But the timing was wrong from the start. When they first met, over a Skye in critical condition, it had been only four months since he’d broken up with Shirley, and only a couple of weeks he’d been able to walk around without feeling the big hole in his chest. He didn’t think then he could ever fall in love again, even if he’d wanted to. So while Jemma was warm, and smart and skilled, and her smile sometimes reminded him of Bea’s and sometimes even reminded him of Richie’s, at least after Skye was saved by T.A.H.I.T.I.’s mystery drug, it was simply impossible for anything to come of that.
Instead, he was having sex with girls like her in what was the typical way S.H.I.E.L.D. agents did things, and Jemma told him at one point she’d been doing since her academy days. Liaisons done with people you weren’t assigned to work with regularly, to minimize that kind of complication, but preferably ones you were friends enough with to like and trust, done at least every few months, sometimes more, depending on your sex drive. “It’s a simple matter of health, really,” she said to him after their first time on the plane. It was an idea he was still getting used to at the time, though after that mission, she wasn’t the last fellow agent he slept with. But she was by far the one who showed the most affection. And they did it again when they were in the Hub together, just before the shit *really* hit the fan.
He did like her a lot. That he couldn’t help. They also bonded over telling each other about losing older brothers when they were young, though hers had died of cancer when she’d been too young to remember him very well, and swapped lots of adventure stories. When he heard about her near-death experience at the hands of Chitauri virus, which increased his respect for her tenfold, and she heard about the number of times he had nearly died, she timidly asked him, “Do you ever get less afraid? Of what death would mean?”
“No,” he said. “You can get more confident you won’t actually die, I suppose, but it’s not the same thing. Even if you do believe in God.” It was pretty clear she didn’t, and he couldn’t say much to that, when some days it was pretty hard for him to either.
Their third and last time happened after the Hub was brought back under S.H.I.E.L.D. control. When he lay in his bunk, his tears of rage and horror finally spent, but still allowing himself to shake, the way he had never allowed anyone to see him do besides Marie when he was young, and later Shirley, she came to him. She kissed him until he stilled, and they touched each other carefully, her whispering, her voice trembling, “I’m here. Please, I don’t know what…” and he shushed her and whispered back, “I’m here too. It’s okay,” even though he knew it wasn’t, not for either of them. When they were done, he held her closer than he had ever held anyone, even Shirley.
Once he was going to bunk on their plane, however, she made clear, even before they asked Coulson, that the sexual liaison was going to end, if they were going to be working together every day like that. He agreed it was a good idea. “We’re at war now,” he commented. “You’re my sister-in-arms. Keep things simple.”
Indeed she was, and they kept their growing friendship up. He even dried her tears and found every reason he could to make her smile, as for nine days they stood over another friend in critical condition, although this one was one that left him seriously worried how she’d cope if he didn’t make it through. She also told him about Fitz’s declaration of love, out of a need, she admitted, to confide to someone, swearing him to secrecy. He wasn’t sure why she didn’t talk to Skye about that one instead, but maybe she preferred someone who hadn’t spent months on the plane with both of them. At least learning about it explained a lot. But now, he thought, if she couldn’t get herself to love Fitz back, she might find herself unwilling to sleep with anyone, out of fear of hurting him, especially in the mental condition he was in even after he woke.
By the time he helped rescue her from Hydra, things between them were in a place where he could ask her, among a million other things, if she’d at least gotten laid while away, and when she said, “Yes, once. It was a risk, of course, but there was one night I simply couldn’t stand it anymore and I actually went and picked this guy up at this bar…” he was able to smile when she then dissolved into giggles, and be glad for her.
But much as he understood and respected Jemma’s decision to avoid anything serious developing between them, there were plenty of nights at the Playground, when he felt lonely and so uncertain of whether they would really win this war, and his own hand wasn’t nearly warm enough, that he did think it would’ve been nice had she decided otherwise.