Melinda is twenty-three when she gets dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Navy for failing to understand that rules apply to her.
The swiftness with which she upends her whole life is shocking. She knows that tuck-under breaks are forbidden by the NATOPS manual for everything but airshows and emergency combat maneuvers. Rolling an aircraft two hundred and seventy degrees is difficult and dangerous, and people who try to do it for frivolous reasons usually die. But she does it anyway, just because she can.
The thing is, it's not the only time she's broken the rules to show off. She thought she was well on her way to becoming an ace pilot, but the Navy thinks she has an "established trend of unsafe behavior." That merits a Field Board -- otherwise known as Field Naval Aviator Evaluation Board -- and they take her wings. After that, there's not much reason to stay in the Navy, and she escapes the only way she knows how: by doing every dishonorable, disobedient thing she can think of until they let her go.
None of it feels real until the first morning she wakes up in an anonymous beige apartment in San Diego. She can still hear planes taking off from the airfield, and the sky outside her bedroom window is bright blue, but it doesn't belong to her anymore. She thinks life might be okay if she could somehow suspend time and stay in this bed forever; then she could always say, a few weeks ago, I flew an FA-18 Hornet. But the phone is ringing, and the caller ID says it's her mom, so she forces herself to sit up and put her feet on the floor.
Once she's out of bed, it's easy enough to dig out her running shoes and her gym shorts. The path along the beach is crowded with joggers and cyclists, exactly the sort of place she used to avoid. Now she relishes the anonymity. She runs every day, completing marathons by putting one foot in front of the other, one step at a time. It makes it easy to take her mind off her dwindling bank balance and the incessantly ringing telephone. (She doens't dare take it off the hook; that would warrant a personal visit from her mother.)
At the end of the seventh day, there's a man waiting for her at the end of the jogging path. He wears an eyepatch and a leather trench coat that billows in the wind, and Melinda isn't sure whether to laugh at him or brace herself for the mother of all hand-to-hand combat drills.
"Melinda May?" he asks, holding up a badge.
Melinda nods and decides not to pre-emptively kick him in the face.
"Nicholas Fury, SHIELD," he says. "A little bird told me you could use a second chance."
"Was that bird my mother?" she asks before she can stop herself.
Fury laughs -- or at least, Melinda thinks he does. It sounds more like a bark.
"Your mother send you a lot of creepy ass motherfuckers on jogging trails?"
"Are you a creepy ass motherfucker, sir?"
Fury laugh-barks again. "Depends on who you ask. Your former CO sent me. Said you'd been an idiot, but I'd be a bigger idiot if I passed up the chance to have you in my agency. You interested?"
Melinda looks down at the jogging trail and the fraying seams of her running shoes. A mission would make it a hell of a lot easier to get out of bed in the morning.
"I'll have a bag packed in an hour," she says.
After Bahrain, they call her the Cavalry. They say that when she wakes up in the morning, the devil says oh shit when he hears her feet hit the floor.
Phil says, "I thought you'd like that."
"You think I like being the kind of person who can kill eighteen people with my bare hands?" she asks.
When Phil doesn't have an answer to that, she saunters to an empty desk in Mission Support, Logistics, and Control. She dumps Agent Browning's nameplate in the metal waste basket, where it lands with a hollow thud. Browning had had a nervous breakdown last week. Rumor has it he was seen running naked down a beach in Costa Rica. It wasn't a nude beach.
"This is my station now," she says flatly.
"Melinda." Phil looks pained. "You can't be serious. What are you going to fly from here?"
She folds a paper airplane in five neat strokes. It soars over Phil's head and drifts lazily across the room.
Phil scrubs a hand over his face. "Come on, Mel, don't do this to yourself."
"Don't do what?" Melinda snaps. "If there had been a competent agent at this desk while you and I were in Bahrain --"
She's tarnished now, forever. But maybe, if she sits at this desk and does her job, she can save someone else from the same fate.
"If you're really going to do this, you have to file transfer paperwork," Phil says finally. As if that will somehow make her reconsider.
Melinda tears a sheet of paper in half. She writes I WANT A TRANSFER with a magic marker and tapes it to the pristine lapel of Phil's black suit. Then she picks up the phone and starts dialing Browning's agents.
Having a desk job doesn't make it easier to get out of bed in the morning, but knowing her agents need her gives her a reason to do it anyway.
Melinda doesn't plan Phil's funeral. SHIELD has to leave that for his real family -- the one that never saw him and had no idea what he did for a living. They know he died in the line of duty, but they think Commander Phillip Coulson got a hole in his chest saving a reckless ensign from a runaway plane on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Her Navy uniform is still in the back of the closet, untouched since her discharge almost two decades ago. Technically, she's not supposed to have it, but she was already getting a dishonorable discharge -- what exactly did she have to lose by holding onto her dress whites? She frowns when she has to put on Spanx before she can zip the pants; she'd thought she'd kept up with her training regime since she left the field, but maybe sitting behind a desk is making her softer than she expected. Still, when she fastens the last button and puts on the hat, she looks the part. Phil's family believes her instantly when she says the Navy had sent her to assist with the final arrangements.
While Mrs. Coulson plans a service for a close approximation of Phil, Melinda copy edits the memorial website and brings the obituary to the local paper. On the day of the funeral, she plans to collect the guests' hats, coats, and casserole dishes, but Mrs. Coulson has other plans.
"Oh no, dear," she says softly when she catches Melinda edging away from the receiving line. "Phillip would be so touched that you're here."
And that's how she ends up standing next to Mrs. Coulson at the head of the receiving line, listening to her murmur over and over again, "This is the nice young lady the Navy sent to help with all the arrangements." Shaking hands with all the guests wouldn't have been so awkward if half of them hadn't been undercover SHIELD agents.
"Nice uniform," Romanov murmurs while she clasps Melinda's hand.
"You're one to talk," Melinda mutters through clenched teeth.
"What? This old thing?" Romanov looks down at her little black dress and surprisingly sensible shoes.
"I'm not talking about the clothes," Melinda says. Romanov has been telling everyone that Phil rescued her and her kitten from Chechen rebels when she was ten years old. As if the U.S. Navy would have had anything to do with a landlocked republic that still technically belonged to Russia.
"We should have a drink tonight. It's been ages," Romanov answers, undaunted. She still hasn't let go of Melinda's hand.
"You're holding up the line," Melinda whispers. It has been ages, but after Bahrain, she'd never quite been in the mood for a girl's night.
"I know." Romanov smirks with her eyes even while the rest of her face is molded into a perfect mask of grief.
Melinda wants to say I can't believe you're blackmailing me into happy hour at my best friend's funeral, but she can't. She also wants to take a deep breath, but she can't. Fucking Spanx.
"Fine," Melinda mutters. "I'll see you at the gym at nineteen hundred." She's sure as hell not going to talk about Phil or Bahrain or anything else, but maybe she could use a good fight. At least she'll get to ditch the Spanx.
"Good morning, sir," Melinda says, as if it's totally normal to find the director of SHIELD sitting in the darkened control room at 0630.
"I hear you still have a knack for undercover work," he says. He's wearing the sardonic half-smile Melinda had gotten to know during training, but it doesn't reach his eye.
"A lot of people were undercover at Phil's funeral, sir," she says, glad the office is dark enough to hide her flush.
"But you were the best. Even Romanov said so." He shakes his head, and his smirk vanishes. "Hell, May, I can't banter with you this morning. I might have made a mistake, a big one, and I'm going to need you back in the field. There might be combat. I can't make you any promises." He looks up at Melinda. "It's for Phil."
She tells Ward that holding the staff doesn't bother her because she already relives Bahrain every day. Only half of that statement is true.
She'd pinned him between her legs and stopped fighting. When his cock twitched beneath her, she'd clamped her thighs more tightly around his waist and said, "The rules are, you tell no one and it never happens again."
Afterward, she'd sent him back into the corridor alone while she showered.
When she goes upstairs, she leaves her door ajar...and Phil pokes his head in and closes it.
"You okay?" he asks. "It's not like you to leave a door open."
"Is that a literal or metaphorical statement?" she asks, picking up the ice bucket. "Don't answer that. I was just going for some ice." Phil looks like he might stay, and Melinda shakes her head. "I'm fine. But I do want to be alone."
Afterward, she has to poke her head outside three times to make sure Phil isn't watching her. That ought to make her kick Ward out when he slips through the door -- but then, she would have had a very different life if she'd always done what she was supposed to do.
"You know, Agent May, I distinctly recall you saying we were never going to do this again," he says. His voice is steady, but Melinda doesn't miss the uncertainty in his eyes.
She cocks an eyebrow. "Yeah, well, I've always been a good liar."
Ward tilts his head. "I assume the other rule still stands."
Melinda nods. "And there's a new one. I get to be on top."
"Lying about that one too?" Ward asks, smirking.
"Nope." Melinda hooks her leg around the back of his knee. The move catches him unprepared, and he falls gracelessly to the floor, where she straddles his waist. "I don't like carpet burn on my ass," she says.
Afterward, when she's still breathing heavily and his cock his softening inside her, he traces a finger along the edge of her cheek. "I'm sorry for whatever you were remembering today," he says.
She bats his hand away. "Never do that again," she snaps, climbing off him.
Ward rolls his eyes showily. "I know, I know. This means nothing."
But they both know he saw the chink in her armor the instant she asked him up to her room, and damn if she doesn't let him be on top for round two. It's easy to get up in the morning when you don't want to risk looking into the eyes of the man you just fucked.
The hotel room smells of cat piss overlaid by dust, and there are burn marks in the rust-colored carpeting. Outside, Fitz and Simmons are dipping their feet in the pool, which strikes Melinda as an adventurous choice at an establishment like this. On the other hand, the chlorinated water probably contains less bacteria than the carpet in their rooms. At some point, she's going to have to take off her shoes, but she's going to delay it for as long as she can.
She pulls back the lime-green coverlet and settles on the bed.
SHIELD is gone. SHIELD had always been a lie.
Their credit cards are frozen, and their phones are unsafe to operate. Collectively, they have twenty-two dollars and eighty-four cents, twelve Euros, and five British pounds.
Grant had betrayed her, which stings more than she cares to admit.
"I slept with a man, and he played me," she'd told her mother. It was silly to hide that small failure when she'd just asked her mom to drive five hundred miles because her agency had fallen and she was no longer welcome with her team.
Her mother had arched an eyebrow and said, "You can't keep your heart an unimpregnable fortress forever, you know. Anyway, where's the fun in life if you don't occasionally sleep with dangerous men?"
Melinda had choked on her water, and her mother had flashed her a sly grin. "Not that I would know anything about that, of course," she'd said. But then her face had softened and she'd added, "Everyone makes mistakes, Mel. You might consider forgiving yourself for them once in awhile."
Melinda dares herself to count the things she still has instead of the things she'd lost.
She has a team, five people who depend on her to keep them safe. That's a good enough reason to get up in the morning, and she reaches for the dusty alarm clock on the night stand. Tonight she sleeps; at five a.m., she'll start training again.