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Life Lessons

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When Melinda is five, she lives with her mom over her uncle and aunt's bakery. Her mom gets up before dark to go downstairs and help with the day's baking before heading to her job at the department store, while Melinda snuggles deeper into bed until her Aunt Jin comes to wake her on her first break. Melinda loves how the tiny, worn apartment smells of fresh baked treats every morning. Her favorite red bean rolls are made on Saturdays, and there is always one that Uncle Gan or Aunt Jin says is too dark to sell. Melinda takes the sweet roll, still warm from the oven, and sits out on the back porch, slowly pinching off pieces and squishing them into thin disks before popping them into her mouth.

One Saturday morning she sees a couple of boys poking an alley cat with a stick. The black cat has a mangled ear and a patch where its hair has fallen out near its tail. It doesn't look good and lets out a yowl each time they poke it; its cries make the boys laugh, and they keep blocking the cat so it can't get out.

Their cruelty makes her very, very angry. She stands up and yells at them, "Leave it alone!"

The boys pay no attention to her, happy with their game of torment the cat.

She stomps her feet, but it doesn't help. She's too little and too much of a girl for them to pay any attention to her.

The cat yowls as one of the boys throws a rock at it.

She'll get in trouble if she leaves the porch -- her mama has made that very clear. She needs to find another way.

The bigger boy picks up another rock.

She tosses her roll down on the napkin. "Stay there," she commands as she run into the bakery. Her uncle is at the mixer, working with a large batch of dough.

"You have to come," she says, grabbing her uncle's big hand and towing him outside and toward the older boys. "You know how to fight, and they won't stop for me."

Her uncle stops laughing as soon as he spies the boys, then he is dragging her across the street to help.

Cleaned up and fed, the lucky cat is much nicer than Melinda imagined, and she promises herself that when she is grown up, she'll make the bad things stop. Her uncle has already promised to start her in t'ai chi ch'uan himself.

On the radio, Kim Carnes's Bette Davis Eyes gives way to Blondie's Rapture as Dawn toddles over to Melinda, who is counting her winnings from the poker game. She sinks down onto the sagging brown couch. "I hate to say this, but you're right. This place sucks."

"The party? Yeah." Melinda glances around. Same faces, same stupid behavior as the last party. The basement is loud, filled with kids singing along to the radio as they dance. There's a pool table at the end of the room where Eric and Miranda are trying to play around the people trying to get to the food and drinks. It smells of sweat and that vague moldy basement scent, and Melinda wants out before someone adds puke to the mix.

"No, not just the party." Dawn waves her hands in the air, her eyes slightly unfocused. "All of this. All of them. Everything. I don't know why I wanted to come." She sounds frustrated, trapped and desperate. "Guess there's nothing else I can do, right? Born here, die here. Nothing else is going on."

"That's bullshit."

Dawn looks at her, confusion written all over her face. "What?"

"That's bullshit." Melinda deliberately enunciates each word as she looks up from her money. "You've been talking like that for months, and you know what? You don't have to stay here. Not at the party and not in this town. You can leave whenever you want."

Dawn takes the cup out of Melinda's hand and drinks. "You know I don't have the grades or the athletic skill for college, not like you and your martial arts. I'm going to end up a divorced mother of two working as a waitress before I'm thirty."

Every time Dawn sounds like that, Melinda wants to shove her into a locker herself. "Then get a different job. Go be an electrician or something. Your uncle is one, right? He can help you with an apprenticeship." She shakes her head as she feels the anger rising, and she clenches her hands into fists. "You are not helpless, Dawn. You do have choices. There is no fate."

The cup slips out of Dawn's hand, spilling out onto the basement rug. "Oh my God.'re serious. You think I can be an electrician."

"Duh. Not every job requires a college education." Melinda picks up the cup and sets it on the coffee table. "Now can we go? I have to be up early tomorrow." The martial arts scholarship she's up for after winning state requires an interview and an evaluation, along with the written essay. It's a full ride if she gets it, and Melinda is determined to try. She's been up early every day for a month putting her routine together, and she probably shouldn't have come tonight, but the lure of separating assholes from their wallets was too strong to resist. "Seriously, can we go?"

"Yeah, sure." Dawn stands up unsteadily and fumbles around in her purse, finally pulling out her keys. "I don't know." She rubs her hand across her forehead. "I just never thought of doing something like that."

"Why? Because you're a girl?" Melinda glances around the room, but thankfully, no one is paying them any attention. The music probably covered anything they had to say. "Girls can do anything, isn't that what they tell us? So stop existing and start doing, okay?"

"Don't be mad at me."

"I'm not mad, I'm frustrated. There's a difference." Melinda takes a deep breath and lets it out, using her breath to help her focus on the now, the way she does in t'ai chi ch'uan. "Promise me you'll take a look at other careers. Promise me you'll do something with yourself."

Dawn blinks her eyes and sighs. "You are so damn insistent, Ms. May. Fine. I'll do what you say, and I will not become a waitress." She holds up her hand in a stop motion. "I'm not giving on the two kids, if I can get Eric involved."

"Whatever floats your boat." Dawn is still holding the keys, so Melinda plucks them out of her hand. "And by the way, I'm driving."

"Since when?" Dawn follows her out of the house to her aging blue Datsun.

"Since now." Melinda opens the door and gets into the driver's side. "I've always liked to drive."

With a snort of laughter, Dawn joins her, and Melinda takes off for home. She drops off both Dawn and her car at Dawn's house with a wave at Dawn's folks, then walks the half-mile back to her place. She likes the full moon and the night air, and the streets are well lit. It's a safe little town, and Melinda can't wait to see the end of it. She wants to go someplace vibrant and exciting, do something other than run a restaurant and bakery empire. There had to be more to life than that.

She frowns as she gets close to home, seeing an unfamiliar black car sitting in the driveway. She checks her watch -- it's barely 9 p.m., which is late for visitors at her house. She picks up the pace, and her mom steps out onto the porch to greet her.

"You have a visitor," she says, smiling brightly. "He's from the scholarship council for SHIELD Academy, and he says they are very interested in you." Her eye twinkle as she adds, "It's a full ride."

Melinda panics momentarily. "I don't remember applying to them. I don't even remember what state they're in!"

Her mom pats her on the arm. "Come inside and listen to him, see what he has to say. You don't have to go there if you don't want, but talk costs nothing."

"I know mom," she says, giving her mother a brief hug. "I get to make my own choices."

SHIELD administration holds a generic holiday party every year, usually a fairly staid and boring potluck in the large conference room upstairs. Melinda usually attends if she's in New York, bringing with her a large batch of Swedish meatballs straight from the freezer and dumped in a crock pot. She sips club soda and talks to all of the support staff she can, making sure they know she considers them important.

The year after Steve Rogers is found, the party's a little different, with a hotel ballroom, a catered dinner, and an actual live band. It's a big band style group, so it's clear where the inspiration comes from, and Melinda likes ballroom dance as much as she likes martial arts – there's something in the mechanistic structure that rocks her socks and leaves her soul satisfied. Rogers is in New York on 'light duty' while everyone checks and double checks his field readiness, but rumor has it that it's merely a cover to see if he can make the jump to living in the modern era. Meanwhile everyone in support dances around like they have a rock star on staff; Melinda secretly gets a kick out of watching payroll and accounting swoon over their new assistant.

She helps with his physical therapy -- not that he needs any. He moves just fine for a guy who was a frozen slab of ice not too long ago. She has more muscle twinges and joint pain than he does, and his back never gives out.

So when the word comes down about the Xmas Spectacular, she's not surprised to find him staring at the poster, panic plastered all over his face.

"What do I do?" He says, turning to look at her.

"You get a suit, and a date, and you go," she says calmly. "Management must want to show you off."

"I've heard that one before," he says bitterly. "I've done a lot of propaganda in my life."

"Yeah, but this isn't to sell war bonds."

"Come with me," he says in a rush. "I hate these things, and we can talk shop."

"You can also talk shop with accountants, you know. They're human beings."

"If they mention anything about numbers, I'm a dead man."

"Usually people don't talk numbers at holiday events. They usually talk about office politics or their hobbies."

"Please don't make me do small talk. Most of the movies I've watched I saw in the theater decades ago. And I'm not current on books, music, or...or...anything, really. I'll look like an idiot."

"You won't. Everyone knows your story."

"That's worse. They'll pity me. Please."

Melinda relents as his panicked expression. "Fine, I'll go. But if I do, there's dancing. Formal ballroom dancing. Do you understand?"

Steve nods eagerly. "It's a deal."

When she opens the door, Rogers just looks uncomfortable in his suit and tie as she feels in heels and a cocktail dress, not that she would ever admit to it.

"Thanks for saving my life," Roger says as he extends his arm to her. "You didn't have to go through all the trouble to dress up on my account."

"Anytime," Melinda says as she takes his arm. "Dancing is always worth it."

It's weird to be part of a team. Phil tells her it will get better, and she wants to believe him, but she's been on her own for too long: she has no clue how to make friends. In her head, Melinda can acknowledge that her self-isolation is bad for her, but she still walks away rather than interact with anyone on the team. She knows she needs to kick herself in the ass and find a way to approach at least one of them.

Not Skye, though. That's still too weird and awkward for her. And she's already friends with Phil, so he doesn't count. She'll have to find one of the others to approach and...what. Talk? The idea makes Melinda's palms sweat, which convinces her to get up and find someone before it becomes too easy to stay away.

Do something every day that scares you, right?

She lets Coulson know that she's on an extended break, then puts the bus on autopilot and prowls around the cabin. The only person she finds is Jemma, who is lounging on one of the couches, playing with her phone. Melinda glances at it and sees the latest puzzle app; she'd downloaded it herself last night.

Games, huh. Okay, yeah, she can do games. She leans over the back of the couch to watch Jemma flick through the puzzle. "Zapdoodle, huh. What level are you on?"

"Sixty- five."

Melinda is impressed. The game has only been out a couple of months and hasn't hit the big time yet. "Mind if I join you? I only downloaded it last night, and I could use some tips."

Jemma's hands freeze. "Really?" She finally looks up at Melinda, meeting her eyes. "You're not just...saying that, are you? And secretly making fun of me? Because that happens sometimes."

Melinda takes out her phone, crunching down on the couch next to Jemma. "No, I'm not making fun of you, and yes, I downloaded the game." She brings it up and shows it to Jemma. "I only finished the first three levels before I went to bed."

"Oh, excellent." Jemma turns back to her phone, where she lost the timed battle she had been in. "Let me give you my friend code. The early levels are better if you trade gifts."

"Good to know."

"Oh, and you'll need to learn how to do combos once you get to level twenty. The game gets very strategic then."

Melinda nods and takes it all in. Jemma's happy to talk and share her gaming tricks, and having something to talk about other than work puts them on a more even footing. Melinda enjoys it, and she gets through the tutorial quickly with Jemma's help.

There's a strangled squeak behind them, and Melinda looks over to see Fitz standing stunned in the doorway.

"You don't mind if I ask him to join us, do you?" Jemma is already waving Fitz over to join them. "He's working on something and needs both people and quiet at the same time, if you can believe that."

Melinda feels a little flutter of anxiety in her gut and squashes it. "No problem. Let me check on things, and I'll be back."

Everything is green, and Melinda takes the opportunity to run through some focusing exercises to center herself, appreciating the irony of lambs like Jemma and Fitz chasing her away. When she gets back to the living room, Fitz is tinkering with one of his robotic projects on the couch, thigh pressed to Jemma's, so Melinda takes another seat and lets herself fall into the game.

"Wow, it's like a morgue in here." Skye joins them by slumping down on the couch on the other side of Jemma, putting her laptop on the coffee table. "What are you working on?"

Fitz starts going into hyper-detail mode, and Skye holds up her hand. "Not you, them."

"It's a game," Jemma says, her attention focused on her phone. She makes a quick movement and raises her fist in exultation. "Yes! I have been working on that one for days!"

"I can get you infinite lives, you know. There's an easy hack for it that I saw online." Skye makes a grab for Jemma's phone, but Jemma jerks it away.

"What would be the fun in that?" she asks, genuinely curious. "It would be like writing a haiku with four lines. It's nonsensical." She turns to Melinda. "Isn't that right?"

Melinda feels the sweat trickle down her neck as she nods her agreement; three people is more than she can handle right now, but she's not going to run away from Skye.

Meanwhile Skye stares as if each of them had suddenly developed two heads.

"Really," Jemma adds earnestly. "I'm all for thinking outside the box when it's required, but sometimes it's nice to just stay inside the lines. Not everything needs to be controversial, you know."

"Seriously? Having infinite lives are controversial to you two?"

Composing herself, Melinda glances at Jemma, who glances back, confirming that they are on the same page. "Yes."

"Oh-kay." Skye holds up her hands and backs away as she recovers from the idea that some people enjoy the challenge of obeying rules. "Your loss. You'll never make the leaderboards with that kind of attitude."

"Well, who cares about the leaderboards?" Jemma looks over at Melinda. "Do you?"

"Leaderboards aren't part of the plan."

Skye looks at them both like they're crazy before picking up her laptop and striding out of the room. Melinda settles back on the couch to finish her game -- final death again, now she'll have to wait hours for it to regen. Time to move on.

"She ran, didn't she?" Jemma says to Fitz, her pride at having bested Skye radiating out from her.

"Yes," Fitz says, his pride in her just as tangible. "She could not counter your logic, so she ran away."

"Score one for me." She flashes Fitz a secret smile, then holds up her hand, waiting for Melinda to finish the high-five.

Melinda hesitates a moment, then nods. "I have to get back to the cockpit."

Jemma lets her hand drop and smiles wanly. "Yes, well, maybe not such emphatic support next time. You don't have to try so hard with friends." She glances at Fitz. "You want to meet up again tomorrow? Maybe play a game Fitz can get in on? If there's no mission, or anything."

Melinda thinks about it. Jemma – and by extension Fitz – were easy to interact with. It would be good to spend more time with them. "I look forward to it."

Melinda's apartment was one of those spontaneous decisions that she knows would drive Phil crazy. On a whim she looked at what it would take to buy something, and within hours the pre-approval was done.

A month later, she moved in.

She loves her place. SHIELD's administrative offices are close -- she bought it when she was working there -- plus it has wood floors, a balcony, and a great view of the neighborhood park. Her neighbors are friendly, but not too friendly, and the building is well-maintained.

Grant's injury means physical therapy, so, as she has more than a little experience in how to re-train someone for the field in those circumstances, she volunteers. It's an extended leave for the two of them, and Melinda walls off her worry about the others; they will be fine until she and Grant are back.

The trip from her apartment to SHIELD's training facility is longer than her old walk to the admin offices, but it's beautiful. The leaves are turning, and the air is crisp with a hint of winter. She wants to invite Grant over to her place, but knows he's terrified that someone will see them outside of work and put two and two together. He's concerned about his career and what might happen to them, but she doesn't really care. The future is unpredictable. It's best to leave the future to itself.

The moment she gets close to their training room, she knows something is wrong. She places her hand on the door and focuses her attention on what she can hear. There's only one person in the room, so it has to be Grant, but his breathing is off; he's gasping.

Idiot. He's not supposed to exert himself without someone else around.

She slides her card through the lock and pushes inside. The light from the doorway is the only illumination she has; the rest of the room is in darkness, but Grant's not in her line of sight. She flicks her hands and the lights come up, revealing Grant collapsed against the bench at the back of the room. Hurrying over she can see he's shaking, that he's got his hand pressed to his side where the bullet entered, and he's gulping for air.

Spying his water bottle, she grabs it and crouches down next to him. "Grant? You okay? Do I need to take you to medical?"

He takes a deep breath and shakes his head. "I'm fine," he growls out. "Fine."

"Yeah, I get it. You're fine." She hands him the water. "Close your eyes and drink that -- slowly. Just think about drinking the water, nothing else. Relax." She pats his thigh and sits beside him, listening to his breathing normalize.

Grant sighs and lets his head fall back against the wall as he hands her the water glass. "I have no idea what happened."

"Doesn't matter. Things happen. You move on." She's done the same stupid shit herself, pushing too hard, too soon – trying to make herself better through sheer force of will. Maybe Grant is doing the same thing. "No one is going to think you're weak just because you take some time off." She looks pointedly at his side. "You don't have to be perfect for me."

Grant glares at her. "I don't see you taking any down time."

Melinda snorts. "I'm no Captain America. I don't live in this place 24/7. You should come see my apartment sometime."

Grant pulls back. "I thought we weren't—"

"What? Teammates? Or friends?" She gentles her voice. She hadn't intended to say anything, knows how anxious he is about their relationship, but perhaps it's for the best. "SHIELD really doesn't care about team fraternization. As long as it doesn't affect the mission, no one cares, as long as you're not sleeping with some supervillain only interested in the destruction of mankind. That one they really don't like."

"How do you know?"

"I've been here a while, remember? I've got a lot of stories I could tell."

Grant huffs out a breath and shakes his head. "Yeah, okay. I guess I just. Sometimes I forget how to be friends."

"Happens to me, too." She clears her throat, uncomfortable with how much has been said and not said between them. "Come on," she stands and holds out her hand. "Let's try something different. How much have you used tai chi?"

"Nothing formal." Grant grabs her hand and lets her help pull him up.

"Well then, we'll start with the basics." T'ai chi ch'uan is subtle and slow, like erosion rather than an earthquake, and it's very different from the way Grant usually works. It's always been her rock, her foundation in life, and this is something that she can share with him that he won't have to worry about.

Like her, Grant understands that moving helps.


The End