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Melinda stumbles into the Bus kitchen, blearily rubbing her eyes. She's gotten no sleep again, just like the past three nights. Moving over to the jug, she pours out herself a mug of green tea. She notices the rest of the of the team is already there, sitting around the table. She takes her tea and walks into the corner of the bench. Bobbi snorts. Melinda sticks her tongue out, too tired to argue. Skye takes a picture on her phone before Melinda can retract her tongue. Too tired to snatch the phone and delete the picture, too. Coulson hands her a plate of Bobbi's blueberry pancakes and a folder labelled WARNING. LEVEL 8 ACCESS. She sits down next to Bobbi and nibbles on her pancakes whilst reading.

"Surveillance op? For Ward? Can't I shoot him if I see him?" Melinda asks.

"No," Coulson says firmly.

"Hey, May, are we still training at five?" Skye asks five minutes later.

Melinda doesn't answer. Coulson smirks. Bobbi shakes Melinda's shoulders and has to quickly catch her when the agent slumps backwards. Bobbi laughs and scoops the older woman up, one arm under her knees, the other around her back and picks up the folder, walking towards the door. She's so close when Coulson stops her.

"Perhaps you should do the op instead," he suggests.

"You'll have to ask May," Bobbi says.

"She's asleep," Skye tells her, in a voice that suggests she thinks Bobbi is being stupid.

Bobbi smiles, amused. "Really?"

Melinda squirms out of Bobbi's arms, although she does lean on Bobbi, much to the spy's delight. "No, I am not asleep," she says, walking back to her seat with Bobbi following.

Bobbi waves a mug of coffee under Melinda's nose to wake her up. The mug shatters against the floor and Bobbi stares forlornly at her coffee. She jerks back as Melinda's arm comes up to protect herself against further attacks when Bobbi shifts. Melinda reaches out to try and catch her but instead is pulled over two chairs and on top of Bobbi who is lying in most of the coffee. Melinda stands, dodging the porcelain. She helps Bobbi up and the two sit back at their seat. Bobbi's shoulders shake and at first, you could mistake it for crying but Melinda knows Bobbi better than most.

"It's not that funny," she complains.

"It is. You're like, the most graceful, unclumsy person ever to have lived, and this morning you walked into the bench and you fell off your seat trying to stop me falling," Bobbi grins.

"Well, who's fault was that?" Melinda says. "And unclumsy isn't a word, by the way."

Coulson coughs pointedly, breaking up their bickering. "Are you doing the op, May?"

"Yeah. When does it have to be done?"

"End of this week, according to Fury."

"It's Friday," Melinda says, completely unimpressed. "We have two and a half days to surveil Ward. He isn't some untrained newbie, Coulson. He can actually cover his tracks fairly well."

"Complimenting? That's new," Coulson says, completely unperturbed at the knife between his thumb and pointer finger.

Skye squeals, though and FitzSimmons jump. Melinda stands up, thinks better of it and takes her tea before moving over to the couch where she can bury herself in work and be undisturbed. It doesn't work. Bobbi comes over and sits next to her, peering over her shoulder. Melinda sighs but doesn't move. She finishes memorising the folder, hands it back to Coulson and leaves to sleep.

She doesn't reappear until twelve o'clock when they're gathering for lunch that Fitz cooked.

"It's - it's s-salad . . . salad and . . . and," he frowns, trying to remember what word is supposed to come next. "Salad sandwiches with . . . Jemma?"

Jemma's face brightens. "Salad sandwiches with his mother's homemade sauce and pineapple."

It sounds disgusting but it actually tastes quite nice. Melinda eats one. It's an improvement from half. Coulson smiles at her, noticing her empty plate. "You may as well leave now if you're ready," he says. "Call me when you're done and if you haven't called or returned by eleven we'll think something's wrong," he warns.

Melinda nods and stands. Everyone stands with her, planning on going with her to the garage. She stops and faces them. "If you damage the controls, they'll never find the body."

Everyone nods and makes a mental note to stay out of the cockpit. Melinda catches the keys Coulson throws her and gives him a confused look. "I don't know what this is for," she says.

Coulson sighs in despair. He points to the motorbike wedged in the corner. "Thought you'd like it."

Melinda hums as she takes the bike by its handles and steers it out of the corner. She sticks the key in and revs the engine. It roars to life and Melinda shoves the helmet on her head. She zooms out of the Bus before the ramp is fully lowered. She hits the dust with a thump and accelerates. Her team watches until they can no longer see her. Melinda slows down when she reaches the main streets of Genoa, Italy. She parks the bike outside a shoe shop and begins walking around, looking like a foreign tourist, what with her black jeans and jacket amongst the bright colours from the Italians. She spots Ward pretty quickly, considering he was a Specialist.

He doesn't see her or maybe he does but hey, her mind is still sleepy. Perhaps she shouldn't have gone on this op. Bobbi could've done it. She realises that Ward has stopped just inside an alley and she is still walking. Right into him. Nope, not right into him. She ducks under his right hook and returns the favour with a kick to the groin, watching with satisfaction as he doubles over. Not one to miss an opportunity, she nails him with a punch to the head. He topples over and Melinda thinks with a sinking feeling that this isn't right. It shouldn't be this easy to fight him. Her fears are put to rest, however, when five men wearing black, woollen masks jump out of a blue car with tinted windows.

She spins around to face them but they've already circled her by the time she takes down the first man with a well-aimed punch. Ward is standing again, smirking. "Losing your touch, sweetheart?" he taunts, dodging her fists.

She bares her teeth at him when the four men still standing circle closer. She decides to just go for it and face the consequences later. Her limbs are a flurry of blows and two men go down for the count almost straight away. Sadly, Ward and the remaining two men restrain her and bundle her into the car. Ward ties her wrists to the seat belt. Then he steps on the gas and pulls out suddenly into the busy traffic, leaving one man behind to take care of the other three when they wake up. The last man ropes her arms at the elbows behind her back and shoves her head in a black bag. Melinda rolls her eyes at how cliche it is. He punches her hard and she slumps sideways, the seat belt on her wrists catching her, though it leaves her dangling painfully.

She wakes up in a metal cell.

Chapter Text

Coulson realises something is wrong when Melinda doesn't report in by eleven thirty. He waits until midnight, just in case she's forgotten or is busy. When his phone doesn't ring by 1:00 am, he wakes up his team, only slightly sorry that they all look extremely tired.

"Where's May?" Skye asks. "Shouldn't she be back by now?"

Coulson assumes it's because she's tired that she doesn't put two and two together. Jemma does, however, her hand flying to her mouth.

"Oh," she gasps. "Ward got her."

Bobbi looks uncomfortable and Coulson gives her a pained smile. "You took the trackers out, didn't you." It's not a question.

"It was her birthday. I couldn't think of anything else she'd like," Bobbi protests but her heart isn't in it.

Skye's fingers are frantically typing away on Coulson's computer which was off just a second ago.

"How do you know my password?" he asks, confused.

"I don't," Skye replies, pulling up all sorts of files she shouldn't have access to. She deletes the unhelpful files, clicks onto the tracker, types in Melinda's code and then pulls up a wall, showing a map and Melinda's position. "She's headed to Siberia, Russia I think," Skye says. "Why is it always Siberia?"

"Because it's cold?" Coulson shrugs. "I don't know. Well, you may as well, try and sleep for the rest of the night. I'll wake you up at six or seven."

Skye makes a face. "Now you sound like a dad."

Coulson doesn't say anything but he feels a little warmer. "Thanks, Skye."

She takes it sarcastically, even though it has no bite. She grins and saunters out, pulling out her phone before she's out of his office. Jemma and Fitz leave together, heading for the lab. Hunter gives Bobbi and Coulson an awkward smile and leaves quickly. As soon as everyone is gone, Coulson pours Bobbi a glass of scotch. She wrinkles her nose but swallows it in one gulp anyway.

"This is my fault," she murmurs. "If I had just taken the op she'd still be here."

"No," Coulson says. "No, Bobbi. It's not your fault. The only person at fault here is Ward and his goons. None of this was meant to happen but that doesn't make it your fault."

Bobbi says nothing but Coulson knows she's fighting an internal battle. He pats her on the shoulder and leaves her alone in his office. Coulson manages to sleep for two hours before he wakes up at four. Two hours until he's waking everyone up. He goes down to the training room and finds Bobbi and Hunter sparring. They invite him over. Coulson hasn't sparred in ages and he's really regretting not practising when he notices Bobbi and Hunter going easier on him.

He still manages to land on his butt early in. Hunter joins him just minutes later. Bobbi stands over top of them, smirking.

"Losing your touch, boys," she teases.

Hunter sticks his tongue out and refuses the hand she offers them. Coulson's smart enough to recognise a trap when he sees one and gets up by himself.

An hour later, they take a break, freshen up and meet the rest of their team in the kitchen. They eat their breakfast in silence.

Skye's tracker goes off at seven, beeping loudly. "She's stopped," Skye announces. "Siberia, yeah, near the edges. We're roughly about eight hours away. And we're gonna need a place to stay 'cause we can't touch down on land for ages round and the cloaking's screwed."

Coulson hesitates. "I, um, I know a place that we might be able to use."

"Great," Skye says. "Who's or where is it?"

"It's in Siberia and it's Lian May's," Coulson answers.

"May's mom?" Skye asks.

Coulson nods. "If she goes we need to be on our best behaviour."

Skye nods. "Sweet. Maybe she'll have some pictures of May when she was a kid."

FitzSimmons nod. "Yeah."

Bobbi shoots him an amused glance. Hunter bites his tongue to stop himself saying anything inappropriate.

"Good idea, boss," Bobbi says, an underlying message only he hears.

"Thanks, Bobbi," Coulson says, giving her a warning look.

No one else notices the exchange, too wrapped up in the idea that they might learn a bit more about Melinda. Coulson gets Bobbi to fly the plane to Siberia.

Eight and a half hours later, they land, fifty-two kilometres away from Lian May's safe house.

"That's gonna take us ages," Skye complains when she hears they have to walk or catch a taxi or bus.

Coulson ignores her complaints and begins walking south. Lian May is south-west. Jemma tells him and he nods and corrects his direction. Skye lags behind until they reach a small town with a pie shop. She takes Coulson's wallet without him realising and buys them all pie. Skye hands Coulson his wallet after he thanks her.

"Skye," he admonishes but she can tell he's trying to hide his amusement.

An hour later, it's 12:15 pm. Jemma whistles loudly and Fitz puts his hand up for the taxi. They're so connected they don't even realise. Fitz opens the door for Jemma and Skye and Coulson gets in the front. Bobbi and Hunter open the boot and climb in, grinning at Jemma and Skye who looked confused. Fitz hasn't even realised. Coulson pays and tells the taxi driver where to go.

They arrive at their destination, Barnaul. It's nearly three o'clock. Coulson realises he needs to call Lian and winces. He steps away from his team and rings her. She picks up after his third try.

"What?" she snaps.

"May's been kidnapped by Ward," he blurts.

There's silence at the other end.

"We need a place to stay. We're about half an hour away," he pleads.

Lian sniffs. "I suppose I won't get my daughter back if I don't let you stay. Very well. I'm assuming you know where I live?"

"Yes," Coulson says hurriedly. "Thank you."

"Just remember, I wouldn't hate you if you'd just convinced her otherwise. I told you he would ruin her," Lian says before hanging up.

Coulson frowns at his phone. So that was why she didn't like him. He'd apparently let Melinda and Andrew elope. Well, it isn't like he could have stopped them. Nobody could stop Melinda when she was younger and it is still fairly difficult now.

"We've got approval from Lian May," he says, going back to his team.

Skye and Jemma and Fitz grin. Bobbi looks at him pityingly and Hunter nods.

"It's about a forty-five-minute walk from here and Lian's expecting us sooner," Coulson says.

Bobbi grins and starts walking, her long legs giving her a faster stride but they stay near her anyway.

They're five minutes late. Coulson closes his eyes and prays for good luck. They go up to the door and Skye knocks, quickly drawing her hands back when the door bursts into flames. Bobbi laughs quietly, not unkindly.

Coulson spots a security pad and stares at it in dismay. He knows Lian won't have made it easy to guess. Turns out he was wrong. He punches in Melinda and the door stops flaming. He types in Melinda's birthdate and the door unlocks one bolt. It's harder after that. He tries Melinda's father but nothing happens. Skye takes over, pushing him out of the way.

After she hits a few buttons, the locks slide open and the door clicks ajar. Lian is standing there, arms crossed. "You're late," she says.

"Yes, I know, I'm sorry," Coulson says.

"C'mon, it was five minutes," Skye groans before Coulson can tell her to shut up.

Lian stares at her and then smiles, surprising Coulson. "What's your name?"

"Skye," she says.

"You were the one who hacked my security?"

"Yes."

"You should keep her, Phillip. Get her to train those other pathetic excuses of life you call agents," Lian says.

Skye beams. "Do you have any pictures of May?" she asks.

Lian's face darkens and Skye gets the feeling she's stepped into sensitive places.

"Like when she was a kid?" Skye corrects herself.

Lian nods. "Plenty."

Skye sticks her tongue out at Coulson who sighs and they follow Lian in. They look around. It's spotless. No dust anywhere. There are, however, an awful lot of weapons. Skye can count at least ten guns and that's just the ones she can see.

"There are spare rooms downstairs," Lian says.

"Downstairs?" Jemma asks.

Lian points to a door and Bobbi opens it. They go down the stairs and come out in a corridor with eight doors, four on each side.

"Pick one each, or double up, I don't care, just don't go in the last one on the right," Lian says, leaving them to unpack.

They decide to double up, Bobbi and Hunter, FitzSimmons and Skye, leaving Coulson on his own. Bobbi and Hunter choose the third one down. Skye opens them all except the one Lian told them not to go in.

"Look, this one has three beds," she says.

Jemma and Fitz walk in and put the bags down on the beds closest to the door. Skye shrugs.

"Guess I've got the toilet then," she says.

Jemma laughs. "It's only closest to the toilet," she corrects.

Skye makes a face. "Whatever. C'mon, let's go look around."

The three of them meet up with Bobbi and Hunter who are already in the lounge. Coulson is talking with Lian and they can hear them arguing. Hunter winces when Lian says something loudly in Chinese.

"She just called him an overcooked chicken with lead for brains," he tells them.

Bobbi laughs. "Lian hates Coulson for letting May elope with Andrew, even though Coulson couldn't have stopped her if he tried and didn't know about it until she called him the morning after," she explains.

Skye whistles. "So May was a trouble-maker, huh?"

Bobbi nods.

"Oh, I am so using this against her next time she tries to stop me," Skye crows.

Bobbi smirks.

"Use what against my daughter?" Lian asks.

"Um . . . that she was a trouble-maker," Skye says nervously.

Lian smiles. "Good. I can tell you a few stories if you want."

Skye nods eagerly and Lian sits down on the opposite couch. Coulson comes in halfway through her first story, hears Melinda's name and sits down.

"It was her tenth birthday if my memory is correct," Lian starts. "She had refused a party, claiming she had important things to do. So at five in the morning, she left, no note, nothing. She came back at midnight, covered in filth, quite happy with herself.

"I only got the whole story out of her the next day when I bolted her window shut and locked all the door. Melinda might have been a good fighter later on but she hadn't even started then. So I caught her and forced the story out of her. And do you know what she said? She'd been riling up the boys from two streets down and when they chased after her, she'd waited in an alley and tipped a can of rubbish from the cafe just down the street over them. They'd chased her until ten at which point they gave up or so she had thought.

"When she'd jogged down the street, they had jumped out at her and rubbed their own can of rubbish on her. Melinda kicked them, or at least that's what she said. She had a black eye for the next week and I didn't let her go out of my sight for another week just so that she would learn not to actively cause trouble. It hardly worked but she was bored by the end of it and that was about the biggest punishment I could give her."

There is silence. Then Skye speaks up.

"Do you have another?"

Lian gives Skye a look. "I am her mother. She lived with me for seventeen years. I know nearly everything about her. Of course, I have more stories."

"May you tell us another?" Skye rephrases her question.

Lian smiles. "Tomorrow."

Skye beams and Lian gets up to serve dinner. It's a Chinese dish, noodles and fried chicken and spices it's delicious. Jemma can't help wonder why Melinda doesn't make it. When she asks as much Coulson laughs and Lian smiles.

"Melinda can't cook to save herself. She exploded my oven multiple times and from what I've heard from Phillip, burned down the kitchens at SHIELD HQ twice," Lian says.

Jemma's hand flies to her mouth in shock even as she laughs. "Oh, my."

Lian nods. "I'll see you in the morning. We can discuss your plan to get my daughter back tomorrow."

Chapter Text

Melinda wakes up in a metal cell. Her wrists are shackled together and a chain is hanging from the ceiling. It takes her a moment to realise that the cuffs around her wrists are tied to the chain. There is the feeling of cold metal on her left ankle. She looks down and swears when her sight goes fuzzy. She feels blood trickle down her cheek and knows instantly she banged her head on something. Ward wouldn't hurt her when she couldn't feel it.

The door unlocks and opens and Ward comes in with seven other men. They are all strong - muscular and lean. Fast. Ward takes off the shackles restraining her. The minute they're all off she attacks. Swings out with every ounce of strength she has. Ward sits back and enjoys the show. Until it looks like he's losing.

Melinda manages to get a few good hits in but not enough to actually knock them out. They pin her in the end. Two on each limb. Ward stands up from where he was crouched, hand on her wrist. He orders them to bring her to Room 61.

They lift her up, ignoring her struggling. Melinda is chained down to a white metal table, suspiciously like a medical stretcher. She makes it as hard as she can, pulling away from the metal cuffs chained around her wrists, ankles, knees, elbow, waist. They beat her, eight to one.

Ward dismisses them.

He picks up a sharp knife, the blade glinting. Placing it on her shoulder, he smirks at her and slowly cuts away her jacket. Melinda doesn't care. She has more. Only, that has the trackers in it. She knows Bobbi took them out as a birthday gift but she put them back in. A sense of security, you could call it, knowing that if she was ever caught SHIELD could find her.

Once Ward has stripped her of her jacket and T-shirt, he begins. He digs the knife into her forearm, between her ulna and radial bone. Blood spurts out like a broken water fountain, spraying onto Ward's shirt. Melinda bites her lip at the sudden pain but she forces herself to stay silent.

Ward grins sadistically as he leaves the knife there, sticking through both sides of her forearm. He picks up a scalpel. Melinda glares at him as he approaches her again. Ward slices off a tiny bit of skin on her shoulder. It's almost a graze.

"Tell me where you're keeping Garret," he demands, "And this can all stop. I swear."

Melinda clenches her jaw. "Screw you."

Ward says nothing but a stony silence fills the room. In the end, he shrugs and pulls a gun out of the waistband of his jeans. He presses it against her thigh. Melinda holds her breath as he curls a finger around the trigger.

He squeezes it. The bullet enters at lightning speed and Melinda's leg jerks. She shudders as he fires twice, once in her right hand and again in her left arm. That'll stop her escaping so easily. Melinda grits her teeth and when he bends down, noses almost touching, she spits at him, The saliva lands on his nose and eyes and he jerks back.

He forces her mouth open and her stomach sinks as she realises what's about to come. Ward doesn't swallow for a few minutes. He keeps her mouth open, arms straining at the strength he needs to do so. Then he spits. A big globule of saliva enters her mouth and she recoils trying to spit it out without actually touching it.

He forces her to swallow.

She can't. Not even when he nicks her neck with the scalpel. He punches her nose and stomach and she sucks in a deep breath, effectively swallowing.

Ward smirks when she chokes. Then he beats her black and blue. He breaks her nose first, blood flowing from her right nostril. He uses all his force and punches her torso until her skin is coloured purple and yellow. She shifts slightly, trying to awaken her muscles but all it does is make her muscles scream in pain. Then he carefully puts the scalpel next to her knuckles.

"You'll miss your fingers, promise," Ward says. "Start talking."

Melinda sneers at him. "Skye trusted you. She loved you." Her voice cracks as he digs the scalpel in, just hard enough to draw blood. "You broke her heart. You ruined her life." Ward trims the end of her thumb. Melinda's breath hitches.

"Say another word and I swear to God I'll cut your goddamn hand off," he threatens.

Melinda smirks at him and he realises the trap he's fallen for.

Ward glowers at her and she just has time to think that perhaps it wasn't such a good idea before he slams his fist into her stomach. He twists the knife in her arm slightly but it's enough to make her groan.

It's the first noise she's made since she was tortured.

Ward smirks.

Melinda glares.

He stabs another knife into her, just below her kidney. Melinda hopes he hasn't hit anything important but then again, that will do him no good. She'll just die faster.

He leaves her there, bloody and in pain, freezing.

No one comes in for another three days.

Chapter Text

Coulson sighs and goes back to stirring the curry. It's nowhere near cooked enough but he can't help but wonder if Lian would notice. He dismisses the idea immediately. Lian notices everything.

It's been a week. All of their leads have turned out to be false. Skye was almost shot trying to scope out what they thought was Ward's hiding place. He wishes Melinda was here. She always had bright ideas. Different from his. Like Clint and Natasha. Joined at the hip but yet completely different perspectives.

Coulson thinks a lightbulb should go off over his head like in cartoons. "Skye, I need to borrow your phone," he calls, hoping she will hear. His phone is flat.

"Don't yell," Lian snaps.

Coulson almost jumps out of his skin. "Sorry."

Skye comes running with her phone in her hand. "New idea?" she asks desperately.

Coulson nods. "Strike Team Delta."

Skye gives him a confused look. "Who?"

"Go ask Bobbi or one of the other. Bobbi was friends, though," Coulson tells her.

He dials Natasha's number and she picks up almost immediately.

"What?" she asks.

"I need your help. Clint, too. I assume you know where we are?"

"Siberia, Russia. Phil, what the hell are you doing there?" Natasha asks.

"Tell you when you guys get here," Coulson says.

"Tell Mel we say hi," Natasha says before hanging up.

Four hours later someone pounds on the door. Coulon goes to open it but Lian stops him. The team crowds around them, trying to see whoever's at the door. Two seconds later the door swings open. Natasha and Clint are standing there, cheeks slightly red. They're carrying small backpacks on their backs, most likely filled with weapons and ammo and a few spare pairs of clothes.

Coulson smiles happily. Clint returns it but Natasha doesn't. She peers into the safe house, frowning.

"Where's Mel?" she asks.

Coulson winces.

"She got herself kidnapped," Natasha answers her own question.

"Was she really tired or something?" Clint asks. "'Cause that's how she got caught last time."

"Yeah," Coulson says.

Natasha waits.

"I also let her go even though she was falling asleep at the table," Coulson admits.

Clint rolls his eyes. "Smart, Phil. Is this her mom's place?" He notices Lian. "Oh, wow, you're definitely her mom."

Natasha snorts. "Idiot. 嗨, 煉." Hi, Lian

"Hello Natasha," Lian greets.

Coulson shakes his head. Natasha sticks her tongue out at him and crosses her arms in victory.

"Come in," Skye says suddenly. "It's like minus a hundred degrees out there."

Natasha and Clint stare at her, assessing her silently. Skye waves awkwardly.

Coulson kicks their shins. "Stop being creepy. She's not a threat."

"You never know. She could be plotting to overthrow us. Maybe she's joined Ward and is telling him where we are so that he can plan a sneak attack on us," Clint says.

"She could slice our noses off and gouge our eyes out so we can live in misery forever. Cut our tongues," Natasha adds, eyes gleaming wickedly.

"OK!" Skye says. "So I can see you two have major trust issues so just to be safe and you don't come interrogate me later on, I'm Skye, I'm bunking with Jemma and Fitz, I only betrayed SHIELD once and I don't know who my parents are."

Clint grins widely. "Oh, I like you. Only betrayed SHIELD once. Have you realised that most normal people don't betray SHIELD in the first place?"

Natasha coughs pointedly.

"Sorry, most people," Clint corrects.

Natasha smirks as Clint makes a face. "Well come on," she says. "Go in. They invited us."

Natasha shoves Clint in, following after. They sit down in the lounge and try and track Melinda.

Natasha's fingers fly over the keyboard. She bites her lip and frowns as the screen flashes once, twice, thrice. Clint leans over and mumbles a code, typing it into his own laptop. A few minutes later Natasha breathes a sigh of relief.

"Finally," she mutters.

"Have you found her?" Skye asks hopefully.

"No but I've got past that stupid firewall," she replies.

She goes back to typing rapidly and five minutes later she's back to another firewall. It takes her seven minutes to get around it and by that time, Clint's caught up to her, hacking another source. They communicate in gestures and looks, occasionally a few mumbled words.

FitzSimmons watch in awe, wondering if that'll ever be them, not realising that it already is.

Bobbi's not watching, playing Fruit Ninja on Hunter phone. She's seen this before heaps of times. After all, they are friends.

Lian makes them coffee, although she doesn't make herself any, sharing her daughter's distaste for the drink.

Natasha manages to hack into Ward's heavily secured system quarter of an hour later, what would have taken anybody else over forty-five minutes.

"They're here," Natasha says, turning her laptop around so they can see. "The middle of nowhere, Oymyakon, Siberia, Russia. Coldest village on earth. Pack warm, people. We got a snowstorm to face."

Coulson looks at them. "You'll be the ones going in. I'm not cleared for field yet, FitzSimmons are back up but if you need extra help, Skye's allowed to go with you."

"What have you done this time?" Clint asks.

"I got shot twice. In my calf. Hurt like hell," he says.

"Clever," Natasha says. "Let's go, Skye. Find out what's happened, help you pack."

They stand and make their way over to the door going down to the spare bedrooms. Natasha closes the door and unzips Skye's bag, pulling out the T-shirts and shorts.

"Yeah, you're about good now," she says. She sits down on Skye's bed, next to her. Clint joins.

"Is this your first mission?" Clint asks.

Skye shakes her head.

"Good," Natasha says. "We can't have simple mistakes. Not for this."

"Why? I mean, it's a mission to get May back but why not for this?" Skye asks.

"Melinda's our friend," Clint says.

Skye brightens. "Have you got any stories about her? She's like the nightmare of a hacker; I can't get anything through her, off her, on her, et cetera."

"Because hackers need to solve all the walls put in their way," Clint snorts.

Natasha gives him a dark look. Skye glares.

"I stand corrected," Clint mutters.

Natasha smirks. "Right. Let's go pack, Clint." She turns to Skye on her way to the door. "We'll leave early tomorrow morning."

"Bye," Skye says, following them out and back to the lounge where the others are.

Lian has just served dinner, berating Coulson on not stirring the curry long enough.

Coulson doesn't say anything but Skye notices he blinks rapidly when he thinks no one is looking. She guesses he's thinking about May.

Clint and Natasha sit on opposite sides of the table and pass the salt and pepper in such good timing that Skye thinks they've done this so often it's practically second nature. She's sitting next to Clint and occasionally his leg bumps hers. She accidentally swipes her fork off the table and bends down to get it, taking a peek at what they're doing.

She has to stop herself laughing.

They're playing footsies.

The two master assassins are playing footsies.

She says as much to Jemma and Fitz after dinner when they're alone in they're room. They both laugh.

"That's adorable!" Jemma grins.

Fitz nods dopily as if agreeing with Jemma was the easiest thing in the world. "Cute."

Jemma beams at him. Skye smiles and rolls over, preparing for an early start.

They weren't bloody joking, Skye thinks as she trudges sleepily out of her room behind Natasha and Clint, shrugging her pack over her shoulders. She's glad she knows how to pack light for several months. Living in a van for a few years obviously did more good than harm.

They climb into a grey, beat up truck, unlikely to be remembered. Natasha's driving and Clint groans.

"Don't kill us, please," he pleads.

Natasha grins. "No promises."

She's silent for the rest of the trip, leaving Clint and Skye to fill the awkward silence. Skye wonders if Natasha likes her. She doesn't think the Black Widow will be as to petty as to sulk, though.

Privately, she asks Clint about it when Natasha's off getting food and water for when they get Melinda back. Clint puts her fears to rest, saying that Natasha's just getting in the right space for the mission and that talking won't help her.

Natasha returns with a grocery bag full of water and soup. Skye wonders if the food is actually for them because she's pretty sure you're not meant to feed an unconscious person and that's how she wants to find May - not in any pain.

They reach Oymyakon and Skye shivers as they get out and go into the hotel where Clint has rented them out a room.

There are two beds so Skye offers to take the floor but they snort and say that they'll share.

Skye wonders if they're together.

She's pretty sure people who are together don't argue as much though because there was faint screaming last night through the walls and it didn't sound like happy screaming.

Maybe it's a no-strings-attached relationship.

But that doesn't explain why they're so comfortable with each other. Usually, with no-strings-attached relationships, there are no feelings.

Skye kicks off her sneakers and opens her laptop. Within a few minutes, she has located Melinda. She shows it to Natasha who runs a few checks and then smiles.

"Nice," Clint praises.

Skye decides she likes this whole family business. After all, that's what the team is and any friends of Coulson are usually good people, Garret excluded.


The next morning is chaos. Clint wants Skye to be on computer control, telling them where to go. Natasha wants Skye to come with them so she can hone her fighting skills and learn how terrifying it is when someone you love is in danger.

Skye watches in astonishment as they talk over each other in protest.

"Hey!" she yells after five minutes has gone by and she can see Natasha retreating into her shell.

They turn and look at her.

"Just shut up," she says. "I'm a big girl now, yeah? I can make my own decision. Clint, your way is good but I can bypass their security in there as well. Ward's crap at hacking. Literally. I'm coming with you two. Now, let's pack and go."

Natasha and Clint blink and then break out in big grins.

Skye frowns. "Something I said?"

Natasha shakes her head, no. "Just, you sounded so much like Pepper then."

"Also, it's good to know that you're not scared of us and we don't have to keep acting so distant and secretive," Clint adds. "But you're right. You've got big girl knickers now," he grins.

Skye slaps him. Natasha snickers and ducks when he swipes at her. They hurry out of the hotel five minutes later and pile into the car.

Clint's driving. The heater's turned up full blast but Skye still feels the biting of the cold wind, sharp needles pricking her body. Natasha doesn't seem to be bothered though, sitting in the passenger seat with her suit tied at her waist, nothing but a tank top covering her torso. She hums as she methodically empties the magazines and counts the bullets, adding more when there isn't enough to all their guns.

Natasha feels Skye staring at her. Who wouldn't? You don't get a chance to mock the Black Widow often, why not take it when you have it? She knows without turning around that Skye will be looking at her in disgust. She doesn't turn around to see it. Natasha passes three now filled guns to Skye who clicks on the safety and puts it in her holsters. She doesn't meet Skye's eyes, just sits properly in her seat and puts Clint's guns in his holsters. She pulls off her tank top and wriggles into her suit, zipping it up to her collarbone. It'll do Melinda no good if she is to freeze.

Clint pulls to a stop at a take-out, a few miles from Ward's location. They get out, slipping away from the car. No one sees them. The jog the few miles, barely out of breath. Clint nods to them and then slips away, intent on taking the vents to find Melinda.

Skye and Natasha are covering the ground.

"Let's go," Natasha says, barely audible.

They sneak past the guards easily. They kill them anyway. Well, Natasha does. Skye keeps going.

The more survivors the more it'll come back to bite them in the ass.

Natasha follows Skye through the brightly lit corridors, meant to keep out trespassers. It's empty. Natasha frowns, feeling unsettled.

She pushes the feeling away and silently steps where Skye's feet were moments before. Hearing a sound, she yanks Skye back from turning the corner. She opens the vent and gives Skye a boost. Then she pulls herself up and slides the grate back into place. It's not a moment too soon.

A group of about eight Hydra agents walk past them, silent. Watching. Ward must be growing paranoid with every passing day that they didn't try and get Melinda out.

One of them speaks up, stopping the group. The tension clears as he grins and cracks jokes. Soon they're all laughing, leaning against the wall or standing.

"Wouldn't wanna be that Asian woman," the biggest man says. "Shit, man, Ward must be really pissed. Took a bloody knife to her, 'bout thirty times. It's a wonder she's still breathin'."

Natasha's fingers clench and Skye gasps. They shouldn't have heard her but they did. They look up and fire at the air vents. Natasha returns fire and kills off half immediately. Skye shoots blindly, not wanting to get hit. She gets three of them and Natasha shoots the last. Then they drop down and run.

Skye finds Melinda on her phone and she hurriedly leads Natasha to her. Natasha picks the lock easily, swinging the door wide open and ducking. No bullets come at her. The room is dark, the only light coming in from a barred window. She enters cautiously and feels sick. Beside her, Skye sucks in a breath.

Melinda has been tossed to the side, lying crumpled on the stone cold floor. She is covered in blood; the floor around her is stained. Her hand has a large gash through it, the wound not yet crusted over. Her torso is yellow and purple and Natasha can see broken ribs despite them not sticking through her skin. She counts seven gunshots, two in the leg, one in her gut which Natasha knows cannot be good, two in her left arm, one in her back and another in her shoulder. Her nose is broken, that much is obvious. Blood has splattered all over her face from her nose and Natasha wonders if Ward hung her upside down. He better not of. On her left cheek is a deep gash, one that will scar if not treated soon. It'll probably leave a faint mark anyway. Natasha wonders if Melinda will wear these marks like a weapon, with pride like she did for all her other scars. She hopes so. Melinda has multiple broken bones: her right arm is twisted unnaturally, her leg looks like it's been kicked until the bone snapped and her collarbone is pressing dangerously against the skin.

Leaning casually against the wall beside Melinda is Ward. He has a gun aimed at Melinda's head.

"You try and kill me, I'll have shot her before you can even move," he threatens. "Sit," he says, waving the gun towards the chairs in the corner, away from Ward and the door.

"I'd prefer to stand, actually," Natasha says, unmoving.

"Well now, I can certainly make you move," Ward says. He fires the gun at Melinda's leg.

She jerks and tries to sit up but even the slightest movement has her body screaming in pain. Melinda sees two new figures but can't make out who they are. They don't move towards her but she still flinches backwards and tries to get as far away as possible.

Ward waves his gun at the chairs again. "Sit."

Skye sits. When Natasha hesitates Skye pulls her over to sit down.

"Your friend has certainly been a challenge," Ward begins. "You see, I underestimated her. Agent May would sell her soul to the devil before she gave up SHIELD's secrets. But that doesn't mean it wasn't delightfully fun to hurt her. She thought she was so brave, so tough but when I mentioned you, Natasha, she broke. And I thought I was so clever, but she'd been playing me the whole time. She got me to tell her my plans. So you see, this is why she has to die.

"Hydra's time has not yet come. We need to be ready for it. Ready to say "Yes!" and step forward with the thought of the glory that awaited us. Hydra is the only way to salvation. Hydra is the path that will lead us all to victory.

"Come. Join us. Leave your fears behind."

Skye looks mildly sick. Natasha clenches her fists so hard her knuckles turn bone white.

"Never," Natasha snarls, standing up.

Ward's finger tightens on the trigger and Natasha freezes.

Then he collapses. The gun still goes off, the bullet burying itself in Melinda's right side.

Natasha sighs in relief that they can leave now. Clint drops down from the vents covered in blood. Natasha wrinkles her nose at him playfully.

"Ew, Barton. You never heard of guns?"

"You never heard of exploding arrows?" he grins.

He gently scoops up Melinda and gives Melinda to Skye and roughly lifts up Ward. Then they follow Natasha out of the building.

It's too easy.

Clint doesn't like it. He can tell Natasha doesn't either, if her tense shoulders are anything to go by. They're so close. Only a few metres away when they hear footsteps.

Natasha sprints towards the exit, holding the door open for them before throwing exploding arrows into the building and shutting the door.

Clint can feel the heat of the explosion on his back and he winces. He feels like all his skin has melted off but he keeps running, using Ward as a shield.

They reach the spot where he left the car, only to find it gone. Natasha swears and takes Melinda from Skye.

"We'll just have to walk," she says. "May as well get as far away as possible."

Chapter Text

Natasha, Clint and Skye reach their hotel about three hours past midnight. They sneak in quietly, heading for their room. Clint runs a bath of lukewarm water after he dumps Ward in the corner and ties him up. Natasha gently places Melinda in it. She sends Skye out to watch over Ward but they both know that's not the real reason.

Natasha and Clint strip her, wash away the blood and dry her off. Clint goes to fetch the first aid kit and the spare change of clothes he and Natasha packed for Melinda. When he walks back into the bathroom, Natasha is cradling Melinda.

"Please, Mel, please," she's mumbling. “Please wake up."

He passes the kit to Natasha who pulls out the bandages and creams to stop swelling and infections. Clint spreads the creams and Natasha wraps bandages around all Melinda's wounds.

"She needs to see a doctor," Natasha says quietly.

"I know," Clint says simply.

They dress Melinda: a pair of Clint's black sweatpants, Coulson's grey T-shirt with the Captain America shield and socks. No shoes. She looks like a child. When they come out of the bathroom, Skye is sitting on her bed, glaring at Ward. He has a new bruise on his jaw. There are tear tracks on her cheeks. Clint lays Melinda gently on their bed and then sits down beside Skye.

"She'll be OK," Clint murmurs. "She's tough. And Natasha will do everything physically in her power to keep her from dying. Me as well. Jemma Simmons is one of the best doctors in SHIELD. Melinda will wake up."

"She looks so sad," Skye says. "I just want to hug her but she knows what I'm about to do before I do and escapes before I can and I just want to help her but she doesn't let anyone in and . . ." She chokes out a sob and collapses against Clint's shoulder.

He pulls back the covers of her bed and takes off her shoes and outer layers, leaving her first pair of jeans and hoodie on. Clint pulls the covers up and turns to face Natasha who's cleaned away the blood in the bathroom. She's changed into clean clothes. He does the same and then gets into bed next to her.

"I'm scared, Clint," Natasha admits. "What if she doesn't wake up?”

"Don't be ridiculous," Clint says, dismissing the thought instantly. "Melinda will wake up. She will. She's tough."

Natasha nods and allows her to fall asleep in his warm embrace.

The next morning when they wake up, Natasha kicks Ward. He jerks awake and she fires an ICER's magazine worth of bullets into him. He slumps and Natasha lifts him up, an arm around his waist. She walks out of the hotel and chooses a car that won't be noticed until it's too late. She unlocks the door and dumps Ward in the boot. Then she hotwires it and runs to tell the other two to hurry up. Clint's still in bed but Skye is up, packing quickly. She finishes her bag and then throws a change of clothes in Clint's direction and packs his bag. Clint scowls at her but gets up and changes into clean clothes. Then he takes all the bags and finds the car Natasha has hotwired. He dumps them on top of Ward.

Natasha and Skye come downstairs, Natasha carrying Melinda. Clint's driving.

 

They reach Lian's safe house when it's mid-afternoon. The door to the safe house has opened before the car has even stopped driving. FitzSimmons, Bobbi, Hunter, Coulson and Lian rush out. Well, Coulson and Lian don't but the others do.

Skye opens the door and unbuckles Melinda. She carefully lifts her out. Natasha takes her from Skye; she's stronger. Jemma and Fitz hug Skye and then stand back as Natasha and Clint walk forward, Clint dragging Ward.

Melinda isn't moving. It's is all Coulson can see. She looks terrible, arms and legs bent wonkily and obvious bandaging everywhere. When Natasha places Melinda on the couch, her T-shirt rides up and he sees the bruising. He hears Jemma inhale sharply.

"Ms May, do you have any medical tools I can use?" Jemma asks.

"Yes. Down the hall and on the right," Lian directs, not even bothering to tell her to call her Lian.

Jemma nods to Natasha who picks Melinda up and follows after her. Jemma allows herself to slip into Dr Simmons mode and she orders everyone out except Fitz and Bobbi.

Natasha stays anyway.

They go to dig out the first bullet when Jemma swears. It's a horrible sound, the fact that Jemma's saying making it even more disgusting.

"What?" Natasha asks, leaping up from her chair.

Jemma slams her palm onto the bench. Her eyes are red. The first tears are leaking out. "She's a goddamn LMD. Ward must've stolen her from Radcliff."

Natasha stills. No wonder it was so easy to get Melinda. It wasn't actually her. Her fists clench, knuckles white.

Then she punches the wall. Hard. The skin over her knuckles split and specks of blood drip onto the floor. Clint comes running in, wrapping his arms around her. Natasha wriggles out of his embrace and goes to find her laptop.

She flips it open, puts in her password and starts typing. Her fingers fly over the keyboard until she stops, biting her fingernails. Lian peers over her shoulder and blinks, moving away.

Clint says, "Capital S, little e, four, eighth, underscore, little o." Se48_o

Natasha types it in. She hits enter and blinks when it works. "How did you get that?"

"S for Skye, e for the last letter of Skye, there are four letters in Skye and they met on October 8. Ward's smart but his feeling's run a little too deep in this."

Natasha nods and a few hours later, she's lying on the couch with her head almost touching the ground and her legs over the back. She shifts slightly and her tank top falls a little more, showing her belly button. Her laptop is tossed to one side. Her eyes are closed but Clint knows she's so not sleeping. She's simply dozing, half aware of her surroundings. He sees Skye come in nervously and sit beside Natasha. There's no sound from the other two so he guesses they're playing truth or dare and Skye chose dare.

Skye takes a deep breath and then straddles Natasha, tickling her armpits. They fall to the floor and somehow Skye manages to stay on top.

Natasha shrieks and FitzSimmons come cautiously into the room. When they see that Skye is okay they laugh. Clint holds Natasha's wrists and beams at Skye.

"Stop it," Natasha complains weakly, squirming away from Skye's fingers.

Skye's grin becomes wicked and she moves her hands to Natasha's stomach. Natasha freezes, looking on with narrowed eyes.

"You do this and you'll never see daylight again," she threatens.

"As long as I have my phone," Skye shrugs.

Natasha groans and her head falls back in defeat, only for her back to arch as Skye digs her fingers into her sides. She twists, managing to unlodge Skye from her waist. Clint holds onto her wrists and she quickly crouches, glaring. Clint falls backwards, Natasha flying over him. She puts her hands down and flips into a standing position.

Coulson comes into the room then, holding a mug of coffee. He takes one look at Natasha and Clint and smirks.

"Did you piss him off?" he asks.

"No," Natasha scowls.

"Me and Jemma and Fitz were playing truth or dare," Skye explains. "They saw her half asleep and decided to risk my life."

"Jemma and Fitz and I," Coulson corrects.

While they're distracted with Coulson, Natasha slips out of the room.

"Hey!" Clint yells.

She dives into a full-on sprint as he comes charging after her. Natasha can hear the others running after her, their feet pounding on the carpet. Her footsteps are quiet, barely there. She dashes into a room with an open door, says a quick prayer so that Lian won't kill her and jumps, grabbing hold of the curtain rod and smashing out of the window, feet first.

Clint jumps out after her, landing in a snowdrift. She's landed in a crouch. Quickly she jumps up and blows on her hands, wishing that she was wearing a little more than a T-shirt and jeans. She's glad she isn't Clint as he stands up, brushing snow off his shoulders. He glares at her and she nervously takes a step back.

Then she's running, the wind rushing past her. Natasha's just feeling warm when she feels his breath on her neck. She jumps left but he anticipates it and tackles her to the ground. Not wanting to spend more time in the snow than necessary, he picks her up and jogs back to Lian's house.

Lian is waiting at the door, a disapproving look on her face. All she says is, "I expect a new window." Then she turns and walks away.

Clint shuts the door behind him with his hip and dumps Natasha on the couch. She winces and he frowns, rolling her over. There's a darker patch on her tank top. He pulls it off and sighs when he sees the glass embedded in her back from the window.

Jemma passes him a pair of tweezers, having anticipated that one of them would get hurt.

"Hold still," he grins.

Natasha smacks him but doesn't move from her face down position. Then her computer starts beeping and she leaps up, opening it. Clint pulls her back to him. She ignores him, frantically typing in codes.

After half an hour, when her back is glass free and bandaged, she lets her shoulders slump in relief.

"Have you found her?" Skye demands. "Where is she?"

"Flipping Africa but it's her. I've run several checks to make sure she's an actual human," Natasha assures them. "Come on, pack up guys, we're headed for Ibadan, Africa. Oh, and one of you needs to tell Lian."

 

An hour later, everyone is ready. They've packed, stocked food and waited around for Skye

Skye is distant on the plane ride. She's thinking about what she found in that room that Lian told them not to go into.

Skye checks twice to make sure that no one is coming before running silently down to the door that Lian has forbidden them from opening and picks the lock.

She opens the door and goes inside, shutting the door without looking. Skye gasps as she looks around. The walls are covered in photographs. Old ones, from when Melinda was a baby to when she was leaving home for SHIELD and coming back on Christmas and Thanksgiving. The newest looks about fifteen years old. There’s a bed shoved in the corner, the covers unmade. Melinda must have left hurriedly. Clothes are strewn across the floor and Skye spots a patch in the corner where there’s not as much dust. Her bag must have sat there, packed and waiting for the right time. Dust is almost a centimetre thick on the carpet, desktop, bed, etc.

Skye moves over to the desk, leaving footprints. A dog-eared book is sitting open on the desk. It’s got Melinda’s handwriting on the pages. Skye realises it’s like a diary, except Melinda’s starting with ‘Mom’, not ‘Dear Diary’. She reads a few entries and rubs her eyes. She knows what Melinda must have felt like when no one wants her. Lian must have been strict.

Going over to the closet, she sees a black punching bag with fists marks on it. She guesses that Melinda painted her hands in different colours and then punched away.

Skye hears her name being shouted and sighs. She would have liked to spend more time looking around.

Just before she leaves the room, she spots a picture, slightly away from all the rest. Skye peers at it closer, wondering why. It’s of Melinda and five other people. Two girls, three boys. It’s obviously a selfie, all of them smiling big cheesy grins into the camera. But it’s the background that stuns Skye. They’re on top of a building in China, a box of ammo behind them. Skye inhales sharply and hopes Melinda wasn’t in a gang when she was young.

“SKYE!” Jemma yells.

“Coming,” Skye calls, running out the room, carefully shutting and locking the door behind her.

She meets them at the front door, slightly out of breath. Lian is watching her carefully like she knows where Skye had been.

“Took you long enough,” Bobbi grins.

Skye jolts out of her reverie when the Bus jolts.

“Sorry,” Clint says over the intercom. “Might have a little turbulence.”

He’s not wrong. The Bus creaks as Clint pulls into a high dive, trying to get above the storm. When he can go no further, he levels up and spots the ice. Swearing, he slowly, dips the nose of the plane down and watches the ice melt with grim satisfaction.

 

A week later, Clint lands in a clearing in the Forest of Horror. They exit the plane and shudder, sticking close together.

“Alright, guys. Everyone must stay in threes,” Coulson orders. “I read about this forest on the way; it's not called the Forest of Horror for nothing.”

Skye tries to team up with FitzSimmons but Coulson splits them up.

“You’ll need at least one person on your team with May-level fighting skills,” he tells them.

Bobbi takes Jemma and Fitz and Skye goes with Hunter and Coulson. Clint and Natasha team up together. Clint winks at Coulson and shoulders his bow. He’s dressed in his black suit, quiver over his shoulder. Natasha is dressed much the same, minus the quiver. She fills the gun magazine and grins ferally at them. He lifts his bow, kisses Coulson on the cheek, much to everyone’s, even Coulson’s, surprise and then disappears with Natasha.

“Didn’t know you and Hawkeye were in a relationship,” Skye says.

“We’re not,” Coulson says, staring at the spot that Natasha and Clint took off in. “He’s... uh… I don’t know. Annoying?”

Bobbi nods. “Got that right. Woke up every day with a bucket of water when he was teamed up with Mel for a few months until I got him back.”

“Who’s Mel?” Skye asks.

No one answers.

Each group turns in a different direction, jumping when they hear an explosion. Bobbi drags Jemma and Fitz in the direction of the explosion, Coulson, Skye and Hunter covering them.

They reach the explosion site a few minutes later. There’s no one in sight, save for the ten or so men lying unconscious on the ground. Skye whistles quietly.

“They really know how to rock a party, don’t they?” she says.

Coulson snorts. “Oh yeah. They know how to rock one alright.”

There was a muffled yell from inside that nobody recognised and therefore assumed by default it was Melinda. They take one look at each other and hurry in, their guns drawn.

Clint appears next to them suddenly, startling Coulson, Bobbi and Hunter into aiming their guns or batons at him. Clint puts his hands up, an amused look on his face.

“Just thought I’d let you know that we’ve found Mel but we’ll need a medical team on standby,” Clint informs them.

“Skye, how long do you think it’ll take Mack and Lincoln to get here?” Coulson asks.

“Depends on where they are,” Skye shrugs.

“Right here,” Lincoln says, popping up next to Jemma. “We came as fast as we could when we heard the news.”

Mack revs his chainsaw gun. “Ward’s goin’ down.”

Skye grins.

“Alright, FitzSimmons, I want you two on standby. Someone go with them to get whatever it is they need to bring it back here,” Coulson orders.

“I’ll go,” Mack offers. He’s enough brute force to guard them and help bring the medical supplies.

At Coulson’s nod, the three disappear into the thick foliage. Clint leads them in, walking tall, not bothering to hide. Coulson understands why when he accidentally steps on an arm. All the men have already been taken out.

Skye spots Natasha before any of the others. Natasha’s crouched, slowly moving forward. She freezes and Skye puts her arm out to stop them. Clint keeps moving forward. He joins Natasha’s side.

Then they’re both bending at the knees, inching forth like a snail. Slowly Skye creeps over, Bobbi right behind her. She inhales sharply. Melinda is crumpled on the ground, half naked. Her T-shirt is gone, leaving her only in jeans and a sports bra. Her hair is swept out underneath her, matted with blood. Her right hand is shackled to the wall and her feet are chained together. Her eyes are wide open, terrified, staring right at Natasha and Clint. Melinda is trying to back away but her back is firmly pressed against the wall and her left hand has a knife through it, keeping it on the dirt.

Skye can smell blood. There’s too much of it. Feeling slightly sick, she accidentally swings her torch around widely, letting it pass on Melinda. She turns around and is sick. The putrid smell of vomit and blood mixed together makes her vomit a second time.

Melinda is covered in blood. That much is all Skye can bear to remember. Natasha and Clint move closer still.

“C’mon, Melinda, c’mon,” Natasha is murmuring. “You know me. I’m Natasha. You’re...”

She stops, voice thick. Clint puts his hand on her shoulder.

“Mellie,” he whispers. “Please, let us come closer.”

Skye almost snorts. Mellie. But then she sees the tears on Natasha and Clint’s faces and she pauses. Melinda must mean a lot to them.

“No...” Melinda says, barely audible. “Please…”

It’s the first time Skye has heard Melinda say please and it breaks her heart.

Natasha goes forward and Melinda tenses. She touches Melinda’s shoulder and Melinda strikes out. It’s a well-executed kick, despite Melinda having been tortured for a few weeks.

Natasha takes a deep breath. “You remember our mission in Bangkok, ’83? Last day. You promised… you promised you’d never leave me again. That you wouldn’t… that you wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye.” She wipes her eyes. “You haven’t said goodbye yet.”

Melinda’s face doesn’t change but her eyes show something that Skye can never hope to understand. Natasha silently, slowly, walks forward. She reaches Melinda and quickly uncuffs her.

Natasha gently lifts her up and faces them. Melinda scrunches her face up in pain when Natasha shifts her slightly. Jemma, Fitz and Mack run in then, faces red with the running.

Jemma and Fitz set up the stretcher. Mack and Clint lift it (it’s got no legs – easier to run with) and Natasha lays Melinda on it. Immediately the white sheet is red.

They turn to leave. Fitz and Jemma swear — same word, same timing.

The exit is crowded with about twenty men. The outside of the cave is surrounded by about fifty. Clint and Mack set Melinda down. Natasha doesn’t wait for any signal, her red hair flashing in the darkness as she takes down three men in one try.

Clint follows her and perches upon a nook in the top of the cave, sending three arrows flying. Each arrow pierces a heart.

Skye puts her hands out and funnels them backwards. Their screams echo in her mind but she ignores them and continues taking man after man down.

Melinda struggles to sit up. She steals a gun from the ground and aims it. She empties the magazine into several men’s bodies. Skye freezes and looks back at her but by then she has collapsed awkwardly.

Natasha barely registers the sound of bullets shooting from the gun she has tossed Melinda’s way. She kills five more men without thinking and then fires off an entire round of bullets. She hits all her targets. She goes through fighting them without thinking. It’s dangerous, she knows but it’s like a second nature to her. Kick, duck, roll, jab, punch.

It seems like forty-five minutes later but is actually really five minutes when all their attackers are on the ground.

Jemma’s immediately ordering them around: “Get her on the stretcher properly. Mack, Clint, you two take her back to the plane. Bobbi, Hunter, Natasha, find Ward and bring him back alive. Fitz, go with Mack. Coulson, you do whatever but stay out of Medical. Skye, go and sleep. You look like you’re about to fall over. Lincoln, help Skye.”

She follows Mack, Clint and Fitz to the plane where she tells them where to put Melinda. In this light, she’s glad she told Skye to sleep.

Melinda looks awful. Her skin is pulled tight over her bones, showing just how little Ward was giving her to eat. Her nose is broken, just like the LMD’s but blood is still slowly trickling out of her nostril. Her cheek is bruised and her lip is busted. Her hand still has the knife in it. It’s obvious to even someone who’s never had any medical experience in their life that Melinda’s ribs are broken. None have stabbed through her skin though. Her torso is covered in bruises, yellow and purple. Melinda’s left leg has been shot three times, once in the thigh and twice in the shin. Her collarbone is broken and her thumb and forefinger are missing its nail. Surprisingly enough, her right leg in fine below the knee. Her thigh, however, is split open a few inches away from her hip, going down until an inch above her knee. The gash is still bleeding. There’s pus oozing out of it and the edges are crusted over, yellow. Her shoulder is swollen and red, so much so that Jemma thinks there is an infection. It’s hot and tender when she touches it. Probably cellulitis.

Melinda’s hand begins gushing blood when Jemma pulls the knife out carefully. Quickly, she applies pressure and then has Fitz stitch it up. She can tend to Melinda’s hand later when the more serious injuries are out of the way.

Melinda coughs and chokes on the blood. Jemma wants to roll her onto her side but that could end up upsetting other wounds. She settles for sitting Melinda up slightly. The older agent coughs and then stops, falling unconscious again. Jemma sighs. She washes Melinda’s stomach with saline and then begins stitching, setting bones and bandaging wounds.

Done with Melinda’s torso and legs, Jemma carefully rolls Melinda over and blanches.

Melinda’s back is a mess of skin and blood. Ward must have whipped her at least fifty times, if not more. Jemma can see muscle torn and several broken vertebrae. She washes gently over the wounds and mumbles a sorry when Melinda twitches in pain.

Fitz hooks her up to an IV and passes her a needle and thread. He holds together the wounds while she stitches them up. When three have been finished, Melinda looks like she’s about to wake up again so Fitz gives her a general anaesthetic and goes back to holding together Melinda’s back.

It takes them ages. An hour and a half to treat every single wound on her back. Jemma rummages around under the bench and pops up with tape and a roll of bandages. She cuts it and bandages Melinda’s back, wrapping it around her stomach. Instantly there is blood turning it red.

 

Lian waits patiently in the kitchen for her daughter to come back. It’s been years since she saw her. When Mack and Clint rush in, she doesn’t recognise the woman on the stretcher. It’s only when they pass that she realises that that was her daughter.

Lian doesn’t cry. Not physically. But her heart weeps for the girl that grew up to be just like her even though she tried to teach her differently. Tried to teach her to love and be happy. Teach her to help other people through misery and forgive.

Lian didn’t try to teach her child to make others happy but not herself. To give others love but never her. To take their misery with her own.

Her baby forgave though.

Just not herself.

Chapter Text

Melinda wakes up in a paint-splattered room. She recognises it as the Bus’s infirmary. She recalls when they painted it with a small smile. Skye had gotten sick of the blinding white walls and had called upon Melinda and Fitz to help paint it other colours. Jemma had walked in whilst they were painting and froze. Melinda had even managed to paint a green stripe down Jemma’s face down to her belly button. Then she had fled before Jemma could return the favour.

She shifts her head to the side and mentally cheers when she sees that she is alone. The door opens and Clint comes in. She frowns. Clint isn’t part of the Bus team.

“I know, I’m not part of your team but Phil needed help so we came to help. Nat’s here as well,” he tells her.

“Natasha?” she asks, surprised. “She’s here?”

Clint nods. “She’d never let you die. ‘Specially not by Ward.”

Melinda doesn't say anything. Coulson pokes his head in the door.

“Natasha’s about to leave,” he warns.

Clint sighs. “You guys will have to visit when you can walk. Stark’ll be delighted. He won’t shut up about your two scientists.”

Melinda rolls her eyes. “Don’t tell them; they won’t shut up.”

Clint grins and stands up. “Give Nat your love?”

Melinda stiffens, which hurts her back so she tries to relax. Clint rolls his eyes.

“You two need to stop hiding from each other,” he says, then ducks as a rock from Skye goes flying over his head, shattering the window in the door.

They both stare in horror at the hole. Clint bolts from the room with a quick, “Bye Mel,” just as Jemma comes running. She takes one look at the hole and sighs.

“Agent May,” Jemma says with a raised eyebrow.

“Jemma,” Melinda replies, wishing her hand didn’t feel like someone had just murdered it.

“Did you just throw a rock at Agent Barton?” she asks.

“Call him Clint,” Melinda says.

“Did you just throw a rock at Clint?” she repeats. “Which hand did you use?”

“No,” Melinda denies.

They both stare at each other, not willing to give up. Then Dr Simmons puts her hands on her hips and tilts her head slightly and Melinda knows she’s in for it now.

“I will not ask again,” Simmons says, all humour gone from her voice. “Which hand did you use?”

“Aren’t you gonna ask if I threw a rock at Clint?” Melinda asks smartly.

“Enough of that cheek, Qiaolian,” Lian says, entering the room. “You forget that Simmons is trying to help you.”

“Thank you, Ms May,” Jemma says, relieved.

“Lian,” Lian corrects.

“Then you have to call me Jemma.”

Lian nods. Then she looks at both Melinda’s hands and pushes the already injured hand towards Simmons. “That one.”

Simmons glares harshly at Melinda. “I will restrain you to this bed if you continue to hide your injuries and mouth off.”

“You can’t restrain me because I was rude,” Melinda protests.

“I can, though,” Lian says before Simmons can reply.

Melinda sticks out her tongue and tries to roll over so her back is facing her mom. Simmons stops her almost immediately.

“You have several broken vertebrae. You’re not standing or rolling over for a long while,” Simmons tells her. She looks at Lian and they exchange looks over Melinda’s head.

Melinda tenses. She groans when Simmons bends down and stands back up, holding a board to keep her back straight. Lian carefully sits Melinda up, making sure to keep her spine straight. Simmons lays the board down and Melinda swipes it off the bed with her good hand. Lian stops it with her hip and Simmons straightens it. Again, Melinda swipes it off. Lian lets Melinda fall back on the bed and then cuffs her daughter’s hands together.

Melinda growls and swings her legs over the edge of the bed. Simmons lifts Melinda’s legs back onto the bed. Lian holds her shoulders and Simmons picks the board off the floor, making sure the middle is in line with Melinda’s spine. Lian forces Melinda to lay down. Simmons quickly locks the straps around Melinda middle with a padlock.

“You could be hurting my ribs right now, you now,” Melinda tell them.

“You could be hurting my feelings,” Simmons retorts. “I don’t have to heal you. I could get some other SHIELD Medic to do it. Preferably, someone you don’t particularly like, just because you’re being difficult.” She pauses. “I have to go find Coulson.”

Jemma rushes out of the medical bay and into the lounge. Coulson is sitting on the couch with Skye, Fitz, Lincoln, Mack, Hunter and Bobbi.

“Sir, who is the SHIELD Medic that May hates?” she asks.

All talk stops. Coulson frowns, thinking.

“Um, Dr Gavel. He’s more tough and strict than mean but May hates him. Gavel pretends to hate her back but he actually finds it hilarious,” Coulson says. “Why?”

“Because May’s being difficult and I want to teach her a lesson,” Jemma says.

Coulson smiles. “Good. But I would suggest staying near someone who can calm May down when she’s finally allowed out.” He unlocks his phone and texts Gavel.

Ten minutes later he receives a reply. “Gavel’s in Africa treating wounded SHIELD agents but he can get to Ibadan in about forty-five minutes.”

Jemma smiles wickedly. “I’ll go break the news to her, then.”

She freezes when she reaches the Med Bay. Melinda has somehow guessed the passcode to the padlocks and is sitting up with her legs over the edge of the bed. Lian is nowhere to be found although, with the way the door is locked, Jemma assumes Lian left to find her. Jemma jumps when Lian appears at her side, skillfully unlocking the door.

When Melinda sees the open door, Lian and Jemma, she eyes them cautiously.

“Don’t you even try it,” Lian warns.

Jemma closes and locks the door. “So,” she begins, “How did you guess the passcode?”

“You used Fitz’s birthday,” Melinda says.

Jemma swears mentally. “Dammit. Wrong ones.”

“What, you have more?” Melinda asks.

Jemma nods. “For patients like you.”

Melinda makes a face at her and stands cautiously. Jemma rushes forwards and lifts Melinda up, placing her on the bed. She gently shoves at Melinda’s shoulder until she’s lying back on the board. Lian locks it and makes a new passcode. Jemma sees it for a fraction of a second. 8-5-7-0. She assumes it’s just a bunch of numbers but then she remembers the date of Bahrain. Coulson had told her. Friday 8th July.

“Well, now that you can’t kill me, I have good news,” Jemma states brightly. “I’ve had Coulson call another SHIELD Medic. Take a guess, Agent May.”

Melinda’s eyes narrow. “If you called him, I swear to God, Simmons.”

They hear the Bus ramp lower and Jemma beams. “That must be him. Should I stay here, or will you?” she asks Lian.

“You go. I’ll make sure she doesn’t leave,” Lian assures her.

Jemma walks briskly to the cargo hold where Coulson is greeting Dr Gavel. Dr Gavel is a tall, strong guy, with brown hair and glasses. Gavel sees Jemma over Coulson’s shoulder and smiles politely.

“Is this Dr Simmons?” he asks Coulson.

“Yep. She’s the one that asked me to call you,” Coulson says. “You remember Melinda May, right?”

Gavel grins like a child on Christmas Day. “Oh, brilliant. How much trouble has she caused?”

“She threw a rock at Agent Barton and it broke the window on the door. Then she escaped the board to hold her back straight. And she didn’t show us her hand which had started bleeding after she threw the rock,” Jemma tells him.

Gavel laughs. “That sounds exactly like her. Lead the way, Dr Simmons.”

“Jemma,” she tells him.

Gavel nods and follows her to the Med Bay. Melinda has duct tape over her mouth and her hands are cuffed to the edges of the bed. When she sees Gavel, she glares murderously.

“I forgot how much you liked me,” Gavel tells her as he pulls on a pair of plastic gloves. “Shall we do this the easy way or the hard way?”

Melinda tenses her body and shifts away from him. When he gets into kicking range, she lifts her right leg, the sole of her foot pointed towards his stomach.

Gavel sighs. “The hard way it is then. I thought you’d have learnt by now but no. It appears I’m mistaken. Now, you are not going to kick me because then that cut on your thigh will just get worse.” He fights back a smile as she kicks him anyway when he takes a step closer. It doesn’t hurt.

“You want the duct tape off?” Gavel asks.

Melinda eyes narrow but she nods.

“Then you let me do what I need to,” he bargains. “Have we got a deal?”

Melinda nods almost instantly. However, when Gavel reaches over to peel off the tape, she flinches backwards, out of his reach. Gavel frowns. He wonders what happened in that cave with Ward to make her act like this.

A woman who he can only assume is Melinda’s mother strokes her hair, calming Melinda down. This time, Gavel approached slowly. He manages to peel the tape off without getting any reactions. As soon as the tape’s off of her face, Melinda opens her mouth.

“Say anything rude and I’ll get you an actual gag,” Gavel threatens.

Melinda closes her mouth and then opens it again. “Feel like living hell again?”

Gavel makes sure she is securely tied up before leaving the room. He finds Hunter and Mack in the garage.

“Do either of you have a gag?” Gavel asks. “May won’t stop being rude and duct tape doesn’t work as well.”

Hunter bursts out laughing. Mack just stares, not sure whether to laugh or frown. He chooses a mixture of the two, ending up looking weird.

“Ask Coulson. He usually deals with any prisoners,” Hunter says.

Gavel thanks them and then leaves to find Coulson. He ends up in the cells. Shrugging, he rummages around in the drawers of the desk and finds a bright green gag. He sniffs it and deems it clean.

Going back to the Med Bay, he finds Melinda still in place. Lian lifts Melinda’s head up slightly and he clips the gag in place, tightening it so that she can’t push it out. Melinda keeps her mouth clamped shut though, refusing to put the gag in her mouth.

Gavel lets her be, hoping that she’ll let him fix her up. He carefully cuts away the fabric covering the gash on her thigh. The bandage is soaked with blood. Gavel takes it off, smears another dressing over the wound and replaces the bandage. He does the same for the rest of her wounds that need bandages.

“Can I trust you to not run away?” he asks.

Melinda gives him a look that tells him if he wasn’t so important to SHIELD he would be six feet under.

“Obviously not. Lian, Jemma, do you mind?” he asks.

“Not at all,” Lian says, standing up.

She unlocks the padlocks and Melinda bolts upright, trying to stand. Lian and Gavel stop her before she can get very far. They roll Melinda onto her stomach and Jemma does up the strap over Melinda’s waist. Lian pulls off Melinda’s T-shirt and unclasps her bra, leaving her back completely bare.

Lian then cuffs Melinda’s wrists to the sides of the bed again and pulls off the bandages. They all go in the bin. Gavel winces when he sees Ward’s handiwork. Jemma cleans away the new blood and pus and takes the antibiotic cream Gavel hands her. She gently spreads it over Melinda’s wounds and then steps back as Gavel tapes clean bandages on. Melinda only flinches once, when Jemma’s long nails scrape over one of her whip marks.

When Gavel and Jemma finish, they leave Melinda like that, although they add a few more straps – over her elbows, shoulders and the middle of her back where there aren’t any really terrible wounds.

He takes off the gag when he’s finished. Lian does up Melinda’s bra but gives up on putting her T-shirt back on. No biting retort comes and he taps her shoulder just in case she’s hurt. Lian smacks his hand away and mimes sleeping. Gavel smirks and goes to find Coulson.

 

Melinda wakes up with chafed wrists. She tries to roll onto her back but finds herself unable to move within a few inches in both directions. She closes her eyes and tries to go back to sleep.

When she next wakes up properly, it’s five days later. She learns that Gavel and Jemma had decided to keep her sedated so that her body could heal without her ruining its progress. All of the team members are in the Med Bay, talking to each other.

Jemma notices she’s awake and unties her. Melinda doesn’t move from the bed, letting her arms fall over the sides of the bed. When Skye stands up, however, she rolls over quickly. Lian throws her a T-shirt that she recognises as Clint’s.

“What’s Clint doing here?” she tries to say. It comes out more like: “Wha Cl ding ear?”

Thankfully, Lian understands her. “He didn’t pack everything. He’s still in New York. In fact, that’s where we’re going next.”

Melinda bolts upright. “No.” (Nng.)

“Yes,” Lian responds. “And lay down before you hurt yourself further.”

Melinda reluctantly lays down. She glares at mom, though.

“Y’know, you’re really weird,” Skye says.

Melinda ignores her.

“You’re being looked after yet you’re resisting it every step of the way. I just don’t get it,” Skye says.

Coulson chokes. Lian smirks.

“That’s a good though,” Gavel says. “Why is that, May?”

“I don’t see how it’s any of your business,” Melinda snaps, stretching herself out as long as she can go.

“It’s my business to make sure my patients are sane in the head,” Gavel tells her.

Melinda throws the duct tape at him. Lian lightly smacks her shoulder.

“Don’t throw things, Qiaolian,” she admonishes.

“Why not?” Melinda challenges.

“Because I am your mother and I said so.”

“That’s a crap reason.”

“Don’t be rude.”

“Look who’s talking.”

“Says you.”

“I do say.” Melinda sits up just to annoy her.

“Lay down.”

“No.”

“Melinda.

“Mom.”

“Melinda Qiaolian May, lay down before you get tied up again.”

“All this tying up business is not very good for my mentality.”

“You haven’t screamed yet.”

Melinda opens her mouth and screams.

“Because you’re tied up.”

Melinda doesn’t have a smart answer.

Lian smirks at her. “Lay down.”

Melinda does, but only because Jemma is holding up the handcuffs attached to the sides of the bed. Jemma locks them around Melinda’s wrists anyway. Melinda looks at her in outrage.

“Hey!” she protests.

Jemma just folds her arms and steps out of reach. Melinda narrows her eyes and is about to dislocate her thumb when Gavel stops her, tightening the cuffs around her wrists so she can’t pull her hands back.

Melinda scowls and lays back on the bed grumpily. Skye teasingly pulls the green blanket over Melinda, tucking it up under her chin. Melinda glares at her but doesn’t try and shake it off. In fact, she even rolls onto her side as best she could and closes her eyes. Lian pushes her onto her back but Melinda doesn’t open her eyes.

“Aw!” Skye says loudly. “She’s so cute.”

Coulson inhales his coffee in surprise.

No one has ever called Melinda May cute.

Chapter Text

Melinda sat in the cockpit and didn't move on her best days when she was finally allowed out of the Med Bay on the condition that she won’t exert herself for another month. Jemma wanted another two months but Gavel talked her out of it, knowing that Melinda would barely be able to do one month anyway.

Now she’s in her room at the Avengers Tower with all the lights on. She hasn’t seen Natasha once. Occasionally she hears Jemma talking about how she was doing so well until she was moved out of the Bus. Melinda scowls every time she hears that because she was bound to go backwards at some point and better sooner than later. Melinda hates it, people talking about her as if she can’t hear them.

Dr Gavel is stopping by tomorrow. Melinda hasn’t been told but she knows because he comes every week and tomorrow is Friday and he came last Friday. She peeks out the window. The sun is still barely up but Melinda knows that soon Jemma and Fitz will be coming in to check on her. Then she will have half an hour until Skye comes and then after that, there will be a steady stream of people coming in and out until lunch.

Except for Natasha. Natasha never visits. Maybe she thinks Melinda is too broken. But that doesn’t make sense. Natasha is just as, maybe more, broken.

The door creaks open and FitzSimmons come in quietly. They see her sitting at the window with the curtain covering her head and sigh. Fitz opens the curtains and Jemma guides Melinda to her bed.

Melinda frowns. How do they know she hasn’t slept? Jemma smiles at her gently, like you would to a child.

“You look tired, May. Go to sleep. We’ll be right here,” Jemma says softly.

“’M not a child,” Melinda mutters sulkily.

Jemma and Fitz share an amused look that Melinda misses.

“Of course,” Fitz tells her, pulling the covers up.

“’M not!” Melinda protests.

“We know,” Fitz says.

They’ve brought books, knowing that it might be some time before Melinda wakes up again and that if the lights are off and there is no one nearby she’ll panic and hide and last time that happened, Dr Gavel arrived and tried to help her but she knocked him out in her terror.

Half an hour later Skye comes in. She sees Melinda sleeping and FitzSimmons reading and winks before closing the door and leaving them to it.

Melinda wakes up around lunch time. She’s in Coulson’s arms in her bed and she doesn’t know why. She finds out when the door to her room opens and Gavel comes in, carrying a purple bag.

She glares at him. “I hate you.”

Gavel only grins. “Love you too.”

She pushes further into Coulson in a vain attempt to get as far away as possible from the doctor. In return, Coulson holds her tighter. When Gavel is a metre away and still not slowing down, Melinda pulls the blanket up, wrapping it tightly around herself. Coulson chuckles but doesn’t pull it away.

Gavel drops his purple bag at the foot of her bed. He unzips it and dumps a full jar of antibiotics, new bandages and a few dressings to fight infection on Melinda’s bed.

Melinda kicks Gavel’s stuff off. Fitz chortles quietly but helps Gavel pick it up anyway.

“I’m not going to send back to the Med Bay, May,” Gavel says quietly. “I just need to see your wounds.”

“No.”

Gavel continues on like he didn’t hear her. “I hear you’ve been giving Jemma trouble. Made her scream once. Reduced her to tears.”

Everyone remembered that day. Melinda had been having a particularly bad day and having Jemma trying to check her wounds had made it even worse. Jemma had tried pleading, begging, ordering, telling and asking. Melinda had refused everything, moving away from Jemma whenever she had tried to touch her.

Eventually, Jemma had had enough. She screamed loud enough for the whole building to hear, top to bottom. “MELINDA MAY, YOU WILL TAKE YOUR GODDAMN MEDICINE AND YOU WILL LET ME CHECK YOUR WOUNDS! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” Apparently, Melinda hadn’t, because she had climbed into the vents when Jemma turned away and escaped to her room. Fitz had found Jemma crying in the corner of the Med Bay. No one mentioned it anymore.

“No.” Melinda doesn’t deny making Jemma scream and cry. In fact, she admits it. It’s not something she enjoys remembering but she was not having anyone touch her, no matter how important it was that day. “Get out of my room,” she snaps.

“No,” Gavel mimics. “Get rid of the blanket.”

“Get out of my room,” Melinda repeats.

She doesn’t like people in her room. It makes her feel suffocated, watching people look around and wonder where all her belongings are, wonder if she really is just a cold-hearted machine.

“Okay,” Gavel shrugs. “Coulson?”

“Are you sure?” Coulson asks.

Gavel nods. “She said to get out of her room. We’re getting out of her room.”

Coulson nods and stands up, taking Melinda with him. “Where to?”

“What was her favourite place before the kidnapping here?” Gavel asks. “It’s best if we take her someplace she feels safe.”

“She spent most of her time in the gym,” Coulson offers.

“The gym it is,” Gavel says.

By now, Melinda has a vague idea of what’s happening and she isn’t liking it.

When Coulson starts walking to the gym, Melinda tries to squirm out of his arms. Unfortunately, the blanket she wrapped around herself has caught her arms and legs quite effectively.

She settles for flopping like a fish.

Coulson sighs and picks up his pace. Natasha and Steve are sparring in the gym when Coulson comes in carrying Melinda. Natasha sees Melinda out of the corner of her eyes and lets herself get distracted for a second. Steve takes his opportunity and punches Natasha twice, right in the stomach. Natasha steps backwards, out of his reach but it’s too late. Steve keeps moving forward, forcing Natasha to either surrender or try and get away.

She ducks under his fist and swings herself up onto his back. Steve laughs and slams her into the wall. Natasha groans but wraps her arms around his neck anyway.

She’s strong enough to hold her own against Steve but he has more muscle to pull her arms off his neck and flip her over his head. He doesn’t waste any time pinning her wrists to the mat. Natasha tries to use her feet on his head to free herself but Steve simply stands up and lifts his arms up so Natasha is dangling there. She tilts her head back and scowls at him.

Then she kicks him in the groin. Steve barely winces but he does loosen his grip enough for Natasha to pull herself up and bite his hands. He lets go of one of her hands and is about to grab her other hand when there is a scream from over by the door.

Natasha and Steve pause their fight and look over. Dr Gavel is trying to reach Melinda but she is terrified, forcing him to either continue looking like the bad guy or give it up. Natasha walks over and when she is a few metres from Melinda, she stops. She signals for them to move away. Fitz steps back and Jemma gently pushes Gavel away. Coulson sets Melinda on the ground and steps back with the others.

Natasha crouches down to Melinda height. Melinda moves into a crouched attacking position. Slowly, Natasha moves forward. Melinda doesn’t move, body tensed and ready to spring. She watches as Natasha keeps shuffling forward, still squatting.

Then Natasha moves. Melinda meets her halfway, blocking Natasha’s punch. Steve realises what Natasha is doing first. When Melinda slams Natasha into the mats, he smiles. Natasha doesn’t try and escape. Instead, she waits for recognition to light in Melinda’s eyes.

Gavel steps forward to pull Melinda off her but Natasha fixes him with a glare and he stops.

Melinda lets go of Natasha’s wrists and sits back. Natasha leans back on her elbows, grinning.

“Realise I don’t look like a guy?” she teases.

“You have red hair,” Melinda shrugs.

Natasha snorts. “Glad you noticed,” she says sarcastically. She expects Melinda to get off her. She’s not expecting Melinda to throw herself forward. Arms wrap around Natasha and for a second she’s frozen but then she returns the hug.

“Thank you,” Melinda whispers.

Natasha beams mentally. Outside, she gives Melinda a small smile.

“You need to let them see your wounds. It only happens once a week,” Natasha says quietly.

“No.”

“Melinda,” Natasha says warningly.

“Natasha,” Melinda mimics.

“May.”

“Romanoff.”

Natasha stands up. She is only a centimetre taller than Melinda but she uses it to her advantage. Melinda’s toes just scrape the ground.

One moment Melinda is hanging in Natasha’s arms and the next she’s lying over Natasha’s shoulders. Natasha walks out of the room to Stark and Bruce’s lab where they keep the infirmary in a little room in the corner.

Tony has the music blasting when they come in. Bruce is carefully trying to construct the Eiffel Tower out of skewers and Tony is welding a metal version of the Eiffel Tower.

When Natasha walks in with Melinda over her shoulders, Bruce ignores them. Tony, however, stops what he’s doing and stares in surprise.

Bruce glances over when Natasha walks into the infirmary and pauses the timer. He and Tony follow Natasha in. Natasha sets Melinda on the bed and then waits for Jemma and Dr Gavel to come in before she closes the door and hacks into Jarvis’s system. She smirks. That door won’t be opening for a long time.

Melinda stands up on the bed and opens the vent grate. Bruce frowns. He thought he had gotten rid of that after Natasha and Clint escaped when they could barely walk. They must have replaced it.

Natasha pulls Melinda down. Bruce tells Tony to weld the vent grate shut. Tony listens, mainly because he doesn’t want to have to clean the blood off every surface known to humankind again.

Melinda slaps Gavel’s hands away when he tries to unwrap her bandages. Jemma fixes her with a look but approaches slower than Gavel, giving Melinda time to move away.

She does. Melinda knows she shouldn’t, that they’re only going to help her but she can’t because Ward tried that trick and then he hurt her and they’re going to do the same and she’s in a corner again and she can’t breathe, she can’t move, she can’t and they just don’t understand! She needs to get out, needs to breathe and move but she can’t and it’s terrifying and somebody please help!

Jemma sees Melinda start to panic and curses. Tony pushes Gavel away, realising that he is doing more harm than good. Natasha takes Melinda’s face in her hands and instructs her to breathe.

“In. Out. With me. In and out. Come on, Mel, in, out,” she says, taking deep breaths with Melinda.

Melinda manages to take a shaky breath, eyes wide and unfocused.

“Yes, like that, good,” Natasha says quickly. “Again, in, out, in, out.”

Melinda breathes out and in once and then starts trembling again.

“No, no, Melinda, you’re safe,” Natasha says, wishing that she could kill Ward for what he’s done to her friend.

Friend? Girlfriend? Partner? Lover? Wife? Natasha doesn’t know what Melinda was to her anymore, but she knows enough to know that what they had once upon a time is over. Has been for a long time. Melinda had made that perfectly clear, asking her to leave her alone. God, how she hated Bahrain and what it had done to Mel. If it wasn’t for that, Melinda would have still been hers. Hers to kiss and hug and talk to and cry on.

Melinda shakes her head, gasping for breath. “No, no. Please, no!”

“Melinda!” Natasha says loudly. “It’s OK! It’s OK, you’re safe. Mel, don’t do this, no, don’t. It’s safe here. Remember this place. You know where we are, you know who’s around you. He’s not here, he’s gone. Melinda, breathe.”

Melinda squeezes her eyes shut and clenches her fists. Then she opens her eyes with a gasp. She slumps against the wall and slides down until she’s sitting with her head against her knees. Natasha squats in front Melinda and waits until she looks up.

It takes a while. Melinda looks up at Natasha. Natasha wipes away Melinda’s tears and helps her stand.

Jemma realises that they have a history, Melinda and Natasha. She guesses they were probably in love once upon a time. Watching Melinda hyperventilate, she realises that Melinda is scarred more than just physically and that if Melinda won’t let them help her, she’ll stay scared and broken forever. It’s strange seeing her role model so scared and broken. It’s the first time she’s seen May cry.

Natasha guides Melinda towards the bed in the middle of the room. She wishes again that the legs of the bed weren’t screwed into the floor. Melinda pushes against Natasha’s arm but this time Natasha can’t let her run.

“No one is going to hurt you,” Natasha tells her. “Promise.”

Melinda hesitates, knowing that Natasha never breaks a promise. Gavel smirks at her. Natasha glares at him to make up for not yelling.

While she’s busy glaring at Gavel, Melinda slips past everyone and makes it to the door. No one stops her. Melinda scowls when she can’t unlock it and turns around to glare at Natasha.

“You trapped me in here,” she says. Her tone is accusing.

Natasha swears in her head. “You haven’t been hurt.”

Melinda makes a face and crosses her arms in annoyance.

“Get on the bed, Melinda,” Natasha orders, trying to keep her amusement from her voice.

“And if I don’t?” Melinda asks, eyes glittering with mischief.

Natasha advances on Melinda and picked the tiny agent up easily. She deposits Melinda on the bed and locks a leather strap over her waist. Natasha tightens it so Melinda can’t slip out and then adds a padlock with a seven-digit passcode. Melinda scowls at Natasha and tries to squirm her way out of it. Natasha adds two more straps, one on each ankle.

Melinda sits up and begins undoing the straps around her ankles. Natasha smacks her hands away and cuffed Melinda’s wrists together. Then she ties the handcuffs to the top of the bed. Natasha smirks at Melinda who looks like a sulky teenager.

Gavel and Jemma move forward. Jemma unintentionally pulls Melinda’s T-shirt up over her head so she couldn’t see. Natasha waits to see what would happen.

Jemma takes off the bandages and wipes away the gunk – old blood and pus, antibiotic cream – and holds her breath as Melinda’s abdomen muscles tighten. Natasha stops herself from taking a step forward and waits it out. Melinda manages to relax her body and everyone breathes a sigh of relief.

Gavel tapes fresh bandages over Melinda’s stomach wounds. He frowns at her jeans. “Mind if I cut your jeans?” he asks.

“Try it and I’ll cut up all your clothes,” Melinda threatens.

Gavel unbuttons her jeans in reply and pulls them down so he can see the gash on her thigh. When he takes the bandage off he nearly yells in frustration. Jemma slams her hand down on the bed, next to Melinda’s head. Melinda flinches but neither notice, too angry to care at this point.

“No walking,” Gavel growls. “Not for another month.”

The gash has split open, blood oozing out slowly, the edges of the gash crusting over yellow. It looks like it’s been like that for a few days if the blood on the bandage is anything to go by.

Bruce is the best stitcher, having had to stitch up Natasha and Clint hundreds of times. He threads the needle and starts stitching up the wound. Melinda’s leg twitches as he starts stitching up the sorest part of the gash.

Tony and Natasha hold her leg still, making Bruce’s job easier. When he’s finished, Jemma rebandages Melinda’s thigh and rebutting her jeans.

Gavel asks, “Can you unlock your padlock, Agent Romanoff?”

Natasha does so and Melinda shifts her hips. Her eyes are still covered but she seems to have realised that she’s safe and at the Avengers Tower. When Natasha frees her ankles, Melinda flips herself over so that she’s standing with her hands in front of her. She shakes her T-shirt down to hang around her neck and grins wickedly at them. Apparently, she’s just being annoying because she can, now.

Melinda kicks Bruce in the stomach when he comes around to sedate her because it’s much easier to heal a sleeping Melinda than an awake Melinda. Gavel tries next but he goes down much the same. Jemma and Natasha glance over at each other and nod.

They approach from different sides, Jemma holding a syringe. When they get close enough to kick, Melinda pushes herself up on her hands and kicks them both at the same time, legs in the splits pose. She gets Jemma in the chest and Natasha on the chin because of the height difference.

To her credit, Jemma doesn’t drop the syringe. Natasha stumbles backwards into Tony who catches her. She dodges around Melinda’s next kick and grabs her waist. Melinda’s eyes narrow when she sees Jemma approaching. She can’t turn easily, not with her wrists still cuffed to the head of the bed, not with Natasha holding her in place.

Melinda uses Natasha to lift herself up and knocks the syringe out of Jemma’s hands where it shatters on the floor. Jemma sighs. Melinda smirks.

Bruce hands her another syringe, this one plastic. He then catches her legs and holds them still so Jemma can drug her.

“This … this is so not how a team … not how a team works,” Melinda scowls, as the effects of the sedative start to kick in.

Jemma laughs. “Oh, you’d know, wouldn’t you Agent May. All that hiding out in the cockpit or training room. How much time did you spend avoiding us before you decided it wasn’t worth the effort?”

Melinda tries to respond but by this time, she’s barely awake. “Not … not…”

Natasha heaves her up onto the bed and unlocks the cuffs. Melinda looks peaceful. At least, until she screws her face up and jerks.

Melinda feels the whip fall on her back. She grits her teeth, angry at herself for failing so easily. Her arms shake, muscles exhausted from hanging all day. It’s only for an hour each day that Ward allows her to rest. She takes a deep breath when Ward moves away to fill the tub with dirty water. He roughly unties her and drags her limp body over to the tub. She tries to resist, she always does but he’s so much stronger than her when she’s been tortured all day without even a second to gain her bearings.

Ward shoves her head into the water, hand bruising her neck. She kicks out, limbs flailing uselessly as she tries to hit him. Ward tsks in disapproval. He keeps her under for two minutes. When he pulls her back up she barely has time to take a breath before he’s shoving her under again.

“You deserve this, Melinda,” he growls when he lets her up for air. “You know you do.”

Melinda gasps for breath, mind fuzzy. His words don’t register until she’s forced under the water again. She succeeds in kicking him but pain shoots up her leg and she nearly screams.

“No,” she manages to get out. “Don’t.”

Ward’s smirking at her. “Didn’t realise that little old me could make the great Melinda May breathless.”

Melinda spits at his feet. “Get … get y-your mind … out … out of the … g-gutter.”

Ward just laughs. “Who said it was in the gutter?”

He lifts her to her feet by her hair, dragging her over to a slab of rock that has iron manacles screwed into it. She struggles uselessly as he drops her on it, reaching up for the manacles. While he’s busy, she stands up and starts towards the door, limping. Ward watches her go with a smirk. She opens the door and her mask slams into place as she sees five men waiting for her.

“Hey there, sweetheart,” one of them purrs. “How about we go someplace else, just you and me, eh?”

Ward appears at the doorway. “You go with them or you come back in here with me. Your choice.”

Melinda spins away from the men as the closest one grabbed her ass. She bumps into Ward who holds her upper arms so tightly that red marks come almost instantly. He pulls her back into the cave by the belt loops on her jeans. He flings her down onto the rock, this time keeping his knee on her neck whilst he locks her wrists in the manacles. The same goes for her ankles.

Ward stands up and looks at his work proudly. He spots her T-shirt in the corner of the cave and rips it in two. Melinda’s body is taut, pulled to stretching point. The manacles were placed further apart with taller men in mind. He fingers a knife, pulling it from its shelf along the wall.

Melinda hears him pick up a knife and breathes out shakily. She blinks rapidly when she thinks about Skye and Jemma and Fitz and Coulson. And— No. She’s not going there. That’s a different person from a different life.

She tenses as he drags the knife from her armpit down to her hip. It’s only a shallow cut, that she can be grateful for. But then he stabs her and twists the knife and she’s trembling and she’s trying not to but it’s so hard because all she wants to do is curl up and cry in N– No. She’s not going there. She left that behind in Bahrain.

Then she hears her name: “MELINDA! MELINDA, WAKE UP.”

She frowns. She is awake.

“Mel…”

She knows that voice.

Memories of missions together and hiding in the mall to escape the wrath of Fury and red hair and soft lights and laughter and having fun.

“Please…”

Melinda bolts upright. Natasha and Jemma and Gavel are the only ones in the Med Bay. She takes a shaky breath and brings her knees up to her chest. Someone puts an arm around her shoulders. She tenses. The arm isn’t hurting her and when she glances at the owner she sees it’s Natasha's arm and Natasha won’t hurt her.

That she knows for certain.

Natasha can feel Melinda’s breath coming slower, more calm and steady. Jemma smiles and tells her to call if anything happens and then she pushes Gavel out the door and is about to follow when Melinda stops her.

“Thank you,” she says, voice raspy.

Jemma beams, face lit up. “You’re welcome.” Then she bounds out of the Med Bay.

Natasha curls up beside Melinda and they fall asleep.

 

Clint comes in when Natasha is just waking up. Melinda is still fast asleep, breathing even, though her head is hanging over the edge of the bed. Her T-shirt has fallen off from around her neck at some point and is lying on the floor. One of Melinda’s arms is over Natasha’s shoulders. Natasha has both arms wrapped around Melinda, even though Melinda’s lying on her stomach and it looks awkward as hell.

He laughs, alerting Natasha to his presence. She blinks and sits up, pulling the blanket up to Melinda’s shoulders. She lightly traces a scar on Melinda’s arm, from when she was just starting in the field and had been shot.

“Good sleep?” he grins.

Natasha rolls her eyes and stands up, following him out the door to the kitchen where Steve is making pancakes. She switches the light off in the lab when she left, forgetting that the Med Bay and lab lights are connected.

The Med Bay lights flicker off as the lab lights turn off.

Melinda wakes up, shivering. She can’t see much, just a few feet in front of her. She freezes as she hears the door open and footsteps softly pad over to her. The door opens to the Med Bay and she can make out Ward’s face in the dim glow.

She jumps up, getting ready to fight. Ward laughs softly.

“Oh, Melinda,” he says. “You never learn, do you?” He pulls out a tranquillizer gun and shoots her.

He’s too close for her to dodge but she tries anyway, falling into medical equipment. Ward laughs and scoops her up, throwing her over his shoulder. Melinda doesn’t fall asleep straight away.

“Jarvis!” she yells. “Help!”

Jarvis doesn’t respond right away. When he does, he has static. “What … I … for you, Age… ay?”

“Alert the Avengers,” she gasps.

“Right … Agent …” Jarvis says.

By the time Jarvis alerts the Avenger, Melinda is unconscious and Ward is in the elevator on his way down.

He gets away.

Natasha can’t get the tracking device on him. Bobbi is just glad she put trackers in Melinda’s jeans. They blink to life on Skye’s computer screen.

Two little red dots in Florida.

Chapter Text

Melinda feels the pain of the knife before it hurts. She doesn’t know how but she just wishes it wouldn’t happen. Ward’s face looms into view and she closes her eyes to block him out. He simply twists the knife a full 360 degrees. She gasps and her eyes open in shock because he’s never done that before.

Ward pokes his head out the door and yells in Arabic, the one language Melinda can’t speak fluently. Still, she understands the gist of it and when a young doctor comes in she slips her cuffs, escaping unscathed except for dislocated thumbs. She quickly pulls off the cuffs around her ankles and stands up, shoving Ward into the tub of water. She nails him with a knife but he moves and it scrapes his side.

The doctor, a young man with brown hair and blue eyes stares at her nervously. When she tries to push past him, he stabs her with a needle full of some liquid she doesn’t know. He doesn’t pull the plunger though, so she pulls it out and stamps on it.

He pulls another needle from his pocket and she curses Hydra for being so prepared.

By this time, Ward has recovered. He grabs the waistband of her jeans as she spins away from the doctor and presses her against his body. The doctor quickly stabs her and pulls the plunger.

Nothing happens.

Ward frowns as she jerks uncontrollably and falls to the floor. She shrinks a few inches until she’s just past five feet. Her body gets younger, too, smaller and skinnier, less muscle.

“What have you done?” he asks.

The doctor is frozen. “It – it m-must have b-b-been the w-wrong needle. I-I s-swear, I-I didn’t m-mean to,” he stammers.

Ward doesn’t shoot him. “Get the right drug and come back.”

Melinda stands up shakily and looks confused when Ward’s almost a foot and a half taller than her instead of just a foot.

“You’ve been de-aged,” Ward says. “Not what I intended to happen, but not the worst thing that could’ve happened.” He smirks at her as he drags her out of the room and into a white room full of nurses and doctors in white lab coats. There’s a metal table in the middle of the room, covered with a white sheet. Everyone turns to face him as he comes in. “It’s time,” he announces.

There is a bustle of excitement and trepidation. Ward and another nurse, a big strong man with no hair, pin her on the table. Two other nurses shackle her wrists and ankles and Ward locks a metal chain tightly across her waist, clipping it onto metal bars running all along the sides and tops of the bed.

“You should be honoured, Melinda,” Ward says. “You’re the first person Hydra is testing these experiments on.”

“I am not your fricking test subject,” Melinda growls. “Get your stupid hands off me.” She struggles, trying to pull her hands out from the cuffs. Ward stops her when her wrists start to bleed, the metal cutting to the bone.

A doctor sticks multiple needles into the inside of her arms and little pads on her collarbone and on the sides of her face and forehead. Melinda tries to shake them off but they’ve got little suction cups on the bottoms of them and goddamnit! it’s annoying.

Ward smirks at her annoyed expression.

“How old am I?” Even she is surprised at how raspy her voice sounds. She assumes it’s from all the screaming.

Ward studies her. “Oh, fifteen or so, give or take a year.”

Melinda sighs. Being fifteen sucks. She clenches her jaw as they electrocute her, not wishing to give them the satisfaction of hearing her scream. Unfortunately, they crank it up to the max and she lets out a choked scream.

Ward watches in amazement as the woman who told him how hard it is to stop talking once you start lets out a choked scream. Call it sadistic, call it psychopathic, call it sociopathic, call it monstrous, but he loves it. Seeing the usually so stoic and tough agent come undone, writhing and screaming because of the pain he was causing her.

He turns the machine off and watches as she gets her breathing under control in record timing. He nods to a nurse, Nurse Sting he thinks, and she jabs Melinda with another needle. Melinda bites her lip so hard she draws blood.

Ward can’t see what’s happening but it’s so fascinating, seeing her break apart. He’s startled by her scream. He didn’t think it would happen so early. Then he sees that the dial on the machine attached to the needle in her arm is cranked to the max. He smirks and nods to another doctor.

Soon Melinda’s arm has seven needles stuck in it, all taped down heavily. The machines are cranked to the max, not even able to turn another millimetre. All Ward can hear is Melinda’s beautiful screams of agony. She’s moving, struggling and squirming as if it can stop the pain.

Then after an hour, Ward gives the signal to stop. Slowly, the dials are all turned down until they’re off.

Melinda lays there, unable to move or think or speak. Occasionally, she shudders. She tries to stop it but it’s not something she can stop.

Ward watches her. He wonders if she knows how amazing she looks like this. He shakes his head. No, she’ll call him a monster and it’s true. He has tortured her, ruined her. She can never fully get over this. Not after what he’s got planned next.

Ward sets her free and smiles when she doesn’t even try to move. He turns around to get a doctor to carry her to the next room but when he turns around she’s gone.

He growls and orders everyone on lockdown. He spots her almost immediately, black against the white lab coats.

Several men and women are trying to sedate her but she’s dodging their needles, stabbing themselves instead. There are five doctors down already, two women, three men. Ward realises that what he has just seen was an act. She could have gone a lot longer and he fell for her bluff.

Melinda spots him coming, another black spot in the white. She takes in his murderous look as he approaches and grins, seeing that he realised her act. She takes down three more and then jumps over a diving nurse. The nurse lands on the floor, bruising his face.

Melinda takes off running, only to be stopped by at least twenty men, all carrying guns and wearing bullet-proof vests. She curses mentally and dodges around the bullets. One grazes her arm but she carries on running. She needs to get back to her team, to Skye and Jemma and Leo – huh, she’s never really thought of him as Leo before – and Phil. To Natasha.

Then Ward is behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist and lifting her up. She’s kicking and struggling, her arms trapped by her sides. Still, Ward doesn’t drop her. Instead, he walks forward and through the twenty men with guns who part for him like he’s a king.

Melinda finds herself over his shoulder and she kicks him again, right in his stomach. Ward grunts and flips her upside down, holding her ankles at his shoulder. Her head barely reaches his knees. She wraps her arms around his knees and grins as he stumbles. Ward lifts her up onto his shoulders, holding her arms and legs like a fireman.

He walks into another room, still white but twice as large. In the middle of the room, there is a glass partitioning. Iron rims the edges. For every metre of glass, there is a metal divider. The glass is almost ten inches thick. There is a door in the middle. It has several locks and a passcode before it will open and none on the far side.

Ward smirks. Melinda will never be able to get out. He unlocks the door, somewhat hiding the passcode from Melinda. He drops her on the floor and kicks her towards the far wall. Then he slams the door shut and locks it.

Melinda stands slowly and walks forward, hands by her side. When she reaches the glass divider, she folds her arms and looks him square in the eye. “So, what? Are you just gonna keep me here? Not do anything at all? I mean, kind of a waste of time,” she says, her gaze not wavering in the slightest.

Her eyes flick to his hands as he slams his fist onto a red button on the door. Melinda frowns, inhaling carefully. Then she spins around, sure she saw someone. A thick fog fills her side of the room and she carefully scans the room for threats.

She blinks in surprise as Coulson comes out of the corner. She notices his frown and doesn’t go over.

“Phil…” she starts.

“Don’t you Phil me!” he growls suddenly. “You betrayed us! Ward found us. Melinda, he killed Jemma and Fitz.”

Melinda freezes. “No. No, that’s not true. This isn’t real.”

It’s too late. Coulson’s already gone, Skye in his place. She’s sniffling, eyes red and puffy.

“I can’t believe you, May,” she sobs. “What happened to “We’re a team?” Where did that go? I – I thought… You were like a mother to me and because of you, Jemma and Fitz die. What kind of team member are you? What’d he promise you?” Skye moves closer until she’s so close their noses are almost touching. “What’s he give you to make you spill?”

“I didn’t,” Melinda tries. “Stop, this… No, this isn’t right. Skye, stop it! Phil, he said the same thing too. It’s all lies.”

But then Skye is gone and FitzSimmons appears, holding each others hands, blood coating their face and chest. Melinda backs away.

“Stop. Go away. No, this isn’t real, it’s just a lie,” she mutters.

“May.” Fitz’s voice is cold.

“Stop it stop it stop it stop it,” Melinda chants.

“You killed us.” Jemma’s voice could have frozen the sun.

Melinda turns away and sees Ward smirking at her. She slams her fist on the glass. “Stop it!” she yells.

Ward just smirks. Then he leaves. Melinda’s breath comes in shorter gasps as FitzSimmons, Skye and Phil accuse her of murder. Then it’s the Avengers.

“Well, I didn’t think you were capable of murder, but looks like everyone’s got dark secrets,” Stark says, folding his glasses.

“In the army, you’d be shot for cowardliness and selling out your team member.” Steve looks so disappointed that Melinda can’t bear to look at him. She wonders if it's true after he's gone.

Bruce doesn’t say anything for a minute. Then he speaks: “Even I wouldn’t sell out my team members and I’m close to the weakest one here, if not for the Hulk.”

“Bruce,” Melinda says.

“Don’t even try, May,” Clint says. Melinda doesn’t look at him. The fact that he’s calling her by her last name says enough. “You had your chance.”

She waits for Natasha to give the final blow. It doesn’t come. Instead, Fury and Maria and Hand and every other SHIELD agent.

Then Natasha comes, the crowd parting before her.

She stands in front of Melinda.

“I’m glad you went to Bahrain. Got rid of you quick enough and made you think it was you.”

Melinda can’t breathe. She tries but Natasha’s words keep coming back to her. She knows it isn’t true but it feels true.

Then the fog is gone and it’s just her, kneeling on the floor with tears running down her cheeks. Ward is leaning against the wall, a smug look on his face. He opens his mouth to talk and Melinda can’t see him but she knows he’s going to say something and she just can’t deal with it right now.

“Don’t. Just … don’t,” she says, quiet but firm.

He listens. Or at least she thinks that because he’s not talking.

“What did you see?” he asks after a while.

Melinda doesn’t answer, can’t think about it, can’t talk about, and certainly not to Ward of all people. When she doesn’t answer Ward walks forward to the glass beside the door. His hand rests on the button.

She opens her mouth to tell him, only because she can’t deal with another round and then remembers that that’s what her friends – no, her family – accused her of. She closes her mouth and shakes her head, feeling more tears spill from her eyes. Her hair fans out across her face, obscuring his view of her.

Ward presses the button and doesn’t leave, sitting on a plastic chair that you get at the hospital in the waiting area instead. The fog fills Melinda’s side of the room again and she closes her eyes and buries her head in her hands.

This time there is only Natasha. She kneels beside Melinda. “Mel,” she starts. “What have they done to you?”

Melinda doesn’t answer. She knows something worse will follow.

“Melinda, come on, answer me,” Natasha says softly, placing a hand on Melinda’s shoulder.

Melinda shakes her head, shuffling away. Natasha’s eyes fill with hurt and she stands up.

“Fine. Don’t tell me. But you caused this. Just remember that ” she says angrily. “This is all your fault.

She runs out and Clint comes in, looking back in confusion. Melinda has to give it to Ward, it’s pretty damn good, this thing that’s messing with her mind.

“Mel?” Clint asks. “What’s wrong with Nat?”

Melinda doesn’t answer. It’s not real.

“Mel?” Clint asks again, worry creeping into his voice.

“Did you two fight?”

“She thinks I don’t trust her,” Melinda murmurs.

Clint stops. Shocked. Surprised. “How could you let her think that? You know she has trust issues!”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Melinda tries to say but her voice is choked and she can’t speak.

“You should know better than this, Melinda,” Clint tells her, before disappearing after Natasha.

For a while, no one else appears and Melinda thinks it’s over. Then Skye comes in, dressed for fighting. Her expression is cold, haunted, a lot like Melinda’s own after Bahrain. Her hands are covered in blood.

“You left us.” Skye’s voice is barely that of a whisper. “We needed you and you didn’t even try to help.” She wipes away tears angrily. “And now A.C’s gone and Ward’s bloody Hydra and I need you.” Her voice cracks and she turns away.

Melinda can’t stand it. “Skye,” she tries but her voice breaks and she can’t get the rest of the words out.

Skye gives her a chilling look. “Forget it. It’s not like anyone ever mattered to you.” She storms away, disappearing into the white fog.

Melinda thinks Skye doesn’t know how wrong she is. Skye matters to her, Coulson matters, FitzSimmons and even Ward at a time mattered. Even the Avengers, Bruce and Tony with all their science that goes way over her head, and Thor and Steve with their out-of-time thing, and Clint who brought her mac and cheese every Wednesday and Saturday, just to make sure she was still eating. And Maria and Fury, who let her transfer but never gave up.

And Natasha, who she loved enough to let go when she couldn’t face the pain after … after that place. Natasha matters the most to her, she still does and she knows that it’s crazy but she almost hopes that maybe they can be together again. But Natasha has Bruce and Steve now and she doesn’t need Melinda.

Melinda knows who it is when she hears their footsteps. It’s Phil. He sits down in front of her and says nothing. She doesn’t have to look up to know he’s angry and disappointed and sad. She knows it is her fault, he doesn’t have to rub it in.

“I know this isn’t real,” Phil says, and Melinda looks up at him like oh, thank God, please come get me out of here. “I know this is just a figment of your imagination. Keep ignoring them. Don’t let their words hurt you.”

And Melinda doesn’t, not when they next come, voices sharp and cold as ice. She lets her walls lock and bolt in place, barricading her from them. But then Skye is yelling, in pain and Melinda can see her hanging by one hand off a cliff. She crawls over and tries to pull her up but her hand goes through Skye and bangs the floor.

Melinda sits back and swears. She’s not crying anymore, she stopped that a few days ago. At least she thinks it’s a few days ago. Her sense of time has become misguided since Ward took her.

Ward doesn’t try and ask what she sees anymore. Instead, he comes into her part of the room and beats her. He leaves food if she is good, though how he judges that is a mystery to Melinda because she bit him once and he still left food.

He smells of alcohol when he next comes. He’s not wobbling on his feet though, walking in a straight line. He beats her more harshly but when he leaves, Melinda watches through a swollen left eye as the door doesn’t click shut. She waits until he’s gone but a young girl in a lab coat is already coming in, coming to check if the door is shut properly. She smiles apologetically at Melinda and pushes a plastic cup filled with water through. Melinda takes the water from the girl and kicks out, hoping to break her knee.

The girl can fight though, catching Melinda’s foot in her hand and stepping back out of reach. She shuts and locks the door.

 

Melinda’s next window comes at night. Ward comes in, smelling of beer and urine and vomit. He hauls her to her feet and drags her through the dozens of empty white corridors until she’s quite lost. He walks like a drunken man, though he restrains her easily against the wall when she tries her luck.

She knees him in the groin and smiles smugly as he drops to his knees, wincing. She’s barely gone two steps when he’s tackling her to the floor, grabbing her wrists and pinning them above her head. His legs pin hers and he smirks at her, albeit drunkenly.

When he stands up, she takes her chance. She’s always been faster than him and so she uses it to her advantage.

Ward doesn’t react straight away, letting her gain a three-metre head start though she quickly loses him in the white corridors. She finds the window eventually. It’s still open, but half a metre above her and tiny. She jumps, catches her hands on the edge and pulls herself up.

She’s halfway through when hands grip her waist. Blindly, she kicks out and breaks his nose. Ward reels back, hands instantly coming up to cradle his nose. It’s not much time but it’s enough for her to wriggle further out the window. She finds a chunk of rock sticking out of the building and grips it as Ward tries to pull her back in.

Melinda lets him think she’s losing her grip and when he gets cocky, she yanks her legs out of his grasp and tumble out the window, catching the ledge just in time. She looks down and swallows. She’s on the second floor of a three-story building.

Taking a deep breath, she lets go, just as Ward grabs at her hands. He misses and Melinda falls. She catches the drainpipe on the building opposite her and shimmies down quickly. She manages to land on her feet when she drops to the ground, though a spike of pain rockets up and down her body.

Melinda heads for the Avenger Tower when she realises that they don’t want her. That’s what they said in her mind, why should it be any different? She changes course and starts for HQ.

It takes her twenty-one hours on the subway to get to New York. It’s another hour before she reaches HQ. She pulls open the door and takes five steps towards Medical when two Administration agents rush over and help her walk.

She passes between the world of the living and the dead for the first few days. She wakes up properly on the third day. Her head is killing her and her lower left leg is wrapped in a cast. Something tells her it’s her ankle.

She goes to sleep again.

When Melinda wakes up two days later, she feels woozy but can make out the face of her boss standing above her. Fury waits for her world to come into focus before speaking. “You look young, Agent,” he smiles.

Melinda tries to speak, her lips quirking into a smile. “Act–acid–accident,” she finally gets out. She sees the corner of Fury’s lips twitch upward and grins at him.

Every word he says feels like a hammer to her head. When he reaches out to touch her shoulder she automatically flinches away from him.

Fury stops, his hand just above her shoulder. He sees her flinch and guesses that Ward never gave her much of a reason to trust him. He leaves her there to rest.

It’s an hour later before Fury realises that the Avengers don’t know Melinda is safe, and neither does her team for that matter. He calls them, leaving a message on their voice mail but it’s not been fifteen minutes before the two teams crowd into SHIELD Medical.

Melinda looks at them coming and braces herself, locking her walls into place. Skye notices this first, freezing in place.

“Oh my God,” she whispers.

Natasha frowns at her and her shoulders sag when she realises what Skye means. All Melinda’s work to getting over Bahrain has been discarded. Melinda tries to back away from them and it breaks Natasha’s heart more than when Steve yelled at her for risking innocent citizen’s lives.

Melinda sees them stop and breathes a sigh of relief. Two of them approach. A redhead and a blonde.

“Hey, Mel,” the red head, who she recognises as Natasha once she gets close enough, says. The other is Clint.

“What’s he done to our Mel?” Clint asks, trying to be jovial but it’s not working very well. “You look about twenty.”

Melinda glances at the others behind them and Natasha does the same, sending Steve a signal to get the hell out. He understands and ushers them out, only glancing back when he shuts the door.

Natasha and Clint are leaning on the sides of the bed. Melinda’s trying to relax but Steve knows a lost battle when he sees one. Outside the room, Skye’s shoulders shake. Jemma and Fitz hug her, murmuring in her ear. Coulson looks devastated at Melinda’s state.

“If you allow it and Agent May-”

“Melinda,” Coulson interrupts.

“And Melinda agrees, you could all keep staying at the Avengers Tower if you want, where Bruce can be the doctor and we can be the supportive family,” Steve suggests, trying to lace a little humour into his speech to get them to relax.

It kind of works. Skye giggles quietly and Coulson smiles.

“That’s a great idea,” Coulson says. “I’ll ask Melinda later when she’s slightly more in her own mind.”

Steve nods.

Inside, Natasha and Clint try and break past Melinda’s walls. They have a little luck, getting her to crack a smile at one point. But the one thing she refuses to do is talk. She’ll react to them, if only slightly, but she never speaks one single word.

Eventually, they give up, just telling her tales about what had happened while she has been gone.

“So Steve was all, kill Ward and make him suffer for harming Agent May, and Tony was all, man, shoot him up into space. And then Bruce gave his opinion which was something about using radiation to flush Ward out and then Pepper said something about showing Ward what happened when he messed with the Avengers and the Avengers friends,” Clint grins.

Melinda nods. Natasha’s eyes light up as she sees Melinda’s own eyes warm. Lessening the harsh pain. It also helps that the drugs she was given are starting to kick in.

The door opens and Coulson sticks his head in. He smiles at Melinda who stares warily at him. Natasha and Clint stand up and say goodbye, joining Coulson in the hallway.

“Steve says that we can stay at the Tower with Melinda until she’s better but I just think that perhaps you’d be better suited to tell her. She can say no if she likes but…”

“But you want to be able to keep an eye on her,” Clint finishes.

Coulson nods. “Yeah.”

“I’ll tell her,” Natasha says, heading back in. She grins at Melinda. “Hey, Mel. I’m back. Just been talking to Phil. He says you can come stay at the Avengers Tower with the rest of your team until you’re better. D’you wanna come live with us? Just to warn you, Steve snores and Bruce doesn’t get up until lunch on most days.”

Melinda smiles. She opens her mouth to speak and then remembers something and closes it with a frown. “No,” she mutters to herself. “Ward’s still listening.”

Natasha barely heard her but she gets the gist of it. “Did Ward … mess with your mind?”

Melinda doesn’t look at her. She wraps her arms around herself instead, closing her eyes. 

Natasha sighs. “Could the others touch you?” she asks. Melinda shakes her head. Natasha reaches out a hand and touches her shoulder. “Could they do this?” Another shake. “So I must be real, huh?”

Melinda takes a deep breath. “Natasha?” Then she looks around as if Ward will pop out of the shadows and yell, “Ah ha! Let me kill Natasha!” “I’m scared,” Melinda whispers.

Natasha smiles. “Aren’t we all?” She takes Melinda’s hand and helps her to her feet, careful of the broken ankle. “So? Do you wanna stay at the Avengers Tower?”

Melinda nods. “If you’re there.” She hesitates like she always does when she’s nervous or high on medical drugs. “I miss you.” I love you.

“I love you too,” Natasha grins dopily. “For you, my dear? Always.”

Melinda’s face lights up and she lets Natasha lead her out of Medical, Clint and Phil behind. She wonders if maybe it’s real. That she really did escape from Ward out that tiny little window and make it all the way back to HQ with a stuffed ankle.

Natasha’s watching her and she thinks that perhaps Natasha doesn’t trust her. She dismisses the thought but it keeps coming back, nagging at her. A hand on her shoulder is the only thing that stops her walking into the wall.

Her crutches make an annoying click, click noise on the floor. Natasha helps her into the SUV and then gets into the driver's seat. Clint groans from the back and Melinda has bad memories of flying round sharp bends and overtaking speeding cars on the highway with oncoming traffic going their way.

She clutches the door handle and Clint laughs. “Melinda knows the truth.”

Natasha puts her foot down on the accelerator before Coulson has even closed the door. She zips past another SHIELD SUV and waves at the driver who is so shocked he drives off the road.

Natasha pulls up in front of the Tower and lets everyone out. She turns the engine off and locks the door before following. Inside the Tower, Natasha finds both teams sitting around in the lounge playing Mario Kart.

FitzSimmons are winning by a long mile, Bruce about a hundred metres away. Tony is last. When the hacker, Skye, sees Melinda hobble in, she leaps up and wraps Melinda in a tight hug. Melinda freezes.

“Skye,” she manages in a strangled voice.

Skye loosens her grip and looks at Melinda worriedly. “What? Are you hurt?”

This time it’s Melinda who initiates the hug. Skye looks shocked for only a moment before returning it.

Bruce pauses the game and FitzSimmons stand and gives Melinda a hug as well. Natasha stands by Clint who looks at her with a smirk. He nudges her with his shoulder and Natasha glares at her but when Melinda’s team has finished hugging she steps forward. There’s silence from the Avengers who all remember Melinda staying over before Bahrain as Natasha’s girlfriend.

Natasha takes Melinda’s face in her hands and softly presses her lips against Melinda’s. Melinda is only still for a moment before her arms wrap around Natasha’s shoulders. When they break apart, Natasha grins.

“You’re so much shorter now.”

Melinda glares at her.

Skye cheers, breaking the silence. Melinda seems to realise that she just kissed Natasha in front of her team, and especially Skye and swears under her breath. Natasha laughs softly.

“Told you so,” Clint says to Tony who grumbles but hands Clint ten bucks.

Melinda frowns. “Did you bet on us?”

Tony wisely stays silent but Clint disappears, choosing to flee, rather than face Natasha and Melinda. Natasha raises her eyebrows at Tony who takes a step backwards.

“Well, Stark?” she asks.

“You know, I think I have a good outcome against you two ‘cause I can run faster than you can now,” he points to Melinda’s crutches.

Melinda shoots a glance a Natasha and then another one at Jemma who narrows her eyes.

“Whatever it is, don’t,” Jemma warns.

Natasha laughs. “You’re so unbelievable, Mel. I thought you said no controlled you?”

“Except Jemma,” Melinda shrugs. “She’s friends with Skye who finds it hilarious to see if I’ll laugh at the stupidest things and can hack into nearly anything. I think she’s got enough power to make me stay in the Med Bay most of the time.”

“What about your mother?” Coulson asks.

Melinda wrinkles her nose. “Let’s get back to Stark.”

Natasha snorts at her unsubtle dig to change the conversation.

“Do you always bet on people kissing?” Natasha asks.

Tony smirks. “No. Don’t be ridiculous. I’d lose so much money.”

Melinda’s lips quirk at the corners. “You’re a billionaire.”

“I lost two hundred bucks to Barton in a month.”

Skye and Natasha burst out laughing. Even Bruce and Steve smile. Then the elevator dings and Lian walks in, scanning the room for weapons and exits automatically.

“Hi, Mama,” Melinda says, with a forced politeness that would look downright lovely to a normal person.

“Qiaolian. How are you?” she asks, same politeness.

The temperature drops.

“Oh, you know. I’ve been better,” Melinda says offhandedly.

Lian nods. She spots Natasha and eyes her warily. An incident with a box of matches, a smoothie, a fireplace and a microwave had taught her to never allow Natasha in her house and made her cautious around her ever since. Natasha grins.

“Maria still your favourite?” Natasha asks.

Lian snorts. “Why wouldn’t she be? It’s not hard to beat you lot, with your blowing up everything.”

Natasha laughs and it breaks up the tension. FitzSimmons talk to Bruce and Tony in the background. Skye finds a hidey-hole and pulls out her phone, determined to hack into Jarvis.

Before she can, though, Clint is beside her, looking over her shoulder. She hides her screen but he’s already seen it and is grinning.

“Keep going, I won’t tell him,” he encourages.

Natasha and Melinda and Lian and Coulson talk.

“Maria’s coming over later,” Natasha says, “If she’s got no more meetings.”

The elevator dings and Maria walks out with a stack of folders by her side. She smiles when she sees Lian and grins when she sees Melinda.

“Hey, Melinda. How’s it been? Heard you got kidnapped by a psychopath,” Maria says.

“The correct term is a sociopath, actually,” Melinda corrects.

“Whatever. Stop avoiding the question.” Maria hands the folders to Tony. “Dibs not.”

He barely glances at them before chucking them onto an empty couch.

“Melinda, how are you?” Maria asks.

“I’ve been better,” Melinda says.

“But right now, you feel like…”

“I feel like hiding. I feel like this isn’t real because I don’t know what’s real or not because Ward’s hired the best scientist he could find and then played with my mind and it was all you guys and sometimes you could touch me and sometimes you couldn’t and it’s just confusing!” she burst out.

Natasha and Clint share a glance at each other, sharing a whole conversation in one look. Maria pauses thoughtfully. Lian winces at the playing with mind bit, having had her own fair share of mind control.

“How do you know this is real?” Natasha asks.

“I don’t,” Melinda says, voice breaking. “I’m completely and utterly clueless.”

Natasha swallows. “But you know this is real?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“Ward can’t impersonate everything.” 

Oh.”

Melinda nods. “Yeah.”

Chapter Text

Melinda pulls on baggy shorts and one of Coulson’s Captain America T-shirts and creeps out her room. She checks twice for anyone coming and makes her way down to the lab where Jemma is waiting with Dr Gavel in the Med Bay in the far corner. She makes it there just before the buzzer went off. Jemma deactivates it and smiles at Melinda.

“Thank you for listening,” Gavel says.

Melinda doesn’t bother with a response. She still doesn’t like him. In fact, she despises him for reasons only she will know. Jemma sighs.

“C’mon May,” she says pleadingly. “Can’t you be nice to him for a change?”

Melinda glares at Gavel so harshly Jemma is slightly worried that the next death will be Gavel and Melinda will have done it.

Melinda sits down on the bed in the middle of the room and waits for Jemma and Gavel to do their thing. She starts unwrapping the bandage around her forearm where Ward stabbed her only for Jemma to yell, “No!” She freezes and looks up at Jemma.

“No, don’t unwrap that,” Jemma says. “We’re looking at an infection in there and it needs to be kept as tight as possible. Sorry for yelling.”

“It’s fine,” Melinda says.

Gavel takes a look at her thigh wound and then makes sure her ankle is fine before asking her to take off her shirt. Melinda does so and accidentally catches the bandage on her forearm. It unravels and no one notices until Melinda feels a wet liquid run down her wrist.

She glances down at her arm and understands why Jemma wanted to keep it bandaged up.

“Uh, Jemma?” Melinda asks.

Jemma looks up from her work and Melinda shows her her arm. Gavel curses quietly. He snatches an anti-infection ointment and lathers it on and then wraps a new bandage it.

Melinda waits for them to finish and then joins Coulson in the gym. She hasn’t told Jemma or Dr Gavel but she thinks that if Coulson’s fine with it then they must be too.

He’s not there when she arrives which is odd but not enough for her to be worried. He comes in just as she finishes the last few stages of tai chi. He smiles at her when he sees she’s wearing his shirt.

“Don’t you own any Captain America stuff?” he teases.

Melinda doesn’t reply until she’s completely done and then turns around and grins.

“You own enough for the whole of SHIELD. Why should I go buy my own when I can borrow yours?” she replies. “Spar with me?”

He nods, only because he knows if he doesn’t spar with her she’ll go find Natasha and then she’ll really hurt something. He only allows this because it takes her mind off things.

Melinda lays out the mats and bounces on her right foot while she waits for him to take his shoes off. She lets him strike first, ducking under his arm and sending him sprawling on the mat. He rolls just before she can pin him and they wrestle for the upper hand. Then she knees him in the crotch and he groans and curls up in the fetal position. She laughs at him until he hooks an ankle around her unbroken ankle and laughs back when she lands on the mat.

He has more strength, and at the moment, more agility too, what with her having broken ankles and thigh wounds and some infection in the gash on her forearm.

He’s about to pin her when she launches herself upwards and wraps her arms around his neck, positioning herself so he’ll land on the bottom.

If only.

Coulson flips them over and then pins her, hands on her elbows. They’re both breathless, red-faced. Melinda hears footsteps and identifies them as Jemma. She swears and quickly takes her crutches and hops over to the corner of the gym behind the weights. Coulson doesn’t bother moving, being beside the punching bags already.

He stands up just as Jemma pokes her head in.

“Have you seen May? I have an antibiotic I need to give her and I can’t find her anywhere,” Jemma says.

“Here. I’ll give it to her,” Coulson offers, walking over.

Jemma smiles in relief. “Thanks. Let me know where she went so I can find her next time.”

“Will do. Bye.”

Jemma leaves the gym, probably intending to head back up to the lab where she can talk science with Fitz, Stark and Banner.

Melinda sits up from behind the weights and takes the antibiotic from Coulson who is struggling not to laugh. Melinda cracks a smile and then they’re both giggling like preschoolers. Coulson gives her a piggyback ride to the kitchen.

She frowns at the overly complicated machinery that is supposed to be the jug. Only there is multiple spouts and multiple buttons to start it boiling.

“Phil?” she asks.

“Yeah?”

“How do you work the jug?”

He snorts. “God only knows. Try one of the tea spouts and see what happens.”

She does and it explodes in her face when she presses the button on the opposite side of the jug. Coulson snickers at her until she wipes her face on his Captain America T-shirt.

“Hey!” he protests.

“You laughed,” she retorts.

“Whatever. Why are you being so accepting with Jemma? I saw you actually going down to the Med Bay this morning with no force. Are you feeling alright?” he asks teasingly.

Melinda sticks her tongue out and sits on the bench top while he boils the jug correctly. “I’m being good.” She pauses. “Or trying, at least.”

“You shouldn’t though. Have to try, I mean. You’re good already,” Coulson says.

“Not with medical stuff. Jemma keeps saying to listen and try and behave.” Melinda takes the tea Coulson hands her and sips it. “Should I not do that? Because it sounds like a pretty reasonable request to me.”

Coulson sighs in despair. “No, you shouldn’t stop doing it. It’s more the fact that you feel like you have to be good.” He faces her, concern lacing his face. “I mean, Jemma’s opinion never mattered to you before, did it?”

Melinda shakes her head.

“So why does it matter now?”

“Because I have realised the wrongness of my doing and am correcting it?” Melinda tries.

Coulson chuckles. “Nice try. What’s Ward do to you, Melinda?”

Melinda doesn’t answer. She drops her mug, shattering on the floor. Coulson jumps back and stares at her.

“Melinda?” he asks carefully. “Are you okay?”

She doesn’t respond, only when he gently touches her knee. Then she spins herself over the bench top and hops down on the other side. She leaves him there, heading for her room. Only her feet lead her to Natasha’s room. Well, floor, really, if she’s being honest, considering nobody wants to be in range when Natasha shoots bullets at the walls just to see if anyone will come running. Clint’s floor is above her and they have a little hole in the floor of Clint’s room under his bed connecting him to the air vents in Natasha’s room. The hole in Clint’s room is covered by a box of exploding arrow heads.

Natasha is sitting on her bed cleaning her guns when Melinda comes in. She looks up and sees Melinda.

“Melinda!” she beams. “How can I help?”

Melinda snorts. “You could kill Ward. That would help.”

Natasha pauses in her cleaning. She knows Melinda well enough to know that something is not right when she says somebody needs to be killed and she doesn’t say herself. Melinda stands in the middle of the room as Natasha walks over to her.

“What’s wrong?” she asks softly.

Melinda shakes her head. “I – I can’t.”

Natasha understands instantly. She wraps her arms around Melinda who collapses onto her. Natasha sits down and they lay on the floor for a long time, wrapped in each other’s embrace. Eventually, Melinda’s breathing evened out and she fell asleep with her head tucked under Natasha’s chin.

Natasha fell asleep listening to Melinda breathe and for once, neither had any nightmares.

Melinda feels the person she is snuggling with try to move away and she grumbles, wrapping her arms around the person tighter. She hears them laugh but they come back down.

“Is it just me or does this room make you sleep longer?” the person asks.

Natasha.

“Natasha,” she groans quietly.

Dammit. Why does it have to be Natasha? Natasha’s moved on. Just because they kissed– Actually that’s a pretty good reason to cuddle with Natasha. Shut up, brain.

“C’mon Mel, I need to get up,” Natasha pleads.

Melinda doesn’t loosen her hug. “No, you don’t.”

“Yes, I do.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because Clint will be there if I don’t go now.” Natasha looks desperate, almost enough for Melinda to consider letting her go.

“You’re hiding from Clint? Again? What kind of partners are you?”

“Shut up.”

Melinda grins. “Make me.”

Natasha’s fingers poke into her sides and she jerks away. Whilst she’s trying to get away, Natasha is already standing up and at the door. Melinda spots her crutches in the corner of the room and shuffles over to them.

She follows Natasha into the kitchen where she makes coffee and then turns around and grins at Melinda. “God, how old are you because it’s almost creepy?”

Melinda shrugs. “Ward said fifteen.”

“How do we get you back to your normal age?”

Melinda shrugs again. “I dunno. Go find Ward and blow up his place I guess.”

“No. You’re not going anywhere near Ward.”

Melinda smiles internally at Natasha’s protectiveness. Externally she just nods and glares at the mugs that she can’t reach. Natasha moves to sit down at the table next to Steve. Everyone else is already there, not paying any attention to the two.

“Hey, Natasha,” Steve greets when she sits down next to him. “You slept late.”

Natasha shrugs. “Melinda came in. We talked and fell asleep.”

“Speaking of May, is she supposed to be doing that?” Skye asks, pointing to where Melinda was standing on the counter top, balancing precariously on the water tap so she could reach the mugs.

“Shut up, Skye,” Melinda says through gritted teeth.

Everyone glances over at her. Jemma nearly has a heart attack. Coulson and Clint choke on their coffee.

Melinda slowly lowers herself down, only to lose her balance. She hops down from the water tap and off the bench top, stopping herself by grabbing onto the back of Tony’s chair. Then she hops over to the jug and asks how it works, breaking the silence.

Coulson stands up and takes the jug from Melinda. He puts an arm around her waist and lifts her up, carrying her to the table and pulling out an empty chair for her, next to Tony.

“You could’ve asked one of us to get it for you,” he admonishes.

Melinda looks up at him with an, “Are you kidding me?” look on her face. “No thank you. Then I would have to admit that I can’t reach it and Clint will never shut up about it.”

Coulson laughs. “You asked about the jug.”

“Nobody knows how that works. It’s different.” She takes her crutches from him.

Jemma sends her a look.

Melinda sighs. “I’m sorry, Jemma. I’m extremely sorry that you almost had a heart attack.”

This time it’s Natasha that chokes. “And?” she prompts.

“And nothing. I’m not sorry about that and Jemma told me not to lie,” Melinda says, crossing her arms over her chest.

Tony nudges her. “Just be glad Pepper’s not here,” he whispers.

Melinda snickers. “Where is she?” she says back, just as quietly.

“Some meeting in L.A. I think,” he responds.

“When is she getting back?”

“This week. Thursday or Friday, depending on how annoying the sales people are.”

“What’s today?”

Tony shrugs. “I dunno.”

“Phil, what’s today?”

Phil looks stumped for a minute, thinking. “Well, it was Saturday three days ago so that means it’s… Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. It’s Tuesday. Why?”

“Just something Stark told me,” Melinda replies.

Tony’s phone rings and he checks the caller ID. Pepper he mouths at Melinda. “Hi, Pepper … Oh, that’s great … You’re leaving now? … Oh, you’re already … Yes … OK, just so you know, we have … hang on, let me count: Skye, FitzSimmons, oh they’re two people, by the way, Melinda May, and who’s the other one on their team? … Oh, that’s right, Agent … OK, love you, bye.”

“Very funny, Tony,” Coulson says.

“Thank you, I know, it was very funny, wasn’t it?” Tony grins.

Natasha sees Melinda with her head on the table and snickers, nudging Steve and Clint. Clint realises Melinda’s problem straight away and tells Steve who looks confused. Clint tells Bruce who tells Tony who tells Coulson over Melinda who tells Fitz who tells Simmons who frowns.

Skye feels left out when Jemma doesn’t tell her what they’re saying. Steve takes pity on her and fills her in.

“Pepper is coming home today,” he says. “Melinda is still injured. Pepper doesn’t know. She will fuss. Melinda is dead.”

Skye bursts out laughing, cackling so loud China hears. Melinda lifts her head to glare.

“Remind me why I liked you?” she grumbles.

Skye’s laughing turns wicked. “Poor May. Having to explain to Pepper how you got hurt this morning.”

Melinda’s glare turns into a warning look. Jemma looks over in fake interest.

“You got hurt? Where?” she asks.

“I hate you,” Melinda mutters dejectedly. She twists awkwardly and pulls her shirt up. There’s a small bruise on her side but some of the stitches have been pulled.

“That’s not very nice,” a new voice says, walking in.

“Pepper!” Tony greets, bounding over to her.

“I thought you said she was coming back on Thursday?” Melinda hisses to him.

“What, you’re not happy to see me?” Pepper says. She glances at Melinda’s back and winces. “Ouch. What happened there? Also, why do you look fifteen?”

“I got kidnapped by a psychopath, twice,” Melinda explains.

“And you pulled your stitches how?” Pepper asks.

Melinda goes silent, looking sullen.

“Can I assume it was doing something stupid?” Pepper questions.

“It was your boyfriend’s fault.”

“Tony?”

“It was Steve!” Tony exclaims.

“Steve?”

“Clint said that was where you put the mugs,” Steve says hurriedly.

“Clint?”

Clint doesn’t answer for a minute. Pepper waits him out. “Tasha and I had a fight so I told Steve to put the mugs on the top shelf because it’s funny watching Natasha climb onto the bench to reach them,” he says quickly.

“What were you fighting over?” Pepper asks.

Clint turns a deep shade of red.

“Oh, this ought to be good,” Tony mutters.

“Pizza,” Clint mumbles.

Tony cackles. “Pizza?! Why on earth were you fighting about pizza?”

“Pepperoni is the best,” Clint responds automatically.

“No, Hawaiian is,” Natasha argues.

“You don’t even like Hawaiian, Natasha. Don’t start it again,” Pepper warns. “OK, so it was Clint’s fault in the end but that doesn’t explain how you pulled your stitches, Melinda.”

Melinda slouches in her seat and glares sulkily at the table.

“Stop acting like a teenager,” Pepper reprimands.

“But I look like one.”

“But you aren’t. Sit up and stop scowling.”

After a long while, Melinda sits up. She continues to glare though.

“And you pulled your stitches how?” Pepper repeats.

“I lost my balance,” Melinda says.

“How?”

“Because I was standing on one foot.”

“Why?”

“Because I broke my ankle.”

Pepper sighs. “What were you balancing on?”

“Kitchenware.”

“Such as?”

“Such as what?”

“What kitchenware were you balancing on?”

“Bench top.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“And what other kitchenware were you balancing on?”

Melinda doesn’t answer. Then Coulson nudges her and gives her a disapproving look.

“The tap.”

Pepper pauses.

“You were standing on the tap.”

“Yes.”

Pepper sighs again. “Did it occur to you that you could have asked Steve to get you a mug?”

“Of course.”

“And you didn’t because why?”

“I don’t have to.”

“Fair enough.”

She sits down on the other side of Tony. Melinda looks at her team who are all looking at her like she has grown two heads. Skye looks almost worried. She sends them a questioning look. Skye gives her an “Are you serious?” look in return. Then she smiles and mimes talking and Melinda gets it. She mouths shut up. I’m not going anywhere. Skye looks relieved.

Coulson notices the exchange but doesn’t say anything. He makes a mental note to talk to Skye later. Jemma sneaks out of the kitchen and he watches her go with a frown.

He’s interrupted by Natasha and Clint arguing loudly.

“Pepperoni is the best!” Clint yells.

“Pepperoni is the worst. Anything is better,” Natasha retorts.

Pepper glares at Clint before he can say anything else. “Not another word, the both of you.”

Jemma comes back in with a threaded needle and looks pointedly at Melinda. Melinda sighs and pulls her shirt up. Jemma numbs the wound and then begins threading the needle through Melinda’s skin, knotting and snipping when she’s done.

Tony looks mildly disgusted. “I hope you’re planning on cleaning that blood up.”

Melinda grins wickedly and Tony regrets even speaking.

“With your favourite T-shirt. You know the one, the stinky, holey one that you never put in the wash for fear Pepper will throw it out.”

Tony gulps. Melinda smirks.

Pepper raises her eyebrows. “Are you threatening my boyfriend?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Melinda snorts. “I wouldn’t do such a thing.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yep. I’m just warning him, should he say more stupid crap.”

Skye snickers. “Wow, May. You know, I didn’t believe you when you said you could be fun but now,” she says.

“I just need people I can trust not to blurt it from the rooftops.”

Skye fakes being offended. “I’m hurt.”

“So was I, when you ganged up on me.”

Skye groans. “One time. Just one time. And you beat us anyway.”

“Ward and Coulson backed me into a corner,” Melinda protests. “I only won because you tripped and grabbed Ward.”

Skye waves her hand in a dismissive manner. “Yeah, yeah. Technicalities.”

Melinda gives her a pointed look. “Skye. You helped me win. You weren’t on my team.”

FitzSimmons and Coulson give Skye betrayed looks as they realise that Skye actually had helped Melinda win.

“I want a rematch,” Coulson declares.

“Yeah,” FitzSimmons agree.

The three of them then look at Skye.

Skye jumps. “Oh! Right. I want a rematch too.”

“I want a fair fight,” Melinda mimics.

“It is fair. You’ve had years of experience.”

“I have a broken ankle.”

“You can have Natasha,” Coulson compromises.

“That’s so unfair,” Skye complains.

“How?” Natasha asks.

“Because you’re the Black Widow and can probably beat May.”

Natasha grins. “Occasionally. Why don’t you guys just wait until she can walk?”

“Brilliant idea,” Jemma and Melinda say.

“It’s been two weeks. You’ve got four weeks to practice,” Melinda tells them.

 

Chapter Text

Melinda finds some noodles in the cupboard after Jemma, Skye and Fitz ditched her when three hours later they were still training in the gym. She fills a pot with water, having learnt her lesson last time and turns the stove on.

Natasha comes in a quarter of an hour later and pokes at the noodles, snatching her hand away when the water burns her. Melinda laughs and receives a dirty look.

“At least I can make a decent dinner meal,” Natasha says teasingly.

“Noodles count as dinner,” Melinda says.

“Do you not know the meaning of decent?” Natasha asks.

Melinda scowls at her. “Decent. 1. Conforming with generally accepted standards of respectable or moral behaviour. 2. Of an acceptable standard; satisfactory.”

Natasha bursts out laughing. “You did memorise the d section of the dictionary.”

“Hey now, you read the Bible.”

Natasha grins sheepishly. “I was bored. Also, I had to pose as a Christian weapon dealer.”

“A Christian weapon dealer?” Melinda asks in disbelief.

“I know. I did a double take when I read the file,” Natasha agrees.

Melinda glances at the noodles and curses, removing the lid and grabbing a tea towel. Water bubbles over the edges and spills onto the floor. Natasha steps back before it drops on her bare feet. The noodles are mushy and taste weird so Melinda tips it into a container and puts it in the fridge. Natasha labels it.

“Noodle pop tarts?” Melinda reads.

“Thor will eat them and he likes anything so Steve will try it and he’s too polite to say it’s yuck if we say that we tried extra hard so then the others will eat it,” Natasha explains.

Melinda nods in understanding. “Has anyone ever told you your planning is crap?”

Natasha gives her an offended look.

“Steve can’t lie.”

Natasha frowns.

“Now, if you labelled it “ice cream spaghetti”, Clint and Tony wouldn’t even bother getting Steve or Thor to try it first.”

Natasha grins wickedly. She pulls the sticker off and gets another one. She writes down Melinda suggestion and then closes the fridge and turns around. Coulson is sitting at the counter, sipping his coffee. When both Melinda and Natasha turn around he raises his eyebrows.

“Ice cream spaghetti?” he asks.

“Shut up, Phil.” Melinda doesn’t even try to defend herself.

“Can I assume that since you’re here that everyone else is?” Natasha asks.

“Well now, that would be unfair. Especially as they’ve all found such great hiding spots,” Coulson smiles.

Melinda snorts. “Stark is hiding behind the curtains, Phil.”

“Everyone except him.”

Natasha looks upwards and spots Clint sitting on top of the chandelier.

“How is that even holding your weight?” she questions.

“Tony made the bolts screw really tight in case the roof blew off because being hit by falling glass from your own light is kind of embarrassing,” Clint grins.

Melinda sees FitzSimmons crouched down behind an assortment of pot plants and doesn’t even bother telling Natasha. She finds Skye next, just out of sight. She's under the table.

“Phil, how are these great hiding spots?”

“Melinda, why are you so annoying?”

“Phil, why are you not hiding?”

“Melinda, why can you not cook noodles?”

“Phil, why are you questioning my cooking ability when you only made cheese toasties for three weeks straight?”

“Both of you, we still need to find Steve and Bruce,” Natasha mimics.

“Bruce is in the pantry and Steve is on top of the fridge,” Melinda says.

Everyone assembles in front of the counter. Natasha shares a look with Melinda who narrows her eyes and looks around, carefully scanning the room.

She hears a noise behind her and lashes out with her crutches. Pepper moves out of reach. Natasha laughs at Melinda.

“I thought you promised Pepper to not hit her again?” Natasha says.

“That was a bad promise.”

FitzSimmons kick Melinda and Natasha out of the kitchen and begin preparing an actual lunch. Coulson and Clint take it upon themselves to distract Melinda and Natasha for the rest of the day.

Coulson leads Melinda out of the kitchen and to the gym. Melinda brightens, having been banned from the gym since she broke her ankle. It doesn’t stop her from going late in the night but Steve tends to come in around midnight and Natasha and Clint live in the gym, leaving her in a dangerous position because if they catch her, they’ll threaten to tell Jemma unless she plays poker with them. She’d learnt her lesson the last time. Never ever play poker with Natasha or Clint. It was the most boring game of poker she’d ever played. None of them could win.

Melinda shuts the door behind them and faces Coulson. He grins at her and she fends him off with her crutches, hitting his gut. He yanks them from her hand and she lets go immediately so she won’t be pulled off balance.

Unfortunately, Coulson darts forward and ducks under her punch. She tries to spin around but he’s taken advantage of the fact that she can’t walk on her ankle. He grabs her waist and flips her upside down, doing some weird manoeuvre that she’s sure he offered to teach her how to get out of. She regrets not taking him up on the offer.

Then she’s lying flat on her stomach. Her cheek stings from where the mat has slapped her. All her breath is stolen. Coulson quickly pins her in place. Her ankle throbs slightly, probably from when she landed.

Fitz pokes his head in just after they stand up and smiles, his eyes glinting when he sees them sparring. Both Coulson and Melinda freeze.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell Jemma,” he assures them. “But she’d like to see you today at some point after lunch if that’s possible. But…”

Coulson groans. “What do you want?”

“Don’t give him a damn thing,” Melinda says.

Coulson looks at her in surprise. “But then Simmons will be cross with you.”

“And I shall find some excuse. Whatever Fitz wants will be ridiculous.” Melinda turns to Fitz. “I’ll try come by.”

Fitz grins nervously. “Well, don’t shoot the messenger, right?” He opens his mouth and then pauses. “I just wanted to go to an engineering meeting.”

“When and where?” Melinda asks.

“Manhattan, tomorrow.”

“Go. Take Simmons or someone with you.”

Fitz beams and leaves quickly.

Coulson nudges her. “Look at you, being all sociable.”

Melinda turns around and glares at him.

“Sorry, my bad,” Coulson teases. “But it’s an improvement from nodding and then never showing up.”

Melinda rolls her eyes. “I wasn’t even sick. Not even a cough.”

“Simmons likes to be safe. It’s a good habit,” Coulson argues.

“I’m still alive,” she reminds him.

“Yes, because who was there to make sure you had a backup plan and an extraction team for the harder missions?” Coulson grins.

“I don’t know, who?”

“Me. You ever counted how many times I saved your sorry ass?”

“Lost count.”

Then she realises what that means and scowls.

“Too many times to remember.”

“Yeah, yeah, don’t let it get to your head.”

Coulson laughs. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Melinda snorts. She knows first-hand that Coulson never lets anything get to his head but that would lose her the argument if she said anything.

“Go find Simmons. She’ll not be expecting you yet and if Fitz has told her, well, better to get it over and done with,” Coulson advises.

Melinda hops over to her crutches and leaves him there. She finds Jemma in Stark’s lab next to Fitz. Fitz looks at her apologetically as she comes in. She reaches the conclusion that Jemma asked where she’d been and Fitz had tried to lie.

Jemma looks up from her work and when she sees Melinda, her face hardens. She points to the bed in the small medical room in the corner of the lab and Melinda doesn’t even bother protesting. Jemma joins her not two minutes later after she has reached a point in her research where she can pause.

“Did you put any weight on your ankle?” is the first thing that comes from Jemma’s mouth when she stops in front of Melinda, shutting the door behind her.

“No.” As soon as she says that she regrets it.

“Liar.”

“How would you know?” Melinda can’t resist asking.

“You said no.”

“I may have stepped on it. Tiny bit. Not much weight. Promise.”

Jemma smiles, unable to help herself. “OK, Agent May. Now, if you could roll onto your stomach, please.”

Melinda lies down on her stomach and flinches when she feels Jemma’s cool hands lifting up her T-shirt.

“Nice shirt,” Jemma says, grinning.

Melinda realises she’s wearing another one of Coulson’s Captain America T-shirts. “Not really.”

“So why are you wearing it?”

“It’s comfortable.”

Jemma laughs to herself quietly. She unwraps the bandages on Melinda’s back and wipes away the pus and blood that leaked out over the past few days. She then lathers an antibiotic cream on and wraps new bandages around over the wounds. The gash on her arm is mostly healed, just a pinkish scar.

Jemma lets Melinda roll over and then cuts away the cast and replaces it with a moon boot. Melinda sits up and freezes as Jemma puts the cast in the bin and then turns around with a needle.

“Now, this will just take away some of the pain and fight off any infections,” Jemma explains, moving closer.

But all Melinda can hear is Ward’s voice. It’s him walking towards her and the white walls of the lab suddenly seems like the lab coats of the doctors and nurses that tortured her.

Jemma stops when she sees Melinda tumble off the bed in an attempt to get away. Automatically she rushes towards Melinda, freezing in place when Melinda backs into a corner. Jemma puts down the needle and frowns.

Then she understands.

“May, it’s okay, you’re safe now,” she tries to mimic what Natasha said.

Melinda presses her hands over her ears to block Ward out. She looks up and he’s approaching slowly. When he reaches for her hands she tries to flatten herself against the wall. Ward keeps speaking. His voice doesn’t reach her ears, the blood pounding too loud in her head.

Ward touches her shoulder and she lashes out. Ward dodges, a second slower than he usually does but Melinda doesn’t notice. Ward steps back and turns around. He presses a button on a speaker and talks for a few seconds, looking urgent.

Then he turns back around.

Melinda’s right behind him, knocking him to the floor. He doesn’t move, just watches her. Then slowly he stands up, backing away. Melinda steps backwards, towards the door. She tries the handle. Locked. It’s got a keypad. She punches in a number and isn’t surprised when the door doesn’t budge. Ward steps closer and Melinda feels like it’s the end for her.

She remembers the feeling of Natasha’s body around hers, the taste of her lips, how they both fit perfectly together. She remembers the winters they spent outside in the snow in shorts and T-shirts just to bug Clint and Coulson. She remembers the first Christmas she ever had with Natasha, the fairy lights, the tree that touched the ceiling. She remembers the nights they slept curled up together in blankets. She remembers Natasha with her fiery red hair and sparkling green eyes, the KGB assassin who gave up everything for a shot to remake her life.

Then she remembers her team. She remembers Skye who never gave up; Jemma who tried her best to fix them; Lincoln who died to save Skye, the girl he loved; Mack who befriended everyone, even her; Fitz who made the night-night gun and the ICER, who trusted Ward only to be pushed out of the Bus by Ward. And Phil, who never let her go.

Chapter Text

Jemma’s voice blasts over the speakers, asking Natasha to come down to the lab. She lets go of Clint and races towards the lab. When she gets there, Melinda has her arms up in front of her face and is pressed against the door in an attempt to get away from Jemma.

Natasha gently pushes the door open. Melinda tries to stop her but she can’t get a decent foothold and Natasha comes in. Melinda only sees Ward and Garret. Garret (Natasha) says something to Ward (Jemma) who nods and steps back.

Melinda steps back and stumbles as she puts too much weight on her ankle that’s only just come out of a cast.

She can hear Natasha’s voice. It’s singing that Russian lullaby that Melinda had always wondered how she had known. It grounds her and she doesn’t move back when Garret moves forward.

She sees Ward lock the door just as more scientists with white lab coats come running. They stop at the door.

Garret lets her move forward and then she’s crushed to his chest, swaying around the room. Natasha’s voice is still singing, low and sweet. Slowly she realises that they are dancing. Out of the corner of her eyes, she sees a flash of ginger hair. She twists around and sees Ward change into Jemma. The person holding her is no longer Garret but Natasha.

Natasha is singing. Natasha is the one dancing with her.

Melinda doesn’t even think, wrapping her arms around her. She steps on Natasha’s toes as Natasha moves them around so she places her feet carefully on Natasha’s and lets her lead.

She sees Coulson and Steve usher everyone out. Jemma leaves quietly. Natasha continues to dance until she finishes the song. Then she stops. Melinda rests her head on Natasha’s shoulder.

Suddenly, she’s not so short. Natasha’s lets go of her in surprise and grins. Melinda looks down at herself and beams.

“I’m not fifteen anymore,” she exclaims happily.

Natasha snickers at her enthusiasm. She leads Melinda out of the lab and notices when she scans the hallway for exits and weapons.

“Where are we going?” Melinda asks.

“I dunno. Wherever you wanna go, I suppose,” Natasha shrugs.

Melinda nods and slowly walks towards the kitchen, occasionally using her crutches. Jemma nods at her and she gives a small smile.

Fury calls them an hour later and tells them they have a mission. They go over to HQ where an agent takes them to a briefing room. Fury is waiting for them.

“You’re going after a group that’s sort of separated from Hydra,” Fury says. “Agent May, you are not going on this mission.” He waits for Melinda to nod her agreement. “We think they’ve got a trafficking thing going. Agent McCrory will show you the footage.” Then he leaves.

Agent McCrory turns on the TV in the room. It’s already setup. He presses play and a recording starts. The recording is grainy and from a street camera.

A group of five men are walking down the busy New York footpath. They cut through an alley and come out beside an abandoned warehouse. The smallest man unlocked the door and they walked in.

Melinda closes her eyes and then opens them, hoping she’s wrong about what is about to happen.

The third man, a wiry guy with a mop of brown hair, turns the lights on. He pulls a small girl from somewhere the camera just can’t reach. She doesn’t look more than eight. She screams and struggles. There are more screams. The men crowd around her.

They rip her clothes off her. The girl shrieks and one of them stuff her underwear into her mouth. The girl struggles uselessly. The men begin playing with her.

The camera might have been grainy and on a slim angle but it was still very clear what they were doing to the girl.

Melinda stands up, knocking her chair over. She leaves the room to silence, the door banging shut after her. Skye looks at the door worriedly.

Coulson waits a beat of five seconds and then leaves the room, following after her. He finds her in the cafeteria. She’s sitting in the corner, head in her hands. No one has noticed her. Most people notice him. After all, he’s still a big role model in SHIELD. They follow him to Melinda and blink in surprise.

Melinda tenses when he sits down across from her. She doesn’t fully relax until a few minutes later.

“Hey,” he says softly. “You OK?”

She doesn’t respond.

“Melinda?”

She doesn’t respond.

“Melinda, talk to me,” he pleads.

Melinda doesn’t look up. It’s then he notices her trembling fists. He moves around to her side and stands her up. He leads her out of the cafeteria, holding her elbow and pulling her close to his side, ignoring the stunned looks of the agents eating.

When they’re out of the busy hallways, Coulson stops. Melinda is shaking badly. He wants to take her away from all this but he doesn’t know how. He holds her to his chest instead, stroking her hair until she’s calmed down.

Melinda tries ineffectively to get away but Coulson just keeps her close. She gives in and collapses against him. Tears leak from her eyes.

“The girl,” she whispers, voice cracking. “The girl.”

Coulson wipes away the tears and kisses her forehead. “Sshh. She’ll be okay.”

Melinda takes another ragged breath. “They … they–”

“Hey now,” Coulson interrupts. “Don’t think about it. It won’t do you any good.”

Melinda buries her face in his chest. Coulson rests his chin on her head and hugs her tighter. Eventually, they move apart but not by much. It’s been long enough that her eyes are no longer puffy and red.

She sniffs once and then stands up straight. Coulson wonders if she’ll ever be the same again when he looks into her eyes.

He lets her go.

She walks off down the hallway, only pausing once. He goes back to the briefing room.

“Is she okay?” Skye asks as soon as he opens the door.

“No,” he says. “But she will be.” He tries to smile but it doesn’t quite work.

McCrory starts the recording again.

By the time it’s finished, Skye has her hands over her ears, FitzSimmons looks slightly sick, Tony has turned away, Steve’s face is stony, Bruce is angrily folding a piece of paper and Natasha and Clint looks like they want to murder someone. Thor is in shock that such a crime would be committed for fun.

Melinda comes back in a half hour later, a glare fixed firmly on her face. The effect is ruined slightly by the fact that she’s still limping. She drops three photographs and a piece of paper with two addresses scrawled on it. She sits down in her chair and glares at the spot above McCrory’s head.

Natasha shares a look with Clint. They both stand up at the same and face McCrory. He pales as they mouth something only he sees. He leaves the room rather hurriedly. Then they take Melinda by the elbow and lead her out of the room. Melinda doesn’t protest, following blindly.

Tony claps his hands together. “Well, wasn’t that interesting.”

Nobody answers. The room is silent except for Jemma’s sniffs.

“Don’t you get it?” she burst out eventually. “Has May ever been that affected by a recording like that before?” Jemma looks around for someone else.

Skye gasps, hands flying to her mouth. “Oh my God.”

Fitz is in a similar position. Only Coulson looks confused. Jemma assumes he’s in denial.

“Sir,” she starts hesitantly.

“No.” He cuts her off sharply enough to make her surprised. “Ward wouldn’t be able to get close enough for it to happen.”

“If she was tired or injured…”

“Jemma, I’m completely serious here. Melinda has been exhausted to the point of fainting exhausted and still no one has ever raped her because she was tired.” Coulson looks as sure as anybody could get after being told that their best friend was molested.

“Just… Just be prepared for the worst,” Jemma tells him.

Coulson nods jerkily. “Okay.”

 

Clint and Natasha take Melinda to their old hideout in the ceiling. The bullet hole marking the panel that moves away is still there. They have to crawl under a pipe for a few metres but after that, there’s enough space to sit comfortably. They bang their heads every single time they try and stand up. There are still a few bottles of crap alcohol that Clint hadn’t sold from their Academy days and Natasha finds a box of pop tarts under Clint’s purple emergency blanket. Melinda takes the blanket and wraps it around herself. It smells like Phil and Clint and Natasha and Maria.

 

Coulson takes the mission folder when they leave the briefing room a good hour later, having gone over every way to take down this group of pigs, all the scenarios they can possibly think of, even the more ridiculous ones, like if a dragon and a bumble bee start killing them. (That one is from Skye, who positively hates bumble bees but loves dragons.)

“Do you know where May went?” Skye asks, worried for her mentor and friend.

“I have a suspicion,” Coulson answers and everyone follows him as he leads the way to a storage cupboard.

“They aren’t in here,” Skye says.

“Thank you, Captain Obvious. I know they aren’t in here.” He takes the folding ladder and then they follow him again as he walks until he’s in a secluded corridor. He looks up and when he gets to the ceiling panel with the bullet hole he shot he stops.

Steve helps him set up the ladder and wow, his heart is beating faster now. He climbs up and carefully reaches to pull the panel away. He pokes his head inside and there they are, sitting in a huddle with a blanket. Melinda is in the middle like he knew she would be. He climbs up and helps the rest of his team in. They can’t stand so they crawl over instead.

Coulson watches as Skye, Jemma and Fitz sit in front of Clint, Mel and Nat. Steve and Bruce are more awkward, stopping about a metre away but Tony pushes them closer. Mack's head brushes against the ceiling when he sits down. Coulson puts the panel back in place and hopes no one wonders about the ladder.

They sit in silence for a good five minutes in which no one disturbs them until a few minutes later. Someone moves the panel away and the top of a head pokes up.

“Nice of you to invite me,” says Maria’s voice.

She hauls herself in and then kicks the ladder over and away so no one will suspect them.

“Hey Clint, Nat,” she greets. “Oh, Mel, you’re here, too. I haven’t seen you in ages.”

“What about me?” Coulson says pretending to be hurt.

Maria ignores him.

“Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria,” Coulson complained. “Maria.”

“Yes, Phil?”

“You didn’t say hi,” he pouts.

Skye snorts. “Oh my God, A.C. just pouted. I should record this for blackmail.” She pulls out her phone but Jemma snatches it.

“Don’t be horrible. It’s sweet,” she scolds.

“It’s hilarious,” Fitz corrects.

Clint and Natasha hold Melinda tighter when she tenses up as the chatter starts to get louder. Natasha even manages to get Melinda to say a few words, though they’re mostly one syllable.

Maria pats Coulson on the shoulder and sits down. “So,” she says to silence, “Does anyone want to explain what happened?”

“How do you know something happened?” Skye asks defensively.

Maria raises an eyebrow. Skye doesn’t back down.

“She came barging into my office and grabbed a folder and photos for a mission I was working on and left without explaining. I would like to have a reason as to why there were classified papers poking under the door.” Maria crosses her arms and looks around at them all.

Finally, Coulson speaks. “There was an … an offending part of the recording that McCrory didn’t think to warn us about.”

Maria stiffens. “You mean that recording that I gave Fury and told him to tell McCrory not to let Melinda see it? The one about the five men and the little girl? That recording?”

Coulson nods.

Maria crawls back over to the panel and checks carefully through the bullet hole for people coming. She can’t see anyone so she slides the panel off.

“I’ll be back.”

Then she’s gone, dropping to down the hole. Coulson slides the panel back into place just as three rowdy boys who look like they’ve just graduated from the Academy come around the corner. She ignores them, blows her hair back into place and picks up the fallen ladder.

Maria Hill walking around SHIELD with a glare on her face is scary. Maria Hill walking around with a glare on her face and carrying a ladder is terrifying. Agents scrambled out of her way. She saw Fury coming her way and kept walking, turning around when she was in line with him. Her ladder smacked into the wall and she cursed, lifting it straight up and turning around.

Fury was waiting for her, smirking. “Yes?”

Her glare didn’t make the smirk go away. “We need to talk.”

“I can see. What’s with the ladder?”

“Nothing. It’s about the recording for the briefing with the Avengers that you gave to McCrory.”

Fury stops her. “Go to my office. We’ll talk about there.”

Maria sighs. “I hate you.”

His office is in the opposite direction, meaning she’ll have to turn round again. Luckily, she finds a storage closet and stores the ladder in there for the time being. Then she makes her way to Fury’s office.

He is already there, waiting. She sits down and crosses her arms. He leans forward and puts his elbows on the table, resting his chin on his hands.

“The recording,” he prompts.

“It had a rape scene in it. I told you that and we’ve both watched it. It was disgusting and inhumane and upsetting.”

Fury nods. “I know.”

“Do you remember my warning?”

“Don’t let Agent May watch it. At all,” Fury repeats monotonously. “I told McCrory if that’s what you’re here about.”

“Well, you didn’t do a good enough job. She’s hiding in the ceiling with Clint and Nat and the rest of both their teams. You know Clint’s purple blanket with the little arrows?” Fury nods. It’s the blanket they use for emergencies. “She’s using it now. McCrory didn’t tell her and she watched the recording and now it’s brought back bad memories.” Maria glares harder.

Fury doesn’t say anything. “Where’s McCrory now?”

Maria shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“Bring him here.”

Maria groans. “Do you know how many people there are in HQ alone? And it’s lunch, which means no one is where they’re supposed to be.”

“Bring him here.”

“You suck.”

Maria is at the door when Fury opens his mouth.

“You swallow.”

She slams his door shut. “You are disgusting,” she yells.

“Bring him here,” he yells back.

The agents passing pretend not to notice.

Maria finds the camera station and borrows the speaker. Her voice crackles over the intercom.

“Agent McCrory please make your way to Director Fury’s office.”

She then goes back to Fury’s office and finds him waiting outside, unsure whether to knock or not. She holds the door open for him and shuts it behind him. McCrory swallows nervously.

“Agent McCrory,” Fury greets.

“Director Fury,” McCrory says.

“Do you remember what I told you about that recording you showed to the Avengers and Agent Coulson’s team?” Fury asks.

McCrory nods. “I-”

“Did you tell her?” Fury asks.

McCrory shuffles his feet. “No, sir.”

Fury nods. “Why not?”

McCrory blushes. He doesn’t answer.

“McCrory. Why not?” Fury presses.

“She’s the Cavalry. She’s terrifying,” he admits quietly.

“Well, at least you’re honest,” Fury tells him. “What are doing right now?”

“Basic retrieval missions.”

“Two weeks off. You can spend your time doing evacs and helping Administration.”

McCrory nods. “Thank you, sir.”

Fury laughs. “What the hell are you doing thanking me? I just took you off basic missions and stuck you in Admin.”

“It could have been longer,” McCrory says and then leaves the room when Fury says dismissed.

Maria tries to tone down her glare slightly when Fury gives her a look that tells her she’s about to overstep that line between doing her job and being rude. He laughs at her when she is unsuccessful.

“Go find May. Get her here as soon as possible today, please. I don’t want to have to chase her all over the goddamn building,” he tells her.

Maria frowns but then sees the logic in his words. “I’ll try.”

“What, no yes sir?” Fury mocks.

Maria pokes her tongue out and leaves his office. His door doesn’t slam this time. She goes to get the ladder and sighs when it’s not there anymore. Someone must have taken it. She sighs again when she realises she’ll have to call one of them.

She calls Coulson. He’s more likely to be sympathetic than the other three. Also, she doesn’t know Jemma or Fitz’s number, Skye would laugh, Hunter doesn’t answer his phone and Bobbi’s is on silent and doesn’t vibrate most of the time. She sure as hell isn’t calling Tony, Steve and Thor are out of the question mostly because they can’t work a phone easily and Tony will take it and then she’ll never get back in and she doesn’t know Bruce’s number either.

Coulson picks up after the third ring. He’s good like that.

“Maria?” he says.

“Hey, Phil,” she replies. “I’ve lost the ladder, can you open the panel and let me in?”

“What’s the magic word?” he teases and he can feel her glare over the phone.

“Now,” she says.

Coulson smirks. “I don’t think so. What’s the real magic word?” He sees FitzSimmons and Skye looking at him curiously and he motions for them to wait. “Maria? … Oh, come on, don’t hang up … No, I don’t know Bruce’s number, who do you think I am, an eidetic? … Shut up … Bruce, what’s your phone number?”

“I don’t have a phone,” Bruce admits.

“He doesn’t have a phone. What about Stark? I think I can tell you his number … OK, that’s actually a good reason.” Coulson glances at his crowd of eavesdropping friends. He crawls awkwardly away. “Bugger off.”

“Excuse me?” Maria says.

“Not you, them. So, how’d you lose it?”

“I didn’t lose it, I put it in a storage closet and someone took it,” Maria defended herself.

Coulson snorts and covers one ear when they start talking again. Eventually, he agrees and opens the panel. He pulls Maria up and she informs them that McCrory had gotten the warning she’d sent with the recording but was too scared to actually deliver it. Melinda’s eyes narrow. Maria swallows.

“I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” she asks.

“McCrory got the warning I sent with the recording but was too scared to actually deliver it,” Maria repeats slowly.

Melinda shrugs off Clint and Natasha and the blanket and makes her way towards the panel. Maria follows after her, grabbing Melinda’s ankle just as she moves the panel and goes to jump out. Melinda hangs upside down, her T-shirt over her head. She hears footsteps and identifies them as Fury’s.

Peaches!” she hisses. (It’s their code word for Fury.)

Melinda tucks her T-shirt into the waistband of her jeans. Maria tries to pull her up but Fury comes around the corner and sees Melinda hanging. Coulson hands Maria a fake panel with a hole in the middle. Maria puts it over Melinda’s foot and slides the panel into place.

Natasha and Clint breathe a sigh of relief. Coulson and Maria quietly watch as Fury interrogates Melinda.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Agent May?” he demands.

“Hanging,” she answers.

“Why?”

“Because Isaac Newton discovered gravity.”

“What?”

“Well, if he hadn’t, I could have been floating and you wouldn’t have questioned it because we don’t know about gravity.”

“Can I assume that you were the victim of a prank?”

“You may,” Melinda says graciously.

Fury sighs. “Get down from there.”

Melinda’s arms are tired of defying gravity and she lets them flop above her head. Unfortunately, this causes her T-shirt to untuck itself. She swears and tries to tuck it in her jeans again but she can’t see properly and it’s slightly harder than usual.

Fury watches her struggle for a few seconds and then offers his help. Melinda freezes. She pulls one corner of her T-shirt up and Fury sees her cheeks are slightly red. He’s confused but then it hits him.

“Get your mind out of the gutter!” he yells.

It’s too late.

“Get down from there,” he demands.

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“My foot’s stuck.”

“So kick around for a bit and you’ll get free eventually.”

“I tried that, why do you think I’m still here?”

Fury sighs. “I am not doing this. Hill can sort it out. You’re friends, right?”

Melinda rolls her eyes.

“When you’re free, go to my office,” he tells her. “Do not bring Barton and Romanoff. Or your team for that matter.”

“Why? Scared of them?”

“More the fact that I have things to tell you that I don’t want them knowing.” He turns to leave to find Maria. “And clear out of my ceilings.”

Melinda makes a face at his back.

“Don’t pull faces, Agent May,” he says.

Melinda clamps her mouth shut to avoid making a rude remark. Maria removes the fake panel and she and Coulson pull her up. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, especially when Melinda’s feet hit the pipe and they have to bend her at a 90-degree angle.

Eventually, Melinda is fully in. She shuffles on her back until she can sit up. Skye raises her eyebrows.

“Shut up,” Melinda says before Skye can start.

Skye snickers and does her best impression of a pirate. “Get your mind out of the gutter!” she mimics and it’s spot-on.

Tony, Clint, Maria and Natasha just about die from laughing. Coulson smirks at her.

“Where were you going, anyway?” Maria asks.

“Find McCrory.”

Maria freezes. “Why?”

“Make him not scared of me.”

Maria relaxes. “Okay.”

Melinda raises an eyebrow. “What, did ya think I was gonna go kick his ass?”

“Nah. Thought you were gonna go hide,” Maria says and it’s only for a split-second that Melinda’s mask fall but Maria catches it. “You were.”

Natasha and Clint come up behind Melinda and tug her back into their embrace. They startle her and she lashes out, hitting Clint’s shoulder. She struggles in vain to get out but it’s no use. Luckily for her, Fury’s voice comes over the speakers.

“Agent May, report back to my office immediately. Do not bring anyone else.”

Natasha and Clint reluctantly let her go and Melinda escapes from the ceilings quickly before anyone else can stop her. It’s only after she’s gone that Natasha notices the damp patch on the blanket. She sneaks a look when no one is watching and curses mentally when she sees its blood.

Melinda half-runs, half-limps to Fury’s office. He opens the door just as she goes to enter. The result is her crashing into him. She steps back on her injured ankle and winces, hoping he doesn’t catch it. He does.

“Come in,” he says, shutting the door behind her.

Melinda stands in the middle of the room. He stands directly in front of her. She glares at his chest, the top of her head barely at his shoulder. After a while, he locks the

door and draws the blinds, then going back in front of her.

“Sit,” he orders.

Melinda doesn’t move, knowing he’s scrutinizing her every movement. Fury steps closer towards her so that he’s half a foot away. He bends down to her height.

“Sit,” he repeats.

Her eyes are sparkling with anger. She sits on the floor. Fury crouches down pulls her up by her T-shirt just as someone knocks on the door. Fury swears.

“Who is it?” he asks.

“Doctor Gavel.”

Melinda tries to yank herself from Fury’s grip as she likes the T-shirt and doesn’t have a spare one. Fury lets go of her T-shirt and then unlocks the door. He keeps her at bay as he lets Gavel in.

“I need May to have a check-up to just make sure everything is healing correctly,” Gavel says as soon as he’s in.

Fury locks the door before replying. “Over there.”

Melinda has limped away from the two of them, standing behind Fury’s desk. Gavel brightens when he sees her.

“Ah! Brilliant. If you could just come peacefully, please,” Gavel says.

Melinda bares her teeth at him and tries to walk without limping away. Unfortunately, Gavel is a trained doctor and knows what to look for.

“Walking on that leg is only going to make it worse,” he warns.

Melinda doesn’t move towards him when he reaches out a hand. Instead, she moves back into Fury. Fury holds her still as Gavel approaches cautiously.

“May,” he says slowly, “Eyes on me. Breathe, in, out.”

Melinda doesn’t take her eyes off him but her breathing is unsteady and Fury can feel her erratic pulse on her neck when he checks.

She kicks out when Gavel comes in reach. Gavel catches her legs and holds them to his sides until she’s calmed down. Fury lifts her up higher to make it more comfortable for him.

“Go to Medical?” Fury asks.

Gavel nods. “I have better equipment there. Also, there is a room designed for patients with trauma issues. We can keep her in there until she’s okay.”

Fury nods and carefully unlocks the door. They step out into the bustle of agents who all make way for him. Melinda struggles uselessly, although at one point she gets one leg free and kicks Gavel in the face. He lets go of her other leg and Fury scoops her up before she can run any further. Then he fast walks to Medical. Gavel shows him the way to the trauma room and he puts Melinda on the bed in the corner of the room. The walls are painted yellow with paint splatters. The floor has a bright purple and blue carpet and Fury hates it immediately.

Melinda stands up when Fury lets go of her. Gavel shuts the door and Melinda freezes when she hears the click. Gavel gently pushes her back onto the bed and rolls her jeans up. Her ankle is swollen and red and Gavel pinches the bridge of his nose. He wraps an ice pack around it and hooks a sheet over a bar on the ceiling and hangs her ankle from that.

Then he lifts her torso up and pulls her T-shirt off. He barely notices when Fury leaves. Melinda is lying on the bed peacefully. He just hopes it lasts. It doesn’t.

As soon as he is finished giving her a full medical checkup, she tries to leave. He stops her but she keeps trying until he handcuffs her to the bed. She rattles the chain but he’s made it too tight to escape from.

 

Up in the ceiling, Natasha breaks the news that Melinda is bleeding. Jemma doesn’t bother finding out where she just leaves. Everyone follows her. Melinda is sleeping when Jemma finds her and the fact that her jeans are rolled up and her T-shirt is pulled up makes her smile when she realises that Fury took her to Medical.

Jemma pulls the older agent’s T-shirt down and leaves her in peace.

For now, of course.

She’ll be back later to berate Melinda on the stupidity of forcing your body to the point of exhaustion.

Chapter Text

Melinda sits in the trauma room, waiting for Simmons to clear her. Five minutes later Jemma has stopped talking to the other doctors and nurses and is coming back in.

“All good, Agent May,” Jemma smiles. “Thank you for waiting.”

Melinda nods because now she’s impatient to get out.

“No sparring for two weeks.”

Jemma’s words make her freeze. Her shoulders deflate and she lets out the breath she didn’t know she was holding. Melinda looks at Jemma pleadingly. Jemma’s facial expressions don’t change.

“No, Agent May,” Jemma says. “You keep getting hurt.”

“Jemma,” Melinda practically begs.

The corners of Jemma’s lips quirk upwards. “What’s the magic word?” she teases.

For a minute Melinda looks hopeful before realising that Jemma is teasing her. She scowls.

“That’s cruel, Jemma.”

“Life’s unfair. Now get out of here. Don’t even think about going near the gym,” Jemma tells her.

Melinda leaves quickly before Jemma can keep her in for another few days. As she’s walking aimlessly through SHIELD hallways she bumps into Natasha.

Natasha sighs in relief. “Oh, thank God. I couldn’t find you. Where were you?”

“Trauma room,” Melinda shrugs. “Didn’t even know they had one.”

“Well, we’re going home, so if you want to come with us, you’re welcome,” Natasha offers and Melinda thinks she can detect a trace of hopefulness.

“Who’s coming?”

“All of us, your team included.”

Melinda considers it, thinking how annoying Skye will be on the way to the Avengers Tower.

“Race you? She suggests instead.

Natasha brightens and they’re both running before the other is finished counting down. Steve opens the door for the car when they burst out of SHIELD. Natasha runs around the car but Melinda bounds over it, beating Natasha by a fraction of a second. Her team looks at her in shock as she races out the gate before Natasha.

It’s about a forty minute walk and running cuts it down to twenty. Steve drives like a crazy person, despite being America’s golden boy and they get home in ten minutes.

Natasha climbs the stairs faster and opens the door only to have Melinda run through first. She ducks under the tray of drinks Steve is carrying and jumps up onto the bench. Natasha follows her and they both leap for the light at the same time. Melinda catches the chain first. They let go and Melinda grins in triumph.

“And with a gammy ankle,” she snorts.

Natasha’s eyes widen and she ducks, pulling Melinda out of the way as Jemma throws an apple at them.

“That’s not benefiting my health,” Melinda yells as she ducks behind Coulson.

“Don’t use me as a shield!” he yells.

“You’re part of SHIELD,” she counters, dodging left as a banana comes flying towards her face.

When Jemma runs out of fruit she glares. Melinda raises her hand.

“Yes?” Jemma asks.

“Weren’t you the one who yelled at me for throwing one thing?”

Jemma pauses to think. “Yes, but you had a sore hand and reinjured it throwing the rock.”

Melinda stands up straighter and puts her hands on her hips. She wipes all the expression off her face. “Jemma Simmons, you should be disappointed in yourself. Throwing food is wasteful and disrespectful to the people who made it.”

“No one makes fruit,” Clint mutters.

“Shut up. It’s disrespectful to the people who grew it.”

“The plant grows it, not the people.”

“Whatever. Honestly, you should know better because you told me not to throw things. You hypocrite.”

Jemma raises her eyebrows. “Is that so?”

“Yes,” Melinda says firmly. She folds her arms and gives her a serious look.

“Here it comes,” Natasha mutters.

“It says so on Pinterest.”

Skye bursts out laughing. So does everyone else.

Coulson raises his eyebrows. “Since when do you have a Pinterest account?”

“Did you believe that?” Melinda asks.

“Not really,” Coulson shrugs. “Your mom wants to see you sometime today. Please don’t ignore it.”

Melinda scowls and makes her way towards the hallway that leads to her mom’s room. Lian meets her halfway there and smiles, although it doesn’t really meet her eyes.

“Hello, Mama,” Melinda says. “Phil said you wanted to see me.”

“Hello, Qiaolian,” Lian says. “Pepper wants all of the woman in the building to go out tonight. She’s inviting Jane and Darcy and I think Maria. She says to wear nice clothes. No leather or all black.”

Melinda’s face hardens at that and she thinks about the easiest possible way to get out of it or ignore the rule. But then Skye will tease her and Pepper will scold her and Jemma will probably join her and Natasha will be smirking at her and her mom will have that look on her face that Melinda hates. So she nods and asks what time.

“Six on the dot. Don’t be late and don’t wear that leather jacket with the holes and tears in it,” Lian says.

“But it’s comfortable,” Melinda protests.

“Tough. Go get ready.”

“But it’s only five. I’ve got a whole hour,” Melinda complains.

Lian rolls her eyes. “Fine. Go spend that hour playing video games.”

“I will,” she retorts.

And she does, beating Steve and Tony at Maria Kart and then Clint and Natasha at Pac Man and Bruce and Thor at Super Mario Bros. When Pepper comes in fifty minutes later and sees Melinda wearing all black and leather she sighs.

“Melinda, we’re going in ten minutes,” she reminds her.

Melinda doesn’t respond, too busy trying to take Clint down in World of Tanks. Pepper unplugs the controller and Melinda sighs.

“Doesn’t count,” she warns Clint, before following Pepper out of the room.

They pass all of the woman going to the lounge and Natasha smirks at her. She’s barely any better than what Melinda’s wearing at the moment but she’s wearing a green shirt and red converse.

Melinda doesn’t let Pepper come into her room and quickly shucks off her jacket and black T-shirt and swaps it for a grey T-shirt. She pulls on her combat boots and opens the door.

When she comes out, Pepper raises her eyebrow and send her back into her room. “Don’t even think about wearing those boots. Bobbi tried the same thing. Find a sweater,” she calls. “And get rid of those awful jeans.”

Melinda keeps the jeans but pulls on a dark blue wool sweater that she’s fairly sure Phil knitted for her one Christmas before he died. It hangs loosely on her and Melinda fits two guns on her body. She hopes she won't need them. She lies down next to her bed and fumbles blindly for the orange converse Skye gave her as a joke for Christmas. She checks to see if they still have the fake sole and grins when they do. She slips a small pocket knife in and grins wickedly as she straps a knife to her hips.

When she comes out again Pepper hangs her head. She checks the time and growls softly.

It’s five fifty-nine. Melinda walks behind Pepper, following her by listening to the click, click noises of her high heels. Natasha hides a smile when she sees Melinda. Skye snickers. They’re all wearing clean, tidy clothes that you could wear to a fancy restaurant and get away with.

She looks like she’s going to the pub. She hopes they are but she knows it’s highly unlikely. Pepper herds them all out to the two cars. Maria sidles up next to Melinda and Melinda closes her eyes and waits for it.

“So, how many weapons you got on you?” she asks loudly.

Pepper looks over at the word weapons and narrows her eyes. Melinda manages to look completely innocent.

“None. I’m being a role model for…” She scans them for someone younger than her that isn’t more mature. “Darcy,” she settles on.

Darcy beams at her. “Don’t worry. I still got my taser.”

“Darcy!” Jane chokes.

Darcy grins and climbs into the closest car, a white SUV that was once a SHIELD car. Natasha probably stole it and switched the licence plates.

Maria jabs Melinda in the side. “How many?”

“I told you, none, now shut up and get in the car,” Melinda whispers back.

Melinda is driving, as no one in her car can be bothered. She speeds out into the New York traffic and asks where they’re going.

“Gotham Bar and Grill,” Maria replies, having been the only one to actually listen to Pepper.

Melinda makes a face. “Where’s that?”

Maria gives her directions and Melinda slams on the brakes as the car in front stops suddenly at a red light. Skye yelps and grabs the door handle for the passenger seat. Natasha kicks the back of Melinda’s chair. Bobbi swears in Russian and Mandarin.

Melinda twists around in her seat when Bobbi swears in Mandarin and gives her an unimpressed look. “Don’t use that language in my car, thank you very much,” she says, keeping a perfectly straight face.

Skye counts three weapons, seeing the tip of a knife when Melinda twists and the bulge of another gun. She spots the bracelet around Melinda’s ankle and smirks when she sees a gas bomb.

“Isn’t that slightly … extravagant for a night out on town?” Skye asks.

Melinda glances down at her ankle and then at Skyee, a warning look in her eyes.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“What’s extravagant?” Maria asks and Melinda can hear the smugness in her voice.

“Don’t you dare, Skye,” Melinda threatens

Skye leans away and winds down the window, sticking her head out to yell to Pepper. Melinda swerves off the road, nearly mowing down three pedestrians. Horns honk as brakes squeal and then engines start up again. Skye shrieks and sticks her head back in the window, staring at Melinda in shock.

“That was uncalled for,” Bobbi says.

Natasha’s grinning and Maria is looking like this is the best thing since sliced bread. Skye mimes zipping her mouth shut and throwing away the key. Melinda nods and pulls back out into the busy traffic, right in front of a bus. The bus driver leans on his horn. Skye goes white and Melinda rolls down the window.

“You are not vomiting in my car,” she says firmly.

Skye manages not to puke but Melinda keeps the window rolled down anyway. When they pull up, they’re on the wrong side of the road. Skye, Maria and Bobbi start to go to the lights to cross like normal people but Melinda runs straight across the road, weaving around the cars. Natasha follows her.

When they get to the other side, Pepper is staring at them in horror.

“Does your insanity know no bounds?” she asks.

Natasha grins and looks at the restaurant. It’s fancy and Melinda feels like going to the pub would be a better idea. It’s just a good thing her mother refused the offer to come.

Inside, Melinda feels out of place. Their waiter for the night looks at her like he just smelt something bad. They chat quietly until the place starts to fill up. Darcy and Skye get slightly tipsy by the time Melinda takes the bottle away from them. Jane smiles gratefully.

Halfway through Melinda gets up to go to the toilet. She spots a Chinese man leaning against the wall beside the men’s bathroom. He turns away and leaves before she can see his face properly but she feels like she should know him.

They leave at nine o’clock. Melinda suggests heading to the pub and everyone agrees. Melinda leads Skye into the pub and Jane takes Darcy’s elbow because neither can walk in a straight line anymore.

They find a table at the back of the room that fits them all. Melinda gets up to go order a few bottles of whatever’s cheapest. On her way back she trips over a bag lying on the floor and nearly faceplants on the floor.

Someone catches her, and the alcohol. The man (she’s assuming from the feel of his chest), stands her back on her feet and bows.

“My lady,” he says and Melinda knows that voice, knows this game.

She spins around and crosses her arms. He’s standing right in front of her, the same half Chinese, half American boy that she remembers. He looks the same, just a little older. He’s still fit, muscles flexing when he pulled her up. He’s almost six foot, which Melinda doesn’t remember. He’s wearing jeans and a checked shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. His curly black hair is a few centimetres shorter, closer to his scalp. He looks pretty good for a guy who’s meant to be in a metal box at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean for the past ten years.

“I’m the knight,” she says, playing their game but not really. Usually, she is smiling when she says it. Tonight she isn’t. She takes the bottles and walks back to the table where everyone is waiting for her.

He follows her and sits down next to her. Skye whistles.

“She’s got a girlfriend, dude. Don’t waste your time,” she advises.

He smiles at her. “I’m Benji,” he introduces.

“Not interested,” Skye says automatically.

“Neither.”

“I don’t know whether to be offended or relieved,” Skye says. “I’m Skye. This is Bobbi, Natasha, Pepper, Jane, Jemma and Darcy.” She thinks Melinda can introduce herself to her admirer. She doesn’t say anything.

Benji pokes Melinda in the arm through out the whole evening. Melinda ignores it, for the most part, only slapping his hand away twice. At the very end, she spins around in her chair and glares at him. Benji looks satisfied.

“What?” she snaps.

“Can I talk to you?” he asks. “Alone?”

“Fine.”

Melinda gets up and waits for him to move. Benji goes to a loud, dark corner where the others can just see them. Melinda leans against the wall and waits for him to start speaking.

“I’m sorry,” Benji starts. “I should have called you earlier, I know but I was – ”

“Yeah, you should have called earlier. Like as soon as you got out of that damn ocean earlier,” Melinda says irritably. “I thought you were dead.”

Benji winces. “It was bad judgement on my part. I was scared and I was cold so I just went to the closest town I could find and made a new life.”

“What, was your old one not good enough?”

“No!” Benji puts his hand next to her head and leans on it. “I wanted a new start. I wanted to fall in love and start a family. I didn’t want to die for the CIA. I didn’t want to be an agent anymore.”

“I’m still an agent,” Melinda says, “And I’m not dead.”

“Yeah, and look where that got you,” Benji retorts.

Melinda’s face hardens and she pushes off the wall and goes to grab her sweater. She pulls it on and is about to leave when Benji grabs her arm.

“Melinda, wait. You know I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry,” Benji pleads.

Skye sits in shock with her beer bottle raised halfway to her mouth.

Melinda yanks her arm out of his grip. “Don’t touch me,” she hisses. “You had your chance and you ruined it. Well done.”

She leaves the pub. No one follows her, understanding that she is pissed and doesn’t want to be crowded. Benji clenches his fists and swears in Chinese. He glares at her retreating figure.

“You can run, but you can’t hide,” he mutters.

Melinda left the SUV there, preferring to walk. She finds the cool night air refreshing after the stifling heat of the pub. The silence and solitude are welcome, too. She walks past an empty preschool and stands up straighter as an idea hits her.

She scales the fence easily and picks the lock on the door. No alarm comes on so she enters quickly and quietly. She finds the box of crayons easily enough and then rips a sheet of lined paper out of a child’s scrapbook. Melinda chooses the black, red and yellow crayons. She scribbles an outline of black and then completes the picture in five minutes.

The result is a suffocating fire. That’s what she labels it when she places it gently on the teacher’s desk. Then she locks up the door and climbs out the open window in the bathroom.

She gets back to the Avengers Tower at nine in the morning. She ignores Jarvis when he asks if she would like him to inform the others that she is back. She ignores the others, too, when they ask if she is okay. Benji is sitting on the couch, looking dejected. She stops and leaves without him noticing.

She assumes Natasha tells him she’s in the gym because he arrives ten minutes later. She hits the punching bag harder. It swings away from her and firm hands hold it steady. She glares at him. She pretends the punching bag is his face.

It doesn’t work very well. His face is right there, poking out from behind the bag. She aims and hits, square on the nose. Benji jerks back, bringing his fists up. Blood dribbles down from his left nostril.

Melinda doesn’t try and hit him again. She knows what will happen if he does.

She tries to ignore him, really tries but he’s right there, grinning at her. She punches him again and then kicks him in the shins while he’s not prepared. He doesn’t wait any longer for her, jabbing at her. He feints right and goes left and smacks her side. She inhales sharply as she twists out of his reach and then goes back in, a flurry of fists. He blocks most of her attempts to hit him but she gets a particularly hit in, catching just above his belly button.

In return, he kicks her feet out from underneath her and pounces on her. They wrestle for a minute until she gains the upper hand and rolls away. He has more brute force than her, meaning if they wrestle for too long he will win.

She stands up and knees him in the gut as he stands. It’s a dirty trick but she feels it’s worth it as he has technically lied to her for the better part for ten years.

Benji rolls backwards, absorbing the impact and crouches, a dangerous look on his face. “You can run, but you can’t hide from the truth,” he tells her.

Melinda snarls at him and charges him. He steps aside but she’s anticipating that and bowls him over. Automatically his hands come up to her hips and he tries to push her off. His hands easily wrap around her waist. She presses her arm against his throat. He doesn’t let go of her hips. She adds more force and feels satisfied when he gasps for breath.

Suddenly, she’s flying across the room. Skye opens the door and Melinda lands on top of her. Skye grunts and pushes Melinda off her.

“You OK?” she asks and then sees Benji.

Melinda doesn’t answer. She glowers at him and advances. When she is in reach, she kicks him in the groin and elbows him in the stomach. Benji winces and punches her hard in the face. Her face snaps back and she feels blood trickle down her nostril. Her lip is split and her chin is bruised.

Skye screams in shock as they full out punch each other as hard as they can. Her scream brings everyone running down to the gym. Natasha and Coulson get there first.

Melinda kicks Benji’s shins and advances on him as he stumbles back. She ducks under his punch and twists his arm behind his back. He growls, low in his throat and rips his arm free. It only takes a few seconds but then Benji is on offence and Melinda is in defence.

Benji blocks Melinda’s punch, redirecting her fist and getting in close. Melinda has to step back if she wanted to win the fight.

Vaguely, she hears someone yelling her name. She hisses out a breath as Benji punches her hard enough to crack her ribs.

Benji hears her ribs crack and wonders if she will stop know so he can explain. She doesn’t. He should have known. Someone is yelling her name. A redhead, dressed in black. Natasha, he remembers. He wonders if they are together. His distraction costs him another punch in the face.

Benji spits blood on the mat. He catches Melinda’s fist in his hand and kicks her feet out from under her. She lands on her back with a thud and then Natasha is rushing forward, intercepting her when she runs at Benji again.

Mack comes in, finished with his welding for the moment and when he sees Natasha keeping Melinda away from Benji, he walks over and with one arm lifts her up. Melinda kicks out furiously, glaring at Benji. She tugs at Mack’s arm but it does little good.

“C’mon Agent May,” he says jovially. “We have welding to do.”

Melinda growls and squirms uselessly in his grip. She gets partway free and then he boosts her up and catches her with his other arm. He rests her on his hip and walks past the shocked stares of the others. Melinda swears at him in Cantonese, Russian, English, Mandarin and Spanish. Mack whistles.

“Let’s keep it PG, May,” he says.

Melinda kicks him awkwardly and puts her hands on his shoulder and pushes herself away from him. Mack just tightens his grip in return. He walks into the garage and locks the door with his free hand.

Melinda gives up after another five minutes of struggling. She hangs limply and rests her head on his shoulder in defeat. Mack gives her an amused look and strokes her head teasingly. Melinda’s head shoots up and she glares at him. Mack grins at her and snaps a pair of handcuffs around her wrist and his wrist so she can’t escape. Then he handcuffs her other hand to a table leg. Melinda snarls at him and tries to yank her hand out.

Mack smacks her lightly and picks up his welding equipment. Melinda watches him for a little while before she gets bored. She shifts in her chair and then taps a tune on the table leg and then shifts again. She rests her head on the table and then sits back up and then slouches.

Mack snorts as she half-heartedly pulls at her handcuffed wrist. She fiddles around a bit with a spare piece of wire and eventually the lock clicks. Mack glances at her free wrist and gives her a warning look. Melinda ignores him and rests her head on her hand.

“Elbows off the table,” Mack says.

“Get a life,” Melinda responds.

She tugs testingly at the handcuffs locked around both of their wrists. Mack smacks her hand and sets down the welder. He takes off the mask and looks at her. She’s slouched in her seat for barely a minute before changing positions. She taps her foot and hums an old Chinese folk song.

“Bored?” Mack asks, amused.

Melinda sends him an unimpressed look and stands. She’s not bored. Restless, perhaps but not bored. Mack unlocks the handcuffs and grabs her upper arm when she tries to run. He pulls her back to him, throwing her off balance.

“No running,” Mack says.

Melinda nods after a stony silence. Mack keeps an arm around her shoulders and they walk out of the garage.

“Hungry?” Mack asks.

Melinda shrugs. She doesn't know what she is now that Benji’s showed up. Mack decides to make her lunch anyway. Early lunch.

“We’ll go up to the kitchen,” he tells her. “You see Benji, you don’t fight him or I’m carrying you.” When she nods reluctantly, Mack starts walking.

They see Benji on their way. Benji smirks when he sees Melinda caught and Mack just stops her from running after him and beating him up. He glares at her and lifts her up easily, setting her on his hip. Melinda scowls and pounds on his shoulder with her fists. She kicks his knee repeatedly as it is the lowest part of his leg she can reach and thigh bones are like concrete.

“Come on, May,” he chides. “I told you the rules and you agreed. Don’t get so stroppy.”

Melinda gives him an extra hard punch and then lets him hold all of her weight. He casts a look at her and he has a gleam in his eye that she doesn’t like. He smirks at her. Melinda narrows her eyes. She tenses, waiting.

Mack swings her out in front of him and stops walking. He holds her under the arms and grins smugly at her glare. “Aren’t you cute?” he mocks.

Melinda’s glare could have frozen hell over. She bares her teeth at him and tries to kick him but he’s holding her far enough away from himself that she can barely reach him. She pulls at his wrists and squirms but his grip is too tight. She settles for glaring in the end.

Mack chuckles and jiggles her up and down. He puts her on his hip again and walks into the kitchen. Benji is already there. He’s cleaned up from their fight. Jemma probably helped. Melinda sees him first and tries to escape from Mack’s arms. Mack hasn’t seen Benji yet and he lets her stand. He grabs wildly at her when she runs at Benji and catches the back of her T-shirt. Melinda is yanked backwards and into Mack’s waiting arms.

This time she manages to escape from his grip. She runs straight past Benji and out the door. Mack and Benji look at each other and nod.

“Mack.”

“Benji.”

They shake hands and then pretend that Melinda didn’t just run away.

Jemma comes in a while later. She’s looking for Melinda, just to check if her wounds from Ward are okay from fighting Benji. Mack gives her a plate of grilled cheese toasties. He knows from experience that Melinda hates them so he doesn’t get her to give any to her. Instead, he hands Jemma a cup. It’s filled right to the top with a berry smoothie. Also, a few painkillers that he knows she won’t take otherwise.

He tells Jemma, just so she knows. She smiles at his genius.

Jemma finds her in the air vents, watching her. Melinda leans down and takes the smoothie that Jemma holds up. She sniffs it cautiously before taking a tiny sip. She frowns as she doesn’t find anything wrong with it.

Slowly, Jemma coaxes Melinda down from the air vents. She takes the cup Melinda hands her, still mostly full. Melinda slowly swings herself down and takes her smoothie back. She finishes it and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand.

Jemma takes the cup and leads Melinda to the tiny infirmary at the back of the lab. Melinda’s ribs are cracked and her nose is almost broken but not quite. She wraps her ribs and tapes her nose and gives her a dose of pain meds.

The one’s Mack put in the smoothie are more for vomiting and sore stomachs. Melinda swallowed them without complaint. She stood up and went to leave. Jemma let her go, knowing that Melinda was probably off to hide from Benji.

Coulson finds her stumbling through the hallways a short while later. He catches her as she nearly falls on her face. Melinda blinks up at him. Slowly, she pulls herself up and nearly falls over again. Coulson helps her stand and wraps an arm around her waist to keep her upright. He walks her to the lounge to sit down as they’re literally three metres from the door.

Everyone is sitting around and Coulson sighs when Melinda stumbles yet again and giggles. He sits down on an empty space on the couch and pulls Melinda down next to her. She isn’t expecting it and nearly falls over the back of the couch. She sits back up and frowns.

“That’s not nice, Philip,” she says.

“You’re not nice,” he retorts childishly and regrets it when she looks away sadly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that.”

She looks back up, grinning mischievously and he realises she was faking. Melinda reaches for Hunter’s beer on the table and takes a swig before Coulson can stop her and Hunter can complain.

“No!” Hunter cries. “My beer!”

“May,” Coulson admonishes. “Give it back.”

Melinda hands Hunter the empty bottle and beams at him. Coulson sighs and puts his head in his hands.

“You should really apologise,” he offers.

Hunter looks at Melinda expectantly, although he doesn’t really think she’ll do it.

“’M sorry,” she mutters sulkily. Then she giggles.

Benji snorts with laughter and after everyone has gotten over their shock they join him. Melinda glares at Benji.

“You’re supposed to be dead,” she says crossly.

There is silence. The tension thickens.

“I know,” Benji says simply. “I was in rehab for three months and by that point, I was scared of how you’d react so I didn’t let you know. I should have and for that I’m sorry.”

“Why now?” Melinda asks grumpily.

Benji sighs. “Oh, we are so not having this conversation right now. You’re high as a kite and won’t remember any of it when the meds wear off.”

Melinda giggles again. “But I want to.” She smiles at him and Benji remembers another time when she was high off her mind with meds. He knows what he had done last time had been the worst possible option.

Benji smiles back. “Tell you what,” he starts, “Why don’t we play Twister?”

Melinda giggles. “You suck at Twister. And you didn’t answer my question.” She pouts. “Don’t you trust me?”

Benji swears under his breath. Melinda hears and repeats it loudly, over and over again. Coulson hurriedly clamps his hand over her mouth. She bites down on it and he hisses. Melinda hisses back at him, drawing out the s sound as long as she can. She claps her hands like a toddler and squeezes his nose. Coulson leans back and snatches her hand away. Skye snorts.

“Who wants to put her to bed?” Coulson asks.

No one answers.

“Shot not,” Bobbi says quickly.

“Shot not.”

“Shot not.”

“Shot not.”

“Shot not.”

“Shot not.”

Everyone except Steve has said shot not. He looks at them in confusion.

“It’s a game,” Tony explains. “Last person to say shot not is the loser and has to do whatever you’re saying shot not for. So,” he says, clapping his hands together, “You are the loser and has to put May to bed.”

Steve blushes at the thought of going into a woman’s room without permission. He blinks as Melinda taps his nose and then wobbles off in search of a drink. Steve follows after her, taking the bottle of Tony’s crap alcohol out of her hand and putting it on the top shelf where she can't reach. Melinda frowns at him. Steve’s heart melts at the adorable woman in front of him.

He swings her up onto his shoulders and she giggles delightedly. When he’s out of sight of the others prying eyes he zooms like an aeroplane, making the engine noises as best he can. When he gets to her room she’s slumped on his head, almost asleep. He gently lowers her to her bed which has two thin blankets and a stiff pillow. He finds a fuzzy green blanket in the closet by the lab and steals a pillow off Tony’s bed before going back to her room. Melinda has woken up, although she’s still dizzy and high on meds. Steve wraps the green blanket around her and carefully lifts up her head and takes out her pillow and puts Tony’s in. Then he kisses her forehead and leaves her alone.

They’re talking when he gets back. Someone, he assumes Bruce, has made a chilli and chicken dish. It’s quite nice, he decides, after helping himself to seconds.

 

Melinda wakes up at midday, the next day. She untangles herself from the green fuzzy blanket that someone has wrapped around her and pokes at her pillow. It’s soft and squishy. It’s not hers. She blinks blearily as someone opens the door. It’s Phil. He comes in and sits beside her.

“Hey,” he says softly. “How’re you feeling?”

Her mouth is dry. She swallows twice before answering. “Huh?”

Phil chuckles. “How’re you feeling?”

“Like I got hit by a bus. What happened yesterday?”

She can remember only a few things, Steve running like an aeroplane, ducking high and low in an attempt to imitate one, giggling and being silly which while it isn’t a bad thing if Skye was there to see, she’s dead.

Phil hands her a tablet. It’s got a video on the screen. She presses play and sighs when she watches herself fool around in front of Skye.

“Embarrassed?” Phil asks.

“No,” she says. “Just Skye saw and now I need to hide before she comes knocking.”

As if on cue, there is a knock on the door. Melinda buries herself deeper into her blanket as Skye opens the door and comes in. Melinda feels her sit next to Phil. Neither of them says anything, making Melinda suspicious. She rolls over to face them and regrets it when she sees Skye has her phone out and is taking a video. She rolls over again and ducks under the blankets. Skye gives her a hug and kicks her shoes off. Melinda feels Phil get up and the door opens and shuts so she assumes he’s left them to it.

Skye climbs into Melinda bed and pulls her closer. Melinda lets out a yelp and twists away when she feels Skye freezing cold hands on her body. Skye chuckles quietly but doesn’t let go. Melinda sticks her head out of the blanket and glares at Skye. Skye smirks. Melinda doesn’t break the staring competition until she sneezes.

Skye laughs so hard she nearly falls out the bed. She grips Melinda’s wrist and pulls her down with her. Melinda groans as they hit the floor with a thump. Skye holds her tight against her body and Melinda suddenly has a bad feeling about it all.

“You know,” Skye starts, “Jemma only wants to keep you safe.”

Oh no, they were so not having this conversation, Melinda thinks. She tries to get up but Skye simply rolls on top of her and pulls the blanket closer around them, effectively trapping her S.O. Melinda groans and presses her face into the ground, trying to block out Skye’s words.

“She cares about you, more than you ever know,” Skye says and Melinda is thrashing in her grip. “She doesn’t hate you, despite what you may think.”

Melinda’s struggling becomes more frantic. She brings her hands up to her ears. Skye pries them away and puts her mouth next to Melinda’s ears.

“She likes when you’re not injured, not just because it’s easier for her. She likes knowing that you’re unhurt because she knows you won’t hurt yourself more. She knows that you won’t get caught again because when you’re not hurt, you’re a damn ninja. She knows that you aren’t trying to be tough just because you think you don’t deserve it.”

Melinda kicks out at nothing. Skye holds her tighter. Melinda tries to block out Skye’s words. Her breaths are coming in gasps now.

“She knows you’re safe,” Skye finishes.

Melinda stops struggling and curls up in a ball. Tears leak from her eyes and she takes strangled gasps to fill her lungs.

Skye strokes her hair and hugs her tightly. Melinda rolls over and buries herself in Skye’s open arms. When she stops crying and is just lying there on the floor with Skye, Skye grins at her. Melinda tugs Skye closer and hides her face in her shoulder. Skye rubs her back and sits them both up. When Melinda tries to stand Skye stop her.

“We’ve still got talking to do,” she reminds.

Melinda freezes and looks at Skye.

“You think you don’t deserve us, to be treated with kindness, to be loved. Why?” Skye asks.

Melinda closes her eyes. It’s true. It’s one of the reasons her and Natasha didn’t blossom and grow into something else for so long. And Melinda still thinks she doesn’t deserve Nat.

“May,” Skye prompts.

Melinda doesn’t want to have this conversation. Skye may have gotten the upper hand last time but that doesn’t mean she is going to get it this time. Melinda crawls out of the blankets quicker than Skye can stop her. She reaches the door just as Skye grabs her and tears her away. Now Skye is closest to the door.

“And we need to talk about Benji, too,” Skye says. “You keep avoiding him.”

“He was dead!” Melinda yells out, “And nobody gets that. He died and he didn’t come back.”

“But he didn’t die,” Skye says softly. “He escaped.”

“And he waited ten years before telling me,” she snaps.

Skye breathes out deeply through her nose. “May. Seriously. He’s alive. He was scared of how you would react. It’d been three months, the pain was bound to be fresh and you wouldn’t have been able to cope with it. It’s been ten years, I’m betting you’d almost forgotten, the pain isn’t as bad now.”

Melinda narrows her eyes. She dodges around Skye and tries to open the door. It’s locked. She turns around and glares at Skye.

“What have you done?” she asks.

“It’s locked.”

Melinda kicks the door and when it doesn’t open, proceeds to pull out her gun and shoot at the lock. The sound of gunshots is heard all the way through the tower. Skye flinches. Natasha drops in through the vents. Clint follows her.

They take in the situation.

“What’s going on?” Natasha asks.

“I’m trying to get her to tell me why she feels like she doesn’t deserve us,” Skye says before Melinda can say anything.

Clint’s head snaps towards Melinda. “Don’t deserve us?” he says. “Why wouldn’t you?”

Melinda glares at them all and points the gun at them. Skye freezes but Natasha advances anyway. Melinda’s hand trembles.

“Put the gun down, Melinda,” Natasha says.

Melinda doesn’t move, muscles tensing.

“Put it down, Mel,” Natasha repeats.

Melinda throws it to the ground and squeezes her eyes shut. Natasha steps forward. She reaches out and holds Melinda’s hand. Melinda takes a shaky breath and opens her eyes. Clint and Skye fan out either side of Natasha.

Melinda backs up a step. Her back brushes the door. She waits for them to take a step forward. They don’t. Skye rushes forward and hugs her as tight as she can. Melinda flinches back and then realises it for what it is. It’s purely a coincidence that it leaves Skye in an excellent place to steal Melinda’s weapons. She drops the knives and guns on the floor. Melinda pulls herself out of Skye’s grip with a betrayed look. Natasha stands in front of her weapons.

“Why don’t you feel like you deserve us?” Natasha asks.

Melinda turns away, as if the simple action can block the words she doesn't want to hear.

Chapter Text

Melinda presses her lips together tightly.

“Mel, please,” Clint says. “We can’t help you if you don’t tell us.”

“What if I don’t want to be helped?” Melinda spits.

Natasha sighs and Clint rubs his face.

“It’s too early to be doing this,” he mutters.

Natasha kicks his shin. “Now or never, Barton. We can get coffee from that place you love so much after.”

He brightens up considerably. He scoops Melinda up and shoves her into the air vents. He follows after her before she can get ahead too quickly. Keeping a hand on her ankle, he pulls her out and they drop into the lounge. Everyone in there stands up in surprise. Melinda hangs onto the edge of the grate and shakes her foot. Clint holds on long enough to get kicked in the face.

Being the tallest, Mack yanks her back down when she tries to pull herself up. Seeing that Melinda is caught for the moment, Clint wanders off to make coffee. Mack wraps an arm around Melinda's waist and waits her out.

Eventually, her arms start to shake and one hand slips. Mack takes advantage of this and lifts his feet off the ground. Melinda can’t hold both of their weight combined and she falls, clawing at the air. She lands underneath of Mack somehow and groans as her breath is stolen from her lungs.

Clint comes back in with a steaming cup of coffee and brightens when he sees Melinda well and truly trapped.

“Don’t move a muscle, Mack,” Clint says.

Mack’s ears are slightly red but Melinda doesn’t care. All she can think about is trying to get her breath because Mack’s not exactly the lightest person. Though it is mostly muscle.

Natasha and Skye drop in through the vents and snicker when they see Melinda underneath. Natasha smirks at them.

“Aren’t you the one who told Mel to keep it PG?” she asks.

Mack’s face flushes bright red. Clint signals that he can get up and he does just that very hurriedly. Melinda is rolling away before he’s even fully off of her. Natasha catches her before she can get too far away.

Skye grins at Jemma. “I told her. She reacted badly.”

Jemma winces. “Oh. How badly?”

Skye hesitates. “She cried and … begged me to stop.”

Jemma frowns at that. “Mabe we should do a psych evaluation.”

“Shot not telling her.”

“Me neither,” Fitz says.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. Melinda hears them talking and glares. Clint is standing behind her, holding her arms.

“Don’t even think about it,” she snarls.

“You brought two guns and three knives to the bar,” Benji says from where he is seated. “I think a psych eval would be a good thing.”

Melinda can do nothing but scowl at him. Pepper looks up in mock interest.

“Oh?” she says. “I thought you said you didn't have any weapons on you.”

“Don’t forget the smoke bomb on the bracelet around her ankle,” Skye reminds them.

Clint snorts with laughter. Pepper glowers at them both and Melinda wishes she is not here. She glares at Skye. Then she sneezes. Skye tries to suppress her laughter. Pepper smiles briefly.

“Next time you lie to one of us, you will be put under constant watch,” Pepper threatens.

Melinda makes a face and then sneezes again. She sniffs and grimaces as Clint puts a hand to her forehead. He whistles.

“Wow, Mel, you’re really hot,” he comments, winking.

Melinda kicks his shin and tries to pull her arms from his grasp. Jemma frowns. She notices for the first time that Melinda is slightly paler. Clint lets go of her arms and drapes his arms around her shoulders. She considers shooting him. She lets him know this and smirks when he pales slightly before remembering that she is weaponless.

Jemma pulls her towards the infirmary. She makes a small noise of protest when Clint scoops her up in his arms and walks after Jemma. She feels something pull in her thigh as she kicks out and inhales sharply. Clint raises his eyebrows as she makes a “don’t tell Jemma,” motion.

Jemma checks Melinda’s vitals and takes her temperature. They have to wait a few minutes for the results.

“You’re sick,” Jemma informs her. “I’m placing you on bed rest until you’re temperature drops below 40.”

“I’m not sick,” Melinda responds automatically. “I feel fine.”

“You’re used to it,” Jemma corrects. “And didn’t Pepper say something about lying?”

Melinda recalls what Pepper said and stares up at Jemma in horror. Jemma smiles.

“You will stay in bed for the rest of today and tomorrow or at least take it easy or I’m telling Pepper,” Jemma says.

“I hate you,” Melinda mumbles.

Clint laughs and picks her up. “C’mon, Mel, let’s get you to bed.”

Melinda’s glare could have made a lesser man cry. Fortunately, Clint is not a lesser man.

When they get to Melinda’s room, Clint shuts the door behind them. (Skye had unlocked it so her and Natasha could get out without using the vents.) He deposits her on her bed and unbuttons her jeans, pulling them down.

The gash on her thigh had been progressing so nicely but now that the stitches are split, blood is slowly leaking out. Clint swears and digs around under Melinda’s bed. He comes up empty handed and they both swear.

“Simmons?” Clint asks.

Melinda pulls a face. “I suppose we have to. Just let me check first.” She shuffles off the bed and awkwardly moves about under the bed. She crows in triumph and pokes her head out. She chucks a first aid kit in Clint’s general direction and pulls herself back up onto the bed. Melinda pulls her jeans all the way off and finds a pair of shorts lying on the floor.

Clint waits until she is decent before starting to stitch her up. She breathes out as he sticks the needle in and forces herself to remember that it’s Clint, not Ward. She repeats the mantra over and over in her head, Clint, not Ward. When Clint is finished he wipes away the blood with a wet facecloth from the bathroom. He bandages it neatly and Melinda is reminded of how many times he has done this before for her and Natasha. None of them really stitch themselves up, Clint, Natasha, Phil, Maria or her finding the injured friend and doing it for them.

There is a knock on the door and Clint and Melinda look at each other in dismay. Jemma’s voice sounds on the other side. Clint kicks the first aid kit under the bed and Melinda jumps into the bed, pulling the covers over top of her.

“Agent May?” Jemma asks.

“Come in,” Clint grins. “I even got her into bed.”

Jemma nods, impressed. “Well done.” She turns to Melinda. “Now, I’ve brought some medicine and pills to take an hour after you eat.”

Melinda nods and Jemma puts the medicine on the desk. Just as she is about to leave, Jemma notices the jeans lying on the floor. She can see a darker patch in one spot and she goes back to Melinda’s bed.

“Stand up,” she commands.

Melinda and Clint share a look.

“Why?” Melinda asks.

“Because I need to check something. Stand up,” Jemma repeats.

Reluctantly, Melinda stands. She feels exposed, standing in Coulson’s Captain America T-shirt that is like a dress on her and shorts as Jemma assess her.

“Pull up your T-shirt.”

Melinda hesitates. Clint bites his lip and looks at the floor.

Jemma sighs. “Arms up.”

Melinda puts her arms up and Jemma pulls the T-shirt off. She’s a little too strong pulling. Melinda stumbles forward blindly as it goes over her head and bumps into Jemma.

Jemma steadies her before carefully looking for any sign of a wound. She notes the two bandages, one around her thigh and the other around her stomach. She unwraps the bandage around Melinda’s thigh first because she doesn’t remember putting it there. When it’s off she sees the stitches that have been just put in place.

Jemma stands up straight and crosses her arms, raising an eyebrow and cocking her head to the side. Melinda cringes internally. Gently, Jemma pushes Melinda onto the bed. Melinda sneezes and braces herself as Jemma prods around the wound.

Clint looks away as Jemma scolds at the two of them. Melinda just closes her eyes and wishes for the pounding in her head to go away.

“You know, you’re going to die one day from not looking after your body,” Jemma snaps. “And then what would we do?”

Melinda looks at her in confusion. “What?”

“We care about you, May. How do you think we would feel if you died because you didn’t look after yourself?”

Melinda clenches her teeth because she does not want to be having this particular talk with Jemma or Clint.

“May,” Jemma prompts.

And suddenly, Melinda has had enough. She is sick of people trying to get her to open up, to talk about her feelings, to tell her they care about her. She lashes out wildly in her rage.

Shut up!” she screams. “Stop trying to get me to open up! Stop it. Get away from me!”

“Mel,” Clint starts but Melinda doesn’t need him telling her what to do.

“Stop telling me what to do!” she yells.

“May, I really think you need to-”

Shut up!” she shrieks. “I don’t care! I don’t care, okay. Stop saying that I’m loveable, that you care about me because you shouldn’t! If you knew what’s best for you, you’d stay the hell away from me and screw off!”

Jemma steps forward and Melinda flings her arms up in defence. All Jemma does is enfold Melinda in her arms.

“Stop saying that I deserve your trust, your love because I don’t!”

“But you do,” Jemma murmurs. “You do, you just don’t know it. Every single person in your team and outside of it loves you so, so much.”

Melinda beats her fists against Jemma’s shoulders and collarbone. Clint hugs her from behind.

“It’s true. Everyone cares about you. You just don’t see it.” He rests his head on her shoulder and kisses her cheek.

Melinda blinks back tears as they suddenly spring to her eyes. Jemma and Clint both glance at each other and slowly move her towards the bed.

“Can we go to Boston?” Melinda mumbles.

Clint frowns. “Uh, sure.”

Melinda’s head drops forward and she sags in their arms.

“Why?” Jemma asks curiously.

Melinda doesn’t answer. Clint grins.

“Looks like you’ll never know. Phil can take her.”

“Skye will want to go,” Jemma says before she can stop herself.

Clint tucks Melinda into bed and kisses her forehead. It’s sweet, Jemma thinks. A brother and sister relationship.

“So do you,” Clint says, opening the door for her.

Jemma walks out blushing. “Well, I’ve always wanted to travel.”

“Maybe we’ll all go,” Clint says, slightly wistfully as he remembers the time when it was just the five of them, ready to face the world and take it head on.

They walk back to the lounge.

“Bed rest. She wants to go to Boston. Clint said yes,” Jemma tells them.

Coulson chokes on his coffee. Skye thumps him on the back. He stares at Clint with wide eyes.

“You’re kidding, right?” he asks.

“Nope. Heard it with my own ears.”

“Well, we all know how reliable that is,” Natasha snorts.

“One time, Romanoff, one time,” he says exasperatedly.

“One time too many,” she replies.

Coulson paces back and forth, muttering. Skye stifles the laugh threatening to spill out of her throat. He’s still doing that a few minutes later when Melinda walks in sleepily. Skye sees her first. Luckily, she’s put her T-shirt back on.

“May!” Jemma says. “What are you doing up?”

Coulson sees her and hurries over, holding her shoulders.

“You didn’t seriously ask to go to Boston, did you?”

Melinda looks up at him. “Please?”

Coulson swears. “Fine.”

“What’s wrong with Boston?” Skye asks.

“Her mother lives there,” Coulson says as if that explains it all.

Melinda blinks in surprise. “No, she doesn’t. And wasn’t she here?”

“Yes, actually, she does. No, she went home.”

Melinda looks at him like he’s insane. “Don’t be ridiculous. Dad lives in Boston. Mama lives in …” She thought about it for a minute. “Wherever takes her fancy.”

“Yeah, and that’s been Boston for the past three years,” Coulson tells her.

“Oh. How do you know this and I don’t?”

Coulson gives her that look that tells her he thinks she’s an idiot. “Because I was listening.”

Melinda raises an eyebrow. “She told you her address.”

“Here it comes. Every time.”

“You’re scared of my mother.”

“I am not,” he protests.

“Yeah, you are. You nearly ran into a door when she dropped by to get out of the room.”

Coulson opens his mouth and shuts it. “Okay, fine. Whatever.”

“Where does Dad live then?” Melinda asks.

Coulson puts his head in his hands. “Please tell me you’re joking.”

“No.”

Skye can’t hold her laughter back and she bursts into giggles. Melinda and Coulson stop arguing and look over at her.

“What?” Melinda asks.

“You’re arguing about where you mom lives. You’re her daughter, you should know this stuff,” Skye snickers.

Melinda opens her mouth to retort but Coulson puts his hand over her mouth and bustles her away to her room. He pulls the blanket up to her chin and says goodnight. Melinda scowls sulkily at him. Coulson sighs.

“What now?” he asks.

“Clint kissed me goodnight,” she grumbles and it’s so her that he smiles. He kisses the point of her nose and then turns off the light.

“Night,” she mumbles just before he closes the door.

“Why are you smiling like the Chesire Cat?” Skye asks as he wanders back into the lounge.

“She wanted a goodnight kiss because Barton gave her one,” he grins.

Natasha stares at him in fake shock. “You’re kissing my girlfriend?” she exclaims loudly.

Coulson rolls her eyes. “Your girlfriend is trying to sleep.”

“She is!” she protests. “My girlfriend, I mean.”

“Yeah, that’s why you’ve been avoiding each other,” Coulson says.

Natasha scowls at him. “I hate you.”

“Because I’m right?”

“Because you’re you.”

Coulson smirks and finishes his coffee before sitting down. He checks the time and is surprised when he finds it’s only six o’clock.

 

The next day, Melinda wakes up late, at half past nine. She stumbles into the kitchen and sees Skye and FitzSimmons grinning. She eyes them suspiciously but leaves it be for now. Then she hears them whispering about something. She catches the word “goodnight kiss” and spins around to glare at them but is stopped by Coulson who hugs her. He’s in an awfully good mood and she doesn’t like it. It means something is going to happen and she had no doubt it won’t be any good for her.

“Get ready, May. We’re going to Boston,” he grins.

She tries to remember what’s in Boston but can’t think of anything besides her dad’s house.

“Why?”

His face lights up like a kid on Christmas Day. “Just ‘cause.”

“Can we go see my dad?” she asks, pouring water into the jug.

Coulson’s face falls and she almost smiles.

“I thought you liked my dad?”

“I do. Just … your mother lives in Boston.”

Melinda spins around to face him. “You’re kidding.”

“Don’t you remember our conversation last night?” he asks.

Melinda frowns, trying to recall it. Flashes of Clint and Jemma putting her to bed, Coulson telling her her mom lived in Boston, Coulson kissing her a goodnight kiss.

“Why was I not told about it?”

“About what?”

“That she lived in Boston.”

“Because you weren’t listening.”

Melinda accepts it with a half smile. The jug dings. She glares at the mugs that are still on the top shelf. Coulson follows her line of sight and chuckles. Melinda turns on him with an offended look on her face.

“Don’t laugh! Do something.”

“Why?”

“Because you told me to asks last time so unless you’d rather I climbed again…”

Coulson frowns. “No way. Besides, there’s a whole supply of them down here.”

He bends down and rummages in the bottom cupboard. He hands her one with a pink spider. She glares at him. He knows she hates pink. He just smiles.

“Water’s going cold.”

She pauses.

Tea or revenge.

Tea or revenge.

Tea or revenge.

Her mind made up, she ignores him and makes her tea. There is silence from the kids and Melinda tenses up slightly as she feels their eyes on her. Finally, Skye speaks up.

“Um, May … did you …”

Melinda turns around and faces Skye. “Yes?”

Skye takes a deep breath. “Complain about not getting a good night kiss?” Then she ducks like she’s expecting Melinda to throw something her tea at her.

She doesn't. That would be childish. She throws a blunt knife at her instead. Skye yelps and jumps out of the way. Tony freezes in the doorway as the knife wobbles in the wood above his head. She looks at Coulson who has frozen in place.

“I thought we could trust each other,” she says. “I’m hurt, Phil.”

Coulson snorts. “Embarrassed, maybe, but you are so not hurt.”

“Why would I be embarrassed?”

Skye smirks as her question is answered. “When are we going to Boston?”

Coulson checks the time. “Now.”

“Have you called ahead?” Melinda asks.

“No. Maybe she won’t kill you.”

Melinda snorts. “Good luck.”

They pile into an SUV, leaving a note for the Avengers. Five hours later they arrive in Boston. Coulson drives up a winding dirt road and pulls up in front of a house. Skye realises Melinda’s parents live on a farm.

Melinda gets out of the car first and feels the mud squish beneath her feet. She looks down and realises she didn’t get changed much more except for pulling on a pair of jeans. An old man opens the door and smiles when he sees Melinda. Melinda brightens, running over.

“Mellie!” he exclaims happily, hugging her tightly.

Skye snorts at the nickname. They walk up the steps to the porch and stand in a line. Melinda’s dad looks them over.

“Good to see you, Phil.”

His gaze settles on Skye.

“You must be Skye,” he decides.

Skye stares at him in surprise. There is only one way he could know her name. She looks over at Melinda who is determinedly not looking at any of them.

“And Fitz and Simmons, the brilliant scientists,” he beams.

FitzSimmons look over at Melinda in disbelief.

“Mellie told me a lot about all of you,” he says.

Melinda’s face seems to have hardened slightly. Skye can’t resist the temptation to tease her just this once.

“Mellie, that’s so sweet,” she grins. “You never told us that.”

Melinda sends her such a dark look that she nearly takes a step back. Her dad frowns at her.

“No need to get so grumpy,” he says lightly. “I’m William May,” he introduces himself.

Skye can’t keep the grin off her face as she follows her team into the house. Once they are all seated at in the lounge, William begins questioning them.

“How long have you been with SHIELD?”

“Oh, I had a badge for a day, but then SHIELD blew up, so,” Skye shrugs.

They talk for long enough that Lian comes back. She sees the car in front of the house and sighs. She walks in and hears them talking in the lounge. Melinda hears her and nudges Coulson who pales slightly. Only Melinda sneezing makes Coulson regain his colour.

Melinda stands up and finds her mother putting groceries away. She helps her but when she crouches her thigh feels like it is on fire. She pretends it’s not and hopes her mother doesn’t notice. Thankfully, her mom is facing the wrong way.

“You are leaving dirty footprints everywhere,” Lian tells her sternly.

Melinda avoids rolling her eyes because just because Lian can’t see it, it is like she has a sensor for knowing. When they’re finished they join the others. William is telling them a story. He’s exaggerating, as usual.

“So, Mellie threw her … her … what’s it called again? Ah yes, her leotard. She threw her leotard on the ground and slammed the door. Barely five seconds later she came back, picked up the leotard and burnt it in the fireplace. Am I missing anything, Mellie?” William asks, smiling.

Melinda steps forward. “Only the part where you tell them none of that is true.”

“Sure,” William scoffs.

“I did not burn my leotard,” she protests.

“No, she didn’t,” Lian says. “What did you do again, Qiaolian?”

Melinda makes a face. “There may have been spare fireworks left over from Guy Fawkes.”

Jemma and Fitz stare at her, imagining a ten-year-old Melinda blasting her leotard into the sky. It’s not that hard, really, if you know her well.

“And?” Lian prods.

Melinda looks sulky. “And the fireworks were actually sticks of dynamite.”

“So?” Lian pushes.

“So nothing. The ground blew up. It was almost funny but you got mad.”

William looks at them. “When did this happen? Where was I?”

Lian looks at him. “You left after she was born, remember?”

It seems like a sore subject between them so Skye does her best to steer them away.

“Why don’t you two come back to the Tower for a few days?” she suggests. “I’m sure Stark will be more than fine with it.”

“Yeah, but will Coulson?” Melinda asks.

Coulson kicks her ankle and she scowls at him.

“Ow,” she protests. “What was that for?”

For pushing me into the deep end, he wants to say. “What was what for?” he says instead.

“You kicking me.”

“Why would I kick you?”

“Because you’re scar-”

“Don’t you dare finish that sentence,” he warns.

Melinda just smiles smugly and settles next to him. She coughs twice.

“Don’t worry, Phillip. I know you’re scared of me,” Lian says, with a touch of amusement coating her voice.

Coulson sighs. “I hate you,” he mutters to Melinda.

“Excuse me?” Lian says.

Of course, she heard.

“Nothing. We’ll be going now. Come on, kids,” Coulson says standing up.

“Oh no,” Lian says. “I don’t mind if those three leave, and you can leave if you really must, Phillip, but my Melinda is staying here until she eats a full meal. She is all bones, nothing else. You have not been feeding her well, Phillip.”

Skye gives Melinda another amused look. She seems to be doing that a lot.

“I’m not hungry,” Melinda says as an automatic response and then winces.

“What have you had to eat today?” Lian asks, raising her eyebrows.

Melinda thinks about it. “I had tea. I know that because we were arguing about where you live, Mama.”

Lian smirks. “Anything else?”

Melinda thinks. She definitely had breakfast because Jemma and Skye had made pancakes for everyone – no wait, that was the day before.

“Nothing then,” Lian says, taking her silence as a no. “You’re staying, no arguing.”

“We’ll stay too,” Skye says and FitzSimmons nod as one.

“Don’t be a wuss, Phil. I promise she won’t hurt you,” Melinda grins.

Coulson sighs. “Fine. We can stay.”

Lian smirks and goes out into the kitchen. She walks past no more than a minute later, armed with steaming dishes of dim sum, noodles, sushi, ramen and a little bowl of chilli curry. She places it on the table and they all come over.

Melinda glares at the food. There is too much of it and her mom will want her to eat some of everything. Coulson nudges her and she looks up. Lian is looking at her, waiting. Melinda racks her mind and comes up blank.

“What?”

Lian rolls her eyes. “Grace, Qiaolian.”

Melinda looks at her in confusion. “Who’s Grace?”

Lian sighs and mutters a prayer to whatever god is listening that her daughter is not really as thick as she seems. “Grace. Prayer. Thanking food.”

Melinda finally gets it. “Oh. Um, Dear God, thank you for the food, the birds, the land and the trees. Thank you for … Please help the people who have no shelter or food and water and look after them. Help the starving kids in the world get food and thank you that we have food. Amen.”

“Amen,” they chorused.

Coulson dumps a pile of dim sum and noodles on her plate and then after receiving a glare from Lian, adding the ramen and curry. Melinda forcibly doesn’t look at her mom. She eats half of her noodles, most of the dim sum, a quarter of the ramen and even less of the curry.

Coulson gives her an approving look which quickly disappears when he sees Lian’s look. Melinda fiddles with the hem of her shirt.

“Eat, Qiaolian,” Lian says sternly.

Melinda sighs. “I’m not hungry, Mama.”

“There is nothing on you. Eat.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Does it look like I care? Everyone else has finished.”

It’s not quite true. Fitz is still finishing off his curry. Melinda mutters something under breath that Coulson catches and then wishes he hasn’t. He goes so white Jemma gets a little worried. When Lian raises her eyebrows, he blushes so much he does the best impression of a tomato Melinda has ever seen.

“Would you like to repeat that for all of us to hear?” Lian asks.

“No,” Melinda mutters.

William shifts uncomfortably when Lian looks at him exasperatedly.

“She’s your daughter!” she exclaims.

“You raised her!” William protests.

William glances at Melinda’s plate and smiles. Everything is gone. So is Melinda. Lian throws her hands up.

“Phillip, you make sure she gets something to eat when you leave,” she instructs.

“No. You can come with us and do it yourself. Both of you,” Coulson offers.

William beams. “Of course. I will bring my photos.”

There is the sound of a match being lit and William sighs at the threat.

“Don’t worry, Mellie. I won’t,” he assures.

Melinda rolls her eyes from the kitchen. He’s lying, of course, but Melinda won’t be as petty to call him out on it.

Skye looks excited at the prospect of having the May’s over. Coulson assumes it’s because both of Melinda’s parents baby her or annoy her.

Lian clears the table and Coulson and Melinda help. Melinda balances some on her head like she always does and then takes more in her hands. Lian snaps at her like usual but anyone can see she is amused.

They pile into the car after Lian and William each pack a bag. William smiles at Melinda, his eyes twinkling. Melinda groans. She’s stolen the keys from Coulon’s pocket.

“Just remember that your parents are here. You don’t want to kill them,” Coulson warns.

Melinda rolls her eyes. “I won’t kill them. Don’t worry.”

The doors have barely shut before Melinda’s foot is on the gas pedal. Coulson grips the door handle and Skye grabs his arm. Jemma and Fitz clutch each other in the boot. William laughs at them until Melinda turns a corner going 80 mph. Lian, who is sitting in the front, just smirks at them. She taught her daughter to drive and is still proud of how it turned out.

Melinda leans on the horn and zooms through a red light. Cars honk and drivers shake their fists angrily. Skye, Fitz and Simmons shriek. William taps Melinda’s shoulder.

“Perhaps you could drive a little slower, please?” he asks.

Melinda sighs and she drops her speed by five. Lian gives William a triumphant look.

“Did you guys know that Benji is alive?” Melinda asks as she swerves right to miss a pedestrian.

William looks surprised. “I thought he drowned.”

“So did I. Turns out he found a way out was in rehab for three months, got too scared to tell us. Made a new life, not sure what he does know.”

Lian is silent for a while. “Well, I suppose at least now you know he’s alive.”

“Yeah, so did you. Only you would call him,” Melinda says. “Also, he was CIA and therefore you knew he wasn’t dead which leads us onto the subject of why you didn’t tell me.”

“We are not having this conversation,” Lian says and simply refuses to answer any more questions.

Finally, Melinda gives up. “You suck.”

“Mm hm.”

They arrive back at the Tower when it’s dark. Melinda carries William’s bag but knows better than to try and take Lian’s. No one is up when they arrive. Melinda finds two spare rooms joint by a bathroom and gives it to her parents.

 

She wakes up the next day and finds her dad in the kitchen telling Skye, Jemma and Fitz stories. She ignores him as she makes a cup of tea. Normally she would make him one but he’s being horrible so he can suffer.

She’s not expecting Jemma to speak so loudly. She jumps, banging her head on the bottom of the bench from where she was crouched, trying to find a pot. She stands up and looks at Jemma expectantly.

“Yes?”

“I need you to come by the lab sometime today just for a check up,” Jemma says.

William swivels in his seat to look at Melinda worriedly. “You’re hurt?”

“No, I’m fine,” Melinda assures him.

William rolls his eyes. “When has a May woman ever admitted to being hurt,” he chuckles.

Melinda straightens up and gives him an offended look. “Excuse me?”

“Well now, your mother was the same. Always saying she was fine until she collapsed. She got better when she gave birth to you.”

Melinda stops him. “Don’t go any further. Please.” The minute her tea is done, she leaves. (Skye would say flee, but she doesn’t flee.)

She catches Jemma’s footsteps and changes course, heading for the lab. She can almost hear Jemma’s smile. It makes her want to punch something but that isn’t what they would want so she settles for glaring.

In the lab, Jemma gets her to sit on the bed. She checks her vital and then her ribs and thigh. Melinda’s ribs are fine, healing nicely, same with her thigh.

“You’re still sick, no matter what you say, so I want you to take it easy, go slow,” Jemma instructs.

Melinda rolls her eyes and stands to leave. Jemma stops her with a hug.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” she murmurs.

Melinda isn’t sure how to process this. She settles for a “me too.” Jemma laughs and shoos her away, probably hoping she’ll go to bed. She sees Natasha disappearing around the corner and follows after her.

Natasha hears someone following her and she quickens her pace before recognising the footsteps as Melinda’s. Melinda catches her up and swings her arm around Natasha’ shoulders. Natasha stiffens slightly and then tries to relax. Melinda either doesn’t notice or is ignoring it.

“I haven’t seen you in ages,” Melinda pouts.

Natasha snorts. “Liar. We saw each other yesterday.”

“I mean when we can be ourselves. Alone,” Melinda corrects.

Natasha smiles softly. She doesn’t want to tell Melinda what she’s thinking. It’ll destroy the both of them.

“C’mon, Nat,” Melinda is saying. “Do you wanna have dinner and then spar?”

“Aren’t you meant to be taking it easy?” Natasha asks with a raised eyebrow.

Melinda rolls her eyes. “When has that ever stopped you before?”

Natasha doesn’t say anything. Melinda picks up on that silence for what Natasha is trying not to say. She stops and crosses her arms.

“You don’t want to be with me.”

It’s not an accusation, more of a statement.

Natasha winces. “No! No, that’s not it.”

“Then what is it?” Melinda demands. “Because it sure seems a lot like you don’t.”

Natasha searches for the right words.

“I… Mel, it’s … complicated,” she tries.

Melinda raises her eyebrows. “Is it me?” She’s always been blunt, almost rudely so but Natasha has never minded. Until now, that is.

“No! Never. Melinda, don’t you dare think that ever.” Natasha takes Melinda face in her hands and smiles. “You’re the kindest, most brave, best person I’ve ever known.”

“So what is it?”

“I… I think we should move on,” Natasha blurts.

Melinda freezes. Then she stands straighter. “Have you found someone new?”

“No. I don’t want…”

“You don’t want me to hurt you.”

“What? No. Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Is it about Bahrain, then?”

Natasha doesn’t say anything for a minute. “I think you’re not quite over it yet. I want you to be able to heal first before we start something.”

Melinda registers this slowly. A tingling at the back of her mind says Natasha is doing this for her but the part of her mind that is full of self-doubt overrules that, reminding her that Ward says Natasha is glad Bahrain happened.

“He was right,” Melinda says quietly, eye glittering, with rage or tears Natasha isn’t quite sure.

“Who was right?”

“Ward was right. He said you were glad Bahrain happened.” Melinda turns away and walks down the hall, arms wrapped around her.

Natasha doesn’t move, frozen in shock. “Melinda, you know that’s not true.”

Melinda doesn’t answer.

She walks into Coulson’s room without knocking and sits on the bed, drawing the blankets up to her chin. No one is in the room so she lets a few tears fall. Then she wipes them away roughly and curls into a ball. Coulson’s sheets smell like home. She manages to fall asleep or a few hours, waking up when he comes in.

“May?” he asks, stopping in his tracks. He notes the way her hands tremble slightly. “What’s wrong?”

Melinda takes a shaky breath. He sits down beside her and pulls her into his chest. He draws circles on her back, soothing her until she can speak properly.

“Ward was right,” she bursts out and tears start to leak from her eyes again. Her shoulders shake and she grips his shirt.

Coulson frowns. “Anything that dirtbag said was a lie. He was a dirty, stinking traitor and you should be glad you fractured his neck.”

“Natasha … Natasha is g-glad that I went t-to Bahrain,” Melinda gasps between sobs.

Coulson immediately understands. “No no no. That’s not true at all. She was just giving you space.”

“She’s happy­.”

“No, she isn’t. Bahrain ruined you.”

Melinda looks up at him and his heart breaks a little more. She pretends to be so strong but really she’s just as vulnerable as the rest of them. She’s just had longer to learn how to hide it. He strokes her hair like a cat and she curls up on him. He shuffles back until he’s leaning against the wall and she lays on top of him. They fall asleep like this.

Clint comes in to wake them up at lunch the next day. Coulson blinks to clear the sleep away and shakes Melinda gently. She mumbles something he can’t hear properly but sits up slowly. She scowls at Clint who is grinning.

“Another “We were only sleeping,” night then?” he asks.

Melinda throws Coulson’s gun at him. Clint ducks and it hits Skye who has come to tell them to hurry up.

“Ow!” she exclaims.

Clint stares at Melinda. Then he doubles over laughing. Melinda stands up and kicks him. Coulson laughs.

“Is no one gonna say anything about the fact that I just got nailed by a gun that one of you three threw at the other even though I get told to look after my weapons?” Skye asks.

Melinda looks at Skye and spots the bruise already forming. “Sorry.”

Skye stops short. Her jaw nearly hits the floor. “No way. You threw the gun?”

Melinda eyes her warily before hoping honesty will play in her favour. She nods slowly and regrets it when Skye runs off cackling.

“LEO, JEMMA, YOU’LL NEVER GUESS WHAT JUST HAPPENED! MAY THREW A GUN,” Skye yells.

Clint looks at Melinda in confusion. “So?”

“I repeated Agent Hand’s lecture on weapon safety to her. Not one of my best ideas. She wouldn't shut up for days after.”

“I thought you hated Hand?”

“I do. Doesn’t mean I can’t respect her as an agent.”

Clint groans as she knees him in the stomach. “I call abuse.”

“I call shut up and do as I say.”

Coulson grins and finds a fresh shirt folded neatly. He shuts the door in their faces, savouring the offended look on Melinda’s.

They are still there when he opens the door in clean clothes. He snorts when he sees Melinda’s outfit.

“How long ago did you change clothes?” he asks.

Melinda thinks about it. “Possibly a few days? Just before we went to Dad’s place? I think?”

Clint laughs at her. Melinda sticks her tongue out. They make their way to the kitchen where Natasha is balancing a knife on her nose. The sharp end is digging into her skin. Melinda opens her mouth to say, “Feeling sharp?” like usual but then she remembers Natasha has broken it up and she closes her mouth. Clint frowns when Melinda doesn’t make the comment but doesn’t make it for her.

Natasha spots her and takes the knife. They don’t greet each other, just sit down, not making eye contact.

“Well, did the two lovebirds have a fight?” Tony asks casually.

“Just because you don’t have a long term girlfriend,” Melinda snarks.

“I have Pepper,” Tony protests.

“Please. No one can stand to be around you for long.”

Tony grins and she smiles back, their teasing complete. Natasha watches the exchange without saying anything. Clint sits next to her.

“So what’s up with you and Mel?” he asks.

“Misunderstanding.”

“And you’re not going to try and clarify it?”

“Capital B misunderstanding.”

“Oh my God Natasha!” Clint exclaims.

Everyone turns to them. Clint blushes as Tony asks if he got her pregnant.

“Yuck, no.”

Natasha continues looking at the table. She spins the knife on its hilt and takes the plate of pancakes Bobbi offers her. She passes them around the table until they’re all gone and Bobbi takes the plate again.

Melinda goes to help Bobbi make the next batch. She cracks eggs until there is no more in the carton. Bobbi smacks her hand when she reaches for another carton.

“No, Melinda. You already put eight eggs in,” Bobbi says, pouring milk and flour in.

Melinda takes the blueberry bag and shakes at least half. She does the same for the chocolate chips.

“Who do you think we’re feeding? The world?” Bobbi asks, taking the blueberries and chocolate chips with a smile.

Melinda sends a pointed look Thor and Steve’s way. Thor smiles.

“They were most delicious,” Thor booms.

Bobbi grins. “Thank you.”

It takes them half an hour to finish cooking all the batter. By that time, everyone has come in. Melinda waves the spoon around as she talks to Clint and flicks some on Natasha.

Natasha spins around to tease Melinda and then remembers they aren’t together anymore. She falls silent and her face drops. Clint sighs.

“You two can talk to each other, you know. Just ‘cause you aren’t together anymore, doesn’t mean you can’t speak anymore,” he says.

“Wait, you guys aren’t together anymore?” Skye asks.

“No,” Melinda replies, wishing it were the opposite.

“But you two were so good together!” she protests.

“No, we weren’t,” Melinda says, making sure to keep her expression indifferent even though her brain is telling her to shut up and try and make things work. “We don’t even say hi anymore.”

“So sort your shit out and make it work,” Skye says.

Clint’s eyes widen. “We were thinking it, she said it.”

Skye rolls her eyes. “It’s not that hard to see that you both love each other.”

“What’s there to see, Skye? Because I’m pretty sure we don’t have anything anymore.”

Melinda’s words hit Natasha like a blow to the head. Even though she knows Melinda is only saying it because she broke it off, she wonders if Melinda would have said these words eventually anyway.

Skye sighs. “Fine. Take the hard way.”

“There is no hard way. We were in love. We aren’t in love. What’s there to be confused about?”

“The fact that you’re sad and taking it out on us by being moody.”

“Am not.”

“You so are.”

“Am not.”

“Shut up, the two of you,” Coulson interrupts.

Melinda sticks her tongue out at him.

“I meant what I said, Skye,” Melinda says when Skye opens her mouth again and Natasha’s heart crumbles away just a little bit more.

Chapter Text

Melinda stands in front of the Bus ramp, having said her goodbyes. She still isn’t used to Thor’s rib-breaking hugs. When everyone is done and have promised to catch up again soon, she heads towards the cockpit.

“Lock it or lose people. Wheels up in five.” Her voice sounds through the whole of the plane.

 

She hears Coulson come up to check on her so she shuts the door firmly, hoping he’ll take the hint. He doesn’t. He sits down next to her in the co-pilot’s seat. At least it isn’t her mom, she thinks.

“I wasn’t aware you could fly,” she says.

He smiles. “When you aren’t there and we’re in high emergency situations, I can figure it out well enough.”

Melinda rolls her eyes. “Get out of my cockpit, you sorry excuse for a pilot.”

Coulson smiles again and leaves her alone. As soon as she is sure he is gone, she turns on autopilot and brings her knees up to her chest, resting her chin on the top of her knees. She sniffs and kicks the controls. It’s not her smartest idea but luckily she doesn’t hit any switches or buttons. As tears start to fall from her eyes, she furiously wipes them away.

It isn’t doing her any good to be sitting in silence, alone with her thoughts so she checks carefully for anything she needs to be aware of and heads for the cargo bay. Putting up the punching bag will give her something to do for a while, at least.

It only takes her ten minutes to put up the bag. She doesn’t really want to have put it up for nothing so she shrugs off her jacket and begins warming up. What she forgot though, was that the cargo bay is right next to the lab. She avoids using her injured left leg as much as possible so that Simmons won’t come over. When she sees the blood on the punching bag she glances at her knuckles and smiles grimly. That’s her punishment for driving Natasha away.

She wipes the blood on her pants and uses her T-shirt to smear away the blood on the punching bag. The lab door hisses open and her shoulders tense and she punches the bag extra hard. It swings away but two strong hands stop it.

“Feel like a partner?” Bobbi asks, catching the bag.

The tension washes away and she smiles gratefully.

“Yes.”

They lay out the mats and get into a fighting stance. Melinda makes the first move and wins the first round. Bobbi wins the second and nearly wins the third but Melinda escapes and pins her, taking the third round. They’re well into they’re fourth round when Skye wanders down, looking for FitzSimmons. She sees Bobbi and Melinda going all out and stops and stares.

When Melinda is slammed to the ground, Skye claps loudly. Melinda lets out a small puff of breath when Bobbi slams her and grins up at her.

Bobbi smirks. “I thought you had to be taller to be able to be judo flipped?”

Melinda’s smile vanishes instantly and a glare replaces it. “Shut up.”

“I thought no one was allowed to make short jokes on warning of death?” Skye says.

“That is very true,” Melinda says.

“Melinda can’t kill me,” Bobbi grins.

“Wanna find out?” Melinda asks and they both grin at each other.

Skye continues to the lab and finds Jemma watching them. She hasn’t even noticed Skye.

“Amazing, aren’t they?”

“Yeah,” Jemma agrees. “But watch, May isn’t using her left leg quite so much. She’s protecting it and I can’t decide if that’s because they’re right next to the lab and I’m in here or because it hurts.”

Skye shrugs. “Just let her be for a few days. Every week or so bring her in for a check-up. Try and do it at the same time on the same days. It’ll be easier for her.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because when I broke up with Miles, a set schedule kept me going. Get up, hack stuff, eat, sleep, repeat.”

Jemma nods. “Okay. I’ll try that.”

 

It is two days later when Melinda comes to her in the lab. Jemma nearly drops her tweezers in shock.

“Agent May! What – why are you here?” she asks.

Melinda shrugs. She pulls a chair over and sits down, just watching. Jemma starts explaining what she’s doing until she sees Melinda’s eyes glazing over so she turns it down to more simpler words. Melinda eventually nods off to the sound of Jemma’s voice. Jemma doesn’t realise until Fitz asks why she is still talking. She glances down at Melinda and smiles.

“Oh. Should we … get her to her room?”

Fitz considers it. He bites his lip nervously. “Um… No, just leave her here. She’ll wake up soon.”

As it turns out, it’s seven o’clock and Skye has just finished making dinner with Mack. Jemma and Fitz don’t realise and walk out. Melinda wanders around and lightly touches various equipment until the smell of Chinese food wafts down. She makes her way to the kitchen and finds that Skye has tried to make a Chow Mein.

Her mom is eating without complaint so she assumes it’s good. Skye notices her and invites her over.

“Don’t stand in the shadows like a creepy stalker. Come sit down and eat. Your mom’s right, you’re like a skeleton,” Skye says.

Lian shoots her a triumphant look. Melinda makes a face at Skye.

“Don’t be so rude,” Melinda says.

“Eat, then.”

Melinda pokes her tongue out and takes the plate Bobbi offers her. She blinks in surprise as Skye dumps half of the food in the world on her plate.

“You realise that this is a huge waste of food, right?” Melinda asks when Skye won’t let her scrape most of it off.

“Don’t care. Eat.”

“Skye middle name last name, you should be ashamed of yourself. There are people starving all over the world and you don’t care? Honestly. And you call yourself a SHIELD agent. We protect. Like giving them food so the can protect themselves from disease and whatever else.”

“My name isn’t Skye middle name last name, thank you very much,” Skye grins.

“Well then, perhaps you should invent something because Agent last name is kind of … odd and you-”

“Okay, I get it,” Skye interrupts, smiling.

Melinda manages to scrape at least half back onto the dish before Skye or Lian can stop her.

“Cheers,” Hunter says, helping himself to more.

Melinda shoots Skye a triumphant look. “Ha.”

“Less talking, more eating,” Lian says.

“Why is everyone ganging up on me?” Melinda asks.

“Why are you not eating?”

“’Cause I don’t have to.”

Lian sighs. “Technically, yes you do.”

Melinda rolls her eyes.

“Don’t you roll your eyes at me, young lady.”

Melinda restrains herself from making a rude comment. She twirls her chopsticks expertly and eats maybe five mouthfuls before Coulson stops her.

“How do you do this?” he asks.

Melinda glances over and sees the chopsticks in his hand. There are tiny bits of noodles all around his bowl. He’s not the only one. Hunter, Fitz, Simmons and Bobbi all have little bits food around them. Mack is surprisingly good at using chopsticks.

She moves around to Coulson and positions his fingers properly. When he tries again the food falls off nearly immediately. Melinda sighs and repositions his fingers. Eventually, she gives up and hands him a fork. He takes it gratefully.

“Thanks, May.”

Lian looks at him curiously. “How long have you known my daughter?”

Coulson frowns. “That is a brilliant question and I will tell you when I find a calculator.”

“So why do you still call her by her last name?”

“Mama, it’s fine, seriously,” Melinda tries to protest.

“No, it’s not, Qioalian. Why do you still call her by her last name, Phillip?” Lian asks.

Coulson shrugs. “I don’t know. I just always have.”

“Not when you were cadets. I remember you calling her Melinda then.”

“And then we grew up. Stuff happened.”

Melinda knows he means Bahrain when he says ‘stuff happened’.

“You are still allowed to call me Melinda,” Melinda says. “All of you. I don’t mind. It’s my name.”

“Now that that’s out of the way, I borrowed the photo album from William who never got a chance to show it to you all,” Lian announces.

Skye, Mack, Fitz and Simmons cheer. Hunter smirks and Bobbi grins.

Coulson and Melinda look at each other in despair. There is a particularly bad photo of the both of them where Melinda is kicking Coulson. Coulson's face is like something a kid from a horror movie would do and Melinda looks like she’s really angry.

“I will show you them all tomorrow,” Lian decides.

Skye groans. “Aww. Unfair.”

“Life’s unfair,” Melinda and Lian say at the same time.

Skye grins. “Cute.”

The fork beside her hand is not so cute. Lian looks on amused as Jemma chews Melinda out for throwing sharp objects yet again. Melinda eats more food while she waits for Jemma to stop. Her plate is half empty and Melinda seems to decide that it’s good enough and puts her chopsticks down. Also, she feels slightly sick from eating so much. She knew getting on this Bus was a bad idea. Why did she have to trust Phil so much?

Lian glances once at Melinda's plate and sighs before getting an idea. “Do you not like my food?” she asks.

Melinda knows where this is headed. She’s not stupid. But for the sake of not being told off yet again by her Bus-mates, she answers.

“That’s not … I don’t – this is ridiculous. I like your food. I’m just not hungry,” Melinda says.

“You are a skeleton, Qiaolian. Phillip has not been feeding you enough.”

Melinda’s cheeks go red. She looks down at the table and fiddles with her chopsticks. She opens her mouth and starts to say something but then she stops herself and she feels her face heat up.

“Out with it, Qiaolian,” Lian sighs.

Melinda’s face is literally impersonating a tomato. “Your kink is not my kink,” she says hurriedly.

Skye laughs so hard she nearly falls off her chair. Hunter does.

Lian sighs. “I don’t know how your team puts up with you. Keep your mind out of the gutter, Melinda.”

Coulson has realised why Melinda was blushing and his face is red, too.

“Honestly, you two. You look like a pair of teenagers who just got caught kissing.”

Melinda and Coulson glance at each other and go even redder. Skye cackles. She stands up and puts her plate in the sink. Jemma and Fitz follow her example, Jemma taking Lian’s.

“Thank you,” Lian says. She follows the three to the common room.

Melinda and Coulson sit at the table and try not to look at each other.

“Are you coming?” Skye yells from the other room.

“No, but I’m breathing fast,” Melinda yells back before her mind has caught up to her mouth.

Then she cringes and buries her face in her hands. The shocked silence from the other room is enough to tell her they heard. Phil groans.

“You’re worse than Skye,” he complains.

“Hey!” Skye shouts.

They ignore her as they put their plates in the sink and begin clearing the table. When they join the others, Bobbi smirks at her.

“Really?” she asks.

Melinda sticks her tongue out. “Just because you’re boring.”

Skye comes back into the room with paper and pencils. She grins as she sees Melinda and Coulson. Melinda starts to get up but Coulson pulls her back down again.

“No way,” Skye says. “You’re here, you gotta play.”

“What are we playing?”

“Two truths and a lie,” Hunter crows.

Melinda looks dejected.

“D’ya not wanna tell us more about you?” Hunter teases.

Melinda sticks her tongue out. It’s become her response to most things, she realises. She scribbles her name on the piece of paper Skye gives her. Hunter’s handwriting is surprisingly quite neat. He’s linking and it’s barely readable to her but she supposes that’s just because her handwriting is barely acceptable. Skye points this out to her, delighting in the fact that she can do something better than Melinda. She considers going to Ward and getting him to write his name just to see if his handwriting style.

“I’ll go first,” Skye says. “And we can clock-wise, so Jemma, Fitz, Hunter, Bobbi, Lian, Coulson, May, Mack.” She thinks for a minute. “I once drove into a police station as a dare, I killed the fish at St Agnes because the other kids were bullying me and ... I knocked May on her ass twice in one day.”

Melinda smirks. No one completely knows what happened that day. Melinda denies it and Skye disagrees.

“Second one,” Bobbi says after a while.

“Yep,” Skye says, popping the p.

“Wait, hang on a minute. You're telling me you knocked May on her ass twice? Seriously?”

Skye nods proudly.

They continue. No one guesses Bobbi’s correctly. When they get to Lian, everyone sits up.

“I was fired from the CIA on my first day, I … shot a marble off Melinda’s head when she was four, I shot one of my own team members accidentally.”

The answers are all pretty extraordinary. Melinda mulls it over. She can remember her mom firing a gun at her but she doesn't know the rest.

“The first one,” she says on a whim.

Lian nods.

There is a shocked silence.

“How?” Melinda asks.

“Turns out the Director of the CIA was allergic to chilli sauce.”

Melinda snorts. She guesses correctly for Coulson, despite him trying his best not to show his tells. It’s her turn now and she can’t think of anything.

“I was … dishonourably discharged from air cadets for flying a plane before I was allowed and doing a manoeuvre that was forbidden, I have jumped out of a helicopter with a three-thousand-foot drop and … I kissed Phil in front of my S.O.”

Coulson goes bright red and she nearly smirks but that would defeat the purpose of everyone guessing incorrectly. Skye guesses the second one, Bobbi and Hunter guess the second, FitzSimmons guess the third, Lian and Mack guess the first and Coulson chooses the second because he knows all of them are lies and it hardly matters.

“We’re all right,” he tells them. “They were all lies.”

“Hey!” Melinda protests. “They were not.”

“You never did air cadets, it was a two thousand foot drop and it was your mother, not you S.O.”

“May, you cheat!” Skye exclaims. “You gotta do it again now.”

“Wait a moment,”Hunter says, frowning. “You kissed Coulson in front of your mother?”

Chapter Text

Melinda is the last to leave the common room. She avoids her bunk, knowing that the nightmares will haunt her more tonight because she joined the others and let herself think that perhaps she was worthy of their friendship. She heads to the training room instead, where the walls are soundproofed and she can scream as loud as she wants and no one will hear her.

She is just about to enter the training room when her phone goes off. It’s from Coulson. She sighs and turns around to go to the cockpit. Early stop at the Hub for supplies.

It takes them several hours to get there. She lands a little less smoothly than she would have liked but that’s by the by. She is stopped by Agent Hand who orders her to her office. She leaves her team wondering why and follows Hand.

The gun on her hip presses into her as the turn a corner and she considers using it on Hand but she can’t be bothered with the paperwork. Hand gives her an amused look as if she knows what Melinda is thinking.

“Don’t even think about shooting me, Agent May.”

It’s the way that Hand says it that annoys Melinda. She grits her teeth and ignores it. Hand holds the door open for her and waits her out. Melinda eyes her suspiciously but walks in.

“What’s this about?” Melinda asks.

Someone,” Hand begins, making it very clear who she thinks that someone is, “Has ordered a whole supply a paint for the Academy. Now someone has splattered it everywhere in the mess hall.”

Melinda snorts. Hand glares at her.

“Don’t laugh. It’s not funny. And I know you had some part in it,” she snaps.

“I didn’t! I’ve been under lock and key for ages,” Melinda protests, putting her hands up. “I swear.”

“It has your trademark signature,” Hand says. “I’ll show you.”

Melinda knows something is wrong when she enters the mess hall and there is no paint anywhere, SHIELD agents crowded along the wall, kept there by Hydra agents aiming guns at them. She goes from relaxed to tense, cautious in seconds. When she hears the click of a gun she spins around and freezes. Her team is in the corner. Garret is pointing a gun at Skye. They are surrounded by Hydra agents wearing SHIELD uniforms, obviously having been undercover.

She spins around again and comes face to face with Ward. The door is kicked open and Natasha is forced in, gagged and tied up. At least twenty men are beside her, all with some kind of injury. Melinda is in the middle of the room.

“Well, well, well,” Ward smirks. “Looks like I’m not as weak as you thought.”

“Get away from them,” Melinda hisses and the temperature literally drops a degree.

Natasha tears her ties and escapes. She takes down four men while she’s at it. Melinda sees the gun before Natasha does and is moving before her brain processes it.

“No!” Skye screams.

Melinda flings herself in front of Natasha. Her body shudders as the gunman unloads at least eight bullets into her. She slumps on the ground, leaning against Natasha’s legs.

Bobbi, Hunter and Mack try to hold Coulson back but he’s too desperate to think rationally. He runs over and kneels down beside her.

“No, Melinda, stay awake, c’mon, look at me. Yeah, that’s right, keep looking at me, stay awake,” he murmurs, pressing on the bullet holes.

Melinda’s eyes are unfocused and darting everywhere. Natasha unfreezes and crouches down, tearing a strip of fabric from her T-shirt and quickly tying it around one of Melinda’s wounds.

Ward stops them with a gun to Natasha’s head. “Stand up,” he orders. “Or I shoot her.” He points the gun at Skye.

Natasha stands slowly. She places herself in front of the gun and blocks his sight of her.

“You too, Coulson. Leave her.”

Coulson doesn’t stand until Ward threatens to shoot Melinda again. He stands shakily. His clothes are bloodstained.

“Coulson, get back to your team. Romanoff, if you so much as move, I’ll shoot you,” Ward says.

Natasha’s eyes are blazing with anger. Her knuckles are white from clenching her fists so hard.

“Don’t you ever touch her again,” she hisses.

Ward smirks. “Still in love? I thought you broke up.”

Melinda hears the conversation and while nobody is watching her, she struggles to her knees. Breathing heavily, she spits out blood. She manages to get to her feet before they notice her. She’s swaying, dizzy. One step at a time, she tells herself.

Ward watches, amused as she makes her way to Natasha and stands in front.

“Touch her and you die,” Melinda says, so quietly Ward barely hears it.

Her eyes are freezing cold like hell. Ward has never seen her this angry and it almost scares him.

“Oh yeah?” he mocks. He pushes her shoulder with his finger and smirks when she sways.

Then she kicks him in the chest. He stumbles backwards into Garret who steadies him. Ward punches Melinda in the stomach. He hears her ribs crack. She inhales sharply. Natasha ducks around her and swipes Ward’s legs out from underneath him. Immediately, all guns are on her. She jumps left and twists as they fire.

Coulson is halfway to his team when they break loose, running forward to Melinda. They are pushed in a huddle, Melinda in the middle. Coulson holds her upright.

They stay like that for a good five minutes. Then the doors burst open and Fury storms in. He’s pissed.

“Look who it is,” Ward says. “You’re a little late, Director.”

“Get the hell outta my base, you piece of shit,” Fury growls. “Put down your guns, quit killing my people and screw off.”

“You know, I don’t think so,” Ward says. “I wanna see if May dies or not.”

Fury stills. “What?” Despite everything, Fury had a soft spot for Melinda after she saved a whole team of SHIELD agents and rammed a plane she was flying into the underbelly of a Hydra plane about to blow SHIELD up. “What have you done to her?” he demands.

Ward’s smirk grows bigger. He gestures to Coulson who is trying desperately to keep Melinda awake. Coulson and Fury lock eyes and Fury knows that Melinda has lost to much blood to survive. Jemma’s hands are stained. Fitz’s shirt has handprints of blood. Skye’s eyes are red. Bobbi and Hunter are holding each other tightly. Mack is trying to be strong, holding Skye and FitzSimmons in his arms.

Melinda sees Fury but doesn’t recognise him. Blood dribbles down her chin and she shudders as a fresh wave of pain hits her. Her breathing is heavy. Black starts to creep in at the edges of her vision. It hits her that she might die. She takes a deep breath and starts to speak.

“Tell … tell Nat … Natasha that … that … that I … I … I love … her … still,” she manages.

“No,” Coulson says. “You get out of here alive and tell her yourself.”

Their team pretend not to hear.

Fury keeps Ward talking as he waits. It takes a good two minutes before SHIELD agents who weren’t captured storm the place, shooting at the Hydra agents. A stray bullet comes towards Skye who doesn’t see it. Melinda jumps out in front and it hits her, blood spurting forth. It seems to be the cue. She stands for a few seconds, swaying worryingly before collapsing to the ground. Ward growls and throws a grenade. When the dust clears, he and Garret are gone.

Fury orders the Hydra agents to be locked up and then calls for Medical. They rush in with a stretcher and take Melinda away.

Coulson hugs Natasha who buries her face in his shirt. Her shoulders shake and then Clint runs in, a bruise forming on his jaw and his shirt ripped.

“Natasha,” he exclaims. “Nat, Tasha, it’s okay.” He takes her from Coulson who lets her go. “She’ll be okay, the doctors know what they’re doing, it’s gonna be alright.”

“She – she took eight bullets for me. Maybe more. Probably more.”

“That’s what Mel does, Tasha. She protects us until she dies,” Clint soothes. “And she won’t die this time. You know how I know that? Because you won’t allow it. And if you don’t allow it then it can’t happen.”

Natasha cracks a smile. “You are so full of crap, you know that?”

Clint grins. “But it got you feeling better.”

They wait for four and a half hours before they get any news. A tall female surgeon comes out. Her gloves are slightly red. Natasha guesses she just washed them so they wouldn’t panic.

“How is she?” Coulson asks.

“We’re not sure yet. If she lives through the night she’ll be good to go in a week. If not… She flatlined three times. There were nine bullets. Four of them hit major arteries, the other five missed important organs by inches. One nearly hit her heart. If she had been a centimetre taller, she’d be dead. I hope for your sake she lives,” the doctor says before leaving.

Jemma sees her shoulders shake as the doctor leaves the room and sits down heavily. Melinda probably won’t make it, she realises. Fitz sits down next to her and holds her hand. Mack finally lets tears slide down his cheeks. He wipes them away roughly but more take their place.

It’s another half hour before they are allowed to see Melinda. She is just lying there, pale and limp. Her breathing is shallow. She is hooked up to an IV and multiple other machines, all checking her vitals and breathing and heart rate. Natasha gently traces a circle over Melinda’s thumb. Around midnight, she starts to worsen, her breathing rattly and her heart rate spikes up and down inconsistently. Jemma sobs as doctors come rushing in. She can’t help at all.

The doctors get Melinda back under control and stagger out. A few of them are shaking slightly.

“That poor woman. She never even got to say goodbye,” one of them mutters to another as they walk out.

Nobody sleeps that night. They just can’t. Melinda gives them another scare at five in the morning when she flatlines. The machine beeps loudly and Jemma stands up just as a doctor rushes in. He’s carrying a defibrillator. Another doctor comes running in.

The first doctor sets it up. “Clear,” he says and the other doctor, the female who told them how Melinda was shocks Melinda’s heart.

It doesn’t work.

“Clear.”

Again.

“Clear.”

The defibrillator does its job and Melinda gasps in a big breath of air. She slumps backwards, still unconscious. Everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief.

Melinda wakes up at midday, just past one. She blinks a few times to clear the sleep away. Natasha is sleeping next to her on a plastic chair. Same with Mack, Coulson, Bobbi, Skye, FitzSimmons and Hunter. Clint comes in carrying coffee and nearly drops it in surprise when he sees her awake.

“Clint?” she asks.

“Melinda!” he cheers, giving her a gentle hug. “Oh, man am I glad to see you awake.” He wakes up the others who all sit up immediately when he tells them Melinda is awake.

“Don’t you ever do that again,” Coulson warns and then hugs her, being careful not to hurt her ribs.

“I’m not planning on it.” Her voice is raspy and barely there. She swallows as Natasha draws more circles on the back of her hand.

Skye, Jemma and Fitz hug her very gently, and much to her surprise, Skye kisses her cheek.

“So you don’t complain,” she adds cheekily.

Melinda rolls her eyes.

She falls asleep while Hunter is telling her what she missed while she was out. Apparently, there had been an incident at the Triskellion in which a level one agent had signed for the whole stock of ammunition for the Hub to shipped to Africa. The others laugh at his outraged expression and leave Melinda to give her some space.

It’s the worst thing they could have done.

The machine beeps quietly at first when the oxygen mask slips out of place. Melinda stops breathing so well and the machine monitoring her vitals starts flashing. When her heart rate drops it lets out a low beep, over and over. The alarms had been turned because they kept waking Melinda up and it was just easier to keep someone in the room at all times.

No one will be coming in for ages. The first person will be the dinner nurse doing her rounds with her trolley in an hour at seven-thirty.

Melinda’s skin slowly goes paler. Her breathing is less even, coming in short gasps that are inconsistent. Her hand falls off the bed when she doesn’t have the strength to keep it up anymore. Her fingertips go red as the blood rushes down.

By the time the nurse comes in at seven-thirty, an hour later, quiet alarms have filled the room. She shrieks and rushes over, trolley forgotten. Melinda is unconscious, no longer asleep. The nurse hurriedly places the oxygen mask over Melinda nose and mouth again and turns the alarm volume up. Multiple doctors and nurses rush in.

“I put the oxygen mask back on but that’s it,” the nurse wails. “I didn’t know what to do.”

A doctor walks her out and helps her sit down, pressing a glass of water into her hands.

“You did good,” the doctor tries to reassure.

The nurse nods and smiles. “Yes. I did well.” She takes her trolley, wipes her face and keeps going, legs slightly shaky.

Melinda flatlines suddenly, scaring them.

“Get the defibrillator,” someone yells while someone else desperately pumps up and down on Melinda’s heart.

They shock her once.

“Clear! Pulse?”

“No.”

“Clear! Pulse?”

“No. Come on, Agent May.”

“Clear! Pulse?”

Fingers rest on Melinda’s neck for a few seconds before picking up a faint fluttering pulse.

“Yes. Faint but there. We need to stabilise her and get her heart rate back up. Greenhedge, plug her into life support for the night. We need her to keep breathing with a steady pulse. Give her ten hours and if she’s not breathing on her own then, we’ll have to give the decision to Agent Coulson and his team,” Doctor Stonewall says.

“What about Agent Romanoff?” someone asks.

Stonewall pauses. “Let her choose as well,” she says.

Ten hours later, the life support machine is still helping Melinda breathe. Stonewall reluctantly calls Agent Coulson and tells him the bad news. There is silence at the other end of the phone.

“We’ll be there in ten,” he says before hanging up.

Coulson calls a meeting in the kitchen. It’s where the coffee is. He breaks the news slowly. There is silence. Natasha leaves the room. Clint follows after her, hands shaking.

Skye and FitzSimmons sit down slowly. FitzSimmons look at each other and grip the other tightly.

“We’re going to see her, right?” Skye asks in a small voice.

Coulson nods. “But you have to think about this. Would Melinda want to be hooked up to a machine for the rest of her life or let go?”

Skye lets out a sob. “Let go. But I don’t wanna let her go.”

“But you have to.”

Skye nods and stands up. “When are we going?”

“Now.”

They arrive in exactly ten minutes, just like Coulson told them. Doctor Stonewall leads them into Melinda’s room. She’s lying there like she’s sleeping and it’s almost comforting except for the machine that’s pumping her heart and keeping her breathing.

“Are you switching it off?” a new voice says.

Lian May. Her father isn’t there.

Coulson nods. “It’s what she would have wanted.”

Lian smiles slightly. “I know.” Her eyes are shiny with unshed tears.

Stonewall takes a deep breath and turns the machine off. Melinda breathes a few more breaths and then stops.

Chapter Text

Coulson turns away from Melinda. Mack punches the wall. Bobbi and Hunter swear in every language they know. Skye and FitzSimmons hug each other and cry. Lian lets a tear slip out. Natasha kisses Melinda’s cheek one last time. Then everyone stands in a circle around Melinda. Jemma keeps her fingers on Melinda’s neck, feeling for a pulse. She can’t find one because she is too emotionally unstable. Stonewall notices the slight rising and falling of Melinda’s chest first. It’s barely there but now she knows it is there she knows what to look for. She pushes them out the way and hooks the oxygen mask on. Then she opens the door and yells for Greenhedge to “get the hell in here.”

Greenhedge rushes in and sees Melinda breathing with the life support off. His shoulders sag with relief and then gets into doctor mode. He checks the heart rate, pulse, breathing and body temperature.

“Alright, her body temperature is a little low, there are blankets in the cupboard outside. We need to keep her breathing steady. Her pulse is fine, a little weak but that’s okay for now. Keep her stable and warm,” Greenhedge says.

Simmons goes and gets the blankets, dizzy with relief. The only blankets left are patterned with Nemo and Dora the Explorer, probably a nurse or doctor’s little joke. She tucks the blanket up to Melinda’s chin.

Stonewall and Greenhedge work on keeping Melinda alive. Stonewall stays in the room after Greenhedge leaves, just in case. Another lady comes in not long after. She sits beside Stonewall and takes her hand. Jemma guesses they’re together.

“You did it, Lizzie,” the lady whispers. “You saved her. Now let's leave her friends alone with her.”

Stonewall and her girlfriend walk out of the room.

Coulson watches Melinda breathe by herself. He smiles and hugs Skye. She squeaks in surprise but then wraps her arms around him. FitzSimmons giggle and smile and stagger around the room, holding each other up. Mack and Bobbi and Hunter just grin at each other. Lian smiles. It’s rare, an unusual sight. Natasha stands silently beside Melinda, tears dripping down her face. One of them falls on Melinda’s ear.

“I love you,” she whispers.

Then she leaves the room, red hair looking duller than usual. She makes her way to the gym and spends hours on the punching bag until her knuckles are torn and bleeding. Jemma and Skye run over and pull her into a hug. Natasha lets them, stiff as a board.

“Oh, your poor hands. Why would you do this?” Jemma asks as she fumbles in her bag for gauze bandage rolls. She rolls the gauze over Natasha knuckles and tapes it down. “There you go. Now you can go and confess your love to May.”

“She doesn’t love me,” Natasha mutters.

“You know, for a brilliant spy, amazing agent and exceptional liar, you are very bad at knowing when you’re in love. Melinda loves you and you love her,” Skye says. “Now stop mooching around and scaring all the agents and go tell her.”

Natasha smiles. “You know, I remember a time when you were scared of me.”

Skye rolls her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. Go.”

Natasha does. Melinda’s room is empty. She’s still asleep so Natasha sits down and waits. She falls asleep too.

When she wakes up, Melinda is just coming around. Natasha bolts upright and grins. Melinda groans and rolls her head to the side to see the person sitting around waiting for her.

“Nat?” she asks.

“Mel!”

“What…?”

“You saved my life. Nine bullets, four broken ribs, one cracked. Ward packs one hell of a punch.”

Melinda grunts. “Jemma isn’t right outside, waiting for when I sit up to come in and lecture me, is she?”

“No. She’s keeping everyone away actually, so I can confess my undying love for you, actually.”Then her brain catches up with her mouth and she hangs her head. “I just said that out loud.”

Melinda smirks. “Yes, you did. Undying love, huh?”

“Crazy, isn't it?”

Melinda’s eyes flash with hurt and disappointment but she hides it. Natasha takes a deep breath.

Then she kisses Melinda full on the lips. Melinda kisses her back until her need for air is greater than her desire to keep Natasha close. They’re both breathless.

“Not that crazy,” Natasha grins. “I love you.”

Melinda smiles. She opens her mouth to say the words that scare her so much and finds she isn’t scared. “I love you too.”

“Is that surprise I hear?” Natasha teases.

Melinda rolls her eyes. She pulls Natasha in for another kiss. Just as they’re about to pull apart a camera goes off. They separate and look at the doorway. Skye grins nervously before bolting. Natasha yells something in Russian that has Melinda cackling.

Coulson comes by in the afternoon and brings her up to speed with everything. Bobbi and Hunter visit at one in the morning with doughnuts and the scotch from Coulson’s sock drawer. They have a late night party that they have to quickly end when one of the nurses hears them and comes down to check everything is okay. Mack comes with Clint and they talk arrows and mechanical and guns. Skye and FitzSimmons visit every day at three on the dot because they know that’s when all the doctors are gone.

Lian doesn’t visit until three days after Melinda has woken up. She pushes open the door and smiles when she sees her little girl sleeping peacefully. Of course, Melinda isn’t so little anymore. She just wishes that her daughter hadn’t grown up so fast. Lian stokes Melinda's hair as she sleeps. When Melinda wakes, Lian is gone but Melinda knows she was there because her head is tingling like someone was stroking her hair.

When Melinda finds out she’s going to be stuck in the Med Bay for another three days, she sulks. Refuses to talk and eat and sleep and then realises she could get out earlier by being annoying. She starts leaving her window open at night and spilling her food on the floor and sleepwalking and everyone knows it is her just pretending but it upsets them every time all the same.

Then Fury pays her a visit while FitzSimmons, Skye, Coulson, Natasha, Mack, Bobbi, Hunter and Mack are all there. Melinda thinks he planned it so that they were all there. She sighs but makes no move to roll over or turn away.

“Agent May,” he says.

“Nick. How nice to see you.”

Melinda,” he copies. “Stop opening your window or I’ll bolt it.”

“I’ll smash it.”

“Quit spilling your food on the ground.”

“Quit keeping me here three days extra.”

“And about the sleepwalking. You’ll stay longer because you’ll have injured yourself.”

“Stop making me stay three days longer.”

“Look, I get that you’re upset,” Fury begins, “But that doesn’t mean you can sulk and be a pain in the ass.”

Melinda opens her mouth to retort but Fury beats her to it. She crosses her arms.

“Don’t you dare say a word,” he shouts. “Don’t land yourself in more trouble. You will stop leaving your window and you will quit spilling your food on the floor and you will stop pretending to sleepwalk! You will do as I say because I am giving you an order and I am still your director! Am I understood?”

FitzSimmons squeak in shock and fear.

Melinda scowls at him and doesn’t say a word.

“Agent May, I asked you a question. You better bloody answer it,” Fury says.

She hasn’t heard him this angry in years. She tells him that. He glares at her. She glares back.

“Am. I. Understood?” he demands.

Melinda doesn’t answer again.

Coulson sighs and Fury turns to him with a gleam in his eye that Coulson doesn’t like. He backs away.

“No,” he says before Fury has said anything.

“Yes, is the correct answer, Agent Coulson,” Fury says. “Make her understand.” He chucks a folder on the bed. “Finish it. Two hundred and fifty words, minimum. I want it on my desk by Monday.” He leaves the room.

It’s Wednesday today.

Coulson swears at him under his breath. He glares at Melinda who turns her face away.

Skye whistles. “Damn, Agent May. You really know how to press all the right buttons.”

Melinda doesn’t answer. If anything, her jaw tightens.

Fitz and Simmons are still in shock. Simmons' mouth is slightly open and Fitz can’t stop staring. Melinda doesn’t look at any of her team members, staring at a scratch on the wall. She ignores them as they start to ask questions.

Coulson gives up on talking and glowers at Melinda for landing him in this mess.

“This is your fault,” he growls. “You made this happen.”

Melinda rolls her eyes.

“You seriously don’t understand,” Skye says in shock. “Jemma, give her a psych eval. Or get someone to do one for her. I’ve got a hunch. Trust me.”

Melinda has narrowed her eyes at the words psych eval. Her hands are clenched into fists. When Jemma tries to walk over, she pulls herself away as much as possible much to Jemma’s dislike.

“No, May, don’t move, you’ll hurt yourself, I promise I won’t give you a psych evaluation. Just lie down,” Jemma begs.

Melinda lies down but she doesn’t relax. Whenever someone moves, she stiffens and watches them until she is sure they aren’t coming over to her.

“Should we go?” Mack asks.

Hunter is inching his way towards the door and Bobbi looks fairly uncomfortable, as does Fitz and Skye.

“Go if you want,” Coulson says and the four of them flee. He pulls Jemma outside with him and speaks quietly enough that Melinda can’t hear what she’s saying. “I need you to go get a psych evaluation agent. Don’t get the first years. Melinda will scare them off in no time. I think she’s had Dr Campbell before. He’s pretty good at getting under people’s defences.”

Jemma nods. “Yes, sir.”

Coulson goes back inside and shuts the door behind him. Melinda is watching him suspiciously. She has pushed herself up onto her elbows which Coulson doesn't think is particularly good for her injuries.

Jemma comes back in and nods at Coulson. A moment later, the door opens and Dr Campbell comes in. He’s ageing, in his mid-forties, grey hair and glasses, dressed in the white SHIELD lab coat. Coulson frowns. This isn’t the Dr Campbell he remembers.

Melinda scrambles backwards, eyes wide. Coulson can’t the last time he saw her so panicked. Obviously Bahrain, but she was more disgusted and disappointed at herself.

Dr Campbell moves forward quickly and takes her hands. “All of you, out,” he orders.

Coulson, Jemma and Natasha walk out, single file.

Inside, Campbell tries to soothe Melinda. He keeps holding her hands, whispering comforting words. It’s not working very well. Melinda blocks out his words and squeezes her eyes shut. He presses her to his chest and it works, despite the two of them never meeting before. He’s warm and inviting and she just needs a hug but she can’t ask for one, because who would hug a monster like her. Her hands claw at his shirt and she buries her face against his chest, crying. Her shoulders shake. He strokes her hair and it’s the simple movement that has her stiffening before forcing herself to relax so that he’ll clear her. When he releases her, she wipes her eyes and looks down, going for an embarrassed look. It works so far as he doesn’t ask questions. She’s thankful for her ability to force herself to cry.

Campbell runs her through all the basic questions. She answers them all, leaving only a few small details out. He clears her and she leans her head back on the pillow and grins while she’s alone.

Coulson comes in and eyes her suspiciously. Melinda doesn’t look at him. She can’t. He’ll see right through her. He makes her look at him. Her eyes dart to the corner of the room. He holds her face in his hands and forces her to look at him. She tries to keep her breathing steady but this is exactly what she had feared. Coulson sighs and smiles gently.

“Oh, Melinda,” he says. “No one here is gonna hurt you.”

Melinda doesn’t find comfort in his words, still half upright on her elbows. She yanks her face from his hands and leans back, away from him. Coulson lets her. He leaves her room.

When he gets to the psychology part of Medical, he finds Dr Campbell in his office, idly writing up reports. Coulson knocks on the open door and goes in. Dr Campbell looks up. He’s lost the brown colour of his hair, white as snow now. His eyes are sea-blue, warm and kind but ready to change at a moments notice and smash you on the rocks.

“Agent Coulson?” he says. “You’ve been cleared ages ago.”

“Yes, I know. One of my friends has not been cleared so recently and has played us all. Perhaps you could give her a psych eval?” Coulson asks.

“Is it for Agent May?” Campbell asks. “Because she has only ever had two psych evaluations. One when she was graduating from the Academy and one after that mission in Morocco. She absolutely refused after Bahrain.”

Coulson is only slightly surprised. But then again, this is Melinda May they’re talking about.

“I have time now if you’d like,” Campbell says.

“Please.”

They head towards Melinda’s room. Melinda is still alone when they get there. The minute Melinda sees Campbell she sits bolt upright and pushes herself as far away as possible. Coulson calms her down. He presses a kiss to her forehead.

“Be good, Melinda,” he says. He slips out of the room with a final, “Good luck,” for Campbell.

Campbell stands beside Melinda. He waits for her to relax slightly before starting.

“Why have you been lying to your team?” he begins.

Melinda ignores him, focusing on the sounds of the waves crashing on the beach in Morocco. It’s been ages since she thought about it. The failed mission and the three agents dead because of her. She curses herself. This is exactly why she doesn’t think about it.

“Why have you been lying to your team?” he asks again.

Melinda refuses to answer. She knows that even the smallest thing can be put against her. Even her silence. She’s trapped. Campbell waits her out. He continues watching her. She hates it.

He’s writing down little notes to remind himself. She kicks the clipboard out of his hands. It crashes to the floor with a bang. Campbell doesn’t look surprised and Melinda realises he was waiting for it.

“Why did you just kick my clipboard out of my hands?”

He’s phrases her sentences so that she can’t avoid them. It’s something he has always done. She wishes he wouldn’t. She can hide with her words when she can’t with her actions. Campbell makes it impossible to hide, to escape.

“Because you were writing stuff about me,” she answers.

It’s the only time she’ll answer, she promises herself.

“And you didn’t like that?”

“No.”

Maybe she’ll have to break that promise.

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t like people writing stuff about me.”

“Why don’t you like that?”

Melinda clenches her jaw. She’s just given him a weakness. Now he’ll use it to pick her brains.

“Agent May, answer the question,” he says, voice cold.

“Screw off,” she snaps, before biting her tongue, cursing her stupidity.

He picks up his clipboard and jots down a few more notes. She glares at the clipboard. He flips a page and scribbles something more down.

“I’m waiting,” he says.

“Me too.”

“What for?”

“You to leave.”

Campbell sighs. “I can’t help you if you don’t let me.”

“What if I don’t want to be helped?”

“You do. I can see it in the way you talk, the way you look at people. I was waiting for Coulson to come to me today. You see, Fury knows something is wrong. He got me to watch you so I could look out for signs of anything. And you’re not going to feel betrayed because you did the same with Coulson.” Campbell pauses. “Thank you for your time, Agent May.”

He leaves her room hurriedly.

Her team come back in as soon as he has gone. Melinda looks confused. She looks at Coulson and then the door. She lies back down.

Not ten minutes later does Campbell come back. This time he’s with a few doctors. They lift her off the bed and into a wheelchair. Melinda kicks two of them.

“Hey!” she protests, kicking another in the kneecaps.

They strap her legs down and wheel her out of the room. Melinda narrows her eyes as she is wheeled into a jet. It’s designed for fast getaways. Fury is already on board, along with a team of doctors and nurses. Her team follow her on. She scowls at them all. Her side is starting to hurt but she isn’t going to tell them that. Coulson picks up on it anyway. He tells one of the doctors and before she can even blink, they’re lying her down on the floor. Two of them sit beside her for the whole flight, stopping her from getting up.

Melinda has a feeling she isn’t going to enjoy what happens next when they land outside Providence. The wheel her inside and towards the lie detector that Eric Koenig bragged about when they first came. She struggles as they turn it on and sit her in it. The stupid metal clamps around her arms are tighter this time. They put the stupid metal clamps around her legs as well. She leans forward as far as possible so that her head won't get placed in that stupid headrest thing that detects brainwaves and other weird stuff so they know if she’s lying or not.

She glares at them when they find a metal circle in the draw and tighten it so it fits around her head. They bolt it to the sides of the machine so that she can’t move her head. Dr Campbell orders them all out except Director Fury.

He asks the same questions.

“Why did you lie to your team?”

Melinda struggles to get free. She tries to yank her hands free but they’ve tightened the metal clamps to an annoying point where she can only get free if she tears away all the skin to the bone on her wrists. She’s not quite prepared for that just yet.

“Why did you lie to your team?”

Melinda shuts her eyes and relaxes, sending her mind back to the Academy when he had no regrets. She misses the next question and the next and the next. Fury goes over and shakes her but she’s too deep in her memories. She reacts slightly when he pokes her side gently, running his fingers in ticklish patterns. She comes out of her mind almost immediately, trying to squirm away. Fury smirks at her.

“You answer those questions or I’m getting Skye in her and she can tickle you to her heart's content,” he threatens.

Melinda narrows her eyes at him. She knows she’s been pushed into the deep end. It’s not too bad until her mother comes storming in, a glare fixed firmly on her face.

She stands beside Dr Campbell who glances at them and makes the connection. He continues asking questions, all of which Melinda ignores until Fury asks why she won’t fill out the mission report on Morocco.

She inhales sharply and looks at Fury with wide eyes. The sounds of screams fill her ears. She bites her lip and tries to push the sounds out of her mind but it’s too strong now. Combined with Bahrain, the sounds terrify her, of what she’d done. She hears an explosion. Her breaths are coming in shorter gasps as she tries to get her mind under her control again. Vaguely she can hear her mom trying to calm her down. They don’t let her out of the chair. Her eyes are wide open, darting everywhere. When she finally manages to bring her mind under her control and Katya’s voice is a distant echo and the screams of the field agents in Morocco are background noises, she leans her head back and looks up at the ceiling. That’s all the metal circle around her head allows her to do.

Dr Campbell writes something more down and Melinda wishes the clipboard and paper would burst into flames. Apparently, her face is saying that because Fury laughs.

“Why don’t you feel like you deserve your team’s love?” Campbell asks.

Melinda looks at him in surprise. She wonders if Skye told him that.

Campbell looks at the screen. It’s showing she’s nervous but that’s about as much as he can tell. It’s far too complicated. It’s flashing red.

Melinda presses herself as far back into the chair as the door opens and Skye comes in. She’s annoyingly perceptive.

“So, now that I can ask you anything and know if you’re lying or not, what’s the deal with running away from Medical all the time?” Skye asks.

“I knew it,” Melinda mutters.

“What?” Skye asks.

“I knew it,” she repeats.

“Knew what?”

“That that’s what you’d ask.”

The screen is showing all positive readings. Skye grins.

“So answer the question, then.”

“No.”

Melinda flattens herself against the back of the chair as Skye comes round. She’s an unknown variable. Melinda can’t get a gauge for what she’s going to do. When Skye pokes her side, she tenses. Then Skye moves away. She pulls out a seat and sits down. Melinda eyes her warily.

“So, are you gonna answer the question?” Skye asks.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“’Cause I don’t wanna.”

Skye rolls her eyes. “No one wants someone to pick their brain. What you need is a hug, my dear friend.”

Melinda tries to go through the machine when Skye stands and approaches her slowly. She frees Melinda’s head, arms and legs and catches her when she tries to bolt. Skye wraps her arms around Melinda tightly. Melinda doesn’t try and fight it, knowing that Skye is much more likely to let her go if she thinks she’s enjoying it.

“See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” Skye says when she releases Melinda.

Melinda doesn’t reply, ducking past her and bursting out of the room before they can catch her. Lian chases after her, right behind her. FitzSimmons and the doctors are waiting in Koenig’s office. When she runs in, looking for a map of this damned place, they stand up in surprise.

“May!” Jemma says in shock. “You shouldn’t be up.”

She turns away and finds Lian and Coulson in the doorway, blocking her exit. They’re not impressed. When she backs up, she feels herself bump into Jemma and Fitz. They hold her arms as Coulson approaches. Melinda tears herself away from FitzSimmons and escapes around Coulson only to stop when Lian seizes her arms and pins them behind her back.

 Fury and Dr Campbell stop in the doorway, Skye right behind them. Fury walks closer so that she has to crane her neck back to meet his eyes. He’s almost a foot taller than her. Not for the first time she wishes she was taller.

Fury gives her a long hard look. He bends down so his face is right in front of Melinda’s.

“Answer the question,” he says.

Melinda clamps her mouth shut. Fury waits a moment longer before standing up and turning around to Coulson.

“Did you make her understand?” he asks.

“No,” Coulson says.

Fury rolls his eye. “Of course you didn’t. Luckily for you, Agent May, I bought your report with us. Finish it.”

Melinda glares at him. She is about to tear the report folder in half when Coulson snatches it from her. He gives her a warning look and places the folder on the desk.

Lian pushes Melinda back towards the room with the lie detector. Melinda lifts herself up and places her feet on each side of the doorway. Lian back up a few steps and Fury grabs Melinda’s feet. Melinda struggles but they take her to the machine that will tell them if she’s lying or not. This time they strap her down to the machine, wrists cuffed to each arm, ankles strapped to the base, a leather trap around her waist and one over her chest that goes under her arms. She can’t move forward far enough to stop the machine taking samples of brain activity.

Dr Campbell doesn’t bother ordering everyone out. There is no point. He’ll just tell them anyway, after.

“Why do you keep running away?” he asks.

Melinda pulls her ankles free and crosses her legs like she’s back in pre-school, sitting on the mat. She shakes the Pulse Oximeter (finger clip in the hospital) off and smiles in satisfaction when it bangs against the ground. Campbell sighs and reclips it. Well, he tries. Melinda kicks him in the chest, sending him sprawling backwards, head banging on the desk. Her eyes widen afterwards and she freezes as he touches the back of his head and his fingers come away red.

Katya’s limp body comes into her mind and she clenches her fists. Coulson makes sure Dr Campbell is okay before walking over to her. She recoils as he tries to put his hand on her shoulder. A good man like him shouldn’t be touching her, a monster. She deserves these chains. They keep her from hurting people.

Jemma fixes up Campbell and sticks a band-aid over the cut.

“It’s barely there,” Jemma reassures her. “Don’t you worry.”

Fury stands at the back of the room, watching her with careful eyes. She meets his eyes and everyone turns to look at him.

“Well, after that display, I’d say May doesn’t believe herself worthy of your love. Maybe thinks she’s a monster,” Fury says. “Dr Campbell? Your professional opinion, please.”

“Doesn’t think she deserves it. Definitely, thinks she is a monster. When she played you it was because she thought that was what you’d like. Meaning, she tried to be the person she thought you guys wanted her to be so she could find it within herself to stay with you,” Campbell says.

Melinda knew there is a reason she doesn’t like him. He’s proven himself to be too canny, too perceptive before. She tries to flee when they let her out but there is too many of them and only one of her. Her mom catches her and pulls her into a hug. Melinda stiffens and can’t make herself relax, no matter what she tries.

They all crowd around her and it turns into one big group hug. She’s in the middle and it’s horrible. Why would they want to touch a monster like her? They’re all good, kind people. She doesn’t deserve them.

She wriggles out of their embrace and spins around, looking for the door. It’s behind the desk. She jumps the desk, saving time and flings the door wide open, rushing out. She finds an empty room and curls up in the corner. No one comes in for a while. Coulson pokes his head and looks around but the lights are off and so he doesn’t see her.

Natasha comes in a while later and sits down beside her. Melinda doesn’t move, unsure of whether or not Natasha know she’s there. When she hears Natasha whispering, she stops breathing.

“I love you, Mel. Don’t do this to yourself, please.” Natasha is holding a photograph in her hand.

Melinda shifts slowly, her clothes rustling loudly in the silence. She sits up and puts an arm around Natasha’s shoulders. Natasha leans into the embrace, knowing it’s Melinda from the feel. Natasha twists around and takes Melinda’s face in her hands. They can barely see each other. Moving forward at the same time, Natasha presses a gentle kiss to Melinda’s lips. It’s soft and sweet and full of apologies. The lights flicker on but neither of them notices. When they pull apart, Melinda rests her head on Natasha’s shoulder and closes her eyes.

“Um, sorry to interrupt, but … someone’s trying to blow the door down,” Skye says nervously.

Melinda opens her eyes but doesn’t move from her position until Natasha nudges her. She sighs and stands up, following Skye. When they reach the door, everyone else is crowded by the door.

“Make-up sex?” Coulson asks.

Melinda glares at him. She opens the door and shoves Coulson into the firing line.

“May!” Skye yells.

Coulson yells something to whoever’s firing that Melinda barely catches. She smirks and joins him. He glares at her.

“Thanks for that,” he says.

“I knew it was her,” Melinda replies.

Coulson rolls his eyes. “Of course you did.”

Maria climbs up the rocks and inspects the damage she has caused. She sighs when it’s not as much as she would have liked. Phil waits for her to climb down. He gives her an unimpressed look as she disables the row of weapons she has lined up. She takes Coulson’s wallet and finds a bit of paper. She writes something down, stuffs it in her pocket and then picks up the closest weapon. She dumps it on a sledge and does the same for the others. They don’t all fit so the remaining two go in her bag. Then she picks up the rope and drags the sledge behind her. She disappears into the trees and snow.

“And now we can deal with Melinda,” Coulson says, “And her … depression probably isn’t the best word, actually.”

Skye raises her hand tentatively. “May just left.”

Coulson swears.

“And Lian. I think she’s gone to get Melinda,” Mack adds.

 

Melinda pulls the bush around her. She can hear her mom’s footsteps. Her mom passes in front of her. Lian stops and frowns. The footsteps lead into a bush. Melinda realises this too and gently extracts herself from the bush, hiding in the next one. She’s just in time, too. Lian pulls the bush apart and narrows her eyes. Her daughter is small enough to fit in the next bush. Melinda waits until Lian is pulling the bush in half before bursting out the other side. She scrambles to her feet and runs as fast as she can. Her mom catches the sleeve of her jacket and she slips out of it, running through the snow in jeans and a T-shirt. No one has given her shoes since she has gotten her.

It’s just her luck that Ward has been trying to find them and picked Providence because he knows about the lie detector there. She skids to a halt, the barrel of a gun digging painfully into her stomach. She tries to back up but then Ward’s men have surrounded her. Lian isn't anywhere to be seen but Melinda knows she is close.

Ward smirks at her. Then four of his seven men drop dead. Melinda twists out of the way and takes the gun, shooting the remaining three. She shoots Ward in the hip and kicks him in the face. He falls over backwards. Melinda lets him stand even though every part of her is telling her to end him. She fires the gun she stole into the air three times and waits, keeping it pointed on Ward.

Ward doesn’t seem scared of the gun, coming closer and closer despite it. She checks the magazine and doesn’t let anything show. It’s empty. Ward knocks it from her hands and glares at her. He charges at her and they go flying into the snow. She’s temporarily stunned and Ward uses that to run. She can tell he’s heading for Providence and she chases after him, Lian not far behind.

Her team is still hanging around outside, waiting or her and Lian. When Ward comes crashing towards them, they take up defensive positions until Melinda comes out of the trees a few seconds later and literally tackles him to the ground. She pummels his face until Lian pulls her off him. She’s breathing heavily, glaring at Ward.

Ward stands and dodges left as Coulson comes up behind him, intending to handcuff him. He climbs the rocks that Maria had just climbed and they follow him, not planning on letting him get away.

Melinda hears the chop chop chop of helicopter rotors. She quickens her pace but the helicopter is taking off. There is a hundred foot from if she falls but she ignores that and sprints across the snow.

“May,” Coulson shout. “Don’t you dare!”

She ignores him and leaps for the landing skids. Her left-hand closes around the skid closest to her and she flails for a minute before swinging her feet up to the other skid. She gets into a better position and kicks the window on the door in. Ward tries to shove her out but she twists them around and knocks him out with a punch in the face. She kicks him for good measure. Finding a bomb in the back, presumably for when they left to blow up the base, she starts it and steers the helicopter back. When they are as close as she can get them without injuring her team, Melinda jumps, pulling Ward with her. The copter explodes, pushing her that extra metre she needed.

They are about twenty or thirty metres high. She grabs hold of Ward and even though he tortured her, she can’t bring herself to cold-blooded killing when he isn’t even able to defend himself. She lands in a snowbank, thankfully. She rolls when she lands but she too slow and Ward falls on top of her. She grunts and shoves him off. She attempts to stand but she aches all over. She groans and lays her head back down.

Jemma comes out of her shock and runs over, checking for broken bones. There is none, thankfully. Coulson handcuffs Ward and drags him unnecessarily harshly done the rocks. The other follow him. Jemma helps Melinda stand and nearly drops her when she staggers.

“Mack, I’m going to need a bit of help,” Jemma calls but Mack doesn’t hear.

Instead, Fury comes over and easily lifts Melinda. Melinda tries to pretest, to stand but Fury is having none of it and she can’t really be bothered enough to complain.

Providence has a small Med Bay, tucked away at the back. Fury lays Melinda gently on one of the beds and stands back. Jemma makes sure she is alright before giving her a few painkillers to take away the pain. Coulson heaves Ward up onto the bed next to Melinda’s and glares at him.

Ward’s face is bruised from where Melinda punched him. When Jemma gives him a quick medical examination, she finds his back is bruised from the landing. Frowning, she checks Melinda’s stomach and rolls her eyes when she finds large bruises where Ward landed on her.

Jemma rolls Melinda onto her stomach and stitches up her back where two of the bullets Ward shot at her came out. Melinda makes a noise of protest when Jemma tries to roll her back over. She smiles and leaves her on her back.

When Melinda wakes up, she is alone. Ward is silently picking his handcuffs. She sits up slowly and stifles a groan as everything aches. She kicks his hands away and with difficulty, stands up. She unlocks his handcuffs and gives him extended handcuffs instead. She locks a pair of handcuffs around his ankles, too, just to stall him. Ward scowls as she ties the handcuffs on his wrists to the top of the bed.

Jemma comes in just as Melinda is getting back onto the bed. She frowns at Ward who can’t look at her.

“How’s Fitz?” he asks, voice rough and gravelly.

Jemma glares at him. “He’s fine. Not that you care.”

Ward flinches. He does care. It’s a weakness.

Melinda notes the flinch. She thinks that perhaps he’s just a scared kid underneath the tough exterior. Because despite him torturing her, he never left her covered in blood and he always came, without fail every single night to see her. She had originally thought it was to mock her but now she wonders if it was because he missed them and she was the closest he could get.

But then she remembers the look on his face when he was using those machines to torture her. It was freaky, a look of absolute wonder, of awe. A monster’s look. She is conflicted, not sure what to believe. She’ll be more cautious than Fitz, but less cruel than Simmons.

She can be neutral.


Coulson looks up as the door to Eric’s old office is opened. He seems to have inhabited it. Skye pokes her head. He stands up from his slouched position and goes to meet her.

“What is it?” he asks.

“Ward,” she says.

Coulson understands immediately. Ward hurt every single person on this plane. He betrayed them all and Coulson understands how a person can’t get over that. He sees Skye’s chin tremble and he pulls her into a hug. She leans against him and blinks back tears.

“I just … I just feel like he’s a good person but he’s not. He’s evil and cruel and manipulative but … I just–” Skye grips Coulson’s jacket tighter. He lets her cry on his shoulder. “He loved me, even after everything. He loved me and was the first person who made me feel something back. And now he’s here and I’ve been imagining it and playing out the scenes and I don’t know what to do!”

“Hey, hey,” Coulson murmurs. “It’ll work out in the end.”

Skye gives a small sob.

“We can ship him off to the Fridge if you want, or give him to Fury for questioning. Whatever you want,” Coulson says.

“I hate myself because I still love him and even though he hurt me, I can’t stop thinking about him and that makes me hate myself even more,” Skye says.

Coulson doesn’t say anything for a while. “It’s hard to get over people you loved because they’re always there. But now that Garret is dead, Ward just has to figure out who he is without him.”

“You don’t think it’s a good idea,” Skye says.

“He hurt you and he almost killed Melinda. I can’t stand him. But I’m willing to let that go if it means you’re happy when you come over for dinner.” Coulson pauses. “But … I want to help choose your wedding dress.”

Skye pulls back with an outraged look on her face. She shoves him, laughing. Coulson grins at her.

“I’ve been told I have excellent taste. Melinda, however…”

They both grimace at that thought.

Skye’s eyes widen. “If you’re okay with it, and FitzSimmons will probably be okay with it once I show them the footage from the cameras in Bus when he dropped them out the plane, what about Melinda and Bobbi? And Mack and Hunter?”

“Hunter should be fine, maybe a little wary, but Ward will really only have to bring beer to win him over. I suppose Mack will be okay with it too. Melinda and Bobbi, not so much. Try bringing it up little by little,” Coulson suggests.

Skye shrugs. “There’s no point, anyway. I can’t trust him anymore.”

She leaves his office and Coulson watches her go with sad eyes.

 

Melinda lets Jemma check her over properly. Bruises have started to form on her ribs and back. They’re purple and yellow and when Jemma gently touches one to get a feeling for how bad they are, she clenches her jaw and inhales sharply.

Jemma rubs in a dollop of Arnica to help with the bruises. She lets Melinda go with a warning go easy on herself. Melinda rolls her eyes and leaves quickly before Jemma can change her mind.

She finds Natasha waiting outside. Natasha raises an eyebrow.

“She let you out already?”

Melinda smirks. “I’ve grown on her.”

Natasha rolls her eyes. “You wish. I found a secret underground training facility. No one will interrupt us.”

Melinda brightens. “You mean, you found a bucket of pain and decided that we should go paint the hallways.”

“Right. Yes,” Natasha agrees.

Melinda follows Natasha down an empty hallway where she ducks into a room and rolls the carpet back. There’s a trapdoor underneath. Natasha opens it and Melinda goes down first. Natasha rolls the carpet back awkwardly. She shuts the trapdoor and follows Melinda. Melinda turns on the lights and grins as she sees the pool in the corner.

“Race you?” she asks.

Natasha grins and kicks off her shoes. Melinda doesn’t bother, not wearing any shoes. She jumps in and gasps at the coldness. She beats Natasha for the first length and then they are drawing for the rest of the time. Eventually, five hours later, Melinda’s team finds them. Melinda is just beating Natasha. Natasha swims forward faster and they touch the edge at the same time.

Natasha looks up at the ceiling because she’s heard something and she isn’t sure what it is. She jumps out of the pool just as her moronic partner tips down bucket after bucket of melted raspberry liquorice.

Melinda waits for it to finish and then dunks herself again. She climbs out, pausing when she catches her bruised side on the diving board right next to her. She purposely avoids looking at Jemma who raises an eyebrow. She pulls at some of the melted liquorice, her lips quirking at the corner when it doesn’t come off, stretching and multiplying itself.

“Just how is swimming for five hours taking it easy?” Jemma demands.

Clint drops down from the roof right next to Melinda which is the stupidest thing he could have down. Melinda shoves him into the pool but he grabs her wrist and pulls her in, too. The pool is nowhere near as warm as it was before. The liquorice seems to have gravitated together, sticking in a big clump. She shivers as she climbs out, kicking Clint in the face when he tries to do the same thing. Clint scowls at her and swims a few metres over. Melinda follows him on dry land, stopping him.

“C’mon, Mel,” he whines. “Please?”

Melinda grins at him. “You should have thought about the consequences before you tipped whatever this crap is all over me.”

“It’s liquorice. Please. I’m cold,” Clint says. He swims towards the opposite end but then gets stuck in the glob of melted raspberry liquorice. He swears and tries to yank his legs out but it hardens in the freezing temperature of the water. He scowls at her. “This is your fault.”

“How?” Melinda asks.

“You wouldn’t let me get out. And now, I’m sinking,” he says.

Melinda rolls her eyes and jumps in, swimming over. She dives underneath the surface and peers at the liquorice. She spots a crack by his feet and wedges her fingers in. Inch by inch, she slowly makes it bigger until she can stick her whole hand.

She kicks up and gasps in the air before sinking again. This time she makes the crack wide enough for her to squeeze two hands in. She tugs harder but she can’t get it to grow any bigger.

When she comes up for air again, her team is still standing there. Coulson won't let anyone go in because of the temperature and the liquorice which is trapping people. She dives under one last time and then stops. The crack has shrunk around her hand and now she can’t get it out. Using her free hand swims upwards but Clint is tiring and they’ve sunken just that bit that she can’t reach the surface to breathe.

Clint seems to realise this and he pulls his legs up towards him. She breaks the surface and takes a deep breath. His lips are blue, she realises. Melinda yanks the ball of liquorice, which is just over one metre long and almost a metre and a half wide. Clint uses his arms to swim and she kicks.

They start sinking when they’ve tackled half the distance. Melinda grits her teeth and glares at the clump which has stolen her hand. She gives it a good hard yank and splashes backwards in surprise. Her hand is red and itchy but she swims underneath Clint and lifts him up. Natasha lays on her stomach and stretches out a hand.

Melinda grabs it and gives Clint her hand. Clint kicks his feet around and swims with his other arm. Feeling the liquorice start to give a little, he kicks harder. The crack that Melinda made joins up with the hole his feet made and he tugs hard. He can’t get his feet out. Melinda sighs and kicks the crack as hard as she can in the water. It gives way just enough for Clint to be able to yank himself free.

Natasha pulls them in and Mack lifts them out. It’s quite amusing to see Clint getting lifted out by a man only seven inches taller than him and not that much stronger. Melinda lays on her back and closes her eyes.

“Well, that was the most failed prank ever,” Bobbi remarks.

Clint rolls his eyes at her. “Thank you for your support, Bobbi. I’ll remember to include you, next time.”

“There will be no ‘next time,’” Coulson says. “Not when I’m in charge.”

“See, you say that, but you never do anything to stop us,” Melinda says without opening her eyes.

Coulson glares at her.

“Don’t glare at me, Phil. I did nothing wrong,” Melinda says, willing the goosebumps on her arms to screw off.

“You’re already planning your revenge, Melinda. I know you,” Coulson says.

“Do you?”

“Is that an insult or are you just being rude?”

“Ha! You can’t tell, therefore you don’t know me.”

Coulson rolls his eyes.

“Do you think superglue or paint would be better?” Melinda asks into silence.

“I swear to God, Melinda,” Coulson warns.

“Because I think both would be hilarious. Or maybe wet cement,” she muses.

“Grounded! You’re grounded,” Coulson exclaims.

Melinda sits up and twists round to look at him. “Hey!” she protests. “I didn’t even do anything.”

“You’re thinking it.”

“What, so you can read my mind now?”

“Yes, actually,” Coulson says.

“I’m feeling threatened,” Melinda says, nearly letting her teeth chatter. “Isn’t there a protocol or something for this?”

Coulson pauses. “Possibly. I don’t need to read your mind. I know you well enough.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Yeah, I do.”

“Clint, tell him to stop being mean,” she complains, letting herself fall back down with a thump. “Ow, that was actually really stupid,” she mutters, rolling onto her stomach.

“Are you cold, Mel?” Clint asks. “’Cause I am and you were in the water longer than me.”

Melinda turns her head and gives him a glare in response.

“Ah! Yes, that’s right,” Jemma says. “You need to get out of your wet clothes and go warm up. All three of you.”

Melinda ignores her and presses her cheek to the floor. It’s cool, calming her mind. Clint stands up from where he’s sitting, leaning against the small diving board. He pulls off his shirt and rummages through the shelves beside the pool. He finds two towels and wraps one around himself and throws the other to Melinda. It lands on top of her.

Slowly, Melinda stands up and tugs off her T-shirt. It gets stuck going over her head and she can’t get her arms out because her elbows keep digging into the fabric so she turns to Coulson. He pulls it up over her head and hands her the towel. She follows Clint out, T-shirt in hand. She leaves wet footprints behind her.

She catches up to Clint who is shivering violently. She is, too, now that the others are not here to see. Clint puts an arm around her shoulders and pulls her close to his side, sharing body heat.

“Do you know where the showers are?” Clint asks.

“Wouldn’t have a clue,” Melinda replies.

“I don’t suppose we can go back and ask without getting sent straight to Medical, can we? Walk around until we find them?”

Melinda nods. Clint’s lips have regained a little bit of colour, now more purple than blue. She checks her hands and finds that her fingertips are blue. Her fingers are purplish. She presses closer to Clint’s side. Her arms have goosebumps, hairs sticking straight up on end. Her feet are freezing, toes numb. Clint doesn’t look like he’s doing any better than her.

“Y-your l-lips are b-blue,” he stutters.

“Y-yours are p-pur-purple,” she stammers back.

The sound of their teeth chattering fills the silent hallways. They turn a corner and quickly turn back the other way as they see the door to the Med Bay. Clint stops when he sees the showers at the end of the hallway, after the Med Bay. They walk past Medical silently, hoping Jemma won’t catch them. She just misses them. They sprint the remaining metres as she calls out to them. They run inside just as Jemma pokes her head out the door.

Melinda locks the cubicle door and quickly sheds her jeans and underwear off. She can hear Clint doing the same. The water burns her skin and she lets out a yelp when she first touches it. She turns the knob and sighs in relief as it becomes colder. Each time she gets used the temperature, she turns the heat up. Her feet stop burning as the feeling comes back into them.

“Hey Clint,” she calls. “I just realised. We don’t have dry clothes.”

There is silence.

“Just wet your clothes under the water and put them back on.”

Melinda smiles. She washes off the pink liquorice and smiles grimly as it swirls down the drain. Grabbing her clothes, she wets each item one at a time and dresses. It’s weird, putting on clothing in the shower but it’s better than being cold. Her jeans are a little loose but she can’t find it in herself to care enough. She turns off the water and dries her hair with the towel as best she can. Then she drapes it across her shoulder and unlocks the cubicle. Clint comes out a second after her. He’s just as wet as her, water running in rivulets down his skin. He grins at her as her teeth chatter lightly when the cold air from the hallway hits them. He puts his arm around her shoulders again, pressing them together.

They make their way into the Med Bay. By that time, the legs of Melinda’s jeans have covered her ankles and she’s walking on the very last inches of them. She hoists them up just as Jemma hurries over.

Ward looks amused as he watches the two of them pushed towards two beds. Melinda tries to sit on another one but Clint catches her by the belt loops of her jeans and pulls her back towards him. She’s grateful for it because she’s honestly freezing now that the warmth of the shower has worn off.

“Why did you put your wet clothes back on?” Jemma asks, exasperated.

“Because I’m not walking around her naked,” Clint says.

“Me neither,” Melinda adds.

Jemma rolls her eyes. “I didn’t mean like that. Why didn’t you go and get clothes?”

“I don’t have any spare. Remember, I was taken here from Medical at SHIELD.”

“I didn’t bring any either.”

“You two are hopeless,” Jemma says.

Clint beams at her.

 

“You’re running the risk of hypothermia,” Jemma scolds.

Melinda curls up in a ball as Jemma goes on and on. Clint wraps his arms around her and brings her closer to him. Jemma sighs.

“Are either of you two listening to me?” she asks.

Neither of them replies.

Jemma pulls a thick purple blanket out of one of the cupboards. She drapes it over the two of them who have now curled up together. Clint is wrapped around Melinda, keeping her close to him at all times. Melinda’s head barely pokes past the top of the blanket. Jemma takes a picture on her phone while the peaceful expression lasts.

 

Ward watches the two of them while they sleep. They are facing towards him. Melinda’s face is relaxed for the most part, an occasional twitch now and then. Clint snores softly, his arm draped over Melinda underneath the blanket. He wishes someone trusted him enough to let him hold them whilst they slept. Then he reminds himself that he’s a monster. What he did to Melinda is irreversible. It will haunt her endlessly, the scars on her body will stay there forever.

Clint wakes up first. He meets Ward’s gaze over the top of Melinda’s head. Ward just stares, his eyes longing. Clint’s glare doesn’t soften or harden.

“Stay away from her,” he hisses.

Melinda stirs and rolls over in her sleep. Clint holds her tight, like a brother to a sister. She is tiny in his arms, barely anything. Her T-shirt is damp still, and from what he can feel, so are her jeans. He’s mostly sure his clothes are damp. Melinda’s hands clutch at Clint’s shirt as she lets out a small whimper. It’s barely there but it’s enough to worry him. Melinda doesn’t make sounds like that. Never.

He brushes her hair off her face and winces at the agonized expression on her face. He holds her tighter to him and whispers comforting words. Melinda wakes up with a gasp, trying to sit up. Clint holds her to him and she thrashes, not realising where she is.

 

Melinda wakes up with a gasp, just as Katya stretches out her hand. Her clothes are damp and someone is holding her tightly so she assumes she’s been waterboarding. She thrashes in the person’s grip.

“Hey, hey, Melinda,” they say. “Calm down, I’ve got you.”

The person sounds a lot like Clint and when her eyes focus, she realises that it is. She buries her face in his chest. He holds her, stroking her hair. She’s always been glad of the relationship they’ve had, like brother and sister.

Jemma comes in with a stack of clothing. “I found some clothes in one of the lockers in the training room. They’ll fit you, Clint, but you might need to find a bit of rope, Melinda.”

Melinda nods and takes the stack of clothes gratefully. Her clothes are still damp and it’s getting cold, despite the warm blanket.

She stands up and pulls off her T-shirt. The T-shirt Jemma found is three sizes too big but it’s black. The neck gapes widely. The hem of the T-shirt sits halfway down her thighs. The pants are black shorts that she knows will be massive even before she puts them on. She yanks down her jeans which are stiff and cold and pulls the shorts up and frowns as they try and fall down again. Jemma hands her a ball of string. Melinda pulls up her T-shirt to see what she’s doing and blinks in surprise as Jemma takes the string back and ties it around her waist, catching the shorts with it. Jemma ties a knot and stands back up.

Clint is having more luck than her. He’s got a green T-shirt that’s just about the right size for him and grey sweatpants that are a little loose and a few inches too long. He folds his clothes neatly whilst she just dumps them in a wet pile on the floor. Jemma gives her a plastic bag to put them in and she does so. Clint does the same.

Jemma makes sure Ward hasn’t injured himself and checks the restraints. Once she is done, the three of them find the others in the common area. Natasha snorts at Melinda’s outfit and when Hunter sees it, he cackles so hard Melinda hopes his brain bursts.

“Isn’t that neck a little low?” Skye asks teasingly.

Melinda sticks her tongue out. She jumps as the sound of a picture being taken goes off. Lian smirks at her. Coulson hands Melinda and Clint each a beer and they sit down, Melinda next to Natasha and Clint beside Coulson.

“Can I assume the shorts are too big as well?” Coulson asks.

Melinda stands and pulls her T-shirt up so they can see the string. Skye giggles.

“You know, they only don’t fit because we can count your ribs,” Bobbi tells her.

“You cannot,” Melinda disagrees.

“Let me prove it,” Bobbi challenges.

Melinda hesitates, caught. After a moment of thinking, she moves over to Bobbi. Bobbi lifts up Melinda’s T-shirt and gives it to Melinda to hold.

“One, two, three,” Bobbi counts, poking each one. “Four, five, six.”

Melinda’s breath hitches as Bobbi counts seven, eight and nine. She twitches and tries to move away but Bobbi’s hand is on the small of her back and holding her in place.

“Ten, eleven, twelve,” Bobbi finishes triumphantly. “Now for the other side.” She grips Melinda tighter as the older woman realises what a bad idea this was. “Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Are you alright, Melinda?” she asks, poking the ribs she’s counted to under the pretence of checking they’re not broken.

“I’m fine,” Melinda gets out through gritted teeth, holding herself rigid. Her muscles are tense and Bobbi waits for her to relax a little before continuing.

“Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen,” Bobbi says as she gives rib number nineteen a harder poke.

Melinda inhales sharply.

“Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two,” Bobbi says. “Are you sure you are alright?”

Melinda nods stiffly, determined to get it over with.

“Okay then. Twenty-three, twenty-four,” Bobbi grins before pouncing on the other woman and tickling her, poking and scribbling her fingers over Melinda’s ribs. She tries to avoid the bruises. “What was that?” Bobbi asks as Melinda tries to say something.

“Stop!” Melinda yells. She squirms underneath Bobbi, trying desperately to get free.

Nothing works and she’s left a writhing mess, giggling between gasps. Her team is frozen in shock, with the exception of Phil. He has always known about her being ticklish. He knew almost before she did.

When Bobbi finally lets her up, her cheeks are red and she’s panting.

She sits as far away from Bobbi as she can.

 

Chapter Text

Melinda walks around Providence in her too big clothes until her’s are dry. It takes two days because Coulson insists on washing them and then has to learn how to work the washing machines. While she wears the clothes that aren’t hers and make her feel smaller than she really is because now even Skye is taller than her, the others take great lengths to try poking her in the hallways or whenever she sits or stands near them. Jemma is the only person who remembers why they know she is ticklish.

Jemma asks politely if she could come down to the lab for a second but there is an underlying order in her tone and Melinda knows better than to test her luck. Ward has his eyes closed, wasting time. When he hears them come in he lifts his head, sees it is Melinda and closes his eyes again.

Coulson comes in and releases Ward. Ward stands up cautiously as Coulson snaps handcuffs around his just freed wrists. Coulson walks out with Ward, leaving Jemma and Melinda alone. Melinda sits on the nearest bed and swings her legs. Jemma lifts up her shirt and without anyone warning, applies a cold cream to Melinda’s bruises. Melinda jerks back with a yelp and stares at Jemma. Jemma ignores her, rubbing in the cream until it’s gone.

“There. All done,” Jemma says. “Now, either you eat, or I hook you up to a drip.”

Melinda doesn’t like either option. Jemma will expect a full plate eaten each meal and the drip will mean she has to stay in the Med Bay. She scowls at the floor.

“Which one, May?” Jemma asks.

Melinda’s gaze darts up to Jemma’s and then back to the floor.

“Melinda,” Jemma says more forcefully, Dr Simmons coming out.

Melinda hates how people use her name like that. Like it’s a word to get her to listen, to pay attention, not to talk to her just because.

“I’ll eat,” she mutters under her breath.

“What was that?” Dr Simmons asks.

Melinda knows she heard and is just doing this so she can’t back out of it later on.

“I’ll eat,” she says just a little bit louder.

It’s still not good enough for Dr Simmons who asks her again. Melinda doesn’t answer, sick of it. When Simmons steps closer, so that her thighs are nearly touching her knees, Melinda looks away. Simmons forces her to look at her. Melinda looks at the wall behind Simmons.

“What was that?” Simmons asks and her tone says there will be no being stubborn or obstinate.

“I’ll eat,” Melinda says darkly.

“Good,” Jemma says, and Dr Simmons is gone for now. She turns away and reaches onto the opposite bed and picks up a plate of food. “Then you will eat all of this.”

“But I’m not hungry,” Melinda says.

“But I don’t care,” Jemma replies. “Have you seen how skinny you are. You’re tiny. You need to eat.”

Melinda scowls at the food. It’s carrots and potatoes and meat. It actually does look nice but it’s too much and Melinda knows she won’t be able to eat at least half of it.

“Did you know, that the bite force you need to eat a carrot is the same for biting off your finger,” Melinda says conversationally as she eats one of the carrots.

“That’s nice. Eat,” Jemma says.

Melinda makes a face at her and eats another carrot. There’s two left. She eats both before stabbing idly at the potatoes until there are little holes all through it and she can’t pick it up with a fork. She uses her fingers and pokes it, spreading it out on the plate. Eventually, she does eat one and a half. She forces herself to eat the other half and then lays down on the bed. Jemma glances over from her work.

“Eat.”

“I’m not-“

Eat.”

Melinda rolls over, facing away from Jemma. She brings her knees up to her chest. Jemma looks over again and sighs. Melinda looks like a child, lying there in oversized clothes.

“Melinda,” she starts softly. “You need to eat.” She can’t resist adding, “So then you’ll grow big and strong like the other kids.”

Melinda turns her head and gives her a really good glare. Jemma smiles triumphantly.She stabs a piece of meat and holds it to Melinda’s lips. Melinda glowers at it and turns her head away but Jemma stops her.

“Open,” she says.

Melinda glares at it once more before opening her mouth slightly, keeping her teeth locked together. Jemma sighs and taps the food against Melinda’s teeth.

“All the way, please.”

“Melinda,” a new voice says pleasantly.

Melinda turns to face Coulson. He’s walking towards her with an unimpressed look on his face.

“Just what kind of grief are you giving Agent Simmons?” he asks, purposely using Jemma’s rank to remind her that Jemma is a SHIELD agent and has to be treated with a level of respect.

Melinda crosses her arms. She can’t speak without Jemma pushing the food in but she can’t say nothing. She pushes the fork away and says, “I’m not hungry. I ate four carrots and two potatoes.”

Coulson rolls his eyes. “That’s not much. C’mon, open up.”

“Here comes the aeroplane,” Jemma sings.

Melinda glares at the both of them. She opens her mouth with a snarl but doesn’t close it. Jemma pushes her jaw shut.

“Chew your food, Melinda,” Coulson says and she knows that tone, knows that he’s dead serious and in no mood to be joking around.

She swallows it whole just to spite him.

Coulson drops her mission report on her bed. “Do it. Now.”

Melinda gives Coulson a filthy look. He raises his eyebrows.

“What?”

Melinda goes to answer, only to have another piece of meat shoved in her mouth. “I’m not doing it,” she says around a mouthful of food.

“Why not? It wasn’t as bad as Bahrain and you still filled out that one,” Coulson says.

“Yeah with like, three words,” Melinda says, batting away Jemma’s hand. She stands up, taking the plate and fork.

Coulson stops her. He’s five inches taller than her when she’s barefoot. She hates it. She tries to go around him but he stops her.

“Mission report,” he says lowly.

“No.” She tries again to go around him.

He stops her again. “Melinda Qiaolian May, get that mission report and finish it. Two hundred fifty words minimum.”

She knows she shouldn’t push, she knows that typed of voice well enough to know that he’s nearing the end of his patience. She pushes him.

He forcefully stops her, grabbing her shoulders and pinning her to the nearest bed. She glares up at him, the plate of food long forgotten on the floor.

“Jemma. Mission report,” Coulson says.

Jemma hands it to him.

Coulson opens Melinda’s hand and places the report in, curling her fingers around it.

Do it,” he growls.

“No,” she growls back.

“Why not?” he challenges.

She’s silent, remembering Agent Clyne’s scream before the warehouse exploded. Remembering when Agent O’ Jackson’s body went flying over her in the blast, when he told her to run and that it wasn’t her fault. Even though she knew it was.

“Because I can’t,” she settle for, a simple, honest truth.

He’ll appreciate it over a lie.

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Both.”

Jemma raises her hand nervously. Melinda looks over at her, glad for any excuse not to look at Coulson.

“Yes?” she says.

“Perhaps you could take this somewhere more private?” she suggests, looking nervously at the door.

Coulson closes his eyes and sighs.

“Go away Skye,” he says without turning around.

“Hey! It’s not just me,” Skye exclaims.

Melinda looks up over his shoulder. Bobbi, Hunter, Clint, Natasha, Fitz, Mack and Skye are standing in the doorway, mouths open in shock. Well, Natasha and Clint are smirking, Bobbi’s half smiling and Hunter is full on grinning.

Coulson lets Melinda stand. She edges away cautiously and when she’s far enough away from him, she runs. She crashes to the floor as tackles her around the waist. Melinda twists over and flips them over so she’s on top. Then she dives under the bed as Coulson tries to catch her. She bangs her head on the metal legs and swears. Coulson clasps her ankle and pulls her towards him. She grabs hold of the metal poles going in an ‘x’ under the bed. Coulson yanks hard and she feels her fingers slip. Jemma pries them away one by one and she and Coulson go flying back into another bed. Well, she goes flying forwards.

Coulson stands up quicker than her and hauls her to her feet. She kicks out as he holds her arms behind her back, tight enough to be uncomfortable. He takes the mission report on his way out, dragging her in front of him.

She makes it as difficult as possible, twisting away and hooking her feet around doorways. Coulson just waits her out until she falls limply from the strain of keeping her body horizontal to the ground. Skye watches them go with her hand over her mouth.

Melinda grunts as she throws themselves into a wall. Coulson pins her. He waits until she nods slightly to show she has understood. Then he carries on. He meets Lian going down one of the hallways. She raises an eyebrow. Melinda struggles harder.

“Mission report. Won’t do it. Jemma said to take it somewhere private. And won’t eat,” Coulson gets out through gritted teeth.

“I’m not hungry!” Melinda yells because no one is really listening to her at this point when she says that.

Lian nods and carries on, leaving them to work it out.

Coulson opens the door to his bunk with difficulty. Getting Melinda in and closing the door is much easier. He locks the door with his thumbprint. Melinda stands stiffly in the middle of his bunk, hands clenched by her sides.

“We’ll start again,” he says. “Why won’t you do your mission report?”

Melinda purses her lips and crosses her arms. She doesn’t want to be here, doesn’t want to be doing this.

“We know it’s not your fault,” Coulson says. “How did O’ Jackson get twenty feet in front of you when we found you? You can’t have dragged him there because then you'd be beside him. And why did Clyne never make it out?”

He’s asking all the right questions but Melinda can’t answer any of them.

“Melinda?” he asks.

She’s trembling lightly, unsure if it’s anger or fear of a mix of both. Coulson comes round in front of her and wraps his arms loosely around her. Loose enough that she can escape if needed but tight enough to feel secure. She pulls free when the images from Bahrain combine with Morocco.

Morocco is different than the other missions when agents died on her team. Clyne and O’ Jackson had been a year out of the Academy. They had been placed under her watch to learn what it was like to be a Specialist. They had looked up to her. And she had let them down. It wasn’t supposed to be a high-risk mission. Both had died at the hands of her carelessness. She had let them go in and guard each other while she found the threat and dealt with it. She should have gone with them.

Melinda blocks the memories but they pile at the gate and squeeze through the bars. Some spill over the top, catching on the barbed wire. She turns away from Phil, hugging herself.

Eva and Katya and the gun swirl around her mind. How she killed an innocent child and really, there is nothing that she can do to forgive herself. How she killed a mother and then told the men that they needed to stop. How Katya’s hand keeps coming back in her memory.

Phil – she needs him to be Phil, not Coulson – reaches out a hand and she jerks away from him like she’s been stung.

A look of pure horror forms on his face. “Oh, Melinda,” he says. “No, no, it’s okay, I’ve got you. You’re safe, she isn’t here.”

It doesn't matter what he says, the hand is still there, ready to take her form this world and enslave her.

She crawls into Phil’s bed and buries herself under the covers. She stares at the wall. Not with dead eyes. She can still feel. She remembers when she was making herself be who they wanted her to be and how nice it was to feel accepted but she didn’t like the dark shadows crowding around that feeling, reminding her that it wasn’t she who they liked, it was some other person that didn’t exist.

She doesn’t know how long she has drifted for but Coul– no, Phil has stayed by her the entire time. Just sitting on his bed, waiting for her, keeping her company. He’ll wait a lifetime for her, he thinks as he watches her twitch.

When she does come back for real, he pulls her into a hug. She blinks in surprise and just sits there, hands in her lap. It’s the best he’s going to get from her right now. She rests against his shoulder when he pulls away.

Phil stands up and motions for her to stand up as well. She just stares at him. Phil sighs and helps her stand. She falls back against him, looking content to just be near him. He hears the door open and Natasha slips in. When she sees Phil holding up Melinda, she snorts.

Melinda brightens when she sees Natasha but when Natasha sticks out her hand, she flinches back. Natasha’s eyes widen and she looks at Phil who nods.

“Mel, don’t you worry about her, she’s long gone. You’re safe now,” Natasha whispers.

“Long gone because of me,” Melinda mutters harshly.

“You did the right thing,” she says.

Melinda stands up on her own. She moves away from them. It’s a bad habit she has. If she feels uncomfortable, she will move away physically.

“I killed a child.”

Even after seven years, it still haunts her. Every night she tries not to sleep because the nightmares plague her and send her down into the darkness where her monsters surround her.

“You saved your team,” Phil says.

“I killed a child,” she repeats.

“You saved your team,” he says again.

“By killing a child.”

It’s the same argument they had years ago when Bahrain happened.

Phil scoops her up in his arms, ignoring her squeak of protest. He runs out of his bunk and finds the team in the kitchen. They all look over at Coulson’s sudden entrance.

“Phil, you jerk,” Melinda complains. “Put me down.”

Coulson places her gently on a seat next to Jemma and Bobbi. Bobbi smirks at her. Melinda shuffles her chair towards Jemma.

“Leave her alone, Bobbi,” Coulson says.

When they are all sitting down, Jemma and Fitz hand out plates of pancakes. Despite it being nine o’clock at night, they’ve made pancakes.

“Pancakes makes everything better,” Jemma explains.

“I’ve found that vodka has a hand in making things better,” Melinda mutters.

Natasha smirks. Skye rolls her eyes.

“Well, aside from getting drunk, what else do you like, Agent May?” she asks like a reporter.

“I like it when you all leave me alone, Phil,” she says pointedly. “Hunter, here.” She gives him one of her pancakes and he’s wolfed it down before anyone can stop him.

“May!” Jemma says in exasperation. “You’ll never get big and strong like the other kids.”

There is a shocked silence, interrupted by Melinda groaning.

“Oh, no,” she says mockingly, “I think I’m going to faint. I can’t stand. I might be malnourished.” She slumps back in her seat and doesn’t move.

Bobbi prods her with her fork.

“Go away. Let me be malnourished in peace,” she grumbles. She picks up her fork and drops it. “Whoops. Looks like I’m not strong enough to hold a fork. I must be not eating enough.”

Jemma rolls her eyes “Thank you for that display. I’m sure you were dead on.”

Melinda beams at her. “Thank you.” She pauses. “You know, we still haven’t had that rematch yet.”

Skye brightens but Fitz’s shoulders slump. He hasn’t had the training that Skye has.

“No. Absolutely not,” Coulson says. “You’re barely healed from the bullets you took from Ward. You’re not doing a single punch. And you’re still grounded. Remember?”

Melinda rolls her eyes. “Like you can stop me,” she says.

“I can,” Lian says from the other end of the table.

“If you can catch me, that is,” Melinda retorts. She’s always been faster than her mom. Something to do with old age, she suspects.

“I can stop you,” Skye says.

“That’s cheating,” Melinda says.

“You’re a cheater,” Natasha says.

“So are you,” Clint says.

“And, I’m gone. Thanks for dinner,” Melinda says, standing up. She takes her plate to the bench and rinses it, purely out of habit.

She is so close to leaving the room when she can’t move. Skye. She glares and tries to pull her legs free.

“Ha, ha. Very funny, Skye. Let me go,” she says, completely unamused.

“I thought we couldn’t stop you?”

“And I thought I told that that is cheating,” Melinda replies. “Let me go.”

“Sit down.”

“Let me go.”

“Sit down.”

“Skye.”

“Melinda.”

Melinda clenches her fists. “Fine.”

As soon as Skye releases her she runs for the door. She just makes it out.

“Hey!” Skye yells, running after her.

“I’ve finished my dinner, I spoke, I even rinsed my plate off. Why can’t I leave?” Melinda yells back.

“Because you hide where we can’t find you!”

“No I don’t,” Melinda says with an offended look on her face, appearing behind Skye and scaring the crap out of her.

Skye jumps and spins around. She pushes Melinda towards the table. Jemma leaves the room and comes back in with Melinda’s clothes.

“Thanks,” she says, taking them and getting changed right where she is standing.

Hunter shuts his eyes and Mack does the same, bright red. Fitz’s mouth drops open and Skye and Jemma blush. Bobbi looks away quickly. Natasha and Clint share a look and Coulson just waits, his eyes on the ceiling.

“Are you out of your mind?” Hunter asks, still not opening his eyes.

“No. I’m quite sane,” Melinda says. She hitches her her jeans up that are just a little too tight and then buttons them up. She’s still wearing the over-sized T-shirt because her one shrunk in the wash. She holds it out and frowns at it.

Hunter laughs at her. “I don’t think even you would fit that.”

Melinda pulls a face. She sits down and waits for them to stop staring at her.

They don’t.

“What? I’m here, I’m being co-operative. Stop staring at me,” she snaps.

“Don’t sulk, Melinda. It’s unbecoming of you,” Clint teases.

“D’ya wanna find something to do?” she asks.

Clint and her race out the door before Skye can cheat and stop them with her powers. They run down the hallway to the room with the trapdoor. They lock it from their side and then warm up. Clint stretches and she laughs at him when his back clicks and he falls over. She begins her tai chi and he wraps his hands. When he holds out his hand for hers, she thinks of refusing. But then she realises he won’t spar with her. She lets him wrap her hands and then knees him in the groin, jumping back.

Clint groans as he falls on his back. Once the pain has subsided, he stands up and gets ready to block her hits. Melinda comes towards him in a swirling flurry of punches. He blocks as many as possible and when he can’t he lets them fall. He kicks her feet out from under her but she’s rolling away when he goes to pin her. They end up wrestling. She elbows his eye and he knees her stomach. She bites back a groan and kicks him in the head as payback.

They barely hear the trapdoor open but they do hear the footsteps. With a look at each other, they ran and disappear. When Coulson sticks his head down, they’re gone, hiding in the equipment room. He sighs as he sees Clint’s purple wrapping tape lying beside the mats.

“They definitely in here,” he says and the others come down. “barton. Out. Now Or your ridiculous tape goes in the pool.”

Clint looks at Melinda in horror. She bites her lip.

“You have three seconds,” Coulson calls. “One.”

Clint and Melinda share a conversation in a single look.

“Two.”

Clint mouths sorry and stands up.

“Three.”

He opens the door and walks out. Coulson spots him and smiles grimly.

“Knew that would get you,” he says. “I’m assuming Melinda is hiding in there with you?”

Clint chews on his bottom lip. Coulson takes it as a yes and walks over to the equipment room, opening the door. Melinda isn’t where Clint left her. He looks around but can’t see her. Then he sees that the exercise bike is assembled and out of its box. Clint snickers. Coulson catches his gaze before he can avert it.

He opens the box and sighs when he sees that it is empty. Clint frowns in confusion before smiling. Melinda would have used it to trick them. They exit the room and stop. Melinda is standing there smirking.

“Losing you touch, boys,” she says.

“Bobbi said the same thing,” Coulson says as he steers Melinda back towards the team.

Clint walks on the back of Melinda’s heels. She gives him a dark look. He keeps doing it and she twists around faster than Coulson stop her and kicks him in the stomach. He stumbles back and she advances. He grins, a gleam in his eyes and he locks eyes with someone behind her, probably Natasha.

She hears the light tread of Natasha’s footsteps and sends Clint to the ground so she can focus on Natasha. Clint gets back up faster than she wants and she dodges out of Natasha’s path and shoves Clint into Natasha. Then she kicks him in the knees, hopefully hard enough to keep him careful for a while and turns back to Natasha. Clint is behind her and she tries to look behind her to see what he’s doing but Natasha is keeping her occupied.

She grunts as Clint lands a kick on her back, sending her stumbling forward into Natasha’s fist. She jumps backwards, over Clint’s leg and away from Natasha. She and Clint tumble to the ground. She pins him and waits for him to tap out. He doesn’t and Natasha is getting closer. In the end, she panics and knocks Clint out. Well, she hits him hard enough in the head that he doesn’t get up. She barely ducks under Natasha’s fist. She grabs her arm and yanks and Natasha goes tumbling over, onto Clint who groans and sits up. Melinda looks at the ceiling and hopes that whatever deity is up there will help her out. It doesn’t.

She and Natasha pummel each other. Most of their punches and kicks are blocked or stopped. Clint stands up shakily and clears his head. Melinda kicks him in the nuts and jumps over him as Natasha advances. She kicks Natasha in the chest, landing on her back but it’s worth it as Natasha stumbles. Melinda rolls backwards and crouches, waiting for the next move. She strikes first, like a cobra. She lashes out and hits Natasha in the jaw and ducks as Clint tries to hit her. He hits Natasha instead.

“Are they supposed to be doing that?” Skye says to nobody in particular.

“Absolutely not,” Jemma says crossly. “But it’s probably best if they get it out of their system now.”

Melinda ducks and dives out of the way as they jump on top of her. Clint faceplants on her foot so she kicks him repeatedly but Natasha grasps hold of her legs and holds her down. Melinda kicks out and manages to get Clint in the face again. He groans and rolls away as she tries to kick him again.

Melinda lifts her and Natasha up and twists so that Natasha lands underneath her. She pins Natasha’s arms above her head and smirks.

“Ha,” she says.

“Um, excuse me? I’m still here,” Clint says in mock offence.

Melinda scowls and kicks him again. While she is not paying much attention to her Natasha bucks upwards and Melinda yelps as she is pushed off into Clint. They’re wrestling and grappling for the upper hand. Clint usually wins, purely because he has more muscle. She rolls out from underneath them and sits on Clint’s back while she kicks at Natasha. She finally knocks Clint out, though not before he elbows her in the nose and makes it bleed. She uses his T-shirt to stop some of the bleeding until she has to block Natasha’s attacks or be terminated.

She is tiring and is blocking fewer blows. Their punches land with less force and Melinda goes to punch Natasha but flails halfway through it and collapses on her back. Natasha snorts and she can hear her team laughing at her. She swipes Natasha’s feet out from under her in retaliation. Natasha is back on her feet before Melinda has even considered moving. Natasha smirks at her.

“You need some help getting up?” she teases.

Melinda makes a noise of annoyance but doesn’t move. Natasha pokes her side with her toe. Melinda groans and rolls into a ball.

Skye is laughing so hard that Fitz wonders if she is going to suffocate. Melinda stands up slowly and Natasha kicks her in the stomach. Melinda lands on her back and rolls awkwardly.

“Ouch,” she mumbles.

She moves closer to Natasha, arms aching and just has time to swear before she trips over Clint. Bobbi snickers and Hunter has sat down so he doesn’t fall over laughing.

“Give up?” Natasha asks, offering a hand.

Melinda takes the hand and pulls Natasha to the ground. Natasha lets out a curse but Melinda is already standing up, waiting. Her tired expression gone, Natasha realises Melinda played them.

They dance together, exchanging blows. Natasha slips, her foot sliding out under her and Melinda takes the opportunity to nail her with a knee to the stomach. She tackles Natasha to the ground and wraps her arms around her waist. Natasha sighs, knowing that Melinda will never let go, not even if she hits her really hard. Melinda pushes her forearm against Natasha’s throat.

“Surrender?” Melinda grins.

“Not a chance,” Natasha smirks before reaching out and poking Melinda’s sides, scribbling her fingers over her ribs.

Melinda shrieks and scrambles backwards. Natasha sits up and laughs at her. Melinda dashes out of the room before anyone can stop her. She freezes when she hears footsteps. Natasha opens the trapdoor carelessly and the footsteps pause before walking towards the door. Her team runs up the ladder behind her, stopping when they see her just standing there, fists up in front of her face. She silently walks over to the door and waits for it to open. She leans against the wall.

Ward opens it quickly and points his gun in. The door hides Melinda but Ward isn’t focused on her, not when he sees the team plus Hawkeye and Black Widow standing in the middle of the room.

Natasha has kicked the trapdoor shut and rolled the carpet over it but he’s not stupid, he knows there is a door in the room somewhere.

Ward keeps his gun pointed at them while he lifts up the back of his shirt and pulls out another gun. He doesn’t hear Melinda step out from behind the door. He only realises she is there when she presses a knife to his neck, hard enough to draw blood. He twists around, pulling backwards and aims his gun at her. It’s a stalemate.

Well. Ward thinks that. Melinda drops the knife quicker than he can process and ducks around so she is behind him. She kicks his legs and he drops to his knees. He still has that damn gun, she notes with annoyance. He shoots at her team and they barely miss. It almost hits Coulson. Phil. She punches his head and unleashes her rage on him. He fights back but he is no match for her. She kicks the gun out of his hand and snatches up her knife before he can get it. He stops moving when she presses it against his throat.

“Don’t you ever shoot at them again,” she hisses.

Coulson handcuffs the scowling Hydra agent and hauls him to his feet. Melinda follows him, purely because Natasha can’t get her if she is helping put a traitor in a cell. However, when they reach a crossroad, she darts off to the left while Coulson and Ward continue going straight. Ward looks back, confused. Coulson glares at him.

“Keep moving,” he says harshly.

 

Melinda runs past her team who look confused until Natasha runs past. Bobbi laughs and Melinda yells something but she is too far away to be heard.

“Do you think they’ll run past again?” Skye asks.

“Yep,” Bobbi nods, looking over her shoulder.

Melinda ducks under Hunter’s arm, jumps over Skye’s foot and dodges around Mack. When she runs past again, FitzSimmons stand in her way. She tries running through them but they just crash to the ground. By the time FitzSimmons stand, Melinda is already off and running again but with Natasha noticeably closer. Melinda keeps the same speed for fifteen minutes before she slows a little with each lap. Natasha is now almost able to touch her. She puts on a burst of speed just as Natasha thinks what the hell? and jumps at her. Melinda feels Natasha’s fingers scrape her heels and she flies around the corner, crashing into Ward who has somehow escaped Coulson.

Coulson snaps handcuffs around Ward’s feet and hauls him to his feet again, making him either jump or shuffle with the little bit of slack he is given. Natasha gets up faster than Melinda and is about to restrain her when Melinda stops her.

“I outran you. Screw off,” she says between breaths.

Natasha grins and sits down beside her. “Not many people can.”

Melinda turns her head slowly and smirks. Her face is red and her chest is heaving but her eyes are alight with mischief.

“Are you finally out of breath?” Skye asks.

Melinda doesn’t answer.

“Mack, what’s today? Who’s day is it? It’s Fitz, right?” Skye asks.

Mack checks his phone. “Yep. FitzSimmons win.”

Melinda stands up slowly, her breathing already under control. She waits for them to fall silent.

“Why do FitzSimmons win?” she asks.

Nobody answers. Her gaze zeroes in on Hunter. He knows she doesn’t particularly like him, therefore will have no problems threatening him if necessary.

“Hunter?” she asks, tone flat.

He gulps. “Don’t look at me!”

“Hunter called you little,” Skye blurts when she switches her glare to her.

Melinda crosses her arms and raises an eyebrow, completely unimpressed. “You wanna explain, Hunter? Little? Seriously. How unimaginative are you? Even a kindergartener would have a better word.”

“Midget,” Bobbi supplies.

“Tiny,” Mack says.

“Slight,” Skye suggests.

“Barely there,” FitzSimmons says.

At that one, she gives them an offended look.

Coulson comes in just as they say that and stops in shock. He looks from Melinda to FitzSimmons and frowns in confusion. They’re still standing.

“Um, what’s going on?” he asks.

“Hunter called me little,” she says in disgust.

“Okay. And FitzSimmons called you barely there. And I’m fairly sure Skye called you slight,” he says. “What’s so bad about little compared to those?”

“I am not little!” she exclaims.

“I never said you were,” he backtracks quickly to the amusement of the others.

“Hunter is going to pay,” she says.

“Isn’t ‘barely there’ worse than little?” he asks.

The glare he gets in return makes him wish he had never said anything.

“Little implies young,” she says darkly. “I am not little.”

“No, of course not,” he says. “Why don’t you go with Jemma to the Med Bay and let her make sure you aren’t too banged up?”

“You’re using that voice,” she grumbles.

“What voice?” he asks.

“The one where you treat me like a child,” she explains.

“Oh, but I forgot, it must be because you act like a child and after all…” His lips twitch.

“Phil,” she warns. “Don’t you dare.”

“You are little,” he finishes.

She glares at him, her tiny hands clenched into fists. She really wants to punch that smug smirk off his face. It must show on her face because he laughs at her and leads her towards the Med Bay. As soon as they are out of sight of the others, she punches him. Square in the nose.

“Ow! What the hell, Melinda?” he yells.

“Don’t call me little,” she growls, then continues walking because she can hear Jemma coming and this isn’t a conversation she wants to be having.

“Melinda. Don’t just walk away,” he says.

Jemma rounds the corner and sees Coulson holding his bleeding nose and Melinda walking away.

“May,” she exclaims.

“Agent May,” says the one person who she dreaded meeting.

She keeps walking.

“Don’t you dare walk away,” he says again.

She keeps walking.

“Agent May,” he growls and her spine straightens.

He used that voice. The voice that continues to make her feel like she’s in for it now, even when it’s a minor problem. She turns around and glares at him.

“Don’t you just walk away from your problems,” Fury says. “Fix ’em. And when you can’t fix ’em, you try your damn hardest to fix it.”

“Speeches?” she asks with a raised eyebrow.

“Don’t try and deflect it. Remember, I spent three weeks stuck with you, snowed in in your mother’s house,” he says. “And then we all went on that mission back in Barcelona. I know you well enough by now. So quit running, fix the problem, and thank me when you’re done.”

“Thank you,” Melinda says, before turning to leave.

Fury sighs and turns to face Coulson. “She’s your problem. I’m done.”

“I can still hear you,” Melinda says over her shoulder. “And I’m no one’s problem. If anything, I’m my own problem.”

She rounds a corner and they can’t see her anymore.

“Well at least she went the way to the Med Bay,” Jemma says, meeting no one’s eyes and walking after Melinda quickly.

There is an awkward silence.

 

Melinda smiles to herself. She has a plan. She sits down on one of the beds and waits. Jemma comes in not a minute later. She lets Jemma poke and prod her. She can be an amazing patient when she wants. Jemma smiles at her and there is a spring in her step when she goes to fetch some painkillers for her bruised side and cracked ribs.

She puts the first part of her plan into action a week later. Everyone is treating her carefully like she could break any minute. So when she asks if they could all come to Koenig’s office, they all say yes and come immediately. She shows them the footage she has edited and they all rush off, intent on finding Ward. She leaves little clues, like the blood from his knuckles on door handles. They all end up outside the kitchen. Only Natasha and Clint find this slightly suspicious. They hang back as Coulson opens the door and goes in, his gun at the ready. Instead, he gets shot in the head with an ICER as payback for when he shot Melinda. She was quite pleased when she thought of that. The rest of them get covered in creampie and glitter.

Natasha and Clint duck just as feathers, more glitter and glue drops from above them. It lands on Clint’s shoulders and back and Natasha’s legs.

They all know it was Melinda, even if she isn’t there to say it. Yet. She is already in the room. Melinda lifts Coulson up and then thinks about it. She drops him back down and finds a chair for him. It takes more effort than required to get him up so she just leans him against it.

When he wakes up, he glares at her. She smirks at him.

“Payback,” she says simply.

“Come on, May. That was ages ago,” he complains.

“And it hurt. Karma’s a bitch.”

“So how did you get the others?” he asks.

“Clint and Nat got feather, glue and glitter, the rest got glitter and creampie,” she informs him. “Sir,” she adds cheekily.

He rubs his head and sighs. “Where are they now?”

Melinda shrugs. “Showers? I don’t know.”

Phil stands up and gives her a one-armed hug. “Nice to have you back,” he says with a smile.

Melinda gives him an evil look. He dreads to think of what she’s planning next.

“Jemma said she wanted to see you,” he tells her.

“I already went to see her,” Melinda says.

“I know. She wants to see you again.”

“Weekly visits?” Melinda asks in disgust.

“She sounded excited about it,” Coulson shrugs.

So Melinda goes to find Jemma. Jemma looks up when she enters, assumes it is because Coulson told her and gestures for her to follow her. She hands Melinda a syringe. It’s filled with an orange liquid.

“It’s for people like you,” Jemma says with a frown. “Fitz and I created it when you started to refuse to eat. It will stop you from tiring more because of hunger.”

Melinda nods appreciatively. “Nice. And you’ve tested it?”

“Well … not quite. We’ve run simulations and we’ve used the guinea pigs to see if they can last longer if they use it. We injected them two days after starving them and then didn’t feed them or another week. It worked, meaning they didn’t show any signs of exhaustion. You’d be the first person to test it out,” Jemma says.

Melinda nods and jabs it in her arm. She pulls the plunge just as Jemma tries to stop her. She looks up at Jemma in surprise when she collapses in a heap to the floor.

Chapter Text

Melinda wakes up in Coulson’s bunk. She’s in his bed, the covers pulled up to her nose. She sighs in content and buries herself deeper. His arm curls around her waist tighter, drawing her closer to him. She fits perfectly under his chin. She feels happy. Then she feels the other arm over her. She opens her eyes in confusion but everything makes sense when she sees Natasha’s head. Coulson probably coerced her into sleeping and Jemma did something to her. It’s a problem that can wait until she gets up.

The alarm in her head beeps and she knows for a fact that it is five a.m. Natasha is awake, she knows from her slight moving. Phil kisses the top of her head.

“Morning, little one,” he teases.

She can’t even be bothered to slap him for it. Natasha snickers quietly. She akes a quiet noise of protest. She can’t be bothered to get up. The bed is really warm and she’s comfortable and tired. Whatever drug Jemma gave her is making her tired, she thinks. She can’t find it within herself to care enough right now. She closes her eyes and goes back to sleep, curling into Phil. She pulls Natasha closer to her and smiles to herself. Natasha kisses Melinda’s forehead and wraps her arms around her.

Melinda’s head fits perfectly under Phil’s chin. She has always hated being shorter than him but sleeping with him has always seemed like they were designed to fit together like two puzzle pieces, in a completely platonic way.

Natasha lets Melinda rest her forehead against her shoulder. Phil meets her eyes over Melinda and they share a smile. She would kill them if they said it to her face or within her hearing, but Melinda is actually really cute sometimes.

Phil’s alarm goes off at six. They ignore it but then it goes off again at six fifteen and once more at six thirty. Natasha rolls over and finds the off switch. She flicks it off but it just lights up and starts beeping loudly.

“Fitz,” Phil explains. “So that I have to get up.”

It’s quite clever but right now it is just annoying. Melinda curls around Natasha when she comes back. Phil slips out of the bed and finds his suit. Natasha and Melinda turn away to give him some privacy.

By the time he’s dressed and ready, Melinda has fallen asleep again and Natasha is holding her tightly to her body.

“C’mon, you two. Chop, chop,” he says, hurrying them along. “Simmons wants to see Melinda, can you make sure she gets there?”

Natasha nods and slowly pulls the covers back. Melinda groans and curls into a ball as the cold air hits her. Natasha makes her get up, throwing her her jeans and T-shirt. Melinda pulls off Phil’s borrowed T-shirt, one of the few that wasn't Captain America merchandise. She pulls on her own clothes and then snuggles back into the bed. Natasha rolls her eyes and drags her out.

“Melinda,” she complains. “You gotta get up.”

“No, I don’t,” Melinda mumbles.

“Skye is probably waiting for you.”

“Skye doesn’t need me.”

“Yes, she does.”

“No. She knows what to do.”

“She’ll slack.”

“No, she won’t. Have some faith, Nat.”

Natasha looks at Phil in despair.

He steps back and raises his hands. “She’s spent her whole career at SHIELD being my problem. You can have this one.”

Natasha scowls at him. She hoists Melinda out of Phil’s bed and kicks the covers up to the top blindly. Heading out, Phil leaves the door open for the two of them. It’s just his luck that Skye is passing by with Fitz, chattering excitedly about whatever they’re going to hack this time. When she sees Melinda, she waggles her eyebrows, grinning. When Natasha kicks Melinda out, eventually, Skye just stands there in confusion. Melinda sees her and goes over to her, upset at Natasha.

“Melinda,” Natasha groans. “Simmons wants to see you.”

“Simmons lied,” Melinda says stubbornly.

“I didn’t,” Simmons says from where she appears from the hallway. “I hadn’t finished explaining.”

“Would you care to finish explaining then?” Melinda asks.

“It has a few side effects. One of them is being more tired than usual, um, I don’t know how to properly phrase it but Fitz basically calls it “The Child Phase.” It basically means you act more like a little kid. Don’t be surprised if you just want to burst into tears for no apparent reason or scream and kick because you’re angry,” Simons says.

“Wonderful,” Melinda sighs. “I get to throw tantrums and go to bed early.” She turns to make her way to the kitchen.

They all follow her, trying not to laugh but failing miserably. Melinda glances back at them, sees them laughing at her and sighs.

“What?”

No one answers.

Natasha pointedly looks anywhere but Melinda, her cheeks red. Melinda’s eyebrows furrow as she stares at them in confusion.

“What?” she asks again.

“You’re wearing my jeans,” Natasha mumbles quickly.

Melinda doesn’t understand her. “What?”

“You’re wearing my jeans,” Natasha repeats louder.

Melinda looks down and recognises the faded black colour and the hole in the knee where Natasha tripped and fell over. She blinks.

“Oh. I thought you gave me my jeans?” Melinda says.

“I did.”

“Then how did this happen?”

“You took my ones because they were next to yours.”

“Are you wearing my jeans?”

“Yes.”

“I want them back,” Melinda says sulkily.

“I want my jeans back,” Natasha retorts.

“I’m keeping them. And I want my jeans back, too.”

“You can’t keep my clothes!” Natasha bursts out.

“Yes, I can,” Melinda replies. “They’re comfortable.”

“Yeah, and they’re mine,” Natasha says.

“Mine now.”

“Fine. I’ll just steal them back later,” Natasha says with a smirk.

“You can’t steal them if it’s already yours,” Melinda rolls her eyes.

“I thought they were yours now?” Natasha says with a raised eyebrow.

“They are,” Melinda says.

“Then why did you say they were mine?”

“I didn’t.”

“Yeah, you did. You said you can’t steal them back if it’s already yours.”

“Did not.”

“You did. I have multiple witnesses.”

“They lie.”

“So do you.”

“I don’t lie.”

Natasha snorts because that is the biggest lie Melinda has told in a long while.

“You just lied.”

Melinda frowns at her. “I did not.”

“Yeah, you did.”

Melinda scowls at her because she really just wants to run away but that’s the stupid drug talking. Or maybe it’s not. She runs away from a lot of things: Bahrain, Coulson, talking about her feelings, Medical, her team. Yeah, she runs away from a lot of things. It’s probably not a good thing.

She comes back to reality when Natasha says her name so loudly it rings in her ears for a few seconds. Maybe Natasha shouted it, actually.

“Huh?” she says. Wow, great job Melinda. You should write speeches.

Skye stifles a snicker.

“Clint’s making breakfast and I think Mack is helping,” Natasha repeats.

“So?” Melinda ask.

So you should go help them. Learn a little,” Natasha suggests, nudging her shoulder.

Melinda holds her shoulder like it hurts her. She gives Natasha an offended look.

FitzSimmons leave them after a little while, heading to their makeshift lab. Skye winks at Melinda and saunters off. Phil gives them both a warning look. Natasha grins cheekily.

When everyone is gone, Melinda finds herself shoved up against the wall. The kiss is hard and passionate and their tongues battle for dominance. Melinda’s hands grip Natasha’s hips, pulling her flush against her body. Natasha curls her fingers into Melinda’s hair and tugs. Melinda lets Natasha take the lead. She prefers it anyway. It’s exhausting giving out orders, even if her team rarely follows them anymore unless it’s really important. Well, FitzSimmons still do but Phil never did and still doesn’t, Hunter and Skye give her too much crap, Bobbi is an independent young woman who doesn’t follow anyone’s orders, or at least, that’s what she says. Mack listens, mostly. Mack is nice. He listens and he doesn’t push her. Natasha takes orders, mostly from Steve and Fury and that grates on her slightly, the fact that a ninety-five-year-old man has the ability to order her around. At least Fury is actually in the top spot.

Natasha steals her breath and plunders her mouth. Melinda bites down on Natasha’s lip and gets a low groan in return. Eventually, they part. Natasha leans her forehead against Melinda’s and plants a kiss on the tip of Melinda’s nose. Once they get their breath back, they grin at each other and start giggling like teenagers.

Melinda presses her lips against Natasha’s in a final chaste kiss before they part fully, standing apart. Except for the fact that their shoulders are touching and their arms keep brushing together and they’re holding hands.

 

Clint is a surprisingly good cook, so it isn’t a surprise when the food he’s made with the help of Mack is really good. Mack made the brownies and Clint helped make the sauce but then he made omelettes for each and every one of them. Even Fury.

Clint grins when they come in together. “Had a good night?” he asks, before quickly holding out food as a peace offering.

Melinda gives him a dark look but takes her plate. To her surprise, she eats everything. To be fair, the omelette was really small but it’s an improvement from half. Maybe she should get smaller plates for everyone. Then it would look like she was eating quite a bit.

“I’ve scheduled a plane to fly in tomorrow evening to take us back to HQ,” Fury says.

Everyone cheers. Melinda just grins in relief. Providence is not her favourite place on earth to be. HQ means the Bus and the Bus means she can fly away.

 

Ward hears the cheering from his cell. He knew he shouldn’t have tried to escape from Coulson but he really wanted to see Skye again. Even when he shot at them. He clears his mind. He feels the clock in the back of his brain tick to ten o’clock. He hopes he’ll get out soon. He’s sick and tired of Providence. All it holds is bad memories. Skye fills his head. She’ll never forgive him. She even said as much. He nearly killed FitzSimmons. Jemma and Leo. He tried to kill May. Melinda May. The Cavalry. He betrayed Coulson. Phil Coulson. The one man who believed in him.

 

Tomorrow evening comes way too slow and in the time that Melinda spends waiting, she manages to cover herself and Clint in cupcake mix. There is no time to wash it off without missing the plane because it needs to get back or the hangar will close. So they sit on the floor, making sticky pictures with the mix. (Fury banned them from the seats, saying he didn’t want to pay to have it cleaned off.)

The plane turns a little too sharply and Melinda and Clint get thrown sideways. Melinda tries to put her feet out in front of her to stop herself but all that happens is she kicks Clint in the face.

When the plane banks sharply to the left again, Melinda realises that the pilot is doing this on purpose. She stands with trouble and makes her way to the cockpit door. Then the plane tilts again and she’s thrown into the wall.

“Ouch,” she mumbles.

Heaving herself up, she manages to open the cockpit door. She recognises Maria Hill sitting in the pilot seat.

“I might have guessed,” she mutters. “It’s Hill,” she calls out to the others.

“Hey, Mel,” Maria greets.

“D’you mind?” Melinda asks.

“Mind what?”

“Throwing us all over the plane.”

“No, not particularly.”

“Can you stop?”

Maria reaches for the button that will let her voice be heard over the whole plane. “This is your pilot speaking. If you have any complaints, feel free to send them to SHIELD HQ where they will be filed and incinerated. If you would like to talk to me about the flight, I am not available. Thank you and enjoy the landing.”

Melinda laughs. “Wow, you’re a dick, you know that?”

That gets heard over the whole plane, too.

“And you’re dumb.”

Melinda tries to leave the cockpit, only to go flying forwards as Maria angles the plane at a steep incline. She hits her head against the wall and leans back.

“Does she even know what she’s doing?” Clint asks.

“Nope, so come help!” Maria calls out.

Clint stands up so quickly Natasha thinks his pants might be on fire. He rushes into the cockpit and grabs the yoke.

“I can’t land a plane without crashing,” Maria admits. “But they had no other pilots so I offered.”

“Hasn’t Melinda taught you that yet?” Clint asks.

“Never again,” Melinda yells to them.

Clint lands the plane and they all walk out, intending to head back to the Bus and find their beds. It doesn’t work out that way. Maria wrinkles her nose at them.

“You guys stink,” she says.

“We didn’t pack anything so we’ve been wearing the same set of clothes for like, two weeks,” Skye says.

“Ah. That makes sense,” Maria says.

Melinda gets ambushed by Medical staff and is taken away. She doesn’t even try and protest but the doctors are taking no chances, keeping three or four around her at all times. Melinda just wants to sleep. She lets the doctors give her a full check-up. They find nothing wrong with her and let her leave.

Melinda stumbles on her way out and is immediately surrounded by Medical staff. She grits her teeth and clenches her fists as a new wave of pain hits her. She waves them off and makes her way to the Bus. It’s still in the hangar. Coulson is waiting there for her.

“We’re going to the Academy,” he tells her, a grin a mile wide on his face.

Melinda perks up. “Really? Operations?”

Coulson nods. “Yeah. There’s been an accident and the recruits keep fighting each other so we’re going in to stop it.”

Melinda deflates. “Really? We get to be the peacekeepers? Can’t we knock them out and show them up?”

Coulson smirks. “That’s plan B.”

Melinda is stunned into silence. Coulson hugs her in his excitement.

“We can go and find all the holes in walls. See if they’ve repaired any,” he tells her.

“I think there was … fifty-two?”

Coulson nods. “Something like that, anyway.”

“When are we going?” Melinda asks.

Coulson’s eyes light up. “Two days.”

“How long?”

“A week, two weeks. It’s undecided.”

“Are the others coming?”

“Yes.”

Melinda shrugs. “Oh well.”

“Celebration time?” Coulson asks.

“You bet,” Melinda says.

The walk quickly up the ramp and make their way to the kitchen. The others are already there. Melinda rummages around in the cupboards and finds a bag of unopened popcorn. She puts it in the microwave and finds a bowl to put it in.

“What’s the popcorn for?” Skye asks.

“Celebration,” Melinda answers.

They can all hear the excitement in her voice. It’s radiating off her.

“What for?” Bobbi asks.

Melinda turns around and grins at them all. “We’re going to the Academy.”

“Operations?” Fitz asks.

Melinda nods and tips the popcorn into the bowl. Coulson comes in holding two DVDs.

“I got the Matrix and Harry Potter. There’s also probably a thousand Disney movies if you want,” he says.

“We aren’t watching Harry Potter again, Phil,” Melinda tells him. She turns to the team. “You guys coming?”

They all stand up hesitantly and follow the two out. The Matrix starts. Hunter passes out beer. By the time the movie has finished, nearly everyone has fallen asleep. Only Melinda and Skye are awake. They glance at each other and then the sleeping bodies.

“Markers?” Melinda whispers.

Skye nods, grinning. They stand up quietly. Melinda gets her bucket of markers and Skye finds a bottle of tomato sauce. She squirts it on everyone’s hands while Melinda draws on their faces. They high five and then curl up together on the floor. The wake up just minutes before everyone else and scram before they can get gotten. Melinda makes her tea while Skye makes coffee. Coulson finds them first. He looks completely unimpressed. There is a red smear above his eye and on his cheek.

“You two are so mature,” he says sarcastically. There’s no bite.

Melinda grins at him. “Don’t worry. I didn’t use vivid.”

Coulson smiles at her. “You did.”

Melinda looks surprised. “I thought I got the markers, not the vivids.”

“You thought wrong.”

Melinda passes him a cup of coffee and a facecloth. He wipes off the tomato sauce and smiles ruefully at her.

“I don’t suppose you have a way to get vivid off, do you?” he asks.

Melinda smirks. “Actually, I do.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I’ll show you,” she offers.

They leave Skye alone in the kitchen.

Melinda puts the plug in the sink and runs the hot water. She nudges Coulson’s head in. He stays like that until he needs to breathe. Melinda rubs a soapy facecloth over the marker and grins when it starts to come off. It takes half an hour for it to be only a faded outline.

“Want it all off or can you cope walking round like you’ve got a toddler to look after?” she grins.

“You’re the toddler,” he teases.

She shoots him an offended look and splashes water at him. He does the same, scooping up handfuls and flinging it at her. She turns away. The door opens and Coulson flicks water at her but she ducks and it hits Fitz instead.

Both of them stop. Melinda passes Fitz a towel. He’s blushing, ever so slightly and Melinda resists the temptation to call him out on it. Fitz leaves as fast as he can.

Melinda and Coulson smile at each other once he’s gone. Then she goes back to attacking his face with the cloth. The facecloth is blue and green and purple and red by the time they’re done. Bobbi and Mack and Simmons have all scrubbed away the marker but Hunter and Fitz are still going. Simmons takes pity on Fitz and steers him towards the bathroom to wash off the marker.

At the end of the day, only Hunter still has a colourful face. Melinda starts to wonder if he even knows. A high pitch scream comes from the bathroom and Hunter runs out.

“My face!” he shrieks. “My beautiful face! What have you done?”

He turns on Bobbi and Mack but they both put their hands up. Skye can’t cover her laughter and he rounds on her.

“Skye! How could you? I thought we were friends,” he says.

“It wasn’t me,” she laughs. “I did the tomato sauce. My partner in crime did the face drawing. She’s really good.”

“She,” Hunter muses. “It’s not Bobbi. Simmons and May. Which one of you two did it?”

Neither says anything. Jemma glances at Melinda, her face giving nothing away but she asks a silent question with her eyes. Melinda gives an imperceptible nod back.

“Why isn’t it Bobbi?” Melinda asks.

“She just said it wasn’t,” Hunter says. Then it dawns on him and he spins around.

“Melinda! Don’t just throw me under the bus and walk away,” Bobbi protests.

“So it was you,” he says to Melinda.

Melinda smirks at him. “You have no proof.”

“There are probably cameras,” Hunter shrugs.

Then he realises he could use the cameras to find out who drew on his face. Melinda trips him up and beats him to the surveillance room, locking the door. She deletes the footage and lets him in.

“That just proved you did it,” Hunter says. “I’m gonna get you back.”

“You can try,” Melinda grins.

 

Two days later, Melinda starts up a jet. It runs smoothly. They land at the Academy with no trouble. Melinda and Coulson’s old professor, Jenkins, greets them. He was old when he taught them and he’s older still, probably in his late eighties, early nineties. He teaches first aid survival skills.

“Barton isn’t here, is he?” Jenkins asks, peering around as if expecting Clint to pop up out of nowhere.

“No. He’s not part of our team,” Melinda says.

Jenkins had had a bad run-in with one of Clint’s pranks. The heater had set on fire because of overheating and the paper Clint had stuffed inside lit up. Jenkins’ hand had been burnt, not too bad, but it was enough to get Clint in big trouble. Melinda had just been glad she wasn’t part of it.

Coulson points out the first hole to her. It’s high up, just below the ceiling. “One,” he counts. “Accident or on purpose?”

“Accident. I was trying to get Levi Boyle,” Melinda says. “One of his goons jerked my arm up and I pulled the trigger.”

She doesn’t mean for Skye to overhear. The light slap on her shoulder tells her she failed.

“Trigger happy, this one,” Skye tells Jenkins.

“Believe me, I know,” Jenkins says, nodding.

“Don’t tell me you shot him too?” Skye asks.

“I did no such thing,” Melinda says. “I’m not suicidal.”

Coulson snorts. “Yeah, Fury would kill her if she shot at one of the professors.” He turns to Jenkins. “So where are the students causing trouble?”

Jenkins points to a run down old shed used for sports supplies like soccer balls and basketball and netball hoops. It’s painted blue, made of corrugated iron. “They make awful rackets and no one is in their beds whenever we go to check. We can’t find anything that shows they are in their and they all come to classes tired and hungover.”

“Have you thought about the fact that it might just be a recording of one of their parties put in their and turned up full blast?” Melinda asks.

Jenkins nods. “We watched the surveillance cameras multiple times and no one is leaving campus. They’re all holing up in that shed.”

“We’ll take a look,” Coulson says.

They head over where they are greeted by another professor, Stothard. She’s been teaching hand to hand combat for over fifty years. She’s a wiry old woman, stern but full of energy. Standing beside her is a younger woman. Probably a trainee teacher. She has dark hair and green-blue eyes. She’s lean and muscular, wearing black clothes.

“Follow me,” Stothard says, giving Melinda a warning look.

Her team snicker quietly behind her.

“You don’t need to worry, professor,” Melinda says. “I won’t break or shoot anyone.”

Stothard snorts. “That’s what you said last time.”

Melinda can’t recall saying that but then she remembers when Peggy Carter and Howard Stark came to the Academy and everyone had to be on their best behaviour.

“Oh, come on. I didn’t even break anything. And he deserved it,” she says.

“Yes, I’m sure,” Stothard says drily. She opens the shed door and leads them in.

The light is dim and barely casts light all the way to the corners. Sports equipment is pushed all the way to the edges. The shed is not very big. It can hold maybe thirty people, forty at the most. The floor is dusty and covered with footprints.

Melinda thinks it’s more likely that this is a cover. Ater all, who would have a party with only thirty or forty people. It’s a waste of time. Then she considers the secret tunnel option. She shares this thought with them and they clean out the sports equipment and go around the edges of the shed. Mack finds it. It’s a little corner of a mat that looks like someone glued dust and wood to it. He lifts it back and finds a hole. There is a rusty metal ladder on the far side.

“Hey, guys. It’s over here,” he says.

They crowd around him. Bobbi goes down first, then Hunter, Mack, Skye, Fitz, Simmons, Melinda, Coulson. At the bottom of the hole is a tunnel, about five and a half feet high. Melinda is the only one who can walk without needing to bend. Bobbi and Mack are forced to bend at the waist and knees, whereas the others only need to lower their heads. Eventually, the tunnel widens and gets higher by about a foot. There is a wooden door, old and decayed by the dirt and the bugs that ate it. A few padlocks have been puts on it to try and make it harder to get into. It's useless.

Jemma hands Bobbi a hairpin and she jiggles it around until the lock clicks open. She does it for the rest of the padlocks and then pulls the door open. The room inside is empty, save for a few passed out students. Melinda crouches down beside one, a boy, about twenty, twenty-one. He’s blonde and probably blue-eyed with strong shoulders. There’s a crate of empty beer bottles beside him and she knows he’s going to have a massive headache when he wakes up.

The room is pretty big, a big square, fifteen metres for every wall. It’s about three meters high with a pool table in the middle. There are several tables scattered, and more chairs than space. The floor is wood, probably planks stolen from the benches on the field. There is another kid unconscious by the bar. The bar is shoved into a corner, made out of wood again. There are a few shelves behind the bar, stocked with alcohol.

Mack lifts up the kid by the bar. It’s a boy, maybe twenty-two. He’s got brown hair. He’s bulky, thighs as wide as Melinda’s head. Mack swings the kid over his shoulder. Melinda hauls up the other kid. He’s taller than her but she can manage. She lifts him like a fireman and follows after the others.

The kid wakes up halfway to the Academy buildings. Melinda drops him on his back and waits for him to stand. He falls on her and she sighs, wrapping an arm around his waist to keep him upright. He keeps an arm over her shoulders to balance himself. Mack’s kid doesn’t wake up.

“What’s your name?” Melinda asks, not wanting to keep calling him a kid.

“Thomas Leckwith,” he slurs.

“You know, you should really know your limit by know,” she grumbles as he stumbles and she has to catch him before they both fall down. “What’s the other kid’s name?” she asks.

“Billy Follet,” Thomas says, his words mixing again.

“Tell him to know his limit as well, then,” Melinda says.

Her team is waiting for her at the entrance to the Academy. They grin at her, clearly finding it amusing that she’s being swamped by a recruit.

“You want some help?” Coulson offers.

Melinda glares at them. She’ll manage. She’ll prove it. “No, I’ll manage.”

Stothard opens the door for them and they walk in. No one is around and Melinda guesses that everyone is in their classes. They hear shouting coming from the right. Stothard growls and hurries towards it. They follow after her.

Stothard opens the door to a gym and the shouting gets louder. An instructor is trying to get the recruits to calm down. The recruit riling everyone up is a boy with green skin. He’s probably been the victim of a prank and someone has made a smart remark about it.

“You’re all arseholes,” he shouts. “You bunch of dickheads!”

His buddies back him up, shouting insults. A girl is yelling back at him. Then everyone is fighting. Stothard looks helplessly at them and then back at the Bus team. Melinda gives Thomas to Coulson and slips into the fighting. No one sees her but suddenly everyone is on the ground staring up at her in confusion. Melinda glares at them all.

“You know, if you’re going to disturb a class, at least do it in something boring,” she says crossly.

No one answers her. They all just stare at her. Melinda folds her arms and continues glaring at them. They look away and at their instructor.

“Thank you, Agent May,” the instructor says, recognising her.

“No problem, Agent Nielson,” Melinda says amiably.

He orders his recruits to run fifty laps of the gym and then turns to Melinda’s team.

“To what do I owe this pleasure?” he asks.

“We’re here to break up the fighting,” Coulson says.

“Oh, thank God,” he says.

Stothard leaves them. They wait for the recruits to finish running. A tall bulky recruit smirks at Melinda. Her glare goes up a few notches. He hesitates before winking at her to hide his nervousness. Skye grins at her. Melinda’s hands clench into fists. Coulson sets down Thomas and Mack does the same for Billy.

“Recruits, these agents are here to show you what it’s like to be an agent. That means you listen, work hard and do not fight each other constantly,” Neilson says.

“Do they suck hard too?” the recruit that had winked at Melinda asks.

There is a stunned silence. Melinda has to hide her laugh. Skye doesn’t have as much luck as her. Jemma goes bright red. Bobbi raises an eyebrow. Hunter smirks, Fitz blushes, Coulson glares, Mack glares.

“Lewis!” Neilson exclaims. “That is entirely inappropriate.”

“Do they?” he asks again.

“Don’t be so vulgar,” Neilson snaps.

“Why not?” Lewis asks.

“Because you never know if they might challenge you to a sparring match and then humiliate you in front of your friends,” Neilson says. “Or just prank you again.”

“I bet I could take them. Anyone of them,” Lewis says cockily.

“Is that so?” Neilson asks.

Lewis nods, looking straight at Melinda.

Hunter looks over at Melinda. “Kick his ass for us, love.”

Melinda turns to him. “I thought we came here to break up the fighting, not keep fighting.”

“Scared?” Lewis taunts.

“Are you?”

The question throws him for a minute. He’s not expecting it.

“No. Why would I be. You’re just a little girl.”

“I take it all back,” Melinda mutters. “We can come here to fight them.”

She steps forward. Lewis steps back and walks onto one of the mats. Melinda follows. When he turns to her to ask another stupid question, she darts in and smacks her hands against his chest, kneeing him in the gut. He stumbles backwards and swings wildly but she’s already gone. She plays with him for few minutes. He knows this and it’s angering him. He charges at her and she steps aside, hooking her ankle around his legs. He faceplants and she doesn’t wait for him to stand. He rolls over and she rests her knee against his throat and grabs his wrists. When he tries to knock her off, she simply shifts with him, pressing her knee harder.

“I thought I was just a little girl,” she remarks.

“I wasn’t trying,” he retorts.

“Oh, were you not? Let’s see you try, then,” Melinda says, standing up.

Lewis stands up and lets her make the first move. Melinda punches him and he dodges, retaliating. He wasn’t lying, she realises. He’s much better this round. Still, she beats him easily. She kicks his knee and when his leg buckles she moves in and strikes at his chest. He falls backwards and doesn’t get up.

She doesn’t help him up. She walks back to her team. Well, she goes to. Lewis jumps on her. They crash to the mats and she lands on her back with him on top. He smirks smugly at her, thinking her trapped. Melinda doesn’t pause once, kneeing him in the groin, striking her fists on his torso. She rolls them over so he’s on his stomach and pins his hands to the small of his back. Lewis grunts. He struggles but she keeps him in place.

“Surrender?” she asks pleasantly.

Lewis nods frantically when she presses down harder on his hands, twisting his shoulders painfully. Melinda stands and steps away. She walks back to her team. Hunter claps her on the back.

“That showed him,” he grins.

Lewis makes his way to the rest of the recruits who are smirking at him. His face is flamed red. Melinda pities him. It’s going to take him ages to live that one down.

“Try to show respect to senior agents next time,” Neilson says. “All of you, on the mats. Hand to hand combat.”

The recruits make their way over, pairing up with their friends. Coulson nudges her.

“Remind you of the old days?” he asks.

“I was younger than, but yeah. It’s nice to kick sexist douchebags' asses again,” Melinda comments.

Coulson smiles. “There’s two and three over there.”

Two and three are high up on the ceiling beside a light. The team goes their separate ways. Melinda and Coulson run around the Academy, counting out bullet holes. Melinda spies Fury entering the Academy and can guess what he’s doing here.

“Quick, hide,” she hisses to Coulson. “Fury’s here.”

Coulson peers around the corner and Fury locks eyes with him. He jerks his head back and stares at Melinda.

“You didn’t do that report, did you?” Coulson says.

“No,” Melinda says.

Coulson looks around again. Fury is walking towards them, carrying a thin folder. His lips curl up at the corners. Melinda dashes away, into the crowd. Coulson follows her quickly. Fury appears around the corner and spots them almost immediately. Coulson is the only one with thinning hair.

He follows them. The recruits make a path for him. Melinda and Coulson walk faster, almost at a run. Then Jemma appears from around a corner, stopping them. Melinda dodges around her and bursts into a run. Jemma stops and stares.

“Oh,” she says.

Fury catches up with them. “If you see Agent May, tell her that if she doesn’t complete the Morocco mission report, she’ll be training recruits for so long the fun will wear off.”

Chapter Text

Fury finds Melinda in the gym. She’s fighting with Bobbi.

“Agent May,” he says, loud enough for her to hear.

Melinda swears and strikes at Bobbi harder. Bobbi dodges and forces her backwards. She jumps as Bobbi tries to swipe her legs out from underneath.

“Your report. Finish it,” he says.

Melinda ignores him again but he’s distracted her enough for Bobbi to grab her arms and pin them behind her back. Fury smirks at her. Both women are sweaty. Bobbi’s face is red. They’re grinning from the exhilaration.

“That’s cheating,” Melinda says.

Fury holds out the folder. “Take it. Do it.”

Melinda doesn’t move for a minute or two. Then she swallows and moves forward stiffly. She forces herself to take it. Then she walks out of the gym. She finds Mack and Hunter sitting on the field, watching the recruits kick a soccer ball between them.

“Do you have a pen?” she asks.

Mack shakes his head. Hunter passes her a red pen. Standard regulation in SHIELD says all paperwork must be done in black or blue ink but Melinda can’t bring herself to care. She sits down beside Mack and starts to write.

The mission report for Morocco. It was on a Tuesday of the first week of August. Agent Clyne and Agent O’ Jackson boarded the quinjet first. I entered last and waited with them in the cargo hold.

Thirty-six words. Good start.

“Are you writing a story?” Hunter asks, leaning over Mack to read it.

“Minimum of two hundred and fifty words,” Melinda says by way of answering.

“Ah,” Hunter nods understandingly.

They were learning how to be Specialists. The pilot landed us in an abandoned farm. We spent the first day waiting for the target to show. We moved from coffee shop to coffee shop and didn’t find him. The weather was hot so we left the coffee shops early and sat down in a park. There were children playing on the playground. A girl of about three fell off the slide and broke her arm. The target didn’t show up at eight o’clock. We found a cheap hotel and paid for a room for one night. We shared a bed because there was only one and it was cold.

One hundred and forty-six words. More than halfway.

In the morning, we left the hotel at five o’clock and made our way to a restaurant where he was eating. We found him. I clocked him as soon as we entered. Our cover was we were friends from when Agent Clyne and Agent O’ Jackson went to China for a business trip and I was over for a visit and we were catching up. We tailed the target to his warehouse. The target was riding in an armoured car with a driver and three guards. The guards had sidearms. We entered the warehouse. The mission was accomplished. Agents Clyne and O’ Jackson died in the process.

There. Two hundred and fifty-three words. Done. She gives Hunter his pen back and goes to find Fury. She finds him and hands him the report. He opens it and reads it. He sighs and closes his eye in despair. By the time he opens it a second later, she’s long gone.

“Better than nothing,” he mutters to himself.

Melinda finds Coulson and they wander around the Academy. They go past each of their bunks. The door of Coulson’s bunk is still tinged red, white and blue from when Melinda spray-painted it for his birthday. They laugh until they get to Melinda’s bunk and the floor is still slightly green from when Coulson repaid the favour on her birthday with slime and they couldn’t get it out. There is a slight dent beside the door from when Melinda punched the wall in a fit of rage.

Melinda and Coulson head towards the gym. There are a few mats free, the rest full of recruits trying to be the best. They choose one in the corner. No one ever chooses that mat because no one can see you and everyone wants to be seen. That’s why Melinda likes it best.

They begin slowly, just a few warmup punches. Some of the recruits sneer at them. The sneers quickly go away when they actually start, moving at a speed that none of them can ever hope to match. Coulson knows he’s going to lose early on but that doesn’t stop him trying. He gets a few punches in and Melinda backs off a bit. He still lands on his ass but he lasts a couple minutes longer.

Melinda extends an arm to help him up and he yanks her down. She lets out a surprised yelp and lands beside him. She sits up and scowls at him.

“Cheat,” she says.

Coulson just laughs and stands up. “New round?”

Melinda nods and they spar again and again and again until they are the only people left. Coulson shifts his weight and in doing so, loses his footing because of the sweat on the mat. Melinda’s fist nicks the top of his head. He lets out a puff of breath and rolls quickly, even though he’s tired and just wants to beat her now. Melinda kicks his side and he grabs her ankle. They wrestle, kneeing and elbowing, each grappling for the upper hand. In the end, Coulson wins. He presses his forearm across her throat and straddles her stomach.

“I win,” he says breathlessly, grinning.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Melinda replies, grinning as well.

He gets off her and flops on his back next to her. Melinda sits up after a while.

“We should probably go get lunch,” she says.

“I thought you were never hungry?” Coulson teases.

“I’ve just been sparring with you for how long?”

Coulson checks the clock. “Three and a bit hours,” he says.

“Exactly. C’mon, the others might be there,” she says, standing up.

Coulson follows her example, though slower. He wipes his face with his shirt and swipes the drink bottle Melinda’s using.

“Hey,” Melinda protests.

He laughs and fills it up before passing it to her. “Is this even yours?”

“No. I don’t know who’s it is but I’m borrowing it.”

They leave the gym and make their way to the mess hall. They find their team sitting in the middle because of course they were. Melinda slides in next to Hunter and Coulson sits on the end beside Fitz.

“Have you two been sparring for three hours?” Ske says in disbelief.

Melinda nods. “Yeah.”

“We saved you some food,” Jemma says, passing them each a plate.

Melinda looks surprised. “Thanks.”

She starts eating before noticing everyone is looking at her strangely.

“What?”

“You’re … eating,” Skye says.

Melinda rolls her eyes. “I’m hungry.”

Jemma pretends to faint.

“Oh, come on. I’ve been sparring for three hours and now I’m not allowed to be hungry?”

“That … makes sense, actually,” Skye says.

“Of course it makes sense,” Melinda says around a mouthful of food.

“I see your table manners are no better than before,” Coulson comments.

Melinda points her knife at him. “It might be plastic but I think it’ll hurt enough if I stab it in your eye.”

Coulson grins. “Ah, I’ve missed your threats.”

“I haven’t,” Skye mutters.

“I’m not threatening you,” Melinda says. “Threatening implies that you might not actually do it. I’m telling you.”

“Well, that’s not psychopathic at all,” Hunter says under his breath.

Melinda rolls her eyes at him, stealing his water. Hunter tries to snatch it back, only for Melinda to lean back into an oncoming recruit with a tray full of food. The recruit falls over Melinda’s head and drops the food, resulting in a nice new change of his clothes. Melinda nearly falls off the bench but grabs Hunter and hooks her ankles around the table legs. The recruit runs off with a dirty look in Melinda’s direction. She pulls herself up and resumes drinking. Hunter sulks, glowering at her.

“I’m keeping it,” she tells him.

“What?! No, you’re not,” he exclaims, reaching out for it.

Melinda pushes him away, stands up and fast walks out of the mess hall.

“Hunter, you moron,” Bobbi says. “Look at her plate.”

Everyone looks at her plate. Half of a sandwich has been nibbled but everything else, the apple, biscuit and raisins are untouched. Jemma doesn’t say anything, just gets up and walks out, taking Hunter’s protein bar.

“What is it with stealing my stuff?” he demands.

“You scared off Agent May,” Fury says, appearing behind him.

Hunter jumps. “Jeez, dude, do you have to scare people like that? Can’t you go up to people and… Never mind,” he trails off. “Sir,” he adds.

Fury looks at him, amused. “Phil, where would she have gone?”

Coulson shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do. You were partners for thirty years. You were friends here for three. You must know where she would have gone.”

Coulson shakes his head. “No- Oh, wait. Yes, actually.” He pulls out his phone and texts a message to her. “Fury … is … here. Dammit auto correct. Here. Come … back. Anything else?”

“Simmons,” Bobbi says.

“Jemma … on … the… hunt,” he mumbles.

“Do you always speak out loud when you message people?” Mack asks.

“Sometimes,” Coulson shrugs.

“Always,” Melinda corrects, appearing at his shoulder. “What can I do for you, sir?” She takes the folder Fury gives her and frowns, chewing on her lip. “I … don’t know. Maybe. Let me check.” She leaves with the folder and her sandwich.

Jemma comes back just as she leaves and sticks the protein bar in Melinda’s pocket. Melinda makes a face at her unwraps it and takes a bite. She goes to the library and borrows a computer. Her hands fly over the keyboard, sending emails to all her mom’s contacts.

Chang Zhuo replies immediately. It’s like he’s been waiting for her. She tells the others not to worry and replies to Chang.

To: Chang Zhuo

From: Melinda May

Three weeks, maybe more. Two months maximum. Mack, Bobbi, Hunter, Coulson, Skye, Fitz, Simmons, me. Possibly Nat and Clint.

To: Melinda May

From: Chang Zhuo

Not a problem. I’ve only got eight beds so some might have to double up or sleep on the floor if Nat and Clint come. I’ll be there while your there. C u soon.

Melinda logs out and shuts the computer down. She stands and leaves the library. She finds her team still where she left them. “All good,” she tells Fury. “We can stay. Chang is in the area as well, which is handy.”

Fury nods. “Get the Bus ready when you leave here. Coulson, you inform your two assassins.”

Coulson nods. “We can leave now if you want.”

“No. Get the fighting under control and then leave.” Fury leaves.

It takes them three days and seven broken bones before they can leave. Melinda has a black eye from a stray punch. Bobbi, Hunter, Mack and Skye think it’s hilarious. Coulson knows better than to say anything, Fitz is too intimidated to say anything and Jemma thinks she shouldn’t have been in the middle of the fight in the first place.

Melinda checks the fuel, determines they have enough to get to China and starts up the Bus. The familiar sound of the engine washes over her, relaxing her.

“Wheels up in five. Lock it or lose it, people,” she says through the speakers. It’s mostly for Skye, but she finds it amusing as well.

The door to the cockpit opens and Melinda knows it’s Natasha from the way her footsteps are barely there.

“Hey, Nat,” she says.

“Hey, Mel,” Natasha greets. “Heard we’re going to China.”

“Mm.”

“You don’t sound excited.”

“Mm.”

“Come on, Mel. You lived there for a period of time, right?”

Melinda nods. “Thirteen years. My mom left me with my aunt until she died when I was three. Then she just enrolled me under different names at daycare or after school activities when she had to go away. She started taking me with her when she trusted me to shut up and sit still and not tell anyone I was the daughter of a CIA agent.”

Natasha doesn’t reply.

“Maybe I could go see my old schools.”

“Schools? Plural?”

“Yeah. Mama moved us around China for ages. I think I had seven separate schools that I went to.”

“Wow.”

“Mm.”

“How’d you get the black eye?”

Melinda doesn’t say anything.

“Mel, come on. How?”

“Cadet. Stray punch. I wasn’t looking at him.”

Natasha cackles. “Oh, that’s too good to be true.”

They sit in silence for a minute. Melinda’s hand rests near the autopilot switch. Natasha watches it with careful eyes. She takes it as the invitation no one gave her. Melinda yelps as Natasha pounces on her, flicking the switch.

“Nat!”

Natasha silences Melinda’s protests with her lips. She presses her girlfriend into the pilot chair, plundering, taking and then softening, letting Melinda drive the kiss. When Melinda bites down on her lip, she grins and presses against Melinda harder. She feels Melinda’s hand snake around her waist and tightens her grip in Melinda’s hair. When she pulls away for breath, Melinda catches her and pulls her back in. Natasha smirks against Melinda’s lips and forces her tongue in. Melinda concedes after a battle in which she loses. Miserably. When Natasha pulls away the next time, she just sinks back in the pilot’s seat and tries to reclaim the breath Natasha stole. Natasha’s cheeks are red and her lips are swollen but she’s grinning and looks to be happier than she was at the Avengers Tower. Melinda’s cheeks are flushed, too. She hums contentedly when Natasha switches their positions, so she’s sitting on her lap.

Melinda doesn't remember dozing off but she wakes up just as Natasha tries to get her off her. Natasha dumps her gently on her co-pilot’s seat and lands the plane smoothly. Melinda rubs her eyes and tries to make herself not look like she just spent the last hour sleeping and kissing. When she gets t the cargo bay with Natasha, Skye’s smirk tell her she’s failed. Luckily, Clint comes down before Skye can say anything. They’ve landed in a clearing in a forest. They’ve got a good two-hour walk ahead of them and she’s glad for combat boots again. Coulson lets her lead them and she sets off at a good pace until Bobbi’s walking on her heels with every second step. She endures it for another minute or two before taking off at a run. She hears Skye complain but their footsteps come thudding through the ground, vibrating the dirt.

When she looks back and FitzSimmons, Skye and Mack are lagging behind, she slows to a jogging pace. Then Clint runs right behind her, almost standing on her heels. She speeds up and slows down and then stops and steps aside but he just grins and follows her lead.

“May, let’s take a break,” Coulson says.

Melinda nods, glaring at Clint. Clint steps back, a peace gesture but Melinda knows he won’t stop. Natasha elbows him and he elbows her back and then they’re scrapping in the dirt. Melinda just sighs and looks up at the sky. Natasha wins, pinning him on his stomach and twisting his arms harshly.

“Ow, jeez, I’m sorry, Tasha,” he mumbles.

“Leave Mel alone,” Natasha says.

“Fine, fine,” he grumbles.

Skye aws. Melinda’s face takes on a stony expression.

“Let’s go,” she says.

They walk through the forest for a good hour and then come out on a dirt road. A few miles away is a house on a potato farm. It’s small for a farm, maybe one hundred square acres. Melinda steps over an almost invisible tripwire and breathes a sigh of relief when the others copy her. Then she hears the grinding of gears and spins around. She sees Hunter with his foot on top of the wire and shoves him out of the way. A knock out dart shoots through the area he was just in. Hunter groans from where he’s sprawled on the ground.

“Pay attention,” she snaps.

Coulson frowns. “C’mon, Melinda. It was just a mistake.”

“Do you want to lug his carcass all the way to the house?” Melinda asks.

Coulson grins. “Fair point.”

They continue walking and make it through the first mile without any drama. Then Skye trips on a loose rock. A rifle appears out of nowhere. Melinda sighs and continues walking forward. The others gape at her and wait for her to be shot down. Nothing happens. The rifle disappears and they follow cautiously. When they get to the porch, Melinda knocks on the door and stands against the wall. The door opens and a black and brown dog runs out, barking its head off. It bowls over Coulson who falls into Mack and FitzSimmons. Melinda can barely keep the smile off her face. Coulson scowls at her.

“Thanks for the warning,” he says sarcastically.

“You’re welcome,” she says, her tone light.

She doesn’t get another word out before an old Chinese man picks her up and squeezes her tightly.

“Chang,” she protests. “Chang.”

“Have you been eating? You're stick-thin. You’re not ill, are you?” he asks in concern.

Melinda rolls her eyes. “No, Chang, I’m fine. Can you put me down now?”

Chang lets her down. He was in his early thirties when she last saw him at graduation day. He looks to be somewhere in his sixties now. His hair is grey and white, his eyes brown like tree bark. He’s still as fit as when she last saw him, his skin brown. He’s wearing green pants and a khaki coloured T-shirt with brown stripes.

“How about it?” he says proudly, gesturing t his T-shirt.

“It’s hideous,” Melinda says honestly. “Get something black or grey next time.”

“That’s your colour and it’s dull. Skipper missed you,” he says.

Melinda looks down at the dog waiting for her to pay attention to him. She crouches down and scratches behind his ears. He licks her face and puts his paws on her knees.

“Disgusting,” she tells him simply. “You are disgusting.” She wipes the spit off her face and smears it on his fur. Skipper whines and backs away. “See?”

Her team go in without her, leaving her to catch up with the dog. Skipper barks loudly, drawing the attention of the birds. They squawk and fly off. Skipper growls at them and then slobbers happily on Melinda. She pushes him away. He whines and retreats, looking at her with that face she could never say no to. She sighs and opens her arms. Skipper barks excitedly and rushes towards her. They go crashing down the steps. Skipper lands on top of her on the last step. She rolls off it with a thump. Skipper lays on top of her, looking pleased with himself.

“Bad dog,” she mutters. “Very bad dog.”

“Skipper!” Chang calls from the doorway.

Skipper looks over.

“Get over here, you foolish dog.”

Skipper looks back at Melinda, clearly having no intention of moving. Skipper is a German Shepard, full of muscle, his body wider than her torso. And he’s heavy. His legs dig in uncomfortably on her hips. She shifts and Skipper licks her cheeks. He cleans away any of the blood and dirt. She pulls her arms out from under his paws and shoves his head away.

Chang walks over, trying not to laugh. She gives him an exasperated look. He hauls Skipper off and lets her get up before letting Skipper go. Melinda jumps over him when he runs at her again and bolts. She’s a dark blur with a ten-second headstart on a dog.

She runs past the window where her team is sitting and they all hear her laughing. Hunter nearly drops his tea. Skipper catches up to her eventually, bowling her over. Skye yelps and jumps backwards. She almost drops the mug of tea she’s brought out for Melinda. Instead, half of it splashes on her and the dog.

Melinda wipes it away. She looks up at Skye, unable to keep the wide grin off her face. Her eyes are glittering with mischief.

“Melinda!” Chang calls from the porch. “It’s dinner time. Go wash up.”

Skipper seems to understand that because he gets off her and nips at her head until she moves. Skye follows her. Melinda starts when Skye’s hands are on her body but then she realises she is just brushing off all the dirt and dust.

“Thanks.”

She isn’t expecting for Clint to take a picture of her when she walks into the house. She rears back in surprise. Bobbi is just leaving the bathroom when she goes in. Bobbi smirks at her.

“Here. Let me help,” she offers.

Melinda nods cautiously. Bobbi runs warm water over a facecloth and scrubs away the dirt and dog slobber.

“So,” Bobbi begins,” How do you know Chang?”

“He was my mom’s friend and he was a CIA operative so it was handy. We met when I was fourteen and I last saw fifteen years ago. He’s had Skipper for ages. There was Private and Rico before him so the next dog will be Kowalski,” Melinda says.

“Madagascar fan, then,” Bobbi says.

“Yeah. He likes penguin.”

Bobbi runs the tap. “Hands.”

Melinda complies, reaching for the soap. Bobbi smacks her hand and gets it herself. Melinda blinks.

“I can wash my own hands.”

“You don’t need to do everything,” Bobbi says gently.

“Oh, I know this talk. You can stop now,” she says.

Bobbi rolls her eyes. “How many times have you had this talk?”

“More times than I care to remember.”

Bobbi brushes off the remaining dirt and then spins Melinda around and pokes her in the back. Melinda walks into the kitchen and sits down at the spare seat not next to Hunter. She’s beside Chang and Skye. She’s passed a bowl of curry and scoops out a bit before passing it on to Skye. When she’s not looking, Chang takes her plate and the chopsticks for the dumplings. He puts her blate back before she’s noticed but she sees the dumplings and looks over at him anyway.

“You’re welcome,” he says.

Melinda frowns. “I’m not thanking you.”

“You should be. I’m helping you?”

“How?”

“By giving you food so you can go after whoever you’re going after.”

“I’m perfectly fine. I don’t need your help.”

Chang presses his lips in a thin line.

“We aren’t having this argument, Melinda,” Coulson says firmly. “Eat your dinner and stop complaining.”

“I never said I wasn’t eating. I just said I didn’t need your help.”

“We talked about this,” Bobbi says. “You don’t have to do everything on your own.”

Melinda makes a face. “I don’t do everything on my own.”

“Yes, you do,” Natasha says. “You withdrew after Bahrain and didn’t let anyone in so you suffered on your own.”

“You didn’t tell us that you were there to put Coulson down if things went south so you went through that on your own,” Fitz says.

“You lied to us after you were kidnapped by Ward-”

“Okay, I get it,” Melinda interrupts. “You guys think I do things on my own. Fair enough. I’m just telling you you’re wrong.”

“How?”

“I opened up to you guys. I let Jemma try and kill me.”

“You tricked us when you opened up and you ran away when Jemma tried to kill you,” Coulson says.

Melinda scowls. She takes a bite of her dumplings sulkily.

“I like your team, Melinda,” Chang says. “Why did you not introduce me to them earlier?”

“Because I knew this would happen.”

“Foresight. Very good tool.”

Melinda sticks out her tongue. She hears Skipper’s paws pattering on the carpet. He hides under the table and sniffs her feet. She kicks him gently in an effort to get him to go away. He persists until she shoves him away. He falls onto Coulson’s legs who looks at her in exasperation.

“Seriously?”

“Not my fault,” she says quickly.

“Your shoes are on his eyes. Don’t be so horrible.”

“He started it.”

“Don’t be so childish.”

“Don’t be so adult-ish.”

“That’s not a word.”

“Yes, it is.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Yes, it is.”

“It isn’t and we aren’t continuing this conversation.”

Melinda eats another dumpling in response.

When dinner is finished, everyone heads towards the lounge. The phone rings and Chang answers.

“It’s for you,” he says, passing it to Melinda.

Melinda takes it. It’s her mom.

“Mama,” she greets. “How are you?”

“Melinda,” her mom says. “Good. Where are you?”

“I’m at Chang’s. Your old friend.” She says it cautiously because her mom greeted her with “Melinda” not “Qiaolian.” “Where are you?”

“In a house,” her mom replies.

“Thank you for that, Mama. I missed your wit.” She hadn’t really. If her mom ever said that, it meant she was captured and in danger. It was one of their codes. “Where are you?”

“China. Just a few miles out of Shanghai. I don’t-“

She was cut off.

“Mama!” Melinda said frantically into the phone.

Ward’s voice greeted her.

“Hello, Melinda. How are you?”

She clenched her fist and her expression darkened. “Where is she?”

“Now, now, Melinda. You don’t need to worry about that.”

“Ward. If you’ve so much as touched her, I will kill you,” she spits.

Her team look over in worry and fear at Ward’s name.

“Your mother is just like you,” Ward says. “You should be proud.”

Melinda growls low in her throat. “I don’t care who you think you are. If you touch her again, you can be sure you’re a dead man.”

“You can try.”

Melinda tries another tactic. “Do you think you’re impressing Skye?”

There’s silence and Melinda knows she’s hit a nerve. She presses further.

“Do you think this is what she would want?”

“If you value your mother’s life, you should watch your tongue.”

Melinda swears and Ward’s chuckle lets her know he’s heard.

“Forgotten I have her? Maybe I’ll get your precious girlfriend next.”

Melinda stands up abruptly. “Just you try it,” she snarls. “If you harm any of them…” She lets the threat hang in the air.

“And then the science twins,” Ward continues.

“Don’t.”

“Then Bobbi and Hunter, then Mack.”

“Don’t you dare.”

“And then Coulson and Skye. I’ll make you watch it, make you hurt them.”

“You won’t get them.”

“I will.”

“Over my dead body.”

“That’s the story.”

“I’ll kill you,” she promises. “Just you wait.”

“Oh, I will. Here’s your mama,” he mocks.

“Qiaolian,” Lian gasps.

“Mama. Are you okay?”

“Fine. There are others here. Children.”

Melinda straightens. “Get them out. I’ll be there soon.”

“I don’t care.”

“You should. You can’t die for me.”

“You can’t die without me. Hold on.”

There is a scream and then the line goes dead and there is silence in the room. Melinda gives Chang the phone and then runs out of the room. She’s already armed. Chang presses a button and they hear the door slam shut.

“Chang,” Melinda shouts. Her voice is stained with pain.

“Was she talking about us?” Skye whispers.

Bobbi nods. “Like a mama bear protecting her cubs.”

Chang goes to get Melinda. She beats against his chest when he envelops her.

“Melinda,” he says, trying to get her to calm down.

“Let me go,” she cries.

“No. You’re in no position to think rationally. Come back to the lounge.”

No,” she protests.

“Yes. You need to calm down and think.”

“I am calm!”

“You are not. Look at yourself. Come on.”

Melinda struggles against his grip. She fails and is pushed towards her team who crowd around her. She knows they’re just trying to help but she really wants to be alone or finding her mom.

Chang lets her go and she flees. She has a narrow miss with Coulson’s hand and then she’s dragging Clint with her. The front door is locked so they go out the back door. Melinda runs to the edge of Chang’s property and turns left. Clint runs beside her, matching her pace. He still runs like the scrappy kid from Iowa, all long limbs and big feet. She completes five laps of the farm before Clint stops. He sits down and waits for her to finish. She doesn’t stop. She can’t. Not until her mom is safe. She hears Ward’s voice and then the scream and she runs faster. She hears the pain in her mom’s voice when she was telling Melinda where she is. She runs faster until she’s sprinting like the devil is behind her. Clint grabs her wrist when she passes him again. She stumbles and he stands up, pulling her towards him. She collapses against him, curling her fists in his shirt. He holds her up and she cries against him.

“It’s okay,” he whispers. “We’ll find her.”

“You don’t even like Mama,” Melinda accuses.

“That’s because she doesn’t like me. And she said so first,” Clint says. “So technically, she started it.”

It earns a laugh out of Melinda. She wipes her eyes and slumps down to sit on the ground. The grass pricks her back but she can’t bring herself to care. She lays down and watches the stars. She doesn’t notice when Clint leaves and comes back with a blanket. He retreats when Natasha comes over. She gets under the blanket and slips her arm under Melinda’s head. Melinda moves closer, still staring at the stars.

They fall asleep like that. Natasha wakes first. Somehow, Melinda has rolled away and curled around a boulder that Chang hasn’t gotten around to removing. The blanket is in the middle, between them. Natasha crawls over to her and shakes her shoulder gently. She frowns as she feels something different. She picks up her girlfriend and runs like hell back towards the house. Everyone is up as it’s just past ten. She lays Melinda on the table and grabs a sharp knife from the countertop.

“Hey!” Skye exclaims as Natasha tears away the shoulder of Melinda’s T-shirt.

“Tasha, what the hell?” Clint asks.

“Nat?” Coulson questions.

Natasha ignores them. She slices open Melinda’s skin a little and digs around with a smaller knife. When she finds what she wants, she crushes it between her fingers. Jemma hands her a needle and thread and a box of tissues. Once the blood is gone and Melinda is stitched up, she explains herself.

“Ward had a tracking device in her shoulder. That’s how he knows where we are,” she says. “It doesn’t work anymore.”

“I can’t believe you just did that,” Hunter says.

Natasha doesn’t spare him a glance.

“That is the table. Where we eat.”

“And she is Melinda, my girlfriend,” Natasha snaps. “We need to move soon. Ward knows where we are and he’ll be coming.”

“Yes. I am,” Ward says, appearing at the doorway with a gun. Ten more of his soldiers come into the room with guns. The safety is off and their fingers are on the trigger. One wrong move and everyone will be dead. “Hands where I can see them, Romanoff, get your hands away from that gun.”

Natasha slowly brings her hands away from her back. Everyone follows her example. Coulson leaves his hands at his sides.

“Coulson. You too. Hands where I can see them.”

Coulson doesn’t move until Ward points the gun at Fitz.

“Ward,” Fitz says, his eyes shining with tears. “Ward, don’t do this. I know you, you’re a good person. Don’t do this.”

Ward smiles cruelly at Fitz. “Too late, Fitz. You five. Cuff them and gag them if they make too much noise.”

Chang stands protectively beside Melinda who is still on the table.

“How much did you give her?” Ward asks.

“The normal amount,” one of his cronies replies.

Ward sighs. “I told you to stop at the three-quarter mark.”

“You drugged Melinda?” Natasha asks.

Ward nods. “Don’t need her ruining my plans. You can stay in her cell with her if you want, or I can give you all separate cells. I don’t care. You’re not getting out.”

Once they are all cuffed, Ward orders them out of the house. One of them slings Melinda of his shoulder and they see her eyelids twitch. Natasha’s lips curve up into a smirk.

“Something funny, Romanoff?” Ward calls back.

“Not a thing,” Natasha answers.

Melinda explodes into action when they go around a corner. She knocks out half of the guards before the other five, plus Ward, have trained their guns on her. She keeps her fists up, eyeing them all warily. Ward saunters over.

“Make one move and they shoot.”

Melinda kicks him in the balls and spins away before the bullets touch her. Ward winces but says nothing. He grabs her hair and pulls her back to him. One of his men cuffs her and gags her.

“Think of it as a holiday,” Ward says. “You can get to revisit your old cell.”

Melinda growls at him, bringing her chained hands up to pull the gag out. Ward sticks it back in but she just keeps pulling it out. In the end, he cuffs one of her ankles and ties a piece of strong rope to the cuff and then to her chained hands. She just bends down, pulls out the gag, straightens and continues walking.

“Where are we going? Is this like a death march or something, like the Nazi’s did, ‘cause that would actually make sense. I mean, Skye told us your Hydra thing stemmed from a Nazi so technically, you guys are Nazis.” Melinda shrugs when he looks back at her like she’s gone crazy. “I’m just saying.”

“Yeah, well stop just saying.”

They arrive at a van in a few minutes. It’s white with tinted windows.

“This is the least suspicious van ever. Nobody will wonder if you’re keeping someone trapped in there,” Melinda says sarcastically.

“Mel,” Natasha says quietly.

“Listen to your girlfriend,” Ward says. “Shut your mouth and stay like that.”

“I think I’ll pass,” Melinda says as she climbs into the van last. She’s manhandled roughly to sit between two of Ward’s goons. The five men she knocked out are still on the dirt path.

They stuff the gag into her mouth and grip her wrists.

“Hey! Let go of my girlfriend,” Natasha says angrily.

Ward laughs from his seat up the front. “No.”

It takes an hour to get to Ward’s hideout. It’s an abandoned factory. They go down to the basement. There is a load of cells and sheets hung up to form paths and stop everyone knowing what everyone is doing. Everyone except Melinda is chained to a wooden post. She’s chucked in a cell. The key clicks in the lock.

Ward shoots a button beside Fitz’s feet and the floor around the post falls away. Fitz wraps his legs around the post as his wrists chafe against the chains. Soon everyone except Natasha is hanging.

“Tell me where you’re keeping Mike Peterson,” he says to Melinda.

Melinda presses her lips together firmly. Ward drags a knife against Natasha’s face.

“I told you. Natasha first, then FitzSimmons, Bobbi, Hunter, Mack, Skye and Coulson. But now that Clint is here, he can go after Natasha.”

Clint is desperately trying to unlock his cuffs. He’s having no success. Neither is Skye, or Bobbi, or Hunter, or Coulson. Fitz twists a little piece of wire he had hidden in his sleeve into the lock and it clicks open. He jumps to the solid ground and grabs a gun. He shoots it at the locks and then aims it at Ward.

“Let her go, Ward. This isn’t you. You’re a good person,” Fitz tries.

Melinda watches from her cell. Natasha unlocks her and gets rid of the chains. Ward is surrounded. At least, that’s what they think. Hydra agents pour in from everywhere, ripping down sheets. Melinda realises it was a trick. The sheets are there to fool them. Hydra agents with guns are hiding between the sheets. Melinda stuffs her hands in her jacket pockets.

“Hands where I can see them,” Ward says again.

No one complies.

Ward sighs. “I guess we’ll have to do this the hard way.”

The Hydra agents press a gun at the side of Jemma’s head. Melinda starts forward but stops as the ginger on the trigger tightens. Then she hears a scream. She runs in the opposite direction. Dozens of Hydra agents follow after her.

Melinda bursts into a room on the second story of the factory. Her mama is chained like a dog to the wall. Melinda kills the men torturing her mama and frees her. The room is small. There’s a cage in the corner, taking up half of the room. There’s probably enough room in there for ten to fifteen people. There are multiple hooks around the room, probably for tying people to them.

“Melinda… Qiaolian,” her mama says, her voice hoarse. Her elbow is twisted at a funny angle and her ribs look broken. Her face is a bloody mess. Her fingertips are charred like the Hyrda agents were setting them alight and then blowing the flames out.

“Mama,” Melinda whispers, helping her stand. “Mama, how did they get you?”

“They said they had you.”

Melinda looks up in surprise. They’ve just made it to the door when it is flung open. Ward stands there, smirking. Both May women glare at him.

“You bastard,” Melinda snarls, shoving him. Lian leans against the wall and steals his gun. It’s empty when she fires it at his head.

Hydra agents restrain them, despite how much Melinda struggles. There’s too many of them. Lian doesn’t bother, knowing a lost battle when she sees one. Melinda doesn’t care. She’s going to fight and she’s going to win. Her team is brought up and when they see her in chains, struggling uselessly as they hold her down where her mom just was. Lian sits down heavily, all her energy leaving her. Ward cuffs her hands to a hook in the wall. Lian kicks him in the face. Skye snorts. It quickly disappears when Ward looks over his shoulder at her.

Natasha heads over to Melinda. She’s stopped by a barricade of Hydra agents. They stop her and force her back to Melinda’s team.

“Would you rather I hurt FitzSimmons first, or perhaps Romanoff and Barton?” Ward asks.

Melinda glowers at him. “Don’t you dare touch them.”

“Why not? Finders keepers.”

“You didn’t find them! You left them and you betrayed them! And now you want ownership? Get real, you traitor.”

Ward raises his eyebrow. “Traitor? I don’t think so. I was never on your team. I was merely undercover.”

Melinda strains against her bonds when he reaches for Clint. “Don’t. Touch him,” she hisses.

Ward stills and turns to look at her. “I don’t think you have much of a say in that matter.”

“I do,” Clint says. “If you hurt Melinda one more time, nowhere on this earth or any other planet will protect you from me and Natasha. Keep that in mind.”

Ward just rams a knife into Clint’s abdomen.

“That the best you got?” Clint asks.

“That’s just the beginning.”

“Clint, shut up,” Melinda says. “Ward, screw off. Go pick on somebody your own size.”

Clint stares open-mouthed at Melinda. “Are you insulting me, even now as we are captured?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Melinda mutters.

“Because you’re shorter than me.”

Melinda makes a face at him. When Ward scrapes a long cut down his arm from his shoulder to his elbow, he inhales sharply. Ward breaks Clint’s ribs with five punches.

“Shameful,” Clint says through gritted teeth.

Melinda feels the lock on her handcuffs click open. Ward hears it. He spins around but she’s still chained down, chains over her stomach and legs and shoulders. When he turns around, Clint is gone. He’s standing beside Natasha. There are multiple guns aimed at him.

“Get over here,” Ward says.

“What about if you leave them alone,” Melinda suggests. “And-”

“May, no,” Coulson says.

“And take it out on me instead.”

“You’re willing to be hurt just to save them from the pain?” Ward asks.

“Yes.”

“Are you crazy?”

“No.”

Ward gets the others put in a cell. Natasha tries to stop the flow of blood from Clint’s knife wound but it keeps pumping out steadily. He smiles giddily at Melinda.

“My hero,” he giggles.

Melinda doesn’t say anything, doesn’t let anything show when Ward begins. He breaks her nose, her ribs, her right knee and left elbow and both index fingers. Her collarbone snaps in two easily. There’s no blood yet but she doesn’t doubt it’s not coming. He takes a knife from a box and caresses it gently. Then he stabs Melinda’s shoulder and twists it. She just stops herself from making any sort of noise. He twists her around and slices along the old wounds her gave her.

Soon, her jacket and T-shirt are just shreds hanging loosely on her frame, nearly falling off. She shifts her feet just as Ward aims a punch at her gut where her ribs are broken. She can’t stop the cry that escapes her lips. Blood streams from her nostrils. She swipes her tongue across dry lips and waits for the next round. It’s not so bad. It’s very repetitive. Ward grabs her hands and pulls her little finger. It dislocates with a pop. One of the Hydra agents cuts away the shackles around her. She collapses to the ground, coughing up blood. It hurts but she’s glad it’s not any of the others. They don’t deserve to go through this. She can hear Skye still screaming at Ward. She falls back as several Hydra agents crowd around her, kicking her.

She struggles to her knees but is kicked back down to the ground. She holds her ribs tightly and pushes herself up again. She manages to get to her feet, keeping her weight off her right leg. She stumbles and gasps when her right leg hits the ground. Ward smirks at her until she jams her little finger back in place. She grits her teeth and stands on her broken leg, kicking him with the other. She limps forward when he falls back and manages to place herself in front of the cell that her team is in.

“Ward, you traitor, you monster!” Skye screams. “Stop it, leave her alone!”

Coulson’s hand is on her shoulder. Clint is pale and too still. Blood has stopped gushing out. Melinda sends Ward stumbling backwards with a punch to his gut and a shove. She doesn’t move, pain rocketing up and down her body. She waits until she is used to it and then advances painfully. The Hydra agents have their guns trained on her but they aren’t shooting so she knows she’s safe. She ducks when one of them fires a warning shot over her head. Ward takes the advantage and slams her back into the wall. She spits at him and twists so his fist hits the concrete wall beside her head. Her left leg is tiring, holding up her weight and when she shifts, he pulls the shackles on her wrists up so she’s dangling in mid-air. He attaches her handcuffs to a thick, sturdy rope hanging from the ceiling. She spins uselessly.

Her right arm is holding all her weight and while it’s not much, she won’t be able to continue holding herself up for much longer than a few hours. She grabs hold of the rope pulls herself up. She uses her left arm to keep herself there and while it hurt like hell, it’s worth it when she reaches the top of the rope and can sit there comfortably enough, even with her hands going numb underneath her.Ward can’t reach her, despite the rope being quite long because she somehow shortened it by a few inches. He pulls a box over. It’s made of cardboard so she doesn’t know what he’s thinking there. When he stands on it, she realises it is full and therefore able to stay in its shape.

She kicks him in the head and pulls herself up a little higher. Gripping the rope between her thighs, she lifts her hands and continues until she can touch the ceiling. She’s raised herself up three feet. Unfortunately, Ward has more boxes. He lifts another one up and stands on it. He can touch the ceiling now, too. She kicks him in the head again. While he’s distracted, she fumbles with the rope. She unties it and drops to the ground on her back with a thud and a groan.

“Ouch,” she says, rolling onto her stomach and pushing herself up.

All she has to do is make it until Tuesday when Fury will call for an update.

“What’s the day today?” she asks.

“Why do you care?” Ward asks. “It’s not like it’ll be any use to you.”

“Then you’ll have no trouble telling me. What’s the day?”

“Friday or Saturday,” one of his goons answers.

“No, it’s Monday,” another one of them argues.

“Sunday!”

“Friday!”

“Monday!”

“Wednesday!”

“All of you, shut up!” Ward yells. “It’s Saturday.”

“What time?”

Ward shrugs. “Twelve? Midday? I don’t know. There’s not exactly any clocks around here.”

Thre and a half days. She could do that. She jerks when someone stabs her with a syringe. The world starts spinning and she puts her hands out in front of her as she stumbles. The everything goes black.

She sees Bahrain again, every part of it, all of her mistakes. Eva Belyakov, Katya, her manic smile. The hand she tries to give Melinda. The single shot that blows her eardrums. The lifeless body. The little girl she killed. Her breathing quickens. She wakes up with a gasp. There’s a man, tall with dark hair and dark eyes, sitting on a cardboard box waiting for her. His hands are bloody. Half of the room is taken up by a cell. She recognises three of the people in there: Phil, Natasha and Clint. Clint is pale and still. Her mother is slumped against a wall, her face bloody and her elbow broken. She searches the cell for more familiar faces and finds Bobbi and Hunter. Beside them is a tall, dark-skinned man. His shoulders are huge. Phil’s hand is o the shoulder of a girl, probably twenty-five or thereabouts. She’s got dark hair, and she looks half-Chinese. Next to her are two kids, a boy and girl. The girl has brown hair and hazel eyes. She’s holding hands with the boy beside her, his hair is light brown and his eyes are blue. He’s wearing a pink and orange shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. She wonders if they’re together.

“May,” the girl with dark hair says in relief. Phil squeezes her shoulder.

“Who… who are you?” she asks, her voice raspy and dry.

There is a stunned silence. Then Phil speaks up.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” he asks.

Melinda glances up at the man with bloody hands. “Who’s he?”

“Grant Ward, Hydra agent, one of Garret’s,” Phil says.

Melinda remembers Garret. He was rude and sexually inappropriate.

“Who are you?” she asks the girl with dark hair again.

“I’m Skye,” she says.

Melinda looks helplessly at Phil.

“Well, as much as this is interesting, I think we have work to do,” Ward says, clapping his hands. He stands up and moves towards her.

His hand comes into her line of view and when it comes closer she tenses. She flinches violently when he’s too close for comfort. She scrabbles backwards. Her left arm gives up on her, pain shooting up and down from her elbow. She assumes it is broken but she doesn’t look, focusing on moving away from the hand. Her back hits the wall and she tries to become one with the concrete.

“Well, if you’re not going to co-operate, there’s always more people I can get my agents to practice on.

Melinda doesn’t know why she cares. She doesn’t even know any of them. But there’s something in Skye’s eyes when she looks at her that makes her protest.

“Don’t you touch them,” she hisses.

She’s surprised at the amount of hate that comes out.s

“Well then, stop moving away,” Ward says reasonably. “You can’t go any further, you don’t want me to hurt them.”

Melinda lets him manhandle her. She doesn’t make any sound of protest when he grabs her by her T-shirt. It tears and she’s left with a shoulder and a half of T-shirt. Ward sighs and grabs her arm. It’s her right, thankfully. She follows him, limping. When he tries to tie her up, she shifts and twists and bites. He lets go f her with a yell, cradling his hand. Melinda smirks at him. His eyes glimmer with hate. It comes to her that she probably shouldn’t have bitten him. Not when there’s so much on the line. He unlocks the cell and pulls the girl out, the one with brown hair and hazel eyes.

“Jemma!” the boy screams, gripping the bars of the cell so tightly his knuckles turn white.

The girl, Jemma, struggles but she’s not strong enough. Ward chains Jemma to one of the hooks in the wall and finds a knife. He’s so close to stabbing her when Melinda bowls him over. He forgot to tie her up and know he’s paying for it. Melinda releases Jemma and she runs back to the cell, locking the door. Melinda lets out a breath when he shoves her against the wall. She tries to push him away but he just brings her hands up above her and she’s helpless again as he screws a hook into a hole nearby before chaining her to it. Her stomach is taut with the effort of not hanging by her arms. Her toes barely reach the floor.

Ward stands back, looking at her smugly. He gestures for his agents to start.

“Make her scream,” he orders.

Chapter Text

Melinda grits her teeth and muscles her way through the pain. She forces herself to think of anything other than Ward and Bahrain. She thinks of Skye and Jemma and the boy she still doesn’t know the name of. Hydra. That was some organisation around when Peggy Carter was alive and kicking. It must have waited until she had died to come back. She laughs without meaning to.

“What?” Ward snaps.

“Hydra was around when Peggy Carter was alive and kicking. I don’t know what year it is now, but I’m assuming she’s dead because otherwise, she would take you down in no time. You had to wait for her to die because she was better than all of you combined,” Melinda says, her lips curling up.

Ward rolls his eyes. “That’s not true. We waited until we were ready.”

“Which just happened to be when Peggy was dead.”

“Coincidence.”

“No such thing.”

Ward throws a knife at her. It lands just above her hip.

“Angry.”

“Don’t push it,” he warns.

 

He tortures her the whole of the following day. She only screams three times. She sleeps restlessly. For some reason when she wakes up, she thinks only one more day. She knows it’s Monday but she doesn’t know how.

“Phil,” she says when Ward doesn’t come in at the usual time. “Why are we here?”

“You, ah, may have pissed him off. Big time. Now he wants revenge,” Phil explains.

Melinda takes it in. It’s her fault that these people are in danger.

“Why do I care that you’re in danger?” she asks them.

“We’re a team,” the boy answers, somewhat bitterly. “Or at least, we were until Ward betrayed us.”

“Who are you?” she asks.

“Fitz,” he says.

“That’s a strange first name.”

“Leo Fitz,” he corrects. He’s still glaring at the ground.

“I like him,” she tells Phil. “And I don’t know why. What’s happening?”

“One of Ward’s agents injected you with something. We think it took away your memories. We don’t know how badly yet.”

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Jemma asks.

“Is Clint … dead?” she asks instead of answering.

“No. He’s just unconscious,” Natasha answers.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Phil asks.

Melinda looks away stubbornly, not wanting to remember. “I killed her,” she mumbles.

Phil swears. “Dammit. We’ve gone through this multiple times, Melinda. You saved your team. She was insane and hurting people. You took out the threat and saved your team.”

“I killed a mother and then told her people to stop fighting. I killed a mother in front of her daughter and then I killed the daughter!” Melinda screams.

“Eva was a murderer. Her daughter was insane. Both were hurting people. The only person you hurt was yourself,” Phil tells her firmly.

“She was so young,” Melinda says quietly. “She was so young and had so much to experience and I killed her.”

“Stop ruining yourself,” Natasha says. “Stop with the self-pity.”

“This isn’t self-pity. This is just the truth. The plain old truth,” she says.

Natasha snorts. “Rubbish.”

Melinda looks at them and they’re startled by the eyes devoid of anything. She starts to say something but then Ward comes in and she closes her mouth.

“You’ve all caught up, then?” he says.

Melinda just glares at him. He fingers a long, thin blade before putting it down gently, instead opting for a butcher’s knife. She inhales sharply when he places it against her stomach. He slowly slides it into her torso, tearing muscle and cutting through a rib. She grits her teeth and clenches her fists. A small whimper escapes her when he leaves it there, choosing the long, slim blade he’d picked up earlier. He cuts a shallow line across her forehead. Blood drips down into her eyes, blinding her. Then he pummels her with his fists.

“Your form is wrong,” Natasha calls from across the room, where she’s not watching, looking after Clint.

Ward tenses, punching her harder. She supposes this is Natasha’s way of telling her she’s still pissed at her. It’s not, but she doesn’t know that. He pulls out the butcher’s knife and sticks it in her right thigh. It’s the same place as before, the gash that took so long to heal.

She endures the pain for the rest of the day. She’s bloody and beaten in ways she never knew she could be. Her whole body aches and when she looks at her hands, she finds that she is paler than she should be. She doesn’t sleep. She can’t. The manic smile, the eyes that were so young, the gun. Ward comes in at the regular time. She thinks it’s six in the morning. She’s not sure. The alarm in her head hasn’t gone off for the whole time she’s been here. Jemma and Leo are sleeping still, snoring quietly. Coulson is resting, conserving his energy. Natasha is rebandaging Clint’s stomach with her T-shirt. Coulson lends her his jacket when she shivers. She nods her thanks and curls up next to Clint who comes to for just long enough to smile his thanks groggily before his eyes roll up into his skull.

Melinda hears an explosion and starts trying to pick the locks on her cuffs. The tall, dark-skinned man pulls apart the lock as soon as Ward runs out of the room, his gun drawn. They file out. Natasha helps Melinda with her chains and then helps her stand. Clint unlocks Lian’s chains and scoops her up, despite her protests. Melinda limps towards the door and her legs collapse from underneath her. The tall, dark-skinned man lifts her up gently and Natasha sneaks out of the room. She steals a gun from the first Hydra agent she sees and stands on the stairs, shooting them as they run up. When she sees a man in a black cloak enter, she grins and aims directly above his head. He ducks and looks up at her. He runs over and when he gets to her, he pulls her into a one-armed hug.

“You’re all here?” Fury asks.

“Including Lian May,” Natasha says. “I hope you have Medical on standby. I don’t think Melinda will make it otherwise.”

“We’ve gotta get outta here first,” Fury says. He hands them each a gun from the bag he’s carrying.

“Th’ k’ds,” Melinda slurs, almost unconscious.

“What?” Clint says.

“Ki’,” she tries but she’s too sleepy. Just close your eyes, her brain seems to be telling her.

“Kids. Find them and get them out,” Fury says.

Clint and Natasha run down the stairs, Bobbi, Hunter and Coulson quickly following. Five minutes later, most Hydra agents are dead and the rest injured enough to bleed out before they get to anywhere important. They run out of the factory, where a SHIELD helicopter is waiting. The blades are in motion by the time they pull the door shut behind them. There are five kids, three girls, two boys, all about ten or eleven. Melinda is laid on top of Natasha, Skye and Jemma. Lian sits on the floor with her back against the wall. Everyone’s wrists are chafed, Fitz’s the worst. Melinda wakes up when they land. She sits up and instantly regrets it. Natasha scoops her up and waits for everyone else to go before leaving the helicopter. They’re at the top of the Hub. A team of medics are waiting for them. They put Clint and Melinda on stretchers but can’t make Lian.

When they get to Medical, Fury orders them all in. Doctors rush over and put Melinda in a surgery room. Another team takes Clint and one more takes Lian. A couple more gives cream and bandages to the rest of them for their wrists. The kids are put into surgery rooms with colourful walls and friendly doctors and nurses.

The doctors operating on Clint finish first. Forty-five minutes. Natasha stands up when the head doctor comes over.

“He’s going to live. Bed rest for a week. Try for two but if you can’t, make him take it easy,” the doctor says.

Natasha nods and sits down to wait again. The doctors for Lian come out, pulling off bloody gloves. The head doctor comes over and says she’ll live. Lian will need to take it easy, bed rest for a week.

It takes four and a half hours before the doctors performing surgery on Melinda comes out. Their gloves are bloodstained and their coats have smeared stains of blood.

“She’s going to live,” the head doctor says and everyone sighs in relief. “She must stay in a bed for at least two weeks, preferably three. After that, a wheelchair until her elbow heals enough that she can use crutches. That will take three more weeks if we go by the usual six weeks for a bone to heal time chart. Her knee might take a little longer. It’s hard to say this early on. The bruises will heal, her body will ache for a while. The knife wounds are mostly fine. They missed her vital organs but if she pulls the stitches too many times, they’ll just keep bleeding and we won’t be able to stop it. Other than that, she’ll have to stay here for the time being until she’s strong enough to be moved.”

“Thank you,” Coulson says.

The doctor nods and turns to leave. “You’re welcome.”

Skye and Fitz cheer and high five and Jemma hugs them both, giddy on the fact that Melinda will live. Bobbi bites her lip.

“What about her memory loss?” she asks.

Coulson pauses. He’d forgotten about that. “We’ll figure something out.”

Natasha goes to see Clint who’s sleeping. He wakes up shortly after she enters and smiles. He’s high on pain meds. He smiles blearily at her.

“My stomach hurts,” he tells her.

“That’s because you got stabbed,” she tells him, her lips curling up into a smile.

“Hmph. Are you and Mellie still together?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, she lost her memory.”

“She remembers until just after Bahrain, Clint. We were together before then.”

“Yeah, but you broke up because of Bahrain.”

Natasha thinks about that. “We’ll figure something out,” she says.”

Clint nods sagely. “Yes. I suppose you will.”

Natasha grins as he bursts into giggles. “She’s gonna be pissed when she wakes up.”

 

In actual fact, when Melinda wakes up, she’s terrified. She can’t remember anything. She has just graduated from the Academy. She’s supposed to be nineteen, not in her forties. She evens out her breathing, looks around the room, sees a wheelchair in the corner, probably for later on. Then a wave of pain hits her head and she grits her teeth, silencing the scream that wants to come out. She blacks out.

When she wakes up, she can remember up to Bahrain. She shudders, closing her mind against the girl, her hand reaching towards her – no, stop, Melinda, she thinks. No one is in her room. She closes her eyes against her will as the IV pumps a fresh round of drugs into her system.

She doesn’t know what time it is, or what day it is. She doesn’t try to sit up or leave, having no energy to do so. And anyway, what’s the point? The door opens and she squints against the brightness of the room when the lights are turned on. Phil’s here and Natasha is too. There are Bobbi and Hunter. Then there are three kids, two girls and one boy and a man, tall, dark-skinned and wide shoulders. He’s wearing a T-shirt with grease stains on it. He must be a mechanic. The boy is wearing a pink and blue shirt and a cardigan. He’s holding on tightly to one of the girl’s hands, the one with light brown hair and hazel eyes, wearing a blue blouse and white pants. The other girl has dark hair and dark eyes. She’s wearing a T-shirt with a band Melinda hasn’t heard of on it and jeans.

“May,” the dark haired girl says in obvious relief.

She must be friends with them all.

“Are you two together?” she blurts out, looking at the boy and the girl. She’s surprised at her own words.

“Melinda!” Phil reprimands.

“What? I think we’re friends. Am I not supposed to know?” she says.

“Do you know who I am?” the dark-haired girl says.

“No. Am I supposed to? Are we friends?”

“Yes, you should know. And I think we’re friends.”

“Susan?” Melinda guesses. “Bella, Phoebe, Chloe, Emma, Jemma?”

“She’s Jemma,” the boy holding the girl’s hand pipes up. “Jemma Simmons.”

“He’s Leo,” the girl holding the boy’s hand says. “Leo Fitz.”

“She’s bio-chem.”

“He’s engineering.”

Melinda likes them immediately. “So who are you?” she asks the dark-haired girl.

“I’m Skye. I’m a hacktivist. You didn’t really like me at the start but I grew on you,” she says.

“Why didn’t I like you?”

Skye shrugs. “I don’t know. I’m generally very likeable.”

“She hacked into SHIELD,” Coulson supplies, “And released classified files.”

“That sounds like a very good reason not to like someone,” Melinda says without out thinking. Then she sees Skye’s face and backtracks. “I mean, that’s a very foolish reason to not like someone.”

Melinda rolls her head to the side to look at the tall, dark-skinned man. “Who are you?”

“Mack. Mechanic,” he says.

Melinda nods. “A man of few words.”

“Why waste them?”

Melinda grins. It quickly disappears when a nurse comes in and tell them to get out as it’s past visiting times.

Natasha stays behind and kisses her cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Melinda smiles and then when they’re all out of the room, she drops the façade. She takes a shuddering breath and grimaces when it pains her.

The next time they all come in, she can’t be bothered to act happy and confused. She doesn’t feel anything, just stares up at them, not taking anything in. Eventually, they leave. Next time they come in small groups, two or three of them. It’s when Phil and Natasha are in the room that it happens. She grits her teeth and clenches her fists as a wave of pain washes over her again, like the last time. Natasha holds her shoulder worriedly, knowing there’s nothing she can do. Melinda passes out. When she comes to, Clint is sitting in a wheelchair beside her bed. He’s wearing a hospital gown and there’s a bulky bandage around his torso. She remembers to about two years after Bahrain. She tells him this because it seems like something he’d want to know. He grins.

“How do you feel?” he asks.

“Like I got hit by a bus,” she answers.

Clint chuckles and then winces. “Ow. This sucks. I’m gonna be “taking it easy” for weeks. And you. Well, you’re gonna be bored out of your mind for months.”

“Hang on, what?” Melinda says. “How long?”

“Six weeks, give or take, for your elbow, probably more for your ankle, so you’ll be in a wheelchair for that ‘coz you can’t use crutches with a broken arm. Your knife wounds, according to the doctor, missed everything vital, so you’ll be fine in that regard. Going on a general scale for those wounds, I’d say three weeks, four tops.

“Wonderful,” Melinda groans.

On week two, they move her back onto the Bus. They take Lian with them and she visits Melinda every day, walking stiffly.

It takes a week for the rest of her memory to come back. She lets out a strangled gasp before she cuts it off. She manages to stay awake, living through the pain.

“Ward,” she growls when she’s slightly more in her own mind. “He didn’t hurt you, did he?”

“Only Clint,” Skye says. “He didn’t get us. You stopped him.”

Melinda smiles blearily up at them and then goes to sleep.

 

Natasha appears at breakfast one morning, scaring everybody.

“Natasha,” Coulson says in amusement. “Aren’t you supposed to be at the Tower?”

“Probably. But I’m not letting you steal Melinda away without me,” she says. “Also, Bobbi makes really good pancakes.”

Bobbi laughs. “I knew you only liked me for my pancakes.”

Natasha grins. “They’re really good. Way better than Melinda’s.”

“Did she actually try to make pancakes?” Skye grins.

Natasha nods. “Yeah. Broke the bloody stove top. Too much milk, not enough flour, way too many eggs.”

“Can’t she use a recipe book?”

“Doesn’t have one.”

“Google?”

“She doesn’t have a computer and her phone is turned right off most of the time.”

“Weirdo.”

Natasha laughs. “You’re growing up in the 21st century.”

 

With three weeks gone, three weeks to go, Melinda can move her elbow without any pain but her ankle always causes her enough pain to make it uncomfortable. Her knife wounds are mostly healed. Her little finger that was dislocated is fine. She lifts her head up as the door opens and Jemma comes in and the drops it back down with a groan. She’s bored out of her tree. Jemma won’t let her out, she has nothing to do, she won’t be allowed to spar for years and she’s sick of the beeping machines. She’d tried to take the IV out but Jemma had stopped her halfway through the act, taping it back down thoroughly. She’s got too much energy so she can’t sleep and Jemma won’t knock her out for the remaining three weeks.

“How are you feeling, May?” Jemma asks brightly.

Melinda gives her a grunt in reply, conveying her frustrations perfectly. Jemma hands her a book. Read it, her expression says. Melinda puts it on top of the machine taking her vitals. It’s too far away and she falls off the bed.

“Ow,” she says, drawing it out.

Jemma runs around to help her up. She lifts her up and places the older agent on the bed. Melinda looks at her in surprise.

Jemma smiles shyly. “Bobbi’s been teaching me and Fitz.”

Melinda nods in understanding. Better to have some training than none. When Jemma leaves, she stands up and waits for Jemma to come and yell at her. She does the most basic tai chi forms she knows. Ones that don’t involve her moving her feet. She doesn’t hear Skye walk past. She does hear the door open. She doesn’t turn around, knowing it’s Skye, just continues her tai chi.

“I wonder what Jemma would say if she saw you like this,” Skye says casually.

“Don’t you dare.”

“Give us a rematch.”

“Once I’m allowed.”

Melinda grins at the disappointment on Skye’s face.

“Since when do you follow the rules?” she asks.

“Since I-”

“Since she wanted to get better,” Jemma says, voice cold as ice.

Melinda starts, spins around and winces. “I didn’t step on my foot or use my arm once,” she says.

“I don’t care. You have broken ribs and knife wounds on your torso. Do you think they can heal whilst you’re standing up?” Jemma asks.

“Is that a trick question?” Melinda asks hesitantly, hopping back over to the bed. She pulls herself up awkwardly.

“No. Do you think you can heal standing up?”

“Uh…”

Jemma raises her eyebrows and crosses her arms. Skye tries to make herself as small as possible.

“No?” Melinda guesses because it seems like the most likely answer, even though you can heal standing up.

Jemma nods sharply. “So why were you standing up?”

“To do tai chi.”

“Even though you knew you were supposed to be in bed?”

“Sorry?”

“Sorry isn’t good enough.”

“I wasn’t planning on leaving. Just to do something.”

Jemma glares at her. She grabs the book from the machine that Melinda had left it on and pulls up our a chair. She begins reading, much to Skye’s delight and Melinda’s dismay. Melinda counts the wires in the room. She mucks up near thirty and can’t be bothered starting again. Jemma finishes the book in the time it takes Melinda to get to sleep. She pulls a blanket over the older woman and brushes her hair away from her face.

Melinda finds herself floating peacefully between the realm of consciousness and unconsciousness. She feels herself getting gently lifted up but she isn’t aware of much more than that. She bounces through memories until someone’s voice comes shattering through her bubble. She tries to sit up but she’s not in a bed. She ends up on the floor with Hunter, Bobbi, Natasha, Skye and Coulson staring down at her.

“Some help, please?” she asks because she really can’t be bothered trying to be tough today and not show any pain.

Coulson crouches down and lifts her up easily. He smirks at her as she leans her head on his shoulder. He boops her nose and continues walking.

“Where are we going?” she asks. “I thought I was supposed to stay in bed.”

“Technically, this isn’t even happening,” Coulson says, looking behind him before stepping into an empty room.

“Where’s Jemma?” Melinda asks warily.

“Sleeping,” Natasha says.

“You drugged her?” Melinda asks incredulously.

“She’ll wake up in a few hours,” Natasha says with a shrug.

Hunter flicks on the lights and she sees it’s a training room. There are weights in one corner and a bench press in the other.

“You know I can’t use those, right?” Melinda says carefully.

“That’s why you’re not going to,” Coulson says, moving around the weights and opening another door.

“What is this, a secret tunnel?” she mocks.

“Shut your trap,” Hunter grins.

Melinda pretends to be offended. “How dare you? Phil, tell him he’s an ass.”

“Hunter, you’re an ass,” Coulson says monotonously.

“Phil, you’re an ass,” Hunter mimics.

Coulson smiles. “Don’t be smart.”

They come out in another room but this one has beer and cards and a poker table. Melinda laughs delightedly when they sit down around the table.

“You guys are the best,” she grins.

“Told you she’d like it,” Hunter smirks to Coulson.

Natasha deals the cards for Texas Hold’em poker and they begin playing. They lost track of the time after an hour. Coulson and Skye have both folded, Bobbi is running low on chips and Hunter is bluffing his way so visibly it’s not funny.

“Check,” Melinda says.

“Raise $8,” Natasha says.

“Raise $10,” Hunter says.

“Fold,” Bobbi says.

“Check,” Melinda says again.

“Raise $15,” Natasha grins.

Hunter swears, looks at his cards, looks at the cards on the table and says, “Fold.”

“Fold,” Melinda says.

Natasha takes the chips from the table and they continue playing.

 

Three hours later, Bobbi looks at the clock and swears. She tells the other that Jemma should’ve woken up by now and Coulson runs Melinda back to the Med Bay and then comes back to throw the poker table and chips in the storage room with the others. They turn the light off, lock the door behind them and go their separate ways.

Melinda gets to the Med Bay just in time. Jemma comes in rubbing her head, smiles at Coulson who says, “Hello, Jemma,” and then leaves. Jemma notes the happy sparkle in Melinda’s eyes and wonders what happened while she was away.

“Have fun?” she asks, checking the machines.

Melinda nods. “Yeah. Hunter an’ Bobbi brought a poker table in and Skye has Texas Hold’em cards an’ Coulson’s easily persuaded. Nat won.”

Jemma nods and gives Melinda her daily dose of painkillers and leaves her to it. Melinda sleeps. She dreams of when she and Nat were first stumbling into their love and when Phil and Clint kept setting them up on dates with other people to get them to confess their love for each other. When Natasha told her she loved her for the first time on a mission and Melinda had been so startled she’d dropped her gun. When Fury yelled at them for a failed mission and afterwards, Natasha had kissed Melinda and she didn’t care anymore.

She wonders if she’ll get to see Christmas again this year. If she’ll get to see Clint and the others at the Tower once more. She could live without seeing Stark for forever but she doesn’t mind the others.

Then she’s being dragged back to the realm of the living and everyone is standing around her. The lights are off. The machines cast a greenish glow in the dark.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

“Run! She’s awake!” Hunter hisses.

Melinda feels something sticky on her hand and when she pokes at it, she realises it’s shaving cream. She wipes it on the person closest to her, which just happens to be Skye. Skye yelps and jumps backwards, wiping it on the person beside her.

Someone turns on the lights and everyone looks guiltily at her. She looks at her casts and sees that they’ve been drawing on them. 

“Did you guys invite Jemma?” she asks while reaching for one of the vivids.

“No,” Hunter says. “She would have tried to stop us.”

“How do you know?”

“Last time we tried to do this, we invited her but she stood guard and threatened to wake you,” Bobbi explains.

“Mm-hm,” Melinda says, struggling with pulling the lid off. She sticks it between her teeth and yanks it. With the lid off, she proceeds to draw on her casts in green with thick strokes. She makes a sound of protest when Hunter snatches the vivid off her and draws on her casts.

Hunter just smirks and writes something she can’t see but knows is ridiculously inappropriate. Bobbi stomps on his foot when she reads it and he complains loudly.

They hear footsteps and quickly scatter before Jemma can catch them. Melinda feigns sleep when Jemma comes and sits beside her. She takes Melinda’s hand and holds it tightly. After she leaves, Melinda sits up slightly and stares at her in confusion. Jemma comes back in after a few hours, just poking her head in the door. Melinda meets her eyes and Jemma looks down. Melinda gestures for her to come and sit down beside her. She shuffles over and Jemma hesitantly sits down beside her. Melinda intertwines her fingers.

Melinda wants to say thank-you, but she knows that just a thank-you isn’t enough. So, she looks at Jemma and when Jemma feels her gaze and glances over, she leans forward and kisses Jemma’s cheek. Jemma looks a little surprised but then she smiles and wraps an arm around Melinda’s shoulders.

Natasha watches as Melinda and Jemma fall asleep together. She understands why Melinda kissed Jemma. And she doesn’t mind. Because Melinda has never been good at expressing her feelings and she was always much better at using her actions. She pulls a blanket over them and then leaves, finding solace in the way the bullets hit the target.

 

Jemma wakes first. Melinda’s head is resting on her shoulder. She’s still asleep. She feels the Bus land and gets up to find out where. Turns out they are in the Hub. She wakes Melinda and gets her into a wheelchair without much protest. Mainly because Melinda is sleepy and drugged to the brim because she woke up in the middle of the night because of the pain so Jemma gave her a dose and she was still full of the drugs from the other day. Also, drugs stay in Melinda’s system for ages. Melinda falls asleep on the way to the cargo bay. The rest of the team is there. Natasha snorts when she sees them.

Victoria Hand is waiting for them. She rolls her eyes when she sees Melinda. She doesn’t seem to notice the guarded looks the team is giving her. Only Natasha is at ease. She swings her arm around Hand’s shoulders, which is quite an achievement, given the height difference.

“Come on, Vic. Don’t be so harsh. Melinda just saved them all from Ward’s violent tendencies,” she says.

“Aren’t you Hydra?” Skye blurts out.

Hand gives her a look that makes her want to take it all back but instead she lifts her chin.

“What? It’s a valid question. I remember seeing Melinda walking into the mess hall with you and then getting shot with nine bullets,” Skye says.

Hand’s lips curl up at the corners. “Ah. I see they haven’t told you yet.”

“Told us what?” Coulson asks. His hands are inching towards his waistband where his gun is.

“That Ward was using some device to alter his appearance. I was on the other side of the Hub with Fury. He left when we’d killed the Hydra agents to go find the remaining SHIELD agents, not in the mess hall and then stormed the place,” Hand explains.

“Oh,” Skye says. “Okay.”

“You’re going to let it go just like that?” Hand asks, surprised.

“Unless you don’t want me to,” Skye shrugs.

Hand gives Natasha a pointed look. Natasha steps back and raises her hands. She points at Melinda who is still asleep.

“She’s hers,” Natasha says.

“Excuse you,” Skye says. “I am not anyone’s, thank you very much.”

“You’re Mel’s trainee,” Natasha explains.

“Oh,” Skye says again. “Okay.”

Melinda wakes up halfway to a meeting room. She glares groggily at Hand’s back. Hand seems to sense Melinda is awake and her hands clench into fists.

“How many people are you in charge of this year?” Melinda asks once she is awake enough to be aware of her surroundings, implying that everyone Hand is in charge of dies.

“How long have you been back in the field? Hand retorts, implying that Melinda has forgotten that people die in the field.

“And that’s enough of that,” Natasha interrupts before Melinda can reply.

“I’m serious,” Melinda says. “How many people have you killed this year?”

She makes it sound like she’s asking how many biscuits Hand has baked, or if she’s done the grocery shopping yet. Natasha pushes Hand into a meeting room and steers Melinda in. It’s empty. Both women turn to look at her. She grins and quickly gets out before they kill each other. She locks the door.

Inside the room, Melinda snaps one of the spokes in her wheelchair and sticks it in the lock, jiggling it around until something clicks. The door swings open. Natasha slams it again in her face and locks the door again. Melinda uses up half the spokes in one wheel before Hand stops her.

“Hey,” she says. “She’s not going to let us out until we’re all good.”

“We’re never going to be ‘all good’,” Melinda states simply.

Hand rolls her eyes. “Not with that attitude.” She pulls out one of the chairs and sits down. There is a computer in the room so she logs on and starts with her work that she was supposed to be doing before Coulson and his crew showed up.

Melinda climbs out of her wheelchair and lays down on the floor. She pulls herself under one of the tables and taps a beat on one of the chair legs. She doesn’t miss Hand’s amused smirk. She gets out from under the table and shuffles over to the wheelchair. She pulls apart the wheels first, and then the seat part. By the time Hand tries to stop her, the wheelchair is in pieces. Melinda gives Hand a triumphant grin and goes back under the table.

She could have sworn she’d just closed her eyes for a minute but when she opened them again, the door was opening and Director Fury was entering. She sits up and pushes herself out from under the table. Hand logs off the computer and hauls her to her feet, wrapping an arm around her waist. Melinda glares up at her, having to crane her neck back to actually look at the other woman’s face.

“What are you two doing in here?” Fury asks.

“Romanoff likes to meddle with things that aren’t her business,” Hand says by way of explanation.

Fury waits for them to elaborate.

“So she locked us in her to sort out our differences,” Hand says after Melinda stays silent.

Fury doesn’t look very impressed. “And you didn’t find a way out because why?”

“It’s easier to pretend we’ve sorted everything out than escape.”

“Can we go now?” Melinda asks.

“You sound like a child,” Hand mutters to her.

Melinda pulls a face. “Please?”

Fury rolls his eyes. “Yes. Go.”

Hand practically lifts Melinda off the ground and they walk out, leaving the damaged wheelchair behind. Melinda tries to touch the ground but she’s not even close. Hand just laughs at her.

“Would you rather hurt yourself walking?” she asks.

“Yes,” Melinda says sullenly.

Hand smirks. She drops Melinda who lands on her broken ankle. Melinda swears through gritted teeth and leans against the wall for support. Hand waits for Melinda to start moving. She hops and Hand rolls her eyes.

“Are you going to hop all the way around the base looking for your friends?”

“I don’t see any other options,” Melinda snaps.

Hand scoops Melinda up and starts walking. Melinda shuffles around until she’s getting piggybacked by Victoria Hand. Hand sighs but continues walking around until she finds Coulson’s team.

Natasha actually drops her coffee cup in shock. “I thought you two hated each other?”

“We do,” Hand says. “But the wheelchair broke so I carried her.”

“How did the wheelchair break?” Jemma asks.

“Why don’t you answer that one, Melinda?” Hand says.

“I may have pulled it apart,” Melinda admits quietly.

Coulson sighs in despair. “Where is it now?”

“In the same meeting room but Fury’s occupying it,” Melinda tells him.

Coulson sighs again. “Dammit. We’ll have to interrupt.”

Melinda looks at him in surprise. “Excuse me? Who are you and what have you done with the real Phil Coulson?”

“Ha, ha, very funny,” Coulson says. “C’mon. Sooner the better.”

 

Fury is talking to a team of field agents when they knock and go in.

“Sorry,” Coulson says. “We just need to get the wheelchair.”

Fury ignores him and continues talking. Coulson picks up most of it and Hand takes the rest, Melinda clinging onto her desperately to stop from falling off. They reassemble the wheelchair and Hand dumps Melinda in it. The wheelchair breaks into pieces again. Melinda scowls up at them from where she is surrounded by metal parts.

“This is a stupid wheelchair,” she grumbles.

She scowls harder when Hand picks her up again. Hand places her on her feet.

“What do we do with this?” Hand asks.

Coulson picks up the wheels and the seat part, leaving the arms on the floor. Melinda picks the rest up and waits. She shifts it when it starts to hurt her elbow and it all goes crashing to the floor. Hand smirks and picks it up for her. Melinda goes to hop but then Hand is swinging an arm out and catching her around her waist.

“No way, May. You either stay here and wait for us to get you a new wheelchair, or I’ll carry you,” Hand warns.

“I didn’t think you cared so much,” Melinda snipes.

Hand rolls her eyes. “I don’t. But I’m not having Romanoff’s wrath come down on me.”

Melinda squirms out of Hand’s grip and sits down with her back against the wall. They give her a warning look and leave to find Medical.

 

It’s not her fault, she thinks as everyone glares at her. She doesn’t bother mentioning that. It’ll only get her into more trouble. And anyway, didn’t Hand work here? She should’ve known where they left her. It’s not her fault they got lost in the maze of corridors. And it had been half an hour. She’d only gone to find them. Well. Turned out they had been just coming around the corner when she disappeared around the wrong corner and they lost each other.

Now everyone is pissed at her because she moved when she said she wouldn’t. It’s still not her fault. Stupid corridors.

“Well, at least we know we can’t trust you,” Hand says.

Trust her to make the first rude comment.

“Phil already knows that,” Melinda says carelessly. “Afterall, didn’t I lie to your face when you asked for my help?”

“Stop it,” Coulson says with a pained look. “That wasn’t what we were talking about.”

“Doesn’t stop it being true,” Melinda shrugs.

“You should have waited,” Bobbi says. “That’s what they’re trying to say.

“You were gone half an hour,” Melinda protests. “You should have been back by then.”

“We almost were,” Coulson says. “If you’d just trusted that we were coming back.”

Because that’s what it boils down to. Trust. She does trust them. She was just bored. And half an hour is a long time when Medical is barely ten minutes away, there and back. She scowls at the floor. Natasha is sitting beside her, the only one who hasn’t said anything about it to her. Well, neither has Fitz and technically Mack, but he gave a disappointed look and she supposes that counts.

“I didn’t even use my foot,” she mutters.

“That’s not the point!” Jemma exclaims. “Agent Hand told you not to move and you ignored her.”

“I waited first,” she says.

“Still not the point, Melinda,” Coulson says.

“You know, on this one, I’m gonna have to side with Melinda,” Bobbi says. “You two were gone longer than necessary. Like a mission. If your partner goes in and doesn’t come out, you don’t wait around, you go in and find them.”

“Oh, thank God,” Melinda mutters, slumping in her chair.

Bobbi wipes away the amused look on her face when Hand raises her eyebrows.

“Really? So, you’re saying Agent May was doing what she’d have done on a mission?” Hand says.

“Here it comes,” Melinda says loudly. “You just can’t let it go.”

Hand ignores her. She doesn’t make the comment and Melinda looks at her in surprise.

“Unlike you, I’ve grown up,” Hand snaps.

“Are you sure?” Melinda asks.

“Guys, please,” Bobbi says, stepping in between them.

Hand doesn’t move from her spot, her arms crossed and her body tense. Melinda glares at Bobbi’s back, where Hand’s face would be otherwise.

“Why do you two hate each other so much?” Skye asks.

Coulson stares at Skye in horror. Melinda’s jaw clenches. Skye gets the feeling she’s just stepped into a very delicate situation.

Natasha fixes it by pushing Hand out of the room and shutting the door. Not less than a minute later the door opens and Fury comes in with Hand right behind him, not looking particularly happy.

“What is going on in here?” he demands.

Melinda glowers at the floor. Bobbi places herself carefully between Melinda and Hand before answering.

“We’re fixing it,” she says.

“Really?” Fury says. “Because it looks to me like Romanoff just shoved Hand out of the room.”

“A complication. Hand insulted Barton, Romanoff took it the wrong way and reacted,” Bobbi lies smoothly.

“And why did Hand insult Barton?”

“Because Romanoff insulted Izzy Hartley.”

“Why?”

“Because they were arguing about some trivial thing that I can’t remember anymore.”

“Why are all my top level agents children?” Fury asks.

“Because we need to have some fun,” Bobbi grins. “And winding each other up is hilarious.”

Fury nods and leaves the room. Bobbi turns around to face Melinda.

“You owe me,” she says.

She looks at all their shocked faces. “What?”

“You just lied to Director Fury,” Skye and FitzSimmons say in unison.

Chapter Text

Jemma enters the rec room and finds Coulson, Bobbi, Mack and Natasha sitting in a tight circle, muttering about something. The talk all stops when she comes in.

“Do you guys know where to find Melinda?” she asks.

“Yeah, she’s at the range,” Natasha says casually.

Jemma frowns. Melinda shouldn’t really be using her arm, even if it has been six and a half weeks. Natasha spots Jemma’s frown and grins.

“Relax. She’s sitting in a wheelchair ages away from the gun and pulling a piece of string. It’s quite genius, actually,” she says.

Jemma nods, unsure if she would agree with that and leaves to find Melinda.

Turns out she is sitting miles away from the gun with a piece of string. The gun goes off just as Jemma enters. Melinda wheels herself over to the gun and brings the target forward and repositions the gun, tying another piece of string around the trigger. She wheels herself away and pulls the string. The trigger jerks back and the gun goes off. The bullet embeds itself in the centre of the target.

“Hello,” Jemma says, making her presence known.

“Hey, Jemma,” Melinda says, wheeling herself back to the gun, not even looking up.

Coulson sticks his head in at that moment. “Melinda, we need your help in the rec room,” he says.

“Yeah, I just have one more thing I need to do. I’ll be there in a sec,” Melinda says, putting the safety on and putting the gun on the rack behind her. She wheels herself out of the room and makes her way to her bunk. She dials Chang’s number and waits. He answers after the sixth ring. “Chang?”

“Melinda? Is that you?” he asks.

“Yes. Are you okay? Ward didn’t hurt you, did he?”

“No. Just tied me up and chucked me in the basement. Few cracked ribs, a lot of bruises, nothing that will last. What about you? Are you alright?”

“Not really,” Melinda admits. “I’ve been stuck in casts for six weeks and the one on my ankle still isn’t off.”

Chang chuckles. “That sounds like you.”

Melinda smiles. “Yeah. I’d better go. They need me in the rec room for something.”

“Okay. Take care, Mellie,” he says.

“You too, Chang.” She hangs up and goes to find the others in the rec room.

Coulson, Natasha, Bobbi and Mack are sitting in a tight circle, talking in hushed voices. Natasha beckons her over.

“What?” she asks.

“It’s Christmas in like, six weeks,” Bobbi says quietly. “We need to get supplies, a tree and presents. Food doesn’t really matter.”

“And you need my help for what part in this?” Melinda asks.

They all look at Coulson. Melinda narrows her eyes.

“What did you tell them?” she says.

“He mentioned that you could play the piano,” Mack says when Coulson shrinks back under her gaze.

Melinda closes her eyes. “When I was nine.”

“He said you were really good.”

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

“He showed us a video.”

Melinda glares at Coulson. “You were really good. And you weren’t nine, you were nineteen. Ish,” he adds when she looks at him in disbelief.

She glares at him harder.

“You can play Christmas carols,” he protests.

“Yeah. One. And I am not playing for you guys,” she says firmly.

They end up making her agree. She says maybe. They accept that’s the best they’re going to get.

 

The other agents don’t seem to notice Bobbi and Mack sneaking onto the Bus at midnight and Coulson spending more time than usual in his office. They do notice when Melinda starts humming Christmas carols to herself. She has to force herself to stop whenever another agent comes into the same room.

They’re still at the Hub, but occasionally they spend the night on the Bus, depending on whether or not an agent needs a room. When a large box is wheeled onto the Bus, Melinda can’t help the feeling of excitement that rushes through her when he opens it and she sees it’s a piano. His office is sound-proofed meaning she can practise and no-one will hear her.

Bobbi hands her a folder of piano music and she takes it with a frown to hide her joy. She flicks through the songs in her bunk. Silent Night, Drummer Boy, Fairytale of New York – she smiles at that one – Away in a Manger, Rockin’ Round the Christmas Tree, Joy to the World, Last Christmas, Do They Know It’s Christmas Time, Frosty the Snowman, Happy X-Mas (The War is Over).

It takes her two weeks before she starts. Mainly because it took another week for the cast on her ankle to come off and then she didn’t want to give them the satisfaction. She relearns most of them but Happ X-Mas takes her two and a half weeks to master.

She smiles half-heartedly when Skye starts bursting into song two weeks before Christmas. She remembers a few carols she used to sing when she was little and while she’s cleaning her guns in the cargo bay, she sings the ones she can remember. She smirks as Skye comes in and switches to the ones about God and Jesus.

Skye freezes in place when she hears Melinda singing Church songs whilst cleaning a killing machine. Melinda looks up and smirks, still singing.

“You’re creepy, you know that?” Skye says. “Who sings Jesus songs while cleaning a gun?”

Melinda just sings louder. She finishes the song and stands. “You want to spar?”

“Are you allowed?” Skye asks suspiciously.

Melinda thinks back to what Jemma said. “Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

“Probably. C’mon. I won’t be reckless.”

Skye gives in and they spar until Skye slams Melinda into the mats after Melinda loses her footing. Skye flips Melinda onto her stomach in one smooth move. Her arms are trapped crookedly underneath her torso. Skye presses her forearm against Melinda’s shoulders and leans down.

“Surrender?”

“You wish,” Melinda snorts. She tries to buck Skye off but she just shifts her weight with Melinda’s and she keeps her balance.

Skye digs her fingers into Melinda’s side and Melinda freezes. She shrieks when Skye tickles her sides, twisting and squirming underneath her. Skye grins and continues her torture. Melinda’s laughing between gasps, her eyes wet with unshed tears.

“Skye! Stop!” she shouts.

“I don’t think so,” Skye says. “This is payback for being mean to Jemma.”

Melinda swears at her, giggling between words. She lets out a yell when Skye sticks her fingers in her armpits. She kicks her legs against Skye’s back but Skye just shifts enough to make it impossible for her to reach her. Melinda manages to get one arm free and tries to shove Skye off but it gets pinned to her back.

“Skye! Let me go!”

“No way.” She sees Jemma come in and beams. “Brilliant. Perfect timing. You can apologise to Jemma for being a horrible little brat.”

Melinda snorts and pushes herself off the ground through sheer core strength.  Her shoulders grind against the ground and she hears one of her toes crack. With a grunt, she tries to flip them over. Skye simply lifts herself up higher and sits back down on Melinda’s waist. Melinda glares up at her, lying on her back now before sinking back down on the ground, seemingly defeated.

“I hate you,” Melinda says.

“Apologise to Jemma and then I’ll let you go,” Skye says.

“What if I escape?”

“Jemma, would you be a dear and lock the door, please?” Skye asks.

Jemma locks all the possible exits and comes back to stand beside the two.

“Hold her hands,” Skye instructs. “Actually, no, wait.” She leans in and whispers something to Jemma that Melinda can’t make out.

Jemma comes back holding a piece of rope, about three feet long.

“Now, hold her hands,” Skye says.

Jemma does so and Skye ties Melinda’s wrists together. Melinda tugs at them and growls in the back of her throat when she can’t slip out of them. When Jemma lets her hands go, she punches Skye in the stomach and sits up quickly. She’s not expecting Jemma to tackle her to the ground. She lets out an oof as all her breath leaves her and twists awkwardly until she’s lying on her back again. Too late, she realise it’s a bad idea. Skye’s fingers scrabble over her ribs and she lets out a laugh. More unwanted laughs slip forth from her lips as the two of them tickle her mercilessly.

“Stop it!” she yells breathlessly.

“Say sorry,” Skye bargains.

Melinda shakes her head vehemently and squirms, trying to get from under Jemma. She bucks upward suddenly and Jemma goes flying. Skye quickly holds her down, pulling Melinda on top of her and wrapping her legs around hers. Melinda finds herself being lifted into the air, Skye making her heavy.

She looks up and finds that Bobbi has come to her rescue. Or, she realises, her murder. Bobbi ties her to a punching bag that definitely wasn’t there before and they watch as she tests out her restraints. She doesn’t have time to escape because Bobbi and Skye are upon her, intent on making her apologise to Jemma.

It takes her half an hour before she gives in and yells it on the end of a laugh. They pause and let her get her breath back.

“What did you say?” Bobbi asks.

“I’m sorry,” she gasps, still giggling. “I’m sorry, Jemma.”

“It’s quite alright,” Jemma says but Skye smacks her arm.

“It’s not alright. You say, ‘apology accepted,’” Skye corrects her.

“Apology accepted,” Jemma smiles.

They untie her but she isn’t quite ready to stand. Bobbi catches her when she falls to the ground. Melinda lets herself get her breath back before she stands. She shrugs off Bobbi’s arm across her shoulder and walks away from them, coming to stop at a safe distance.

“I hate you all,” she grumbles.

“Don’t be so rude,” Bobbi teases.

“That cast on your ankle can come off now,” Jemma says.

Melinda lights up like a kid on Christmas day. “Really?”

“Yes. It’s been longer than six weeks so you should be all healed,” she says. “You might need a compression sock, though.”

“Nah, I’ll be fine,” Melinda says. She doesn’t know what it is but it sounds terrible.

“It just reduces the swelling,” she explains.

That doesn’t sound as bad as the name. She follows Jemma to the Med Bay and snickers when she sees Natasha sitting on one of the beds with an unconscious Coulson beside her.

“What did you do to my partner?” Melinda asks.

“I helped him walk into a door,” Natasha says. “And he bruised his head. So I, being the nice, kind friend that I am, took him here and waited for you lot.”

Jemma gives her a bottle of Arnica. Then she finds the plaster cast cutter and holds Melinda legs steady. When she's done cutting away the cast, Melinda takes her foot back and goes to walk on it. Jemma stops her with a yell. She freezes.

“Let me get you a compression sock first.”

“But there is no swelling,” Melinda protests. “And I have full functioning feet. See?” She moves her foot in circles.

Jemma sighs. “Fine.”

Melinda stands up and walks out of the Med Bay without a second glance. She stops by Coulson’s office and locks the door. He isn’t in his office, which is a plus. She runs over some scales and arpeggios and then begins playing the songs she can remember playing as a child. The muscle memory is still there, her fingers moving gently over the keys.

Coulson unlocks the door a good hour later and shuts the door behind him, sitting down and closing his eyes. Melinda finishes the song and then turns to look at him with a smirk.

“Heard you walked into a door,” she grins.

He groans. “I thought you couldn’t play the piano,” he deflects.

She raises her chin. “I can learn again.”

“You can’t be that good and only have played for an hour,” he says. “Admit it, Melinda. You’re good at playing the piano.”

She looks at him impassively. “Not that good.”

“You are.”

“There are lots of other people who are better than me,” she shrugs.

Coulson sighs. Then he moves faster than she had thought possible. She ends up on the floor with him on top of her. She’s tense, eyes darting everywhere, looking for an escape like a frightened animal.

“Don’t, Phil,” she says and he would almost swear she was begging.

“Repeat after me,” he instructs. “I am good at playing the piano.”

“There are other people who are better than me,” she counters.

“Repeat after me or face the consequences. I am good at playing the piano.” He isn’t expecting her to yield so soon so it isn’t a surprise when she lifts her chin defiantly.

“So be it,” he shrugs, before making her shriek. He digs his fingers into her sides and she squirms underneath him.

She doesn’t usually react like this so early. It all clicks as he notices her flushed face.

“Someone has already done this,” he says.

“Bobbi, Skye an’ Jemma,” she gasps between breaths. “Phil!”

He makes her shake with laughter. So much so that she can barely move. Her giggles are like music to his ears. It’s been so long since she laughed properly and even if he has to get it by dirty means, a laugh is a laugh.

“Phil,” she pleads. “Stop.”

“You know what to say.”

She struggles to talk and he makes it harder and harder for her to speak, so as to get to see her laughing for longer.

“I – I'm good – good at-”

He cuts her off with a loud raspberry on her stomach.

“Not – not fair,” she complains, trying to get her breath back and failing.

He holds her weak arms in one hand and tickles her mercilessly, running his fingers up and down her stomach.

“Good at the piano,” she manages to get out.

“Who is?” he asks innocently.

Her glare lasts for a little more than a fraction of a second.

“I’m good – good at – at the piano!” she yells.

Coulson lets her squirm for another minute before sitting back and admiring his handiwork. It’s not every day you get to see Melinda May laughing for longer than five minutes. She stays there and he lifts her up a bit. She rolls her head to glare at him, looking dazed.

“You are, aren’t you?” he grins, playing her the recording he took.

She punches him. “I hate you.”

“Sure you do. You looked like you were enjoying it.”

She rolls away from him, curling up under his desk. He laughs and turns off the lights before leaving.

No one questions Melinda’s disappearance until dinner time.

“Where’s Melinda?” Natasha asks.

Coulson’s mind goes blank. “Um…”

“Weren’t you the last person with her?” Skya asks.

“Probably.”

“Then you should know where she is.”

His mind suddenly remembers her rolling under his desk. “Yes. Under my desk.”

They all look at him weirdly. He ignores their looks and goes to fetch her.

She’s still sleeping when he turns on the light and shakes her shoulder gently. Gently, he lifts her out from under his desk and sets her on his chair.

“Melinda,” he says quietly. “Melinda. Melinda.”

“What?” she groans, cracking open one eye.

“It's dinner time.”

She makes a small noise of annoyance and closes her eye again. He shakes her shoulder again.

“Go ’way,” she mumbles.

“Nu-uh. I’m not leaving until you come to dinner,” he says.

“I’ll come later. Ten minutes,” she promises.

He gives her a warning look that she doesn’t see. “You’d better.”

“Where is she?” Skye asks when he comes back without her.

“Ten minutes,” he says.

Ten minutes turns into fifteen which turns into twenty which turns into thirty. Still, Melinda doesn’t show. He excuses himself and goes back to his office. The lights are still on. Melinda has curled up in his chair which looks extremely uncomfortable and is dozing lightly.

“Melinda,” he says quietly. “Come on. Ten minutes is over. Dinner time.”

“’M not hungry,” she grumbles.

“You have to eat something anyway. Come on. Up.” He extracts her from the chair and shakes her lightly.

“Leave me alone,” she mumbles.

“You can go to sleep after dinner,” he says.

“Sleep now.”

“Dinner first.”

“No.”

They stop by the bathroom, Coulson splashing cold water on her face which wakes her up slightly.

“Dinner now,” he says.

“Huh?”

“Dinner time now. Sleep time after.”

She grumbles but walks by herself for the most part.

“Can’t I have dinner later?”

“No. You’ll be asleep by then.”

They’ve saved her a spot at the table and Natasha helps Coulson sit Melinda on her chair. He shovels a load of peas and carrots and crackers onto her plate and then goes back to his spot. Melinda picks at her food, using her hands.

“Cultery, Melinda,” Coulson says.

She stabs her carrots half-heartedly. Natasha feels something heavy slump on her shoulder a few minutes later. She pushes Melinda’s head off.

“Eat now, sleep later,” she says gently.

“I have eaten,” she grumbles.

Natasha exchanges a look with Coulson. She sighs and resigns herself to having to feed her girlfriend. She scoops a load of peas and carrots onto a spoon and presses it against Melinda’s lips.

“Wha–” She gets no further as Natasha pushes the spoon in.

“Close,” Natasha instructs. Melinda does so. “Chew, chew, swallow.”

“What am I, two-years-old?” Melinda asks.

“With this attitude, yes,” Natasha says, scooping up another mouthful. “Open up.”

Melinda takes the spoon. “I can feed myself.”

“Show me. Ten spoonfuls,” Natasha says.

Melinda eats ten spoonfuls, gives Natasha a triumphant look and leaves the table. She only walks into the doorframe once.

“Shut up,” she says when she hears Coulson open his mouth.

She goes to her bunk and blinks a couple of times to clear away her sleeping act. Stage one of her plan is complete. Now they all think she’s tired and fast asleep. Just in case, she changes into an old pair of sweatpants and a SHIELD Academy T-shirt. She hears footsteps coming and quickly climbs into her bed, pulling the covers up to her waist. She flops on the bed and closes her eyes, evening out her breathing.

Coulson opens the door gently and pokes his head in. He smiles when he sees Melinda sprawled out, fast asleep. He walks softly over to her and pulls the covers up. She stirs slightly and he brushes her hair away from her face.

When he leaves, Melinda waits another five minutes just to be certain before sitting up slowly, rubbing her eyes. No one is in her room. She grabs her bag and checks that the hallway is empty before shutting the door and running silently to the cockpit. She leaves her bag there and then goes back to her room. Stage two is complete. She sets her alarm for one o’clock in the morning and then goes to sleep.

 

Natasha checks in on Melinda at ten. She’s asleep, half off the bed. Natasha smirks and lifts Melinda back onto the bed. She stirs and squints up at Natasha.

“What-?”

“Shh,” Natasha whispers. “Go back to sleep.”

Melinda curls up in a ball, dragging the blanket with her. Natasha leaves her be, heading to her own room where she trains almost silently for an hour.

 

Melinda wakes up at one o’clock exactly. She goes to the cockpit to get her bag and then the surveillance room, checking to make sure everyone was asleep. Only Hunter isn’t. She growls at him mentally. She’ll think of something.

Her felt pens run out after she’s drawn on Skye, Fitz and Simmons. She frowns at them and goes to find more. Luckily, she has a backup bucket in Coulson’s office. Too bad he’s sitting behind his desk. She opens the door cautiously and enters. He’s half asleep.

“Phil,” she whispers, adopting a cautious tone, even though it pains her to pretend with him.

“Melinda?” he asks.

“Are you okay?” she asks.

He smiles stupidly at her.

“Come on, Phil. Let’s get you to bed.”

She walks over to him and hauls him to his feet. He falls asleep on her just before getting to his bed. She dumps him on his bed and makes sure he’s asleep properly before getting her felts. She draws swirls and patterns all over his face, adding a red nose and a dragon around each eye. It’s some of her best work.

Bobbi and Natasha, she saves for last. Hunter is asleep when she opens the door. She grins and makes his face into the Chesire cat. Mack is lying face down on his pillow so she carefully turns his head and only does half of his face. He ends up looking like a little kid went crazy with crayons on the wall.

Bobbi has her batons next to her bed when Melinda slips in. She places the bucket gently on the bedside table. She chooses a blue felt and makes thick eyelashes appear. Then she draws dots down Bobbi’s nose in pink and gives her an orange moustache. Her cheeks are the perfect place for fish swimming in the sea which she turns into someone vomiting because she’s nice like that. When she’s almost done, Bobbi scrunches her nose up and Melinda freezes for a moment, then capping the felt and making a hasty retreat.

Natasha’s door is locked. It doesn’t exactly fill Melinda with confidence.

“Nat?” she says quietly.

No one answers.

“Nat?” she repeats, even quieter.

No one answers. She hacks the door lock and goes into Natasha’s bunk. Natasha is sleeping on the floor, her bed made nicely behind her. Melinda stops and stares.

“Idiot,” she mutters.

She draws a purple spider all over Natasha’s face before making rainbows with green and red and yellow and blue and black. Melinda freezes in terror when Natasha rolls over but it’s not enough to make her leave yet. Moving slightly closer, Melinda draws one last dot under Natasha’s eye before beating it.

Back in the safety of her own bunk, she grins and cackles quietly to herself.

 

In the morning, Hunter screams loud enough to wake the whole of America when he goes to the toilet at five in the morning and sees his face in the mirror.

Bobbi!” he shrieks.

Bobbi groans and rolls over in her bunk. It’s too early to be dealing with him. He storms into her bunk and freezes when she bursts out laughing. Her face is colourful, too.

“You … you have felt on your face too,” is all he manages.

Bobbi shrugs. “At least I don’t look like the Chesire cat.”

“There is someone puking fish on your cheek,” Hunter says drily.

Bobbi grins. “Let’s go round up the others.”

Skye is mostly asleep when she drags her feet to the rec room. It’s way too early to be up. Fitz and Simmons look at each other and nod. It’s on. Coulson rubs at his face and falls onto the couch. Damn you, Melinda, he thinks. Mack doesn’t care. It’s only one side of his face.

Melinda smirks at them when she is forced out of the cargo bay where her punching bag is.

“I like the redecorating,” she mocks.

“Ha, ha,” Coulson says. “Very funny. We have a briefing with Hand tomorrow. It’d better be off by then.”

“I’m not going,” Melinda says instantly.

“You are too,” Coulson replies. “You’re level seven, you’re coming. Everyone is.”

“I’m not,” Melinda says stubbornly.

“Hm. We’ll see about that.”

She ducks as Hunter throws an uncapped pen at her. It hits the wall and leaves a mark. She picks it up and leaps at him. Hunter screams and runs behind the couch. Melinda just jumps over it, wrapping her arms around his legs. He falls with a thud on the floor. Melinda draws on his shirt, much to his disgust.

“Help!” he yells. “Bobbi, save me.”

Bobbi sighs but stands up from where she’s curled up on a beanbag. She wrestles with Melinda for a bit, trying to save her stupid partner. Melinda bites Bobbi’s hand so she kicks her. Melinda is pushed off Hunter into a chair. Bobbi realises she kicked Melinda a little harder than she meant to. Melinda snatches the pen from Hunter and stabs his cheek with it.

“Ow, ow!” Hunter yells, waving his arms wildly in front of him.

Bobbi takes the pen from Melinda and draws on Melinda’s neck. Melinda grabs the pen back from Bobbi and snaps it in half, spilling ink on the floor.

“Melinda,” Coulson groans.

Melinda tries to wipe it up with her hand but it just stains her hand as well so she slaps a big red handprint on Hunter’s shirt. Hunter scrambles backwards and glares at Melinda. He tackles her when she smirks at him and tries to stain his pants as well. She lets out an oof as she bangs the back of her head on the coffee table. When she touches her hand to her head, her fingers come away red. She pretends it’s just the ink and wipes it on Hunter’s face.

He headbutts her when Bobbi trips over them both, banging her nose on his forehead. Melinda glares up at him when her nose starts to bleed. Bobbi snickers at her.

“Oh, your nose is broken,” she says.

Melinda rolls her eyes. “I know.”

Hunter gets off her and she sits up, cupping her nose with one hand, holding the broken pen with the other.

“I can set that for you if you want,” Jemma says.

Melinda moves her hand away and a load of blood comes dribbling out.

“I meant in the Med Bay,” Jemma says. “I have proper supplies there.”

Melinda stands up and follows Jemma. In the Med Bay, Jemma cleans away the blood and sets her nose. She tapes it in place and then takes a look at the cut on the back of her head. She stitches it up and then gives Melinda a warning not to draw on anyone else’s face. Melinda just gives her a smirk and leaves.

She is ambushed by Hunter when she’s coming into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. She finds herself tackled to the floor, dragged and dumped right at Hand’s feet.

“I thought you were coming tomorrow,” she says.

“So did I. Unfortunately, I had to come early,” Hand says.

Melinda contemplates stealing Hand’s plane.

“Don’t even think about stealing my plane,” Hand threatens. “It’s activated by my fingerprint only for the period of time that I have to stay here.”

Melinda scowls up at her. She stands up slowly. Hand stands a comfortable eight inches taller than her, much to her disgust. She has to actually tilt her head back to look Hand in the eyes properly. Skye finds it hilarious, even though she’s only two inches taller than Melinda.

Bobbi passes a plate to Melinda who tries to hand it back. Bobbi points to the food on the table. She’s made pancakes and bacon and there’s bread and apples and crackers.

“Eat,” Bobbi says sternly.

“But-”

“But nothing, eat,” Natasha says. “You’ll waste away.”

“But-”

Hand takes an apple, a slice of bread and two pancakes, putting the food on Melinda’s plate. “Eat.”

“But-”

Hand breaks off a bit of pancake and stuffs it in Melinda’s mouth. Melinda swallows it and sets her plate down on the table.

“I only came here for tea,” she protests.

“And you got more than what you asked for,” Coulson says. “You’re welcome.” He hands her a mug of her tea.

"I hate you all," she declares as she sits down.