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He Lied About Death

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They say, when you embark on a journey of revenge, to dig two graves.

Phil doesn’t dig anything these days, he has May to do that for him, standing behind him with the shovel and her expression that says this is a terrible idea and I dug a couple extra, because we’ve done this plan before.

May’s his Cavalry. He sometimes wishes that she wasn’t.

-

Phil can taste dust on his tongue, sand, grit between his teeth. Sand from a planet older than Earth will ever be. When he blinks, he sees blue behind his eyelids.

The scotch glass echoes when he puts it down on the table. Alcohol, alcohol and dust.

“You knew I was coming back,” he says, finally.

May tilts her head. They were kids once, academy-fresh, looking forward to changing the world, laughing over beers at the end of the day, knees knocking under the table, overfamiliarity.

“I wasn’t sure,” she allows. “Not completely.”

They used to be sure of each other, completely sure, but things are different these days. Nothing is certain. One minute you have a life and then you don’t; one minute you have a marriage and then you don’t; one minute you have a hand and then you don’t. Some days, Phil wonders how many blows a man can take and still be standing. Then he looks at May, and thinks: well, at least one more, anyway.

Phil sighs, and drinks. He can’t feel the glass in his hand; he can’t feel anything there anymore. It reminds him, on his maudlin nights, of Fury’s blinded eye. SHIELD demands sacrifices, and it’s never the ones you were planning on making.

“I’d like to say part of me killed him for you,” he says.

May smiles, grim. “You didn’t think about any of us,” she replies. “In the end, I’m not even sure you were thinking about Rosalind.”

He remembers Ward’s face, death under his hands, dust and blue air and the way he thought it would make him feel better, it being over, all of this being over, but it didn’t. Hasn’t. There’s that cavity in his chest that he thinks might keep getting wider, some nights.

“It had to be done,” he states at last, ducking the question May won’t ever phrase.

“It did.” May has scotch of her own, swirling in its own glass. She looks… not diminished, never diminished, but, compact, maybe. Folded in on herself, tiredness tearing at her eyes. “I didn’t manage it. Hunter didn’t manage it. Not Bobbi. Not even Fitz.”

Maybe there’s a reason for that; she doesn’t suggest it, but Phil smooths a numb thumb against the table and thinks it for her.

“I brought him here,” he says at last. “I…”

“You don’t have to say it again,” May interrupts.

Why was his grief and his rage worse than anyone else’s? Why did Phil finally do what no one else could do? Ros’ legacy, but he’s not sure that she’d be happy with it.

“Okay.” Phil sighs, drinks his scotch, tastes nothing. “Okay.”

May nods, slight, just enough. Phil doesn’t smile, can’t smile, but maybe tomorrow he might try.

-

“Nothing motivates like death.”

Phil has showered, and showered, and showered, and slept a little, and eaten… something, and Mack’s looking at him like I’ll keep the command for now, and Phil doesn’t blame him.

“We should find something else,” he says, dry, pinches the bridge of his nose like he’s trying to ward off a migraine.

May huffs a breath that might be a skim of a laugh.

“Did you ever tell Tony Stark that you were fine after all?” she asks.

“Fury told me not to,” Phil responds, bland.

May arches an eyebrow.

“He called me a lot of names and brought me a complete set of Captain America trading cards. Better condition than the original ones.”

May’s mouth curls.

-

“Andrew.”

May shakes her head. “No,” she says. “No.”

She doesn’t say don’t, because May will take every single punch you want to land on her and then a few more that you can’t land because your hands are broken from the strain.

Phil swallows. This is sore territory, brittle for both of them. But.

“Melinda,” he says, and she watches him with her dark eyes and says nothing. “Melinda, you never spoke about Bahrain,” he adds. “You kept it to yourself and you became the Cavalry. If you keep this to yourself this time… I’m scared we won’t get you back at all.”

“I’m here,” she says, flat, firm. “I’m back. I told you I was.”

“That isn’t what I meant, and you know it.”

May doesn’t blink. “You want to talk about how the men I fuck become monsters? Is that what you want?”

Her gaze is steady, her voice doesn’t shake, but there’s something cruel and raw there, something Phil doesn’t want to touch, something Phil thinks he might have to touch.

“You loved him,” he says, because he doesn’t want to drag Ward into this conversation that could become an argument; he’s not ready yet, not to say the name and mean it. “You loved him before Bahrain and you loved him afterwards and you loved him before he became Lash and you love him now.”

May finally closes her eyes for one long second, breathes in twice, and opens them again. “I can’t,” she says. “I can’t love him.”

Phil considers that, licks his lips, tastes ash and dust from a planet he left days ago. “You stuck by me when I was losing my mind,” he says. “When I wasn’t sure who I was anymore and I was carving maps into the walls and people were dying and you didn’t leave.”

May looks at her knees, at her steady hands, back at him. She says nothing.

“Don’t tell me that Fury told you to stay with me,” he adds. “Don’t tell me that you were just doing your duty.” He doesn’t know if he’s being firm with her or if he’s begging her or if he’s telling her that she and Andrew might still get some kind of ending, a good one, not one with a sniper bullet and a long, long hell of a day.

“I trusted you,” May says. Her voice is even, but there’s something fraying in it, something in her expression that only Phil can read.

(I’m so happy, she told him, wedding ring and rare bright unrestrained laughter bubbling out of her mouth, I’m so happy, Phil, and they were kids then and he was so glad. Back then, SHIELD took things, but you got to keep more than you lost, and the bargain wasn’t so bad after all.)

“You trusted me,” Phil repeats.

May shrugs, expression tight.

Maybe this is enough for one day.

-

They used to go undercover as a couple all the time; their false marriages looked nothing like May’s actual marriage, as she and Andrew used to like reminding him over takeout and beers and a football game none of them were watching; Melinda leaning into her husband’s side just a little and grinning, content in her portion of the world.

But Phil and Melinda had their own patterns, their own dynamic, and they were so good that some days Phil found himself wondering if maybe there was something Melinda and Andrew weren’t telling him, something about his life and their place in it that he was letting lie instead of identifying. They were perfect partners, who understood each other completely, who could come up with a plan on the spur of a moment with eyebrows and a little finger.

Now, they’ve both been to hell and back, some of that less literal than it maybe should be, and whoever they are now, they’re not those people. Those people are gone, buried with the SHIELD that used to exist, the one that it turns out was imaginary and rotting from the inside.

There’s still no one that Phil trusts more, but that trust comes without knowledge. He doesn’t know May anymore. It’s a little rough, because she knows him; always three steps ahead, even when he doesn’t know what those steps are, even when he’s not in his right mind, May knows. And she’s… there’s pieces of someone he knows in there, but the person she is now is different and sometimes he doesn’t remember that, and sometimes she tips her head and her eyes are dark and he has no idea what’s in them after all.

Perhaps it’s best that they spend less time pretending to be married these days. Phil’s not sure they could pull it off anymore; not so that anyone would believe it.

-

They’re adjusting. Which is to say that no one is sleeping, holed up in labs and offices and gyms and anywhere that isn’t their homes, anywhere they can just talk about work, and nothing else.

Phil will take up the reins of Director again soon. He’s fine. Or, he will be fine, justice has been served, all of them will sleep better when they finally learn how to again, no more looking over their shoulders for Ward and his latest weapon.

At least he’s not gouging chunks out of the walls anymore.

“You know what Romanov used to say?” Phil remarks, it could be the middle of the night, the middle of the morning. “‘Love is for children’.”

May’s expression doesn’t flicker. “You miss them,” she responds, neutral.

Phil lifts and drops a shoulder. “I miss a lot of things these days.”

May sips her coffee. Phil can’t work out if she’s staying around for him or for her or because there’s nowhere else to go, not with what she knows now.

“I used to think she didn’t mean it,” Phil continues. “But. There’s a point afterwards, after love, isn’t there.”

He waits for May to tell him: you lost a woman you were getting to know, you barely had her, and the love of my life is out there tearing apart everything we ever held sacred, but she doesn’t. May’s always cut him more slack than he deserves, though she says that she doesn’t.

“There’s a point after that, too,” May says at last.

“Yeah?” Phil sighs, and thinks about the emails piling up, and doesn’t do anything about them. “What’s that like?”

Her mouth ghosts a curve; she shrugs. “I’ll let you know when I get there.”

-

You don’t stay friends this long in a world like theirs without a few collisions, from time to time. Never when anything could count as cheating, not when others – significant or otherwise – were in the picture. Nothing regular, nothing defined, nothing they even think about later. Just. A slip. Sometimes.

It’s not like their halcyon days, when they were young and stupid and Academy-fresh, a few too many beers and a laugh or two and someone’s sheets tangled the morning after. It’s nothing like after Andrew, after Bahrain, when Melinda became May, when she was bruising and brittle and silent.

The last time was after Trip died, when their world was in pieces, when Phil was no longer trying to draw maps every time he closed his eyes, when their team were reeling, when it was unclear whether they’d won anything. Murky days, May’s teeth in his shoulder, and no idea if this was a scab that should have stayed unpicked.

May looks up at him, and she’s the strong one out of the two of them, she always has been, Phil trails in her wake afterwards each and every time, and she doesn’t mention Ward or Andrew, her bitterness over the men she connects with. Phil can still hear her words, flung at him sharp as a slap that cut them both, but she doesn’t repeat them now.

He has his hand on the small of her back, but he can’t feel it, can’t feel anything, and May is watching him.

You’re not going to cry on me, are you? Words of her younger self, tinged with something soft, something fond. She doesn’t say that, either: most of their relationship these days is formed out of silences and knowing what they mean, or hoping that he does. Melinda’s always held all the cards, but he used to at least be able to see them.

She’s the one to kiss him first, biting fierce, fragments under his hands, his mouth, and she doesn’t warn Phil that by doing this he might one day turn into a monster; he doesn’t bring it up, because, in the end, isn’t he pretty much there already?