“Come on, May! I’ve got you covered!”
Melinda May sized up the distance between her and the cargo container that her partner was crouched behind. Phil Coulson laid down a steady barrage of gun fire, giving her a chance to escape. The space between them could not have been more than five meters. But to her, it seemed like the stretch of a football stadium.
She tried to steady her nerves, when another bullet clipped the side of the desk that was her flimsy shield against their attackers.
Just a short sprint across that open space and she would be home-free.
She and Coulson could grab the box and be out the back door.
Three months ago, she would have already cleared the onslaught and probably taken out a few of their assailants as she went. But three months ago she was another person. A person that had not been kidnapped, duplicated, and shoved into a fabricated reality.
The Framework had changed her.
It wasn’t her memories.
May knew very well what was real and what was not now.
That was the problem.
“May!” Coulson shouted. He ejected the spent clip from his Beretta and shoved another in its place, pausing only to get her attention. “Let’s do this! Come on.”
She only got as far as a squat before she froze again. She could not will herself to go any further. She could not move a muscle.
“May?” Coulson asked. He knew something was wrong.
From across the firefight, she caught his eye and shook her head.
“I can’t,” she whispered.
The Framework, Two Months Earlier
She could feel his eyes on her the entire ride home, but would not give him the satisfaction of acknowledging it. It was at times like these that she thanked whatever gods were listening that she was the one with the training in espionage and not her husband. She was well-practiced at hiding her emotions, whereas he was painfully conspicuous.
She would have felt worse about having such an obvious advantage in their relationship, if it were not for the irritating knack that he had for reading her, even when her Resting Bitch Face was fully-engaged.
The glances in her direction did not give up all through dinner.
She was quieter than usual, but he did enough talking for the both of them.
After a while, he grew tired of her non-committal hums and mono-syllabic responses and they lapsed into silence. He would bring it up as soon as she made a move to leave the table. He was painfully predictable that way.
She pushed back her chair and counted down in her head.
“No,” she responded tersely.
Melinda heard the padding of his socks on tile as he followed her into the kitchen.
She put her plate in the sink and turned to face him.
“No, I don’t want to talk about this,” she said. “Not again.”
“Hey,” he placated, putting his hands up. “I wouldn’t bring it up. But it’s obviously bothering you.”
Now it was his turn to give her the silent treatment. Phil Coulson leaned back against the counter, arms crossed, pinning her with a well-practiced stare. The seriousness was marred by the quirk in his lips.
Melinda stifled a groan. It galled her that he knew exactly how to get under her skin. She was glad as hell that he wasn’t a spy. With his natural intuition and persuasive skills, he’d make a formidable adversary.
“She was a sweet girl,” Melinda conceded. “I liked playing with her. I can’t have one of my own.”
She listed each fact with an even, detached cadence. The, “so drop it,” at the end went unspoken, but it was implicit.
They had had is conversation enough times that they both had it memorized. Ten minutes of her playing with one of his students’ younger siblings was not going to change that. If she had known that the child would have been there, Melinda would not have agreed to go with him to the student-teacher meeting.
But she hadn’t known. So while Phil and his student discussed her multiple missing homework assignments and absences from class, Melinda had been put on de facto babysitting duty. She knew when she sat cross-legged on the floor next to the six-year-old, watching her draw, that she was going to be roped into another debate with him. But she had done it anyway.
Sure enough, Phil and his truant protégé exited the office just in time to catch her and the little girl in mid-laughter, bent over a half-drawn picture. Melinda’s smile faded as she caught his eye. Pity and longing emanated from beneath the veneer of amused detachment.
Melinda had been silent ever since.
“I wouldn’t keep bringing it up if it wasn’t something you wanted,” Phil said quietly, carefully studying the patterns in the tile at his feet.
“Phil,” she sighed. “I want a lot of things. I also want world peace and a condo in Kauai, but we don’t have a fight once a month when I don’t get one of those.”
“I think this is a little more attainable,” he retorted.
“You know what I do for a living,” she began.
“You can’t keep using your job as an excuse.”
Melinda ground her teeth.
Of course he could not understand. Phil’s work ended when he got into the car and left the school campus. He got to go home at the end of the day and hang everything up. He did not need to worry about midnight calls that would send him out of the country for days at a time. He did not need to fear that he might not make it back when the job was done.
Phil had a general idea of what she did, but he had no concept of the danger she faced. He had no idea of what she had seen.
That was the way she liked it.
She did her job so he never had to have those images in his head.
Pictures of a girl torn apart from the inside after Terrigenesis had made her a human IED. Smells of the charred remains of civilians caught in the crossfire with her agents after an Inhuman with the power to harness electricity had sent a static burst in the direction of their bullets.
Phil only knew about the Inhuman plague from the news. He could not possibly imagine how lethal they were in person.
It was her job to make sure he never knew. But it also meant he could never understand.
“The world is more dangerous than you realize, Phil,” she said at last. “The most selfish thing I could do would be to bring a child of my own into this world.”
He brought a hand to rest on her arm. The simple gesture was all it took to make the arguments in her head ring hollow.
As married couples went, they were not the most physically affectionate pair outside of the bedroom. They were cautious with each other’s space, saving those infrequent touches for the times when they mattered most. Even after ten years, his hand against her skin still felt new. It did something to her that she thought she should have a better handle on after all this time.
Melinda allowed herself to be pulled into his arms. At least this way, she would not be subjected to that probing stare.
“I could spent the rest of my life with just you and be happy, Melinda,” Phil said, over the top of her head. “But I don’t think this is enough for you.”
She jerked away from him.
“You are enough for me,” she insisted. “I’m happy with you!”
“I know,” he placated. “But I think you could be happier.”
May swallowed, but the lump in her throat still burned.
He was killing her.
He might not know what the specifics of her job entailed, but he was perceptive enough to know why she did it.
It was all for him.
She put her life on the line every day to protect him and people like him. So he could be safe.
All he wanted was to do something for her that would make her as happy as she made him. And she would not let him.
“Maybe I am being selfish,” she realized.
She did not know that she had spoken out loud until he was answering her.
“Melinda, you are the least selfish person I know,” he said. “You never put yourself first. That is the very thing that would make you a great mother.”
She stared at his shoulder, unable to reply or look at him.
“Just answer one thing, completely honestly, without thinking of anyone other than yourself for once,” he started. “Do you want to have a baby?”
The answer buried in her gut under layers of self-denial was wrenched out of her throat before she could stop it.
Phil nodded and took her face in his hands.
“Then let me give you this,” he begged her. “Please.”
Melinda could not do anything but nod. Her admission had robbed her of the capacity of speech. When his lips met hers, she pressed her body against him, holding him as tightly as she could.
If she did not allow any space between them, maybe there would be no room for the horrible rush of fear and relief that had taken hold of her.