge of the lake. The dæmons not coming along, due to neither of their settled forms being conducive for ice-skating, meant that she and Fitz would have to stay nearby so as to not over-stretch their respective bonds. Considering that this was his first time ice-skating, Jemma suspected that keeping to the lake’s edge wouldn’t be a problem.

Half an hour later, Fitz was bruised, glowering, and absolutely no more convinced of the merits of ice-skating than he had been to begin with. 

“I miss the lab,” he grumped, holding onto her forearms for dear life. “I miss the temperature control, and the lights, and the fact that it’s dry –” 

“Oh alright,” Jemma exclaimed, rolling her eyes as emphatically as possible, “we can go home now, will that make you happy?”

“Yup,” he said, eyes brightening. “But first I wanna try the boosters.” 

“For God’s sake,” she muttered, pursing her lips and hesitantly sliding backwards and away from him. “Just – use a low setting, or something, please? Did you do a proper safety test before taking them out here?”

He shrugged and crouched down to flip the switch on the jets, ignoring her second question. “There’s only one setting.” 

Then he shot straight ahead, cannonball-esque, into a huge bank of snow along the edge of the lake. Jemma doubled over laughing, trying to force her feet forward so she could make sure he was okay. Through the pile of snow, she could see him moving around, flopping over and panting once he’d unearthed his head. 

“Are you okay?” Caedmon bounded over from the bench, propping his paws on the snowbank so he could peer up at Fitz.

“Peachy,” Fitz deadpanned, swiping a handful of flakes off his face. “You’re right, Simmons, ice-skating really is just like freedom. From gravity.”

“Now,” she giggled, trying unsuccessfully to suppress a grin, “don’t you go blaming your mistakes on me. I’m not the one who attached a jetpack to ice-skates.”

He let out a bitter little harrumph, groaning as he sat up. A puff of snow had attached itself to his curls – his hat having disappeared somewhere during his flight – and it shook down into his face as he turned his head. “Can we go home now?”

“Yes, alright,” she said, reaching forward to help him scramble out of the snow without falling over again.

He grumbled indistinctly all the way back to the bench, wincing as he lowered himself gently onto the concrete. “The plane ride’s gonna be fun.”

The second he was seated, Sarama crawled out of her scarf bundle and up onto his lap, pressing her scaly body sympathetically against his stomach. His expression softening, Fitz lowered one hand to pet her head, clearly taking comfort from his dæmon as he did from almost no one else.

“When we get home,” Sarama offered, glancing over at Caedmon and Jemma while she finished removing her own skates, “we can watch the new Doctor Who trailer, again. That’ll cheer you up.”

Fitz made a noncommittal hum, but he couldn’t hide the way his eyes brightened at the suggestion. “Yeah, and I can see if anyone’s said anything to my thread on Outpost. That’d be a laugh.” 

“Be nice,” Jemma chided fondly, coming over to collect Fitz’s skates and pack them away with her own. “Not everyone’s watched as much of the classic episodes as you have.”

“I am nice,” he snapped back at her, paused, and then gave her a sheepish look. “Might be a bit hungry, too, now that I think of it.”

“Come on, then.” Looping her arm into his, Jemma tugged him up and along with her on the path back towards campus. “I think I’ve still got some of that last batch of aioli left.”

“The lemon or the pesto?” Sarama’s voice was muffled by the way Fitz had bundled her back into the scarf, and he snugged it back a bit to let her nose poke through. “Pesto’s his favorite.”

“Really?” He shrugged in response, and Jemma’s smile widened. “I thought it was too garlicky.”

“I mean, when there’s too much of it,” he said, wincing at some movement that pulled at his new bruises. “But, y’know, just a hint... then it’s good.”

She shook her head, shifting the skate bag up on her shoulder. “You’re a hard one to impress, you know.”

“High standards,” Caedmon interjected approvingly, nodding up at Fitz from Jemma’s other side. “Nothing wrong with that.”

“Lucky for you,” Jemma said, ignoring her dæmon siding with her best friend yet again, “it is the pesto one I have left. Should be enough for a sandwich.”

Pumping one fist into the air, Fitz let out a little noise of victory before hissing in pain. “Makes the rest of the day worth it, then.”

“Aw, come on, didn’t you have even a little fun?” She elbowed him gently, allowing herself to wheedle a little. They weren’t going to see each other for over two weeks, and she was already nearly dreading the distance. It would be the longest they’d been apart in a year.

“Maybe a little,” he conceded at last, and she made a triumphant little hop. “And I have some ideas for how to improve the boosters for next time.”

Jemma groaned, dropping her head briefly onto his shoulder. Perhaps she’d demur if he wanted to go ice-skating when they got back from their holidays; who knew what kind of disaster he’d work up next time.

 

------

 

Jemma typed a short answering SMS on her mobile, fingers pressing quickly into the glowing green rubber buttons. It had been nearly six months since Fitz had fiddled around with her battery, and his work had been so annoyingly effective that she almost couldn’t remember the last time she’d needed to charge it. (His preening in the weeks immediately after his success had been nigh unbearable.)

“Did she get your message yet?” Fitz hopped in place a few times, arms crossed over his chest to ward off the cold.

“I just sent it, Fitz, don’t be so impatient.” Her retort aside, she was also vastly underdressed for this April cold snap, so she dug her hands into Caedmon’s mane to warm up her fingers.

Fitz gave them a longing glance and then resisted the urge to join Jemma by hunkering down further in his jacket. “Remind me why you couldn’t’ve been something with fur.” The large bundle that was Sarama wiggled around in his expanded breast pocket, and Jemma could just barely hear something about fur making his already messy room even worse.

“Heeeeeeeeeeey,” called an exuberant voice as the house door swung open. “The baby geniuses are here!” 

“Don’t call us that,” Jemma snapped rather more waspishly than intended. Slipping her mobile back into her jeans pocket, she blinked up at the cheerful face of Melissa Grenier, one of SHIELD Academy’s most promising astrophysicists. On the cusp of graduating into Sci-Ops a year earlier than the rest of her class, Mel was one of the more genuinely intelligent cadets at Sci-Tech and had become friendly with Jemma during an astrophysics elective in the fall semester. 

(Both Jemma and Fitz had knocked out one of the ordinary second-year requirements during the summer before, and had mutually decided that the class had seemed interesting. Fitz hadn’t bothered talking to most of the other cadets in the class, as was his wont, but Mel and Jemma had been paired together a couple times and got along well.)

“Sorry, sorry,” Mel said with a grin, waving them both inside. Her crane dæmon strutted out from behind the door to tilt his head cheerfully towards the new guests. “Forgot y’all are sensitive ‘bout that. C’mon in, everyone else’s here.” 

This wasn’t the first party that Jemma and Fitz had attended in the past year, but it was definitely one of the bigger ones. And, to Jemma’s relief, she was getting closer and closer to not breaking the law any time she had an alcoholic drink – at least, as far as British law was concerned. Following rules had always made her feel nice, so choosing to drink while still underage grated at her every time she did it. But in only a handful of months she would at least be legally allowed to drink were she still living in the U.K., and that would ease her discomfort with it tremendously.

Fortunately, Mel had good taste in party invitees, so the raucous group of cadets scattered through the two-story townhouse was largely made up of people that Jemma could at least tolerate, if not actually befriend. The off-campus housing allotted for near-graduates was worn but comfortable, and all of the furniture had been pushed along the walls in order to make space for dancing, gesticulating, or just lounging. By the time they arrived, red solo cups already covered nearly every surface, and almost-empty bags of crisps and pretzels were strewn through the rooms and hallways. 

Thanks to the fact that the property was owned by the Academy, everything was painted in shades of taupe, and the inhabitants had attempted to cover said taupe with every kind of space and scientific poster imaginable. One that caught Jemma’s eye was an all-black graphic with bold, turquoise lettering that proclaimed: “Save a spaceship, ride an engineer.” She laughed in spite of herself, and then hid her face behind her cup of rum and coke. Hopefully, Fitz wouldn’t notice that particular poster. 

As the party wore on, Jemma found herself and Caedmon repeatedly separated from Fitz and Sarama. Although it made her feel ridiculous, she checked to see where they were each time it happened, always feeling better when she found him either lecturing someone or waiting in the drinks line. The attendee numbers began to dwindle, until maybe a dozen people were left – including herself and Fitz – sitting sprawled over the furniture and amongst the party refuse of paper plates and plastic cups.

In the tradition of most college-age parties, things didn’t tend to get really interesting until most of the guests had wandered away, and a somewhat tipsy Jemma wondered what might happen this time. Improper of her though it may be, she loved being around to see the things that made the rounds in the cafeteria on Sunday mornings. Gossip was always more fun if she'd been there to witness it herself. Assuming, of course, that she was not one of the people actually involved in such gossip. Considering the fact that she was generally somewhat reserved in large groups of people, the odds of that being the case were astronomically low. Or, so she told herself.

Chapter Text

Although Jemma didn’t recognize everyone else left at the party by this point, she knew enough of them to feel comfortable. Fitz had just downed the last of his beer and was tapping his fingers along the plastic rim. The two of them were sitting cross-legged on the floor, side by side, having happily reconnected when she had gotten tired of talking to other people and sought him out. Although neither one was drunk, they’d each had more than a few drinks. Fitz seemed to be holding his liquor better than her, but she felt happy and part of the group, and didn’t really care that she had less of a filter than usual. Besides, he seemed perfectly content to let her lean against him more than she normally would, and that suited her fine. To avoid being stepped on or otherwise neglected around the other very drunk cadets, Sarama remained on Fitz’s shoulder, and Caedmon lounged contentedly alongside the loveseat against which the two humans leaned.

Teetering slightly on her pointed, green heels, Mel proudly placed an empty vodka bottle in the center of the circle of cadets, and then flopped onto a nearby armchair. “S’not a real party without spin the bottle!”

Groans and giggles erupted around the room, and Jemma rolled her eyes, dropping her head to rest briefly on Fitz’s shoulder.

“What’re the rules?” asked a freckled girl with auburn plaits and a hare dæmon, and a smattering of disbelief sounded from the others.

“Good question, good question,” Mel said, leaning unsteadily forward to lean on her knees. “Lessdo truth or dare –” Half the circle let out nearly synchronized sounds of disappointment. “‘Cause then we’ll have way more blackmail material once we’re all real spies!” Her audience laughed and cheered – except for Fitz, who gave his head a derisive shake.

“She knows that we’re scientists, not spies, right?” he muttered into Jemma’s ear, and she gave his knee a light whack.

“In SHIELD,” she whispered back, watching as a dark-skinned boy with a tree frog dæmon leaned forward to grab the bottle, “they’re basically the same thing.”

One by one, people around the circle stretched forward to give the bottle a spin, hoots and laughter following each truth or dare. A few kisses were had, a few bras were proudly displayed, and at least one more round was had by all before the empty bottle finally landed on Fitz.

Jemma poked him gleefully in the side, amused by the way his nose wrinkled in apprehension. They both looked around in unison, though, when the spinner of the bottle let out an exaggerated, disappointed groan. A xenogeologist in her third year at the Academy, Adrianne Hart, flopped backwards against the front edge of a sofa. Her groundhog dæmon scooted over on the couch cushion to rest his two front paws atop her hijab, and she huffed at the contact.

“But that’s so booooooooring,” she whined, tossing a couple of alcohol-surrogate M&Ms into her mouth and chewing as she spoke. “I can’t give him any good dares! He’s underage, and he’s been dating baby genius number two for, like, a hundred years –”

“We’re not dating,” Jemma and Fitz protested at the same time, and the room broke into a combination of giggles and guffaws.

“No way,” said the dark-skinned boy whose name Jemma couldn’t remember, although she was fairly certain he was in at least one of her classes. “I’ve seen ‘em hold each other’s dæmons in the lab, they’ve gotta be at least hooking up.” 

A few other cadets made noises of disbelief, and Jemma felt a blush rise all the way to her hairline. “Societal qualms about dæmon handling are completely unnecessary,” she said, probably a little more loudly than necessary and tripping a little on her own words. She felt Fitz wrap one hand worriedly around the wrist of the hand that she’d rested on his knee, but she ignored him. “It’s just a social construct, and it’s simply more practical –” 

“Omigod,” another girl at the edge of the circle chortled into her red solo cup, “you’re so clearly a virgin.” Her robin dæmon settled her wings more comfortably along her back, claws flexing in her human’s blonde hair.

Jemma snapped her mouth shut, entire face now burning in embarrassment as a few uncomfortable titters echoed through the room. Her immediate instinct was to want to look at Fitz for reassurance or support, but she couldn’t bear the thought of whatever expression he might be wearing right now. She’d gotten them into this horrible predicament, with the entire room staring at them, and she had no idea how to get them out. 

“Yo,” said an Indian boy, peering out from behind the couch along with his marmoset dæmon, “you let someone else touch your dæmon?”

The senior with the robin dæmon shrugged. “Been with my girl since we were fifteen.” A wicked grin spread across her face as she took another sip of her drink. “Feels real good when you’re, ah, mid-coitus.”

“When you’re fucking,” someone else called out in correction, and the room erupted into laughter and whoops.

“Don’t go to Sci-Tech for nothing,” she called back, high-fiving the boy Jemma recognized but whose name she’d forgotten.

“I can’t ever imagine anyone touching my Raythion,” Mel said, more than a tinge of incredulousness to her voice. “It’d be too weird.” A number of murmurs around the group agreed with her, and Jemma began to have a sinking feeling that she’d regret ever coming to this party.

“Alrightalrighalright,” Adrianne interrupted, waving her hands to get the others to quiet down, and then leaned forward with a predatory smile. “Look at their faces – the nerdbabies are totally not bumping uglies.”

“That’s what I told you –” Jemma said, exasperated, at the same time that Fitz spoke. 

“Baby geniuses was better,” he muttered bitterly and crossed his arms across his chest. Jemma could feel the discomfort rolling off of him in waves, and desperately wished that she’d listened when he’d wanted to leave half an hour ago.

So,” Adrianne continued, “Fitz. Your dare is to spend seven minutes in heaven with Simmons.” 

The room cheered, and Jemma gave Fitz a helpless glance. His face was set into a thunderous frown, the kind that would usually make her stay away in the lab until it had disappeared. But the others started chanting things like “c’mon,” “doooo it,” and “up! Up! Up,” making it impossible for the dare to be ignored. Adrianne rose gracefully to her feet (almost certainly the only sober person left in the house), and hopped over to the boy with the marmoset dæmon. When she leaned down to whisper something to him, he looked confused for a moment, then swore under his breath and laughed. After hunting in his pocket, he reached up to press something minute and metallic into her palm. 

“Mel, the upstairs closet’s big enough for her dæmon, right?”

Rolling her head forward along the edge of the armchair, Mel squinted at Caedmon. “Yeah, should work.” 

“C’mon then, baby geniuses,” Adrianne quipped, adjusting the lavender cloth of her hijab before scooping her groundhog daemon into her hands. “Let’s do this!”

Jemma slowly got to her feet, avoiding the eyes of everyone else in the room. For his part, Fitz had affected an expression that was a cross between anger and dismissiveness, but she suspected that it was for show. In truth, seven minutes in heaven was probably the easiest dare he could have been given – all they had to do was sit together in a closet and wait until the time was up. Surely he would have also reached that conclusion by now.

Adrianne led them up the creaky stairs to the second floor, pointedly giving a wide berth to a bedroom from which emitted low grunts and a squeaking mattress. Far along the other side of the hall was a walk-in closet with wooden slat doors, and Adrianne flung them open with a flourish.

“Your honeymoon suite awaits!”

As they filed in, Caedmon first, followed by Jemma and then Fitz, the older girl disappeared briefly around the side of the closet, reappearing just as quickly. “Okay, you guys know the rules,” she drawled, watching as Fitz plopped onto the carpeted floor. “Seven minutes making out. And we’ll know if you’re not.” 

“What,” Fitz deadpanned, “are you gonna stand there the whole time?” 

“No,” she retorted, “I just bugged the closet. So we’ll hear if you’re just sitting up here chatting. Now, go on!” Grinning, Adrianne snapped her fingers only a foot or so from Jemma’s face, and she resisted the urge to slap her hand away. “Get to it!” 

Then Adrianne shut the door, and Jemma was left standing in a closet with her best friend in complete and total silence. Caedmon curled himself along the right-hand side of the room, just barely fitting between the back wall and the door, and Fitz placed Sarama gently on the floor. With her first free moments of the evening, the lizard slunk immediately over to the lion and stretched out next to his lowered head.

“Give it a bit,” Fitz muttered, dropping his chin onto where his knees were folded up to his chest. “Then I’ll go find the bloody bug and get rid of it. Too bad I didn’t bring that EMP I was fixing earlier, I could’ve –”

“Oh, Fitz, no,” Jemma whispered, sinking onto the floor beside him. A long coat brushed the back of her head, the static making her hair stick up enough that she had to reach back to pat it down again. Fortunately, the clothes bar was high enough that the closet didn’t feel claustrophobic, shelves piled high with belongings but very little stored on the floor. “We can’t – I don’t – I....” Normally comforting, his unwavering gaze made her anxious and she dropped her eyes to her lap. “I don’t want them to tease us,” she whispered, hating every second of having to admit her insecurities. “Not again.”

If she was lucky – very, very lucky – he would remember the day that she ran out of the Academy’s cafeteria, and she wouldn’t have to relive the experience by explaining it to him (and risk having the other cadets overhear).

Fitz swallowed, and she saw him shift from side to side in her peripheral vision. “They’ll do it anyway.”

“But, maybe, if we do what they want....”

“It won’t be as bad,” he muttered, finishing the incomplete thought for her. “She could be bluffing.”

“What if she isn’t?”

He shifted around so he was leaning against the wall, cross-legged. “Alright,” he exhaled, dropping his head back to thunk quietly against the plaster. “So what d’you wanna do?”

Come on, nerdbabies, we’re waiting!” Giggles erupted from the first floor, Adrianne’s yell echoing up the staircase. Fitz flinched, tightening his fingers against his thighs.

Cringing, Jemma took a deep breath to steady herself. This was likely going to be a horrendously awkward seven minutes, but at the very least she had faith that her and Fitz’s friendship was too strong to be broken by something so silly. So she scooted closer to him, tucking her legs to the side, and tugged gently at the open hem of his button-down shirt. He glanced down at her hand, eyes widening as he met her gaze. A distinct sense of nervousness hovered around his expression, and she realized that, perhaps, her best friend had never kissed anyone before. Looking at this whole experience as if she was teaching Fitz how to kiss – unconfirmed though her suspicion would have to be, since asking would more awkward than the answer was worth – eased her nerves considerably. 

Placing her hands firmly on either side of Fitz’s face, Jemma leaned forward and pressed their lips together, letting her eyelids flutter shut. As expected, Fitz just froze against her, his hands eventually coming to rest awkwardly on her shoulders. Then he moved no other part of his body – not even his lips. Withholding a smile, Jemma separated just enough to slide his hands more tightly around her back.

“I won’t break, Fitz,” she chided quietly, curling her own arms around his neck. “Just pretend I’m someone you want to be kissing.” 

“Alright, Sarah Jane,” he retorted, and she couldn’t stop the surprised laugh his joke elicited. The smile he gave her in return was bright and the first genuine one he’d worn in at least an hour, which gave her the confidence boost she needed.

Pushing aside the odd niggling discontent that he’d be thinking about someone else, Jemma nuzzled forward. “Just follow my lead.”

“Bossy,” he mumbled against her lips just as she once again shut her eyes. 

The kissing continued to be stilted for a little while longer, until Fitz finally relaxed enough to begin mimicking the gentle movements of Jemma’s lips. Sitting like this, the flat of his chest was pressed against hers, and she could feel all the somewhat bony angles of a seventeen-year-old boy who was still growing. It wasn’t until he began to meet her mouth press for press that her own investment in the activity began to pick up considerably. For a boy, his lips were pleasantly soft and pliable, blindly seeking out her mouth again as she pulled back for air. One hand reached up to cup the back of her head, holding her in place, and a little vein of excitement darted through her. She wasn’t sure if it was the alcohol, or that she already trusted Fitz implicitly, but she rather liked the way he held her against him so that he could continue studying the art of kissing. Because that’s what he was doing, she realized as he switched from kissing her top lip to her bottom one. Fitz was experimenting as he kissed her, and something about that thought made her head swim in a very different way from the alcohol still buzzing through her system. 

After he seemed comfortable with what they’d been doing, Jemma hesitantly touched her tongue to the seam of his lips, withdrawing when he froze around her again. A distant part of her said that it would be far less awkward later if she only did the most basic kinds of kissing with her best friend, but the rest of her shivered as Fitz parted his lips in response and brushed his own tongue against her lips. When she angled their mouths open together, swinging her legs over his lap and pressing her torso more firmly against his, his fingers fisted all at once into the back of her cardigan. Their tongues and mouths moved together, the friction delicious and wonderful and not enough. Fitz tasted like beer, but as she nipped at his lower lip she decided that it wasn’t a bad taste when it came from him.

Something sensible in her head tried to convince her to calm down, to remember that Fitz was her best friend and that she’d never dreamed they would ever do anything like this. But when he pulled back briefly, panting as he rested their foreheads together, the expression he wore was the most intriguing, exciting thing she could ever remember seeing. His eyes were more intense than she’d ever seen them, pupils blown wide from stimulation, and before she could think any further Jemma dove back in, slanting his mouth open and kissing him like his lips were her air.

Fitz fought to match her every move, sliding their tongues together in a way that made her actually whimper. A groan rumbled from his chest to hers, and she was dizzy with surprise, with the taste of him, with the chemistry singing between them.

“Fitz,” she moaned into his mouth, burying her hands in his hair. 

Pressing in for kiss after kiss and then shifting to trail his lips messily along her jaw, Fitz shuddered in her hold. “Say that again,” he breathed, the wash of his hot breath down her neck sending tingles through her body. When she didn’t immediately respond, brain having decidedly turned to mush, he nipped lightly at the skin over her pulse point.

“Oh, Fitz,” she murmured, unsure if she was obeying his plea or scolding him. With a low, rough noise he twisted up to meet her lips again, angling her mouth open to satisfy the friction they both wanted. For someone who had been so uncomfortable not that long ago, Fitz had learned how to make Jemma lightheaded with his kisses astoundingly fast.

She wasn’t sure how it happened, only that she’d been reveling in the broad press of his hands against her back, leaned against his hold, and suddenly they were both tilting towards the floor, her backwards and him forward. Jemma shot one arm out to catch herself while Fitz reached out with one hand, and when their hands stopped their fall suddenly white-hot pleasure was coursing through her veins, both of them outright moaning in unison.

It took her a few seconds to figure out what had happened, that Fitz’s hand had landed on top of hers somewhere over Sarama’s tail and into Caedmon’s fur. The feeling coursing through her now was like nothing she’d ever experienced before, a potent feedback loop of pure pleasure. It was more than simply nice or comforting, like it usually felt when they touched each others’ dæmons; it was erotic, this thrumming energy that directly connected her to something deep inside Fitz on a level Jemma couldn’t begin to understand. She’d had orgasms before – only a handful, and by her own hand – and this seemed closer to that than anything else she’d ever experienced.

Chest heaving, she blinked dazedly up at Fitz, who was half lying over, half-kneeling above her. His face was partially shrouded in darkness, and she avidly watched him dart his tongue out to wet his lips. That was all the invitation she needed, reaching up to pull him down over her, and he met her mouth again with heat and an eagerness that mirrored her own. Their movements approached a crescendo, where she wanted him so much closer than he was, wanted to feel skin to skin to skin. 

His hand curled around her knee, the soft skin beneath her jeans suddenly as sensitive as any one of half a dozen more intimate erogenous zones, and she gasped against his ear. He let out a small groan, pausing in the middle of whatever adjustment he’d been seeking to fit their mouths together again. A potent ache between her thighs needed release, needed something, and she reached up beneath his button-down to pull his torso against hers. They were lying stretched on the floor now, with Jemma unable to help the way she writhed a little too ardently underneath Fitz’s ministrations. There were so many places she wanted to be touching him right now, where she wanted him touching her, but all she could do was try to meet him kiss for kiss, with tongue and lips and small breaths just barely touched with sound.

Footsteps hopped towards the closet, and abruptly Fitz wrenched himself off of Jemma, scrambling back to hit the wall on the opposite side of the closet. She moved more slowly, only just pushing herself into a sitting position as the closet doors flew open, squinting at the hallway’s bright fluorescents.

“Boy,” Adrianne said, tongue in cheek as she watched Jemma clamber unsteadily to her feet, “you guys really don’t do anything half-assed, do ya?”

“He completed the dare,” was the only thing Jemma could think to say in response, her brain still muddled and sluggish after being ripped away from something so fascinating. 

“Yup yup,” said the older girl, reaching up to scratch her dæmon where he perched on her shoulder. “C’mon, Mel’s setting up Kings next.” 

“Okay, we’ll be right there.” Jemma watched as the other girl disappeared down the stairs, waiting for her to be completely out of sight before she turned to Fitz. He was curled over himself in the corner of the closet, two forefingers and thumb pinching the bridge of his nose.

“‘M fine,” he said hoarsely. “Be there in a sec.”

“Are you....”

“Yup, go on.”

Jemma hesitated, worried by the way he wouldn’t meet her eyes, but Caedmon drew her gaze away by nudging at her leg. “Okay,” she said at last, edging out the closet doors. “See you down there.”

Fitz just hummed his assent, not looking at anyone, and Jemma turned to glance at his dæmon. Sarama gave her and Caedmon an encouraging nod before making her way over to her human, and Jemma supposed she had no choice but to go downstairs. Taking her first few reluctant steps towards the staircase, she swayed slightly as the memory of the past seven minutes lingered in her mind and had to reach one hand out to steady herself on the wall. What was that?

“Alright?” Caedmon’s voice was barely above a whisper, and Jemma glanced down at him. For a lion who normally seemed so unruffled, his expression held a distinct dazedness that she found comforting. At least she wasn’t the only one who had been taken completely off-guard by what had just happened in the closet. 

“Alright,” she murmured back, glancing over her shoulder at the partially closed doors. Beyond anything else that could have happened tonight, she had not expected the heat that had built so quickly between her and her best friend.

 

------

 

The next few days were awkward for everyone involved.

Fitz had wanted to leave the party nearly immediately after he (at long last) came downstairs, for which Jemma couldn’t blame him, but they hadn’t talked much on the walk home to their dormitory. Although they continued with their usual routines in the following days, eating every meal together and working on their respective projects and assignments alongside each other, nothing felt normal. Not that the dæmons showed any outward signs of noticing the difference – they continued to sit together and chat away from their humans, as they had done for the past year and a half. (Closer to two years, but Jemma chose not to count the time during which the dæmons had connected prior to her and Fitz becoming friends.) Fitz would barely meet her eyes at all, and, if it weren’t for the fact that he initiated conversations, sometimes it felt an awful lot like when he had hated her during their very first semester at the Academy.

As they worked together in silence across a lab table a day later, Jemma got so fed up with their mutual discomfort that she blurted out: “It’s just kissing!”

After a few seconds, Fitz blinked up at her through his lab goggles. Her cheeks warmed; there had been no prompting about the topic from anyone, which meant that he now knew without a doubt that she’d been thinking about it on her own. 

“I mean,” she continued more quietly, glancing around to ascertain that (thankfully) none of the other cadets were even in the shared lab space at that moment, “we shouldn’t be awkward about it, don’t you think? It doesn’t mean anything.”

His eyebrows raised just a hair and he dropped his gaze to the beaker he was holding. Swirling the fuel with which he was experimenting in the glass container, he shrugged. “I know.”

“Then – are we okay?” Jemma could hear the slightly pleading note to her voice and cringed, seconds away from turning tail and sprinting out of the lab as fast as she could go.

“Course,” Fitz said, giving her a tight smile and reaching for a nearby pipette. “S’not my first party, Simmons.”

“No, I know,” she retorted, wrinkling her nose at the bite to his tone. “I just...” she trailed off, shaking her head and turning towards the supply closets. She was being silly, and she knew it. If Fitz wasn’t bothered by what happened last weekend, then she shouldn’t be either.

 

------

 

“It’s one in the morning.”

“I know, Caed.” 

“You’re still awake.”

“You don’t say.”

“What are you thinking about?”

Jemma rolled her head over on her pillow to look down at the foot of the bed, upon which Caedmon was curled. “Nothing.” 

He hummed, and stretched one paw along the edge of the mattress. “The kind of nothing with blue eyes and curly hair.”

“Shut up,” she muttered, stretching one foot out to kick lightly at his haunches.

As usual, her dæmon was annoyingly right. She’d been going over the kisses in the closet again and again in her mind, attempting to ignore the flare of arousal the memory sparked and focus on how she felt about them intellectually. A week had passed since the party, and all that had happened was that she’d found herself watching Fitz more often than she should. Watching his hands – and thinking about how his fingers had felt pressing against her skin; watching him drink from his water bottle – and thinking about the taste of his skin beneath her tongue. Thoughts like that had never occurred to her about her best friend before, even though she’d always objectively known that he was more handsome than your average engineering student, and she found it both distracting and disconcerting.

The tentative conclusion to which she came was simply that her strong friendship with Fitz translated to her comfort while they were doing something intimate, which was different than all of her previous relationships. If one could call them relationships, anyway, since none of the three boys had managed to hold her interest for more than a handful of dates and a smattering of kisses. She’d always been a little nervous kissing the other boys, usually because she was wary of how far they’d try to go, but with Fitz.... Her nerves had disappeared so quickly, and she suspected that the line she would have crossed that night was far past where she would have been willing to go with all of the others. Considering that neither she nor Fitz had ever expressed any interest in a romantic or sexual relationship with each other, she reasoned that it was this level of trust that had sent her spiraling so wildly down that unexpected path, or, perhaps, the alcohol.

The answer seemed simple enough, and after a certain amount of needling Caedmon agreed that their friendship and trust must have led to the chemistry between her and Fitz in the closet.

Chapter Text

By the end of the second week after the party, things had evened out again between Jemma and Fitz. Although he’d avoided touching Caedmon at all for a number of days – to the dæmon’s slight insult – he’d gone back to scratching the lion on the head as he passed him in the lab, and Jemma had returned to moving Sarama here or there as she asked. Sometimes Jemma caught herself watching Fitz a little too long, or thought she saw him looking at her, but otherwise their relationship returned to being familiarly comfortable and competitive. To be fair, that second week was filled with finals (both in project and exam form), meaning that they shifted back into the version of their friendship that allowed them to get as much top-grade work done as possible. 

In some ways, Jemma wasn’t looking forward to the summer holidays as much as she might normally have done. Unlike last year, she and Fitz would be separated for the better part of three months while he stayed at home with his mother in Scotland and she worked at a Research and Development lab internship on the outskirts of London. Both sets of parents had made similar deals with their children about studying in America at such a young age: At least once every other year, they had to spend the summer at home. Neither humans nor dæmons were eager about having to keep said promises, but Jemma had made them all feel better by noting that at least they’d only be a short, inexpensive flight away from each other, and Fitz had immediately started bookmarking weekends when she thought she could escape from her job and parents’ plans.

After finishing a particularly grueling exam late on Friday afternoon, they both agreed that they needed a break. Jemma wasn’t especially hungry – too busy overanalyzing each one of her answers and picking Fitz’s brain for his thoughts – but she sat with him while he wolfed down two burgers at the cafeteria. Eventually, they ended up at the Boiler Room, and once she had two fruity, alcoholic drinks in her system, Jemma finally felt the stress of the past two weeks leeching away. 

Sitting at a stool-height table, Jemma and Fitz were in the midst of debating the concentration of dendrotoxin that was fatal to humans when they were interrupted by a familiar voice.

“Heeey, genius babies!” Mel swung her arm around Jemma’s neck in a way that was altogether too familiar for Jemma’s taste. Her crane dæmon sauntered up to the table, giving Caedmon a nod around the high stools’ legs. “What’re you two up to tonight?”

“Resting,” Fitz replied, draining the last of his beer. 

“Sweet! So you can come to my girl Raven’s party.”

Jemma couldn’t help the way her nose wrinkled at the thought, and she turned to stare into the dregs of her third drink of the evening, a sweet, electric blue concoction in a cylinder glass. “I don’t –”

“We’re gonna be playing striiiiiiiip poker!” She grinned from one to the other, as if expecting them to hop immediately up in excitement.

“Mel, are you torturing the kids again?” Adrianne flopped her arms over Mel’s shoulders, attempting to rest her chin on the other girl’s head. Her groundhog dæmon was swinging from side-to-side in her pink, cross-body purse, and Jemma was briefly distracted from her discomfort by the sheer adorableness of the image.

“I’m being nice,” Mel retorted, wiggling out of her friend’s arms. “Thought they’d wanna come to the party!” 

“We’re busy,” Jemma managed to interject, glancing over at Fitz before giving the two other girls a thin smile. “Thank you, though.”

“See?” Adrianne poked her friend in the side. “Parties aren’t their thing. Hey,” she said, a new thought clearly having occurred to her, “did you guys sign up for that face thing?”

Wrinkling her nose, Jemma threw Fitz a confused look. “Face thing?”

“D’you mean Facebook?” he asked.

“Yes,” Adrianne said, nodding enthusiastically, “that one! You should’ve gotten an email, class reps sent ‘em out to all of Sci-Tech.”

“I don’t see the point,” Jemma said slowly, fiddling with her own empty class. “Isn’t that all in the SHIELD computer system anyway?”

“If you had signed up, you would’ve known about the party before now,” Adrianne replied lightly, giving Mel an amused poke. “And this one wouldn’t’ve accosted you.” She gave Jemma a smile as she cheerfully tugged Mel into the crowd. “See you next fall, FitzSimmons!” 

Jemma squinted at their retreating backs, and then glanced down at Caedmon. “Did she just call us FitzSimmons?”

“Not sure,” Caedmon answered slowly from where he was sitting on the cement floor. His tail was tucked along his side, instead of flicking to and fro as was his wont, to prevent it from being stepped on by human or dæmon. “Fitz? Did you hear?”

Fitz shrugged, staring at his empty pint glass. “Dunno. Maybe.” Sliding quickly off his chair, he dug around in his pocket for his wallet, not meeting Jemma’s gaze. “Gonna get another – d’you want anything?”

“Mmmm yes, a vodka and soda, please.” She gave him a wide smile that he didn’t see, as he was too busy flipping through bills. Before he could dive into the heaving crowd around them, Jemma reached out and snagged the edge of his shirt, a colorful plaid button-down partially open over an undershirt. “Fitz – you don’t... you didn’t want to go, did you? To the party?” 

The loud scoff he released, followed by a particularly fine eye-roll, made her feel better immediately. Sarama let out an equally fervid tsk from where she perched on his shoulder.

“Definitely not,” he said firmly, tossing Jemma a wry smile and then pushing his way into the throng of drunk cadets. 

Once he was gone, Jemma reached down to squeeze her fingers into Caedmon’s mane. 

“Alright?”

“Yeah, of course,” she replied automatically. “I just... didn’t want to stop him. If he wanted to go.” 

“They wouldn’t go without us anyway,” Caedmon said, and Jemma twisted her mouth to the side. She wondered just how true that was, and went about drinking up the rest of her cocktail before Fitz returned with her new one. 

As they chatted, she noticed Fitz getting restless, although what triggered it she wasn’t sure. They’d resumed the debate they’d been having prior to Mel’s interruption, but she saw him glancing repeatedly over her shoulder until, suddenly, he banged his newly empty pint onto the steel.

“Table’s free,” he said, steadying Sarama on his shoulder and zipping around Jemma’s chair.

She sighed into an eye-roll as she followed his progress, supposing she shouldn’t be surprised that he’d been distracted by watching the billiards tables like a hawk. By the time she and Caedmon made their way over to the vacated table through the throng of students, Sarama was already crawling along the felt’s edge and Fitz was busily tossing the balls into the triangular rack.

“The usual,” he tossed their way, fishing the lavender ball out of a corner pocket. “No winner, just until the table’s clear except for the cue.”

“Alright,” Jemma answered, trying to sound long-suffering but in reality feeling rather agreeable to the idea. The only way Fitz had ever gotten her to agree to playing pool again after the first time that he trounced her so thoroughly was if they pretended it was more of a collaborative effort rather than a competition for points. 

(Jemma Simmons really, really did not like losing. A couple months prior, Caedmon had pointed out that this agreement was essentially Jemma admitting that she couldn’t win against Fitz, but she’d ignored him.)

It had been a while since they’d played, however, having been too busy with their work (and rewatching any of the new Doctor Who episodes Fitz could get his virtual hands on ad nauseum) to spend much time in the Boiler Room, and Jemma was feeling a little fuzzy about the whole thing. Well, she was feeling rather fuzzy in general, the edges of the neon lights in the bar blurring at the edges and all of her limbs feeling a little like they were moving a hair more slowly than she thought they should be. She knew that she wasn’t drunk, though, so she went right ahead and acted just as she would any other night.

Planting her glass authoritatively onto a nearby table, she set about selecting an appropriately short pool cue and marking the end with the chalk cube Fitz handed her. The point of the chalk eluded her (Fitz had explained it once, although she couldn’t remember what that was at the moment), but she wanted to be very sure to do a good job, as if she hadn’t had any drinks at all. So she spent a good while rubbing the little box over the tip of the cue, her tongue poking slightly out from between her lips in concentration. Once she was satisfied with her work, she looked up to see Fitz staring in her direction, gaze somewhat unfocused. 

“What?”

He quickly cleared his throat and reached out to remove the filled rack from the green felt. “Nothing,” he said gruffly, placing the white cue ball on the table. “Breaking.”

The sharp crack of the cue as it slammed into the other balls, sending them careening across the felt, woke Jemma up a bit, and she reached over to take a sip of her now-watery drink. Shortly, it was her turn, and she tried to remember how she was supposed to hold the pool cue. Bending over the table, Jemma squinted at her fingers when they wouldn’t quite cooperate, the length of wood slipping off her knuckles.

“Simmons, that’s not...” Fitz said, breaking off on a sigh. “Like this.” Then he was leaning over her, front pressed against her back as he curled his arms around hers. Muttering instructions against her cheek, he helped mold her fingers into the proper position and wrap her other hand into a more effective grip. But Jemma wasn’t really paying attention anymore, too distracted by the warmth of him against her, by the feeling of his hands as they wrapped around hers. “Okay?”

Blinking, she tilted her head enough for their eyes to meet, faces close enough that their noses nearly brushed. “Yeah,” she said breathily, “got it.”

Fitz inhaled, tongue darting out to wet his lips, and Jemma’s eyes dropped to his mouth. The same mouth that had made her nearly dizzy with heat and wanting only one week before.

“Good,” he mumbled, stepping back and grabbing for his cue.

Jemma frowned at herself as she tried to line up her shot; she shouldn’t be thinking about the kissing in the closet as a good thing. It had been awkward, and Fitz was her best friend. Thinking about his kisses – or his hands, or the fact that he smelled rather nice – was decidedly not on. With a low noise of annoyance, she slid the cue back and forth a few times, trying to make sure that her aim was right before thrusting the stick forward to connect with the cue ball, which sent another one zipping away to... completely miss the pocket. She swore, giving her foot a little stomp as she straightened from the table.

“That should have gone in,” she complained, stepping aside to give Fitz enough room for his shot.

Adjusting his belt as he stepped up to the table, he chuckled. “You always say that.” 

“Well, it’s true.” She pouted, glancing down to where Caedmon was watching with one eyebrow arched, and then letting out an exaggerated sigh. 

As they played through the game, Jemma’s thoughts circled back around to what Adrianne had said, the older girl’s words niggling at her even through the pleasant buzz of her cocktails.

Parties aren’t their thing. It struck her as somehow rude – maybe parties were their thing. Or, perhaps it shouldn’t matter that parties weren’t their thing. A judgment lingered behind the words, as if there was something wrong with people who didn’t like going to those types of parties. Jemma’s annoyance about the older girl’s words continued to grow the more she thought about it in the spaces between sentences, and as Fitz knocked another ball into a pocket in she couldn’t withhold her thoughts any longer.

“It’s just stupid,” she said, poking at his arm as he straightened.

“What?”

“The way that people always need to be around other people,” she said, enunciating her words especially carefully to make sure she didn’t slur. “With lots of drinks and things and games.”

Fitz studied her face, a smile teasing at his lips. “Parties. You mean parties are stupid.” 

Yes,” she agreed, nodding vigorously. “Well, not all parties. Some are quite nice. I like birthday parties.”

Choking back a laugh, Fitz reached absently over to pet Sarama on her head, black scales glinting in the multicolored neon lights. “How’s that drink coming along, Simmons?” 

She elbowed him, and he just pushed amicably back against her. “You’ve been drinking, too.” 

“Yeah, but I had two burgers for dinner.” He squinted, clearly thinking. “Did you have anything other than my fries?”

“My point,” she continued, ignoring his question and leaning over to take what would probably be her last shot of the game, “is that I don’t understand why people always need to be at a party every weekend. Why does that matter? Honestly, I’d rather just spend the night with you than that lot anyway, you’re far more interesting.” Jemma made a sharp strike against the cue ball, sending the second-to-last play ball straight into a corner pocket, and she stood up with a smug grin. 

As she tipped the last swig of vodka and soda down her throat, she caught the tail end of a smile on Fitz’s lips. “Cheers.”

Suddenly, arousal darted straight through Jemma and she had to bite her tongue to subdue a gasp. Breathing heavily, she glanced down to see that Caedmon had circled around the table when she hadn’t been looking, and had his head stretched up so that Fitz could scratch him behind one ear. Memories from the weekend before rushed through her head again – that unexpected, deep sense of longing, that sharp wash of pleasure – and she pursed her lips. She may be mildly inebriated, but she still knew she should not be thinking about her best friend in that way. Again. Ridding herself of those pesky thoughts seemed to be easier said than done, however.

After allowing Fitz time to shoot the last ball into a hole, somehow managing to get it to do a fancy zigzag pattern across the felt, Jemma decided that she’d had enough of being sociable with the rest of Sci-Tech this evening.

“Come on,” she announced, shoving her pool cue back into the stand. “We don’t need them to have fun, or be normal teenagers.” 

“But we’re not ‘normal’ teenagers,” Fitz countered, sweeping their drinks detritus off the table and ducking around other cadets to deposit it on top of a nearby trashcan. “We’re –”

“– Symmetrical young prodigies, yes,” Jemma agreed. When she stepped forward to join him, she swayed a little more than she would have expected and reached out to steady herself by taking Fitz’s hand. He was warm and solid, automatically weaving their fingers together as she leaned heavily into him. “Sorry,” she said, giving him a bashful smile, “bit spinny.”

“S’alright.” He ducked his head and shuffled closer, reaching around to retrieve Sarama from the pool table. 

Reaching out to trail her fingers through Caedmon’s mane with her free hand, Jemma stared up at Fitz as he settled his dæmon comfortably along his shoulder. He really was quite handsome for a seventeen-year-old engineering student, she thought to herself. There was something indefinably charming about his unique mix of shyness and egotism.

“Home?”

“Yes,” she agreed, tugging him by the hand after her, with Caedmon trotting at the fore. “But we’re going to have fun! Not go to sleep.”

“No, why’d we wanna do that? It’s only past midnight, no ‘normal’ teenager would be asleep now anyway.” 

“Oh shush.” Laughing, Jemma nudged him with her elbow, reaching around so that his hand was sandwiched between her two.

They walked like that all the way back to the dormitory, with her leaning on him a little more than was strictly necessary and their hands entwined the whole time. To her satisfaction, Fitz didn’t question this even once. At one point while they waited for a traffic light, Caedmon made a pointed glance at their hands, and Jemma had to physically turn her nose up to ignore him. (What did he know, anyway – dæmons didn’t get drunk in the same way humans did.)

Finally in their hallway, Jemma fumbled her keys, propping herself against Fitz’s chest to keep from tilting to the side. This time she saw him give an amused shake of his head, but he trailed contentedly in after her and Caedmon anyway. Dropping onto the end of her bed, as he did probably at least once every day, Fitz took a second to remove Sarama from her perch and set her down on the mattress next to himself. As usual, Caedmon padded over to wherever was closest to the lizard and made himself comfortable.

“Alright, so what d’you wanna do? Being normal, not-genius teenagers, and all.”

Balancing on one foot, she nudged the other one against his knee. “We can be geniuses and normal, too.” 

Fitz squinted at her. “That makes no sense, Simmons.” 

She wrinkled her nose, stumbling slightly as she removed her red Cons and socks. Even mildly inebriated, she’d known that hadn’t been quite right. “I know that.”

“Then why’d you say it?”

Ugh, Fitz!” With a petulant flick of her wrist, she tossed her second sock in his direction, which he dodged with annoying efficiency. “Ooh,” she exclaimed, forgetting all about needing to scold him for being so exacting and clapping her hands in excitement, “we should play strip poker!”

The dry look he gave her almost made her laugh. “Strip poker. Seriously.” She nodded enthusiastically. “D’you even know how to play?”

“No,” she said, rolling her eyes, “but there’s this miraculous little invention called the Internet, Fitz, you might have heard of it –”

“Isn’t it better with more people?”

“This will be good practice, if we’re ever invited to a poker night.”

“Know many hardcore poker playing science whizzes, do you?”

“Anything’s possible at SHIELD Academy,” she retorted haughtily before flouncing down on the bed next to him. “And that’s what they were going to play at that party. Or are you too chicken?”

Sharing an indignant look with Sarama, his voice cracked a little as he protested. “I’m not chicken!” 

“If you are too chicken, I completely understand –” 

“I’m not bloody chicken,” he snapped. “Where’re the cards?” 

“I...” Jemma trailed off, shoulders slumping forward. “Oh, I don’t have any. Do you?”

“Nope.” The grin on his face was almost too smug to bear, and the bizarre urge to kiss it off of him nearly overtook her.

Jemma frowned, shifting uncomfortably on the mattress as she wondered where that thought had come from. “Oh.”

His face softened after a moment, and he turned towards her. “Why don’t we just –”

“Play strip roshambo!” The idea had come to her in a flash, and she couldn’t stop a triumphant smile from breaking across her face.

“What?” Sarama squeaked, peeking out from underneath Fitz’s knee, although he wore a dumbfounded expression to match her tone.

“Yes, it's perfect!” Unlike where Fitz had reached down to rest one hand against Sarama for comfort, Jemma steadfastly refused to look at her dæmon, whose current expression was probably as dry as it could get. “We both know how to do it, since we play that all the time in the lab –”

“We don’t play it, we use it to decide....” He stopped himself, rubbing his nose between his forefingers and thumb. “You’re serious.” 

“Yes – but in a fun way!” Jemma hopped around to sit cross-legged facing Fitz, and held out her right fist. “Ready when you are, chicken.”

Fitz’s eyes narrowed. “Alright,” he muttered, moving to toe off his trainers and then freezing. A grin spread across his face. “Y’know, you’re already down four pieces of clothing – I’ve got the advantage.”

A glance down at her own bare feet reminded Jemma that he was right. “That’s fine, because I’m going to win anyway.”

Being the well-behaved (and slightly cowed) young man that he was, Fitz waited until he’d lost the first two rounds of roshambo – and discarded his trainers at last – to turn and sit mirroring Jemma on the bed. To her extreme satisfaction, he kept losing round after round, until he was down to his undershirt and trousers, even his belt and watch having been discarded on the bed behind him. On his lap, he had his left hand fisted into his plaid shirt, worrying absently at one of the buttons.

“So Dr. Fitzy,” she teased, waving her fist in the air between them, “what’s it going to be next – shirt or trousers?”

A small movement in the shadow beneath his bent knee drew Jemma’s attention, and she looked down to see that Sarama was hiding behind Fitz’s leg. Another glance up at his face, and she realized that behind his grumpiness, there was a distinct sense of apprehension, too.

“Ohhhhh Fitz, you don’t need to be nervous!” He met her gaze, nose wrinkling as she dropped her fist and patted his knee. “It’s just me – here.” Then Jemma reached down and pulled her own seafoam green button-down over her head. “We’ll be more even, that way, when you lose the next round.” 

She wobbled a little on the bed as the movement of tossing her own shirt to the floor disrupted her sense of equilibrium, but she had a smirk ready by the time she turned back to Fitz. The feeling of triumph faded almost immediately, however, in the abrupt shift that happened between them in those few moments.

Fitz’s eyes were wide, mouth dropped partially open and gaze fixed undoubtedly on her breasts. The bra she was wearing today was a very pale lavender, one of her favorites because of its soft cotton and the way it made them seem just a little bit rounder and fuller than they were. A sense of good fortune at having chosen that bra this morning flitted through her head. His breathing was faster than it had been a few seconds ago, reminding her of what he’d sounded like at the party, lips trailing up her jaw and chest heaving against her own.

All of a sudden, Jemma realized that she liked the way he stared at her, this shocked expression of desire, as if he simply couldn’t tear his gaze away. It sent something hot and needy through her whole body, something she’d never felt under the eyes of any other boy – even the few that she’d dated. Unlike Fitz, who was her best friend and absolutely, definitely not someone she was dating. Or someone she wanted to date. At all. Even if she had rather liked kissing him.

Finally Fitz swallowed and blinked, meeting her gaze with a somewhat dazed half-smile. Although the pause had only lasted a handful of seconds, to Jemma it had felt like ages, the amount of time needed for a shift so potent.

“Alright Simmons, let’s see who loses this time,” he quipped, although the taunting was somewhat undermined by the thickness of his voice.

They said the command in sync – “Ro-sham-bo!” – and ended with Fitz holding his hand flat next to Jemma’s fist.

She scrunched her face up and half-stuck her tongue out through her teeth. Fitz let out a small noise of triumph, wrapping his warm hand around her slightly cooler fist. When their eyes met, though, she could tell that he realized at the same time as she did that she had only three pieces of clothing left at all – bra, jeans, or her knickers beneath. (In retrospect, it was probably a good thing that Fitz had lost so many times at the beginning.) With a sharp inhale, he dropped her hand.

“Alright then, show-off,” he teased, voice rather more hoarse than before, and poked at her knee. “What’ll it be?”

Rolling her eyes, Jemma scrambled to her feet on the bed itself, wobbling slightly on the bouncy, ancient mattress, and shucked off her trousers. She dropped onto the bed and then flushed at the way her breasts bounced at the sudden movement, drawing Fitz’s attention to them again. Once seated cross-legged, her bare knees brushed against his, the new position putting them far closer together than they had been before.

His eyes raked along her body, taking in what was newly bared and lingering ever-so-slightly at the juncture of her thighs. Heat bloomed in her cheeks, but she forced herself to stay still and ignore any feelings of either embarrassment or flattery. Neither of their hands hovered at the ready for another round now, having reached some sort of limbo that she wasn’t sure how to pass.

Sucking in a small breath of air, Fitz drew his bottom lip between his teeth, and Jemma would swear that he began to lean towards her.

Come on, Fitz, she found herself thinking, breath speeding up. Do something. Anything.

He was fixated on her lips now, she was sure of it, and the tension spun out between them, thick with the promise of alcohol and history and hormones.

Then Fitz abruptly ducked his head and scrambled to the edge of the bed.

“Hafta go,” he said, avoiding looking at her entirely. “Got, um, work tomorrow, for the, um, the thing we have next week – the final!” His cheeks were bright pink as he hastily gathered up all of his belongings, scooping Sarama up on top of the pile.

“Oh...” Jemma said, unable to hide the confusion and hurt she inexplicably felt, swinging her legs over the side of the bed.

“Yeah, um, y’know, so – shit.” He dropped his belt, nearly banging his head on her desk in the process. The bundle of his belongings were precariously balanced in his hands at an odd angle, held low at the front of his trousers. “S-see you tomorrow, Simmons – Caedmon.” With that, he stumbled ungracefully out the door, pulling it loudly shut behind him. 

Still processing the abrupt turn of events, Jemma stared at the door for a few long seconds, nibbling at her lower lip.

“Rather bold, that,” Caedmon drawled from the end of the bed, stretching his paws out on the floor. “Taking all your clothes off in front of someone you definitely don’t fancy.”

“I didn’t take off all my clothes,” she muttered, flopping back onto the covers and trying to tamp down her disappointment about the way the night had gone.

"Good distinction."

In truth, she had no idea what she’d wanted to happen when they’d sat on the bed, staring intently at each other. What had she expected – for Fitz to rush her, push her backwards onto the bed, and kiss her senseless? Unbidden, a low sigh escaped her lips. That actually sounded rather... nice. Closing her eyes, she followed through on the fantasy for a few seconds, thinking about how his skin might have felt when bared against hers, about the heavy press of him against her as he kissed her until she was dizzy. About their hands tangling together as she arched up against him, seeking and at long last finding the solution to the tension she’d felt between them ever since the night in the closet. Then she let out a sharp noise of frustration, and rubbed the back of her hand against her forehead. 

She shouldn’t be disappointed because nothing should have happened. Fitz was her best friend, and they were both very happy (she hoped) with their friendship just as it was. Without the kissing. Or other things.

“Besides,” she continued, removing her bra and flipping around onto her stomach on the covers, “other teenagers do things like this all the time.” Caedmon just let out a wry huff in response, jumping up onto the bed next to her and causing the mattress to bounce. 

As her dæmon settled in along her back, Jemma thought about getting up to turn the lights off and grab pajamas, but then decided she could do that in a minute. All of a sudden, she was rather sleepy. She could figure out the answers to her questions in the morning.

 

------

 

Upon waking up, Jemma wanted to lock herself in her room and never see or speak to anyone else ever again. Had she really insisted on playing strip roshambo with her best friend, and then discarded nearly all her clothes right in front of him? She groaned, burying her face in her pillow.

Fitz. Fitz was never going to want to talk to her again after that display. What had she been thinking? That she was feeling somewhat sexually frustrated and had considered venting that energy with her best friend? Never before had Jemma ever made (or nearly made) such a series of spectacularly awful bad decisions one right after the other.

“You didn’t sleep well.” Caedmon was still curled around her, having acted as her heat source for most of the night, and he nuzzled at the back of her head. 

“I don’t when I drink too much, you know that,” she muttered into the cotton pillowcase.

“Are you sure that’s why?”

A knock sounded on her door and she winced, twisting around and squinting in the sunlight.

“Yes,” she retorted, crawling clumsily over the lion to get out of bed. Apparently, she hadn’t found pajamas necessary the night before, so she grabbed her bathrobe and pulled it tightly closed around herself before cracking the door open.

In the hallway stood Fitz, freshly shaven and surprisingly bright-eyed considering that it was earlier than he normally woke up. Sarama peeked out from beneath his shirt collar.

“Fitz!” Jemma exclaimed, cringing at the volume of her own voice.

“Alright, Simmons?” He gave her a surprisingly empathetic half-smile. “Thought you might need this.”

Blinking at the brightness of the fluorescent lights behind him, Jemma realized he was holding a takeaway cup between them, the little tail of a teabag dangling along the side. One sugar packet and a creamer cup balanced on the plastic top.

“Oh Fitz,” she murmured, taking his offering and giving him a warm smile. “Thank you. Do you want to....” She paused, glancing into the room behind her and almost bumping into Caedmon in the process.

“Uh, I mean, you need to...” he trailed off, ears flushing pink as he gestured weakly to her bare legs.

“Come get us when you’re ready for breakfast?” Sarama’s voice was a little too cheerful, but Jemma gave her a grateful smile anyway. 

“You haven’t eaten already?” 

“Y’know us, always ready for second breakfast.” 

She outright laughed at that, thrilled that they seemed perfectly happy to pretend that nothing had happened the night before, and his smile widened in response. “I didn’t...” Glancing between Fitz and his dæmon, she cleared her throat before continuing in a very small voice. “...Do anything I should know about, did I? Last night?” This was her offering salvo for the day, and she hoped against hope that they would take the bait. 

Fitz chuckled, giving Sarama a wry look. “Only disproved the Abel-Ruffini theorem, that’s all. You remember it, right?”

“Right,” she answered with a grin. “I’ll just go and write that down, shall I?” 

He ducked his head, raising one hand in farewell while reaching for his own room’s door handle with the other. As she closed her door behind herself and set the paper cup on her desk, Jemma decided that she could work out her confusing, drunken instincts another time. If she didn't act on them when she was sober, they obviously weren’t that important.

“They’re the best,” Caedmon said, propping himself on the desk’s edge with his two front paws and sniffing happily at the black tea.

“Of course they are.” Jemma went about gathering her shower things and clothes for the day, humming lightly at the prospect of spending yet another day working alongside Fitz and Sarama. If even her own drunken imbecility hadn’t chased them away, she was beginning to suspect that nothing ever would.

Chapter Text

Jemma knocked frantically on the door to Fitz and Sarama’s room, not even taking any comfort from the familiar press of Caedmon against her jeans-clad leg. It had been six days since the roshambo incident – six productive and successful days, by any judge thereof – but the last half an hour of today had turned into an absolute nightmare. If they didn’t answer the door soon she was going to burst into tears in the hallway; she didn’t know how much longer she’d be able to hold it in.

The second that Fitz pulled the door open, she collapsed into his arms, sobs shaking her shoulders as she gave in to the vile feeling still coursing through her body.

“Simmons! What on – what’s wrong?!” He wrapped his arms tightly around her shoulders, hesitantly reaching one hand up to smooth over her hair. She couldn’t answer him, just barely keeping herself upright by clinging to the front of his t-shirt as tightly as possible without ripping it. Breaths heaved jaggedly in and out of her lungs, and she tried to tell herself that she was safe now, she was with Fitz, and everything would be okay. Fitz would make it okay.

A warm, furry body pushed past her leg, and the door creaked. “Sarama?” 

“Caedmon,” came Sarama’s voice from the right side of the room, concern lacing her every word, “what happened?”

The lion replied simply “Jemma,” indicating that she would explain – once she could, anyway. His words were then followed by a certain amount of cloth-shifting and the mattress squeaking.

“Simmons,” Fitz whispered urgently, moving her around a bit so he could nudge her dropped bag inside and toe the door closed. “Please, tell me what’s wrong. You’re scaring me.” 

Her sobs turned into shaky, hiccupy gasps, and all she could do was whimper. She wanted to tell him, she did, but she also couldn’t stop crying. Desperately trying to get her breathing to even out, Jemma twisted her head around so that she was facing into the room rather than his neck. His t-shirt beneath her cheek was soaked with her tears; she’d have to offer to wash it for him later. 

The room was dim, lit only by his desk lamp, and she realized that he’d probably been watching something on his laptop when she’d knocked. To her dim surprise, Caedmon had not done as was his wont, which was to curl up on the floor beneath Fitz’s desk for lack of space elsewhere in Fitz’s much smaller room. Instead, he was lying at the head of Fitz’s bed, in the three-walled space made up by the corner of the room and the left side of the desk. Jemma could just see Sarama’s dark figure in the space between Caedmon’s paws and nose, which he had buried in Fitz’s pillow.

Making a note that she’d have to offer to wash the pillowcase, too, Jemma suppressed the bizarre but familiar urge to tell Fitz that he needed to clean his room. Clothes were scattered all over the floor, and she even spotted a shirt balled up on the windowsill.

“Alright, c’mon,” he murmured, gently shifting around so that she was supporting her own weight and then pulling her forward to sit on his bed. With a little bit of maneuvering, and Jemma feeling oddly embarrassed by how terrible she must look right now, skin all blotchy from crying, they arranged themselves so that she was curled up next to him where he leaned back against the wall. As she lay her head on his shoulder, her movements felt sluggish, energy drained by both the memory of the past half an hour and her fit of crying. “Better?”

She gave him something that was halfway between a nod, a shake, and a shrug, completely unsure about how to feel right now. “I was just going into town to get basil,” she whispered, voice hoarse from sobbing. “Because I... I....” 

Her face crumpled and she started crying again, her fingers tightening in the soft cotton of his shirt. She was so angry that her plans for the evening had been terribly disrupted. The week had gone so well – they were sure that they’d each get top marks, although both were on the edge of their seat while waiting to see which one would earn the highest spot in the class – and she’d just wanted to celebrate a little. Wanted to enjoy the night because soon she and her best friend were going to be separated for months for the first time since they’d met, and the idea of that alone was already making her anxious.

Something soft pushed into her hand, and she realized that somehow Fitz had managed to get her a tissue. After sitting up from him and taking a second to blow her nose and suck in a few, shuddery breaths, she began again.

“I wanted to make more aioli,” she explained quietly, having to pause every few words to make sure she was getting enough air. “For your sandwich. T-to celebrate the end of the semester. B-because you brought me the tea? Last weekend. And I was waiting at the bus stop to come back, and....” Her strength threatened to crumble again, and to her surprise Fitz reached over to wrap her hand in his. A few tears fell despite her best efforts, and she barely made it through the rest of her explanation. “And someone twisted Caed’s ear.”

“No!” Fitz and Sarama said at the same time. 

“A dæmon?” Sarama’s voice was almost hopeful; although dæmons didn’t typically get cuddly with each other, it would be far less taboo for one dæmon to touch another than for a human. 

Jemma shook her head, swiping at her cheeks with her sleeve. “A boy. Someone in spec-ops. His friends had really large dæmons, Caed couldn’t defend us.”

“Bastard,” Fitz snapped, and she blinked up at the sheer rage written on his face and in his tone. “You should tell someone, Simmons, report them!”

No, Fitz, I can’t –”

“You can, I’ll go with you –”

“NO.” She shouted the word far louder than she’d intended, the other three all either turning or lifting their heads to face her. “It’s not important –”

“It is!”

“But not – I don’t want other people to know, Fitz, please,” she begged, reaching out to pull his hand up and hug it to her chest. “Please don’t tell anyone else.”

“Of course I won’t,” he replied, a cross between insulted and scandalized, “but they don’t deserve to just get away with it, they don’t. Who knows what they’ll do next?”

She sighed, raising her face to the ceiling and closing her eyes. “I don’t know, Fitz. Can we... stop arguing, please?” 

“No, right, yeah. I’m sorry.” He sounded genuinely cowed, and she took the opportunity to curl herself back against him, tucking her head into his neck and swinging her legs up over his lap. His free hand returned to rubbing slow circles over her back and shoulder blades, and she allowed herself to relax against him. They had never sat quite this closely together before, but Jemma was beyond caring and beyond minding boundaries tonight. Wrapping herself in Fitz as much as possible was the only thing that made her feel human again, that reminded her that the disgust would eventually fade away.

What she wasn’t telling Fitz was that she knew this spec-ops cadet – she would never forget the face of the bully with the bird dæmon who Caedmon had attacked in defense of Fitz their freshman year. 

In the fading twilight, Jemma had been able to see clearly for the first time that his dæmon was an eagle, its eyes and claws unnervingly sharp. The boy from the alleyway two years ago – whose name, she’d later learned from Dean Weaver, was Bill Heywood – had stalked up to the bus stop as if he’d been waiting for this moment for a long time. In the intervening two years, he’d befriended goons far better suited to his defense than the ones who had been with him that original night, and so Jemma and Caedmon had been left to cower defiantly in the corner of the bus stop. The boys hadn’t even needed to get on the bus; Heywood had insulted her, and then reached for the lion’s ear to “teach him to be a good kitty.” Once they’d disappeared around the corner, Jemma had retched on the sidewalk, the feeling of violation – even for something so small – deep and potent. 

“Tell me how I can help.” There was a note of pleading to Fitz’s voice, and a helplessness that cut right to Jemma’s heart. “Please, I wanna help.” ‘But I don’t know how’ remained unsaid.

Snuffling, Jemma tilted her head up to peer shyly up at him. “Would you....” She stopped, dropping her gaze again; there was no good way to phrase what she wanted to ask. “Would you touch Caedmon? Please? To... to get rid of that... feeling.”

“Yeah, course,” he breathed, turning to look at the lion, who lifted his head hopefully. Fitz raised his left hand and hesitated with it hovering over the bed. “Where...?”

“Left ear,” Caedmon murmured, stretching his head forward over Sarama to lessen the distance that Fitz would have to reach. Obediently, Fitz began to rub the lion’s left ear between his thumb and fingers.

Jemma sighed far louder than was probably socially acceptable as the warmth of Fitz’s touch rushed through her, and then released a couple small hiccups, errant tears running down her cheeks. The nausea that had been so potent ever since the bus stop began to leech away the longer Fitz petted Caedmon, and she pried her eyes open, the rhythmic motions of his fingers almost having a mesmerizing quality to them. Were lions able to purr, she was fairly sure her dæmon would be doing so now; instead, he’d allowed his head to sink down onto one paw – leaving space for Sarama to move – and closed his eyes. Dimly aware that Fitz was flitting his gaze between her and the lion, Jemma allowed herself to sink more fully against his chest, trusting that if he wanted her to move he would say something.

Eventually, Fitz switched from rubbing the ear to carding his fingers through Caedmon’s mane, the greater surface area that he touched sending even more waves of warmth and peace through Jemma’s whole body. Her eyes drifted closed, her breathing evened out, and within a few minutes she was soundly asleep on top of her best friend.

 

------

 

When Jemma next stirred awake, her first thought was that she had never felt safer and more content in her entire life. She was surrounded by the warmth of two arms wrapped protectively around her, legs tangled unselfconsciously with hers, and an overwhelming sense of belonging. It took her a few seconds to remember that she was in Fitz’s room, and that the person cradling her against him was certainly Fitz. They were both lying on their sides, her face burrowed into the crook of his shoulder and neck, and she tried to figure out how they’d gotten there. The only conclusion she could draw was that after she’d fallen asleep on top of him, he’d slipped into sleep after her, stretching them both out on the bed so as to not wake her. The thought that he’d just abandoned whatever he’d been doing in order to continue to hold her brought a private, affectionate smile to Jemma’s face, and she nuzzled against his chest. 

There was something very Fitz about his smell, a male kind of scent mixed with something metallic (perhaps leftover from their lab) and a hint of spice. Curling her fingers into his shirt, Jemma tilted her head to press her lips against his throat. God, he was so warm, and something deep inside her wanted to melt into him. She slid her mouth a little further up and pressed it against him again, this time parting her lips so that she could flick her tongue against his skin. His taste was almost indefinable, too, a little salty and perhaps the more chemical taste of his body wash, whatever it was. The thought that she was cataloguing him by her five senses popped into her head, and if she’d been more awake she would have giggled.

As it was, however, Jemma continued to linger in the moments between sleeping and waking, that liminal space when desires have no filter. Her lips found place after place to kiss Fitz’s neck, then jaw, then chin, and as she found the patch of skin over his pulse point at last she could feel him shudder awake. His whole body went from the relaxed, heavy weight of sleep to being tense and alert as he tried to figure out what was happening. Jemma sucked gently on his skin – just lightly enough that she wouldn’t leave a mark – and he let out a shaky breath.

“Jemma,” he murmured, tone somewhere between a question and a prayer.

Choosing not to answer, she just continued her progress up and up and over until her lips found his. As she plied his mouth open, slipping her tongue in to slide lazily over his, Jemma thought about how different this was from the last time they’d kissed. Their mouths moved together languidly, carefully, as if they had the rest of their lives to lie together just like this and kiss and kiss and kiss. His hand moved up from her back to tangle into her hair, tilting her head back to improve the angle and worship her lips with his. When she needed air she broke away but didn’t move, brushing their noses together as their chests heaved against each other in unison.

Jemma could already feel herself slipping back into sleep, but she wasn’t quite ready yet to let the moment fade. So she pressed in for chaste, affectionate kisses, caressing his lips before trailing her mouth down along the skin of his jaw, his neck, until she could tuck her head back underneath his chin. Pressing in for one more kiss at the very edge of his collar, she let her lips linger against him as her eyes fluttered shut, fingers curling even more tightly into his shirt. His breathing was ragged against her, and she could just barely make out the frantic beating of his heart under her hand. Although he moved his left hand from where it had been tangled into her hair, he continued to keep her hugged against him, as if he were shielding her from the rest of the world.

Pretending that nothing else in the world existed other than her, Fitz, and their daemons, Jemma focused on the feeling of his arms wrapped securely around her, and soon enough the dreamscape claimed her once again. This time, though, her dreams were filled with warmth and a sense of peace in the shape of someone who looked an awful lot like her best friend in the whole world.

 

------

 

A few hours later, Jemma found herself still in Fitz’s bed, but they’d shifted positions in their sleep. He was lying flat on his back, snoring lightly, and her head was on his chest, one of his arms flung over her waist. A slow smile worked across her face, and she resisted the urge to snuggle closer in, not wanting to wake him. The orange slivers of light creeping through the blinds meant that the sun had only just risen, so she suspected that he wouldn’t appreciate being woken at this hour. Having made her decision to let him sleep, she carefully rose into a sitting position, making sure to jostle him as little as possible. Fortunately, Fitz seemed to be a heavy sleeper – when she wasn’t kissing him, anyway. 

The memory widened Jemma’s smile, and she leaned over him, giving in to the impulse to trace her fingers gently over his cheek and jawline. There was a very light scratch of stubble on his skin now, which she’d never seen on him – every morning, he arrived at breakfast or showed up at her door freshly shaven. (The shadow of hair looked rather nice on him, actually, but she knew he wanted to be as professional as possible. Both of them had enough difficulties with ageism in their disciplines as it was.)

Somewhere as Fitz had held her last night, their relationship had shifted for Jemma. All she wanted to do right now was kiss and hold him close in a way very different from how she’d treated him as her best friend, and waking next to him made her happy on a deep level she’d never felt before. Perhaps the realization had been brewing ever since the dare in the closet; perhaps the way he’d dropped everything last night in order to support her had pushed her over the edge. Whatever had happened, she was certain she wanted much more from Fitz’s and her relationship.

Movement at the head of the bed caught her eye, and she twisted around. Caedmon finished stretching one paw along the edge of the mattress, carefully avoiding where Sarama slept just next to him. Raising a questioning eyebrow, he tilted his head towards the door. Jemma let out a low breath and returned her gaze to Fitz. He was sleeping so peacefully that she couldn’t bear to wake him. After a moment, she laid one hand gently over his heart, feeling its steady thub-dub, thub-dub beneath his cotton tee, and silently promised him that once she figured out the words, she’d tell him how she wanted to change their relationship.

Jemma slipped off the bed as slowly and unobtrusively as possible, reaching over Fitz’s legs to help Caedmon do the same. They were naturally early risers, so once they crept out of Fitz and Sarama’s room they progressed immediately to going about their daily routine, showering and readying themselves for the day. (Well, showering in Jemma’s case – Caedmon took the time to give himself a bath and sharpen his claws.)          

The longer she was away from Fitz, however, the more nervous she became about confessing the epiphany she’d had when she’d awoken a second time in his bed. There were too many variables, she had too much to say, and she didn’t want him to think it was some kind of a reaction to what had happened to her the day before. Besides, they were about to be separated for the vast majority of three months (even if they Skyped regularly and went to see each other once a month, as they’d already discussed). Now was probably the worst time in the world for her to introduce the idea of altering their friendship on such a fundamental level. 

So, Jemma compromised: She would give herself the summer to prepare for the conversation, adding data points to how this change might work when they saw each other away from school and SHIELD. Although she didn’t share her thoughts with Caedmon, she suspected he knew anyway. As she picked out clothes for the day – and truly, wearing one of her most flattering salmon-colored shirts didn’t mean anything – his large golden eyes followed her, something smug hovering around his expression.

Since they had awoken so early, they had enough time to go to the best off-campus pastry shop before heading to the lab, and they’d been working for at least an hour by the time Fitz and Sarama arrived. Even with finals completed, they all had work on their respective, independent research projects to complete, readying everything for a three-month hiatus, as well as cleaning up their lab stations in preparation for moving to a new room next semester.

When Jemma caught their entrance in her peripheral vision, she turned around to give herself a quick once-over in the glass of the refrigerator to which she’d just returned some samples. Her hair was in place, and the shirt gave her cheeks a nice, rosy glow. Caedmon let out a little huff of amusement as he trotted past her to the workstations, and she tsked in response before turning around, a wide smile on her face. Fitz, by comparison, looked exhausted as he shuffled to their workstation, not quite meeting her eyes and acting as if he wasn’t sure if he should even be there.

“Good morning,” Jemma chirped, briefly meeting Sarama’s eyes as her human settled her on the lab table.

“Hi, Simmons.” Fitz shifted on his feet, glancing up at her and away again before reaching for one of his toolkits. 

“I got you your favorite.” She nudged at the pastry box she’d placed directly between their workstations, unable to help the warmth in her smile as he perked up at the sight of the turquoise box. “With raspberries.” His eyes lit up, and, letting the toolkit drop to the table, he reached for the pastries. “Thank you for last night,” she murmured, watching his movements cease at her words. Fitz met her gaze and she swallowed, nearly thrown off entirely by the brightness of the blue in his eyes. (How had she never really noticed them before?) “For being such a good friend. Truly, Fitz, I don’t know what I would’ve done without you.” 

He stared at her for a few long seconds, a timid smile slowly working its way onto his face. “That’s what best friends are for, eh?” Shaking his head, he flipped open the box. “Nothing to thank me for.”

“Still,” she insisted, needing him to understand what his actions had meant to her, and reached out to rest one hand over his next to the box. “Thank you anyway.”

At that Fitz stumbled a little to the side, and when he reached down beneath the steel edge Jemma felt the warm rush that meant he’d been amicably accosted by her dæmon.

“Anytime,” Fitz mumbled with a low laugh. Then he stuffed half of a Danish into his mouth in one go, and Jemma had to bite her tongue to keep from scolding him. Or from kissing away the dab of raspberry compote that stuck to the corner of his mouth. 

Three months, she reminded herself as she returned to work. Only three months, and you can tell them the truth.

 

------

 

Jemma realized very quickly that being around Fitz and not telling him the truth of her feelings was going to be a problem. Part of the reason that she hadn’t told Caedmon her plan was because the lion was already prone to telling Sarama all manner of things that she wished he wouldn’t, and she couldn’t risk anyone else telling Fitz first. This had to be her truth to share.

As it turned out, her own feelings, once discovered, worked their way into nearly everything she did. At every moment of work or discussion, she found herself wanting to touch Fitz in some way, and as the days passed it became progressively harder not to stare at him during her spare moments in the lab. Not creepily, mind – just seeing him concentrate always brought a smile to her face. Sometimes, she thought she caught him turning his head quickly in the other direction, as if he’d just been watching her, too.

Despite the test of her willpower, she made it through the next six days without making any kind of confession at all. For his part, Fitz hovered around her a little more than usual when they were outside of the lab, and it took her a day or so to realize that he was trying to protect her should her assaulter return. The glares he gave any older, male cadets as they walked through campus were downright adorable (if perhaps not quite as intimidating as intended), and she only fell a little more for him every time she saw him do it.

(At first, anyway – after the fourth day, she had to lecture him about how he couldn’t be there to guard her all the time, and he stopped hovering quite so intently.)

Thanks to her superior organizational skills, Jemma finished packing up her workstation in the lab half a day before Fitz, so she and Caedmon spent some of that Friday reading on the center quad. Her dæmon’s settled form really did make for the best reading seat that she could want, and, although she sat in the shade to avoid burning her fair skin, it felt like summer. Mid-afternoon, Jemma guesstimated that Fitz and Sarama would have either finished packing by now or would need their help, so she and Caedmon went in search of them in the lab.

To her surprise, she could hear Fitz arguing with someone from all the way down the hall on the floor of their lab, meaning both that he was upset in some way and that someone had left or propped the door open.

“We’re definitely not, okay? Not at all.”

“C’mon, man, what’s the big deal? Just tell me.” As the identity of the second voice became clear to her, Jemma wrinkled her nose. Jeremy was a particularly odious member of their cadet cohort, and she was thrilled that he’d be in a lab in a completely different building next semester. Most of the other cadets who shared their lab had cleaned out their workstations as fast as possible, but it didn’t surprise her that Jeremy was still skulking around. “SHIELD doesn’t kick you out for getting a little nookie with your smokin’ hot lab partner –”

“Simmons isn’t smokin’ hot,” Fitz protested. “I mean, she is – but not – she – it’s not like that!”

Realizing that they were talking about her, Jemma halted just behind the pillar in front of the lab’s entrance, cheeks burning. A glance down at Caedmon told her that he’d heard the same thing she had, and the golden fur on his nose drew into discomfited wrinkles. Neither of them knew how to proceed. A part of Jemma wanted to stomp in there and defend herself from being objectified by a third-rate radiation specialist like Jeremy. Then again, revealing that she’d heard anything was sure to be incredibly awkward for everyone involved, and she didn’t relish having to deal with that either. Undecided, and unable to talk it out with Caedmon lest they be overheard, Jemma hovered unseen in the hallway.

“Just tell me, Fitz! I’ve gotta know, is she really as tight underneath that lab coat as she looks in it?”

“What?!” Fitz’s voice had gone all squeaky, like he was when he was the most uncomfortable that he could be. Jemma desperately tried to think of a way to save him from this horror show, even while being disgusted with and offended by Jeremy’s line of questioning. 

“You’ve touched her dæmon dude, you must’ve hooked up at least once –”

No –” 

“I bet she’s a real freak between the sheets, too –”

Fuck off.”

The sound of someone crashing into a lab table was followed by Jeremy snickering. “She is! She totally is –” 

“We’re not dating!” Fitz’s shout was at full volume and echoed down the hallway, loud enough to make Jemma wince and dig her fingernails further into her palm. “Or, or screwing, or whatever the hell else you think –”

“I’ve seen you, like hell I’d believe –”

“Can you seriously imagine anyone dating Simmons?” Fitz was breathing heavily, and although Jemma still couldn’t see him she could hear him tossing things into a box. “She – she’s an odd bird, that one, and it just – it’d never work. She loses interest in guys after two dates.” Something made of cloth was thrown angrily against what sounded like cardboard. “And we wouldn’t work like that. I’d never date Simmons. Just – wouldn’t happen.” 

“You don’t have to date to –” 

“I swear to fucking God Jeremy –” Fitz took a few menacing steps, which was followed by what sounded like Jeremy bumping into a lab table. 

“Alright, alright, fuck, take a chill pill.”

Jeremy’s footsteps continued to get closer to Jemma, and with a start she realized that he might be leaving the lab – which would take him straight to her and Caedmon. Yanking sharply on her dæmon’s mane, she skittered back down the hallway to duck around the nearest corner. She paused once Caedmon had rounded her other side, too stunned by what she’d just heard to move. After a few seconds of waiting, she didn’t hear the footsteps any longer, and concluded that Jeremy must have stayed in the lab. His voice carried down the hallway again, but she decided that she’d heard more than enough of that conversation.

Numb, she dug her hand into Caedmon’s fur and gently tugged him towards the entrance, heading on autopilot back to her room. Once they were outside and could no longer be overheard by either of the two people on whom they’d just eavesdropped, Caedmon spoke.

“Maybe he didn’t mean it,” he whispered, but Jemma could hear in the quiet of her dæmon’s voice that even he didn’t believe that. The tone of her best friend’s voice when he’d said Can you seriously imagine anyone dating Simmons? had been incredulous, bordering on disgusted, and Fitz wasn’t a good enough actor to pretend something like that on the spot.

A wave of nausea hit Jemma then, and she had to lean against a sprawling old oak that graced the front of the laboratory building. Fitz didn’t and would never want her the way she’d only just realized she so fervently wanted him. Her pulse was racing, vision blurring, breath coming short, and she reached up to clutch at her throat, as if that would make her illogical physiological responses disappear. The minute, rose necklace she wore every day felt like it was tight enough to choke.

“We need to go,” Caedmon said urgently, and she nodded, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to stay standing for much longer and that someone was sure to notice her collapsing to the ground in broad daylight.

Leaning heavily on him, despite the awkward angle, Jemma allowed Caedmon to lead the way back to their room. Once inside, she went straight for her bed, not even bothering to kick off her Cons before she fell onto it face-first. Behind her, she could hear her dæmon using his nose to turn the door’s lock, and then he tugged on her laces and shoes with his teeth until they were loose enough that he could remove them for her. That taken care of, the lion hopped onto the bed in between Jemma and the wall, and curled his lithe form around her, not needing to say anything for them both to know that they’d never felt more devastated about anything in their entire life. With Caedmon pressed against her, tears began to swim in Jemma’s eyes, his support allowing the dam to leak before it burst. The crying slowly gained strength until she was sobbing so hard she couldn’t breathe, shaking the mattress beneath them both. The last time she’d cried this much, only one week past, she’d gone to Fitz for care and support – but she couldn’t do that now. 

“It had to have meant something else,” Caedmon insisted weakly, his large, cold nose pressing against the back of her neck. “We – we didn’t understand, or –”

Jemma let out a deranged laugh-sob, flipping herself around so that she was on her back. “What did we misunderstand, Caed? The part where Fitz....” She had to trail off as a series of hiccups attacked. “Where Fitz can’t imagine anyone dating me, or where he would never date me? P-please, tell me what p-part was unc-clear, because I c-can’t... can’t....” Jemma dug her palms into her eyes, unable to bear the pain of vocalizing the rest of the thought.

I can’t imagine my life without him.

“Sarama never said anything.” The waver to Caedmon’s voice told her that he was grasping at straws, trying to find even the smallest evidence that what they’d just witnessed might be wrong in some way. Jemma chose not to answer. Even if Sarama disagreed, that wouldn’t change Fitz’s mind, and as much as she cared deeply for Sarama on her own, Jemma could not (and would not want to) separate the two.

Mind spinning as she cried, twisting around to cling to Caedmon, Jemma desperately tried to logic through what made her so abhorrent. Fitz seemed to enjoy their friendship as much as she, had actively sought out her companionship more than once. Was it just because he’d hated her at first? Their rivalry having come back all this time later to ensure that he was incapable of feeling anything for her other than friendship? The memories of their kisses – the heated ones at the party, the gentle, caring ones in his bed – taunted her, tainted by knowing that the feeling she’d imagined behind the latter had been false. Hormones must have guided the first, and pity guided the second.

Horror darted through her gut as, oh God, no wonder he’d rushed out of her room the night they’d played strip roshambo. She’d taken most of her clothes off right in front of him, with barely any warning, and he hadn’t known how to tell her that the thought of doing anything physical with her was the last thing he was interested in. Having seen the way he’d stared at her breasts, she was quite certain he wasn’t gay – bisexual was always an option, but then wouldn’t explain his apparent aversion to her. Obviously there was just something about her that he didn’t find attractive, despite her objective facial symmetry and proportional female form. Had he felt violated that night? Did she need to apologize to him? The thought of somehow having hurt or scarred him with her own thoughtlessness created a physical pain in her gut – one separate from the burn she felt now as her lungs struggled to pull in adequate air. 

It seemed cruel that the only person she’d ever cared for (other than her parents) didn’t want her the same way she wanted him. The idea of ever meeting someone else she’d trust enough to touch Caedmon at all seemed impossible; it could only ever be Fitz, Jemma was sure of that now. Even knowing how young she was didn’t dissuade her from that certainty – many people never allowed anyone to touch their daemon, so she had no doubt that she wouldn’t ever find someone else like her best friend. Though they might continue to be friends, their relationship would have to plateau, never moving past that even, familiar footing.

Although how that would be possible she didn’t know, because the thought of even looking at him now made her face twist, tears continuing unabated.

A loud knock sounded at her door, and Jemma – hiccuping for air – tilted her face away from Caedmon’s mane.

“Simmons, you in there? You’re not answering your phone.”

The sound of his voice brought a fresh wave of tears and hiccups that Jemma couldn’t suppress, and there was a long pause. 

“Simmons... are you crying?”

“Go away, F-Fitz,” she said, trying to be loud enough that he could hear her but quiet enough that he couldn’t read the tremble in her words.

“Did he come after you again?”

NO.” Of course he was worried that the bully had found her again. His concern both touched and frustrated her, and she devolved into hiccupping-gasps, covering her mouth with her hands to try to muffle the sound.

Another long silence stretched through the room, and at last she could hear Fitz’s footsteps fading away, the murmur of presumably both his and Sarama’s voices not quite audible through the door. Jemma relaxed back against Caedmon, who shifted onto his side so that he could rest one large paw over her stomach. Sobbing for so long was exhausting, but, at last, she seemed to be crying herself out. 

Footsteps returned outside of her doorway, and were followed by the distinct sounds of metal scratching against metal – right at her bedroom door. Letting out a noise of frustration, Jemma scrambled up from the bed and yanked the door open to reveal Fitz crouching at the threshold. Two metal wires dropped from his hands as he stared up at her and then shot to his feet, grabbing Sarama from the floor as he went.

“What happened –?”

“Were you picking my lock?” To her surprise, her voice came out nearly steady, the rush of her abrupt annoyance temporarily overriding her heartbreak. 

“You wouldn’t let me in,” he answered, a cross between shy, sullen, and defiant. 

“That’s my right, you know, as it’s my room!” 

“But you’ve been crying –”

“So?!” The press of Caedmon’s nose against her calf startled her and she jumped. 

Fitz stared back at her, clearly nonplussed and perhaps even a little frightened, fingers tightening slightly around his dæmon. “I just... wanna help.”

It wasn’t his fault, she knew that, but she was so angry with him for taking this away from her – for being so perfectly imperfect and infinitely interesting, and not feeling the same. For ensuring that, in some way, she would never quite be as whole or as happy as she thought she could have been if he’d loved her back. Her expression twisted, and she hissed in an uneven breath.

“Well, just – don’t, okay? You can’t help.” Then Jemma slammed the door in Fitz’s face.

Chapter Text

For the next few hours, Jemma laid on her bed, wrapped bodily around Caedmon, and thought about Fitz. First and foremost, she owed him an apology. The idea of losing his friendship was anathema to her – what would she do without him? – and it wasn’t his fault that he wanted no more from her than a fulfilling platonic relationship. Even if it slowly drove her mad.

Perhaps all she needed was time and space. She’d gotten so caught up in longing after the physical that she’d almost forgotten that she’d been attracted to Fitz’s mind first. If she spent the summer without him, surely it would be easier for her to focus on their friendship again in the fall, without all those other pesky feelings getting in the way.

“I’m going to miss them,” Caedmon murmured, stretching his head around to lick her hand.

“Me, too. But I can’t... look at him without....” Jemma sucked in a shuddery breath, and her dæmon pressed in closer against her. The streetlight outside her dorm room window cast long slitted shadows against the wall, and she stared at the light, eyes dry and sandy from having cried too much. 

“I know.” 

“It’ll get better.” She sniffled and closed her eyes, trying not to wish that she were curled into Fitz’s embrace right now instead. “Won’t it?”

“Yeah,” the lion answered quietly. “It has to.”

When Jemma finally left to use the restroom, she almost tripped over a cardboard box in front of her door. Inside was two packets of sugar, one creamer, a bag of English nighttime tea, and a now-lukewarm takeaway cup of water.

On top of the plastic lid was a post-it note, on which was scribbled one word in Fitz’s handwriting: “Sorry.”

 

------

 

The next day, Jemma was able to avoid Fitz until just after lunchtime, when she literally almost ran into him in the hallway in front of their rooms.

“Simmons,” he breathed, reaching up to steady Sarama on his shoulder and dropping his eyes from where they’d met hers oh-so briefly. “How’re you...?” 

“Fine,” she whispered, curling her hands into fists at her side. “I’m sorry about yesterday, Fitz. I behaved –”

“You were upset,” he said, waving away her concern, although his expression lightened at her words. “You’re alright, though? He didn’t –”

“No,” she said, giving him a tremulous smile. “It wasn’t that.” 

“Do you, ah....” He gestured back at the door to his room, glancing between her and Caedmon. “Wanna talk about...?” 

“No, thank you.” That fluttery, panicky feeling began to spread through her chest again, the one that meant she might start crying at any second. Jemma hated feeling like this, like she wasn’t in control of her own responses to stimuli; it made her feel weak and foolish, and she had never been either in her entire life. Perhaps it really was a good thing that Fitz wasn’t interested in a romantic relationship with her if these feelings made her so infuriatingly vulnerable. “We should go, we need to pack –” 

“Want company?”

His face was alight with a mix of anxiety and hope, and Jemma had to reach for Caedmon’s mane to give herself some modicum of strength. “No, our room is a mess –”

“We’re used to that.” Even Sarama was quieter than usual, the attempted joke notwithstanding, and Jemma’s composure nearly crumpled.

“No,” she replied, starting to shuffle back towards her door, “no, I think, um... not. My flight leaves so early tomorrow morning. I – we’ll see you in September, okay?”

“What?!” Fitz’s face was both hurt and stunned, mouth hanging open, and she knew he was thinking about all the plans they’d been making for the past month. 

The new series of Doctor Who would still be airing when they got to the UK, and they’d been talking about Fitz coming down to visit London for the season finale. That, in addition to having assured each other time and again that they’d SMS during every episode that they couldn’t watch together, or all the IM-ing they’d promised to do during the in-between. Although Jemma would be busy with her internship, she’d intended to make sure she had plenty of time to talk to Fitz, who would be stuck outside of Glasgow without anyone to talk science with at all. But if she was going to get over this horrendously potent and inconvenient crush, then she had to stick to the plan – and this was the only plan she had. 

“Yes,” she said, frowning and fidgeting with her hands, “I, um, think I’ll be rather too busy, you know, and I don’t want to be distracted, working with Bio-Med is such a good opportunity. And we’ll be – it’ll be time for school again in no time, you’ll see.”

“But....” He swallowed, his mouth working silently as he tried to process what she was saying and come up with an argument. In a way, it was good that this was coming essentially out of the blue for him, because she’d surprised him so thoroughly that he didn’t have a ready retort. 

Her resolve was beginning to give way, and so she gave Fitz and Sarama one last half-smile. “Goodbye, Fitz.”

Ushering Caedmon in front of her, she closed the door just in time for tears to break their dam. This time, as she leaned back against her door, the words felt final. Sliding down the cheap wooden surface, she had her arms wrapped around her dæmon before she’d even reached the floor, his hair getting tangled in her mouth as she muffled her body-wracking sobs.

Jemma was giving up any hope she’d had, even if briefly, that she and Fitz could become something more intimate than best friends. And giving up hurt like hell.

 

------

 

June and July 2005 were, without a doubt, the most miserable two months of Jemma’s life. In theory, she should have been on cloud nine: Although her job was an internship by name, she was working with some of the top biochemical researchers in Europe at Bio-Med, and in fact, she was leading the development on more than one important, complex project. (The job title itself was primarily for Academy credit purposes, and to distinguish its temporary nature. Bio-Med had initially offered Jemma a full-time position leading her own team, which, although flattering, was not where her true ambitions lay.)

Somehow, though, the work wasn’t nearly as exciting when she wasn’t able to share it with Fitz. Multiple times a week she found herself reaching for her beloved Nokia (outdated now though it might be) to SMS him about a discovery she’d made, or something she’d learned, or even just a joke she’d overheard and thought he’d appreciate. The Doctor Who season finale aired, and she was dying to know what he’d thought (had the kiss made narrative sense? What would this new, skinny Doctor be like?). Thumbs resting lightly against the phone’s rubber buttons, however, she always remembered her vow to give herself space before pressing “send.” The phone would then be returned to her pocket, and she would be rendered unnaturally quiet and contemplative for the following few minutes.

Caedmon, too, was far more pensive overall, helping her sort through problems at work but saying very little outside of it. She wondered if it was because he’d gotten so used to sharing so much with Sarama, as she had with Fitz, that he was just waiting to be reunited with the lizard before he voiced his thoughts. A distinct tension hovered between Jemma and Caedmon during those two months, the likes of which they’d never experienced before, even aside from their natural bickering.

In her attempts to move past her non-platonic feelings for her best friend, Jemma began going out on dates. A few were her age, but most were at least a few years older than she, and none of them were her intellectual equal. She had no expectations that she would actually find someone in London she cared to begin a relationship with, but this way she might be more likely to find someone at the Academy (other than Fitz) with whom she might be compatible. Practice makes perfect, after all, and, having just nearly ruined her relationship with her best friend, she suspected she could use all the practice she could get.

Caedmon’s disagreement was absolute, and he detested every single one of the dates without distinction. One early July evening, when an adequately attractive medical student and Jemma were busy kissing against a fence outside the restaurant at which they’d just eaten, Caedmon snarled at the boy’s dæmon. The poor quokka had just been waddling over while their humans were otherwise occupied, and she immediately retreated behind the boy’s legs. Jemma apologized profusely and then dragged Caedmon back to her parents’ house in stormy silence.

“I cannot believe you,” she said once she’d closed the door behind them in her room, adrenaline coursing through her veins. Her dæmon just planted his feet in the carpet in front of her, matching her glare for glare. “He probably thinks I’m completely mad now –”

“Good.” Caedmon dropped his rump to the floor, and she let out a noise of exasperation, throwing up one hand as she turned around. “Maybe then he’ll leave us alone.” 

“Might I remind you that I asked him out to dinner?”

He just looked steadily back at her. “Which was a stupid idea. He’s boring as toast without jam.”

“Well, I have to make do with what’s available,” she muttered, shrugging out of her cardigan.

“No, you don’t.”

“Caed –”

“Maybe if we just asked,” he said, and she swallowed. The horribly familiar, clawing feeling that followed every time she remembered what had transpired between her and Fitz back in May caught her breath. “We don’t know –” 

“Caedmon, don’t start with that again.” Jemma bent down to remove her shoes, and to avoid looking into the lion’s penetrating golden eyes. “You heard him as well as I did, and pretending differently is foolish.”

“And going around with every guy who’s nice enough to hold a door open or has symmetrical facial features isn’t foolish?” His words were sharp, and she clenched her jaw as she straightened up again, watching as he raised back on to his feet, fur bristling.

“I’ve told you,” she snapped, ripping off her earrings and tossing them onto her dresser, “I don’t care about any of them, I just need more data –”

“We don’t need more data,” her dæmon bit back, a growl lacing his every word, “we’ve been collecting data on Fitz and Sarama for years, and no one’s ever going to measure up!”

“You don’t –”

I KNOW.” His roar rattled the hinges of her bedroom windows and door, and she let out a sharp tsk, rubbing one hand against her forehead. 

“You just have an instrumental bias towards them –” 

“Yeah,” he countered, shoulders rolling as he stalked menacingly towards her, “and so do you, because we’re the same bloody person, Jemma. Forgotten that, have you? You and I feel the same way, so why are you –”

The lion stopped in his tracks as a loud knock sounded on the door. “Darling...?”

“Come in, Mum,” Jemma sighed, dropping onto the edge of her royal blue and white quilt.

Her mother – a slight, graceful woman with dark auburn hair and a fennec fox dæmon – peeked her head around the door. “Are you two arguing?”

Reaching around to unclasp her necklace, Jemma shot Caedmon a look. “Not exactly.”

“Date didn’t go well, I take it,” said Altair, her mother’s dæmon. He trotted up to the lion and stretched up to lick at a dash of city grease on his shoulder; Caedmon lowered himself to the fox’s height and waited docilely until he finished.

“Not as such,” Jemma said drily, sweeping past the dæmons and her mother to reach the closet on the left hand side of her queen-sized bed. She could feel her mother’s eyes watching her as she folded her cashmere jumper.

“Oh well, there’s always other fish in the sea.” Jemma made a noncommittal noise of agreement, turning to see Altair intently grooming her dæmon as her mother looked on. “Have you heard from Fitz recently?” 

Ducking her head, Jemma slipped around her to fetch clean pajamas. “No, Mum.”

“You should be better at keeping in touch with him, darling, he is your best friend.”

“I know, Mum.”

Her mother sighed, and Jemma heard her heels approaching on the wooden floor. “Goodnight, love. Have a good day at work tomorrow.”

“Thanks.” She twisted her cotton TARDIS-blue pajamas in her hands and attempted to give the others as much of a genuine smile as she could muster. “You, too.”

Altair gave Caedmon one final lick behind the ear and turned to follow his human out the door. “Goodnight, Jemma.” 

“Goodnight, Altair,” she replied, watching as her mother pulled the door to.

Caedmon raised his head from where he’d stretched out on the floor, and for a few, long moments, they just stared at each other. Their entire life, they’d never been at such odds, and their fight left a nasty sort of after-burn in Jemma’s gut. At last, she curled up against the foot of the bed next to him, twisting her hands into her pajamas rather than his mane.

“I’m tired of missing them, Caed.” Her bottom lip wavered, and she bit into it to hold it steady. “I’m so tired of it.”

“We don’t have to, you know.” She let him worm his head onto her lap, taking it as the wordless apology she was certain he meant, and the slightly over-heavy weight of him soothed her in a way nothing else in this world ever did. Other, perhaps, than Fitz. “We could call them. Or Skype, or SMS. Something. Don’t you think it’s been long enough?”

Jemma closed her eyes, trying not to think of the way Fitz had kissed her back when they’d been wrapped up in each other on the bed. Of the way he’d cradled her against him, so tender the memory sent tingles across her skin. Avoidance was probably no use; she’d be in mourning for what she couldn’t have no matter what.

“Yeah,” she whispered, reaching out to hug one arm around the lion. “Long enough.”

 

------

 

Having come to that conclusion did not make Jemma any more eager to break the silence, however, and so she delayed for a few more days. The awkwardness was sure to be acute, because while she had been steadfast in keeping her distance from Fitz, he had attempted – at least for a while – to pretend like nothing was wrong. Perhaps he had been so surprised by her “see you in September” that he hadn’t believed it. For the first few weeks, he sent her texts and then emails checking in, complaining about his mum and his neighbors and the weather – anything safe, familiar, and unrelated to their fight. Although it pained her deeply, she let each one go unanswered, hoping each time that he would finally take the hint and let her lick her wounds in peace. 

The one time she replied to an email was the last she’d heard from him. About a month into the summer, she’d gotten an unusually short email. All it had contained was a plea to respond to him, just once, about anything at all, to let him know that she hadn’t been killed or something, because he was really starting to worry. As she sat at her desk overlooking their modest back garden, panic darted through her when she remembered that he had her home phone number, and that calling to check on her would be the logical next step. The idea of Fitz calling to make sure that she was okay made her stomach twist into knots, because of course he would worry, because she desperately missed and wanted to talk to him, because she was fairly certain that she would relapse any meager progress she’d made at the very sound of his voice.

So she wrote him a quick email back, apologizing profusely for being out of touch but that she’d been terribly busy. Fitz never responded.

After spending the following week working herself up to initiating contact, Jemma decided to bypass their normal means of communication and rip off the proverbial plaster by simply calling him. Eventually, she reasoned, she’d have to get used to hearing his voice without wanting to cry.

Once her parents had left for Saturday morning errands, she took her mobile out to the garden, tucked her legs beneath her on the plastic lounge chair to make room for Caedmon, and dialed. There was no answer. Jemma frowned, gave her dæmon a concerned look, and then tried again. Nothing.

“What’s going on?” 

“It’s not ringing.” Nibbling on her bottom lip, she double-checked that she had been dialing his UK mobile rather than his US number (whose SIM card would be stored in a safe place for the summer, and therefore unusable). It was the correct number, so she tried a third time, but received only the same stale beeping on the other end of the line that meant the call couldn’t connect. Either his phone was turned off in the middle of the day, which would be odd to say the least, or something bad had happened. 

Jemma was beginning to get genuinely nervous now, so she took a deep breath and dialed the number for Fitz’s home outside of Glasgow. Blessedly, that phone rang, and it was only a handful of rings before a cheerful female Scot answered, the television news droning dimly on behind the speaker.

“Hello?” 

In other news, the G8 summit originally planned –

“Hello, Mrs. Fitz? My name is Jemma Simmons, and –”

For July 7th has been rescheduled for the second week of August –”

The woman’s voice went up an octave in sheer excitement, and Jemma thought she heard wings flapping in the background. “Oh Simmons! My dear, it’s so good to talk to you!”

Because of new security measures required for dæmons –”

Mrs. Fitz let out a loud tsk, and Jemma could hear her fiddling with something plastic. “Off with you.” The background noise shut off abruptly. “Talareon, go get Leo and Sarama. I’ve heard enough about you, to be sure, but it’s so nice to hear your voice. Sometimes I’d forget if Leo was talking about a girl or a boy!” 

Leaning back on the plastic chair, Jemma tried to will away the slight flush that crept up the back of her neck at the thought of him talking about her to his mother, and a little niggle of hurt crept into her chest before she could shoo it away. It only made sense that Fitz wouldn’t talk about her to his mother as if she were a girl, because that didn’t matter to him.

“Are you having a good summer, Jemma? Is it alright if I call you Jemma? Leo only ever uses your –”

“Mum? What is it?”

Jemma sucked in a small breath at hearing her best friend’s voice for the first in such a long time, even if it was muffled and distinctly sullen.

“Because you broke your bloody mobile, Jemma’s had to call the house line. Go upstairs –”

“Jemma?” he interrupted her, sounding angry, terrified, or excited (it was hard to tell through that distance from the landline receiver). “Simmons?”

“Unless you neglected to tell me about another lovely sounding English girl that you’re friends with. Go on, then!”

“Yeah, yeah,” he replied breathlessly, “just, you’ll hang up down here, yeah?”

“Of course, you goose –”

“I’ll tell you when I’ve picked up!” 

Footsteps scrambled away from the phone, and Jemma couldn’t quite resist the smile that ticked up the corner of her mouth.

“That boy,” Mrs. Fitz said, once again speaking into the phone. “I hope you’re taking care of him out there Jemma, because sometimes I wonder how he can find his PhD underneath all that mess! Head too busy with trying to save the world from itself.”

“He does just fine,” Jemma started on a laugh, already feeling lighter than she had since before leaving Sci-Tech in May, but was interrupted by the click of another landline connecting.

“Hello?”

Jemma inhaled, reaching out to wrap her fingers around the front two knuckles of Caedmon’s paw. “Hi, Fitz.” 

“Simmons,” he breathed, and silence hovered between them. 

“It was so nice meeting you over the phone, my dear,” Mrs. Fitz broke in, a tinge of amusement to her voice. “Hopefully it’ll be in person one day.” 

“Yes, of course,” was all Jemma could get out before the other phone disconnected. 

“You still there?”

“Yeah.”

The silence crept on, and for half a second Jemma wanted to cry again. How she missed when their friendship had been so effortless – before she’d messed everything up. 

“You broke your mobile?”

Fitz let out a puff of air, and bed springs squeaked in the background. “Yeah. Mum won’t let me get a new one until the summer’s over, so. Sorry if you –”

“I was worried,” she whispered, the ghost of their own email exchange hanging between them. “Why won’t she let you get a new one?” 

“Oh, ah, it was....” 

“He was an idiot,” called Sarama from somewhere in the background, and Jemma giggled as Fitz let out a loud shushing noise. 

“I was not!” 

“Hi, Sarama,” Jemma said, and Fitz pseudo-grumpily relayed the message. “Caed says hello, too. To you both.”

Caedmon perked up at the mention of the lizard’s name, his tail swishing along the chair’s white plastic slats. “How is she?” 

Jemma hushed her dæmon, wanting an answer to her question. “So,” she continued, allowing a light tease into her tone. “You were an idiot...?”

“I was not!” Fitz repeated, and she could picture exactly the expression he would be wearing at that moment, brows furrowed and eyes downcast. “I... just – was feeling off, and sort of chucked it at the wall. By accident.”

“Oh, Fitz!” she breathed, choosing not to call him on his contradictory statement. “Why on –”

“Doesn’t matter,” he muttered. “Bad day, it happened. A while back now, actually, gotten used to not having it.”

Dropping her gaze to her lap, she noted that he was pointing out she’d have known sooner if she hadn’t been ignoring him. “Can’t you just build yourself another one? Or fix that one?”

“Don’t have the parts, and it’d cost a ruddy fortune to have them shipped out here.” He let out a dry laugh, sheets shifting as he made himself more comfortable, presumably on his bed. “Mum says it’s my version of being grounded, since I never want to go anywhere anyway.” Jemma tsked, glancing up at the vibrant summer sky above her. “Well, ‘cept....” He paused. “‘Cept the London Zoo. Going down as an early birthday present, and ‘cause Mum wants to visit my aunt Jo in Devon. Cannot wait for that. Never went as a kid.”

“Oh,” she whispered, unable to hide her hurt that he would be in the city where she lived without seeing her. “That sounds lovely.”

“I mean, I dunno if you... if you’re free, or whatever, but... we could probably get away from my mum for a while. If you, I dunno, wanted to meet up, or something,” he mumbled, and a wide smile broke across her face.

“Oh, really? I’d l- that would be great, Fitz!”

“Yeah?” Mattress springs squeaked in the background. “You could, I dunno, go to the zoo with us, if you wanted. They have a new yellow-tailed wooly monkey exhibit. Not the same as seeing them in the wild, but –”

“Still fascinating!” She met Caedmon’s eyes, amused to see that he was paying avid attention now. “We haven’t been to the zoo in years, that sounds fantastic.”

“Yeah? Yeah! Oh – wait, just – lemme check with my mum?” 

“Okay.” 

“Hold on.”

The phone dropped onto something that muffled the sound of him sprinting to the door and then shouting through the house, but Jemma could just barely make out their conversation anyway.

Hey, Mum! What day’re we leaving London for Aunt Jo’s, again?

That Monday.”

Can I skive off and go to the zoo early? With Jemma?

Oh, she’s Jemma now, is she?” 

No, just – c’mon, Mum, can I?

Yes dear, of course. It’s your birthday present –

Thanks!

Footsteps ran back towards the phone, and Fitz’s voice was a little breathless when he spoke into it. “August eighth, then, if you’re free? Has to be early ‘cause our train’s in the afternoon.” 

“I’ll ask for the day off, I’m ahead on all my projects anyway.” 

“Yeah? What’re you working on?”

Jemma’s grin widened, and she settled in on the plastic lawn chair. They talked about her work, his boredom, and the finale of Doctor Who. In the one phone call, she laughed more than she had in the rest of the summer put together. When her parents arrived home two hours later, Jemma was still on the phone with Fitz, and she spent the rest of the day in a better mood than she could remember being in for a very long time.

 

------

 

The first week of August was busy for Jemma, because she and Caedmon had to make up a little extra work in the lab to justify the day off. In any spare moments she had, however, she worried constantly about what she should wear and how should she act around Fitz. A rather large part of her wanted to look as pretty as possible; after all, she didn’t get many chances to wear her nice clothes while she was at the lab. The weather was supposed to be lovely, too, and spending the day at the zoo would be a good excuse for wearing one of her summer dresses. Logically, however, she knew that this reasoning for dressing up to see her best friend would be slim at best.

The morning of August eighth, Caedmon watched her get ready from the end of her bed, a wry eyebrow raised. “You look nice.”

Adjusting the shoulder of her chosen, tasteful flower-patterned sundress, Jemma sniffed. “Don’t you start.”

“I just –”

“I’m not getting my hopes up, Caed,” she said quietly, reaching around her neck to fasten the clasp of her horseshoe necklace. “I thought... it might make me feel better to dress up.” As conciliation to her dæmon’s judgment, however, she grabbed a dark cardigan to wear over the ensemble, making it look less formal and more ordinary.

Although she didn’t vocalize this, she also thought it might be nice to pretend, even just for an afternoon, that she and Fitz were going to the zoo on a date. They wouldn’t kiss or hold hands or do any couple-y kinds of things, but anyone looking at them from the outside would certainly think they were together. And even if Jemma couldn’t pretend like that for long, she thought it might make the coming semester of constant companionship a little easier to bear if she had one memory with which she could pretend. A large part of her hated the foolish, romantic notion, wanted to dismiss these feelings as thoroughly as she did erroneous lab results, but her mind seemed set on refusing logic where Fitz was concerned.

Their plan was to meet at King’s Cross, go to one of Jemma’s favorite teashops in Picadilly for breakfast, and then head up to the zoo. Since Fitz was still without a mobile, they’d arranged to meet by the entrance to the tube station. It would mean that Jemma would have to go out and then back into the system with her Oyster card, but she thought it might be easier to find each other there during commuter rush hour rather than within the turnstiles. Fitz and his mum were staying in a motel near the station to make it easier to catch their train down to Devon. 

As usual, Jemma and Caedmon arrived precisely ten minutes early, and pulled off to the side by the ticketing and Oyster card machines. Waves of businesspeople ebbed in and out of the turnstiles, nearly trampling clueless tourists and feeding into Jemma’s already high anxiety. Five minutes before their planned meeting time, to her surprise, she spotted a familiar figure standing at the edge of the rushing crowd.

Fitz wore a bright plaid button-down and striped tie, a far more formal ensemble than what he normally wore at the Academy. In one hand was Sarama, dark scales glinting in the fluorescent lights, and the other was shoved deep into his pocket, likely to abate his own nerves – although whether they were about the crowds or Jemma herself, she couldn’t say. Her pulse sped up at the very sight of him, and she tugged lightly at Caedmon’s mane to get him looking in the right direction. 

“Fitz,” she called out, and thanks to a brief break in the crowd he actually heard her on the first try.

His eyes lit up, both of them hurrying towards each other... and then freezing about four feet away. Jemma tried to remember how they used to greet each other before having learned the taste of each others’ lips, but she couldn’t. As she stared at him for the first time in far too long, however, she decided to throw caution under the bus and hopped forward to wrap her arms around his shoulders. 

“It’s good to see you,” she mumbled into her own arm, thankful that his surprise only lasted for a few seconds as he reached around to hug her against his chest. 

“You too, Simmons.” He pressed his cheek against her temple, and she allowed herself exactly five seconds in which to close her eyes and appreciate what it felt like to be in his arms. 

Well, arm.

That thought almost made her laugh, and she stepped back from the hug with a wide smile on her face. Amusement at her own foolishness aside, she couldn’t help but notice how handsome he looked, with his crisp new shirt and sporting at least one haircut since she’d seen him last. The expression on his face as she met his eyes was almost as nervous as she felt, and that eased most of her own anxiety. 

“Hi Sarama.” Caedmon was standing on all four paws, stretching his neck up towards Fitz’s hand as far as he could without leaning back on his hind legs.

“Caedmon,” Sarama breathed, crawling to the edge of Fitz’s fingers as soon as he lowered his hand to the lion’s eye-level. “I missed you.” 

“Me too,” he murmured, brushing their noses together. “Worst summer ever.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Jemma protested, trying to keep her blush in check by tucking loose hair behind one ear. “You’re being melodramatic.”

Caedmon shot her death glare and turned back to Fitz. “Good to see you, too, Fitz.” 

“And you, mate,” he said, reaching automatically down to bop the lion lightly on the head. 

The comfort Jemma felt at having Fitz touch Caedmon for the first time in months – even briefly – was acute. Relief washed through her that there were no other, more potent side-effects this time; she had worried that perhaps her new feelings for Fitz would change that dynamic permanently. It seemed that only certain situations in which Fitz touched her dæmon did she have that other kind of response, so at least she wouldn’t have to worry about that today. 

Jemma greeted Sarama, reaching down to brush one finger along her back scales. When a new wave of commuters pushed around them just then, they finally proceeded towards the turnstiles. Maneuvering on public transportation was much easier for Fitz than it was for Jemma, thanks to Caedmon’s size, but having someone else to help create space for the lion made it much more manageable. This was why she took the bus to work rather than the Tube – it was much easier for Caedmon to secure a seat there rather than risk other people brushing up against him.

After running to catch the train and then barely making it through the doors in time, the three of them gathered against one wall, holding tightly to the metal bars and laughing at the silliness of having to squeeze a lion onto the Tube. Caedmon was pressed tightly against the end of a row of seats to avoid the commuters, but at least there weren’t any other large dæmons in the train’s second car with which he had to compete for space. 

Fitz’s left hand was wrapped tightly around his dæmon’s body, his right one only inches above Jemma’s on the metal bar, and he swayed lightly into her as the train got up to speed. She ached a little to be this close to him and know that the last remaining distance could never be broached, but she made the snap decision that this was much better than not being together at all.

“Caed was right, actually,” she said quietly, ascertaining that her dæmon probably couldn’t hear her above the rush of the car. Fitz made eye contact, blue irises even more striking than she’d remembered, and she took in a small breath. “Hasn’t been the same without you around.”

Studying her face intently, Fitz didn’t reply for a long time. He darted his gaze away and then back again, and Jemma’s own eyes dropped down as he licked his lips. She blinked and shook her head, stumbling a little as the train stuttered along the track, and returned her gaze to meet Fitz’s.

Just as he opened his mouth to respond, an explosion rocked the car in front of them, the windows in the doors between the cars blowing out. The shockwave combined with the halted momentum threw Jemma roughly against the side of the train, her head crashing so hard into a metal panel that she was knocked unconscious instantly.

Chapter Text

The air around Jemma was cold and stale, her closed eyelids were not enough to dim the room’s lights, and someone was holding her left hand so tightly that it hurt.

Waking up was more difficult than it should be, and it took her a lot of wincing and blinking to adjust to the bright fluorescents. One of her legs was completely immobilized, she was clearly in a hospital room, and her head swum in a medicated fog reminiscent of when she’d had her scoliosis surgery as a young girl. When she finally had her eyes open, she looked around the miniature, sterile room to get her bearings. Her right leg was raised above the mattress in a sling and covered with a hard cast. Caedmon lay curled in as small a ball as he could manage at the end of the bed, fur singed in multiple places and cuts scattered along the entire side of his body that she could see. Jemma’s hand was being held captive, to her surprise and confusion, by Fitz; he had it clutched against his chest as he leaned his head on the mattress next to her, shoulders shaking as he cried. 

“F-Fitz?” Her voice was scratchy and barely audible, and she realized that her entire throat was raw. 

He whipped his head up, red-rimmed eyes widening as he met her bleary gaze. “Jemma?!” Letting go of her, he scrambled forward to cup her chin in his hands, tears running down his cheeks. “You’re awake,” he managed to stammer, pressing kisses on her forehead, cheeks, temples, a deeply unusual gesture of affection from him. “Oh thank God, you’re awake, thank God.”

If Jemma weren’t so disoriented and confused, she might have laughed at her best friend’s strange behavior, or perhaps reveled in the adorably intimate and tactile response so unlike him. Finally, he paused, tears falling too fast for him to continue, and leaned his forehead against her temple, continuing to cradle her head as he tried to draw in shaky breaths. Even though her muscles felt stiff and protested the movement, Jemma reached up her right hand – hindered by wires though it was – to press against his over her neck.

“Fitz,” she whispered, trying to lace that one word with the comfort she felt at being by his side, confused though she was about what had brought them here.

As he continued to hold her, she realized that he was filthy, his clothes covered in soot and torn in multiple places. His hands and face were clean, someone had patched up his scratches with a few small plasters, and his left wrist was wrapped in thick, durable bandages.

“I need to tell them,” he said at last, breaking away to scramble towards the door. His movement, inexplicably, made panic dart through Jemma’s gut, and she reached out for him. 

“No! What –” But her startled shout had been too harsh on her throat, and she devolved into hacking coughs. Twisting around from where he’d been heading for the door, Fitz grabbed a paper cup, filled it with water from the room’s built-in sink, and rushed with it back to the bed.

“Here,” he murmured, reaching around to help her sit up and holding the cup to her lips. Jemma gulped the whole thing down, leaning heavily against him afterwards as she tried to catch her breath. Her head was swimming again, and she was so tired. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she thought that the dose of pain medication must be far too high.

“Before you go,” she croaked, reaching for him once he’d tossed the cup into the bin, “I don’t – what happened?”

“You don’t remember?” She shook her head, but that only started her coughing again. Fitz hunted around the cabinets for a few seconds, came up with a bottle of water, and then returned to slide onto the mattress next to her while she drank. “There was a bomb,” he started quietly, reaching one arm around her back to support her while she was sitting up. “On the train car in front of us.”

“Oh my God,” Jemma breathed, the explosion in the train suddenly rushing back into her memory. “Did anyone...?” 

“Yeah,” he answered, voice low. “I dunno how many, the count keeps going up – there were bombs all over the city. I haven’t really been listening to the news, been, ah....” Closing her eyes, Jemma leaned against him, breathing heavily after her coughing fits. The shift in position halted Fitz’s explanation, and he took a second to lean his cheek against the crown of her head, curling one hand protectively around her arm. “Been with you. Your mum’s here, she and mine went to get food a few minutes back, after they talked to the doctor.” His breathing became unsteady at that, and she tilted her head up, only able to partially see where he’d screwed his face up against whatever thought had upset him. “They didn’t know... they said you were taking too long to wake up, and I....”

“Sarama!” she said suddenly, distracted by the memory that he’d been holding his dæmon when the explosion had happened. “Where is she?”

“I’m fine,” the lizard said, and Jemma turned to see her head poking out from behind one of Caedmon’s paws. “She’s got a broken leg and a conked head, and she’s asking how I’m doing,” Sarama muttered, sending Jemma into a brief round of laughing coughs.

“The smoke,” Fitz explained – needlessly, truth be told, because Jemma had already come to that conclusion on her own. “I couldn’t get you out fast enough, you were –” 

“You got me out?” This time, she leaned away to see his face properly, but he refused to meet her eyes.

“I didn’t – I didn’t know what was going on, but I got up and you were knocked out, and Caedmon couldn’t wake you up, so I just... dragged you out of the car. I think I made it worse, your leg, Jemma, I’m so sorry, I tried to help but I didn’t –”

“Fitz,” she interrupted, reaching up to wipe away the new tears that had rolled down his cheek. “You saved my life.” He just gave his head a tearful shake, and she made him look at her, angling his face up to meet her eyes. “If my throat’s like this now, I probably would have died from smoke inhalation. You’re a hero. You didn’t have to come for me, but you did.” 

He stared at her, brows furrowing. “What else was I gonna do?” 

The door to the small room burst open, two nurses running in and calling out instructions to each other and to nurses in the hallway. They rushed around Jemma, asking her questions and fiddling with her machines and wires. In the chaos, Fitz slipped off the bed to allow the professionals to work, grabbing Sarama and quietly disappearing from the room. Jemma looked for him once she’d finished responding to one of the nurses and her breath came short when she realized he wasn’t in the room.

“Fitz?” The nurses continued to work around her, taking her vitals and trying to get her attention, but her pulse began to race as inexplicable anxiety set in. “Fitz?!” She burst into another coughing fit, and out of nowhere her mother was by her side with a cup of water, the bottle she’d been holding having disappeared somehow in the chaos.

“Here darling, drink, drink,” her mother said, her business suit rumpled and hair in disarray as it never was. Altair hopped up on one of the visitor chairs, pacing on the adjacent seats in agitation.

Her mother’s hand was cool and familiar as it brushed hair out of her face, but all Jemma could feel was an overwhelming wash of panic. “Fitz,” she eked out after a small sip, “where did Fitz go?”

“He’s just–”

“Please,” Jemma begged, head swimming with the medication and disorientation and a bizarre sense that everything was about to go terribly wrong if he didn’t come back. “Fitz, please, I just want Fitz.”

Staring at her daughter for a moment while the nurses continued to do their work, Jemma’s mother glanced over at her dæmon and then made sure to wrap Jemma’s hand around the cup of water. “I’ll get him. Drink, darling.” 

Tears welled in Jemma’s eyes as a nurse adjusted some of the tubes and wires stuck to and into her arms, knowing that her response didn’t make sense but unable to calm her breathing anyway. They spilled over as Fitz burst back into the room, his own eyes widening as he registered her upset.

“Fitz,” she said brokenly, reaching her one unoccupied arm out for him.

After depositing Sarama next to Caedmon at the end of the bed, he scooted onto the mattress and bundled her proffered hand in both of his, carefully avoiding the tubes and wires. “What is it, what’s wrong?”

“I – I...” Jemma hiccupped, dropping her gaze as she tried to calm herself enough to speak again. “I d-didn’t want you to leave.” It sounded stupid even as she said it, but she had no other excuse to mind.

When she looked up at him again, the last of her tears rolling slowly down her cheeks, there was a strange expression on his face. Something between a sadness and a fervency that she didn’t quite understand. Looking around, he pulled one of the plastic chairs forward and up by the head of the bed, as out of the way of as many of the machines and the working medical professionals as he could be while still holding onto her.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he assured her, squeezing her hand and nodding up at a nurse who was trying to get their attention. “Go on, then.”

Reluctantly, Jemma turned to the nurse and tried to focus on answering the questions put forth to determine whether or not she’d suffered any brain damage during her ordeal. Her pulse eventually evened out, almost in time with the tender sweeps of Fitz’s thumb across her skin.

 

------

 

By all accounts, Jemma and Fitz had been extremely fortunate in their limited injuries. Fitz’s wrist suffered from minute stress fractures, and Jemma’s leg was a clean break in her fibula (with correlating stress fractures in the tibia). Neither of the two dæmons had experienced any kind of significant injury at all, and Sarama’s scales had protected her from even the minor abrasions and burns that Caedmon received. (The defensive properties of Sarama’s scales provided all four of them with days of conversations, discussing everything from the biological makeup of the scales to the efficacy of their patterning.) 

The hospital – overcrowded as it was with victims from the other bombs that had gone off in other tube stations and, in one case, on a bus – kept Jemma for observation for a couple of days, but then gave her permission to go home. Televisions and newspapers talked about nothing other than the terrorist attacks in the aftermath, eventually all settling on a name drawn from the day the bombs went off: 8/8.

During Jemma’s hospital stay, Mrs. Fitz had canceled the rest of their trip and was staying with a friend in London. For all intents and purposes, Fitz himself lived in Jemma’s hospital room, often falling asleep draped over the end of her bed or curled into one of the plastic chairs. At one point she ordered him to his mother’s friend’s house so that he could get some real sleep, shower, and change clothes, but he only reluctantly listened and was barely gone for two hours, hair still dripping from a rapid-fire shower. Outwardly annoyed though she may have been when he didn’t do as she’d ordered, Jemma was grateful for his constant companionship.

The pain medication on top of the rather strong head bump she’d received during the explosion made her feel disoriented more often than not during those first couple of days, and the only thing that really calmed her down was Fitz. He gave her updates on the police findings for the attacks but otherwise spoke mostly about science or school, and she was happy to listen or bicker for hours on end. Before they got too bored being cooped up in the small, sterile room, however, the hospital provided them with Jemma’s release papers.

Both of her parents came to the hospital to see her home, and Mrs. Fitz came in person to collect her son. Jemma’s father spent a rather long time talking to the primary physician and signing all manner of tedious forms while Jemma’s mother helped her clean up before they departed. Faced with Fitz returning with his mother to Glasgow shortly, both teenagers were quiet, and he sat staring mutely at where their dæmons were curled together on the hospital bed.

“The stairs are going to be difficult,” her mother muttered, working with Jemma to adjust the height of her crutches. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather we make a nest for you on the sofa? We can just leave it there, you’ll only be home for another three weeks and the Academy has elevators –” 

“No, Mum,” Jemma repeated for the hundredth time. “I want to sleep in my bed. I’ll just... do the stairs slowly, and only once up and down a day.”

“I wish we could have someone come in to help you.” Her mother sighed, sharing a weary look with her dæmon, who was pacing by the door. “Home care is just so expensive, and with your airfare and SHIELD’s tuition....” In his chair, Fitz had shot forward in the middle of her sentence, and she turned to him, trailing off.

“I could stay.” He ducked his head, looking hesitantly over to meet Jemma’s eyes as she dangled her legs over the side of the bed. “If you need help, I mean. I’m not doing anything back home, and Mum could mail me my stuff, so....”

“Oh, Fitz,” Jemma breathed, face lighting up at the thought of not being separated again. “Would you?”

“It would certainly be cost effective,” her mother chuckled, glancing between the two teenagers. “But you have to ask your mum, first.” 

“Right,” he said, hopping out of his chair and shooting for the door. “Yeah, be right back.”

Jemma couldn’t stop the smile that spread across her face as she watched him zip into the hall.

“Would that make you happy, dear?” Her mother reached out to tuck loose hair tenderly behind her ear. “Having Fitz stay?” 

“Oh yes,” she answered immediately, excitement working its way into her voice. “It would be splendid. He could stay in the guest room!”

Her mother laughed again, and strode to the door. “Your first ‘best friends’ sleepover, and you’re almost eighteen. I’m going to tell your father, be right back.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Jemma muttered, throwing a mildly despairing look at the crutches. She foresaw a lot of stumbling and falling in her future, and the thought did not exactly thrill her.

In the room’s comparative silence with her mother gone, Jemma could just barely hear the last of Fitz’s conversation with his mother in the hallway. Funnily enough, Mrs. Fitz looked exactly as she sounded over the phone, with bright eyes and a distinctly wry tilt to her mouth that made her appear rather similar to her Arctic skua dæmon. At the moment, the two Fitzes were around the corner, so she couldn’t see more of them than the edge of the bird dæmon’s tail through the doorframe.

“She needs me, Mum.” 

Mrs. Fitz sighed. “You’ll be miserable unless I say yes, won’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re a stubborn ass of a boy with a heart of gold, you are. Alright,” she said, clicking her tongue. “Go on. I’ll see if I can get a refund for your ticket.”

“Thanks, Mum,” he breathed, and then, after a pause that probably included some sort of hug, bounded back into the room, coming immediately around to the bedside upon which Jemma sat. “She said yes!” He reached around Caedmon to cuff Sarama gently on the side, and she waggled her stumpy tail in excitement. Rather than respond, the lion nosed at Fitz’s elbow before he made his way over the last couple of feet towards Jemma.

“What a wonderful idea, Fitz,” she said, smiling warmly up at him. “Thank you –”

Reaching for the crutches, he just waved away her gratitude. “Nothing to thank me about. I’m your best friend, that’s what I’m here for.”

Her smile dipped slightly, and she tried to ignore the little vein of hurt she felt at the reminder of their intractable status of “friendship.”

“C’mon,” he said, oblivious to her brief moment of self-pity. “Up you go.” 

Wincing as she reached forward to support herself with the crutches, Jemma tried to give him as steady a smile as she could muster. “Truly, though. I can’t thank you enough – being stuck at home would be a nightmare without you.”

Fitz gave her a half-smile in return, and then reached haltingly forward to adjust her hair so that it wouldn’t catch between her arm and the crutch. “Tell me about it.”

His hand lingered over her shoulder, goosebumps shivering up in the wake of his touch, even through the fabric of her shirt. When she met his eyes, she felt her cheeks warm slighty. A few silent moments passed between them, and Jemma wondered again how it was possible that what she felt wasn’t reciprocated, even when he stood so close and watched her like he couldn’t quite look away.

The three parents bustled in, causing Fitz to step quickly back from Jemma. 

“What am I, invisible?” Caedmon groused from the bed, hopping off the mattress onto the linoleum floor, and she rolled her eyes.

“You don’t count!” 

“I’ll remind you of that the next time you wake me up in the middle of the night.”

Although she wobbled a little on the crutches, Jemma was able to get herself to the door of the room without needing help from anyone. Her dæmon loped cautiously nearby, and, for once, she was glad that Caedmon was such a large animal. She suspected she would be leaning on him quite a lot during the next eight to twelve weeks of recovery. A nurse insisted on taking her to the hospital entrance in a wheelchair, but she took heart in those brief few moments of walking on her own.

Her father would accompany Fitz and his mother to get his things and bring him to their house in West Hampstead, so that he wouldn’t have to navigate an unfamiliar part of London on his own, while Jemma and her mother went directly home. Mrs. Fitz would be leaving for the train station from her friend’s house, so Jemma said a fond farewell to her at the hospital.

“You take care, dear,” Mrs. Fitz said as she gave Jemma a warm hug and a peck on the cheek. “And keep my boy in check.” 

“I will,” Jemma murmured back, fighting off a blush as she let go of the older woman’s shoulder. Fitz gave her a theatrical eye-roll behind his mother’s back, and Jemma grinned, excited by the prospect of settling him into their home. If she couldn’t continue working at Bio-Med for the rest of the summer, at least she’d have her best friend to amuse her. 

It was only another hour of waiting until Fitz and her father arrived at their home, with Fitz and Sarama taking mere minutes to settle themselves into their new room. Jemma couldn’t quite give them a tour of the house, but she did insist on taking them out to the back garden, which she liked to joke was her favorite room.

“When we first moved down here,” she explained, leaning against the back door’s frame, “it reminded me of home. I mean, our old home in Sheffield. Mum planted all the same flowers. And, well, the stars still look the same, you know?”

Fitz didn’t answer, and when she turned to gauge his reaction she was startled by the intensity of his gaze. Wriggling a little under his scrutiny, she shifted around on her crutches; she knew her statement was obvious, but that had sort of been the point of it. “What?” 

Perhaps realizing that he’d been staring, Fitz blinked and shook his head, turning to look out at the garden. “Yeah, no, I get that. Can’t do that at the Academy, course, because –” 

“The stars look completely different in North America,” she scoffed, twisting around to shuffle back in towards the dining room. “Obviously.”

Although Jemma desperately wanted to spend the night sitting up and talking with Fitz and Sarama, by the time the family finished dinner she was exhausted. Pointing out that he could use a good night’s rest, too, Fitz accompanied her and Caedmon when they went upstairs. She suspected it was just so he would have an excuse to stay close by as she ascended each step painfully slowly, but she chose not to fight that battle today. Considering the fact that she was a little nervous about the ascension, it was actually nice knowing that Fitz was only a few steps behind, waiting to catch her if she fell.

Fortunately, Jemma made the journey all by herself, leaning heavily on the (thankfully) sturdy banister and only needing Caedmon to help steady her at the top. With a bashful wave from Fitz and a slight smile from Sarama, they bid them goodnight and retreated to the guest room adjacent to Jemma’s. (The townhouse had clearly been designed for a family with children, with what the Simmonses used as a guest room intended as a playroom.) Undressing was a lengthy and tiring process, and once Jemma crawled awkwardly into bed next to her dæmon, she fell asleep the instant her head touched the pillow.

 

------

 

A flash, bangs, screams, burst blood vessels, darkness, depthless smoke, the void, falling into a void, falling, and

Jemma awoke to the hoarse sounds of her own screams, tangled in bedsheets and blankets and not having any idea where she was or how she’d gotten there. Her leg ached, the pain medication having worn off as she slept, and she couldn’t breathe for all the cloth that covered her.

“Jemma, hey –”

“Sweetheart, it’s okay, I’m here –”

Someone pulled the blankets and sheets off of her, and Jemma curled into herself on the bed, peering up at the blurry faces of her mother and Fitz. The lights in the hallway meant that her mother had likely just been going to bed herself, but Fitz was in his pajamas and his hair was stuck up at all angles, the door leading directly to his room thrown wide open in his haste to get to her. Caedmon lay on the opposite corner of the bed, tail flicking in agitation; she wondered if he’d awoken from a nightmare, too. Probably not, she concluded, as the quilt didn’t seem to have been torn to shreds by his claws. Altair stood pressed against the lion, the fennec fox’s comparatively diminutive size not lessening his protective stance, and she could just barely make out a dark, oblong shape moving over the covers towards the end of the bed.

Her breathing was ragged, vision slightly blurry thanks to her disorientation, and cold sweat beaded on her forehead. Jemma unclenched her hand from around her legs and reached out. 

“Fitz?” The sound was shaky and desperate even to her own ears, and she realized that tears were streaming down her face, even though she didn’t consciously remember beginning to cry.

“I’m here, Jemma,” he said, immediately climbing onto the mattress next to her. “It’s alright, it was just a dream.” Jemma leaned into his chest, dull tears breaking into sobs as she felt his arms wrap securely around her. It was all wrong, that Fitz was in her bed for the first time but she was crying and terrified and had no idea why.

The creaking of bed springs indicated that her mother had straightened, and there came a low sigh. “The doctor said there might be psychological aftereffects,” her mother offered quietly.

Unsure of how else to respond, Jemma just kept trying to forcibly slow her panicked breathing, pressing her face into Fitz’s shoulder, and he continued rubbing soothing ovals along her cotton-clad back. Through the slowing panic, Jemma realized that she’d never been around Fitz without a bra before, and hoped that he either didn’t notice (unlikely) or at the least didn’t mention it.

“Do you need anything, darling?” 

Taking a few, deep, shaky breaths, Jemma was able to force enough air into her lungs that she could speak, wrapping her fingers into the hem of Fitz’s threadbare tee. “No, thanks Mum.” 

A few moments later, the only light in the room disappeared as her mother closed the door behind herself. Fitz let Jemma’s crying slow before he spoke, just holding her until her breathing evened out.

“Wanna tell me what happened?” 

She shook her head, leaning even more heavily against him. “I – I don’t know, Fitz,” she said hoarsely, clearing her throat. Stretching away from her for a second, he returned with the water bottle she had by her bed. The plastic was cool under her hand, a worn DNA pattern printed on translucent blue, and she stared hard at the familiar object. “It was just – fear.” She took a few, gentle sips of water. “It didn’t even make any sense.”

“Well, it does make sense,” he scoffed. “You probably have some form of post–” 

“Traumatic stress disorder,” she finished for him, frowning. “But I’m fine.”

“Simmons,” he scolded, provoking her to flick at his other arm. “It’s okay if... things like that happen. It was bloody terrifying.” 

“Then why didn’t you wake up with screaming nightmares?”

He shrugged, rubbing the gauze of his bandage absent-mindedly against one leg. “‘Cause I didn’t get knocked out? I dunno, Simmons, you know more about neural chemistry than I do.” 

“I’m still learning.” Exhaling, she scrubbed the last of her tears from her cheeks and let out a large, jaw-cracking yawn.

“I’ll let you go back to sleep –”

“No!” Jemma swallowed, staring at where Fitz had one leg over the side of the bed. “I – what if it happens again?”

Brows furrowing, Fitz studied her face. “D’you want us to stay? Here?”

Jemma nodded, and handed him back the water bottle to return to the bedside table. “Please?” Not needing any additional encouragement, he slipped back into the bed. “No, wait – you go to the other side.”

He groaned and then clambered directly over her, making her giggle in his faux-curmudgeonly response. “You have a side of the bed, course you do –”

“Don’t you?”

“No,” he shot back, now settled on the left side, and then reached down to tug the sheets and blankets back up over them both. “I’ve only slept in one person beds.” Stretching up on his elbows, he squinted down to where Caedmon and presumably his dæmon lay.

“Alright Sarama?”

“Alright,” she piped up from somewhere near the lion, and then whispered something to Caedmon that Jemma couldn’t hear. Sometimes she felt like the two dæmons lived in a world entirely their own, that even their humans didn’t quite share. It was a disconcerting feeling to know that a distinct part of herself had a whole life, practically, to which she was not privy.

Fluffing up her pillow, Jemma turned onto her side to face Fitz, even though lying like that meant her left leg was stretched somewhat uncomfortably under the broken one. On what was now his side of the bed, he was sprawled on his back. She inched a little closer and snagged the edge of his pajama shirt with her fingers, catching his attention as she settled in to sleep just like that. (The warmth, she suspected, might help her fall asleep faster, as would the familiar weight of Caedmon at the bottom of the mattress.)

“Goodnight, Fitz,” she said, offering him a small smile, which she thought he returned, although it was somewhat hard to tell in the darkness. 

“Night, Simmons,” he replied. 

Jemma didn’t wake to any more terrors that night, although she did find herself draped over Fitz’s chest when she woke up a few hours later. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to mind, and they separated with as little awkward mumbling and blushing as possible. If Jemma’s parents noticed, they didn’t say anything, and she hoped that her mother at least would understand that Fitz’s presence in her bed was for pure comfort and nothing more.

Chapter Text

The second night home after Jemma’s stay in the hospital, she and Fitz retired to their respective bedrooms to sleep alone – save for their dæmons, of course. Caedmon resisted stretching his head up for a scratch from Fitz before the four of them separated, glancing down the hall at Jemma’s mother and Altair before following behind Jemma, head drooping as he went. Somehow, they all knew that it would be strange to touch each others’ dæmons with the adult Simmonses around.

A couple hours after falling asleep, Jemma awoke from a screaming, blind-terror-filled nightmare. Fitz was already at her side, clambering into the bed as she shuddered and sobbed and collapsed onto his shoulder.

This wasn’t like her, she wanted to assure him; she couldn’t remember any time in her life when she’d cried as much as she had around Fitz in the past few months. Hopefully he wouldn’t think any less of her for it, as much as it frustrated her (despite her knowing that, this time at least, the neural patterns disrupted by the explosion were not of her conscious control). When she tried to say something to that effect, however, he just shushed her and maneuvered them so they were both lying on the bed, allowing him to better hold her and rub soothing circles over her back. He murmured that he was there, that there wasn’t anything to be scared of, that everything was going to be okay, and, slowly but surely, her breathing evened out. Curled into Fitz’s chest, Jemma fell asleep and stayed that way for the rest of the night.

The third night, Jemma tried to sleep on her own again, but, predictably by this point, the attempt was unsuccessful. After that, she and Fitz developed a tacit agreement that he would wait until her parents were in bed and then sneak into her room with Sarama. The dæmons seemed content with this arrangement, although Jemma was alone with Caedmon so rarely these days that she didn’t truly have time to consult with him on the matter. His tail twitched happily at the end of the bed as Fitz made himself comfortable, however, so she was fairly certain her dæmon didn’t mind. 

Once Fitz was sleeping by her side every night, Jemma ceased having nightmares. For this, she was exceedingly grateful, having worried about her mother’s suggestion that she consider visiting a psychiatrist should the nightmares not abate on their own. She was concerned about how Fitz felt having to sleep in her bed every night, considering that he had neither romantic nor sexual feelings towards her, but he seemed to take to the platonic bed-sharing fairly well. In fact, for someone who was so shy about physical touch during the day, he was rather adorably cuddly when mostly asleep, and it wasn’t long before they were regularly waking up wrapped in each other’s arms. This was, however, not something they ever acknowledged while awake.

During the days, Jemma and Fitz spent time together as they would have at the Academy, although with as little moving around the house as possible, other than her periodic, doctor-prescribed exercises. Sometimes, they sat hip-to-hip and brainstormed research projects or experiments or inventions, with Fitz sketching out or listing their ideas – aided, periodically, by Jemma’s added notes or tweaks. Once, they spent the entire day on their computers next to each other playing World of Warcraft and chortling through the competition. (Only once did it go totally sideways, with their characters having to sprint away from a particularly vicious horde of zombie pig-men.) Another day, they marathoned the entirety of the new season of Doctor Who that Fitz had managed to download to his computer, and talked through the whole thing.

(In exchange for his digital piracy, she’d made him promise to buy the full box set when it was released in November, as she would. They should be supporting the show, she argued, not consuming it illegally. The only reason she agreed in the short term was because the season wasn’t out yet, except in stupid, 3-episode DVD volumes, and, well... she wanted to re-watch the adventures of the Ninth Doctor and Rose just as much as Fitz did.)

The only true impediment to them creating a routine was the lasting aftereffects of the bombing. Fortunately, because both Fitz and Jemma were underage, the police were able to keep their names out of the press. Less fortunately, they still had to talk to the police repeatedly as the authorities tried to learn information that the two of them simply didn’t have about the bombing or the suspects. Two exhausted police officers visited them at both the hospital and then again at Jemma’s house, intent on grilling the two teenagers about anything they might have seen.

At the police’s final visit, they told Fitz and the Simmonses that the bombers were apparently caught on CCTV footage at King’s Cross that morning, the same station where Jemma and Fitz had met. Silence stretched into the room, and Jemma’s mother reached for her husband’s hand. Instinctively, Jemma looked to Fitz, who was perched on the arm of her sofa. His expression was thunderous, fingers squeezing his arms. Unsure what would have caused that reaction, she reached tentatively up to brush her fingers against the arm closest to her.

“Fitz,” she started, but he cut her off.

“I’m fine.” He pushed off of the couch, waving one hand at the police officers as he began to pace behind her. “Go on.”

The remainder of the visit was no less tense than the rest of them had been, and Jemma fervently hoped that they would need nothing more from her or Fitz. Once the police were gone, she used her crutches to hop slowly over to where he was brooding by the back door, frowning out at the garden.

“Are you okay?” Her voice was quiet, not wanting to draw the attention of her parents, both of whom were in the den-adjacent kitchen talking about the visit.

Fitz blinked down at her and let out a huff of air. “Yeah, just... wish I’d seen something. If I hadn’t been so....” He stopped himself, giving his head a morose shake.

“Oh, Fitz,” she sighed, reaching out to give his hand a quick squeeze. “Don’t do that to yourself.” 

After staring down at her hand in his for a few seconds longer than she would have expected, he gave her a quick squeeze back and then shoved his own hand in his jeans pocket.

“I’ll try,” he muttered, before turning towards the television set. “You wanna see if anything’s on?”

Somehow, as she made her way slowly after him, Jemma didn’t think he was actually going to try at all.

 

------

 

A week after Jemma returned home from the hospital, Fitz turned eighteen, and she was determined to celebrate as normally as she was able. His mother had mailed down a small parcel of presents to arrive on the day, the most notable of which was a gift certificate for a new mobile. For her part, Jemma scrapped any and all present plans she’d had for him prior to the accident and instead invited him to go to the London Zoo. With the help of a borrowed wheelchair from one of her father’s work colleagues, Fitz, Jemma, Caedmon, and Sarama spent the entire day traversing the zoo’s tree lined walkways.

Although Jemma liked the zoo and always had, it was at least twice as fun seeing it through Fitz’s eyes. They spoke over and around each other for the entire visit, constantly trying to one-up each other with animal facts and observations. At one point, Fitz held on to the bars of Jemma’s wheelchair and let gravity roll them downhill, much to her shrieking laughter and feigned pique. The zoo itself didn’t have any shingleback skinks, much to Sarama’s displeasure, but Caedmon did spend a long time staring over the concrete barriers at the Saharan lions.

“Never realized how much smaller you are than real lions,” Fitz said, leaning alongside where her dæmon had his paws on the wall. Caedmon gave him a friendly growl and nipped at the air between them, causing Fitz to bat him gently away. “I mean, obviously you’re real, too, but – they’re a lot bigger, eh?”

“Yeah,” Caedmon agreed, hopping up onto a nearby bench so that he had a better view of the enclosure. “We haven’t been to a zoo since I settled, so we haven’t thought about it much.”

“You’re much more portable this way,” Jemma teased, haltingly rolling her chair over to the plaque of species information. She balanced the zoo’s map on one leg and Sarama on the other, allowing Fitz more freedom to maneuver the chair around other visitors.

“Hey, I’m gonna go get an ice pop,” Fitz said, pulling out his wallet. “D’you want anything?” 

“No, thanks –” 

“Yes!” Practically canine in his eagerness, Caedmon bounded off the bench and up to Fitz. “I’m bloody parched.”

Fitz raised an eyebrow at Jemma and grinned, reaching over to knuckle at the top of her dæmon’s head. “Alright, you great poodle.”

The small moment of contact made her feel so happy and content that she closed her eyes for half a second to bask in it. During the months of their separation, she’d almost forgotten how pleasant it was to share her space with her best friend.

Caedmon let out an exaggerated gasp, rearing back to stare indignantly up at Fitz before they began their amble to the nearby ice cream stand. “A poodle?! You couldn’t have picked something with at least some small amount of dignity?”

Giving her tail a small wiggle as the boys disappeared from sight, Sarama stretched up to meet Jemma’s gaze. “I think it’s nice out.”

“I do, too,” Jemma answered, smiling. “But we’re not covered in fur.”

“And he’s been jumping all about,” the dæmon added. “You must be feeling better, both of you.” 

“I am.” Jemma watched as one of the female lions slid into the zoo-provided pond, effectively beating the summer’s heat in a way that would surely make her own dæmon jealous. “It’s good to be out of the house, honestly. I feel... normal.” She wrinkled her nose, glancing down at the heavy cast poking out of her teal skirt. “Well, mostly normal.”

“Excuse me,” came an unfamiliar voice to Jemma’s right, and she looked up to meet the eyes of a middle-aged woman with salt-and-cinnamon hair. Her accent was American, iguana dæmon strolling out from behind her legs to peer into the enclosure, and the two small backpacks slung over her arm suggested that she had children somewhere nearby. “I’m sorry, I know this is real rude to ask, but d’you mind if I ask what kinda lizard your dæmon is?”

Jemma’s eyes widened, and she gave a slightly panicked glance in the direction of the ice cream stall. “Oh, I – this isn’t....”

“I’ve always loved lizards, but I’ve never seen one like yours before! He’s a beaut.” 

Swallowing, Jemma glanced between the woman’s round, hopeful face and where Sarama was staring up at her, also stymied by the question. After a long pause, Jemma gave the woman a bashful smile. “A shingleback skink. But her scales are quite unusual, and she’s much thinner, smaller, and more mobile than the actual species.”

The woman blinked and looked between the two of them a few times, her lips twitching into a thin smile. “Oh. Ah, there you go. A skink. Well then. Uh, enjoy your day, now.” Then she was off along the other side of the lion enclosure, herding her children and husband along the garden path.

“How odd,” Jemma muttered, wrinkling her nose in confusion. She’d been perfectly nice and answered the woman’s question, after all; the sudden and hasty departure was unwarranted.

To her surprise, Sarama began to giggle, burying her snout into the loose fabric of Jemma’s skirt.

“What’s gotten into her?” Fitz wandered up alongside the wheelchair, one hand occupied with his own cherry ice pop and the other holding a cup of frozen lemonade low enough that Caedmon could reach it.

“I don’t know,” Jemma answered, truly perplexed as Sarama only laughed harder. “A – a woman asked what kind of lizard Sarama was – she thought she was my dæmon, and now....” 

“You said I’m a she,” Sarama managed to squeeze out, her whole body shaking in amusement. 

“You are a she,” Jemma responded, as confused as ever. 

“As your dæmon.” The lizard glanced between the three others, waiting for any of the rest of them to understand. “She thinks you’re gay.” 

Caedmon snorted into his frozen lemonade, and Jemma shot him a glare. Just because her dæmon happened to know about the kinds of people she may or may not fantasize about sometimes didn’t mean that she wanted Fitz or Sarama to know. (Particularly because he happened to be on her short list, to say the least.)

“Well, then her response was rather rude,” Jemma replied primly, fighting back the irrational blush that threatened to warm her cheeks. 

“Americans,” Sarama said, a touch of false wisdom to her tone, and Jemma rolled her eyes. 

Having evidently lost interest in the conversation, Fitz peered at the plaque that Jemma had been too distracted to read. Intent on finishing his frozen lemonade, Caedmon followed and sat on his haunches next to Fitz, lapping up what was left in the cup. Jemma gave the other nearby visitors an uncomfortable glance, and then dropped her gaze to her hands. Perhaps it wasn’t all that surprising the woman had thought Sarama was her dæmon.

 

------

 

A few days after the trip to the zoo, Jemma woke in her bed to find Fitz curled tightly around her back, one arm holding her possessively against him. When they’d fallen asleep, she was fairly certain she’d been on her stomach at least a few feet away from him; not that she minded this development, that is, especially considering the early morning chill to the air and the fact that he warmed her up considerably. At first, she didn’t really register how close they were lying, she was so comfortable and sleepy, and she reached down to tangle their fingers together over her stomach. But as she faded further into awareness, she became aware of a distinct pressure against her back, and the abrupt realization that Fitz was hard woke her up at once.

She’d never been held this intimately by a boy before, had never felt anyone’s cock in any way, and she was so stunned by the thought that she just lay there, unsure what to do. The way his face was nuzzled against the back of her neck suggested fairly strongly that he was completely asleep, and therefore had no idea of the response his body was presumably having to the proximity of hers. Her breath became shallow, and she licked her lips. The urge to writhe slightly back against him was almost overwhelming; she already knew that he was more malleable when he was half or mostly asleep. 

Jemma hadn’t forgotten the need lingering under the kisses he’d given her when she’d woken him on his bed back at school, the way he hadn’t wanted her to move away. For someone who apparently wanted nothing to do with her other than friendship, Fitz hadn’t kissed like it.

Although she’d frozen and was moving as little as possible – even by breathing – something spurred Fitz to let out a cross between a hum and a groan, pressing himself even more firmly against her. His evident arousal was only serving to turn her on, all of her nerve-endings sensitive to any touch. Even the movement of her cotton pajama shirt over her nipples was making her tingle, and she bit her lower lip. He was unconscious, had no idea that she was even here, and would probably be mortified if he were to wake up like this.

Closing her eyes, she allowed herself a few seconds to imagine what might happen if she did something to goad him on. Thought about his broad, warm hand coming up to caress her breast before sliding down, down, down to where she ached for release. Thought about his lips at her back, thought about the roughened sound of her first name on his tongue, thought about how good it would feel if they were moving towards that release together, in unison, on instinct, impassioned.

Jemma drew in a shaky breath and released Fitz’s hand over her stomach. It didn’t matter how much she might want something like that; he had made it very plain – while completely awake – that he did not, and anything she did now would be taking advantage of him. Now a cross between sad, disappointed, and still aroused, she slid carefully out of his grasp, poorly stifling a grunt of pain as she twisted her healing leg in doing so. 

Fitz stirred behind her as she managed to scoot further away on the mattress, stretching her leg out in front of her and wincing at whatever she’d just done to it.

“Jemma, what – shit,” he mumbled, and she saw him curl over himself instead of reaching out for her as he’d been about to do. “Uh, what’s... wrong?”

“Just twisted my leg,” she answered, grateful to not have to need to come up with a lie or half-truth. “Needed to use the loo, and....” She threw him a pained smile. “Only another six and a half to ten and a half weeks to go, right?” 

Nodding, he watched as she scooted to the edge of the bed, reaching down to give Caedmon a good scratch while she went. He nipped sleepily up at her hand, his shifting mane revealing where Sarama was lying fast asleep between his paws.

“Do you want any help, or...?”

“I’m alright.” Her voice was tight, as the leg really hurt quite a lot by now, but she’d heard the reluctance in Fitz’ voice. Neither of them wanted to have to address his morning erection in any way, shape, or form, and if hopping painfully slowly to the W.C. by herself was the only way to avoid that, so be it.

 

------

 

Although Jemma’s parents were around on the weekends and most evenings, the next few weeks mostly consisted of just her and Fitz spending every second of every day with each other. Their dæmons spent most of their time off in another part of the downstairs; they couldn’t go too far away from their humans, of course, but they seemed content to test the limits of that bond at home. When Jemma asked Caedmon what they talked about – during one of their rare moments alone, as she changed into her clothes one morning – he just shrugged.

“The same things as you and Fitz, I’d expect.” And that was apparently that. 

Jemma couldn’t help but thoroughly enjoy the way that Fitz doted on her as she recovered; she would almost swear that he could read her mind sometimes, getting up just before she was thirsty or offering to hunt down food moments away from her becoming hungry. He also took over her household chores without any complaint, washing dishes and taking out the garbage as if he’d always lived here. After a while, though, she began to suspect that there was something more than simple altruism to thank for his behavior. 

One afternoon, as the two of them lounged on the plastic lawn chairs in the garden, Jemma studied him as he played a game on her mobile. (When he’d gone to buy his new Razr, he tried to convince her to take half of the money to upgrade her own phone, but she’d refused. Her Nokia 3310 worked perfectly well, and there was so much other advanced technology at the Academy that she didn’t need a new phone only for it to become outdated again shortly.)

Caedmon was sprawled in the middle of the garden, batting playfully at Sarama as she slunk through the lengthy grass. Their humans’ objective for the afternoon had been to mow the lawn, but the weather was so nice and mild for London in August that they’d decided to wait another day, and instead had spent this one just sitting and chatting outside.

“Fitz?” He hummed in recognition, eyes fixed on the brick-shaped phone’s screen as his thumb toggled the rubber buttons. “You know it’s not your fault, right? My leg, the bomb, any of it?” 

Fitz stilled, and he slid his eyes over to where she was leaning up on one arm to look at him. “Considering that I didn’t set the bomb, yeah, I know it wasn’t my fault.”

No,” Jemma exclaimed, letting out an annoyed tsk. “Obviously, that wasn’t what I meant. I mean – us being there, or anything. I’ve sort of gotten the... feeling, lately, that you might be, I don’t know, helping me to, um, make up for it, or something, and I just don’t –” 

“Simmons –” 

“– want you to feel guilty about it or something ridiculous like that,” she finished in a rush. 

Squinting up at the cloudless sky, Fitz let out a slow breath. “I’m not here because I feel guilty, alright?” He met her eyes, his brows furrowed and gaze intense. “I’m here because that’s what best friends do. Yeah?” Smiling, she gave him a slight nod. “Even if it was my fault –”

“Fitz!”

“You wouldn’t’ve been there otherwise, Jemma,” he said quietly, not meeting her eyes. “‘Cause of my stupid birthday trip, ‘cause of the stupid train that I booked with my mum.” 

You’re being stupid,” she snapped, effectively stopping him short. “You had no way of knowing that something so terrible would happen – I don’t even know the last time London’s had to deal with a terrorist attack of that magnitude, Fitz, it was such an anomaly.” He still wasn’t looking at her, now intently tracing the edge of the chair’s white plastic armrest. Sighing, Jemma swung her legs over the side of the chair, pulled herself up, and made a few ungainly hop-steps to get herself over to his lounger without her crutches. She sat down so hard that the back of the chair almost flopped up with Fitz on it, his forehead wrinkling as he watched. 

“What –?” 

“I was really excited to see you,” she said quietly. “Caedmon was, too. He didn’t stop talking about it for a week. And look, we’ve gotten to spend almost a month together before school starts again, isn’t that fantastic?”

Chuckling, Fitz shifted over to allow her more room to sit along the edge of his chair. “Fantastic – your Northern’s coming out.”

“Lots of planets have a north.” They both laughed at that, and she nudged his leg. “Promise you’ll stop feeling guilty, please?”

“I’m pretty sure guilt doesn’t work like that,” he muttered, but when she poked him in the side he held one hand up in surrender. “Alright, alright, I’ll try.”

“Good,” she said, and then promptly stretched herself out against his side on the chair. 

He stared bemusedly down at her, allowing her to move his left arm around her shoulders. “What’re you doing...?” 

“I’m cold,” she explained, making herself comfortable by resting her head on his chest and snuggling in, “and you’re just the right temperature.” Although the sun was warm, the chairs were both in the shade and a light breeze had picked up.

“Jesus Christ,” he hissed when she pressed her hand against his chest, “I can feel how cold you are through my shirt! Why didn’t you ask me to get you a blanket?!"  

Jemma shrugged. “I wasn’t really thinking about it until I moved. No point now, I’m comfortable.”

Fitz let out a wry huff, lifting the phone again. “Glad I can be of service.” 

“How’s your score?” She nodded towards the phone, and he gave her a theatrical groan in return.

“Only four-oh-five-four today, because someone interrupted me when I was on a roll.”

“Am I ever getting my mobile back?”

“Probably.” 

“You know that you do have your own now.”

“Yeah, but Motorolas don’t have Snake two. Might be able to build an emulator on my computer, but...” he trailed off, shrugging. “You never use yours anyway. And your high score was pathetic.”

She made a sharp, indignant noise and whacked him on the chest. The only reason that she never used hers was because the only person she could imagine calling was currently living in the same house as she. “Nine hundred and thirty five is perfectly respectable for a normal person!”

Pausing the game, he frowned down at her. “So you let someone else borrow your phone...?”

Fitz ducked before she could even move to flick his forehead, a cheeky grin breaking across his face. Sticking her tongue out, Jemma settled back against his shoulder and gave brief thought to sticking her icy cold hand up his shirt in revenge. Then again, she didn’t really have permission to do things like that with her best friend – even if he was being overly accommodating about allowing her the space to cuddle, and about sharing her bed to keep the nightmares at bay. Having her hand up his shirt seemed too much like the kind of thing only a girlfriend or boyfriend would have permission to do, and so she just gave his stomach a pointed poke. 

Allowing her eyes to slip shut, she had to force herself not to sigh in contentment as he began to rub his left hand up and down her bare arm to warm her up. The problem was that their time spent together in London had started to feel an awful lot like what a boyfriend and girlfriend would do. This moment it felt especially so, with him otherwise peaceably occupied while she snuggled up along his side. In truth, Jemma relished moments like these, where she got to pretend for just a little while that Fitz felt for her as she did for him, that he was her boyfriend. It was wrong, she knew, to be taking advantage of his kindness because of her leg, but there wouldn’t be many opportunities for her to indulge herself once they were back at the Academy. So, instead of suppressing the feeling, she gave in, allowing the movement of his hand against her skin feel like affection of a very different kind.

“Have you ever been to Perthshire?” 

Her eyes were still closed, so she felt rather than saw him glance down at her. “Uh yeah, I think my mum had a friend out there when I was little. Went there for Christmas supper or something. Why?”

“We drove through the countryside once when I was a girl,” she said, tilting her head up to tuck her forehead beneath his chin. “There was this one cottage that – oh, it had the most wonderful flowers, and a little gate. I should take you there some time, Fitz, it’s so lovely.” She frowned, heart skipping a beat as she realized how non-platonic that sounded. “The flora was particularly interesting.”

Only half listening as he continued playing the phone game, Fitz hummed. “Sounds nice.” 

“It was,” she murmured, voice breaking on a yawn. As she drifted off into an afternoon nap, Jemma pretended that they were curled up together in the backyard of her fantasy cottage, alone in the world except for each other and their dæmons, and happily so.

The next thing of which Jemma was aware was her parents talking nearby. Not fully conscious or aware of her own actions, she instinctively sought out more warmth, pressing her face against Fitz’s neck. From his familiar, deep breathing, she gathered that he had also fallen asleep, his previously occupied arm now curled over her shoulder and his cheek resting against the crown of her head.

“They’re really not dating?”

Jemma wrinkled her nose, slipping more fully into consciousness as she eavesdropped on her parents.

“She was insistent, Patrick,” her mother said with a sigh, the garden door creaking further open. “I can’t force her to tell me the truth.”

“I know my daughter,” her dad said, the whish of silk suggesting that he was removing his tie. “And she has never been this attached to anyone in her entire life. Look at Caedmon, with that lizard. That dæmon barely talked to anyone when they were children.” 

“Fitz is an absolute darling, and smart as a whip.”

“Lucky for him.”

“That he’s a darling,” her mother chuckled, “or smart?” 

“Smart,” her father answered, his voice fading as his footsteps took him back into the house. “Our Jemma wouldn’t have given him a second look otherwise.”

As the door clicked shut, Jemma frowned against Fitz’s neck, relieved that he hadn’t been awake to hear that conversation. She couldn’t help but think about all the ways that her father was wrong; Fitz wasn’t just smart. He was kind, and competitive, and funny, and brave, and a dozen other qualities that she couldn’t think to name. Her hand flattened against his chest, taking in the steady beat of his heart. For all his intelligence, there was so much more to her adoration of him than the fact that he could keep up with her in the lab.

A little vein of discontent wormed into her stomach nonetheless, and she considered the person she’d been when she’d arrived at the Academy two years ago, so eager to prove herself and desperate to find someone outside of Caedmon who might understand even a fraction of her thoughts and dreams.

Perhaps, Jemma thought, her father wasn’t entirely wrong.

Chapter Text

Even though Jemma’s parents were clever enough to leave her and Fitz to their own devices for most of the three weeks that he visited, the four of them did periodically have to spend time together. Mostly, this took the form of mealtimes, such as family dinners or weekend brunches. To Jemma’s gratification, her parents and their dæmons got along swimmingly with both Fitz and Sarama, even over the long duration of their visit. As time went on, however, Jemma began to notice something unusual.

Although Altair, her mother’s dæmon, tended to be fairly paternal and rather outgoing, her father’s dæmon, a beagle named Kaiya, had always been much shyer. She didn’t avoid or ignore other dæmons the way that Caedmon had when they were children, but she typically let other dæmons make the first move and preferred nonverbal, canine forms of communication. If Altair was to be believed, he had needed to tell twenty jokes just to get Kaiya to laugh during the Simmons adults’ first date. (Kaiya always rolled her eyes and said he was exaggerating.)

As expected, the adult dæmons gave Sarama the respect and space due the child dæmon of someone else. But the longer Fitz and Sarama spent in the Simmons household, the more Jemma began to notice Kaiya hovering around the lizard. It started with little grins to Sarama as the beagle helped clean up after dinner, carrying napkins in her teeth, and then grew to little jokes if Caedmon ever left Sarama’s side. After a week, if Jemma’s parents were on the downstairs level, Kaiya would occasionally go check on Sarama before attending to her and Altair’s evening routines. What Jemma found especially interesting was the way that Kaiya spoke to the lizard. Instead of sitting in any one of her normal, beagle-esque poses, Kaiya would lie flat on her stomach with her head between her paws so that she was eye-level with the lizard on the floor. The dog had always been soft-spoken, but she was even more so in those rare conversations with Sarama.

If Jemma’s dad noticed anything about his dæmon’s behavior around Fitz’s, he never mentioned it. In truth, this happened no more than four or five times during the entirety of Fitz and Sarama’s visit, but it struck Jemma as so unusual and intriguing that she found herself looking for it to happen whenever the six of them were in the same room.

One time in particular would stand out in Jemma’s mind in the following months and years, although the dæmons’ interactions would eventually pale in comparison to what Fitz told her later that same day.

As a Saturday morning, it had started particularly well. Jemma’s leg had hardly hurt at all upon waking, and she must have dreamt something lovely because she woke up feeling particularly safe and happy. The fact that Fitz had been curled peacefully over her side when she’d awoken, his breath feathering the ends of her hair against the pillow, had only cemented her good mood. Limping her way downstairs seemed to take far less time than usual, and Fitz even said he was impressed with her quickness. (A cynical little voice at the back of her head said that he was just being nice, but that didn’t stop the superficial praise from making her smile widely anyway.)

Although her mum and Altair had left the house early to spend the day with friends, Jemma’s dad had decided to treat her and Fitz to pancakes, much to Jemma’s excitement and his shyly enthusiastic thanks. As the three humans ate, the dæmons lounged beneath the table, Caedmon occasionally popping his head out to sneak a bit of pancake or sausage from Jemma’s fork.

At the end of the meal, though, her dad reached for the teapot at the same time that Fitz went for the syrup jug, sending the latter crashing to the floor in a dozen pieces.

“I’m sorry,” Fitz stammered, sliding to his knees on the floor and ducking as Jemma’s dad stood to get paper towels. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it, I’ll get another –” 

Her father barked out a laugh, striding back from the kitchen and handing down a couple wetted sheets along with the paper roll to him. “That,” Jemma’s dad said, giving her a knowing smile, “was a present from Jemma’s great aunt Rosemary. Dear woman, terrible taste in dishes. This is much better than having Kaiya accidentally knock it out of the dishwasher.”

On his knees, Fitz stared up at her dad, eyes abnormally wide and ears tinted pink. “Oh,” he muttered, shoulders relaxing.

“Accidents happen,” Jemma’s dad said lightly, reaching down to scrub his hand absently through Fitz’s curls before reaching for the teapot. “Anyone want another cuppa?”

Jemma shook her head in the negative, but kept her eyes trained on Fitz, whose posture as he cleaned up the last of the sticky mess pinged a warning bell in her head. He wasn’t looking up at either of them, and he hadn’t met her father’s eyes except very briefly. Knowing better than to question his behavior in front of her dad, she scooted her chair back to see the dæmons.

To her surprise and dismay, Sarama was nowhere to be seen – but Caedmon was sitting on his haunches by the sofa, and Kaiya was lying flat on her belly with her nose just beneath the couch’s edge. 

“I’m okay,” Jemma could just barely hear Sarama say, and the lizard hesitantly made her way out from the shadow of the couch. “It’s nothing.” 

“We’re really not angry,” Kaiya insisted, shifting around so she could look at Fitz’s dæmon without raising onto her paws.

“Alright.” Sarama gave her head a quick tilt, along with her own, reptilian version of a small smile.

Kaiya looked from Caedmon and back to the lizard, clearly unsettled by something. Before Sarama could keep moving, the beagle darted forward and gave the lizard a brusque, affection nudge with her nose. Fitz twisted around at feeling of another dæmon touching his, lips parting in surprise at the brief parental gesture. Not looking at anyone else, Kaiya trotted quickly into the kitchen after her human, who was humming distractedly as he prepared more tea.

For a few moments, Fitz kept his eyes trained on the archway into the kitchen, fidgeting with the unused paper towel in his hands.

“Fitz.” Sarama had finished crossing over to him in the few seconds since Kaiya’s departure, and awkwardly reached her claws up to scrape at the denim of his jeans. Instantly, Fitz dropped the towel and picked his dæmon up to cradle her in his arms.

“Wish I wasn’t settled,” Sarama muttered, snout buried beneath Fitz’s collar. 

He huffed out a shaky laugh, squeezing his hands more tightly around her small, dark form. “Yeah. S’not the same with scales, eh?” 

“Nope.”

Abruptly, Jemma was reminded of his dismay when Sarama had settled as something that didn't have fur. Were moments like this, perhaps, the reason for his upset all that time ago? 

As Fitz bent his head over the lizard, Jemma felt abruptly like she was intruding upon something quite private between him and his dæmon. Glancing over at Caedmon, she was surprised by the worry hovering behind his eyes. She reached one hand out towards him and he padded right over to her, dropping his head in her lap and turning so he could keep his eyes on Fitz and Sarama.

“What happened?” she whispered, and Caedmon gave his head a brief shake, tilting it into where she carded her fingers through his mane.

“I didn’t see, she moved too fast. They seem really upset.” 

“Yeah,” Jemma murmured, automatically straightening with a neutral smile as her father ambled back into the breakfast nook. The second he heard footsteps, Fitz hastily returned Sarama to the floor and reached again for the paper towels.

Although the atmosphere at the breakfast table returned to normal shortly thereafter, Jemma continued to feel as if she should be on alert, even more attuned to Fitz and Sarama than she was already inclined to be. For his part, Caedmon circled anxiously around the room and eyed the lizard – clearly too uncomfortable to be tactile with Sarama when someone else was there – until they migrated into the living room. Once Jemma’s father and Kaiya were busy cleaning up the kitchen, Caedmon all but pounced on Sarama as she slunk onto the carpet, nosing aggressively at her until Jemma could hear the lizard’s giggle ring through the room.

Something about what the dæmons were doing now triggered an unusually strong form of feedback through their bond, and the flush in Jemma’s cheeks as she hopped over on her crutches was from more than just exertion. Wanting to keep her gaze averted so Fitz couldn’t see her response was difficult, especially as she also desperately wanted to keep checking in on him. So, as she settled onto her usual right side of the sofa, she watched Fitz curl himself around a throw pillow on the left. His shoulders were hunched, fingers tightening and releasing in the cushion as his brain whirred with some thoughts at which she couldn’t guess. Although she’d gotten used to being tactile with him over the past couple of weeks, something told her not to bother him now. At least, not yet – not with the way he was carefully keeping his eyes from meeting hers. 

Before breakfast, they’d agreed to watch the new Top Gear episode guest starring Christopher Eccleston, so she put on the recording without asking. On the carpet, Caedmon and Sarama curled up together – as they were wont to do – but the lion kept nudging at her side with his nose. Eventually, the lizard let out a sound that was somewhere between a whine and a laugh, and then threatened to bite Caedmon if he kept being weird. The very corner of Fitz’s mouth ticked upwards, and Jemma felt her own shoulders relax at the sight.

Just when they were finishing the episode, Jemma’s dad and Kaiya traipsed back into the room, bidding them all goodbye before heading out for errands. As he went by the sofa, her father leaned down to give her a kiss on the top of her head. 

“Have fun, sweetheart,” he said, and she smiled up at him, the sunlight catching the newly salt-and-pepper edges of his hair. “You, too, mate,” her dad added, reaching over to give Fitz an affectionate squeeze of his shoulder. 

Blinking away the surprise that flitted across his features, Fitz offered her father a small smile and half-wave in return. Once they were gone, silence (other than the dæmons’ murmurs) reigned for a few seconds, while Jemma shifted around to make her leg more comfortable. When she reached for the remote again, however, Fitz spoke.

“Your dad’s really nice.”

Jemma’s eyebrows raised, and she turned to see that he still wasn’t looking straight at her. Instead, he was staring down at the pillow in his lap and fiddling with the ivory tassel on one corner. 

“Yeah,” she said finally, trying to make her answer into a joke. “I guess I’ll keep him.”

Fitz’s brows drew together, though, and she wondered if that had been the wrong thing to say. “Guess I wouldn’t keep mine.” At last, he glanced up at her, and she caught a flash of acute pain behind his eyes. “Did that once,” he continued, jerking one hand back in the direction of the breakfast nook, “at home. He yelled at me for an hour. I counted.”

“You never told me that,” she whispered, shifting awkwardly on the sofa so she could see him face on.

Rolling his eyes, he let out a defensive little scoff. “Yeah, well, s’not like there’s anything ceramic at the Academy for me to break.” 

“Fitz,” she chided quietly, “you know that’s not what I meant.” 

He shrugged, staring down at the flower-patterned sofa between them. “I know.”

When he didn’t offer anything further, Jemma couldn’t take the distance between them anymore. So she stood haltingly up, drawing his attention back to her, and plopped down again on the cushion right next to him. It took her another few seconds of rearranging – and tugging over the footstool on which she’d been propping her cast-covered leg – but she finally turned to study his expression. By then he’d stopped looking at her again, and she had to resist the instinct to reach out and forcibly turn his chin towards her. The urge to try to kiss away his sadness flitted into her head, and she let out a small exhale of self-loathing. Those kinds of thoughts were unproductive on the best of days, but especially at a moment like this, when what Fitz clearly needed most was her friendship.

“Did that happen a lot?” He raised an eyebrow, and she hastened to clarify. “The yelling.”

“I guess,” Fitz mumbled, at the same time that Sarama piped up from the floor. 

“All the time.”

“But why?” Caedmon had raised his head from the floor, golden eyes flitting between Fitz and his dæmon. Jemma wasn’t sure whether to be exasperated with her dæmon’s forwardness or relieved that he’d asked the question for her, since she, too, had wondered what on earth would make anyone want to yell ‘all the time’ at someone as wonderful as them. (Or, well, what would make any father yell that much at their child.)

“Y’know, the usual,” he mumbled, and for a few seconds Jemma thought they’d pushed too far, that he was about to close up. But after a few moments of thought, Fitz pressed on, voice halting, as if unused to voicing this out loud. “Stupid, worthless, that sort. Not good enough, not smart enough....”

“Fitz,” she breathed, reaching out automatically to squeeze the hand he still had curled around the pillow’s corner. “You know that’s not true.” A few seconds passed before he responded, his eyes fixed on where her hand lay over his. Eventually, he shrugged, and she squeezed his hand until he looked up at her. “He was wrong. You’re the smartest person I’ve ever met.”

Briefly, his eyes shimmered in the sunlight, and then he ducked his head, turning so that he was back to facing the television. As he moved, he tugged his hand from her grip. “D’you wanna watch the Stephen Fry episode again?” 

Pursing her lips, Jemma gave him a perfunctory nod and stretched over to grab the remote. She found it mildly annoying that he didn’t seem to believe her (they both knew she was a terrible liar), and she made a mental note to make sure to press the point as often as she could in the future. If she had anything to do with it, he’d manage to forget his father had ever said anything cruel to him at all. 

“Well,” she said lightly, thumbing the buttons for the DVR, “you can just pretend my dad’s yours, too.” Then she froze, her cheeks flushing pink in a nonce as she realized how that sounded. It hadn’t been meant as a father-in-law thing, but somehow that’s how it had sounded as it had come out of her mouth, and she was mortified that Fitz might think that this was her version of, horrifyingly, implying marriage of some sort.

Next to her, Fitz made an automatic noise of disgust, wrinkling his nose, and she noticed that his own ears had turned faintly red. “I am not your brother,” he blurted, eyes darting towards her and then away again. “I mean, it’s not like we’re brother and sister.”

“Oh,” she breathed into a relieved laugh. His assumption had, in retrospect, made far more sense than hers. “No, of course not.”

“Definitely not,” Fitz muttered, sticking his leg out so that he could rest it on the stool next to hers.

Jemma let out a small tsk, elbowing him gently in the side. “Get your own stool.”

“But this one’s already here,” he whined, lips fighting a grin, and the last knot of tension in Jemma’s chest loosened. If he were needling at her like this, he was most of the way back to feeling like himself again. And Fitz being himself – and happy, and healthy – was all she wanted. 

They continued to sit close together for the next few hours, until Jemma’s father got home and she reluctantly moved back to her side of the sofa. She couldn’t quite help how her thoughts drifted to what her best friend had just revealed about his childhood, however, and she was glad they were distracted by the television so he couldn’t read the thoughts playing over her face. The coal of anger in her stomach only burned stronger as she thought about Fitz’s father, a man who she’d already known had abandoned Fitz at ten years old and for whom she now felt a nearly unfamiliar emotion: Hatred. Even though she’d known the man had left, that alone was far more tolerable than him having evidently tormented the one person in the world that she thought truly deserved nothing but praise. It explained a lot about Fitz, in fact, especially his reaction to having dropped the ceramic jug this morning. His tireless drive to be the smartest person in the room, his brief flares of temper whenever something in the lab failed him... all of that could be traced back to his father having berated him as a child.

Her nose wrinkled as she thought back to mere days ago when she'd snapped at Fitz during his refusal to stop blaming himself for them having been on the same train as the bomb. He'd repeated stupid and she'd thrown the word right back at him... and now the memory made her stomach curdle. That word was something she would have to be very careful about wielding from now on.

For a moment, she allowed herself to feel grateful for her own father’s good humored reaction this morning – she would have expected nothing less from a man who had briefly considered going into teaching – and then, oddly, felt proud that Caedmon had struck out to defend Fitz against those bullies all that time ago. If there was anyone in the universe who deserved their protection, it was Fitz and Sarama. And, as the four of them lounged companionably in her parents’ sitting room, Jemma promised herself that she’d continue to protect Fitz for as long as he let her stay by his side.

Chapter Text

The last of their summer holidays passed far too quickly for Jemma’s liking, and before she knew it Fitz was slinging her bags over his shoulders while she hugged her parents goodbye at Heathrow. Although having the heavy cast on her leg was resoundingly exhausting, it did have the advantage of granting them the use of one of the airport’s white, golf cart-esque vehicles. The trip from one end of the gargantuan building complex to the other was slow enough that Caedmon’s mane barely ruffled, but it was certainly better than hopping the whole painful way herself. As they trundled through the long corridors of one of the world’s longest airports, she watched the lights shine in Fitz’s eyes, his thumb absently stroking Sarama’s scales where she lay on his lap. 

These flights were always a chore, but, predictably, the trip was vastly improved by having Fitz and Sarama to keep them company. Thanks to her father calling in a favor from a friend, Fitz had been able to get a seat on the same plane as Jemma and Caedmon – Sarama, fortunately, was small enough that she needed no extra booking, unlike the lion. Despite the fact that Fitz’s seat was in a different section of the aircraft, Jemma was quite certain that if she looked pathetic enough she could convince a nearby passenger to switch with him, and she gave her best friend a smug grin when she was proved right. They spent the flight happily arguing, or watching the same movie, or falling asleep on one another in turns. At one point, Jemma almost thought she felt him sweep loose hair out of her face and tuck it gently behind her ear, but she dismissed it as a fantasy. 

At long last, all four of them made it back to the Academy’s dorms, separating so that they could all get a good night’s rest before settling in properly the next day. It would be their first time sleeping apart in weeks, but Jemma was determined to see it through, no matter what nightmares she might incur as a result. Fitz’s time at her parents’ house had been a wonderful little moment of play-pretend, but back at the Academy, she knew she had to face the reality of their situation. They were best friends and only that; relying on him to chase away her nightmares wasn’t something she could do for the rest of her life. 

Even so, as she sat on her bed to change into her pajamas – her leg aching terribly after the trip – she allowed herself to gush a little to her dæmon about how much better the flight had been with their best friends by their sides. She didn’t manage to get through much, however, as Caedmon interrupted the second that she mentioned Fitz’s name. 

“He was watching you while you slept.” The lion’s voice was nearly shaking with excitement, as if he’d been just waiting until they were alone so he could tell her.

Hiking her pajama trousers up around her bum and then dropping back onto the mattress, Jemma frowned over at him. “What?”

“Not just a glance, Jemma,” Caedmon said, sitting down right in front of her as she reached back to remove her bra. He’d never looked more dog-like than he did in that moment, his short tail swishing eagerly around his narrow haunches. “It was a long time, like he couldn’t look away –”

“Oh, no –”

“It was like he l–”

“Ugh Caed,” she snapped, raising one hand to her forehead. “Please, please don’t start that again. I can’t take it.” 

“But –”

“No!” Her voice wavered, the hurt still potent enough to bring her to the edge of tears at just the memory. “Fitz doesn’t want me that way, Caedmon, you have to accept that.”

“But he –” 

“Accept. That.”

The lion paused, wetness hovering at the edges of his striking golden eyes. “No,” he said quietly. “I can’t. I won’t.”

 

------

 

The first few nights in her bedroom without Fitz, Jemma did wake up with one or two nightmares, reaching out to cling to her dæmon’s fur while being frustrated that he wasn’t whom she wanted to be holding. But within the week, the vicious, panic-filled dreams petered out, and she was deeply relieved for it. Most of all, she was thrilled that she didn’t have to be so dependent on another person. She wasn’t comfortable “needing” Fitz so much in that way, and being able to sleep on her own and find her own way out of her mild post-traumatic stress was one step towards regaining her own peace of mind.

Caedmon’s stubbornness about Fitz aside, Jemma knew that the next step to completely sublimating any and all romantic feelings she had towards her best friend was to find someone else to direct them towards. This was a greater challenge than she would have liked, but Jemma Simmons had never been one to back down from a difficult task.

Although she wanted to try to move on from her feelings for Fitz as soon as possible – the immeasurable ache in her chest having become no less potent as time passed – it was nearly impossible for her to do so with the cast on. In addition to the awkward gait necessitated by her crutches, thereby making it difficult for her to appear at her above-average fashion sense best, she simply enjoyed the way her best friend continued to dote on her. Since they went nearly everywhere together anyway, it wasn’t as if he truly had to go out of his way to help, but the way he would automatically reach for her hand to help her upstairs, or would automatically fetch her a drink or lab supplies before she could even ask, made her incredibly happy. Jemma found herself thinking nearly every time about how he was proving her father wrong: There was so much more to Fitz than just his brains.

Finally, well into autumn, a nearby hospital cut off her cast and she was freed entirely from the injury – and from having an excuse to rely so heavily on her best friend. One weekend evening, while they sat hip-to-hip on her bed, she found herself completely distracted from a re-watch of the newest season of Doctor Who by the thought of leaning over and kissing Fitz. His hand had been buried into Caedmon’s mane for some time, absently scratching the lion’s fur, and Jemma was briefly relieved that she didn’t have the specific part of men’s anatomy that made arousal so obvious. As always, however, she didn’t move, and he didn’t give any indication that he would like her to do so. It was that night she promised herself she would find dates to go on and someone else to fall for; neither of them deserved the inconvenience of her feelings any longer.

Knowing that this was the logical next step for her to take, however, did not stop her from feeling unduly nervous on the day of her first date since summertime, since before 8/8 had upset the balance of her life once again.

In the lab on one late November Friday afternoon, Jemma and Caedmon were attempting to work on analyzing some particularly tricky cellular samples. More accurately, Caedmon was helping to review the relevant sections in their textbook, flipping through pages with his nose and reading out instructions or answers to her questions. His mane was clipped back with hairpins to the best of her ability, and he wore his personalized, tailored lab coat, all to protect the integrity of the sensitive experiment, as usual. Meanwhile, Jemma was peering through microscope after microscope, trying to analyze the samples rather than dwelling on what she should wear and how she should behave tonight. (Being around Fitz was so effortless; making friends with other people had never been nearly as simple.) 

“Hey,” Fitz said from across the tables, tugging off his goggles and allowing Sarama to crawl down from his shoulder onto the steel. “What d’you want to do tonight?”

In truth, Jemma hadn’t heard what Fitz had asked, her mind too busy whirring through the sight of the cells visible in the extended lens. “What?”

“When you’re done, I mean,” he clarified, and she blinked up at where he was leaning on the table in front of her. “We haven’t played Warcraft in a while, or we could see if Wallace & Gromit’s still in theaters somewhere.”

“Oh,” Jemma whispered, warmth fanning up on her cheeks as she caught on to the conversation. “I, ah, I can’t, actually, I’m busy.” 

Fitz let out a disbelieving little guffaw. “On a Friday night? That thing’s not due for another month, Simmons, you can put it down for a few hours.”

“I’ve got a date, actually,” she said, voice now so quiet that she wasn’t even sure anyone could hear her. For whatever reason she felt wretched just telling Fitz this, and she couldn’t quite look him in the eye as she said it.

“Oh.” His tone shifted immediately from the casual one in which he’d started the conversation, and she glanced up as he straightened stiffly from the table. “Right.”

“We didn’t have plans that I’ve forgotten, did we?” Jemma’s pulse was racing, and she found herself wanting some kind of approval from him; it made no sense at all, because of course she needed no one’s permission to date whomever she liked. But something about his change in body language, the way he closed himself off with only one shift in position, made her anxious and upset in a way she didn’t totally understand. “Because if I did, I could –” 

“No, we didn’t,” he said, words clipped as he looked anywhere other than her. “I’ll, uh – see you tomorrow, then. Done here.” With that, Fitz grabbed his dæmon from where she’d been inching towards Jemma’s workstation and strode to his cubby.

Jemma had known before she asked the question that they hadn’t made any plans; they didn’t need to make plans, because they were inseparable. But if she could ever find happiness outside of Fitz, from now on, sometimes they would have to be apart.

“I hate this,” Caedmon muttered from where he was lying on the floor, chin resting on the textbook as he watched Fitz store his coat and collect his knapsack.

“We’re going to have fun tonight,” Jemma said, trying to sound more confident than she felt. “He’s a cryptographic cadet in training at comms, it sounds absolutely fascinating. Peggy Carter was an expert cryptographer, you know.”

“I know, you read her biography out loud,” her dæmon snapped, pushing himself up into a sitting position. “But unless we’re meeting the founder of SHIELD at that pizzeria, I don’t think it’ll be the same.”

To her dismay, Caedmon was right. The date was more than a bit boring, the cadet’s well formed muscles and symmetrical features notwithstanding. An undercurrent of tension also underwrote the whole evening because her dæmon spent the entire time curled alongside her chair with his back to the boy’s meerkat dæmon. Although Jemma tried to laugh it off as the two of them being preoccupied with the slow creep towards finals, she could tell that neither her date nor his dæmon found Caedmon’s behavior acceptable, let alone appealing.

By the time that she trudged up to the door of her dorm room, Jemma felt so blue that she was sure only seeing Fitz would make her feel better. Considering the strange cold shoulder he’d given her in the lab that afternoon, though, she hesitated before knocking on his door as she once never would have. If she didn’t know better, she’d think that she’d just told her boyfriend that she was cheating on him, which was patently ridiculous. Not only were she and Fitz not like that to one another, but also he had explicitly said he had no interest in her in that way. So for any of them to feel upset to this degree about her going on one, measly date made no sense at all. 

As she hovered between their adjacent doors, kitten heels dangling from one hand while she shifted on her stocking-covered feet, Fitz’s door swung inwards. He took three shuffled steps towards the restroom and then froze at seeing her and Caedmon in the hallway. 

“Hi, Fitz,” she offered, accompanied by what she hoped was a pleasant smile. “How was your evening?”

Fitz swallowed, reaching up to tug on the hem of his rumpled shirt. “Fine. Date go alright?” 

“No,” blurted Caedmon, and Jemma gave him a swift, gentle kick in the side. 

“Ah. Erm, sorry,” Fitz muttered, not looking sorry at all (although not looking any less miserable, either).

“How’s Sarama?” 

Fitz glanced from the lion up to Jemma, and then back to his socks. “Alright.”

“Would’ve been better if you’d been there,” the lion said quietly. “Both of you.”

“Okay, Caed,” Jemma hissed, hand trembling a little at the adrenaline his admission ignited. “That’s enough.” Once she’d herded her dæmon into her room, she turned back to where Fitz stood in the hallway, seemingly now undecided about whether he should turn back or keep going. “Breakfast tomorrow?” 

A tight smile ghosted across his face. “Yeah, sure. Night Simmons,” he mumbled, brushing past her and pushing open the unisex restroom door.

It took Jemma hours to fall asleep that night, and even then she had disturbing dreams, indistinct flashes of fighting and loneliness that left her feeling like she’d done something terrible, even though, in reality, that wasn’t the case at all.

 

------

 

Although Jemma didn’t go on dates very often, she and Fitz developed a routine whereby they didn’t talk about them, and avoided each other entirely until the next day. (She suspected that Caedmon complained bitterly about each and every one to Sarama, but he wouldn’t admit it aside from giving her a noncommittal shrug.) 

Finals came and went, with Fitz inching one point above her in the class rankings, much to everyone’s surprise. (Although he was smug about it to the nth degree, Sarama suggested that perhaps it was due to the mild difficulty Jemma’d had at the beginning of term thanks to her being on pain medication for her broken leg. Fitz disagreed with this vehemently, but Jemma only grinned and gave the lizard a kiss on her scaly head.) 

They all spent the holidays at home, but only briefly, with Fitz and Jemma SMS-ing constantly. Much to their families’ respective dissatisfaction, they Skyped on their laptops during the Christmas episode of Doctor Who, both too eager to share the introduction of the newest Doctor to even wait for instant messages.

“He’s so skinny,” Fitz muttered, hunched towards his laptop’s camera and shoving a handful of bright orange popcorn into his mouth. “Won’t be worth much in a fight, will he?” 

“The Doctor doesn’t fight, Fitz, you know that,” Jemma scolded, adjusting one of her headphones. “And there’s nothing wrong with skinny.” 

“We like skinny blokes,” Caedmon added pointedly, and she shot him a glare.

“Shut up.”

“What was that?” Fitz squinted down at his laptop screen, and Jemma thanked heaven that her dæmon was far enough away from her headset that his voice hadn’t carried.

“Nothing,” she answered, turning her gaze back to the television.

“It’s crap they wouldn’t let him keep his real accent – again.” 

She sighed; it was the third time Fitz had complained about this since the episode had started. “It wouldn’t make sense, Fitz, the Doctor isn’t from Scotland –”

“You’re just biased,” he muttered, crossing his arms and sucking the cheese powder off his fingers. “You already got a Doctor from the North.” 

“But he wasn’t from Sheffield,” she exclaimed, rolling her eyes in exasperation. “Honestly –” 

“Ooooooh,” he said, interrupting her, “hold on – I think the Santas are gonna attack.”

“What??” She’d been so distracted by their argument that she’d lost track of the episode, and so doubled her focus on the television screen. They watched the episode together again when they returned to school just after the New Year, both of them agreeing that the new actor was an acceptable replacement, although Fitz still missed Nine’s unique brand of snark.

By and large, as long as neither Jemma nor Fitz had to talk about her dating life – tepid though it may be – their relationship was exactly as it had been prior to the start of all those complications last spring. Except for one or two lapses in Jemma’s judgment.

 

------

 

Jemma could hardly breathe, let alone finish climbing the stairs up to their floor of the dormitory. After a successful evening of trouncing Fitz at Pawn Pong, the two of them had headed home with the goal of going to bed early so as to be productive in the lab tomorrow. This plan had been going swimmingly until they’d somehow managed to trip each other on the last flight of stairs and were now hard-pressed to get back up again. 

Sarama slipped off of Fitz’s shoulder as he clung to Jemma and the concrete stairs, both of them shaking with drunken giggles, and began to make her way ungracefully up the steps towards Caedmon. The lion was staring drily down at the two humans from the top of the staircase, taking a few seconds to shake his head before stretching down to gently pick up Sarama in his mouth and then place her next to him.

“This is your fault,” Jemma giggled, curling around Fitz’s back, and he weakly tried to flap one hand at her from where he was sprawled over her legs. She had lost count of exactly how much alcohol she’d had to drink, but since she was legally allowed to do so in at least her country of birth, she no longer felt guilty about it. Winning their third chess match also meant that Fitz had consumed more than she had, and his equilibrium was now just as thrown off as hers.

“It is s’not! I’m a perfect – perfect balance man, you have two feet!”

“Well done, Fitz,” she said, interrupting herself with a snort-laugh. “Mathematics whiz, you are.” 

He groaned and resumed trying to untangle their limbs. “I’m gon’ bed. You stay here then.” 

“Noooooooo,” Jemma whined, tugging at his sleeve as he straightened. “Help me, Fitz!”

With an exaggerated grumble, he took both her hands and hoisted her to her feet. The momentum sent her sailing into him, and her arms somehow made their way around his neck. 

“There,” she said, smiling to distract herself from the fact that he’d wrapped his arms around her waist in turn. “Was that so difficult?” 

“Very,” he shot back, and then tilted into the wall as he stumbled away from her hold. “You’re heavy.”

“I am not!” Jemma gaped after him as he stomped up the staircase towards the dæmons, a smirk just barely tilting up the corner of his mouth and telling her that he was egging her on. Still, she needed to get him to admit it. With a burst of energy but no additional sobriety, she lurched up after him, swaying and catching herself on his arm at the top of the stairs. “I’m not heavy!” Smug expression still in place, he just shrugged as they began to shuffle gracelessly down the hallway. “Fitz,” she said, poking one finger into his side and causing him to jerk to the side, “I’m not heavy.”

More than a hint of a pout worked its way into her voice at the last, and at last he turned to meet her gaze, expression softening. “Oh c’mon, Simmons, y’know you’re gorgeous,” he said with a fine eyeroll, and Jemma’s mouth broadened into a smile again.

“You think I’m gorgeous?”

Fitz stared mutely down at her, swallowing thickly. “I mean, y’know, i’s an objec'ive observation, you’ve got a symm-me-metrical face, and....” 

“You think I’m goooorgeous,” she taunted, stepping away with the goal of walking backwards so as better to tease him but somehow tilting sideways into the wall just before his door. She managed to lean gracefully enough against it that it seemed intentional, so she just looked over at where Fitz swayed a few steps away from her and smirked. “You’re the one who said it.”

“That’s ‘cause you were being a girl about it,” he muttered, cheeks pinking, and she scoffed. 

“That’s because I am one! Dunno if you’ve noticed –” 

Caedmon strode behind Fitz, with Sarama now clinging to the top of his head, and suddenly Fitz stumbled towards Jemma, landing with his hands on either side of her shoulders against the wall. 

“Sorry,” Caedmon said, continuing towards his and Jemma’s room and sounding about as unapologetic as he could be.

Jemma didn’t even spare her dæmon a glance; she was now far more interested in the closeness of Fitz’s mouth to her own. Both of them were breathing a little more heavily than they had seconds before, and she licked her lips out of nerves. All evening, she’d been feeling distinctly... wound up, and the fact that her best friend had worn a dark blue shirt that did marvelous things for both his figure and his eyes didn’t help. His gaze flitted down to rest on her mouth, unconsciously mirroring her behavior.

After a few, achingly long seconds, Fitz pushed away from the wall and shuffled towards his door. “Sorry,” he mumbled, and she wrinkled her nose at his back. If he was going to make it exceedingly difficult for her to find anyone else comparable to date, the least he could do was attend to her physical needs. Surely it was the gallant thing for him to do.

“Night, Fitz,” she said in response, reaching down to take Sarama from Caedmon and return her to her human. 

Behind her, Fitz inhaled, and then gave her a strained smile as she passed the lizard over. “Night, Simmons.”

Once she and Caedmon were in their room and the door was closed, Jemma let out a loud noise of frustration. “It’s not fair!”

Sitting back on his haunches, the lion watched as she tugged off her red Cons and tossed them angrily against the wall in the direction of her shoe organizers, spinning a little too far in her current stage of drunkenness. “What?”

“He’s – he’s – I have needs, Caed! I’m a nubile young prodigy, any cadet at the Academy would be lucky to have me!” With a small squeak, she managed to catch herself on her desk chair before she fell over, one sock held successfully aloft.

He gave her a wry eyebrow raise. “Horny?”

She whined as she pulled her shirt over her head, managing to get it unstuck from her ponytail after only two tries. “Maybe. And Fitz is not helping. Being all – there.” 

“Well said.” Her dæmon regarded her as she continued to shed her clothes and toss them as close to her laundry hamper as she could manage. For a few seconds, she stared at where her forest green shirt had fluttered to the floor a foot away from the basket, and then sighed and traipsed over to put the thing properly inside. “Time to take care of it yourself, then, no?”

Sighing, Jemma shoved her knickers off, tossed them into the hamper, and then stumbled over to drop onto the edge of the bed. “Yes, I think so.” Her mind wandered back to the best friend that she’d been very well behaved at not mauling all evening, and she let herself drift. “He is rather well-endowed, you know. For someone his height.”

Caedmon’s eyebrows raised nearly up to his mane-line. “How the bloody hell do you know that?”

A laugh escaped her throat, and she hopped up to flick the room’s overhead switch. “In my bed one morning last summer, he was –” 

“Hard,” finished Caedmon, giving his head an incredulous shake. “Actually, seems inevitable, sharing a bed. Male anatomy –”

“Of course.” Her eyes fluttered closed, and she sat on the edge of her mattress again. “I think he’d be quite nice to have as my first time. A good size, and he’s so warm, and thoughtful, and his hands–” 

“Jemma.” Caedmon’s voice was thin, holding a warning that they usually daren’t speak allowed. If either of them talked about what they couldn’t have with Fitz and Sarama, they were liable to start fighting about it again – and they were both so tired of disagreeing. But Jemma was quite drunk, and she’d forgotten for those few moments.

Silence hovered in the darkened room before Jemma moved to swing her legs onto the bed and beneath the sheets. Although she’d never gotten herself off while thinking about her best friend before – the very idea made her cheeks heat up – right now, it seemed like the perfect way to release the tension that had been distracting her for the better part of... well, nearly a year now.

Once she was comfortable, knees bent and open on the bed, Jemma reached her right hand between her thighs. Her breath hitched as her fingers slicked easily up from her entrance to the more sensitive skin above it; the mere idea of having Fitz in bed with her now was more than enough to have her wet already. It wasn’t so much his physical appearance, even if she thought he was handsome (and thought so more and more as he grew into his wiry frame). Rather, it was the way she’d felt when he’d had his hands on her, the shivers elicited by the sound of her name on his tongue, by the heated slide of his lips, by the too-firm grasp of his fingers.

Beginning to rub her fingers just beneath her clit, building her own arousal, she let her mind flit from one memory to the next before landing on a fantasy. What if Fitz was here now, head buried between her thighs and loving every centimeter of sensitive skin with his lips and tongue? A quiet moan feathered out of her lips, and she twitched her hips up against her fingers. She had no idea what that would actually feel like, but, oh God, she wanted to know. What if he’d woken up in her bed when he was hard and she was still pressed bodily against him? What if they were more experienced, and he could just push off her knickers and then slide thickly inside her where they lay, making her gasp and writhe in pleasure? Her free hand slid up to tease at her breast, pinching lightly at the nipple as her other hand’s fingers pressed deliberately against her clit. 

Jemma gasped, face twisting in pleasure as the feeling radiated through her body, and she couldn’t stop herself from letting instinct take over. Even though she knew that the more time she took winding herself up, the better orgasm she’d have, she didn’t want to stop. What if he’d pushed her backwards onto the bed the night they’d played strip roshambo, what if they’d stripped and shagged until neither of them could see straight? The thought was appealing, but again her mind returned to the idea of desperate, passionate, loving morning sex in her childhood bedroom, and her breath hitched as her fingers sped up against her clit. She could almost feel his breath against her neck, hear the groans he'd make as she rocked back against him, pretend it was his fingers working between her thighs. Her hips rolled forward quickly in time with her strokes, the feeling beginning to crest, foreshocks shivering through her, and she was so close, her mouth bowing and –

A knock rapped against her door, and Jemma let out a strangled noise somewhere between a cry of pleasure, aborted arousal, and surprise, her climax banking in the space of a second.

“Simmons?”

“Ugh,” Jemma muttered, dropping her head back against her pillow and squeezing her eyes shut. Leopold Fitz, the world’s most frustratingly brilliant and handsome vagina-block. Or, clit-block. She wasn’t totally sure of the terminology for being interrupted while getting oneself off.

After a few, bitter seconds, she shoved herself out of her bed, fumbling around for first the lightswitch and then her purple terrycloth bathrobe. When she threw the door open, Fitz had his mouth halfway open to say something but stalled, eyes tracking over her appearance. She must look positively debauched, face flushed and hair mussed from her pillow, and she crossed her arms self-consciously. The alcohol hadn’t yet disappeared from her system and the room tilted a bit to the side, spurring her to lean against the doorframe. 

“What?”

“Uh...” Fitz said, swallowing. “Why’re you wearing your robe? Gonna take a shower at two a.m.?”

“No,” Jemma snapped, feeling rather actively annoyed with him now. “I was changing. What do you want?”

Rearing back slightly at her tone, he dropped his eyes to his hands, which she now realized held two bottles of water. “Wanna make sure you’re drinking, y’know. Not get dehydr-rated.”

Jemma sighed, guilt overriding her tetchiness, and she took his proffered bottle. “Thanks, Fitz. Sorry, I’m just –”

“Knackered, yeah, me too.” He gave her a wan smile and took a few steps backwards to his room. “Breakfast?”

“Yeah,” she answered, watching him disappear into his room and trying not to feel too annoyed. Her life would be a lot easier if Fitz would just come over and finish what he’d started. Well, what that spin the bottle game had started, if she was being technical about it – which she usually preferred.

Knowing that she was going to end up going to bed entirely unsatisfied yet again – there was no point to trying to get back in the mood after that interruption – Jemma sighed and closed her door. Caedmon gave her a droll look from where he was lying stretched out on their floor, and she glared at him. 

“Don’t you start.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Chapter Text

One day in the depths of a chilly, Northeastern winter, Jemma made another decision that she would bitterly regret – although in this case, the fault ultimately lay with Fitz, in more ways than one.

The day started well enough, with Fitz and Sarama showing up at Jemma and Caedmon’s door with a large, aluminum case in hand and two wide grins on their faces. Normally, the two of them showing up with some sort of experiment was good news, particularly as Jemma had been ankle-deep in reviewing a particularly uninteresting lecture. “It’s time.”

Glancing over at her dæmon where he hadn’t deigned to move from lounging on the bed, she then gave the others an intrigued eyebrow raise. “For what?”

“Ice-Skate-O-Mania, round two –”

“Oh, God –”

“With improved zoomers and a built in fail safe.” Fitz bounced on the balls of his feet, sending Sarama a centimeter or two to the side on his jacket-covered shoulder. “C’mon, you know you want to see ‘em.”

Jemma groaned and reached for her navy peacoat. “Caed, could you get the –”

“First-Aid kit,” her dæmon mumbled, loping up with the small red bag already hanging from his mouth. “Got it.”

Although it was bitterly cold outside, at least it hadn’t snowed in a few days. Caedmon in particular was grateful for this, because his paws were decidedly not designed for snowy weather. At least he fared better in wintertime than Sarama, who was currently bundled in a miniature blue coat that Jemma had helped Fitz make in the armor division last year. Her scales were good for protecting against blows and predatory bites – not that she’d ever had to withstand either – but were deeply vulnerable against the cold and any form of precipitation. Real lizards of her species were known to die from overexposure to water.

A few cadets were taking advantage of the clear Sunday afternoon to skate on the small, currently frozen lake near campus (man-made, and used in summer months by Sci-Tech to test water-focused designs), but the ice contained far fewer than the crowds that usually accompanied weekend evenings.

While Jemma laced up her own skates, Fitz unveiled the unholy contraptions that he apparently intended to affix to his feet. They had clearly been cobbled together from rejected supplies in the engineering department, anything that he could get to work without having to buy something the Academy couldn’t provide and that he couldn’t quite sell as research. As a result, they looked like steampunk workboots, the actual blades only barely visible underneath the grey, tarnished metal.

“You are not actually going to wear those,” she said, staring down at him. Not looking at her, he began to press the buttons along the side of each gnarled, steel oval. 

“I am, and they’re gonna be fantastic,” he replied blithely, adjusting his maroon woolen cap as he straightened. “Tests in the lab worked perfectly.”

“They did work really well,” Sarama piped up from next to Jemma on the bench. “It could be a great prototype to use to convince the department to give us –”

“Enough funds to make them properly. For use on arctic missions and such,” Fitz finished for her. 

“Oh yes,” Caedmon deadpanned, “all those SHIELD missions in the arctic, lots of abandoned terrorist bases to clean up. Terrorists love the cold, y’know.”

“Shut up,” Sarama said, sticking out her tongue at the lion. 

“I can’t believe I’m letting you do this.” Jemma had half a mind to just take the contraptions away from Fitz, but she found her resolve wilting as she caught the excitement on his face. It was an expression she knew well, when his mind was already ten steps ahead of the experiment and already focused on all the ways his work could benefit others, and she rather thought it was her favorite of his looks.

Pushing herself up off the bench, Jemma wobbled on the thin blades, and a wash of fear crashed over her at the thought that she hadn’t been ice skating since before her broken leg. Although her leg had sustained no nerve damage after the breakage, in part thanks to her rigorous adherence to the physical therapy exercises recommended by her doctor, all her confidence in her own ice skating kills disappeared in the space of those few seconds.

In a flash Fitz was by her side, one hand on her arm and the other curled supportively around her back. “Alright?”

Letting him steady her, Jemma awkwardly settled her feet a little further apart on the dry, grassless ground. “Yeah, yeah, sorry, just....”

“Are you sure you wanna do this?” His voice was low and soft, eyes searching hers and breath puffing out into the cold air between them. “You could just sit and watch, y’know, better to see how my Zoom Skates work.”

She groaned into a laugh, shaking her head. “You are not calling them that.” 

“It’s the perfect name,” he argued, brows furrowing. 

“It’s descriptive!” Sarama added, wriggling her head further out of the collar of her miniature coat. 

“It’s stupid,” Caedmon said, and Jemma threw one hand out towards him in emphatic agreement.

“Thank you!” Her ankles teetered in place thanks to her overenthusiastic gesture, and Fitz’s grip on her tightened. “I’ll be fine,” she said, quirking up the corner of her lips. “Really, I just need to get my sea legs back.” 

Still frowning, Fitz reluctantly released his hold on her, although he kept his arms held forward as if he intended to catch her at any moment. Waving him off, Jemma tottered the couple of steps to the edge of the lake, took a deep breath, and glided smoothly onto the ice, just as she’d been doing nearly every winter since she was a young girl. She exhaled, tugging the edges of her gloves higher up on her wrists. As she circled towards the other side of the small lake, she felt her bond with Caedmon being pulled uncomfortably tight, and so she turned back. With a slight flourish, she skidded to a graceful stop in front of the bench on which Fitz now sat adjacent to the dæmons.

“There,” she said, sounding just as smug as she felt, “right as rain.”

Fitz arched an eyebrow in her direction, securing the last of the clasps on his left contraption. “I’ll be joining you in just – a – sec.” A little noise of triumph accompanied him finishing the last steps to start-up, and the boots made a deeply worrisome growling noise. “That’s completely normal,” he said, pushing himself unsteadily onto his feet. 

Watching his progress towards the ice warily, Jemma glided backwards, making eye contact with Caedmon. Not needing her to say anything, the lion ambled up to the lake’s edge and began to pace.

Fitz skated onto the ice without a problem, holding Sarama with one hand and using the other for balance. How he managed to stay upright with the weight of the metal boots holding him down, she would never know. After a few seconds getting himself used to skating with the boots, he tugged out the remote control device he had strung around his neck – mostly hidden by his large scarf – and gave the button a firm push.

The boots shot him forward across the lake, scattering other skaters around him like bowling pins.

“Fitz!” Jemma shouted, crouching into a panicked sprint across the ice after him. Although she didn’t look back for him, she knew Caedmon must be running alongside the edge of the lake after them; their bond didn’t pull once. 

The arm holding Sarama waving frantically in the air, Fitz fumbled for the control at his neck. All of a sudden, a large flash exploded beneath the boots, and he disappeared underneath the ice.

FITZ!” Jemma screamed, hurtling herself across the lake as fast as she could go. Her first thought was for Sarama, because the lizard could not survive being submerged – and if Sarama were to die, so would Fitz.

Dropping onto her knees a couple feet away from the hole, Jemma spotted his dæmon lying on her back a few feet away from the gaping hole now marring the thick sheet of ice. In his panic, Fitz must have flung her away when the boots exploded. “Sarama?!”

“I’m alright,” the lizard replied weakly. A second later, Caedmon skidded to the dæmon’s side, sliding ungracefully on his stomach with his legs splayed out in front and in back of himself. 

Trusting her dæmon to get Sarama to safety, Jemma scooted towards the hole in the ice, making sure that what was left would support her. All the ice that remained, however, was rock-solid, and as she got to the hole she saw that the edges of the ice appeared to have been melted, rather than blown to smithereens. What the hell had he used for fuel?

As she bent herself over the hole, she could just barely see Fitz’s hands sinking away from her beneath the dark water. Plunging both arms into the freezing lake, Jemma struggled to get a hold on him, his hands finally getting purchase around her triceps as she yanked him up by the back of his jacket. He gasped as his face hit the air, a combination of not being able to take a breath before he’d fallen and the shock of more cold.

“Come on,” Jemma said, trying to drag him up over the edge, “come on, Fitz, swim –”

“I can’t,” he spluttered, hands scrabbling at the ice and failing to get purchase, “the boots, they’re too heavy, I can’t!”

Without warning, Caedmon clambered over Jemma on the ice, closing a vice-like grip on the back of Fitz’s coat with his teeth. Between the traction of the lion’s extended claws and Jemma pulling as hard as she could, they managed to drag Fitz out of the hole and onto the ice.

That wasn’t the end of it, though, as Jemma remembered the frightening blast that had sent him into the lake in the first place.

“Your feet,” she said, panting as she scooted down alongside his body. “Fitz, does it hurt?” 

“No,” he said hoarsely, heaving deep, rattling breaths.

Already following the same train of thought as his human, Caedmon laid over Fitz while Jemma began to work on removing the boots. If he wasn’t warmed up soon, he could go into hypothermic shock. Hopefully, the lion’s body heat would help.

Dimly, Jemma was aware that other ice skaters were talking to her, that some of them seemed to have fetched rope or something to help pull Fitz out (although they’d taken too bloody long), that some of them were talking about ambulances and a lack of phone signal. But she ignored them all, too focused on finishing one life-or-death task at a time.

The boots were the most horrifyingly secure piece of footwear she’d ever seen, but fortunately she had worked with Fitz long enough to be able to figure out his design. Yanking them off one by one, she was shocked and relieved to see that not only were his feet unharmed, his socks weren’t even singed. The fire itself must have burned fast, hot, and in one direction only. Whatever her best friend had designed that had almost killed him, it also might be a scientific breakthrough.

“Okay,” she said at last, shivering as the cold from her soaked jacket arms began to seep through, “we have to get you to a hospital –”

“No hospital,” said Fitz, voice weak as his shivers increased. Caedmon curled more tightly over his chest, holding himself at an odd angle so that he was providing warmth while also supporting as much of his own weight as possible.

“You could die, Fitz!” Jemma’s voice was high, incredulous, and just shy of panicked. Of all the times for her best friend to have developed a problem with hospitals, now was the worst. “They need to monitor you, make sure –” 

“I won’t go,” he bit out, teeth chattering so violently his words were almost inaudible. “J-just t-take me to m-m-my room, ok-kay? I’ve got blankets, n’ things.”

“How?!” She was starting to panic now, remembering that they’d walked to the lake from campus, and her body gave a sharp tremble. “Fitz, please, we –”

“I’ve got a car,” said an unfamiliar voice from behind her, and she whipped her head around. One of the other ice skaters, an older cadet who would almost definitely be in spec-ops, crouched down to her level on the ice. His blond hair fluttered in a brief breeze, and a sharp shiver rolled through Jemma. “I can take you guys back to campus, no one’s gettin’ any signal out here.”

“C-campus,” Fitz weighed in. “G-good.”

Tears of frustration and adrenaline welled in Jemma’s eyes, and as she shook her head they rolled fast and hard down her cheeks. No way of convincing Fitz to go to the hospital short of knocking him unconscious came to her, and, after staring at her best friend with a mix of fear and anger, she gave the older cadet a quick nod. “Yes, please.”

As she got shakily to her ice skates and reached for Sarama, the cadet made a smooth half-circle around the boy and the lion before giving his nearby friends a half-nod. Caedmon waited until the last second before stepping away from Fitz, watching as the spec-ops cadets helped lift Fitz into the blond one’s arms, fireman-style, their blades all sliding backwards slightly on the slick ice.

“I have to get our things,” Jemma said, clinging to Sarama as if the lizard were all she had left while she watched another cadet gather up Fitz’s contraptions. A couple of the boys gave her a sidelong glance, but chose not to say anything about her holding Fitz’s dæmon. In a life or death situation, she supposed, social norms were moot.

“W-wait,” Sarama whispered, stopping the original cadet before he skated off across the ice with her human. “It’s t-too – t-too far....”

“Oh no.” Jemma glanced between the lizard and her best friend, not willing to just balance Sarama on top of him and hope that the cadet didn’t drop either. 

“I’ll take her,” Caedmon said, the tips of his mane trembling as he shivered from the cold. “I can stay between you, keep the bonds from pulling too much.”

Nodding, Jemma lay the lizard carefully on the lion’s head, nestling her into his hair. It was harder for her claws to grip onto his longer fur while she was hindered by the jacket. 

“Alright?” Jemma asked. 

“Alr-right,” Sarama said, grabbing onto Caedmon’s hair as best she could. Her voice was just as shaky as Fitz’s, evidently feeling the cold through her bond with her human despite having not been submerged herself.

With that, the cadet took off across the ice and Jemma sped in the opposite direction, forcing herself to focus on moving quickly rather than turning back to watch Fitz be taken away. As she reached their things by the bench, she could feel her own bond with Caedmon begin to tug, the distance stretching over into discomfort. She suspected that he was choosing to let their bond stretch more, sacrificing their own comfort for Fitz and Sarama’s, and she felt a brief surge of pride and affection for her dæmon.

Gathering their shoes and empty bags only took a few seconds, and then she raced across the ice to the other side of the lake so she could remove her skates. While she sat on the dry ground, her fingers fumbled with the laces on her winter boots and she swore, tears threatening yet again.

She was angry with herself for letting Fitz try those bloody machines, furious that she was so enamored of him that she had allowed him to do something so mind-bendingly idiotic. If she didn’t care about him the way she did – didn’t love watching the way his mind work, didn’t love seeing him do things that could change the world – he wouldn’t even be in this situation right now. Shoving her own guilt aside, she finally finished changing into her normal shoes and ran as fast as she could towards the parking lot. 

The cadet waved to her from a rusty, maroon Chevrolet, with Caedmon poking his head around the angular fender. “Thank you,” she murmured needlessly to her dæmon, reaching down to scoop the lizard protectively from his head. Without a thought, Jemma crawled into the backseat with Fitz, leaving the cadet holding the front passenger door open. Instead, Caedmon hopped into the front, and the cadet jogged around the engine to get in, start the car, and put the pedal to the metal.

In the back, Jemma arranged herself so that Fitz’s head was on her lap; he didn’t seem fully aware of where they were, only turning towards her, eyes shut tight as he instinctively sought out warmth. 

“Take us to the health center, please –” she said quietly, but she was interrupted by a sharp noise of dissent from her lap.

“No. My room. No. H-h-hospitals,” he mumbled into her jacket. 

The cadet slowed the car to a stop at a light, glancing up at them in the rearview mirror. She gave him a helpless shrug and shook her head, bending over to smooth hair off of Fitz’s forehead. “We’re in Carter.”

Giving her a tight-lipped nod, the cadet shifted his eyes back to the road, blond hair silhouetted against the horizon. When they arrived at the dorm, he helped the two of them shuffle up to their rooms, hovering by the door of Fitz’s as Jemma ushered him inside.

“Get into pajamas,” she ordered, laying Sarama on his desk, “and then come to my room straightaway.”

“F-fine,” Fitz muttered, shakily pulling off one jacket arm and then the other.

Once the door was shut, Jemma turned to the older boy with a wan smile. “Thank you for your help, truly.”

“D’you want me to tell someone?” The cadet was staring very seriously at Fitz’s closed door, arms crossed. “If he won’t go to them, maybe they could –”

“No,” she interrupted gently, shaking her head. “No, I have some supplies here... I should be able to monitor him. I’ll know if we need help.” 

“You sure?”

“Yes, thank you.” She gave him a small, genuine grin. “You’ll be a good agent, one day.” 

He glanced down at her and made a quick shrug. “It was either this or be a fireman.” Giving one more look at the door, he turned to leave. “Good luck. And ignore him, and call the health center if he doesn’t warm up, okay?” 

“Hey, I –” She’d realized that she hadn’t even thought to get his name, but Fitz’s door creaked open then, and all her attention zeroed back in on saving her best friend. With Sarama in hand, he emerged in three sweatshirts, sweatpants, and plaid slippers, which was an image that would have made her burst into giggles at any other time. For the moment, Jemma reached one arm around him to attempt to steady his shaking, and once she’d turned the lock Caedmon pushed the door open wide enough for the both of them. 

“Okay,” she said after the lion had nudged the door closed, “take all of that off.”

In the midst of placing Sarama at the head of Jemma’s bed, Fitz froze, blinking at her. Perhaps it was that he’d been nearly lost to icy depths not long before, but for whatever inexplicable reason in that moment Jemma was struck by how very blue his eyes were. “What??”

“Either do what I say, or I’ll have Caedmon drag you to the hospital.” Letting go of the lizard, he frowned, opened his mouth as if to disagree, gave a particularly violent shiver, and then reluctantly began to pull off the dry layers he’d so recently put on. “Thank you.”

In the meantime, Jemma rummaged around for the field kit she hadn’t yet gotten around to returning to her tutor, mumbling all the while. “You’re just bloody lucky that I still have this with me, or else I’d have knocked you out and had... had that cadet carry you to the health center.”

“Have wha – AH!” Fitz cried out when she slapped a large, probably cold, square of plastic on his bare chest. The translucent material immediately began beeping, his vitals appearing quickly in neon cyan and orange text.

“From our field medicine elective,” Caedmon explained as Jemma tapped the screen a few times so that it would notify her if he hit certain low or high points, depending on the measurement. 

“It’s still in testing,” she added, “but it worked wonders in class.” 

Leaving Fitz to continue to stare down at the square screen now stuck to his chest, Jemma backed away and began stripping off all her own clothes. Fortunately, her underwear hadn’t even been close to getting wet, so she needn’t worry about figuring out how to change that while her best friend was in the room. A strangled noise brought her attention back to Fitz, who was staring wide-eyed at her progressing state of undress.

“What’re you d-d-doing?!”

“Body heat,” she said simply, turning towards her laundry basket so that he wouldn’t see the blush spreading across her cheeks. “Get under the covers.”

She heard shuffling behind her, and then Caedmon spoke again, apparently taking on the role of mediator. “Skin to skin contact will warm you up faster,” the lion said, and when Jemma turned around he was sitting by the side of the bed with his nose nearly touching Fitz’s where he lay. “I’ll lie on one side with Jemma on the other.” Considering her own admittedly poor bedside manner at the moment (with the anger and fear still coursing potently through her veins), her dæmon’s voice was low and about as gentle as she had ever heard him. 

“Alright,” Fitz mumbled into the purple comforter, eyes following Jemma as she made her way back across the room. The intensity of his gaze was just because he was thrown off by her behavior, she was sure of it.

“Good,” Caedmon replied, and then crawled up so he was stretched the full length of the outer edge of the bed. 

Taking a small breath, Jemma clambered over the foot of the bed and scooted under the covers behind Fitz, waiting until he had his arms wrapped around Caedmon before she pressed herself in against his back. It took her quite a bit longer than she would have expected to adjust to Fitz’s hold on her dæmon; apparently, the more surface area on her dæmon that was in contact with Fitz, the more she felt the side effects. Along with the physical feeling of having all her bare skin – except what was covered by her bra and knickers – pressed right against Fitz’s, the sensation of having her dæmon held like this took Jemma’s breath away. She was very glad that he couldn’t see the bright flush to her cheeks, and that she could easily attribute the hammering of her heart to fear and not to the images that had flashed into her head of what they could do to warm him up properly.

(The idea was tempting, especially with the scent of him so close to her. Hiding her face against his spine only brought it out, something almost like cinnamon but heavier, something that had lingered on her in the hour after their seven minutes in the closet, something not artificial like body spray but totally and ineffably Fitz. Something that, when combined with one of the scents of their lab, disinfectant or oil or aluminum, smelled like home. If he turned around now, if he tangled their limbs together or pressed his hips against hers just so, she could surround herself with him, could make sure that they were never nearly separated ever again.)

The thoughts flitted out of her head just as quickly as they came, driven out by a sharp tremor that ran through his entire body. Jemma pressed herself closer in, willing the warmth of all her limbs to transfer to Fitz. In that moment, she’d give any and every part of herself to make him better. 

“Is this helping?”

Fitz shifted around, burying his hands more securely in Caedmon’s mane. “Yeah,” he answered the lion, “I think so.”

“Good,” Jemma said, tone sharp. The stress of the accident overwhelmed her and she had to squeeze her eyes shut to keep herself from crying again. “It was so stupid Fitz, to test something like that out without proper equipment.”

“It worked fine –”

“In the lab,” she said tremulously, nearly devolving into tears, “you don’t nearly die in the lab, either!” She paused, taking heaving breaths as the terror of nearly losing him to the depths of a watery grave took hold. “If you’d managed to get yourself killed,” she mumbled against his neck, squeezing him harder to try to halt his violent shivering, “I’d never forgive you.”

This time, he didn’t defend himself, just letting her hold him tightly in silence for a few, long seconds. At last, he began to move, one arm reaching around as he tilted backwards into her, and she tipped her head back in confusion.

“What are you doing?”

“I was...” he said, swallowing, “gonna hug you.”

The images she’d thought of only seconds before flashed into her head, of them entangled limb by limb on the bed, and she knew suddenly that she wouldn’t be able to stop herself from kissing him if he turned. She’d been too scared earlier, when he’d been sinking in the lake and she hadn’t been strong enough to pull him out on her own, and she was too relieved now to stop herself. But he’d be uncomfortable if she did something so foolish, and more than anything right now she just wanted to stay with him. Just to make sure he was okay, to make sure that his own stupidity in refusing the hospital wouldn’t be fatal.

So Jemma shook her head and tightened her hold around his chest. “No, you’ll warm up faster if you hold onto Caed.” 

Fitz didn’t move for a few seconds, and she wondered briefly if he’d insist on his hug. Eventually, he returned to holding tightly to the lion, and another wave of feedback from him holding her dæmon washed over her. 

“I’m sorry,” he muttered, reaching down to hesitantly cover her right hand with his, their palms resting over his heart. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

“I know,” she said quietly, mollified by the gentleness of his tone. “But don’t do it again.”

“I’ll try.” 

“You’re lucky Sarama was okay.”

“I know.”

“And that Caedmon could pull you from the lake –” 

“I know,” he said, and she could feel him lifting his head up in exasperation. “I swear, no more surprise wintertime testing, alright?”

“Good.”

“Okay.” 

“And what on earth is so wrong about hospitals?”

He shifted away from her, burying his face in Caedmon’s mane again and speaking through the fur. “American hospitals are expensive –”

“Oh, Fitz –”

“And I don’t like ‘em. Not after....” He trailed off, the hand he’d wrapped around hers tightening. “The bombing. Don’t wanna go back if I can help it. And I was with you, anyway, knew you’d set me straight.”

Jemma was torn between being touched and annoyed all over again, and she let out a little tsk against his skin. “You’re just lucky –”

“That’s me,” he said, intentionally interrupting her lecture about her medical elective once again, “lucky Fitz.” There was a pause, and she could almost picture his face twisting in regret just before they both burst into slightly manic giggles. 

“Is that your footballer name?” 

“Oh, God –” 

“Or more of a stripper thing?”

“Christ, can we just –”

“Old gambler name,” Sarama chimed in from the top of the bed.

“Bowling league,” Caedmon added, and the four of them devolved entirely into a much-needed laughing fit. 

The vitals checker beeped happily away, and Jemma’s pulse eventually began to slow. Fitz was safe and alive, and would stay so forever, if she had any say in the matter.

 

------

 

A few days later, Jemma noticed Fitz fiddling with one of the rocket skates in their lab. When she strode over, one hand on her hip and this close to ripping the damned thing away from him, he raised his hands in panic.

“It’s not what it looks like!”

She squinted from Fitz to his dæmon, who was next to the monstrous contraption on the steel table, and back again. “It looks like you’re mucking about with the thing that almost killed you.” 

“Well, yeah, we are doing that,” the lizard conceded, glancing down to where Caedmon had just loped over.

“But not to fix the skates,” Fitz amended, holding up the power source. “You said the ice looked just about melted straight through, yeah?” Glancing down at her dæmon, she nodded. “I was thinking – if it could do that accidentally, what could it do on purpose? Maybe I could make some kind of... I dunno, jaws of life type of thing, for firemen – or SHIELD agents, when ops go south, y’know? There’s no collateral damage –”

“So if we can create a contained beam,” Sarama continued.

“You could use the power source,” Caedmon picked up, sharing a look with Jemma as she finished the thought.

“As an actual tool.” She nodded slowly, thinking through the myriad applications such an invention could have. “That could be brilliant, Fitz.” A grin broke across his face, and he tossed the palm-sized metal container from one hand to the other.

“Yeah,” Sarama said, “I think we have a couple good designs.”

“Just need to make it small enough,” he added, unable to contain his own smugness. “Maybe it was a good thing I fell through the ice – wouldn’t’ve come up with it otherwise.” When he glanced over at her again, Jemma was giving him her most intimidating glare, and he shrunk back, raising one hand in submission. “Or, not.” 

“It’s not funny,” Caedmon said stiffly, turning his back on Fitz and curling up underneath Jemma’s table.

Fitz looked between her and her dæmon, expression unsure and perhaps a little cowed. The lion didn’t usually take his annoyance out on Fitz; in fact, Jemma wasn’t sure he ever had.

“He’ll be fine,” she assured Fitz, who didn’t seem at all reassured. “But he’s right, you know.”

“Sorry,” he muttered, bending his head over his work and gesturing for Sarama to scoot a little to the side.

Although Jemma agreed with her dæmon, she was perfectly satisfied that Fitz didn’t seem to have any plans to take the skates out again, and was actually thrilled that he was channeling the design into something productive. He had no idea, of course, that during the intervening days she and Caedmon had both woken from more than one nightmare where they hadn’t gotten to him in time, where the icy blue water had drawn him down and under and they’d never seen him again. The lingering terror wasn’t something she or her dæmon planned on sharing with him or Sarama, however, that particular trauma their own private hell to bear.

 

------

 

The one lighthearted moment that followed the near-disastrous day of ice-skating came later that week, when Jemma dragged Fitz on the Academy shuttle to the nearest Best Buy.

“Maybe I don’t even need a cell phone,” he mumbled, eyes downcast as the small van rocked from side to side on the poorly paved back road. “They keep breaking, anyway.”

“Your mum will kill you if she finds out you’ve destroyed a second one in a year,” Jemma pointed out, carding her fingers absently through her dæmon’s hair where he sat in the aisle. “So you’re getting the same exact model as last summer, and you’ll be happy about it.” 

“We can’t let you just give us your upgrade!” Hunkered in Fitz’s hands on his lap, Sarama shook her head unhappily. 

“Your phone is ancient,” Fitz tried arguing again, but Jemma just spoke over him.

“My phone is perfectly fine, and I like it. I don’t need a new one, and I owe you a birthday present anyway.”

Unable to think of a counterpoint to her not having been able to get him a birthday present, Fitz slouched further down in his seat. “Think almost dying’s a bloody good excuse to not get someone a present –”

“Ugh, Fitz! For God’s sake, I did not almost die.” She rolled her eyes as emphatically as possible and then elbowed him for good measure. “Just say thank you and be done with it, okay?”

Eyeing her sideways, Fitz let out a distinctly resentful huff. “Thank you, Simmons.” 

“There,” she said, overly cheerful, and then tried not to fall into his lap when the bus made a jerky stop. “Lucky for you,” she couldn’t help adding, “my phone can withstand nearly anything.”

Chapter Text

The spring and summer semesters sped by, the run-up to their final year in the general Academy class fast approaching. During his spare time, Fitz vacillated between working on his newest invention and considering an attempt at a second PhD. Meanwhile, Jemma focused all her energy on simply studying as much as possible, worried about having to narrow down her field of choice to either biology or chemistry during the next phase of their careers at Sci-Tech. It felt like they were racing towards when they’d have to begin their applications for Sci-Ops, along with presenting research and development proposals to prove their worth to the agency, and she was already fretting about the possibility of them being split up. (They would both be accepted to Sci-Ops writ large; of that much, she was certain.)

As that third year drew to a close, Jemma’s attempts to date eventually petered out and effectively ceased during the summertime. In addition to fighting her own desires, she had to contend with Caedmon’s continued snappishness, as well as simply having to put in the effort to find any of these other boys interesting. Some of them were attractive enough to keep her briefly entertained, but none of them ever lasted more than a handful of dates. She gave brief thought to simply losing her virginity to one boy in particular, just to experience sex once and for all, with the hope that perhaps it would push her feelings for Fitz aside for good. But nothing ever came of the idea, and she continued feeling vaguely melancholic thanks to the notion that she might not ever find anyone else she wanted to be around as much as Fitz. Caedmon was no comfort, because he had no desire to be around anyone other than Fitz or Sarama anyway. The one conversation the two of them had about Jemma’s frustration and Caedmon’s stubbornness went absolutely nowhere, and resulted in them not speaking to each other for a full two hours. 

Ninety percent of the time, Jemma was blissfully happy at the Academy, truly neither needing nor wanting other company than Fitz’s, except for an occasional collaboration with one of her fellow biochemists. Their friendship satisfied all of her social needs – except for those pesky romantic and sexual urges that occasionally reared their inconvenient heads. She tried to convince herself that they were ancillary anyway, and her work was more important. Sometimes she’d go nearly weeks without feeling like anything was missing at all, and it was during those times that she felt the happiest she’d ever been.

 

------

 

“I cannot believe you like that stuff.”

“It’s sugar, Caed, what could possibly be wrong with that?” Jemma stared incredulously down at her dæmon, who was regarding the bright pink cloud of spun candy in her hand with distinct disgust.

Around them, the town’s Halloween Fair Spooktacular buzzed excitedly. The dirt walkways were packed with Academy cadets, local children, and exhausted fair workers. With only two days left until Halloween itself, the fair was beginning to look a little bedraggled, but with midterms, regular assignments, and an independent study proposal each, neither Fitz nor Jemma could have spared the time until that final weekend.

“It’s so sweet,” Caedmon insisted, looking up to Fitz as he sidled alongside Jemma, one hand holding the stick of his ginormous caramel apple and Sarama in the other.

“You’re sorta missing the point there, mate,” Fitz mumbled around a large mouthful of apple, caramel, and peanuts. 

“Want some?” Jemma held out her cotton candy to him, and he nodded eagerly, leaning forward to take a big bite. Without waiting for him to offer, she primly took the caramel apple from him with her other hand.

“Not sure about the peanuts,” he said, nodding towards the treat she’d stolen after he finished swallowing a large puff of pink. 

Jemma chewed her own bite of his apple for a few seconds, handing him back the stick. “I like them, I think. Nice texture.” 

“You do like chunky peanut butter,” Sarama added thoughtfully. “We’ve never been able to decide on that one.”

“Cotton candy tastes like chemicals,” Caedmon interjected, getting to his paws as the others began to stroll down the crowded pathway. “And it’s terrible for your teeth. I’d rather have good biscuits.” 

Sarama tilted her head towards the ground, claws clutching the cloth of Fitz’s shirt, and Jemma had the impression that if her facial muscles allowed it, the lizard would be grimacing. “Biscuits. Like those horrible gluten-free things you tried to trick us into eating last week?” 

“They’re not horrible!” Jemma exclaimed, swiping at a piece of candy fluff that had gotten stuck to her nose. 

“They’re horrible,” Fitz said drily, dodging as Jemma made a playful swipe at his arm. “Hey, look, the line for the haunted house has gone down!”

Jemma’s nose wrinkled instinctively; he’d gone on and on about wanting to visit the haunted house when they’d first arrived, but she’d hoped he’d forgotten. “Oh, Fitz, must we?”

“We don’t like haunted houses,” Caedmon mumbled, coming around to nudge his head against Jemma’s hand. She gave his mane an empathetic squeeze.

“Mum made us go to one in the neighborhood when we were kids,” Jemma explained, finishing off the last of her cotton candy and tossing it into a nearby trash can in unison with Fitz’s apple stick. “To make friends. It wasn’t anything like this one, obviously, it was just in their basement, but –”

“We ran out screaming.” Caedmon dropped onto his haunches, giving the haunted house a baleful look. It was the centerpiece of the fair, with the machinery having been brought in from a circus – Fitz was still disappointed he hadn’t been able to figure out the day that they were going to put the ride together so he could watch.

“And then mum’s friend was standing at the top of the stairs in a parrot costume....” Jemma shuddered. “Never looked at birds the same way, to be honest.”

“It’s the beaks.” Caedmon let out a low growl. “Those tiny little beaks.”

“Good thing I didn’t settle as an owl then,” Sarama said with a laugh.

The lion’s expression softened as he glanced up at where she perched on Fitz’s shoulder, but Fitz spoke just as Caedmon opened his mouth. 

“I promise,” Fitz said wryly, coming around to face Jemma and planting one hand condescendingly on her shoulder, “I won’t let any birds get to you in the haunted house.” 

She wrinkled her nose, searching for any other possible excuse and coming up empty. 

Before she could acquiesce, a mischievous smile flitted across Fitz’s face. “I bet that I get scared fewer times than you.”

His attempt to goad her into going was transparent, but it worked anyway. “Well, obviously,” she retorted, striding determinedly past him towards the faux-ramshackle building. “You watch all those horror movies, you’re immune to this sort of thing.” 

“Horror movies and haunted houses are nothing alike,” Sarama argued, squirming a bit as Fitz removed her from his shoulder for safekeeping. 

“It’s always cheesy, anyway,” he said, trotting happily behind Jemma with Caedmon in tow.

“So why do you like them?” 

Fitz seemed stumped by her question for a few seconds, and then he shrugged. “Dunno.”

Jemma rolled her eyes, slowing her pace as they reached the ticket gate. “If you’re forcing us to go, then you can pay the fee.”

“That’s fine, I still have birthday money.” Fitz flashed her a grin, reaching for his wallet and stretching out the hand that held Sarama towards her. As they often did at the Academy, he meant for Jemma to hold his dæmon while he used both hands for something else.

Almost immediately, he froze, glancing up at the ticket seller in the booth only a few feet away from them. The grizzled older woman stared mutely back at him, chewing the world’s loudest piece of gum, and her peahen dæmon peered around the edge of the cloudy pane of glass. Without saying anything, Fitz shifted so that he could balance the lizard on his forearm while flipping open his wallet. Standing in the middle of the Halloween fair of a rather small American town was perhaps not the time for them to be so cavalier about touching each other’s dæmons.

With only a handful of people in line before them, it wasn’t long before the four of them were squeezed into the moving cart – plastic hood and seat decorated to appear as cobwebbed bales of hay – and on their way to haunted fun. Or so the ride operator told them as he locked the safety bar over Fitz and Jemma’s laps, forcing Caedmon to duck to avoid being whacked on the head.

As the cart lurched forward, a loud cackle erupted from a nearby speaker, startling Jemma enough that she screeched and grabbed tightly onto Fitz’s arm. He laughed as the light of the entryway faded behind them, and she elbowed him.

“Shut up,” she muttered, constructing an argument in her head about how loud noises are a cheap shock anyway.

“Scaredy cat.” His voice was smug, and Caedmon made an indignant huff somewhere in the darkness by their feet. Fitz just laughed again as she poked him in the side in retaliation, but that didn’t keep her from holding a little more tightly than necessary onto his arm. Fortunately, he didn’t complain about the way she settled herself into his side, and she thought that perhaps haunted houses had something to be said for them after all.

The ride itself was largely dull, with the occasional soundtrack or flashing light startling Jemma enough that she could prove her hold on Fitz’s arm was warranted, but not truly enough to scare her in any lasting way. A part of her felt rather silly for having been so adamant about avoiding haunted houses for all those years if most of them were like this one. That being said, what she found so enjoyable was allowing herself to be this tactile with her best friend without feeling guilty. Moments like this had become exceedingly rare the more time passed since the summer of 2005; she and Fitz had regressed to rarely doing more than swatting teasingly at each other in odd moments. Even when they sat hip-to-hip on one of their beds to watch a show or a movie, their touch was always brief and perfunctory. The initiation of any other touch was inevitably hers, but even that became more rare as she settled into accepting that this would be the state of her and Fitz’s relationship for the rest of their lives. Caedmon continued to receive pets and scratches from Fitz regularly, and she tried not to feel rather jealous. (Sometimes, a little vein of hurt would settle into her chest on top of the pleasant feeling of having him pet her dæmon, and then she would roll her eyes at herself. As if she, an independent young woman, would enjoy being petted.)

While Jemma was otherwise distracted – by the comforting press of Fitz along her side, by the easy way he let her latch onto him, by the faint, familiar smell of his aftershave – she didn’t notice the next contrived scare until it was upon them. A large, lumbering man in a clown costume, bright makeup melting artfully down his cheeks, appeared from the shadows around a turn and brandished a butcher’s knife in their faces. Fitz screamed bloody murder, his arms wrapping too tightly around her shoulders, his whole body going rigid, and his shoes scraping against the floor as if he was trying to get away. Jemma could feel her daemon flinch against her legs, and she reached over instinctively to make sure that Sarama was still on Fitz’s lap. Once the clown was gone, they sat briefly in silence until Jemma burst into hysterical laughter.

Within seconds, the cart emerged from the cavernous ride and bathed them in light from the lobby, causing Jemma to wince mid-giggle from the brightness.

“It’s not funny,” Fitz muttered, scooping up Sarama and clambering over both Jemma and Caedmon to escape the cart.

Following closely behind, Jemma had to dab at the tears of laughter in the corners of her eyes. “Oh, no, that was hilarious! And you were calling me scaredy cat!”

Fitz shoved his way through the lines crowded around the entrance of the creaking building, not looking back at her. “Startled me, is all.”

“I don’t think I even screamed once,” Jemma giggled, bumping into Fitz as she avoided other people streaming towards the burgeoning haunted house line. 

She thought she heart Caedmon mutter a soft “stop” from behind her, and he bumped his head against her calves, but she was having too much fun to pay him any heed.

“I never,” she laughed, barely getting the words out, “ever have heard someone sound so afraid in my life!”

Fitz rounded on her, fingers clenched around his dæmon. “I wasn’t afraid!” The bite to his tone took all the wind out of her sails at once, and she stared up at him, wide-eyed. His shoulders sagged, but she could see his jaw clenching and unclenching as he thought. “I wasn’t afraid,” he repeated, turning and looking anywhere other than her. 

“Oh. I – I know,” she said quietly, about to reach out and tug on his shirt as she worked out an apology in her head, but he was already striding away. 

“I’m gonna get a drink, be right back.” With that, Fitz and Sarama disappeared into the crowd, leaving Jemma to wonder if she’d just completely ruined their day at the fair.

“I was just teasing,” she muttered, glancing down at Caedmon.

The lion’s brows were creased in thought as he looked in the direction that the other two had just disappeared. “I know,” he said slowly. “But I’m not sure Fitz knew that.”

“I’ll apologize,” Jemma said quickly.

“Maybe...” Caedmon started, pausing to shake his mane in frustration. “Maybe just leave it, when they come back.”

Wrinkling her nose, Jemma let out a small huff. She was torn between wanting to clear the air and wanting to go back to the fun they’d been having before Fitz’s ill-fated desire to visit the haunted house. Well, she thought to herself as she sidestepped a small gaggle of children, perhaps she’d been right after all: Nothing good can come from haunted houses.

 

------

 

One late autumn afternoon, the usual foursome ambled from their lab’s building back to their dormitory after Fitz shared his most recent redesign of the device he’d been constructing from the rocket ice skates. In theory they were supposed to be discussing what to do for dinner, but Jemma was too busy wrinkling her nose at the title Fitz had just announced.

“Because mice use them to escape cats and such,” Fitz continued excitedly, looking from her down to Caedmon. “And, y’know, the device creates the holes! The Mouse Hole!”

From her perch on his shoulder, Sarama let out a small chuckle. “Or lizard hole, if you like.”

“But that’s not the name –”

“I know, I know,” she retorted, shushing her human. “So what do you think?” 

Jemma gave Caedmon a sidelong glance; he continued to lope along her side without looking up. She could almost hear the wheels spinning in his head in time with hers. “Well, you know I think the device is coming along brilliantly –” 

“Yeah,” Sarama said proudly, “we’ve been right pleased with it.”

“But the name’s great, yeah?” Fitz nudged her arm and she had to look away, nibbling at her bottom lip as she tried to find a way to disagree without wholly disappointing him. 

“It’s a bit limiting, isn’t it?” She could practically see him deflate next to her, slowing his excited trot, and she rushed to explain. “What you just showed me has so much potential, Fitz! With the low heat dispersion and high melting point, it could be used for a dozen things. Why limit the name to just one application?”

Shoving his hands into his jeans pockets, he kicked a rock off the brick-lined path. “Because it’s memorable.” 

“Well, you’ve got time before you have to send in the patent paperwork,” she said, tugging gently at the edge of his brightly colored plaid shirt. “Maybe you’ll think of something you like better.”

I like Mouse Hole,” Sarama muttered. “Don’t suppose you want to weigh in, Caedmon?”

“I liked lizard hole,” he deadpanned, eliciting a short bark of laughter from Fitz.

“Really, though, Fitz,” Jemma continued earnestly, “I think it might be the best thing you’ve invented yet.”

“I’m inventing,” he corrected. “S’not done yet.” 

“It will be the best thing you’ve invented. If you can have it done, patent and all, within the next year and a half, I think you could even use it to apply for Sci-Ops! They’d be foolish to turn you down with that kind of work right off the bat.”

“Ah,” he said, something oddly reluctant hovering under his tone, “Sci-Ops. Right.” 

She frowned. “What –”

“Hey there, lion girl.” 

That voice made Jemma’s blood run cold, and within seconds Caedmon went from striding in front of them to slinking in between her and Fitz, pressing himself against her best friend’s leg for protection. She forced herself to keep walking, until the voice’s owner jogged in front of them on the path and halted their progress.

Over another year of training at the Academy’s facilities had only served to make Bill Heywood and his eagle dæmon that much more intimidating, the cadet’s once wiry frame now nearly rugged. By Jemma’s calculations, he must have less than a year left before he was either let go by SHIELD or moved into full-time operations in one of the agency’s bases around the world. She had hoped that she’d be able to avoid him again until he left, but it seemed her hopes had been for naught.

“Who’re you?” Fitz’s voice was tense, and as they’d slowed almost to a stop he’d managed to halfway angle himself in front of both her and Caedmon. Even without knowing the boy from atom, he’d clearly sensed Jemma and her dæmon’s immediate discomfort.

“Come on,” she whispered, pushing Fitz off the path to get him to keep moving. “Ignore him.”

“I can’t believe it,” Heywood said, walking backwards to keep watching them, his eyes as sharp and focused as that of his swooping dæmon. “Now I get it!”

“Go away,” Jemma bit out, speeding up on the abandoned back quad with the hopes that he’d lose interest. If only they hadn’t taken this shortcut, they’d be on one of the main quads with hundreds of other cadets, meaning Heywood would have too much of an audience to keep after her.

“You had a crush on the weirdo! That’s why your dæmon went all Cujo.” 

Jemma bit her tongue against the instinct to point out that Cujo was a dog and her dæmon was not, since getting away from Heywood was definitely more important than correcting him. 

“What’s he talking about?” Fitz muttered, looking back at Heywood while Jemma tried to push him along in front of her.

“Nothing –”

“You’re fucking, right?” Heywood kept after them, his eagle taking off from his shoulder to loop slow circles around them as they tried to make their escape. “That how he thank you? Or that how he finally settled? Yeah, bet that’s it. You gave it up to the nerd and he was so fucking grateful –” 

“Hey,” Fitz snapped, rounding on the older cadet before Jemma could reach for him. “Back off –”

“Oooooooooh, I hit a nerve,” Heywood taunted, bouncing on his toes.

“Please, Fitz,” Jemma hissed, grabbing his right arm and trying to pull him back. “Please –” 

“I mean, rule number one, always back up the pussy.”

“Who the hell are...?” Fitz started, freezing as a thought occurred to him and then turning to stare down at her. “That’s him, isn’t it? The guy from the bus stop?”

“No,” she lied, continuing to tug increasingly desperately on his arm. Caedmon was nowhere to be seen, presumably hiding behind them as far away from Heywood as he could be. “Come on –” 

“Bet she’s goooooood,” Heywood drawled, and she tried to focus on getting Fitz away from here rather than letting nausea well up at the way Heywood leered at her. “Nice and tight, right?”

“Alright,” Fitz growled, yanking his arm out of Jemma’s grasp. He quickly pulled his dæmon off his shoulder and plopped her unceremoniously on the grass next to the lion.

“The quiet ones’re always real–”

Jemma screeched as Fitz plowed headfirst into Heywood’s midsection, catching him off-guard enough that they both went tumbling onto the grass. A shout went up to their left, and she turned to see a group of cadets rushing over from where they’d just exited a nearby spec-ops training building. The sound of bone crunching against bone brought her attention whipping back to the two boys scrambling around on the dirt, her heart in her throat as she tried to see the damage, unsure of how to get in between the two of them to stop it. Next to her, Caedmon stepped protectively over Sarama in the grass, his eyes on the still-wheeling eagle dæmon above them. The eagle had dipped slightly as the fight began, but she backed off when the lion moved.

Just as the others got to them, Jemma was able to make a lucky grab for Fitz’s arm and drag him off of Heywood, whose return lunge was only stopped by the quick intervention of two female cadets. A wolf dæmon, presumably belonging to one of said cadets, growled as he eyed the eagle dæmon where it continued to circle in predatory flight.

“What the fuck, Heywood,” one of them groused, shoving him back so he was surrounded on three sides by the others. “You wanna get suspended again? You’re gonna fuck up the rankings for all of us!”

“Are you okay?” Jemma focused on Fitz, her hands fluttering over his chest and face. “Are you hurt?” 

He tried shrugging off her attention, his hair wild and shirt askew after the brief tussle. “I’m fine–” he cut himself off with a hiss of pain, both of them turning to stare down at where he shakily stretched out the fingers of his right hand. The knuckles were bright red, and one of them had split under the impact of his fist against something rather hard – probably Heywood’s skull.

“Got a good punch in,” he muttered, and she reached gingerly for his hand.

“Oh no –” 

“Pussy,” Heywood called out, to the groans of the other cadets.

“Ignore him,” one of the cadets said, tone weary but kind. 

Something inside Jemma snapped as she held the bruised hand of her best friend in the world. She was tired of letting Heywood get away with doing whatever he wanted, hurting her, her best friend, or her dæmon in the process.

Squaring her shoulders, she straightened and turned around to glare at Heywood where he stood, massaging his jaw. Fitz’s one, solid punch had split the cadet’s lip, and she allowed a bitterly satisfied smile to flit across her face as she marched up to him.

“I’m surprised you even know what that word means,” she bit out, “because you’re clearly not getting any.” Impressed catcalls nearly derailed her train of thought, but she plowed on. “You’re an asshole, and clearly almost too stupid to breathe. Do you even know who I am?” His mouth gaped open, evidently unsure of how to deal with someone who fought back. “I’m the best biochemist in my class and in the next two classes above me, and if I wanted to, I could poison, mutilate, or paralyze you in any one of a hundred different ways without even needing to enter your room. The ventilation systems here are quite simple, really, and I doubt any of your classmates would even miss you.” She inhaled, planting her hands on her hips. “Leave me and my best friend alone. Or get ready to lose a lot of sleep wondering about noises in the vents of your room.” 

With that, she turned on her heel and strode right back to where Fitz now stood with Caedmon, Sarama in hand, all three of them staring at her with their mouths slightly agape.

“Come on,” she said quietly, slipping her hand around Fitz’s elbow and pulling him forward along with her. Jeers and laughter sounded behind them at Heywood’s expense, but his voice was blissfully silent.

“Never mess with a scientist,” one of the spec-ops girls chortled. The eagle let out a disgruntled ca-caw

“Bloody hell, Jemma,” Fitz breathed, letting her tug him around the corner towards their dormitory. “That was terrifying.”

“And amazing,” Sarama piped up, having evidently been retrieved by Fitz after the scuffle and now back to riding on his shoulder. “Remind us to never piss you off.”

“Fitz pisses me off all the time,” Jemma returned, gently elbowing her best friend in the ribs. “Like when he doesn’t listen to me –”

“I was right, wasn’t I?” Fitz interrupted her, evidently not ready to move past the incident yet. “He’s the guy who... who twisted Caedmon’s ear.”

Jemma cringed and ducked her head as they passed by a group of other students. “I....”

“Yeah,” Caedmon said, pressing himself against Fitz’s leg in an unusually feline way, although she wasn’t sure if it was to provide or receive comfort.

“That bastard –” Fitz made to turn around, but this time she was ready for him, using her whole body to stop his progress.

“Stop it.” Her tone was sharp enough to halt him in his tracks, although he didn’t actually turn. “I need to look at your hand. I’ll explain everything when we’re in my room, okay?”

“You’re just saying that ‘cause you don’t want me going after him.” 

“You’re bloody well right I am.” 

Jaw clenching, he met her gaze, both of them equally matched in their stubbornness. For once, however, Fitz gave in first, shoulders slouching and causing Sarama to slip forward a little in her surprise. 

“Fine. But I don’t like it.”

“Duly noted,” Jemma retorted drily, coming around his left side and taking firm hold of his hand.

They never walked like this, hand in hand, but she wanted to make sure he didn’t try to slip away and go back for Heywood. Fitz had a temper that he generally kept well hidden – although, as his best friend, she’d seen it peek through more than once – and she’d never seen him as angry as he’d been in the past few minutes. His left hand was limp in hers at first, but eventually his fingers tightened around hers and he let her lead him to their dormitory.

Chapter Text

Jemma dragged Fitz all the way into her room, locking the door behind the four of them and fetching her first aid kit. While she opened it up on her desk, he let Sarama slide off of his hand and onto Jemma’s lavender comforter. 

Flouncing onto her bed, Fitz let out a small guffaw. “What, m’I your prisoner?” 

“Until you stop being needlessly violent, yes,” she snipped, turning around just in time to see Caedmon give Fitz’s knuckles a gentle lick. 

“Does it hurt?” the lion asked, seemingly unaware that both of the humans were staring down at him. 

“Uh, yeah,” Fitz said, a bashful chuckle coloring his tone. “But I can move it, so –” 

“Nothing’s broken,” Jemma continued, bustling back over with her supplies and plopping herself on the edge of the mattress. Caedmon settled onto his back haunches to watch while Sarama crawled onto Fitz’s lap.

Although she kept her eyes on her task, Jemma knew Fitz was watching her as she took out the cotton swab and antiseptic cream, and she took a low breath before speaking again. In truth, she had never intended to tell her best friend any of this. She mostly still thought that he would be insulted, and braced herself against typical male annoyance. (Not that Fitz had ever been stereotypically male about almost anything.)

“Do you remember being bullied by three guys our freshman year?” She focused on steading his injured hand by spreading her own out beneath it, slowing her movements as she felt him suck in a sharp breath.

“Which ti–” Fitz started, but halted just as suddenly. When she glanced up, he looked away and cleared his throat. “Yeah, think so.” 

“Well, we passed by right after,” she continued, reaching for the gauze. “And they were being terribly rude, saying awful things about you –” 

“So I jumped one of them. Him.” 

“Caed,” she admonished, a blush spreading over her cheeks.

“I did,” the dæmon insisted, shifting from one front paw to the next, “and I don’t regret it.”

“Him,” Fitz interjected, brows furrowed as he tried to catch on to the point of this story. “You mean –” 

“It was the same guy,” Jemma said quietly. “Bill Heywood. He made a formal complaint against Caedmon to Dean Weaver, saying he was feral or some such nonsense –”

“I’ve never been feral in my life,” the lion sniffed, giving a dainty shake of his mane.

“That’s why he went after me at the bus stop,” she continued, tucking in the edge of the bandage and laying her hand over his. “That’s why he came after us today. Don’t think he ever quite got over being humiliated like that, in front of his friends.”

She smoothed her thumb over the cotton, trying to ignore the silence that had flared up between them but unable to halt her own fidgeting.

“Then...” Fitz started, swallowing thickly. “When the others were making fun of you, freshman year. That was ‘cause you were –”

“Defending us?” Sarama finished for him, peeking her head out from under his left arm. 

“Yes, well,” Jemma said, reaching around to pack up the little red kitbag, “he was being cruel, so....”

“But you didn’t even know us,” Fitz continued, his voice sounding oddly stilted. “We’d never even talked, or... or....” 

“That’s not true,” she said, nose wrinkling. “Of course I knew who you were. Second smartest in the class, bit hard to miss.” 

When she looked up, a wry smile almost on her face, she was thrown by the way Fitz was staring at her. His mouth was slightly parted, breath coming a little fast, and his gaze was a cross between stunned and something fiery that she couldn’t quite put a name on. The thought flitted through her head that he seemed like he was about to kiss her, and she dropped her eyes to her lap, annoyed that she kept turning to those thoughts again and again, even though she knew that nothing would ever come of them. 

After a long pause, he cleared his throat. “Think we owe you a thanks or something,” he murmured at last, gingerly flexing his wounded fist.

“I think your battle injuries will do,” she teased, pushing herself off the bed to return the first aid kit to its rightful place on her shelf.

“D’you think he’ll really leave you alone, though? After today?”

She shrugged, turning back to the bed and perching next to him. “Honestly, he’d be foolish not to. I wasn’t lying, you know, I’m not very good at that.”

“We know,” Sarama said, ducking back under Fitz’s arm when Jemma let out a cross between a huff of indignation and a laugh.

“I’m serious though, Fitz – I don’t want you going anywhere near him.” When he just shrugged and dropped his gaze to his lap, she reached out and forced his chin up so he was looking back at her. “Promise?”

His jaw clenched under her fingers, and for a moment she thought he would refuse. “Fine,” he muttered at last, jerking his head back out of her grasp. “Promise.” 

“Thank you,” she said quietly, giving his leg an affectionate tap. “Now, what do you want to do for the rest of the evening?”

He eyed her door warily. “Still not allowed out, am I?”

“Nope,” she chirped, taking more than a small amount of satisfaction from the low grumble he emitted.

“I don’t really feel like doing work now, to be honest,” Sarama weighed in, climbing over Fitz’s leg to get to the edge of the bed.

“Me neither,” Caedmon agreed, and Fitz looked over at Jemma, who sighed. 

“It looks like my vote is out. What, then?”

“Doctor Who?” Fitz tried to suppress a grin. “Speaking of ‘a fighting hand’....”

Jemma groaned into a laugh and gave him a light shove. “Oh, really –”

“C’mon –”

“No, alright, alright,” she conceded, scooting forward to grab her laptop off of her desk and turn her desk chair to face the bed. “I just cannot believe you made that joke. And that accent –!”

“That was pretty good, actually.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Caedmon nudge Fitz’s knee with his nose. “Accents must be a Scottish thing.”

Swatting vaguely in the lion’s direction, Jemma couldn’t help the second “oh, really,” she had muttered in as many minutes. The amount that her dæmon complimented Fitz was just unseemly; it wasn’t as if the boy needed a bigger head than he already had.

In between a little more bickering, as was to be expected, the four of them finally settled in on Jemma’s bed to watch one of their favorite Doctor Who episodes. Sarama slunk over to burrow beneath Caedmon’s paws once he leapt lightly onto the head of the bed, while Fitz and Jemma sat hip-to-hip against pillows they propped against the room’s outer wall, as usual. 

While the episode played, Jemma found herself getting sleepy, the adrenaline from the fight finally wearing off. Gently, tentatively, she laid her head on Fitz’s shoulder, allowing the back of her right hand to lean on his leg where it rested against hers. Once she settled, she held her breath; she hadn’t allowed herself to be so tactile since getting her cast off a year ago, reasoning that the physical closeness had only been acceptable while she needed help. Best friends did not curl up together in lawn chairs to take naps, or sleep with their limbs entangled every night, so in tune with each other that their heartbeats might as well have been one and the same.

After a few moments, Fitz moved to rest his head against hers, and a relieved smile ghosted over Jemma’s face. Sometimes, in the quiet moments like these, she thought maybe she could spend her whole life with Fitz even if he never would love her back. (Most of the time, she knew that it wouldn’t be enough; she needed someone to love her, one day. But, occasionally, she chose to linger in these dreams instead.)

By the time the credits rolled, her eyes were barely open and she’d drifted off more than once at the end. Above her, Fitz shifted, tilting his head as if to look down at her, and she instinctively moved to see what he was doing.

His face was shadowed, lit in silhouetted slits by the streetlamp outside her window, but she was certain he was staring at her mouth. Hovering between consciousness and sleep, Jemma tilted one shoulder forward and parted her lips just enough to wet them with her tongue. The hand he had leaning against hers twitched, and she let her eyes flutter closed.

Come on, Fitz, she wished, change your mind. Please. I don’t want to be alone

One hand brushed hair off of her shoulder and curled around to hold her steady. “Simmons,” Fitz whispered, “the episode’s over.” Jemma’s nose wrinkled as she felt his other hand come up to straighten her head, and she blinked her eyes open. “Time for bed, yeah?”

Letting out a low huff, she sat up and stifled a slightly exaggerated yawn. Sometimes she just wanted to shake him.

“Yeah,” she muttered, trying not to sound disappointed, “bedtime.” 

While Fitz gathered up Sarama and gave Caedmon a farewell scratch on the forehead, Jemma sighed. Her best friend was as obtuse as ever, but, in truth, she wouldn’t have him be any other way.

 

------

 

The rest of their fourth year at the Academy was hectic, but productive. By the end of the semester, Jemma had made her way back to the top of their class, thanks to Fitz and Sarama not spending the entire night before one of their exams studying. (This was a sore point, because when they’d all parted that particular evening, it was to go to bed. Jemma maintained it was entirely their own fault for not realizing that she enjoyed a bit of light studying – for a few hours – as she lay in bed propped against Caedmon’s ribs.)

One thing that had not gone to plan, unfortunately, was Jemma’s favorite independent research project, which completely fell apart. Any scientist’s attempted avenues of research were vulnerable to having the null hypothesis proven, and for the first in a long time the fruit of Jemma’s labor was to learn that she’d been wrong. As a discipline, science required a certain amount of failure in order to learn, but knowing this did not make it any less frustrating and disappointing. Accordingly, her planned application for Sci-Ops had to be scrapped as she developed a different research proposal, meaning that the entire course of her summer would no longer be as relaxed as she’d hoped. (Relaxed, for her, was a relative term anyway.)

“Maybe I’ll refocus on olfactics,” she sighed to Fitz one dreary afternoon in the lab, chin in her hands as she watched him tinker with his handle design for the Mouse Hole.

“I thought your tracking idea sounded interesting.” He glanced around from the computer screen, watching as she groaned and dropped her head onto her arms. “Oi, when has Jemma Simmons ever given up on anything?” 

The last time she’d given up on something flashed brutally into her head, after a night spent crying because she didn’t understand what made her so repugnant to her own best friend, and she released a slightly manic snort against the table.

“I’m not giving up,” she mumbled, lifting her head when she felt Sarama prod her arm. The lizard propped her two front claws on Jemma’s hand and laid her head down, eliciting a brief smile. “You know I’m not. I just don’t know if I’ll have time to do enough work on it now before next year’s Sci-Ops deadline.”

“Oh,” Fitz said, voice oddly cold all of a sudden. “Sci-Ops.”

Sarama slunk back towards her human across the steel table, and Jemma straightened, giving the back of her best friend’s head a look of annoyance. “Yeah, Sci-Ops. What’s that supposed to mean?” 

“Nothing,” Sarama answered. She shared a look with her human that Jemma couldn’t see, and Fitz hunkered a little further down over his computer.

“Doesn’t sound like nothing,” Caedmon said, stretching up from where he’d been lying next to the desk.

“We’ve just...” Fitz started, inhaling deeply. “Been wondering if Sci-Ops is the right path. After the Academy. It’s –”

“What?!” Both Jemma and Caedmon said this in unison, the echoing effect of their accents stopping Fitz in his tracks. 

“But you’ve always wanted to go to Sci-Ops,” Jemma said, aghast at the mere idea of not having him there with her when she went. “We’re partners! We’ve been talking about going for years –” 

“You can’t just not go,” Caedmon added, golden-brown fur crinkling on his forehead as he frowned. 

“There are other places we could go,” Fitz said, somewhat peevishly. “We’re both geniuses, any company would pay us through the nose –” 

“But you’ve always wanted to help people!”

“We’d have pick of the lot.” He turned to look at her around the computer, dropping his eyes nearly as soon as they met hers. “You could... I mean, you could come with us.”

“We’ve always been better together,” Sarama added.

“You could choose, even,” Fitz said, the eagerness he seemed to be feigning laced with nerves, “find a nice, safe lab that –”

“I don’t understand, Fitz,” Jemma said, voice nearly pleading, looking between him and his dæmon. “Sci-Ops has been your dream – all of our dreams! How many times have we talked about wanting to change the world? Together?” 

Fitz shared a look with Sarama and turned back to the computer. “I dunno. Just something we’ve been talking about. It’s too early to think about anyway.”

With that, he seemed to think that the conversation was over. Jemma glanced down at her dæmon, whose expression was an identical mix of incredulity and hurt to what was certainly gracing her own features.

“Fitz, I –”

“Sorry, Simmons,” he said, tone back to that distant one he’d had when she’d first brought up the applications, “but I’ve really got to concentrate on this.” 

After staring at him for a little too long, she shook her head and pushed away from the table. “Yeah, I – okay. Fine.” 

Jemma felt the farthest from fine that she could imagine, however, a tight knot of anxiety having settled firmly into her gut during that brief conversation. Going somewhere other than Sci-Ops wasn’t an option for her; she’d set her heart on her dream job from the moment she’d learned about SHIELD and all it had to offer a young, ambitious scientist such as herself. But she also now couldn’t imagine going there without Fitz and Sarama.

 

------

 

Every time Jemma brought up Sci-Ops over the following few weeks, Fitz changed the subject or suddenly had somewhere else to be. Caedmon even complained – in the privacy of their bedroom – that Sarama refused to talk about it, too, and apparently the two of them usually talked about everything. (Jemma chose not to investigate that little tidbit; the exceeding closeness of their dæmons was the last thing she needed to be worried about right now.) For a while, she tried not mentioning it at all, hoping that perhaps leaving the subject alone might spur Fitz to confess on his own what was truly going on. 

Unfortunately, as reasonable as this tactic seemed to her, it was unsuccessful. 

So one day in the middle of the summer, after having stared at her best friend for a little too long while he pieced together a cumbersome first model of the Mouse Hole, Jemma’s resolve snapped.

“Something changed,” she blurted out, fingers tensing against the table as Fitz and both dæmons turned to look at her. “You’ve been just as excited about Sci-Ops as we have for years, before we'd even met, so something had to have changed.”

“Nothing changed,” he stammered back, clearly thrown by the suddenness of her statement. “It’s just... we’ve been thinking about it. Read up on SHIELD’s field fatalities –”

“For special ops,” she said with a groan. “Even if we went into the field to consult, we wouldn’t be in the line of fire!” 

“In the labs, too. You never know –”

“I cannot believe you’re actually just afraid,” she bit out, knowing that it was a low blow but so frustrated by Fitz’s pigheadedness that she couldn’t stop herself.

“I’m not afraid,” he said, turning on his stool to face her, brows drawing together and cheeks pinking in anger.

“I’ve never known you to be a coward –” 

“I’m not!” 

“Too afraid of getting hurt to even apply to –” 

“I don’t care about myself,” he spat out, crossing his arms. “I’m not worried about me.”

Throwing her arms out in frustration, she let out a loud noise of frustration. “Then about what?!” 

He stared mutely at her for a few seconds, and then shook his head. “Never mind –”

“Us,” Caedmon said, surprise registering on his face as he stepped alongside his human. “You’re worried about us?” 

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Jemma muttered, letting out an incredulous laugh. “You can’t possibly be that afraid of something happening to us –”

“You almost died, Jemma!” Fitz shouted, shoving himself onto his feet. “Or d’you not even remember that? I know you like saying that you didn’t, but you almost did, you could’ve easily been one of the fifty people who did die! We weren’t even doing anything dangerous, we were just....” He groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. “If I can’t even protect you when we’re going to the bloody zoo, how’m I supposed to protect you in SHIELD?”

She let out harsh, incredulous huff, propping her hands on her hips. “Maybe you shouldn’t worry so much about protecting me!”

“I –” For a moment Fitz looked truly stricken, as if the idea of not protecting her was absolute anathema to him, but then his eyes hardened and he whipped back around to his table. “Yeah, alright then, fine.” He grabbed for a tool and began disassembling one of the previous Mouse Hole prototypes, even though he’d told her just the day before that the thing needed a total redesign and the original version was useless. 

“I can take care of myself!” 

“Alright!”

Silence stretched between them for a few seconds, Jemma’s breath heaving heavily out of her lungs and her adrenaline soaring in confusion and anger. Nothing he was saying made any sense, and it was driving her crazy; there had to be something else going on. 

“It’s just so ridiculous to let something like that keep you from your dream career, Fitz! We’ll be in the best laboratory facilities in the world, we’ll be perfectly safe –”

“Yeah, in a spy agency that every bad guy in the world’d probably love to take down –”

“And if we go into the field to consult on a project, or for testing, they’ll have people to protect us!”

“You don’t know what could happen.” His back was still to her, and her fingers itched to just poke, prod, or slap him... or something.

“UGH, Fitz!” She threw her hands out to the side in frustration. “Why are you being so infuriating?!”

“Don’t you know why?” Jemma dropped her gaze to where Sarama had crept to the edge of the desk nearest her, the lizard’s voice almost a whisper compared to their yelling. “Why we’re so worried about you?” 

“Drop it, Sarama,” Fitz snapped over his shoulder.

“I know,” Jemma said wearily, pressing one hand to her forehead. “You’re our best friends, and I d–”

“No,” the dæmon interrupted, “you’re more than that.”

At his desk, Fitz froze, halfway looking over his shoulder as his eyes widened.

Looking between him and his dæmon, Jemma blinked. “What?"  

“Nothing –” Fitz choked out, his face turning bright red, but his dæmon interrupted him. 

“Do you really not know by now?” The lizard kept going, her quiet words now feeling loud enough that they might as well be echoing through the room. “We can’t imagine our life without you.”

A strangled noise of protest sounded from Fitz’s direction, air wheezing out of him as he dropped what he’d been holding. The tool clattered to the ground as their eyes met, and Jemma was struck by how familiar that expression seemed to her. It was the same abject fear he’d worn when he’d watched her in the hospital, when he’d run back into the room at her tearful bequest.

Her mind was blank, and she couldn’t think of anything to say. Had Sarama really just told her that, after all this time, Fitz had changed his mind? Boring into hers, his eyes were painfully, achingly blue, and he swallowed.

After a few seconds, he stumbled forward to snatch the lizard off the table and sprint straight out of the lab before Jemma could even make a sound.

“Caed,” she whispered, reaching one hand weakly out until her dæmon nudged it with his head, allowing her to curl her fingers into his mane. “Did –”

“More than friendship,” he repeated quietly. “That must be romantic, it must.”

“Yeah,” she said, a smile spreading across her face. “Yeah, it must!” As if in a daze, she finally realized that her best friend had run out of the room. “Oh, no, we –”

“Have to find them,” Caedmon finished for her, already three steps ahead.

She followed him into the hallway, turning one way and then the other as worry began to cloud her excitement. “Where –” 

“Would they go?” The lion’s tail flicked back and forth in agitation, and he turned to circle Jemma’s legs.

“Their room?” 

“They left their keys,” Caedmon said, nodding to the two cubbies by the door.

Jemma groaned and closed her eyes, pressing her fingers against her temples as she tried to think through where else they might have gone. The four of them didn’t spend time anywhere else on campus other than the lab and their dormitory, not including meals. Occasionally, they went to the library, but usually they preferred to take materials away with them.

The memory of Fitz running out of other classrooms when they were younger, holding a monkey-shaped Sarama as he avoided speaking to Jemma, flashed through her head.

“Oh,” she breathed, turning towards the staircase, “I know.”

Three floors later, they hurried into the corridor of their old lab, the one where they’d worked for the entirety of their first year at the Academy. In the basement and with much poorer lighting, the workspace was designated for freshmen, and none of them had needed to go down here for years. During the semester, it would have been bustling with cadets desperately trying to finish their classwork on top of independent assignments, but since most of the younger students went home for the holidays, the hallways were abandoned, dark, and quiet. The clip of Jemma’s footsteps echoed against the glass walls; Caedmon’s tread beside her was, naturally, silent.

After a little fumphering in the dark, she located one hallway switch, which lit the space brightly enough to cast light into the rooms. The hall was lined with lab after lab, but if Fitz had hidden down here, he could only be in one. Third door on the right was the room where they’d worked together in uncomfortable silence for months on end, until something had changed his mind about hating her and they’d realized just how brilliant they could be together. As Jemma slipped through the sliding glass doors, she thought it seemed appropriate that she should be looking for him here now, when he had yet again allowed something to change the way he felt about her.

“I cannot believe you,” came Fitz’s voice, laden with anger and tears, through the partially open door. If she hadn’t been so overjoyed to have found him, Jemma would have been discomfited by how deeply upset he sounded. “I can’t – they’ll – she’ll never –”

“I’m tired of hiding it,” said Sarama, her own voice just as shaky as her human’s. “I’m so tired of it, I had to say something. I had to.”

Not wanting to startle them off, Jemma rounded the enormous, steel table in the center of the room, gesturing for Caedmon to stay behind her. When she finally saw them, something in her heart clenched at the sight. Fitz was curled up against the wall next to his old workstation, head bowed against his knees and arms wrapped around his legs. Next to him, Sarama was only visible thanks to the beam thrown across the floor by the hallway light, and the low under-table safety lighting present in all of SHIELD’s laboratories.

“Fitz?” Jemma couldn’t quite contain the tremor of joy in her voice, her whole body thrumming with nervous excitement. Fitz whipped his head up to stare at her as if she was the most horrifying thing he’d ever seen in his life, and he froze, mouth falling open. “What you said –”

“Sarama was just,” he stammered, scrambling up onto his knees as Jemma sunk to the floor, “it doesn’t matter – we can just, um –” 

“Fitz,” she tried again, reaching hesitantly out to slow his movement. He let her touch him, keeping him on his knees on the lab’s linoleum, but he wouldn’t meet her gaze, hands working nervously as he rambled on. 

“Pretend, y’know, it’s fine, I don’t care that you, that you don’t, and I n-never wanted –”

Realizing that he was barely paying attention to her at all, Jemma reached forward to curl her hands around either side of his jaw, and brought their lips together.

Chapter Text

For the first time ever, Jemma was kissing Fitz with intention, knowing full well why she was and wanted to, and she was brimming with joy. All of a sudden, that energy switched to nervousness, as she hoped that she’d understood what he’d meant by “more than that.” This would be a horrible time for them to be talking about two completely different things.

The kiss was clumsy, as she’d caught him mid-word and he froze against her, letting her caress his lips once, twice, before she pulled away. More than a little lightheaded, now from nerves as much as excitement, she didn’t move far, stroking her thumbs against the smooth curve of his jaw.

Fitz darted his tongue out to wet his lips, expression stunned. “You kissed me.”

“I did,” she breathed, brushing their noses together and leaning her forehead against his. He hadn’t leapt away, which she was taking as a good sign of her interpreting Sarama’s confession.

“You kissed me,” he repeated, and she let out a low laugh, tilting her head to get a better look at him.

“I did,” she echoed, “but if that’s not what you wanted, then, God, please... please tell me right now.” A part of her wanted to make a joke about never leaving her room again out of embarrassment, but she was so nervous now about his complete lack of a clear response that she couldn’t muster the forte.

“Not what I wanted?!” His voice was breathy, and something about that question woke him up, because all of a sudden his arms were wrapped so tightly around her waist that she gasped. “I’ve wanted....” He was breathing so heavily against her that their chests were moving sharply together, and his eyes fell to her mouth. Leaning in again, Jemma only had to wait seconds before Fitz pressed their lips together, working his mouth earnestly against hers in a way that had her dizzy in seconds. These kisses were somehow yet again different entirely from the others they’d shared, his movement at once passionate and hesitant, laced with the kind of depth of feeling that she never would have guessed he felt for her.

Fitz broke away again after only a few seconds, tightening his grip around her waist. “You kissed me,” he said again, but this time it was followed by a sweet, incredulous little smile.

“Yeah.” She smiled back at him, carding one hand through his hair and back around to curve against the smooth skin of his jaw. “I’ve wanted to for years –”

“What?!” Fitz and Sarama spoke in unison, and Jemma leaned around Fitz to see that the lizard was now in her familiar position, mostly hidden behind the affectionate wall of Caedmon’s paws. Her head poked up over his fur, though, scaly mouth parted in surprise.

“Years,” Jemma affirmed, making shy eye contact with Fitz. “I thought you’d never change your mind.”

“My mind?” Fitz’s expression switched from stunned joy to utter confusion. “About what?” 

“About...” she trailed off, dropping her gaze between them. Her fingers itched to do something to satisfy her anxiety about telling him the truth, so she hooked one into the ‘v’ of his button-down, fiddling with the fabric and button as she spoke. “About me. About never wanting to date me.”

What?!” 

She wrinkled her nose; surely he knew exactly what she meant by this point. “I overheard you talking to Jeremy, sophomore year. You said you’d never... you know.”

A few seconds passed, the wheels turning in Fitz’s head until she saw recognition flash suddenly across his face. “Oh, shit. Jesus shitting Christ, you heard that?” 

“Sorry,” she said, mollified by the way his hold on her only grew tighter. “I didn’t mean to, and –”

“He’s such a bastard,” Fitz grumbled, expression wilting again at a new thought. “Christ, I’m so, so sorry, Jemma. I didn’t know how to get him to shut up.”

“I know, it’s okay.” Seeing how agitated he’d gotten at the memory, she leaned forward to brush their lips together again, the simple action triggering a wave of relaxation in them both. “Bad timing is all,” she said once she pulled away again, giving him a sad half-smile. “I’d been thinking about asking you out, and then....”

Out out?”

She nodded, rubbing one hand up and down the back of his neck. “Out out. So hearing that you’d never be interested in me that way was....” 

“Christ,” he breathed, leaning their foreheads together. “Christ, all this time... I was mad about you, Jemma.”

“What?”

“That’s why I...” he exhaled a regretful huff. “Didn’t know what to say to bloody Jeremy because the bastard was spot on. I was mad about you, but, I mean, you’re my best friend, so I shouldn’t want –”

“I’m glad you are.” Jemma gave him another little smile, and before she knew it he was kissing her again, using one hand to tilt her head until they found just the right angle, and she sighed against his mouth.

“I didn’t know what to do,” he continued, voice low, regretful, and a little hoarse thanks to the kiss. “After that party, after... everything. So when he.... Don’t remember exactly what I said, but I swear I was just doing it to shut him up. I didn’t mean any of it.”

The weight she’d been carrying for over two years lifted from Jemma at his words. When she searched his eyes for any sign of exaggeration or an attempt to placate her, all she saw was earnestness. After believing for so much time that she’d never be able to find someone who suited her as well as Fitz, here he was, having wanted her all along. A rush of awe and relief washed over her, so potent she almost felt dizzy.

“I was devastated.” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them, but she wished she could take them back nearly immediately. Letting out a low huff, she shook her head, eyes trained anywhere but his face. It was out there now – no point in trying to hide exactly how upset she’d been at hearing him be so dismissive about something for which she’d, if briefly, had such high hopes. “I didn’t understand....” Shaking her head, Jemma let out a small, dismissive noise. “Ah, well. It doesn’t matter now.”

Fitz pulled her in for another kiss, moving his mouth achingly gently over hers. “I’m sorry,” he murmured, pressing his apologies against her lips, cheeks, nose. “I’m so sorry, Jemma –”

“You don’t –” she said on a half-giggle, unused to him showing such physical affection.

“But I am,” he interrupted, letting out a noise of annoyance. “If I’d just kept my mouth shut, all this time, we could’ve....”

“We’ll make up for lost time.” Sliding her hands around to frame his face, Jemma angled his mouth open with hers, at last giving him the kind of kiss she’d wanted to so long, the kind of kiss they hadn’t shared since the closet at that party.

Fitz made a noise in his throat between a sigh and a groan, hands spreading out against her back as she slid their tongues together. Considering that it had been two years since they’d last kissed, she was thrilled to find that she hadn’t imagined how much she’d enjoyed kissing him. A part of her had wondered if she’d romanticized it, if the memory of the heat between them had become part of her own internal lore about the relationship that wasn’t meant to be. 

Apparently, she really did have an excellent memory, because kissing Fitz was like a shot of adrenaline straight into her system. Although her knees were beginning to ache from having to support her weight on the hard linoleum for so long, her entire body was thrumming with the taste of him, with the little sounds he made whenever she brushed their tongues together or sucked his bottom lip into her mouth, with the heat of his hands holding her flush against him. When she needed air, she began pressing kisses up along his chin and then down his neck, her breath washing heatedly over his skin in the aftermath of her lips.

“Jemma,” he breathed, voice raspy and low, just like when she’d awoken him with her kisses that night in his bed.

“Say that again.” She trailed her lips down to his collarbone, noticing that the closer she got to his shirt, the more he twitched in response against her. Opening her mouth just enough that she could taste him with her tongue, she began to suck on his skin, knowing that she’d leave a mark but deciding not to care.

“Jemma,” he groaned obediently, one hand slipping down to curve just over the top of her arse.

Humming, she thought about bringing one hand around to get him to grab her completely, but for some reason that urge reminded her that they were snogging in a very public lab. Reluctantly, she dragged herself away from where she’d been happily giving Fitz his first true hickey, and pressed their foreheads together. They were both breathing raggedly, using each other to keep themselves upright in the rush of hormones and arousal. She had the vague thought that if she weren’t a responsible young woman – who, admittedly, had rather high romantic expectations – she would happily let Fitz have his way with her right here on the lab floor. The idea made her flush, and she let out a small laugh.

“We have work to do,” she said at last, nuzzling at his nose.

“Work?” He sounded both scandalized and dazed, and she giggled again. “We’re snogging and all you can think about is work?”

“I wouldn’t say it’s all I’m thinking about,” she replied, gyrating her hips against his just enough to feel the evidence of his arousal. He let out a surprised grunt and leaned his forehead against her temple, panting slightly against her. “But, really, Fitz, this isn’t the time or place....” 

“What happened for making up for lost time?”

She couldn’t quite tell if he was teasing her or was genuinely disappointed (probably a mix of both), but either way she took the opportunity to give him more kisses, trying to keep them chaste and reign both of their pent-up tension back in. 

“Soon,” she whispered, smoothing her fingers along the edge of his face again. In some ways, it felt like she was petting him, but she couldn’t help herself; the more of him she touched, the more she believed that they were really here, that what she’d accepted as truth for so much time had actually been all wrong. “When we’re done in the lab for the day.”

He let out a distinct noise of disappointment and impatience, breathing heavily where he nuzzled against her cheek. “It’s summer, can’t we skive off early?” 

“Fitz,” she chided, and he let out a small groan as he buried his face in her neck. 

“Alright, fine,” he mumbled, drawing reluctantly away and leaning back on his heels. “I just need a few....” Trailing off, he covered his eyes with one hand and exhaled.

“Of course,” she said, allowing him to move away and pushing herself up to her feet. To give him time and space to get himself in order, she straightened her shirt and hair before looking over to the dæmons. Caedmon had his head tilted towards where she assumed Sarama was hidden behind his paw, as if he was whispering to her. Funnily enough, the sight was one she’d seen a hundred times before and it seemed as right as ever. It probably shouldn’t surprise her that their dæmons continued to treat each other just as they ever had: as if anyone else in the world was more or less irrelevant. 

When there was no movement from behind her after another few moments, she turned to see that Fitz had apparently just been sitting with his head tilted slightly to the side as he stared at her arse.

“Fitz!” she exclaimed, snapping her fingers in front of his face. “Come on!”

A blush rising to his cheeks, he scrambled to his feet. “Sorry,” he muttered, scratching the back of his neck. He glanced over at where Sarama and Caedmon were separating. “Sarama –?”

“I’ve got her,” Caedmon said, stretching out one paw so the lizard could climb onto it and up to his back. Satisfied that the dæmons had things managed, Fitz turned back to Jemma with a sheepish smile.

What am I going to do with you?” she teased, reaching out to tangle their fingers together and heading towards the door of the lab.

Fitz grinned goofily down at their hands, letting her pull him along after her before he looked back up at her. “Dinner?”

Jemma wrinkled her nose. “Yes, Fitz, we’ll eat dinner. You’re all stomach, you are.” 

“No, no-no,” he said, hopping a little to keep up with her brisk stride down the hall. “I mean someplace different – someplace nice. You and me.”

“Oh,” she breathed, eyes shining as she looked up at him. After a moment, she realized that she’d stopped moving and was just smiling dumbly at him, and she ducked her head in embarrassment. “Yes, that would be nice.” 

“Great.” He bounced a little on his next step, excited in a way she thought she’d only ever seen him act about his inventions.

They reached the door to the staircase, but before she could push it open Fitz tugged at her hand, crowded into her space, and pressed their lips together again. The little sigh she made as his tongue stroked deftly over hers was somewhat embarrassing, and her leg muscles felt wobbly when he pulled away, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to care. 

“To help me get through the rest of the afternoon,” he murmured against her mouth, seemingly unaware of how much he affected her. His attention was too focused on finding new, delectable ways of kissing her, much to her great distraction.

By the time he finally pulled away, Jemma felt a little drunk on all the attention, her return smile somewhat dreamy as she smoothed her hair.

“Well,” she said breathlessly, “that should do it.” 

Her gait was a little off-kilter as she preceded him through the doorway, and she noted the smugness of his grin when she looked around to make sure her dæmon had kept up with them. The temptation to stick her tongue out at Fitz was almost overwhelming, but she suspected that they’d only get distracted again. In retaliation, she turned her back to him and climbed pointedly up the stairs, giving him an eye-level view of her arse. A sharp intake of breath sounded behind her, and she smirked. That’d show him.

Caedmon trotted around her up the stairs in a stately manner, keeping his head even so that Sarama didn’t slip off. As he passed Jemma, they shared a brief look, and – for the first time since the whole mess of her feelings about Fitz had begun – she found herself eager to talk to her dæmon about everything.

 

------

 

Once they made it back to their lab, Jemma and Fitz were careful to act as if nothing had changed. Although they had long since claimed the space for themselves, SHIELD’s frustrating affinity for glass-walled labs meant that restraint was in order. Other students – older than themselves, but likewise in their advanced years of Academy tutelage – flitted busily to and fro in the brightly lit corridor, having also stayed on campus for the summer. Normally, Jemma found this comforting, as working in a completely silent building for three months would have been somewhat off-putting. It had been a little unnerving being the only ones working in their lab two floors below, that first summer at the Academy. Now, though, the activity in the surrounding labs was frustrating, because it meant that all she could do was throw Fitz shy smiles at odd intervals and wait impatiently for it to be evening. 

“What d’you feel like?” Fitz had snuck up behind her, causing her heart rate to skyrocket at the question. It didn’t help that he was standing only a few inches away, so close that she could practically feel his body heat for their closeness. “For dinner.”

“Oh,” she said, voice a little higher-pitched and unnatural. “I – really, it doesn’t matter....”

“I wanna make a reservation,” he said, raising his eyes to make sure that none of their colleagues were about to make one of their surprise entrances. “I’ve been looking up restaurants near campus, and –”

“Oh, Fitz,” she whispered into a laugh, shaking her head. “You don’t need to do that –” 

“Yes, I do,” he replied, “I wanna take you someplace special for our first date.” He spoke as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, that their first date should be someplace special, and Jemma felt herself melt a little on the inside. 

“Fitz,” she said, glancing up at him from where she sat on her high stool, “it’s a Tuesday.”

“So?”

“We have work to do tomorrow.”

“Yeah....”

“Maybe we should,” she started slowly, not wanting to hurt his feelings and very much wanting to go on a fancy date with him when she’d had more time to prepare, “save that big first date for the weekend. You know, do it properly.”

His face fell, and her fingers twitched in her lap, desperately wanting to reach for him. “Oh. Yeah, I guess... that makes sense.” 

“We can still go on a date tonight,” she hurried to explain, reaching out to tug on the corner of his lab coat and keep him from leaving. “Just maybe not a big one.” She hesitated to tell him that, frankly, her plans for the evening mostly involved getting rid of that pesky sexual tension they’d been saddled with for so long, and said plans weren’t exactly conducive to eating a huge, long meal first. When he still looked disappointed at her turning down the reservation idea, however, she inhaled and stretched up so that she could whisper her next words. “I’d like it if we had some time alone together tonight.” He tilted his head down at her in confusion. “In private.” Still nothing. “In one of our bedrooms.” 

Fitz’s eyes widened and he promptly doubled over in an abrupt coughing fit. 

“Hey, FitzSimmons,” came a familiar voice from the door to the lab, and Jemma turned to it with a grin on her face.

Poking her head in the door was one of Fitz’s fellow engineering students, Lupita, a Kenyan girl in her mid-twenties. She was one of the few older cadets who had a good working relationship with both Jemma and Fitz, although generally their chosen topics of study didn’t intersect. Her hedgehog dæmon wasn’t anywhere to be seen, but he was probably just hidden from Jemma’s view by the steel tables. (Unlike many smaller dæmons at the Academy, he was known to prefer walking on his own next to his human, rather than be carried everywhere.)

With a confused glance at where Fitz was still hacking up a lung, Lupita continued speaking in Jemma’s direction. “My 3-D printer’s busted, mind if I use yours for a bit? I want to test this prototype this afternoon, and we won’t get the parts to fix mine until next week.”

“Of course,” Jemma said, waving one hand towards the aforementioned device. “I’m just doing simulations today, and Fitz –”

“Needs to go to the med unit?” Lupita strode towards the printer, looking sideways at where Fitz dropped into a stool at the table across from Jemma as he continued to try to catch his breath.

“Water went down the wrong way,” Jemma lied, surprisingly smoothly. Apparently her weak deception skills were improved by her being vastly amused. Having finally managed to heave in a few breaths, he glared up at her, face bright red. “Must be more careful about swallowing.” She drew out the last word in an entirely unnecessary way, drawing her pen back and forth between her thumb and forefinger, and watched with a smug grin as Fitz’s eyes grew wide and he choked on air again, dropping his head to his forearm and pounding his other fist on the table. This was too easy. 

“Okaaaaay,” Lupita said, not bothering to turn around from where she was typing instructions into the machine. 

Jemma returned her attention to where Fitz was gathering himself and glowering accusatorily in her direction. “Alright there, Dr. Fitz?”

His jaw flexed as he straightened up on his stool and grabbed for one of the nearby manuals, presumably just so he would have something to do while their colleague was in the room. “Just fine, Dr. Simmons,” he gritted out, dropping the hardcover book onto the steel table.

Barely able to contain her laughter, Jemma returned to her work, able to concentrate a little better while having someone else in the room to dissuade down her urges concerning her partner. After a few minutes, the fine hairs on the back of her neck felt like they were standing on end, and she glanced up to see Fitz staring at her from where he sat. On the surface, this sounded like a rather unsettling thing for him to be doing, but the expression on his face was what got her attention. He wore an adoring half-smile, eyes warm with affection and something deeper, hotter, and she immediately flushed. There was something of a promise in that look, the promise of things he knew she wanted and that he was absolutely thrilled to be able to provide. No one had ever looked at her that way before, let alone her best friend. 

Stop that,’ she mouthed, waving one hand at him and glancing around to make sure Lupita was otherwise occupied. Shaking his head, he continued to watch Jemma, dropping his chin onto one hand, and a surprised laugh nearly bubbled out of her throat. ‘Open your book!

With a resigned sigh, Fitz did as he was told, flipping it open to what was probably a completely random page. Jemma returned her eyes to her computer, making adjustments to her current simulation on the ways to prolong a scent’s lifespan and determinedly not thinking about her best friend. A few seconds passed, and she felt that tingle at the back of her neck again. When she looked up this time, Fitz still had his eyes trained on her, but now he was flipping slowly through the pages of the book, clearly not reading anything at all. The smirk on his face elicited a peal of laughter, and one hand flew up to her mouth to halt the sound. 

Lupita looked around for the source of amusement, and Jemma waved her hand weakly in the other student’s direction. “No, nothing,” she said, letting out an awkward chuckle that was slightly too loud. “I just... need something from the supply closet. Dr. Fitz, could you help me with that, please? It’s, ah, a bit high. For me. To reach.”

He hopped up from his stool with a casual “sure,” and Jemma made a beeline for the opposite side of the room, which was lined with blissfully solid-doored cupboards. Choosing the one that would most plausibly have high shelves from which she’d need something, she let herself in and locked it after Fitz, who moved past her into the small, rectangular room. 

“So, what d’you need?” 

Jemma almost banged her head against the door. After everything they’d revealed about each other today, and the unsubtle flirting she’d just been doing, her best friend was still the most obtuse genius on the planet. He was looking up at the shelves out of her reach, hands propped on his hips, apparently attempting to guess what she might need.

In one swift movement, she shoved him against the back of the closet and attached her mouth to his, slanting his lips open so that she could slide their tongues heatedly together. Fitz nearly fell over as he was pushed backwards, and he didn’t react for a few seconds, his head having bumped a little harder than she’d intended against the concrete. When he finally caught on, though, he groaned, wrapped his arms tightly around her waist, and spun them around so that he was pressing her hard against the wall. Her breath hitched as he met her kiss for kiss, using one hand to tilt her head to find just the right angle. Clutching onto his shoulders, Jemma tilted her lower body into his instinctively, whimpering when he nipped at her bottom lip.

“Shhhh,” he whispered, trailing heated kisses down her neck. “She’ll hear you.” 

“We have to go back out there,” she said, voice far more hoarse than intended. “We’ve already been too long.”

Fitz let out a derisive little scoff and moved up to capture her lips again, and she dug her fingers into his hair to keep him from moving away. “You’re the one,” he mumbled, pausing to give her ardent, closed-mouth kisses after every few words, “who dragged me into a closet – to make out. And let me be clear – that I’m not complaining.” 

With a breathless chuckle, Jemma broke away to attempt to glare up at him. “It’s your fault! You kept... looking at me.” 

“Oh, what,” he said drily, “I can’t even look at you now?”

“Not like that, you can’t.”

“Like what?”

“Like you... you...” she started, feeling her cheeks heat up as she struggled to put words to what she’d felt as he’d watched her in the lab.

“Love you?” Jemma sucked in a sharp breath, but Fitz just continued to watch her steadily. After a few seconds, his lips twitched up in a bashful smile. “Can’t help that.”

Her mouth dropped open and she had to look away, the expression on his face far too intense. Bizarrely, tears threatened at the corner of her eyes. After two years of aching to be with him, she was finally getting everything she wanted, and being reminded of that so starkly was overwhelming. “I don’t know what to say –”

He was already shaking his head as she spoke, nerves starting to show on his face. “You don’t have to say anything –”

“I just,” she continued, talking over him and forcing herself to meet his worried gaze, “I feel the same way.”

“Really?” His eyes lit up in excitement and hope, and Jemma’s breathless smile only widened.

“So,” she murmured, pressing their foreheads together, “oh, Fitz, so much.”

Then he was kissing her again, arms encircling her waist and pulling her tightly against him, and she was struck by feeling unbearably lucky. Of all the paths they each could have chosen to take as young prodigies, both born in entirely different countries than the one in which they now resided, they’d taken the one that lead them to each other. 

Breaking away from him again was the last thing she wanted to do, but do it she must. At some point in the past hour, he’d developed a gravitational pull that was nearly impossible to resist, drawing her back in for one more heartfelt kiss before she forced herself to step around him. 

“Come on,” she said, giving his hand one last squeeze and then reaching up on her tiptoes to grab something innocuous from the shelf. Seeing her fingers fumble at the edge of the metal, Fitz reached over her head to grab the box of slides. 

As he brought the box down, he rested his free hand on her waist and leaned in to speak against her ear. “Here you go.”

“Thanks,” she said, voice a little too high-pitched to be normal, and then scooted away before she could let him tempt her back in again.

Squinting as she emerged from the dark closet, she was greeted with the sight of Caedmon and Sarama sitting on the floor in front of the door and watching drily as their humans emerged as nonchalantly as possible. 

“Lupita and Tismon went to go get their notes,” Caedmon said, eyes following Jemma as she strode daintily around him and returned to her workstation.

“Okay!” She winced as the word came out of her mouth too loud and emphatic, and hid her face behind her computer.

There was a pause as Fitz walked haltingly to the stool across from Jemma, turned halfway around as if he’d forgotten where he was going, and then headed back to where his designs for the Mouse Hole were actually stored.

“You’re not subtle,” Sarama chided, a laugh coloring her voice. “Neither of you.”

“It’s impressive, actually,” Caedmon added, keeping pace with the lizard as he over to where the humans were attempting to work. 

“Shut up,” Fitz muttered, glancing up to meet Jemma’s eyes. She had been halfway into worrying what conclusions Lupita could have drawn from their extended trip to the closet, but when she looked at him all those worries seemed rather insignificant.

The smile stayed on her face for the rest of the afternoon, even while she worked, and with every moment that passed she felt progressively lighter. In the course of what had been one innocuous conversation, the last piece of Jemma’s dreams had fallen into place. The most interesting person she’d ever met seemed to finally share all of her feelings for him, and knowing this was the purest freedom she’d ever experienced.

 

------

 

Unfortunately, both of them took longer than hoped to get their respective projects to a good stopping place for the day, so it was well into the evening by the time they could make their escape for dinner. Since Fitz’s stomach was grumbling, Jemma suggested that they just go out straight from the lab, rather than return to their rooms first. The walk to the campus-adjacent restaurant was comfortably quiet, with Jemma giving into herself once they were off the quad and reaching out to take Fitz’s hand. She wasn’t entirely sure what SHIELD’s rules were on full agents “fraternizing,” but for at least the next three years their status as cadets would protect them from disciplinary measures. Nevertheless, she wasn’t sure she was ready to deal with the campus gossip mill quite yet.

Just as Fitz made eye contact, expression lighting with a bright smile even in the dimming twilight, Caedmon bumped heavily into him from the other side, sending both humans stumbling awkwardly into each other.

“Caed!”

“Sorry,” the lion said, bounding around to her side and not sounding even a little bit apologetic. 

“Excitable ball of fluff,” Sarama teased from Fitz’s shoulder, and Caedmon gave his mane an indignant shake.

“I’ve never been excitable in my life,” he returned haughtily, and Fitz raised one eyebrow in Jemma’s direction.

Shrugging, she tilted into him and sandwiched his hand with both of hers, happy to let the dæmons’ teasing wash over her as they walked the last couple blocks to the restaurant. Mario’s was neither fancy nor, strictly speaking, very good. But the spagbol reminded them both of places they used to frequent as kids in London and Glasgow respectively, and so it had become a favorite of theirs. Since this was just a placeholder first date anyway, Jemma thought it would be nice, familiar ground to tread.

When the maître-d showed them to a red-trimmed booth, however, Fitz made an odd little frown and shoved his hands into his pockets.

“What is it?” she whispered, hanging back as the somewhat paunchy older man laid their plastic menus on the table.

“Hmm? Oh, nothing,” Fitz said, sliding into the booth and resting Sarama on the table. Caedmon sat as near to the end of the table as possible, eyeing the size of the benches and likely wondering whether it would be better for him to try and fit or not even bother.

Scooting along on her own side of the booth, Jemma nudged his leg with her foot. “Fitz.”

“It’s stupid –”

“But now I want to know, so, go on.”

Rolling his eyes, he leaned forward across the table and lowered his voice, although whom he could possibly be afraid would overhear was beyond her. “I was gonna pull your chair out for you, but....” He waved at the high back of the banquette. “See? Stupid.”

Jemma made a teasing noise of sympathy and reached out to rub her knuckles briefly against his arm. “That’s adorable. You can do that on our real first date, if you’d like.” 

“Thanks,” he returned drily, leaning back as a different waiter brought their silverware and two glasses of water. “Actually, I need to use the loo – d’you mind?”

“Go ahead,” she said, waving her hand vaguely at him. “I’ll look at the menu, even though we both know what I’m ordering anyway.” As Fitz stood, Jemma sighed. “You know, if we were at home we’d be able to order wine, at least.” 

He chuckled, settling Sarama back on his shoulder. “Another year and a month.” 

Two months,” she corrected, sticking her tongue between her teeth. “I’ll have to wait a whole twenty three days after you to drink on our dates.” After a few seconds, she realized that he hadn’t moved from the end of the table, and glanced up. 

Fitz was staring down at her with a silly grin on his face, and he ducked his head when she gave him a confused look. “Sorry, no – nothing. Be right back.”

Jemma watched as he hurried to the back of the bustling restaurant, reaching out automatically to scratch Caedmon’s mane as he stretched up to lean two paws on the plasticky faux-leather. “What –”

“You said you’d still be dating in a year,” Caedmon interrupted her, leaning into her hand. Brows drawing together, she looked down at him. “That’s why he was smiling like that.”

“Oh,” she said, feeling her cheeks warm. “I suppose I did.” Without even realizing it, she’d assumed that it would always be the four of them together from now on. As she thought about it, she decided that it was a fairly safe assumption to make. Judging by Fitz’s response, he probably agreed.

“Can I say I told you so, yet?” Blinking herself back from her reverie, Jemma looked over at where her dæmon was bouncing a little on his front paws. “They love us.” 

“Oh, Caed,” she groaned into a laugh. “You did not ‘tell me so’–” 

“I did too! I said you were wrong about them over and over again, and I was right!”

Normally, Jemma wouldn’t let her dæmon get away with being such a know-it-all (even if, well, she did rather understand the feeling), but she became distracted again by thinking about everything that had happened this afternoon. A tremulous smile spread across her face as she watched her dæmon. “Caed....”

He nodded, golden eyes flashing in the candlelight. “I know.”

Overwhelmed by happiness, Jemma darted forward and wrapped her arms tightly around her dæmon’s neck, squeezing hard as she tried to keep herself from crying. This was the first time they’d been alone since Sarama’s confession, and no one else in the world knew how she’d been suffering in silence as Caedmon did. No one else knew how she’d pined, and ached, and cried for her best friend, and finally, finally, the heartache was over.

“I can’t believe it,” she choked out into his mane, “I can’t....”

“I can,” he murmured, nuzzling into her embrace. “It was inevitable.”

“Oh, it was not,” she said, pulling back just enough to dab beneath her eyes at the few tears that had escaped. “Fitz just....” She let out a quiet, breathless laugh. “He chose me.”

“You chose him first.”

Giggling, she rubbed her forehead against her dæmon’s, his shorter, bristly hair poking into her skin. “Okay, I’ll give us that one.”

“Before they come back,” he said, stretching up so that he could speak into her ear, “I wanted to ask – tonight, are you going to... you know... with Fitz?”

It took Jemma a few seconds to catch up, and she let out a surprised “oh!” and leaned back to study her dæmon’s expression. As much as she wanted to definitively cross that line between friendship and something “more” in one of their rooms after dinner, she hadn’t given much thought as to whether or not that would involve sex itself. “I’m not sure. What do you think?”

Caedmon wrinkled his nose and sat back on his haunches on the floor. “Well, you know I don’t care about any of that stuff anyway –”

“Yes, I know,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“And I know you want to,” he continued thoughtfully, “and it would probably feel nice –” 

Very nice,” she added, thinking fondly back to her and Fitz’s stolen moments in the closet.

“But....” He hesitated, and she was fairly sure she knew what he was going to say.

“It’s a bit soon, isn’t it?” The lion nodded, eyeing her reaction warily, probably expecting her to be upset, but in truth she’d caught on because she was already feeling that way herself. 

As much as the idea of being so intimately close to Fitz appealed to her – and as much as she’d fantasized about it over the past two years – that particular step seemed a bit big to take all on the same day that they learned the truth about each others’ feelings. Perhaps if they were older, or if either of them had ever had sex before, it would be different. If they could wait until the weekend to have their first real date, she supposed, they could wait a bit longer before having sex. Besides, she thought with a wicked little grin, this would give her the chance to give him some training before their first time. And he was ever so good at improving his performance when he studied.

“Oh dear,” she muttered, hands creeping up to rest against her neck. “Do you think he’ll be upset? I was teasing him terribly earlier, and it wasn’t without any intention of following through, because I want to do some very thorough fooling around when we get home, but I didn’t –”

“He won’t mind,” Caedmon said, interrupting her ramble. “Come on, you know he won’t.”

Her lips twitched up at the corners. “No, you’re right.”

“Always,” he sniffed, and she rolled her eyes. 

As her gaze landed on the empty seat opposite her, however, she realized how much time had passed. “Where are they?”

The minutes continued to tick by without Fitz and Sarama’s return, and Jemma began to get worried. If he were anyone else, by this point she might think he’d changed his mind about the date and escaped out the back. Since this was Fitz, however, and she believed him when he’d said he loved her, there had to be something else keeping them away.

Chapter Text

Just as Jemma was debating whether or not texting him would make her seem needy, Fitz jogged up to the booth from the direction of the front entrance, out of breath and cheeks pink.

“I’m sorry,” he panted, dropping onto the booth’s seat and dumping Sarama onto the table. “I –”

“Floor, please,” the lizard chirped, and he halted mid-sentence to scoop her up and deposit her next to the lion. 

“I didn’t think that’d take so long,” Fitz continued, leaning earnestly across the table.

“I was about to text and ask if you’d fallen in,” she teased, entirely too relieved that they were okay. It had only been a handful of minutes, after all; her worry had clearly been groundless. “What were you doing?”

“Oh, I...” he started, pausing to pull something out of his shirt pocket. In the center of his palm was a red tinfoil-covered piece of chocolate, shaped to resemble a small bundle of roses. “Wanted to get you flowers, but this was the closest thing they had next door. Hunted high and low, too, but – anyway. Here.”

“Fitz,” she whispered, gently taking the gift from him. “You didn’t need to –”

“But I wanted to,” he said stubbornly. “And I’ll get you real flowers on Friday, too.”

The smile she gave him in return was a cross between achingly fond, amused, and perhaps a little more watery than she intended. “Friday? Is that the day of our real first date, then?”

Blinking over at her, he let out a small noise and reached around to rub the back of his neck. “I, ah, just figured... it should be as soon as possible.” He shrugged into a grin, and she let out a small laugh. 

“Agreed. And thank you for the flowers, Fitz,” she said, turning as she spotted a waitress making her way to their table. “I love them.”

She placed the chocolate carefully on the side of the table against the wall, already thinking about how she was going to save the tinfoil as a keepsake. They both placed their orders – Fitz didn’t even need time to decide, since they both requested the usual – and then leaned back to regard each other across the table.

With a jolt of horror, Jemma realized that she couldn’t think of a single thing to say. They’d barely been in a romantic relationship for a handful of hours and already they’d run out of things to talk about. No, she thought to herself, stop overreacting. Reaching over to take a long drink of her diet lemonade, she asked herself what Caedmon would tell her to do. (Below and by the side of the table and booth, the dæmons were inevitably having some private conversation that the humans couldn’t hear over the noise of the restaurant.) Go back to the beginning, she could almost hear him say. Where did we start?

A sense of calm washed over her, and she set the glass back onto the table. “So,” she began, smoothing out the polyester red-and-white checkered tablecloth, “how has the Mouse Hole been going? Did you figure out the problem with the grip?”

Fitz’s shoulders relaxed, and when he leaned forward to give her his answer she realized that he looked relieved. Perhaps he’d been worrying about the exact same thing. 

The rest of dinner passed just like any other meal they shared together, filled with conversation and brainstorming, bickering and laughter. Just like any other, that is, except for when Jemma reached across to lay her hand over Fitz’s, or when he lifted it to press a shy kiss to her knuckles. (He dropped her hand almost as soon as he’d done it, looking askance at the tables around them, as if the innocuous gesture had been more P.D.A. than the restaurant would allow.) No matter how hard she tried, she could not get herself to stop smiling. Even the spagbol they both ordered tasted better – although she realized, belatedly, that it was perhaps not the easiest food to eat on a not-first date.

They took a detour around the edge of campus to get back to their dormitory, ambling beneath the streetlights hand-in-hand. Caedmon trotted ahead of them, proudly bearing Sarama on his head – and occasionally feinting that he’d drop her. (He never did.)

As they strolled together, Jemma could feel some indefinable energy crackling between the two of them, each sneaking glances at the other as they enjoyed the post-dinner walk. At last, she just couldn’t stand it anymore and found herself tugging Fitz against her for a kiss. By her estimation, it had been at least a couple hours since they’d kissed, and that was unacceptable. His expression when he realized what she was doing was the purest form of excitement she could remember seeing on him, and he hummed happily against her lips, fingers spreading out wide against her back.

“You’re adorable,” she murmured, brushing their noses together and then stretching up for another kiss. Everything about the night felt enchanted, with pools of streetlamp light dotting the path before them and crickets buzzing in the bushes. Jemma had been a scientist for as long as she could remember having conscious thought, but she couldn’t help loving the idea of romance, too, and feeling that everything about the moment was perfect.

Fitz leaned back, a frown on his face. “I am not.”

She blinked up at him, partially confused and partially annoyed (because they should be kissing right now and patently were not). “But that’s a good –”

Then he tugged her flush against himself and parted her lips with his own to give her a slow, dizzing, shockingly heated kiss, and she found her legs going all wobbly with surprise. The way his tongue stroked over hers, cautious and somehow still illicit, had arousal zipping through her veins, to the point that when he broke away for air she kept her eyes closed.

“Still adorable, then?” His voice was a little hoarse, but she could hear the smug undertone – and that simply wouldn’t do.

Jemma blinked her eyes slowly open to meet his gaze. “Yes.” His world-class pout elicited a loud giggle from her, and she scrunched her fingers through the hair along the back of his head. “And maybe a few other things besides.” Disentangling herself from him, she threaded their fingers together again and tugged him after her. “Come along, then, and you can keep proving to me how not-adorable you are.”

The little hop-stride he made to catch up to her did not exactly further his argument, but Jemma successfully dampened her laugh by biting at her bottom lip. 

Once in their dormitory hallway, Fitz seemed to have had enough of waiting and pushed her up against the wall next to his door, nibbling and sucking on the tender skin of her neck. She couldn’t stop the little whimper she made, shivering when his breath washed over a patch of skin he’d just visited with his tongue. His fingers tightened in her hair, lips faltering at the noise, and she took the opportunity to tilt his head with both hands so she could capture his lips with hers. The building tension between them was making her feel far too warm to stay in this hallway where anyone might happen upon them, and so she fumbled down to reach into his pocket for his keys.

At the press of her fingers against his inner thigh – brief though it may have been – he let out a strangled noise and jerked backwards, away from her touch. “What’re you –” 

“Just getting your keys,” she replied, rolling her eyes and turning towards his door. “We can’t stay out here.” 

“Could’ve asked,” he muttered, stepping back so Caedmon could trot into the room first, Sarama bouncing slightly on the lion’s head. “We’re not going to your room?” 

“Too far away,” she murmured, shoving the door closed and wrapping her arms around his neck so that she could reach his lips once more. 

He laughed into her mouth, she let the keys fall from her fingers onto the carpeted (and laundry-covered) floor, and suddenly, suddenly, she realized they were here. They were alone – save for their dæmons – and they could allow their desire and hormones take over. After years of both carefully hiding what they’d wanted, now they could let their feelings run their course. At long last, they were free to do whatever they wished. 

As they kissed, her hands wandered down from his shoulders to part his button-down shirt and slide up his undershirt-covered chest. His fingers flexed against her hips in response, and she tentatively pushed one hand up his shirt to skim over his stomach, tracing the little trail of hair that led down into his jeans. Fitz sucked in a sharp breath, his lips faltering against hers, and a sly smile spread across her face. Getting a reaction out of him was so easy.

She pushed gently against his torso, shuffling him backwards towards the bed and trying not to let him trip over any particularly large piles of clothes.

“You must,” she said, punctuating every few words with kisses, “clean up – your bloody room.”

“But I know where everything is,” he shot back, letting her push him onto the unmade bed. “I’d never find anything if I cleaned it.”

Shaking her head and reaching down to tug off her red Cons and socks, Jemma sighed. “Training you is going to be difficult, isn’t it?” 

“Always liked a challenge, you,” he teased back, eyes shining in the bedroom’s scant light as he rid himself of his own footwear.

Jemma smirked, giving him a slow once over as she climbed onto his lap, knees straddling him on the mattress. “You should hear my plans,” she murmured, bending down to nip at his bottom lip. She was, admittedly, unsure of how effectively seductive she was being, but if there was anything that could soothe her nerves it was the look on Fitz’s face.

His eyes were dark, pupils blown wide and irises a deep lapis in the dim room, and he followed her every movement as if nothing else in the world existed. For the moment, nothing mattered except for the two of them. He watched her with the same intense concentration he wore when he was parsing out a new problem, and she found it thrilling, being the center of his focus. 

“Oh,” Jemma exclaimed, centimeters away from kissing him again, “I’m not ready to have sex!” 

She winced. That had probably not been the best way to tell him. Fitz stilled beneath her, and then leaned back to meet her gaze, eyebrows drawn together in confusion.

“Yet,” she amended, clearing her throat. “I mean yet. I just... I didn’t want you to get the wrong idea, and then be upset later, because I’m quite intrigued by sex but I think that it’s – mmphf.”

Fitz pressed his lips to hers, effectively stopping her ramble. “Jemma,” he said finally, reaching up to smooth loose hair out of her eyes. “We just, um, got together today.”

“I know –”

“I wasn’t expecting anything,” he said earnestly, voice quiet, the way he was caressing her cheek with his thumb nearly distracting her from what he was saying. “Honestly. I’m just happy to be with you at all.”

“But when I was teasing you in the lab –”

“I figured you were being you,” he returned, tone dry. “But, y’know, about us instead of your grades.”

“Oh.” After studying his expression for a few seconds, she gave him a hesitant smile. “You don’t mind waiting?”

“No, never,” he replied, stretching up to fit their mouths together again, and at last Jemma relaxed against him. 

“You’re a very good boyfriend,” she declared huskily as he ghosted kisses down her neck to her collarbone. 

“It’s been six hours.” He let her tilt his head up so she could slant his mouth open, kissing him deeply, and he groaned, his hands tightening against her outer thighs.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said, voice a little breathless, “I can already tell. I’m a scientific prodigy, you know.” 

Fitz chuckled, but silenced himself abruptly when she began unbuttoning her own shirt. A soft pink, once unbuttoned the shirt’s open edges made a nice contrast against the pale blue bra she wore underneath. His eyes fixed on her breasts, and, seemingly unconsciously, he made a soft noise of appreciation as he pulled his bottom lip between his teeth.

“I’ve been dreamin’...” he started, fading off on a low moan. “They’re amazing.”

“I did grow them myself,” she deadpanned, letting her shirt fall atop the piles of clothes already on the floor. (This was why they spent most of their time hanging out in her room, truth be told. If she ever spent time in Fitz’s room, she was always tempted to just take a shovel to the mess.)

“Prodigy,” he croaked, sliding his hands up to her bare waist. “That you are.”

Jemma giggled, taking a second to tug off his outer shirt before leaning in to capture his lips with her own. His hands were so hot they felt like they might burn her much cooler skin, his palms scorching against her lower back as she scooted a little closer. As they’d entered the room before, she’d wondered if he was affected by her attention but hadn’t managed to get a good enough look. So, angling her hips down, she was gratified to feel Fitz’s erection pressing firmly against her. 

Her gasp mingled with his choked moan of her name, and she bent her head down again immediately to keep their mouths moving together. The pressure was not quite right for her though, not satisfying the ache that grew between her thighs, and so she shifted around until his cock was grinding against her center through their jeans. 

“Christ Jemma,” he muttered, hands curling down over the curve of her arse, “oh, Christ –” 

Before he could say more, though, she kissed him again, sloppy and half-distracted as she gyrated in tight circles against him, slowly building her own arousal. With each downstroke his grip tightened, and all the muscles beneath her hands tensed as his hips tried to thrust up at her, their movements out of sync but working well enough to have them both panting against each other. After a few, delicious moments, Fitz made a low grunt and abruptly twisted them around so Jemma was lying on her back on the bed. She let out a squeak of surprise, but it only took him seconds to readjust so that he was stretched over her, one hand reaching down to angle her leg out and give him enough room to seat his hips in the valley of her thighs. The angle he found when he ground down against her managed to press the seam of her jeans directly against her clit, causing a dart of pleasure to shoot through her. 

Her moan was unguarded, high-pitched, and shaky, and even as she was embarrassed by the sound Fitz seemed nearly undone by it. He buried his face in her neck, sucking up a love bite and thrusting his hips forward again, causing the same sharp arousal to wash over her. 

“Fitz,” she whimpered, hands scrabbling at his back as she tried to rock back up against him. He wasn’t going fast enough, the sensation too good to be doled out so rarely, although she reveled in the strength of his hold on her thigh as he angled her leg up and further out.

“Fuck, Jemma.” His voice was tight with arousal now, chest heaving against hers, and she couldn’t ever remember being more turned on in her life. “When you... when you say my name like that....” Fitz cut himself off on a groan, and, being the kind of obliging girlfriend that she was, she repeated his name in – apparently – just the way he liked. He shivered, mouth now pressed loosely against her neck as he continued grinding his erection against her, evidently unable to focus on more than one activity at once. 

As much as she was enthralled by the way he moved over her, his whole body pressing her hard into the mattress, she was beginning to feel frustrated. He wasn’t able to keep the consistent pressure on her center the way she had, and so the feeling was plateauing. Desperate to get back to where she’d been, Jemma shoved against his shoulder, rearranging them so that he was on his back and she was straddling him. Moving around was a bit awkward on the small bed, but they managed it fast enough, both of them eager to return to exploring all the ways they could make each other feel so good. Fitz didn’t protest the new position, only staring up at her with his mouth open as she pressed one hand by his head and ground firmly down with her hips. 

Having control over the angle brought the pleasure rushing back, and her eyes fluttered shut on a gasp. Fitz moaned her name again and his hands came up to grab her bum, thumbs pressing into her hips as he encouraged her sharp rocking. They were working themselves to a fever pitch, mouths messily coming together again as words devolved into curses and each other’s names.

An idea floated through Jemma’s lust-induced haze, something she’d secretly been wondering about for years, and she pushed up so that she was sitting over him. Pressing her hands against his stomach and chest, she kept gyrating her hips, another bolt of heat darting through her at the expression on Fitz’s face when he was able to see her as she moved. The heat behind his gaze was so different from the adoration he’d worn as he stared at her earlier, that sweetness having melted into something hot and bordering on desperate – but still, somehow, just as affectionate. 

“Do you remember,” she started, breasts heaving as she panted, “when we were in the closet –”

Fitz let out a bark of dry laughter and then bit his lip as Jemma ground against him. “Yes, I bloody remember the closet.” 

“When we nearly fell and... the dæmons....”

“And something happened,” he answered, nodding, “yeah.” 

“Do you – I mean, we could....” She leaned forward so she was nearly lying completely on him, supporting her weight with one elbow as she gestured vaguely over the edge of the bed.

“Alright,” Fitz answered breathlessly, reaching up to take her hand and tangle their fingers together. They both stretched their arms over the side of the bed, fumbling blindly for the dæmons. 

“Caed,” Jemma said, reluctantly pulling her gaze away from Fitz’s, “where –” 

“Yeah,” the lion muttered, “Sarama’s....”

But Jemma never heard the rest, as first Caedmon’s fur and then Sarama’s scales brushed against their entwined hands and that wash of sensation crashed over her. The feeling was so much sharper than when they were younger, the ensuring white-hot pleasure had her moaning above Fitz, her other hand fisting into the sheets. Beneath her, his eyes squeezed shut as he swore, his hips bucking unevenly up against hers. 

Tingles of arousal spread through her whole body, heightening the sensation of every single touch even once she brought their entwined hands back up so she could press his to the mattress. Even her bra shifting against her nipples was a source of stimulation, her mind swimming with being so suddenly close to the edge and so very close to Fitz. That coil of tension inside her was near to bursting, and she rocked faster against him, intent on finding her release right here, right now. 

“Jemma,” he moaned, “Jemma, Jemma-Jemma, if we don’t stop, if we –” He stilled abruptly, hands squeezing hard into her bum as he tried to halt her movement. “I’m gonna come.” 

“Is that a bad thing?” She felt a little silly and rather sexy responding that way, voice low and heated as she tried to capture his lips again. 

Yes.” 

The desperation in his voice was like a bucket of cold water straight over her and Jemma froze, staring down at the twist of his mouth before immediately scrambling back off of him. Fitz curled around towards where she’d scuttled against the wall, legs against his chest and hands over his face as he panted.

Jemma didn’t know what to think, having been yanked back from her own orgasm so abruptly that she felt sluggish. Fear that she’d done something truly wrong, somehow, settled low in her stomach and she mimicked Fitz’s position sitting up, hugging her arms around her legs and wishing she could wrap her shirt around her rapidly cooling shoulders. It felt very much alike when she’d worried about him feeling violated when she’d stripped during the ill-advised roshambo night. At least now she knew that he wanted her, but the rest of his behavior didn’t make much sense, and she couldn’t quite get rid of her fear. 

Finally, he dragged his hands down his face and peered blearily up at her, giving her a wry smile. Just as he opened his mouth to say something, Jemma blurted out: “I’m sorry!” He halted whatever he was about to say, and she inhaled. “I didn’t mean – to do something you didn’t want. I thought we were, you know, so I –” 

“Hey,” he said, interrupting and pushing himself up. He froze partway up and let out a sharp hiss, reaching down to adjust his jeans where he was clearly still very hard. Taking a slow breath, he returned his attention to her and scooted closer. “You don’t hafta apologize, Jemma –”

“Then why did you... did we....” 

Fitz exhaled and leaned next to her against the wall, reaching out to tug her a little closer and take her hand. “This is our first time... doing... anything. And I didn’t want to, y’know....” When she just stared blankly back at him, he shut his eyes. “Come in my pants. The first time we... it’s embarrassing.”

“Oh,” she breathed, turning fully towards him, “Fitz.” Frankly, with the way she’d been moving against him, it was probably to his testament that he’d lasted as long as he had. Sighing, she met his rueful expression with one of her own. “I’m sorry anyway, then. I didn’t think....”

“It’s fine,” he assured her, scooting even closer in. “Honestly. We just... need to slow down for a bit, I think.” 

“Can I....” Leaning forward, she reached up her free hand to slide her thumb gently over his bottom lip.

“Yeah,” he said, watching her with that new expression of pure affection as she moved to lean against his side, curling her legs partially underneath herself. “Think I can manage that.” He paused, eyes flicking down to her breasts. “Maybe you, ah, should put a shirt on, though. In a minute.”

As he brushed their mouths gently together, Jemma grinned, endlessly amused by his apparent fascination with that particular part of her anatomy.

“What if,” she murmured, resting their foreheads together, “it wasn’t in your pants? I mean, if it didn’t happen in your pants?” 

Stilling in the midst of stretching forward for another kiss, Fitz flicked his eyes up to hers. “What?”

“If you wanted, I could....” She released his hand to trail her fingers gently down his stomach, ending at the top hem of his jeans. 

His breath became shallow as he caught on, and he swallowed hard. “Oh. Shit.” 

“But only if you want me to –”

“No, yeah, that’d be,” he croaked, needing to clear his throat again, “good. If you want to.”

Jemma smirked. “Better than good, I’d hope.” 

“I believe in you,” he muttered, watching as she made herself more comfortable. “Top of the class, and all.”

Chuckling, Jemma flicked open the button of his jeans. “And I do love studying biology.”

Fitz groaned and rolled his eyes, breath coming a little too fast. “I should’ve seen that one a mile off.”

“Oh!” She froze with her hand hovering over the zipper, feeling a blush bloom on her cheeks. There was absolutely no good (or sexy) way to ask her next question. “Do you have any...” she whispered, “um... lube? Or something? For –” 

Fitz broke into a startled cough, briefly leaning his head against her temple as he gathered himself. “Erm, yeah, I have....” He trailed off, scooted quickly forward to dig around in one of the desk drawers closest to the bed, and then hopped back over so they could make themselves comfortable against the wall again. Once they were settled, he held out a half-used tube of hand lotion for her inspection, grimacing. 

A part of her wanted to laugh; there was something patently ridiculous about this whole situation. Her best friend had just handed her the lotion that he clearly used to get himself off. But fortunately, her common sense and affection for her new boyfriend kept her from doing so, and instead she just leaned in for a quick, sweet kiss. 

“Brilliant,” she murmured against his lips, reaching down to pull down his zipper and push aside his boxers. 

Fitz inhaled, and she couldn’t stop herself from dropping her eyes between them. Although it was quite flushed now, standing at rigid attention, his cock was rather nicely shaped and the size was... intriguing. Her immediate response was torn between being eager to see what it would feel like inside of her and being a little intimidated; fortunately, though, that wasn’t something she needed to worry about yet. The thought that he’d gotten so hard just because of her actions was an acute aphrodisiac, and she had trouble forcing herself to tear her gaze away, the pressure between her own thighs once again making itself known. Just before blinking back up at him, Jemma licked her lips.

“Ah, fuck,” he muttered, hiding his face against her cheek.

As turned on as she was now, a soft smile flitted across her face. The way he seemed overwhelmed by his arousal only made her affection for him grow. Without further ado, she reached out to take hold of him for the first time, wrapping her fingers firmly around his cock.

At the first touch of her fingers, Fitz’s hips jerked upward and he let out a strangled grunt. A drop of precum beaded at the tip, but she didn’t reach for it yet, focused on cataloguing exactly how he felt in her hand. His cock was hot and hard, filling her palm as she slid her fingers down to the base, and the skin itself was softer than she would have expected. Her expert knowledge of biology and anatomy (and cadavers) notwithstanding, she’d never touched or held a naked man before, and she found the experience bewitching. She suspected that Fitz had everything to do with how interesting she found it, his responsiveness most of the reason for her own arousal.

When she gave one slow stroke from base to tip, he whimpered, and she couldn’t resist leaning in to nip at his lower lip. Before continuing, she took a second to give herself more room to work, shoving the sides of his jeans and boxers further away, and he eagerly shifted around to help her. His utter helplessness as she took hold of him again gave her a confidence boost, and she reached up with one thumb to swipe the precum around the head of his cock.

“Jemma,” he groaned, twitching against her grasp, “please.”

Remembering how close he’d been before, she decided it would be cruel to keep teasing him, so she opened the tube of lotion and squeezed a solid amount into the palm of her hand. It was cold, so she tried breathing over her palm to warm it, and was startled to see his eyes on her when she looked up again. His gaze was more intense than she’d ever seen it, dark with desire and softened by an adoration so complete that it took her breath away. Disbelief still hovered around his expression, too, as if he was convinced that at any second he would wake up without her. If she could think of the words, she’d tell him that she knew exactly how he felt.

Finally satisfied that the lotion was warm enough, Jemma wrapped her hand around him again at the same time she pressed their lips together, angling his apart so she could kiss him through the feeling. As her hand began to move in firm, quick strokes, Fitz shudder-moaned and closed his eyes, nearly collapsing against her as his whole body focused on bucking against her grip.

“Oh God yes,” he breathed against her mouth, soft noises eking out of his throat, “yes that’s just – just – like....” He cut himself off with a garbled noise, one hand reaching quickly down to cover hers over his cock. “If you – like this....” His eyebrows drew together, jaw flexing as he closed his fingers around hers, tightening her grip, and sped up her strokes. At the same time, he started twisting her hand slightly on the up motion, demonstrating a rapid pumping that caused him to tilt his head back in pleasure. Overcome, he dropped his hand away and nuzzled against her cheek, his whole body tensing in anticipation.

Heat zapped through Jemma as she realized that he’d just showed her exactly how he liked getting himself off, how he wanted her to get him off, and her hips shifted, eager for her own turn. She could almost see him doing this to himself, maybe thinking about her as she would have of him, and she had to bite back a moan at the image. The fact that she’d made the most brilliant person she’d ever met virtually incapable of speech after just a few touches also made her feel more than a bit smug. Turning her head, she tugged at his earlobe with her teeth and sped her hand up as fast as she could go, mimicking that twisting motion with every pump.

“Hello, Doctor Fitz,” she murmured, his hips now rocking desperately up against her.

A sudden, strangled noise escaped his throat, and Jemma blinked as she felt him flail around with his left hand, reaching for something. Her hand faltered in her surprise, to his apparent upset. “Don’t stop,” he gasped, dropping what appeared to be an empty pillowcase over his lap.

Realizing what he’d done, she smiled and leaned in close, purposely rubbing her breasts against his chest and returning to her quick, smooth strokes. After barely a second, she could feel his cock swell in her grasp, his mouth bowing and head tilting back as his hips thrust desperately against her hand, fighting against the fact that his position on the bed didn’t give him much leverage. All at once, he came, the sound of his rough, sort of shouted groan, somehow turning her on even more than feeling him pulse in her hand. Finally, he truly did collapse against her, all of his energy spent.

Jemma shifted around so that she was properly supporting them both, letting his cock slip from her hand and avidly watching as he heaved in ragged breaths. His face and neck were flushed, eyes still squeezed shut as he licked his lips. Not wanting to be left out for even a second, she leaned in to feather her lips against his jaw, trailing up to suck his bottom lip into her mouth before kissing him thoroughly. Floating on a high, Fitz was about half a second behind her every movement, post-orgasmic lassitude having him firmly in its grasp in the most adorable way. For each kiss she pressed across his cheeks, nose, forehead, jaw, neck, he made quiet, appreciative little noises, trying to follow but not quite having the energy to match her.

What she truly wanted in that moment was to smooth her hand along his cheek, to hold him bodily against her – but her right hand was not exactly usable at that moment. It was covered in a mix of lotion and the somewhat sticky warmth of his come, and she didn’t want to get the mess on anything else if possible.

At last, he blinked his eyes open, a stunned and hilariously relaxed expression on his face. “Wow,” he breathed, gaze darting briefly down to her breasts before moving back up to her eyes. “That was....” 

“Good?” A sly smile played around her lips, happy she was fairly certain of his answer.

He huffed out a disbelieving laugh, eyes fluttering briefly closed again. “Fucking magnificent,” he muttered in response, reaching up with his left hand as if he was going to touch her cheek and then freezing. They both looked down at where he had lotion all over that hand, beneath it lying the bunched pillowcase that now hid a sizeable mess. “Shit,” he muttered, straightening so that he was supporting his own weight. “I should....”

“Oh,” Jemma said, more than a hint of a pout to her voice, “must you go?”

Stilling, Fitz met her gaze for a long second before reaching over to give her an achingly tender kiss. “I’m not going anywhere, not really,” he murmured against her lips, stunning her yet again with the open adoration he wore so plainly now. “But if we wanna... if I wanna hold you, properly, I’ve gotta clean us up, alright?” 

She hadn’t really been upset that he was going, only that he was warm and the room was starting to get a bit chilly, so she smiled and nodded in response. “I should go, too, though, I’ve –”

“No,” he said emphatically before scooting awkwardly to the edge of the bed. “Nonono, you stay right there. You just – you stay.” After a few seconds of using the pillowcase to get rid of some of his own mess, he turned away to tuck himself back into his boxers and then began hunting for something in his drawers, making an ungainly step over where Caedmon lay on the floor. With a little noise of triumph, Fitz pulled out a clean towel, wetting it with a water bottle from his desk before returning to sit on the bed.

Jemma slid up to the edge of the mattress to meet him and held out her right hand when he gestured for it. His brows furrowed in concentration as he carefully cleaned her palm and then each finger, dutifully making sure that her skin was spotless before he gave her a complete once-over, nodding to himself when he’d finished.

“All clean,” he said quietly, giving her hand a small squeeze. “Lab standard.” 

Bursting into laughter, she had to duck her head against his shoulder before she could come up for air. “You’re just the strangest.... You live in a pigsty, but you’re so careful about... about things like this.” 

“You mean hygiene,” he said drily, cleaning off his own hands and then tossing the towel to the ground. “I like hygiene. And I like a clean lab. My room just – doesn’t matter.”

“It will now,” she retorted, nudging his arm.

“We’ll just use yours.”

She sighed and rolled her eyes. “You’re impossible.” Tucking her head against his neck, she let out a happy sigh. “And I suppose that’s why I like you so much.”

Jemma.” Reaching up with his now-clean hands, he cupped her jaw, studying at her with a distinct sort of wonder etched on his face. “I....” Then his nose wrinkled, his brain shifting gears mid-sentence. “Should I... I mean, does... do I say thank you? For....”

Drawing her lip between her teeth, Jemma giggled as she gave her head a small shake. “Well, I wouldn’t really know either, would I?”

Fitz’s hold on her went slack in surprise. “You don’t? I mean, you’ve – dated, so I....”

She shook her head again, scooting another inch closer. “I never... went this far. I wasn’t ready, and then when I... wanted you, I just... wasn’t that interested in anyone else. That way.” Her fingers smoothed along one of his arms, giving her something to watch other than his expression. “I tried wanting other people. You had said never, so – but it didn’t work.” 

Rubbing one thumb along the side of her neck, he watched her thoughtfully. “When did you know? That you felt... y’know. Like I did. Do.”

“Seven minutes in heaven,” she admitted quietly, startled by his immediate bark of laughter.

“Me too! I...” he trailed off, pressing their foreheads briefly together. “Alright, I’m... I wanna keep talking, but I’m bloody uncomfortable right now. I’m gonna go wash up and change, and I’ll be back in a minute, okay? Quick as you like.” 

“Okay,” she replied, giving him a chaste peck on the lips before he shoved himself off of the bed, rummaged around for what he needed, and then zipped out the door.

Chapter Text

Grinning like an absolute idiot, Jemma flopped back down on the bed, feeling very risqué being on her best friend’s bed in only her bra and jeans. Her nose wrinkled. If Fitz was going to return the favor for her when he returned, it would be uncomfortable for her and inconvenient for him if she stayed in her trousers. With a few quick tugs, she deposited her jeans on the ground – folding them, as well as her shirt, while she was at it.

“Disrobing already,” Caedmon drawled from the floor, raising his head to crook an eyebrow at her. 

“Shush, you,” she tossed back, doing a double-take as she realized the long, dark object on the carpet along the inside of Caedmon’s paw was Fitz’s dæmon. Jemma had assumed that he’d grabbed her on his way out the door, but evidently not. “Sarama!” 

The lizard tilted her head lazily towards the bed, wiggling her short tail. “Hallo, Jemma,” she said, voice a little more languid than usual.

Flipping herself onto her stomach on the bed, Jemma grinned. Obviously, Fitz’s dæmon was experiencing the same kinds of positive feedback from her human that Caedmon did when she got herself off. “How’re you feeling, then?”

“Very nice, thanks,” the lizard answered with a happy sigh.

Without Fitz to curl herself around for the moment, Jemma stretched one hand out to hover over Sarama, letting Caedmon bump her wrist affectionately with his nose. “May I...?” The lizard just hummed in response, and so Jemma reached down to pet her, smoothing her thumb over her scales from her nose all the way back to her tail. That familiar rush of feeling from touching Fitz’s dæmon spread through her, and she leaned her head on her arm. “I can’t believe he didn’t take you with him.”

“S’not far to the bathroom,” Sarama explained, tilting her head up into Jemma’s touch, nearly cat-like. “And we know you’d never hurt us.”

“Oh,” Jemma breathed, tears springing unbidden to her eyes. 

That level of trust was deeply rare; people just didn’t leave their dæmons with others, except trusted immediate family members, and even then it was unusual. More than not touching other peoples’ dæmons, in some ways, it simply wasn’t done. For Fitz to have left the innermost part of his being alone with her and Caedmon floored Jemma, and she had a sudden, odd yearning to be able to show him that she would never, ever break their trust. He could entrust his soul to her and she’d protect it from the entire universe, if need be.

Annoyed by her own overly emotional response, Jemma withdrew her hand from Sarama to dab at her eyes, not wanting her make-up to smear. But in her sudden movement, Jemma knocked over one of the half-piles of things scattered around Fitz’s bed, and she swore. 

“This is just atrocious,” she muttered, trying to shove the things back in some semblance of order, or at least hide them beneath the bed. Beneath a gray sweatshirt peeked a bright swatch of red, and she unearthed a familiar, spiral-bound notebook, edges worn out of age rather than use. In the top corner, in the handwriting of the boy she’d first met all those years ago, was written: Autumn 2003.

“Oh, my,” Jemma said, a smile breaking across her face. “Sarama, is this –”

Lifting her head, Sarama made a shrug with her small, scaled shoulders. “An old one. You can read it, if you’d like. Just chicken-scratch, now.”

“I used to hate this thing, you know,” she said, pushing up to sit cross-legged on the bed. 

“Jealous of a notebook,” Caedmon tossed back, and she tsked at him.

“I’ve always wanted to know what on Earth he was writing in here that meant he couldn’t even look at me.”

Jemma eagerly flipped open the cover, expecting to see some of the early designs he’d worked on that she’d found so brilliant. Instead, most of the first few pages included class notes very similar to her earliest ones. What caught her eye, however, were the cramped additions squeezed into the notebook’s margins, stretching down around the notes and then curling up the side of the following page. Where these additional notes began and ended eventually became hard to tell, arrows crossing one another from one bullet point to the next, avoiding the chemical equations Fitz had clearly dashed off before returning to his side project. After half a dozen sheets, he finally began to dedicate whole pages to them, using a numbering system so that he could alternate between class and the other, like so: CHEM-9, CHEM-10, HER-5, HER-6, HER-7, HER-8, CHEM-11, and on.

Some of it was impossible to read, even with Jemma’s unique ability to translate nearly all of Fitz’s handwriting (unlike most of their tutors). Half of it was crossed out, and the other half was him apparently disagreeing with himself. It seemed to be a list of topics, some theorems, and design ideas. Eventually, she found references to a “she,” the “HER” page designation beginning to make more sense. The scribblings quickly gave way to notes about this person, including things like “Purple, positive. Discuss: Flora? Camouflage?” before they were summarily scratched out and accompanied by: “STICK TO WHAT YOU KNOW.”

A bizarre and unreasonable vein of jealousy wriggled into Jemma’s gut; she tried to remember whether or not Fitz had seemed to pay any of their classmates particular attention that first semester. All she could recall is that he would answer nearly everyone but herself when approached, which didn’t narrow it down. Finally, at the bottom of one page, she found a note that read: “Doodled police box. DW? T. Baker? Davison? (Neither?) Bring up inter-dimensional travel and see if recog?” The last sentence, too, was scratched out. 

With a start, Jemma realized that the “she” must be herself – none of their primarily American classmates would have doodled a TARDIS, particularly when the show wasn’t even on the air. But it didn’t make sense for Fitz to have used up half his notebook on studying her as he would have any design that he was attempting to reverse-engineer, as if writing enough words would help him deconstruct a puzzle that he didn’t yet understand. She’d been there that first semester, after all, and he had – without a doubt – detested her so determinedly that he could barely make eye contact.

“Jesus Christ, Simmons,” Fitz exclaimed, crashing through the door and slamming it behind himself. Dropping back against it, he stared accusingly at her. “Are you trying to embarrass me?!”

She jumped and then frowned, letting the notebook slip off her lap. “What?” 

“You can’t just...” he said, shifting his old clothes in front of his new boxers so that he could wave one hand towards the dæmons. “Touch a man’s dæmon when he’s unawares.” 

Jemma looked between him and Sarama, her nose wrinkling. “But I asked, and she said it was.... Why can’t I?” 

Fitz sighed and rearranged his things so that they were not longer in front of him. “I’m, um, half-hard. Again. Already.” Sure enough, the outline of his cock was visible against the thin material of his aquamarine boxers, and her eyes widened.

“Oh,” she whispered, realizing that she was staring at the aforementioned anatomy and quickly ducking her head. Heat crept back into her cheeks. “I’m sorry, I didn’t... that doesn’t always happen does it? When I hold Sarama?” Shaking his head, he dumped the discarded clothes and padded over to her. Jemma hummed in thought, scooting over to allow him sitting room and shoving the notebook further behind her. “Maybe,” she mused, “it has to do with your mental state. If you were thinking about me already, then....” She trailed off when she realized he was staring dazedly at her without any apparent comprehension. “Fitz?”

“You, ah,” he said hoarsely, clearing his throat, “took off your jeans.”

A sly smile spread across her face, and she pivoted towards him, tucking her legs along the edge of the bed. “I did.”

“You look good in blue.” His eyes raked up and down between her breasts and the juncture of her thighs, and a shiver ran through her. No one had ever looked at her like that – at least, not to her knowledge, and certainly not in such a way that she wished he’d replace his gaze with his hands. Both their inexperience notwithstanding, she had a lot of faith in Fitz’s hands.

“I’m a little hurt you even noticed the color,” she teased, trailing her fingers up to tug on the hem of his white undershirt. “We’re a bit uneven, aren’t we?” 

He nodded emphatically and reached for the bottom of his shirt – before freezing and leaning to stare behind her. “What’s that?”

Jemma turned to see that he’d spotted the edge of his open notebook, and she plucked it off the sheets. “Oh, I found –”

Fitz grabbed for it, slapping the cover shut and holding it away as if she was going to make a leap for it. “Did you read this?!”

“I –” she started, feeling suddenly nervous and glancing down at where Sarama and Caedmon were quietly observing them from the floor. “Yes, I –” 

“What the hell, Simmons?!” 

“I’m sorry,” she said, reaching out hesitantly towards him, “Sarama said....” 

“Ohhhhhhhh you,” he snapped, glaring down at the lizard. “Seriously, again? Second time in one day?” 

“Don’t you even try to pretend to be angry with me,” his dæmon shot right back, “where did Jemma have her hand not five minutes ago?”

Fitz flushed a bright pink, mouth working silently for a few seconds until he tossed the notebook onto the floor, no real heat behind the movement. “I didn’t know it was possible for your own soul to be so bloody obstinate.”

“Take a look in the mirror,” Sarama muttered, causing Jemma to chuckle. 

When Fitz gave her an accusatory look, she raised one hand in surrender. “I’m sorry, really, sorry. She said I could read it. But I – what was all that? It can’t have been a diary –”

“It was stupid,” he muttered, picking at the cotton of his boxers. “Just ideas for what to say to you, that sorta thing. I mean, you read it. You know.”

“But I don’t understand,” she said slowly, trying not to feel unusually dumb herself. “I was your biggest rival.”

He blinked at her. “Come again?”

“You hated me –”

“I did not!” The expression of utter horror on his face almost made her laugh again, but she was too busy trying to slot the notebook into what she knew about her best friend.

“I don’t mind,” she replied kindly, reaching out to squeeze his arm. “We were both so competitive –”

“Were?” Caedmon didn’t even raise his head from the carpet to snark at her, and Jemma rolled her eyes. 

“And you got over it, obviously –” 

“I never hated you,” Fitz interrupted, expression wilting a little as he looked down between them, avoiding her gaze. 

“Then why wouldn’t you even talk to me?” She gave him a small nudge. “I might not be the best at... social things, but I know when someone hates me, Fitz. Honestly, I don’t –” 

“I was trying to...” he trailed off on a sigh, gently curling his hand over one of hers. “I didn’t wanna say the wrong thing. You were clearly the smartest person here, and I didn’t wanna mess it up. So I, y’know, tried to do it logically. Like I would in school. Figure out the right approach.” A low chuckle escaped his throat and he shook his head. “Course, all that went out the window anyway. Spent months thinking up the perfect opener and the first thing I say’s about lion manes. Rubbish.”

When she didn’t answer, he finally looked up to meet her gaze, his own switching from bashfulness to worry in a few seconds flat. Her eyes were glassy, and there was a tingling at the back of her throat that felt like she might genuinely cry out of pure happiness, and the temptation to just kiss and kiss and kiss him was nearly impossible to withstand. It took her a few, long seconds to sort through what he’d just confessed before she landed on what she wanted to say first. 

Rubbish,” she repeated, shaking her head. “That was... you know, I don’t think anyone other than my parents had ever tried to talk about Caed like he was anything other than horrifying, or an inconvenience. Once he settled, I mean.” Fitz met her eyes, and she reached forward to curve her hand around the back of his neck. “You’re the first person who was ever kind about him being a lion, Fitz. Don’t you see?”

He shrugged, but she took hold of his jaw before he could look away again. “I already knew you were brilliant,” she said quietly, voice wavering, “but I became your friend because you were kind. I fell for you....” Jemma inhaled, stretching forward to press their foreheads together. “You’re so much more than that wonderful brain.” 

“Oh,” he whispered, holding still as she scooted closer and slid her legs across his lap. 

“I can’t believe all that time you were writing about me,” she said, giving her head a small shake. “You were so determined to ignore me!”

“Observing,” Sarama piped up. “That’s what he used to call it.” 

“Well, I was.” He slid one hand around Jemma’s right calf where it leaned against his stomach. “Didn’t want to get something wrong.” 

“Oh, Fitz,” she said, and leaned in for a kiss when she didn’t know what else to say. Halfway forward, though, she stopped, noting how his hand had stilled on her leg. 

His thumb swiped up and down over a patch of skin, and he peered down, gently angling her leg forward. “Is that from...” he started, looking up to meet her eyes. “Eight-eight?”

Oh, yes, but not the break.” Fitz had discovered a long but slight scar on the underside of her calf, nearly invisible unless you were staring right at it – or sweeping your fingers intimately over it, previously unaware of the blemish’s existence. “Some debris from the explosion must have done it, and with the cast covering it, it scarred.”

“I never noticed.” His voice was low, head bent as he stared at her leg.

“You wouldn’t, really, unless you spent a lot of time staring at my legs. Which, well, I suppose you might’ve after all, if I didn’t prefer trousers to skirts.” Jemma smiled but her joke fell flat, his expression now oddly somber. After a few seconds, he lifted her leg up, nearly sending her onto her back on the bed if it weren’t for her quick reflexes. She let out a small indignant noise as she caught herself on her hands, but she was distracted immediately when Fitz pressed his lips to the thin scar.

“I’ve never been so scared,” he confessed, lowering her leg but keeping his arms around it in a half-hug. 

“I know,” she said, sitting back up and locking her fingers behind his neck. “It was –”

“I couldn’t’ve lived if you hadn’t.” His eyes bored into hers, a disconcerting helplessness hovering behind his expression that made something in her chest clench. “I know I said it was at the party when I knew, but I think....” 

“Fitz,” she breathed, curving one hand along his jaw.

“I dunno what I would’ve done,” he continued, and she rested her other hand over his heart.

Beneath her palm, the cotton, his skin, the sinew and muscles, his heart pattered to the same rhythm as hers, beating in the exhilaration of finally knowing their feelings were reciprocated, in the thrill of the new adventure they were about to embark upon together. Jemma was struck by how obvious it all seemed now, how right it was that they had both felt the same acute and unparalleled connection. A very long time ago, she’d wanted to touch his dæmon instinctively, been drawn to the innermost part of his being in a way that had prompted her to ignore all social conventions in favor of indulging that urge. It seemed that, perhaps, he had understood her compulsion then as she had never imagined he could. 

“Well, I’m fine,” she said, voice a little unsteady for the strength of the feelings inside her. “I’ll always be with you, Fitz, always. I’m never going anywhere.” 

“You don’t know that,” he argued, “you can’t know –”

“Exactly, so why would hiding in an Academy lab make a difference? Or a non-Academy lab? Or anywhere?” Jemma sighed, hooking two fingers into the collar of his white tee. Next to and beneath her, she could feel him stiffen slightly, dissatisfied with the train of thought she was now following. “I don’t want to hide away just because something bad happened to me once. I want to live my life – I want to live it with you. Working for SHIELD, at Sci-Ops, saving the world one person at a time. Using our skills to help people, to help SHIELD make the world a better place. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?”

“I love you,” Fitz blurted out, cheeks pinking as soon as the words were out of his mouth. For a second, she thought he’d demur or change the subject, but after taking a deep breath he just slid his hand behind her head and into her hair, mimicking her own position. “More than anything.”

“I love you, too, Fitz.” Her smile was so wide her cheeks hurt, his whole face lighting up at her words, and she let out a breathless laugh. “God, this seems... we’re nineteen,” she mumbled, dropping her head against his shoulder.

She wasn’t really sure what she meant by that, other than the fact that she had meant “always” when she’d said it, and her own certainty about wanting to spend the rest of her life with Fitz frightened her a little. Scientists didn’t behave like this, didn’t run headlong into something without assessing all the variables first, or conducting as many field tests as possible. Of course, in some ways they’d been field testing their relationship for years, she realized with a start, both of them apparently having come to the same conclusion: No one else would ever measure up.

To Fitz’s credit, he didn’t seem to notice her nonsequitur, instead just letting out a small huff of amusement in response. “Well, I’ll be twenty in a month. And most people don’t have two PhDs before they’re thirty, so you’re about on track. I’m a bit slow.”

“I’ll make sure you can keep up,” she murmured, catching his mouth in a sweet kiss. 

As their lips moved together, Jemma was lightheaded with the sense of being slightly unmoored by her own happiness. Out of all the words they’d both said and all the feelings swimming in her head, the most important thing was that they were here now, together at long last. If they were lucky – very lucky – they’d stay just like this, side by side, for the rest of their lives. 

At the moment, though, Jemma was more interested in yet again broaching those barriers of touch they’d crossed so recently. One hand on her leg and the other around her back, Fitz kissed as if he would happily do so forever, irrespective of the need for food or water. In the past few hours, his tongue had learned the best ways to make tingles shiver through her veins, one or two calculated strokes making her whimper into his mouth. Her arousal from before ratcheted right back up as if no time had passed, and she needed that release. She wriggled against him, their current position offering her no satisfaction except where her bare skin brushed against his. 

“Fitz,” she breathed, head lolling back as he slid messy kisses along her neck. “would you – I mean, would you, um... ugh. I don’t know how else to say this, but – touch me, please? The way I touched you?” 

His lips faltered, breath coming in heavy pants against her neck. “To, ah – to get you off?” Jemma made a little noise of agreement, not trusting herself not to beg. (As much as she adored Fitz, she had never begged for anything in her life and she had no intention of starting now.) “Oh, hell yes,” he muttered, coming up for another searing kiss. After a few seconds, though, he drew away, frowning worriedly between them. “I haven’t, ah, y’know – before. You’ll have to–”

“Show you,” she finished for him, pressing in for a few softer kisses, amused by the eagerness in his expression. “I think I can manage that. You’re still a bit overdressed, though, aren’t you?” 

He frowned at first, seemingly confused until she tugged at his shirt. “Oh, uh, yeah, alright,” he muttered shyly, discarding the shirt and returning to hold her just as quickly, keeping his eyes averted. As she’d seen a handful of times before, beneath his clothes Fitz was all angles and pale skin, the wiry frame of a teenager who had plenty more growing to do. In fact, she found the atypical bashfulness that hung around his expression now infinitely adorable, and felt much better with them both being nearly an equal amount undressed. (Nearly, because, aside from her bra, her knickers covered far less than his boxers did.)

“Much better.” She grinned into his kiss and pulled him gently back with her onto the bed. 

Following her lead, Fitz let her arrange them so that he was lying half over her and half between her and the wall. Their mouths didn’t separate except for the briefest of seconds as Jemma lay back, shivering in anticipation and a tinge of nervousness. Fortunately, he didn’t notice her nerves, instead making himself comfortable with his left arm beneath her head and his right hand ghosting over the bare skin of her stomach. As they kissed, he occasionally broke away to brush their noses together or look down at her, and it felt a little like he was reminding himself that this was actually happening. His touch was so light at first that she began to feel genuinely impatient, but the longer they lay next to each other, the more his confidence grew. The wide span of his hand across her stomach surprised her, fingers flexing when she sighed his name. For someone who was physically rather slight, he truly had broad hands.

Fitz let out a low groan, trailing his lips down her throat. “Jemma,” he whispered, goosebumps rising under the heat of his breath on her skin. “Can I...?” His voice trailed off, right hand hesitating just beneath the underwire of her bra. 

Having been distracted by his lips, Jemma tilted her head to meet his almost hopeful gaze. A giggle escaped her as she caught up, and she nodded. Moving him aside to give her space, she reached around to unfasten her bra and toss it towards the end of the bed, making sure that it wouldn’t disturb the dæmons. As she resettled herself on her back, however, she burst into laughter again at the look on Fitz’s face. His eyes were twice as large as normal, fixed on her now bare breasts, and his mouth hung wide open. 

“I didn’t...” he croaked, Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed more than once and pushed himself further up on an elbow for a better view. “Expect... wow. Yeah. Good. Nice.”

Jemma wrinkled her nose, continually fascinated by how much of a boy he became whenever she removed a new piece of clothing. “Nice?”

“Fantastic,” he breathed enthusiastically, “yeah. That’s the one.”

Rolling her eyes, she reached up to smooth her fingertips along his shoulder, trying to distract herself from the distinct sense of exposure. Even though she had removed all of her clothes herself, she was just realizing that she was now nude but for her knickers. Her nipples had tightened, although she wasn’t sure if the cool air or Fitz’s frank appraisal caused it. At long last, still supporting himself so he was leaning up over her, he returned his hand to her abdomen, slowly sliding it upwards until he cupped her left breast. She inhaled, his palm hot against her, and then whimpered when he gently pinched her nipple between his thumb and forefinger. The simple movement sent sharp tingles through her whole body, his fingers somehow eliciting a sharper feeling than her own ever had. 

“Okay?”

The uncertainty on his face faded as soon as their eyes met, and he took in the slackness of her mouth and the faint tremble to her limbs. He began to move his fingers again, circling her nipple and then sliding his thumb directly over it, avidly watching her responses to his touch. Suddenly, Jemma realized that she recognized the expression on his face; it was the same one he wore when he was examining an unfamiliar design, figuring out how to make it work. The idea of him doing the same with her body shouldn’t be as exhilarating as it was, and her head swum with arousal. 

“Yes,” she answered breathlessly, reaching up to pull his mouth down to hers, “oh, Fitz, yes.”

The press of his chest against her side was as comforting as it was thrilling, something about the direct skin-to-skin contact energizing her in a way she never would have expected. His hand continued to tease her breast, every nerve-ending aching for more after each touch or stroke, and she was dizzy with wanting him. As his lips meandered away from hers again, traveling down her neck and over her clavicle, she drew in a shaky breath, basking in the reverent way Fitz explored her. This was different in every way from the frantic press and slide of their bodies when they’d first fallen onto the bed, and so much sexier. The absolute fixation of him on learning every centimeter of her body, that intense concentration, was impossible to resist.

Jemma looked down as Fitz pressed soft kisses through her cleavage and up over the swell of her breast, every movement of his soft, pink lips over her skin carrying her a little bit higher. He flicked his eyes up to meet hers just before he lowered his mouth to her nipple, sucking lightly as he laved it with his tongue, and she stifled a cry. Biting down hard on her bottom lip, she wasn’t able to withhold all of the noises of pleasure she wanted to make as he found new patterns for his tongue to follow. Her hand threaded into his hair, holding him in place, and her hips shifted restlessly. They’d barely started, and she was nearly at the same level of arousal that she’d been earlier. After a minute, he shifted from one breast to the other, drawing that nipple into his mouth and coaxing a real moan from her throat.

Having her body studied this intently was a heady feeling, but she needed him to touch her properly, needed to move her arousal off this acute plateau. First, she tugged at his hair to get him to return his mouth to hers, if briefly, and then she encouraged him to lie next to her again, pressed as close in as he could get. The hard length of his erection stretched out his boxers against her hip, and she wondered briefly how much that had to do now with her touching his dæmon earlier versus her now being nearly naked and trembling underneath him. Trying not to feel embarrassed, she bent her knees up against the mattress as she would were she in her own bed, allowing her right leg to lean against his.

“Are you alright?” Fitz’s voice was quiet, and she tilted her head up to meet his gaze.

“What?” 

He swallowed, curling one hand around her ribs and nearly distracting her from the worried expression he now wore. “You look a bit... nervous? We don’t have to, y’know, if you’re....” 

“Oh,” she said, interrupting him with a small laugh, “God, no, I don’t – want to stop. I really... um, want this. With you. It’s just....” Jemma dropped her head back and squeezed her eyes shut. There was no place for her to hide anymore when it came to Fitz, and she was going to have to get used to that. “First time doing this with someone else, you know. So I’m... yeah. But I want to.” 

“Alright,” he breathed, and she caught the relief that flashed across his expression. “I’ll do whatever you tell me, promise.” 

“Oh really.” Fitz let out a huff of laughter, dropping down to press their foreheads together, and she raised an eyebrow. “Now that would be a first.”

“I trust my instructor.” When their eyes met again, his were dark in a way she’d never seen before, something heated and very, very promising lurking within their lapis hue.

“Okay then,” she whispered, settling her head against his arm and taking hold of his right hand with her left. “Normally, there’s a bit more, um, teasing, first, but I think I’m... we’ve passed that, now. So, if you want to, um, get me off, you....” Jemma paused as she slipped his hand past the elastic of her knickers, guiding his two forefingers with her own. The pads of his fingers brushed against her clit, swollen from the repeated arousal and lack of relief, and she gasped at the sensation that flooded her body. It was far stronger than the first touch of her own fingers normally was, clearly thanks to how close she’d been earlier. Her hips jerked upwards, pressing his fingers against her again, and she whimpered, tucking her head under Fitz’s neck. “If you want to get me off,” she repeated, voice unsteady, “you touch me here.”

“The clitoris.” His voice was deep when he spoke but still held a hint of defiance, his gaze flicking between where their hands met at the apex of her thighs and her face. “I know basic anatomy, Jemma –” 

“Like this,” she said, pointedly ignoring his mild indignation. She moved his fingers in tight, firm circles over her clit, unable to stop the bucking of her hips in response or her moan-touched gasps. This was what she’d wanted for so long, her body desperate for the friction she’d finally achieved, and it took everything she had not to keep his fingers exactly where they were. Instead, she forced herself to continue with their lesson. “Or....” Switching technique, she rubbed his fingers quickly over the sensitive bundle of nerves, causing heat to spread from her thighs through her whole body. “If you want me to come,” she whimpered, “do that.” 

“Alright,” he said, voice huskier than she’d ever heard it, his Scottish accent curling thickly around even that simple word. Before he could return to her clit, she pushed his hand forward, causing him to angle his head so he could look at her. “Don’t you –” 

“There’s more,” she eked out, and he swallowed.

“Oh, yeah, right, yeah.” 

After taking a second to spread her legs further apart, letting the left one lie against the mattress, Jemma slid his forefingers down to a particular patch of sensitive skin just below her clit, sighing at the softer pleasure. “This feels nice, too,” she whispered, nuzzling up at his chin. Her hips rolled instinctively along with the movements, as if her whole body was ready and waiting to let Fitz do with it what he would.

“Nice, got it.” He sounded halfway like he was making mental notes, and halfway like he was drunk.

“And then you can....” She trailed off, leaning back and using her right hand to encourage him to meet her eyes. Without saying anything else, she pushed one of Fitz’s fingers inside herself, biting down on her bottom lip to keep herself relatively quiet.

As his finger slid easily into where she was so slick, her walls grasping eagerly at the welcome intrusion, his hips twitched against her. “Jesus fucking Christ,” he bit out, pupils dilating until his eyes seemed impossibly dark. Fitz didn’t swear like that often, but hearing it now, wrapped in his arms on her bed, she couldn’t help but find it achingly hot. “You’re... you’re....”

“Really turned on,” she whispered, her hips tilting instinctively up so that his finger was inside her up to his knuckles. Distracted briefly from her own arousal by the shock and awe on his face, she tightened intentionally around the digit just to see what he’d do.

Fitz let out a helpless groan, eyes squeezing shut and mouth dropping open. “Holy shit, that’s... that’s....” Halting his own sentence, he dropped his head to her shoulder, panting over her skin.

Her eyes dropped to his tented boxers again, a small wet spot of precum now visible on the fabric, and she gave brief thought to how much she wanted to know what it would feel like to have him hot and hard inside her. Jemma was so turned on now, so eager for more of anything, that she almost abandoned her previous promise to herself to wait until after their first real date (or longer). Then she remembered that neither of them had condoms, and her resolve returned. They had all the time in the world to be with each other in every way possible for two human beings; there was no point in rushing. Besides, she still liked the idea of being formally seduced by Fitz. She suspected he’d be quite good at that.

Having waited for him to catch his breath, Jemma pulled his finger out and then slid his two forefingers in together, humming at the increased friction. “The nerves,” she breathed, setting up a rhythm for his fingers to stroke in and out, “are densest around the entrance. So this,” she said, pausing to rotate his fingers, “feels wonderful.” 

“Got it,” Fitz replied hoarsely, eyes now fixed between her thighs as he continued stroking his fingers inside her. 

Eventually, she planned on explaining the G-spot to him, and seeing if together they might be able to stimulate hers where she’d never been able to on her own, but Jemma suspected she wouldn’t need it tonight. He was well on his way to getting her off already, and he’d only just started. At last, she removed her hand from her knickers, shifting so her side was flush against his torso and allowing him to take control. As his fingers moved, she began rocking her hips up to meet him, unable to resist responding to the way he made her feel. At first she tried to keep her pace measured, focusing on his face and how little muscles around his mouth or in his brows would tighten or twitch whenever she did something he found particularly appealing. Rolling her hips smoothly up and then tightening around his fingers earned her a bitten-off groan, and she stretched forward to capture his lips with hers. 

Tingles of heat and arousal curled through her veins, the stretch and friction of his two fingers creating a kind of pleasure she’d never felt with her own fingers alone. In a way, this felt like a rehearsal for the first time they made love, the separation of their orgasms allowing them both to learn each others’ bodies better before they came together. Something about this seemed more intense, even, than intercourse itself, with his eyes fixed on hers as he stroked inside her. Her hips began to move faster and, reading her body’s response, Fitz thrust his fingers a little deeper, a little harder, gyrating on the down-stroke and causing a ripple of sensation to spread through her.

“Is this how you like it, Jemma?” His voice seemed genuinely curious, but all she could do in response was squeeze her eyes shut and moan, breath panting heavily out of her lungs. Although she couldn’t see his face, she was rewarded with a soft groan of appreciation, and he dropped his head to mouth at her neck. She could feel his hips fighting the urge to move in concert with hers, twitching perpendicularly to her body, and suddenly she couldn’t wait anymore. Something about having his fingers inside her, or the way he watched her face so avidly, or hearing the sound of his lust-stunned voice brought her right up to the edge that she was desperate to reach.

Shivering, Jemma undulated her whole body up against him. “Fitz,” she let out on a soft moan, “Fitz, now, please, please, I –!” 

Distracted as he was by keeping his hand moving, he took a second to catch her meaning, glancing up as he panted over her bare breasts. With a low breath, he caught her eyes as he slid both fingers up from her entrance until he reached her clit, touching it for only a second and moving teasingly away again. Her hips rocked upward in search of his finger and she whimpered, too close to care. Then he pressed firmly against the swollen, sensitive nub, mimicking the tight circles she’d shown him, and her hips bucked uncontrollably upwards. The feeling was blindingly good, so sharp and complete that she thought she made some noise but she couldn’t remember, allowing herself to give up any and all pretense of control as Fitz stroked her rapidly towards oblivion. Her left hand fisted into the sheets as the rest of her awareness narrowed down to the tightening between her thighs and the heat of his breath against her cheek. 

All it took was him rubbing fast against her, keeping the rhythm that her body was trembling too hard to hold, until she was awash in her climax, pleasure flashing through her veins. Her legs clamped down over his hand, hips making sharp, uneven little twitches and thrusts as she rode out the lightning of feeling as long as possible. The sounds of her climax were almost definitely embarrassing, but judging by the way Fitz leaned his forehead against hers, she suspected that he was enthralled. 

At last, her orgasm ebbed away, and she melted into the mattress and against her boyfriend, letting out one last, quiet moan. Pulling his hand weakly away from her knickers, Jemma tilted herself against Fitz, her limbs loose and her head dreamy from the endorphins and hormones spreading lazily through her system.

“Wow.” She could feel him rearranging himself around her, tugging her closer in and nuzzling at her temple. “Finally,” she slurred, “I know exactly what your hands can do.”

He chuckled, pressing his lips against her hair. “Finally?”

“Wondered,” she yawned, letting him arrange her more fully against his chest and spreading her hand out against one pectoral muscle. “My hypothesis was correct.”

“Your hyp... no, course you did. What was that, then?” 

“We are most definitely sexually compatible.” Grinning, she gave his neck a kiss. “I cannot wait until we have penetrative sex.”

Fitz wheezed above her. “Jemma, you can’t – just say things like that!”

She wrinkled her nose, tracing nonsensical patterns over his skin. “But that’s how I feel.”

Exhaling, he let out a small laugh. “Yeah, I – me, too. But I liked doing that.” He stretched back and tilted her head up, giving her an adoring smile. “Did you...” he trailed off, expression faltering. “...Like that?”

“Oh, yes,” she murmured, having recovered enough to stretch up for a languid, affectionate kiss. “I’d like you to do that again, too.” 

“Good,” he sighed, leaning his forehead against hers. Their limbs were completely tangled together, skin to skin to skin, and Jemma let her eyes slip shut as she hoped that they would have many more nights that ended exactly like this one. 

“Are you done with your human stuff yet?”

Fitz groaned at the sound of his dæmon’s voice, and Jemma giggled. “Well,” she answered, tone playful, “for the moment, but Fitz has a little problem we’ll have to take care of eventually.”

“Little,” he exclaimed indignantly, causing her to laugh harder.

No,” she insisted through her giggles, “Fitz, that’s n–”

“Not what she said to me,” Caedmon interrupted, finishing Jemma’s sentence in a way she had very much not expected, and she twisted around to stare at her dæmon. 

“What?”

“After the summer in London,” he clarified, and she let out a small squeak.

No!

“Jemma?” She groaned and turned back around to bury her face in Fitz’s neck. “What’s he talking about?”

Allowing herself to whine a little bit in pure mortification, Jemma didn’t answer immediately. “Okay, but you just – it wasn’t my fault,” she said, allowing Fitz to move back enough to see her face but not meeting his eyes. “I didn’t mean to... but you were there, and....” 

“You didn’t mean to what?” 

Jemma squeezed her eyes shut tight and covered her face with her hands. “OnemorningwhenweweresharingmybedyouhadanerectionadnIcouldfeelit.” 

No.”

She gave him a small nod, peeking through her fingers at the horrified expression on his face. 

“If it helps,” Caedmon interjected from the floor, “she was very complimentary.” 

“I cannot believe I told you that,” Jemma groaned, dropping her head to the mattress. 

“You were drunk,” he added helpfully, and she gave brief but serious thought to locking her own dæmon in her bedroom the next time she and Fitz decided to fool around. 

“Complimentary, eh?” When she glanced up, Fitz waggled his eyebrows, and she whacked him half-heartedly on the shoulder.

“Oh, don’t start. Need I remind you about your reaction to these?” She gestured at her breasts, which Fitz leaned back to see. 

He let out a happy sigh, staring adoringly at them. “Nope, I remember. God’s gift, they are.” 

“Quick, say something to remind me you’re a genius,” she deadpanned, trying not to smile.

“Love you, don’t I? Probably the smartest thing I’ve ever done.” His expression was a mix of affection and shyness that Jemma didn’t quite understand, and she made a quiet tutting noise, smoothing her hand up his chest. Considering the fact that – as far as she knew – he’d never been in a relationship with anyone, he was astoundingly good at being romantic.

“You can’t take all the credit for that,” Sarama said, causing Fitz to stretch up and stare at her over Jemma’s bare shoulder. “I mean, I’m the one who talked to them first. To Caedmon, anyway.” Just as Fitz was giving Jemma an exaggerated eye-roll, the lizard continued: “And I settled like this.” 

Fitz exhaled, dropping back onto the mattress as if he wanted to check out of the conversation, but Jemma twisted around so that she could see the two dæmons over the side of the bed. 

“Settled like what?” 

“Sarama thinks,” Fitz began, staring determinedly up at the ceiling with one hand behind his head. “That she settled as a shingleback skink ‘cause –”

“They mate for life,” Sarama finished for him, and Jemma turned back around to stare, open-mouthed, at the lizard. She rubbed her small, scaly head against Caedmon’s paw – which was almost as long as her entire body – and gazed up at him. “I only wanted to settle when we became friends with you.” 

“You really think that?” Jemma breathed, twisting around again. “Fitz?”

“I mean,” he said gruffly, keeping his eyes averted, “obviously that’s not the only reason, and she’s been dead useful in creating the designs for that new armorwear.” His face was becoming distinctly pink, and she scooted in closer, hair falling over one shoulder as she looked down at him. “But, I dunno, maybe. We’ve been pretty sure for a while that we wouldn’t want anyone else. Not in the same way, anyway.”

Reaching over to tilt his chin up so that he’d meet her gaze, Jemma was speechless for a few moments. His eyes were a dark, intense blue, and although there was a shyness hanging around his expression, there was a determination, too. As if he was embarrassed about what he was saying, but also didn’t want to hide anymore. And Jemma was so, deeply grateful for it.

To give herself a few seconds to figure out how to respond, she leaned in to press her lips gently against Fitz’s. Underneath her, he melted into the kiss, one hand coming up to cup the back of her head. The feeling of his skin directly against hers, warm but cooling in the nighttime air, was still new enough that it made her shiver, and she hummed as he angled her mouth open. Somehow, even though she was almost nude in bed with someone else for the first time, Jemma felt comfortable and safe – as if lying like this with Fitz was already perfectly natural.

“We don’t want anyone else either,” she said at last, smoothing her fingers through his hair. “To be with, like this... or in the lab.” He exhaled and broke eye contact, already knowing where she was headed with this, and she pressed herself even closer in. “Please say you’ll come to Sci-Ops, Fitz. We want you there with us. I want you there. But I’m not going to change my dream just because you’re afraid.”

“I’m not afraid,” he argued under his breath, as if he couldn’t help himself, and then sighed. “You’ll be careful?”

Jemma let out a small noise of indignation, resting one hand absently over his heart. “When have you ever known me to ignore lab safety? Or to be reckless at all, frankly.”

Meeting her gaze, his lips twitched up in mischief. “I dunno. Suggesting strip poker and then voluntarily taking all your clothes off in someone else’s bed is a bit reckless, eh?”

“God,” she groaned, dropping her forehead to his chest, “I am never going to live that down, am I?”

“Dunno why you’d want to live it down, best night of my life.” Her attempt to poke him in retaliation only resulted in him chuckling and letting out a happy sigh as he rubbed one hand up and down her spine.

“I was mildly sexually frustrated,” she muttered against his skin. 

Fitz let out a bark of dry laughter. “You cannot talk to me about being sexually frustrated.”

Raising one eyebrow, she pursed her lips as she pulled back to meet his eyes. “And why not?” 

“Not because you can’t be, or anything,” he hurried to add, clearly sensing the impending argument she was already building in her head about how girls had just as much of a sex drive as boys. “But, I – uh. Swear you’ll never tell anyone else this? Ever?” 

“Of course not.”

His nose wrinkled, and he linked his fingers around her side, as if he was trying to keep her from withdrawing. “At the party, after we... ah, finished in the closet?” She nodded. “I had to go into the bathroom to, y’know....” He moved one hand away to make a quick wanking motion.

“No!” Jemma devolved into giggles, clapping one hand over her mouth. “Oh, Fitz, you didn’t!”

“It wouldn’t go away! The – the dæmon thing happened, and then we were.... And I had to do something! Couldn’t go back downstairs with a stonner, could I?”

“Couldn’t you have just,” she started, floundering a bit for an alternative, “hidden it?” 

“It was noticeable,” Sarama chimed in. 

“Oh, Fitz,” Jemma repeated, stretching up to brush their noses together. “I can’t believe you did that.”

“Me neither,” he grumbled. “Could only think about you, too, and I felt wretched about it after.”

She felt like she should probably scold or tease him some more, but her mind wandered elsewhere. “What did you think about?” 

As she stared down at him, darting her tongue out to wet her lips, his pupils dilated ever so slightly. “Ah, well, that night it was sort of... like, your boobs and your voice. Didn’t need much to, er, finish.” He gave her a rueful smile. “Got more detailed later.”

“Fascinating,” she murmured, trying to remember if he could have even felt her breasts against him that night. They must have been pressed very tightly together indeed. “I’ll admit,” she said, scooting up a little along his body, “I’m curious about what the others were.”

Pink tinged his cheeks, and he swallowed thickly. “Maybe, uh, another night.”

Awwwww. But maybe I could use some ideas to help with your... situation,” she said, pouting prettily. His blush deepened.

“You did great on your own,” he croaked, eyes riveted to where she was trailing her fingers down his stomach. His abdominal muscles twitched under her touch. 

“But I want to get something out of this, too, you know. It won’t be fair if you come again and I only come once. It’s also very unusual for it to be the guy rather than the girl,” she added thoughtfully. “So I think you should tell me one of your fantasies about me to make it even.”

“She really does deserve to know,” Caedmon added from the floor, and Jemma gave Fitz a significant look. “Her body and all.”

“Thank you, Caed,” she said, turning to grin widely at her dæmon.

The lion lifted his head just enough to give her a small nod, the corner of his mouth tilting upwards. His own ambivalence about sex aside, she could tell from just looking at him how purely happy he was in this moment. When they’d arrived at the Academy four years ago, Jemma had wondered if they’d ever be able to find someone who would understand and accept them for who they were. Now, they had Fitz and Sarama, and she had no intention of ever letting them go again. 

“It’s embarrassing,” Fitz mumbled, and she hunted around until she found the tube of hand lotion on the bedside table. 

“I think,” Jemma said, sliding up alongside him again, “you’ll find that you recover from that quite quickly.” Nipping at his earlobe, she could feel his hips shift restlessly next to her. 

“Alright,” he said at last, voice hoarse. “You have the purple knickers and bra on.” 

“Really,” she breathed, brushing her lips up and over his skin until their noses touched. “On?”

He swallowed and gave a quick nod. “On. So I can – ah,” he halted, a distinct blush fading into his cheeks. “So I can take ‘em off.”

Jemma grinned as Fitz began, haltingly, to tell her one of his fantasies. Eventually, she promised herself, she’d reintroduce the idea of them doing tests on what kinds of responses they each elicited by touching each other’s dæmons. After all, it was a rare opportunity for learning about the scientific attributes of that phenomenon. But for the moment, she was otherwise occupied by kissing her way down his neck, allowing her hand to draw little circles along the trail of hair that lead into his boxers.

They were too busy exploring their new relationship; the science, for the first time in Jemma Simmons’ life, could wait.

 

-----

 

The End (of their Beginning)

Chapter Text

Nine years later

 

Overnight, a distinct chill had settled over the apartment, and when Jemma awoke she instinctively went searching for the nearest source of warmth, blindly shifting around in the bed until she found Fitz’s torso. Not wanting to open her eyes, she simply curled around his back and nuzzled into his cotton tee over his spine, drifting back into sleep for a few moments longer. As always at this early hour, though, her biorhythms had other plans, and eventually she had to admit that she was awake and was likely to stay that way. She refused to move just yet, taking supreme joy in the knowledge that this was the first morning of the rest of their lives together. Or at least, the first morning in their brand new bed in their brand new apartment together. 

Once her body’s usual morning needs became more insistent, however, Jemma sighed and set about scooting gently away from Fitz so as not to wake him. Fortunately for her, he slept like a rock and always had, so he barely even moved as she slipped out of their bed. Instead of continuing on to the bathroom, however, she stopped in her tracks at the sight of the shredded ends of the air mattress that they’d blown up last night for the dæmons, a placeholder until the ordered daybed arrived.

“Oh no,” she breathed, bending down automatically to trail her fingers over the ripped rubber edges. Caedmon was fast asleep, curled into a tight ball in the center of the flattened bed, and she reached out to scrunch her hand into his mane.

“He had a nightmare,” came Sarama’s whispered voice, and Jemma looked down to see the lizard emerging from beneath his mane. “Did you wake...?”

“I’m... not sure.” Jemma sighed, her brows furrowing as she tried to remember. She and Caedmon tended to have different reactions and triggers to their PTSD – he’d never experienced any problems after 8/8, for example, while they had both suffered in varying ways in the aftermath of their time on the dark planet. “I think I may have had a bad dream, but I... I don’t think I woke up. If –” A small snore emitted from the bed, and she twisted her head around to look at the Fitz-shaped lump. After a few seconds, nothing else happened; it seemed that he had managed to stay asleep. Jemma turned back to the lizard with a half-smile. “I need the loo, but I’ll come get you after?” 

Sarama nodded, and, after giving the sleeping lion one more affectionate scratch, Jemma pushed herself to her feet. Her morning ablutions didn’t take long, and in what felt like no time at all she returned to the bedroom and scooped Sarama into her arms. The tingle that came from touching the dæmon of her best friend in the world spread through her chest, and she smiled; although it was familiar after all this time, it still felt like calm and comfort of the purest kind. 

“That feels nice,” the lizard murmured, wriggling closer in against Jemma’s stomach. “You’re warm.” 

“Thanks mostly to your human,” Jemma teased, squinting as they arrived in the brightly sunlit kitchen. After taking a second to settle Sarama more securely on her left forearm, she then set about making two mugs of tea. Fitz didn’t know it yet, but she had every plan of waking him up shortly; their first morning in the apartment was too exciting to waste with him sleeping through it. 

“You can put me down, y’know,” Sarama chuckled.

Jemma paused where she’d been in the midst of awkwardly balancing two mugs in her right hand. “But you said I was warm.”

“I’ll be fine until you finish the tea,” the dæmon retorted wryly, and Jemma let out a small tsk.

“Oh, fine then.” Putting down the mugs as gently as she could, Jemma trotted over to the kitchen’s outer counter, on which she’d set their electric teakettle the night before. No British household was complete without a kettle of some kind, and she’d made sure that it was one of the very first things they’d unpacked.

As Jemma set Sarama down next to the kettle, the sun glinted off the long scar that split the scales along her left side, from when Caedmon had enclosed her in his mouth to swim her up from the bottom of the ocean. In the aftermath of their attempted sacrifice, there had been a period of time when Sarama ceased talking at all, so being able to have full conversations with her now still made Jemma immensely happy. Sometimes, one or the other of them mentioned how Fitz and his dæmon had gone through slightly different symptoms during their own therapy and recovery period, and Jemma thought that maybe, one day, they could conduct a real study on the effect of trauma on a human and their dæmon. It could truly help people who had suffered or changed in the way that the four of them had, and she looked forward to a time when their work with SHIELD slowed enough that they could afford the time.

Letting her fingers linger over the crown of the lizard’s head in a brief pet, Jemma gave her an affectionate smile and then disconnected the kettle from its base to make filling easier.

“So, Caed’s nightmare?” Although they were down the hall from the bedroom now, she kept her voice low to avoid waking the others – Caedmon, apparently, would do well with a bit of a lie-in.

Sarama gave her stumpy tail a small wiggle of distress. “I don’t think it was one of the bad ones, not really. He won’t say, but I think he was more upset when he woke up and felt that the bed had... y’know.”

Turning off the tap, Jemma let out a slow exhale. She was well aware of how impatient they both were to be “finished with” their recovery, but as Andrew had once told her, that process can take entire lifetimes and should not be rushed. Fitz agreed from experience, and seemed far better adjusted than she ever felt these days. Caedmon continued to have the most difficult time of them all.

“How’ve you two been?”

Jemma finished reattaching the kettle to the base and turned it on, gratified by the swift whoosh that meant the water would be boiling shortly. “Better,” she answered quietly, giving Sarama a tight smile. “Much better. He’s started telling me about his dreams, which is –” 

“Good,” the lizard finished for her, crawling to the edge of the table. “We didn’t like it when you weren’t talking. Neither of us.”

Nodding, Jemma averted her eyes to keep them from welling up. It had been over seven months now since she and Caedmon had made up, but their relationship hadn’t yet quite gotten back to the way it used to be, since before the dark planet or even before Fitz and Sarama’s near-sacrifice in the pod.

When she gathered herself and returned to the counter with the mugs, she let a reflexive smile break across her face at the sight of the lizard. “At least,” she said, voice light and teasing, “I always had you and Fitz to sort me out.” Leaning on the counter, she stretched forward to brush her nose against Sarama’s scaly snout, and the dæmon giggled. Abruptly, they both let out small “oh’s,” and Jemma straightened. “They’re awake,” she whispered, and Sarama nodded in agreement. Both of them had felt the telltale sensation that meant Fitz was touching Caedmon.

“I always liked you better than Fitz anyway,” Sarama joked, and Jemma grinned as she reached for the steaming kettle.

“Well, obviously. I’m much nicer.” 

“And neater,” Sarama added, both of them chuckling as Jemma scooped her onto one arm.

Since her shoulders weren’t broad enough to support the lizard the way Fitz did, Jemma had to juggle the two filled tea mugs while holding Sarama in one hand. Her walk back to the bedroom was slow, but she managed it, and her careful progress meant that the other two didn’t notice her entrance. Fitz was on his knees next to the lion, carding his fingers through Caedmon’s mane. His words were too quiet to hear, but he seemed to be murmuring something soothing to the dæmon. Caedmon’s eyes were open but averted, head tilting into Fitz’s affection.

At the sound of Jemma putting the two mugs on the dresser (with more clunking than intended, although she managed not to spill any of the hot liquid), Fitz and the lion looked up them. Caedmon’s expression brightened slightly, presumably at the sight of the lizard in Jemma’s arms, and a wide smile spread across Fitz’s face. The sunlight caught his stubble in a particularly fetching way, his hair sleep-rumpled and eyes bright, and she found herself smiling reflexively back.

“Morning,” he said, glancing down at the lion and giving him one more good scratch before scrambling to his feet.

“Morning,” Jemma answered. She waited for him to stride over to her and then stretched up onto her toes to give him a quick kiss.

“Be right back.” Fitz squeezed her arms before moving away, and he took note of the tea she’d brought with her. “Ooh, thanks, it’s –”

“Bloody freezing,” she finished for him, and he nodded emphatically before disappearing into their bathroom. “Would you –” Jemma started to say, looking down at the lizard, but Sarama interrupted her.

“Put me with Caedmon, please?” 

After dropping a quick kiss onto her scaly head, Jemma gently placed the lizard by Caedmon’s front paws, and, as they’d done for going on thirteen years, Sarama quickly insinuated herself between them. 

“Alright?” Jemma whispered to her dæmon, crouching down to scrunch his mane firmly between the fingers of both hands.

“Alright,” he answered quietly, raising his head enough that Jemma could press their foreheads together. Even if things still weren’t quite right between them yet, they were still two integral parts of the same being. That kind of bond was not so easily severed – although it might, sometimes, stretch when tested.

The scrape of her dæmon’s short, rough fur against her skin soothed the anxiety that had wormed into her stomach at seeing and feeling his distress, and she let out a slow exhale. As much as she had been worried about his nightmare, she was mostly still relieved that he was talking to her again. The scars from their five months on the dark planet were deep and plentiful, but having her own dæmon refuse to speak to her upon their return had been the worst of them all.

The bathroom door creaked open, and Jemma wrinkled her nose as she turned to see Fitz pad over to grab the two mugs of tea. “We’re going to have to –” 

“Oil the hinges,” he finished, gesturing with the mugs towards the bed. “Yeah, s’on my list for today.”

Pushing herself to her feet, Jemma reached over to take the mug he held out and transferred it to her bedside table. Fitz watched, a puzzled look on his face, as she slid back under the sheets and covers.

“I thought I was ready,” she mumbled into the cotton, waving her hand for him to join her. “But it’s too cold out. Tea later.”

Fitz let out something between a snort and a laugh, and, putting his mug on his own side table, swiftly joined her under the covers. Jemma sighed happily as he curled himself around her back, wrapping one arm over hers under the blankets and molding himself to her as best as he was able with them both fully clothed. Where she’d been on the brink of shivering a few seconds before, in seconds Fitz’s warmth enveloped her, and she could feel it seeping through their pajamas and into her skin. With a little rearranging, she laid her head comfortably on his arm, entangling her right hand with his. 

Their matching vibranium wedding bands glinted in the sunlight streaming through the slats of their blinds, and she found herself staring at them again. It was fascinating how something as silly as vows and a piece of paper could make their relationship feel new again. Yet, after all this time, she felt like she was about to embark on a completely different type of adventure together, and having that ridiculous, ceremonial, socially-antiquated piece of paper somehow provided Jemma with a sense of belonging that she hadn’t known she needed. As much as it had been implied for years and years, now they had promised in front of the whole world (or, at least, a clergyman in Bucharest) that they would spend the rest of their lives loving and taking care of each other. The rings and legal document somehow made that permanence more real.

“What happened to making, and I quote, ‘full use of the breakfast nook on the first day in our new home’?” he teased, nuzzling into her hair. 

She laughed and burrowed more securely under the covers. “The breakfast nook can wait until it’s warmed up a bit.” Her brows furrowed. “You might want to –”

“Put the heater on my repair list, yeah,” Fitz mumbled against her skin. “On it.”

The cooling sheets finally began to warm up in their cuddled cocoon, his lips continued to amble over the back of her neck, and she let her eyes slip closed. Neither of them seemed to be in any rush to get to their respective apartment-related to-do lists for the day, and if she fell asleep in her husband’s arms for another hour or so, Jemma supposed it wouldn’t be the worst use of her time. 

After a little while, however, Fitz shifted his hips behind her at the same time that he nipped gently at her skin, and she realized that he was growing hard. Although his new plan for the morning was becoming abundantly clear, he didn’t make any obvious moves towards that end – yet. So she let herself bask in his attention and a light buzz of growing anticipation.

A grin flashed across her face as she thought wryly about how this would be their first time having morning sex in their new home. Her thoughts drifted to their many other firsts, landing finally on the first time they had made love. It had been a couple months since they’d started dating, and although in some ways the night had been a bit awkward, Jemma wouldn’t trade those memories for the world.

 

------

 

Nine years ago

 

Somewhere on the floor of Jemma’s room, Caedmon and Sarama were busy snuggling. Aside from the fact that common sense told her so, the feedback from Jemma’s dæmon was a feeling of peace and contentment so strong that it radiated through her own body. The more time she and Fitz spent exploring their own sexualities together, the better she was becoming at separating the responses she received from Caedmon and her own responses to Fitz. At that moment, he was kissing his way down her bare abdomen where she lay on her bed, skin tingling in the cool air as much as in anticipation.

After two months of waiting and experimenting in about every other way possible, tonight was the night that they’d agreed it was finally time to have penetrative sex. Fitz had wrinkled his nose at the phrase, as usual, but she’d retorted that they’d technically been having sex for weeks already – oral sex was a form of sex all on its own. His cheeks had reddened and he’d mumbled his agreement. As much as he was always sweet and thoughtful about their physical relationship, getting him to talk about it was still rather like pulling teeth. 

Once his lips reached the inner crease of her right thigh, he glanced up to meet her gaze and pointedly spread her legs apart, resting her left one on his shoulder. On any other night, Jemma might’ve made a teasing remark, but as it was she was currently preoccupied by the thought of having sex for the first time. So instead, she just bit her bottom lip and tilted her head up in a subtle challenge, as if to ask him what he was waiting for. From where he was lying on his stomach at the end of the bed, Fitz paused, raising up onto his elbows to study her face from between her thighs. As comfortable as she was being naked around her boyfriend now, the awareness of it still made her want to wiggle a little in shyness.

After a moment, let out a small puff of air and then, to her disappointment, scrambled back up the bed so he was propped above her, and then pressed an ardent kiss to her mouth. His left hand skimmed slowly over her breast and she shivered into a grin. Jemma wasn’t sure why he’d stopped what he’d been about to do, but no matter what, he was eternally powerless to resist touching her breasts whenever given the opportunity. Even if, these days, he mostly had a blanket invitation to do so when they went to bed.

“What’s wrong?”

Jemma stretched back against the pillow to give her boyfriend an incredulous look. “I was about to ask you the same question!”

“You looked a bit... off,” he said quietly, shifting to lie on his side next to her. Jemma followed, pressing herself against him as much as she could. Against her hip, she could feel his erection through his boxers, and he sucked in a breath at the brief moment of friction. His distraction was short-lived, though, and he raised his eyes to meet hers. “If you don’t want to – you know, we don’t have to tonight –” 

“What?!” Jemma let out a distinct noise of frustration, shimmying away and pushing herself into a sitting position on the mattress. “Fitz, I....” As her mind spun, he pushed hurriedly up next to her, and she tried not to feel hurt. It was ridiculous for a part of her to still be convinced that he would never care for her as she did him, and yet that fear had flared up yet again – at what was probably a completely unconnected moment. 

After she’d given herself a few moments to form her thoughts, she glanced back at where he was now staring at her, brows drawn together in worry. “Fitz, do you... I just don’t understand. Are you, I don’t know, not interested in sex? That kind of sex? Because every time we get close, you push it off, and I’m –”

He’d started shaking his head emphatically as soon as she’d gotten the question out, and then he blurted an overloud: “No!” When she just looked blankly back at him, utterly nonplussed, he quickly continued. “I wanna have sex with you, Jemma, I do –”

“He’s telling the truth,” came Sarama’s voice from somewhere on the other side of Jemma’s room. “Wanked about it enough.”

“Youjstshhh–” Fitz gritted through his teeth, throwing out one hand towards the dæmons and clenching his fist. “Shh – don’t – that’s not the point,” he said quickly, turning pointedly back to Jemma with an amusing almost-flounce, and grabbed her hand. “I want us to have sex –”

“Me, too,” she murmured, scooting a couple inches towards him and pressing one hand to the center of his chest. “You know I do.” 

Mouth still open from when she’d interrupted him, he blinked, expression softening from earnest concern to adoration. “Right,” he whispered, eyes dropping to her lips. Just as he leaned forward and Jemma’s stomach swooped in anticipation, he gave his head a small shake, apparently bringing himself back on track. “But I want it to be right, y’know? And I don’t wanna hurt you.” 

“Oh, Fitz,” she half-sighed, half-groaned. Jemma had wondered whether her frank talk a couple weeks ago about what to expect their first time had scared him off, and it seemed she’d been at least somewhat right. “I told you, that’s just how it’s going to be at least the first time, maybe a couple more.”

He wrinkled his nose in an unbearably adorable way. “I know. And I knew that before, too, y’know.” His lips twitched up at the corners. “Even without the diagrams.”

“The diagrams were useful!” Jemma let out an annoyed huff, shooting a quick glare at the chortle that came from the large, fuzzy shadow at the end of the bed. “But never mind that. Fitz,” she said, reaching out to grab both his hands. “I want to have penetrative sex with you.” 

“Must’ve been Casanova in another life,” drawled the lion, and Jemma made an annoyed tsk before pursing her lips. 

“You were right,” she said to Fitz, “we should’ve locked them in your room.”

“Told you,” he retorted, rolling his eyes at Sarama’s indignant gasp. 

“We deserve to be here, too,” the lizard called out from where she was presumably cuddled next to the lion. “It’s important to all of us.”

“So stop interrupting,” Fitz muttered. 

Once his gaze again met Jemma’s, she gave his hands a small squeeze. “You are... the right person for us. For me. And I want to know what it feels like when we... when you....” She trailed off, unsure how to phrase what she was thinking without it sounding either cheesy or pornographic, and he raised one hand to cup her cheek. His thumb brushed against her skin, and she let a hesitant smile spread across her face. “I’m ready, Fitz.”

“Me, too,” he breathed, pressing their foreheads together. “Christ, me too.”

The curls at his hairline tickled her skin, and she let her eyes slip shut. “So stop procrastinating and make love to me already.” 

Fitz inhaled, and he tilted his head forward to kiss her slowly, one hand curling around her shoulder and making goosebumps shiver up across her skin. “Yes, ma’am.”

Within only a few more moments, Jemma was lying on the bed, watching Fitz as he finished rolling on the condom and then climbed up over her. Her legs bent up instinctively as his head drew even with hers, her breasts bouncing slightly as he jostled the mattress.

She was struck by a sudden sense of vulnerability; in some ways, their current position wasn’t new to her. Early on in their romantic relationship, she’d discovered that her boyfriend had an affinity for peeling off her clothes piece by piece – especially before he went down on her. But now, with Fitz settling his hips between her thighs and his chest close enough to brush against her breasts, she felt much smaller than she would have expected.

To stave off her uncharacteristic bout of nerves, Jemma reached up to cup Fitz’s jaw with one hand, bringing him close enough that she could feather her lips over his.

“Jemma,” he whispered, swallowing thickly as he stared down at her. His pupils were dilated such that she could only see the barest ring of blue in the dim lighting of her room, and she thought she felt the barest tremble run through his body. “I’m so – you’re...” he started, pausing and taking a deep breath before he finished. “I love you.”

Another wide smile split Jemma’s face, and she nuzzled up at him. Although neither of them said that to each other very often – she sensed that they were both acutely aware of how new this romance was between them – hearing it out loud made her happy in a way she couldn’t express. Almost like the verbal equivalent of having him pet her dæmon.

“I love you, too,” she murmured back, catching his lips in a kiss that was sweet and deep and, possibly, a little too serious for something like this. “Go on.”

At her little nod, Fitz took a deep breath, tilted to support himself on one arm, and slipped his hand down between them. Pleasure darted through her as he circled his fingers around her clit, and her eyes slipped shut. Shortly, though, he reached down to guide himself to her entrance, and Jemma made sure that she met his gaze just as he found the right angle and pushed forward. They both inhaled sharply, and she wrapped one hand around his arm.

Stifling a groan, he leaned his forehead against hers as he continued pushing into her body. After a couple inches, the uncomfortable pinching sensation she’d expected hit, and she cringed, a quiet noise of pain escaping her throat before she could rein it in. Fitz stopped instantly, looking wildly down at her.

“Did I –?!”

“It’s okay,” she interrupted, trying to distract herself from the discomfort by angling her legs back even more. “I’ll adjust, keep going.”

After digging both his elbows more securely into the mattress on either side of her, he continued his first, steady thrust until she felt their hips meet. As much as she’d been expecting it, the stretch of him fully inside her was sharper than she had hoped. Jemma had to duck her head against his shoulder to hide the pained expression on her face, little breaths panting out of her mouth as she tried to convince her muscles to loosen.

At the same time, she began to feel an entirely new sensation spread out from where they were joined. Something warm, and exciting, and shiver-inducing that she’d never felt before. It was connected to their dæmons somehow, as if the typically affectionate feedback they received from the two of them touching was amplified by Fitz being inside her. Her mind began to spin as she processed the feeling, thinking about what she’d learned in her recent readings, how most dæmons were not tactile until their humans had been serious about each other for quite some time. She wondered, then, if they were experiencing something extremely rare – this overwhelming sensation of love multiplied by having sex for the first time.

“Do you feel that?” he eked out, and she nodded against his skin.

“Yes,” she whispered breathily. “What is – it’s – it’s new.”

“New,” Fitz agreed shakily, pressing their chests closer together. “Christ.”

“It’s amazing.” Jemma let out an involuntary little whimper as she tried to tilt her hips towards him and was reminded abruptly of the pinching sensation that was lessening far too slowly. Impatient to be able to truly lose herself in Fitz, she reached between them to stroke her fingertips against herself, sighing in relief as the pleasure distracted from the discomfort.

Above her, Fitz let out a low, strangled noise and dropped his face against her neck, mumbling into her skin. Her muscles clenched and released as she adjusted to his presence inside her, and whatever words he was muttering came faster. 

“Berkelium,” she heard him mumble at last, “Curium, Americuium, Plutonium, Neptunium....”

Jemma burst into laughter, panting against his skin and using one hand to get him to raise his head. “Fitz,” she giggled breathlessly, “why are you reciting the periodic elements? Backwards?!”

He grunted, and she could feel the tension in his muscles as he fought to hold himself still. “Keep control. Backward ‘cause forward’s too easy.”

Giggling, she brushed her nose against his and licked her lips, dry from her heavy breathing. "Can I help? Uranium, Protactinium, Thorium...." 

Eyes widening in panic, he shook his head vigorously, hips stuttering forward and forcing a little gasp out of her throat. "No," he eked out, "no, no, don't help!" When she raised her eyebrows in silent question, he exhaled slowly, pressing their foreheads together again. "That just... just makes it... harder. Er, I mean - worse? But not worse...." 

With a small laugh, Jemma stretched up to capture his lips in a languid, sensual kiss. "Liked that, did you?" she breathed, wrapping one arm tightly around his shoulders. Tilting her hips up, she encouraged him back into action, murmuring against his lips to distract herself from the continued adjustment of her inner muscles. "Actinium," she whispered, and Fitz groaned, eyes fluttering closed on his next slow thrust. "Radium, Francium...."

Slowly but surely, they began to move together, and her teasing faded into quiet gasps and moans. Just like most of their relationship, their first time was a little awkward, and a little unsure, but in the end, she wouldn’t have it be any other way.

 

------

 

Back to the present

 

As Fitz sucked a love mark into existence on Jemma’s shoulder, she drew herself out of her memories and back into the present. Comparing his current confidence and comfort to his younger self’s nerves and awed reverence really was almost like thinking about two different people. They had both changed immeasurably since then; somehow, in fact, she was sure that she loved the man next to her today even more than she had back then, although she’d once thought that impossible. 

Unaware of her nostalgic musings, Fitz stretched over her to nibble at her earlobe, bringing her attention squarely back on the designs he had for the rest of their morning. A low laugh escaped her throat, and she half-twisted her head around so she could just see him in her peripheral vision.

“I was thinking,” he murmured against her neck, breath feathering beneath the collar of her pajama shirt. “We didn’t really test out the bed well enough last night.”

Certain memories from the night before popped into Jemma’s head, and her cheeks warmed. “What, three times wasn’t enough for you?”

“One of those was on the couch,” he reminded her, and she drew her bottom lip between her teeth. He was right about that. (And the couch had performed quite admirably under their enthusiastic ministrations.) “Wanna make sure we get our money’s worth with this mattress, y’know.”

She rolled her eyes, but didn’t stop him as he shifted to allow his erection to press against the lower curve of her arse and then slipped one hand beneath her pajama shirt. His hand slid over her skin, heatedly, predictably up to cup her bare breast, and a little sigh escaped her lips. After so many years together – stops, starts, and trauma aside – he knew exactly how she liked to be touched, and while she’d been tempted to taunt him only a few seconds before, now she was effectively distracted.

His thumb made a particularly pleasing flick over her nipple, and she drew her bottom lip between her teeth. She tilted her head back over his arm to rest on the pillow, opening herself up pointedly to his ministrations.

“Yeah?” he breathed against her cheek, and she shuddered as his hand slid down underneath the hem of her trousers and between her thighs. 

Automatically, she bent her right knee up to give him space, and she was rewarded by the feeling of his two forefingers stroking over her clit. A breathy sound of pleasure escaped her throat, her hips twitching as she resisted their instinct to move. Last night, he’d wound her up two times over with his lips and tongue, so she had absolutely no objections to him using his hand now.

“Yeah,” she answered, eyelids fluttering closed.

Despite the somewhat awkward angle, she twisted her head around so their lips to could meet in a brief, ardent kiss, and then turned back to make herself comfortable. His fingers meandered away from the most sensitive part of her, stroking and teasing within her folds and making heat bloom throughout her body. The memory of the first time she’d guided Fitz into getting her off popped into her head as he dipped two fingers just inside where she was becoming slick in anticipation of him, and a smile flashed across her face. That had been a long time ago; now, he needed no instruction (even though, occasionally, he still enjoyed receiving it).

Just as she began to feel impatient, he seemed to lose some of his self-control, his hips rocked against her, and his fingers returned to rub circles directly over her clit. Jemma let out a strangled cry of pleasure, that very specific tension building at her center. With arousal shivering through her whole body now, she reached around to push weakly at the hem of his boxers, gratified when he made a low noise of excitement and immediately twisted to shuck them off. Both of them reached beneath the sheets simultaneously to tug off or push down Jemma’s pajama bottoms and pants, and within seconds Fitz once again had his arms wrapped around her torso, body curled tightly in against her back. Now she could feel his cock pressing heatedly between her folds, and she licked her lips, spreading her legs as much as she could where they were tangled with his.

Fitz didn’t move immediately, though, instead tightening his hold around her arms and latching his mouth onto the sensitive skin just beneath her ear. His hips rolled forward enough that his cock slid over her entrance, and she bucked her own hips back. It was exhilarating torture having him tease her. A distinct whine worked its way out of her as he didn’t move to slide into her, and she flushed further. Many days, she was the instigator, but in this position they both needed to move together to make it work. And right now, he was moving far too slowly for the way he was teasing her. 

“Fitz,” she moaned, writhing slightly in his hold, “Fitz, please, just....”

Taking her cue at last, he released her hand so that he could guide himself to her entrance and then thrust smoothly inside, and Jemma whimpered in relief and arousal. She’d had her IUD for years now, since their first year at Sci-Ops when she’d determined it would simply be more cost-efficient than continuing to buy cartons of condoms, and during every first stroke of him into her body she praised herself for the decision. Even after all this time, that sense of perfect fullness and friction never lessened. The extended groan he released behind her as his hips stilled, having slid in as far as he could go at this angle, told her that he definitely agreed.

Jemma’s hips rolled back to meet Fitz’s strong, languid thrusts, and she reveled in all the different, wonderful places inside of her that his cock managed to brush against at this angle. She wanted to see his face, watch the bright blue of his eyes darken in desire just before his lids fluttered almost closed, see the bowed flush of his lips, but their position this morning made that impossible. Just as she was considering turning around, he reached down to hike her right leg up to allow himself to thrust deeper, harder inside of her, and she let out a breathy cry as the head of his cock brushed against her G-spot. Pleasure jolted through her, and all thoughts of doing anything other than keeping herself moving in time with her husband flew rapidly out of her head.

A sheen of sweat broke out on her skin, and she wondered dimly how she could ever have been cold in this room. With Fitz twined around her and the blankets covering them, she was far too warm now, and she moved her right hand to begin unbuttoning her pajama shirt. He hadn’t bothered to remove his own tee either, and she could feel the cloth bunching together in between her back and his chest. 

Fitz let out a low chuckle, interrupting himself briefly with an aroused grunt as she clenched around him on his next thrust, and nuzzled at her cheek.

“Still cold?” he deadpanned, voice low and nearly smug, and she bit off a comeback as he ground briefly inside her. For a few seconds, Jemma was halted from her task, eyelids squeezing closed as her breath came short, her whole being focused on the thick slide of Fitz inside her.

Finally, she managed to get the shirt open, cooler air hitting her bare breasts and stomach and causing goosebumps to rise on her flesh. She processed his teasing but didn’t answer, focusing instead on the build of her climax. 

Tilting her head back, she rubbed her cheek against his scratchy one, wanting to feel that closeness but unwilling to risk changing the angle they’d found to send their pleasure skyrocketing. His breath was hot against her jaw, and they sped up, little gasps and breathy sounds eking out of them both. The coil inside her was winding up like a tight spring, foreshocks spreading as her muscles began to tense, and she tried to hold on a little longer, trying to keep up with his movements. Her leg was crooked at an uncomfortable angle to give him more space to move, but a kind of inertia helped her hold this position. Their hips began to meet more roughly, his cock thrusting perfectly over her over-stimulated nerve-endings and pushing her towards the edge no matter how much longer she wanted this to last.

“Oh, Jemma,” Fitz groaned against her skin, snapping his hips forward as quick and hard as possible, and then released her leg so he could cup his fingers over her clit. The feeling of his fingers’ desperate caress had her shaking and shivering until white bloomed in her vision as she fell into a drawn-out, breathtaking climax. Jemma let out a high keening noise, further undone by the last, slick strokes of Fitz’s cock before he came, hilting roughly inside her and groaning against her shoulder, his hand at the apex of her thighs pressing her tightly against him. Their orgasms melded together, extending each until they were little more than a trembling mass of limbs entangled on their bed.

After a few, long moments of recovery, Jemma let herself relax against Fitz, reluctantly shifting so that he slipped out of her and lying back against the bed itself, taking a moment to finally ditch her pajama shirt entirely. Most importantly, though, this made it possible for her to capture his lips in warm, lazy kisses.

The rest of their day would be spent unpacking and fixing a few oddities and squeaks around their new apartment, with Sarama and Caedmon chiefly helping by providing new perspectives on the inspection. They’d spent their entire lives together going from one SHIELD-owned facility to another, but this apartment was theirs, and theirs alone. Jemma couldn’t wait to make it feel like something that belonged to all four of them.

At last, she broke away to catch her breath, and Fitz blinked his eyes open to gaze adoringly down at her. 

“Welcome home,” Fitz whispered, and Jemma let out a breathless laugh against his mouth. His gaze shifted away from her, and she followed his line of sight to land on the dæmons.

They were both still basking in the feedback they received from their humans’ lovemaking, but they’d had enough time to move. Sarama had shifted around so that she had her two front claws propped on one of Caedmon’s paws, allowing her to press their noses together, their breaths coming slightly faster than they might otherwise. Together, they made for an odd image – the slight, black and yellow lizard stretching affectionately towards the large, golden-furred predator. Somehow, Jemma thought, the sight seemed far more natural than it had any right to do. 

“They knew before we did, didn’t they?” Fitz’s voice was quiet, thoughtful, and a soft smile spread across Jemma’s face as she watched the dæmons. 

“Yeah, I think they did.” She entwined her left hand with his right one, resting them on her bare stomach and again admiring the silver-colored ring on his finger. 

So much had happened between now and when she’d first caught a glimpse of Fitz with his shifting, monkey-favoring dæmon in that crowded Academy orientation hall. In spite of all their hardships, a sense of inevitability seemed to hover over their lives – not in terms of fate, or destiny, or the will of the cosmos, because Jemma knew that all of those things were little more than fantasy or fiction. But despite all the odds, the four of them had found their way back to each other time and again, and she rather felt like that had been the only option. Jemma, her dæmon, and Fitz and his dæmon, together simply because they wanted to be. Somehow, despite any alternate paths that they might have taken in any one of an untold number of parallel potential outcomes, they always would have made their way from that Academy classroom to be lying side by side yet again, married and happier than any two people had any right to be.

“But we caught on eventually,” Jemma added, bringing his hand up so that she could kiss his knuckles.

“I knew first,” he said, making himself comfortable against the pillow, and she let out a little scoff against his skin.

“You did not!” Jemma exclaimed indignantly, reaching down to pull the sheets back up. “You thought you could treat me like an experiment and get all the answers that way.” 

“Only answers I’ve ever really wanted,” Fitz murmured, nuzzling in to press his lips to her temple. 

“Oh, Fitz,” she breathed.

They tightened their holds on each other simultaneously, and she took supreme joy in the distinct feeling of his wedding ring where it rested against her skin. Jemma supposed that all these years later, she finally had the answers she’d been seeking about the boy with the unsettled dæmon. He was Fitz, his dæmon was unexpectedly resilient and predictably fascinating, and together he and Jemma were the best partners either could ever imagine.